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This story was inspired by a trip to Norway. The sentiments presented are pure fiction. I enjoyed the company of my traveling companion, Eric, and had no real desire to disappear. The photo is my own. The story appeared in The Literary Nest.

                                                                

Our ship looks quite desolate, floating motionless in the middle of the bay. One could imagine it to be deserted, but we know it isn’t. The stewards will be rushing about, tidying cabins; the galley will be steaming and redolent of onions and fish and sauces; the bartenders will be artfully wiping glasses and stacking them neatly on the proper shelves.

We continue up the hill to get a better view. The bay is at the end of the fjord, the settlement only accessible by boat. There is supposed to be a village here but we see no sign of it. This place is as remote as one can get in this part of the world.

Most of the other passengers on this excursion haven’t gone far. We saw them turn into the little café that is next to the jetty. They will be sipping sodas or beer or strong coffee, idling away the time until the tender takes them back to the ship.

We have lost count of the fjords we have explored during this ten-day cruise down the coast and I don’t fault anyone for wanting to sit this one out. But we, that is Carsten and I, are more energetic, despite the drizzle, and intend to get the most from this foray on land.

We come upon a pretty wooden house surrounded by beds of flowers. From the other side there must be a magnificent vista of fjord and mountains.

“Do the people who live here even see the view anymore?” asks Carsten, striking a pensive pose. I know what he will say even before he opens his mouth: the same things he has said at every other fjord we have visited. He has a gift for making innocuous comments about nothing.

“They’ve probably gotten used to their surroundings,” I answer. “It’s human nature.” Who gives a damn what they think, I say to myself. We are standing still, side by side, and could easily be taken for garden ornaments. Carsten snaps a few mandatory photos.

It is pointless, this gawking and admiring and photographing. I am so weary of it all I could scream. Without a word we turn and continue up the asphalt road. There are no vehicles and hardly any other walkers about at all. Carsten and I have little to say to each other. Everything has already been said.

Our small map doesn’t indicate altitude and we are surprised to find ourselves mounting a rather steep hill. It will be worth the climb for the view. Along the way there are well-tended bungalows, a hay croft, pastures with cows. Surely they don’t appreciate the scenery either–or do they?

The drizzle has let up and the clouds have lifted a bit. The fjord must be lovely in fine weather but I don’t really mind the gentle precipitation; it creates a somber and eerie mood. I know that Carsten is unhappy with the turn in the weather because he ranted a bit this morning. Does he really expect the sun to shine every friggin’ day? The weather during our cruise has been, for the most part, quite good. There should be no complaints.

This trip was Carsten’s idea. I acquiesced only to maintain the peace. I keep my own counsel and maintain a pleasant mien but, in truth, I yearn to be alone–alone without pleasantries, without company, without photo opportunities. Even without Carsten, although he would not be pleased to hear that.

When we stop to read a historical marker Carsten becomes immersed in a conversation with two of our fellow passengers, the elderly Swiss German couple who have an insatiable curiosity about everything. We know them from breakfast where they always eat lightly. They are very sensible people. I sense that they are fascinated with us, two men traveling together, but are too polite to ask any pointed questions.

I will leave him to it then, and continue on down the road without him. Carsten won’t even notice that I have left. This route will lead to the jetty where we can catch the tender that brings us back to the ship. But there is another path, unmarked on the map, one that continues on straight, further up the hill from the coast, and then into the forest. The opening is not far.

I stop in my tracks at the sight of it. The allure of the magic forest is the stuff of fairy tales, Hänsel and Gretel setting out to see the witch, dropping bread crumbs along the way…

I cannot stop myself as my feet turn onto the dirt path covered in pine needles. It is a bit muddy, but no matter. My heart beats in anticipation, of what I don’t know, as I penetrate into the darkness. The heady scent of evergreen, of dampness and decay, overcomes me. It takes a while for my eyes to adjust to the gloom. There is no sound, not even the chirping of birds. I continue on, both frightened and enthralled.

The path wends its way through the density of trees and I soon lose my sense of direction. I don’t know how long I have been walking when I see an object, not twenty feet in front of me. I stop and consider what it could be. It is a red fox, a fine specimen, sitting in the middle of the path as if it were waiting for me. It exhibits no fear whatsoever. We both remain still, regarding each other. The animal then trots on ahead, looking back now and then to see whether I am following. It leads me to a place where I can see a faint light. The fox disappears in the undergrowth.

I have reached a ridge where I have a view of the bay again. The ship is no longer there, the farms, the café and the jetty are gone too. The landscape before me is devoid of all human presence. I seat myself on a rock and breath in deeply, contemplating nothing. The drizzle has resumed, the perfect complement to the ineffable solitude.

 

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My interest in the subject of Crown Prince Rudolf stems from the summers I spent teaching at the AIMS program in Graz, Austria. Imagining alternative history is great fun. The story was published in the journal Historical Feathers in 2018.

 

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In 1889 Crown Prince Rudolf, heir to the throne of the Dual Monarchy of Austria–Hungary, formed a suicide pact with his lover, the young Marie Vetsera. His death shook the Empire and altered the course of European history. But what if things had happened otherwise at the hunting lodge?

 

Mayerling

The gentle hills of the Vienna Woods sported a fresh coat of snow and the landscape glistened in the faint January moonlight. It was bitterly cold. Marie, alone in the carriage, pulled her fur wrap tighter around her shoulders. To take her mind off the cold she turned her thoughts to the prospect of spending the coming night alone with her lover, the Crown Prince. The recollection of the oath they had sworn to each other just a few days before both thrilled and frightened her.
As usual, precautions had been taken to avoid detection by the secret police. The Emperor Franz Josef, Rudolph’s father, had created a vast network of spies to keep tabs on the many disgruntled subjects in his vast realm. But they also spied on Rudolf, something which irked the young prince to no end. It was necessary to use the services of one of Marie’s friends to relay messages and coordinate their assignations. They had to communicate in code and to have Marie picked up and dropped off at inconspicuous places. Sometimes she had been brought to the summer palace at Schönbrunn so that they could walk together in the gardens in the dead of night. She would not have been invited inside, and certainly would not have appeared anywhere with Rudolf by the light of day.
On this occasion it had been arranged that Marie would arrive first at a certain inn outside of town, now closed for the season, and that Rudolf would shake the police who were tailing his phaeton, joining her in the carriage she occupied. All this transpired according to plan. As the phaeton was traveling through a heavily wooded area it slowed down just enough for Rudolf to jump out. He then made his way to the inn and quickly got into Marie’s waiting carriage. The Crown Prince resented having to act like a criminal on the lam. They kissed briefly but did not exchange a single word.
It was impossible to keep secrets in Imperial Vienna. Franz Josef and the Empress Elizabeth had been informed by His Majesty’s spies that Rudolf was having an affair with Marie Vetsera. Others in the Imperial circle knew about it as well, but it was not spoken of openly. Their Imperial Majesties did not approve. Heated arguments had taken place between Franz Josef and his son. Invariably, Rudolf felt himself humiliated in these exchanges. He was treated like a child, like a mere subject. He did not dare stand up to his father too strongly but he did continue to lead a double life and carry on his illicit affairs. It was the only thing that gave him any relief from the grinding boredom and emptiness of his official life at court.
Although Baroness Marie Vetsera could count herself among the aristocratic elite, she was only seventeen – nearly half of Rudolf’s age. She was considered a great beauty. Rudolf had been attracted to her and they had been intimate at first but the nature of their relationship soon changed. Marie became a confidant, one of the few individuals with whom the Prince could share his most private feelings. With Marie Vetsera he could relax completely.

* * *

The major complication in any relationship of the Crown Prince was the fact that he was married. His union with the Crown Princess Stéphanie, daughter of King Leopold of Belgium, had been loveless from the beginning: it had been a matter of political expediency. After the birth of their daughter they drifted apart and Rudolf took to seeking comfort elsewhere. To make matters worse, Rudolf had left Stéphanie with the most dreaded of afflictions – syphilis. She would never forgive him for that.
To call Rudolf handsome would have been a bit of a stretch but he did cut a fine figure in a military uniform. He possessed two dozen of them; each appropriate for a special occasion. He often felt that his life consisted of little more than standing around in uniforms, festooned with golden epaulets and braids, looking charming and regal. If power was the ultimate aphrodisiac, Rudolf, as Crown Prince, possessed the ultimate dosage. Women found him irresistible. Among the ladies of Vienna, married and unmarried alike, it was whispered about that the young Prince was a passionate lover and that he wielded a big sword. They would titter and blush behind their fans when he passed by.
While he enjoyed the attentions of these women, and slept with a good many of them, he was not a roué at heart. He was a quiet, thoughtful and sensitive man. He knew that he deserved something better and that he would never find it in the life he led as heir to the throne. Most of the citizens of the vast empire could only dream of the luxury and privilege that was his at court but he thoroughly hated the whole charade of being Crown Prince. He detested being powerless and ignored, doomed to waiting for his turn to come.
Unlike his father, the Crown Prince harbored progressive ideas. As he saw it, the Empire was crumbling from within and in desperate need of reform. Franz Josef would have none of it. He obdurately refused to entertain any ideas that would change the present arrangement. He had run the Empire already for over forty years – why change anything now?

* * *

The hunting lodge at Mayerling was only an hour’s drive from the center of the city. Rudolf had arranged for himself and Marie to be there alone. But there was no such thing as being completely alone; the lodge was staffed by the inevitable entourage of groundskeepers, servants and bodyguards. They could be trusted by Rudolf to keep things to themselves. There would also be two other guests at Mayerling. They had been invited in order to maintain the appearance of a legitimate hunting party. Conveniently, they would be housed in another wing of the lodge.
When Marie and Rudolf arrived at Mayerling they immediately retired to the Prince’s rooms. Officially, he was alone; no one but his personal valet would know otherwise. He gave orders that he not be disturbed, that no one be permitted entry into his room. The lovers ordered a dinner and a few bottles of wine. It was discretely served by the valet who entered and left by a secret door that led to the downstairs kitchen. After that there was coffee and a bottle of Rudolf’s favorite cognac. A fire blazed in the fireplace and all was gemütlich. They talked until way past midnight then retired to the royal bed. Marie changed into a silk dressing gown, the one in pink she always wore when with Rudolf. He remarked to himself how fetching she looked in it. He himself did not change clothes; a Crown Prince must look his best at all times.
There was no thought of carnal pleasures. Although they had known each other barely a year, their relationship was a deep and complex one based on mutual dissatisfaction with their current existences and an understanding that they would leave this world together. They regarded each other as soul mates, their destinies intertwined. A pact had been formed between them and the logistics worked out in every detail. This was the night.
The plan was for Rudolf to shoot Marie first, then turn the weapon on himself. This seemed to Marie the most appropriate way to end things. They said their goodbyes and kissed tenderly one last time. She smiled at Rudolf as she stretched herself out on her side of the bed, blew him one last kiss, and closed her eyes. Rudolf took the pistol and fired one single shot to her forehead. She died instantly.
Although he was an officer in the Imperial Army, he had never participated in a battle and had never killed another human being. He had seen the wounded and dying before but still he was horrified at the sight of the lovely girl whose blood was now streaming onto the pillow. He covered her head with a napkin and put a single rose in her crossed hands. Then he sat down to write a few letters – to his wife Stéphanie, to his mother, and to his loyal valet. But there would be no letter to his father. Not one word.
By the time he had finished with the letters it was already half past three in the morning. He reclined himself on the bed, next to Marie whose body was already growing cold, and placed the pistol within reach. He needed to compose himself before committing the final act of his life. Weariness settled upon him, the effects of the wine and cognac overpowered him. Without wanting to, he dozed off.
When he came to, with a heavy head and barely coherent, the first light of day was already visible through the heavy laced curtains. He wondered where he was. Who was this lying next to him? Then it came crashing down upon him: he had shot his dear Marie Vetsera and had intended to make his own exit from this life. But things seemed different now. The poetic expression bei klarem Tageslicht (by the clear light of day) repeated itself over and over in his head and he realized that he could not go through with the plan.

There were other options for solving his existential predicament. He had let himself get caught up in some romantic notion and had pushed the more sensible solutions aside. He resolved to stand up to his father and fight for what he believed in. His pact with Marie seemed now to be utter folly. What to do? He nearly panicked. The situation was extremely delicate. How to discretely dispose of a corpse; how to break the news to her family – to his own family! He had killed another person – there were no two ways about that. He briefly sank into a morass of regret and remorse. He had truly loved the pretty, foolish girl. But the episode of self-pity soon passed. What was done, was done.
Rudolf was a practical man and a problem solver. By the time his valet, Loshek, knocked on the door, he had mentally sketched out a course of action. He would instruct Loshek to enlist the assistance of one of the trusted groundskeepers and they would personally bring the body over to the nearby cemetery of Heiligenkreuz Monastery. It could be buried there in an unmarked grave. The abbot would have to accede to the wishes of the royal family, likewise the local bureaucrats. All this would have to be done after nightfall to avoid detection. He would return to the Hofburg Palace immediately and inform the Emperor and his mother of what had transpired. He would have to figure out some way to make it seem like the gunshot was an accident. Perhaps he was showing Marie his new pistol and it inadvertently discharged? The carriage ride would give him time to think of something.
The court would be horrified, but at the same time would do everything possible to cover up the events that had taken place at Mayerling. Scandal was to be avoided at all costs. Franz Josef would be furious, his mother extremely distraught, but with time they would get over it and life would go on. He would also need to pay a personal visit to the Baroness Helene, Marie’s mother, to offer an explanation and his personal consolation. That would be the trickiest part. How would he explain the death of her daughter? As he was the Crown Prince, the Baroness was not in a position to challenge his explanations. She would have to accept whatever story he gave her. But first Rudolf needed to burn the letters, the ones he had written and the ones Marie had left. He asked Loshek to stoke the fire.

Vienna

News of Marie Vetsera’s death had caused minor shock waves in Vienna but that was to be expected. Many questioned the official version given out by the Hofburg, especially the press. They were always sniffing about for a scandal of some sort. The secret police were avid in their efforts to squelch any speculation that might damage the venerable institution of the monarchy. Within a short time the story became stale. The city gave itself over to the festivities of the pre-Lenten Fasching season. Who wanted to dwell on such unpleasantries when there were glittering balls to attend, sumptuous food to eat, champagne to drink, and spirited waltzes to dance to?
After a brief interval of withdrawal from the social scene Rudolf resumed his place in Viennese society as the dashing Crown Prince. He was biding his time, making plans, weighing various options. He was wildly popular not only in Vienna but in Budapest as well. His mother, the Empress Elizabeth, had always had a warm spot in her heart for the Hungarians. She had made the effort to acquaint herself with the language, as had her son. They used to play word games in Hungarian when Rudolf was a child. This familiarity with their language endeared them greatly to the Magyars who were the second largest ethnic group within the Empire.
Rudolf was well aware of the dynamics of the current state of the Empire. He was more finely attuned to the signs of unrest in the provinces; a smoldering fire that was about to flare up into a destructive conflagration. His father dismissed these mutterings as the work of extremists. Was he, Franz Josef, not the model of a benevolent ruler? Had the Empire not provided order, stability and a sense of pride to all its citizens? Demonstrations had erupted in Prague, in Kiev, Lemberg, Sarajevo and Milan over the attempt to implement German as the official language. Local newspapers in the provinces expressed outrage. It was becoming increasingly difficult for the agents of the government to suppress all of them.
While Vienna partied on during the late winter, Rudolf began constructing a plan, a course of action that would, he was convinced, diffuse the causes of unrest and change the situation for the better. It would require bold action, even an act of treason: a coup d’état was the only viable option.
Assassination of the Emperor was out of the question. While he despised his father, he could not bring himself to order an act of such crude violence. Besides, the brutal and sudden removal of the reigning monarch could easily backfire and make Franz Josef into a martyr. Rudolf needed to count on the good will of the people. He had many allies. The Empress Elizabeth was sympathetic to her son’s desire for reform but she could only go so far in offering support. She was rarely in Vienna anyway, removing herself from the capital for months at a time, traveling around Europe. Life at court didn’t suit her either.
With all due dispatch and the greatest secrecy, Rudolf contacted his prospective allies. These were mostly Hungarians who would be only too happy to see things turned on their heads. But he also had supporters in Serbia, Croatia and Slovakia. The plan was for Rudolf to secretly slip out of Vienna, to show up in Budapest with much pomp and circumstance, at which time he would be offered the Apostolic Crown of Saint Stephen by the Hungarian nobility (the Emperor was also King of Hungary), thereby making him a rival ruler of the Empire. The nobilities of the other minorities would line up behind him. If all went according to plan, public sympathy would lean his way too. Franz Josef would see himself cornered and voluntarily relinquish the imperial crown in favor of the Crown Prince. Rudolf would become Emperor. Although it was an act of treason, it was a necessary evil through which the Empire would be saved and necessary reforms instituted. In the end all would be well.

* * *

It just so happened that Helene Vetsera had a lover, a Hungarian count by the name of Istvan Andrássy. He was filthy rich and lived in the Palais Obizzi when in Vienna. He was also a kind man. Helene knew that she could rely on him in times of need. The recent tragedy concerning her daughter Marie was one of those times and the Count was able to offer much appreciated consolation and advice. As a member of the ruling nobility in Hungary, Count Andrássy knew of all the intrigues swirling around the Imperial capital. He was aware of the plan to install Crown Prince Rudolf as the King of Hungary and mentioned this in confidence to Helene. After her recent treatment by the Habsburg household she nursed a burning hatred for Franz Josef. The Emperor’s aides had blatantly and repeatedly lied to her about the events at Mayerling and had secretly buried her daughter without even letting her view her child’s body. Then, to compound the outrage, she was forbidden to visit the cemetery for two months, until the public had lost interest in the matter. Maintaining the prestige of the royal family was always of primary importance.
For Rudolf she also felt a hatred – he had all but murdered her daughter (she never learned that it was a deliberate act). But, in light of Marie’s infatuation with him, she could perhaps forgive the Crown Prince. At any rate, Helene was eager to throw oil on the flames. She had made no promise of secrecy and immediately started spreading the rumor that there was soon to be a coup d’état. Let Franz Josef and his cronies in the Hofburg quake in their boots and let Rudolf’s plans be confounded – it was all the same to her.

Budapest

Rudolf had no idea that his conspiracy was now common knowledge. The plan was set for March the fifteenth. The Crown Prince boarded a train incognito in Vienna. His usual entourage dressed inconspicuously to deflect attention from the operation. They occupied three adjoining compartments in a first class rail carriage on the overnight train to Budapest. Rudolf hardly slept at all as he was tremendously excited, and a bit apprehensive, about what was to happen the following day.
By the time the train pulled into the Keleti Railway Station Rudolf had already changed into one of his ceremonial uniforms. He expected to be greeted by a delegation of the Hungarian nobility, a military guard in smart uniforms, and a jubilant crowd. A military band would have been nice too, he mused. But, to his amazement, the station was nearly empty. There was no official delegation and he was not permitted to even alight from the train. Instead, some government officials, anonymous and pallid men, boarded the carriage and informed Rudolf unceremoniously – no polite address, none of the usual bowing – that he was persona non grata in the Kingdom and was to leave Hungarian territory by the next departing train. Rudolf and his entourage were stunned by the news. Obviously, word had preceded their arrival, giving the Imperial secret police the opportunity to thwart the coup before it even got underway. Half of Rudolf’s entourage deserted on the spot and melted away.
The next train leaving Keleti was headed south, to the Adriatic coast. After a meagre breakfast of coffee and rolls in the station café, which they ate under the eyes of an armed guard, the Austrians were escorted to that train. Not a word was spoken between Rudolf’s party and their guards. The Crown Prince and his advisors sat in glum silence for a long while after the train left the station. The flat Hungarian countryside slipped by. They had not expected this at all. When they finally managed to gather their wits about them again it was decided not to stray too far from Imperial borders, and to throw themselves at the mercy of the Croatians as the Austrian Emperor was also nominal King of Slovenia and Croatia. The Croats had also been making noises for autonomy. As a Habsburg, Rudolf would not be beloved but the Croats would be only too happy to use him to undermine Franz Josef.
The train stopped briefly in Laibach. The party clambered down and headed for the station exit with utmost dispatch. If they traveled by road they just might throw the authorities off the trail. Zagreb could be reached by nightfall.
Meanwhile, in Vienna, the Emperor Franz Josef took the news badly. Although he had been warned that his son was planning a coup against him, he did not want to believe it. He employed his usual tactic of dismissing whatever he didn’t want to know. But the news was undeniable. And it was bad. Rudolf would have to be exiled forever. It would be nearly impossible to disown him. Therefore, by legal right, Rudolf was still the heir apparent to the throne of Austria-Hungary. It was a terrible dilemma. A dispatch was personally delivered to Rudolf in Zagreb informing him that he was banned in perpetuity from the entire Empire and that his continued presence in Croatia would be taken as a further act of hostility.
The news of the intended coup spread like wildfire to the far corners of the Empire. The various minorities within its borders lost no time in recognizing that the moment for agitation had arrived. The mighty edifice of Imperial rule was showing cracks in its foundation. The truth that remained unspoken by the ruling elite was that the Austro-Hungarian Empire had no raison-d’être at all. The Empire was united by history and the unshakeable belief of the House of Habsburg that it was destined to rule. The Empire was held together by habit, the inertia of centuries. Everyone was aware that habits could be broken.
Soon there was unrest all over. The Ruthenians, Croats, Slovenians, Poles, Ukrainians and Slovaks all took to the streets. But the worst trouble was in Serbia where a ragtag group of insurrectionists (probably instigated by the local government) attacked government offices and declared an independent republic. This put the Hofburg in an uproar. Franz Josef firmly believed that military might was the only way to reestablish order and bolster respect for the monarchy in Vienna.

Zagreb

After Rudolf and his party finally arrived in Zagreb the Croatian government give him sanctuary. This was in itself an act of defiance. It was Serbia that declared war on Austria-Hungary first. The Austrians lost no time in mobilizing and sending troops into Serbian territory. The first battle took place just across the Serbian border, outside the town of Sombor. The Battle of Sombor on April 27th, 1889 would be forever celebrated by Serbia as one of the greatest victories in their history. The Austrian forces were routed and fled back across the border in disarray. The news of the defeat was a stunning blow to the Austrians. The military had flouted its strength for decades and presented itself as nearly invincible. That they should be defeated in their first battle (and by the Serbs!) was unthinkable. A second attempt of the Austrians to enter Serbia was also repulsed. By now public opinion in Vienna had soured. Many citizens wore black armbands in public, and officers in military uniform were taunted in the streets. The validity of the monarchy was questioned. There were demonstrations in Vienna itself.

* * *

The two imperial powers of Prussia and Austria-Hungary didn’t trust each other at all. The Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, a masterful adept at political machinations, decided that Prussia should bide its time. His nation would wait to see how the political winds were blowing before taking sides. The Prussian military and the armaments industry, both itching for a conflict, would have to be kept in check for a while.
The senior officers of the army of Tsar Alexander III were also clamoring for action, but the Tsar himself was a cautious man. He had to weigh the benefits of engaging in a conflict or staying out of it. While waging a war might offer a means of displaying military might, and thereby bolstering the Tsar’s own standing with his people, the other side of the coin was a Pandora’s Box of unforeseen consequences that might be opened. In the end, Russia opted for a halfhearted intervention as a means of grabbing some territory on its western flank. Under the pretext of coming to the aid of their fellow Slavs, Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary, marching into Galicia at the beginning of June. Bulgaria likewise declared war on Serbia, hoping to regain lost territories.
The Western European powers, most importantly Great Britain and France, had no treaties with the nations involved in the ever-widening conflict and wished to stay out of it. What happened in Bessarabia or the Banat was of no interest to them.
And so the struggle of nationalities began. It would be tedious to recount here the details of the conflict which was to become known as The Great Central European War. It raged on, and by 1891 there was a military stalemate. Austria could not sustain a war on multiple fronts and the army was unable to achieve a decisive victory anywhere. The various nationalist forces were determined to succeed. Prussia ultimately stayed out of the conflict, but its armaments industry made a brisk business in supplying all sides with weapons. With increasing international pressure to resolve the conflict, Austria was forced to swallow a bitter pill.
* * *
The Empress Elizabeth was abroad when Rudolf undertook his ill-fated journey to Budapest. She had been apprised of his stratagem and thought it best to stay out of the way. The Empress could not be seen to take sides in the struggle between her son and her husband. She and Rudolf were in regular contact by way of coded messages. As war became a grim reality, with no end in sight, the precariousness of Rudolf’s situation grew increasingly apparent. After their initial poor showing, the Austrian forces rallied a bit and began to occupy more of Croatia and Serbia. It was no longer possible for Rudolf to remain in Zagreb. His mother urged him to join her in Switzerland, a neutral country. She was staying at a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, near Lausanne. To reach Switzerland, the Prince was forced to make a lengthy detour in order to avoid Austrian territory. By now he had only three trusted companions left. It became clear to the rest of them that they had bet on the wrong horse. One by one they had left Zagreb to return to Vienna with their tails between their legs. They wanted to salvage what they could of their careers.
Emperor Franz Josef I was despondent over the situation. He never would have imagined that his own son could betray him; that his realm, at relative peace throughout his forty plus years on the throne, could begin to disintegrate so quickly. Moreover, his consort Elizabeth had all but abandoned him, only rarely returning to Vienna. He was a shattered man. Although barely over sixty, Franz Josef died in 1892, some say of a broken heart. There was a state funeral – the Emperor had been truly loved by his subjects – but even that was marred by ugly incidents in which the monarchy was insulted. With Franz Josef’s passing the very institution of the monarchy was in crisis, its survival at risk.
Rudolf’s attempt to usurp the throne was now seen as the beginning of the whole disaster and sentiment ran strongly against him. Although he was the legal heir to the throne, he could not be invited to come to Vienna to be crowned. That was out of the question. The aristocracy and the military were likewise held in contempt. They had shown themselves to be inept and corrupt. During this interregnum the country was ruled by a coalition of the leading members of parliament. The main cities of Austria – Vienna, Graz and Innsbruck – saw continued unrest. Civil War was imminent. The ministers of His Majesty’s former government were called together. They were handed an ultimatum by the parliamentary leaders: they had to sign on to the dissolution of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic. Some were reluctant to do so at first but were gradually brought around by the sobering reality of impending anarchy. A delegation was sent to the Empress Elizabeth. Rudolf had no choice but to abdicate and renounce any future claim to the Imperial throne by his progeny.
The French and British, motivated by a wish to see the continent restored to peace, instigated the creation of a European Council. It was made up of the leading nations of Europe, excluding Austria-Hungary. The Council met in Baden-Baden late in 1892. The dissolution of the Dual Monarchy and establishment of an Austrian Republic was agreed to by all. It was further decided that the various nationalities that had comprised the former Empire should receive some measure of autonomy or independence. There was much wrangling and diplomatic arm-twisting behind the scenes. Eventually, the more powerful nations got their way and the map of Europe was drastically altered. The Habsburg Empire that had existed since 1526 was wiped off the map. In its place, the Austrian First Republic was established and the monarchy abolished.
In the Treaty of Baden-Baden the biggest winners were Prussia, whose territory remained virtually intact while it managed to strengthen its own economy, Russia which gained some territory, Bulgaria which gained some territory from Serbia, and Hungary which kept its territorial integrity. Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia each became sovereign states. Small republics were carved out for the Rumanians and the Poles. Northern Italy was returned to the Italians. Austria was reduced to the small area where German was the predominant language. The Ottoman Empire, which had also stayed on the sidelines during hostilities, was itself hovering on the brink of dissolution. That situation would later be resolved in what was to become known as the Third Balkan War.

The end

With no power, no kingdom, and no hopes of ever having one, Rudolf’s situation was truly hopeless. After a few years the terms of his exile were relaxed and he was permitted to return to Austria but he had no desire to do so. With no occupation or real aim in life he slid into dissipation. He ate and drank too much and could be seen waddling about the casino in Monaco or whiling away the hours in the cafés of St. Moritz and the South of France. He made no effort to see his wife again, or even his daughter. He never set foot in his homeland again.

In late June of 1914, during a visit to Sarajevo, Rudolf was struck and killed by a tram while crossing a street. His passing received only limited attention in the press, the world having moved on to other concerns by then. He had requested burial in the Heiligenkreuz cemetery as it was not permitted that he be interred in the Habsburg royal crypt in Vienna. He was laid to rest next to Marie Vetsera. Their graves are overgrown and rarely visited these days.

This story was inspired by a BBC costume drama. What would it be like, I mused, to travel back in time and land in England in the early nineteenth century? How would the time traveler explain himself? It appeared on the website Fiction on the Web which is appropriately based in London.

 

Charles Koranda was found one fine spring morning lying in the low grass beside a country lane in Somersetshire. Things had gone exactly according to plan: Dr Callum Gibson, who was on his way home from a visit to a nearby patient, was going to drive by in his carriage just after Koranda materialized. Koranda wasn’t there two minutes when he heard the low rumbling of the carriage wheels and the unmistakable plodding of hooves on the well-trod earth. He didn’t need to feign illness as he felt quite out of sorts after his ordeal––the effect was something like a hangover. He remained as he was, sprawled in the sweet-scented grass. As the carriage was passing him Dr Gibson commanded the driver to halt. Even before the vehicle came to a complete stop the doctor nimbly jumped down and knelt beside Koranda who was holding his head and moaning softly.

“My good man, whatever is the matter?” he asked, at the same time sizing up the young stranger who was dressed in a strikingly unusual manner.

“Oh, I’m not quite sure. Don’t think I can stand on my own just yet, though.”

The accent was peculiar, like no English dialect Dr Gibson had ever heard. And what clothes! Gibson had never seen anything like them. This mysterious gentleman was not wearing a coat but had on a shirt, quite well made from the looks of it, with curious buttons in the oddest places and some sort of monogram stitched onto the left breast pocket. And the color! The man’s bearing was not that of a laborer or field worker; the quality of his clothing was fine, too fine for a person of low social standing. He seemed to be a well-bred young man. Dr Gibson guessed he was in his early thirties.

At a signal from the doctor the driver jumped down and assisted in getting Koranda to his feet and into the carriage. The driver was a well-fed country type by the looks of him, perhaps no more than eighteen or nineteen years old, blond, with a solid build and rosy cheeks.

“I think you had better come with us and we will get you sorted out properly,” was all Gibson said.

The doctor was a kind and compassionate man. That was part of the reason he had been selected to find Koranda that morning. They rode along without exchanging a word, Gibson eying his passenger curiously from time to time. Koranda, who had by now fully recovered, delighted in the sights passing him by: the splendid English countryside, glimpses of country homes in the distance, the view of a village in the valley a few miles away. That will be Banbury, he thought.

There was also the pleasure of riding in an open carriage pulled by a pair of horses. After about a quarter of an hour they pulled into the drive leading to a fine country home. It wasn’t an estate, but was still quite impressive, a large house in neoclassical style. A set of curved steps led up to the front entrance. There was an expanse of lawn in front, a generous amount of shrubbery, and a well-tended garden to one side.

Koranda thought it best to still play the invalid. He let himself be supported by Dr Gibson and the driver as he alit from the carriage. They slowly ascended the steps to the front door. It was opened by a waiting maid who made no attempt to conceal her astonishment at Koranda’s appearance, gawking openmouthed as he passed. He was brought to the sitting room and was gently deposited into a wing chair.

“Are you all right?” asked Dr Gibson.

“Sure. I’ll be just fine in a few minutes.”

“Let me get you a brandy, and after you have recovered your equilibrium you might care to tell me who you are and what brings you to this county. Mr Thomas Hilfiger, is it?”

“What? Oh no, the name is Koranda, actually. Charles Koranda. But my friends call me CK.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Koranda realized that addressing someone by their initials was an informality not likely to be known here. He was trying his best not to make any gaffes of speech or behavior, but knew it was inevitable that he would say or do something inappropriate. He had been distracted by the ‘Hilfiger’ bit and it took him a few seconds to realize that his permanent press cotton chinos had a logo emblazoned over the rear pocket.

“Your home is just splendid, Dr Gibson,” he said, striving to keep his feelings in check. He would have liked to dance about in sheer exuberance; here he was in a house, a room, that looked like a set out of Masterpiece Theater. Only this was the real thing. Dr Gibson had lifted an eyebrow, surprised that this stranger would know his name.

“Yes, I do know who you are, though you don’t know me. Your good reputation goes far and wide.” Just how far and wide the good doctor could hardly imagine, but Koranda didn’t want to get into it at this moment. “That’s why you were chosen to find me in the lane. It was no accident.”

Dr Gibson’s visage expressed even greater astonishment. “Chosen to find you in the lane? Whatever do you mean?” He leaned forward in his chair.

“I am very grateful to you for your willingness to come to my aid, more than you can know. I realize that I owe you an explanation. My unusual appearance and general manner must raise a few questions in your mind.”

“Indeed they do. But please proceed.” He had settled back and resumed his impassive demeanor. Whatever thoughts were occupying Dr Gibson’s mind, he was not going to reveal them too readily, being the well-bred Englishman and doctor he was.

“There is a simple explanation for all this, and I could tell you the whole story, but I’m afraid you shall think me mad.” He had actually prepared this part of his speech before his departure. It sounded so British, like a line from the dialogue in a Jane Austen novel. ‘You shall think me mad’ was not something he was in the habit of saying at home. His friends would have thought him pretentious. He paused a moment, wondering just how to continue, when approaching steps were heard in the hallway.

“That will be Mrs Gibson,” said the doctor.

The door opened and in walked a very well dressed woman in her mid-forties, about the same age as her husband. The material in her pale-green dress (Koranda guessed it was raw silk) shimmered in the light. She was further adorned with a gorgeous necklace and matching earrings, a Kashmiri shawl with tassels, and topped off by an elaborate hairdo into which a bit of lace had been intertwined. So, he thought, the upper classes really did dress up like that, even during the day. He was so impressed with her appearance that he nearly leapt out of his chair. Mrs Gibson stopped dead in her tracks when she saw him, and her eyes scanned him from head to toe and back again.

Dr Gibson took charge of the awkward moment. “My dear, I should like you to meet Mr Charles Koranda who is paying us an unexpected visit. He apparently knows of me already and was about to divulge the nature of that acquaintance.”

“How do you do.” Mrs. Gibson recovered her composure, smiled graciously and stepped forward, extending her hand. Koranda took the proffered hand and bowed slightly. He couldn’t help noticing how her eyes seemed to be riveted first on his shirt (a button-down in magenta had apparently not been the best choice), then on his shoes. He had made a point of putting on his best leather dress shoes (Cole-Haan wingtips they were), but they must have looked odd anyway. He noticed that Dr Gibson had on high boots. The driver had worn boots as well, though his weren’t as nice.

“Well, Mr Koranda, do tell us what brings you to Bexhill House,” said Mrs Gibson while taking her place next to her husband on the settee. She was still smiling graciously, but with an added air of mischievous curiosity.

“Well….er….this is going to be a little difficult. I beg your indulgence.” He downed the last gulp of brandy and continued. “Dr Gibson, you are known to be a rational, kind and fair-minded individual. Please hear me out. You have observed, I hope, that I am not a lunatic, nor am I inebriated.” Gibson nodded in assent. “As you might have already guessed, I am not from this country. My home is in the United States of America. But that doesn’t explain the crucial point. The truth is that I am not from this world.” Here he paused for dramatic effect. “I come from the future.” He waited again to let the dust settle after dropping this bombshell. Neither Dr nor Mrs Gibson moved a muscle. They stared at him in incredulous silence. “I am not from this century––it’s 1832 isn’t it?––nor from the next, but from the beginning of the twenty-first century, 2016 to be exact. We have made some remarkable, for you unimaginable, technological advances. My appearance here is part of an experiment that has been underway for quite some time at the university where I teach.”

Koranda went on to explain the particulars of the time travel project as best he could. But as he wasn’t a part of the making of it, he wasn’t able to provide too many details. Science wasn’t his field at all; he taught Art History. He was, however, good friends with Dr Ramachandra, the eccentric but brilliant scientist who masterminded the whole thing from the beginning, running his grand experiment out of his house with the help of a few graduate assistants sworn to secrecy. The person originally scheduled for this particular ‘launch’ had dropped out suddenly and the time could not be put off. It all had something to do with planetary alignments and energy fields, that much Koranda knew. Ramachandra had approached him just the day before, begging him to consent to be the traveler. He was available, he was willing (though a bit skeptical of the whole thing), and was the only person in on the secret who had a comprehensive view of European history. The prospect of traveling to early nineteenth century England was irresistible. Of the two previous launches, one had been a disaster (the chosen traveler had been unwilling or unable to return from the France of Louis XIV), and the next an unqualified success, though that candidate had been so enthusiastic after his visit to first century Rome that he had put the whole project in jeopardy with his indiscretions. It was unfortunate that there had been so little time for preparation on Koranda’s part. He did the best he could.

Not only did Ramachandra have the capacity to transport individuals back in time, he was able to observe the doings of selected individuals at any point in time he wished. Koranda understood none of this. To him it seemed something akin to the Google street level feature. Dr Gibson had been observed by Ramachandra for a while and was deemed a suitable contact for the traveler. The doctor had a sterling character, was a generous individual, open-minded (though how he would react to anything as outlandish as a time traveler was anybody’s guess), and was of a respectable social standing. The most fortuitous confluence of particulars had come together quickly and Koranda was on his way to Somerset. One moment he was sitting in a chair in a house in Connecticut, a metal halo resting on his head, and the next moment he found himself sprawled by the side of a country road in early nineteenth-century England.

And here he was now, sitting in an armchair in a magnificent country house, on a lovely spring day in the year 1832, calmly explaining his situation to the Gibsons. They had relaxed a bit but hadn’t taken their eyes off of him the whole time. He thought he’d better stop for a while.

“Well,” said Mrs Gibson after a long silence, “I think the best thing now would be a nice cup of tea. Don’t you agree, Mr Koranda?”

He agreed, quite relieved they hadn’t thrown him out. Mrs Gibson got up to ring for the maid who appeared within seconds. She must have been waiting outside the door.

“Jenny, tea for three here in the sitting-room, please.”

Jenny unabashedly stared at the guest. Rumors of a strangely clad, attractive visitor must have been making the rounds among the domestic help. Koranda was grateful for the lull in the conversation at that moment.

He got up to have a closer look at the furnishings, and in particular the many oil paintings that adorned the walls of the room. Nearly all were landscapes, with a few portraits––and one of these interested him in particular. He admired a Sheraton side table, a stunning specimen, the kind of item that would cause antique dealers to go into ecstasy. What a hit it would be on Antiques Roadshow! “You know, Dr Gibson, if I had a table like this in my century it would be worth a small fortune.”

“Really? How extraordinary.”

“And your collection of paintings is admirable. I hope you can tell me about them.”

He remained standing and continued with the explanation of his origins. “I understand why you would be hesitant to believe me––why should you?––so allow me to present you with more tangible proof of my origin.” With that Koranda took out his wallet and peeled out a twenty dollar bill, handing it over to Gibson. “That’s Andrew Jackson. He’s currently President of the United States, as you well know. He’s at the end of his first term and will win a second in the next election. His vice president, Mr van Buren, will succeed him in 1836.”

Gibson examined the banknote with great interest. When he saw ‘SERIES 1999’ next to Jackson’s portrait he did a double-take. “My word, this is extraordinary. Charlotte dear, have a look at this.”

“They don’t ordinarily put someone’s portrait on a bill while he’s still in office, do they now?” offered Koranda with a hint of smugness. For good measure he also handed over his Connecticut driver’s license, his university ID, and a credit card. “These are made of plastic. It’s a synthetic substance that won’t be invented for quite a while yet. We’re rather fond of it.”

The Gibsons handled each item with increasing wonderment. They were truly dumbfounded. Koranda’s exact likeness in color on his license and again on his ID elicited gasps from both of them. As the coup de grâce Koranda took off his wristwatch and handed it over. It was nothing special by twenty-first century standards, an ordinary Timex digital with date and chronometer, but the Gibsons examined it like they had just been handed the Crown Jewels. At this moment the tea was brought in, the tray placed before Mrs Gibson.

“Do you take milk, Mr Koranda?”

“Why yes, thank you. No sugar, though.” He had to admire the ‘stiff upper lip’, the ability to carry on like it were the most normal thing in the world to have tea with a guest visiting from 184 years in the future!

“There’s a lot I could tell you about the future, some of it good, some not. Let’s see…if everything worked out right, today should be the 14th of May, 1832.” Dr Gibson verified that it was, indeed. “The current monarch is William IV. He will reign until 1837, to be succeeded by his niece Victoria who will occupy the throne for an incredible 64 years, until 1901. That’s a record that would be unsurpassed for a long time.”

Gibson perked up and proffered a very British “positively astonishing!”

“I could go on with the royal succession (know most of ‘em, I think) but that’s less interesting. The current monarch, I mean in 2016, is Queen Elizabeth II whose reign began in 1952. She recently passed Victoria’s tenure. The British monarchy seems to be blessed with some long-lived individuals. Most of the other monarchies in Europe were swept away at the beginning of the twentieth century. But that’s another story…”

He had been able to read up on the events of the 1830s before he left, but there were still many points he was foggy about. “Your beloved author Sir Walter Scott will pass away this year, on September the twenty-first. I’m sorry to report that the cholera epidemic will really rage next month, too. Next year Parliament will abolish slavery in the Empire.”

“And thank God for that!” exclaimed Gibson who was listening with rapt attention.

“The situation in my country will not resolve itself so easily on that issue, I’m afraid. There will be a bloody civil war in thirty years with the antislavery forces ultimately winning and the Union being preserved. It’s one of our darkest chapters.”

The Gibsons had many questions and Koranda went on to deliver a brief history of the world, or as much as he knew. The twentieth century, with its barbarous world wars and other horrific events, was painful to recount and he glossed over much of it. One could so easily become a cynic looking at history from either vantage point, from before or after. The Gibsons were enthralled with his recitation and seemed to welcome him completely.

“Now, Mr Koranda, what can we do to make your visit with us, however long that might be, as pleasant as possible?” asked Gibson cordially.

“We are delighted to make your acquaintance and look forward to many interesting hours in your company” added Charlotte Gibson.

“You are so very kind. I am entirely at your disposal and indebted to you for your generosity.” He continued, “I will need the proper clothing, of course, and your assistance in dealing with the niceties of your society. You see, things have changed a lot in the intervening years. I feel like a fish out of water here.”

The Gibsons very quickly assembled a wardrobe for him, down to every detail. The laundry maids would undoubtedly be fascinated with his Polo Ralph Lauren shirt and trousers with a permanent crease, thought Koranda as he was changing, as well as his modern underwear. If he had only had time to contact the wardrobe department of the university theater before his departure, he could have avoided making such a fashion spectacle of himself. Men of this era wore high-collared white shirts made of linen, wool trousers without a crease, a waistcoat, a dark frock coat and boots. The linen underwear was an interesting touch, he discovered. And then there was the problem of his hair. His was fairly short, with a part. The style of the day was long and often coiffed in what struck him as a ridiculous manner. He would have to see what he could do with a comb and Macassar oil.

His first outing was into the village, in the company of Dr Gibson. It was decided that Koranda’s true identity and origin be kept secret. He avoided conversation as much as possible. When he was introduced as an acquaintance visiting from abroad he nodded politely and let Gibson do most of the talking. At first he lived in constant fear of doing or saying something inappropriate, but after a while he relaxed and enjoyed the pleasures of living in a more gracious age. He learned to be evasive yet polite with strangers who inquired about the details of his own life. As virtually no one he met had ever encountered a real live American before, he could fudge quite a lot. He thought it best to say that he came from a small town in Connecticut––which happened to be true.

The outward aspect of everyday life in Banbury was a source of constant fascination. Of course everything was made by hand, sewn by hand, hewn and erected by craftsmen, cooked and baked from scratch. Observing the gentility of social interactions and the general elegance of dress, he had to remind himself that these were real people going about their lives––it wasn’t a film set. The level of sanitation took some getting used to. There was dirt and mud everywhere. It was hard to avoid. And the glaring poverty of the less fortunate was another shock. Well, those problems hadn’t been solved by the twenty-first century either, he thought.

The Gibsons very generously provided their guest with decent clothes. Besides the everyday suit they had somehow found for him, there was another outfit for traveling, and even formal wear for grander occasions. Charlotte insisted it was nothing, but Koranda knew that even the first suit couldn’t have been easy to find. Everybody was smaller, much smaller. How did she ever find his size? he wondered. And the newest outfits had to be made to order, no ready-to-wear stuff off the rack. He loved the frock coat and the boots; they made him feel like a real gentleman. Then there was the problem of money. Koranda didn’t have any, not a farthing. The Gibsons took care of all his needs and he was totally dependent upon the them. And no one ever asked him how long he planned to stay.

The Gibsons housed Charles in a separate building, a spacious apartment above the carriage house. He could come and go as he pleased, although he was expected to show up for meals. No one bothered him at all. The Gibsons maintained a comfortable life style and kept a number of servants. The young man who was so helpful on his arrival was named Andrew. He was technically a medical assistant to Dr Gibson but he helped out in many other ways. There was no real medical schooling at the time. An aspiring doctor attached himself to an established physician and, after a few years or so, he was ready to hang out his own shingle. This seemed a frightening arrangement to Koranda. But, no matter; he wasn’t interested in Andrew’s medical credentials anyway. He cultivated the young man for other reasons: as a possible abettor in crime. There was no other term for it.

Ramachandra was a genius, no doubt about that, but his research and time travel project had to be done in secret. The university would have never awarded him a grant, might have even dismissed him if it were known exactly what he was about. In order to fund his clandestine activities, such as paying his graduate assistants for their extra time, Ramachandra wanted something in return. He knew that the Gibsons had a portrait hanging in their parlor, a self-portrait done by Joseph Wright of Derby. This particular painting would eventually be sold to a collector in Belgium in the early twentieth century and would disappear during the carnage of the Second World War. It was thought to have been destroyed. If Koranda could bring it back (leaving a convincing reproduction in its place), Ramachandra could fund his work for many years. Joseph Wright of Derby was barely appreciated in his own lifetime (the portrait was not one of the Gibsons’ prized acquisitions), but his work had gained popularity over the years. The painting would be worth a small fortune in the twenty-first century. Koranda deplored the idea of doing anything dishonest, especially the theft of a work of art, but he felt obligated and thought it could be done without too much difficulty.

* * * *

At the end of Koranda’s third week in Somerset the Gibsons announced a dinner party. The landowners of the neighborhood were a tight-knit group and word had spread that the Gibsons had a foreign guest. But the official reason for the party was the impending visit of Charlotte Gibson’s brother, Florestan Porter. He came to visit for a few weeks every year at this time. Porter was a member of Parliament who relished the elevated status of his position.

There are some people we meet with whom we feel an instant connection. To Koranda, Florestan Porter was just the opposite, a person whom he disliked from the first moment he set eyes on him. And the feeling was mutual. Florestan was a thin, stiff and haughty man, decidedly homely, with a permanent sour expression on his face. It was clear that Charlotte had inherited all the handsomeness and charm that was available in the Porter gene pool. He was used to people fawning over him and catering to his every whim. When the MP was introduced to the American he did not smile at all, and barely nodded towards Koranda. The American made more of an effort to be civil.

The undisputed center of attention during the dinner was Charles Koranda, a development deeply resented by the MP. Koranda had mixed feelings about attending a formal dinner party. He was enthralled by social conversation, but dreaded it at the same time. He was seated between a Mrs Hubbard (sporting a multi-stranded necklace of pearls), and a Viscount, one of the Gibsons’ nearest neighbors.

He noticed that whenever he spoke, which was not often, the other guests paid attention. He realized that his studied reticence might be contributing to a sense of mystery about himself. He didn’t intend any of this. He was not one to put on airs, nor was he so vain as to think that he really was mysterious (certainly no one thought so back home!), but he was different, in a way the others couldn’t quite define for themselves. His enthusiasm for certain subjects, his complete ignorance of others, the unexpected and sometimes incomprehensible opinions he expressed only served to enhance the perception of inscrutability. Dr Gibson exchanged knowing glances with his wife when their guests later commented on the enigmatic charm of their American guest.

He thought he knew something about the literature of the period––he had read his share of Byron, Shelley, Keats and Scott––but when other writers were discussed he was lost. William Hazlitt? Who was that? They all had read him and seemed perplexed that he hadn’t. He said that he really admired Charles Dickens and had read his works many times. But all Koranda got in return were blank looks. (Wasn’t Oliver Twist published yet?) He felt like a complete fool at that moment.

But worse was yet to come, when the subject of conversation turned to the new railway line that had just been opened between Manchester and Liverpool, the first in the country. There were varying opinions as to whether this was a good thing or not. Florestan Porter was especially vehement in his opposition to the railways. Koranda couldn’t resist and launched into an animated speech, one he was to regret later.

“We can hardly imagine what the future might hold for us, what the advancements of modern technology might bring,” he declared. “There might be trains that travel at speeds like 150 miles per hour, there could be flying machines that transport hundreds of people at once, there might be a tunnel built under the channel––imagine having breakfast in London and lunch in Paris! There might be devices that enable us to contact any person in the world at any time! Mankind might explore space and send men to the walk on the surface of the moon……and they’ll do it half a dozen times!”

He had said too much. There was stunned silence and all eyes were on him. It was Mrs Hubbard who rescued the moment, addressing him directly: “Mr Koranda, you speak on these matters with such conviction and enthusiasm. It is really quite charming.” He was determined to control his tongue better after that.

Florestan Porter was another matter. For the first part of the dinner he barely acknowledged Koranda and all but ignored him in the general conversation. During the pause before the serving of dessert, the conversation, limited to the far end of the table, turned to politics. Koranda kept silent as he knew he was out of his depth on the subject. That is, until Porter addressed him directly:

“Mr Koranda, what is your feeling on the slavery issue? I understand there is considerable debate in the United States at present on the subject.” He bent forward over the table, peering directly in Koranda’s direction.

Koranda was at first startled to be singled out, but his thoughts on slavery were well-formed and he had no hesitation in expressing his abhorrence of the institution. He finished by saying, “I am sure that the controversy will end in Great Britain with the abolition of slavery in the Empire, and sooner than you think.” Dr Gibson looked at him and smiled, recalling their previous conversation on the subject.

But Porter would not have it. “Spoken with the naiveté one expects from an American, and without any understanding of our traditions and social arrangements. You have no idea what will happen in this country or any other for that matter.” With that he turned away from Koranda, conversing with his neighbor to the left.

Koranda was taken aback by this unprovoked and unabashed insult. Charlotte Gibson lowered her head, too mortified to say anything. She was accustomed to the outspoken manner of her brother. The moment passed and general good feeling resumed around the table when the dessert was brought in and the subject of conversation changed.

The evening came to an end and the guests left. On his way upstairs Porter passed Koranda, muttering a frosty ‘good night’ in his direction.

Before he was ‘launched’ and transported to 1832, Ramachandra had provided Koranda with a list of possible times for his return. He had to be exactly in the right place at the right time or it wouldn’t work. Koranda mentioned this to the Gibsons, but was loathe to think about a departure; he was still enjoying himself immensely. By the following week there were only a few possibilities of return left and Koranda didn’t want to press his luck. He thought it best to say nothing directly. But first, there was business to attend to: how to get his hands on the Wright self-portrait.

The action was planned for a warm and overcast June night. He approached Andrew and asked him to leave the door to the kitchen unlocked that evening. The young man at first looked baffled, wondering why Koranda would ask that of him, but he readily agreed. Fortunately, Andrew was not the curious type and didn’t ask many questions. Koranda slept for a few hours and awoke at 2 AM, when everyone in the main house was sure to be fast asleep. He put on his shirt and trousers and made his way, barefoot, to the main house as quietly as possible, ever so gently opening the kitchen door and stepping inside. He lit a single candle. It provided just enough light for him to see his way through the dark room. From the very beginning of his visit he had gotten on famously with the house dog, Pluto, and he encountered an enthusiastic welcome from the animal whose tail beat wildly and made a bit of a racket. After calming him down, Koranda continued on through the dining room and into the sitting-room, where he had first come to know the Gibsons.

He wasn’t sure what excuse he would give if he were found here, in the middle of the night, in the Gibson’s drawing-room. He just hoped that it wouldn’t come to that. When he was in this room for the first time, admiring the furnishings, he had scouted the location of the Wright painting and had spotted it immediately. He knew exactly what it looked like as he had a copy of the portrait with him: a young man, gazing directly at the viewer, wearing a green coat with a fur collar, a curious silver turban on his head. A pang of remorse briefly overcame Koranda as he realized that he was going to commit a robbery against the Gibsons. Chances were that they would never even find out that their picture had been replaced with a copy. At least, he hoped so.

Koranda carefully placed the candle holder on a table near the painting (the Sheraton table he had so admired), and took the tools he had brought along out of his pocket, a screw driver and a small pair of pliers. He lifted the Wright off the wall. Fortunately, it was not very big. Good thing I don’t have to make off with Rembrandt’s Night Watch, he mused in an attempt to cheer himself up. He removed the painting from the frame. That was the easy part. The next operation was not so easy: he had to carefully remove every tack around the periphery of the inner stretcher frame in order to free the canvas so that it could be rolled up. The tacks were fairly easy to pull out and he was grateful for that. He put each one on the table. He slowly rolled the canvas as he had been instructed and inserted it under his shirt. Then he took the reproduction, a clever digital scan onto modern canvas (provided by the university art department), and prayed that the size was the same as the original. It fit perfectly. He muffled the noise of hammering the tacks back in with a cloth he had brought. He had just finished the task and placed the faux canvas into the frame when he heard a voice behind him.

“Are you so interested in art that you need to steal over in the middle of the night to examine it?” It was the unmistakably frigid voice of Florestan Porter, emanating from the gloom.

He nearly dropped the painting, he was so startled. Porter was in his nightshirt, appearing as an evil specter in the weak light of the candle. “Oh, good evening,” Koranda managed to stammer. “I couldn’t sleep and came over to have a look at the collection. But the light is very poor with only one candle and the glare was a nuisance so I…”

“I can see very well what you are up to,” said Porter. “You foreigners are all the same, not to be trusted. And you, Mr Charles Koranda,” he spat out with unmistakable disdain, “for all your supposed charm, you are an especially slippery character.”

“I meant no harm, really. Sorry to hear that you are so ill-disposed towards me, but I can’t help that.” With that Koranda turned to put the painting back in its place on the wall. Porter watched him in stony silence, not moving from his place in the dimness. “I’ll wish you a good night then,” offered Koranda in as composed a manner as he could manage. He headed back the way he came in, not wanting to prolong the conversation. Porter watched him exit the room, but said nothing further. How long has he been standing there? The sneaky bastard! What had he seen? What did he mean when he said, ‘I can see very well what you are up to’? This was a disaster. Now that he possessed the Wright canvas it was time to leave, and the sooner the better.

As he entered the kitchen he felt Porter’s hand on his arm. “Where do you think you’re going?” said Porter. “I’m not done with you yet.”

“Unhand me, you slimy vulture! I know all about you and your dalliances.” This was a shot in the dark. Shortly after Porter’s arrival, Koranda had walked in on the end of a conversation between Charlotte and a maid who could not have been more than sixteen-years-old. She had been in tears and had said something like, ‘I cannot be in the same room with him, please keep him away from me.’ Koranda surmised that the ‘him’ must have been Porter. Was Porter a lech? It seemed very likely. Seeing the startled look on Porter’s face, Koranda continued, “You despicable seducer of children, how would you like all of London to know what kind of man you are? There is nothing you can or will do to me. You are nothing but a puffed-up baboon!” At that, Porter’s jaw dropped. Koranda wrenched his arm free, turned on his heels and briskly headed for the door.

He returned to his room. He was relieved to note that the next opportunity to return to the twenty-first century was coming up soon. He would have preferred to wait a few days, maybe even prepare the Gibsons for his departure, but that wasn’t possible now. He would have to skulk away, literally into the dark of night. He sat at his desk and hurriedly wrote a note for the Gibsons, expressing both his gratitude and sadness at leaving them. He enclosed the note in an envelope, sealed it, and left it on the desk.

He would have to be at the very place he was originally found, in the same country lane, at 7 AM. He couldn’t sleep, of course, and was too agitated to wait in the room. What if Porter decided to seek him out? He changed into the clothes he had arrived in, carefully folding the trousers, shirt and coat he had been wearing and placing them neatly on the bed. He was sorry to leave the boots. The ‘halo’ was recovered from its secure hiding place and put under his shirt, along with the rolled-up painting. He began the long walk in the dark.

Finding the same place with some difficulty, he positioned himself cross-legged in the now wet grass. It was completely quiet and nearly black, a solitude one could rarely find in the modern world with its light pollution and constant noise. It had become chilly and he wished he still had the woolen coat. Placing the metal band on his head, he waited for the moment of his transport to arrive. It did, and the return went smoothly.

He found himself in the laboratory, seated in the very same place from which he had departed some three and a half weeks before. Ramachandra and his assistants were all eager to hear about his adventure. Koranda told them everything they wanted to know, and Ramachandra was ecstatic when he handed over the Wright self-portrait. But his own enthusiasm was dampened by the realization that he had done something ethically unacceptable. He would have to live with the fact that he had deceived (even if they never realized it) the very people who had shown him such kindness and generosity. That would always remain a troublesome memory.

The next morning the Gibsons came down to breakfast at the usual time. They had already begun eating when Florestan shuffled in, looking a bit out of sorts. It was unusual for him to be late, but his sleep had been interrupted by the confrontation in the middle of the night. He went to the buffet and put some toast and jam on his plate, then seated himself in his usual place. When the server had finished pouring the tea he cleared his throat, always an indication that he had something important to say.

“Sister Charlotte, Callum,” he cleared his throat once more. “There were goings-on in this house during the night that you should be made aware of. It appears that your American guest, Mr Koranda…”

Charlotte cut him short. She was still annoyed with him for his rudeness to Koranda at the party. “I forbid you to mention Mr Koranda’s name,” she declared firmly, “and I don’t care to hear your tittle-tattle.”

“But Charlotte, I think you need to hear this, you would be shocked, as was I, that…”

“Enough, Florestan! To use an expression I learnt from Charles: you may put a sock in it!”

Porter was speechless. His sister was the only person in the world who could talk to him in that manner. He wasn’t quite sure what the expression meant, but he understood its intent. He stared at his toast and did not attempt to say any more on the subject. So, the Gibsons never learned about Koranda’s conduct. And they never discovered that their painting had been switched with a copy.

Sir Walter Scott did pass away on September the 21st of that year, just as Koranda had foretold. That day turned even sadder for the Gibsons as it again brought to mind their extraordinary friend from the future. Charlotte wished she had some memento of him––the magenta shirt, perhaps––but he had left nothing. Jenny the parlormaid, however, had pilfered Koranda’s underwear from the wash and stashed these curious items among her own things. Who was Calvin Klein, she wondered, and why was his name stitched into Mr Koranda’s undergarments? It was quite perplexing.

When Joseph Wright of Derby’s long lost self-portrait resurfaced, the art world was abuzz with excitement, and it fetched a handsome price at auction. Ramachandra offered Koranda a cut of the sale price, ten per cent, but he refused it. His troubled conscience was somewhat eased when he reflected that, by stealing the painting in the nineteenth century, he had saved it from destruction in the twentieth. Maybe it hadn’t been such a regrettable venture after all.

 

Nearly every account of the sinking of Titanic focuses on the first-class passengers. But what about the others, and what about the crew? My story recounts the last hours of two crew members in a loving relationship on that ill-fated ship. It appeared online at gayflashfiction.com. Unfortunately, the photo I found could not be included due to copyright concerns, but I have printed it here

 

In the years afterward I was often asked whether we felt anything at the moment of impact. I remember feeling a slight shudder – we all felt it, I think. I was on duty in the pantry, inspecting and stacking dinner plates. For a minute or so they all rattled a bit. It was so unusual – I mean, the ship normally ran so wonderfully smooth – that we were all perplexed at first. Arthur looked up and said, “What the hell was that?” William shrugged it off (he always had a clever answer for everything), and went on with some theory about the propellers. What did we care? We just wanted to finish our work and go below. When I finally got out of there it was nearly midnight. Edwin was waiting for me in the passage. He always did, dear boy.

Ned and I met and served together on the RMS Adriatic, another White Star Line ship. It was equally fine, but not as grand as Titanic. We were assigned the same cabin, along with four other blokes. There is no privacy for the crew on a ship; if you want to be alone you have to be creative. We were drawn to each other from the beginning, but when our mates were around we never dared to show any more affection than a friendly arm around the shoulder. When we couldn’t stand it any longer we arranged, through a sympathetic mate, to get into the passenger baggage hold, about the only place to get away from everybody. I still remember that first kiss in the dark (sitting on a steamer trunk), the hum and vibration of the engines, the faint smell of burning coal. To us it was romantic. We didn’t need any more, certainly not the finery of the first class types. Later we got more intimate; it was the first time for the both of us. Edwin was nineteen and I was twenty-three at the time.

We made a half dozen crossings together on the Adriatic, sailing from Liverpool, and then decided to take a little break. It was the best thing we ever did. We had no idea at the time that those four weeks would be our entire lives together. Who could have known?

We took rooms in Southhampton, the only place we knew. A fancy holiday was out of the question anyway as we both sent money home to our parents. When our savings starting running low we decided to sign up for Titanic. They were looking for experienced men, and since we both had good records with White Star, we were both hired. We didn’t dare ask to room together, that was going too far. Although Ned was a kitchen porter, and I was assigned assistant pantryman steward, our schedules were nearly the same.

It was exciting to explore a brand new ship. Everything was so nice and clean, the ship was so big. We soon found a few places where one could be alone. We enjoyed those five days and looked forward to the festive arrival in New York. Of course, we never arrived there. That is, I did–but Edwin did not.

On that last night, after our work was done, we were in the cabin with our mates. At about 12:30 William burst in and told us that the ship had struck an iceberg and that we were sinking. We could tell that the ship was listing slightly towards the bow, but even so there was derisive, incredulous laughter. Titanic sink? Impossible! Soon thereafter word came that we were to stay below. Ned and I, with our knowledge of the ship, knew how to sneak up on deck. We wanted to see what was going on. We changed out of our uniforms and put on civilian clothes. When we made it to the Boat Deck we found a chaotic scene: people milling about, shouting, pushing, crying. The lifeboats were already being filled, almost all were women and children – and all were first or second class. Our hearts sank as we knew then that there would be no hope for us.

We were determined to stay together, no matter what, and clung to each other in an out-of-the-way corner. With the ship listing ever more severely we couldn’t hold on any longer and slid down the deck. In the tumble of other bodies, and deck chairs careening down with us, Ned slipped out of my grip. I saw the look of terror on his face. I called after him, frantic, but he was swallowed up in the confusion.

The water was frightfully cold. I swam a ways and luckily found a wooden grating. I hung onto it for dear life, calling out for Ned again and again. The water was churning with all kinds of debris; lifeboats were pulling away as quickly as possible, individuals were thrashing about, trying to stay afloat. From a distance I saw the ship, its stern rising out of the water, heard the screams of desperate people. It was a scene from hell.

I soon became numb, don’t know how long I was in the water. It became eerily quiet. Collapsible boat A came by, appearing out of the darkness, looking for survivors. They hauled me aboard and threw a blanket around me. We drifted for hours, all cold and miserable, in shock from what we had just experienced.

The RMS Carpathia arrived and took us aboard. After a few days in New York I was put on a boat back to England. I learned later that I was one of the few crew members saved – nearly seven hundred of us had perished. One of them was Edwin Crispin, my sweet boy, whose body was never recovered. I have missed him every day of my life.

I never went to sea again.

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I wrote several stories in the genre of flash fiction (fewer than a thousand words). This is the second of them to be published, appearing in an anthology by Simone Press Publishing. The setting was inspired by the summers I spent at the Clear Creek Music Festival in Eastern Oregon. 
The old Datsun spluttered and bucked, but it made it up the hill and to the end of the road, to the beginning of the trailhead. Marlis got out and surveyed the scene for a minute. There was the granite rock face of the mountain and, just visible to the right, the ledge she remembered. It had been just a year earlier, when Maxine was still alive, that they had climbed the trail together and stopped on the ledge to admire the view. Maxine had said, “Ooooooh, that is so pretty!” Marlis remembered the remark because it was one of the few times in their friendship of over thirty years that Max had expressed a sentimental opinion. She just wasn’t verbal in that way. Maxine may have had a gruff exterior, but behind the façade there was the kind and loyal friend that Marlis loved.

They were both widows of a sort. Marlis’ husband Jack had died of a heart ailment some twenty years before. Max’s husband was still alive, wherever he was, maybe still with the slutty waitress he had run off with, maybe not. Max never mentioned him. The two women were neighbors and liked mostly the same things, especially hiking in the wilds of eastern Oregon.

Marlis was an artist, specializing in landscapes of the local scenery. And there were plenty of subjects to excite her. The view from the ledge of the secluded gully was one she had wanted to paint since that moment with Maxine. Max was gone now, had crossed over to the Great Beyond, embarked on the ultimate hike into the cosmic wilderness. Marlis still missed her friend terribly and had shed copious tears over the loss. Why was life so unfair? Why did a total scumbag like Henry Kissinger still see the sun rise every morning when her dearest friend, her only real friend, had to die and leave her stranded? But life went on. That’s the way it was. Her painting of the gully would be a tribute to her friend.

Marlis eased her paint box over her shoulder, carried an easel in one hand and a camp chair in the other. It would be a strenuous climb to get up to the ledge, a challenge for someone her age, but she could do it. On the way up she thought of Maxine and her illimitable energy. Max, in her brown hiking boots and thick white socks, was always in the lead. Marlis used to admonish her friend not to rush ahead. ‘Wait up, Maxie,’ she would call out, ‘you’re off to the races again!’

Reaching the ledge, she flung her equipment onto the ground and caught her breath. She ignored the pain in her knees. There were at least two hours before the light would begin to fail. She would get back to her car just before the onset of darkness. It was not the smartest thing to be out in the wilderness alone that late in the day, but she had done it before. She knew how to scare off any lurking bobcats. Bears would be another matter. Fortunately, she had never had to deal with the most dangerous critters. She tried not to think about it.

Having long since outgrown the desire to paint imposing dramatic vistas, she sought the out-of-the-way spots, such as this, the places that most hikers barely noticed. Marlis’eyes, as old and worn out as they were, recognized the allure of the unobtrusive. And now, in the late September afternoon, the colors were glowing.

There was no time to lose. She gulped some of the lukewarm water from her canteen, set up her stool and easel, and mixed her colors. She loved painting outside, under the open sky; there was nothing like the pulsating light that caressed the landscape.

She contemplated the composition of what she saw in front of her: the sparse scrub pine that tenaciously clung to the sides the hills, the long since dried grass, and the few hardy shrubs that managed to survive in the gully itself. The dark purple of the shade, the mellow browns and golds of the hills, the rich green of the vegetation excited her imagination. Getting the shadows right–that will be the challenge here, she considered. Every painting was an attempt to express the inexpressible, an exercise doomed to failure. Marlis set to work, immersing herself in the scene. After more than an hour of unbroken concentration she was weary. She stood up to stretch her legs a bit.

It was an almost imperceptible movement of her heel on a stone, a stone that slipped just enough, that caused her to lose her balance. She teetered for a moment, her arms flailing, her brush and palette flying out of her hands. Once set in motion the momentum was inescapable, and Marlis fell over backwards off the ledge, twisting as she hovered in midair for those few seconds. The grace of her fall might have been lovely to watch had her body been headed for a plunge into a cool mountain lake, but it was on unforgiving basalt, jagged, barren and indifferent, that Marlis landed.

When she came to and was able to assess the damage she found that she couldn’t move. Every breath was painful. She was on her back, one leg folded under the other. The daylight was fading fast, leeching the color out of the hills. Soon it would be night, it would turn cold. The stars began to appear and Marlis, drifting in and out of consciousness, gazed up at the heavens with the sense of wonder she had always felt. It might have been an apparition, she couldn’t be sure, but she thought she saw her friend, beckoning to her. As the serenity of the twilight enveloped her, Marlis nearly managed a smile.

It did get cold that night, colder than usual, but Marlis Kennedy never even felt it.

 

This is the only piece of creative non-fiction I have had published. It appeared in the journal Writer’s Haven.

 

If I care to conjure up a memory from that summer, it is this: things are already heating up in the kitchen and it isn’t even eleven o’clock yet. I am in the dining room of Alpine Hillcrest Lodge, setting places for lunch. Paulina is at the sink, clanking pots and pans in a fury, raging at her husband, Alfred, who is cleaning glasses in the adjoining bar. There is no doubt that he can hear every word since Paulina’s shrieking tirades are at a volume that can be heard in the next county. His retorts are no match for her incessant rant. This goes on nearly every day.

It was 1967. I was working at a small resort in the Catskill Mountains, optimistically promoted as ‘a bit of Switzerland’. Granted, the resort was on a hilltop, in a pleasant enough setting and surrounded by thick woodlands, but the main building looked only vaguely alpine. If anyone showed up expecting a chalet with carved woodwork balconies and cascades of flowers, they would have been disappointed. I was hired as a waiter in the dining room, one of the few lucrative summer jobs a college student such as myself could land in those days. The only other hired person was the chambermaid, Helga, a German exchange student. We were the entire staff.

Paulina and Alfred were Swiss. They emigrated from Basel after the war and built the place up. She was small, compact, and inexhaustibly energetic. He was tall and slender, with a full head of white hair. With his wire-rimmed glasses he could have been taken for a professor, but the shortest conversation with him would have dispelled that impression. Alfred was inordinately fond of his schnapps, a habit that irritated his stomach ulcers and put him in a state of constant irascibility. Paulina was a volcano waiting to erupt. Her explosions were frequent and volatile. Whatever she was on the warpath about, it didn’t seem to matter. She was an inveterate nag. In an odd sort of way Alfred and Paulina fit together perfectly, the misanthrope and the shrew, living in a hell of their own creation.

I knew only too well what would happen next: the skirmish would escalate, pots and pans would fly, lunch would be ruined. Paulina would open some large cans of ravioli and fling the contents into a saucepan ten minutes before lunchtime. The guests would grumble, complaining to me about the paltry fare. Many of them were regular guests who found the ongoing combat perversely entertaining. Go figure. Two summers before, Paulina had hurled a large bowl of German potato salad at Alfred, missing him by inches and leaving a sizable gouge still visible in the kitchen wall.

Not to be outdone, Alfred had a terrible temper of his own and was given to random choleric outbursts. As the summer progressed he grew increasingly exasperated with the rodents that were damaging the lawns and the garden. One rainy afternoon he appeared in the recreation room with a loaded shotgun and proceeded to take aim out of various windows, threatening to blow the resident gophers to kingdom come. The possibility that he might inadvertently take out an ambulating guest didn’t seem to concern him at all. One of the older female guests became nearly hysterical at the prospect of violence against God’s innocent creatures, but this just served to incite Alfred even more in his bloodthirsty zeal. Between bouts of cursing and incoherent jabbering he laughed demonically, like a drunken Pathan tribesman. The man was a lunatic. A few of the more levelheaded guests talked him out of doing anything rash that day. I don’t believe he actually fired a shot, but his erratic behavior scared the hell out of me.

The summer dragged on. I suppose that Helga and I had an occasional day off, but I don’t remember ever leaving the hill during the entire time I was there. I did my work as best I could. The guests were mostly friendly and neither Paulina nor Alfred ever directed their ire at me personally. I was grateful for that. I returned to college with a decent pile of cash and never thought of working there again. Over the years I did wonder what happened to them. I imagined that they spent a few more seasons locked in battle on their mountaintop, then selling the place, moving to somewhere in Florida where they entertained, or annoyed, their neighbors for many more years.

Fast forward thirty-five years. I was on the East Coast that summer and found myself in the vicinity of the resort from hell. Curious to see what had become of Alpine Hillcrest Lodge, I decided to make a little detour. Surely Paulina and Alfred were long since gone and the property sold off. Most of the resort hotels in the Catskills had vanished in the 1970s anyway. Would anything be left of the place I remembered? As my recollection of the exact location was a bit hazy, I drove around for a while in search of the lodge. Spotting an older resident mowing his lawn, I asked him if he knew anything about Alpine Hillcrest Lodge. “You mean that Zen place,” he answered, with a slight trace of disapproval in his voice. He gave me directions. Zen place? Whatever could he mean?

I drove up the long solitary road and recognized the main entrance to what was once Alpine Hillcrest Lodge. It was now the welcoming gateway to a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center. I parked my car and explored the grounds in a state of astonishment. The main building was still there, neatly remodeled and festooned with colorful prayer flags. The grounds were more lovely than ever. The pool was gone, filled in, the shuffle board court had crumbled away to almost nothing. What had been the recreation room was now a meditation hall. A statue of the goddess Tara benevolently surveyed what was once the garden. Silence and peace prevailed.

Not in my wildest dreams could I ever have imagined such an unlikely transformation. Retracing the steps I had taken as a young man at the beginning of my adult life, I marveled at the passing of time. Perhaps the souls of the unhappy Paulina and Alfred wandered here too, I fancied, and were now basking in the serenity that prevailed on this mountain ridge in the Catskills.

The protagonist of the story, Tamsen Boucher, is a composite of many young aspiring singers I have known. It was a convenient fact that Chopin composed a set of variations on La ci darem la mano – I didn’t make that up. This was my first attempt to write from the female point of view. The story appeared in the Bethlehem Writer’s Roundtable Journal.


Tamsen Boucher put the spinach soufflé in the oven, very carefully, at exactly twelve forty-five. It was an audacious decision, perhaps a foolhardy one. She was well aware that a successful soufflé is a matter of perfect timing, a tricky business, and that this one would be done and ready to serve in just thirty-five minutes. As she shut the oven door Tamsen closed her eyes and sent out an appeal to the universe, wishing fervently that the luncheon would be a success.

Her husband had driven to the airport to pick up their weekend guest. As Craig was all but useless in the kitchen anyway, the job of chauffeur fell to him. The car would be pulling into the driveway in about ten minutes, if all went according to plan. If they were late, the soufflé would be a disaster. It’s not that Tamsen had such resolute confidence in the reliability of airline schedules – she didn’t – it was the anticipation of Paul Balanoff’s arrival that caused her to act so heedlessly.

Tamsen had another look at the dining table and was pleased with how elegant the blue onion pattern, their best china, looked on the white tablecloth. A bowl of yellow ranunculus added a cheerful touch to the setting. The Bouchers entertained so rarely that even a modest luncheon like this was a special occasion.

With everything taken care of, she sat down at the table. She felt she had earned a respite of a few moments. Her thoughts wandered back to the time when she first had met Paul and Craig, more than twenty years before. They had all attended the same university. All those years ago — it was half a lifetime really –Tamsen and Paul had done their graduate work at a prestigious school of music, she in voice and he in piano. The hint of a smile appeared on her lips as she considered how young they were then, so oblivious to the fact that the passage of time would change them all. Tamsen and Craig hadn’t seen Paul since those years at school, but they had kept in sporadic touch through the social media. Tamsen kept tabs on Paul’s flourishing career as a concert pianist.

Tamsen was considered exceptionally talented when she was a student. Her mentors had encouraged her, insisting that she had a real shot at a professional career. Following graduation she won a few competitions, landed an agent, then received offers to sing roles at regional opera companies. But by then her relationship with Craig had gotten serious. Her budding career began to fade just as it was getting started; after they were married it all but ceased. Singing roles with out-of-town companies required prolonged absences, the musical and staging rehearsals demanding weeks of commitment for each production. Craig never asked her outright to abandon her singing career, but he did let it be known after every absence that he missed her terribly when she was gone. She felt guilty about leaving her husband alone for weeks at a time (Craig’s ability to fend for himself in the kitchen didn’t go beyond boiling an egg), and she stopped accepting offers. She had harbored some regrets about it at the time, but she now considered herself to be a happily married woman and didn’t give much thought to those days.

They had met at a party, introduced to each other by a mutual friend who was sure they would hit it off together. Craig Boucher was in business school and had reasonable prospects for future success. He was the quiet type, dependable and solid, at the same time athletic and good-looking. Tamsen was taken with his calm and grounded demeanor. She was drawn to him, perhaps because her own life at the time was so chaotic and her chosen profession so unpredictable. He made her feel protected. When she experienced bouts of self-doubt or frustration, he would put his arms around her and say: ‘Tomorrow is another day; I’ll be here for you.’ Craig was her rock.

During their courtship Craig claimed to be interested in music, ‘all kinds of music’, as he had put it then. Tamsen came to realize later that this vague generality didn’t really cover very much territory at all. He had had little exposure to classical music, and virtually none to opera. She contrived to gradually win him over and entice him to share in her passion. At first, after their marriage, Craig was a willing, if reluctant, escort. Tamsen took her husband to a performance of La Bohème, but after five minutes into the first act he shut down completely and sank into his seat, obviously bored with the whole thing. She never attempted to interest him in opera again.

She had always told herself that her marriage to Craig would be a compromise of sorts. Life, she decided, was a series of compromises. He would offer a life of comfort and stability while she would limit the pursuit of her career. She took her commitment to her husband and their marriage seriously, even after the initial glamor wore off and they fell into the inevitable routine of married life.

Paul Balanoff had been one of the star pianists in the graduate program. He was also a gifted accompanist who especially loved working with singers. He played for both of Tamsen’s degree recitals and she had felt fortunate in having him as a collaborator and as a friend. Paul managed to carve out a respectable performing career and, after just a few years, was offered a teaching position at a university on the East Coast. His own marriage had ended in an amicable separation. There were children.

Paul had been invited to play in the Boucher’s hometown as part of the local cultural series. When Tamsen saw the name Paul Balanoff on the list of future concerts, she contacted him immediately and invited him to stay with them during his residency. It would be a lot more comfortable for him than staying in a hotel. The Bouchers had plenty of room in their suburban home and a grand piano in the living room if he needed to practice. He gladly accepted.

Tamsen was jolted out of her musings by the slamming of car doors at five past one. She went to the foyer to greet her husband and guest, remembering to remove her apron en route. She checked her hair in the mirror one last time and smoothed her floral print dress.

“Tamsen, mia cara, how wonderful it is to see you again after all these years. It’s been far too long.” Paul took her hands in his, looking at her intently, and kissed her gently on both cheeks. “You are even more beautiful than I remembered!”

Tamsen blushed, but was very pleased with Paul’s compliment. If anyone else had said that to her she would have dismissed it as empty hyperbole, but she knew that Paul really meant what he said. “Let me have a good look at you, Professor Balanoff,” she said in turn. “Same old PB — haven’t changed a bit.”

In fact, he had changed, but in the best way. In graduate school he was inordinately thin. Now his meager frame had filled out. He looked vigorous and healthy. As a younger man Paul had been crowned with a generous mop of thick, copper-colored hair; it was his most distinctive feature. His hair was as full as ever now, but the shimmering luster had faded, and there were a few telltale signs of grey. Tamsen was sure that he would only look more distinguished as time passed. One would have described Paul as a nice-looking man but not as a handsome one, despite his exceptional mane. What was immediately engaging about him was his winning personality; his affable, easy-going manner came across as genuine. Paul Balanoff liked everybody and everybody liked him. That’s the way it always was. Tamsen had fallen under the spell of Paul’s considerable charm when she knew him in school. There had been some lighthearted flirtation then, but Tamsen was wary of becoming involved with someone who was both her musical partner and her friend. Nearly every female in school had an eye on Paul and she didn’t want to become another of his romantic interests. Later, in idle moments of musing, when she considered the ‘what if’ factor, she sometimes wondered why she hadn’t married him.

They took their places at the table. Not long after they had begun eating their salads the oven timer rang, announcing that the soufflé was ready. “Now that’s perfect timing!” Tamsen declared from the kitchen, immensely pleased with herself and admiring the lightly browned dome of the soufflé.

The conversation flowed easily, Craig managing to engage Paul in a discussion about international trade agreements. Paul had always been a good listener and possessed the ability to put others at ease. Tamsen recalled how he had charmed many of the girls at school – even her first-year roommate had succumbed to his allure and had had a short fling with him.

As if he were psychic, Paul abruptly turned to Tamsen and asked about that very roommate: “Whatever happened to that cute blond you lived with in Hosmer Hall…wasn’t it Elizabeth? Alissa?”

Momentarily startled, Tamsen blushed. How could he have known what she was thinking? When she had recovered her poise she retorted: “I think you mean Julie. And she wasn’t blond; she was a brunette. Julie was cute though — you always had a sharp eye for the ladies.” She lowered her chin and gave him a knowing look.

“But she was a flutist, right? That much I remember. And I can’t help it if I’m irresistible!” With that he laughed, his mellifluous, sonorous chortle filling the room. Tamsen had forgotten that laugh, the unfettered delight that Paul’s presence could bring. She couldn’t stop smiling.

She hadn’t had much practice preparing vegetarian cuisine and was gratified by Paul’s appreciation of her efforts to accommodate his dietary needs. The dessert, a pineapple upside down cake, was the perfect end to a perfect luncheon.

******
The recital took place the following evening. Paul had procured excellent seats for his hosts in the fifth row, on the aisle. There was a respectable crowd in attendance. Craig went along without protest although, if the truth be known, he dearly wanted to stay home and watch the live broadcast of his favorite basketball team.

Paul Balanoff strode onto the stage, headed for the Steinway concert grand. He looked so elegant in his black silk tunic, so self-assured, that he won the audience over before he even played a note. Tamsen’s heart swelled with pride at seeing her dear friend on stage.

He had chosen a lovely program. The first half began with a Bach Partita — a joyous, uplifting sort of piece — followed by an early Schubert sonata. She was not familiar with this particular composition and was quite taken with it. After intermission there was to be a piece by Chopin and then some Rachmaninoff. Chopin’s Variations on the duet Là ci darem la mano from Mozart’s Don Giovanni was, according to the program notes, an early composition of the composer, written as a show piece to impress the Parisian public. Paul played it with exquisite refinement and flair. His capable fingers elicited cascades of gorgeous sound from the instrument.

Despite her best efforts to maintain her concentration on the music, Tamsen’s mind wandered during the performance of the Chopin. The role she had enjoyed singing the most in her abbreviated career was that of Zerlina, the naïve country girl whom Don Giovanni attempts to seduce in act one, during this very duet. The Don asks Zerlina to give him her hand, to go off with him. “Vorrei, e non vorrei” – I want to, and don’t want to – is her reply. Hearing Mozart’s beguiling theme again, she couldn’t help thinking of her last performance of the role with a midwestern opera company. The sets and costumes had been so lovely, her colleagues friendly, and then there was Mozart’s sublime music and, yes, the thrill of the applause from a live audience. She hadn’t thought of those experiences in a long time and they all came back to her in a flood. The memories of a past she had given up, Chopin’s delightful music, her pride in seeing and hearing her friend perform — all these thoughts swirled around in her mind during the performance.

The room became a blur. The program slid off her lap. Feeling tears well up in her eyes, she did her best to squelch the flood before it started; it just wouldn’t do to make a spectacle of herself. She abruptly grabbed Craig’s hand and squeezed it tightly. It was a gesture so unexpected that her husband turned and glared at her. He had been jolted out of his reverie, wondering which team was ahead in the basketball game. During the performance he had to restrain himself several times from pulling out his smart phone to take a peek at the score. The Variations came to a dazzling end and there was warm applause. The Rachmaninoff Preludes that followed washed over Tamsen; they couldn’t compete with the turmoil in her head.

After a few encores, more Chopin, the concert was over. Before they even got up Craig turned to her. “Tam, are you okay?” he asked. “I thought you were hanging on to me for dear life.”

Tamsen made a feeble attempt at a smile. “I’m sorry, dear, I was just a bit overcome by it all, hearing Paul play so magnificently and the wonderful music and…” Her voice trailed off. She stared into her lap. Craig left it at that as neither the playing nor the music had done much for him at all. He was glad that the concert was finally over. He retrieved the program from under her seat and handed it to her silently.

They found their way backstage and joined a few dozen others who were waiting to congratulate the artist. When her turn came, Tamsen was unable to utter a single word. She threw her arms around Paul, embracing him warmly. The lingering embrace took Paul by surprise. He was pleased that his performance had had such an effect on her. He relished the touch, though it had lasted but a few seconds, of her cheek on his, and the scent of her perfume. Blue Iris–– that’s what she had always worn.

There was a reception for the artist at the home of one of the concert series patrons. Paul was in an ebullient mood, downing quite a few glasses of champagne and mingling with his admirers. The Bouchers stayed on the sidelines, observing the party from the vantage point of a settee. Tamsen watched Paul flirt with everyone, male and female, young and old. He chatted and laughed with abandon. Of course, he was the star of the evening, but it was his agreeable and natural manner that made him so attractive. Tamsen marveled at such a gift, and was even a bit envious of Paul’s insouciance. Craig remained resolutely by his wife’s side, keeping an arm around her shoulders, and leaving only briefly to fetch a refill for their glasses.

The following day was a Monday. Craig departed early for work and it was left to Tamsen to convey their guest to the airport. There was time for a leisurely breakfast. They chatted about this and that, mostly about the difficulties of juggling a career and family concerns. Paul doted on his two children and proudly displayed their photos. He asked about Tamsen’s musical activities, but there wasn’t much to report. She was satisfied with singing about town occasionally, mostly oratorio performances, and teaching a few students. That was about the extent of it. Paul put forward the suggestion that she come to his school to do a recital with him there. She was flattered and pretended to be interested, but knew she would never do it.

Breakfast was nearly finished. Tamsen got up to get the coffee pot. She stood next to Paul and poured, resting her free hand on his shoulder. She watching the dark liquid climb to the rim of his cup. He took her free hand in both of his, kissing it tenderly, looking up at her with an expression that was seductive, imploring. Nothing needed to be said. Tamsen regarded him earnestly for a moment, but with no trace of censure. She disengaged her hand and then, before turning away, tousled his thick hair in a gesture of affection. They continued to drink their coffee in silence. When Paul began to speak Tamsen cut him off with a curt reminder that it was getting late and that they needed to leave. Nothing of consequence was said on the way to the airport. Their parting at the terminal was cordial, with mutual promises to keep in touch. Their final embrace was tenuous and brief.

Tamsen returned to an empty house and its welcoming silence. She laid her bag and keys on the coffee table and dropped herself onto the sofa. She hadn’t been alone in several days. Closing her eyes, she felt quite relieved that the weekend was over. The familiar sounds of the house were comforting: the purring of the refrigerator, the steady whoosh of the furnace, the far distant rumble of a passing freight train. There would be no music today and no thoughts of a past that was irretrievably gone.

There was the matter of tonight’s dinner to consider. Her husband had not complained once about eating vegetarian cuisine for a few days, but she knew he missed a good piece of meat. She decided on some nice lamb chops, perhaps with mashed potatoes and asparagus vinaigrette. Craig would like that.