In 1912 Stefanie was in her third year at the University of Vienna. Her Index, or matriculation book, made mention of Church History, Theology I, Theology II and Religious Literature. Her exams were the best. She had studied the early Church fathers, misanthropes all (Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose); the first schisms and the Council of Nicaea; the struggle between kings and popes; Pope Leo IX, who revealingly said (c. 1450): “This myth of Christ has served us well,” thus justifying Martin Luther and the Reformation, which in turn justified Ignacio Loyola and the Counter-Reformation...some of it was tedious stuff, yet her struggle to overcome the massed forces of arrogance and hierarchy had succeeded to the point of her becoming well-known enough in limited circles to have acquired the (inevitable) nickname “The Lady Scholar.”
It was a bright day in October. A new skirmish in the Balkans was kicking up mighty waves of schadenfreude in the normally calm waters of the Viennese press. Stefanie, books (Luther, Helmsen, von Barth) cradled to her bosom, was crossing the Schottenring, just down from the University. A voice brayed from behind.
“My dear Stefanie.” It was Helmuth Meinl, rabbi’s son, doctoral candidate, lackadaisical suitor: red-haired, pigeon-toed, a good fellow but gangling, and a watcher, not a doer, but good-natured as a sheepdog. “I say. I have free tickets to the opera. Saturday next. The matinee.”
"Ah yes? How did you manage that?" “My brother-in-law, you know. The stage manager? It’s Tristan, you know. Bruno Walter’s conducting.”
(It was Stefanie’s first official sortie with young Meinl, so she made sure not to broadcast any encouragement beyond simple courtesy. In any case, she wanted to take advantage of the free opera ticket, a rare commodity in Vienna.)
On the Saturday, they met at Landtmanns at one.
“We shouldn’t have too much coffee,” said Helmuth, with a dip of the head and a clownish smile. “It’s a long opera.”
“I’ll have a mélange.”
“Oh, good idea. Herr Ober!”
As if on cue, an abhorrence of mediocrity swooned through Stefanie’s soul and she longed for passion, expression, art, even revelation. She thought of Goethe, Luther, Wagner, and lesser men, some of whom (the much lesser ones) she knew.
Tristan always attracted a crowd, even at the matinee performance, and the conductor, young Bruno Walter, the late great Mahler’s understudy and second-in-command, was himself a powerful attraction, ramrod-straight, lithe and—paradoxically, in a mostly cloudy climate—deeply tanned. In a city given to ranking its artists as another city might categorize sports figures or military heroes, Walter was nearing the top of the list for sheer enigma value, but the Klimt brothers and Oskar Kokoschka had the advantage, for the time being. Indeed, on that Saturday the eminent (or insignificant, depending on the degree of your modernism) Kokoschka was in the Mahler family box—”Look, isn’t that Alma?” whispered Helmuth, and of course it was indeed the Maestro’s widow—and a rumor made its way around the parterre to the effect that a Royal and Imperial personage would be, might be, WAS in attendance...yes! There he was, once again! His Imperial Highness Franz Ferdinand, in full Habsburg splendor, with his dutiful Sophie sitting a suitably morganatic distance behind him. Applause greeted their appearance. He bowed, she inclined her head. Stefanie looked away. She cared less for such personages than she had once.
“The Archduke,” murmured Helmuth. “Never has he been seen at a performance of a Wagner opera. Why is he here? It’s well known the man has no culture. Did you hear what he said about Kokoschka? ‘I’d like to break every bone in his body.’ Well, here’s his chance, eh? Imagine the headlines!”
“Oh, forget him,” said Stefanie, impatient at her own past awe, as well as irritated by Helmuth’s moist, darting eyes and overuse of the word culture...then, with a truly fine congruity of sentiment and event, she saw Adolf Hitler, watching her, and at that moment the lights dimmed and Tristan’s musical foreplay began. It was, of course, glorious. In the intervening three years Stefanie had evolved, in her all-or-nothing way, into a devotee of Wagner. Oh, she revered Mozart, as befit a Salzburger; Mahler, too, of the modernists, she adored (oh see! how like a silver ship above his widow sails, on the blue Kokoschka-sea!); and Bruckner, and, yes, stodgy old Brahms, photographs of whom reminded her of her Pappi; but as she said to Cousin Fritzl a while back, a propos of nothing (in her spontaneous, girlish way) “You can have all the other music in the world if I could just keep the Good Friday Music from Parsifal!” Hearty Fritzl obligingly said she was welcome to it, but Fritzl was a philistine, and knew nothing of art. And now she was in the company of another philistine, Helmuth, whose real interest in the opera, as became apparent after his third or fourth cavernous yawn, was primarily social (did she not see, in response to a slight hand gesture, a flirtatious twinkle of opera glasses, from a silk-brocaded feminine blur on the mezzanine?), not that he differed in this from the majority of his fellow Viennese. After all, no city can be as genuinely interested in culture as Vienna pretends to be, but any city can be as interested in dalliance and sex as Vienna really is. Yet there were exceptions: Stefanie, although enraptured by the overture and the stark Cornish blue-and-silver decor of the first act (So frisch der Wind/ Der Heimat zu), stole a glance toward Adolf Hitler, sitting two rows forward to her right. Yes, unlike most of his side-glancing, flirting neighbors, he sat open-mouthed, staring, enraptured, a true and genuine worshipper in the act of worshipping. This decided Stefanie. At the first interval...!
She waited impatiently, torn between art and opportunity. At the first interval the lights went up, she excused herself. They met again, in the main aisle of the parterre. He was correctly, if shabbily, dressed like a junior Government minister in an evening coat and striped trousers.
“Fraulein von Rothenberg, is it not? Dear God! How fortunate to find you here, at this fine performance of Tristan! Although the conductor...” He took himself in hand, with a visible effort (hard swallowing, a quick frisson). “How are you? And how is your estimable family?”
“Very well, Herr Hitler. Very well. I was sorry to hear about your mother.”
“Ah! Ah. Yes. Thank you.” He bowed slightly and clasped his hands in front of his crotch. Well, thought Stefanie, this is awkward, and likely to become more so. “Herr Adolf,” she said, thereby half-dispensing with such formalities, recovering something of the coy jocularity of the schoolyard. “Where are you living now? Are you studying at the Art Academy?”
“Ah,” he said, eyes downcast. “No, not at the Art Academy.”
“At the University, then? You know, I’ve been at the University for three years now, but I haven’t seen you at all.”
Adolf looked up, emotion twisting his features, on the verge of reply; then he glanced sidelong, surprised, taken aback by the nasal hallooing of Helmuth, who gangled through groups of people parting for his passage.
“My dear Stefanie, you do have this tendency to just up and go, don’t you. Hello, who’s this?”
“Adolf, this is Herr Dozent Helmuth Meinl.”
“Meinl? Hitler.” Adolf heel-clicked, bowed. Helmuth, sizing up the social inequality, was condescending in his brief acknowledgment: a dip of the head.
“Adolf,” said Stefanie, “I’m living with my relatives. The Palais Ottoheinz, Johannesgasse.”
“And I at the Heim für Männer, in the Inner City,” said Adolf, with a hoarse laugh. “With my colleagues the mice.”
“Ja. I’m afraid I must carry the smell with me. Some jumped-up little gypsy of an usher wouldn’t let me in at first, not until I pointed out I was a citizen and that I had paid my admission with my hard-earned…well! There’s the bell.”
They did no more than exchange glances during the second interval and by the end of the opera, with the Love-Death haunting the air, Adolf had disappeared into the discretion of the night.
As Stefanie and Helmuth walked to the Café Central for a nightcap (Bohemians all: young Klimt, Stiele, and in the corner, behind his thick round spectacles and a kaffee mit schlagsober: the enigmatic Russian emigré “Trotsky,” né Bronstein), Helmuth inquired, “Who was that sad-looking specimen you introduced to me?”
“Adolf Hitler. An old friend from my Linz days.”
“He looked a little down on his luck. But not so far down as to not be able to afford the opera, eh? Ah, we Viennese.”
Stefanie’s cheeks burned. She had sensed the same unruliness of response in Adolf as she had all those years before. They knew each other not at all, they had met a mere twice or three times, but something trembled in the air... as the moth to the flame, she was drawn to her memory of his magnetism, his passion, his perverse individuality, yet she held back, she acknowledged the faint something that was more akin to revulsion than to anything else. She recalled her vision of the devil, and shuddered, although among the many explanations she’d come up with, while firmly separating it from her actual memory of Adolf, had been one anchored firmly in the physical, viz., feminine problems, premenstrual stress, poor digestion, and other banalities that went only so far in explaining it; yet she felt the faint hot caress of that ominous half-forgotten fever, a memory made physical by the fresh stimulus of her recent, operatic encounter. Pity undoubtedly played a part in her feelings for Adolf, as well, for Stefanie saw in him one, like her, who aimed for higher things; an artist, one of the chosen (or despised) few; and her ever-growing pity knew no bounds, pity for the abject, the scorned, the downtrodden, the pleading, even the arrogant when they were beaten down, for crushed pride is a pitiable sight.
Conversely, pride unchecked inspired nothing in her but contempt, and her contempt burned most of the young men of Vienna.
Der Heim für Männer Not far from the Palais Ottoheinz, in the Inner City, First District, in the Heim für Männer on the Meldemannstrasse, Adolf nursed his growing madness. Outwardly meek, except when moved to diatribe by his reading, and the long chilly ennui of the evenings at the Heim für Männer (or by the dull wits of his housemates, most of them older and feebler than he), he was little known except as a journeyman artist, but an artist he was indeed, whatever the Academy said; in truth he was more of a professional than those old academicians, who never painted, or drew, or sold a sketch. In fact, young Hitler claimed that he lived off the slender proceeds of his art and therefore earned far too little to make any contribution to the Royal and Imperial Tax Authority (who remained unaware of Adolf’s substantial pension, inherited from his father, and legacies from his mother and his aunt, that enabled him to straddle the line between rentier and tramp: hence the Heim für Männer, demesne of the underprivileged, an address never visited by the Tax Authority). Adolf’s artistic work was of the sub-Biedermeier school, nothing risqué or avant-garde, mostly charming views in aquarelle of the Prater, the heuriger in Grinzing and the Opernring at dusk (actually, that one was quite evocative, with unHitlerian hints of pointillism in the light-and-shadow effects, and an impressionistic glimmer in the streetlamps). He painted in situ, or at home, in the Heim für Männer’s reading room, or in his own untidy corner (his “atelier,” as he ironically referred to it), a Bohemian congeries of easels, watercolors, palettes, drawing paper, xenophobic monographs, magazines of Hollywood, the Wild West and German nationalism (Blick, Karl May im Bild, Ostara), the collected works of Karl May, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Lanz von Liebenfels, and the Count Gobineau, a few delicate china gewgaws from home and a framed photograph of their former owner, his dear dead mother. No ashtrays piled high with the cigarette butts of an artist’s late nights, for Adolf did not smoke; no half-empty bottles of Algerian red, for Adolf, a one-time drunk (kicked humiliatingly awake in a ditch by a surly milkman), drank no more, bar the odd near-beer. He hardly needed to: His dreams intoxicated him and occupied his days as well as his nights. Was there ever such a dreamer? He dreamed of so many things: of refashioning Vienna by slicing a great gleaming East-West Axis through the dank medieval Hofburg huddle; of building Linz into Vienna’s rival, with proud factories and sweeping avenues; of mounting the decisive production of Parsifal in Bayreuth, under the very eyes of Herr und Frau Siegfried and Winifried Wagner; of adorning the Rathaus of Braunau with a great mural twenty feet high, depicting the annihilation of the three Roman legions in the Teutoburger Wald; of erecting memorials to his mother in all the capitals of the Greater German Empire of which, too, he dreamed, drawing its borders, provisionally, at the Vosges mountains in the west, the Tannenberg Forest in the east, the Kattegat in the north and the Tirol in the south; of crafting a great work combining art, drama, philosophy and politics; and, even, in idle moments, of women. Women were, of course, multitudinous in Vienna, but few caught his fancy, and his one sexual encounter to date, with an artist’s model named Mitzi, had indeed been consummated but in a febrile, hasty fashion that left Mitzi, for one, wondering precisely what had happened.Friends had he none; acquaintances, few. Kubizek, his best friend from Linz days, had, ultimately, disappointed by going on to study at the Conservatory and turning into a boring up-at-six-home-at-five kind of grind; well! Adolf had put an end to that friendship by quite simply moving out, sleeping rough for awhile before arriving in the depth of midwinter at the Heim für Männer, cloister of hacking coughs and brisk nocturnal scrubbing sounds, reminiscent at first of that horrible clinic where his mother had suffered so long, so needlessly...but now things were better. Things were taking shape, in a way. He was making a reasonable wage from his postcards; people were listening to what he had to say; and, oddly, his health was rather good. He was sleeping well, for a change. All kinds of ideas were forming in his brain. There were moments of clear-eyed and absolute triumph, when he was walking along (say) the Hoher Markt, or the Graben, and a Baroque or even Rococo cloud formation would catch his eye and a ray of light would pick out some distant cupola or attic window as if God Himself were plucking at his sleeve; and at such moments he knew beyond any doubt that his destiny was to...that he had a destiny, anyway, whether in the sweet, decaying capital of the Habsburgs or elsewhere, abroad, or in the vast marches of Pomerania or Prussia, as a Napoleon of great armies, a King Frederick of philosophy, a Goethe of art and romance. The irony, of course, was his current station in life, and the concomitant contempt with which he found himself treated by cafe managers, paint salesmen, policemen, theatre ushers (like that nitwit at the Opera the other night) and their kind. Sometimes it was too much to bear, and he turned on people in the street, screaming obscenities, fits of anger that left him feeling drained and self-defiled. Still, these diatribes jolted his housemates into paying attention, and no one disturbed him behind his corner partition unless invited. Truth to tell, there was a coziness to the Heim für Männer, with its nooks and crannies, and the sense of being hidden away among multitudes, that a flat could never provide, flats being much lonelier places. Adolf was a solitary young man, and although he despised humanity he simultaneously longed for its approval; indeed, when he found himself spending too much time alone, he would drop in at one of the cafes, the Central or Landtmanns, and have a slice of torte and a cup of tea and read the Wiener Zeitung, disdaining the world while obscurely hoping for the ideal companion, the perfect acolyte and helpmate, Sieglinde to his Siegfried, to suddenly appear before him, so they could rise from the table and go together into a sunlit golden age of straight lines and magnificent boulevards and impeccable order.
Then he ran into Stefanie von Rothenberg at the Opera and disorder blew through his dream-world like a gale through the gardens of Schonbrunn. He brooded on this the next day.
“Damn,” he said, rocking back and forth on his chair. He stared out the window with a stony fixation. Autumn leaves wafted past the window, and the statue of Prince Eugene across the street was covered in what seemed, romantically, to be snow, but was really pigeonshit. The old streetsweeper whom he’d once, foolishly, engaged in conversation and who now, irritatingly, greeted him without fail, shuffled past, pushing his broom. He looked up; Adolf looked away. When Adolf looked back the moment, and the old sweep, had passed.
He resumed thinking of Stefanie.
“Damn,” he repeated. Their operatic encounter threatened the meticulous torpor of his existence, in which everything gravitated around his own inertia. Women! Women meant excursions, excuses, dinner dates, families. On the other hand, she did look beautiful, more radiant then she had been back in Linz (and he’d seen her once there from a distance, unseen by her, as he’d spied on her in the street) and back in Linz already he’d thought her the most desirable creature on earth—not that he was fully conscious of desiring her, for sexual satyrs played coy catch with innocent imps in the playground of Adolf’s mind (and looming over them all, as in an opera stage set, was the stern Greco-Germanic visage of his Destiny).
Then Stefanie came to the Heim für Männer. She found the place without difficulty. It was a dingy ex-palace of the Metternich era, formerly and briefly the home of the Montenegran Resident, of whose tenure it still bore traces: a coat-of-arms above the front door; a flagpole mount on the second-floor balcony; on the wall, the faded stain where a plaque had been. But the two broken windows on the second floor, and the sharp scent of ammonia, and the muffled sound of coughing, and the rheumy scrutiny of the two old Jews behind the front desk, contrived for a moment to make Stefanie reconsider the wisdom of her mission. This doubt spawned others: Why was the daughter of Herr Doktor Hermann von Rothenberg of Getreidegasse, Salzburg, calling on the denizen of a dosshouse? What kind of man, artist or not, would choose to live in such a place? Finally: What did she really know about Adolf Hitler, anyway?That he painted; that he expostulated; that he’d loved his mother, once; that his eyes shone with a great belief in Art, or himself; that he’d obviously gone nowhere in life, save directly downhill...and yet! Few were those whose devotion to Art of any kind was as great as his! In fact, she knew of none, and half of Adolf’s appeal (along with a certain nostalgia for the dear cozy days of Linz) was precisely this, the more so in light of the disdain in which the theologians with whom she associated held Art, poor cousin of Theology.
(After all, hadn’t she seen that expression on his face last night at the opera? While others flirted, he adored.)
She inquired for him of the old Jews at the front desk, one of whom detached himself from his post, eyes bulging like pigeon eggs.
“Hiddler? Ja, he should be here. I’ll geddim for ya.”
She stood in the doorway, amid the softly sussurating leaves. The other old Jew stared at her.
“Cold,” he said.
“Yes,” she said, politely. “It’s...”
“Ja, bud id’ll be a lot colder soon,” he interrupted, taking her aback with the insolence of it: an old Jew in a flophouse, interrupting a lady, and not for anything of significance, but for the tritest of banalities!
She heard Adolf’s hoarse voice and turned.
“Ja, ja, Neumann, I’m not blind, I can see her and I can manage with my things quite well, thank you very much.”
“Bah,” said the old Jew thus addressed. “Hiddler, you can be a real putzkopf. Well, here he is, frau.”
Adolf was dressed as he had been at the opera, in a white shirt with high collar and tie and pinstriped trousers with shining knees; wasn’t he, thought Stefanie (herself conservative in brown and grey), the very picture of genteel hard times, la vie de Bohème in person? Under his arm he carried the tools of his trade: easel, palette, paint box, and a triage of paintbrushes wagging through bony fingers.
“Such a surprise to see you at this door of this shithouse. I beg your pardon, but I must say so.”
“It’s not so bad. Anyway, I warned you I’d be coming.”
(Suddenly she saw herself sweeping onstage, an overdressed grande dame, a patroness of artists taking a condescending shine to a scruffy nobody.)
“Hiddler, ya want the key?” shouted Neumann, as Adolf and Stefanie walked out the door. “You gedding back before curfew?”
“Ja, ja, Neumann,” said Adolf, crossly. “I’ll be back.”
They stepped out. With his overburdened arm, Adolf motioned for Stefanie to precede him. The gesture was excessive: things spilled to the ground. Adolf and Stefanie spent the next two or three minutes picking up the tools of an artist’s trade. Stefanie offered to ease his burden by carrying, at least, the paintbrushes, but Adolf angrily declined.
“No, no, a lady does not carry things in the street, good God I may have degraded socially but,” his voice rose, raucous, “I’m not a moral degenerate yet, if you don’t mind!”
“Of course,” said Stefanie. Awkwardness hovered over them like a vulture. Adolf was breathing hard, with a shallow whistling sound. With his free hand, he repetitively brushed aside an overhanging forelock. When passersby turned to look, he began muttering. They came to the Ringstrasse by the Rathaus, and Stefanie realized that she had no plan, no intention, no goal at all. The day suddenly loomed emptier than a Sunday in Linz.
A propos of which: since his days in that city Adolf had turned tougher, turned inward, developed mannerisms. For a moment Stefanie longed to leave, to forget him, to return to the security of her own kind (acknowledging to herself that he wasn’t one of her kind after all); then, as will happen at crucial moments, a word made all the difference:
“Sorry,” said Adolf.
“Oh, that’s all right.”
“I live alone now, or rather I live with fools, tramps and Jews, which amounts to the same thing. Did you see any of them, by the way? Apart from the old Yids at the front door? The Yiddischer Cerberus twins, ah haha?”
Stefanie, buoyed by his sudden bonhomie, responded with tentative good humor of her own.
“Yes, they’re a pair of beauties, aren’t they? Listen, Adolf, we’re not far from my uncle and aunt’s house. If you’ve nothing planned, you could drop in and do my portrait. On commission, of course.”
He stared, frowned, looked away. He was thinking of Isolde.
“I don’t do portraits,” he said.“Not very well, anyway.”
“Oh come on.”
“I have a commission in the Stadtpark. The statue of the Emperor Joseph?”
“But that’s right next door.”
Adolf’s commission was a lie. In truth, he was in a bind, a woman-bind, just as he feared (politeness vs. desire vs. freedom); but there was a small challenge in doing a portrait, and a portrait of a society lady like Stefanie von Rothenberg might lead to other commissions, and her people were well-off...
“Ja,” he said. “But don’t expect a masterpiece.”
At the house, they ran into the Baron.
“Steffi,” he said. “HUUUUUM. Whom have we here?”
“Uncle, this is a painter friend of mine who is here to do my portrait. Our families were slightly acquainted, in Linz. Herr Adolf Hitler, Baron Ottoheinz.” "Hitler, Hitler. From Salzburg?"
Adolf bowed, clicked his heels, shifted paints and brushes clumsily about.
“From Linz, Herr Baron.”
“Ah, Linz. Dreary little town, if you don’t mind my saying so. You’ll find yourself much better off here in Vienna.”
“Just so, Herr Baron. A dreary little town, as you say. And Vienna of course, well!”Stefanie was amused to behold pure Austrian bürgerlich groveling: Adolf was standing quite rigidly at attention, like a soldier. An obsequious smile played over his lips, rabbiting forward his not-insubstantial teeth; with his art supplies tucked under his arm, his hands were stiffly folded across his crotch, and from his mouth there issued banalities of a peerlessness impressive even to long-time observers of middle-class manners like Stefanie, daughter of the von Rothenberg of that ilk.
“Of course, Herr Baron. You are quite right, Herr Baron. Herr Baron, how true. Ah, the climate, ja, ja. Oh, for the moment, I have artist’s digs across the Innere Stadt, in the former Montenegran Residenz. A bit of this, a bit of that, you know, Herr Baron. One does what one must.”
“He seems all right, your painter friend, if a bit on edge,” said the Baron a moment later, after Adolf had disappeared into the little salon to set up his easel. “Perhaps I should ask him to do my portrait, too.”
“Wait until we see how he does with me,” said Stefanie.
Despite the abruptness of the event, things got underway. The appropriate flesh tints were found, and crisp new drawing paper, and Adolf’s brushes and palette were brand-new, as the result of a particularly good commission (the Plague column on the Graben, always a favorite with tourists) from one of the Jewish souvenir shops on the Hoher Markt; his abilities as a portraitist, however, as he was the first to admit, were severely compromised by the stiffness and rigidity of his style, which lent itself to landscape and city-scene. His last attempt at a portrait had been one of Kubizek’s mother: frankly, an utter failure, as Kubizek had stated with uncommon boldness, thereby causing a rupture in their friendship...yes, the subtleties and shades of the human face represented quite another topography, one he’d always been reluctant to explore, and one which had cost him admission to the Art Academy, the second time around, when a decent portrait plus his landscapes might well have earned him entrée.
The chosen room was a small salon, off the main hallway, reserved for such events as military anniversaries, the Wattmen’s Ball, and Fritzl’s wedding reception. Light from the French windows gleamed on the flagstones of the uncarpeted floor, suitable for paint spillage. Adolf sweated over disposition of easel and paints while, on a standard Biedermeier settee, Stefanie reposed unerotically, cheek upon hand, capturing the very essence of middle-class Austrian art.
“More to the left.” Adolf was pale and strained, crouching like a troll behind his easel, muttering half-remembered phrases from Seelebach’s Self-taught Draughtsman, the amateur artist’s Bible. “The planes—the contours—above all, the shadows, which themselves can evoke form more precisely than a line...”
His brushes clicked; he grunted, shooting glances around the corner of his easel at Stefanie. Time slowed to a crawl. Shadows slowly gathered. Stefanie rubbed her forehead. She felt warm.
“Hands down, please.” Adolf painted and painted. The room was close, or so thought Stefanie, and birds or heavy clouds episodically blotted out the daylight; there was no breeze, and the stuffiness was increasing. Adolf’s face shone waxen, like a beacon on a midnight strand. The daylight brightened, dimmed, brightened, dimmed, and finally simply faded away completely. It felt too early for darkness. Stefanie, sure she was sweating, touched her forehead. It was still dry, but warmer than the room, if not by much. There wasn’t even a fire in the grate.
“DON’T MOVE!” snapped Adolf, temperamentally every inch the portraitist, even if the whole undertaking was a wild gamble for him (but he thought it was going quite well).
“Sorry,” said Stefanie.
She blinked. A faint blurry mist disappeared, except around the edges of her vision: clear was her focus on what she was increasingly reluctant to see, Adolf, for instance, who suddenly appeared to be wearing a black pullover (although Stefanie clearly recalled noticing that he was wearing the same white shirt he’d worn at the opera the night before), from which his pallid face emerged, wan and haggard, forehead cleft by a frown of concentration. Moreover, his trousers appeared to be turning black, too, as did the easel, and one by one most of the furnishings in the room, as if Stefanie, trading in the common currency of dreams, were alone on a stage peering into a darkened theatre in which a single pale face, Adolf’s, peered back at her.
Time stuttered, slowed, stalled; then Time and everything else seemed to coagulate and swell up like a gigantic boil.
“Himmel donner wetter,” said Stefanie. “I feel a little bit sick.” Sick was the word: A wave of nausea swept over her. Perversely, she felt pregnant. She touched her forehead again. This time she was sweating. Uncle Ernst was right, with his incessant complaining: Damn this Viennese climate! She must have picked up a chill, walking over to that dingy dosshouse...her heart paused, poised, dropped, hammered.
“Nonsense, there is nothing the matter with you, nothing at all,” roared Adolf—or rather, roared a voice from Adolf’s direction, a voice, now that Stefanie thought about it, as unlike Adolf’s as her own; and unlike the Baron’s, too, or any of the servants, except maybe that new chauffeur from Moravia...to make matters worse, somebody had definitely switched off the lights. It was as dark as midnight.
“Adolf?” she cried.
Silence, then laughter; laughter, perfectly articulated, basso profundo and operatic, and utterly chilling to the blood.
“Ha. Ha. Ha. Hahaha. Ha.”
Then Stefanie allowed herself to remember, that other time, that vision.
This seemed to upset The Voice, which boomed,
“Say it not!”
Eyes, enormous and forever hungry; a shape, bent, twisted yet powerful, like an enormous dwarf’s; a smell...yes! How had she missed the smell? It filled the room, a pungent, acrid, farmyard smell, with an overlay of scorched metal; then, as it had that other time, it dissipated, vanished, leaving behind only that all-devouring physical presence.
Those giant’s eyes that were windows into hot pools of lust and greed.
“How very like an opera,” thought Stefanie, in an oddly detached way. Gounod’s Faust and Boito’s Mefistofele passed through her mind; then she could bear it no longer, but clapped her hands over her eyes and screamed. Moments later, the awakening, the solicitous faces: Uncle Ernst, Aunt Liesl...
“It has turned noticeably chilly in here.”
“We’ll get a fire lit.”
“Ach, poor Steffi!”
And all was normal once again, or reassuringly abnormal in a quotidian way.
“Look,” said the Baron. “Young Hitler finished the portrait, my dear.”
He held up a picture.
“Is that me?” Stefanie sat up, dabbed at her (for some reason) teary eyes. The picture, flattering, was only a touch awkward in the slightly too heavy jaw, but otherwise it was unmistakably Stefanie, and even the body was rendered quite gracefully, with none of the squareness typical of amateurs, or landscape artists.
“We’ll hang it in the hallway,” said the Baron. “Damned if I might not ask him to do mine, too.”
It had all taken, as it transpired, nearly three hours, and if it seemed dark it was simply because five o’clock had struck, and it was a Vienna October evening. In the street outside, the streetlamps were lit and their yellowish light shimmered through the drizzle.
“Yes, yes. Odd chap, that young Hitler. He left, you know, after telling me you’d had a bit of a turn. Said he had an urgent appointment in the Stadtpark, of all places.”
“You must have caught a chill, liebling, or is it your time of month?” murmured Aunt Liesl.