Stefanie’s turmoils came from within. She had arrived at woman’s estate only half-fulfilled. Yes, in some ways she coped admirably with the demands of her burgeoning life. She had graduated near the top of her class, a Magisterin der Naturwissenschaften in Theological Studies, and a doctorate had briefly beckoned; but the inverted self-worship of the University, and the incessant incomprehension of men, along with the pressing demands of Life, had decided her against pursuing her studies. Instead, she accepted the teaching position she had been offered at the Girls’ Academy in the small town of Auerstadt am Wienerwald, a sleepy woodsman’s village about twenty kilometers from Vienna. The school was a clean, quiet place with gleaming floor-tiles and lace curtains and striped shutters and a flagpole on the roof fluttering the double-headed eagle. It was run by Frau Himmelbeer, a convent-educated spinster of progressive thought. Stefanie had thirteen pupils in her form, a baker’s dozen composed of three girls of some promise amidst ten dullards who would never amount to more than mating machines. She coaxed the dullards and tried to fan the bright sparks into flame, with mixed success. Her years of theological studies seemed to have had little value, in the end, except as a sop to her own curiosity, for here she was, teaching languages and savoir-faire to proper young ladies of the middle class. Her life alternated between boredom and worry (like life in general, away from the battlefield); she wondered at times if she belonged in teaching at all, or in Austria, or in this world. On many evenings, after a meal of war-rationed simplicity, she sat by the lace-curtained parlor window of the small gatehouse she was renting from one of Uncle Ernst’s former business associates—another victim-in-the-making, somewhere in Italy—and let her attention drift away from the book on her lap (usually a river-novel of the High Nineteenth or a theological work of an abstruseness that was beginning to seem absurd) and, through the gloaming of the night and the looming shadows of the forest and the unribboning smoke of her cigarette, she felt the oldest yearning in the world, that for a mate, for a nameless shape to define itself from the shadows and emerge as a man suited to her needs, tender, strong, loving...in 1915, after all, she was, at the age of twenty-five, nearing, as they would say in some circles, the backdoor of marriageability. She had long since matured into a full-breasted woman of ethereal pallor and dignified bearing. Her eyes, darkened by her visions (or so she fancied), were so deeply bluish-gray as to appear almost black. Her hair fell in long smooth tresses, the way she’d always worn it, braided at the back; in the mornings before school she brushed it vigorously, with the brush held tightly in her long elegant hands (”the hands of a duchess,” as one of her elderly admirers back at the University had put it), counting the strokes out loud, one to fifty, with her eyes closed, concentrating. Stefanie was always concentrating, she was driven to distraction by concentration. Yet her pupils reaped the benefits: not a slur, not a yawn, not a mispronounced word escaped Fraulein von Rothenberg’s attention. Homework was homework and was handed in on time or else. (Or else the offending girl had to write a punishment line, e.g., “Even if homework is not done perfectly, it must at least BE DONE,” one hundred times on the blackboard after class.) The precise elocution of German and French, enemy languages on the front lines, was, in the dozy distance of the Vienna Woods, a crucial alliance, as were poetry recital, and rhetoric, and math, and the catechistic elements of the Catholic religion. Frau Himmelbeer, the school’s director, at first distrusted her aristocratic, overeducated but plain-spoken Fraulein von Rothenberg, but distrust soon turned to its opposite, and Frau Himmelbeer became for awhile (and only for awhile) Stefanie’s staunchest defender, never more so than when, in the summer of 1915, the gossips of Auerstadt alighted to feast on the lady teacher and her presumed paramour.
Like Adolf, this man was an artist, albeit musical; and, also like Adolf, he had his oddities of mannerism and thought. Even his name was somewhat odd: Arthur. Arthur, whose family name was Lebel, was an orphaned thirty-two-year-old French-descended Jew from Strasbourg in the old French province of Alsace, since 1870 a part of the Prussian Reich. It was as a German citizen and composer, and ward of an Austrian cousin, that he was in Austria, and as an asthmatic that he wasn’t at the front lines. He solemnly swore to revive his French citizenship as soon as the war was over, and Paris as a citadel of culture was forever on his lips. As were the names of composers, for he was the Academy’s music teacher, and Stefanie happened on him one day, drawn by the sound of a Schubert impromptu played on the faintly out-of-tune piano in the Teachers’ Lounge: the music; a dusty sunbeam streaming through the half-shuttered window; Lebel’s tousled head, aureoled in sunlight, bent over the keyboard. It was a romantic scene of the previous century, a glimpse of Schubert himself at one of his Schubertiades.
“Herr Schubert?” inquired Stefanie, impelled to a moment’s frivolity by this mental association.
“Arthur Lebel,” said that worthy, ceasing his performance with a lazy smile. “But yes, thank you. Schubert à mes heures.” He stood and bowed, with insolence in his posture, uncoiling a taller frame than she had supposed, having only seen him seated, or from a distance. “Fraulein von Rothenberg, I believe?”
He had, of course, noticed the well-fashioned Fraulein von Rothenberg from the first, as she was such a standout in a teaching staff of eight frumps and one artist (himself) in an insignificant dorf buried in the Vienna Woods, with a flock of uninspiring girls sneezing and napping through Music History, Composition and Art. Arthur Lebel was a man of the world, and as such had little tolerance for provincialism, bigotry and braying patriots. Fortunately, it seemed that Fraulein von Rothenberg was cursed with none of these flaws; indeed, she combined passion and detachment in an ideal measure. So Arthur and Stefanie became friendly, and more:Their interests coincided, their temperaments were superior, and their courses were complimentary, with Arthur’s Music of the Revolutions meeting Stefanie’s Victor Hugo at the barricades of 1848, and Stefanie’s German Romanticism dovetailing neatly with Arthur’s Lives of the Great Composers.
“Are you a great composer, too?” asked Stefanie, during one of their morning breaks. (A certain lofty irony was beginning to color their relations.)
“I’d like to be,” said Arthur, lighting her cigarette, then his, with a match that then went whizzing into the empty air. “If I were, I’d be Berlioz.”
“Alas, poor Ludwig. Was there ever an artist so imprisoned by Art?The greatest genius of all, but a martyr from first to last. No, I prefer the hurly-burly of Hector’s life, the bold plunge into life’s maelstrom. The midnight flights, the mad carriage rides, the love affairs, the lonely dignity of an artist welcoming his Muse one starry night, drunk on the terrace of a Montparnasse cafe.”
“My goodness. Well, I admire him too. Of course, the French are our enemies now, so you have to speak obliquely of their national heroes.”
“It is not my style, Fraulein, to speak obliquely of anything,” said Arthur, with High Romantic brazenness. “Least of all of my reverence for true art, which is Man’s only defense against stupidity and evil—French art especially, let me say, because of its variety and self-confidence. If I speak of Berlioz, it is to laud his name. If I criticize one of your Austrian gods, such as Johann Strauss or Bruckner, or the Habsburg dotard himself, I do so with candor and no thought for the consequences.” He completed this verbal flourish with a physical one, flicking his cigarette into the flowerbeds that bordered the school courtyard. He then turned and asked, “Would you like to come on a nature walk with me?”
“On a walk as opposed to for a walk,” mused Stefanie. “You are sounding very Germanic, Herr Lebel. Do you mean a proper nature walk, a ramble through the forest, with the two of us quoting Heine and Schiller like a pair of wandervogeln?”
“Actually,” and here Arthur Lebel looked sheepish, “I’m taking my second form on a field trip to Baden, ostensibly for its Mozart connections.”
“Which I thought resided mostly in Constanze’s bad behavior.”
“Ah, but Constanze has been maligned. The unfaithful wife, the calculating hussy. People are so quick to accept the cliché. In fact, if we know the name Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart today, it is in large measure thanks to his widow’s efforts.”
“Yes,” said Stefanie, “but perhaps she preferred being his widow to being his wife.”
“Touché,” said Arthur. “You may well be right. Although he is not to be faulted for having had the mind and soul of an artist, infused with greatness and impatience with everyday trivia.”
“And with marital fidelity.”
“Well, there you venture into a realm I would rather avoid. You, as a student of religion, are no doubt something of a moralist. I prefer to leave moralizing to the theologians, and for the most part ignore their conclusions.”
By the time they resumed their classes, they had agreed on the excursion to Baden. In war-deprived Austria, such an excursion, even just down the road to well-known, well-worn Baden bei Wien, was an exciting prospect. For days the girls spoke of little else. Arthur took pleasure in tailoring his classes to the occasion, explaining the intimate connections between the spa town of Baden and not only Mozart but also Schubert, Beethoven, and Johann Strauss, Jr., as well as sundry Habsburg royals, Dr. Freud, and a writer or two (Schnitzler, Zweig); and he never failed to toss in a dollop of scandal for the older girls, usually a reference to Schnitzler’s Reigen, or the amours of Joseph I, or a reminder why the ladies of Vienna were so attentive to Baden when the Hussars were drilling there. Storms of giggles erupted, eliciting from Arthur a world-weary eyebrow. Why this world-weariness, wondered Stefanie. Was it a pose, as it was with so many of the young Viennese men (many of whom were now posed face-down on the battlelines) she had known, the would-be poètes maudits and celestial guttersnipes à la Verlaine, Wilde, Baudelaire? Undoubtedly, with an invigorating dash of Verdi. And of course he was an orphan, his parents having died in a brief but comprehensive typhus epidemic. This might account for some of the melancholy and brooding, and the evident indifference to others. And when Arthur played, which he did whenever she asked him to, there was a frown of concentration on his bony face that betokened deeper streams within him than the poseur’s trickle, and a genuine anguish lit up his eyes. Asthma could explain only part of it. She kept her distance, observing. It slowly dawned on her that his affectations were a form of self-defense and that Arthur Lebel, at bottom, possessed compassion; and that slow dawning also revealed to her to what degree Adolf had lacked same, and, consequently, why (with the exception of his portrait of her) Adolf’s art, and his opinions, missed the point entirely.
She thought of him, now, with bemused contempt that was a vestige of the emotion she had once felt, and in her heart was sorrow for the misguided past, regret for what might have been, and a faint hope for the future.
A Puch motorbus was chartered for the excursion, through the good offices of Frau Himmelbeer’s cousin Emil, master mechanic at the Puch works in Steyr. This worthy volunteered to drive, and on a bright day in May, with much roll-calling, last-minute confusion, and rustling of maps, the Auerstadt Girls’ Academy expedition set off. They boarded the bus at 7:30 and Cousin Emil stood up at the front of the bus and gave a short speech in a booming monotone.
“We are greatly privileged to be riding in this magnificent Puch bus, made here in Austria,” he bellowed. “Which is needed, as are all motorized vehicles, at the front. Yet I feel strongly that Education is a crucial part of the national war effort. Please remember, therefore, that this is an educational excursion, not a picnic. God save our King-Emperor.”
Titters and groans. Emil bowed and took his place behind the massive steering wheel. As the bus made its way slowly through the narrow streets of Auerstadt, the brightness of the day seemed an insolent reproach to the massive national bloodletting that was at that moment going on across the dying Austro-Hungarian Empire, from the Dolomites to the marches of Moldavia, but neither Stefanie nor Arthur felt inclined to extend the war’s lease by dampening the high spirits of their charges. Music was the tonic of the day. All eighteen girls in the two top forms, many of them amateur players of this or that instrument, had, as Austrians, grown up with the national legacy of great music, and the names Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert were as familiar to them as the price of radishes to a grocer. Not for them the sordid propinquity of art and vaudeville, the leveling of standards, the false equalization of incompatibles. For those young ladies a waltz was Saturday night entertainment, an operetta a farce, a newspaper a bulletin sheet. (Few of them were at an age to entertain themselves on Saturday night anyway except, surreptitiously, with a Schnitzler story, or a glimpse of fashion in prewar issues of the Neuer Wiener Illustrierte.) Great art was supplanting God, thought Stefanie. Or was it complementing Him?
She put the question to Arthur. He was watching the sunlight in the branches of the pines. They were nearing Baden when he replied.
“Great art is God.”
Ah, yes, another hat for Him to wear, thought Stefanie, picturing to herself a great Godhead crowned with all the caps and top hats of the world.
Baden, shuttered and half-deserted that it was, with so many of its agile young porters and messengers and cab drivers serving their King-Emperor on faraway battlefields, nevertheless displayed its attractions—the Kursaal, the Franz-Joseph park, the Hauptstrasse—like a demure demimondaine . . . like, for instance, Frau Schratt, Franz-Joseph’s mistress, whom, incredibly, they glimpsed almost as soon as they tumbled out of the bus. The Empire’s most notorious courtesan was taking a stroll in the Englischer Garten, accompanied by a drab companion of the professional companion species. Frau Schratt was carrying a blue parasol and wearing a flowered dress better suited to one half her age. Her nose was held high, her cheeks were rouged, and she carried with her faint airs of an age long gone by. The girls erupted into gales of whispers.
“Actually,” said Arthur to Stefanie, sotto voce, “I understand the old monkey hasn’t laid hands on her, or on any other woman, in twenty years.”
“Old monkey?” Stefanie was, once again, reminded of Adolf. “I take it you are referring to His Imperial Majesty?”
“Ach, don’t try my patience with those dusty old titles, Fraulein von Rothenberg.” Arthur, flushed, grew quite emotional. “The whole lot are doomed, and you know it, and if nothing else comes of this disgusting war there will be a couple of boons to mankind as a result, and that will be one of them.”
"How do you know, Herr Lebel?"
They paused in their discourse to round up errant charges. An ice cream stand was located, the girls plied with creamy vanilla. A nearby fountain soared and dipped in the breeze, chuckling to itself in its stone bowl. The sun shone unimpeded by even a wisp of cloud. Stefanie, too, shared the ice cream, with a voraciousness that amused Lebel, smoking.
“Such appetites you have,” he said.
“So how do you know that whatever replaces our royal house of Habsburg is going to be any better?” reiterated Stefanie, ignoring his implicit psychoanalytical joining of the appetites. “Revolutionaries? Communists or Communards? What, exactly?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “But there comes a time when any change is better than the status quo. I think that was the real reason for this war, you know. There was never any question of Russia’s or France’s borders begin threatened by Serbia or Austria’s by Serbia or Italy, for God’s sake. Our leaders were just bored with peace. Too much peace leads to stagnation. Anyway, apart from the overthrow of the old order, we, that is, France, might get Alsace and Lorraine back. That would be the other benefit of the war.”
“Why did you come here, if your loyalty is to the enemy?” inquired Stefanie waspishly. They moved off, shooing the girls away from the ice-cream stand, heading onto the broad, tree-lined and almost empty Grillparzerstrasse, with its majestic statue of Joseph I and view of the Kurpark.
“I see your desire today is to provoke,” said Lebel. “Very well. Am I a spy, you ask? No. Surely you don’t think your highly efficient Security Police—and even after the Redl affair, the Austrian intelligence services are widely respected as one of the best—would have let me settle down if I had been at all untrustworthy? No. I have relatives here. My cousin is a banker in Graz. I have no quarrel with Austria, Stefanie.” (It was the first time he had addressed her thus; the event was significant, but he made it seem casual, which Stefanie admired.) “My quarrel is with Germany, or more specifically Prussia, as the occupier of my homeland for the past half-century. Austria? No, no. As a matter of fact, I adore Austria. How could I, a composer, not be a Viennese at heart? As more or less Catholic capitals of art and culture, Paris and Vienna are natural allies.”
For lunch the entire group—all eighteen girls, Stefanie and Arthur, and Emil the loyalist—installed themselves on the terrace of the Grand Hotel des Bains (now, because of hostilities, officially renamed Badner Gasthof, a name no one used) and gazed out over the fountain-tinkling gardens and the softly soughing pines of the Rauheneck hill and, in the golden distance, the first outcroppings of what, out Innsbruck way, became the Tyrolean Alps. An elderly gentleman served them lunch, apologizing for the sparse menu.
“The war, you must understand. Schinkenplatte, schinkenplatte,” he said. “That is all I can offer in quantities sufficient to feed a crowd such as this. Schinkenplatte und spaetzle. And some marrons glacés.With lemonade.”
“Beer, uncle,” said Arthur. “Beer for me.”
“And me,” said Stefanie. Arthur raised an eyebrow. In the air hovered possibilities. He was enjoying himself. Man of the world that he was, veteran of a dozen or more seductions, he understood the meaning of all Stefanie’s tics and allusions, although their import might be quite obscure to her, inexperienced as she was. It was true: Sensing herself ineluctably drawn into his orbit, she put up token resistance in the guise of barbed remarks, provocative questions, and small acts of defiance such as ordering beer when a lady was expected to abstain, or sip lemonade; but she, too, was enjoying herself, and of course she was quite aware, underneath, of the reasons for the hot flush that invaded her cheeks, and the lingering gaze when she and Arthur conversed, and her urge to hotly challenge what he said, as if passion were so imminent that it must infuse everything. Still, she was grateful for the presence of the girls, as a palliative to emotion, although she—normally such an observant student of humanity—quite failed to notice the narrow, studious gaze of two or three, those inevitable two or three who, out of no future sexual inclination one way or the other, had developed a crush on her, or on Herr Lebel.
An afternoon ride in a landau along the Kaiser Franz Ring, a visit to the house where Constanze Mozart had spent so much non-marital time, a stroll through the Kurpark to admire the statue of Beethoven, and a muddy-tasting cup or two of curative waters, and the day was done. Herr Emil, after another short speech thanking the “Herr und Frau” (Arthur and Stefanie exchanged an ironic glance) and the “most excellent young ladies” (no giggles this time, fatigue made sure of that), fired the bus into vibrating life, God-blessed the King-Emperor again, and they were off. The long spring sunlight slanted across the golden fields, casting shadow-claws that lengthened, darkened, jumped ahead and fell behind, in the glades and along the roadside, as they passed through the southern fringe of the Wienerwald. In Stefanie’s heart there was a nourishing fullness that she had never really felt before, but by the time they arrived back in Auerstadt she was in a fever, her hands atremble, deeply desirous of a) a cigarette and b) a kiss from Arthur. When Arthur lit her cigarette (after the girls had gone in to perform their ablutions), she smoked it hurriedly; then, without a word being said, he led her by the hand to the Teachers’ Lounge and played Schubert’s Impromptu in F. In that music dwell love and melancholy, but Stefanie had no time for melancholy, not then.
When she and Arthur Lebel appeared for dinner they were as brick-red as if they had spent the day on an Alpine peak, toasting in the sun. It was at that moment that the first of the gossips swooped down; then another, and another. The older girls knew what had happened. So did Frau Himmelbeer, and her heart turned over in her chest at the thought of the ramifications, the rumors, the scandal.
“Oh, my dear Fraulein von Rothenberg,” she said, hands clasped as in prayer, at their next encounter. “How are you, my dear Fraulein?”
Stefanie immediately grasped the import of Frau Himmelbeer’s theatrics.
“Fear not, Frau Himmelbeer,” she said, with calming gestures. “My upbringing and my character have both taught me the importance of discretion.”
“Yes, but.The townsfolk. The school board. The girls’ parents...”
“Will never know.”
“Ah, my dear Fraulein von Rothenberg.”
“My dear Frau Himmelbeer!”
And if the truth was that Frau Himmelbeer was envious not of Stefanie but of Arthur, well, Stefanie knew that, too, and her demeanor, while betraying neither encouragement nor approval, conveyed this knowledge with an ideal combination of pity and aloofness, very like that of a medieval saint, while of course exuding from every pore a newly-awakened, unsaintly (if very medieval) sexuality. Every night, in the early days, then once or twice a week, she and Arthur awoke each other to varieties of the physical hitherto undreamed-of in Stefanie’s philosophy: rudimentary as this was, it seemed to confer a new dimension of being on Stefanie, and as for Arthur, the young roué found himself quite smitten: smitten by her body; by her tumbling hair, and quizzical cobalt-blue eyes; by her humor, and airs of a countess; but smitten especially by whatever it was that was mysterious and deep in her soul, a great unplumbable spirit within her. At certain moments he caught her staring at him as if he were an object on display in a museum, or through him as if he were a sheet of glass. Sometimes her actions were enigmatic, or simply bizarre.For example, one morning during recess they were strolling (hand-in-hand, as was their wont when no one was around) in the woods behind the school. Alongside the path they came across a fledgling bird that had obviously fallen out of its nest; feebly hopping, trailing its wing behind it: pretty clearly cat bait, Arthur said. Not so, said Stefanie, and with slow, gentle movements she picked up the frightened bird, caressed it, and murmured magical somethings to it, all the while fixing Arthur with her eerie, gray-blue eyes; then, to Arthur’s astonishment, she opened her hands and the wounded fledgling fluttered gamely upward and alighted on the very branch from which it had fallen.
“Lucky damn bird,” said Arthur.
“Oh no,” said Stefanie. “Only blessed.”
Well bless me, thought Arthur.
Stefanie herself had been surprised by the incident, although she said nothing to Arthur. It was as if another person had invaded her, a person of immense power and compassion. This sensation had been accompanied by a calm confidence that dispelled all quotidian worries and petty concerns. Like the tide, it rose and fell, and left behind traces of its passing. One such trace was the glimmer of a vision, a figure of light hidden in the greater light of the sun—in fact, this was precisely the image that came to her in that same forest clearing one morning, and in the breeze there was more than whispering, there were greetings, and exhortations, and instructions on what Stefanie must do, and secrets behind the greater secrets of the wild. She glimpsed a shape, with arms upheld, against a blaze of light, and a loud humming sounded in her ears.
That day she introduced the second form (Great Themes in Literature), skeptics all, to the mystics of the Middle Ages: Teresa, Hildegarde, Thomas Aquinas.
“Were these people normal, Frau von Rothenberg?” inquired young Sessi, 13.
“By no means, Sessi. They were very different. Which does not mean that they were insane.”
“Oh, but surely, Frau, they were quite mad.”
“No, my dear. They merely saw and heard things beyond the experience of most people. They understood things most people can barely grasp.”
"But that's what crazy people say, isn't it? That they hear voices?"
“Yes. Some crazy people do hear voices. But some people who aren’t crazy at all...”
“But how can you tell the difference?” another voice piped up.
“Yes, Frau,” said a third. “Like that Erik Estlund last month, the one who said he heard the voice of God from farm animals?”
The case in question had provided Vienna with a few days’ diversion in the midst of the war: a farm hand arrested on charges of trespass, caught night after night conversing with cows in a neighbor’s field and writing down his interpretation of their comments in a notebook. Their ruminating, he claimed, was more than physical. It echoed the music of the spheres. Cows spoke of a sweet resignation to fate that was the secret of the cosmos. Ach, you’re a fool, shouted the procurator. Oh yes, said Estlund. A fool who listens to the voices of God all around him while you, Herr Procurator, are a rational man who hears and knows nothing. How dare you, screamed Herr Procurator. Upshot: six months in prison for Estlund and warmth to the cockles for two million war-weary Viennese hearts.
“It’s not quite the same thing,” said Stefanie, unsure how. “You can’t compare a half-witted farmhand to St. Thomas Aquinas.”
“But what about St. Bernadette of Lourdes? She was only a simple peasant,” said snooty Fraulein Evangelin von Staempferl, 12.
“No mere peasant,” said Stefanie, “could have such glorious visions of the Holy Mother. Sister Bernadette—she’s not a saint yet, my dear—was a rare flower in this patch of weeds we call life. I honor her name.”
Beloved Bernadette Soubirous and her vision, not of the Virgin, but of Aquero, the holy child—the Immaculate Conception—was, indeed, one of Stefanie’s personal favorites of all the mystics: humble, cheerful, witty, yet suffering the most intense agonies from illness, all the while experiencing some of history’s most compelling visions of the Virgin.
Meanwhile she had to tame the second form.
“I will tolerate no cynicism in this class,” she declared, firmly. “Such cynicism is unearned at your ages. I will insist on respect for the subjects I teach. I demand it for the great ones of the past whose names you are barely fit to utter.”
Her words ensnared their attention and an awkward silence was born. So was gossip, inevitably, and here Stefanie ventured into danger, with enough tongues wagging already about Fraulein von R. and the dashing Herr Lebel. Her nature was spontaneous, and keeping secrets was never her strong suit, unless they were others’; her own, in the fullness of time, the world learned of, and so it must be with her visions and the strange new shadow-Stefanie who filled her soul. Anyway, it was rare for her to lose her temper in class. Her touchiness on the subject of mystics and on the need for young ones to respect the great ones of the past, along with a certain otherwordly reputation that she was beginning to acquire: all this gathered momentum like a coal train rushing downhill.
“Frau von Rothenberg is an ex-nun,” boldly asserted Evangeline von Staempferl on the playground.
“No, she’s not,” bleated sad Christina, who adored her Frau von Rothenberg. “She’s too young and beautiful.”
“That’s why she’s an EX-nun, silly. Anyway, she’s not so young.”
“Not so beautiful, either,” hissed a Stefanie-hater, one who’d never made the grade. “And if you want to know what I think.”
No one did, which guaranteed that sooner or later everyone would; but the Stefanie-hater knew how to bide her time, as do all villains worth their salt. It wasn’t for many months, after the girls had moved up a form, and a couple of seasons had come and gone, and Limanova-Lapanow andCaporetto had been fought and won, and Franz Josef was dead, and Stefanie and Arthur were officially engaged to be married (“But after the war,” as Arthur explained to lovelorn Frau Himmelbeer, “in Paris”), and the battle of Verdun was nearing its blood-drunk climax, that one day, in a rapid-fire sequence of events, Stefanie:
1) saw the Holy Mother in the very glade in which she had seen the light and heard the sounds;
2) conversed, kneeling, with the blue-tinted, hovering, light-ringed Mary (whose German was Austrian, indeed Salzburg-accented), on the subjects of war and sin and expiation of same;
3) was accosted in mid-vision by her malevolent little enemy, who’d regularly been following her into the forest;
4) had to defend herself to Frau Himmelbeer, when the truth finally came out.
“What is this young Renate Engelfels tells me, Stefanie? That you converse with the empty air?”
“The little bitch.”
“I beg your pardon!”
“I do not converse with the empty air. I was vouchsafed a vision of the Holy Mother, Mary in heaven, for which, having before this seen only the foul fiend, I thank Her deeply. As for that Engelfels creature, I’m going to start by writing a letter to her parents on how not to raise a spy and a snitch.”
"Fraulein von Rothenberg, do I hear you correctly?"
And so it went, with Frau Himmelbeer metaphorically placing a judge’s cowl on her head and pronouncing sentence on her once-beloved Fraulein von Rothenberg: that Stefanie was guilty of eccentric behavior unacceptable in a serene and close-knit girls’ academy; that her unorthodox behavior had already caused concern and shored up the foundations of intra-school gossip; that she was to go from that place to a place of unemployment...in brief, she was fired.
“Thank God, Arthur,” Stefanie said to him later. “The atmosphere was stifling, anyway.”
“But this is terrible. She has no right. We have recourse, Stefanie. We must fight her decision.”
“No, they all think I’m mad now. Now they all know. Now you know, for goodness’ sake.”
“I’ve known for a while, my dear girl. Or at least suspected. And this will make a tremendously good opera, by the way! I’ve even sketched out the first act. ”
“So our marriage is off.”
“Au contraire, chérie.”
“No, Arthur, I’m a mystic, don’t you understand. A woman of the spirit.”
"So? Can't spirit and flesh coexist?"
“Was St. Teresa married? Or Hildegard von Bingen? Or Sister Bernadette Or St. Catherine Labouré?”
“Now you’re getting delusions of grandeur. Admittedly, your phenomena are extraordinary and attest to a deep gift, my dear, a blessing or curse from above, or below; but the Stefanie von Rothenberg I know is also a woman of the real world, a woman of flesh and laughter, and I would be sorry to lose her.”
Well, be that as it may, said Stefanie. Marriage would have to wait. Unemployed in the middle of the war, she had to cast about for ideas, for support; back in Vienna, she presented Arthur to Uncle Ernst and Aunt Liesl, with mutual esteem and congratulations echoing wide. Then she canvassed the schools. Not hiring, was the response. Arthur returned to Auerstadt and Stefanie scoured Vienna. It was Christmas 1916, a month after the old Emperor’s death, and the gloomiest, most sorrowful Christmas in Vienna since the death of Prince Rudolph, but this time a thousand deaths seemed contained in the single royal one. War wounded filled the streets. Ambulances commandeered the roadways. Troop trucks rattled toward the front, blowing melancholy horns. Military trains shunted and groaned ceaselessly through the railyards of the Westbahnhof and Sudbahnhof. A myriad efforts and infinite planning and meticulous organizational skills were required to organize this war, and by thus coordinating the deaths of a quarter-million or more, the dying empire was holding off its own death a while longer. But the end was in the air, and two million Viennese sensed it, and many welcomed it, as one might greet with secret relief the death of a long-ailing relative. The historic change was already apparent in the schools of the capital, where plans were underway to rewrite history from a less imperial perspective. The new emperor, Charles, spoke of autonomy, federation, parliamentary democracy, westernization. Arthur flatly declared him and the empire he ruled doubly doomed.
“Sarajevo was the kiss of death,” he said. “Franz Ferdinand their last real hope. The old emperor’s death turned the key in the lock. This boy-king has no future except as an exile.”
Stefanie lived for a while at home with her aunt and uncle, her marriage plans in abeyance. For many weeks, she hardly gave those plans, or Arthur, a thought. Day and night (mostly at night), the Holy Mother, or an impression of the Holy Mother—a quiet inner surge, like the first drink of champagne—stayed with her as the only companion she cared to have. Arthur, realizing how tenuous is the hold of an intelligent, spiritual woman on her earthly affections, did not interfere. But he spent many a brooding night staring through cigarette smoke at the dark forest outside and wishing for his beloved Stefanie. Haunted by her and, at one remove, haunted by whatever haunted her, he started work on the opera he had cavalierly mentioned to her, the story of a mystic in eighteenth-century France, age and (until 1789) land of Reason. Once underway, it took on the trappings of Manon Lescaut, with elements of Joan of Arc, influenced by (as Arthur put it, airily) “Wagnerian chromaticism via Debussyesque use of strings and percussion.” The Mystic is what he titled it, but he was obliged by force of circumstance temporarily to shelve it, and certainly say nothing to Frau Himmelbeer, or to his students. He spoke of it to Stefanie once, during a weekend visit to the Palais Ottoheinz, but she refused at first to take it seriously.
“The world we know is falling to pieces around our ears,” she said. “It’s not the right time for operetta, Arthur.”
“It’s an opera, not an operetta,” said Arthur. “And it’s precisely the right time. A time of despair and madness: what better time to bring art into the world?”
He was right. Stefanie was, once again, confusing Art and faith; but the war and humanity’s suffering, and God’s tolerance thereof, had her wondering if the Jews hadn’t had the right idea all along, in not referring to God by name and not trying to humanize Him. The concept of God was too vast, and any attempt to comprehend it (or It) inevitably reduced It (or it) to human terms, thereby negating Its (or His, or Their) omnipotence...what was the point, then, of theology? Of her years of hard labor in the precincts of Jerome and Augustine and Martin Luther? Of her determined scaling of the University’s male redoubt? Perhaps, precisely, to lead her to this point as a schooled disbeliever in religion’s conventions, a self-anointed visionary, a receptacle for the pure balm of the Holy Mother.
And the other, below, the fiend of hell and the Monchskeller in Linz and her relatives’ anteroom, in this very house...?
“Ach, Arthur, you’re right. It’s a perfect time for Art. What else do we have?”
In early 1917 Stefanie went home to Salzburg and found part-time employment as governess to the children of a family friend. She was tempted to raise issues of theology and the human condition, but she forbore. Indeed, for a year or so, back home on the Getreidegasse, with the crisp outline of the Salzkammergut visible through the kitchen window on clear days, she lapsed into the normal state of a young woman of her time, saying nothing, not even to her dear Mutti, about the visions, or Adolf, or any of the other transformations of her life, except, in passing, Arthur; and Arthur reinforced his own reputation by visiting frequently and bringing Stefanie updates on Frau Himmelbeer and the opera, and Herr und Frau Doktor von Rothenberg, after the initial shock, quite took to the self-deprecating, opinionated young man, who behaved with respect and vociferously admired old Hermann’s prowess on the organ in the Benedectine Abbey church—even modestly playing a tune or two (Fauré, Mozart) on it himself.
“Herr Lebel, it is an honor to meet such a true, talented musician.”
“Herr von Rothenberg, I can only say I will endeavor to be worthy of such a compliment.”
Flourishes; apfeltorte; coffee; a snifter of cognac, its origins explained in painful detail out of respect for the Frenchness of their visitor and prospective son-in-law (“Lieber Gott!” “Why, this is excellent news!”)...in this way, through her parents, Arthur re-asserted his masculine significance to Stefanie’s life, and they were officially engaged in November 1917, in the wake of the victory at Caporetto, when for a moment the old world’s death throes were allayed. A year later, the war ended, as did the empire—as did Arthur’s employment, for reasons more to do with a letter from the director of the Paris Conservatoire than with his students at Auerstadt, or Frau Himmelbeer, although the latter bore him a bitter grudge, seeing in him all of Man’s vicious charms and wiles.
“The war’s over. I can go home,” said Arthur, referring of course to France.
“Splendid,” said old Doktor von Rothenberg. “Now I will have an excuse to visit Paris again.”
They made arrangements, and Arthur’s Parisian uncle Samuel, a former actor and pastry chef from Strasbourg and newly-elected Radical member of the National Assembly, found them decent accommodations on the Rue Soufflot, near the Panthéon. They packed, made farewells, acquired letters of recommendation, train tickets and travel permits. Arthur, in the full flush of his Frenchness, was delighted that it would be his last journey as a citizen of Germany, with the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine now back under Marianne’s protection.
It was their future’s time, for nothing was on their minds except what was to be, and what they could make of themselves in their new life; but on the day before they left Austria, the past whistled through the letterbox. Stefanie received a letter from Adolf Hitler, postmarked Munich, forwarded by her relatives in Vienna. “Dearest and Most Esteemed Fraulein von Rothenberg! “It is, I am sure of it, wrong of me to address you in a letter, but for the past two or three days (three, to be precise) you have been much on my mind. The war is over, as you know. We were betrayed, as perhaps you do not realize!! The November criminals who did this must be brought to account. It is now my job to do just that, as well as sound out such supporters as we have left, in the demobilized regiments of the Rhineland and Bavaria. (I am a German citizen now. In the war I earned an Iron Cross, First Class. Good bye, Habsburgs! Good bye, Habsburgland! Good riddance, if I may say so!) It is an exciting enterprise. I hope I am equal to the challenge. Actually, I have high hopes for the future. The world is not as it was. I still paint and draw, but not to earn my bread. I am an agent of the Army now, but soon I hope to be my own master again.
“I write because I thought of you. You are a woman I have always admired, Fraulein Stefanie (if you will permit me!), for your intelligence and your elegance.Should you care to journey to Munich to visit, I would be delighted to show you some of the sights. Believe me, Munich is a beautiful city! In some ways, more so than Vienna!At least there are fewer Jews and gypsies and Ruthenian imports. And you can see the mountains.
“You may write to me at Regimental Headquarters, Militär-Postfach16 in Munich (Bavaria).
“Please believe, honored lady, that I remain your devoted servant,
“The signature looks like cigarette smoke dispersing in the air.” Arthur laughed. “Who is this clown anyway, Steffi? ‘At least there are fewer Jews.’ Lovely, I must say! An anti-Semite of the old school, obviously. How echt-deutsch!”
“He’s the artist I’ve told you about. The one who painted that portrait of me in Aunt Liesl’s drawing room. Actually, he is Austrian, from Linz. But look at this! Holder of the Iron Cross First Class, if you please. He is no clown, Arthur. I never took his political ideas seriously, but he is a clever man, if a little selfish, like so many artists, eh?”
“Undoubtedly, my dear. You knew him in Linz, of course?” Purely by happenstance—as a result of insufficient time spent together to explain, to reminisce, to become acquainted—Stefanie’s Linz years were a closed book to Arthur, who had, consequently, attributed to them all imaginable qualities of great mystery and romance, although (as Stefanie hastened to point out) she had been a mere girl at the time and had gone home to Salzburg at every possible opportunity.
“So that was where you knew this fellow, eh. Your boyfriend, then?” Thus forced to define her relationship with Adolf, she found an unexpected word.
“Suitor. Not lover or paramour, no, he was my suitor, if you like, in a very old-fashioned, awkward kind of way. As in, say, a novel by Fontane. But I don’t think he’s fit for marriage, unless to an entirely meek and submissive kind of girl. As I said, he is self-absorbed, really to a remarkable extent; as Dr. Freud would say, his ego dominates completely. His mother spoiled him, you know.”
“Did she, now. Listen, perhaps you should drop him a line, hinting that the courtship is over?”
A week later, Stefanie did send Adolf a postcard. On one side was the Eiffel Tower, universal symbol of her new home. Au verso she wrote (with the enthusiastic profusion of exclamation marks then common in epistolary German):
Thanks for your letter! I’m glad you’re well! I, too, have changed! As you
can see, I am living in Paris now. By the way, I’m married! He is a
musician, a composer. He loves Wagner, too! His name is Arthur
Lebel, so Lebel is my name now, too. You must come to visit us! We
live at No. 25bis, Rue de Soufflot, in the sixth arrondissement. I know