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On a violent, black winter evening, Baron Ferdinand Harsanyi in Paris received a telegram from his wife in Vienna. It was delivered to his lodging on the Rue de Saint-Simon, and by candlelight at his desk he read its three words, I AM ILL.
"Will there be a reply, monsieur?"
The messenger, an old man, shuddered from the cold and stood close to the fire. The heavy coat of his uniform seemed to do little to warm him. Outside, hard gusts of the tempest outside assailed the window. It rattled and shook in its casing and the wind whistled through it. These were the only sounds inside as the man stood shivering and the Baron Ferdinand sat, uneasy as the storm.
Finally, the baron took the form and touched his pen to the ink bottle. "Today is Monday?"
He scribbled, WILL LEAVE TOMORROW ARRIVE THURSDAY. "There, take that."
The messenger returned reluctantly to the night, and Ferdinand stood and began to pace the room. His steps were silent on the thick carpet, a slow tread that soon became quicker and more troubled. His path was wall to wall beneath two portraits, one behind his desk, of the Austrian emperor, and the other opposite, of a woman. At last, he stopped beneath it. The woman, in her youth, with long black hair and striking features, was wearing the fashions of an earlier time. The baron faced her, looking up; he was two hard decades at least past his own youth.
His valet appeared.
"We'll depart tomorrow for Vienna. I'll call on the ambassador at his residence this evening to ask his leave."
* * *
The cold gale had swept the Rue de Saint-Simon clear of men and light. Above the wind's howl, shutters creaked and half-loose things beat against hard walls.
Yet even against the hurricane blackness, curtained light crept from the buildings, side against side, lining the lane. No shaft of it touched the stones of the street. The glimmering windows were only pictures framed in night of the rooms and the lives hidden like jewels from the thieving storm.
It was upon this wailing sheet of shadow that Baron Harsanyi opened his door, its light spilling even onto the pavement, capturing an island from the blackness. He stepped onto the small square. Then he closed the door and the light surrendered back to the dark.
But the baron did not surrender himself to night. He wrapped his thick cape about him and advanced into it.
In a warmer season it would have been a short, pleasant stroll to the Rue de Grenelle. In the cold, he still chose to walk. A few carriages passed, and no one on two legs. For most of the way he was invisible in the shadows, the only witness of the war between the powers of the air and the strongholds of earth. He reached the Austrian Embassy and pulled the bell; it was a short but chilling wait for the front gate to be opened.
Prince Richard von Metternich, ambassador of Franz Joseph, the emperor of Austria, to Louis Napoleon, emperor of France, stood by the mantel in his private apartments, a goblet in his hand and a hot fire dancing at his side.
"Your Excellency." Ferdinand Harsanyi bowed.
The room was warm and close and fitfully bright. Flames roared in hearths at either end, and candle flames floated in their silver holders.
"Baron. What brings you out on a wretched night?" The prince's careless posture was in contrast to the baron's military straightness. His youth and finery were, as well; he was barely forty, and his emerald satin jacket shimmered like cat eyes.
"I must request your leave to return to Vienna."
"As you wish, of course." He set aside the formality with a gesture. "A personal matter?"
"My wife is ill." The baron's attention was pulled aside, toward the far hearth and the two chairs beside it. All the light made the shadows blacker, and the shadows leaped with the fire.
"How unfortunate," Prince von Metternich said. "My wife just visited her a few weeks ago when she was in Vienna. Did your wife tell you? Possibly not." The prince glanced toward the far fireplace, indecisive, but then shrugged. "They are such good friends. I'll not delay you. Please give my regards to the charming baroness, and my hopes for a speedy recovery." He gestured again in dismissal.
"Thank you, Your Excellency." Baron Harsanyi paused. His hair was gray iron and close-cropped. He would have been handsome as a young man; now he was hidden. "Do you have any instructions for me?"
The ambassador pretended surprise. "Instructions?" His head seemed to always be in motion, tilting, swaying, nodding.
"I'll be in the capital. Do you want me to convey any messages?"
"You would take precious hours from your poor, ill wife for a tedious visit to the Foreign Ministry?"
It would have been easier to see without such light. And over the growling flames, there had been another slight sound coming from the opposite fireplace.
"I would have the opportunity. If you wish." Ferdinand spoke slowly and carefully. "I would be expected to call on the foreign minister. It would be an affront to him on your behalf if I do not."
"And he would deserve it!" The ambassador's own fires flared. He took a deep breath and calmed himself. "But if I wish to insult the foreign minister, I should do it myself." His demeanor changed again, to give the baron his full attention. The mocking tone was gone. "Be innocuous, be bland, and say nothing. Tell him the usual, that relations between France and Prussia are as difficult as ever, and we have fears the current crisis may make them even worse."
"Which particular crisis do you mean, Your Excellency?"
"Pick one, any of them. Make one up if nothing new has happened by the time you get to Vienna. There's always a crisis between France and Prussia." He lifted his hands in annoyance. "The Spanish throne if you need a particular one. But ..." The ambassador became more forceful. "Stress that this embassy is diligently working to calm the French government. Because the greatest harm would be that the ministry gives us instructions. You know as well as I, Baron Harsanyi, it is very delicate at the moment, and I think it is best for us to manage it ourselves. There will be war between Paris and Berlin within the next twelve months, I'm sure of it, but it's far better for the Austrian government in Vienna to not meddle. Be careful what you say."
The baron was satisfied. "I understand, Your Excellency."
He stared more closely at the chair facing the far fireplace, but the shadows were too deep. Prince von Metternich drew his attention away. "And will you also visit the office of the Army General Staff?"
"If possible. Again, it would be an affront not to. An affront on my behalf."
"I have no instructions to you about that. What will you say to them?"
"As the military attaché to the embassy in Paris, I will report to them on the state of the French army. That will be all that is necessary."
"Armies are useful, in wars and for other purposes, but they do not interest me." Prince von Metternich shrugged and his careless manner returned. "Perhaps this will be one war that Austria will avoid losing."
"I hope, Your Excellency, that if a war does come between France and Prussia, that Austria would not participate in it."
"Quite, Baron. That is the only way Austria ever avoids losing. We had our own defeat by Prussia four years ago and that is enough."
But now Baron Ferdinand was sure. Of the two heavy chairs that were set by the far fireplace, one was not empty. Prince Richard saw that Baron Harsanyi had seen. He smiled, as if he'd just remembered the two of them weren't alone. "Monsieur Sarroche?" he laughed. "You have been discovered."
The man stood and displayed himself in the tricking light. He was needle-like, short and very thin. Even his nose was long and pointed and unpleasant. His hair was the only feature about him that was abundant, brown and longer than was fashionable. "Monsieur." He bowed slightly and briefly. Baron Harsanyi stiffened, even more.
"Baron Harsanyi is the military attaché assigned to the embassy," the ambassador said. "And Monsieur Sarroche is an official of the French government in their Bureau of Armaments."
"I already know the pleasure of the baron's acquaintance," Monsieur Sarroche said. His voice was also unpleasant.
The baron remained silent.
"Of course you would know him," Prince von Metternich said. "I should have realized. The baron makes it his business to know everything admirable about the French army. Perhaps, Baron, you can guess the reason for the monsieur's visit."
Baron Harsanyi broke his stiff silence. "I wouldn't guess."
"Then perhaps you actually know. Monsieur Sarroche is here to discuss the French government's desire to make purchases from Austria."
"Military materials," Sarroche said. "As Your Excellency suggests, we may have great needs very soon."
"And we were just getting started," Prince von Metternich said, "when you were announced; I had even thought I should ask your assistance. But of course you are in a hurry to prepare for your travels."
"We particularly want mercury." The Frenchman spoke abruptly. He was watching Baron Harsanyi very closely.
"I really do feel as if I'm the one who's stumbled into the conversation," Prince von Metternich said, now pretending amusement. "Do you know something about, um, mercury, Baron?"
"The baron knows a great deal about mercury," Sarroche answered for him. "Austria's largest cinnabar mines are at Idria, in Slovenia, on the baron's estate."
"Cinnabar?" Prince von Metternich asked. "Not mercury?"
"Cinnabar is the ore; the mercury is produced from it," Baron Ferdinand said. "And mercury is used to manufacture mercury fulminate, which is an explosive. But the mines are on my wife's estate, not mine."
"Oh, that's what those mines are? We've known your wife for years, but I never could remember what exactly it was they dug out of the ground there."
"Yes, your wife's estates," Sarroche said to the baron. And then, slowly, "I am so greatly sorry to hear that she is ill." He let the silence hang, then added, "But not entirely surprised."
The baron inhaled sharply.
"Yes, it is unfortunate," the ambassador said, not taking notice of Sarroche's last comment. His always mocking smile was sympathetic for a moment. "And how long will we be without you? A week? Two?"
"A week, I hope."
"A week then." The lights in the prince's eyes narrowed, and his head, moving like an adder, turned straight toward him. "That would be only two days at her side? Will it be enough?"
"Three days. I hope it will be enough."
"Take what time you need."
"And when you return," Sarroche said, "we will continue our discussion."
On the return to his apartment, the wind had decreased and a heavy snow fell. Where the lights of windows and streetlamps had before not penetrated the black, now their radiance had the slow white flakes to illuminate. Every light became a floating globe of falling grains.
With even greater speed, the baron retraced his steps. Inside the front hall of the building, he knocked on the concierge's door.
"A carriage," he said. "Fifteen minutes."
* * *
"Zoltan," the baron said at the door of his apartment. "We're leaving tonight. Quickly. We'll catch the last train." He looked out the window. "I hope the snow doesn't block the tracks."
"Ten minutes," Zoltan answered. He had black hair, straight down over his heavy brow, and a similar mustache over his mouth, and he wore a clerk's short coat over his loose white shirt and burly shoulders. He bowed and left the room.
Ferdinand's motions were fast and urgent. He opened a drawer of his desk and quickly removed papers and sorted them into a portfolio. In only eight minutes Zoltan had pulled a trunk from the bedroom and a smaller portmanteau from his own room. Baron Harsanyi searched the room with his eyes, looking for anything else to be taken.
A knock sounded on the door, its echo smothered in the drapery and carpet.
"The carriage, master," Zoltan said. A boy, the concierge's grandson, had brought the driver to the apartment.
The baron gave the boy a few sous, and Zoltan and the driver lifted the trunk and the portmanteau through the hall and down the stairs.
The baron blew out the last lamp, took his portfolio, and locked the door of his dark apartment behind him.
* * *
For the final time that evening, Baron Harsanyi ventured out. The snow was not yet deep and the carriage wheels cut through it without resistance. The first corner was the Quai d'Orsay, and they rode for a time along the left bank of the Seine. The road was well lit, and even the gaslights on the far bank were visible. The carriage turned onto the Pont de la Concorde and crossed the Seine; then they were on the other bank, beneath its lights, and the d'Orsay side was faint beyond the snow and fog. The whole river smoked and curled and cloaked itself and its banks in vapor.
On the right bank they still followed the water, on the Quai des Tuileries. The gardens were on their left, and then the bulk of the Louvre, and then on their right, the Ile, and barely, the blunt spires of Notre Dame ghostly in the snow. They turned on the Boulevard de Sebastopol and the river was lost behind them.
The new boulevard was as straight as a cannon shot, which was part of its purpose, to break up the nests and warrens of neighborhoods that had always bred uprisings and unrest.
But the boulevard's other purpose was to make Paris wondrous, and the long lines of lights and endless lines of gray stone mansions and bright windows and the sinuous lines of pedestrians on the sidewalks, and carriages on the paving stones, were beautiful and glittering, a street of light.
Then Boulevard de Strasbourg continued Sebastopol's line, and soon the grand front of the Gare de l'Est train station was in sight. But before they reached it, the baron spoke to the driver, "Turn here."
They turned onto the Boulevard de Magenta and then a second time onto a small side street; the sign said Rue de Valenciennes. They stopped at the third building, once but no longer a house. Now a small brass plaque was set beside the door that read, Partington and Manchester, Ltd.
* * *
One light glowed in the uppermost window. Despite the late, dark hour, the baron rang the bell and knocked, as well. There was no answer, but he was undeterred. He continued to knock, and finally the door creaked open. A wide, pasty face looked out.
"What is it?" the face asked in English-accented French.
The baron's English had only a slight accent. "Mr. Henry Whistler. Where is he?"
"Not here!" The clerk changed to English. "Not now."
"Is he in Paris?"
"No, sir. He's away."
"I'm not to say, sir."
"Is he in Vienna?"
The white face hadn't nearly the guile to deny that the baron's guess was the truth.
"I thought as much," the baron said, and turned away.
* * *
In an even greater hurry, the baron rushed into the station, leaving behind Zoltan and a porter with the trunk. Though the night had long been dark, it was still before nine thirty and the last trains were standing at the platforms.
"Two first class to Strasbourg," he said at the window.
"Yes, monsieur." The agent eyed him with suspicion. "You are Prussian, monsieur?"
"That isn't your business."
"It is the business of the police," the ticket agent answered. "I am required to ask. Travel by Prussians must be reported."
"I am Hungarian and I am a diplomat of the Austrian Empire."
"Very well, sir! Your tickets!"
The baron turned to go, but then he paused.
"Perhaps I should ask for an apology, for being mistaken for Prussian."
The agent scowled, but caught a gleam of humor in the dark eyes, and smiled. "I will apologize to an Austrian. To be called Prussian, it is a terrible insult, is it not?"
The suburbs of Paris fell behind and the moon rose over the train's eastward course. The farms and villages of the valley of the Seine crowded the track, and the train and the fields each sped past the other in the night, very close but different worlds.
The falling snow was left behind. The fields were silver white from the train's windows; the windows were gaslit yellow from the snowy fields.
At midnight the train stopped at Chalons, and at four in the morning in Nancy. Finally, the winter day dawned as the track rounded the heights of the Vosges Mountains and came to rest at the platform in Strasbourg.
Excerpted from Dark in the City of Light by Paul Robertson Copyright © 2010 by Paul Robertson. Excerpted by permission of Bethany House Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted July 28, 2010
Dark in the City of Light by Paul Robertson is compelling historical fiction about 1870s Paris. Baron Harsanyi works for the Austrian ambassador working in Paris. His late wife owned some cinnabar mines that produce the highly prized materials that the English, Prussian, and French are all bidding for. Their political machinations fill the novel with twists and turns. His daughter Therese loves being in the City of Light, especially with her forbidden beau Auguste who may have secret intentions for their courtship. Her brother Rudolph seems to be just going through the motions, forced to accede to his father's wishes that he attend military academy instead of fulfilling his own political ambitions, until he discovers a terrible secret about his father that may destroy the entire family. Robertson writes a truly rare novel with great intelligence and suspenseful twists and turns. Just when the reader thinks they know what's going to happen next, Robertson reveals new information that throws everything into question. I wish there were more novels written like this, that stimulate the brain and thrill the senses with terrific historical detail. I didn't want it to ever end.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.