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The season for suicides had begun.
The young woman sat at the writing desk by the window and dipped her pen into black ink. It scratched across the paper like a raven’s claw. Outside, the sky was ashen gray. Since early November, the air had been bitter cold, and patches of ice had spread over the breadth of the Danube. Soon the river would be frozen solid until spring. Just the other week, she had read in the Salonblatt about a wealthy young aristocrat, dressed in bridal gown and veil, who jumped her steed off Kronprinz-Rudolf Bridge. The beautiful filly sank like a stone, and the woman’s body washed up on the shore, shrouded in white satin.
She never thought it would come to this, but now here she was, at her sister’s mercy, asking for help. She finished the letter at dawn, just as the bells of St. Stephen’s rang out across the city. She sealed the envelope and placed it in the letter box outside the front door. She would remember this day. It was the beginning.
TWO DAYS EARLIER
The sky was raining ice, but the woman hurrying down the boulevard wore no coat or hat. She was carrying a bundle wrapped in stiff, coarse blankets, and the heavy load hampered her gait, causing her to favor one leg, then the other. Strands of long, wet hair lashed across her mouth and eyelids, and every few minutes she would pause, shifting the weight of her bundle onto one arm and hip, and exposing her free hand to brush the sleet off her face.
She crossed the Ringstrasse—the broad, tree-lined avenue that circled Vienna—then passed a row of massive apartment buildings, their exteriors casting glazed shadows on the cobblestones. The storm was getting worse, a constant downpour. Blinded by the wet, she continued on, splashing through puddles in her good leather boots, crossing Schwarzenbergplatz, the invisible boundary between the aristocracy and everyone else. A few hundred yards away, a row of opulent homes blazed with lights.
Earlier, in her haste to leave, she couldn’t be bothered to run upstairs to get her woolen overcoat and gloves, and now she sorely regretted this rash decision. She was chilled to the bone. Idiot, she thought. My boots are ruined.
She slowed her pace and swept through the ornamental iron gates of the baroness’s residence, heading around back to the servants’ entrance. She rang the night bell and then knocked loudly, cursing softly and swaying with impatience. Open the damn door. There was a dull, aching pain in her side as a gust of icy wind drove her slightly off balance. She shifted the load over her shoulder, her fingers throbbing as she pounded on the door.
When the night maid finally appeared, Minna brushed past her in a fury. Took bloody long enough, she thought, but murmured a perfunctory “Good evening” and descended a dimly lit stairway to the basement kitchen. She carefully placed her bundle on a cot near “the Beast,” the enormous black furnace by the scullery. A frail, drowsy child emerged from the blankets and sat there silently as Minna pushed the cot closer to the furnace, slid the thin mattress back on its frame, and settled the child beneath a feeble candle flickering on a wooden shelf.
“Fräulein Bernays, you’re wanted upstairs. The mistress has been ringing for over an hour,” the night maid said, adjusting her starched white cap. “Everyone suffers when you run about . . .” she added, sighing heavily as she bent over and wiped a mud print from the stairs. “I told the mistress you went for a walk, but she wasn’t having any of it, said you must have gone somewhere . . .”
“If you must know, we’ve been out gargling gin. Haven’t we, Flora?”
“Yes, Fräulein,” Flora said, with a weak smile. “And then we went to the doctor.”
“The child’s delirious,” Minna said. “Cover up, dear, it’s freezing in here.”
There was a draft coming from somewhere that made her long for dry clothes, and her head was pounding. She put her hand in her skirt pocket and fingered the brown paper parcel of medicine. Thank God—still there.
Earlier that day Minna had discovered Flora in a terrible state, attempting to do her chores but coughing so hard it brought her to her knees. Several times, Minna had dunked the pathetic little thing, wailing and hiccupping, in a cold bath to break the fever, but nothing seemed to work. The child was doomed, her cheeks shining with fever, the sweating sickness getting worse and worse. Minna could stand it no longer. She bundled her up and, without a word to anyone, set out to take the child to the doctor.
“My throat hurts,” Flora whimpered, struggling for breath, as Minna rang the bell at the physician’s office.
“He’ll take care of you,” she answered with an air of conviction she did not feel. “You’re the baroness’s charge, and very important.”
An elderly gentleman appeared in the doorway, blotting his mustache with a linen napkin. Minna could see a woman sitting at the dining table across the room, and there was an aroma of boiled beef and wine.
“Herr Doctor, my employer, the Baroness Wolff, wishes immediate treatment for this child. She is most concerned.”
The doctor hesitated a moment as Minna pushed by him, launching into a litany of the child’s ailments: fever, coughing, nausea, loss of appetite. There was little reason to doubt her authority. Even without her overcoat, and despite the muck on her clothes, she was an elegant woman—willowy with a straight back, smooth skin, and perfect diction. In addition, she was a most convincing liar.
“Could she possibly have scarlet fever?” Minna asked, as the doctor led her to his offices in the back.
“Unspecified infection . . .” he concluded after an examination. “Bed rest for at least a month . . . linens changed twice a week . . . lozenges for the sore throat and Bayer’s Heroin for her cough . . .”
Minna listened, nodding her head in agreement, all the while knowing what the doctor advised would be impossible to carry out in this household. In any event, how in heaven’s name did Minna ever think she could get away with this? Her days, her evenings, even her Sundays belonged to the baroness. She was expected to serve at the pleasure of her employer, and tardiness often meant instant dismissal.
Minna thought of Herr Doctor’s orders as she laid her hand on Flora’s clammy forehead.
“Don’t leave me,” the child said, slightly bewildered, her voice hoarse and strained. She was ten, but looked six, and she clutched Minna’s skirt, sensing a departure. Minna gave Flora two spoonfuls of the sticky, sweet-smelling syrup and whispered something in her ear. The child lay back down and turned her head to the wall.
The night maid eyed Minna as she pinned a few damp wisps of hair into her small bun, pointedly wiped the heels of her boots with a rag, and left the kitchen with no comment. She climbed back up the narrow stairwell, making her way through the marble-floored entrance hall, and then hurried down a vaulted corridor lit by a series of imported electric lights. She stopped briefly just outside the crimson drawing room and caught her breath, then knocked softly.
“You may enter,” a voice called.
The baroness’s inner sanctum looked like the kind of room that no one ever visited. Rich, heavy damask chairs and sofas, stained-glass shades, Persian carpets, and a collection of porcelain that included pug dogs, poodles, and exotic birds. There was a bowl of lilies on an inlaid side table, and in the corner near the window, a writing desk with a silver tray filled with tea cakes and snow-white sandwiches. Outwardly, Minna was calm, but her face was flushed and her heart racing, as if she had just broken a valuable vase. Also, the smell of the baroness’s tea cakes reminded her that she had not eaten a morsel the entire day.
“Good evening, Baroness.”
“The others are talking about you,” the young woman replied abruptly, her voice pinched and refined. She was sitting in her perversely torturous corseted dress and examining Minna with a gaze that could sear the skin off a rabbit. “Would you like to hear what they’re saying? They talk about your peculiarities—your constant reading and your walking about and such. Things I put up with at great inconvenience to myself. Things I’ve managed to ignore. You’re late. Where have you been?”
“I went to the chemist. Flora is sick,” Minna said.
“You think I haven’t noticed,” the baroness responded, beckoning Minna to sit down across from her. Minna hesitated. Her skirt was still damp and would leave a mark on the sofa’s delicate fabric. She sat gingerly on the edge, extricating a silk pillow and pushing it aside.
“I’m not a monster, after all. I myself told Cook last week to give the little creature daily doses of camphor.”
That would have been the first decent thing the baroness had ever done for her, Minna thought. The unfortunate Flora had been hired from the country to work as one of the general servants in the large baroque residence. Even upon her arrival, the little girl was thin and pale, too fragile for this kind of employment. She had straw-colored hair, eyes the color of sherry, and spent the better part of her day in the basement kitchen, choking on thick black clouds of fumes and smoke. Her duties ran from cleaning the boiler and emptying the fireplaces to scraping pots and cleaning privies. At night, Minna had frequently seen her crying herself to sleep.
“The camphor’s been useless. She needed—”
The baroness held up her finger in warning, cutting Minna off. “I’ll decide when my staff needs medication. And, by the way, when I had my sore throat last week, I didn’t notice you running to the chemist for me.”
There was a tense pause as the baroness adjusted the fringed pillows on her Empire sofa. “I must say, I’ve never had much luck with you people. I rarely hire anyone from the Second District, but you came so highly recommended. . . .”
Minna did not contradict her. She had never lived in the Second District, Leopoldstadt, where most of Vienna’s middle-class Jews resided, but she had often felt the sting of anti-Semitism. When she was a child, she sometimes took revenge upon schoolchildren who taunted her with a barrage of bigoted slurs, one time hitting a boy so hard she bloodied his nose. But as she grew older, she found it was something best to ignore, although she still felt a chill at the nape of her neck every time she encountered it.
“Rest assured, my only concern is for the child,” Minna said in a low, firm voice.
“Your concern should be for your employment. You’re a lady’s companion. And as far as I can tell, you haven’t had any medical training.”
“But I have. I was employed by a doctor in Ingolstadt.”
“What’s his name?” the baroness asked, skeptically.
“Herr Dr. Frankenstein,” Minna shot back in a blithe tone.
The baroness stared at Minna for a moment in surprise and then smiled slyly as she registered the joke. She stood up and walked to the fireplace, gathering her basket of needlework. “Now, Minna,” she continued, in a conciliatory tone of voice, “you must apologize so we can carry on.”
“I apologize,” she said promptly, although the sentiment wasn’t there.
“I accept your apology,” she said. “In any event, the girl has never been quite right. Weak and consumptive.”
The baroness gazed into the mirror over the mantel and touched her elaborately upswept hair.
“What do you think of this hairstyle? It’s the same as Clara’s. She wore it to the Imperial Palace last week.”
“It suits you,” Minna replied, staring at the ridiculous bouffant pompadour and wondering if anyone on the face of the earth would be able to keep a straight face looking at it.
“Good, then, I’ll keep it for now,” she said with a dismissive wave, settling herself back on the sofa with her needlework on her lap.
The light was fading and shadows darkened the room. Faint sounds of horses’ hooves and carriage wheels on cobblestones drifted through the heavy, swagged draperies and an occasional servant’s voice echoed through the halls. The baroness’s smooth white hands moved quickly as she concentrated on the pastoral scene she was embroidering on linen. Pale verdant greens, lush lavender sky, and a shepherd tending his flock.
Afterward, Minna climbed the two sets of stairs to her room, immediately pulling off her wet muslin skirt, flannel petticoat, woolen stockings, and unbuttoning the twenty buttons of her white cotton shirt. Her bone-crushing corset was pressing on her rib cage, and she exhaled thankfully as she unlaced it, tossing it on the floor. She needed to dry off. She was beginning to smell like wet dog. The room was dark, matching her mood—the walls an unhealthy shade of arsenic green. She put on her nightdress and carried a candle to the dressing table, her shadow following her. Minna leaned her head back and began brushing her thick auburn hair, gathering it into combs. In her youth, she had been conscious of the wealth of her hair and her tall, slim figure. But over the years vanity had disappeared. The fine planes of her face and neck were still in evidence, but even in the candlelight she could see delicate lines around her eyes.
She never imagined that at this point in her life, at almost thirty years old, she would be standing by silently while a young woman, barely her age, scolded her and nearly let a poor child die like a dog. Minna would have been married by now, like her sister, Martha, if life had turned out differently, if her father hadn’t lost his money and dropped dead on the street, if her fiancé hadn’t died. If, if, if . . .
There was no sense going back over it. She had been on her own for years. No one else in the family could support her—Martha had a growing family; her brother, Eli, had married and moved away; so she fell back on the only options remaining to her—lady’s companion or governess. She had to make her own way in this world, and it looked as if she would be moving on again soon.
She wrapped her shawl around her shoulders, hugging her body and pressing her fingers into her upper arms. She was tired. And her neck hurt. She drifted over to the balcony and looked out the window to the north.
A shot of gin would be nice, she thought, but she’d settle for a cigarette. She lit one of the thin Turkish smokes she kept in her bottom dresser drawer. The downpour had subsided into a slate-colored gloom and she inhaled deeply.
Often, late at night, when her duties were done, Minna would read until the candle drowned in a pool of fat. A hefty chunk of her wages went for books, but not the silver fork novels about maids fornicating in the attic and randy masters with roaming eyes. And not the eternally boring memoirs, the “remember me” books that she’d save until after her eyesight was gone. No, she preferred the big books, wading through Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution, which was better than Edward Freeman’s History of the Norman Conquest, but not especially enlightening. She struggled with turgid passages from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and works by Heraclitus and Parmenides—the heart of which wrestled with questions of existence.
And then there was Aristotle, whom she threw aside after discovering that he considered women one of nature’s deformities—an unfinished man. She sold that volume with no regrets. Plato wasn’t much better on the subject, insisting that women were less competent than men. Then again, she couldn’t dismiss every philosopher simply because of his narrow-minded convictions. After all, Nietzsche, whom she adored, viewed women as merely possessions . . . a property predestined for service. And Rousseau believed a woman’s role was primarily to pleasure men. It was dispiriting, actually.
But there was nothing to aggravate her in literature. In fact, it was the perfect antidote for those feelings of boredom, dread, and loneliness. She chose Goethe’s epistolary The Sorrows of Young Werther and Shakespeare’s Henry VI (Part Two, not Part One, which was more of a historical treatise and one of Shakespeare’s weakest dramas, in her opinion). For sheer entertainment it was Mary Shelley’s Gothic thriller Frankenstein, which she’d consumed in one sitting. And then there was that avant-garde Viennese author named Schnitzler, who had given up his medical practice to write plays about aristocratic heroes and their adulterous affairs. No irony, no moralizing, just a frank, unemotional study of the phenomenon of passion. She’d never read anything quite like it. An acquired taste, this Schnitzler—like olives or caviar or Klimt. But this was not a night to lose oneself in gin, tobacco, and bibliomania.
She pulled on her boots under her nightclothes, not bothering to fasten the tedious number of buttons, and made her way back down to Flora’s claustrophobic little nook. The child was curled up on the cot, clutching her rag doll.
Normally Minna would sit with Flora and tell her stories, but at the moment, Flora was in no mood. She wanted what any child her age would want. She wanted her mother and she wanted to go home. Minna sat down next to her and held her in her arms as Flora snuggled in, laying her cheek against her chest. She gently stroked her hair and hummed softly until she saw Flora’s eyelids flutter and then close. Minna breathed a sigh of relief when the child finally fell asleep.
The next morning, the baroness received a note from her doctor inquiring as to the child’s health and explaining that “after-hours” calls were charged at a premium.
“You’re dismissed,” the baroness had said with a petulant frown, looking away as she informed Minna that all wages would be garnished. The usual nastiness associated with an infuriated employer and an unrepentant employee wasn’t there. Minna stood justly accused. No vehement protestations. There would be no point. Especially in light of what Minna intended to do next.
An hour or so later, after the baroness left for the day, Minna packed up her bags and left them by the servants’ entrance. Then she informed the staff that she and Flora had been “let go,” and took the bewildered child to the Wien Westbahnhof. She was sending Flora home.
Flora was from a small village outside Linz, where the winters were long and the people worked at hardscrabble jobs in iron foundries, mines, or factories. There was, in Flora’s life, privation and tragedy—a sister had died of diphtheria, a brother was imprisoned, and no one knew anything about the father, a general laborer who had disappeared long ago. But Flora clearly adored her mother. “She has golden hair,” she told Minna one night, “like a fairy.”
Minna wrapped her arms around the girl’s small body and they huddled on the platform, half frozen, watching travelers gather at the gate—women with embroidered fur-collared jackets and fancy traveling valises, children with curled hair and warm overcoats. The girl seemed calm now, relieved.
When the train pulled up, Minna and Flora walked past the uniformed porters who were standing by private first-class cars with elaborate sitting rooms and electric lights. She helped the child into the third-class cabin, settling her on a hard wooden bench between two matrons, one of whom had a sleeping baby on her lap.
“Don’t come back,” she had wanted to say, as she brushed Flora’s warm cheek with a kiss, and pressed a few kronen into the matron’s hand, getting her assurance that she would see the child home. But she knew Flora would be sent off somewhere else in a few months. That was her fate. Minna felt a visceral charge of longing and regret. She would have liked, at the very least, to have felt she was setting Flora free.
Minna watched the train lumber away and stood alone on the empty platform as the severity of her situation finally hit her. There would be no recommendation from the baroness, that was for certain. Her money was woefully depleted, and she had no hope for future employment. She hailed an omnibus and rode along the jumbled, cobblestoned streets, trying to ignore the panic building up inside her. She was beginning to think that finding the perfect position was never going to happen. It was exhausting trying to sustain the feeling that she was just one step away from happiness.
She checked into a modest pension near the Danube, but sleep did not come easily. The hours drifted by, she dozed, she read, she paced. The clock ticked loudly on the dresser as she sat down finally to write to her sister. There was no one else. Not even her mother, who barely got by on her widow’s pension. She was facing another failure.
She had been fired several times before and she had quit more times than that. With every setback, Minna would insist that she was fine, she liked her independence, her freedom, her time in the café reading and talking. And with every setback, her sister would turn to her in pity and pat her consolingly on the arm.
“Poor Minna. You know you never get a moment’s peace when you work for those people. . . .”
She wanted a bath and a change of clothes, but her bags were still at the baroness’s house—probably dumped in the alley by now. As soon as the day porter came on duty, she would send for them. She finished the letter to her sister and sealed it. For years, Martha had indicated that her husband, Sigmund, couldn’t afford another person in the house. Now, according to her sister, things had turned around. His medical practice had improved. He had more patients. There was a sixth child. Mathilde, Martin, Oliver, Ernst, Sophie, and now Anna. Maybe they needed her.
Minna hoped Sigmund would be in favor of the situation. Their relationship had always been cordial. No, more than cordial. During the past several years, they had shared a lively correspondence concerning subjects of interest to them both: politics, literature, and his scientific work.
Minna closed her eyes and imagined Martha opening the letter and sending for her immediately. She held that image in her mind. And she, who had never been dependent on relatives, felt the immense relief of the ignorant.
Minna stood on the frozen, grimy curb, shivering in her coat. Her fingertips burned with the cold as she hailed a hansom cab, her spirits buoyed by the thought of settling somewhere. “Come home at once, my dear Minna,” her sister had said in an entirely persuasive manner. “The children miss you terribly. We’ll expect you before dinner.”
The sky was overcast, the wind blowing off the river, another brutally cold November morning as Minna set out to join her sister. The spindly coachman was initially courteous when he first pulled over, but then glowered as she stepped aside to reveal her belongings lined up on the sidewalk, as if she’d been evicted. He grumbled as he hefted her bags into the luggage compartment of the carriage, and now, as she rode through the empty streets, the man’s clucking sounds were nearly as loud as the clopping of the stepper’s hooves.
Wie lange dauert’s? she had asked. How much longer? He seemed to be taking the “scenic route” around the Ring, passing every neoclassical, Renaissance, and baroque building and pointing out each one’s distinguishing features. “The Hofburgtheater was founded by the Emperor in 1874. . . . The Hofoper was inaugurated by His Highness not that long afterward, and the Hofmuseum. . . .” Perhaps he’s angling for a bigger tip, she thought, as she looked out at Vienna’s wedding-cake skyline, with its snow-capped, pointed turrets and Gothic flourishes.
Martha’s words had been reassuring, it was true, but Minna was coming around to the unfortunate fact that this was a rescue, not an invitation. It had not been her choice to impose on her sister, who could hardly say no. How demoralizing at this stage in her life to be in this position. On the other hand, for the moment, this home was a sanctum for her depleted spirits.
Minna nervously looked at the little gold watch dangling from her mother’s bow pin. She knew how her sister felt about tardiness. Dinner, the Mittagessen meal (soup, meat, vegetables, and a sweet), was always served precisely at one, and not a minute later. People did not drift in and out of Martha’s dining room. And all chores were performed with military precision. Martha’s rules. She would be living under Martha’s rules. As was fitting. This was Martha’s house, Martha’s husband, Martha’s children.
The Freuds lived in the Ninth District on a steep, unprepossessing street. One end bordered a respectable residential neighborhood, while the lower end swept down to the disheveled Tandelmarkt, huddled near a canal of the Danube.
The coachman reined in the horses, and his mouth. One more description of a Hof palace, a Hof theater, or a Hof anything, and Minna would have wrung his Hof neck. When the carriage finally pulled up to Berggasse 19, she paid him (including a decent tip—it was freezing up there) with the last of her savings. She arrived at her sister’s house without money and without a plan.
She always thought her sister’sapartment building had an ennobling facade—high ornamental windows, baroque and classical features, an air of grandeur to it if one didn’t look at the stores on the ground floor. On the left of the entrance leading into the apartment was Kornmehl’s kosher butcher shop and on the right, Wiener’s co-operative grocery. The Freud children were bundled in coats and crowded on the front stairs, waiting to greet her.
“How long are you going to sthay, Aunt Minna?” asked four-year-old Sophie, a pink-cheeked, curly-haired cherub with an impressive lisp, who couldn’t quite manage a smile. The rest of the children surrounded Minna as she climbed out of the carriage, a few of them sniffling and rubbing their eyes.
Before Minna could answer, she heard seven-year-old Oliver call back to his mother, “Mama, where is she going to sleep? I thought Papa said there was no room.”
Martha appeared in the doorway, shooing the children aside like pigeons.
“Darling Minna. Here you are,” Martha said, rising on tiptoes and kissing her sister on both cheeks.
“Martha, I can’t tell you how much . . .”
“Stop. Don’t say another word, my dear. We’re the lucky ones.”
Minna put her arms around her sister and then stepped back and looked at her. She hadn’t seen Martha since the birth of Anna and was somewhat unnerved by her appearance. Her lusterless hair was parted down the middle and pulled back in an uncompromising bun, her expression tense and edgy. She looked like someone who had just come out of hiding—her puffy, red-ringed eyes pouched with purple bags, her usual meticulous attire rumpled and slightly askew. Martha had always been “the pretty sister,” blessed with a gentle, oval face, pale complexion, and a Cupid’s bow upper lip that gave her demeanor just the right amount of allure. But now, after six pregnancies, she seemed blurred around the edges, and the only overall impression one got of her was fatigue.
“I’ve been so worried about you,” Martha said, as she clasped Minna’s hand and led her into the apartment. Sophie, Oliver, and yet more children herded behind them, loitering in the hallway and shoving one another aside, trying to lead the way.
They walked slowly through the stolid bourgeois apartment, past rosewood consoles, Biedermeier tables, fatigued Persian carpets, and draperies that trailed on the floor. There was a light smell of furniture oil and floor polish. The children followed behind, their sense of decorum gradually disintegrating. Oliver and Martin tore through the drawing room like little hellions, toppling a chair, while the girls yanked Minna’s sleeve, vying for her attention.
Minna’s bedroom was small and oddly shaped, the former dressing area of the master suite with a long, narrow window over the bed. A jug of water was placed beside the washbasin, a gas lamp was on the dresser, and fresh, laundered sheets were laid out on the bed. There was a small fireplace, bordered with decorative tiles, and an ornate wooden wardrobe was squeezed into the corner.
Martha led her into the room and pulled back the white muslin curtains, letting the soft afternoon light flood across the shiny wood floor. She poured a glass of water and handed it to Minna.
“You look thin, my dear. Are you eating well?” Martha asked, watching her sister thoughtfully as she sat on the edge of the bed.
The two sisters still resembled each other—their eyes the same dark color, their noses straight, and their hair thick and wavy, although Minna inherited her father’s lean frame, while Martha was becoming the image of their plump, matronly mother. In their youth, the difference in their stature was not as apparent, but over the years, it had become more pronounced.
There was a banging at the open door as eight-year-old Martin, the eldest Freud son, struggled in melodramatically with her suitcases. He might be handsome in a few years, Minna thought, but at the moment, he was gawky and slightly chubby, with a pronounced bruise under his right eye. Martha had often complained that the child was always getting into trouble, constantly coming home with skinned knees, black eyes, and ominous notes from other children’s mothers.
“What happened to your eye?”
“Nothing,” he said. “How long are you staying?”
“Just through dinner,” Minna answered.
“Really?” he replied hopefully, giving Minna the distinct impression that the matter of the “maiden aunt” hadn’t yet been settled between his parents.
It’s lovely,” Martha said, admiring the fine fabric of a silk dinner gown that Minna was unpacking.
“A gift from a former employer. Well, not exactly a gift. The baroness thought it was outdated and told me to get rid of it,” Minna said, smiling. Then a childhood memory washed over her. She and Martha were planning for the first social event of the season. It was a different time and place, and it all seemed so frivolous now.
Martha was eighteen, and, in the eyes of her many suitors, female perfection—five feet two; a small, pretty face; dainty hands and feet. On this particularly splendid fall day, she had the rosy glow of a morning walk still on her cheeks and she looked pristine in her soft gray suit and matching boots. She and Minna made their way across the broad Ringstrasse, past St. Stephen’s and the opera house, and into the heart of the old city, where the family dressmaker had a small shop. The first “smart” party of the season was still months away, but Martha had already decided on the material for her gown: seven yards of extra-wide yellow brocade (no crinoline—too vulgar and old-fashioned) that would be measured, cut, and sewn into a tightly corseted, tyrannizing shape, emphasizing Martha’s tiny waist and modest derriere.
The shop was located on a crooked, dark street with medieval cobblestones and was sandwiched between a perfumery and a fine cabinetmaker’s studio that reeked of lacquer. As the two girls entered, they were instantly marooned in silk. Scores of fat, luscious fabric bolts leaned up against the walls, blocking the aisles and windows, along with boxes spilling over with trimmings, bows, feathers, and fringe. Minna fingered the rich French weaves, the intricate Italian prints, the satin velours in jade and garnet and shimmering gold. But where were the prices? she wondered. Not a tag in sight.
“Martha, how much do you suppose . . .”
“Oh, Minna, look. It’s Prussian blue velvet,” Martha replied, transfixed.
“Your friends will be Prussian green with envy,” Minna said with a grin.
At fourteen, Minna was taller than her older sister, almost unfashionably so, with abnormally long legs and neck, and collarbones that stuck out from her blouse. She did not yet go to socials, like her sister, nor did she even own one grown-up party dress. She glanced at herself, then at her sister in the dressing-room mirror. She did this on a regular basis, hoping her image would magically shrink down to that of her sister’s, but, alas, it was not to be, something that made her glad in the years to come.
Minna, however, was comforted by some things. Both she and Martha had the same fine-boned Bernays profile and their skin was white and spotless. But her feet were gargantuan compared to Martha’s, and by the time Minna was eight, the two couldn’t even share boots or slippers. Then there was her hair, always falling out of its braid and ending up in unruly wisps around her face. And the matter of her handwriting. It was smudgier than Martha’s, the tutor never failed to point that out, while grudgingly conceding that Minna was the “student” in the family.
After the fitting, the two sisters walked arm in arm past the architectural infinity of the Ring and the ornate facades of apartment houses, and then along the Kärntner Strasse, past the cathedral. Those days, one could hardly go anywhere without seeing military officers in full regalia, and a group of them smiled at the sisters and touched their helmets. Then it was just a few more streets down to the canal and the wholesale merchant mart, where they bought hot, sticky cream cakes in paper cones and waved at the people in passing boats. At that moment their world was secure and uncomplicated, and they were thankful in a way most young girls were not. The past had been a nightmare.
Ten years earlier, when the family lived in Hamburg, their father, Berman Bernays, was sent to jail for bankruptcy fraud. He had been wrongfully accused, of that Minna was certain. Nevertheless, for years there was a lingering tinge of embarrassment that blighted family gatherings and other social events. While he was in prison, Minna’s mother assumed a haughty air of contempt to counteract the disgrace; and her older brother, Eli, dropped out of school, abandoned his friends, and went to work for an uncle from Kiev who peddled dry goods up and down the countryside. Eli would disappear for weeks on end to God knows where, then reappear dispirited and drained of energy, wearing rumpled clothes and smelling of sausage and cabbage. He would rail about the filth and disease of the villages, the crowded rooming houses with no lavatories, but most of all, he hated the life of an itinerant peddler. (Ah, well, thought Minna, he showed them all, moved to America with his own family, richer now than any of them.)
She would never forget the day her father finally came home. He stood in the doorway, looking half-dead, his hair grown gray and wispy, his beard matted on his chin. His appearance hit her like a stone, and stunned the rest of the family into silence. Martha recoiled when he drew near her, so he turned to Minna.
“My little shana madel,” he said, using the endearment he had called her since she was born, “my beautiful girl.” He threw out his arms and hugged her close, and she could feel his bones through his sweater.
Later that evening, as they lit the Sabbath lights, the family was quiet, careful, but Minna’s mother’s voice assumed a tone of anger mixed with anxiety that, even years later, never went away. Her resentment increased when Minna’s father found a new position as a secretary to a well-known economist and moved the family to a modest house on the outskirts of the Jewish district of Vienna. There was a solid Jewish middle class there, he had argued, and many of his friends had grown wealthy and powerful under the Hapsburg monarchy. Hundreds of Jewish families like their own had streamed into the city in those days, escaping the growing movement of anti-Semitism in the countryside outside Hamburg, and seeking opportunity and culture unequaled in Europe. But his reasoning fell on deaf ears. Emmeline missed her native Germany and blamed Berman for their disgrace and economic hardship. After all, her family had been socially prominent, if not wealthy, and the calamity of his imprisonment had taken away their good name.
“Vienna oppresses me,” she said peevishly. “The noise from the street is unbearable. And all those ugly steeples!”
“I like it here,” Minna would respond, cool and defiant, indirectly defending her father. “It’s so boring in the country. There’s nothing to do in Hamburg.”
While her mother went on and on, listing her grievances about the city, “the jaded avant-garde, the damp weather, the shabby synagogue . . .” her father would retreat to his chair, smiling wanly. Later on, Minna would sit by his side, and they would play cards or read. She would often think of these moments, when it was just the two of them.
The night before he died, Minna and her father went out for their usual evening stroll. There was always a burst of vitality and life on the streets of Vienna, and Minna loved to look at the handsomely clad men in silk top hats and the women in elaborate feathered hats, fashionable gowns, and glossy fur capes as they gathered in the grand entrance of the Hotel Imperial and the popular Café Central. She would watch sleek black carriages arrive at restaurants filled with people smoking and laughing and drinking bitter-brewed Kaffee mit Schlag. The air was filled with mist and light and music. And, Minna thought, as much as my mother hates this city, this is how much I love it.
She could remember the exact moment when she got the news. She was back at the dress shop, discussing which of Martha’s many suitors would fill up her dance card, when a white-faced Eli burst through the door. Berman had been crossing the Ringstrasse at a busy intersection when he collapsed in the middle of the street. According to passersby, he had stood still for a moment, clutching his arm, and then dropped in a heap on the cobblestones, a carriage swerving suddenly to miss him. He was just fifty-three years old. Dead from a massive heart attack.
For the next few days, everything was focused on arranging the burial, which according to Jewish tradition, had to take place two days after the death. Emmeline was inconsolable and even more sharp-tongued than usual. She sat in the drawing room, alone at the end of the sofa, her needlework untouched on her lap. Curtains were drawn, mirrors covered with black crepe, and clocks stopped at the time of death.
“We are left with nothing, girls. Nothing.”
Emmeline’s anger was matched by Minna’s unimaginable disappointment. She was astounded at the loss, at the cold, dark silence filling the space that once was his. The universe seemed so unjust, so empty and thin.
In accordance with Jewish law, the family sat shiva for seven days. No bathing or showering. They wore torn black ribbons on their lapels and listened as the rabbi, who stopped by several times a day, led them in the mourners’ Kaddish. Minna couldn’t stand all the consoling visitors with moist eyes. She couldn’t stand all the food and wine and socializing. In her fourteen-year-old brain, it felt as if everything had turned to dirt.
Their mother, Emmeline, used this tragedy to further her campaign to leave Vienna for their former, more modest home in the countryside outside Hamburg. Neither sister wanted to move, but their mother persevered. During this period, they lived on the generosity of aunts, uncles, and Eli, their older brother, who was now making a good living as a businessman.
In those days, the girls were confidantes, allying themselves against their mother. But eventually Minna became the stronger one, more outspoken, able to fight the necessary battles to ensure what little pleasures they had left. When they wanted to go out, it was always Minna who braved their mother’s temperamental moods and voiced the request. Consequently, Martha became the favorite, a fact their mother did little to hide, and Minna did little to pretend she didn’t know. Martha was dutiful, soft-spoken, and acquiescent, while Minna was independent and fearless. Those were their appointed roles, and it was really no different now, even though Martha was married and Minna had been on her own for years.
• • •
Is this alcohol, Tante Minna?” Martin asked.
“No,” she lied as she stashed the bottle along with the cigarettes in the bottom drawer of the dresser.
He continued to hover like a vulture as she opened the smaller of her cases and pulled out a small portfolio of her correspondence and a photograph of her mother in a widow’s cap.
“I could stay and help if you want,” he said, watching with sharp, bright eyes as each item was pulled from the valise.
She wished she had something to give him. In the past, she had always brought little things for the children, fancy bags of glass marbles or postcards with pictures of Emperor Franz Josef or Prussian soldiers with elaborate helmets and sabers. (There were also a few postcards she knew he’d like of the emperor’s mistress, a famous Viennese actress draped in a diaphanous gown—Hapsburg Cheesecake, everyone called it. These she wouldn’t give him, even if she had the money.) Nevertheless, the Flora incident had been expensive, and she was forced to send Martin on his way empty-handed.
She watched him walk slowly down the hall, then sat on the bed, even more disappointed than the child. She could hear the distant sounds of bustling, midday crowds at the Tandelmarkt, cries from boatmen on the Danube canal, jingly bells of a parish church, and the clattering and rinsing of saucepans from the kitchen. From across the hall came the shrill noise of squabbling children and a howling baby.
Martha smiled sympathetically at her sister.
“You know, Minna. It’s very important—very, very, important—to be surrounded by one’s family.”
“I agree,” Minna answered with a slight grin. “As long as it’s not Mother.”
Martha laughed appreciatively.
Both of them knew that their mother had been on an active campaign to marry Minna off. After all, she only wanted what all practical-minded mothers wanted—her aging, not-so-eligible daughter safely married. How many times since her fiancé’s death had Minna heard her mother tell her she needed to be less haughty with her words, less imaginative? Minna had paid a penalty for her nature, Emmeline argued, and as a result she would remain single. Also, she was too bookish, too biased, and intolerant of people who disagreed with her. The last time Minna visited Hamburg, her mother had advised, “You should talk less of Gounod operas and more of other subjects, or better yet, talk less in general. Most men don’t appreciate a bright wit, unless it’s their own.”
To Emmeline, women like Minna were marginalized, surplus daughters with mediocre prospects, never fitting in, as if constantly suffering from a mild illness or having a physical disfigurement. This was an argument that Minna could never win. It was a good thing she wasn’t Catholic. Her mother might have stabled her in a distant convent.
“Now don’t get angry . . .” Martha said, hesitating, “but you know she only has your best interests at heart.”
“All she cares about is one thing. . . .” Minna said, pulling her few remaining books from the suitcase and setting them on the dresser, using the Dickens and the Kipling as bookends.
“Well, one must be somewhat realistic. A woman alone . . .” she said, running her fingers through her hair, a habit Minna remembered since childhood, whenever Martha thought she might offend.
“So what are you saying? That I should have married that friend of Eli’s, that salesman from Hamburg?” Minna asked, digging through her valises.
“No, not him. Wasn’t he the one you kept calling the Merchant of Venice? What are you rummaging around for?”
“A husband,” Minna teased.
The two sisters laughed, their faces bending toward each other as if they were gossiping at a tea.
“Well, if that’s the case, Sigmund has a colleague I’d like you to meet. Dr. Silverstein. Socially prominent. A lifelong bachelor. But at this age, there’s always something . . .”
“Martha, please. Let me settle in a bit before you start all this.”
“Start what?” Martha asked innocently.
“It’s just that . . .”
“It’s always just this or that. You must admit, there were others . . . after Ignaz died. Respectable others. You were too busy . . . or too . . . I don’t know. . . .”
Martha had always believed that Minna could get married anytime she wanted. She just needed to be more pliable, or at least pretend to be. Men weren’t amused by women who were unconventional—straying from the norm and bringing chaos into their lives.
Minna, on the other hand, had always believed that marrying merely for security sentenced one to a lifetime of boredom. But she looked into her sister’s worried face and decided to appease her.
“All right, my dear,” Minna said indulgently, “the next time you see Prince Charming, send him my way.”
Minna dear, sit next to Sigmund,” Martha said, motioning to two empty chairs at the far end of the table. “Where are those children? I ask you, how difficult is it for everyone to be on time?”
Minna looked around the somber dining room. She had never liked the crimson-flocked wallpaper and oppressive velvet curtains, which gave the room a stuffy, funereal atmosphere. If she could pull down the drapes, she would, and, she thought, she’d also refinish the beef-colored mahogany table. But all of this, including the elaborate rosewood sideboard, was de rigueur in every proper dining room. The only unique touch was the couch, placed for no apparent reason at the far end of the room and smothered in Persian carpets. What they used it for was a mystery.
“Light the candles, will you, dear?” Martha asked, fussing over the flowers. She disappeared into the kitchen as the children sauntered in unhurried, and headed toward their assigned seats—Oliver next to Sophie, with Martin and ten-year-old Mathilde across from them. Mathilde was the oldest child and the acknowledged beauty of the family. It didn’t take her more than two minutes to start bossing the others around.
“Wipe your nose, Oliver. Have you no manners? It’s disgusting. Sophie, hurry up!”
The baby, Anna, was with Frau Josefine in the upstairs nursery, and six-year-old Ernst, as Martin told Minna, was still at speech therapy. Ernst had a lisp even more pronounced than that of his sister Sophie, and after years of erupting with incomprehensible phrases, he was now seeing a specialist.
The children all had that scrubbed-behind-the-ears look: neat pigtails and lace pinafores for the girls, and crisp linen sailor shirts and knickerbockers for the boys. Minna attempted to talk with each one, but they were all so animated and impossibly fidgety that she found it difficult to follow the different strands of conversation, particularly when they were all speaking at the same time. As the noise level rose, Martha flitted back and forth into the kitchen, checking on the biscuits, the beef, getting this child a glass of water, that child a napkin, removing an elbow or a leg from the arm of a chair, and, at one point, bending over and picking up a wad of lint from the floor.
“What on earth . . .” she murmured to no one in particular, then sighed and sat stiffly in her chair.
Minna smoothed her high-necked, white silk blouse, thinking that the room smelled like Sunday. She had taken off the jacket of her traveling suit and loosened the hair from her bun when she was upstairs in her bedroom, but now she felt suddenly underdressed compared to the formality of the dining table. Lace tablecloths, silver candlesticks, good china, vases of flowers. Martha straightened her place setting and fixed her eyes on the door.
“Sigmund’s lecture must have run over again. . . . I simply don’t understand it . . . talking endlessly to his students when he knows we’re waiting . . . or maybe he took the long way around the Ring . . . he’s sure to catch his death.”
A uniformed maid, carrying a steaming soup tureen, marched in from the kitchen as Sigmund simultaneously appeared through double doors. It certainly wasn’t the first time Minna saw him, but it felt that way. He walked into the room and gave her a curious smile. He was handsomer than she remembered, with a heftier build and finer clothes. In fact, he was impeccably groomed, wearing a pinstriped, three-piece wool suit and a black silk cravat. There was a simple gold chain, a chain that had belonged to her father, that was attached to his watch, secured through a buttonhole, with the excess length draped across his vest. In one hand, he was holding a small antiquity, a solid bronze figurine, and in the other, a cigar. His hair was thick and dark, slightly graying at the temples. And then there were the eyes. Intense. Dark. Appraising.
Minna thought back to when she first met him, a new suitor for Martha. He was standing in the parlor of their home in Vienna, a poor Jew from the wrong side of town, whose family had neither social standing nor wealth. He was looking at Martha, and Minna was looking at him. It was twilight, the time when day and night slur together at a certain moment and then all the colors of the day fade to black. Her sister had been introduced to him a month before, but by the end of this particular visit the stage was set for both of them. Martha was almost giddy when she talked about him. But not their mother, a woman from a distinguished German Jewish family who deemed the young doctor hardly worthy of her daughter. Nevertheless, two months later the couple was secretly engaged. Minna remembered thinking that Sigmund’s wild infatuation and pursuit of Martha didn’t seem quite real. As if they were playing at being in love, the courtship taking place in both of their minds. The progression of it all was baffling, at least to Minna.
During these first visits, her sister hardly talked. Martha was a soft, delicate little creature filled with hope. And Minna was a different version of herself as well. Back then, she was tall and thin, all angles and tangled hair. Too much enthusiasm, too much talking, and far too clever. In those days, Sigmund got exactly what he wanted: an old-fashioned sweetheart, not a woman with opinions who engaged in serious conversations. Minna’s role was clear from the beginning, and she was ever mindful of that fact. Minna was the intellectual and Martha was the intended. And now here they were, Martha and Sigmund, married, six children, married, married, married.
He stood there for a moment, watching Minna. She met his gaze and he gave her the same look he used to give her years ago, making her feel that it was more than simple recognition. Then he crossed the room and took his seat next to her empty chair, placing the antiquity on the table in front of him and stubbing out his cigar in a small brass ashtray.
“My dear Minna,” he said, “to what do we owe this great pleasure?”
“To my getting dismissed,” she said, smiling demurely. “Again.”
He laughed, but her joke came at the cost of revealing her situation, which, under the circumstances, she meant to avoid. She colored slightly as she leaned over the table and lit the candles.
“Tante Minna got sacked?” Martin asked, his mouth twisted in disbelief.
“Martin, your language. Who uses such a term?” Martha said.
“Again? Has she been dismissed before?” chimed in seven-year-old Oliver, whom Sigmund had named after one of his heroes, the great puritan Oliver Cromwell.
“What would you like to drink, Minna?” said Martha. “Quinine? Beer? Wine? Sigmund, what shall we serve Minna to drink?”
“But who would dismiss Tante Minna?” Oliver persisted.
“What did you do?” Martin asked.
“No more questions,” Martha said, cutting them off. “Eat your soup. Did you say wine, dear? It’s wonderful to have Tante Minna here with us, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Sigmund added, standing in a polite gesture as Minna finally sat down in the chair next to him.
“How fortuitous that she landed here. Tell me,” Sigmund asked, looking straight at her, “how did we get so lucky?”
“Well, she happened to be working for a beastly woman who hadn’t the common decency of a, I don’t want to say a blood-sucking rodent, but I suppose that would be a fair comparison. Wine sounds lovely.”
His eyes met Minna’s for a moment with an appreciative glint. Then he looked away and leaned back with his arms crossed, just the way she remembered when she and Martha used to meet him at the café with a group of friends many years ago. He had finished his neurological training by then, and was living in a cramped, one-room flat at Vienna’s General Hospital. Minna’s fiancé, Ignaz Schönberg, one of Sigmund’s closest friends, was also part of this little band. He was a Sanskrit scholar and a philosophy student at the university and his outbursts of Sanskrit trivia struck Sigmund as so much poppycock.