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The story begins in 1937, with a flight carrying famed director Rudolph Von Beckmann and his cast (including narrator Peter Lorre) and crew to Munich, where the master will stage a theatrical production of Sophocles' Antigone. But the burgeoning Nazi momentum changes their plans—particularly those of Von Beckmann's adored star Magdalena Mezaray, who is appropriated, as it were, by the government for its new Führer's entertainment. Other distractions—such as the great director's homosexual passions and Lorre's hopeless fixation on his colleague and sometime co-star Rochelle Hudson—variously affect Von Beckmann's ingenious plan: to film his Antigone in the guise of a Wild West melodrama, to be shot in a remote Nevada town named (all too sympathetically) Pandaemonium. The outcome is tragic, but its impact is lessened by the distance at which we're kept from Epstein's confusing host of fictional and real characters (including his well-known father and uncle, the successful screenwriters Philip G. and Julius J. Epstein). The momentum is further flattened by recurring excerpts from the columns of gossip monger Louella Parsons, whose participation in the climactic action doesn't seem fully credible. Peter Lorre is a potentially attractive focal character—his barely contained fury at contractual obligations binding him perhaps forever to the unfulfilling role of serial sleuth "Mr. Moto" is well conveyed, as are his fears for the fate of Jews, including himself—but Epstein has given him a whiny, self-absorbed voice and manner that severely undercut our identification and empathy with him.
The materials for a fine novel are here, but this one feels both overwrought and uninvolving.
w; the dark eyes were drooping and heavy-lidded, as if pulled down by the pockets of flesh underneath. On the thick lip, a thin line of moustache. A cape, a carnation, a monocle on a ribbon. When Von Beckmann turned toward the lad, I could make out the celebrated profile: a jaw that jutted prognathically forward, while the hair—jet black, save for a frostbitten shaft of white—sprang to the rear. What a large head! I'd already made a bet with my old friend Basserman that there wasn't a store in Berlin, Paris, or Vienna that could supply him with a ready-made hat.
"What is this? Tears, mein Honigkuchen? Is the little bird weeping?" Von Beckmann, crouching, took the valet's face, with its high cheekbones, its pinched Tartar's eyes, into both hands.
"We're going to crash! I know it! Into the ice!"
Von B shook his great head. "Dear boy, you must be making a joke. You wish to amuse me. You know that cannot be the fate of Von Beckmann—to be crushed at random, without meaning, against the side of a rock. Like an insect. Ha-ha! What a silly child!"
Serge laughed, liltingly, as if he had never had a care. In the flickering lights I saw how, when the impresario rose again, the boy licked the palm of his hand, the way a deer might, for the taste of the salt.
From across the aisle, opposite my seat, came another laugh. There sat Albert Basserman himself, hatless, the white fluff of his hair parted on one side so as to cover the pink dome of his scalp. The wattles of his chin were pressed against the silk stripes of his four-in-hand. How unruffled, unflappable my oldfriend was—or seemed. Again he gave his lighthearted chuckle. Was it the exchange he'd just heard that he found amusing? Or something in the copy of Figaro he'd picked up in Paris? Although I knew he'd been a featured player in films going all the way back to Das Gelobtes Land of 1909, I still thought of him as the great interpreter of Ibsen and as a stage performer for Reinhardt and Von Beckmann. The strange thing was, he hadn't performed for the impresario in over ten years; yet he had willingly abandoned his new country and his family, so recently settled, at nothing more than the great man's call.
Was that it? The reason we were risking, with these aeronautical acrobatics, our lives? Basserman wasn't the only one who had come at Von Beckmann's summons. Sampson Frank, who was to be our Tiresias, was sitting one row back. That six-footer, with his patchy beard, his wire spectacles, had been with Von B from the beginning of his career. It would have been a surprise if he hadn't been on board. And Reynaldo Flatow, the playwright? He had adapted all of the director's classical productions, from the early Orestea cycle to last December's Medea. It was only natural that he should join us at Salzburg.
But what of Magdalena? At the thought of her, the mental murmuring of her name, I pushed myself upward and twisted about in order to peer into the rearmost rows. Fitting that I should see first the crossed legs in their patented fishnet stockings. Then I looked up to what at that moment was the most famous face in the world: the arched eyebrows over the half-closed eyes; the strong cheekbones and sunken cheeks; and, beneath the pillbox hat, the streaming waves of what Louella would call honey-colored hair. I thought I could see, in the full lower lip and the hint of a knob at the chin, something of the girl—a shopgirl, was she? Modeling hats?—that Von Beckmann had discovered during the war. Her first role for the director had been that of Ophelia, in the scandalous Hamlet of Berlin. Throughout the twenties, in the public mind, and in reality too, the impresario and the actress had been inseparable. You'd have to search long and hard to find a publicity photo in which they were not physically linked: strolling, laughing, shoulder to shoulder; she bending to hug him round the neck while he sits lost in thought; or extending her arm either to light the tip of his cigarette or dangle, from the tines of a fork—this might be in Maxim's or a taverna, a trattoria—some morsel that her mentor grasps between those white, even, surprisingly little teeth.
Through the whole of that decade, during which the actress never appeared except as an extension of, practically an extrusion, a beautiful bulge, in that big man's ectoplasm, there had hung about them an air of titillation and scandal. He was, after all, old enough to be the fraulein's father. He had found her, shaped her, created her; could her not, like a Pygmalion, a Svengali, use her as well? Of course she drew men, the way the bright petals of a flower must draw the busy, bumbling bees. But this was the question that the gossip columns, hinting and smirking, inevitably asked: were they for the protegee or for the master?
All that ended—when was it? In 1930. The two of them had agreed to sign a long-term contract with MGM and, on the Normandie, had sailed for New York. The couple got no further. For some reason Magdalena boarded the Twentieth Century Limited by herself, and she was alone when she arrived at Union Station on the Super Chief. Nobody imagined that, by herself, with only her own wits and talent, she would be able to complete a single picture. Well, she'd made a score—the first for MGM and the rest with Granite Films. With Victor Granite as her producer, she'd become an even greater star, more beautiful in my opinion, more glamorous, even more mysterious, than she had been in Europe. As for the impresario, he returned on the Normandie's next sailing. Who could say why? There were stories about threats and a looming scandal, from other studios, especially from Granite. All anyone knew for sure was that by the time Magdalena headed west, he was already on his way back to the continent where every literate citizen knew his face, his name—Von Beckmann, the famed Von B-and would step into the gutter to allow him, his jaw jutting forward, his hair streamlined behind, to pass.
The storm outside our twin-engine airship grew steadily worse. It felt as if the wind, like some whimsical giant, was tossing us from hand to hand. A flash, a thunderclap, and once more the lights went out. A little glow came from up front on the left. A match flare. Rudi Von Beckmann was lighting a cigarette. He and Magda had been separated now for almost eight years. Yet all he needed to do was snap his fingers and—poof! There went her contract; poof! goodbye to Victor Granite, her producer, her lover—she had come.
But not before asking me to join her. That had been at the farewell party she'd given last New Year's, in the final hours of 1937. "Come with me, lambie. Rudi wants you, only you. For the role of Haemon, yes? Antigone's cousin. Also her bridegroom." She took my hand and squeezed it. She stepped behind me and kissed my neck. "Don't you want to be my lover?" I could still feel, under my camel-hair collar, the nibbling lips; still smell, in our tossing cabin, the musk of perfume: Was Frauen Traumen. "What Women Dream." To be her lover! At the thought my palms grew damp. After all, perhaps it was what those lips said—Rudi wants you, only you—that held the clue to this mystery: was I, Peter Lorre, tossing in the stratosphere for the same reason as all the others? Was it simply because Rudolph Von Beckmann had called?
The lights came on, flashing like a movie marquee. I reached into my lefthand pocket. I took out the scrap of the Examiner I'd bought on the day I took off from Van Nuys. The "Merry Go Round," I saw, was still spinning:
It was so warm in Palm Springs over the weekend that I had more than my share of the old-fashioneds that Nick whips up so expertly at the Desert Inn bar. I had planned to be hors de combat for a few days, but I couldn't help noting how Lady Castelross's Schiaparelli dress autographed with the names of all the movie stars drew so much attention and how Tyrone Power sat like a lost soul bluer than blue at the Ellsworth Vines-Fred Perry matches because Janet Gaynor had tried herself off to Washington. Ty's making no secret of the fact that he's never been in love like this before. "Louella," he told me, "this is the real thing." I hope that puts an end to the rumors that some of our prying journalists—some people can't resist getting a Hedda!—have spread about Ty doing the Big Apple with the vivacious young Lana Turner who continues to make a name for herself after Les Kahn, the publicity boss at Granite, put out the word that she was discovered over an ice cream soda at Schwabs.
Metro's rush act in bringing an unknown boy from Salem, Oregon, sight unseen to play the young Nelson Eddy resulted in bitter disappointment to both the child and his mother. By the time they arrived the studio had decided to put William Cody Jr. into the role. Leo the Lion tried to compensate the mother by offering her a job but she turned it down, saying she had no ambitions as an actress and that her place is with her husband, who is a prune grower.
From THE CHATTERBOX: Doc Mosk reports that Mrs. Stan Laurel is at the Wilshire Hospital with a nervous collapse. J. Carrol Naish and his wife now have separate addresses. Rudy Vallee removed his raincoat while having a picture taken on the Warner lot; seems like he didn't want Florida to get the wrong impression. The Binnie Barnes-Jean Negulesco romance threatens to get serious; they were cooing for hours at Ciro's last night. Chick Chandler, he of the dimpled chin, was seen lunching with Frances Langford, which can't make his new friend, the raven-haired Rochelle Hudson, jump for joy.
All those doubting Thomases who scoffed at my exclusive a few months back that Greta Garbo and Leopold Stokowski were romancing are going to have to eat their hats when they find out that the conductor has just left in secret for Europe and that the Swedish star is waiting for him in her native land. It certainly appears that Greta does not "vant to be alone" any longer and that the doting duo will be married soon. Speaking of long distance lovebirds, don't be surprised if Magdalena Mezaray, who recently threw over old flame Victor Granite in order to return to Europe, falls once more under the spell of Rudolph Von Beckmann, who will be her director at this year's Salzberg Festival. If you think Victor was upset, you should have heard his handsome brother, Manfred, when he discovered his top femme star had torn up her contract. Even if I wanted to, Mr. Hearst would not let me print that flying filmmaker's words. If Magda and Rudi step over the border to visit the old country, they'll find that nobody's sleeping in the gutters anymore and that the streets are spic and span. Maybe, as Mr. Hearst always says, we should try a little of Herr Hitler's elbow grease in the good old U.S. of A. One person who won't be raising a stein of beer is Peter Lorre, who is also on his way to join Von Beckmann's Salzburg premiere. He changed his name from Laszlo Loewenstein for a good reason, though his fans know him as Mr. I. A. Moto. I've heard that Granite is planning a whole new series of adventures for the slant-eyed sleuth and—
I crumpled the newsprint. Good news! Chick Chandler, it seemed, was seeing someone besides Miss Rochelle Hudson, with whom we both had worked in our last feature. Bad news, too. More Moto! Moto to the crack of doom! I had already made four of those pitiful pictures, and the fifth, Mysterious Mr. Moto, was scheduled for production in May. Here, then, was the real reason I found myself on this ill-fated flight. The eyes of the world would be on Salzburg. Was it foolish of me to think that with such an international success—and as the romantic lead! Opposite Magda!—I would have enough stature to break my Granite contract? Would Von Beckmann really free me? I glanced forward to where a coil of smoke, like a ragged wreath of laurel, rose above the impresario's head. A cold shudder ran through me. I must have been a lunatic, a Dummkopf; to put my faith in the man. There would be for me no happy ending. Rather, my end had been determined at my beginning—from my very first picture. The brand had been chalked forever upon my back: M. For Murder. Malice. Madness. For Macabre. For Melodrama. Above all, for Moto.
At that moment the stewardess—a brunette, with her eyes set a little too close to her longish nose—stepped through the door that separated the passenger compartment from the cockpit. "Mesdames et messieurs," she announced, "le pilote desire ..."
What the captain desired was to inform us that we could not continue circling much longer and that unless there was a break in the weather soon, he would have to divert our flight to another destination.
"How soon?" Basserman inquired.
"Dix minutes," the stewardess replied.
With my index finger I performed what everyone recognized to be the international gesture of apprehension: I crooked it under my collar. "Excuse me. Where, please, will we land? In Linz?"
"I regret to say," said the stewardess, "the storm is moving to the east. The visibility there is worse than here."
"The aerodrome in Innsbruck is not equipped for electronic operations. There too it is as dark as night."
The passengers, each one of us, turned to the glass of the nearest window. But there was nothing to see but the charcoal-dust of the clouds.
Basserman, with his practiced sangfroid, folded his newspaper into a square. "Very well: we return to Paris. You know, I believe that might be best, after all. I now remember I left a pair of shoes at the hotel."
At this little joke the stewardess managed a lipstick-stained smile. "I, too, monsieur, would prefer to spend this night in Paris. Alas, we haven't the petroleum for the flight. Our reserves are too low to reach even Vienna."
Flatow wiped, with a handkerchief, the top of his shining bald head. His eyes were swimming like goldfish in the lenses of his glasses. "No Paris," he muttered. "No Linz. No Vienna. Where on this earth can we land?"
The attendant, in responding, shifted to the German word: "Munchen."
"Munich!" a half-dozen voices cried.
"Oui. The distance is one hundred twenty kilometers, and the sky is clear. Even if the storm should outrace us, they have the instruments for such a landing."
Basserman chuckled. "Landing? The difficulty is not with the landing. How will we take off, my dear? There are no instruments for that."
I reached into my pocket, this time the right-hand one, and took a pinch of powder between my fingers. "You can joke. But what about me? I am known in Germany. My name is on a list. Yes! Yes! It is Loewenstein! Laszlo Loewenstein!" Quickly I inhaled the magic potion. "Fine for you to laugh: Albert the Aryan. But what about us Jews?"
"Yes, yes," cried Flatow. "What about us?"
Magda leaned forward. Once again her words were meant only for me. "Do not be alarmed, my lamb. I have met Herr Hitler. Just before I left for America—and even before he became Reichskanzler. He was pleasant. Yes, even gay, even flirtatious. He smiled with his little cheeks, his little moustache. How he stared with those eyes! He'll listen to me, I feel certain. I won't let him touch a hair of lambie's head."
"No, no," came a voice from the rear. "I, too, have met Herr Hitler. Eight days ago, Fraulein Mezaray, not eight years."
The speaker was the man in uniform. Now he stood upright, so that his handsome blond head brushed the compartment ceiling.
"You?" Serge exclaimed. "Why would he meet with a little lieutenant?"
"I accompanied Chancellor Von Schuschnigg to the conference at Berchtesgaden, above which we are circling now. I can assure you that the Fuhrer was not gay. There were no smiles. It was our Austrian chancellor who was forced to bow, to make pleasantries, to play the diplomat. We stood on that mountaintop, from where we could look from peak to peak down to Salzburg itself. The chancellor said that he hoped that in their coming talks they would be able to see as clearly. Do you know what Herr Hitler replied? We are not here to discuss the view. It was terrible! The man got everything he wanted. His troops will infiltrate our armies. His supporters are to run our Federal Police. We couldn't get in a word. It was like talking to a Martian!" The poor patriot, in his agony, had begun to twist his cloth cap in his hands. "We came down the mountain in a half track. When we reached the bottom, Von Schuschnigg said to me, He will break his word on everything, Anton. You cannot make a gentleman's agreement when there is only one gentleman."
Sampson Frank stood at his seat. In the flickering lights his spectacles blinked like semaphore signals. "Why are you telling us this? Is it to frighten us? Young man, you are succeeding."
"I merely wanted to say that it is impossible to land at Munich. A planeload of exiles bound for the festival at Salzburg, accompanied by the personal adjutant of the Austrian chancellor—this would be just the pretext the Reichskanzler is seeking. No, no, mademoiselle. We must not land in Germany. It will create an international incident. It is not just a matter of risking our lives. It would be risking war."
From all of us a moan went up that mimicked the sound of the laboring engines. The stewardess, to whom these last words had been directed, stood petrified.
"Intolerable! It is an intolerable situation! I shall speak to the pilot." That was Von Beckmann. He, too, had risen from his seat.
"Monsieur Von Beckmann, je vous en prie—"
The stewardess begged him to sit down and to extinguish his cigarette. The director did neither. Instead, he stepped into the aisle and moved toward the front of the plane. At the same time the aircraft nosed downward, as if the sheer bulk of the man had unbalanced the DC-3, the way a standing passenger will tip a canoe. Trailing the exhaust of his cigarette behind him, Von Beckmann pushed through the door that the stewardess attempted to bar and disappeared inside the cockpit.
Almost at once another flash of lightning engulfed our craft. It seemed as if, just beneath us, the pagan god of Bavaria was hurling these bolts in his fury at our intrusion into his space. Or else he was enraged that we dared to challenge the Lord and Master at the one spot on earth, Salzburg, he most despised. Like a leaf, slipping and sliding, we tumbled downward through the blackening clouds. Of course I knew that it wasn't Salzburg that Hitler loathed but what Salzburg had become. The decadent plays of Von Hofmannsthal, the conducting of Walter and Klemperer, the staging of Reinhardt; worst of all, the audience, sophisticates, cosmopolites: it was as if this jewel of the Alps, for a thousand years an archbishopric in which no non-Christians had been allowed, had suddenly become a Jewish ghetto. And all within eyesight of Berchtesgaden! Not just eyesight. Do you suppose, if the wind were right, he could actually smell us, and hear the screech from our violins?
The little plane, our aluminum coffin, was still plummeting downward, faster than any elevator. The cabin lights sizzled, like the spark at the end of a fuse. Once more I reached into my pocket for the potent powder. Then I saw the stewardess trying to make her way down the aisle. Were those tears in her eyes? Dark eyes, I noted, small and brown, like coffee beans. Each of her hands, with their long red nails, was wringing the other. Without speaking I patted the cushion of the seat beside me.
"Merci, Monsieur Lorre," she said, and sank upon it.
"You know my name?" I inquired.
"Oh, mais oui!"
"Raskolnikov, eh? Hitchcock, ha-ha-ha! Don't be frightened: from M?"
"Non! Non!" She put her thumbs to her eyelids and pulled upward. She gave a toothy grin. "Voila!"
Downward, upward, round and round we circled. The engines were coughing like a man on his deathbed. I looked through the double panes of the window. Nothing to see save my own worried reflection, as round and pale as a Limburger moon. Next to me, the Parisienne panted, heaving sigh after sigh. I looked at the frills and frous of her Air France blouse. Did I dare to take her hand? To brush the tears from her cheek? At the thought a thousand fountains opened at my hairline and beneath my arms. Pipes burst between my shoulders, upon my chest. What bitter irony! Here sat I, a personal student of Freud, of Adler, liberators of the erotic emotions, pioneers of sexual freedom; yet the nearness of this coquette had made me awash in perplexity and perspiration. Were we about to die? To be squashed—what had Von Beckmann said? Like an insect against the Alps? And would I not act? I breathed deeply. I turned toward her. Mr. Moto Takes a Chance.
"Cherie," I said in my smoothest voice, "do not be afraid. I have something for you. A little treat. Want to see it? Want to feel it?"
Impossible to ignore the spark of interest that lit the irises of those cocoa-colored eyes. I seized her hand. I guided it, without resistance, toward my lap. I opened the flap of my camel coat. Suddenly she raised her head, so as to sniff the air. "Qu'est-ce que c'est, cette odeur?" she exclaimed. "Une odeur des amandes ameres! Is it nuts?"
That was the moment that the door at the front swung open and Von Beckmann squeezed through into the passenger compartment. All eyes turned toward him. "We shall not land in Munchen," he declared. "We shall not land at any city of the Reich."
Delighted, Serge clapped his hands together. "Bravo!" he cried.
"Pardon, monsieur," said the stewardess, jumping to her feet. "But how is this possible? We do not have the fuel to reach any other destination."
Basserman: "And we can't keep circling. We had ten minutes. Ten minutes have passed."
"Then," said Von Beckmann, "we must land in Salzburg."
Sampson Frank lost his nerve completely. "But the clouds! The storm! It's madness! We shall crash into the peaks!"
Here the impresario pulled himself up to his full height, so that the top of his head pressed against the cabin roof. It might have been a practiced pose, chin high, defiant, like Rodin's Balzac—except that the director had drawn the folds of his cape about him, instead of the immortal's dressing gown. "The clouds," he declared, "will part."
I hardly heard him. Did I really smell like almonds? That's what I was thinking. It was because of my glands. The excitement. Suddenly my bitterness spilled out in words: "The clouds will part. Is it Thor who speaks to us? The word of God?"
The director only smiled. He brought his cigarette to his mouth. "You have instead the word of Von Beckmann."
"Wait! Wait! There! The clouds have parted! I can see it! Look! The bridges! The river! It's a city!"
No sooner did Magdalena utter those words than everybody jumped to his feet. There was a rush to the port side of the plane. Even the stewardess hurried to one of the windows. "Where?" she exclaimed. "I see nothing. Rien du tout."
Neither could the former Laszlo Loewenstein. All I could make out was the blinking beacon at the tip of our wing. That and the frightening flames that came from the engine cowling.
Then Serge cried out. "Look! There! It's true! Don't you see? Streets! And streetcars! The buildings! The people! It's the city of Salzburg!"
"Yes, yes!" That was Flatow, the Austrian native. "There is the Monchsberg! There is the square of the Residenzplatz!"
The pilot had seen the sight, too. With a roar our plane banked, turned, and dove through the break in the clouds.
Basserman: "We're saved! It's a miracle!"
"Why are you surprised?" asked Magda. "The clouds have parted, just as Rudi predicted."
My nose was now pressed to the porthole. Inches away, the mists and vapors streamed by. I clutched my collar about my throat, as if the winds were inside the cabin and not whipping along the metal surface of the plane. Still I could see nothing of the scene below. "Miracle? Miracle?" I muttered. Then, more loudly, I spoke in the voice of the agent of the International Police. "Miracle of radio. No doubt honorable pilot has given our friend weather report."
At that instant the airliner broke through the layers of overcast and pulled up, shuddering, not above the old town of Salzburg but over a blaze of light. All of us gasped. For there, on the northern slope of a hilltop, winking and blinking, was a great bonfire in the shape of a swastika.
Anton, the adjutant, said, "Berchtesgaden."
Basserman gave a wry smile. "It's German intelligence. The Gestapo. They've discovered the hour of our flight. It's a warning."
"A greeting," said Sampson Frank, "just for us."
The plane flew on, sinking toward the aerodrome across the Austrian border. Basserman and Frank were incorrect, or such was my opinion. Like all actors, they were in the habit of putting themselves center stage. No wonder they thought that the cartwheel of light, its arms pinwheeling beneath us, had been ignited as a welcome especially for ourselves. But I had no doubt that, strolling on their boulevards or moving up the river in their barges or looking out the windows of their gingerbread houses, the citizens of Salzburg had also felt about their hearts that chill that is the sole purpose of the swastika, as well as its deepest meaning.
Amazing how, ten minutes after we landed, the last wisps of the stormclouds had blown away. The afternoon sun beat down upon us. Through the windows of our limousine I saw the waiters on the Gran Europa pavilion throwing white tablecloths over the tables and setting the placeware for cakes and tea. We didn't stop at the hotel, however, but went straight on to the Domplatz in front of the cathedral. Here crowds were waiting. They gave a cheer when our two black Mercedes came to a halt on the edge of the square. They pushed against the rope barricades. On the steps of the cathedral, which had been modeled on the Roman St. Peter's, the red-white-red flags of the Austrian Republic were flapping in the breeze. A platform and a podium had been set up in front of the triple-arched facade. Dignitaries, in dove-gray coats, in top hats and fedoras, were standing there, behind a bank of microphones.
I got out one door, with Flatow; Basserman and Frank got out the other. Instantly we were confronted by members of the press. They milled about us as if this were a premiere. Albert displayed what in America is called a Pepsodent smile. The glare from the flash lamps struck my face like a pair of white gloves. A shout went up. The crowd—fifty, sixty, perhaps a hundred people—had broken through the restraints. They dashed over the cobblestones and surrounded the first limousine. They pushed against the fenders and clambered onto the running boards. Anton, the lieutenant, forced his way out the front passenger door. He barked a command. But these were citizens, not soldiers. They brushed him aside and opened the door at the rear. Magdalena emerged. A veil from her hat covered her eyes. The crowd fell back. "Magda!" they chanted. "Magda! Magda!" Then the star began to sign autographs.
None in that throng had noticed how Von Beckmann had stepped from the other side of the Mercedes and was staring up at the cathedral's two great steeples. Stonily he stood. Nothing about him moved—not his arm, which he held out stiffly to the side, or his cape, or even the smoke from the cigarette in his rigid fingers; nothing, that is, but his shadow.
Those of us in his troupe approached him. Basserman asked, "Rudi, what are you doing? What are you staring at?"
"The cathedral. The steeples. The Monchsberg. Here we shall perform our Antigone. On April tenth. At seventy-seven minutes before sundown. We must end precisely one minute before the hour of seven."
"But why," asked Frank, "such precision? That hour? That date?"
"Because on that date the sun will set only minutes before the moon will rise."
"I don't understand you," said Flatow. "How do you know these things? Have you consulted an almanac? And why are you standing there like a statue?"
"So sorry: not a statue," I interrupted, using the language of Agent 673, International Police; for I had seen how the shadow from the impresario's arm continued to creep over the cobblestones. "A sundial!"
Von B's thick lips compressed in a smile. He lowered his limb. "Correct. A sundial. At the climax of the play, when Antigone is condemned to the underground, this same sun will descend with her. The earth, our stage, our audience, the square and the cathedral, all will be covered in darkness. Just then we hear a voice. Is it Haemon, calling the name of his bride? No. Not just Haemon. We hear many voices. It is the chorus, the stricken conscience of the community—the Greek community, the city of Salzburg, yes, even of Austria; perhaps it is the conscience of the wider world that has let this innocent be sacrificed."
Frank murmured, "Wonderful. Miraculous."
"At first the call comes faintly, from a great distance—the heights of the Monchsberg. What is that sound? Is it the wind? The very wind, like the sun, must perform for us too. An-ti-go-ne-e-e-e-e!"
"My God," said Basserman. "The hair on my head is standing."
"There! The voice is a little louder, a little nearer: at the steeple of the Kollegienkirche; then closer, at St. Sebastian's; now it is at St. Margaret's. All those in our drama can hear it. Naturally, Tiresias is first; then Ismene, Antigone's sister, and her mother, Eurydice; next the soldier, the messenger; then each member of the chorus of Thebans. Still the voices sound, nearer, always nearer, from steeple to steeple. Only Creon, as deaf as he has been blind, hears nothing—that is, he hears nothing until the call reaches our own cathedral towers, from which, suddenly, the birds come swooping down. Yes, even animals will feel the affront to their conscience. The swallows of Salzburg shall be in our cast."
Anton alone seemed exempt from the director's spell. "Our swallows," he stated, "have long since flown south. They will not return by April."
Von Beckmann paid no heed. "Now all through the city there echoes the unmistakable cry: Antigone! Antigone! And all the while the sun is sinking, sinking. The shroud of dusk has fallen over the crowd."
There was a pause. Incredibly, a chill, a cold shudder, ran through us, as if the sun had fallen indeed.
"Suddenly, everything is reversed. Bells begin to peal, joyous bells. First from our cathedral towers, then farther off, from St. Margaret's, until the last tolling, the final chime, echoes from the Monchsberg, where the call began. Now into the darkened sky climbs the moon. Not just a moon. The new moon. A sliver of moon. Like the slip of that girl. How pale it is! How delicate! Our hearts are full to have glimpsed—what is it, after all? According to your calculations, your almanac, it is one minute to seven and this is a cold, lifeless satellite. But could this slice of light, this thin splinter, a fingernail, a transparent peel, not also be the soul of the maiden, our Antigone—the wisp of her spirit, upon its flight?"
Everything, everyone, in the square was hushed. Even the flags had fallen still about their poles. On the far side of the car, what was left of the crowd stood motionless. Magdalena stepped forward, to our side of the automobile. She came up to Von Beckmann. "My darling," she said. "My master." And with an off-white handkerchief she wiped the tears that worked their way down the cheeks of the genius.
Ladies and gentlemen. Ministers of our beloved republic. Honored guests of Austria.
A voice, amplified by loudspeakers, filled the square. On the platform, a tall man, hatless, leaned into the microphones. His hair, long on top, was cropped close at the sides. Wire glasses sat upon the bridge of an aquiline nose. In our midst the lieutenant had come to attention. "Quiet, quiet," he admonished us. "This is Schuschnigg."
Behind his wooden podium, the chancellor started his speech. "I wish to speak plainly. My country has reached a moment of crisis. The master of the Third Reich has massed his forces across our common border. At any moment, on any pretext, he will pour across it. For some time now his plan has been to create the very anarchy that he will then claim it is his duty to suppress. Germans, he will declare to the world, must not shed German blood. I must tell you that against such an onslaught, the elements of the army that have remained loyal to the fatherland shall not be able to hold out for more than two days. We shall experience an instant Anschluss."
He halted, gazing through his round lenses across the Domplatz to our little band of actors. Albert Basserman and Magdalena Mezaray had gone pale enough; my own face was undoubtedly an eggshell white. "You must be wondering what all this has to do with why I have summoned you, and why you stand now in this hallowed square. Surely you understand how Salzburg occupies a crucial position, not just geographically, at the border between eastern and western Europe and between the two German nations, but ideologically as well. Its values are those of the true spirit of Austria. They are opposed to everything represented by National Socialism."
By a conditioned reflex I began to grope in my pocket for my fairy dust. I leaned toward Basserman and, sotto voce, said, "Geographically. Do you know what that means? It means that this bone of Salzburg, stuck in the Fuhrer's throat, will be swallowed in the first gulp. I knew it! We have been brought here as hostages. Hostages!"
Von Schuschnigg continued. "From one viewpoint, we have no allies—neither England nor France, not Hungary, and least of all our former protector, Mussolini. From another viewpoint, we have more than any other nation. These are the citizens of the world who venerate the music of Mozart and Beethoven—yes, and I dare say the symphonies and songs of Mendelssohn. It is this international community that provides our best hope of survival in the difficult months to come. You will perform the Antigone and the world will recognize that Austria is as weak, and as strong, as that Grecian girl."
In the square there rose, from the diplomats, and from a portion of the crowd, an echo of applause. All I could think was, if eight days before Von Schuschnigg and Hitler had stared from the heights of Berchtesgaden to the city of Salzburg below, what was preventing the Fuhrer from observing the Domplatz and the meeting within it at this very moment? A sensation like frozen fingers crawled up my spine.
The chancellor held up his hands, so as to continue. "England is secure behind her channel, as America is across the sea. France is safe behind her wall of concrete. Our culture must form one part of our Maginot Line. The other part of our defense must be the will of our people. That is why I am now announcing a national plebiscite. It will be held one month from today, on March thirteenth. If the Austrian people vote yes, they shall declare themselves free and Christian and united. If no, they shall express their desire to form a union with Germany. People of Austria! Hear me! Give me your answer. Do you wish your independence? Ja oder Nein?"
Now there was an uproar. Half the people in the square began to shout Ja!, the other half Nein! There was a surge from behind the barricades. A score of men, two score perhaps, ran toward the parked limousines. They wore, I saw, red feathers in their Alpine caps and white stockings pulled over their calves. Autograph seekers, or so it seemed—except on this occasion they did not cry Magda! Magda! but, at the top of their lungs, Lorre! Where is Lorre?
"Here I am!" I responded, not without a tingle of appreciation. "Over here! Perhaps you admired my portrait of Abbott? Ha-ha! You know, the anarchist? In The Man Who Knew Too Much?"
"Fool!" That was the adjutant. "Quick! Get into the car!"
Too late. The crowd of whitestockings drew up before me. One of their number swiped off his hat—he had a clean-shaven head underneath it—and, as if deliberately offering an insult, used it to strike me across the cheek. The man next to him, red-faced and stout, spit upon the lapel of my camel-hair coat. A third man shouted, "Loewenstein! Ein stinkender Jude!" Then the whole mob, cursing and shouting, closed in upon me.
Think Fast Mr. Moto! If only I now possessed, as I had in that picture, a bulletproof vest, or if I had performed my own stunts instead of leaving the task to others—then might I have picked up the first of these gentlemen and, employing the principles of jujitsu, in which the force of a person's own leverage is turned against him, used his body to knock over his fellows like tenpins. As it was, the hatless man lowered his head and thrust it into my solar plexus. I doubled over. This permitted another to bring his fist down upon the back of my head.
"So! The Yid wants to be Antigone's lover!"
"We have laws against that!"
Those were the words I heard as I collapsed to the ground. As one they fell upon me, kicking with studded boots, beating with fists, with sticks, with bottles still filled with beer. Someone screamed. It was Magda. A shot went off. I saw Anton struggling to reach me, aiming his pistol into the air. Then there was a cracking sound: one of my own ribs. Another crack, from another bone. My head flew back, striking the stones. Blood, thick and salty, rather like Granite Films ketchup, spilled from my mouth. A curtain, also red, dropped before my eyes. Mr. Moto's Gamble. Clearly I had lost it. There was nothing save for the sound of heavy breathing, of snorting, and the thud of the boots upon my flesh.
Then of a sudden the blows came to a stop. I struggled toward consciousness, as if it were a rope that had been thrown me, or a plot of dry land, an isle, an islet, in that sea of pain. When I opened my eyes I saw Von Beckmann His head was aglow with flashing light. Was it, in his hair, the streak of silver? No! The monocle! He had turned it upon the mob, the whitestockings, as if he meant to incinerate them, the way a glass will start a blaze by concentrating the rays of the sun. Then the director turned, facing the cathedral. He raised his arms as if calling on the gods to intervene, to shake the earth or send their angels or bolts of lightning. Instead, from far away, from as high, it seemed, as the heavens, there came a faint, high-pitched cry.
Magda was the first to hear it. "What's that? Listen!"
The cry came again, louder than before. Even the whitestockings heard it. They lifted their hatted or their unhatted heads. The long drawn-out wail floated down from the sky.
Basserman's voice rang out from nearby. "Did you hear? Did you hear that cry?"
Reynaldo Flatow said, "I don't understand it. Where does this come from? What can it mean?"
"Is it a trick?" asked Anton. "Is it ventriloquism?"
The attackers, some standing, some on their knees, shaded their eyes and looked skyward. For the third and last time the word echoed through the square.
As if that call had been meant for them, the beaters, the kickers, pulled back from where, completely unconscious, I. A. Moto lay curled into a ball. Then, without a signal, without a word spoken, they sauntered off across the Domplatz and disappeared.
Immediately the rest of the troupe ran forward. The weeping Magda was in the lead. She bent over the shape of ex-Loewenstein. "Peter! My lamb! My lambkin! Can you hear me? Are you awake?"
No: he was, as they say, dead to the world. Thus he could not see how the head of Von Beckmann still tilted upward, nor the animation in the great man's face: the lips that moved; the tic that twisted the flesh of his cheek; and, on his forehead, just off-center, the blue vein that seemed to snap like a spark. Slowly he took off his cloak and waved it once, above his head. The whole world knew the mysterious way in which the director was able to relate to his actors. Now everyone saw how he was able to communicate with animals as well. It was a kind of telegraphy without wires. How else to explain how in the next instant the air of the Domplatz was filled with swallows? Scores of swallows. Hundreds of them. Thousands. They tumbled down from the steeples. They swooped and dove. They were like a second cape, no less black, swirling and billowing over the human heads.
"This is impossible!" Anton exclaimed. "I know that those birds migrated long ago."
From outside the square came the heehaw sound of a European siren. Flatow shouted, "Here is the ambulance."
"Thank heavens," Magda replied.
But Anton continued to follow the flock as it darted back and forth like arrows over the square. "They should be in Italy. In Morocco. In the deserts of Arabia."
The birds spiraled upward, caw-cawing like crows, and swirled back into the steeple top; they were like some dark liquid, ink or oil, that was being sucked into an invisible drain. In that belfry, high over Salzburg, they settled upon the wooden beams and the stone shoulders of the saints. Through the louvered windows the wind came whistling. It crossed the mouth of the brass bell, making a moaning sound—like the mournful note struck by a boy when he blows over the lip of a bottle. And here came a boy, the servant Serge. He crossed to the ledge of the steeple and leaned out. His sharp chin was on his hands as, grinning like a gargoyle, he stared down at the people of flesh and blood so far below.