The Forever Street: A Novel

Overview

Berek, a young penniless Jew of eighteen is struggling to make a home of Turk Place, a desolate street that, in 1873 Vienna, was little more than a Gypsy encampment. But Berek believes fiercely in his own power to forge miracles. Taking the caretaker's daughter as his bride, Berek is confident he can thrive on faith. When a mysterious piece of stone comes into his possession, he and his wife believe their prayers have been answered; the stone may be a holy fragment of ...
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The Forever Street: A Novel

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Overview

Berek, a young penniless Jew of eighteen is struggling to make a home of Turk Place, a desolate street that, in 1873 Vienna, was little more than a Gypsy encampment. But Berek believes fiercely in his own power to forge miracles. Taking the caretaker's daughter as his bride, Berek is confident he can thrive on faith. When a mysterious piece of stone comes into his possession, he and his wife believe their prayers have been answered; the stone may be a holy fragment of Jerusalem's Wailing Wall.

This relic, no larger than a brick, proves to transfigure the couple's lives. They make Turk Place their home and three generations of Turk Place residents share the legacy of the Brick. For six decades, the family perseveres in the face of tumultuous events -- World War I, the shattering of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Great Depression. But Hitler's "final solution" forces them to make an impossible choice: flee the Nazis or remain and perish.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The stories do not stop any more than history does for Frederic Morton,whether they spill from his writer's pen or are drawn from his immense store of memories and anecdote-rich knowledge of Vienna."
The New York Times

"Morton has chosen to weave a novel out of his memories, experiences, imagination and family folklore. The combination gives it, at times, the surreal quality of being refracted through a dream frozen in time."
The Washington Post

"We can include Fred Morton in the honor list of those authors who achieve remarkable depth and height after they have been, or because they have been, expatriated from their own language."
The New York Times Book Review

"Wonderful!"
The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743252201
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 5/24/2005
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 544
  • Sales rank: 509,649
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.44 (h) x 1.22 (d)

Meet the Author

Frederic Morton was born in Vienna and lives in New York. He is the author of twelve books, two of which, The Rothschilds and A Nervous Splendor, have been National Book Award finalists. The Rothschilds was made into a Tony Award-winning musical. Morton's work has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 1965 as well as in The Best American Essays 2003.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

On a gusty april day in 1873 Dr. Nassig pulled up his trouser cuffs against some mud. This mud was unmitigatedly rural, though only a morning's ride away from Vienna by an old horse. With some fastidiousness the doctor stepped from a covered wagon down into the village of Varungy. His Pekingese protested. It could not follow its master because the Gypsy driver held its silk collar. The kiss Dr. Nassig blew the dog stopped the barking and confused three women by the well.

Dr. Nassig walked straight to the door of the synagogue where Rabbi Asher Kohn gripped the brim of his hat with both hands. The wind wanted the hat. It billowed the blacksmith's apron of young Berek Spiegelglass, who was nailing a lock onto the synagogue's door.

Dr. Nassig gave a French bow before the rabbi. "My learned master," he said. And then, after blowing the Pekingese one more kiss (which silenced its growls at passing geese), he informed the rabbi that he, Nassig, was pleased to offer work, housing and prosperity for everyone in Varungy in a location very close by the imperial capital itself.

Any man saying such words five years earlier, or indeed during any of the three hundred years preceding, would have been considered mad. For centuries the village had been dedicated to the worship of God and to the raising of geese, two stable pursuits expected to last forever. But nowadays nothing lasted forever. A strangeness had fallen upon the land. No longer did the huge four-horse vans from the slaughterhouses to the north stop by the village. They no longer bought Varungy's famous geese, fat and sleek and snow-white. Now the vans went to the district town of Szatmar, where a giant new goose factory force-fed the birds (using Tasmanian slaves, it was rumored) and supplied the pâté maker at Strasbourg with fatter goose livers at a cheaper price.

The men of Varungy could no longer support themselves by tending their fowl or by growing maize for bird fodder. Most had to stoop the day away, gathering flax in the fields of the gentiles. Once the village geese had been placid and plump. Now they were scrawny, ravenous, dirty, ragged, furious — a web-footed mob in Varungy's one street. They rampaged through kitchen larders. They snatched sandwiches from children's hands. They even pecked at the Torahs in the synagogue. Indeed, the day of Dr. Nassig's visit marked the first time in village history that a lock had to be put on the prayer house (some desperate birds had been known to nudge the doorknob open), young Berek Spiegelglass officiating as locksmith.

But at least the geese stayed in the village. It was the people who were moving out. The teacher no longer received his salary, nor funds for ink, quills and grammar texts; he had become a court clerk in Bratislava. Soon a wildly bearded goat was circling the blackboard and dining on old test papers in the schoolhouse. The innkeeper had abandoned his inn for a tinker's cart; starlings whistled from nests built into the tavern's bottle shelves; tails of field mice whisked in and out of taps of wine barrels gone dry. Varungy's blacksmith shut up shop. He'd also been the village circumciser as well as railroad mechanic at the freight-line stop. But babies were no longer being born at Varungy; the station depot was about to be shut down. The blacksmith left for Budapest to serve as farrier for the equerry-in-chief to Prince Esterhazy. Before his departure he girded the waist of his journeyman, Berek Spiegelglass, with the guild belt that made the young man smithy-master of the village. But what horses were there to shoe? The rabbi himself had to travel to the district town twice weekly. Here he earned his bread by teaching chess openings to a flax jobber — a rabbi who must push pawns under a gorgeous silver crucifix.

All of which explained why Berek Spiegelglass was attaching a lock to the synagogue door during Dr. Nassig's visit and why Rabbi Kohn did not frown at the idea of moving what was left of the village. The rabbi lifted his hat to wave its sail-like brim in the wind. For some reason this was the only gesture that would stop the perpetual riot of two hundred mangy geese in the street.

"Move all of us?" the rabbi asked in the temporary silence. "To Vienna? But how can one accomplish that?"

"Learned master," Dr. Nassig said. "There is nothing modern man cannot accomplish with a good lawyer at his side. In our capital the emperor is building a boulevard with birdhouses the size of this synagogue. In May he will open the Vienna World's Fair — and that's where you people have your chance."

"We?" the rabbi said.

"You," Dr. Nassig answered. And went on to pronounce words the rabbi thought couldn't be right because he heard them through Berek's hammering of the lock, through the renewed natterings of the geese and the yaps of the Pekingese. Dr. Nassig appeared to say, under all these noises, that he himself had opened an exhibit at the great fair, showing the Seven Wonders of the World; and that he would sell there, to thousands of visitors, medallions containing not only a grain of salt from the Sea of Galilee on which the Savior of the gentiles had walked, but also a grain of the Brick from the Wailing Wall sacred to the Jews; that he, Nassig, would manufacture the medallions himself and that these enterprises would provide prosperous employment to Varungyers once they removed to Vienna.

"Ah," the rabbi said. He recalled Dr. Nassig's sorties through the village. The doctor hawked, through an earringed associate, horoscopes printed in serpentine letters on purple paper. "Jews don't shoot about like Gypsies."

"Nobody will shoot about," Dr. Nassig said. "You will reside in very excellent premises I have leased, just outside the capital. You just need a residential permit from the emperor, that's all, based on your people's employment in my medallion factory."

The rabbi took a bitter breath. "From the emperor. Yes, I will ask him in my spare time."

"You can wait till month after next," Dr. Nassig said easily. "Till Whitsuntide. When you bring him the goose."

"Bring the goose!" the rabbi said.

Of course, the Whitsuntide goose was never brought. It was an annual tribute sent at a great worshipful distance. For generations Varungyers had presented their most ermine goose to the Crown — a formality reaffirming the emperor's direct overlordship that protected the village from the anti-Semitic whims of local magnates. But the goose was simply given to the imperial mail coach when it passed through on the way to the capital. In Vienna the bird was handed on to a charity designated by the Court. No Varungyer would dare bring his own person along with the goose.

"No, no," the rabbi said.

"I'm just a humble lawyer," Dr. Nassig said. In fact, he let the wind humiliate his mustaches into disorder. "But I have researched the law. The right of presentation of the Whitsuntide goose is joined to the right of petition in personal audience. Absolutely. If you petition for a Viennese residence permit for your people, His Majesty will grant it. He likes to encourage factories like mine. He wants more industry. You will see when you ask him."

"Ask — him?" the rabbi said.

"You just take the Whitsuntide goose to him and make a reasonable request," Dr. Nassig said. "I will arrange the paperwork beforehand. It's easy. I have friends in the Chancellery."

"You see, I am an old man," the rabbi said. "Last year I had a kidney affliction."

"How sad," Dr. Nassig said. "In that case, I will have to help another village."

Dr. Nassig was on the point of walking back to the wagon. The history of the Brick might have taken an entirely different turn if, at that moment, Berek Spiegelglass had not raised his voice. Having just driven home the final nail, he straightened up to say, "That medallion, sir? For the World's Fair? What did you have in mind, bronze or brass?"

"Oh?" Dr. Nassig said.

"Because brass is a lot cheaper," Berek said.

"Who is our young man?" Dr. Nassig said.

"Him, he's the son of Meyer Spiegelglass, the goosedown maker, the pillow man," Rabbi Kohn said with much more energy now that the topic was shifting. "The widower Spiegelglass, may he rest in peace, did you know him? This is his son Berek."

"I see, we have an orphan here," Dr. Nassig said.

"Meyer died of an evil kidney," the rabbi said, touching himself above the hip. "One must be careful in the later years."

"Very careful," Dr. Nassig said, his eye steady on Berek. "Alas, in the end, most of us are orphans. And an orphan might be even better for a personal petition than a rabbi."

"Thank you, Berek, for the lock," the rabbi said.

The wind blew, it set shuddering the canvas of the wagon, it deranged the Pekingese's combed fur, it flooded with dust the plumage of hordes of geese, it whined down Varungy's half-dozen roofs, their chimneys lonely and smokeless in the plain. And Dr. Nassig in his flapping, belted greatcoat slowly retwirled his mustaches.

Berek Spiegelglass departed Varungy for the Imperial Palace in Vienna on May 3, 1873, seven days after his eighteenth birthday. It had been a nervous week for the remnants of the village.

First came the problem of the right goose. A worthy specimen had to be searched for amid the rabble of stringy creatures — a stately bird, fit to be the Whitsuntide tribute to Franz Joseph I. The one Berek picked was not only bulkier but stronger than the others. Three men had to help him hold it down in the waters of Varungy Brook until the grime was washed from its feathers. After that they dried it in the whitest cotton left in the village: it was wrapped in one of the snowy burial garments which would not be used because not enough people lived and therefore died in the village. The procedure infuriated the animal into honking guttural German-sounding curses. Not until Berek had the idea of feeding it brandy-soaked corn did it subside into grunts. At last it settled down on the floor of the wicker cage to await transport to His Majesty.

Then there was the matter of Berek's clothes. His smeared blacksmith's apron would never do for an imperial audience; nor would his old holiday suit, which exposed his ankles. Here the rabbi — by way of penance for not making the Vienna trip himself — helped. He gave Berek the frock coat and trousers for which he had grown too chubby. Berek's cousin Riddah found him a bowler of her late father's.

More difficult was the money question. Two weeks before the crucial day Dr. Nassig appeared again. He handed Berek an audience-admission card featuring the two-headed Habsburg eagle in gilt bas-relief. Dr. Nassig also brought the precise wording of the petition drafted beforehand in Vienna — as well as some unexpected news. He'd been in touch with the Palace Chancellery, and while the emperor in his graciousness was likely to grant the petition in audience, there was a certain requirement to be met a priori. Dr. Nassig explained the Latin phrase in courteous detail. It meant "first," or "before the fact." In other words, "in advance." A residency bond of twenty gulden had to be posted in advance — six hundred gulden in toto (meaning "in total sum," Dr. Nassig smiled) — since thirty Varungyers had requested the privilege of living and working in the imperial capital.

There was not — there never had been — such a thing as 600 gulden in Varungy. On the other hand, there was something else, the rabbi recollected: namely that chew-mouthed antiques dealer from Eisenstadt who prowled all the emptying villages in western Slovakia. This man had offered 410 gulden for the six ancient mezuzoth, the six decorative tubes containing holy parchments, nailed to the doorposts of Varungy's six main houses.

Some settlements in the area could boast of mezuzoth even older. None were as exquisite as Varungy's: slim and conchlike, crafted of delicately twisted iron inside which the scrolls with the sacred phrases were curled. Because of the beauty of these mezuzoth, the dealer came again after getting the rabbi's letter. Again he squinted at the doorpost treasures. His mouth chomped on a celery stalk to help the brain calculate. He sighed. He raised his bid to 480 gulden, shivered at the rabbi's demand for 600, shook hands on a compromise of 560. Now only 40 gulden were missing: a raisable amount.

Berek had earned his journeyman's credentials at the smithy by repairing the oldest mezuzah. And that was only one of the reasons why he wanted to ram that celery stalk down the dealer's throat. Berek could not accept the loss of the mezuzoth. He would not tolerate the death of Varungy nor people like the dealer who traded on that death and thus helped assassinate the universe.

These were an orphan's emotions. The village was his father and mother. And what was the village? A few farms, barns, middens scattered about a center that consisted of two huddles of three houses each; low mended roofs leaning toward one another across an uncobbled alley. But when Berek came home from a day's work he saw them leaning toward him, the very drainpipes reaching out with a welcoming and parental sweetness. They were his parents; parents who had never frowned, glowered, threatened, spanked or in any other way betrayed him; parents whom he'd never seen stumble, wrinkle, wince, go bald or fail. Never, that is, until the blight of the last few years. Until then the puszta heaven floating above — that entire cloud-streaked vastness — had been divinely rooted in the six tin chimneys of Varungy.

And now, looking up at the sky, the only young man left in the village, Berek felt that he was the agent of God's permanence here. In fact, it was the idea of permanence which had attracted him to his trade. Iron might rust. Dust and soot might cover it. But those were changing masks under which the same metal endured. You could melt iron into disorder, make it boil and sting until only tongs but no human hands could touch it — all this in order to reshape it into a new form that retained its old substance. Inside it always remained itself.

Now Varungy boiled with the disorder of its geese. Shingles were melting from its roofs. Perhaps no human life would touch it while — the emperor willing — its inhabitants went to Vienna. But in the end it would reattain itself.

Only the week before, this faith of his had been confirmed by an odd source: a gentile girl. The decline of Varungy had led him to do horseshoeing in nearby Christian villages — and, incidentally, to encounters with baptized flesh. Berek did well in forgotten attics, in high grass and locked sheds. He had a delicately hooked nose combined with eyes so blue and deep and steady, you never expected them to blink. His beard was coal-black, the kind of black that made the dimples all the more surprising. He was as deft with soft skin as with hard metal. Soon he'd learned how to stroke women into incandescence.

This one, daughter of the district surveyor, had told him of an "official" rumor. To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the reign of the emperor of Austria, who was also the king of Hungary, a highway paved in silver would be built from Vienna, the imperial capital, to Budapest, the royal capital — and the glitter of that thread would run right through the Varungy region.

The district surveyor's daughter was the only Christian girl Berek ever kissed after he had once more put on his apron. He kissed her because she had impregnated him with an idea. Next week, when he and the Whitsuntide goose stood face-to-face with the emperor, he would add an item to his petition. He would tell Franz Joseph that all the Varungyers, engaged in medallion making in Vienna, would soon master all the metal arts. He, Berek Spiegelglass, would see to that. And he would ask the emperor to then let the villagers return to Varungy on the imperial payroll. They would build and maintain and repair forever the Slovakian part of the silver ribbon linking the sovereign's two residences.

Of this he said nothing at home. He just told the others that he'd be very busy, preparing for the task ahead. During the day he learned the words of the petition he was to recite in the palace and which the rabbi repeated for him, over and over again. The night's work he did alone, in secret. It was still more important.

After there had fallen the first of the last four dusks Berek was to see in Varungy, his furnace began to glow. In the darkness of that first night he went to the abandoned inn. He chopped from its wall an iron hook on which horses had once been tethered. In his smithy he cut the hook into six pieces, heated them to softness and wrought them into the shape of six slim, conchlike mezuzoth. The second night he spent firing and hammering, perfecting the fine rills and twists. The third night he put the six in the cage of a canary, long dead, that once had belonged to the teacher now court clerking in Bratislava. In the creamy mist of a three-quarter moon he lowered the cage into Varungy Brook. On the bottom of the waters pebbles gusted over the "mezuzoth" and performed excellent feats of corrosion. The fourth night he pulled the cage up by its rope; he let its wet contents weather in a breeze carrying owl hoots and lilac scents. While the village slept and his six creations rusted, he unscrewed the real mezuzoth from Varungy's six doorposts and carried them to the cemetery. He buried them next to his father and mother. He said Kaddish over his parents' crinkled little tomb. He smiled at the freshly turned earth beside it. There was no death here. After his village was whole again, he would raise those six from the ground once more.

The next morning was the morning of the day. Berek Spiegelglass pulled on the rabbi's frock coat. Its sleeves were so long they tickled his knuckles. Its black was too solemn for a face with young dimples. What mattered, though, was that the antiques dealer drove up, just in time. In a tobacco pouch he carried the 560 gulden complementing the 40 which the rabbi had ready. The dealer was nibbling on a carrot, lips moistening with each nibble. Berek tried not to look as he handed over the six counterfeits he'd rendered so finely ancient.

This happened at noon. Not too long afterward, the barks of a Pekingese were heard in the distance. Dr. Nassig's greatcoat loomed up in the Gypsy wagon. Six hundred gulden changed hands. Berek pushed the bowler down on his forehead. Faces filled those village windows which were still alive. The rabbi waved a newly laundered handkerchief. Berek lifted up to the Gypsy driver a cage shrouded in cotton; from within sounded the thick honks of a rum-drugged goose destined for the emperor. Berek climbed aboard with a small satchel. He only expected to stay away one night. One never knows when one will be overtaken by the journey of his life. Away the wagon rolled, away toward Kara Mustafa's brick.

During the trip to Vienna Berek stayed under the wagon's canvas with the goose. Outside, it would have been exposed to dust; the whiteness of its plumage might have suffered. He remained inside to guard it and therefore never saw the landscape stream away. He found himself in a lantern-lit tent that was bouncing to some hooves' tattoo. He felt that he was not really leaving home. Somehow it seemed that Varungy was expanding faster than the tent was moving, that in fact they were heading for some secret nocturnal center of the village he had never known before.

Meanwhile, there was company: a corpulent rosy-cheeked person in a blue smock and a cossack cap. At Dr. Nassig's introduction the man jumped up from a straw pad, boot heels clicking.

This, Dr. Nassig said, was Herr Alois Schall, his valued associate and most accomplished designer. And this was Herr Berek Spiegelglass, the finest blacksmith-mechanic in Slovakia, two personalities whose handshake — bravo! — he was so happy to have brought about. Such a partnership, it just had to be successful in the capital. And here (Dr. Nassig gave a bow down to a sack on the wagon floor), here was material for the medallion. Very special stuff, specially shipped from the Holy Land to Prague, where Herr Schall had collected it — nothing less than salt distilled from the Sea of Galilee, on which Jesus Christ had walked!

Berek had been about to sit down on the sack. He sat down on the straw pad instead. Herr Schall joined him, crossing himself. Barking began at the front of the vehicle. The Pekingese had been chained to the driver's seat to keep it off the goose.

"Gentlemen, I'm being paged," Dr. Nassig said. "Pardon me."

Now Berek was alone with his first authentic stranger from the big city. The man turned out to be friendly and unintelligible. Like most Slovakian Jews, Berek knew some German — German was, after all, a comprehensible garbling of Yiddish. But Herr Schall's language sounded quite like the rattling of the wagon wheels. Berek had to keep shrugging his shoulders. Whereupon Herr Schall lifted a forefinger to indicate a remedy. From his smock pocket he produced a stack of little rectangular newspaper clippings, selected one, rolled himself a cigarette. Suddenly the exhalation of smoke enabled his mouth to transform its mysterious stream of Viennese dialect into a semi-High German Berek could unravel into a series of questions.

It was all right to indulge?...The goose tolerated smoke?...The straw pad was comfortable?...Had Herr Spiegelglass gotten permission from his rabbi?

Berek, having nodded yes all along, now said, "What? What permission?"

"Permission for a Jew to work on something Christian," Herr Schall said. "A medal with a crystal from the lake touched by the Savior's feet."

"Oh, that's all right," Berek said.

"Oh, that's good," Herr Schall said. "Me, on my side, I have dispensation from Father Smylk. I can work with pieces from the Jewish Wailing Wall. In fact..." Herr Schall pulled out of his pocket a wafer-thin cardboard disk from which he blew some dust motes as if it were a freshly cut diamond.

"In case you are interested," Herr Schall continued, holding it out with curved pinkie. "It's my model for the medallion."

Drawings covered both sides of the disk. One was a rather beautiful miniature landscape of a lake with a figure, bearded, robed, haloed, strolling across waves. The other side showed the Wailing Wall lined with prayer-shawled figures on their knees. Just as Berek held up these details to his eye, the wagon stopped suddenly. The lantern hanging from the canvas top, never steady, took flight. It swung away, dimming the light; it swung back and hurled such brightness at the cardboard disk as to make it transparent. Jewish scene and Christian panorama ignited into a single image. Berek saw Jesus wandering across the backs of Jews before the Wall. Wanderer and kneelers burned together in an underwater conflagration.

For a moment Berek became dizzy — not so much with what flashed at him as with the weight of his journey. He used his hand to steady himself against the canvas wall. He fastened on a practicality.

"That hole there," he said, pointing to the center of the cardboard disk. "What's that?"

Oh, that was for the glass bead, Herr Schall said. Inside the bead would be visible a salt crystal from the Sea of Galilee as well as a grain from the brick of the Wailing Wall.

"And the item is going to sell in the hundreds of thousands!" Dr. Nassig's voice said.

Up front the Gypsy driver had parted the canvas curtain for the doctor, who reentered the covered part of the wagon. So buoyantly did he twirl his red mustaches even while being jarred by wagon jolts that Berek was encouraged to ask him a question: how could one put a salt crystal and a stone grain into a bead of glass?

"Ah." Dr. Nassig smiled. Apparently, the squeak of the wheels caused him to mishear the question. Yes, he said, it was the bead of glass which made the design perfect. A typical Schall touch! But Herr Spiegelglass would soon see the Nassig Seven Modern Wonders Show in Vienna. There was an example of Herr Schall's designing talent! Visitors from all continents, eager to see the great exposition at the capital — they were bound to patronize the Nassig-Schall exhibit right by the fairgrounds. It would put them in just the mood to purchase a medallion commemorating Judeo-Christian prodigies.

And then Dr. Nassig began to enumerate the miracles of modernity displayed at his show: a perfect small-scale model of the famous balloon that had crossed the Indian Ocean, rising from an accurate replica of the Taj Mahal; a steam engine of very advanced American manufacture traversing Niagara Falls on a tightropelike trestle, with a red Indian in full feathered headdress as the locomotive engineer; a parachutist descending from the Leaning Tower of Pisa; a New York City elevator rising to the top of a translucent skyscraper with President Lincoln, might he rest in peace, as passenger; the British battleship Marlborough steaming through the incredible Suez Canal, steered by Queen Victoria herself. Not to speak of other wizardries of progress.

"How were the ticket sales while I was away?" Herr Schall asked.

"Promising," Dr. Nassig said. "Wait till the shock of the crash wears away. It's just a scare. They'll be trooping in."

"Crash?" Berek asked.

"The stock market crash," Dr. Nassig said. "It's just panic mongering. The government won't stand for it."

Berek had never heard of a stock market crash before. He felt that if he admitted that, Dr. Nassig would never call him "Herr Spiegelglass" again and Varungy would shrink instantly into a square inch of goose excrement.

"Maybe," he said. "Maybe I'll find out the truth about the crash from the emperor tomorrow."

"Capital idea!" Dr. Nassig said. "Wonderful. You bring up the point before His Majesty."

"Is there a special way of talking at the audience?" Berek said, thinking about that extra, silver-road item he would add to the petition.

"Indeed, and it's time to rehearse protocol," Dr. Nassig said. "Now. Over there. Let's assume that object is our monarch."

Lying at the back end of the wagon, "that object" was a pouch containing goose fodder — rum-soaked corn. Even in the lantern's dithering light there was something elegant about it; Berek's cousin Riddah had wrapped the sack in white linen and tied it with a crimson ribbon. After all, the pouch would travel to the palace.

"Now, Herr Spiegelglass, if you'll watch me and follow my motions," Dr. Nassig said. "On entering the audience room, you will look down. You never look up to where our sovereign awaits you standing. You'll approach him with your face down, your hat pressed against your heart — very good, you press it very well — and you'll know what direction to take by just following the frayed part of the carpet — "

"Frayed?" Berek said.

"Of course," Dr. Nassig said. "Thousands of petitioners have walked there before, and the path is left frayed on purpose so that you find the direction without looking up. It's a beacon leading to the All Highest Lord. You walk along the frayed line in small humble steps like this."

The frayed line reassured Berek. It was a bridge between Varungy's threadbareness and the splendor of the capital. He followed Dr. Nassig, imitating his gait. Behind him Herr Schall did the same. The three swayed along in the rocky wagon, passed the goose cage from which came inebriated snorts, swayed on toward the feed pouch.

"Now, when you catch sight of the emperor's shoes," Dr. Nassig said, "you will stop. You will stand there, head bowed — yes, that's good, that's very sincere bowing — you will stand, head bowed, for a full seven seconds. Remember, the lectern at the emperor's side has a sheet with facts of your life you yourself may not even know. He must be given a chance to look them over. After seven seconds you raise your eyes for that one moment's direct glance at him while you say, 'Your Apostolic Majesty, my Most Gracious Emperor and King!' Then you lower your eyes again to pronounce your petition. You have learned your petition by heart?"

"Yes," Berek said, looking down on the bobbing floor of the wagon.

"Very good," Dr. Nassig said. "Except you don't look at the floor at this point. You don't look at the emperor's face either, but you look at his hand resting on the lectern. It always rests on his lectern. You look specifically at his ring finger — will you remember that? — because there will be on it a diamond so powerful they say its side facet reflects the dream you dreamed the night before. But the main facet, facing you, that's the important one for your guidance. That one gives you back your mirror image in miniature. It's your chance to see any flaws in your posture which you can then correct on the instant. Any questions, please?"

The Pekingese had begun to bark. Dr. Nassig turned and screamed something passionate. Silence.

"Now," Dr. Nassig said. "After the monarch has responded favorably and perhaps explained about the stock market, you will begin your retreat. Now, this is interesting. The signal that tells you the audience is over will be a gentle pull of the wire — "

"What wire?" Berek asked.

"How silly of me," Dr. Nassig said. "I have not mentioned the wire. This is a very fine wire, just a thread. Before you enter the audience chamber, the adjutant will hook it into the back of your collar. They're trained in that. He'll pay it out as you advance toward the emperor. When the audience is over, the signal will be a polite little wire tug at your collar. You commence walking backward toward the door, facing the emperor. But have no fear, you'll walk backward in the right direction, straight toward the door, by just yielding to the pull of that wire. Those adjutants are brilliant in hauling petitioners back out. That's all. Easy. You see?"

"What if the wire hook doesn't catch?" Berek felt the tight fit at the back of his collar.

"If it doesn't catch," Dr. Nassig said, "if there's any little mix-up of any kind, there's still no cause to worry. I have a perfect thing for you to do. Herr Schall, do we have a Leo horoscope of the police-chief kind?"

Herr Schall took from his trouser pocket a stack of what looked like golden playing cards wrapped in tissue paper. He spread the cards into a fan and gave Dr. Nassig one.

"Here," Dr. Nassig said. "Our emperor was born on August eighteenth, under the sign of the lion. This is the Leo horoscope for this year — look at it, printed in blue velvet on golden silk, costing us twenty gulden apiece but not for sale. Literally priceless. We present it to police chiefs, burgomasters, etcetera, wherever there is prejudice against Gypsies doing business in a town. It won't fail you tomorrow."

"Uh, thank you," Berek said.

"It should set your mind at ease," Dr. Nassig said. "Any little mishap — this card will cure it. You just present it to the adjutant on your way out. You tell him that this modest golden gift is an extra token of respect to His Imperial and Royal Majesty, an emblem of apology, presented with humblest compliments by you and by Dr. Jacob M. Nassig. And that will make everything smooth again."

"Also compliments from Alois Schall," Herr Schall said.

"Of course, Herr Schall's, too, as designer of the horoscope, that is understood," Dr. Nassig said. "But are we clear about tomorrow now? All clear and serene? I want you to sleep well."

"Well, I wanted to ask you," Berek said. "About the glass bead. How can you get a salt crystal and a stone grain into a bead?"

"Exactly," Dr. Nassig said. "I will address that problem. At my hotel tonight — that's when I meet the gentlemen cofinancing our venture — exactly that item will be at the top of our agenda. We will engage a glazier-artist of the first water to handle that."

"Another thing," Berek said. "To make the glass bead stick to the metal, we'll need a special glue — "

"We'll get the most special one, because you are a most special young man," Dr. Nassig said. "I see you crafting an extraordinary medallion. You'll cross that bridge beautifully when you come to it. You don't even know yet what a wonderful bridge crosser you are! Meanwhile I trust you'll be comfortable sharing Herr Schall's quarters tonight."

The Pekingese had started barking again — but barking into a silence altogether new. There was no creaking or shaking of wheels. The wagon had come to a halt gently this time, but with a finality that ran cold down Berek's back.

"I'd better hurry and get my end of the business organized for our big day," Dr. Nassig said. And he did a funny thing. He gave Berek a long, lingering pat on the young beard. Then he shook hands briskly with both Berek and Herr Schall.

"Breakfast at eight, gentlemen. Rest well."

He tipped his hat, parted the canvas, collected the Pekingese, stopped the barking and became footsteps tapering away.

Outside, Berek thought, my God, right outside must be Vienna.

Copyright © 1984 by Frederic Morton

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 25, 2004

    Much Ado About Nothing

    The brick from the Second Temple is a major character. Poor image. Family is stubborn. Characters are not believable. Pace is incredibly slow.

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