Set in the immediate aftermath of the First World War in Italy, Austria and London, two brothers (Richard and Edward Wilson) find themselves travelling in opposite directions at the war’s end. After four years of internment in an Austrian camp, Richard returns to England disillusioned by both the war and his Methodist faith, whilst Edward, a junior officer in Italy, is ordered north to Vienna as part of the British Army’s Relief Mission to Vienna. It will be a return to the city he had been forced to leave in shame five years before.
But it is not the same city: Vienna is no longer the administrative heart of an Empire of sixty million, but a provincial capital ravaged by starvation and disease, bereft of fuel and paralysed by the winter snows. Befriended by one of the nurses from the mission, Millie, Edward quickly learns that for some women the liberating effects of the war mean that they will never go back to their lives of the past. Nor, he realises, can he. For what good would he serve in England? And what good would it do to find a girl he had once loved and left again? The future, however, is not in his hands. Soon the moral obligation that drives his commitment to the mission is weakened by the actions of those around him, as the men under his command grow increasingly restless at not having been demobilised, and Millie will do what she wills. The arrival of Colonel Linton on a special mission to protect the Emperor from the assassin’s bullet will prove the ultimate test for Edward to determine which action is right, and which is wrong. After all, as Colonel Linton well knows, the man on the spot will always have power over the one who is not.
In London Richard’s disillusionment is swiftly banished when he meets the dashing, idealistic Under-Secretary at the new Ministry of X. The Under-Secretary’s dazzling vision of a new, federal Europe to replace the old Habsburg Empire will be the first step in the eradication of the divisive national borders. It is the same vaulted ambition that had driven Richard’s father. But as the shadowy politics of the Paris Peace conference begin, the Under-Secretary is obliged to descend from his noble heights in order to strike a Faustian bargain with the Prime Minister’s ruthless pragmatism in the pursuit of his ideals. And when Richard meets the young Belgian refugee, Hélène, he too (like his father) will have to strike a bargain; for love is as much about belief as any ideal.
With the brothers estranged by distance and time, their lives become unknowingly entwined in the plot to assassinate the Austrian Emperor. The Emperor, refusing both abdication and exile, is holed up with his family in a hunting lodge on the Slovak-Hungarian border, surrounded by revolution. He too has a choice to make: but if he leaves, will he ever return?
The end of the war is only the beginning of their struggle.
Video from Sonderseen.
If it was not quite relief that Edward felt when Kashia opened the front door, told them that her friend would be having lunch with them, and then presented a swarthy, dishevelled young man in an ill-fitting Russian uniform and outsized overcoat to be this friend, it was rather a feeling of a near nervous exhaustion. But that was not the end, he knew: for as yet Kashia had told him nothing.
Kashia’s young friend was not Russian; he was Hungarian. His name was János. The clothes were the only ones she had been able to get for him from the welfare centre. There had been some old, discarded Austrian uniforms available, but he would never wear those. It would be far too dangerous to be seen in the streets dressed in them. It almost seemed to Edward too dangerous for him to be seen in the apartment either, let alone out on the streets; because, once presented, he immediately scuttled away into another room. The wooden floorboards creaking to the sound of his restless, scratching movements, a few moments later he re-appeared, poked his twitching nose into the gloomy, steaming kitchen, sniffed around with a suspicious eye, and then scuttled away again. Kashia explained that he understood a few words of English, and spoke only as many as he understood. He would not say anything anyway though, she said; not to a man in uniform: not as it was they who had destroyed his life.
Edward said nothing in response to this. He did not need to. Kashia had already picked one of the locks of his thoughts.
“He has no choice to wear that uniform,” she said. “It is that or he freezes to death. But that is not his uniform. He did not kill anyone on the orders of a king or an emperor because he was wearing that. Not like…”
“Yum, yum, tasty-tasty,” said Millie, sipping the wooden spoon she had ladled into the broth.
“It’s turnips and potatoes, Millie,” said Edward, unconvinced.
“Ah, but this is Millie’s ‘nips and spuds. And there’s the special ingredient. You’ll see.”
“Yes, you’ll see. You should be thankful,” said Kashia.
Edward had seen this ‘special ingredient’ unwrapped earlier only from a distance and had not enquired further. He could hardly censure the black market in the manner of Colonel Carrington when he knew that people were forced to turn to it out of the sheer desperation of hunger. The Colonel’s advice he had understood to be based more on political idealism than on reality.
Kashia moved over behind the kitchen table and tugged open the cupboard door, rattling the crockery within. She took out four bowls and plonked them on the table in front of Edward. She then resumed her conversation with Millie. No effort was made to involve Edward. The conversation conducted at a pitch not much greater than a whisper, Edward struggled to pick up a good deal of what they said: his hearing was still impaired by the effects of the shell-blast the previous year so that certain frequencies remained muffled as if by a wodge of cotton-wool. From what he did manage to glean it revolved mostly on the work they had done during the war.
The only daylight in the kitchen came from a small window above the stove which gave onto a narrow shaft in the tenement block. A paraffin lamp was set in the middle of the table, and its dim glow amid the clouds of steam and dripping condensation cast a pale, crepuscular shadow over the damp, yellowed walls.
János returned again. His head was bowed and his features concealed beneath a mass of greasy black hair. He took an anxious step forward, stepped back, put his hand to the doorframe, moved it next to the chair, tipped the chair on its legs, let go of it, put his hand in his pocket, fumbled around, removed it, scratched the back of his neck, then the top of his head, and turned to leave. He was stopped from doing do by Kashia. The instruction being in Hungarian, Edward only understood it by its result: he sat down opposite him. As a gesture of civility Edward unstacked the bowls and passed one to him. The bowl was snatched from his fingers and drawn possessively close. A single, dark eye glared at Edward with a sort of rabid, tortured despair. His head then dropping, the eye was once more concealed by his hair.
Having been inclined to find out whether the young man spoke German or not, this action dissuaded Edward from doing so. Trapped in an awkward, dinner-party silence, Edward therefore diverted himself by resting his open hand on the chair beside him. He turned it palm up and watched as he gently opened and closed his fingers; open and closed them, like the petals of a flower; or, as if a key were slipped into its lock and then held; and then released: held and released; held and released. He stopped. At the sudden image of Oriana’s key sitting beside him his breath became shallow. The muscles around his breast pulsed anew; the bottom of his shoulder-blade tightened like a piece of over-stretched elastic; and all the tendons prickled as if with a thousand pins. He stretched out his arm and tried to shake it loose. That failing, he pressed his thumb firmly into his armpit at the side of the breastbone to cut the bloody supply from its source.
“You said you – Kashia – wanted to talk to me,” he said, interrupting Millie. He shifted his weight on the chair.
“Yes, I do. But that can wait. It’s not so important to you I think.”
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