The Waltz of Masks

A story from the collection Secret Europe...

A story from Secret Europe by John Howard and Mark Valentine, “the ultimate collection, the singular masterpiece dedicated to the great sepia-coloured world of a Secret Europa,” in Ex Occidente’s opinion “the book of the decade.” You can order the book here.

At last it was growing dark. Outside the broken window the short day was drawing to its end. I had been crouching in the far corner of the room for what seemed like hours. A gust of icy wind shook the torn curtains, and I shivered. Luckily I had been able to grab my thickest winter overcoat. I thought about checking to see if the electricity was still connected, or if there were any candles or lamps in the flat. But then I realised that I might only draw attention to myself if any of the police or Heimwehr outside noticed even the merest glimmer of light or any movement at all.

We had been surrounded during the assault. The Rosa-Luxemburg-Hof had become our last redoubt. Our tormentors called them fortresses – our magnificent blocks of flats located around the suburban outskirts of the city. They claimed that the Red Municipality of Vienna had built them to control the streets leading to the Inner City; but the great blocks with their spacious courtyards, gardens, and clubhouses were built for working people and their families, and were no fortresses. They were scarcely able to stand up to the artillery that the Government and its allies were using against us. And our building was no exception. During a lull in the bombardment we had evacuated the flats on the Stadlauer Strasse side of the building as their outer walls were now shattered, exposing the simple and cosy rooms behind to the freezing open air. We made our escape as best we could, retreating to other parts of the enormous block where we could still perhaps hold out and make a stand for our cause before we were finally overwhelmed. Hopefully many had escaped into the sewers. We all knew what capture would mean. We had been told that Chancellor Dollfuss was a devout Christian and a good man, but mercy was not something we knew we could take for granted.

My comrades and I dodged flying slivers of glass and coughed uncontrollably as we fled through the haze of plaster and brick dust. Many of the inhabitants of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Hof – the very young and the very old, at least – had left or were cowering in their flats or in the cellars. Most of the men were fighting; their families, their women and young people were no less committed and played their parts as best they could. Clutching our often antiquated weapons, we slipped in and out of abandoned rooms, tripping over splintered furniture, broken toys, sodden books, and all the other things that go to make life at home worthwhile and bearable. I trod on the white face of a china doll, and winced at the noise it made as it got crushed. In one room part of a crucifix still hung, still nailed to the wall, the head missing and the smashed arms barely attached to a splinter of wood above where a bed had been. Someone had pushed the bed away from its place, leaving it wedged against the door to the balcony. Plants in tubs, brought inside for the winter, had been overturned, their clay pots smashed and earth scattered on the parquet flooring. Georg gasped in shock and disgust. “And they call us godless!” he muttered as we left, closing the still intact door behind us.

We all shook hands and vowed that those of us who survived would meet at a certain time and place in a bar not far from the one of the streets leading to the Old Danube. We separated, dispersing ourselves in various parts of the huge building so we couldn’t be captured at once. And then I ran up a flight of stairs and knocked on the first door I came to. There was no answer and the door wasn’t locked. The tenants knew that we would not be the ones to break in to steal and destroy. And so I huddled deeper into my overcoat, wishing I left a pair of gloves in the pockets. I crouched in the corner, in the deepening gloom, not daring to even light a cigarette.

When the music began I thought I was dreaming. But no. The cold was real; the broken window and damp floor were real. Yet there was the music. I pushed myself further into the corner, as if I were trying to get the walls to absorb me. And I heard, unbelievably but unmistakeably, the tones of Johann Strauss’ Emperor Waltz. It seemed to me that they must be coming from the next flat. I shook my head to try and clear it, but the music didn’t go away.

*

The man was probably only in his forties, although his hair was a uniform grey and his eyes were hollow and haunted. He was dressed in immaculate evening clothes, with linen spotless and shoes polished to a mirror finish. The temperature in the room was glacial, but he didn’t seem to notice. I spoke to him gently and introduced myself, but he ignored me. Perhaps he didn’t understand that I was there. So far his flat had escaped damage: the curtains were drawn against the dusk and a single lamp glowed softly on the table by his armchair. Crystal and silver glinted in a glass-fronted cupboard. He had moved another, and lower, table to the space in front of where he sat, and placed a gramophone on it. Next to that was a photograph of a man and woman, clearly dressed in the correct clothes for a formal and festive occasion, and framed in elaborate Jugendstil silver. The record came to an end as I stared at the scene; he leaned forward, touched the frame and ran his fingers over the glass covering the photograph, and started to listen to the music again. His lips started to move, and I knelt down next to him, and leaned in to listen.

“The Emperor Waltz! This is our dance, is it not, my love? Think of it! A lowly member of the diplomatic service and his darling wife invited to such an event as this ball! The Emperor Waltz will be so appropriate, my dear Elisabeth. They say that both the Emperor himself and the Heir Presumptive will be here. Perhaps we will be presented to them. Perhaps the Emperor will see that you are as beautiful as his very own Elisabeth was!

“Now, this is a masked ball, remember, so we must take part and put on our masks. There are no exceptions, not for anybody, from highest to lowest. Even the gentlemen of the orchestra, see? No-one must know who anybody is. But we will know each other, won’t we, Elisabeth, even as we dance with wonderful and powerful strangers in this huge and crowded room. That’s right – let me adjust your mask, just a little…so. Perfect. And mine? Ha, you always know how to delight me and make me laugh! One is allowed to dance with his wife for the first time…

“It is almost stifling in here. The crystal chandeliers are so clean and shine out so! And the candles, rank upon rank of them. The heat and glare is tremendous. I am not surprised at the rumours, that it is a simple matter for one to take far more liquid refreshment than one bargains for, and embarrassing misfortune result! I must be careful. Already those Magyar officers over there seem a trifle unsteady… Until later, then, my love!

“A compliment on my dancing, gracious lady? I thank you! If you would care to…? I shall be honoured. Yes, this champagne is most welcome, I agree. And your husband – is he here? Really? Ha, ha, surely not. Oh, I see… And now if you will excuse me, my dear lady, I must seek a breath of fresh air! Until later, then…

“But not if I can help it. Ah, God be thanked, there is a terrace and the doors stand open! That’s better. It was pleasant to catch a glimpse of my Elisabeth just now. She is the beauty here. I can’t believe what I heard those Magyar officers discussing. They have no respect for the Emperor and the Monarchy. Hungary enjoys the position and power she has today because of Austria and the Compromise! Privy Councillor von Raden was right. These masked balls are places of dark intrigue behind the glitter and the light. I think I will take another glass of champagne. Where are the waiters? Ah – my man – yes, many thanks.

“All Vienna seems to be out here on the terrace as well. But at least it is much cooler. That’s much better. Chilled champagne – nothing like it to help one think! I will stroll as far as the steps and then go back inside and rejoin the ball. I don’t wish to miss the Emperor if he comes! Pardon me, sir, what was that? Yes, I do work at the Ballhausplatz, how can you know that? Oh, it is you, Herr Privy Councillor! Thank you, sir, most kind. Yes, I am enjoying myself. My dear wife is doubtless dancing to the divine music. The Emperor Waltz is our favourite. And is the Emperor…? You are certain, my dear sir? But of course, you have met with them on many occasions, no doubt. High discussions of State, ha? Your friend would like my opinion? Pleased, my dear sir. Apologies, Herr Professor Doktor! I should have realised. And what…? I see. I am afraid I am in the diplomatic service, not the Ministry of the Interior. Triest is within the borders of our half of the Monarchy, the Crown Lands represented in Parliament, so I cannot comment or hazard any advice. The matter is beyond my competence, I am sorry.

“Well! I hope that I did not offend von Raden or his friends. But how should I know whether or not the Professor Doktor would be wise to buy a fine villa with extensive gardens in Triest? Do they know something? Triest is as firmly Austrian as Prague or Lemberg, surely. More so: as Austrian as a Strauss waltz! And now after all that I think one more glass of champagne is in order. Thank you.

“It’s hotter in here than it was before. This mask is irritating my skin and making me sweat. And the glare. My eyes are hurting. What will I look like in the morning?

“I don’t believe what I’m hearing! He hates the Habsburgs? How dare he say that openly, here, now? It’s disgraceful. He and his friends should be made to leave. They’re as bad as those Magyars. Is no-one in the Empire loyal? It’s all intriguing and back-biting. More champagne? Yes, I think I will.

“Elisabeth, my love! You are enjoying yourself, I see. Let us dance. Who will know that it’s with my own wife? Phew! That polka was almost too much! My dear, let us have some refreshments. Oh, why has the music stopped? Why is everyone standing still? A drum-roll! It’s the Master of Ceremonies. ‘My dear and esteemed ladies and gentlemen, it is midnight! Please, all unmask!’ That’s a relief, I can tell you. Look who it is, Herr Privy Councillor von Raden over there with Kirchmann and Feuerstein from the office. And their wives. Who would have thought it? But you are the most beautiful, dear Elisabeth!

“Another roll of the drums. Why are we moving into line like this? Ouch! My apologies, sir. Of course. Look, yes, it is the Heir Presumptive himself, the Archduke! Not his wife, though. Yes, I agree, my sweet, it’s ridiculous, keeping her out like that. Pure vindictiveness, that’s what it is. She is married to an Archduke who is the Heir Presumptive. We bow as he strolls past. He nods, acknowledging us. Surely not me? And look, Elisabeth, over there! Standing by those doors. It is the Emperor! How grave he looks. He cannot be leaving already. Let us have another glass of champagne, my darling.

“Did you hear that? More disrespect! Yes, I know that the Emperor and the Heir Presumptive do not always see eye to eye. All Vienna, everyone in the Empire, knows that. And his expression could perhaps be said to have been a little frosty. But how could he say that our Emperor looks like a pensioned-off village mayor! The decades he has served the Empire, then to deny himself the pleasures of a ball like this for a desk stacked high with paperwork and his narrow soldier’s bed! The Emperor is a great man.

“Who are you, my gentleman? My wife? Yes, of course, it is an honour. Until later, Elisabeth. I’ll remain here and try not to hear any more slanderous and unbecoming talk. It really is all too vile beneath the glitter. They shouldn’t wear those gaudy uniforms bedecked with medals – they belong in the gutters of the city slums. Ah, just another final glass of champagne while my darling Elisabeth dances with the Archduke Franz Ferdinand himself!

“Ah, my darling, you are come back to me. He has let you go at last! It seemed longer than for one dance. And for you too? I believe the Heir Presumptive has little renown as a pleasant man, one has to say. And he too talked about the obstacle that stands in the way of his plans, and how he longs for him to be removed? Oh, hateful place! But I am forgetting myself. Here is a waiter bearing champagne. At least they know their place and are polite. A glass for you, Elisabeth. Thank you. And yes, I will.

“Ha, I feel rather like I’m dancing. The room is swirling. The heat and light and all the vile intriguing. I really don’t think I know quite where I am. Everything is a blaze of light and heat. Those vast mirrors, they throw the light back into my eyes and blind me and they redouble the heat. It is an inferno. Those paintings are moving, or are they magnificent people dancing? Please – I think you must help me to a chair, Elisabeth. Ah, thank you, thank you. Everyone is still dancing around me. Hold me, Elisabeth! I cannot stay still. My head… Now the music – ah, the Emperor Waltz again! I must… My darling, shall we? Oh, I – ”

*

The record ended and there was silence in the room as the man stopped his whispering. I wasn’t sure how many times he had leaned forward and played the Emperor Waltz while he talked and I listened. I remained absolutely still, not wanting to break the spell that seemed to hold the room in a state somehow away from the present. I realised that I had been as good as hypnotised, and that I wanted him to continue speaking. I should be trying to escape, but I felt safe in the dimly-lit and freezing flat. I knew that was an illusion, but there was nothing I could force myself to do about it.

He touched the record with delicate fingers, but didn’t play it again. He sat back in his chair.

“That night at the masked ball was the last time we danced the Emperor Waltz. I became utterly lost in that great hall, but for my lovely Elisabeth. My darling wife rescued me. I now know that we danced on the edge of a precipice. Our world was glorious but empty, and behind the graceful poise and beauty of our lives there was nothing but impending doom. Everything came to an end so shortly afterwards. I remember the assassinations and the ultimatum; no-one believed that it would be accepted, but when most of it was, the sense of relief… Going to war was madness. We were not ready. We had not been ready for decades.

“I remember the Italian Front. My yearning letters, the consolation of letters from my darling wife. The cold and hunger in Vienna. How they told me she was dying from a fever and they let me travel home to be with her. Elisabeth smiled and grasped my hand, but she was so weak. She whispered to me, but I couldn’t hear what she said. The nurse tried to pull me away, but I leaned in close one more time, and Elisabeth was humming the Emperor Waltz as her life ebbed away.

“And then I found out from the neighbours how my wife was able to obtain the food for the parcels she sent that I was so grateful for, what she had done to keep alive, and to keep herself for me, when I returned from the madness. I wish she had sold more of our possessions instead. I wish I had known. I think I would have been shocked and angry, but I would have forgiven her. Elisabeth’s motives were good. But she died wearing a mask, and she had put it on and worn it for me. And yet I would have preferred it if she had unmasked herself. Perhaps she would have done, if it had been granted her to survive.

“The Vienna I returned to – the city without my Elisabeth – had become a swollen head perching on top of a shrunken and mutilated body. The new countries and the peace treaties carved up the Empire. New lines on old maps cut us apart. God be thanked, the old Emperor had not lived to see it. Ha, I have often wondered if the Professor Doktor ever did buy the villa in Triest, and then lost everything! The inflation stole my remaining money, but I was fortunate to be able to keep hold of a few things and to obtain a small flat in one of the lovely new buildings. And now all I have left is the Emperor Waltz and the weight of the years that pin me down. If only there could be one more dance… Elisabeth…”

*

The shelling began again, and I came back to myself as the building shook and clouds of plaster swirled down from the ceiling. I had to get away. I had spent too long a time with the man in the chair – years too long. I touched his shoulder, and he turned his head, gazed up at me and smiled. I don’t know exactly what he saw to make him smile so radiantly. His dull eyes came alive.

“Please,” he whispered. “The Emperor Waltz.”

I took hold of his hands and pulled, to raise him out of the armchair, but he shook his head. His hands were frozen, and his dead weight prevented me from moving him.

“The Emperor Waltz. Then it will be time to unmask!”

I started the record and ran out of the room. The artillery opened up again. Behind me the corridor shook, and I heard the sound of shattering glass and collapsing masonry. The air itself quivered with the booming and thudding of shells. There were shouts and screams from all around as I ran down flight after flight of stairs. And yet as I ran I heard the strains of the Emperor Waltz, following me, chasing me from that vanished time when some masks were perhaps better kept in place.

John Howard is an English author, born in London in 1961. His fiction has appeared in several anthologies and the collection The Silver Voices. The majority of Howard’s stories have central and eastern European settings; many are set in the fictional Romanian town of Steaua de Munte. The Defeat of Grief is a novella set in Steaua de Munte and the real Black Sea resort of Balcic. Between 2003 and 2007 John Howard collaborated on eight short stories with Mark Valentine, six of which featured Valentine’s long-running series character The Connoisseur, an occult detective whose real name is never revealed. All 23 tales of The Connoisseur, including the collaborations, were reprinted in The Collected Connoisseur (Tartarus Press, 2010). Secret Europe is a joint collection of 25 short stories by Howard (10 stories) and Valentine (15 stories). Howard has written articles for numerous magazines including Book and Magazine Collector, Supernatural Tales, Wormwood, Studies in Australian Weird Fiction, and All Hallows for the Ghost Story Society.