I Was Jack Mortimer (Pushkin Collection), page 1
I WAS JACK MORTIMER
Translated from the German by Ignat Avsey
Also Available from Pushkin Press
About the Publisher
I WAS JACK MORTIMER
UP ON THE HILLTOP MARKET, (behind a row of cabs parked nose to tail, stood a small group of drivers, chatting and smoking cigarettes.
Flocks of pink-footed, iridescent grey-and-white pigeons pecked at the rubbish between the stalls of the steeply cobbled square, or from time to time took of and glided high above before settling on the house gables, in particular on a pink-washed palace, where most of them nested.
The sky was overcast. The rows of windows shone like burnished silver. The air was heavy with the smell of vegetables, flowers and fruit.
It was a mild November day.
Two cabs with passengers pulled out in close succession from the left of the rank and out of the square, and someone was already calling out the name of the next driver, who, with his coat undone and his elbows resting on the balustrade of the nearby memorial, was chatting to his mates.
He was a young man of about thirty with dark-blue eyes beneath brown eyebrows.
Hearing his name, he took a quick drag at his cigarette, chucked it away and, buttoning up his coat at the same time, hurried to his cab.
A woman in a dark, bold-striped suit, a fox fur slung over her shoulder, was just about to get in. She had already delicately poised one foot on the running board; she held an open handbag in her gloved left hand, and was looking at herself in the mirror as she adjusted her hair under her hat with her other, ungloved hand.
She couldn’t have been more than twenty, smartly dressed, even if with that slight nonchalance which is so irresistible in young women.
With her little finger she now wiped a spot of excess lipstick from her lips, and was examining her mouth carefully as the driver approached her. He caught a glimpse of her face in the mirror as he stood behind her. A pair of large grey eyes gazed at him from under a short veil as she tilted the mirror to see who was there.
The driver bowed, stepped back and opened the door.
“Sixty-two Prinz-Eugen-Strasse,” she said without turning, and, snapping her handbag shut, stuck it under her arm and got into the cab.
He closed the door. Two of the other drivers made a sign to him as he was settling behind the wheel. He looked at them quizzically and turned on the ignition.
“Not bad, eh?” they indicated.
“What?” he queried, as though he hadn’t understood.
The two pointed inside the car.
He mumbled something and waited till the road was clear. He had hardly pulled out when he felt himself blushing. The two drivers, who’d noticed his embarrassment, grinned.
He changed up and drew his hand across his forehead.
He was now in the thick of the traffic.
Nevertheless, he suddenly threw his head back, but couldn’t see the girl in the rear because of the glare from the glass partition.
After a few moments he reached for the rear-view mirror and adjusted it slowly till he saw her.
She was sitting, legs crossed, holding her handbag and looking out of the window.
He had to stop at the next junction. He sat and stared into the mirror while the car was stationary. And even when the traffic was moving again, he continued looking into the rear through the mirror.
As a result he almost collided in Kärntner Strasse with a car that had turned out of a side street. He managed to brake with a violent jolt at the last moment, and the offended driver, shaking his head, swung out in front of him. He followed him closely till the car pulled up just before the Opera, to which he again failed to react, and before it had come to a halt he hit it, inching it forward with his bumper.
The driver turned round, swearing loudly as he got out, and ran to the back to see what the damage was, while the policeman who was standing at the junction also approached when he saw what had happened.
“The fellow’s clueless,” the man yelled, grasping the petrol tank of his car. “He nearly ran into me a moment ago!”
“What’s your name?” the policeman asked.
“Ferdinand Sponer,” the young man answered apologetically. However, since no damage had been done, the policeman waved them on. “Be more careful in future,” he said, and walked back to his post, while the other driver, swearing profusely, got back in his car. Sponer, however, turned round to his glamorous passenger, “I’m awfully sorry!”
“Why,” she said from the back of the car, “didn’t you take Seilerstätte if you don’t know how to drive?”
Seilerstätte is a quiet street, parallel to Kärntner Strasse, with little traffic.
“Oh, but I do,” he mumbled, and smiled sheepishly.
“Move on!” the policeman shouted. The car in front had in the meantime driven off. Other cars were piling up behind Sponer. He hastily pulled out and joined the traffic. He turned left at the Opera into Mahlerstrasse, behind the Grand Hotel, then right, crossed the ring road, and, accelerating, cut across the Schwartzenbergplatz and sped up Prinz-Eugen-Strasse. At number sixty-two he did a U-turn, pointing towards the centre again, and stopped in front of the house.
“My apologies once again,” he said as his attractive fare alighted. She paid, glanced at him and shook her head. He tried to smile once more. She turned away and walked towards the main entrance. With a wonderfully graceful movement she swung open a small side gate mounted in the main entrance and stepped inside.
He followed her with his eyes until the gate fell shut behind her. Then he stared at the entrance.
A few minutes later he noticed he was still holding the money she had given him.
He started the car but drove on just a few yards, stopped again and got out. After standing hesitantly by the car a few seconds, he walked up to the main entrance and went in.
In the high, timber-panelled entrance hall, at the far end of which, through a French window, he glimpsed an overgrown garden, he noticed the porter’s lodge on the right and the open door to the stairwell on the left.
A huge, gilt chandelier hung from the decorated ceiling, and short flights of steps led off from the right and left of the entrance hall.
He stepped into the stairwell and glanced up at the high, wide lift shaft with the staircase snaking around it. He couldn’t hear any footsteps on the stairs or the landings.
On the wall hung a black, polished, framed board with white, numbered bell-buttons. Under each was a card bearing the name of the respective occupant.
He struck a match in order to read the names, as it had already turned dark. The residents included army officers, civil servants, aristocrats, as well as an industrialist.
He tried to picture which of them could have a daughter like the beautiful young girl he’d driven here; or on which of them a girl, just like the one in a dark-green suit with a fox slung over her shoulders, might have dropped in; or which of them a young woman, smartly dressed, even if with a slight, though irresistible, touch of nonchalance, might be paying a visit.
However, the names revealed nothing.
They didn’t reveal which apartment she’d entered, or what she was doing th
The match went out and burnt his finger. He let go of it, crushed it with his foot, and found himself in semi-darkness.
Finally he left the stairwell, stood hesitatingly for a moment in front of the porter’s lodge, and entered. He opened the glass door, stepped into the lobby, and knocked at the door to the porter’s flat. A couple of steps led down into a sort of combined kitchen and living room.
A child was playing in the middle of the floor; next to the door, at a table covered with a blue-patterned oilcloth, sat a woman of about forty-five with the light on, doing what such people always do in their flats—sitting with the light on, of course, drinking coffee, reading the paper, and thinking about family matters.
She glanced up as Sponer entered.
“Did a young woman come in about five minutes ago?” he asked. And, when she continued looking at him, he added, “In a green suit with a fox fur.”
“Why?” the woman asked, dunked a piece of roll in her coffee and continued reading the paper.
“I’ve a letter for her.”
The woman put out her hand.
“To be delivered personally,” he said.
“Second floor, on the right, Countess Dünewald,” and she stuck the piece of roll in her mouth and turned over the page.
Well, well, he thought, a Countess! Probably the daughter. And, as he glanced from the porter’s wife to the newspaper with artist’s sketches illustrating some crime reports, he said: “No, not the…”
“Not the what?” the woman asked.
“Not the Countess.” He rummaged in his pockets and pulled out a letter. He pretended he was looking at the address.
“Her niece?” the woman asked.
“Yes,” he said, and then almost without thinking, “the Duchess.”
“She’s no duchess.”
“Isn’t she? Ah,” he went on, “you’re right, it doesn’t say that here either. But, anyway, it’s her niece.”
“Let me see,” she said, and held out her hand once again for the letter.
“No, I just wanted to check that the names tallied.”
“That’s the one,” he said, as if simply confirming the fact. “And the first name?”
She again wanted to see the letter.
He stuck it back in his pocket. “No, that’s all right,” he said. He didn’t find out the first name. “Second floor, on the right, then?” he said. “Thanks.” And he adjusted his cap and left. He noticed she was staring at him as he closed the door. She had become curious and went to the door of the flat. He therefore pretended he was going to deliver the letter. He walked to the stairwell, mounted a couple of steps and stopped. It occurred to him that he really could walk up. He ascended a few more steps. On the second floor, on the right-hand door he saw a brass plate with the name “Dünewald”.
He waited two or three minutes and then walked down the stairs again. When he came to the entrance hall he saw that the woman was still standing at the door, staring. He got into his car and waited.
Every now and again trams passed up and down Prinz-Eugen-Strasse, and a couple of cars raced past.
Dry leaves from the Schwarzenberg Park fluttered in the wind.
He told a couple of people who wanted to get in that he’d been hired already.
He waited till about half past seven.
It had gone dark long ago; a strong wind had got up, and the street lamps flickered and swayed.
The porter’s wife came out of the house once, but he turned his face away and she didn’t recognize him.
At about half past seven the girl appeared, accompanied by two handsome older men, dressed in the manner of ex-cavalry officers. The three took no notice of the cab. They walked past, chatting about bridge.
They walked down the street. Sponer drove slowly behind them. After a while they turned left into a side street, then right into Alleegasse. They stopped in front of number sixteen. The two gentlemen said goodbye. The girl went into the house, and the men walked off in the direction of the centre of the town.
During that evening and the next morning, Sponer found out from the doormen in Alleegasse and from the head waiter of the nearby Café Attaché, but in particular from a commissionaire who used to sit either on the street corner or in a bar opposite, under a sign with two white horses, that the girl was called Marisabelle von Raschitz, that she was the daughter of a major, and was indeed the niece of Countess Dünewald, the widow of Count Dünewald, the erstwhile household steward of Archduchess Maria Isabella, after whom the young lady, whom the commissionaire had known since childhood, had been duly christened.
“They say,” he added, “that Major von Raschitz is still a wealthy man. Marisabelle also has a brother.” The commissionaire knew him, too, from childhood. He said that he’d often chatted to the two lovely young children when they were taken for walks. In Vienna, children, even from the upper classes would, in former times, happily talk to servant girls on street corners or to elderly invalids in the Belvedere Gardens. These invalids had either lost an arm or had a peg leg, they wore uniforms of days gone by, looked after the park amenities and used to talk to the children and their nannies; the commissionaire also reminisced about former times, about the Archduchess, her household, and the splendid carriages with their gilt wheels. Sponer listened to him for a while, nodded absentmindedly, and got back in his car.
In the next side street there was a taxi rank. He parked his cab there, got out and walked to the corner, from where he could observe the house. However, when the cabs that were parked in front had picked up fares and it was his turn, he explained, after driving a few yards, that there was something wrong with his car, and he let the others take his place. Some of the drivers offered to help. Sponer declined. He started tinkering with the engine himself.
At about eleven he saw Marisabelle leave the house. She wore a brown skirt and a short fur jacket. Her long gloves were still under her arm, but she started to put them on as she headed towards the centre.
Immediately afterwards, the house gates opened and a Cadillac drove out. Two men were sitting in the back. The Cadillac turned into the side street in which Sponer was tinkering with his engine.
He stopped, walked up to the commissionaire, and asked him whose car it was.
“It belongs to an industrialist,” the commissionaire replied. A certain Herr So-and-so, who also lived in the same building. Sponer didn’t register the name. But he asked if the Raschitzes, too, owned a car. The commissionaire replied in the affirmative.
Sponer now picked up a fare, then a second one at the Church of the Nine Choirs of Angels, who had to make several business calls at various government offices and departments, and for whom Sponer had to wait at each stop. When, however, at about one o’clock in Schwarzspanierstrasse there still appeared to be no end to these calls, Sponer asked his fare to leave, since he had come to the end of his shift. He drove back at breakneck speed to Alleegasse, and parked to await Marisabelle’s return.
She didn’t return, however, and at about two he reluctantly concluded that he had probably missed her. In the café Zu den Zwei Schimmeln he had a bite to eat with the commissionaire, who also had a few beers and regaled him and the other clients with tales of the former imperial court. In Vienna there were still quite a few of these old commissionaires, minor officials, former servants and the like, who sported side whiskers and waxed nostalgically about the Court, the Arcièren Life Guards, the huge tips dispensed by the foreign potentates, the Emperor’s house guests, and much more besides. Sponer, who was twenty-nine and knew hardly anything about such things, listened without paying much attention, constantly glancing over the street to the windows with the curtains.
I shall, he thought, park in front of the house so that when she comes out in the afternoon I can ask if she wants a cab.
He paid, left,
The commissionaire, who by now was becoming suspicious of Sponer’s behaviour, also came over and asked him a question, which, however, Sponer completely ignored. For at this very moment Marisabelle emerged from the house. She was wearing a dark coat and a two-tone hat.
Sponer sprang from his seat and approached her.
“A cab?” he asked.
She shook her head and was about to continue on her way, when she recognized him.
“Ah!” she said, and since he was standing so close to her, “It’s you, is it?” But she didn’t stop and kept walking.
“Yes, it’s me,” he said, and, searching for words, tried to stand in her way. “Would… would you like me to give you a lift? I was so upset yesterday about that little incident. My driving’s really quite good…”
She looked at him. A shadow of a smile flitted across her mouth. A row of dazzlingly white teeth flashed for a brief second.
“I’m glad!” she said. “How long have you been a driver then?”
“Four years. Do you drive yourself?”
“Me?” she asked in surprise.
“A little,” she said.
“I had an idea you would have a car. Of course,” he added immediately, “I learnt to drive somewhere else… with my relatives, you understand.” And he paused for a split second. She looked at him as though she couldn’t quite fathom why he had said “you understand”. And it must have crossed her mind: “What relatives? What on earth have they got to do with it?”
“When I first started,” he continued immediately, “I’d far rather have done something else than be a driver…”
“Really?” she said, and made as if to walk on again.
“Yes,” he said hastily, “I even spent a whole year in… a cadet school… Actually, my father was…”