The promised Olivia and Dr Rieppel story.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, actual events, names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, or incidents is entirely intentional.
Adventure on the Vienna Express
Winnie had hardly dared to believe her good luck when Dr Ora actually managed to convince all the necessary authourities to let her accompany him on a trip to Europe as his teaching assistant. And, given his reputation as the most absentminded of professors, it was almost equally surprising that they’d gotten as far as landing in Heathrow with all their luggage intact. Upon takeoff from Minneapolis, Dr Ora had proudly shown her his battered but still complete map of Europe, with each of its many folds holding a complete country in detail. Winnie admired it but was also secretly relieved.
They spent a day on the road from London to Canterbury, and by Dr Ora’s insistence heard Evensong at the Cathedral: a glorious experience, and while Winnie soaked up every note of the music, she wished she had not left her camera in the hotel. The next day Dr Ora sadly bade farewell to “Holy Mother Canterbury” for a while, and they set off for Germany.
The plan was to spend a few days in Frankfurt with some of Dr Ora’s friends, and go to a few concerts and such, since he had insider information about some Schubert and Bach being performed during a couple of the nights of their visit. Afterward, they would go on to Vienna to spend what remained of the month. And despite what came after, Winnie always looked back to those late nights, full of music and good food and Dr Ora glowingly happy in the presence of old friends, as the best of that summer.
At eight twenty-one in the morning, with true German efficiency, their train did actually depart; and what was an even greater testament to a particular efficiency, in this case Winnie’s, she and Dr Ora and all their bags, baggage, and belongings, were on it.
“From Frankfurt,” Dr Ora said as the train pulled out of the station, the morning sun shining on his white hair and turning his bald pate pink, “I believe we go to — ah. I know I have our itinerary somewhere.” He shifted in his seat so he could reach his pocket.
“I’ve got it,” Winnie said, producing a folded piece of notebook paper. “Frankfurt to Nuremberg Central Station, to Munich, then to Vienna Central Station.”
“Ach, Fraulein,” Dr Ora sighed. She found, to some surprise, that she was growing used to the title even when it wasn’t for purposes of introduction to some famous musician or other with whom Dr Ora hobnobbed as comfortably as with his community orchestra. “You must be invaluable to your family.”
Winnie’s smile faded and she looked out the window, through the reflection of Dr Ora’s purple argyle vest, at the old buildings of the city as they passed. For a moment, rather than merely wishing one or another relative were there to share something, she stopped to wonder how things were going at home and whether her sister’s life had gone to more than its usual extent of chaos without her influence to keep her on track — how many meals she’d forgotten to eat, or what she’d set on fire, or accidentally allowed to die, without reminders. Because of Winnie’s schedule of late, with the differences of time zones, and long evenings always full of engagements, they hadn’t even talked on the phone.
“There’s Offenbach,” Dr Ora said, pointing out the window to a sign with that name. “You played with us for the concert we did the Orpheus overture for, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” Winnie smiled.
Between conversations about the fine distinctions between Anglo-Catholicism and Roman Catholicism, with digressions on the history of the organ in Canterbury’s cathedral and other less germane things, Winnie and Dr Ora pointed out signs for other towns with interesting names. Kleinaustheim, Sailauf, and Veitshöchheim passed them by as the morning unfolded, and as they passed through Wurtsburg station they noted the sign for Rottendorf to the east. Somewhere on the other side of Munich Winnie, sated with scenery, and the conversation on conservation of architecture flagging, got out her notebook and pencils and began to draw.
A sign for Eggenfelden made her laugh, and she turned to point it out only to find that Dr Ora’s eyes were closed and his head had fallen forward on his chest. Asleep, unconscious of any eyes upon him, the veneer of the entertainer had fallen from him and he looked now only like a weary old man, enjoying some needed rest. Winnie knew what late hours had taken up his life of late, and she could not bear to disturb him. She quirked her mouth and thought of how his wife should have been going with him on this trip, instead of being simply an absence, an empty space between them whenever he pointed to a building and said, “This is where we ate,” or heard someone’s symphony, or saw someone perform, or went to church, “the last time.” It shouldn’t have been the last time. She’d have given up a hundred opportunities like this if it meant his wife could have been with him instead.
As time passed Winnie became conscious of a growing sensation that they were taking longer than they should have to get to Vienna. The conductor never announced a station intelligibly, always sounding as if he were speaking through a hand clapped over his mouth, so that the most anyone could hope to catch from him was “station” or at most “central station” in the larger towns. And she hadn’t seen any signs lately. They’d passed into and out of cities, going from old brick or stone buildings back into wilderness so often that the sight of storied homes had almost failed to move her.
And then, as the sun took on an unmistakeably evening slant, they left Nickelsdorf behind, and the next sign Winnie saw was for Hegyeshalom. Her heart sank as she realized it was in no way a German name. She waited a little while, and to her dismay, as the next sign rushed toward them out of gathering clouds, saw a long sprawling title with the element “magyar”. Magyar. Her mind went back to a favourite book of her youth, where she’d learned the word, and the fact that a czardas was more than just a piece for solo violin.
Hesitantly, but her growing panic overriding all else, she put her hand on Dr Ora’s shoulder and gently shook him. “Dr Ora,” she said. “Dr Ora,” again, as his eyes opened and he looked blearily over his glasses.
“What is it?” he asked, looking around.
“So sorry to wake you, but I think we’re in Hungary.”
He sighed, but returned cheerfully, “Are you sure?”
“Well, there’s a sign I can’t read we just passed, but I’m pretty sure it’s not German.”
Dr Ora sat up at last and looked out the window, but nothing in the scenery conveyed a difference in nations. “Well, we’ll just have to get off at the next station and see what we can find. Wie viel Uhr?”
Winnie checked her phone. “Quarter after six.” Her stomach growled. “We’re going to need something to eat soon.”
“Oh, I’m sure we’ll find something,” Dr Ora said airily, bending down and opening his briefcase. Winnie raised her eyebrows, but he didn’t notice.
The conductor chose this moment to announce something ending in “-ation”.
“We might as well get off here,” Dr Ora decided, closing up his briefcase and absently patting his pockets, and when the train stopped they joined the flow of passengers getting off.
“Do you know any Hungarian?” Dr Ora asked brightly, when they stood on the platform in the midst of a migrating crowd.
“No,” Winnie said. “Even Dad doesn’t. He said Hungarian was practically impossible to pick up.”
“I’ve heard Hungarians will learn German, though Germans — where’s it gone?” Dr Ora patted his pockets all over, his face growing red behind his glasses.
“Where’s what gone?”
“My map. I know I had it — oh, where? I can’t remember the last time I needed it.” Dr Ora took off his hat and looked inside it. “No, I know for sure I saw it on the counter in London. Did I leave it there?”
A thorough search of briefcase, suitcases, and all pockets revealed that whether it was on a counter in London or no, Dr Ora had certainly left his map behind somewhere. On the bright side, their search brought to light a bar of chocolate Dr Ora had bought in Germany and forgotten about. To make matters worse, as they left the shelter of the station, they found it had begun to rain.
Winnie had kept a sleepless eye on their luggage ever since the Minneapolis airport, such a long time ago now, and so far her efforts were rewarded: they may have gotten off their train at the wrong station, not to mention the wrong country, but at least they had all their clothes and other essential belongings still. Despite his best efforts to the contrary, Dr Ora still had even his umbrella.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I got lost in Edinburgh?” Dr Ora said pleasantly, as he opened his umbrella over them. “I think we’ll turn to the right here.” He paused to look for traffic and stepped out. “I was sort of sightseeing by myself, she wasn’t on that trip — it was when I was still young and had all my wits about me — and anyway I took a wrong turn as I was heading away from the castle.”
Winnie privately doubted Dr Ora had ever had all his wits about him, but since she couldn’t very well blame him for his part in their plight without blaming herself, she resisted the temptation.
“Edinburgh is a very old city and very full of ghosts, you know, all over the place, there’s stories in every old house and library. Russell Kirk, I’m sure your dad reads him — he’s a Conservative from the last century?”
“The name sounds familiar.” (She had no idea who he was.)
“He wrote a few ghost stories set in Edinburgh, because he spent some time there himself. Well, anyway, I took a street I thought looked familiar, and when I got to the end of it there was a plaque saying so-and-so was murdered here in seventeen-something, so I turned around and walked back —”
Winnie was biting back a plea to stop, which wanted to come out as a scream, when an interruption offered itself. “Ah!” said Dr Ora, looking at a dripping street sign. “Eszperanto. That looks uncommonly like Hope. Let’s take this street. It’s bound to lead somewhere good, isn’t it?” he said, glancing back at his downcast student. “Got to keep hope up, right?”
Winnie managed a small smile. “It’s as good a direction as any.”
“I am so sorry for getting you into this pickle, as the Brits say,” Dr Ora said as they turned to the left, and Winnie had not the heart to reproach him.
“What about that chocolate?” she said instead.
“Oh, yes, where’d I put it now?” Dr Ora said, and Winnie raised her eyebrows. But he found it at once and handed it to her, and she opened the package and broke off a square for each of them.
“A terribly healthy supper, isn’t it?” Dr Ora remarked, looking at the piece dwarfed in his hand. “I suppose I won’t get any fatter.”
They had another stroke of luck, for after about a mile their road crossed one with a familiar name. “Bartok Bela!” Dr Ora exclaimed. “Let’s see where this one goes.”
Near the corner stood a white building with red arches around the windows and the door, and in one of the windows hung a violin. Like a couple of tourists they hurried across the street and looked in at the instruments and the packages of strings hanging on the far wall, all of which proclaimed it, in a universal tongue, a music store.
They went in, but the store owner spoke neither German nor English, and the signs they had in common did not extend to conversations about food, so they soon left.
As they dragged their luggage down what began to look more and more like an important part of town, they passed several places at various stages of being closed up for the night. One, however, on the other side of the dark and silent Museum, was full of light and bustle. They looked through the windows and saw that it was a restaurant.
Winnie put her hand on the iron railing and looked at Dr Ora, trying to gauge whether he was likely to have the right amount of money about him and whether the exchange rate would be enough to let them buy food, and whether they would be able to understand enough of the menu to order something edible.
“Well, Fraulein Weiss,” Dr Ora said, “shall we adventure this place? What do you know about Hungarian food?”
For once Winnie decided her complete ignorance was unimportant. “It’s food. Let’s go in.”
Dr Ora held the door for her, and they found a corner near enough that they didn’t have to haul their things over too many feet.
The menu was completely unintelligible, but the waiter spoke some German, and when he left them the travellers consulted together.
“Let’s order the least expensive things, just in case,” Winnie said, “so our money’s more likely to cover it.”
“I’ll ask him when he comes back,” Dr Ora said, shaking his finger at Winnie, “remind me, whether they accept euro. The thing is, with these Romantic composers, so full of passion and exuberance, you might almost say exaggeration, in every emotion, is that their occasional bad works are that much more grating, because it’s not just a failure to understand the form they’re using properly — as it might be if, oh I don’t know, if Bach had ever written anything bad, which of course he never did,” and Winnie couldn’t help laughing, and agreed, “but Dvorak now, that American symphony! Dvorak is better than that. My son, now, loves that one, but I’ve had to say I don’t want to ever conduct it. We’ve had a few debates. . .”
A man at the next table over, who had been seated with his back to them, put down his fork and pushed his chair back, turning to face Dr Ora. “You are a conductor?” he said in unmistakeable German.
“I am,” Dr Ora beamed. “Only a local orchestra, but it’s good, quite good.”
“Local to where?”
Winnie did her best not to choke.
Then he had to explain how they came to be in Hungary at all, and it turned out that they had a mutual acquaintance in a certain famous musician, and then that the stranger was himself a musician of no little note.
The waiter returned to take their orders while Dr Ora was busy talking, so Winnie indicated the inexpensive meals they’d picked out. “Oh, he said to remind him — about paying — wait a sec,” she finished in English, and turned to Dr Ora and tapped his arm.
“Ja?” Dr Ora said in the midst of a monologue having to do with Schubert. “Oh, money, right? Do you take euro here?”
The waiter declined.
Winnie’s heart sank into her empty stomach. She envisioned them getting thrown out onto the streets and having to spend the night outside with only their chocolate for sustenance, and what if this part of town wasn’t as nice after hours at it seemed now, and (in the unlikely event that anyone took Dr Ora for an American tourist) they were set upon by thieves?
“Horrible conversion rate,” their new acquaintance explained. “It’s not worth their time. You’re much better off carrying Florint with you.” Winnie reasoned that their money would be safe then, but what about their other valuables? And it would be cold and wet, but they were in summer clothes.
“Ah, well, I haven’t any at the moment,” Dr Ora sighed. “Never mind. I’ll — I’m sure —”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ve got an apartment about a mile from here. Would you care — that is, if I offered you — since I’m sure if you’ve only got euro you’ll have trouble finding a hotel — a place for the night? You and the — are you his granddaughter?”
Winnie really did choke this time.
“No,” Dr Ora corrected, “this is Fraulein Weiss. She’s also in my orchestra, she’s part of what makes it better than the other regional ones. We should be delighted to accept your invitation! That is, if it’s not too great an inconvenience putting us up at such short notice.”
“Not at all.”
Winnie began to recalculate things and gave up.
“We have to be to Vienna by tomorrow afternoon,” Dr Ora said, “as we’ve got engagements with people, so we won’t presume too long on your hospitality. See, Fraulein, you needn’t have worried. My luck always holds.”
Not only that, but their new host paid for their food. As Winnie satisfied her hunger, she listened to Dr Ora and his new friend as they tried to find out how many other people they both knew. Now he was not so obviously trying to cheer her up, his mood could only have been described as unforcedly buoyant, as he swapped anecdotes about composers and musicians living and dead, inquired about other names, and occasionally rhapsodized about particularly moving pieces he’d had the honour to perform.
Later, at the apartment, their conversation continued long into the night. The two men sat at their host’s tiny kitchen table and discussed all sorts of matters, musical and otherwise, over nuts and a bottle of wine. There Winnie did not join them, for tired as she was she borrowed a map and sat for a while in the corner figuring out the route for the next day and whether they would be able to buy tickets from Győr to Vienna Central Station with Dr Ora’s remaining euro.