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Authors: Frank Tallis

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Historical, #Mystery & Detective, #Crime

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BOOK: Mortal Mischief
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'For those interested in the technical specifications of this instrument, it is of standard design. It is powered by six-volt dry batteries which are both safe and easy to maintain. The output voltage can be varied by adjusting a simple metal cylinder that slides over the core of the induction coil.'
Gruner flicked a switch and the room immediately filled with a loud buzzing. He then invited one of the assembly to assist. A middle-aged man rose from his seat.
'Thank you, Herr Doctor,' said Gruner. 'If you would position yourself on the other side of the patient?' The man walked across the bare wooden floor boards, stepped up on to the stage, and stood to attention beside the diplomat's wife.
'Signora Locatelli,' continued Gruner. 'Could I prevail upon you to raise your gown?'
The woman gathered up the material of the skirt of her gown in her hands and, as she did so, the hem began to lift, revealing her slim ankles and calves.
'Signora,' continued Gruner, 'it will be necessary to raise your gown to a level above the knee.' The woman blushed and, gripping more material in her hands, exposed her legs completely. Liebermann turned away and looked disdainfully at his colleagues, most of whom had leaned forward. Sensing his friend's movement, Kanner delivered another elbow jab and nodded towards the demonstration.
Gruner stepped forward and passed the metal rods over Signora Locatelli's legs.
'Do you feel anything?'
'Nothing – not even a tickling sensation?'
Gruner addressed the audience. 'I will now increase the charge.'
He took both rods in one hand and reached into the box, adjusting the dials and cylinders. The pitch of the buzzing ascended an octave. Gruner then returned to his patient and passed the metal rods over her legs a second time. She did not move, and her gaze remained fixed on some elevated point at the back of the room. Liebermann saw that she was staring at the bust of some long-forgotten medical luminary.
'Signora,' said Gruner. 'You must feel something now. Perhaps pins and needles?'
Without moving her head to make eye contact, the diplomat's wife simply continued staring.
'Signora?' Gruner said tetchily. 'What do you feel?'
'I feel . . .' The woman paused before saying: 'That there is no hope.'
Gruner shook his head: 'Signora, please refrain from obtuse answers. Do you feel any sensations in your legs?'
Still without moving, she said softly: 'No. I feel nothing . . .' And then, after another pause, she added: 'In my legs.'
'Very well,' said Gruner. He passed both rods to his assistant and then plunged his hands into the electrical apparatus. The buzzing became louder: a horrible glissando ascending to a pitch that made Liebermann's ears ache. Gruner then took back the rods.
It was clear that Gruner had increased the charge considerably and the room was tense with expectation. Even Liebermann found himself attending more closely, drawn into the drama by the woman's declaration that there was no hope – a statement that he felt resonated with many meanings.
Gruner extended his arms and then, after the briefest of hesitations, prodded Signora Locatelli's legs. She opened her mouth and let out a cry, not of pain but of anguish. It was not particularly loud, yet it was deeply disturbing to Liebermann. It reminded him of an operatic sob, full of despair and melancholy. At the same time, the woman's right leg moved forward.
'Good,' said Gruner. He applied the rods again.
The woman's legs began to shake.
'Stand up, Signora.'
The shaking became more pronounced.
'Stand up!' Gruner commanded.
Grimacing, Signora Locatelli pressed her hands down hard on the arms of the wooden throne and a moment later she was standing up, her whole body trembling. Gruner stepped back so that every member of the audience could see and appreciate his achievement. He held the metal rods up like trophies.
'Observe, gentlemen. See how the subject stands. If hysteria were a psychological illness, then what you are now witnessing would not be possible.'
To Liebermann, Signora Locatelli's balance looked precarious. Her arms were extended outwards, a little like an acrobat standing on a high wire. She did not appear to be pleased or surprised by her accomplishment. Instead, her features seemed to be contorted by fear and confusion.
'Signora,' said Gruner. 'Perhaps you would care to venture a step or two?'
Her upper body swayed and wobbled above legs that refused to respond. It was as though the patient's feet were fixed to the floor.
'Come now, Signora. Just one step.'
Using all her strength, the diplomat's wife cried out as she forced her left leg forward. But as she did so she finally lost her balance and fell. The assisting doctor caught Signora Locatelli under the arms and lowered her gently onto the chair, where she lay back, breathing heavily, her forehead beaded with sweat.
Gruner placed the rods in the box and switched off his machine. The buzzing stopped, creating a strangely solid silence that was broken only by Signora Locatelli's loud exhalations.
A smattering of applause, which then became more vigorous as others joined in, passed through the audience. The man sitting in front of Liebermann suddenly stood up and cried out: 'Bravo, Herr Professor.'
Liebermann turned towards Kanner, raising his voice above the applause.
'I'm never going to sit through one of these absurd, barbaric and humiliating demonstrations again.'
Kanner leaned towards his friend and spoke directly into his ear.
'You'll be dismissed.'
'So be it.'
Kanner shrugged: 'Well, don't say I didn't warn you.'
was flanked by eight muses and ascended to the lower cascade: a giant stone shell, supported by a team of tritons and sea nymphs. The balustrades lining the steps on either side of the fountain were populated by chubby putti, and beyond was the first of the Belvedere's celebrated sphinxes.
'Did the storm frighten you?'
'Max, I'm not a child. Of course it didn't frighten me.'
The ground was still wet, and Liebermann had to guide Clara through an archipelago of puddles. He couldn't help noticing her boots – so small and elegant.
'Although Rachel made a fuss.'
'Did she?'
'Oh yes, she knocked on my door and insisted that I let her in.'
'And did you?'
'Of course I did. I told her that there was nothing to be frightened of – and that the storm would pass. But it didn't seem to do much good. She simply crawled into my bed and pulled the covers over her head.'
'How long did she stay like that?'
'Until it stopped.'
Once they had negotiated the puddles, Liebermann offered Clara his arm, which she took without hesitation. 'What was Rachel frightened of? What did she think was going to happen?'
'I don't know. Perhaps you should
her – although it wouldn't do any good. Rachel wouldn't listen to anything you said.'
Liebermann had explained to Clara that psychoanalysis was more about listening than 'telling', but resisted the urge to correct her. 'True. But neither do you!'
Clara broke away, laughing. She turned and, facing Liebermann, started walking backwards.
'Be careful,' said Liebermann. 'You might stumble.'
'No, I won't. It's better this way – I'm enjoying the view.'
Clara was wearing a long coat with a fur collar and a Cossack-style hat. The ensemble emphasised the delicacy of her features. Her little face, peering out from its bed of sable, appeared curiously feral.
Was this the right moment?
Since meeting with Mendel in The Imperial, Liebermann had thought of nothing else but this walk. He had been looking forward to it with fervid impatience. Every intervening second had passed slowly – particularly those spent at Gruner's demonstration – stretching the minutes into refractory hours. For much of the afternoon the storm had threatened to scupper his plan, but now nothing stood in his way. He cleared his throat, ready to speak.
'Do you know what my father said this morning?' asked Clara.
The opportunity vanished as swiftly as it had appeared.
'No. What did he say?'
'He said that we're going to Meran in the summer.'
'Really? For how long?'
'A month or two . . . He thinks it will help Rachel's asthma.'
'I'm sure it will. The Tyrol air is very good for bronchial problems.'
Clara stopped, turned again, and extended her arm, allowing Liebermann to take it as he advanced.
'Have you ever been there, Max?'
'Yes,' Liebermann replied. 'I worked in Meran when I was a student. Let me offer you a piece of very useful advice. Avoid anything that's supposed to have medicinal properties – particularly the
whey cure.'
'What's that?'
'A local remedy, much favoured by the good people of Meran. It consists of coagulated milk with white wine, strained from the curd and sweetened with sugar.'
Clara screwed up her face.
'Oh, that sounds utterly disgusting.'
'It is – but the locals swear by it. However, if you're going in the summer you might be all right. I think it's a seasonal delight, served mostly in the spring.'
A cold gust of wind blew in from the east, and they instinctively drew closer together.
'Will I get bored, do you think?'
'A little, perhaps. But there are fairs and market days. And there are so many Viennese there – you're bound to bump into someone you know . . .'
Ahead of them the detail of the baroque palace was becoming clearer. It was an enormous building of white stucco that extended between two octagonal domed pavilions; however, it looked as though a garrison of Turks had pitched a line of green tents on the roof. This was, of course, an architectural conceit, intended to remind onlookers of the great siege.
Clara squeezed Liebermann's arm in the crook of her elbow.
Again, Liebermann wondered whether the moment had arrived. Whether he should stop walking, take Clara in his arms, and ask her to be his wife.
'Herr Donner came today.'
The sound of her voice brought him out of his reverie.
'I'm sorry?'
'Herr Donner, my piano teacher.'
'Of course . . . and what did he teach you?'
'We played a duet by Brahms. A waltz.'
'Which one?'
'I don't know. I've forgotten.'
'Then how does it go?'
Clara attempted to sing the melody, but quickly lost her way in a succession of chaotic key changes. 'No,' she said. 'It didn't go like that at all.' She tried again, this time managing to hum a lilting tune that sounded more like a lullaby.
'I know that. It's one of the Opus 39 waltzes. Number fifteen, I think. Perhaps we should try it when we get back?'
'Oh good heavens, no. It's too difficult . . . I need more practice.'
Clara continued describing her day: a trip to Blomberg's with her mother; the purchase of curtains for the sitting room; the shortcomings of the new maid. Liebermann had little interest in the Weisses' domestic arrangements, yet he derived enormous pleasure from listening to the familiar cadences of Clara's speech and her musical laughter. And most of all he enjoyed being close to her, feeling the warmth of her body and inhaling the subtle fragrance of her perfume.
There was something hypnotic about their slow ascent, the pleasing regularity of their step, accompanied by the satisfying scrunch of damp gravel underfoot. Indeed, it seemed that this gentle rhythm had assisted their transition between worlds. They had passed into a kind of waking sleep and had entered the landscape of a dream.
Liebermann looked over his shoulder. They were totally alone in the gardens, having no other company except for the sphinxes. The inclement weather had obviously deterred other visitors. After ascending the final incline, they paused to enjoy the view.
At the foot of the slope, beyond the sunken hedge gardens, fountains and statuary, was the relatively modest lower palace. Further out, the spires, domes and mansions of the city dispersed and dissolved into an elevated horizon of blue hills. A subtle mist softened the panorama and intensified an opaque silence. The proud capital looked spectral – even oddly transparent.
'It's beautiful, isn't it?' said Clara.
'Yes,' said Liebermann. 'Very beautiful.'
BOOK: Mortal Mischief
10.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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