by Michael F. Flynn
And what is this apparition galloping so madly up the road in a morning not yet graced with sun? The way is steep and hilly and, in the dark, difficult to see. A misstep would kill the horse, perhaps its rider. Yet he does not rein in, for death echoes with every hoof-beat. His cloak snaps behind him and brushes the whispering black fir boughs where they encroach on the uncertain roadway. Foam flecks the nostrils of his steed. The hooves throw up clots of mud and dirty snow. Hard riding from the Baden railhead!
The weather has warmed, the snow is sluggish and, this early in the Vienna Woods, the breath of man and beast are bright puffs of steam in what meager moonlight pierces the black lace of trees. The rider is silent, intent on his perilous course, his face half-concealed by a muffler of yellow and black. He knows what lies behind him, in that gay, nervous city on the Danube. He does not know what may lie before.
Sometimes beginnings can be seen in a death, and endings found in a squalling birth.
Vienna in the January of 1889 is a butterfly, and the Emperor Franz Josef its cocoon. Within his dull and dutiful manta, impatient larvae stir.
Not least of these worms is Crown Prince Rudolf Franz Karl Josef von Hapsburg, a slender man to bear such a weight of names. The prince believes in progress and industry and liberalism, but he is tomorrow’s emperor and in Vienna it is always yesterday. The Empire is a fairy tale, full of castles and princesses. There is no room in it for smokestacks or for so impertinent a thing as a bourgeoisie. History is suspended, his father ageless. Rudolf’s dashing, storybook features have grown gaunt and his eyes hollow from the eternal waiting. He is become a prince of masks, changing them as needed, perpetually ignored, perpetually dismissed. Respect is all he asks. He is Inspector General of the Royal-and-Imperial Army – and is never told of staff meetings. He wears the uniforms of a dozen regiments – and serves in none. He would like a kind word from his father. There is no telling what color his butterfly wings will flaunt when he explodes at last from the cocoon. That might depend on how long the wait might be – or whether he waits. Recently, he has bought a farm near Mayerling to use as a hunting lodge.
But other worms wriggle within the splendid absurdity of Hapsburg Vienna, all that previous wet summer long and into the fall and winter.
A dozen miles southeast of Mayerling, at Schönau, an anachronism labors in the dark and the July rains. Like Rudolf, he is a visitor from the future: a world celebrity before there is a world media. He has shattered the linearity of the old quadrille, subverted the logic of the minuet. He has blended Ländler, czardas, mazurkas, polkas into new, reckless, passionate rhythms. “African,” some call them, and not in compliment. A death-dance, say others. ONE-two-three; LUST-and-death. In the ballrooms and dance halls of the world, giddy spinning women thrill to the touch of a man’s hand, press their very breasts against him! And yet, beneath his gay charm and easy laughter the conviction gnaws within him that he is the best there ever was in a genre second-rate. His laughter and gaiety are as much a mask as Rudolf’s splendid elegance. He craves the night; he craves the storm. When the last partier, when the last toady, when the last of what a later age will call “groupies” have gone and solitude has claimed the superstar, the old man’s hands wring anguished chords from the piano as from a strangled throat, his pencil scribbles furiously the arias of a grand opera. Johann Strauss, Jr., celebrated the wide world over, is determined at last to win respect.