Isolation Tales 10: The Scent Of Roses
Sometimes stories spin out of unresolved scenes in my novels. When I was writing my extremely niche novel ‘Hell Train’, mainly doing it for my own amusement, all sorts of sidebars and anecdotal stories were trimmed away from the main narrative. The book still ended up packing a ludicrous amount of material into a relatively low page-count. ‘The Scent of Roses’ was culled from that book, and appeared in a small press magazine. The sheer unpredictability of real-life events leading to this story have always haunted me.
It is a story I have dared not tell anyone,’ said the man seated opposite. ‘But now the weight of it is destroying me. I will speak and you may listen. At the end, you will decide what must be done. Will you take coffee?’
He talked in riddles, and yet it seemed to make a kind of sense. Lulled by the warmth of the summer day, the dappling of light beneath the trees, Fritz Urban had been dozing in his chair when I approached and seated myself at his table. The day was still hot, but now the café benefitted from the breeze lifting up from Lake Geneva. The waiter set cups before us as Urban regarded me for a moment, then began.
‘I was not always a salesman. I was born in 1885, and grew up poor in the outskirts of Dusseldorf, but I had no desire to become a farmer, and escaped my violent father at the first opportunity. I had always loved cars, but had never ridden in one. Then one day, at a trade fair that was held in Vienna, I saw something that changed my life, a Benz Motorwagon of gleaming lacquered metal, and at that moment I knew the world was about to be transformed. I could see that there would be no more need for horses and carts. The piston engine, transplanted into a personal carriage, could become a mode of transport for all the world to use. In America, I heard, the Oldsmobile factory was beginning mass production of such vehicles, so that people of all classes could afford to ride them.
‘Of course, I could not afford an engine or even have access to such a marvel, so I did the next best thing; I requested an apprenticeship at an automobile engineering firm. Soon I became a driver for the new Motorwagon, a profession few had been able to master. I quickly saw in it a way to make money. I drove the first Daimler-Mercedes. I was one of the few men in Austria who had mastered this skill, and soon my services were greatly in demand. I was asked to go to America and train further there. But –’
‘ – there was a woman,’ I suggested.
‘Yes, sir. There was a woman named Hannah, with whom I had fallen in love. And, I felt sure, my love was to be reciprocated.’
‘To be reciprocated?’ I was puzzled. ‘It was not initially?’
‘No. We were separated by our stations in life. Hannah was a Lady-In-Waiting to the Duchess of Hohenberg. High-born and highly strung. She had no interest in a man such as I. And yet, with each meeting, her attention grew stronger.’
‘How did she come to meet you?’
‘I was delivering cars to the palace. The royal interest in the new automobile was strong. At this time I had the great good fortune to become a chauffeur in the service of Count Harrach, a nobleman of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who was also a close friend to the heir of its throne. A most important personage whom I was to have the great privilege of serving.’
‘Not bad for a boy who had been expected to become a farmer,’ I said, lighting my cigar. ‘Did this levelling of the classes endear you more to Hannah?’
‘I like to believe that she warmed to me for who I was, and not because of my new position in life,’ said Fritz coolly. ‘Over the next few months, we saw more of each other, and I was invited to walk with her – chaperoned, of course – on several occasions.’
‘And you proposed.’
‘At the first available opportunity. It was difficult to get Hannah to myself, to find the privacy for such a conversation. As you can imagine, she was usually surrounded by members of the household staff. But one afternoon in the gardens, I was able to separate her from the others and spoke of my intentions.’
‘She accepted, I take it.’
‘She asked for a period in which to consider my proposal. For the next few nights I was unable to sleep –’
‘It’s very romantic,’ I said, impatiently waving smoke from the table. Without looking at my watch, I knew my train would soon be arriving. ‘Let us assume she accepted and you were married.’
‘Indeed, sir, that was the situation. I was wed with the blessing of her family, although some members stayed away from the nuptials, feeling that my parents were below hers in station. We began living as man and wife, and all was well for a while.’
‘But something happened.’
‘Something happened.’ Fritz gave a bitter laugh. ‘I fear to tell it, for you really will think I am quite insane.’
‘I am used to insanity,’ I replied, taking a sip of my bitter coffee. ‘I’m afraid I must hurry you. I will have to leave very shortly.’
‘Then I shall tell you of my dreadful shame,’ said Fritz. ‘Tell me, do you believe in fate?’
‘Most certainly,’ I said. ‘Our paths through life are set as rigidly as roads, but we alone control the vehicle of our destiny.’
‘I did not believe in fate before these events, but I do so now. And if, as you say, we control our lives, then the fateful day came when I changed not just my fate, but the fate of the entire world.’
Fritz sat back as he remembered, his head illuminated by the late summer sun. ‘My hours were long,’ he said, ‘and I was sometimes required to drive great distances for the Count, which took me away from Hannah. Often my trips were for the most trivial of reasons – the collection of a vase, the delivery of a letter, but the job was well paid and I became an expert Mercedes driver. Meanwhile, life in the royal Bohemian household required Hannah to be at the beck and call of her mistress at any time of the day or night, although as the now married Countess Sophie Chotek had herself been a Lady-In-Waiting, she proved a kind and understanding employer.
‘Still, in the first few months of 1914 Hannah and I seemed to spend less time than ever in each other’s company, a situation that made us both fractious and argumentative. I realise it now; I had been spoiled by my new position. I had been ushered into a world that no-one in my family had ever seen, and still I could not be entirely happy. I can see that the downfall of men hinges on tiny things – in my case a stray glance, a new shoe, a perfume bottle, a pair of scissors. These were enough to bring about the disaster for which I must now hold myself accountable. The thought if it makes me ashamed that I am still alive.’
‘You do look a trifle pale,’ I said, wondering if I could delay for a few minutes and catch a later train, for I sensed that I could be of use. I attracted the waiter and ordered Napoleon brandies for us both. ‘Let us drink together. I usually find the effect most beneficial.’
Moments later a pair of gold-rimmed glasses arrived and we touched them together. ‘To your health.’
‘It began with a girl of some seventeen summers,’ said Fritz sadly.
‘There is always a girl,’ I sighed.
‘This one was radiantly beautiful, the niece of the Count, and when Elizabeth walked into court it was as if the sun had emerged from clouds. Everyone admired her. Since my wife’s employer and the great friend of my own employer had married, I now saw Hannah in the imperial household, although we were rarely able to speak.
‘It happened one morning that she emerged into the courtyard as I was bringing out the car, and I saw the young Princess Elizabeth heading our way. When members of the monarchy appear, all employees are required to make themselves scarce, and after a while you become used to halting whatever you are doing and dropping into the nearest doorway. The royals like to move through a world of stillness, uninterrupted by the chaos of life. Hannah saw that the Princess was coming and swiftly found an arch support, stepping behind it, but there was nowhere for me to go.
‘In this situation, we are required to simply become statues. I froze and waited for her to pass. But she stopped and smiled at me. What could I do but look back?
‘Hannah was a jealous woman, and hated the fact that there had been other girls before her. That night, she accused me of flirting with Elizabeth! I told her not to be so absurd, but she would not be consoled, and cried her way to bed. I see now, looking back, that this irrational behaviour was a symptom of some surfacing mental derangement.
‘The next morning I discovered that Leopold, the Archduke’s chauffeur, had not appeared for work. Nobody knew where he was, so I was asked to take his place. It was well-known that the Archduke liked and respected his chauffeur, so I was asked to do this without informing anyone of the change in personnel, for fear that people should think the Archduke capricious in his favourites. I was to accompany him to Sarajevo, where he would inspect the imperial garrison. I would be required to drive a beautiful automobile, a black 1911 Graf & Stift ‘Bois De Bologne’ Tourer.
‘The night before I left, I bought a bottle of perfume for Hannah, Atar Of Roses, her favourite. I meant it as a reconciliation gift, but I found her in a worsened state. She had somehow convinced herself that I was about to leave her for a member of the royal family. I tried to explain the outright absurdity of this idea, but she only grew angrier. I had left the perfume on her dresser while I tried on the chauffeur uniform that had been arranged for me. There was a problem with the shoes – the soles were of new leather, and extremely slippery.
‘Hannah opened my gift and, with a scream, smashed the perfume bottle on the floor. I ran in and saw the mess; broken glass everywhere, the overpowering scent of roses, and my beloved wife rending her nightdress and slapping her own face between sobs of anger. Fearful that she might cause further injury to herself if she tried to clear up the glass, I began to pick up the pieces. In doing so, the rose oil covered my right shoe. I removed the shoe and left it to air in the corridor, then retired to bed.
‘Hannah refused to sleep in the same room, and removed herself to another bedchamber. At 6:00am the next morning I looked in on her, but she had already dressed and left. I was upset and wished I had been able to say goodbye to her. I did not know that morning that we would never see each other again.
‘I admit, as our retinue set off on the state visit, I had guilty thoughts of Elizabeth’s glance. Is it man’s vanity alone that encourages him to think he may attract the eye of a beautiful girl, even if she is far above his station in life? Stranger things had happened. The Archduke himself had fallen in love with a woman who was said to be far removed from his social class.
‘Now we come to the fateful moment that tore my very soul apart.’
Fritz looked like a man made haggard by his past. He had trouble continuing until I laid a placatory hand on his shoulder. ‘Please,’ I said, ‘you must reveal the nature of your burden to me.’
‘Very well – where was I?’
‘The Archduke’s state visit.’
‘That’s right. The Archduke met me from the train in his blue-grey tunic with the red piping and gold buttons, his moustaches freshly waxed. I held the door open for him and he entered the vehicle in great style. Although there were many who opposed him in the city, there were an equal number of ardent admirers. But I had little knowledge of the city and its factions. I had no idea it was a powder-keg waiting to be ignited.
‘While we were waiting to set off I heard him say, “There is an extraordinary scent of roses in here. Are we near a garden?” I looked down and guiltily noted that my right shoe was still covered in rose oil.
‘The Archduke had been warned not to travel to Sarajevo. I understand little of politics – to me, the mechanics of an automobile could teach me more about the world than the rifts and alliances of the Balkan states. I knew that Bosnia-Herzegovina had been declared a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by the Emperor, and that it had caused unrest among the Slavic people and the Russian Tsar who opposed it. What I did not know was that assassins lay in wait for us upon our route that day.
‘There were six automobiles in our procession, and there were six assassins spread out along the Appel Quay that ran beside the river. These assassins belonged to an organisation called the Black Hand, and each was under instructions to attack us when they saw us approach. Following a request from the Archduke, I rolled back the roof of the car so that the crowds could get a better look at him and his wife, Countess Sophie.
‘At around 10:00am the first of the protestors struck, although we did not find this out until later, because it transpired that this man had turned coward and failed to throw his bomb at the procession. Supposedly, there had been a suspicious policeman standing close by who had unnerved him.
‘Fifteen minutes after this, the second assassin hurled a grenade at our motorcade. I saw the small grey object flying toward the windscreen of the car and accelerated, watching as the bomb flew over our heads. It bounced upon the rear of our vehicle and disappeared under the car behind, the third in the procession. The grenade had a ten second fuse, and exploded beneath the wheels of the automobile, wounding its occupants and peppering a number of bystanders with shrapnel.
‘We were travelling at a fairly high speed, and the route was thronged with a heavy volume of spectators who, we were to discover, slowed down the progress of the conspirators. The bomb-thrower tried to take his own life by swallowing a cyanide capsule, but the chemical was out of date and merely cased him to vomit.
Panicked, he jumped into the river Miljacka, beside which we were travelling, but the muddy water was a mere four inches deep, and so the police were able to pull him out and arrest him.
‘A few minutes before eleven, the Archduke decided that we should head for the hospital to visit the victims of the bombing. General Potiorek, the governor who was traveling with us, said that we would need to avoid the city centre to do so. I understood later that he had a plan that we should continue along the quay all the way to the hospital. Unfortunately, he did not inform me of this idea, and I turned right into Franz Josef Street.
‘There was a run-down café there, where a small, sickly lad of nineteen who had been turned down for membership of the Black Hand sat, disappointed and embittered. This boy, Princip by name, thought that the death of the Archduke would magically release the shackles that bound his people to the empire. He had missed his chance to attack our convoy, and had all but given up when he saw our automobile turn into the street.
‘The second I realised that we had made a wrong turn, I put my foot on the brake and began to back up. I admit I was disturbed that there might be another attack, and in my rush I stalled the car’s engine, locking the gears. From the corner of my eye I saw the sickly fellow rise to his feet and raise his right arm toward us. He was holding a pistol, and used it now to knock a fellow bystander out of his way. I saw all this as if time itself had suddenly slowed down.
‘I attempted to reverse more quickly, but the rose oil on my shoe had made the leather sole slippery, and my foot slid off the accelerator. In that brief moment while the automobile was stilled, the lad took aim and fired twice.
‘His bullets found their mark; both the Archduke and his wife were shot. Franz Ferdinand’s neck was pierced and gushed scarlet. Count Harrach’s face was splashed. The Count put a white handkerchief on the Archduke’s jugular vein to stem the flow of blood. I heard his wife call out, ‘For Heaven’s sake, what happened to you?’ but she had been shot in the stomach, and fell from her seat. We thought she must have fainted, but the Archduke knew what had happened and begged her not to die, for the sake of her children. His ceremonial hat slid from his head – I remember there were iridescent sapphire feathers on the floor of the car.
‘I pulled to the side of the road and we tried to remove Franz Ferdinand’s tight blue tunic, but we could not find a pair of scissors with which to cut it open. He died before we could get to the wound. The crowd rushed forward, and in the process my leg was crushed.
‘When I returned home, I discovered that my beloved Hannah was dead. She had walked into an ornamental lake and lain in it, breathing the water down into her lungs to take her own life. No-one could tell me if she had heard about the Archduke’s assassination before she died, or if her wits had simply wandered after fearing that I would stray.
‘The Archduke’s chauffeur, Leopold, had miraculously reappeared – there seemed to be some mystery in his absence to which I was not privy – and I was asked to stand down. Later, I understood that all despatches would suggest he was with the Archduke when he died, and I, little more than a lowly mechanic raised up for a day, was erased from history. You see now, sir, the burden I carry.’
‘I think I understand perfectly,’ I said.
‘I am responsible for nothing less than the deaths of thousands – millions for all I know – for just two months after Franz Ferdinand’s death, Austria-Hungary declared war against Serbia, and this great conflict in which we now find ourselves began, and it seems it may never stop until all the world is dead.’
‘My dear fellow, you could argue that the Archduke’s assassination was not the only starting pistol for the war in which we are now engulfed. I believe there were other causes for the commencement of the conflict: nationalism, imperialism, militarism,’ I said, hoping to assuage his guilt.
‘No, sir, I will not be absolved so easily. The fact remains that if the Archduke Franz Ferdinand had not been struck down, we would not have declared war on Serbia when we did, and thereby set into motion a chain of disastrous alliances that spilt Europe in twain. And his death could have been avoided.’
‘I sympathise with your fatal role,’ I told him. ‘You saw the day’s events reversing themselves, your foot not slipping from the accelerator, the perfume bottle not spreading oil across the sole of your shoe, the glance from the Princess not incensing your wife. A single look was all it took, and now the world has been shifted on its axis. It has taken the road to Hell and damnation.’
‘You read my mind,’ said Fritz, looking down at his shaking hands. ‘I have suffered with this pain for two long years. With each passing day the death toll rises, and I think to myself that it could all have so easily been avoided.’
‘But that is what fate always makes you think,’ said I. ‘That is the role of destiny.’
‘Be that as it may, I now find that this is no longer a burden with which I wish to live.’
‘The world does not know that you are responsible for its greatest tragedy,’ I said. ‘Unless you plan to tell them.’
Fritz felt inside his jacket and removed an envelope. ‘You have the ability to read my mind. I have taken the time to write down my true version of the events. Can you make sure that it reaches the right authorities?’
I took the envelope from him. ‘You know there is nothing you can do, no piece of paper you can write that will change what people will think,’ I said. ‘But there is a way for you to be absolved.’ I studied his face with tenderness. ‘You cannot change what will now be, for the wheels of history have continued in motion, bearing events away from you. All you can do is bring your own misery to an end.’
‘Yes,’ he agreed, looking down. ‘I belong with the innocent dead.’
‘The innocent dead,’ I repeated, smiling gently. ‘You know who I am, of course.’
‘Yes sir, I believe I do. You are the scent of roses.’
I rose and stepped behind his chair, taking his thin warm neck in my grey-gloved hands. He felt no pain. His head dipped forward until his chin pressed against his chest, and he looked for all the world like any other man enjoying the sleepy afternoon sun in the square.
I dropped a few coins in the saucer on the table and went to catch my train. I was needed in Germany.