The Women of the Castle

Jessica Shattuck

Published by Zaffre 18 May 2017

368pp, hardback, £12.99

Click here to buy this book

 

Noted American writer Jessica Shattuck’s latest work, a heart-wrenching but hopeful novel of secrets and survival, traces three women’s stories across the years of the Third Reich.

This memorable book, already a New York Times bestseller, centres on the once great castle owned by Marianne von Lingenfels’ ancestors, where glittering pre-war parties were held and subversive responses to the Führer discussed. Now in ruins, the castle is the place where Marianne, widow of one of the resisters murdered in the failed July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, plans to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s brave conspirators: to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows.

Marianne assembles a makeshift family from the ruins of her husband’s resistance movement, rescuing her dearest friend’s widow, Benita, from sex slavery to the Russian army, and Ania from a work camp for political prisoners. She is certain their shared past will bind them together. But as Benita begins a clandestine relationship and Ania struggles to conceal her role in the Nazi regime, Marianne learns that her clear-cut, highly principled world view is infinitely more complicated, and filled with secrets and dark passions that threaten to tear the group apart.

‘Shattuck’s latest has an intricately woven narrative with frequent plot twists that will shock and please.  The quotidian focus of the story, falling on the period just after the war, provides a unique glimpse into what the average German was and was not aware of during World War II’s darkest months.  Shattuck’s own German heritage and knack of historical details add to the realism of the tale.  A beautiful story of survival, love, and forgiveness.” Publishers Weekly

Now, in the following extract, bookoxygen readers have a special opportunity to sample The Women of the Castle for themselves.

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PROLOGUE

BURG LINGENFELS, NOVEMBER 9, 1938

 

The day of the countess’s famous harvest party began with a driving rain that hammered down on all the ancient von Lingenfels castle’s sore spots – springing leaks, dampening floors, and turning its yellow façade a slick, beetle- like black. In the courtyard, the paper lanterns and carefully strung garlands of wheat drooped and collapsed.

Marianne von Lingenfels, niece- in-law of the countess, laboured joylessly to prepare for their guests. It was too late to call off the party. Now that the countess was wheelchair- bound, Marianne had become the de facto hostess; a hostess who should have listened to her husband and cancelled the party last week. In Paris, Ernst vom Rath lay in a hospital bed, the victim of an attempted assassination, and in Munich the Nazis were whipping the country into a frenzy for revenge. Never mind that prior to the event no one had even heard of vom Rath – an obscure, mid-level German diplomat – and that his assassin was a boy of seventeen, or that the shooting was itself an act of revenge: the assassin’s family was among the thousands of Jews huddled at the Polish border, expelled from Germany, barred entry by Poland. The Nazis were not deterred by complex facts.

All the more cause to gather reasonable people here at the castle, away from the madness! Marianne had argued just yesterday. Today, in the rain, her argument seemed trite.

And now it was too late. So Marianne supervised the placement of candles, flowers, and table linens and managed the soggy uphill transport of champagne, ice and butter, potted fish and smoked meats, potable water and canisters of gas for the cookstove. Burg Lingenfels was uninhabited for most of the year, with no running water and a generator just strong enough to power the countess’s Victrola and a few strings of expensive electric lights. Hosting the party was like setting up a civilisation on the moon. But this was part of what kept people coming back despite yearly disasters – minor fires and collapsed outhouses, fancy touring cars stuck in the mud, mice in the overnight guest beds. The party had become famous for its anarchic, un-German atmosphere. It was known as an outpost of liberal, bohemian culture in the heart of the proper aristocracy.

By mid-afternoon, to Marianne’s relief, the wind began to blow, chasing away the day’s gloom with gusts of clear and promising air. Even the stone walls and the moat’s sinewy water looked fresh and clean scrubbed. The chrysanthemums in the courtyard glistened under racing patches of sun.

Marianne’s spirits rose. In front of the bakehouse, an architect acquaintance of the countess’s had transformed an old carriage horses’ drinking trough into a fountain. The effect was at once magical and comic. The castle was an elephant dressed to look like a fairy.

‘Albrecht,’ Marianne called as she entered the long, low library, where her husband was seated at the imposing desk that had once been the count’s. ‘You must come and see – it’s like a carnival!’

Albrecht looked up at her, still composing a sentence in his head. He was a tall, craggy-faced man with a high forehead and unruly eyebrows that often gave him the appearance of frowning when he was not.

‘Only for a moment, before everyone gets here.’ She held out her hand. ‘Come. The fresh air will clear your head.’

‘No, no, not yet,’ he said, waving her off and returning his attention to the letter he was writing.

Oh, come on, Marianne would have normally chided, but tonight, on account of the party, she bit her tongue. Albrecht was a perfectionist and workaholic. She would never change this. He was drafting a letter to an old law school acquaintance in the British Foreign Office and had sought her opinion on alternate sentence constructions many times. The annexation of the Sudetenland will only be the beginning. I urge you to beware of our leader-ship’s aggression versus If we are not vigilant, our leader’s aggressive intentions will only be the beginning . . .

Both ways make your point was Marianne’s response. Just pick one. But Albrecht was a deliberator. He did not even notice the irritation in her tone. His own emotions were never complicated or petty. He was the sort of man who contemplated grand abstractions like the Inalienable Rights of Man or the Problems of Democracy while shaving. It rendered him oblivious to everyday things.

Marianne restrained herself to a demonstrative sigh, turned, and left him to his work.

Back in the banquet hall, the countess scolded one of her young disciples from her wheelchair: ‘Not Schumann,’ she said, ‘God forbid! We might as well play Wagner . . . no, something Italian. Something decadent enough to shock any Brownshirt idiot who comes tonight.’

Even in her old age, the countess was a rebel, followed at all turns by young artists and socialites. French by birth, German by marriage, she had always been a controversial figure. As a young woman, she had hosted evening salons famous for their impromptu dancing and intellectual arguments on risqué subjects like modern art and French philosophy. Why she had married the proper, fusty old count, a man twenty years her senior and famous for falling asleep at the dinner table, was the subject of much not-very- kind speculation.

For Marianne, who was the product of an oppressively proper Prussian upbringing, the countess had always been an object of admiration. The woman was unafraid to step beyond the role of mother and Hausfrau into the fray of male power and intellectual life. She spoke her own mind and did things her own way. Even from their first meeting years ago, when Marianne was a young university student courting her professor (Albrecht), she had wanted to become a woman like the countess.

‘It looks wonderful out there,’ Marianne said, gesturing to-wards the courtyard. ‘Monsieur Pareille is a magician.’

‘He is an artist, isn’t he?’ the countess proclaimed.

It was nearly six o’clock. Guests would begin arriving at any moment.

Marianne hurried upstairs to the chilly hall of bedrooms where her girls were holed up in an ancient curtained bed, a relic from the castle’s feudal past. Her one-year-old son, Fritz, was at home in Weisslau with his nurse, thank God.

‘Mama!’ Elisabeth, age six, and Katarina, age four, shrieked with delight. Elfie, their sweet, mild- mannered au pair, glanced up at Marianne with a beleaguered expression.

‘Isn’t it true that Hitler is going to take back Poland next?’ Elisabeth asked, bouncing on the mattress.

‘Elisabeth!’ Marianne exclaimed. ‘Where did you get this idea?’

‘I heard Herr Zeppel saying it to Papa,’ she said, still bouncing.

‘No,’ Marianne said. ‘And why would you think that was anything to be excited about? It would mean war!’

‘But it’s supposed to be ours.’ Elisabeth pouted, stopping mid-bounce. ‘And, anyway, Herr Zeppel said the Poles can’t manage themselves.’

‘What nonsense,’ Marianne said, irritated that Albrecht had allowed the child to hear such talk. Zeppel was the overseer of their estate in Silesia and an ardent Nazi. Albrecht tolerated the man’s nonsense because they had grown up together: Weisslau was a small town.

‘But it was ours, wasn’t it?’ Elisabeth insisted. ‘Before the war?’

‘Elisabeth,’ Marianne said, sighing, ‘you concern yourself with what is yours, please – and that includes the book you are supposed to be reading with Elfie right now.’

The child exasperated Marianne with her endless obsession with possession. She seemed to have absorbed the national sense of aggrievement, as if she, personally, were the victim of some great unfairness. She had so many advantages but always wanted more – a newer dress, a prettier skirt. If she received a bunny, she wanted a dog. If allowed a bonbon, she wanted two. In her mind, the world seemed to lie entirely at her disposal. Marianne, whose upbringing had been characterised by firm parsimony and restraint, was constantly appalled by this demanding, presuming creature she had raised.

‘Elfie – ’ She turned to the au pair. ‘Will you see to it that the candles are out by eight? The girls may come down to the landing, but no farther.’

‘But – ’ Elisabeth began, and Marianne shot her a look.

‘Good night,’ she said, giving an extra squeeze to sweet, quiet, dark- haired Katarina and kissing Elisabeth’s maddening little brow.

On her way downstairs, Marianne paused on the landing to observe the hall below, its stone archways illuminated by candelabras. The flickering light lent the room an exciting, almost spooky glow. Early guests had begun to arrive: the men in waistcoats and tails, a few in uniforms with gaudy new Nazi insignias stitched on the lapels; the women in fine new dresses. Under Hitler, the economy was growing strong: people had money, once again, for silk and velvet and the new Parisian styles. From a throne- like seat in the middle of the hall, the countess greeted her guests, her wheel-chair carefully hidden away for the evening. She was a mountain of blue and green silk, the likes of which no other German woman of her age (or any other) would wear. Her laugh rang out strongly for someone in poor health – had there ever been a woman who loved a party more? And there, bowing before her, was the guest who elicited this peal of laughter: Connie Fledermann. Marianne felt a rush of excitement. Who else received such a welcome? Connie was a great favourite of the countess’s, a star in his own right, a man whose boldness of character, wit, and intelligence rendered him beloved by all – a charmer of ladies, a receiver of men’s trust and confidences. No one, from crazy Hermann Göring to sombre George Messersmith, was immune to Connie’s charisma.

‘Connie!’ Marianne called as she approached.

He turned and a grin spread across his face.

‘Aha! The woman I have been waiting for!’ He lifted her hand to his lips. ‘You are looking lovely.’ He cast his eyes up to the landing. ‘Will I get to see my princesses or have you put them away?’

‘Put away,’ Marianne said with a laugh. ‘I hope.’

‘Alas.’ He placed his hands over his heart and feigned collapse. ‘Well, at least I get to consort with the queen mother. Come’ – he extended his arm – ‘meet my Benita!’

Marianne’s smile stiffened. In the drama of the past week, she had forgotten. Martin Constantine Fledermann was to be married. It seemed impossible. Even with the date set (two weeks from today!), it still had the ring of a lark gone too far.But he was earnest, even nervous, as he took Marianne by the elbow.

‘You must befriend her,’ he said. ‘She knows no one. I told her you would be her ally. And’ – he turned to her – ‘you know she will need one here.’

‘Why is that?’ Marianne asked. ‘You are among friends.’

‘True,’ Connie said. ‘But she is not.’

Marianne frowned at his circular logic, but there was no time to question it because suddenly there she was, Connie’s Benita, a strikingly pretty woman with the kind of flat, Nordic face that emanated placidity. Her blonde hair was plaited and wrapped around her head in the style so adored by the Nazis, a Wagnerian Brunhilde in an honest- to-God dirndl dress. She stood between two young men who worked with Albrecht in the Foreign Office, both of whom looked delighted. Marianne felt an unusual pang of jealousy. It was not that she envied the younger woman’s beauty or palpable air of sexuality (she herself had long ago carved out an alternate road to male regard), but at this moment, in the company of these three men – two silly, overeager boys and one dear friend, childhood sweetheart, luminary of the opposition – the other woman’s beauty left her nowhere to go. At thirty- one, Marianne was an adult in a child’s play, a schoolmarm among excitable students.

‘Excuse me, boys,’ Connie said, making a show of elbowing one of them aside, ‘I need to reclaim her.’ He put a hand on Benita’s arm and pulled her towards Marianne. ‘My love,’ he addressed Benita (how odd it was to hear him say this), ‘meet my – what shall I call you?’ He turned to Marianne. ‘My oldest friend, my sternest adviser, the person who keeps me most honest?’

‘Oh pish, Connie,’ Marianne said, trying to tamp down her irritation.

‘Marianne,’ she introduced herself, and extended a hand to the young woman, who, she judged, could not be much over twenty.

‘Thank you,’ the girl said, blinking like a startled deer. ‘How nice to meet you.’

More guests arrived, and Marianne could feel them pressing towards her with hands to shake, welcomes to issue, politics to discuss. There was Greta von Viersdahl, already trying to catch her eye; since Hitler had invaded, Greta spoke of nothing but the winter clothes she was collecting for the Sudeten Germans, so recently ‘returned to the fatherland,’ so long ‘oppressed by the Slavs’ . . . Marianne wanted no part of Greta’s politics. Impulsively, she took Benita’s arm. ‘Give us a chance to become friends,’ she said over her shoulder to Connie, already leading Benita through the back door and into the lantern- bedecked courtyard.

‘How beautiful!’ Benita exclaimed.

‘Isn’t it?’ Marianne said. ‘Like a fairy tale. Countess von Lingenfels has a talent for the amazing.’

Benita nodded, staring wide eyed. ‘So tell me about yourself before we are swarmed with admirers,’ Marianne said. ‘Was your trip all right? Have you found your room?’ She hurried through the necessary questions, half listening to the girl’s replies.

From all around, she could feel people’s eyes. ‘Remind me how you met Connie.’ Marianne plucked two champagne flutes from a table and handed one to Benita, who accepted it without thanks.

‘We just met in the town square, really,’ the girl said. ‘I was there with my troop – my BDM troop – ’

‘Good grief! The BDM? How old are you?’ Marianne exclaimed.

‘Oh no – not the one for little girls – for the older girls, Belief and Beauty. I’m nineteen.’

‘Ah.’ Marianne patted her arm. ‘Positively ancient.’

The girl glanced at her.

‘Aren’t these lovely?’ Marianne pointed at the white chrysanthemums and dark autumn anemones arranged in pots along the balustrade. High above, pale clouds scudded across the dark sky. And in the distance, the woods were inky in the twilight. ‘So the town square . . .’

Benita sipped her champagne and coughed. ‘It’s not much of a story. We met and talked and then later we went out for dinner.’

Marianne rested her glass atop the courtyard wall. ‘And now you are to be married.’

‘When you say it like that’ – Benita hesitated – ‘it sounds odd.’

Marianne smiled and cocked her head to the side, knitting her brows. She had learned this scrutinising expression from the countess and found it proved helpful at drawing out confessions and explanations from children and family members, even grown men.

But it did not have the desired effect on the girl. Instead, seemed to find her mettle, squaring her shoulders. ‘There were a few things in between.’

‘Of course,’ Marianne said. Why had she taken this interrogative tack? The girl was to become Connie’s wife. It would do Marianne no good to have started off this way. ‘I’m sorry – I don’t mean to pry.

‘Come.’ She glanced around the rapidly filling courtyard for an opening and, with relief, spotted Herman Kempel, one of the rubes who had been so smitten with Benita earlier. ‘Let’s go and talk to your latest admirer.’

As the night wore on, a kind of giddy, reckless energy took over. A comical figure in lederhosen and knee socks played an accordion – was he someone the countess had hired or a local guest? – and people began folk dancing on the uneven cobblestones. Women even kicked off their shoes, despite the cold. And inside, the American jazz trio the countess had invited finally arrived. They played ragtime in the great hall while a number of the bolder, more cosmopolitan guests demonstrated dances with silly names like the Big Apple and the Lindy Hop. Somehow, despite the improvised stove and lack of running water, the chef presented a steady stream of delicacies: traditional pork meatballs with a delicate parsley sauce, plump white steamed dumplings, and silver-dollar sausage rounds. But also novelties – asparagus wrapped with paper- thin ham, jelly moulds, pineapple flambé, and caviar toast . . . like the music, the food spanned the gamut of German cultural life.

Marianne drifted in a haze, not of alcohol (the hostess never had more than one glass of punch – this too she had learned from the countess), but of relief. She had managed to continue the immodest tradition of the harvest party, even as the nation was swept up in this wave of rigid and peevish militancy. And she had managed to transcend her own upbringing (how mortified her father would be to see her throw a party featuring jazz dancing and champagne toasts) and provide these people with something lovely, liberating, and ethereal.

Buoyed along by this thought, she greeted guests, checked on the drinks behind the bar, the food on the buffet. ‘The countess junior!’ a jolly, quick- tongued cousin of Connie’s cried, wrap-ping a thick arm around her shoulders. ‘What a party! But where is your esteemed husband? And all his high- minded friends! I haven’t seen a one of those trolls for the past hour! Are they holed up in some sort of elite gathering without their old chum Jochen?’

‘No, no.’ Marianne waved him off with a kiss on his cheek. But his question was a good one. Where was Albrecht? And for that matter Connie and Hans and Gerhardt Friedlander? She had not seen them for some time. Albrecht had probably pulled them into the library to review his letter. The thought irritated her. Albrecht’s sobriety – his constant ability to focus on the world beyond what was directly beneath his nose – felt like a reproach. He was right, of course. Poor Ernst vom Rath lay in some hospital bed and thousands of Jews slept out in the cold borderland. Germany was being run by a loudmouthed rabble- rouser, bent on baiting other nations to war and making life miserable for count-less innocent citizens. And here they were, drinking champagne and dancing to Scott Joplin.

In a state of defensive irritation she burst into Albrecht’s study, where, yes, there they were – all her missing guests: Albrecht and Connie, Hans and Gerhardt, Torsten Frye and the American, Sam Beverwill, and a few others, many of whom, like Connie, worked as staff officers in the Abwehr, the military intelligence office.

‘What’s this?’ she said, trying to make her voice light. ‘A secret, serious party? The countess will not be pleased to know you’re all skulking about in the study instead of dancing.’

‘Marianne – ’ Albrecht said.

‘Albrecht! Let your guests come out and enjoy the evening – ’

As she spoke, she noticed a new person in their midst: a short, dark- haired man, balding, with a kind of intensity to his homely face. The energy in the room was odd; the men’s faces remained grave and unchanged by her appearance.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said to the new man. ‘I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.’

‘Pietre Grabarek.’ He stepped forward and extended his hand. A Pole. Albrecht and Connie both had many contacts in the Polish National Party.

‘Marianne von Lingenfels. The wife of your sober host here,’ she said, gesturing towards Albrecht.

‘Marianne – ’ Albrecht interjected again. ‘Pietre has traveled from Munich with some alarming news. This evening – ’

‘Vom Rath is dead?’ A chill swept over Marianne.

‘Dead.’ Albrecht nodded. ‘But that is only part of it.’

Marianne felt uncomfortably at the centre of this small group now, all scrutinising her reaction. This was not a position she was used to: the ignorant one.

‘It seems Goebbels has given orders for the SA to incite rioting, destruction of Jewish property. They’re throwing stones through shop windows and looting, making a sport – ’

‘Not a sport – a battle! An organised attack!’ the man interrupted.

‘– of destroying people’s lives.’

‘How terrible!’ Marianne said. ‘Did Lutze condone this? What does it mean?’ Lutze was the head of the police, the SA – an unpleasant man she had recently met and disliked.

‘It seems so,’ Albrecht answered.

There was a shifting of glances and bodies. ‘It’s descent into madness – Hitler is exactly the maniac we’ve suspected!’ Hans exclaimed, but no one paid attention. He was a sweet, foolish boy. There are thinkers and there are actors, Connie had once said. Hans is an actor. Albrecht had balked at this dichotomy, though – so black- and- white, so reductive and unforgiving. Action should follow thought and thought should include careful deliberation. But this was not Connie’s way. He was more of an actor himself, and his views, while informed and considered, were rarely mulled over and always absolute.

‘It means shame for Germany in the eyes of the world,’ Albrecht said.

There was a general swell of affirmation.

‘And suffering,’ Connie said. ‘It means suffering for many, many people . . .’

Silence fell across the group as sounds of laughter and strains of the accordion filtered through the leaded windows.

‘And it means reasonable citizens must take action,’ Connie continued. ‘We are not all thugs and villains. But we will become these, if we don’t try to make change.’

It was a bold statement, a challenge almost, and Marianne watched it register on the men’s faces with varying results. Hans nodded dramatically, captivated. Eberhardt von Strallen, clearly disapproving of such rash talk, flicked at the lint on his lapel. Albrecht frowned thoughtfully.

‘It is our duty,’ Connie said. ‘If we don’t work actively to defeat Hitler, it will only get worse. This man – this zealot who calls himself our leader – will ruin everything we have achieved as a united nation.’ He continued, ‘If we don’t begin to mobilise like-minded people against him, if we don’t begin to actively enlist our contacts abroad – the English, the Americans, the French – he will draw us into a war, and worse. If you listen to the things this man says – if you really listen, and read – it’s all there in that hideous book of his, Mein Kampf; his “struggle” is to turn us all into animals! Read it, really read it, know thine enemies – his vision is medieval! Worse than medieval, anarchic! That life is nothing more than a fight for resources to be waged between the races – this “Master Race” he likes to speak of and the racial profiles he has devised – these are the tools he will use to divide us and conquer.’

Marianne had heard Connie’s views before – how many times had they talked late into the night around the fire in Weisslau? Hitler was a madman and a thug, they were all in agreement. Ever since the Putsch this had been clear. Connie, as well as Albrecht, had spent a good portion of the last years assisting the victims of the National Socialists – Jews who wanted to emigrate, imprisoned Communists, artists whose works were banned. Without law, Albrecht always said, we are no better than the apes. His work was as much to uphold and strengthen the law through practice as it was to win each individual battle.

But Connie had given up on the law, increasingly castrated as it was under the Nazis. He was a born dissenter and a believer in direct action. It was one of the things Marianne loved most about him – Connie, her childhood playmate, dearest friend, and the man she most admired, other than Albrecht, of course. He had always been an agitator, a passionate champion of what he felt was right. As children, he and Marianne had spent summers with their families at the Ostsee, and Connie had always led them on quests against injustice, plotting to reveal the hotel concierge’s unkindness to dogs or some wrong-headed parental prejudice. And usually he prevailed, through sheer force of character or single- mindedness.

‘. . . We must find ways to work against him,’ Connie continued. ‘Not only to bring the attention of the world to his ugly aspirations, but to take action ourselves. If we sit by and judge from behind the safety of our desks, we will have only ourselves to blame. So I suggest we commit to active resistance from this day forward. To trying to steer our country from Hitler’s destructive path.’

Connie finished. Sweat had formed around his hairline and he was out of breath.

There were murmurs and nods among the men gathered.

‘I agree with the principle.’ Albrecht spoke slowly into the swell of support. ‘But active collusion against our government – this government – is a dangerous thing. And we have wives and families to consider. I am not suggesting we should not, only that we think carefully –

‘Your wives and families will support you,’ Marianne interrupted, surprising herself and the rest of the room. It came out like a rebuke. Albrecht was always so measured, slow, and thoughtful. A plodding tortoise to Connie’s leaping stag.

‘All of them?’ von Strallen asked wryly.

‘All of them,’ Marianne repeated. Von Strallen was a chauvinist. He told his silly wife, Missy, nothing and took her nowhere. Poor Missy, treated like a dumb fattened cow.

‘And bear the risk?’ Albrecht asked gently.

‘And bear the risk,’ Marianne repeated.

‘All right,’ Connie said, turning his intense gaze upon her. ‘Then you will see to it that they are all right. You are appointed the commander of wives and children.’

Marianne met his gaze. The commander of wives and children. She knew he did not mean to belittle her, but it smarted like a slap.

The meeting – if that’s what it was – broke up, and with a sense of unreality, Marianne headed back to the party to resume her hostess responsibilities. Conversations rose and fell, the jazz trio played, and from the landing of the stairs someone recited Cicero in Latin.

But outside, beyond the castle walls, terrible things were happening. Marianne could imagine Hitler’s thuggish Brownshirts swarming the streets, swaggering and shouting with their air of unchecked violence. She had seen them marching in a parade last summer in Munich. Two of the men had broken formation and rushed towards her across the pavement. For a moment she had stood frozen, afraid that she would be attacked: but for what? Instead they knocked down the university student beside her and kicked him as he curled into a ball, their shiny black boots hammering at his back. It had happened so fast that she simply stood. Why? What did he do? she asked a man standing beside her when the SA were gone. He did not lift his hand in a proper Heil, the man whispered as they bent to help the poor student to his feet.

For days afterward she saw those men’s faces as they rushed at her: ordinary, middle- aged faces flattened and made stupid with violence.

‘What is it? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost,’ Mimi Armacher said, interrupting the memory. Mimi was a sweet woman, a distant cousin of Albrecht’s whom Marianne had always liked.

‘I’ve just heard – ’ Marianne faltered. What to call it? It was something from a less civilised time, and for which she had no vocabulary. ‘We’ve received news from Munich that there is rioting – the SA – beating people, breaking down Jewish properties – ’

‘News?’ Mimi repeated, as if this were the incomprehensible thing.

‘From a friend of Connie’s who’s just arrived,’ Marianne explained.

‘Oh, how awful,’ Mimi said, and her face fell. ‘In all the cities?’

Others gathered around. Marianne was aware of Berna and Gottlieb Bruckner at the edge of the group, and Alfred Klausner: Jewish friends whose own positions here in Germany were increasingly difficult. Generations of assimilation no longer seemed to set them apart from the eastern immigrant Jews Hitler was obsessed with deporting. No one was safe.

Marianne felt exhausted suddenly. ‘That’s what I understood.’

‘Destroying property?’ someone asked. ‘At random?’

Jewish property,’ Mimi asserted with chilling crispness. ‘Only Jewish properties.’ She turned to Marianne. ‘Isn’t that what you said?’

Marianne stared at her. ‘I don’t know.’ She drew herself up. ‘Does it matter? Our government is unleashing bands of thugs.’

‘It is the beginning of the end,’ the countess pronounced dramatically when she heard of the destruction that would later be referred to as Kristallnacht. ‘That Austrian will ruin this country. With that, she went up to bed.

Marianne envied her freedom. She herself would have to shepherd this party to its bitter end.

As the news spread, guests with government roles or substantial properties in nearby cities took off down the hill, speeding drunkenly around curves, honking and flashing their headlights. They were followed, more soberly, by the few Jewish guests. A few voyeuristic idiots drove to the neighbouring town of Ehrenheim to see how far the rioting had spread.

By the champagne fountain, Gerhardt Friedlander argued with the Stollmeyers, a set of drunken, ruddy- faced twins who were devoted Nazis. The crowd cleared a nervous circle around them.

‘The conspiracy of world Jewry will not stop at murdering vom Rath,’ one of the Stollmeyers ranted. ‘We must take action against them – ’

‘Don’t be a fool,’ Gerhardt spat. ‘Vom Rath was killed by a deranged seventeen- year- old, not a conspiracy.’

‘A deranged seventeen- year-old who was a Jew and a Bolshevik,’ his opponent argued, ‘who wanted to destroy the pride and unity of the German Volk . . .

Marianne could not listen. This absurd Nazi blather was everywhere, ripe for adoption by the likes of the simple-minded Stollmeyers. How had those two ever made the guest list? Thank God Gerhardt was there to put them in their place.

In the great room, the jazz trio had disappeared (back to Berlin? Had they been paid?), and some dolt tried to play a Nazi marching record on the Victrola only to be pelted with a round of hot Frikadellen from the chef’s latest offering. The gawkers who had driven to Ehrenheim returned and seemed almost disappointed to report that no, nothing was afoot. What did they expect? The town was thoroughly and pigheadedly Bavarian Catholic. It had no Jewish inhabitants or businesses.

Undaunted by the news or the departures, the cook continued to offer delicacies: a new round of pork roasts, apple tortes, a Frankfurter Kranz. And the bartender poured drinks.

Marianne wished the remaining guests would leave. They were all self- absorbed, and frivolous. But still the party limped along towards a slow death.

Around midnight, she allowed herself a moment of privacy in an empty trophy room decorated by some von Lingenfels hunter of yore. Its walls were bedecked with pale, delicate skulls of deer and mouldering taxidermies of boar, bears, even a wolf. A cruel room, but it would do. She would rest for five minutes. Any longer and she would never return. As she sat, the expression fell from her face and the slackness that replaced it made her feel old, a mother of small children in a suddenly savage land.

‘Aha!’ A voice came from behind, and two hands fell on her shoulders before she had the chance to turn: Connie. She had thought him long gone – either back to Berlin to repair the damage or off to bed with his fiancée, a changed man with a new set of habits. But here he was. His intransigence reassured her.

‘Caught you,’ he chided. ‘Oh, Connie,’ she said, turning. ‘Should I tell them all to go home? It’s so strange to have this party when beyond it, God knows – ’

‘Let them stay.’ Connie sank into the chair opposite her own. ‘They’re too drunk to leave anyway.’

‘I suppose.’ Marianne sighed. ‘What’s happening out there?’

‘Well,’ Connie said, leaning back. ‘Greta von Viersdahl is impersonating a goose on the dance floor, old Herr Frickle has found a new strumpet to sit on his lap, and someone I don’t know is vomiting into the moat.’

‘Oh dear.’ Marianne smiled.

How many parties had they attended together? Too many to count since their days as children. And Connie was always an entertaining reporter – an interested observer of the human animal. It was what had forged their friendship: the aptness of his perceptions, and her own appreciation for these as a person less gifted with insight.

‘And Benita?’ she could not resist asking. ‘Is she sleeping?’

‘She’s a good girl,’ Connie answered, stretching out his legs, the firelight creating comically long shadows of his shoes. His handsome face looked tired. There were circles beneath his eyes.

‘Does that make it easier or harder for her to go to sleep?’

Connie shrugged. ‘She was exhausted.’

Marianne pulled herself more upright in the chair and stared quizzically at her friend. ‘What does she think? About this rioting and thuggery, about what’s happening in the world?’

Connie rolled his head over the back of his chair to look up at her. Even exhausted, his face was strikingly handsome: the fine, clear features that had made him beautiful as a boy had never thickened or dulled. Instead they’d become sharper, and straighter – still capable of startling her with their symmetry.

‘You don’t approve of Benita,’ he said. ‘I knew you wouldn’t.’

‘That’s not fair, Connie – why would you think – ?’

‘I know you,’ he said.

‘What – am I not an open- minded, accepting person who is happy to see her friend in love?’

Connie narrowed his eyes. ‘Open- minded, yes. Accepting, no. You are exacting.’

Marianne frowned. ‘Well, she is young.’

Connie laughed.

‘Will she be a partner to you? In all you do?’

Connie sat up suddenly, and for a moment Marianne was afraid she had gone too far. But he did not storm off. He turned his chair to face her and leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. ‘Not like you and Albrecht, no,’ he said. ‘But there are other kinds of unions. And I love her.’

She was surprised by the intensity of his declaration. Was there, in his assertion, an implicit criticism of her own marriage?

‘You must promise me something,’ Connie said.

‘What is it?’ Marianne frowned.

He reached forward to take her hand and a shock raced through Marianne at his touch.

‘If things go wrong – and they may go wrong – you must help her. She is a simple girl and she won’t deserve whatever mess I might drag her into.’ An uncharacteristically diffident, almost boyish look passed over his face. ‘And you must help her raise my child.’

‘Your – ?’ Marianne began, astonished. ‘She is – ?’

Connie nodded. ‘Will you promise me this?’

‘Connie, of course I will, you know I will, but – ’

‘Is that your word?’ Marianne studied his face, as serious as she had ever seen it, and felt a chill of premonition.

‘You have my word,’ she said softly, and felt the full gravity of her promise well up around them.

And then, in a moment that Marianne would replay in her mind again and again, not just that night but over the years, long after Connie was dead, Albrecht was dead, Germany itself was dead, and half the people at the party were either killed, destroyed by shame, or somewhere between the two, he leaned forward and, with the same intensity he had used to extract her promise, kissed her. It was a kiss that dispensed with any trappings of romance or flirtation, that leapfrogged (and here was a question that would gnaw irritatingly, irrelevantly in her mind forever) maybe even over desire, straight into the sea of love and knowledge. Here were two people who understood each other. Here were two people aligned in something greater than themselves.

Who pulled away first? In all the replaying, this was never clear to Marianne. And had the moment lasted minutes? Seconds? It was both crystal clear and full of confusion. For days afterward she could feel the place where Connie’s hand had brushed the hair from her cheek. It shivered in memory, hot and cold at once.

‘Connie,’ she said when they were once again apart. He leaned forward and brought her hand to his lips. But before she could think what to say, what to ask, he rose and was gone.

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