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Liebermann Papers #05: Vienna Twilightby Frank Tallis
Liebermann was seated on a wooden chair at the head of the rest bed. He had adopted an attitude that he found conducive to listening: legs crossed, his right fist against his cheek, the tip of his index finger resting gently on his temple. His supine patient—Herr Norbert Erstweiler—could not see the young doctor. In fact, Herr Erstweiler could see very little apart from the white ceiling and, if he dropped his gaze, a plain door in which a panel of opaque glass had been mounted. Herr Erstweiler’s eyes were restless. Their agitated movements suggested unease, apprehension. It was as if, Liebermann thought, Herr Erstweiler were worried that someone might intrude.
“I am not expecting anybody,” said Liebermann.
“I beg your pardon?”
“We shan’t be interrupted. No one will come in.”
“Good. . . . I wouldn’t want that.”
“You were saying that your sleep is disturbed.”
“That’s right. I can’t get to sleep anymore. I get into bed, extinguish the lamp, and I am immediately overcome by terror. It’s the darkness . . . something about the darkness.”
“Something in the darkness?”
“No, I wouldn’t say that. I would say it was the quality of the darkness itself . . . its emptiness. I haven’t been eating either. My appetite has completely gone, and my stools are loose.”
Liebermann noticed that Herr Erstweiler’s hands were trembling slightly.
“Do you have difficulty breathing, Herr Erstweiler?”
“Yes. My chest feels tight . . . and my heart, I can feel it pounding all the time. There’s something wrong with it. I know there is.”
Liebermann consulted the notes on his lap.
“No, Herr Erstweiler. There is nothing wrong with your heart.”
“I’m not sure the cardiologist I saw conducted a thorough examination.”
“Professor Schulde is an expert.”
Erstweiler glanced at the door. “Well, that may be so, but even experts are wrong sometimes.”
Liebermann scrutinized his patient: early thirties; dark hair infiltrated with gray; a thin, drawn face; tired, bloodshot eyes; finger marks on his spectacles. Erstweiler’s brow was scored by three lines—short, long, and short. Their depth suggested indelibility. He had neglected his toilet, and his chin was scabrous.
Erstweiler placed a palliative hand over his frantic heart.
The young doctor realized that discussing symptoms was making Erstweiler more anxious. He decided to distract him by adopting a different line of inquiry.
“I understand that you have only recently arrived in Vienna,” said Liebermann.
“Yes. I settled here just before Christmas.”
“Where are you from?”
“Tulln. Do you know it, Herr Doctor?” Erstweiler’s voice was hopeful.
“I know of it,” said Liebermann. “Were you born there?”
“No, Eggenburg—but my family moved to Tulln when I was very young. Just a quiet provincial town,” said Erstweiler, “but I’m a simple fellow and easily satisfied. Walking, fishing . . . a little rowing in the summer.” Erstweiler blinked, and a faint smile softened his features. “I was very happy in Tulln.”
“Why did you leave?”
“I was made redundant when my employer died. I was personal secretary to one of the councillors—Councillor Meternich—and worked in the town hall. It wasn’t a very demanding situation—some correspondence, diary keeping, that sort of thing. Meternich died in the autumn of last year. His illness was quite protracted. He knew . . .” Erstweiler hesitated and stuttered. “He knew he was
g-going to d-die.” It was obvious to Liebermann that the poor man was struggling to overcome some private horror. Erstweiler took a deep breath and continued, “And he wrote to a friend, recommending me for a clerical post. He was a kindly old man—Meternich—and knew that I would have difficulty finding alternative employment in Tulln. Meternich’s friend was Herr Winkler, a businessman who imports furniture and objets d’art from Japan. I now work at his warehouse in Simmering. The job doesn’t pay very well, but I’ve been told I could be promoted shortly.”
Liebermann made some notes and asked, “Do you live on your own?”
“Yes . . . no. What I mean is . . . I have taken a room—lodgings—in the house of a Czech gentleman and his wife.”
“A short distance from Winkler’s warehouse.”
“Do you have any family or friends in Vienna?”
“What about back in Tulln? Did you leave anyone behind?”
“Both of my parents are deceased. I have an older brother, but we haven’t spoken in years. He went to live in Salzburg. He’s a railway official, of high rank. He wears a uniform like a general! We were never very close. He considers me”—Erstweiler grimaced—“unambitious.”
Liebermann tapped his index finger against his temple, then wrote down the words “anxiety neurosis” and “anxiety hysteria.” But he was not satisfied with his putative diagnoses. Once again, he observed his patient glancing toward the door and added in parentheses “dementia paranoides?” Liebermann decided to raise the subject of symptoms again.
“When did you first become unwell, Herr Erstweiler?”
“About a month ago. It came on quite suddenly.”
“Have you ever suffered from similar episodes in the past? Difficulty in breathing? Accelerated heart rate?”
“No, never. I’ve always been very healthy.”
“Then has anything happened to upset you?”
Erstweiler did not answer.
Liebermann persevered. “Have you received any bad news? Witnessed an accident? Ended a relationship?”
“No . . . nothing like that.”
“But something has happened . . .”
Erstweiler closed his eyes. The mere thought of disclosure made him want to shut out the world.
“What do you think is the matter?” asked Liebermann softly. “What do you suppose these symptoms mean?”
The patient opened his eyes again. They were glassy, unfocused, and the tone of his voice was nuanced correspondingly. “They mean I am going to die.”
“But there really is nothing wrong with you, Herr Erstweiler. All the investigations and tests have demonstrated that you are in perfect health. Now.” Liebermann tapped his pen on the chair arm to capture the man’s attention. “There can be no doubt that you are currently troubled by anxiety—hyperventilation, tachycardia, insomnia, and loss of appetite—but these symptoms are relatively benign.”
Erstweiler ignored Liebermann’s plea.
“My fate is sealed,” he whispered. “I am going to die. And there is nothing that you or any of your colleagues can do to save me. When death knocks on the door, you cannot deny him.”
Liebermann made another note. “Herr Erstweiler?”
The patient seemed to rouse from his abstracted state. His eyes engaged with the material world again—the ceiling, the door.
“Something happened to you.” Liebermann modulated his voice to counter the directness of his request. “It is important that you tell me everything, if I am to help you.”
“I should never have agreed to this hospital admission. It was my general practitioner’s idea—Vitzhum. He persuaded me . . . persuaded me that I was suffering from nerves and that I’d see things differently after a few weeks’ rest. I was eager to believe him, of course, given the alternative. At the time I thought he was right, I thought I might be going mad—but I’m not. Oh, if only I were! Dear God! If you declared me insane today—and could prove it—I would be greatly relieved.”
“What are you frightened of, Herr Erstweiler?”
“Dying. I don’t want to die.”
Liebermann drew two lines under “thanatophobia.”
“Once again, Herr Erstweiler, I must ask you to consider the evidence.”
“Oh, believe me, I have.” Erstweiler was clearly not referring to the medical investigations.
“I cannot make a full assessment of your mental state,” said Liebermann, “unless you make me party to the facts. All of them. You say that a declaration of insanity would ease your suffering; however, I am in no position to provide you with such relief—albeit irregular—if you refuse to take me into your confidence.”
Erstweiler pulled at his bristly chin. A long silence ensued. Eventually he spoke.
“The first time it happened, I wasn’t sure.” Erstweiler swallowed, and his Adam’s apple bounced up and down. “I was walking on the Graben when a fiacre passed. I caught only a glimpse of the passenger, and thought it was my brother. We are of the same build and share many characteristics, particularly those typical of my father’s side of the family. He was wearing a fedora hat. I should have realized.”
“You should have realized what?”
“We are very similar physically, but we have always dressed quite differently. Unlike me, he has never—to my knowledge—worn a fedora hat. Besides, he rarely comes to Vienna. It couldn’t have been him.”
“I am not altogether sure—”
“Please, Herr Doctor,” Erstweiler interrupted. “Let me continue. Now that I have started, I wish to finish. . . . That evening, I was quite restless. I couldn’t sit down. I tried to read my book but found concentrating impossible. My table is close to the window and, for no particular reason, I pulled the curtain aside and looked out. My room is on the first floor, and I found myself looking down at a gentleman standing beneath a gas lamp. He was wearing a fedora.”
Liebermann looked down at his notes again, smiled inwardly, and underlined “dementia paranoides.”
“You were being followed?”
Erstweiler rocked his head from side to side. His expression was pained.
“There was something odd about him. I knew that immediately, but it wasn’t until I had observed him standing there for a minute or more that I was really able to identify the cause of my disquiet.”
“He did not cast a shadow. And it was at that moment—the precise moment when I realized he had no shadow—that he raised his head and looked up at my window. My heart was beating wildly and my bowels turned to water. His face . . .” Erstweiler’s head rocked more violently. “It was me, my doppelgänger—my double.”
“Could you have been mistaken? You were excited, night had fallen . . .”
“He was standing directly beneath the gas lamp!” For the first time a note of frustration had entered Erstweiler’s voice.
“What did you do?”
“What could I do? I poured myself a slivovitz and huddled on my bed until morning. I passed the night in a state of fearful agitation. You know what it means, Herr Doctor, surely, when a man sees his doppelgänger? I am going to die, and nothing can save me.”
Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt stepped down from his carriage just outside the Court Theater entrance of the Volksgarten. Two constables wearing long blue coats and spiked helmets stood on either side of the gate. They recognized the inspector and clicked their heels as he passed. Hurrying along, Rheinhardt searched his jacket for a box of cigars and sighed when he found the pockets empty. He had left his Trabucos, he realized, on the desk in his study. Above the Hofburg, long flat clouds hung motionless in a temperate sky, the early-morning colors soft and muted.
Rheinhardt had not progressed very far when he heard the sound of someone running up the path behind him. He turned and saw his assistant.
The youth’s long legs carried him forward with a steady, confident momentum.
Ah, to be young again, thought the inspector (although, in truth, his own youthful athletic accomplishments had never been particularly noteworthy).
“Good morning, Haussmann.”
The young man slowed and came to a halt. He stooped, clasping his knees with his hands. When he had recovered his breath, they proceeded along the path until a gray stone edifice with triangular pediments and Doric columns came into view. More constables could be seen in its vicinity.
“Have you ever wondered,” said Rheinhardt casually, “why we have a Greek temple in the middle of our Volksgarten?”
“No, sir. I haven’t.” There was a slight fall in Haussmann’s voice. He knew from experience that such a question was usually followed by a didactic answer. His superior seemed to enjoy caricaturing the speech and manner of a schoolmaster.
“Well, my boy,” said Rheinhardt. “It was built to house a famous statue—Theseus and the Centaur—by the great Italian sculptor Antonio Canova. That is why we call it the Theseus Temple. In fact, the building is a replica of an original that stands in Athens—the Temple of Hephaestus.”
“The god of fire and crafts, particularly those crafts that use fire—metalworking, for example.”
“Is the statue still inside, sir?” asked Haussmann, feigning interest.
“No, it was moved to the Kunsthistorisches Museum about ten years ago. It’s on the main staircase, about halfway up. Have you never seen it?”
“I’m not a great lover of art, sir.”
“You’ve never been to the Kunsthistorisches Museum?”
“No, sir. I find old paintings . . .”
Rheinhardt shook his head and dismissed Haussmann’s remark with a wave of his hand.
“It’s a fine statue,” Rheinhardt continued, undeterred by his assistant’s philistinism. “The mighty hero, Theseus, his club raised, ready to strike.” Rheinhardt suddenly looked anxious. “I take it you know who Theseus is?”
“Yes, sir. I have a volume of the Greek legends at home. I won it in a poetry competition at school.”
Rheinhardt raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t know you wrote poetry.”
“I don’t, sir. Not now. But at school I did.”
Their conversation was brought to a premature close when a constable, stout and with glowing cheeks, separated from his companions and came to greet them. He introduced himself as Constable Badem.
“Ah yes, Badem,” said Rheinhardt. “It was you who discovered the body.”
“Yes, sir.” The constable’s chest expanded and he stood erect, as if about to receive a medal. Rheinhardt, touched and amused by the young man’s pride, reached out and gripped his shoulder.
“Well done! The security office is indebted.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Badem, his eyes glinting with emotion. Then, assuming a more detached attitude, the young man added, “She’s over there, Inspector.” He raised his hand and pointed toward a row of bushes, where his colleagues had assembled.
Rheinhardt left the footpath to investigate.
The woman was lying flat on the grass. Her hairpins had fallen out, and abundant dark tresses framed her face. The disposition of her limbs—legs apart, arms thrown wide—suggested abandonment. Her dress had ridden up over her knees, revealing a pair of striped stockings. Rheinhardt noticed that the soles of her ankle boots were almost transparent, and closer examination revealed the presence of a small hole. Her coat was correspondingly threadbare, with frayed cuffs and the tattered remnants of a lining that had long since been removed. She was young, perhaps no more than eighteen, and the whiteness of her pale skin emphasized, by contrast, the artificiality of the carmine powder on her cheeks.
It was an interesting face, sensuous and attractive, but not conventionally beautiful. Her expression in deathly repose suggested disdainful indifference—perhaps even cruelty. Her lips were slightly uneven, twisted, and her nose was too generously proportioned. Yet there was something about these flaws that combined to create an arresting totality.
Rheinhardt knelt down beside her and searched her pockets for identification, but all he could find was some small change, a handkerchief, and two keys.
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