A Message for a Family Friend
“Ah,” said the younger Mrs. Hász. “How fortunate! And a scholarship, too!” But at the last words she lowered her eyes, and Andras experienced the return of a feeling from his school days in Debrecen: a sudden shame, as if he’d been stripped to his underclothes. A few times he’d spent weekend afternoons at the homes of boys who lived in town, whose fathers were barristers or bankers, who didn’t have to board with poor families—boys who slept alone in their beds at night and wore ironed shirts to school and ate lunch at home every day. Some of these boys’ mothers treated him with solicitous pity, others with polite distaste. In their presence he’d felt similarly naked. Now he forced himself to look at József’s mother as he said, “Yes, it’s very lucky.”
Paris Street Scene (partial) by Antoine Blanchard, Jr (c.1950)
“And where will you live in Paris?”
He rubbed his damp palms against his knees. “The Latin Quarter, I suppose.”
“But where will you stay when you arrive?”
“I imagine I’ll just ask someone where students take rooms.”
“Nonsense,” said the elder Mrs. Hász, covering his hand with her own. “You’ll go to József’s, that’s what you’ll do.”
The younger Mrs. Hász gave a cough and smoothed her hair. “We shouldn’t make commitments for József,” she said. “He may not have room for a guest.”
“Oh, Elza, you’re a terrible snob,” said the elder Mrs. Hász. “Mr. Lévi is doing a service for József. Surely József can spare a sofa for him, at least for a few days. We’ll wire him this afternoon.”
“Here are the sandwiches,” said the younger, visibly relieved by the distraction.
The housemaid wheeled a tea cart into the room. In addition to the tea service there was a glass cake stand with a stack of sandwiches so pale they looked to be made of snow. A pair of scissorlike silver tongs lay beside the pedestal, as if to suggest that sandwiches like these were not meant to be touched by human hands. The elder Mrs. Hász took up the tongs and piled sandwiches onto Andras’s plate, more than he would have dared to take for himself. When the younger Mrs. Hász herself picked up a sandwich without the aid of silverware or tongs, Andras made bold to eat one of his own. It consisted of dilled cream cheese on soft white bread from which the crusts had been cut. Paper-thin slices of yellow pepper provided the only indication that the sandwich had originated from within the borders of Hungary.
While the younger Mrs. Hász poured Andras a cup of tea, the elder went to the writing desk and withdrew a white card upon which she asked Andras to write his name and travel information. She would wire József, who would be waiting at the station in Paris. She offered him a glass pen with a gold nib so fine he was afraid to use it. He leaned over the low table and wrote the information in his blocky print, terrified that he would break the nib or drip ink onto the Persian rug. Instead he inked his fingers, a fact he apprehended only when he looked down at his final sandwich and saw that the bread was stained purple. He wondered how long it would be until Simon, whoever that was, appeared with the box for József. A sound of hammering came from far off down the hallway; he hoped it was the box being closed.
It seemed to please the elder Mrs. Hász to see that Andras had finished his sandwiches. She gave him her grief-etched smile. “This will be your first time in Paris, then.”
“Yes,” Andras said. “My first time out of the country.”
“Don’t let my grandson offend you,” she said. “He’s a sweet child once you get to know him.”
“József is a perfect gentleman,” said the younger Mrs. Hász, flushing to the roots of her close-set curls.
“It’s kind of you to wire him,” Andras said.
“Not at all,” said the elder Mrs. Hász. She wrote József’s address on another card and gave it to Andras. A moment later, a man in butler’s livery entered the sitting room with an enormous wooden crate in his arms.
“Thank you, Simon,” said the younger Mrs. Hász. “You may leave it there.”
The man set the crate down on the rug and retreated. Andras glanced at the gold clock on the mantel. “Thank you for the sandwiches,” he said. “I’d better be off now.”
“Stay another moment, if you don’t mind,” said the elder Mrs. Hász. “I’d like to ask you to take one more thing.” She went to the writing desk and slid the sealed letter from beneath its paperweight.
“Excuse me, Mr. Lévi,” said the younger. She rose and crossed the room to meet her mother-in-law, and put a hand on her arm. “We’ve already discussed this.”
“I won’t repeat myself, then,” said the elder Mrs. Hász, lowering her voice. “Kindly remove your hand, Elza.”
The younger Mrs. Hász shook her head. “György would agree with me. It’s unwise.”
“My son is a good man, but he doesn’t always know what’s wise and what is not,” said the elder. She extricated her arm gently from the younger woman’s grasp, returned to the salmon-colored sofa, and handed the envelope to Andras. Written on its face was the name C. Morgenstern and an address in Paris.
“It’s a message for a family friend,” said the elder Mrs. Hász, her eyes steady on Andras’s. “Perhaps you’ll think me overcautious, but for certain matters I don’t trust the Hungarian post. Things can get lost, you know, or fall into the wrong hands.” She kept her gaze fixed upon him as she spoke, seeming to ask him not to question what she meant, nor what matters might be delicate enough to require this degree of caution. “If you please, I’d rather you not mention it to anyone. Particularly not to my grandson. Just buy a stamp and drop this into a mailbox once you get to Paris. You’ll be doing me a great favor.”
Andras put the letter into his breast pocket. “Easily done,” he said.
The younger Mrs. Hász stood rigid beside the writing desk, her cheeks bright beneath their patina of powder. One hand still rested on the stack of books, as though she might call the letter back across the room and have it there again. But there was nothing to be done, Andras saw; the elder Mrs. Hász had won, and the younger now had to proceed as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. She composed her expression and smoothed her gray skirt, returning to the sofa where Andras sat.
“Well,” she said, and folded her hands. “It seems we’ve concluded our business. I hope my son will be a help to you in Paris.”
“I’m certain he will,” Andras said. “Is that the box you’d like me to take?”
“It is,” said the younger Mrs. Hász, and gestured him toward it.
The wooden crate was large enough to contain a pair of picnic hampers. When Andras lifted it, he felt a deep tug in his intestines. He took a few staggering steps toward the door.
“Dear me,” said the younger Mrs. Hász. “Can you manage?”
Andras ventured a mute nod.
“Oh, no. You mustn’t strain yourself.” She pressed a button in the wall and Simon reappeared a moment later. He took the box from Andras and strode out through the front door of the house. Andras followed, and the elder Mrs. Hász accompanied him to the driveway, where the long gray car was waiting. Apparently they meant to send him home in it. It was of English make, a Bentley. He wished Tibor were there to see it.
The elder Mrs. Hász put a hand on his sleeve. “Thank you for everything,” she said.
“It’s a pleasure,” Andras said, and bowed in farewell.
She pressed his arm and went inside; the door closed behind her without a sound. As the car pulled away, Andras found himself twisting backward to look at the house again. He searched the windows, unsure of what he expected to see. There was no movement, no curtain-flutter or glimpse of a face. He imagined the younger Mrs. Hász returning to the drawing room in wordless frustration, the elder retreating deeper behind that butter-colored façade, entering a room whose overstuffed furniture seemed to suffocate her, a room whose windows offered a comfortless view. He turned away and rested an arm on the box for József, and gave his Hársfa utca address for the last time.
Excerpted from The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer Copyright © 2010 by Julie Orringer. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.