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Books

The Invisible Bridge

Julie Orringer
Photo of the State Hungarian Opera House (partial) by ©Yuen-Ping from A Blog Voyage.com

Men and women in evening dress descended, but Andras saw only architecture: the egg-and-dart molding along the stairway, the cross-barrel vault above, the pink Corinthian columns that supported the gallery.

An International Courier

“The Quartier Latin, of course,” she said, and laughed. “In a painter’s garret, not in a lovely villa like our Cavaradossi. Though he tells me he has hot water and a view of the Panthéon. Ah, there’s the car!” A gray sedan pulled to the curb, and Mrs. Hász lifted her arm and signaled to the driver. “Come tomorrow before noon. Twenty-six Benczúr utca. I’ll have everything ready.” She pulled the collar of her coat closer and ran down to the car, not pausing to look back at Andras.

“Well!” Tibor said, coming out to join him on the steps. “Suppose you tell me what that was all about.”

Elisabeth bridge (partial), Budapest, 1930s found on Eutopia.be

He couldn’t make out the words, but it was clear that there was an argument in progress: One voice climbed and peaked and dropped off; another, quieter than the first, rose and insisted and fell silent.
“I’m to be an international courier. Madame Hász wants me to take a box to her son in Paris. We met at the bank the other day when I went to exchange peng?´´o for francs.”

“And you agreed?”

“I did.”

Tibor sighed, glancing off toward the yellow streetcars passing along the boulevard. “It’s going to be awfully dull around here without you, Andráska.”

“Nonsense. I predict you’ll have a girlfriend within a week.”

“Oh, yes. Every girl goes mad for a penniless shoe clerk.”

Andras smiled. “At last, a little self-pity! I was beginning to resent you for being so generous and coolheaded.”

“Not at all. I could kill you for leaving. But what good would that do? Then neither of us would get to go abroad.” He grinned, but his eyes were grave behind his silver-rimmed spectacles. He linked arms with Andras and pulled him down the steps, humming a few bars from the overture. It was only three blocks to their building on Hársfautca; when they reached the entry they paused for a last breath of night air before going up to the apartment. The sky above the Operaház was pale orange with reflected light, and the streetcar bells echoed from the boulevard. In the semidarkness Tibor seemed to Andras as handsome as a movie legend, his hat set at a daring angle, his white silk evening scarf thrown over one shoulder. He looked at that moment like a man ready to take up a thrilling and unconventional life, a man far better suited than Andras to step off a railway car in a foreign land and claim his place there. Then he winked and pulled the key from his pocket, and in another moment they were racing up the stairs like gimnázium boys.

Mrs. Hász lived near the Városliget, the city park with its storybook castle and its vast rococo outdoor baths. The house on Benczúr utca was an Italianate villa of creamy yellow stucco, surrounded on three sides by hidden gardens; the tops of espaliered trees rose from behind a white stone wall. Andras could make out the faint splash of a fountain, the scratch of a gardener’s rake. It struck him as an unlikely place for Jewish people to live, but at the entrance there was a mezuzah nailed to the doorframe—a silver cylinder wrapped in gold ivy. When he pressed the doorbell, a five-note chime sounded from inside. Then came the approaching click of heels on marble, and the throwing back of heavy bolts. A silver-haired housemaid opened the door and ushered him in. He stepped into a domed entrance hall with a floor of pink marble, an inlaid table, a sheaf of calla lilies in a Chinese vase.

“Madame Hász is in the sitting room,” the housemaid said.

He followed her across the entry hall and down a vaulted corridor, and they stopped just outside a doorway through which he could hear the crescendo and decrescendo of women’s voices. He couldn’t make out the words, but it was clear that there was an argument in progress: One voice climbed and peaked and dropped off; another, quieter than the first, rose and insisted and fell silent.

“Wait here a moment,” the housemaid said, and went in to announce Andras’s arrival. At the announcement the voices exchanged another brief volley, as if the argument had something to do with Andras himself. Then the housemaid reappeared and ushered Andras into a large bright room that smelled of buttered toast and flowers. On the floor were pink-and-gold Persian rugs; white damask chairs stood in conversation with a pair of salmon-colored sofas, and a low table held a bowl of yellow roses. Mrs. Hász had risen from her chair in the corner. At a writing desk near the window sat an older woman in widow’s black, her hair covered with a lace shawl. She held a wax-sealed letter, which she set atop a pile of books and pinned beneath a glass paperweight. Mrs. Hász crossed the room to meet Andras and pressed his hand in her large cold one.

“Thank you for coming,” she said. “This is my mother-in-law, the elder Mrs. Hász.” She nodded toward the woman in black. The woman was of delicate build, with a deep-lined face that Andras found lovely despite its aura of grief; her large gray eyes radiated quiet pain. He gave a bow and pronounced the formal greeting: Kezét csókolom, I kiss your hand.

The elder Mrs. Hász nodded in return. “So you’ve agreed to take a box to József,” she said. “That was very kind of you. I’m sure you have a great deal to think about already.”

“It’s no trouble at all.”

“We won’t keep you long,” said the younger Mrs. Hász. “Simon is packing the last items now. I’ll ring for something to eat in the meantime. You look famished.”

“Oh, no, please don’t bother,” Andras said. In fact, the smell of toast had reminded him that he hadn’t eaten all day; but he worried that even the smallest meal in that house would require a lengthy ceremony, one whose rules were foreign to him. And he was in a hurry: His train left in three hours.

“Young men can always eat,” said the younger Mrs. Hász, calling the housemaid to her side. She gave a few instructions and sent the woman on her way.

The elder Mrs. Hász left her chair at the writing desk and beckoned Andras to sit beside her on one of the salmon-colored sofas. He sat down, worrying that his trousers would leave a mark on the silk; he would have needed a different grade of clothing altogether, it seemed to him, to pass an hour safely in that house. The elder Mrs. Hász folded her slim hands on her lap and asked Andras what he would study in Paris.

“Architecture,” Andras said.

“Indeed. So you’ll be a classmate of József’s at the Beaux-Arts, then?”

“I’ll be at the École Spéciale,” Andras said. “Not the Beaux-Arts.”

The younger Mrs. Hász settled herself on the opposite sofa. “The École Spéciale? I haven’t heard József mention it.”

“It’s rather more of a trade school than the Beaux-Arts,” Andras said. “That’s what I understand, anyway. I’ll be there on a scholarship from the Izraelita Hitközség. It was a happy accident, actually.”

“An accident?”

And Andras explained: The editor of Past and Future, the magazine where he worked, had submitted some of Andras’s cover designs for an exhibition in Paris—a show of work by young Central European artists. His covers had been selected and exhibited; a professor from the École Spéciale had seen the show and had made inquiries about Andras. The editor had told him that Andras wanted to become an architect, but that it was difficult for Jewish students to get into architecture school in Hungary: A defunct numerus clausus, which in the twenties had restricted the number of Jewish students to six percent, still haunted the admissions practices of Hungarian universities. The professor from the École Spéciale had written letters, had petitioned his admissions board to give Andras a place in the incoming class. The Budapest Jewish community association, the Izraelita Hitközség, had put up the money for tuition, room, and board. It had all happened in a matter of weeks, and at every moment it seemed as if it might fall through. But it hadn’t; he was going. His classes would begin six days from now.

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