In Vienna, they sat in coffee shops

In Vienna, they sat in coffee shops filled with glass windows and wooden tables with marble tabletops, set with silver spoons and white linen napkins. There were ferns between tables and palms in the corners, long and leggy, their soft spikes reaching toward the patrons. Women sat in fur stoles, pearls dripping daintily from their wrists, their earlobes, their necks. Diamond pins stuck primly in their lapels. Up with their little finger as they brought the porcelain cup to their lips, the brown crema leaving a small stain just there.

Men read newspapers spread out before them on the table, peering at the small print below with monocles that dangled from gold chains. Pointy white beards, exquisitely tied ties, no dander, no lint, nothing out of place on their fine wool coats.

The snow outside was gray, crispy – snow from days ago, no longer fresh. Certainly well past its pristine first fall. Piles of snow with discarded clumps of occasional icicles sticking out filled the sidewalks, making them precarious and hard to pass. Small steps were needed, or a foolhardy sense of gravity. What goes up will always come down.

Two girls rushed along, arm in arm, as always. Conjoined, practically. Their heads bent in together, almost pressing their cheeks against the other. Wound in wool scarves, black gloves, long dresses that gathered the snow underneath them, their cheeks were flushed red from cold.

As a man exited the coffee shop, the two girls took the opportunity to rush in.

There were no seats, no empty chairs, no available tables. The girls stood still, their necks craning about slowly, looking for some place, anyplace to sit as little flakes of snow melted instantly on their shoulders and in their hair.

“Follow me,” a man in a starched white shirt said, appearing from nowhere, and effortlessly corralled the girls along the marble tiled floor, scooting them along until he finally deposited them in high-backed chairs with red velvet cushions, wide wooden arms, and intricately carved lion’s feet. At the table of an elegant, bejeweled woman with extraordinary silver hair.

“I know who you are, pets,” the woman said, signaling to the waiter with an easy, expectant snap of her finger to thumb. “Americans,” she said triumphantly to them.“Coffee, please,” she said to the waiter.

The girls looked at each other, one bit her lip and blinked her eyes, the other reached out a hand to steady the other.

“Pets. Darlings. Please. Everyone knows you. Which one is which?” she asked, her eyes flashing from one to the other. “Which one of you is the authoress? You simply must tell me. I’m dying to know. I’ve devoured your book. A high seas adventure! Girls dressed as boys! Escaping the California Gold Rush! You mustn’t keep me in suspense, darlings. Which one of you is Jane?”

The question hung in the air, seemingly the entire coffee shop had slowed down, gotten quiet, waited with baited breath to hear the answer.

The hand rose up, removed from comforting the other, and signaled the owner’s identity.

“It is exactly as I thought,” the woman declared, her eyes wide with delight. “You are the very Jane Upton of the book! I am so proud of you, pet. So very, very proud. What a book. I could not put it down. Huddled over the candle flame, my husband snoring next to me, it’s a wonder I didn’t set the place afire. So it is you, then,” the woman turned just ever so slightly, cocking her head, “who is the artiste.”

“May I present my sister Miss Beatrice Upton,” Jane said.

“Your parents must be so proud. So proud. Of both of you,” the woman said, reaching for Jane’s hand.

The waiter arrived and with a flourish, set the small demitasse cups in front of the two girls, small silver spoons delicately balanced on the saucer, a small round bit of chocolate near each spoon.

The woman sat up a bit straighter, beamed at them both, and said, “You must tell me everything. Everything. Over dinner. Yes? It’s decided then. I’ll host a salon and you will both be my special guests.”

“But madam,” Bea said, setting down her cup with a delicate, soundless motion, “may we learn your name first?”

The waiter’s eyes grew wide, his mouth pursed and tight, and scampered quickly away.

“What have I said? Have I made an error?” Bea asked, looking to her sister in panic.

“Oh pet, no. I’m sorry. I am indeed. How presumptuous of me. I am Baroness von Reichter.” And now there was a certain, not imagined, hush about the room, a collective intake of breath.

“It is a great pleasure, Baroness,” Jane said, offering her hand once again, to shake in introduction. Her voice calm and sure, hiding the fact that she had not a clue who the woman was.

“Pets. Pets, please,” the Baroness said, reaching now for Bea’s hand, the three of them joined now. “The pleasure is all mine. Let the lad know where you’re staying and I’ll send a carriage. Tomorrow? Is it too late? Too soon?”

“A perfect time,” Bea said, “isn’t it, Jane?”

Jane turned to her sister, studied her for a minute, then turned back to the baroness and said, “A perfect time, yes.”

“It’s settled then,” the woman said. “And now I must get busy. I have an evening to plan, pets.”

She hoisted herself up with a small groan, a small wince of pain in her face, and rose up to her full height. There, quick as could be, a young man in uniform arrived with a long, brown fur coat that he expertly draped across her shoulders.

Bustled up, matching muff and hat, she smiled one last time at the two girls and said, “I simply cannot wait. Good night, darlings. I shall see you tomorrow.”

The patrons looked up from their newspapers, turned away from their companions for a moment to watch the great lady’s progress in their vicinity. It was only once the small bell above the door tinkled and grew quiet did the murmur and chatter of the coffee shop begin again.

Bea turned quickly to her sister, her face a puzzle. “What just happened?”

Jane shook her head, her brows knitted together. “I haven’t the faintest idea.”

“Shall we go, do you think? Or do you think she is quite mad?”

“You should go,” the waiter said from above them, his English smooth and distinct, sweeping their cups and saucers away. “You would be mad not to.”

[What the heck is this all about? Well, this might (or might not) explain what I’m up to.]

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