In which we meet the household at an apartment on St. John’s Street, learn how Vienna is taking its revenge on Cracow, what one can do with seven stallions, and how to cure many a case of cholera; we also hear about the great value of certain books, the equally great rapacity of the ladies from a certain society, and the tragic accident that befell the Hungarian envoy all because of a bottle of slivovitz.
It was Saturday, 14 October 1893. All morning a large cloud, dark gray with streaks of sapphire blue, had been hanging above number 30 St. John’s Street in Cracow—?known as “Peacock House” because of the fine sculpted bird above the main entrance?—?threatening rain.
“Come along, Franciszka,” said Zofia Turbotynska gloomily, fearing the worst?—?by which she meant having to pay twenty cents for the ride home in a cab. “The shopping won’t do itself.”
And then, ignoring the cook’s aphoristic answer (“On Saint Jerome’s, either it rains or it don’t”?—?though in fact this particular sacred figure had been commemorated a fortnight ago), she went into the hallway, did up two rows of small black buttons on her boots, pulled on her cherry-red kid leather gloves, donned a new hat bought at Marya Prauss’s fashion emporium, and examined herself in the mirror.
Zofia, née Glodt, wife of Professor Ignacy Turbotynski of the medical faculty at Cracow’s Jagiellonian University, was approaching her fortieth summer, but she noted with approval that she was really quite comely. Perhaps over the past year she had gained a minimal amount of weight, but she carried herself erect and still had an alluring figure. A healthy complexion with no pimples and very few wrinkles?—?just one was more distinct, on her forehead, between the brows, perhaps too often knitted. An oval face, the features rather stern, but softened by nicely defined eyebrows and keen eyes with dark lashes .?.?. a slightly hooked nose .?.?. and lips?—?well, the lips could have been fuller, but she consoled herself that her thin lips gave her the look of a refined Englishwoman.
She reached for an umbrella from the porcelain stand, which was bristling with her husband’s walking sticks. Briefly her fingers fluttered over the handles?—?a silver parrot’s head with topaz eyes, a rolled-up elephant’s trunk, an ivory knob (donated a couple of years ago by his grateful students), and a small, glossy skull (a souvenir of his last year at medical school)?—?and finally extracted a Chinese dragon chasing a pearl: a present, as Zofia liked to mention, from her sister, who lived in Vienna. Just one more backward glance into the mirror?—?playful enough for her to find herself pleasing, and stern enough for Franciszka not to dare counter it with a smirk?—?and they were ready for the march to Szczepanski Square.
They went the usual way: down St. John’s Street, then St. Thomas’s, with an occasional reluctant glance at that cloud, which was gathering, swelling, and seething over the Piasek district.
“It’s sure to be pouring in the outskirts by now,” said Franciszka, seemingly into space, though with patent reproof. But she knew that in the life of Zofia Turbotynska there were sanctities greater than the elevation of the host, including a proper Sunday luncheon, and thus an equally proper Saturday shopping expedition.
By now they had reached the end of St. Thomas’s Street, and so Franciszka, who was walking slightly behind with a basket over her arm, knew what would happen next: as soon as they came level with the Alchemist’s house, the bow on Zofia’s hat suddenly twitched and turned to the right, followed by the rest of the hat and her head. The time had come for a groan, for this was where “that crime” came into view, “that hideous shack, worthy of a station halt in a garrison town”?—?in other words the enormous bulk of the covered emergency staircase, tacked onto the City Theater a couple of years ago after the fire at the Ringtheater in Vienna.
“I realize that almost four hundred people burned to death there,” Zofia would say, “but is that a reason for Vienna to take revenge on Cracow with this monstrosity? Fortunately we’ll have our new theater in a matter of days!”
And so there was the ritual groan, and then the bow moved back into place. Now they had to move on to serious matters.