THE TRAİN PLUNGED İNTO DARKNESS, lit only by the weak light of the gas lamps, dimmed for daytime. The car went quiet as the travelers shifted uncomfortably in the strange gloom. Julia Weston paused in the act of setting a stack of playing cards on the table. She looked toward the window, seeing only the reflection of the interior of the lounge car against the black of the tunnel and her own face staring back at her. The faces of her companions were reflected in the glass as well: one stern middle-aged woman, one distinguished older gentleman, and one—she noticed her gaze rested too long on Herr Klausman and pulled it away lest he see her staring—one handsome younger man. A blush crept over her cheeks. She let her gaze move over the train car’s other occupants and attempted to appear as if she were not looking at one spot in particular. The noise of dishes and conversation had quieted, almost as if the tunnel had cast some sort of spell over the passengers. Julia was always amused by the way people stopped whatever they were doing and stared out the windows when there was nothing to see. Perhaps it was simply human instinct for one’s attention to be drawn to the unexpected. Though aspects of the journey, such as a game of cards with a handsome gentleman, were far from ordinary, the trip itself was exceedingly familiar. Julia had made the journey between Vienna and Paris often enough over the years, but this was the first time her father—busy with preparations for the World’s Exhibition—had been unable to accompany her. And since Colonel Weston, retired from the British army, would not hear of his daughter traveling alone, he’d found a companion to accompany her. And Frau Maven snored at night. Splendidly.
Julia stifled a yawn. She did not believe she’d slept one minute in the compartment adjoining the older woman’s the night before, but it was too late to take a nap now, and if she fell asleep after dinner, she’d miss her stop at Igney-Avricourt. And that wouldn’t do at all. She kept her gaze moving, thinking if she allowed it to rest in the dim light, she might fall asleep. Her eyes met Herr Klausman’s again, and she jolted, fully awake. Julia had always considered the train very romantic. And perhaps this time—without her protective father’s accompaniment—it would be romantic for her. She loved this train. The elegance of the furnishings and the passengers were a sight one did not get used to. Travelers hailing from all over the world journeyed on the Orient Express, and the variety of languages and costumes surrounding her filled her mind with imaginings.
She kept her focus on the darkness, wondering if Herr Klausman was watching her reflection. The idea was rather pleasant. The man possessed many qualities she valued. He was handsome, of course, and his clothing and manners were impeccable. He sat straight-backed in his chair, his fair hair was parted precisely, and he was punctual, a habit Julia considered among the most important in a person’s behavior. He had come into the lounge car for the card game seven minutes earlier than their arranged time—eight minutes after Julia herself had arrived. She blinked as the train emerged and sun shone again through the windows. Frau Maven cleared her throat and motioned toward the cards in Julia’s hand. Julia set them down and straightened the stack carefully, sliding the smaller piles to her three companions. She took the last for herself, then turned over the top card, placing it next to the center stack.
Herr Klausman, seated across from her, lifted his cards and spread them into a tidy fan, moving a card here and there into order. “And I hear zeh grand tower has been painted a ghastly yellow,” he said, his German accent thick. He raised a brow and curled his lip in a complicated expression that indicated his disapproval of either the color or, more likely, Monsieur Eiffel’s creation itself. It somewhat ruined the effect of his handsome face. But the gentleman was not alone in his opinion. Many—especially among the artistic community of which Julia was particularly associated—still considered the Paris monument a disgrace—an atrocity of mangled steel towering over the skyline of the most beautiful city in the world, a colossal waste of money and resources. Others admired the contemporary structure as a marvel of modern architecture comparable with America’s Washington Monument. Strong feelings existed on both sides of the argument, and it was still hotly debated by all Parisians, from wealthy financiers, heiresses, and clerks to street performers and penniless urchins. As for herself, Julia adored the tower, having watched its construction as a child and viewed it with nostalgia each time she returned to Paris. “A most extraordinary creation,” the man who had introduced himself only as Nicholas, sitting at Julia’s right, replied with a nod.
“Even still, eleven years after its creation, she is zeh tallest structure in zeh world. She has zeh strength of iron, yet zeh lines are so graceful. Elegant.” He hooked his curved pipe back beneath his thick black mustache, then swept his hands wide, lifting them to a narrow point in imitation of the tower’s shape. “A true masterpiece.” He spoke the words slowly, drawing out the last and infusing it with a dramatic flourish. Julia arranged her cards both by suit and in numerical order and then spread them evenly in her hand. “A masterpiece indeed.” Frau Maven nodded and smiled sweetly. Julia’s companion, a stern-faced widow from Austria, had agreed with every statement either of the men had made so far, making the conversation, in Julia’s opinion, rather dull.
The older woman sat to Julia’s left with her back to the train’s window, wearing fresh lip rouge and a colorful silk scarf with her beige traveling clothes. Neither accoutrement had been present when Julia and the older woman had boarded the train late the previous evening at the Vienna station, nor had they appeared at any time over the nearly fourteen-hour journey until just an hour earlier, when she’d entered the lounge car. Not only had Frau Maven’s attire been drab and free from color of any kind, her temperament had seemed to follow the same course. Julia had not heard a kind word or seen a hint of a smile on the woman’s face until the two gentlemen had introduced themselves, joining them for luncheon in the train’s dining car earlier that day. The transformation that came over the older woman had been astonishing, to say the least. She’d not only smiled and spoken quite cordially but had actually giggled —often. When the men had proposed an afternoon card game to pass the dull hours before dinner, Frau Maven had practically fallen over herself to accept. After a moment of deliberation, Julia played a card, and Nicholas set one atop it almost immediately. “A gut choice, sir.” Frau Maven beamed across the table.
Nicholas smiled. He didn’t appear to have even given his cards more than a quick glance, but he’d managed to win nearly every hand—even when his partner, Frau Maven, was so distracted. He was dressed in black from the top of his hat to the toe of his shoe, and his hair and mustache followed the color scheme exactly. His look was unique and distinctive, with an old-style pipe in his mouth, although in the hours they’d spent together, he’d yet to light it. He apparently considered it a distinguished-looking ornament rather than a functional item. Julia couldn’t be certain of the man’s age and estimated him to be near to fifty years old, but she would not have been surprised had his true age deviated fifteen or more years in either direction. His accent she could not place. He spoke English, French, and German easily, as did the others, moving between the languages throughout the course of their conversations, but in every language, his accent remained—not quite identifiable. Adding to the peculiarity of her new acquaintance, Julia thought Nicholas looked familiar, though she couldn’t say from where she might have known him. Perhaps their paths had crossed at one time in an art museum.
Or maybe they had taken the same train before. Try as she might, she couldn’t place him. An attendant approached, and Nicholas scooted his chair forward, giving the man more room to pass between himself and the stools bolted beneath the bar behind him. Nicholas and Herr Klausman had pulled the table away from its place beneath the window and set a chair on each side. The arrangement was much more conducive to a card game but less convenient to those walking past along the narrow aisle. After a moment of deliberation, Herr Klausman lay down a card. “Und at zeh Grand Exposition, you will also see the world’s largest wheel. Taller than one hundred meters, if you can believe it.” “Oh my.” Frau Maven touched her breastbone.
At last we are speaking of something interesting. Julia had anticipated riding in the Grande Roue since it was announced months earlier. “Yes,” she said. “When I left Paris in January, it was nearly fin—” “You will be quite overcome by zeh structure’s size, I believe, Miss Weston.” Herr Klausman continued as if he’d not heard her reply. Or, apparently, anything else she’d said, as this was not the first time in the past hours she’d mentioned she’d lived the majority of her life in Paris. He did seem rather less handsome the longer she was acquainted with the man. “Of course, it is much too frightening for a gentle young lady to ride inside such a dreadful creation.” Herr Klausman shook his head. “You would do well to avoid it.
” Julia narrowed her eyes. Why did people constantly underestimate her? She had every intention of riding the Grande Roue and, contrary to her earlier thoughts, would prefer not to enjoy Herr Klausman’s company as she did it. She turned her gaze out the window, watching the green fields and great mountains of Bavaria move past. In villages, red-roofed houses clustered around a tall church, while on their outskirts, halftimbered farm buildings with colorful shutters and wooden flower boxes sat among orderly looking fields. Occasionally, the train passed close enough that she could make out the details of a charming scene painted on the white stucco of an outer wall. In the late afternoon, the sun had begun to descend, and the countryside was bathed in a golden glow that made the scene look like a storybook picture. Frau Maven poked Julia with her elbow and motioned with a lift of her chin at the pile of cards in the center of the table. It is my turn. Julia brought her thoughts back to the game and studied her cards. She decided to make a safe play, laying down a low card and straightening the pile beneath it.
She and Herr Klausman would likely not win this round, but their points would remain steady. Though most took a risk in such games, Julia preferred to take a practical strategy, control what she could, and not make a venture that only might yield an advantage, because of course, in that existed risk of a loss as well. Nicholas tossed down a card. Julia did not straighten it on the pile, though she was sorely tempted. Herr Klausman’s brows pulled together for a moment, and he tapped his lip as he studied his hand. “But in spite of the atrocious iron blemish and the formidable wheel, you will love the city of lights, miss.” He decided on a card and played it. A safe play, Julia noted. “Paris in the springtime—it is marvelous,” Herr Klausman continued. “Zeh blossoms, zeh cuisine, zeh art.
You will be very pleased with your time there, I think.” “Quite so,” Julia replied. “As I mentioned earlier, my grand-mère lives on the Rue—” “I was very young when I came to Paris for zeh first time. A school lad traveling with my classmates . ” Julia frowned and looked at the watch on her wrist and then at the timepiece that hung from a ribbon around her neck. Night would fall soon, and still, five hours and seventeen minutes remained until Strasbourg and, from there, forty-four minutes to Igney-Avricourt. Covering her mouth against a yawn, she considered whether to send for tea. She couldn’t afford to fall asleep. She and Frau Maven would take an early dinner in the restaurant car, and then, with any luck, the older woman would retire for the night. Having her companion safely snoring in her berth was essential to Julia’s plan.
It was not that she particularly wished to deceive her traveling companion, but if she explained her intention, Frau Maven might forbid her from leaving the train, or worse, she might insist upon accompanying her, which would make the entire venture meaningless. The whole point was for Julia to do it herself. To show her father that she was capable of navigating train stations and reading timetables and traveling alone. She was nearly nineteen years old, after all. If he would have just listened to her argument, her father would have realized that Julia had traveled more than most young women ever would. She’d visited every art museum in every large city in both Europe and America. She’d even traveled to Toronto and St. Petersburg. The sound of her companions’ voices became more distant, and Julia’s chair became more comfortable. The constant rumbling of the engine and the gentle rocking of the train dulled her senses pleasantly.
Another poke from Frau Maven’s elbow jolted Julia from her stupor. “Oh, it is my turn again,” she muttered, sitting up. She blinked, looking at her cards, then to the stack and back. She set down a card, knowing since she hadn’t been watching the game, it had not a chance of being a good play. “As I was saying, Miss Weston.” Herr Klausman’s brow furrowed in irritation—understandable, as his partner had nearly fallen asleep in the middle of his story and had played an abominable game. “Paris is a large city. It can be . overwhelming. An escort will be very helpful.
” “How thoughtful.” Frau Maven nodded. Julia sighed, not bothering to correct him again. “Yes, I do appreciate the offer, Herr Klaus—” Nicholas coughed loudly, interrupting her. He held his pipe in one hand and covered his mouth with the other, turning slightly so only Julia could see a hint of a smile on his lips. He gave her a small wink, then held up a finger. “A splendid idea, sir. Vith her years of living in zeh city, Miss Veston vould indeed make an excellent tour guide.” Nicholas looked at Julia for a moment, his head tipping thoughtfully, then turned back to the confused-looking Herr Klausman. Nicholas then looked at a silver pocket watch and shook his head.
“No. Zis vill not do at all,” he muttered in a low voice. Julia wondered if she’d heard him correctly. A strange man indeed. Nicholas returned the pocket watch to his waistcoat, flipped over a card, and tossed it onto the stack without a glance. “Zaht, I believe is zeh game,” he said. “Oh, well done, sir!” Frau Maven clapped her hands as the pair won again. “You do have a skill for cards.” Nicholas did not respond, as he was already pushing back from the table. He gave a bow, putting on his hat and tipping it to the ladies.
“Perhaps you vill join me for a drink and a smoke before dinner, Herr Klausman.” “Ja, of course.” The other man looked surprised at the sudden termination of the game. He stood, still holding his cards, and bowed to the ladies as well. “I will see you at dinner, then, miss?” Perhaps when Herr Klausman’s mouth was filled with food, Julia might actually have a chance to participate in the conversation. “That would be—” Julia began. But Nicholas had already turned Herr Klausman around. He took the cards from the man’s hand, set them on the table, and then gave him a firm pat on the shoulder that appeared to be more of a push. Herr Klausman turned back once more, but Nicholas, hand still on his shoulder, maneuvered him toward the end of the lounge car. The two walked at a quick pace through the door leading to the next car.
Julia stared after them, trying to understand the reason for the suddenness of the departure. “Nicholas is terribly eccentric, isn’t he?” she said to the other woman. “Such fine men.” Frau Maven fidgeted with her scarf, her cheeks pink. She didn’t appear to have heard Julia’s assessment. She rose. “Come along. We must dress for dinner.”