House of Gold by Natasha Solomons

'As Greta grew, so did the trouble'. House of Gold is a story of war, power and family from Natasha Solomons.

Vienna, April

The Goldbaum Palace was made of stone, not gold. Children walking along the Heugasse, buttoned smartly into their coats and hand-in-hand with Nanny or Mutti, were invariably disappointed. They’d been promised a palace belonging to the Prince of the Jews, spun out of ivory and gold and presumably studded with jewels, and here instead was simply a vast house built of ordinary white stone. Though it was the very finest limestone in the whole of Austria, and had been transported from the Alps to Vienna along a railway line constructed thanks to a loan from the Goldbaum Bank, and hauled by an engine and train owned by the Goldbaum Railway Company, painted resplendently in the family colours of blue and gold and adorned with the family crest: five goldfinches alighting on a sycamore branch. (Wits liked to refer to the coat of arms as ‘the birds in the money tree’.) Inside, the great hall was gilded from the wainscot to the highest point of the domed roof, so that even on gloomy days the light it reflected brimmed with sunshine. Such was the power and wealth of the Goldbaums that on dull days, it was said, they hired the sun, just for themselves.

At night every window was lit with electric light and the house shone out like a great ocean liner buoyed along the Vienna streets. Sometimes at the grandest parties they released hundreds of goldfinches into the hall, so that they warbled and fluttered above the guests. (The birds were accompanied by an extra two dozen maids whose sole task for the evening was to wipe up the tiny spatters of bird-shit the moment they appeared on the marble floor; there were limits, it appeared, even to the power of the Goldbaums.) All the same, little happened in the capital and beyond without their say-so, and even less without their knowing it. The Emperor himself despised and endured the Goldbaums like inclement weather. There was nothing that could be done. They owned his debt.

The palace on Heugasse was merely the expression of their influence. The real source of their wealth was a small, unobtrusive building on the Ringstrasse. Behind the black door lay the House of Gold: the Austrian branch of the family bank. The Goldbaum men were bankers, while the Goldbaum women married Goldbaum men and produced Goldbaum children. Yet the family didn’t consider themselves solely a dynasty of bankers, but also a dynasty of collectors.

House of Gold

As Greta grew, so did the trouble. She borrowed Otto’s clothes and disappeared for a picnic beside the river, where she was discovered sharing a cigarillo with a pair of lieutenants.

The Goldbaums liked to collect beautiful things: exquisite Louis XIV furniture, paintings by Rembrandt, da Vinci and Vermeer, and then the great manors, chateaux and castles to put them in. They collected jewellery, Fabergé eggs, automobiles, racehorses – and the obligations of prime ministers. Greta Goldbaum followed in the family tradition. She collected trouble. This was the trait that Otto Goldbaum most valued in his sister. Before her arrival, his mother had visited the nursery, wallowing in state on a chair reserved especially for this purpose and, with the assistance of his favourite nanny, explained that in a few weeks’ time he would be joined by a little brother or sister. They sipped hot chocolate from a miniature china tea service adorned with the family crest in twenty-four carat gold, and nibbled tiny slices of Sachertorte dabbed with swirls of blue and pink, ordered especially from the grand hotel. Otto listened in silence, watching with considerable suspicion the rise and fall of the Baroness’s vast belly. And yet when, four weeks later, Greta appeared in the nursery with her own fleet of starched nursemaids, he was not put out in the least. For the first time in his three years Otto had an ally. Greta certainly seemed to belong more fully to him than to the parents who lived downstairs. The Baroness was considered an extremely dedicated mother by visiting the new baby almost every day, while Otto was still summoned to luncheon with the Baron and Baroness at least twice each week. He listened to the cries and gurgles of his sister through the walls and, when the nurses slept, crept in to lie on floor of her night nursery. He did this so often that the nurses gave up either berating him or carrying him back to his own bed and set up a little cot for Otto beside her crib.

Greta was not a favourite with the nurses. They could never make her look smart for Mama during her visits. Her hair would not lie flat, like Otto’s, but popped up around her head in disordered curls. The rubbed patch at the back, like a monk’s round tonsure, did not grow back until she was nearly two. She usually had a cold. As she grew older the maids delighted in telling her, ‘If you weren’t a Goldbaum, you’d be given a proper hiding.’ Greta told Otto in that case she was frightfully glad she was a Goldbaum, but she felt terribly sorry for all the children who weren’t, as it seemed that they must spend much of their time being beaten for petty crimes (melting soap on the nursery fire to make modelling clay; hiding unwanted food at the back of the toy cupboard until it was found weeks later, festering; removing the saddle from the rocking horse and fixing it to Papa’s favourite bloodhound and riding the dog around the tulip beds). Greta was frequently sent to bed with nothing to eat but bread and milk. None of this mattered. She had Otto.

His character ran counter to his sister’s. Where Greta was impulsive, Otto was careful. She talked and he listened. His hair was perfectly smooth, his parting immaculately combed. Where Greta was in constant motion, Otto possessed a stillness that often unsettled his contemporaries, although he did not consider himself quiet, since his thoughts were so loud, his mind always restless and busy. It took Otto time to reach a decision but, once he had done so, he acted decisively. He was of average height and slim, but he fenced and boxed with skill, taking pleasure in the exercise and in anticipating his opponent’s game. He considered both pursuits to contain the perfect blend of brutality and elegance.

As Greta grew, so did the trouble. She borrowed Otto’s clothes and disappeared for a picnic beside the river, where she was discovered sharing a cigarillo with a pair of lieutenants. She persuaded Otto to take her to the university so that she could listen to one of the astronomy lectures he attended. Otto decided that she looked like a bird of paradise roosting amongst the thrushes, in her bright-blue coat and hat, sitting amid a hundred men in brown and grey suits. He asked her if she liked the lecture. ‘Adored it. Didn’t understand a word.’ Greta went every day for a week, saying it helped her sleep magnificently. She secured clandestine lessons on the trumpet and became rather good, before the Baroness discovered her and put a stop to it. Piano, harp or, at a push, the violin was deemed sufficiently demure. Wind instruments were far too louche; all that work with the embouchure. The very word made the Baroness blush. Otto developed a spontaneous interest in the trumpet. Another tutor was procured. Otto surreptitiously shared his lessons with his sister and pretended the practice was his. Greta, however, lost interest. Trumpet voluntaries were only fun when they were illicit. Otto accepted that one of his tasks in life was to help his sister out of mischief. For twenty years this had been a source of pride and pleasure to him, and of only occasional exasperation.

If anyone had asked Greta if she wanted to marry Albert Goldbaum, she would have said no, certainly not. But no one did ask. Not even her mother. They asked her all sorts of other things. Which blooms would she like in her bouquet. Roses or lilies? Did she want ten bridesmaids or twelve? Greta replied that she was quite indifferent to the number of bridesmaids. Her only stipulation was an assortment of footmen carrying white umbrellas. Her mother paused for a moment. ‘Supposing it doesn’t rain?’ ‘Of course it will rain,’ Greta replied, ‘I’m going  to England.’

Greta knew that Baroness Emmeline was tormented by the prospect of appearing inappropriately attired. Three cloaks were to be made to match Greta’s wedding dress: one of arctic fur, one of the finest lambswool and another of silk and lace. The Baroness insisted that a lady must always have a choice and be prepared for the unexpected, in matters pertaining to the wardrobe at the very least. She invariably travelled with at least three pairs of spare shoes in the trunk of the automobile: a pair of stout leather boots, should the weather turn; a pair of elegant shoes to change into afterwards; and a pair of satin slippers, just in case. In case of what, Greta never could ascertain.

She offered no further opinion on the wedding preparations. She acquiesced to every suggestion with such pointed apathy that the Baroness ceased to consult her. This suited Greta perfectly. She visited her friends and drank coffee, and changed the subject if any of them were tactless enough to raise the topic of her looming nuptials. The wedding was an unpleasantness to be endured, and for a while it was sufficiently far away that she could pretend it was not happening at all. It stalked her, though, through her dreams. Her fear was indistinct and sinister, something nameless to be dreaded. Only it did have a name. Albert.

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