Chapter no 46 – Vienna

All the Light We Cannot See

Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel is forty-one years old, not so old that he cannot be promoted. He has moist red lips; pale, almost translucent cheeks like fillets of raw sole; and an instinct for correctness that rarely fails him. He has a wife who suffers his absences without complaint, and who arranges porcelain kittens by color, lightest to darkest, on two different shelves in their drawing room in Stuttgart. He also has two daughters whom he has not seen in nine months. The eldest, Veronika, is deeply earnest. Her letters to him include phrases like sacred resolve, proud accomplishments, and unparalleled in history.

Von Rumpel’s particular gift is for diamonds: he can facet and polish stones as well as any Aryan jeweler in Europe, and he often spots fakes at a glance. He studied crystallography in Munich, apprenticed as a polisher in Antwerp, has even been—one glorious afternoon—to Charterhouse Street in London, to an unmarked diamond house, where he was asked to turn out his pockets and ushered up three staircases and through three locked doors and seated at a table where a man with a mustache waxed to knifepoints let him examine a ninety-two-carat raw diamond from South Africa.

Before the war, the life of Reinhold von Rumpel was pleasant enough: he was a gemologist who ran an appraisal business out of a second-story shop behind Stuttgart’s old chancellery. Clients would bring in stones and he’d tell them what they were worth. Sometimes he’d recut diamonds or consult on high-level faceting projects. If occasionally he cheated a customer, he told himself that was part of the game.

Because of the war, his job has expanded. Now Sergeant Major von Rumpel has the chance to do what no one has done in centuries—not since the Mogul Dynasty, not since the Khans. Perhaps not in history. The capitulation of France is only weeks past, and already he has seen things he did not dream he would see in six lifetimes. A seventeenth-century globe as big around as a small car, with rubies to mark volcanoes, sapphires clustered at the poles, and diamonds for world capitals. He has held—held!—a dagger handle at least four hundred

years old, made of white jade and inlaid with emeralds. Just yesterday, on the road to Vienna, he took possession of a five-hundred-and-seventy-piece china set with a single marquise-cut diamond set into the rim of every single dish. Where the police confiscated these treasures and from whom, he does not ask. Already he has personally packed them into a crate and belted it shut and numbered it with white paint and seen it loaded inside a train car where it sits under twenty-four-hour guard.

Waiting to be sent to high command. Waiting for more.

This particular summer afternoon, in a dusty geological library in Vienna, Sergeant Major von Rumpel follows an underweight secretary wearing brown shoes, brown stockings, a brown skirt, and a brown blouse through stacks of periodicals. The secretary sets down a stepstool, climbs, reaches.

Tavernier’s 1676 Travels in India.

P. S. Pallas’s 1793 Travels Through the Southern Provinces of the Russian Empire.

Streeter’s 1898 Precious Stones and Gems.

Rumor is that the führer is compiling a wish list of precious objects from all around Europe and Russia. They say he intends to remake the Austrian town of Linz into an empyrean city, the cultural capital of the world. A vast promenade, mausoleum, acropolis, planetarium, library, opera house—everything marble and granite, everything profoundly clean. At its core, he plans a kilometer-long museum: a trove of the greatest achievements in human culture.

The document is real, von Rumpel has heard. Four hundred pages.

He sits at a table in the stacks. He tries to cross his legs but a slight swelling troubles his groin today: odd, though not painful. The mousy librarian brings books. He pages slowly through the Tavernier, the Streeter, Murray’s Sketches of Persia. He reads entries on the three-hundred-carat Orloff diamond from Moscow, the Nur-al-Ain, the forty-eight-and-a-half-carat Dresden Green. Toward evening, he finds it. The story of a prince who could not be killed, a priest who warned of a goddess’s wrath, a French prelate who believed he’d bought the same stone centuries later.

Sea of Flames. Grayish blue with a red hue at its center. Recorded at one hundred and thirty-three carats. Either lost or willed to the king of France in 1738 on the condition that it be locked away for two hundred years.

He looks up. Suspended lamps, rows of spines fading off into dusty gold. All of Europe, and he aims to find one pebble tucked inside its folds.

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