His fingers danced across the keys, his left hand making great leaps up the keyboard whilst his right coaxed out the melody with exquisite tenderness; and he poured his soul out into the music, as he always did. It was dishonest, almost blasphemous, he would often say, to play without giving oneself utterly to the performance. “You cannot,” he told his young pupils, “perform music with half a heart. It must be all – or nothing!”
And so he played, opening himself up to the music, letting himself be drawn in until the soul was entirely subjugated to the performance. But this was not without risk, of course, and as he struck the final chords, he found his thoughts drifting nostalgically back through the years.
“Less of that,” he grumbled to himself and, putting aside the Scriabin etude, took up a different piece, one he had neglected a little in recent years. But as he shook out the Liszt, propped it up and began to work his way slowly through the chords, the trills and tremolos, he found his hands fitting their patterns with almost effortless ease, as though it had been barely a week since last he played it. What a strange happening, he thought, and then he lost himself in the music, letting it wash over him. The Grande Etude No. 12! The music he had fallen in love to. It was impossible to separate the music from the memories, and he did not try to prevent it but, as always when he played this piece, he let the years roll back until he saw her again.
He watched her as she crossed the courtyard, her steps graceful yet firm. The sun glinted down and inflamed her red-gold hair, spilling across it in shards of fire. How he loved to watch her! Her elegant carriage, her slender waist, so perfectly fitted into her dull green dress, so tiny that he was sure he could easily encircle it with his hands – should he ever get the chance.
She looked up as their paths crossed, and her glittering grey eyes met his dark ones. His stomach gave a jolt as she smiled at him and glanced down with reticence, her lashes veiling her tender eyes.
“Fräulein Hoffmann,” he greeted her, bowing as civilly as he could manage with his heart thumping thus behind his breastbone, and she gave a little curtsey as she replied, decorously,
She passed on, and his eyes followed her as she departed. What a figure – what a beauty! Suddenly, she glanced back over her shoulder, and his heart leapt within him as he saw her lustrous eye, so full of emotion, and beheld the charming blush that broke out across her delicate cheeks as she caught his eye. She ducked her head swiftly, coyly, and hurried on her way and he, suddenly elated, continued more slowly along his; and his head was swimming with delight and every step he took was charged with a new life.
He sighed reminiscently, a smile on his lips. Amelia. What a beauty! He had loved her. And where was she now? Her lessons at the Conservatoire had ceased; eventually he had learned that her father had been posted abroad and had taken his family with him. She had not even had the chance to bid him farewell before she left. Oh! How he had pined! He chuckled to remember it. Poor, unseasoned youth, so sensitive, so delicate – hopes, like the tender butterfly, snuffed out with the merest breath of cold wind!
But Amelia! Without a doubt the most beautiful girl that he had ever met. She was probably Frau Someone-Or-Other by now, with a hoard of red-haired children – grandchildren, even! That red-gold hair that burned like flame would be dulled with grey, the fine white skin scored with wrinkles. But she would still be as beautiful as that day, the day he had fallen in love with her.
He smiled, but ruefully, this time, regretfully. She may have been the one he loved best, but she had not been the only one, nor had she been the first. Youth was varied in its sensibilities; the heart changed at a moment’s notice and gave no warning, brooked no opposition. For most, this mad pattern eased with maturity, as they grew constant with age and settled down, their hearts steadying and their lives quietening, but not him. He had been fickle, capricious, unable to settle, always moving on - until now, in his dotage, he had finally returned home.
He leaned back and reflected on the years gone by. Now who had been his first love? Luzie, he supposed, though he had let her go without much of a struggle. What sweet, tender innocence! He, seventeen, bound for the Vienna Conservatoire; she, sixteen and a blossoming flower of a girl, with her peach complexion, corn-fair hair and her eyes – such eyes!
A startling blue, they were – he would have compared them to a sapphire had he ever seen one. Instead, he told her they were the colour of the lake, the bright Tiernsee in the height of brilliant June – and she giggled, and blushed, and swatted his arm and told him not to be such a flatterer.
“But,” he had insisted, “they are, Luzie! Now, promise me something.”
“What?” she had asked, her cheeks all roses, her face all smiles.
“While I’m away,” he told her, “you mustn’t open your eyes. Not once!”
“But…Karl!” she had exclaimed, those devastating eyes wide open and gazing at him, horrified. “Whyever not?”
He bit down on the smile that teased the edges of his lips, and looked at her as seriously as he could.
“Because if you look at any man with those beautiful eyes of yours, he will fall in love with you instantly! And I will be jealous, and I’ll strike his head off – indeed, I will!”
“But…” She broke off speaking as she realised the joke. “Oh, Karl! You are laughing at me!”
He chuckled. “Only a little,” he admitted. “But I think that by the time I come back from the Conservatoire, someone will have snatched you up, Luzie. I only wish it could be me – but I’ve no money, no prospects…”
“There’s your music!” she protested vehemently, and he smiled.
“Well, yes, there’s that. But I have nothing to offer now, and your father won’t agree. And I doubt you’ll wait around,” he added, his eyes twinkling warmly.
“Oh, I will!” She caught his arm, her wide eyes seeking out his own. “I’ll wait, if you want me to, Karl!”
But he shook his head. “We’re too young,” he protested. “Let me go, live your life as you wish, and don’t wait for me. If I come back and you’ve another sweetheart, I won’t hold it against you, Luzie. You’ve a right to be happy, and I can’t make you happy, not yet. Maybe, in five years, ten years…”
“Ten years!” she cried, dismayed, but he nodded confirmation.
“I will still be studying for several years, and then I will have to find a post, save up money. It will be hard.”
“I’ll stand by you,” she affirmed, clinging to his arm, but he disentangled her gently.
“No,” he told her. “You must live, while you are young! If nothing…if no-one comes your way…well, if you are still free when I return, then…well, we’ll see what happens. But promise me that you won’t hold yourself back, just because of me.”
She sighed, and kicked her heels.
“Oh, very well,” she said eventually. “I promise. But you must promise that you’ll come back for me, if you love me enough?”
Her eyes appealed to him, and he smiled at her tenderly.
“I swear I shall come a-courting you again, Luzie Schreiner,” he answered her, his eyes sparkling. “Just you wait and see!”
But when he returned home after two years in Vienna, it was not Luzie Schreiner but Frau Gerste who opened the door to him. She smiled at him, slightly embarrassed, afraid that he was very much hurt. He hadn’t been, of course. By then, he had fallen in love with Amelia.
That had been the way of his youth. Each week a new girl, from Hedda, the pretty barmaid at his favourite watering hole, to the delicate Fräulein Weissman, whose father owned the department store on the Karntnerstrasse and who drove out in an elegant victoria, turning her gentle smile upon him whenever she passed the Conservatoire and he just happened to be lurking outside. Yes, there had been many women, many beautiful girls and ladies whom he had taken to his heart in those, his far-off days of youth. Mostly it had been dinner, music, a press of the hand and goodnight – but sometimes he had got lucky.
He shook his head, put away the Liszt, and took out his Bach instead and, very much to his amusement, the rolling pattern of the fugue drew another memory from deep within him.
“Stop doing that!”
“Stop! You’re tickling me!”
She rolled over and looked up at him, her cheeks flushed and her eyes sleepy with pleasure. Propping himself on one elbow, he gazed down at her and as she smiled up at him he reached out and with one finger tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. God, but she was lovely! A strong face, sharply-boned and bold, with dark eyes and a determined chin; her eyes glittered electrically, her dark curls fanned out upon the pillow, glinting redly in the candlelight. What a girl Johanna was! She knew what she wanted and how to get it; at the moment what she wanted was him, and he was more than happy to oblige her.
“Karl…” she began, and her voice changed, grew subtle, persuasive. He knew that tone and he sighed inwardly, anticipating the question that hovered behind those moistly pink lips.
“I wish you didn’t have to go tomorrow,” she complained, raising herself up to look at him, the sheet slipping from her silky breasts and crumpling at her hips. “Can’t you stay a little longer? Just one more week.”
He flopped back onto the bed and shut his eyes tiredly.
“You won’t have to find new lodgings – you can stay here, with me.” Her smile was enticing; she wriggled a little higher, so the sheet slid further down her slender waist.
“I can’t!” he protested, opening his eyes and looking up at her.
“But…” she pouted. “We have fun, don’t we?”
“Then don’t you want more?”
“It’s not that – you know it’s not that!”
She was looking sullen, hurt, entreating; he reached up to touch her cheek and she looked slightly mollified, but still dissatisfied.
“Don’t I make you happy?” she asked in injured tones, and he rolled his eyes at her scheming.
“Of course you do,” he replied, sitting up and taking her by the waist, trying to kiss her, but she pulled back.
“You know I cannot!”
She drew away from him, frowning in anger.
“You cannot? You mean you won’t! You won’t stay because that dratted piano means more to you than I do!”
“Don’t you ‘Johanna’ me!” She scowled at him and tossed herself away, turning emphatically to the wall.
He lay back and sighed. Manipulative bitch! He knew all her tricks by now, especially this, her habitual flounce, to which he was treated at least once a week. Usually he liked to play along – the reward at the end was always sweeter for the preceding acrimony. But he was damned if he was giving in this time.
“I’m going, whether you like it or not,” he told her back, “so you can either get used to it, and help me make these last few hours fun for both of us, or I’ll go off to Magda’s and see whether Richter and the rest can’t give me a better time than you and your sulking.”
She gasped and flounced back over to face him, her eyes and mouth wide in shock. The sight made him laugh, and she sat up and slapped him across the cheek – or she would have done, had he not anticipated her and caught her wrist, forcing her back down to the bed and looming over her threateningly, wrist still in his grasp.
For a moment she stared up at him, struggling against his strength, and then she gave a sigh of pleasure and her eyes filled with lust.
“I do love it when you get angry,” she murmured hoarsely, and pulled him down to kiss her.
“I know you have to go,” she admitted when she released him, sounding slightly rueful. “But I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too. I’ll miss your lovely voice.”
“I’ll miss your playing.”
“I’ll come back.”
“But I won’t have anyone to play for me in the meantime,” she protested coyly, moving slightly beneath him.
“I’m sure you’ll find someone,” he countered, and she laughed, a lovely sound.
“Maybe. Would that upset you?”
“I’d like it if it upset you,” she mused. “I do think that jealousy is such an attractive trait in a man.”
“Well, then,” he replied, bending to kiss her again, “I shall be insane with jealousy, just for you.”
“Will you play for me now?” she requested, smiling up at him in a suggestive manner.
“By all means,” he answered, a wicked gleam in his eye, and he turned her until she lay facing the wall, and ran his long fingers across her side.
“What are you playing?” she asked him after a moment.
“It’s the Schubert Impromptu I’ve been playing all week. Do you like it? Do you think my technique has improved?”
“Mm. Yes! What a musician you are, Karl!”
He stroked her lithe body with his sensitive fingers, playing her skin as though it were a keyboard, and she murmured and cooed her appreciation, giggling as he reached her upper thigh and sighing as he moved in, turning her back to face him as his fingers drew out the last few chords in her most sensitive places. As he finished, he leaned in and said,
“Now that I have played for you, my dear, will you sing for me?”
“Oh, yes!” she gasped. “Yes, I will!”
He smiled appreciatively at that memory. Of course, by the time he returned six months later, Johanna was off with another fellow – a German, Lossow by name. Unsurprised, he had wished them well and gone on his way with some relief. Oh, she was fun, but so demanding! Too demanding for him. He wasn’t jealous – he’d never loved her.
Still, it couldn’t have been much fun for her – Lossow was a Prussian, after all. It hadn’t lasted.
He had kept track of her – not hard, in their profession – and the last he had heard was that she’d landed a place in Wien, and the Staatsoper, under Direktor Mahler. Possibly literally, if the rumours were true! She did love a good intrigue, dear Johanna, especially of the romantic sort. She must have retired from the stage by now, but he had no doubt that she’d still be scheming away as much as ever she had.
Ah, Johanna! Bless her and her vigour! Much more like today’s modern women than one of her own time. He had approved of her spirit, even though it was hard to handle at times. She reminded him of the music of Beethoven – passionate, electrifying, extraordinary.
Thus reminded of Beethoven, he got up from the piano and went across to his shelves, rummaging through the scores until he found the book he wanted – a volume of the great man’s sonatas. He had not had this out for some time now, he realised as he dusted off its spine – and then some loose leaves slipped from inside and scattered across the floor. With a grunt he stooped to gather them, and found he was holding the Kreutzer sonata. No – it was just the violin part. He stared down at it, dumbstruck.
Jaroslav had the piano part, he thought. It had been the Bohemian man’s idea to exchange parts, which they had done in a solemn ceremony, for each was giving the other something into which he had poured his heart and soul, knowing that this was as much as they could give to each other, as much as they dared give each other. And yet it was so much, for what were bodies when compared with hearts, minds, souls?
He sighed, deeply, achingly. He had kept that score on his desk, propped up so he could see it, all the time he had been in Salzburg and Jaroslav had been in Italy, far away from him. Eventually, when it dawned on him that Jaroslav was not returning, he had taken it and hidden it away, tucked inside this volume of Beethoven, and there it had lain undisturbed for years until today – until he had dislodged it and sent its yellowed aged pages tumbling across his floor.
Jaroslav. Graceful as a cat, and as dark and agile, every movement flavoured with a tender delicacy. He recalled his slender form, always dressed in the most elegant attire, and his long, sensitive fingers – his hands, like a woman’s, caressing his violin as he played – ah! sweet, sublime music! His sharp wit, his caustic tongue, his bumptious arrogance which would have him bristling like an angry cat, before it gave way to gracious humour. If he shut his eyes, he could see him so clearly, as if it was yesterday that they had left the practice room that last time, after their solemn ceremony, when Jaroslav had packed up his violin in its leather case, folded away his music, clasped hands with him and departed.
Oh, sweet serenity! At the time he had felt such shame for feeling as he did, and those precious moments with Jaroslav had somehow been tainted with his guilt at how much pleasure they gave him, how much he wanted more. Now he could look back and smile.
“I hope you are happy, old friend,” he murmured to the air, and then, his appetite for Beethoven gone, he replaced the sonata in the volume and returned it to its place, before sinking into his armchair and falling into a reverie.
He dreamed of Amelia, of Johanna and of Jaroslav, and all the others, the affairs, the flirtations, the romances and the lovers. Not one of them had tied him down; he had never loved any enough for that. And now, old and alone, he thought back to his various companions that had come and gone, and smiled at the memories.
A rattle at the door disturbed his reveries, and the bustle of Marta the maid as she entered the music room shattered them entirely. She bobbed a little curtsey.
“If you please, sir, it’s Frau Gerste.”
“Frau Gerste?” he rumbled, levering himself out of the chair. She appeared moments later, a beaming smile on her broad, bonny face; her eyes, their sapphire tint not dulled with age, shone brightly with pleasure. She held out both hands to him.
“Luzie!” he beamed back, taking her hands in his. “And how is Stefan?”
“Oh, well, quite well. His rheumatism still troubles him,” she added, and he clucked in sympathy and waved her to a chair.
“And Josef? Friedel?”
“Both in excellent health,” their mother smiled. “They asked to be remembered to their Onkel Karl!”
“Ha!” he grunted. “They are good boys. And your grandchildren?”
“Bonnier every day,” was Luzie’s warm response. “When Friedel and Greta come up from Innsbruck, we’ll come over for tea, shall we? You can tell them more of your fairy stories!”
"Yes, I should like that," he responded, gruffly. "Indeed I should."
"They will, too," she told him merrily, as Marta brought in coffee and cakes and placed them on the small table before him. "They always say that no-one can tell stories quite like Onkel Karl."
"Hmph," he replied, but he was secretly pleased, and as Luzie began to chatter about little Rolf, Elke, Ada and baby Karl, he settled back in his chair and let the warm feeling wash over him. Yes, he may not have married, may not have children of his own, but he had friends, many friends – and he still had a family. Whatever else he was, he was certainly not alone.
And when Luzie had gone, leaving a promise of dinner at the Gerstes' later that week, he got up and went back over to his music case and withdrew the violin part of the Kreutzer sonata that had lain hidden there for so long. He held it for a few moments, remembering, and then he carried it with him, upstairs, and placed it on the chest of drawers in his bedroom, where he could see it of an evening as he lay in bed.
"No shame," he murmured to himself, and then he turned and went back downstairs to his piano.