Violin, p.12

Violin, page 12

 

Violin
 



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  "Miss Hardy, I'm sleepy and dull-witted. Bear with me. Who is this we're talking about?"

  "Your violinist friend. I had no idea you even knew the man. As I said, to ask you to come out at a time like this is not something I would do, but he said you would want to come."

  "And where is that, I mean, I'm not clear, forgive me."

  "The Chapel around the block, tonight. For the little concert."

  "Ah." I sat back.

  The Chapel.

  With a shock I saw all the familiar objects of the Chapel, as if a sudden discharge of memory had let loose details irretrievable until now--the Chapel. I saw it, not as it was now after the Vatican Council II and a radical remodeling, but as it had been in the old days, when we went there to Mass together. When Mother took us, Roz and me, hand in hand.

  I must have looked perplexed. I heard the singing in Latin.

  "Triana, if this upsets you, I'll simply tell him that it's too soon for you to be going out."

  "He's going to play in the Chapel?" I asked. "Tonight." I nodded with her in confirmation. "A little concert? A recital, sort of."

  "Yes, for the benefit of the building. You know how bad the building is. It needs paint, it needs a new roof. You know all that. It was all rather astonishing. He simply walked into the Preservation Guild office and said he was willing to do it. Have a concert with all proceeds for the building. We'd never heard of him. But how he plays! Only a Russian could play like that. Of course he says he is an emigre. He never lived in Russia as it is now, which is quite obvious, he's quite the European, really, but only a Russian could play like that."

  "What is his name?"

  She was surprised. "I thought you knew him," she said, softening her voice, knitting her brows with concern. "Excuse me, Triana. He told us that you knew him."

  "I do, I know him very well. I think it's wonderful that he'll play at the Chapel. But I don't know his name."

  "Stefan Stefanovsky," she said carefully. "I memorized it, I wrote it down, went over the spelling with him. Russian names." She repeated it, said it in a simple unadorned way, with the accent on the first syllable of Stefan. The man had an undeniable charm, with or without the violin. Very distinctive dark eyebrows, very straight across, eccentric hair, at least in these days, for a classical musician.

  I smiled. "It is all changed now. The longhairs are the rock stars, not the longhairs anymore, how odd. And you know the strange thing is when I look back on all the concerts I've ever attended--even the very first--it was Isaac Stern, you know--I don't remember longhairs having any long hair."

  I was worrying her.

  "I'm delighted," I said gathering my thoughts. "So you thought him handsome?"

  "Oh, everyone swooned when he walked in the door! Such a dramatic demeanor. And then the accent, and when he just raised the violin and bow and began to play. I think he stopped traffic outside."

  I laughed.

  "It was something very different he played for us," she said, "from what he played--" Politely she stopped, and lowered her eyes.

  "... on the night you found me here, with Karl," I said.

  "Yes."

  "That was beautiful music."

  "Yes, I suppose it was, and I really didn't hear it, so to speak."

  "Understandable."

  She was suddenly confused, doubtful about the propriety or wisdom of this.

  "After he played, he spoke very highly of you, said you truly were the rare person who understood his music. And this to a room of fainting women of all ages, including half the Junior League."

  I laughed. It wasn't merely to put her at ease. It was the image of the women, young and old, being swept off their feet by this phantom.

  My, but this was a stunning shock, this turn of events. This invitation.

  "What time tonight, Miss Hardy?" I asked. "What time will he play? I don't intend to miss this."

  She stared at me for a moment in lingering discomfort and then with great relief plunged into the details.

  I left for the concert at five minutes before the time.

  IT WAS dark, of course, it being the season for darkness at eight o'clock, yet there was no rain tonight and only a friendly, gentle air, almost warm.

  I walked out my own gate, turned left at the corner of Third and walked slowly all the way back to Prytania Street on the old, broken brick sidewalks, treasuring every bump, every hole, every hazard. My heart was thumping. In fact, I was so full of anticipation I could scarcely stand it. The last few hours had dragged and I had thought only of him.

  I'd even dressed for him! How stupid. Of course for me that only meant a better white ruffled blouse with more and finer lace, and a better black silk skirt to the ankles and a light sleeveless tunic of black velvet. The better Triana Uniform. That's all it meant. And my hair loose and clean. That's all.

  A dim street lamp burned ahead of me as I approached the end of the block, making the darkness all the more oppressive around me, and for the first time I realized there was no oak any longer on the corner of Third and Prytania!

  It must have been years since I had walked back this block, stood here. There had been an oak, surely, because I could remember the streetlamp shining through it, down on the high black iron fence and on the grass. Strong, hefty, black oak branches, twisted and not so very thick, not so heavy as to fall down.

  Who has done this to you? I spoke to the earth, the broken place in the bricks. I saw it now, where the oak had been, but all roots were gone. It was only earth, the inevitable earth. Who took this tree that might have lived for centuries?

  Ahead, across Prytania, the deeper regions of the Garden District seemed hollow and black and empty, their mansions folded up and latched.

  But to the left of me, on Prytania, before the Chapel there were bright lights, and I could hear a very agreeable mingling of cheerful voices.

  Only the Chapel occupied this corner lot, just as my house occupied the corner lot facing St. Charles Avenue far away and directly behind, past cherry laurels and oaks and wild grass, past bamboo and oleander.

  The Chapel was the bottom floor of a great house, much larger and finer than my own. It was a house just as old as mine, and born infinitely more grand, of masonry and trimmed in very fancy ironwork.

  It had had once--most certainly--the classic center hall with parlors on either side, but that had all been changed long before I was born. The whole first floor had been hollowed out, dressed with statues and holy pictures and a gorgeous white trimmed altar. A tabernacle of gold. What else? Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a Russian icon.

  That was the Blessed Mother to whom we had brought our flowers.

  Ironic, that, but absolutely of no significance.

  Of course, he knew how much I had loved this place, this building, this garden, this fence, the Chapel itself, and he knew all about the little wilting handful of flowers on the Altar Rail, stems broken by our little hands, the little bouquets that we would leave during our evening walks, Rosalind and Mother and I, before the war ended, before Katrinka and Faye came, before the drinking came. Before Death came. Before Fear came. Before Sorrow.

  He knew. He knew how it had been--this great massive house which still looked on the outside like a grand home, its front porches parallel and broad, its colonnettes made of iron, its twin chimneys straight and firm atop the high gable of the third floor in that unmistakable New Orleans pattern.

  Chimneys floating together under the stars. Chimneys for fireplaces long gone, perhaps.

  In those upstairs rooms, my Mother had gone to school as a girl. In the Chapel itself, my Mother's coffin had lain on the bier. In the Chapel alone, I had played the organ in the dark, on summer nights, when the priests let me lock up, and no one was there. I tried and tried to make music.

  Only the Blessed Sacrament could have been so patient with the miserable broken bits of song I played, the chords, the hymns I tried to learn with some vague promise that I could one day play if and when the organ lady
would allow, but which never happened because I never got good enough and was never brave enough even to attempt it.

  The Garden District ladies always wore such pretty hats to Mass. I think we were the only ones who wore kerchiefs like peasants.

  It didn't take a death to make me remember, a funeral to make me cherish, or even the sweet twilight visits with flowers in our hands, or the picture of Mother with only a few other girls, rare high school graduates for that time--bobbed hair and white stockings--standing with their bouquets to the left of this very gate.

  Who ever prayed in that old Chapel who didn't remember it?

  That old Catholicism was never without the scent of pure beeswax candles, and the incense that lingered forever in any church where the Monstrance had been held high, and there had been sweet-faced saints in the shadows then, artists of pain like St. Rita with the wound in her forehead, and Christ's dreadful journey to Calvary marked in the Stations on the walls.

  The Rosary wasn't rote prayer, but a chant through which we pictured the suffering Christ. The Prayer of Quiet meant to sit very still in the pew, clear the mind, let God speak directly to you. I knew the Latin of the Ordinary of the Mass by heart. I knew what the hymns meant.

  All that had been swept away. Vatican II.

  But a Chapel still it was, for Catholics who prayed now in English.

  I had come to it only once in its modern style--for a wedding three or four years ago. Everything I held dear had been taken away. The Little Infant Jesus of Prague in his golden crown was no more.

  Ah, but you have a motive in this. How you honor me. A concert for my benefit in this, of all places where I'd come before I killed her, or any of them, worrying about flowers on the Altar Rail.

  I smiled to myself, leaning against the fence for a moment. I glanced back to see Lacomb keeping watch over me. I'd told him to hang around. I was as scared of real people in the dark streets as anybody else.

  After all, the dead can only do so much to you, until you meet a ghost, that is, a ghost who can play music out of God's mind, and a ghost who has a name: Stefan.

  "Some plan you have," I whispered. I looked up and envisioned the oak branches surrounding and obscuring this light, only it wasn't this light then.

  Light streamed out of the unadorned windows of the Chapel--windows like my own, to the floor, with many panes and some still with the old glass, wavery, melting, though I couldn't see such a thing from here. I just knew it and thought of it, beholding the house, beholding the time, beholding all of this to anchor my thoughts to the clever design of this stunt, this drama.

  So he was going to play the violin for everybody, was he? And I must be there.

  I turned to the left on Prytania and walked down towards the gates. Miss Hardy and several other classic Garden District ladies stood there to greet those coming.

  Cabs stopped in the street. I saw the all too familiar uniformed policeman looking on--for this dark paradise was now too dangerous at evening for the old ones to come out, and they had indeed come out to hear him.

  I knew some names; some faces; some I'd never known; some I simply didn't place. But it was a good crowd, perhaps one hundred, lots of gentlemen in light wool suits, and almost every woman in a dress, southern style, except for a few very modern young people who wore genderless clothes, and a flock of college students, or so they appeared, probably from the Conservatory uptown, where I had once struggled so wretchedly at fourteen to become a violinist.

  My, how your fame has spread.

  As I took Miss Hardy's hand and greeted Renee Freeman and May teen Ruggles, I peered inside and realized that he was already there, the main attraction.

  The thing itself, as Henry James's brave governess would have said of Quint and Miss Jessel without a qualm, the very thing--standing in the aisle, before the altar, which had been demurely covered for this occasion, and he was clean and properly dressed and his lustrous hair combed as well as mine. He wore his two small braids again, knotted in back, to keep his hair from falling too much into his face.

  He was distant, but unmistakable, and I watched him talking to them.

  For the first time ... for the first time since it had begun ... I thought, I am going out of my mind. I don't want to be sane. I don't want to be present or aware or alive. I don't. I don't. He's there, among the living, just as if he were one of them, just as if he were real and alive. He was talking to students. He was showing them the violin.

  And my dead are gone! Gone! What charm could make Lily rise? A wretched story came to mind, Kipling, "The Monkey's Paw," the three wishes, you don't want the dead to come back, no, you don't pray for that.

  But he had penetrated the walls of my room, and then vanished. This I'd seen. He was a ghost. He was dead.

  Look at the living people for once, or start screaming.

  Mayteen wore the loveliest perfume. She was my mother's oldest living friend. She said words which I strained to understand. My heart filled my ears.

  "... just to touch such an instrument, an actual Stradivarius."

  I squeezed her hand. I loved the perfume. It was something very old and simple, something not very expensive, that came in pink bottles and the powder came in pink flowered boxes.

  My head was buzzing with the sound of my heart. I made a few simple words, just about as bland as an amnesiac could possibly conjure, then I hurried up the marble steps, steps that were always slippery when it rained and I walked into the harshly lighted modern Chapel.

  Forget the details.

  I am a person who always sits in the front row. What was I doing now, going into the back pew?

  But I couldn't go closer. And this was a small place, this, very small, and from this corner of the back pew I could see him perfectly.

  He bowed to the woman beside him, his partner in conversation--What kind of things do ghosts say at such moments?--and he held the violin out for the young girls to examine. I saw the deep luster, the seam down the back. He held the violin without ever letting go of it or the bow, and he didn't look up at me as I sank back against the oak of the pew and looked at him.

  People shuffled in. I nodded several times at those who whispered greetings. I didn't hear anything that was said.

  You're here, among the living, as solid as they are, and they will hear you.

  He looked up suddenly, without fully raising his head, and his eye fixed me.

  Others have always seen and heard me.

  Several figures moved between us. The little building was all but full. Two ushers stood in the back, but they had chairs they could use--if they wanted them.

  The lights were dimmed. A single well-placed spot covered him in a dusty tarnished haze. How finely he had dressed for this, how white his shirt, and how clean his hair, and the braids holding his hair back--so simple.

  Miss Hardy had risen to her feet. She spoke soft words of explanation and introduction.

  He stood calm and collected, his clothes formal, yet rather timeless, a coat that could have been two hundred years old or made yesterday, long and shaped a bit, and he wore a pale tie with his shirt. I couldn't tell if the color was violet or gray, the color of the tie.

  He was dashing, no doubt of it. "You're insane," I whispered to myself, barely moving my lips. "You want a highborn ghost out of novels charged with significant romance. You dream."

  I wanted to cover my face. I wanted to leave. And to never leave. I wanted to stay and to run. I wanted at least to get out of my purse something, a paper handkerchief, anything, something to somehow blunt the force of this, rather like putting your hands up over your eyes during a film, and watching through slatted fingers.

  But I couldn't move.

  With admirable poise, he thanked Miss Hardy, and thanked us all. Even, accented, but quite understandable, it was the voice I'd heard in my bedroom--a young man's voice. He looked half my age.

  He lifted the instrument to his chin, and raised the bow. The air quivered. No one stirred or coughed or ru
mpled a program.

  I deliberately pictured the blue sea, the blue sea of the dream and the dancing ghosts; I saw them, I closed my eyes and saw the radiant sea beneath the invisible but nearby moon, and the distant arms of the land reaching out.

  I opened my eyes.

  He had stopped. He glared at me.

  I don't think people knew what his expression meant, or in what direction he looked or why. He had all the license of the eccentric on his side. And he was so fine to look at, fine, fine, thin and imperial as Lev had been, yes, not at all unlike Lev, only his hair was so dark and his eyes so black, and Lev, like Katrinka, had been fair. Lev's children were fair.

  I shut my eyes. Damn it to hell, I had lost the image of the sea, and as he began to play, I saw those old trivial and horrible things, and turned slightly to the side. Someone beside me touched my hand as if in sympathy.

  A widow, a madwoman, I thought quite consciously, having stayed in a house with a body for two days. Everybody must have known. Everybody in New Orleans knew anything that was worth knowing, and something that peculiar was probably worth knowing.

  Then his music cut to the quick.

  He brought the bow down and went immediately into the rich dark of the lower chords, the Minor Key, a hint of dreaded things to come. The tone was so refined and so controlled, the pitch so perfect, the rhythm so spontaneous that I thought of nothing, absolutely nothing but this.

  There was no need for tears, no need to hold them back either. There was only this richly unfolding song.

  Then I saw Lily's face. Twenty years brushed by. Lily lay dying in her bed this very minute. "Mommie, don't cry, you're scaring me."

  9

  I SENT the vision flying. I opened my eyes and let them rove over the peeling plaster ceiling of this neglected place, over the indifferent metal decorations that were so modern and so utterly meaningless. I understood the battle now, even as the music flooded me and Lily's voice was right by my ear, intermingled with the music, and part of it.

  I looked directly at him, and I thought only of him. I focused on him and refused to think of anything else. He couldn't stop his playing. Indeed, he was energized, he was brilliant, his tone was beyond description it was so controlled yet so relaxed, and the pitch so poignant.

  Yes, Tchaikovsky's concerto it was, which I knew by heart from my disks, with the orchestral parts woven right into it, so that it became a rich solo piece of his own making, with the heavy solo thread and all the other threads completely balanced.

 

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