Violin, p.21

Violin, page 21



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  Stefan's face wore the shock I felt as I looked on. The ghost in the featureless dark beside me was too sad himself to mock, but only closed tighter to me, trembling as if all this were too much for him, this boiling cloud, and he couldn't clamp it back down into his magic cauldron.

  "No ... No, not sold, not the violins, not the ... not the violin I--" He blanched and twisted his mouth, and the straight dark eyebrows came together in a challenge of a frown. "No, I don't believe you, why, why do you lie to me!"

  "Curb your tongue, my favorite son," said the tall gray-haired man, keeping one hand on the chair. "I sold what I had to sell to get the hell out of here and into our home in St. Petersburg. Your sister's jewels, your mother's jewels, paintings, God knows what, so as to salvage what I could for all of you, of what we had and must retain. To the merchant, Schlesinger, I sold the violins four days ago. He'll take them when we leave. He was kind enough to--"

  "No!" Stefan cried out. His hands went up to the sides of his head. "No!" he roared. "Not my violin. No, you cannot sell my violin, you cannot sell the long Strad!"

  He turned, eyes frantic, searching the tops of the long, painted credenzas where instruments lay carefully on silken pillows, cellos propped against chairs, paintings set as if to be moved.

  "I tell you it's done!" the Father cried out. Turning right to left, he found his silver cane and lifted it in his right hand, first by the knob and then the middle.

  Stefan had found the violin with his eye. He rushed towards it. I saw it.

  With all my heart, I thought, yes, get it, take it, save it from this awful injustice, this stupid turn of fate, it's yours, yours ... Stefan, take it!

  And you take it from me now. In the fathomless dark he kissed my cheek, but he was too heartbroken to oppose me. Watch what happens.

  "Don't touch it, don't pick it up," the Father said, advancing on the son. "I warn you!" He swung the cane around so that its ornamented knob was poised like a club.

  "You don't dare smash it, not the Strad!" said Stefan.

  A fury broke in the Father. It broke at these words, it broke as if over the stupidity of the assumption, the depth of misunderstanding.

  "You, my pride," he said, lowering his head as he took one firm step after another. "Your Mother's favorite and Beethoven's cherub, you, you think I'll smash that instrument with this! Touch it, and you'll see what I do!"

  Stefan reached for the violin, but the cane came down on his shoulders. He staggered under the blow, bent nearly double, backing up. Again the silver cane struck him, this time on the left side of his head and the blood gushed from his ear.

  "Father," he cried.

  I was wild in our invisible refuge, wild to hurt the Father, to make him stop, damn him, don't you hit Stefan again, you will not, you will not.

  "It is not ours, I told you this," the Father cried. "But you are mine, my son, Stefan!"

  Stefan threw up his hand, and the cane whipped through the air.

  I must have screamed, but this was far beyond any intervention. The cane so bashed Stefan's left hand that Stefan gasped and whipped the hand to his chest with his eyes closed.

  He didn't see the blow descending on his right hand that came to cover the wounded one. The cane struck his fingers.

  "No, no, not my hands, my hands, Father!" he screamed.

  Rushing feet in the house. Shouts. A young woman's voice, "Stefan!"

  "You defy me," said the old man. "You dare." With his left hand he grabbed the lapel of his son's coat, the son so shocked with pain he grimaced, unable to defend himself, and thrusting his son forward so that his hands fell on the credenza, he brought down the cane again on Stefan's fingers.

  I shut my eyes. Open them, look what he does. There are instruments made of wood, and those that are made of flesh and blood and see what he does to me.

  "Father, stop it!" cried the woman. I saw her from behind, slender, tentative creature, with a swan neck and naked arms in her Empire gown of gold silk.

  Stefan stood back. He broke the dazzle and the agony. He backed up further and stared down at the blood streaming from his crushed fingers.

  The Father stood with the cane poised to strike again.

  And now it was Stefan's face that changed; all compassion gone as if it were never possible in such a mask of rage and vengeance.

  "You do this to me!" he cried. He waved his useless bleeding hands in the air. "You do this to my hands!"

  Stunned, the Father took a backward step, but his face grew hard and stubborn. The doors of the room were filled with those who watched, brothers, sisters, servants, I didn't know.

  The young woman tried to come forward, but the old man ordered her: "Back away, Vera!"

  Stefan flew at his father, and used what was left to use, his knee, kicking the man back hard against the hot enameled stove, then lifting the tip of his boot to kick the Father's crotch as the old man's hands let loose the cane, and the old man fell to his knees and struggled to protect himself.

  Vera screamed.

  "You do this to me!" said Stefan, "You do this to me, you do this to me," the blood pouring from his hands.

  The next kick caught the old man beneath his chin and sent him down in a spineless slump onto the rug. Again Stefan kicked, and this time the boot struck the side of his father's head, and then again.

  I turned around. I didn't want to look, I didn't. No, watch with me please. It was so soft, so imploring. He's dead, you know, dead there on the floor, but I didn't know it then. See, I kicked him again. Look. His knee doesn't rise, though the blow strikes him right where your mother's blow struck you, in the stomach I kick him, see ... he was dead already from the kick to his chin perhaps, I never knew.

  Parricide, Parricide, Parricide.

  Men rushed forward, but Vera swung around, stretching out her hands to block the path. "No, you will not touch my brother!"

  It gave Stefan an instant to look up, hands still dripping blood, and in that instant he ran to the nearest door, knocking stunned servants out of his path, clattering down the marble staircase.

  The streets. Is this Vienna?

  From somewhere he'd procured a greatcoat, and bandages for his hands. He was a secretive figure, clinging to the walls. The street was old and crooked.

  O gentle whore, what do you think, I had some gold left. But the news had electrified Vienna. I had killed my father. I had killed my father.

  This was the Graben, now gone in reality; I knew it by its twists and turns, the place where Mozart lived, this neighborhood of eternal liveliness by day. But this was night, late night. Stefan waited in the shadows until a man emerged, with a sudden eruption of noise, from a tavern.

  He shut the door on the warm world within, so full of smoking pipes, and the smell of malt and coffee, and the sound of talk and laughter.

  "Stefan!" he whispered. He crossed the street and took Stefan's arm. "Get out of Vienna. You are to be shot on sight. The Czar himself has given Metternich the written permission. The city's full of Russian soldiers."

  "I know, Franz," said Stefan, crying like a child, "I know."

  "And your hands," said the young man, "what's been done?"

  "Oh, not enough, not nearly enough, they're bound and twisted and broken and not set, it's all done, it's finished." He stood still, looking up at the tiny strip of Heaven. "Oh, Lord God, how could this happen, Franz, how? How could I have come to this when a year ago we were all in the ballroom and we were playing and even the Maestro was there, saying he enjoyed watching the movement of our fingers! How!"

  "Stefan, tell me," said the young man called Franz. "You didn't really kill him. They lie, they paint a picture. Something happened, but Vera says that they have unjustly ..."

  Stefan couldn't answer. His eyes were squeezed shut, his mouth drawn back. He didn't dare to answer. He broke loose from his friend and ran, cloak billowing behind him, boots clattering on the rounded cobblestones.

  He ran and he ran and we followed him, and he becam
e tiny in the night, and the stars arched over all, and the city vanished.

  This was a dark wood, but a young wood, tender, with small leafed trees, and crunching leaves beneath Stefan's boots. The Vienna Woods I knew so well from one college glimpse and so many books and so much music. A town lay ahead, and down into the town Stefan crept, hugging the bloody filthy bandaged hands, grimacing now and then at the pain, but fighting it off, as he entered the main street and a small square. It was late, the shops were all shut up, and the little streets looked picture-book to me in their quaintness. He hurried on his errand. He found a small, gated courtyard, but there were no locks here, and unseen he came inside.

  How miniature this rural architecture after the palaces in which we'd witnessed horrors.

  In the cool night air, full of the scent of pines and sweet burning stoves, he looked up at a lighted window.

  A strange singing came from within, an awful bawling singing, but very happy and full of glee. A deaf man singing.

  I knew this place, I knew it from drawings, I knew it was a place where Beethoven had once lived and written, and as we drew closer now, I saw what Stefan saw, as he climbed the little steps--the Maestro inside, swaying at his desk, dipping his pen and wagging his head and stomping his foot, and scratching out the notes, delirious it seemed in his own precious and safe corner of the universe where sounds might be combined as those with ears would never recommend or even tolerate.

  The great man's hair was soiled, shot through with gray I hadn't seen before, the pockmarked face was very red, but his expression was relaxed and pure, with no scowl for anyone. He rocked back and forth again; he wrote. He sang that yammering stomping song that surely confirmed a path for him.

  Young Stefan came to the door, opened it and stepped inside, peering down on the Maestro, the bandaged hands behind his back, then coming forward, went on his knees at Beethoven's arm.

  "Stefan!" he cried out, his voice rough and loud. "Stefan, what is it?"

  Stefan bowed his head and broke into tears, and suddenly, not meaning to, he raised his reddened bandaged hand as if to reach out and touch the Maestro.

  "Your hands!" the Maestro went frantic. He stood up, throwing over the ink as he reached about on his desk. The conversation book, no, the blackboard, that was what he looked for, the companions of his deaf years, through which he spoke to everyone.

  But then he looked down in horror and saw that both of Stefan's hands were useless for a pen as the younger knelt there, stricken, pleading with shakes of his head and shudders for mercy.

  "Stefan, your hands, what have they done to you, my Stefan!"

  Stefan raised his hand for quiet, raised it, desperate. But it was too late. In his protective panic Beethoven had brought others running.

  Stefan had to escape. He clutched the Maestro for one moment, kissing him hard on the mouth, and then went to a farther door just as the one beside him sprang open.

  Once again, he fled, Beethoven roaring in pain.

  A small room: a woman's bed.

  Stefan lay curled up in his tight pants, and a clean shirt, his profile sunk into the pillow, mouth open, face wet but still.

  She, a thick and girl-faced woman, squarish and not unlike myself but young, bound fresh bandages around his hands. She doted on him, his still countenance, the battered hands she held, scarcely able to avoid tears. A woman who loved him.

  "You must get out of Vienna, Prince," she said in the German of the Viennese, smooth and cultured. "You have to!"

  He didn't stir. His eyes let in a little light perhaps or only gave away a tiny bit of white, which looked like death itself, except he breathed.

  "Stefan, listen to me!" She took the intimate turn. "They bury your father in state tomorrow. His body will rest in the Van Meck tomb, and do you know what they mean to do, they mean to bury the violin with it."

  He opened his eyes first, staring at the candle behind her, staring at the terra-cotta dish in which it rested, the dish that had already caught a pool of wax. Then he looked at her, turning, the wooden headboard plain and thick behind him. Surely this was the poorest place to which he'd ever taken us. A simple place, perhaps over a shop.

  His dull eyes looked at her. "Bury the violin. Berthe ... you said ...?"

  "Aye, until his murderer is found and they can take the Father's remains home to Russia. It is winter now; you know they cannot make the journey anyway to Moscow. And Schlesinger, the merchant, he has given them the money for the thing, in spite of this. You know they set a trap for you, they think you will come for it."

  "That's stupid," said Stefan. "That's mad." He sat up, his knee rising, his stockinged foot pushing into the lumpy mattress. His hair fell down as it was now, satin, undone. "A trap for me! To bury the violin in a coffin with him!"

  "Shhh, don't be such a fool. They think you will come to steal it before it is sealed up. If not, it remains in the grave until you come, and they pounce on you. Or forever it lies with your Father until such time as you are found and executed for your crime. It is a grim affair; your sister and brothers are distraught, and not all of them so cruel of heart towards you, by the way."

  "No ..." he murmured, musing, remembering possibly his escape. "Berthe!" he whispered.

  "And from your father's brothers comes the vengeful speech--these men, how they huff and puff--that the violin shall be buried with him whom you killed, so that you may never, never play it again. They picture you, a fugitive, who would steal it from Schlesinger."

  "I would," he whispered.

  A noise disturbed them both. The door opened and a small round-faced man appeared, a stubby and chunky man in a black cape and the undeniable upper-crust linen. He looked Russian, this man, his cheeks so full, his eyes small. One could see the Russian of today in him. He carried a big black cloak over his arm, a fresh garment which he laid down now on a chair. It had a hood to it.

  Through small spectacles with silver frames he looked at the young man in the bed, at the girl who didn't even turn to greet him.

  "Stefan," he said. He took off his top hat and smoothed back the remaining bits of gray hair that covered his pink skull. "They are guarding the house. They are in every street. And Paganini, they even accosted him in Italy with questions in all this, and the man has denied you, that he ever knew you."

  "He had to do that," Stefan murmured. "Poor Paganini. What is that to me, Hans? I don't care."

  "Stefan, I've brought a cloak for you, a big cloak with a hood, and some money to get you out of Vienna."

  "Where did you get it?" Berthe asked with alarm.

  "Never mind," the man said, glancing at her dismissively, "except to say that everyone in your family is not heartless."

  "Vera, my sister. I saw her. I saw her when they tried to catch me, she ran in front of them. Oh, my sweetest Vera."

  "Vera says you must go away, go to America, to the Portuguese Court in Brazil, anywhere, but go where your hands can be properly set and where you can live, or there is no life! Brazil is far away. There are other countries. Even England, go there--to London, but get out of the Hapsburg Empire, you must. Look, we're in danger, helping you."

  The young woman became furious. "You know the things he's done for you!" she said. "I won't give him up." She glared at Stefan, and he tried to stroke her with the bandaged hands but stopped, like an animal pawing the air, his eyes suddenly dull from pain or simple despair.

  "No, of course not," said Hans. "He is our boy, our Stefan, and always has been. I only say that it is a matter of days before they find you somewhere. Vienna is not so big. And you with your hands like clubs, what can you do? Why do you stay?"

  "My violin," said Stefan in a heartbroken voice. "It's mine and I don't have it."

  "Why can't you get it?" said the woman to the chubby little man, glancing up at him. She wrapped the gauze around Stefan's left hand still.

  "Me? Get the violin?" asked the man.

  "Why can't you go into the house? You've done it before. See t
o the confection tables yourself. See to the special tarts. God knows, when someone dies in Vienna it's a wonder everyone else doesn't die from eating sweets. Come with the bakers to see that all is right with the sweets yourself, it's simple enough, and slip upstairs and into the death room and take the violin. They stop you? Then say, you search for one of the family to beg news, you loved the boy so. Everybody knows it. Get the violin."

  " 'Everybody knows it,' " he repeated. It was these words that disturbed the little man who went to the window and looked out. "Yes, everybody knows it was with my daughter he spent his drunken hours anytime he wanted."

  "And gave me beautiful things for it, which I have still, and will on my wedding day!" she said bitterly.

  "He's right," Stefan said. "I have to go. I can't stay here and endanger both of you. They would think to come here, to watch ..."

  "Not so," she said. "Every servant to the house and merchant to the family loves you, and doted on you, and all those French women, that trash that came with the conqueror, they keep a watch on them, yes, because you are so famous with them, but not with the baker's daughter. But it's true what Father says, you have to go. What have I told you myself? You have to go. If you don't leave Vienna, it is only a few days before they catch you."

  Stefan was deep in thought. He tried to rest his weight on his right hand, then caught the error and slumped back against the wooden bedstead. The ceiling was sloped above his head, the window tiny in the thick wall. He seemed so vivid amid all this, too long, too sharpened, too brilliant and fierce for such a small chamber.

  The young image of my ghost who walks through great rooms and down broad avenues.

  The daughter turned to her father.

  "Go into the house and get the violin!" said the daughter.

  "You are dreaming!" said the man. "You are brainsick with love. You are a stupid baker's daughter."

  "And you, who would be a fancy gentleman, with your fancy cafe in the Ringstrasse, you don't dare."

  "Of course he doesn't," Stefan said with authority. "Besides, Hans wouldn't know the violin from any other."

  "It lies in the coffin!" she said. "They told me." She bit the cloth with her teeth, and tore it in two and made another tight knot beneath his wrist. The bandage was already bloody. "Father, get it for him."


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