Her reflection in the ebony wood of the
piano disturbed her. She wished she were using a score, so the pages of music would block the image. Her eyes were too large. Her chin was small and pointed and her mouth an unexceptionable rosebud, but her eyes were those of a fawn, enormous, oddly shaped, gleaming darkly under the flickering gas lights. She looked terrified, and she was.
The long skirts of her blue silk dress spilled over the piano stool. She had to kick the hem free of the pedals. The fitted sleeves puffed above the elbow, making her wrists look like white sticks. A great, childish bow, blue to match her dress, adorned the back of her hair. It embarrassed her, but she had no power over the choice of it.
She had no power at all, in fact, not in the matter of the bow or in any of the other details of this performance. Her father had chosen the dress, had supervised the dressing of her hair, had dictated what she would eat for dinner and when. He had chosen the music for her programme, had selected the
for her debut, had collected the ticket money with his own hands.
If she looked up, past the shining lid of the piano, she would see his clear, hard eyes watching her from the proscenium.
She kept her eyes lowered. She must concentrate. Her father's reputation as a teacher, and their future income, rested on her performance. He had reminded her of this many times. She had practiced until her fingers burned and her back ached. She knew the Variations perfectly, and would play them from memory. Some might call that vanity, but she preferred, even though she was nervous, to play without music.
She was ready. She just wished her father would go out into the house.
She curled her fingers over the keys, took a deep breath, and began.
The first notes disappointed her, seeming frail and somehow juvenile. The piano had sounded much stronger, much more full, in her practice sessions. She was startled by the way the bodies of the audience absorbed the resonance.
She took another breath, concerned now only about the music and what she wanted it to say. She played the next phrases with more vigor, striking the keys with determined purpose. Goethe was to say, one day in the near future, that she “played with the strength of six boys.” That would mean nothing to her, but the music did. The music made everything else tolerable. The muscles of her arms and hands began to thrum with energy. She knew how she wanted the notes to sound, how she could make the piano sing. She played on with unconscious authority, an assurance beyond her years.
It began to happen. She forgot her reflection, forgot her fatigue, forgot even her father. Brilliant notes poured from the piano, cascading over the stage, drowning the faint hiss of the footlights as they poured into the hall. She played from her soul. She never hesitated, never faltered. She drove on to the end of the Variations without once looking up from the keyboard.
She reached the cadence, and held it, letting the resonance of the chord die away on its own. She closed her eyes, relishing the moment of a piece well played, of music created, of the expression of an inner meaning no words could describe.
When she opened her eyes, she saw her father gazing fixedly at her from the wings. He was smiling, but it was that tight, pointed smile that meant there was something he wanted. She stiffened. What was it?
As the music left her, she became aware of another sound, a bigger, rougher sound. She turned her head, seeking the source, and realized there was a roar coming from the house.
It was for her. It was a rush of noise, gloved hands beating together, voices calling out.
She had forgotten for a moment where she was, how much this performance meant. She froze. What she was supposed to do now?
Curtsy. That was it. Bow. This was her debut, and this applause was for her.
Awkwardly, she swiveled on the stool. Her long dress caught on the pedals of the piano, and she had to bend to untangle it with her hands before she could stand. She picked up her skirts and stepped away from the piano to the edge of the stage, careful of the heat of the footlights. She bobbed, twice, her cheeks as hot as the burning lamps at her feet.
Then, though the applause continued, she fled the stage. She turned away from her father. He would have to work his way around the back of the stage, dodge dusty stacks of equipment and piles of thick ropes to reach her. She flung herself into the tiny, dim dressing room, and collapsed into the chair before the tall pier glass.
Clara Wieck stared at her murky reflection, the big blue bow framing her small head, and marveled. She was nine years old. She had just become a professional.
Roses spilled over the garden wall surrounding Casa Agosto, blooms of scarlet and pink and white blazing against the pale stone under impossibly bright Italian sunshine. Below the village of Castagno, forests and fields glittered faintly, as if washed in gold. Here and there, grapevines stretched and twisted in long, straight columns. In the valley beyond, a brown ribbon of road meandered along the blue line of a narrow stream. The Italian hills looked like bolts of dark green velvet, rolling gently from the ancient hilltop where twelve houses, each named for a month of the year, clustered along cramped streets. The houses were tall and narrow, trimmed with window boxes and surrounded by small gardens. Saints' niches pierced the outer walls, their tiny statues nestled amid offerings of tiny nosegays or bunches of herbs. In the garden of Casa Agosto, the branches of an ancient olive tree drooped to the grass, heavy with unripe fruit. A wooden bench, painted with a rustic scene of wooly lambs in a green field, nestled in its shade.
It was all real, Frederica reminded herself. Everything was real. Except for her.
She floated through the garden gate, smiling to think she could have gone right through the wall if she chose, could move anywhere and in any way she wished. It was like being in a dream journey. If she wanted to move to the left, she did. If she wanted to rise into the air, to look down on the garden and the olive tree, it happened without any effort beyond her thought.
She only had to remember not to go too far. They had told her she would know, that she would feel dizzy, perhaps a bit nauseous, if she got too close to the perimeter of the transfer zone. She would find herself instantly back in her own time.
But that wouldn't happen. She would take every care. Frederica had no intention of leaving Casa Agosto until she had to.
She settled to the ground, letting her virtual feet sink among the blades of grass. She drifted around the house, admiring the terra-cotta walls, the embroidered curtains at the windows. She paused outside a set of French doors that led into a small, sun-filled room. Her memory served up the word for this room,
. A little salon, and in this case, a music room. The tall doors were half-open, fitted with long, gauzy curtains that belled in the light breeze. Inside, she saw the short keyboard and bulky body of a square fortepiano, old-fashioned even in 1861. Its ivory keysâ
ivory, no plastic substitutesâglowed a muted white. Its bench was covered in green brocade. It stood on six legs carved with flowers and vines, and it dominated the room, though there was also a stuffed wing chair with a gas lamp beside it and a little writing table piled with books.
They had told her the transfer would be like watching television, that she would see the sights and hear the sounds but enjoy no other sensations. Now that she was here, she found the television analogy imperfect. Her perceptions were more acute than those of a mere observer. It was possible, she supposed, that she was providing the intensity with her own eager imagination. She could almost, but not quite, smell the perfume of the tangled roses. It seemed if she tipped her head up, she could almost feel the sweetness of the May sunshine on her cheeks, or taste the clear air, as yet uncontaminated by the effluvia of industry or the exhaust of combustion engines. She breathed deeply, longing for the real experience. Her hands yearned to feel the cool surfaces of the fortepiano keys beneath her fingers.
If she was rightâif that single, long-hidden letter spoke the truthâ
had touched those keys. He might even place his hands on them this very day, the date of the letter buried for so long in a forgotten vault in Hamburg. The thought filled her with ecstatic anticipation.
Did her fingers twitch beneath the tangle of tubes on the cot in the transfer clinic? Did her nostrils flare, her eyelids flicker, as she took in the marvel of it all?
No one really understood how much of her was present in 1861. Those who had gone beforeâto fourteenth-century France, to eighteenth-century Philadelphia, to the Middle Agesâwere uncertain how strong the connection was between their virtual presence and their physical one. They had difficulty describing it, and Frederica could see why. They used different similes, suggested different metaphors. They agreed on only one point: that the experience was more vivid, more intense, than they had expected. That it felt real.
It was why they walked here and there, and why they hid behind doors and curtains and furniture while they were observing. The researchers felt so
in their target periods that mere words could not describe the sensation.
A movement inside the house caught Frederica's eye. Someone was coming.
Instinctively, though it wasn't necessary, she stepped to the side, to hide herself behind the branches of the olive tree. She hovered behind its rough-barked trunk, and gazed into the music room with the fervency of one besotted.
was a good word for the way she felt. She had been in love with Brahmsâdead a hundred years before she was bornâsince she had first taken up his famous Lullaby and tried to play it with her baby fingers. She knew everything about him that a historian could know. He had been lonely, as lonely perhaps as she was herself, pining for love denied him. He had been sickly and awkward as a youth. He had been a boy who never fit in. His family had loved him, but they had not understood him. For all these reasons, as much as for the sake of his music, she had devoted herself to the study of Brahms.
She knew where he had lived, whom he had known, where he traveled, what he read. She knew his portraits, and she knew his music. She was the equal, despite her youth, of any Brahms scholar in any university, but it was not enough. Her doctoral dissertation depended on her finding out one more detail, one new fact. When she had that, she would be the envy of every musicologist in the world. She would be
premiere Brahms scholar. She nourished a faint hope that the aching misery that was her life would not matter so much in comparison with this achievement.
Frederica knew she had come perilously close to losing this chance. She had studied the photograph of her competition, the young man from Boston. Kristian North. She gazed at his handsome face, his blond hair and ice blue eyes, and she could see he had everything she lacked. It was not only his good looks, or the easy charm in his smile. He had a Juilliard concert fellowship. His master's thesis was impressive. Men like Kristian North always won through in the end, and he would survive the loss of this transfer opportunity. She needed it far more than he did!
She refused to feel guilty. That was an indulgence she couldn't afford. She had done what she had to do. This was her moment, and she would allow nothing to spoil it for her.
He was coming. Now, oh, God, he was coming now!
From the stairwell just off the music roomâthere was a foot, clad in a heavy black shoe. A leg followed, encased in some sort of brown fabric, and then a hand on the banister, rather wide, with spatulate fingersâit was all coming too fast; she wasn't readyâ
Her heart seemed to hesitate, to suspend its beat for an instant as she beheld his face for the first time. His
face. Not a painting, not a portrait, not a sepia photograph. His face.
It was beardless, the chin both strong and delicate, with a slight cleft. His fair hair was combed straight back, to fall past his collar. His eyes were a deep blue, the blue of violets. Even at this distance they shone with intelligence. His lower lip was fuller than the upper one, and this conformation of his mouth made something twist in Frederica's stomach, something hungry and wanting. He was tall and lean, and he walked with the sure step of one who knows his surroundings well.
Frederica held her breath. Her hand went to her throat, or it felt as if it did. Her lips parted, dry with excitement. Oh, to actually see him! It was beyond even what she had anticipated, to be so close, to see details no photograph could ever reveal. His skin was so clear, his lips so smooth. His hair shone jewel bright in the sunlight. Oh, if only she could touch him, just once, know the feel of his skin, the warmth of his hand!
She abandoned the olive tree, and crept forward. He looked rested and happy, though she knew the year just past had been hard for him. It was no wonder he had slipped away from the bustle of Hamburg and the pressure of his concert schedule. He had learned as a youth how restorative country air could be. That was what the letter said, the letter so long hidden and only recently recovered. He had written it to a friend, a note never meant for the eyes of strangers, and now so precious to those who loved his music:
My dear Joachim,
I know I promised you a draft of the A-Major Quartet, but I was so distracted in Hamburg that I found it hard to work. I have gone away for a little time in hopes of some restful solitude, and I hope to bring back a completed manuscript. I enclose my temporary address herewith, but I pray you will not share it with anyone. This is a private holiday, and I prefer not to have it known, either by my friends or by the administration of the Philharmonic. I trust my delivery of the manuscript will not be too delayed, and that you will be understanding of this brief but much-needed absence.
Brahms scholars had rejoiced at this new tidbit of his life and times, and speculated endlessly about what it had all meant. Everyone believed him never to have been in Italy, despite having planned several trips. None of them, as far as posterity knew, had ever come to pass. But at the bottom of that letter, he had scrawled this address. Casa Agosto, Castagno di San Felice, Italy. And here he was, just as the letter said he would be, in this tiny village, secreted away from both public and private acquaintances.
Frederica gazed at him, enraptured. He had come so far from Hamburg, just for this bit of time alone. It was an amazing thing, this young man who was already so revered among musicians of his time, to have left the bustle of society and the clamor of his concerts, the demands of a career that would dominate the century. The pressures of such a life must beâ
Her thoughts broke off. There was someone else in the house.
A woman descended the stairs behind Brahms and swept gracefully into the music room with a step so light it was as if she were no more substantial than Frederica. She sank onto the brocade bench of the fortepiano and reached up to arrange the foolscap sheets waiting on the music stand. She was lovely, slight of bosom, with a slender waist. Her dress was black, and very simple, what was called a morning dress. A lacy scarf was tucked in around the neckline. The waist was tied with a ribbon and draped over a simple charcoal underskirt. Her hair, swept back in thick wings and held with tortoiseshell combs, was as dark as it had always been, as dark as in the portraits of her as a young girl. Indeed, she looked nearly as youthful as Brahms, but Frederica Bannister knew well that this lady was fourteen years his senior.
Frederica gazed at her in openmouthed astonishment. No one had known this. There had been nothing in the letter to Joachim, but there could be no mistake. She would know that face anywhere. Her photograph was in every Brahms biography. In fact, the name of Clara Wieck Schumann was sprinkled throughout every account of the life of Johannes Brahms.
Clara. Brahms's friend, the widow of his mentor. Clara, who had seven children, and her own schedule of concerts to maintain in order to support them. Clara, the brilliant pianist, the beauty who never remarried. She was a famous diarist, but she had concealed this event from posterity. She and Brahms had been the subject of speculation for a century and a half. He had loved her openly, hopelessly, but she had refused him. She had devoted herself to her children, to her career, and to the memory of her husband.
Yet she was here, in Castagno. She was here with Brahms.
She began to play the first movement of the A-Major Quartet. Brahms sat down beside her, his thigh pressed against hers. He reached past her shoulder to turn a page of the music. Clara played on, easily, smoothly, as if she often played with him sitting so close.
Frederica forgot to hide herself, forgot what she had come for, forgot everything. She gazed at Johannes Brahms sitting shoulder to shoulder with Clara Schumann as she played from a composition so recently written the ink was barely dry. Frederica stared at them, and was rocked by a wave of heart-stopping envy.
Frederica Bannister had realized, at the painful age of thirteen, that she was never going to look like her mother.
They were in Bloomingdale's, in the 900 Shops Mall. Bronwyn Bannister was giddy with excitement over her daughter's belated interest in clothes and cosmetics. She had hugged Frederica, saying, “Oh, sweetie, we'll have a real girls' day! We'll do it allâhair, makeup, shoesâsuch fun!”
For once, Frederica had tolerated the hug without wriggling away, and even borne the lipsticky kiss Bronwyn had pressed on her cheek. She nodded agreement as her mother made effusive plans for the day, listing shops, suggesting magazines to look at, choosing a hairstylist. Frederica's father had watched all of this with a look of indulgent bemusement, and she had avoided his eye. He knew better than anyone that she would rather be at the piano than in a department store. She hadn't told him why she had asked her mother for help with her clothes.