Authors: Margaret Leroy
This is such a gift. I think of the upright Chappell piano in the living room at home; it has a rather tinny sound, and the keys sometimes stick in the damp. A grand is entirely different – the sound so resonant, so rich.
‘Who plays the piano?’ I ask her.
‘Well, no one really,’ she says. ‘It belonged to Rainer’s father. It will be good to have it made use of again.’
I can’t wait to sit there – to pile my sheet music on top of the piano, to open the lid and run my fingers over the keys.
I leave the Rose Room with reluctance. Marthe leads me on, past a cupboard where Janika keeps her mops and brooms, past the key rack. Here, all the house keys are labelled and hanging on pegs. Marthe gives me a front-door key.
She gestures towards another room, but doesn’t open the door.
‘That’s Rainer’s study.’ There’s a hushed, almost reverent tone in her voice. ‘I need to tell you, my dear – he’s very particular about his study. No one can go in without his permission. We tend to keep the door locked. And there’s a very strict rule that Lukas can’t go in there on his own.’
I feel a sudden faltering. I’ve been so excited, coming here, so grateful: I’ve never stopped to consider what the Krauses might be like. I wonder about this man, whose rules seem so draconian.
‘Even Janika doesn’t go in the study, except to light the stove,’ Marthe tells me. ‘Rainer only trusts me to do the cleaning in there. Remember this, Stella.’
‘Of course – I mean, I wouldn’t dream…’
I’m embarrassed, as though I have already transgressed.
‘He has important work to do,’ she tells me. ‘He works in the civil service, and sometimes he writes reports at home, and he likes to feel he can leave his papers out on his desk.’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘You know how men are,’ Marthe says with a confiding smile, talking woman-to-woman. ‘They need to have a space that’s entirely their own. Where no one interrupts them.’
But I don’t really
know how men are
. I think of my father, feeling a little stirring of grief – remembering him, and how I loved him. There wasn’t room for him to retreat in our cottage in Brockenhurst; he didn’t have a space that was
entirely his own
. Only the shed in the garden, where he potted up primulas for the flower borders.
Marthe leads me on to my bedroom. I’m surprised to find that there are no stairs to the bedrooms – that the entire apartment is all on one floor.
The room is small but comfortable; there’s a chest with a mirror on it, and a walk-in cupboard, smelling of mothballs, where I can hang my clothes.
‘This was Verity Miller’s room,’ says Marthe.
. So that was her name – the woman I am replacing. I feel a shiver of curiosity. I’d like to ask about her and why she left, but I don’t quite feel I can.
Marthe runs one finger across the chest of drawers. I notice how chapped her hands are, as though she washes them too often. She holds up her finger, inspects it for dust, frowns slightly. I make a mental note to keep all my things very neat.
‘Dinner is at seven,’ she says. ‘You can meet Lukas and Rainer then.’
Dietrich has brought up my suitcase. I open it, take out the box of Newberry Fruits I’ve brought. I chose them with confidence – they’ve always been some of my favourite sweets. Now I feel it’s an embarrassingly small gift, when they are giving me so much.
‘I brought this for you,’ I tell her. ‘Just a little thank-you…’
‘Oh. That’s so very kind of you, Stella,’ she says.
When she’s gone, I stand for a moment at my window.
The room is at the front of the building, looking out over the street. In the window directly opposite, I see a woman and a child. They’re standing close to the window: I can see them quite clearly. The woman is brushing the child’s hair, which is long and dark and very wavy. She has an absent look, as though her thoughts are entirely elsewhere. The room behind her is shadowed, but I can see a little way in. There’s a lamp with an amber glass shade, and a candelabra with nine branches. The candelabra must look so beautiful when those nine small candles are lit. I watch the woman for a moment, wondering about her.
Below me, the street is in shadow, but there’s sunlight still on the upper part of the buildings, and there the white stonework seems luminous. The line between light and dark is precise as the edge of a blade.
My journey is over. I am here in Vienna at last.
Just before seven, I go along to the dining room. The smell of dinner cooking greets me, and my mouth waters.
I push open the door that I think should lead to the dining room – but I find myself in the sitting room, which Marthe called the sun room. The curtains aren’t drawn, and the French door is open onto the balcony: you can see through to the courtyard and the grey veiled light of evening.
A man is standing there smoking, leaning against the balcony rail; he’s of medium height, fair-complexioned, rather thin and elegant. His profile is towards me, but I can’t really make out his features; he seems to be made of shadow, except for the tip of his cigar, which flares redly as he sucks in smoke. I wonder if this is Rainer. Yes, it must be. You can tell that this man is the owner here. There’s something about the easy angle of his body – a sense of his absolute right to inhabit this place. I wonder why he chooses to stand out in the chill of the air, when the house is warm and light and full of the scent of roasting meat. I remember Marthe:
You know how men
are. They need to have a space that’s entirely their own …
It’s as though he craves something different, something harsher, and the chill of night coming is welcome to him.
I watch him for a moment. I can smell the scents that bleed from the throats of the flowers, down in the courtyard. Beyond him, above the shadowy rooftops, the sky is the deep blue of ashes.
He drops the stub of his cigar and grinds it under his heel. I move rapidly back from the doorway. I don’t want him to see me here. I’d be mortified if he knew I was watching him, speculating about him.
I make my way to the right room, where the table is set for a meal – a crisp linen tablecloth, silver, decanters of wine. A glass of ginger beer for Lukas.
Marthe comes in, with Lukas. He has a plump pink face and eyes of a pale washed blue. He glances at me quizzically, then looks away, doesn’t smile. Marthe introduces us, and he holds his hand out to me, very correct, but pressing back against her. I smile and take his hand.
‘Lukas usually has his dinner with Janika in the nursery. But he’s having his dinner with us tonight, as you’ve come,’ Marthe tells me.
I’m anxious, because this change in routine is being made for me. What if I’m a disappointment?
We’re already seated when Rainer comes into the room. I recognise the man I saw on the balcony. Now I can see all the detail of his face that I couldn’t make out in the twilight – the neat moustache, arched eyebrows, thin expressive mouth. His eye falls on me, and something moves over his face, as though he’s startled. For half a heartbeat, no one says anything. Did he see me watching him, wondering about him? I feel a surge of guilt. Heat rushes to my face.
‘Here she is, Rainer. This is Stella,’ Marthe says, encouragingly. Perhaps she too senses this little rip in the fabric of things, and seeks to repair it.
He reaches out as though to shake my hand. I don’t know if I should stand up. I half rise, feeling awkward. He bends and kisses my hand, just touching my skin with his mouth. I’m unnerved. This isn’t like England.
‘She’s lovely, isn’t she, Rainer?’ says Marthe.
His face relaxes into a pleasant smile.
‘Absolutely,’ he says.
Marthe makes a little gesture in my direction.
‘And isn’t she like Helena? The exact same colouring. That lovely blonde hair she had, just like your own, Stella. Though of course she wore it long – we all wore our hair long in those days. She was beautiful, your mother.’
I nod. I think of the photograph from Gillingham Manor that she would never get framed.
‘Helena was such a lovely woman, wasn’t she, Rainer?’ says Marthe.
It’s strange, the way Marthe speaks about my mother in the past tense. But I suppose it’s true she’s not beautiful now, as she was when she was young.
Rainer murmurs agreement.
There’s silence for a moment. In the silence, I can hear the tiniest things: the bland tick of the clock on the sideboard; the chafing of insect wings at the window – a moth perhaps, trapped in the house, trying to make its escape. I’d like to catch it, set it free. I imagine how it would feel on your skin as you cupped it in your hand, its velvet wings batting against you, at once soft and frenzied.
Rainer turns to take his seat at the head of the table. He settles himself, pours wine.
‘So, Stella, you’re studying at the Academy, I believe?’ he says.
‘Yes. I’m very fortunate.’
‘And very talented, surely.’
I make a slight, self-deprecating gesture. Embarrassed.
‘Now, Stella, I know you must be. I very much look forward to hearing you play … And when do you have your first lesson?’ he asks.
Thinking of this, I feel a flicker of nervousness move through me.
Janika brings in the meal – duck with pickled red cabbage. As we eat, Marthe talks about Vienna, and all the sights I should see: the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where there are many fine paintings; the marvellous Schönbrunn Palace.
Rainer puts his cutlery down and leans a little towards me. He has his hands clasped together – graceful hands with long fingers, knuckles with the white, polished look of river stones.
‘Vienna is still beautiful. You’ll see that, Stella. Very beautiful. But of course she isn’t as once she was, in the days of empire,’ he says.
‘No, it must all be very different…’
I read a little before I came here. I know that the Habsburg Empire crumbled at the end of the Great War. That, where once Vienna had ruled an empire of fifty-two million people, now she ruled a little country of only six million. That officials came home to find that the imperial ministries to which they’d sent their meticulous reports no longer existed. That war heroes with many medals were begging for bread in the streets.
‘We seem to have lost our way, in the years since the Great War. We’ve become too soft and complacent. We have weak government – no sense of purpose,’ he says.
His face is stern when he says this.
‘Darling, maybe we shouldn’t burden Stella with these troubling matters at dinner,’ says Marthe.
‘Really, don’t worry, it’s all so interesting,’ I say.
For dessert, there’s a chocolate-covered tart, which looks delectable. My mouth waters.
‘I like sachertorte,’ says Lukas, in a fat, happy voice.
‘I’m sure I’ll love it as well,’ I say. ‘But I’ve never had it before.’
‘You’ve never ever had sachertorte?’ He can’t believe this. He’s suddenly intrigued by me, as though I come from some far-off galaxy. ‘Don’t you have pudding in England, Fräulein Stella?’ he asks.
‘We do eat pudding – but it’s never like this. My mother makes bread-and-butter pudding sometimes. When there’s some bread and butter left over from tea.’
‘That doesn’t sound very nice.’ A little disapproving frown.
‘Well, it fills you up if you’re hungry,’ I tell him. ‘But it’s not as nice as this.’
I smile at him, and he smiles back shyly. I’m pleased I’ve managed to have some conversation with him. I hope that he will like me.
The chocolate tart is just as delicious as I’d imagined, but so sweet it sets my teeth a little on edge.
Afterwards, Janika takes Lukas to the nursery, and we have coffee amid the hushed comfort of the drawing room.
‘Well, Stella,’ says Rainer, expansively, lighting a cigar. ‘We’re so glad you were able to come and solve our problem for us.’
I sink back into the sofa, against the plump satin cushions.
‘It’s wonderful for me that you could have me,’ I say. ‘Though it must have been so awkward for you, that Verity had to leave.’
Marthe puts down her coffee cup rather suddenly. It sounds too loud in the saucer – as though at the last moment it had somehow slipped from her grasp. A little coffee spills.
‘Oh, I’m so stupid,’ she says.
She seems disproportionately upset. She mops up the drips with her handkerchief; her lips are pursed, as though she is cross with herself.
‘Yes, it was all rather difficult,’ Rainer says smoothly. ‘So imagine how happy we were that you could help us out like this…’
But the air has a shimmery, rarefied feel. I feel I’ve spoken out of turn. That it might have been better not to mention Verity Miller at all.
Marthe passes round the Newberry Fruits I gave her. Though after the lavish meal we’ve had, they don’t seem to taste of anything. I don’t understand why I used to like them so much.
I push my curtains aside for a moment, look out at the dark, silent city. There’s a scattering of white stars, and a moon as yellow as a wolf’s eye. The curtains and blinds are drawn in the opposite windows; as I watch, a woman’s shape glides across a square of apricot light.
It’s hard to get to sleep. I find myself crying a little, with homesickness. I have such a longing for my mother – wanting to tell her everything that’s happened, to feel her arms around me, then to go to sleep in my bed.
There’s a silk scarf of hers I’ve brought with me. It’s an old scarf, one she’s had for years, with a pattern of pale flowers, that have a watery look, as though they’re about to dissolve; she’s often let me borrow it. I’ve put it away in the wardrobe, with all my other clothes; but now I go to find it, and hold it to my face. It smells of her, of the Devon Violets talcum powder she uses. I remember how she said goodbye to me at Brockenhurst Railway Station. How she held me too hard, so it hurt, then pushed me onto the train. ‘Go, Stella,’ she said. ‘Get on with you.’ How her voice sounded odd. As I waved to her from the train window, I saw her lips moving; I knew she was praying for me.
I lie on my pillow, her scarf pressed against me. I close my eyes, but can’t sleep.