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Authors: Susanne Dunlap

The Musician's Daughter

BOOK: The Musician's Daughter
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To sweet Sofia and dearest Charles,
the two youngest people
in my family


he night it all began, I dreamt that Papa returned from the concert with a new violin for me. I lifted it out of its wooden case, excited to play it, but it slipped from my hands to the floor and smashed into splinters. I still remember how desperately sad I was, holding the one thing I wanted more than anything in the world—my own violin—and before I knew it I’d broken it beyond repair. In the dreams my father’s face looked more sad than angry. I reached out to cling to him and ask his forgiveness, but he, too, slipped from my grasp, becoming a column of mist drawn out through my open window by the wind that banged the shutters against the house.

I woke up suddenly with the word “Papa!” in my throat. It took a moment before I realized that the knocking I heard was not the shutter from my dream, but someone at the door. A voice yelled, “
Machen-Sie auf!
Open up!”

At first I was relieved. No trea sured violin had been broken. Then I wondered who would make such a noise in the middle of the night. I pulled back the curtains around my bed, threw off the comforter, and ran in my bare feet to the door, dashing past my mother, who had also been awakened but could only hobble slowly because she was very pregnant.

“Theresa Maria! Get away from there. You’ll be seen by God knows who in your shift!”

I didn’t pause, not caring how I was dressed. When I reached the door, I drew the bolt and yanked it open. I hoped it was Papa, knocking because he had forgotten his key. We had all stayed up late waiting for him to return from playing the violin at a concert in Prince Esterhazy’s winter palace. But he hadn’t come, which wasn’t so very unusual on a Christmas Eve, when there would be much merrymaking after his work was finished, so at last we had gone to bed. Mama had looked a bit worried, but I was certain Papa had simply gone drinking with his friends. The musicians would have received their annual bonuses from my godfather, Kapellmeister Haydn.

The next few moments were very confusing. Three men wearing cloaks with hoods drawn over their faces pushed into our apartment, struggling with a large, black sack between them. They laid the sack gently on the floor, and then one of them—I still can’t remember which—took a small dagger and split it open down its middle.

“Maybe you shouldn’t look,” said a voice I recognized as Heinrich’s. He spoke with a rich baritone that reminded me of the horn he played.

“No, they will have to see him,” said another of them, who I later realized was Jakob, the timpanist.

My mother stood next to me holding the lamp up high with one hand and clutching her shawl closed at her throat with the other. My little brother, Tobias, was still asleep, and Greta, the cook, hadn’t stirred—nothing woke them. Mama and I were frozen to our spots like the icicles hanging from the eaves of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Just thinking about them made me shiver.

Or maybe I was shivering because of what the sack contained.

Even though I was several paces away and the light flickered in the wind that whooshed up the stairs through the still-open street door, I could see that it was my father. I recognized his slender face with its high forehead, pronounced cheekbones, and the tiny dent in his chin. But why wasn’t he moving? And why was his mouth so dark? I crept closer, fascinated and repelled at the same time, until I could see that the strange color was from the dried blood that had caked on his lips and frozen in a trail out of one corner of his mouth and down his cheek.

My mother had inched forward with me, her hand on my shoulder. I felt her grip loosening and turned, catching hold of the oil lamp just as she crumpled into a heap on the floor. The men, who had stood around breathing heavily after their exertion, sprang into action, two of them rushing over to help Mama. I don’t know what made me do it exactly then, but I puked all over the boots of one of them, realizing as I did so that it was poor Heinrich, and noticing vaguely that his boots were covered with sandy mud.


he third man, the one I had not yet identified, approached and spoke to me from deep within his dark hood. “Are you all right, Rezia?”

I didn’t look up. I didn’t have to. Only Zoltán called me Rezia. Zoltán was one of the young Hungarian musicians Kapellmeister Haydn had engaged to play in the string section of the orchestra. He was good enough at both the violin and the viola to fill in wherever necessary, and sometimes even played the cello. “I’m better now,” I answered. “Someone should take care of Mama. She is near her time.”

Even before I spoke, Heinrich had scooped my mother up in his arms and Jakob opened the door of her bedchamber. The two of them went through to settle her just as Greta emerged from her sleeping alcove, looking like a mountain of snow in her huge white nightgown and cap.

“Fetch a doctor!” she said.

Zoltán shook his head. “It is too late now.”

“No, for Madame Schurman. The shock—it is not good for a lady in her condition.”

“I’ll go,” said Jakob, who had just returned from Mama’s room.

Zoltán had his hood off now, revealing his face, still wet from the snow, and still handsome despite the drawn look and the shadows beneath his eyes. I glanced out the window and could see the big flakes coming down in the dark, slapping now and again against the panes. Zoltán would not look directly at me.

I had the most peculiar sensation that I was still in my dream, only my dream had become real and transformed into a nightmare. Every so often a wave of something terrible washed through me, but I was afraid to let it take over, and I willed my heart and mind not to feel anything. There would be time later. As Zoltán spoke, I knelt down by my father’s side and picked up his left hand. It was very cold. I knew it was his because I could feel the calluses on the tips of his fingers that had come from years of pressing down and sliding along cat-gut strings on a fingerboard. His calluses were harder than the ones that had just started to form on my own fingertips from playing the viola—not the violin, which was what I really wanted to play.

“You have to tell me,” I begged Zoltán. “You have to tell me what happened.”

“We don’t know. We found him like this.”

“Where? Why?” I wanted answers. Right away. I wanted answers or I wouldn’t believe it. Papa wasn’t really dead. He would open his eyes and wake up, laughing at the joke he’d played on us all, just like Godfather Haydn, who led the orchestra and was always playing jokes.

Zoltán held a handkerchief out to me. “I can tell you nothing more.”

At first I didn’t understand what the handkerchief was for, but when I touched my cheeks, I realized they were wet.
I must be crying,
I thought. I took the cloth and buried my face in it.

I had the briefest hope that when I looked up again, I would discover that none of what had happened that evening was real. Of course, it all was. I cast my eyes around the parlor, which somehow felt overcrowded and empty at the same time. I knew that room without ever having really noticed it before. All the familiar landmarks were there: the hooks on the back of the door, the new black stove in the corner, the chairs with their seats worn shiny from years of sitting. Yet something was wrong—missing.

All at once I realized what it was. “Where is Papa’s violin?” My father never went anywhere without his violin, and he would have had it after the concert for certain. The violin was as much a part of him as his right arm.

“I cannot say. We found him, that is all, and it was too late.”

know anything?” I asked, turning to look toward Heinrich, who had returned to the parlor.

“Perhaps you and your brother could come and stay with us for a few days,” Heinrich said.

I didn’t want to stay in Heinrich’s noisy house hold. He had six children, with a daughter about my age who used to be my friend, and I would no doubt be called on to help change soiled linens and give the older ones their lessons. No. And I needed to stay here with my mother, and if I stayed, so would Toby. He was only eight. I thanked God that he was still asleep. I wanted to be able to explain it all to him when he woke up, before he had time to be confused and frightened. Yet why wouldn’t anyone tell me what had really happened? “Where? Where did you find him?” I asked again.

Heinrich was about to answer, but Zoltán stepped forward and cut him off, giving him a fierce look. “By the river, some way out of town.”

I thought about this for a moment. “The concert was at the palace.”

“We went—,” Zoltán began, then passed his hand across his forehead. “We went to the tavern afterward.”

Suddenly I felt as if someone had driven nails through my knees and I would never again rise from the floor.

“Did he fall? Was it an accident?” I looked back and forth between Heinrich and Zoltán.

Zoltán shook his head but did not look at me. “No. It was no accident. Someone must have killed him. Perhaps a thief.”

This was too much. I could not think about that. Not yet. And I could not stay there, in the middle of our parlor, in the middle of the night. Papa could not stay there. Zoltán and Heinrich and Jakob, when he returned with the apothecary, could not stay there. “What must I do?”

“He should be laid out, soon. Do you know how?” Heinrich asked.

I was about to shake my head “no,” but then I realized that I did know how. I had watched the women dress my grandmother’s body for burial the year before. They closed her eyes, washed her down, and put her in her favorite clothes before folding her hands across her breast. I remembered that there were three of them, though, and she had been on a table. And they had a casket in which to place her afterward. “I know how it’s done but I’ll need some help.”

At that moment, I heard the sound of a curricle drawing up before the door at the street, and the jingling of harness bells and the squeak of springs complaining as someone got down from it. Hurried but quiet footsteps on the stairs followed. Jakob entered without knocking, leading in the apothecary, Herr Morgen, and his wife. They crossed themselves when they saw my father.

“I’ll see to Frau Schurman,” Herr Morgen murmured, stepping gingerly around my father’s body to pass through to the bedroom, where Greta had remained. I could hear my mother moaning like a dying cat. I wanted her to be quiet so that Toby would stay asleep, so that I could have until morning to think of what to say to him. “Oh Papa,” I whispered.

“What’s to do, what’s to do,” Frau Morgen muttered, getting right to work around me. I didn’t move.

I heard the three musicians who had brought my father’s body home all shuffle out of the apartment at once. I’d like to think it was Zoltán who rested his hand on my head for a moment before he left.

My mind was racing and numb at the same time. What could have happened? Father was well liked, and always with his friends. Who would have murdered him? And his violin—where was it? Had it been stolen or just lost?

“Hold that, my dear,” Frau Morgen said. I took the bit of sacking in my fingers, not looking. “Now, you wash his face and I’ll take care of the rest.”

I took the damp cloth Frau Morgen gave me and wiped at the blood on my father’s mouth, but I had to turn away.

“That’s all right, dear,” she said, taking back the cloth. “Tomorrow we’ll see about a funeral. Do you have any money?”

I couldn’t answer. Papa was supposed to bring the money that night. Just once a year, I felt as if we were rich. Last year the gift from the prince had paid for our new stove. This year it was to be for Toby, to purchase his apprenticeship to a violin maker.

“That’s odd,” Frau Morgen said, more to herself than to me.

“What?” I asked, still unwilling to look.

“Well, just that you’d think they’d have stolen this. It looks valuable.”

She extended her hand toward me. Lying in her palm, coiled up like a tiny, sleeping snake, was a medallion on a chain. It appeared to be made of gold. I turned my palm upward, and she let the chain and the medallion fall from her hand to mine. It felt heavy and cold. Perhaps it really was gold.

“A family piece?” she asked.

I shrugged. “I suppose.” The medallion had some writing on one side in an odd language, and on the other the head of a hawk or an eagle. In truth I had never seen it before and could not imagine what it was doing in my father’s possession. But I didn’t want to get into a long discussion with Frau Morgen, so I slipped it into the pocket of my shift.

“Now let’s move your dear papa. The table in the dining room will do.” Greta and Herr Morgen came out just in time to help us.

I believe that was the moment at which I began to laugh. Not just a stifled giggle, but helpless, tears-in-the-eyes guffawing. All at once the image of us seated around the table together, plates empty and knives at the ready with the esteemed Herr Antonius Schurman, violinist in His Highness Prince Esterhazy’s orchestra stretched out like a centerpiece, was too hilarious. And now that he was all tidy and his eyes had been closed, my father looked as though he were just taking a quiet nap and would awaken, refreshed, at any moment, and enjoy the joke with us. There was something different about him, though. The man I knew who had taught me his love for music along with the skill to play, despite my mother’s complaints that a viola was no fit instrument for a lady to master, had never been in the house that evening. He was somewhere else. Looking down from above, perhaps, for I had no doubt that, faults and all, he had gone straight to heaven.

So, shaking with unseemly laughter, I helped Frau Morgen, Herr Morgen, and Greta shift the stiff body from its place on the floor to a state approaching dignity on the table, where we most certainly would not break our fast the next morning.

BOOK: The Musician's Daughter
10.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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