“Mariam Tenger, Madam.”
The maid stood back to admit my guest. I knew her at once. She was not “Mariam Tenger” at all.
Those smiling, innocent eyes and upturned face had scarcely changed since her childhood. She used to hide behind my skirts when she was eight years old, too shy to show her face in front of visitors. The years roll back and I am once more in our Ofen town house, high above the Danube, with little Marie and my ever-grumbling mother.
“Marie Hrussoczy! My dear girl.” I held out my arms and my visitor crossed the room to embrace me in a rustle of silk. Clearly she was doing well: her clothes were tasteful and practical, but finely tailored. A wedding band glinted among her rings. “Sit down, my dear, and tell me everything.”
Marie, beaming, settled herself on the cushioned settee nearest to me. “I had to come and see you, Countess Therese. Everything I am and that I do now, I owe to you. I was so excited when I heard you were passing through Vienna.” Her gaze bounced off the wooden walking stick propped against my chair. Probably she would be wondering, in tactful silence, whether a lady of my years should be travelling at all. Yes, my dear: I should.
“I am spending some time with my nieces - my darling Blanka has had a difficult decade and she is leaving for Paris to build a new life. Now we are going to Dresden, but we had just once more to see Vienna…” I did not mention that this might be the last time I would ever visit the city of our dreams.
“Blanka Teleki?” Marie’s eyebrows lifted.
“Finally she is released. Ach, terrible, terrible, what has happened to her. There is no limit to the cruelty in this world. Yet no limit, either, to its wonders…”
Marie gave an earnest nod. She had a writer’s eyes. Eyes that notice: sensitive to atmospheres, the unseen, the unspoken, more so than we who deal in daily realities and politics can afford.
She would be perfect.
Marie was in her late thirties, blooming with health. In contrast, the curve in my spine has grown considerably more pronounced and I give thanks each day that my sight and hearing are still keen. My distorted back is not the worst problem one could have at eighty-four. I can still play the piano, write and enjoy seeing friends or courting supporters for my schools and the associations. I spend my days as I have for years: correspondence in the morning, a light meal at lunchtime - I do not need to eat much - and for two hours in the afternoon I practise the piano.
My youngest niece, who lives in Ofen as companion to Countess Banffy, has met Franz Liszt and presented me with copies of some of his works. But I always return to my volumes of Beethoven. Their spines are almost as bent as my own, and sometimes pages fall out, taking the Master’s annotations with them. I mend those precious books as tenderly as I would bandage a child’s injured hand. The music inhabits my fingers the way Beethoven himself inhabited a room. Sometimes I think he has taken possession of my bones, sinews and guts.
My visitors may come either before lunch or after five in the evening for kaffee und kuche. Now the maid placed a three-layered silver stand on the table and stood poised with the cake slice, smiling, waiting for Marie to choose a piece.
“Don’t pretend you don’t want the Sachertorte,” I encouraged. It was invented when she was eleven and Vienna went mad for it; we’d waited impatiently down the Danube in Ofen for the patissiers to filch the recipe.
Near the door a mahogany clock was grinding towards the half hour chime. Clocks are a comfort to me. We should not forget how few hours we have left. I don’t sleep much. I can do that when I’m dead. To live is to be awake. Every morning either the maid or poor Blanka has woken me gently at my desk, where I’ve fallen asleep around two o’clock at night.
“Countess?” Marie had finished her cake while I was rambling on.
“I gather you are a very successful writer, my dear. Tell me, why do you write?”
Marie took a minute to consider. “I don’t know,” she said. “Perhaps I want to feel I’m producing something that will give people pleasure for a long time. Something to leave behind - a legacy, of sorts.”
“I understand.” That is why I do what I do, too.
“Actually, I brought you a copy of my new book.” Marie opened her hold-all and extracted a small volume bound in green, which she placed proudly in my hands. It was the first part of a three-volume novel, entitled Drei Cassetten. She had inscribed on the flyleaf “For my dear Countess Therese, with profound gratitude, from your pupil, ‘Mariam Tenger’.”
“You chose an interesting name: exotic, rather oriental… At least you have not taken a male pseudonym.”
“I might try that next,” she said. “They might sell more copies.”
“And next, you want to write - ?” I guessed what was coming.
“My next book is about Ludwig van Beethoven.”
“Any particular aspect of our great Master’s life?”
“You know about the letter?” said Marie. “The mysterious, unaddressed letter to someone he calls his ‘Immortal Beloved’. They found it in his apartment after he died and it is in Schindler’s biography.”
I closed my eyes: there he was. I could feel his presence as strongly as if he had just walked in. He always seemed to fill a whole room when he entered it; one might imagine his body became as sizeable as his spirit – despite that terrible old green coat of his. Something to do with how he moved, the length of his stride, the tilt of his head as if facing into the north wind…
Marie was looking at me with concern. I must stop drifting off when people are talking to me, or they might think I am about to die.
“You’ve found out who she was?”
“I was hoping that… perhaps I can be the one who does. Oh, Countess Therese, you knew him so well. You must have some idea who Beethoven loved?”
“Have you seen the letter itself? Is it genuine?”
“I visited Schindler and he showed me the original.” Beethoven’s elderly secretary used to totter about declaring himself the Master’s closest associate and spreading lies. To make matters worse, he was now tottering about our family home at Martonvásár. Franz had been far too good to him.
“I wondered if it was a forgery,” I admitted. I wouldn’t put anything past Schindler.
“It is definitely Beethoven’s writing. I promise, Countess - there’s no doubting its veracity.”
“Schindler the Swindler…Forgive me, dear, for speaking ill thoughts - but, really. Poor Luigi couldn’t stand him!”
“The Master. I called him Luigi. Many of us did, in my circles. What did Schindler say?”
“He says it’s Giulietta Guicciardi, and he says your brother confirmed it. She was your cousin?”
Good brother, Franz. Well spoken. “So why are you asking me?”
“Because I don’t believe them.”
Not so good. I leaned back in my chair. I had been waiting for this chance. How kind of Marie to provide it.
“It’s funny you should say that,” I mused.
“Tell me?” She was holding her breath.
“Because, my dear, I myself was the Immortal Beloved. And if you would like to tell the world about it in your new book, it will be not before time. I can swear, with hand on heart, that the only man I have ever loved was Ludwig.”
Though tears were now quivering in her eyes, Marie was a professional. In no time her notebook and pencil were in her hands, poised and ready.
“I first met the Master,” I began, “not half a mile from this room. The year was 1799…”
My dear niece,
I can still picture your expression when you came in and heard the news of Marie Hrussoczy’s visit. But the story I must now tell you will take longer than one session of kaffee und kuchen, and you, closest to my heart among all alive today, deserve to know the whole of it. May I suggest you find a quiet, private place to read and absorb what follows.
It is, of course, not 1799 at all. Our story begins well before that - with my grandfather Anton von Brunsvik family’s purchase, through a “donation” to both sides of its lineage, of a huge sweep of puszta, the Hungarian plain that spreads far beyond the line of land and sky, southwest of Ofen and Pest.
It was useless. In some places, a marshland. A few peasants and shepherds lived in desultory huts, dotted about, working any fertile land or tending the animals. Nothing much existed here after the Turkish occupation flattened everything within sight.
But in the middle of it was Martonvásár, a higgledypiggledy little town filled with the sound of hooves on cobbles and everywhere the strains of the gypsy violinists playing on the corners for money from passers by; and beyond the town stood our home, the castle where we grew up and where the story that Marie will tell began in earnest. As did the real one…