The Hourglass

By Liz Heron

A novel about time and ageing, love and opera, set in a Venice that's constantly changing and forever stays the same

Legal men were everywhere in this city, and I sang one evening at a gathering of eminent lawyers and advocates; it was leavened with doctors, for they too abounded.  I began with a series of Haydn songs, the music set to English words, then Scottish folk tunes to poems by Robert Burns.  I often liked to end with Mozart, and had chosen a lied, Das Traumbild.

Intent upon conjuring this dream picture, I was gratified by the attentive silence that accompanied my singing. A warm late-summer breeze entered through the floor-length windows. The large drawing room was brightly lit and I had a clear sense of the many eyes upon me.  Only the shadowy area beyond its wide-open double doors, where gentlemen stood smoking, contained any movement, as guests made their way into the room; murmured conversation could be observed in the gestures of these figures, although no sound of it disturbed my concentration or that of my listeners.

Suddenly, I noticed a commotion there: a man rudely attempting to push into the main part of the room.  Someone held him back.  I sang on, concerned that nothing should impinge on my absorption in the music.  I faltered, missing only a single beat, when struck by the knowledge that the man was George Lake.

I dared not look at him; yet my determination not to have my performance ruined by his arrival impelled me to even greater bravura than I would otherwise have achieved.  I was doing battle, music being my great weapon, my singing self my strongest one.  As my voice grew in richness and expression, as I found more tenderness and meaning in the sounds that I shaped, so my own strength increased, and while my all was surrendered to the song, so that I and it were now inseparable, I could feel another part of me, deep and distinct, at work in making a decision that might save me.

George Lake was not to have me back.  I was untouchable, my own mistress and no man's slave.  I sang on, conquering my terror and knowing that my salvation lay in denial.  I sang on, fierce with music, curbing my gaze, rehearsing for a part.

The applause was broken by a shout.

– Eleonora!

I ignored it, nodding gracious acknowledgement to my audience, before turning to my accompanist.

But George was upon me, seizing my hands in his.

– Eleonora!  I have found you at last.  Forgive me.  I know not what I did to make you leave me, but it has been my torment.  Now, I promise you, I shall make you very happy.  Let us leave at once, I have a carriage outside.

Astonishment almost made me succumb to recognition, but I shook myself free.

– How dare you, Sir.  You mistake me for someone else.

I looked around.  I intended to turn this public scene to my own advantage, to rally sympathy and protection.  My face displayed outrage.  I appealed to my hostess.

– Please!  Mrs Ross, I do not know this man.

George turned nasty on the instant.

– You shameless vixen!  You're my wife and well you know it!

Shaking my head in a show of utter incomprehension, I did not waver.

He caught my arm, but Mrs. Ross outfaced him and he let go.

– She's my wife, I tell you, Eleonora Lake, Eleonora Marini as she was.

– Sir, I ask you to leave my house, Frau Mittner says you are mistaken.

– I know my own wife.

I walked along a precipice whose edge would crumble were my willpower to weaken for one moment.  I cast Eleonora into oblivion and infused Lene Mittner with all the conviction I could muster.  My eyes flashed indignation.

– I, Sir, know my own self.  Better than any man might know his wife, therefore my claim is a superior one.

There was a hush.  I wondered had I overstated my case.  Fear made me doubt whether I could stand my ground, and whether George might have evidence or witnesses.  I was in a room full of advocates, in a city where the plain truth had a kind of unvarnished holiness.  Everyone was watching.  Although I could count on sympathy, for I had kind acquaintances in this company, I would still have to prove that I was in the right.  In a French or Venetian salon things would have been different.  Indeed, I realised that I was not in a salon, where wit and poise are what matter most, but rather in a courtroom or dissecting chamber.

This second comparison occurred to me when I caught the eye of Professor Monro tertius.  He was giving me the keenest of looks.  I did not flinch.

George clearly felt something of this atmosphere, for he addressed himself to the room.

– She left me a year ago, deserted me with a quantity of debts she’d run up.  But I forgave that.  I wanted her back, to take care of her.  She was my whole life, only wanted to help her career.  At the King's, you know.  I got her an engagement there.

I bit my lip.  This was sheer provocation; I resisted.

He paused for effect, placing his hands on his head.

– I was desperate, travelled everywhere searching for her.  I placed advertisements in the press.  Look, gentlemen, this came in answer.  Here is proof that she is lying.

He fumbled in his pocket and produced a letter.

... a lady resembling your wife goes by the name of Elene Mittner and sings in Edinburgh's best houses...

I let a gasp of indignation leave my lips.  I was not the only one.  A man I knew by sight as a practising advocate rose from his seat and approached George.

– May I see that, Mr Lake.  My name is Hector Bailey. I’m a legal man.

– Then you’ll know that the law is on my side.

George smirked as he held out the letter.  Advocate Bailey read it at a glance.

– Mr Lake, this by no means constitutes proof of your claim.  The best it can say for you is merely that Frau Mittner may indeed resemble your wife.  What evidence do you have that she is your wife?

George had put himself inadvertently at a disadvantage by assuming that his certain knowledge would suffice as proof, and failing to anticipate my lack of corroboration.

– No!  She is Eleonora. Look!

His next piece of evidence was a portrait, a miniature he had done of me at the time of our wedding.  The artist was a fashionable mediocrity.

At this, Professor Monro tertius stepped forward.

– Allow me please, to compare the likeness.

He studied it closely, and he studied me, his eyes shifting rapidly between us, me and my painted image.  I quailed at this scrutiny, my hands clutching at the skirts of my dress for steadiness.  I managed to keep my face composed. Mrs Ross must have seen the stress I was under, for she found me a chair and helped me to sit down.  Hardly a breath could be heard in the room.  Everyone waited for Professor Monro to speak.  His judgement, I knew, would be accepted.  Few medical men in Edinburgh had his standing and authority, perhaps only his father, Monro secundus, ranked higher.  His grandfather, Monro primus, has been the first physician to hold the chair of anatomy at the University, and it had been in the family since 1720.  All three were Alexander, hence their distinguishing appellation by number.

Professor Monro tertius brought his face close to mine and his eyes roved across it in a thorough inspection, then, holding the miniature by its silver frame in his left hand, with his right he gestured, rather theatrically I thought, towards the room in general.  Of course, he was used to wielding a lecture baton before a large audience; it was in his blood.  That and a scalpel.... I shuddered at the thought.

– If this is a likeness of Frau Mittner, it's a poor one.

The words were pronounced with an abruptness that suggested finality.  But he proceeded to present the substance of his conclusion.

– Look at the brow.  It's a fair bit higher than Frau Mittner's.  Though I'm not saying hers isn't a handsome one.

No one else could see the miniature well enough to judge, so all eyes were turned on me.

– The nose is longer, as if the artist flattered himself he was a painting a member of the royal family.

There were titters at this.

– And the chin is too prominent, too pointy.  Now, look at the lady's.

I began to redden.  Professor Monro tertius could have been more delicate.  But medical men are blunt, and he was used to showing off corpses.

– Last, but not least, the eyes.  Frau Mittner has a fine pair of eyes, as all of you can see, and these eyes are like hers, the same shade of blue, the same sparkle.  But they're deep-set, and hers stand out more, and I'm not convinced they're the same.

He paused and leaned towards his audience to encourage them to listen hard for what was coming next.

– Let us suppose that Frau Mittner was indeed the artist's subject. The image is approximate enough for it to be possible.  But he failed, for it is not good enough to offer anyone a valid record of this lady's countenance.  If Mr Raeburn were here with us tonight, I'm sure he would only bear me out.  But, alas – with this he turned to impress that keen look of his on George – he’s in London for a wee while, and much in demand by those who can afford him.

George smarted visibly. Did he know Henry Raeburn's work?  I had seen enough of the artist's portraits hanging in Edinburgh's grander houses to share the Professor's view that he was beyond George's pocket.  The Professor placed the miniature on the top of the fortepiano.

– If this is your evidence, Sir, then I suggest that the law will judge it inadmissible.

With a curt bow to me, he walked away.  I felt myself released by his and Advocate Bailey's judgments of the weapons against me, and I wanted to put a distance of several streets between myself and my husband as fast as I could.  I stood.  George glared at me and as I moved away, shunning him, he lunged heavily and almost knocked me off my feet.  He caught me in a tight locking of arms and began to drag me towards the door.

– You're coming home, Eleonora.  I don't give a damn what your Scotsmen have to say on it.

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