Read The Silver Swan Online

Authors: Elena Delbanco

The Silver Swan (8 page)

“I think you’d best stay with us tonight, Anton,” Alexander said, taking his arm. Pilar glared at him. “I’ll put him to bed in my studio,” Alexander assured her, “and take him to his hotel in the morning. Look, he can’t even walk.” Sensing conflict, Mariana hastily left the foyer and went toward her
room. Turning back, she saw Pietovsky watching her over her father’s shoulder. He winked.

Late that night, he found his way to her room and crawled into her bed. He was in his underwear and reeked of alcohol. She didn’t want to cry out. He lay alongside her, running his hands over her body, murmuring, “Such beautiful girl, Mariana. I want you. I want to eat you, I want to fuck you.” He soon fell asleep, drooling on her pillow.

She placed a metal wastebasket next to the bed and crept out to the living room couch, taking his sable coat from the closet, wrapping it around her, and pulling it over her head. Early in the morning, she moved to her father’s studio and curled up on the couch Pietovsky had abandoned the night before. He left with her father to return to his hotel. Perhaps he was embarrassed or forgetful, but he never called to have her come to play for him. And she didn’t encounter the maestro again until eight years later when he attended her first recital in Moscow.

Mariana sat at her desk in the living room and looked at Claude’s flowers. She considered whether she would attend his concert and whether she could bear to encounter his mother again, to witness the spectacle of her triumph. She felt so painfully Alexander’s disloyalty, the punishment he had dealt her for failing to live up to his expectations, the final lacerating blow to what remained of her fragile sense that he had ever loved her. He had waited until he extracted every last drop of her devotion. Then, dying, he had delivered the coup de grâce.

The warming light of early spring greeted Mariana as she stepped out of her building and crossed the park. She walked briskly to Fifth Avenue and turned south, weaving among the baby strollers, single and double, pushed by young mothers and nannies on cell phones. Clusters of children in uniforms, coming home from East Side private schools, jostled her as they walked, teasing and shouting, excited by the newly warm weather. As she approached the Guggenheim, the crowd thickened with tourists speaking the mélange of languages so frequently heard in New York. She walked along the park, smelling the dank earth now coming back to life. Navigating the throngs of people surging in and out of the Metropolitan Museum, she thought about Claude’s invitation and hoped there was more to it than mere politesse.

After Anton left her, she had never again sought a relationship. Only seduction aroused strong feelings of desire in her — the man who appeared backstage after a concert to escort her to the reception, the technician in the recording studio, the stranger at a party, the lover who belonged to someone else. She wanted no more.

Alexander had schooled her in the feckless nature of men, and she had believed him. Men were adversaries whom she was challenged to beat at their own game. She made them want her and let them believe they had her, without ever letting herself be drawn in, sewn up, owned. Until Anton, she’d always slipped away in the end, returning to her Vuillaume and her career.

Leaning on the mottled stone wall bordering Central Park, she watched children running about the playground, swinging and digging and sliding. The riotous noise and
laughter amused her. Kids were adorable. She enjoyed her friends’ children up to a point. But she’d never wanted her own. Perhaps the biological clock everyone talked about would kick in; she was only thirty-eight. There was still time for an unexpected change of heart. Even the thought made her smile, it was so improbable.

She walked on, heading for Bergdorf Goodman. The lush scents of perfumes and unguents enveloped her as she entered the store, a relief from the omnipresent smell of horse manure around the Plaza. She wandered around the first floor, enjoying the luxurious bazaar, touching and smelling, and remembering with a shiver the days when she’d slipped costume jewelry into her bag, unnoticed, just for the thrill. Now, however, she intended to treat herself to the whole deal — the lingerie, the Zanotti stilettos, the new evening bag, scent. After all, she reasoned, what were credit cards for? She would buy the sexiest dress in the place. This time, she wouldn’t need the full, billowing skirt required for playing the cello. She would get something bone-clinging and gorgeous for Claude to peel away with his long fingers.

On the night of the concert, she put on the dress, a deep purple cylinder of watered taffeta, with a plunging décolleté. She wore her mother’s amethyst choker, small diamond studs she’d bought for herself on tour in Poland, and a black velvet cape. On her wrist, she clasped the diamond bracelet Anton had given her on her thirtieth birthday. She had pinned her dark hair into a swirling French twist; strands were already falling about her face as she got out of the taxi in front of Tully Hall. People on the plaza asked for tickets to the concert:
was plastered across the poster in front. In her new
and highest heels, she was taller than most of the crowd in the lobby, and heads turned toward her as she arrived, sweeping in on a gust of warm wind. The moment Mariana entered, she recognized familiar faces. It seemed to her the whole cello world had come to hear the Swiss virtuoso’s debut. People waved at her. Some pressed her hand. Several who had not attended any Feldmann memorial service condoled with her. Others asked how well she knew Roselle.

Heinrich Baum approached and embraced her warmly. “It has been too long since we’ve seen each other, my dear. I am pleased to have your father’s cello in the shop.” His German accent was faint. “But it is much more pleasing still to see his other treasure.”

“Flatterer,” she said, leaning down to brush her lips against his cheek.

“No, Mariana, I tell you the truth. Like the Stradivarius, you grow more beautiful each year.”

She answered, “Three hundred years from now, I might amount to something,” and he laughed. Then they spoke about Alexander, and Baum told her how much he was missed at Baum & Fernand, how gratified he would have been at Tully Hall this evening to hear his protégé play Brahms. “And think, my dear, how kind death was to him — it came so suddenly, without suffering.” As the lobby lights signaled the concert would start and the crowd advanced into the hall, Baum took her arm and murmured, “But how shocking the news about the Swan. We have both lost a very great deal. We must meet and talk.” Then he turned away.

Mariana settled in her seat: fourth row center, facing the cellist’s unoccupied chair. She noticed, one row ahead and to the right, Francine sitting with old friends of Alexander’s, the
Kappelmans. The lights flickered twice, then dimmed. After a long silence, when the audience had settled down, Claude stepped briskly onto the stage, wearing a tuxedo and a dark gray dress shirt. He held a cello in one hand, a bow in the other. William Rossen followed, and the two men bowed to each section of the audience. Claude’s smile was wide and his face radiated confidence as he acknowledged the extended applause. With a well-practiced flourish, he sat down, twirling the cello and placing it between his knees. She looked up at him. His chair faced her, his cello caught the light. It glowed a deep auburn gold. The volute scroll glittered and shone. Mariana gasped. Not twenty feet away, the soloist bent his curly head as if in prayer, then raised his eyes again and, glancing at Rossen, lifted his bow. He played the Silver Swan.


Having played his final encore, an elated Claude retired to the greenroom. A line of men and women stood waiting in the corridor. The room itself was mobbed. People filed forward for the chance to meet him, praise him, and ask him to autograph their programs or take a photograph together or sign one of his CDs. Across the room, William Rossen also shook hands and talked animatedly. Francine stood close to Claude, flushed with pride, speaking to his admirers as they moved on. Drenched in sweat, Claude removed the jacket of his tuxedo and draped a towel around his neck. Laughing, embracing them often, he leaned down to greet his admirers, speaking a mixture of languages. A laurel would have suited him tonight. He had played impeccably and had nothing to regret, no phrase to revisit. Now he could relax.

Heinrich Baum arrived backstage to relieve him of the Stradivarius. Baum held the cello in the corner next to its case, showing off the instrument and speaking of its history. Several people asked him what would now become of the Swan and, by prior agreement with the Roselles, Baum replied, “It is not yet decided. Or anyhow, I’ve not yet been
informed.” Claude, over his mother’s objection, had insisted that the news of his good fortune not be revealed until he spoke with Mariana, if she
speak with him, and there had not been sufficient time to change the printed program. Therefore, no announcement had been made as to his ownership of the Silver Swan. When he received the message from Mariana, accepting his invitation, he told himself he would play for both Alexander and his daughter. Her presence in the hall would validate his own.

Slowly, the greenroom emptied out, leaving only Rossen, the Roselles, and Heinrich Baum, who was taking the instrument back to the safe in his office. “I expect to hear from you before you leave on tour,” the dealer said as he fastened the case. “We have arrangements to make with Pierre. Can you come by the shop tomorrow?” Claude was more than willing. As Baum went down the corridor, Claude turned to William Rossen. “I can’t thank you enough,” he said, clasping the pianist’s arm.

“We must do it again, eh? It was a pleasure to work together.”

“I’ll ask my manager to be in touch with yours. Let’s get them to arrange some future dates. Next year, perhaps? The season after that?”

“By all means.” Rossen looked at his watch. “But now we’re late for the Libbey reception. We should get going. As you know, I have two young kids and they get up early on Sundays. No chance of sleeping in …”

“You go ahead. We’ll follow in a few minutes.”

Claude changed his shirt and combed his hair. His mother helped him into his coat. “Tell me honestly, Maman, what did
you think — you who are my sternest judge? What will you tell Papa?”

She laughed and reached up to kiss his cheek. “I’ll tell him you were a triumph and that you gave me the greatest joy I’ve felt in a long time.”

“Good,” Claude said. “Then I’m happy.” He paused, frowning. “Except, I have one worry — I haven’t seen Mariana. She didn’t come to the greenroom. Do you think something’s wrong?”

Francine’s expression changed. “You invited her to the reception. Surely she’ll attend, she is not rude. You mustn’t worry so much about her. We hardly know her, and only difficulties can arise out of knowing her better at this point. It’s all too complicated with the cello.”

“But wouldn’t her father have wanted us to extend ourselves to her? Isn’t that why he brought us together?”

“Come, let’s get to the party. I’m quite sure you’ll find her there,
. Your hosts await you.”

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