Here's the opening chapters from my novel DANCES SACRED & PROFANE. Of all the things I've ever written, this is the piece I'm proudest of - and you can get this bleeding chunk of my heart and soul right here...
1./ I woke to a quickening pulse of green light through the shade across the sleeping compartment's window. I lay and stared at the irregular flicker, too warmly cradled by the soft sheets and the lullaby clatter of the train's wheels to feel any presbyterian compulsion towards a swift rising, such as a chilly Scottish morning would have stirred. When the guard's rap on the door announced breakfast, I dragged back the covers and stepped to the window, drawing up the shade to reveal that the play of emerald glints was the refraction of sunlight off forest boughs crowding the side of the track. I supposed we must be nearing the Austrian border.
By the time I had taken my seat in the buffet car, we were slowing into the little station at the border post, the officers there very decently waiting until we first class passengers had finished dining before troubling us over passports.
My own inspection completed, I strolled the platform, taking my first proper breath of Austrian air, finding it piney-sweet with the lazy ripplings of the ocean of trees on every side. I caught the tang of wood-smoke, a thin and silvery plume unfurling amid the tree-tops banked high on the left of the track. Behind me, past the idling chuff of the engine, I discerned the roar of water through the gorge over which a bridge had just carried us. From that same direction came a clang of cow-bells, but the forest's immensest sound was the all-surrounding chatter of crickets. I raised my face to the sun and, in the instant before the glare forced my eyes to close, gained a vision of mountains staggered impossibly high above the highest firs, their grey and white crags where greens and browns could not reach melting into a paler shade of the blue the sky wore.
I was distracted by a compartment door's flapping wide and thumping against the wood alongside. Two of the station's officers were steering a young man from my carriage across the platform, his tall body hunched in its ill-fitting grey suit. He glanced my way, forcing a smile past his lop-sided moustache. Another officer opened the door of a little shack on the platform and the young man was hastened through, eyes directed forwards once again, the clench of his features reminiscent of a pupil at Burns Street Primary School being delivered to Mr. McAllion for a dose of the strap.
Our conductor was hurrying towards me, urging me to get aboard. I made the condition of my return an answer as to what was happening. "Fraulein, Fraulein, this... this is nothing for you to worry, " he said. "He is just... the man is, ay, ein Slav, ein Slavisches Kriminal, ein Serb. Or a… a suspect, to be sure, There is trouble, you see, with the, the politics today. Yes? They will put him on the next train if all is well. Now, please, we must keep time for Wien. Bitte."
I climbed aboard. We started off. Through the window of the door that had just been slammed at my back, I glimpsed the young man beyond the hut's window, caught by the sunlight blazing into the first couple of feet of an otherwise dark interior. He was taking off his jacket, an oval stain of sweat on the rear of his white shirt. I started towards my compartment, the conductor's portly wriggle along the corridor at my back closing off all other avenues. He was already forcing on me the menu for luncheon.
We raced on through the Salzkammergut, the Austrian equivalent of our Lake District, although far more richly-forested and steeper in its mountains, many of which still bore streaks of snow and precipitous expanses of glacier. The track snaked high above the lakes, their glassy surfaces painted the brightest of blues by the sky’s reflection.
We wound by onion-domed churches, schlosses, hunting lodges, lakeside hamlets, pausing at a few of the larger spa towns. My attention was drawn south towards the middle-distance and the jaggedness of the Dachstein alps, these marking the border between the Salzkammergut and the more secretive district of Styria, in which I had come to work.
Styria's proximity brought anxieties about my new post buzzing forth, sharper than ever in their stings to my confidence. Queen of this swarm remained the fabled Carla. Why, I asked myself for the thousandth time, was I being hired by Mr.Barsett as English tutor for his daughters when he already employed a governess who, though Austrian, had been leading the girls through their studies in English with, from the sound of things, an assured command of the language and literature? Or were Mr.Barsett's British agents merely being discreet when I raised the subject at my interview for the post? Did our shared employer bear some essential dissatisfaction with Carla's work; was he waiting merely to ensconse me in the schoolroom before dismissing her? Was my term to commence with the ugly scene of a colleague's being expelled? Would his daughters cheer her going or reject me as a paternal imposition?
It was late afternoon when the train reached
Westbahnhof. Gathering my three cases, I descended to the platform. It was, of
course, a faux pas for a first-class
passenger to stumble under the burden of her own luggage and a bull-like porter
was soon wrestling the cases from my arms. He strode ahead, leaving me to keep
pace as best I could. The platform itself was a torrent of dismounted
passengers and greeters of passengers, amid which my eyes flitted in search of
an employer I had never seen before. Vienna
The arrest of my porter just short of the gateway onto the concourse, seized by a figure darting from the thickest concentration of neck-craners and arm-wavers, prompted a flutter of anticipation in my stomach. But no: this little man, small and thin-boned in his fussy movements as one of the pigeons fluttering overhead, the sags and wrinkles on his gaunt face combining with the white stubble under his bowler hat to indicate the further end of middle age, jarred unacceptably with my hypothesised image of Mr. Kenneth Barsett.
All the same, the fellow was submitting my porter to an interrogation under which the bulkier man tilted and nodded like a tree given brisk chops halfway through its trunk. As I drew close, the little man faced me. "You are, excuse me," he asked, his accent the softest shade of German, "Miss Isobel MacMurdo?"
"Yes, yes, I - " I had begun, when a broad arm, jacketed in dark blue, stretched between us, its powerful hand, a hint of dark hair on the back, passing a half-smoked cigar to the bowler-hatted man, who took it not to smoke but to cradle, dutifully.
"Of couse you are," rumbled a voice to make me think of a bear taking its honey-fatted ease against a sun-warmed rock. The distinctly English intonation, a hint of the rural south-west buried, perhaps, beneath generations of refinement, made me turn with a shiver of certainty as to whom I should meet.
Mr.Barsett, dwarfing my anticipations, doffed his Homburg hat from a head of dark brown hair thinly templed with grey.
"One catches instantly the accents of
Caledonia," he was saying.
Although in early middle-age, he retained a hint of youthful muscularity, his square-boned
face boasting a full but smoothly-trimmed moustache, its dark brown showing
hints of the darkest reds.
"I'm Kenneth Barsett," he said, “your affectionate correspondent.” His warm paw of a hand closed about the slip of skin and bone I sent to meet it, his deep brown eyes staring into my waterier specimens as if he were taking a professional interest in the precise shade of their blue.
"Shall we trot?" he continued. He signalled the other man, who nodded and completed a muttering of instructions to the porter before sending the fellow before us, the little man then passing the cigar back to his master and facing me with a nod and a doffing of his bowler.
"This is my man Clemens," Mr.Barsett explained. "Valet, majordomo, guardian angel."
"Miss," nodded Clemens before popping the hat back on his head and scampering after the porter, whom he appeared to correct upon the holding of one of my bags at an inappropriate angle. With the slightest touch at my elbow, Mr.Barsett signalled that we should follow.
"How was your journey?" he asked. "You certainly had a pleasant day for hurtling the width of
"Yes, yes, it was beautiful, very... very beautiful," I replied, struggling to keep pace with his stride. "I look forward to seeing Styria tomorrow. Oh... will it be tomorrow?"
"What? Oh... oh, yes. I apologise for this roundabout route, but when your arrival coincided with my bringing Anabella here, well, I thought it might be as well for you to make the trip to Scharlachklippe with us. And it does afford you the chance for at least a glance around the capitol. Before we hasten you to less civilised parts."
"And tell me, your daughter... has the doctor here been able to help?"
"Oh, he's looked into this and that without, you know these experts, commiting himself to a straight answer. Nonetheless, she's perked up since we've been here. I suppose Anabella’s at that stage of young womanhood where they’re susceptible to all sorts of... influences. Perhaps it was just in her mind. We did get rather cooped up out there this last winter. At any rate, we can be off after breakfast tomorrow."
We had reached the doorway of the station and an onward view, over the cluster of motor cabs and horse-drawn carriages by the foot of the steps, to where sunlit streets streamed together from several directions, rumbling on into a broad main street, this leading towards the centre of the city, the richly ornamented facades of the buildings gleaming above the traffic like foam-bows.
A further touch at my elbow steered me down the steps and towards one motor cab in particular, Clemens shepherding both porter and driver through a geometrically precise loading of my cases. Mr.Barsett ushered me into the cab's back seat, squeezing his larger form through to join me as soon as he had clinked change into the porter's hand. Clemens and the cabbie climbed into the front seats, the former muttering what sounded like not merely the name of our destination but instructions as to the avoidance of every intervening bump in the road.
We roared from the kerb, swerving into that great shop-lined street, the cab weaving through a dense fabric of motor cars, wagons, carriages, hansoms and electric trams, the bright wood, metal and glass of all these dazzling in their play with the late afternoon sunshine. I glimpsed curvaceous rooftops with gilded slates; palatial shop-fronts with extravagant window displays; blue-robed madonnas and pinkish-plump cherubs painted immensely on church-fronts, the heavenly figures seeming to float on the intervening telegraph wires as surely as on their painted clouds, these jostled by the scarcely less numinous goddesses of artful, but somewhat immodest, advertising hoardings. Accustomed to the dour Protestant architecture of my native
, I felt as if I
had stumbled into an operetta with a whole city for its stage. Glasgow
Our path crossed the Ringstrasse enclosing the city’s medieval heart, the sky-impaling steeple and zig-zag patterned roof of St.Stephen's Cathedral rearing above the chocolate box facades like a Dies Irae disrupting a performance of Die Fledermaus. As our car turned by the Opera House - achitecturally, more fist in imperious gauntlet than gilded temple of frivolity - and swerved along narrower streets, the cathedral’s soot-dark sonorities kept reasserting themselves between the gaily-coloured shopfronts.
Our final swerve and halt swept away all intervening architecture, leaving me, as Mr. Barsett helped me climb out, peering up from close quarters at the cathedral’s rowdy gargoyles and grimy sculptings of saviours and angels and Our Ladies, my gaze reeling all the way to a roof and steeple seen from the perspective of a beetle in a giraffe’s shadow.
So thoroughly did the building seize the attention that I thought for a moment Mr.Barsett's influence must have allowed him to gain accomodation for us under that towering roof. It was only with another touch at my elbow that he drew my attention to the other buildings in this cramped corner of the plaza. The nearest of them, a short flight of marble steps climbing to a gilt-edged doorway in its butter-yellow facade, was our hotel.
2./ Raised, by electric lift, to one of the hotel's topmost floors, Mr.Barsett left me at the door of my room before retiring through the next door along. "You're doubtless tired," he said. "I’ll leave you to get settled before introducing you to Anabella. She can be somewhat exhausting, even in a state of convalescence. We'll have dinner in her suite at, what, seven?"
My room, all gilt and marble and darkly varnished wood, deep carpet and mirrored glass, proved of a proportion equivalent to a good couple of rooms in the MacMurdo household. At the far end, french windows looked out onto gargoylings halfway up the cathedral wall, that end of the room's left hand wall dominated by the gilded framework and summer flower counterpane of a bed in which a lone sleeper could happily lose herself. By the opposite wall stood a long dressing table, its mirror of webbed venetian glass, a vase of dark blue flowers placed there, the moist petals flavouring the air with a scent suggestive of summer twilights, of the sated rest of lively things.
I opened the french windows, letting in a taste of warm air cooling with evening’s approach, then stepped onto the balcony, looking up at the late afternoon sunshine’s shimmerings along the green and gold tiles of the cathedral's roof, then down at the deepening of shadows amid the statuary.
"Don't worry - they won't bite."
The voice seemed to come from the air itself. I looked to the pavement below, but none of the tiny specks strolling there, for all the lengthening of their shadows, could have reached me with such clarity of voice.
"The gargoyles, I mean!"
The voice came again, its English words carrying a distinctly English tone. I looked to my right, but saw only the tall caryatid of white stone which stood there, one of two marking either end of my balcony. The figure - one of the goddesses of paganism, I presumed - looked across at its usurpers on the cathedral wall with an Olympian indifference to my presence.
A white garbed figure sprang into view on the caryatid's far side, catching at the stony folds of the goddesses's robe and stepping up, bare-footed, onto the stone rail of the next balcony along.
"No - Anabella...!" I cried. She watched me lunge to the brink of my own balcony, the soft pink of her lips broadening into a smile, their hue spreading across a strawberry-plump little face that had seemed, a moment before, scarcely less pale than that of the statue, particularly in contrast to the great unbrushed bundle of darkest red hair surrounding it. She wore a wisp of short-sleeved nightgown, its drapings and low cut at the breast making scant secret of a premature womanliness.
"Don't worry, I'm told Artemis here looks after reckless girls," she cooed.
"Well," I said, "as your new tutor, I'm assuming some of her responsibilities in the matter and insisting you get down from-"
Her father’s bellow from the room at her back carried such force that it almost shocked Anabella into the fall from whose brink it sought to rescue her. I stretched my arm before the statue's bulk, fingertips brushing the fabric above the knee of her outermost leg, the drop to the plaza whirling at the corner of my eye.
But then the leg was gone: at first, I thought, through a slippage over the top of my hand. But the words, "Alright, Pa, just playing around," from the statue's far side announced her landing on the safer side of the balustrade.
I drew back. Out of sight, beyond the statue, I heard Mr.Barsett's voice as he reached the balcony.
"What did you think you were-"
"I was - "
"Scaring the life out of me! Don't you realise, Annie, what I’ve been through these last... what you've put me... put us all through?"
"Oh, honestly Pa, I was quite safe."
"You don't know where your safety lies, that's the problem."
"Please, Pa, not this again."
"Did she teach you it was safe to flutter about like that on a top floor-"
"Oh, of course n-...."
"And to think I'm taking you back there tomorrow, to think I haven't had the nerve to - "
"I was simply introducing myself to Miss MacMurdo."
"There. I had to see round that blessed statue. I assume it is Miss MacMurdo."
The little face popped back into view.
"You are, aren't you, the Miss MacMur-Doh?" she asked in her sing-song voice, and now I could hear in the too-perfect elongation of her vowels the imprint of her Austrian upbringing.
"I'm sure I must be," I replied.
Mr.Barsett's head appeared above his daughter's, his own smile more triumph of engineering than true show of spirit.
"And this, I’m afraid," he said, "is part of the burden I’m placing in your hands."
"I’m sure you won't be a burden," I said to the lower face.
"Well," she replied, her smile receding into a frown of more ambiguous amusement, "I’ll do my best. You coming through for dinner?”
“Shortly dear, yes.”
"Got a rope with you?" she enquired. "You could swing over, like Anne Bonnie, the lady buccaneer."
"We've had enough buccaneering for one day, don't you think?" muttered her father.
"You'd hardly expect your father to employ a lady pirate as your tutor," I said.
"No, but we all have hidden talents, don't we, hidden to ourselves even, that only need a helping hand out into the light. That's what Carla says."
The repetition of that name and the affection in the shaping of its two short syllables left me feeling, as her father steered Anabella back out of view, something like a sting of jealousy.
Bathed and changed, I stepped into the corridor in time to see Clemens waylaying the waiter with our dinner trolley, raising the silver lid from every dish and giving the richly scented repast a disinterested sniff. The meat under the largest of the dishes met with a mild frown, prompting him to pull a tiny cruet set out of the inside pocket of his jacket, delivering a sprinkle of pepper so precise it looked as if he was counting the grains. A fresh sniff was succeeded by the trolley’s being waved through. Clemens gave me a polite nod and walked by, en route, I assumed, to a meal with far less care lavished over its preparation.
I followed the trolley through into a room as spacious and richly furnished as my own, but with the addition of an oval dining table in front of its french windows, the latter being closed by Mr.Barsett as I came in. Anabella was pulling a robe of pink silk over her nightgown but, upon seeing me, hurried across with it flapping wide, gathering my hands in a rather cool grasp and holding them up for a warm-lipped kiss. "I’m so glad you've come," she said. "We're all going to be such girls together."
"Miss MacMurdo is not a girl, my dear," her father interjected. "We have enough of those in the house already. Now fasten your robe, there's a waiter present."
"Oh, you're such a fuss-pot, " chided Anabella as she let go my hands.
"When you are older, you will appreciate how much parental fussing a daughter such as yourself makes necessary. Observe, Miss MacMurdo - I bring my ailing daughter to
for the good of her health and find
her flirting with doom on her balcony like a singularly precocious
"Hardly precocious," countered Anabella. "She was fourteen herself. Or so I’m told. Wasn't she, Miss MacMurdo?"
"Yes. Yes, she was," I replied, suddenly possessed of a fuller sense of what the bard might have been getting at in giving his heroine that age.
"Well," conceded her father, "I suppose so long as you can justify bad conduct on those grounds, there is hope for your education. What do you say, Miss MacMurdo?"
"I’m looking forward, more than ever, to having your daughter for a pupil."
"Excellent. Just keep her away from high balconies. Especially when the House of God is opposite. The Lord belongs to that category of bachelors who don't appreciate seeing young ladies in their bed attire. Oh… no offence, Miss MacMurdo?
"A relief! Shall we eat?"
I followed him and his daughter to the table, noting the bed’s tangle of recently vacated sheets and heaped pillows; I spotted, too, an array of little bottles of coloured medicine upon the dressing table. A scent hung in the air that might have been the camphorous flavour of these medicines, but which made me think more of the flowers in my own room, although no such flowers were present that I could see.
Our meal consisted of a thin, flavoursome broth with dumplings, beef spicily cooked and served with roast potatoes, spinach, horse radish and sprinklings of some rich herb, this followed by a fruit salad with yoghurt, our palattes lubricated with an earthy red wine that I sipped upon, as offspring of a temperance household, with the guiltiest relish, goaded to it by the sight of Mr.Barsett and his daughter drinking the stuff with continental ease. I had wondered how Austrian, how un-British, the Barsetts - all but the head of the household born in this other country - might prove. The sight of the youngest daughter soberly drinking red wine and chatting like an equal to her father and her new tutor suggested they were not very British at all; the thought proved treasonably reassuring.
We chatted of matters less than pressing: of my journey from Glasgow, of Vienna and then of Scharlachklippe and Mr.Barsett's glassworks and of how much I looked forward to meeting Julia and Marianne, who, I was informed, were matchingly eager to make my acquaintance.
"As is Carla," added Anabella, with what I thought was a flit of mischief across her features, a mischief directed at her father.
Mischief or not, this brought upon our conversation its sole uncomfortable pause, Mr.Barsett suffering a sidelong slump of the lower half of his face, as if the last morsel of his meal had been as sour as every predecessor had been delicious.
A gulp of wine stirred him to a shift of conversation and an invitation for me to stroll with him around the old town afterwards. "After all," he said, "with us leaving first thing, you won't have much chance to get a look around, not on this trip, anyway. And
is so much more
elegant after dark." Vienna
"Gosh," said Anabella, "you can see, can't you, how he's gained a reputation for leading young ladies astray."
"My daughter," he countered, "is something of a fantasist and I, alas, as a too tolerant father, am a pliant subject for her distortions. I assure you, Miss MacMurdo, you will be steered as close to the straight and narrow as the Ringstrasse allows."
"Besides," added Anabella, "I bet she's got some beefy Scotchman at home who'd sail over and biff you on the snout at first report of a flirtation. I bet you do, Miss M."
"I’m happy to be called Isobel," I replied, "and I’m in no doubt as to how trustworthy a gentleman your father is."
"That's been said before," she grinned, "and look what-"
"Annie!" her father growled.
"But is there someone? There must be!" she said. "Some poor fellow left on the dockside, kilt blowing in the wind, tootling an elegy on the bagpipes as you sailed for your new life."
"I left behind nothing but a life outlived," I answered, feeling strangely relaxed in the fulness of my statement, a phenomenon likely attributable to my unfamiliar pleasure in the wine.
"Oh, that sounds intriguing!"
"It's quite alright," I went on. "There was someone, yes. A fiance, no less. His name was, is, Hughie."
I mean, sorry, Miss-...Isobel. What
happened to the happy pairing?" Pa.
"You've been nosy enough already, dear."
"No. It's no secret. It was my fault. I withdrew from the engagement."
"Good on you."
"Why? Was he a brute? Or was it just the thought of being a Mrs.Hughie?"
"The thought, I suppose, of being no more than the wife of a battleship designer in a Glaswegian suburb. I’d spent enough of my life with my head in a book to be aware of a world beyond such things. Painfully so, since I thought myself unlikely to ever see any of it. Until, that is, I chanced upon your father's advertisement."
"I hope it wasn't that," said Mr.Barsett, "which provoked the break-up."
"No, sir," I replied, looking his concern as tenderly in the eye as I dared, "I had commited myself to answering your advertisement long before chancing across it. If that doesn't sound too fanciful."
"It sounds, rather, as if I’ve found a teacher with more to offer my daughters than such qualifications and experience as I had the right to request," he mused, his great brown eyes meeting mine with more directness than I had dared attempt. I diverted my own gaze to a stirring of my coffee.
"Here's to making something of our wildest fancies," declared Anabella, raising her glass in a toast.
"Here's to learning sound lessons from them, at any rate," said Mr. Barsett, doing likewise.
"Here's to life," I blurted, blushing as I clinked my coffee cup against their wine glasses.
3./ I returned to my room to prepare for my stroll, Anabella given parental consent to accompany me. Lying across my bed, leaning on her elbows, head propped on one palm, she watched me refresh my make-up, change slippers for boots and then select one of my lighter coats, chattering with, or rather at, me like a schoolfriend with a rich fund of schoolyard gossip.
Certainly I heard more than could be fair about her sisters, Julia - "watch she doesn't do her Folies Bergere act on you; any hint of a receptive audience and she'll turn cartwheels to win your heart and wriggle out of her homework" - and Marianne - "Marianne's like a book in a foreign language the author's too highbrow to allow to be translated. I’m her baby sister and I’ve never been able to get past the first couple of chapters. Even Carla's charms took a while to tease her down from that tree-top of bluestocking aloofness she roosts in."
"How, I wonder," I ventured, "am I to compete with a teacherly achievement of such magnitude?"
"Oh, it'll hardly be a case of competition, will it?"
"I mean, you and Carla, you're..."
"You have such different things to offer."
"You think so?"
"The moment you meet Carla, you'll know the difference I’m talking about. Even if you're still struggling for a name for it a year from now."
"All the same, I trust Carla and I won’t wind up treading on one another's toes. Educationally, that is."
"Your toes, certainly, are safe. Educationally and otherwise. You'll find Carla a very considerate, a very loving, person."
"If I can win her professional respect, that'll be consideration enough."
"Not for Carla, it won't. She approaches nothing professionally, least of all her teaching."
"If that's a recommendation, you'd better not let your father hear it. He might... "
I drew my tongue's tip clear of the remainder of that statement, worried it might sound like a wish. But as I stared guiltily at my reflection in the dressing table mirror, Anabella breezed on with her tribute.
"What I mean is, everything Carla does is... is an act of... well, love, sort-of. And what pursuit's more amateur than love? I do know my latin!"
"But what is it love for, I wonder?"
"For being alive."
"That covers a lot of ground."
"Carla certainly does."
I swivelled on the stool.
"You're beginning to make this mere professional feel inadequate."
"Carla won't. Carla makes everyone feel good about everything. Except Pa, but that's just a misunderstanding. It'll get sorted out. Carla'll win him over."
"You're sure she isn't an angel in disguise?" I pondered.
"No," smiled Anabella, "I don't think she's that."
I began brushing my hair. Anabella scampered across.
"Oh, let me have a tug!" she chirped, snatching the brush and setting to work on a vigorous fluffing of my hair.
"What lovely fair curls,” she said. "Just wait till our Styrian sun shines on them. You’ll never want to go home."
"Anabella...?" I asked.
"What sort of illness was it?"
"Pa must've told you."
'Oh, it was-"
"I hope you don't think I’m - "
"No. It was... nothing really. Pa's such a worrier. I got a little tired sometimes, and then some other times I was so full of life I exhausted everyone else. I’d have dreams more real than my waking hours and wake, suddenly, and get the two all jumbled ."
"What sort of dreams?'
"Oh, I hardly recall. It was more the feeling they provoked."
"And that feeling was...?"
"Oh, a lot of things, running together.”
“Oh… Warmth, softness, dancing, drowning, smothering, dark, light… a light in the dark, blue or green like... like under the sea or in a forest at night. Dreams full of that foresty smell, like... like pines , you know? Peppery sweet. And water, I think, somewhere, shimmery, like in moonlight. And eyes. Eyes all black and gleaming like… like some beast breathing on me in the dark. Warm… And a face."
"A beast’s face?"
“Oh no… No. I don’t think so.”
“Whose face, then?”
"I don't know. The face would kiss me. The kiss had a taste, the sweetest taste of... oh, who knows? Anyway, I sometimes slept right through the day, made up for it by roaming about all night. All over the place. Around the house. Out into the garden. The forest, even."
"I’m not surprised your father was worried."
"Everyone was worried. They thought I was sleepwalking, because I didn't talk to them when they tracked me down. But actually I was quite awake."
"Why wouldn't you talk?"
"Too busy with my own thoughts."
"What sort of thoughts?"
She shrugged, gave a lop-sided smile.
"Poems I made up inside my head."
"Have you written them down?"
She shook her head and grinned.
"Why not?" I enquired.
"I didn't, I suppose, reckon they could be put on paper. They'd soak through. Like water. Or blood from a cut finger."
"You could speak them. To a sympathetic listener."
"I have. To Carla."
Again, that jealous pang.
"And what did she think?"
"Oh, you know Carla... oh, you don't, of course..."
She gave a thoughtful half-smile.
"Carla is very indulgent of her girls. – There, what do you think?"
Her reflection stepped back from the simulacrum of Viennese sophistication into which she had brushed and pinned the roadside furze of my Glaswegian crop.
"I only worry about the capacity of the rest of me to live up to it," I replied.
"Have no fear," she grinned. "I never heard of Pa failing to help a pretty young woman feel like a lady."
I rose and drew my chalk-blue jacket over a tingle of ludicrously disproportionate anticipation. Anabella, meanwhile, had taken one of the dark blue flowers from the vase on the central table, sniffed inside the V-shaped cup of its petals, then snapped off the greater part of the stem, approaching me with the flower-head. "Here," she said, slipping the remnant of the stem through my lapel’s buttonhole, "a final touch. Perfect match for the moonlight, don't you think?"
"Thank you,' I said.
"Goes with your jacket," she said.
"Yes," I replied. "Must be fate."
"The hotel placing that shade of flowers here," I explained.
"What... oh, they didn't," she said. "I put them here."
"I see. I thought I smelled them in your room. That was kind."
"Carla gave them to me. When I left Scharlachklippe. Picked them herself. No one knows the forests like her. Thought I’d pass them on to you. The smell kept me awake at night, thinking of home."
There came a rhythmic knock on the door. Anabella darted across, granting access to her father, who had slipped on a light overcoat. He looked my way and nodded.
"Very nice," he said. "You've done, haven't you, something, um, your hair, isn't it?"
"Your daughter must take the credit."
"Why shouldn't she?" he said. "She claims all else I have to offer."
"I only wonder," suggested Anabella, "if she can be entrusted to you without a chaperone."
"Well, you're in no condition to volunteer. Just as well, since the sole risk to the harmony of Miss MacMurdo's evening stroll would come from the nonsense you might spout. Now, if you'll return to your room and get a good night's sleep like the innocent lamb you are, we grown ups can be on our way."
"Oh Pa, it's so Victorian of you to attach a moral dimension to unconsciousness. I reckon it's in my dreams that I’m least innocent."
"Then it's to be hoped Miss MacMurdo's good works will seed that pretty head with a healthier crop of fancies."
"Unlike Carla, you mean!" she giggled, darting out of the room. Her father sighed. "These past few months, it's either been like that, or... I worry if I take her to task, she... she'll break in my hands."
"But with spirit like that, she must be on the mend."
"Heaven knows, I hope so," he muttered, looking less than convinced.
4./ Vienna was, as he had promised, a different city at night, though still busy with pedestrians and carriages, motor cars and trams, the sparks from the steel arms the latter extended to their overhead rails like spillings over of the city’s nocturnal energy. Coffee houses and restaurants, their doors and windows thrown wide to the warm night air, likewise spilled their chatter, laughter and song across the pavements, accompanied by music ranged from piano janglings and hurdy gurdy trundlings to the sentimentalisings of solo violins and the revelry of gypsy bands, all the way up – via the occasional sardonic note from a cabaret - to the strains of "Tannhauser", the melodies of the Venusberg audible through the Court Opera’s half-open windows. The city's domes and spires and voluptuous statuary stood gilded by the street-lamps against the sky’s slow drift of dark blue clouds across an ocean of stars.
By the tram terminal alongside the Danube canal, Mr. Barsett bought a bag of roasted chestnuts and we moved to eat them by the rail overlooking the water, both nuts and bag too hot for me to get a proper hold, a problem he remedied by boldly popping a couple in my mouth. I accepted the tongue-pinching smoky richness with the appropriate blushes, masking my deeper pleasure in the pampering. A barge puttered by below, undulating reflections of the city's lights.
"Those books you requested arrived last week," he said. "If there's anything else you need, don't hesitate to ask."
"I will, thank you."
"An interesting selection."
"Oh yes, yes. What I’m looking for, as you've plainly appreciated, is an education appropriate to young women rather than children, and young women of this new century, at that. I may not want to be bullied under my own roof by a horde of bluestockinged suffragetes, but there’s a certain spirit in my girls and I’d be loathe to see it diluted entirely into frilly-minded mediocrity. I’m a father comfortable with a degree of, shall we say, disciplined liberality in the schooling of his daughters.”
“I trust I’m the tutor to satisfy both halves of that equation, sir.”
“Mm.” He looked more solemn. “It's the disciplinary half of the equation I’ve recently suspected to be lacking at Scharlachklippe."
He turned, strode off, leaving me to match his pace. I followed him along the next stretch of the Ringstrasse, this taking us alongside the Stadtpark, at the bottom end of which a café orchestra serenaded a terraceful of diners with an extract from Cosi Fan Tutte. Beyond the park’s railings, pale sculptures of the city’s great composers haunted the pathways amid the dark greens of the foliage.
"How do you feel about Carla?" Mr. Barsett asked.
"Carla? Well, I... I haven't met her...."
"No, I mean the idea of Carla, of working in tandem with her."
"I’m sure we can arrange an appropriate division of duties."
"It must seem odd, nonetheless."
"My taking on a second tutor when there's one already with her feet under the table."
"I supposed you thought it more suitable to entrust the teaching of English to someone who knows it as a native."
"That wasn't entirely it. Hardly it at all. It was more a question of... of character."
"Hers. Carla's. And its influence on my daughters. She has a... a vivid character. What I’ve seen of it."
"You must, by this time, have seen most of what there is to see."
He paused, facing me. Even on that brightly lit street, his face seemed weighted with shadows.
"I doubt I’ve seen the half of it."
He gestured that we should cross the road. "I've come to suspect our Carla," he went on, "holds richer depths of character than she displays to me, currents she invites only a selected few to swim, that run into such rapids as could, I fear, drown the unwary."
"You mean your daughters?"
"But if you think there's... danger..." I stuttered, lost as to how figurative his language was intended to be.
"I’m not sure it's the sort of danger that would count as a dismissable offence," he said.
“Not so far as I can see. But, as I say, I doubt I’ve been allowed to see very far. Besides, I suspect my daughters long ago accepted her invitation to plunge in and be carried past my reach."
"You must know, sir, how concerning this sounds," I said, to which he further unsettled me with a broad smile.
"And yet, when you meet her," he replied, "you'll mutter that their poor Pa’s gone off his head. Perhaps that's the reassurance I’m looking for. But wait. See if suspicions don't grow, like weeds, in the chinks of that wall of charm between you and what she's truly up to. Be on the lookout for a sense of things concealed behind that wall, things you find no evidence of by the time you skirt around it. See if the absence of such evidence doesn't strike you as questionable in itself."
"Surely, sir, when there's no evidence of secrets, the question is whether there are secrets at all."
"Yet the odd hint can hardly help but escape.”
“Oh… whispers on the breeze, gestures at the corner of your eye, glimpsed through doors almost closed. Laughter through the wall, feet, bare feet, scampering in the passageways, long walks, brief disappearances, tiny darts of figures, far off, between the trees, doors eased through muffled clicks, an occasional slam - snap! you're awake in the middle of the night. Scribblings flashed back and forth in the schoolroom, witticisms from the girls the impertinence of which you can only see after the fact. And then, of course, Carla herself. The smile, the charm, the look, the... the so on. That sense, always, of a deeper laughter - at me?”
He paused at the corner of a street leading into the old town, dragging out a handkerchief and mopping beneath the brim of his hat.
"You..." I ventured, "...you've spoken to her about these things?"
“To Carla? I haven't the faintest notion what I’d say. She is, at the most conspicuous level, an excellent governess. The girls are devoted to her. To the extent, I have no doubt, where they'd never forgive their old Pa if he were to dismiss her on anything less than the most damning evidence."
"Then what, without evidence, do you intend to do?"
"Precisely what I have done. I’ve employed a second tutor, a dependable, straightforward, Scotch sort of tutor, so that at least one half of their education will be conducted in an orthodox and trustworthy manner."
"You make me sound so terribly boring."
"It's easy," he said, "to romanticise anarchy when you haven't had it trailing muddy footprints across your carpet. You seem to me a conscientious professional. That may sound less exciting than Carla-ish shenanigans, but recent experience has left this employer inclined to welcome sobriety."
"And what if," I ventured, "Carla perceives the criticism of her own approach?"
"That might be no bad thing. She might realise my girls aren't her playthings."
"It would... discomfit me to think I was being hired as some sort of… agent provocateur."
"Well…” he smiled and sighed, "…perhaps your real task here might be to provoke a little common sense in all our heads, feverish as they’ve occasionally grown this last month or two. Help us see things with that fresh eye of yours. Help this old fool, certainly."
"The first impression of my fresh eye," I said, "is of a man who loves his children and would give his all to know them safe. I don't think that could be accounted foolish."
"Certainly, I suspect I had one clear-sighted moment, at least, when I chose you for this post."
"I hope I can live up to your first impression of me."
"You will," he grinned, taking my elbow once again, guiding me to where the pinnacles of St.Stephen's loomed. "I just had another of those clear-sighted moments."
On the way along the corridor to our respective hotel rooms, he suggested we look in on Anabella. We found her bed empty.
5./ Mr.Barsett rushed to the bed, ripping off sheet after sheet, as if expecting to find her buried in a hollow in the matress. As he looked under the bed, I called Anabella's name and stepped towards the bathroom. This too was empty. I returned to the bedroom to find Mr.Barsett in the centre of the floor, staring at the thin blue curtains across the french windows. "Is that window open?" he murmured.
Tiny inward shifts of the left hand curtain confirmed this. The cathedral's bulk obstructed the direct fall of moonlight upon the fabric and we were too high above the street lamps for their light to throw any distinct shadows onto the curtains, but indistinct shadows were there aplenty. Mr.Barsett grabbed the curtains, tore them open.
Anabella, segmented within the panels of the left-hand french window, which was open by the merest sliver, stood with her back to us, leaning over the balcony's stone rail, clad only in her white nightgown, her bare feet, soles grey-edged with dirt, poising her on tip-toe.
"For God's sake, girl-!" growled Mr.Barsett, tugging the french window wide, almost giving me a black eye with its edge. He seized his daughter, tugging her round, shaking her. Anabella's head swayed amid a billow of dark red hair, her pale little face holding the dreamy, quizzical look of one surveying the assault from a considerable distance.
The shaking petered out, Mr.Barsett looking more unsettled by its violence than did his daughter. A serene smile stirred her face. Her father stared into that smile, then tugged her to his chest in an embrace rougher than the shaking. He whispered into her ear and then slackened the bear-hug, guiding her into the bedroom.
I lingered outside by the balcony rail. Something flapped behind me. I turned to see a flicker of white wings trace a long, shallow arc from the wall immediately below me to the far corner of the cathedral's sooty bulk, losing itself amid the overhanging angels and devils.
My gaze traced an arc of its own to the plaza below, snagging, for no obvious reason, on a couple of silhouetted figures walking the lamp-lit paving stones between hotel and cathedral, the hint of an initial jerk to their movements making me wonder if they hadn't been looking up at this balcony, turning away only on seeing my gaze about to meet theirs, the long shadows they trailed reluctant, even now, to quit the scene. They were, distinctly, the figures of a man and woman, both dressed in black, the woman caped and crowned with trimmings and tall hat of feathers and fur, the two-handed grip the man had about her elbow and the fraction of a step she kept ahead of him suggestive to me, in a clench of intuition, of the man's being blind.
"Oh Pa, you're such an old worry-wart," Anabella was giggling. I stepped into the bedroom to see her sprawling across her bed, walking her feet playfully up the stomach and chest of her father. He caught the feet by their ankles, swinging them under the sheets, tucking the covers about her.
"If you've caught a chill," he was saying, "and you probably have, you've defeated the purpose of our coming to
in the first place." Vienna
Anabella laughed, stretching her arms in a feline yawn. "Honestly, Pops, I’ve never felt healthier. Touch of night air does the world of good. Any sawbones would say so."
"I think the average sawbones would abandon his calling confronted with too many patients like my daughter," he retorted. "I suggest, Miss MacMurdo, that we take our leave of this little mistress of the vanishing act before we inspire her to another performance."
I kissed her good night, her skin still cooled by the night air. "I’m so glad you've come," she said, her smile suddenly drowsy. "We'll have a time together, won't we?"
"You'll find my sisters a chore, but Carla... Carla will make everything seem..."
Her eyes moistened, her smile dwindled. She looked past me to her father.
"Sorry, Pa," she said.
"That's alright," he said, settling himself on the edge of her bed. "Just don't frighten your old Pa again, hmm?"
"I will try," she said.
"That's all I ask," he responded, settling the most delicate of kisses on her cheek. She curled onto her side, pulling the covers about her face and closing her eyelids, a tiny creature of immense vulnerability.
Her father remained at her side until she was asleep. Then he rose and signalled that we should leave. He paused at the door, took another look at her before switching off the light, then followed me into the corridor, easing the door closed.
"She's on the mend, I’m sure," I ventured.
"She seems fond of you already," he said, eyes still on the door.
"A definite advantage to the performance of my duties."
"Not only an advantage in that regard," he said, turning to face me. "I want you to feel a member of our little family, not merely its employee."
"If I take to your other two daughters as I’ve taken to Anabella, I’m sure I will."
"They'll take to you, I don’t doubt. But that meeting lies some distance away and you've done a deal of journeying today, so I’ll let you retire."
"Good night, then."
"Wait -…" he said. He extended his hand for the flower Anabella had attached to my buttonhole, tenderly drawing it free, drinking in the scent that clung to it.
"This was a nice idea," he murmured.
"Your daughter's idea."
"It wouldn't have occured to her," he smiled, "if you weren't someone it suited. I’ll keep this, if I may. As souvenir of our Viennese stroll."
"The flowers were..." I blurted, in a spasm of honesty, "...they were a gift, I understand, from... from Car...Carla...." The short word made an awkward passage across my tongue, a sharp-edged jewel caught in my mouth.
Mr.Barsett's smile dwindled. "Oh yes, of course," he sighed, staring at the flower, "I remember now."
He turned and walked to his room, taking the flower with him, yielding me not another glance.