Authors: Aubrey Flegg
In the Claws of the Eagle
Wings Over Delft
, Book 1 in the
‘A remarkably engaging story, in which themes of love, art and history are
combined. The unfolding narrative is dramatic, passionate and brilliantly set. The quality of the writing throughout is superb and the ending unforgettably moving.’
Robert Dunbar, critic and broadcaster
‘The gentle love story takes the reader through dark intrigue, religious unrest and the palpable, cultural atmosphere of life in a Dutch city, to an unexpected conclusion. A well-tailored and absorbing read for adults as well as for age 12-plus.’
The Sunday Tribune
‘Flegg gives us an exquisitely crafted novel which will stay in the reader’s memory long after the closing pages are read. The ending is unexpected and dramatic and leaves the reader eagerly awaiting the subsequent books in the
The Rainbow Bridge
, Book 2 in the
‘An original, interestingly-imagined and challenging book. Its finely-textured writing with historical flavour and a strong plot make this a rare achievement.’
The Irish Times
‘Flegg is one of the finest writers of children’s literature in Ireland today. Many passages in this novel are a pure pleasure to read.’
Book 3: the
trilogy is dedicated
to Bill Darlison
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four,
and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God,
and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropt in the street,
and every one is sign’d by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are,
for I know that whereso’er I go,
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.
Walt Whitman. ‘Song of Myself’ Canto 48.
In the Claws of the Eagle
is dedicated to
The children of Terezín
I am once again deeply indebted to my family and friends for their help, criticisms and observations, this time with the writing of
In the Claw of the Eagle
. I particularly thank my wife Jennifer for reading and commenting on my manuscript, for her patience and support, and for her skill with
during our travels.
I would like to thank Maeve Broderick of the
Royal Irish Academy of Music
for allowing me to attend a series of master classes for violin students of the Academy. And so too Mary O’Brien, whose master classes were an inspiration not only to her students but to the writer in the audience. Violinist Clodagh Vedres gave me her time and help, particularly with the question of musical memory. Rosemary O’Connell helped me with some of the German words used in the text, and Ewa Rudolf gave Helena Stronski her name, and also provided me with the Polish for
. I, however, claim sole responsibility for any errors that may have crept in.
My thanks to Mandy Gelbmann for suggesting Mödling as an appropriate retreat for Izaac, and to her and her family for their hospitality when we
that lovely little town.
I acknowledge with gratitude the
Arts Council of Ireland
for travel and mobility bursaries that enabled me to research the Paris side of this story and also, while on another mission, to visit the Terezín Concentration Camp near Prague. A week’s residency at the
Tyrone Guthrie Centre
at Annaghmakerrig provided the starting blocks for me at the commencement of this project.
Finally, grateful thanks to Michael and Ivan O’Brien, and all at The O’Brien Press for their skills, patience, encouragement and good humour. To Íde ní Laoghaire who has been a guiding light throughout the writing of the
trilogy, and especially to my editor, Mary Webb, for her inspired suggestions, and meticulous editing of this book, my heartfelt thanks.
Nearly two hundred and sixty years before Izaac Abrahams was born in 1910, a master painter, Jacob Haitink, who lived in the tiny town of Delft in Holland, undertook to paint the
of a sixteen-year-old Dutch girl, Louise Eeden. He did so against his own best judgement because he knew that if he failed to capture this girl’s illusive beauty it would destroy him. But he did succeed, just as she succeeded in capturing the heart of his young apprentice Pieter. When the portrait,
his finest work, was nearing completion, the Master prophesied that one day, long after they were all dead, Louise Eeden would live again in the hearts and minds of people who saw her portrait.
And so it happened. Certain people, who had the eyes to see, were indeed so captivated by the girl in the portrait that she became real for them, and shared in their lives. Gaston Morteau, a young French hussar, who rescued her painting from a Dutch canal, had Louise as his riding companion as he crossed the frozen Rhine and journeyed south through France. Young Pierre, his cadet – too gentle for a soldier’s life – turned to her portrait to tell her of his fears, and of his heart’s
yearnings. Then there was Colette, the girl who was destined to become Gaston’s wife. There was also the Count du Bois, in whom dark forces stirred, so that not only her portrait, but Louise herself were put in jeopardy.
When her portrait was sold to a Jewish pedlar in exchange for a few trinkets, Louise was ready to move on.
In the Jewish pedlar’s family, Louise found herself valued: first as an investment, then as a work of art, and then as a
to Mitsu, the teenage son of the family. When the family were forced to flee France, following a local pogrom against the Jews, they crossed the border into Switzerland. It was with Mitsu that Louise saw mountains for the first time, and stood on a bridge, watching the pearl-green glacier-water creaming over the rocks of the riverbed. For several years they shared each other’s interests and activities.
Mitsu had hoped to get an apprenticeship as a clockmaker, but soon found that the clockmakers of Switzerland kept a closed shop and did not take kindly to strangers. Then one day, desperate for work, he undertook to mend his landlady’s piano and discovered that he had perfect pitch. His ear could tell him to the tiniest turn of the tuning key if a string was in tune or not. With Mitsu’s new-found skill, the fortunes of the Abrahams family changed. Mitsu’s descendents all had good or perfect pitch and followed his trade as piano tuners. They graduated from pubs to parlours, to drawing rooms, to concert halls. But they also migrated, inching eastwards towards
and ultimately to Vienna, the music capital of the world. Here, David Abrahams and his brother Rudi divided the great concert halls and salons between them. Though they were too busy to pay more than passing attention to the portrait that had hung on their walls since they could remember, Louise never
felt neglected; she had a place in their lives, even if it was now a passive one. Then, in 1910, baby Izaac was born to David and Judit, and Louise was to find herself called back to action by an imperious demand from a most unexpected quarter …
It was a spring morning; a light breeze stirred the muslin
in front of the open windows of the Abrahams’ apartment in Vienna. Motors passed, horses clopped, and carriages
clattered on the cobbled street below. Trams hissed and clanged over the nearby crossing. Izaac Abrahams, aged three months, stirred restlessly in his pram; his nurse Lotte had placed it facing the wall with instructions for him to ‘go to sleep!’ But Izaac had no intention of going to sleep; he had just learned to put both of his big toes into his mouth at the same time, and was in urgent need of an audience.
For some time now he’d been examining an object on the wall above him. The image was a bit fuzzy because his eyes didn’t focus well on distant things yet. His view of the world was, therefore, mostly made up of shapes and colours. There were shapes that didn’t move and on which no amount of charm had any effect, then there were shapes that did move, and therefore had to be entertained. For these he reserved a repertoire of gurgles, squirms and smiles, or if these failed, a variety of cries, roars and wails.
Nothing was moving now so he turned his attention back to that thing on the wall above him. For some reason he felt it had potential; there was a shape inside it that intrigued him; he gathered himself to work on it.
Louise felt Izaac’s attention on her as a flow of energy, a small dynamic focus in the already sunlit room. At first glance there didn’t seem to be anyone else present, but energy was clearly coming to her from somewhere. She was out of practice and was bothered that she could see no source for this
. Izaac, however, sensed her growing interest and tried an exploratory:
She looked down in surprise. Two large eyes, inky pupils bright with curiosity, were staring up at her picture. She had to smile. To her amazement he smiled back, tentatively it is true, but a smile nonetheless.
‘Well, who are you?’ she asked herself. He wriggled – she smiled; he tried a gurgle – she smiled again; they could go on like this. Now he tried her with his word again, repeating it in case she hadn’t heard.
‘Ba … ba?’ Now Louise laughed outright. That was all the encouragement he needed. He lifted both legs in the air and whumped them down on the bed.
What followed was a gala performance of all the tricks that Izaac knew, the climax of which was, of course, putting both big toes in his mouth. He concluded the show with his own tumultuous applause. Louise joined in, it didn’t seem to bother him that her applause was silent; he was a very engaging
. The effect of all this attention was, of course, for him to start again. It was when he started on his third performance that Louise began to get a little desperate. She had no
of babies; she was afraid of encouraging him and equally afraid of stopping him. Fortunately at this moment Lotte appeared.
‘Ach Liebchen, du bist so
Little one, you are happy!
She picked him up and turned her back, leaving Louise with a glimpse of a triumphant small face looking at her over Lotte’s shoulder.
As the days, weeks and months passed, Louise became
fascinated with Izaac, and she could see him growing, not just in body but in mind. It was like watching frost patterns growing on a windowpane; tiny branches thrusting out,
, spreading until they met and became part of a network that was a small human being. Because the music room, where her picture hung, was where he was put to rest in the
, Louise had him to herself. Sometimes he would be
to watch the shifting light on the ceiling. On other occasions his urge to show her what he was seeing was so strong that she would find herself seeing the world through his eyes. When a bumblebee landed on his pram and then spread its wings, unfolding them like transparent fans, and flew off with a buzz like a hornet, she experienced anew his surprise and amazement at the phenomenon of flight. Then the vision would fade, and it might be weeks before he felt compelled to share some other experience with her. How was it that this little fragment of humanity had such complete command over her?
But, now that Izaac had co-opted her as an audience for his dress rehearsals for life, Louise joined in with enthusiasm. It was she who first saw him rise up from his stomach like a
until he formed a hoop and then, miraculously stand. She also saw him take his first steps, and later heard the cries of joy from the next room when he gave his first public display of this new skill. Months stretched to years. For long periods Izaac would appear to forget about Louise. Then something would arise and he would urgently require an audience. On
other occasions he would go out of his way to avoid attracting her attention.
It was young Mitsu (Izaac’s great grandfather) who had
music in Louise’s life, when he had reassembled his landlady’s piano in Switzerland, and in doing so had
his perfect pitch. As the three generations of piano tuners had worked, struggling to establish themselves, there had always been a piano, harpsichord or other instrument in bits in the parlour. Later, as the family flourished, and there were workshops to which these poor wrecks could be banished, there would be new or borrowed instruments for the family to play on. None of them played the piano professionally but they were enthusiastic amateurs making music for the love of it. Also it went down well with clients to hear short pieces played when the tuning was done. Inspired perhaps by the music in Vienna, or even to get away from pianos for an hour or two, the family turned to strings. Soon there were violinists, viola players, or cellists in the family ready to play the duets, trios and quartets that they loved. As they always played in the parlour, Louise was in on their performances and on their practising too. It was as if they enjoyed having someone to play for, often positioning themselves so that they could play to her portrait.
She had become used to their Jewishness as well.
observant, more often not, they struck her as being very comfortable with their God. Their main observance seemed to concentrate on the ancient traditions that welded the
together. On Friday nights, in particular, music and tradition were melded together on the eve of the Jewish Sabbath. She would look forward to these evenings with relish. One evening, however, things did not go quite to plan.