Authors: Laura Lebow
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IN LOVING MEMORY
OF MY MOTHER
The paper crackled as it hit the flames. From his place on the deep sill, the boy watched from behind the heavy golden drapes as it melted into the fire. He tried to keep perfectly still. They mustn't find him here.
How he hated these people, this house! Why had Papa made him come? It wasn't as if he really needed the position. His future had been decided at his birth. Why did he have to spend every day reading those dull books? It was no fun, none at all. Everything here was boring.
He stuck his finger in the collar of his shirt to loosen it. Why did they make him wear this uncomfortable uniform? He wasn't a servant. The trousers were too tight. He wriggled quietly on the sill, pulling the crisp white shirt from his waistband. The shirt was wrinkled. He'd hear about that. He was expected to take care of his own clothes here. But why should he have to? Why should he clean his room? Didn't these people know who he was?
He missed home. Everyone there loved to take care of him, to treat him the way he should be treated. Heinz pressed his clothes and helped him dress, and Liesl made his bed and cleaned up any mess he chose to make. Renate, the fat cook, always had a sweet for him when he visited the kitchen. He missed them allâbut especially Mignon, the little chambermaid, who willingly put down her broom and let him undress her whenever he wanted.
“Promise me you won't speak of this to anyone,” a voice said.
He heard a sharp laugh. “Don't worry about that. I don't want this getting out either. We'll keep it to ourselves.” Two sets of footsteps sounded, and the door closed.
The boy drew back the drape. Now
was interesting. Those twoâone always telling him what to do, as if their stations were reversed; and the other, always looking at him as if he were some kind of worm. If he told Papa what he had just heardâPapa wouldn't want him to stay here. He'd be able to go home.
As he glanced at the little notebook in his lap, he recalled his tenth birthday. Maman had hired a puppet company to come all the way from Venice to entertain him. What was the play they had put on? Something to do with two sets of lovers, a servant who causes all sorts of misunderstandingsâit had been funny, he remembered that. Afterward, the master had let him climb up above the stage, to see how to work the puppets. The great lady in the play had worn a dress of red satin, just like Maman's. But the puppet was made of wood. She was not soft to touch, and did not smell of French perfume like Maman.
could play the puppet master. He could pull a string here and make this one jump with joy, or slacken a string there and make that one collapse in sorrow. A snatch of music entered his head. It could be fun. And later, when it was finishedâhe would go home, to Maman and Papa.
The boy parted the drapes, climbed off the sill, and went over to the desk. He dipped a pen in the inkwell, and wrote a few notes in the little book. Yes. He
tell what he had just heard. It was the right thing to do. But not yet. No. Not quite yet.
Tuesday, April 18, 1786
Four acts. Fourteen ariasâtwelve complete, two more to write.
I waited as a cart laden with firewood trundled by, then I crossed the busy square.
All six duets are finished.
I turned the corner and began to pick my way down the dung-strewn street.
Three long ensemble pieces, one for each act except for
“Sir! Take care!”
I looked up. Two enormous black beasts hurtled toward me. My walking stick clattered to the ground as I threw myself against the wall of the nearest building. I clung to the cool, hard stone as the carriage raced by.
When the pounding of the horses' hooves had receded, I reached down and retrieved my stick. My cloak was splashed with dark stains. I raised the right sleeve to my nose and sniffed. At least it was only mud. Sighing, I calculated how much it would cost to have my cloak cleaned. There are days when I hate this city.
I've lived in Vienna for almost five years, but I've yet to become accustomed to the traffic. There seems to be a horse for every person in the city, and a vehicle for every two. The narrow streets are filled to overflowing with the gilded carriages of wealthy noblemen, the sturdier coaches used by bureaucrats and merchants, and the rickety wagons driven by laborers and peddlers. As a foot traveler, I put my life in jeopardy every time I leave my lodging house.
Lately, I've found myself longing for Venice more and moreâfor its dense maze of alleys and passageways; its serpentine canals; its broad, light-filled piazzas, where people from all walks of life mingle. The pace of life there is more civilized. But I could not go back. Vienna was my home now, and I was obliged to make the best of the opportunities Fortune had presented me.
It was with great relief that I turned into the small street where Johann Vogel had his barber establishment. When I reached the shop at the end of the street, though, the door was closed, the shutters drawn over the windows. I frowned. It was unlike Vogel to close on a weekday, especially when there was plenty of business to be had from the bureaucrats who toiled in the Hofburg offices a few blocks away. Vogel's establishment was popular among the Viennese. He was one of the new breed of men in the city who had left positions with the court or with noble houses in order to offer their services to the public in small shops and offices.
I knocked on the door with my walking stick. “Vogel!” There was no response. “Vogel! Are you there? It's Lorenzo Da Ponte.” No response. Damn. I scratched my chin. I desperately needed a shave. The deathly quiet of the shop was unusual. On a normal day one could hear the barber singing in his loud bass all the way down the street. Vogel was a burly, jovial man who would do anything for his customers. If you desired a new wig and did not want to pay the prices charged by the
he could find you a cheap one; if you were ill and needed to be bled, he could provide leeches at a low cost, sparing you the expense of calling on a surgeon.
I knocked and called one last time, and when there was no answer, turned to leave. I had not taken but two steps when a low moan came from inside the shop. I stopped. A moment later, another moan, followed by what sounded like a loud sob. I returned to the door and pressed my ear against it, but all was quiet once more.
“Vogel! Are you in there? What is wrong?”
A loud shuffling sound came from behind the door. A moment later, the bolt was drawn back and the door opened a crack. I could not see anything within, for the interior of the shop was pitch-black, and the sun in the street too bright. I pushed the door open with my walking stick and entered. The one-room shop was quiet and cool. A loud thump came from the edge of the room, followed by a thud. As my eyes adjusted from the sunshine outside, I made out the heavy form of my barber slumped in a chair in the back corner. I dropped my stick and soiled cloak on the floor and hurried toward him.
“Vogel? What is it? What is wrong?”
His head sagged as he clutched his arms together over his chest and rocked back and forth, moaning loudly. I leaned over him and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Are you ill? Shall I send for a physician?” I asked.
He ceased his rocking and looked up at me. Fat tears coursed down his cheeks. He drew a large handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose. “Oh, Signor AbbÃ©. It is terrible.” He took a deep breath and began to weep again. “I have lost my shop, signore.”
“What do you mean?” I looked around me. The small room had been stripped almost bare. The shelves contained none of the customary gleaming bottles of tonics and lotions, and the barber's chair in the center of the roomâthe latest model, Vogel's pride and joyâsat lonely in the shop, draped with a large cloth.
“I don't understand,” I said. “I thought business was good.”
Vogel blew into the handkerchief again. “Yes, it is,” he said. “But I am only making enough money to cover the rent and my living expenses, and to put a little bit by toward my wedding day.”
“Then how have you lost the shop?” I asked.
He stretched his arms in front of him and looked down at his hands. Even in the dim light, I could see his face reddening. “I am going to prison, Signor AbbÃ©,” he whispered.
“Prison! What have you done?”
“Debtor's prison, signore.” He looked up at me. “I borrowed some money from a lady in order to start up the shop. Now she wants full payment, and I cannotâ” His voice broke. “I cannot pay her.” He began to weep again. The handkerchief dropped to the floor.
My heart swelled with compassion for him. “What do you need?” I asked. “I have a bit of money set by. I could cover the loan for you and you could repay me at your leisure.”
“Oh, Signor AbbÃ©, you are truly a man of God,” Vogel said, grasping my hands. “But it is too late. The lady has already received a judgment against me. I am to go to prison today.”
“Surely if I paid her, she would petition the court to reverse the judgment. How much do you owe her?”
He reached to the floor and picked up the handkerchief. “Four hundred and ninety-two florins, signore,” he muttered.
I winced. That was nearly my annual salary as poet to the Court Theater. “I'm sorry, Vogel,” I said. “I'm afraid I can't handle that much. How long is your sentence?”
“One whole year,” he said, shuddering. “Now I will not be able to marry my Marianne. While I am locked away, she will find another man.” He buried his large face in his hands and sobbed.
I placed a hand on each of his wide shoulders. “Try to compose yourself. There must be something we can do to prevent this,” I said.
Vogel pulled away from me and rooted through his pockets, drawing out another handkerchief. “There is nothing to be done, signore,” he said, blowing his nose again. He sighed. “I thought I had found a way to get the money, but if I am in prisonâ”