Song of Salzburg by Jen Geigle Johnson
Freya Winter rested the back of her hand on her mother’s forehead. “Are you well enough, Mama?” Leaving her mother while she was in a bout of coughs felt like a betrayal.
“I am well enough. We all know I will not die from this, but I envy your crisp mountain air. If I could just leave London and the filth I breathe here every day . . .”
“You could stay in Paris with Grandmother. Then I will see you when I visit from Salzburg.”
She closed her eyes. “I am too tired for the journey.”
“Or perhaps you will vacation to Brighton as you have so long desired.” Freya hoped her father would grant this one wish. Her mother would benefit from the sea air, and Freya could leave for Salzburg with less guilt.
When her mother fell asleep, Freya joined her father at the breakfast table. He was reading the paper. As usual, he’d set the gossip columns aside, perhaps hoping Freya would take an interest in the social lives of those around them. This morning, she didn’t even pick up the pages to appease him. “Mother would do well in Brighton.”
“Yes.” He read a moment more.
“Do you think you will be able to take her?”
After a moment, he lowered the paper, his thick eyebrows, perhaps intimidating to some, drawn together. “I’m doing my best, Freya. It would help if you were also doing something.”
The hurt caused her hands to clench and nearly managed to bring tears, but she swallowed twice and then sat up taller. “I will only be gone a few months.”
“Yes, and what good is it doing anyone? If you would stay here, take an interest in a courtship, marry . . . I would like to pass along some of my work, then retire and go to Brighton with your mother.”
“But perhaps a vacation only? And then, when I return, you might retire.” This old, tired conversation seemed to be the only thing her father ever wished to discuss of late. She was not opposed to marriage, but when she compared it to creating music that carried her away, running a violin bow across strings, joining large orchestras, traveling, and playing for others, marriage just seemed . . . meant for a later time in her life. She was not entirely to blame. No men had yet seemed interested in her, not once she started talking about her music and her violin. Their eyes glazed over, and no amount of dowry could convince them that their future wife would be a musician bluestocking. She’d turned many away by her actions before her father realized what she was doing.
“It’s expensive trying to marry you off. And when you wile away your time, we wait, your mother ill with the London air. And I work myself to the bone so that we can have all that we do and to keep you here in London Season after Season.”
She knew some of his complaints were just talk; he had given his heart and soul to the railroad. What would her father be if not the great mogul of the Stonebridge Railroad? But she also sensed that things were not as successful as they had always been, that he was stressed much of the time and perhaps really would prefer to retire.
“And what does my violin playing have to do with your retirement?”
“My daughter, we have long given up on you marrying . . . After years of staying here, keeping a house on Grosvenor Square, building up your generous dowry . . .” He stopped talking and rubbed his eyes. “But what to do with you? You need a purpose, a situation, a living to care for you once I’m gone. And music doesn’t provide that, does it?”
She didn’t even feel offended by her father’s dismissal. He had good intentions. Her heart was so far from railroads and gas and running companies or even in marrying that she knew she would be hopeless in most pursuits other than music.
“Perhaps if I can make a name for myself in Europe, I can play professionally. I will perform for some of the greatest names in music.”
Her father waved her attempts to be helpful aside. “So you have said. And might I remind you of our stipulations? Go. Try. Play. That would be something, a life for yourself. And if you aren’t chosen, if this Maestro person doesn’t pick you, then be finished with this nonsense once and for all. We shall find a situation for you, a companionship, perhaps a governess position.” He stared at her until she nodded. “Talk no more about it. We have agreed to let you go. You are going. Let us speak of other things.”
She said no more, and he returned to his paper. As usual, nothing was understood between them, and her father showed as little interest in her music as he ever had.
She returned to her room with two hours remaining before she would go to the train station. She was all packed. Her mother was sleeping. Her father was uninterested. Her fingers ran along the case of her violin. The soft feel of the worn leather brought comfort and teased her fingers, beckoning her to open it. But instead, she lay back on her bed, the case at her side.
She knew better than to play while both her parents were home. There was no need to draw further attention to the fact that she was going to Salzburg for months. Her father’s words sank deeper inside. She knew the ultimatum he’d set. She’d agreed to his terms so she could go. Salzburg. Then her lips trembled in a sudden panic-filled insecurity. She had no idea what she was about in the world of orchestras and European professional musicians. She barely knew any other instruments outside her own. But she had to go, didn’t she? The truth of it all burned even deeper than her father’s words. If she didn’t go and try, she would regret it with every breath ever after.
When it was at last time to depart, her father left her at the station with these parting words: “Enjoy your time. Make something of yourself. Perhaps if this Maestro chooses you, all the time you’ve spent on this nonsense will serve some purpose at last. You need a place in society, a useful one.”
She nodded, then turned and entered the station without looking back. She was used to his dismissive comments about her music. Sometimes they hovered above her in the air and didn’t quite strike home. But other times, like now, they made her question every stubborn inkling that kept her playing and practicing despite discouragement. What if she fought a losing battle? What if she was as unimportant as he suggested?
She gripped her case tighter and forced one foot in front of the other.
* * *
When at last she stood on the London platform in front of her train, clutching her violin to her side, her feet would not take the steps necessary to board. Her skirts swished about her legs as people rushed by. Sometimes trouser legs forced the movement. Sometimes it was just the air that flowed between them. Her nose itched. The air felt thick, and since her train had just recently arrived, steam billowed around her ankles.
But she hesitated to board.
She had been chosen to learn at the hands of expert musicians in Salzburg, Austria, to play before kings and queens. Her violin instructor assured her he would not have picked her above all his other students were she not the best, the one who would succeed in such a venture. But she wasn’t certain his knowledge of proficiency extended across Europe.
Almost all the passengers had boarded. The conductor on the platform checked his pocket watch, ready to call for the last boarding. A man rushed by her. “Pardon me.” He turned and paused, taking in her face in one swift glance. His eyes lingered on her violin.
Her hand rose to clutch something at her chest, anything, even a bit of lace from her dress. The air around them seemed to catch up to his hurried pace, and she was encompassed by the comforting smells of violin wood and . . . rosin. Was he a musician?
He paused in his rushing and stepped closer, seeming to be most intently interested in her. His hat covered all but two patches of chestnut curls at his temples. The corner of his mouth lifted in a smile, and his gaze lingered. Everywhere he looked tingled with a new sense of warmth.
“Oh.” Her hand moved to the side of her face.
His blue eyes danced. “Are you here to say goodbye to someone? Perhaps I might deliver a message?”
“Oh, no. I’m here . . .” She swallowed. “I’m here to board.”
His eyes widened in obvious pleasure at the thought. “Well then.” He indicated she should walk at his side. “We’d best be moving along.”
Her breath escaped as the conductor called, “All aboard! Next stop, Paris and the Orient Express!”
The man waited another moment. “Will you be coming?” He took two steps toward the train, looking back over his shoulder, his eyes challenging, inviting. When the whistle blew, he nodded his head once and then moved quickly toward the nearest door, glancing one more time over his shoulder at Freya.
She grabbed her skirts with one hand, picked up her feet, and raced to the train as the huge black wheels began to rock in place. Then she stepped inside just as they began to move.
“You’re a brave one. Almost missed it, you did.” The conductor stepped in beside her, and they both watched the platform get farther away as the train picked up speed. She stepped farther inside and stood for a moment at the top of the stairs, catching her breath. Her eyes strained in both directions for the man who had rushed past. But he was gone. Well, no matter. Perhaps she would see him again to thank him. She breathed in the new smells of the train—the grease from the wheels and the mixture of people all around her in the train cars as far as her eyes could see. Her heart filled with a surge of energy as the adventure of her life carried her along with every chug and rhythm of the train that sped on more rapidly down the tracks.
She stepped into the passenger car, holding her violin case against her chest and trying to take up as little space as possible. One car up ahead was mostly full. She looked from seat to seat. Large, plush chairs held every kind of passenger. She imagined the Orient Express train cars would be even more opulent once she boarded it in Paris. Freya smiled. This journey would be far brighter and more comfortable than she had imagined.
The faint smell of peppermint tickled her nose. A man with a pipe joined her at her side. He was cheery but dressed all in black. “You’ll be wanting zeh ozher car.” He pointed behind her.
She tipped her head. “Thank you.” Then she turned and, for some reason, following the advice of a perfect stranger, entered the other car.
The spacious and lovely seats looked to be like those in a formal sitting room, placed together in arrangements with tables. Many passengers were reading. Some were conversing, and there were several free chairs. They seemed large enough for her violin to be placed beside her. And she did hope for a bit of tea. The closest passengers glanced up, smiled, and returned to their activities. She made her way down the wide middle aisle and found a large, overstuffed chair in the farthest back corner to sit in. She placed her violin beside her and just as she’d predicted, she and it fit nicely.
Soon a member of the staff approached, and Freya asked for some tea.
Her wide hat allowed a bit of covert staring on her part. She was mostly hidden beneath it, which she quite enjoyed. And she found the hat lovely. Her mother had instructed extra hat pins be placed here and there as a form of protection. She’d laughed at the idea at the time, especially when her mother had made her practice stabbing an imaginary person. But now that she was on the train, traveling alone for the first time in her life, she was grateful for her mother and her hat pins.
Freya adjusted her skirts and leaned back in her seat. No one here seemed to be the sort of person who would require a stab or two with the pins. And now that she was seated with nothing to do until the ferry and then switching trains in France, she began to relax by degrees. The door opened again. Her gaze flitted to the newcomer, wondering after her tea.
She sat up again immediately. The very man who’d walked by her so quickly and convinced her to follow him onto the train—unbeknownst to him, of course—was now sitting on the opposite side of the car in a chair similar to her own. While he was as yet unaware of an audience, she took the time to peruse his well-made clothing, the jacket that fit perfectly across his shoulders and his lovely hat that hung low over his eyes, eyes that she knew to be perceptive, intelligent, and of the brightest blue.
As he placed a satchel on the floor at his feet and lifted out a book, she looked away, not wishing to be discovered in her perusal of his person. Just the very act of looking where she usually wouldn’t filled her with an exhilarating sense of freedom. She was here, alone, traveling to another country. And even though she would have chaperones and matrons and instructors looking out for her from the moment she arrived in Salzburg, right now, these hours on the train were all hers to do with as she pleased.
The corners of her mouth lifted. Even though she might have looked a simpleton sitting there smiling by herself, she could no sooner have stopped her personal celebrations as she could the train, nor did she want to.
England moved past in a great blur of landscape. The farther away from London she traveled, the greater her hope rose within. No matter what happened in Salzburg, she was going to work hard and do her best. She lifted her chin, and her fingers itched to get out her violin and play.