(A/N: This is a vignette written for my new friend, [Redacted], who just joined us this month and whose fictions I have found deeply inspiring. ^_^)
Goddamn, this cabby! Liszt fumed to himself. As expensive as it is to find a coachman to take us from Geneva back to Paris, I would have hoped my money would have at least purchased a smoother ride. Liszt was in an irritable mood already, worn out from eating nothing but sandwiches and scones for the last few days. He supposed they couldn't stop every day for a fine meal, but still, to eat like peasants!
The young Liszt - and young he was, now at the impressionable age of twenty-six - had a habit of making rash life decisions in the name of passion, and Marie d'Agoult, six years his senior, married to a nobleman and mother to his children, was undoubtedly one of such decisions. Now Liszt was no naive schoolboy. By this time in his life, he had already taken many lovers, each more fleeting than the last. His romances were impetuous and all-consuming, burning like greedy flames against an ephemeral candlewax; a self-destructive incineration that would consume them until there was nothing left but a wick and the faint smell of smoke.
Alas such romances tended to be with other artists or young, worldly city girls. Courting an aristocrat, especially one so much older than himself, was an entirely different league of seduction. Like all challenges of the heart, this one was not easy. Liszt remembered when he first saw the Comtesse, floating eloquently across the ballroom floor of her country estate, arm and arm with her husband, Comte Charles Louis Constant d'Agoult, whose invitation to perform Liszt, hard up for money, had gleefully accepted.
A Few Years Earlier...
The delicate porcelain of her skin was expertly, teasingly enveloped by the powder blue filigree of her silk evening gown, which danced in the light with every expert step she took. Her piercing gray eyes appeared almost transluscent, especially when contrasted by the dark curls of her hair, a strand of which had escaped its proper placement in her elaborate up-do, draping languidly against her rosy cheeks. What a contrast Marie d'Agoult was to the loaf of a man on her arm who appeared every one of the fifteen years he was her senior. A stocky man, dressed in the pompous regalia of a true blue blood, the Comte's hair and sideburns were in the midst of a rather unflattering transition from brown to gray and his nose seemed too fat for his ruddy, pocked face.
Liszt had an uncanny nose for the vulnerability of women, and he could sense that Marie's was not the gaze of a woman in love when she looked at Charles. The pianist had heard through rumors that the couple had two children, and the thought of Marie being taken in bed by the oafish Comte caused Liszt's face to wrinkle in disgust. By this time, the ballroom had become flush with the Comte's guest, each trying to be more ostentatious than the last. His reverie was interrupted by the sound of a bell, after which the room fell to silence.
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," bellowed the Comte. "I thank you all for attending this humble occasion in celebration of my birthday. I am pleased to introduce to you the young virtuoso whose music you will be enjoying tonight, a young man from Hungary whose name is whispered in bated breaths amongst all the salons in Paris - monsieur Franz Liszt." The crowd turned to Liszt, who graciously smiled and bowed before them.
"I thank the good Comte and Comtesse for their gracious invitation and unreasonably kind words," Liszt replied, to a chuckle from the audience. "I am no speechwriter, and will conclude by saying Happy Birthday to our dear Comte, and to all of you, I hope that you enjoy the music." The crowd applauded and, wasting no time, Liszt took his place at the piano.
Liszt's mind was an endless chasm of repertoire and improvisation, and when the fare was as simplistic as ballades, minuets, and courantes for dancing, he found it easy to disengage his mind from the music and let it wander where it would.
At a certain point, Liszt had lost track of how long he had been playing - his focus the entire evening concerned the careful observation of Marie d'Agoult - how she smiled, who she danced with, the emotions on her face every time she rejoined the company of her husband, and, of course, the way her body moved, elegantly and sensuously, to his music. After coming to the conclusion of the gavotte he had been performing, quiet began to fill the ballroom.
"Say Liszt," bellowed the Comte from across the room. "Now you know that my wife and I did not invite you here to play mere dances. Why don't you show us some of those virtuoso numbers the Parisians so enjoy gossiping about?" Conversation hushed in the ballroom, as the partygoers turned expectedly towards him.
"As you wish, my Comte."
The comte and his wife approached the piano, coming to rest a mere meter from him. Liszt enjoyed letting the silence linger just long enough to become uncomfortable; he found that suspense was a powerful moment to exploit when he played. For an instant, one of those instances that feels like eternity, his eyes met those of Marie d'Agoult. He smiled and with great dramatic gusto, threw his form into playing the piano.
Liszt realized he had one shot at impressing Marie (and her husband who was paying him), and this served as inspiration for a performance whose recollection would spread like wildfire amongst the aristocracy. Liszt played the piano with his whole body, his long, tawny tresses tossed with each unbridled phrase, building and building and building in complexity until further complexity seemed absolutely impossible, a moment which never seemed to come. Runs and glissandi and chords capable of being brought into existance only by the sprawling span of Liszt's agile hands reverberated throughout the lusciously gilt-laden ballroom. Liszt, sweat forming at the edge of his brow, sensed a natural climax to this performance, and decided it was time to end it. Always the showman, he threw his head back as if in total rapture, his eyes closed, his lips parted as he paused for a tantalizing fermata just long enough for the audience to hold their breath before, with a little smile, careening into the finale, which unraveled fortissimo across the entire range of the piano. The instant Liszt lifted his hands from the keys, his audience burst into enraptured applause. As the chants of "Bravo! Bravo!" rang throughout the ballroom, Liszt stood up to take a bow, making sure that as he rose, his eyes locked with those of a breathless Marie d'Agoult.
"My God, man!" shouted the Comte. "Never in all my years have I seen such a spectacular display of musicianship! Monsieur Liszt, it is I who should bow to you!" The crowd laughed politely. The Comte, after sensing everyone's relative lapse into distraction, approached Liszt. He reached into his inside pocket and drew out an envelope. "Your fee," he clarified. "Well deserved." Liszt took the envelope and put it his pocket, and then bowed. "Most generous of you, Comte," he said, but the Comte had already began entertaining other guests. It quickly became evident to the attendees that the party would soon be over, and, accordingly, they dissolved into seperate groups of chaotic and excited conversation. Liszt sipped at his champagne, receiving the admiration of various partygoers, patiently waiting to seize an opportunity to catch the Comtesse alone. It did not take long, for the attention of the Comte was diverted by an offer of cigar smoking in the parlor on the behalf of a group of other patriarchs of similar status. By this point, the guests had begun to filter out, either onto the garden terrace or to the front of the house where their carriages awaited patiently.
Liszt, upon noticing Marie was unoccupied, made his way to that particular corner of the ballroom with two fresh glasses of champagne.
"Good evening, Madame," he announced, with a bow. Marie's face lit up into a radiant smile.
"Monsieur Liszt! Your performance astounded me. I did not know that one could play the piano with such agility and..." she looked down coquettishly, "...passion." Liszt offered her one of the champagne flutes, which she accepted.
"Thank you Madame," he replied with a coy smile. "You are most kind."
"You'll have to excuse my husband's departure. As I'm sure you know, these events are, despite their gay pretenses, in reality functions of business."
"Is one ever able to take respite from the business of high society?" Liszt mused, his gaze locked in a battle of intensity with hers. Color began to fill the cheeks of the Comtesse, who experienced the sensation of Liszt's proximity to her with electric anticipation throughout her entire body.
"I need some air," she said after an agonizing pause. "Do you wish to join me?"
"Of course, Madame," Liszt replied, offering his arm. Marie took it, and even this slight touch had her feeling faint. She chided herself: Enough with this foolish lust! You are a grown woman of high regard, such things are beneath you! She knew that to take Franz to the patio, where, at this hour, they would likely be alone, was improper but as her feet inched closer to the door, she could not stop herself from advancing further. Liszt opened the door and gestured toward her. The crisp air of the pastoral night caused them both to realize just how stuffy the ballroom had gotten from the combination of candlelight and the gathering of others. After realizing she had lingered far too long for propriety, she quickly let go of Liszt's arm.
"Do you partake in art at all, madame?" Liszt asked after awhile. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the state of the carriages in the adjacent driveway, making sure that the timing of when he would need to return to the ballroom without causing suspicion of impropriety was just right.
"I write," Marie replied. "Stories, histories, it's trivial, really."
"No art is trivial," Liszt replied, turning toward her. "Art exists to sooth the passions of an unbridled soul. This is never a small matter, in fact, it is an endeavour only the bravest and most introspective embark on." Marie's face became flushed at his words and the fact that the distance between them was shrinking.
"Pardon my asking, madame, but are you happy?"
Liszt had an uncanny way of being frank with women much more important than himself in a manner which caught them in a moment of weakness. He knew that a certain kind of woman existed as an accessory to power and wealth, treated more like a piece of furniture than as a human being and certainly not as a woman. This worked expertly on Marie, who was disarmed by such an inquiry, an inquiry the likes of which had never before been made of her. She found herself unable to find within herself any other answer to his question than "No" and realized that this was the first time she ever allowed herself to consider her own happiness. Her long silence aroused worry in the pianist, who, though a womanizer, had never tried to conquer someone of such pedigree before.
"I apologize, Mada-"
"No," Marie interrupted, unable to control herself. "I'm not happy."
The two locked eyes for a long time, searching for an explaination as to what had just transpired between them. Liszt realized, after a quick glance at the driveway, realized that most of the guests had gone and that the Comte's party upstairs would return to the ballroom not long after. Marie also sensed this, and knew that when they returned back to the ballroom they would return to public life and that would be the end of this indelible moment of tension and excitement. Liszt produced from his coat pocket a slip of his stationary, which he had used as a list of pieces to include in the night's performance. He folded it up, took Marie's hand, and placed it in its palm. He heard the muttering of men and the approaching of footsteps in the ballroom, signing that their time was up.
"You're a writer," Liszt whispered, leaning in close; "Write to me. Promise you'll write."
Marie met his gaze and at that moment she understood what was going to happen, and she felt herself unable to stop herself.
"I'll write, I promise I'll write."
"Madame, you have made me the happiest man in France," he took his hand and placed it gently against her cheek, stroking the lock of hair that had fallen from her bun. The voices in the distance grew nearer, and somewhere in there Marie heard her own name. Liszt snapped his hand away from her face, and, quick on his feet, decided that the best way to handle the situation was to escape through the garden. "I do not want to cause you any trouble, Madame, which I certainly will if your husband finds out we were out here alone together. Thank you for the wonderful party, and I apologize, but I must bid you adieu." With that, he threw his leg over the side of the terrace balustrade and awkwardly trampled through the topiary arrangement on the other side.
"Goodbye -" Marie started, but Franz was already gone.
"Marie, darling is that you out there?" came the Comte's voice from inside the ballroom.
"Yes, Charles, it's just me, I'm coming in now." Marie's eyes searched in vain for any last sign of Liszt, and, seeing none, she ventured inside where her husband was waiting. When their eyes met, Marie realized in horror that she knew she was going to leave him.