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Francisca by Marcus Lauesen

Translated by John Poole

Sometimes, when George was not at home, Francisca would walk restlessly up and down in her sitting-room. She was nearly sixty, and white-haired, but whenever she became restive and started wandering about, her face suddenly looked younger. She had no idea of the almost classical beauty which took possession of her features on these occasions since, although her gaze was alert, she saw nothing. Nor was she able to account for the disturbed state of her mind. Deep down in the tangled skeins of her memory there was something that told her that this restless walking about came from habit, but she could no longer remember how or when the habit had started. The passing years had dulled her. She was getting old.

There were many things in her sitting-room that Francisca was very attached to: some large pictures from Italy, the busts of her children, the grand piano; but she saw none of them. During the many hours she spent pacing the room she was like a sleepwalker; she moved about without touching a thing. Only when she grew tired and knocked against a chair or a door-post did she realise where she was. Then she would sink down into one of the deep armchairs, her head shaking, and begin to laugh. It was a wild, brittle laughter, and it meant that she had been silly again. But it only happened when George was not at home.

Francisca lived a life of habit; she had done so for a long time. Her habits were good habits though, and they had kept her young and strong through the years. She had learned them from George. We are seldom grateful to a person from whom we have picked up a habit, and any gratitude there may have been soon becomes a habit itself. From time to time Francisca would say to a friend: "I think my husband is right- -it does help—you really ought to try an orange every night before you go to bed." But as she said it she did not think of George.

She still got up early in the morning and went out for a brisk walk, whatever the weather; just for ten minutes to get some fresh air. It was always the same walk because it was bad to receive too many new impressions so early in the day. When she first started twenty years ago, Francisca had sometimes walked further, but when, at George's suggestion she only went down the avenue to the end of the cemetery and then turned back, it had struck her how no morning was quite the same as another. She used to look over the cemetery hedge and see how much things had changed: fresh wreaths were laid on old graves, tombstones were set up, new graves were dug, untidy cypresses were cut down, paths were widened. It was supposed to be a quiet district, but a great deal happened none the less.

Now it was different. In the course of twenty years events repeat themselves, and the time came when Francisca did not notice anything on her morning walk. George was right; it was pleasant just to be able to walk and not think of anything in particular.

The morning, George would say, is the best time for writing letters. One must attend to one's correspondence, and it is best to get it done before there is any likelihood of visitors arriving. In the afternoon George was at home and Francisca had to play for him.

It is two o'clock as the two of them sit down to their lunch. The maidservant serves them without a word and is given no instructions. It is best not to talk when one is eating. Not until the coffee is on the table does George say:

"The students seem quite interested this year, though I have the feeling that they do not yet appreciate the really fundamental thing in music, you know, Francisca; influence, background, in fact history."

"How strange!" says Francisca. "It is so very important, isn't it?"

"To-day," continues George, "to-day I was explaining to them what Beethoven's themes meant to Schubert, and would you credit it, one of the girls thought that it did not matter so long as the music was beautiful."

Francisca laughs.

A little later she sits down at the piano. She is to play to George while he makes his notes for to-morrow's lecture. Francisca has learned to play properly, with correct accentuation, and on most days wins praise from George for her playing.

In the evenings George works, while Francisca sits and reads books that he has recommended. Sometimes she falls asleep, but she always wakes up before it is time for George to come and eat his orange with her. She always tells him how interested she has been in the piece she has just been reading. Then George retires to his bedroom. When Francisca shortly afterwards comes to say good-night, he turns over on to his right side because it is bad for one to sleep with one's weight on the heart.

It had been a lovely morning. Francisca walked amid falling leaves, heard Autumn rustling the cemetery trees, saw the red virginia creeper on the neighbouring houses and thought vaguely of the time when she herself had wanted a creeper on the walls of her own house. A new grave had been dug just beyond the cemetery hedge; surrounded by its rampart of yellow clay, it was ready waiting for its corpse. Francisca saw all this, but gave it no thought, for she had come out to enjoy the air, the sharp Autumnal air. She turned as usual at the last gate to the cemetery and made for home, walking perhaps a little slower than usual because she still loved a chill, gusty Autumn morning, could still feel how the season had swept the summer heat from the atmosphere. She swung her stick at the yellow leaves as they fluttered on to the footpath and caught a chestnut leaf, splitting it neatly in two. In among the trees she could see the clear, greenish light that is peculiar to September and October mornings, and knew it was in the skies over all the countries where it was now Autumn, over all the fields and houses. Perhaps she even breathed in more deeply a few times, though even this was not unusual. As she opened her own front gate she glanced at the dahlias which were never allowed to droop and which had to be tied up many times while they were in flower. She made a mental note that at the end of the week they would have to get a man to come and sweep the leaves from the lawn. George looked after everything in the garden, and it all had to be just so.

She went indoors to write her letters, To-day she must write to the children. They wrote so often themselves, and Francisca enjoyed every letter she received from Stockholm, Rome and Paris. All three daughters had so much to tell her, and they told it all so well and so clearly. Surprising that young people, unpractised in the art of writing, instinctively used the right words, even if the same word was used a little too often. It was, for example, amusing to see how Grethe was always using the word COME in her letters. At last we came to Rome, Mother dear, and as we came out on to St. Peter's Square it was like coming into a completely new world...

George was right, the younger generation had fewer words in its vocabulary, expressed itself naively and awkwardly. But was it not more important, was it not the great thing, thought Francisca, that they had gone out to face life in the big world, went from place to place, from riches to riches. One really had to forget about the clumsy way they expressed themselves.

To-day there was another letter from Grethe, a good letter, telling of wonderful days in Rome. It reminded Francisca of a very distant youth. She warmed at the letter, but it awakened no desires in her, brought forth no sigh of longing. She just enjoyed being an old mother hearing news of the land of her childhood from one of her own children. With moist eyes she began to write—My dear little Grethe, Your letter to- day has given me so much pleasure. I have only just finished reading it and sharing your experiences with you. What a strange meeting you had on the Spanish Steps! I had a similar experience on that very same spot over thirty years ago—so much happens in foreign countries. These recurrences are wonderful things for us who are getting old and for you young ones who will be old some day. You have experiences both on your own account and on ours too...

It was as if she could hear what she had just written, as if the sentences echoed inside her—after all, she had been as good as talking to Grethe—for she realised that the letter would have to be written all over again. One could not use the word experience so many times. Then she glanced at the last page of her daughter's letter. She had read it before; knew perfectly well what was on it and had given it no special thought; did not do so now. None the less she stopped writing as she felt a strange empty sensation in her breast. But there was nothing on the page that she had not seen before—"P.S. Please give my love to Father and thank him for the music. Tell him that I have not had time to go to a concert yet."

Feeling suddenly chilly, Francisca got up and, putting a white shawl over her shoulders, she walked over to the door as if to gain warmth from the exercise. Then the aimless wandering began again; the suppressed sobs and the unbearably harsh laughter.

It was not until the early evening that she had calmed down sufficiently to continue the letter. But when that time came she did not alter a single word.

For no sooner had she started her meaningless laughter and felt how very silly it was of her to behave in this fashion when the door bell rang. The laughter was unusually violent, and when her maid announced Professor Sell, she had to ask the girl to show him into George's study and to say that Mrs. Jass would see the Professor in a moment. She had the greatest difficulty in controlling herself; there was really no reason why she should, except that she ought to appear calm and dignified in front of one of George's colleagues. It would look most odd if she were to come into the room laughing. She walked up and down her sitting-room a few times, pulled her dress straight, arranged her shawl attractively on her shoulders so that it hung down over both arms, straightened herself up, set her mouth determinedly, and clasped her hands in front of her in an attitude of pious meditation. She unclasped them again almost immediately to strike herself on the forehead—Francisca, what is the matter with you? Both tears and laughter were in her throat, that unaccountable feeling of revolt that always welled up inside her every time she felt the vitality of youth come over her.

She was ready now and walked forward. She opened the study door and greeted the Professor with a nod of welcome. As she did so the desire to laugh came over her with a rush, but she fought it back and turned it into a friendly smile for her visitor. She did not see the distress on the Professor's face, did not think it unusual that he was in black, not unusual that he stood in the doorway instead of sitting down. But men were such queer creatures.

"Good morning, Professor,"—it surged up over her again—"Please excuse me, we old ones laugh sometimes at..."

"Good morning, Mrs. Jass,"—the young Professor kissed her hand—"I have something important to..."

"You do understand, don't you, that we old ones laugh sometimes at nothing. I suppose it is our subconscious at work. I would rather like to read about it all some day."

"Mrs. Jass, I do not know how..."

"And I do believe that it is a sure sign that one is getting old when one begins to laugh at nothing—"

Then she looked at the Professor. He stood struggling with some difficult word or other. His long thin body was shaking all over as he stared at the floor.

"What is the matter, Professor Sell? You are usually so cheerful when you come to see us."

"Mrs. Jass, a heart...it's my painful...how can I put it...Please keep calm, Mrs. Jass."

A sharp little giggle was on the way. Francisca Jass, who always had control over every word she uttered, could not help being amused at the stammering Professor. It reminded her of when George had proposed; he had begun by explaining the theme of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik".

"Mrs. Jass, it is my painful duty to inform you that your husband had a heart attack this morning from which he did not recover."

Professor Sell had finished the whole sentence before Francisca thought of George. The giggle which she had suppressed lingered for a brief moment on her face. She was not shocked, not afraid.

"My husband," she said, in a whisper, "but he was perfectly well this morning."

"Suddenly, Mrs. Jass, in the middle of the second period."

Francisca turned away and stared into a book-case. Black bindings, dusty at the edges, a packet of violin strings, an ebony mute, a flute lying on top of a history of music; some withered laurel leaves on Beethoven's death-mask, a piece of polished wood which reflected her white shawl and in which she could see her hands fall and clasp each other, a little bronze bust of Wagner, some sheet music—Bruckner's seventh symphony. She turned and looked in another direction, saw the long black desk, the volumes on the theory of music, a picture of the boy Mozart with his violin, a picture of the young Francisca, an open music-ruled exercise book with an ascending line of semi-quavers in a violent crescendo followed by a few lonely open notes, and George's red and blue marks all over it, a large N. B. in the margin, an open note-book with a rough draft of his comments: "a) this crescendo is not typical of Beethoven; more like Mozart, b) the treatment of the theme shows clear traces of Haydn, c) note the difference between the treatment of the theme in the Andante of the 'Kreutzer' Sonata and in the 'Moonlight'." A baton, some unused music paper, a draft of a letter, some indents for sheet music, a list of the students at the Conservatoire. Continuing her gaze round the room till she came back to Professor Sell, Francisca was totally unable to comprehend what had happened. It was all so unexpected; it was not in the rules. If only George had written; but no, that would have been impossible. The game Death played had no rules; or was it perhaps that Man had not learned them? Never before had an unusual happening struck her so forcibly, never had something irrelevant forced its way so brutally into her life. When she said to Professor Sell: "It is all so unexpected", it was as if she was pronouncing a word that she had never before understood. It had a strange ring as its echo came to her from the study walls: unexpected, unexpected—a word which seemed to apply to more than the event about which she had just been told. She did not feel any grief because she did not know what had happened.

"Professor Sell, would you mind going now? Thank you so much for coming and telling me—I must try and collect myself—please excuse me—there is so much..."

"It must be very difficult for you, Mrs. Jass—please accept my deepest sympathy."

An hour later Francisca was still in George's study. She had not yet told anyone of her loss. She had not changed either outwardly or inwardly. By saying it over and over again to herself, she had learned to realise that George was dead, and as if to rid herself of this knowledge she sent a message to George's sister asking the family to make the necessary arrangements as she was not a fit state to make them herself. She asked them to see that visitors were kept away, and that George's body was taken at once to the crematorium chapel. Later in the day she herself would be able to come and help lay out the body. But for the first few hours they must not ask her to do anything.

She realised now that what had happened was that her husband had died while she herself sat reading her daughter's letter and was being hysterical with idiotic laughter. Somebody had brought the sad news to her, and she had heard it boldly and distinctly before she had even thought of George. It dawned on her now why she felt no grief at his death. When something happened to one of her children, she knew about it before the news reached her, but her husband could fall dead not twenty minutes away, and her mind remained untroubled. The news could actually be in the house, in the next room, without her being able to sense it through a closed door. She could stand there repeating to herself: "George is dead, Francisca," without a pang, without the feeling that something was missing from her life, from her soul. She could stand and gaze at George's belongings and tell herself that these things were as dead as he was, and it did not cause her pain. The old lady began to be afraid.

Unconsciously, as if at somebody's silent bidding, she began to pace up and down his study, playing all the time with a thought which had its root in the past. She found it difficult to follow it back very far. Rather irritably she shook her head as she felt her thoughts fly headlong over the longest period of her life to land gently in semi- darkness where a little girl was playing with her dolls underneath a flowering mulberry tree. A big dog called Barry came and took one of her dolls in his mouth and carried in into the conservatory. She tried to collect her thoughts again, but it was no different. Now and again there were glimpses of George, working, doing his duty, giving advice. She saw him conducting a student's orchestra, a tall erect figure with an immobile expression and a hand that moved not rhythmically but like a machine carving the tempo into beats and bars of cold, deliberate, superior music. She saw the same man sitting at his desk, as upright as a schoolboy who dares not lean forward. He had a music-ruled exercise book in front of him, and was busy writing marks above and below the notes. She saw George look on while the servant girl performed her weekly task of rolling up and packing sheets of music, writing at his dictation the address of one of the children. She saw him walk round the garden planning the layout of the beds, heard him say time after time—"There is no flower like the hollyhock, Francisca, none whatsoever,"—and she was reminded of how certain of her wishes, springing from a love of other kinds of flowers and shrubs, had slowly died within her. Then her thoughts were back in that semi-darkness, first in her mother's room where flowers of all kinds bloomed on the window-sill, then on the sea, in a tiny boat, with a careless little girl who had rowed too far out and saw that the sea was enormous and that the waves covered murky, green depths.

Francisca did not calm down completely until late in the afternoon. By then, it was all over, and she no longer needed an explanation for everything that had happened to her and for her own behavior in particular. She would never again have to laugh without knowing the reason why.

After her thoughts had flown backwards in time for a while, often without pausing at her life with George, she began to pursue them in the other direction. Perhaps the picture on the writing desk might help her. Nowadays they said that she had hard eyes and she had seen this for herself. The steel-grey eyes had taken their colour from the sea, and now as she saw how she looked when she was young, she knew that there had been changes in her which could never be wiped out. Her eyes had once been gentle, though restless. The sea had taught them to reflect life's changeability. On her brow, now higher, there had in those days shone a bright clear light. Her mouth had always been ready for laughter, a whole-hearted, gay laughter which used to break through the barriers of elder people's deadly earnest like a liberating army. She could not stop thinking about this laughter of hers, for it was the only thing she still had left. It was harsh and brittle now, but she still found it easier to laugh than to cry.

She delved deeper into her memory for those moments when she had laughed with all her heart, and the only ones she could think of were those when she had been alone with her children. When she was with them, her laughter was full of youth, not idiotic and meaningless, just happy. As she followed the course of her life year by year there was less and less which made her think of George.

How had it all come about? Francisca could now see her fate as one shared by so many others. Life had treated her kindly. She had been most fortunate. She had seen many parts of the world. As a young girl she had been prodigal of her energies and her enthusiasm, and when George began to come into her home she had admired this serious, tranquil man just as every gay, high-spirited girl always admires strong, silent men, believing that they have greater depths and more goodness than other men. The girl longs to feel the man's protective strength, and to obtain it she is prepared to give up some of the high spirits which some day she is bound to lose anyway. George was a clever man, he knew so much and could teach her so much. Francisca loved music, played as well, and when she could not understand everything that George said to her she thought it was only because of her stupidity. And so began the long evenings when he sat and explained every aspect of music to her, and she listened, or perhaps did not listen, and instead was overcome with a mass of things that she did not understand. Her capacity for enjoyment died slowly; not her zest for life, though possibly that too, later, but the other kind of enjoyment, the happiness that is like the smiling, carefree, frolicsome, freshness of birds, flowers and children. Francisca thought of how she must have killed a large part of her life with listening. She looked in vain for the instruments of death and could only see moments in time, a whole host of lethal moments. The two of them had found a home. George planned the garden. Francisca had made suggestions and once had George yielded to one of them. But more often he explained to her that what she wanted was not wise. She wanted to have roses, but George considered that only a professional gardener could produce really large, beautiful roses and that there was no pleasure to be obtained from the efforts of the amateur. Well, even if one did not get any pleasure from them, Francisca had once, as a child, had a wild rose. Yes, as a child, Francisca, but that is rather a different story, is it not? Now she recalled that in the years that followed, she herself had said more than once: there is nothing quite like a hollyhock. George considered that it was best to arrange one's week and one's day on a fixed plan. It made life so much easier and enabled one to find time for everything that one wanted to do. The human body needed rest, a great deal of rest at regular intervals. It was therefore important never to vary the times of going to bed at night and of getting up in the morning. Francisca had gone against George's wishes in this matter on one occasion only. They were at a concert which was due to continue until after bed-time and George went home. Francisca stayed behind; she wanted to hear the beautiful music to the end. George did not reproach her, but explained his reasons to her carefully and considerately, and she had to admit that he was right. She never went...

Francisca laughed again. She sat at the dead man's desk and laughed. Something had happened inside her; there had been a tiny change. She now had a reason to laugh: no, not at George, because she was fond of him, not at something she remembered, because it could not be important enough, but at herself. She laughed because, day in and day out, she had been so silly as to subject herself to the will of somebody who had no more right to life than she.

Nothing else happened to Francisca. Nevertheless it took the better part of a day before she got the idea settled in her mind. Then she realised that all her good habits and beliefs were of no consequence. For while a person is still trying to get used to life, Death can interrupt. She did not feel angry with George, but felt no love for him either. She did not know what grief was. She had never known anything. Perhaps George had protected her against much when he taught her to live her life according to a schedule. Life in the wide world was full of dangers. Shivering a little, she thought of her children who travelled abroad, and who refused to live in sensible security. She was tired now. Nothing else happened to her, for she was very tired.

When a few hours later she went into the garden to pick flowers for George's coffin, she saw the flame-red virginia creeper on the neighbour's house. Slightly bent, like a beggar woman, she went and asked the strange people next door for a piece of the creeper, just one little piece. They gave it to her, and later she went and arranged it round George's head as he lay in his coffin. The fiery leaves put restless life into his features. Francisca could not understand it; could not understand that so little could make a face look so different.

 
 
 

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