By Susanne Dunlap
That fellow, that nice young man who used to come in here and order May wine in September? Franz was his name. I told him again and again that May wine is for May, and in September he should drink hock, or ale, like the rest of his friends. And he always said to me, “Gretchen, with you, there is always May wine!” and everyone would laugh and order more drinks.
It was best when he played the spinet. We got one here, oh, say, ten years ago, but first he brought his guitar. Could he make that guitar sing! I always asked him who taught him the beautiful songs he played, and he answered, “God! God and you, my sweet Gretchen.”
Too bad he wasn’t much of a looker. With his honeyed tongue and pretty tunes he could have swept every one of us barmaids right off our feet, but they all stayed away from him, except for me. I felt sorry for the fellow, and he always treated me so nicely.
One day he came in and didn’t look so well. Even worse than usual, I mean. I gave him a glass of water. He told me he had a symphony, and I asked him if the apothecary gave him anything for it. He laughed so hard, and said, “You’ll cure me, lovely Gretchen!”
Then he explained that a symphony is like his songs only for a whole room full of players: Fiddlers and drummers and pipers. He couldn’t finish this one, he said.
“Why not?” I asked.
He said: “Because when it’s done I shall die.”
Have you ever heard such a thing? But, you know, he didn’t look good. I was about to get the apothecary myself when he grabbed hold of my arm and whispered, “I have something for you. You must keep it safe.”
Now, I’ve heard all kinds of come-ons in my time in this tavern, but that was a sneaky one. “Sure you have, Herr Schubert,” I said, ready to go and serve the thirsty laborers in the other corner—they’d tip me well.
“No, Gretchen, stay,” he said. “Here, this is for you.”
And I could have dropped my tray right then and there, when I saw him reach into his breeches. But, he took out a rolled up sheaf of papers with some kind of scrawl all over them. I don’t read, but this looked like conjuring tricks to me.
“I don’t want your mummery,” I said, and checked over my shoulder to make sure no one was looking. Well, I felt so sorry I said that. The poor fellow looked about to cry.
“Please,” he said. “Only you, only you can keep me alive!”
So, what could I do but take them? But I was afraid.
“What is it?” I said.
He looked around like he expected a magistrate to haul him up any minute, and I thought, perhaps he stole these papers. But he still had hold of my arm, and I couldn’t get away.
“It’s the end. All of it. Here.”
The end? Made no sense to me. I told him so.
“That’s all right,” he said, “but keep it safe. When I’m dead and gone, tell von Schober you have it.”
He seemed so serious then. It was ’22 I think, the year. So I took the papers, and kept them in my trunk.
Herr Schubert didn’t come so much after that. He was away, his friends said, in the hospital, taking the cure, working, wherever. Finally, he stopped coming altogether. I found out from this von Schober that he died. Too bad, such a young man, and so many pretty songs.
I didn’t bother to tell von Schober about the papers. Seemed best to let well enough alone. And then when my Johann and I married, times were hard for a while. One cold winter, when the baby was new, we were taking our few sticks of furniture apart and burning them for fuel. Johann saw the papers in my trunk.
“Why don’t we use them? Make the fire nice and bright for a bit.”
I thought, why not? They’re of no use to anyone now, with Herr Schubert dead these long years.
When the papers caught, I tried to remember one of his songs, the one he sang when he called me over. “Gretchen!” he’d say, “My peace is gone, my heart is heavy!” And everyone would laugh, because he’d make a sign that meant something else. It was a pretty tune, though. I wish I could remember it. I wonder if he ever finished that symph—what-do-you-call-it?
Susanne Dunlap is the author of the novel Emilie's Voice (Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster, April 2005).
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