“Do me do me do.”
“No, may, like the month.”
“Do may do may do.”
“No, you don’t just change the word, you also lower the pitch. That’s what makes it minor. Observe.”
His spindly fingers hammered at the keys.
“Do may do may do.”
“Better, but listen closely to the pitch. Do. Re. May.”
He hammered the keys again. She suppressed a quiver. She was forever quivering in his presence, as if from a chill. She sat in the posture he prescribed and tried to remain immobile. Slouching or moving were unbecoming. Her muscles remained tense as curtain rods, with only her mouth opening and closing, fish-like, on each note.
“Do may do may do.”
“You must breathe, mademoiselle,” he said as he touched her midsection. “From your belly,” he said. “Not your bosom,” he said as he touched her chest just at the fringe of her lace shawl. She sat tensely, immobile, coiled and frozen like a spring compressed beneath a boot. She held her breath.
“Now sing,” he said, his hand and its spidery fingers returning to the keyboard to punch out the interval once more.
“Do may do may do.” Her voice was louder, quavering, on the verge of expunging the screams of all 13 years of her life.
“Control, mademoiselle, always with control. Again.”
“Do may do may do.”
“Good!” His hand fluttered to her cheek, the tips of those fingers resting there as if he were producing a note on a flute. “Quite good. You’re finding your pitch, mademoiselle.”
She blinked and blushed but resumed holding her breath. One ringlet, having escaped her bonnet, tickled the back of her ear as it shivered from her slight, tight movements.
His long legs, somehow jumbled into position beneath the low keyboard, rearranged into a new spindly configuration as he turned slightly to face her better. The lesson was nearing its end. “Now,” he said, more softly, “without the accompaniment.”
She met his gaze, questioning. He nodded, folding his hands together and smiling as if all was well, the sun was out instead of occluded by clouds, the fireplace was lit instead of tomb-like and drafty, the bench was was soft and long instead of too narrow, too hard, too small. “Do may do may do,” she almost whispered, the notes dancing uncertainly around their marks like a cloud of gnats. He would lean forward now.
Racine bustled in from the parlor door. “Oh, do pardon me, Monsieur. I thought the mademoiselle’s lesson was over.”
He looked up at the domestic, suppressing the annoyance from his brow. “Yes, it will be presently.”
“Don’t mind me, Monsieur,” Racine replied nonchalantly, “I just need to set the fire ablaze before the master returns from office.” And she squatted before the fireplace, selecting a few small logs from the copper tub of kindling.
The teacher looked at his student, then, “Quite good for today,” he said, gently laying down the keyboard cover and gathering up his etudes. “Practice nightly, in solfège, with particular care for your breathing,” he said.
She stood, allowing him to shift the bench away from the piano and stretch himself as upright as his hunched, bony spine would allow.
“Until next week,” he said, to which she bobbed a miniature curtsey, and with that the teacher took his leave.
Racine sprung up and rushed to Clotilde. “My poor little girl,” she said, embracing the girl, who was shivering in earnest. “Did I come in time?”
Clotilde nodded, casting her gaze down as she always did when asked directly about the teacher. The arabesque rug’s burgundy and gold swirls spun before her eyes and she tried to release the tension still lingering in her muscles.
“I’m going to have a word with Madame,” Racine proclaimed. “Just you see, when I undress her tonight, I’ll speak frankly, I will.” But Clotilde merely listened. She knew Racine couldn’t do that. She knew the servant’s position mattered above all. “Just you see, my poor little girl. We’ll find a new maestro, one who can keep his virtue and yours.”
Clotilde embraced Racine again, until the maid softly pushed her off and fussed over the folds of her skirt. “Here, all better. Help me light the fire, could you, doll?”
It wasn’t a matter of needing help. The servant merely wanted Clotilde to remain in the room and sit nearby, as if that would protect both of them from whatever lurked outside the room, beyond its yellow wallpaper and heavy oak furnishings. The minor key rang incessantly in the young girl’s head, like a sour church bell.
“My mother taught me to sing,” said Racine as she busied herself in the fireplace, her words echoing damply off the close walls of the bricked hearth. “Good Irish tunes, none of this uptight frippery your people twitter in. Songs with real emotion.”
“Was she pretty?” Clotilde asked, alarmed at how deep her voice sounded after so many notes squeezed out of her upper register. How husky and tired.
“Mum? Heavens no. In her own way and in her own time perhaps, but pretty the way an ox may be. Honest and humble and strong.” Clotilde knew Racine to be an orphan from Brittany but she never corrected these accounts of fantasy, which often went in unexpected directions. The servant leaned back from the fireplace and dusted her hands on her apron before standing to light the wick. “I’d sing for you, dearie, but this weather, I can barely open my throat as it is.” She dropped the wick in the kindling, then lifted the bellows and awaited a large enough to glimmer to fan.
Clotilde, at the mention of the weather, gazed out the window to survey the rooftops of the neighboring buildings, an endless sea of tops and ends. If she stood upon the side table by the window, she would be able to see the thin silver snake of the Seine in the distance. And all about the streets below would be men and servants, men and servants, only the occasional meandering fishwife to break up the endless tide of men and servants surging and receding by the hours. “Perhaps someday you could sing,” she said. “For me.”
“Yes,” said Racine, watching the tiny conflagration in the ashes and wondering how to tend it, for to blow too soon would cause it to die. “Perhaps another day, I shall sing for you as you do me.”
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