"Now, if I can draw your attention to the cornices." I stood in the middle of the grandiloquent parlor, pointing at key areas of the draft stretched out in Mister Polstern's hands. Eagerly I found myself launching into how I had incorporated all the elements that he had asked for. A few minutes had already passed since I had been shown in by the footman where Polstern stood waiting in his embroidered smoking jacket. He had set his glass of Bordeaux aside when I entered the room. On the silver platter more empty crystal glasses sat waiting to be offered in hospitality. Waiting …
Withdrawing his hand from the edge of the draft, Polstern studied his fingers before rubbing them together. Half-closing his eyes he lifted his chin and proceeded to discard the draft into my previously pointing hands. "I must say this is not what I was looking for."
"Mister Polstern," I cleared my throat, fighting for composure even as I felt a bead of sweat trailing down behind the mask. "You expressed interest in the classical Italian—"
He cut me off with a wave of his hand. Picking up the glass of Bordeaux he turned his back to me. "I have another, more reputable architect who shall be here momentarily. My servant will show you out."
My hands tightened around the precious draft. I had spent countless hours capturing every last element he had requested down to the last detail. What had made him change his mind? Trying to keep a note of confidence in my voice I proceeded, "If you should change your mind … " The words faded off as quite suddenly I discovered I could not complete the statement with my dignity intact.
I didn't need to, as Polstern waved me out of the room. "I can safely assure you that shall not happen. Good day."
His servant gestured toward the doorway even as I fought to keep my head from bowing.
What had I done? What had I said?
Escorted out into the bright summer evening, I twisted my hands around the precious draft. The moment I opened my hand I saw it. Soot. Unrolling the draft I discovered to my horror the entire page was peppered with the fine dust. His fingers rubbing together … I was such a fool!
Trudging through the street, I heaved a sigh. Was it any wonder he had dismissed me? How was I going to keep soot from infesting my drafts? It was everywhere in the Bowery thanks to the elevated trains rumbling through. Daring to look around in this affluent neighborhood, I was instantly struck by how well maintained everything was. People strolled along the streets politely greeting each other with a nod and a slight bow. Attired in fine wools, brocades, satins and silks with lace trims there was no rushing about, just a leisurely pace. As I passed by the lace curtained windows of the marbled halls, servants were setting out fine feasts. Families were already seated, dining on fine cuts of meat and overflowing dishes. Wine, deep red glowing like rubies in crystal glasses … oh God it had been too long since I had tasted wine. My mouth watered at thoughts casting back to my wine cellar in Paris.
It had been my ideal existence removed from the intrusion of society. My beautiful home, secretly built by my hands precisely how I wanted it. Rooms to spare with places to work on my inventions, a music room to compose. I even had running water and a real hearth. And my crown jewel—my pipe organ. Oh how I missed the rich tones of that blessed instrument! With unlimited resources and a few well selected connections to supply me what I needed, I lived a first class existence where no one would have suspected anyone would be living. Every bit of my once perfect dwelling had been concealed under the fifth basement of the Paris Opera on the shores of the underground lake where I had lived as contentedly as it was possible for a man of my nature.
Until my reckless actions compromised that. The Paris Opera above had been my kingdom. How I had taken all that comfort for granted!
Before long I grew weary of the pain inflicted upon me as I glanced the windows of the well-to-do. For each time I glimpsed my own reflection I faced the shadow of my former self. How had I failed to notice the fraying, the bagging at the seams of the once fine cashmere wool? Both my shirt and gloves were no longer spotless white, time tinged with gray. The mask … my white mask, how had I failed to note the staining? I had more than one, just as I owned more than one suit in the finest style of French evening wear: the tailored black tailcoat. However, what I currently wore was the best condition I had left, and nothing was unmarred by the Bowery's dismal condition. Not even … me.
My only saving grace was the setting of the sun casting my tattered frame in the blessed shadows of the promised night. On the long walk south, accompanied by the complaints of my stomach, I felt the sting of the tears that threatened to fall. By the time I dragged my feet up the narrow stairs of the pungent tenement building my head was bowed under the weight of the realization. The words repeating over and over in my mind … a more reputable architect. I had convinced myself I had this contract. It was perfect, after all I had trained in Italy, steeped on the classical architecture. I caressed with my own hands every nuance of the various styles. The draft in my hand contained the ideal … but Polstern never even saw the draft in his hands. All he had seen was … what I had become. No one here on these shores knew who I was, and I didn't dare tell them!
How could I possibly make my promise to Nadir come true? That we would get out of this fetid district before another winter.
The broken floor board creaked under my dusty shoe. Pensively I cast my eyes at the closed door. Her closed door. My gut twisted as her words came back to me. Not the names she called me, as I forced myself to begrudgingly admit perhaps she had cause for all those. I had been rather callous. No. It was what she had said … choices to earn daily bread. What would I do if I could not establish myself as an architect? I owed her an apology. But my contemptible pride barred me from knocking on that door. It would mean admitting … admitting … that in the months I had spent in this wretched place I was being reduced to … one of them.
The enraged growl from my stomach echoed in the vacant staircase. Nadir and I had to eat. My resources were no longer unlimited if I wished to have any prospects. If I was honest with myself, there was another hunger that would eat into our already strained funds. The hands of time were ticking away while I was playing the fool.
Pulling myself up the last flight, I quietly slid into the darkened apartment. Casting a glance into the shadowed bedroom, scarcely larger than the rag stuffed mattress on its rusted spring frame, Nadir had already settled under the thin blanket.
Good, the old man needed his sleep. I flung the wasted draft across the room without a care where it landed. Stripping off the cloak I hung it on the peg by the doorway before removing my jacket and dropping it on the drafting table. Who was I trying to fool? The mask that hid my hideously deformed face was no longer the greatest obstacle for me to overcome. Here, it never had been. I was a Bowery immigrant and the elite would be hard pressed to see beyond the stains of this wretched existence, regardless of where I had originated from.
Idly my hand picked up my beloved Stradivarius, the violin that had been my companion through so much across the reaches of Eurasia. It bore all the markings of the master … the only signature I cared about was her sound. Leaning onto the window frame, I felt the cool air of the summer night. Moonlight shimmered down on me. Even though the streets below teamed with people entertaining their vices in this labyrinth of human sins that was the Bowery, the moment I placed the bow to the strings and let her voice ring out … the world vanished.
Closing my eyes, I lost myself in the music, letting the somber melody of my heart pour out, my fingers guiding the notes on their journey. Agony … sorrow … loss … the degradation of reality came to life through her mournful voice. I wanted to go back home. More than anything I wanted to return to my Parisian sanctuary where I was the ruler of my own destiny, where I was someone important, someone of influence …
Sobs rent the night air. At first I wondered if they were mine, a fitting companion to the violin's lament. Yet, I was oddly calm, the violin's notes my falling tears. No, what I heard was not my voice. Even wrapped in the throws of the music I could tell by a simple turn of my head that the weeping came from behind me.
The bedroom. Nadir. He shouldn't have come here to America. He had no reason to share my dismal fate. Why hadn't he remained in Paris still receiving his pension from the Persian court? Instead he had thrown it away, made certain I was safely smuggled aboard the ship across the Atlantic, made sure I kept my promise never to return to Paris again. Paris … my Paris … where she lived. No … I was dead to her and must remain so.
The tear fell free as I let the last note ring. Opening my eyes, I lowered my violin in silent thanks. Below me, outlined in the shafts of moonlight, motion caught my eyes. The flash of her amber colored hair as she ducked back from the shattered window, the retreat of her hand into the shadows of her apartment confirmed my suspicion.
Laying back against the window frame, I inhaled deeply staring out into the jagged outlines of the city. Maybe I wasn't any different than anyone else who had come here with a dream of starting over. I cringed at the arrogant way I had flaunted, crowing like a cock at dawn in the barnyard, above it all.
All I had managed was to mire myself, refusing to see the rut that prevented my progress. Where would I go from here? How much further could I fall?