« L'homme c'est rien, l'œuvre tout ! »
-Gustave Flaubert, in a letter to George Sand
In the drawing room of Franz Liszt's mistress, no one is looking at Chopin's eyes.
A cigarette burns low against one woman's glove. The music brushes fingers up her spine and she loses herself in sound. She is no longer Aurore Dupin, nor the baroness Dudevant, nor the woman known to her friends, her lovers, and the scandalized Parisian public as the novelist George Sand. She is nothing but short breaths and a heartbeat.
Chopin's playing captures all her senses. It leaves nothing of her keen, novelist's observation to note the tremor fleeing from his hands, or his shoulders lifting from their stoop. She misses the moment when the muddy hazel of his iris hardens to bright smaragdine. Later, she will learn her friends believe his eyes to be black; or rich, dark brown; or even, Franz protests, a clear grey-blue, clean and wide as the sea.
When Chopin finishes, he stands slowly from the bench. He makes his excuses: it is late, he is tired. He hopes they have enjoyed his tunes. He coughs delicately into a white handkerchief and meets no one's gaze. When he walks away, George puts her hand against the piano's gleaming flank. It quivers with the memory of etudes.
"Leave him be," urges Franz, topping her glass as the musicale drags on. "See how he pales at the slightest exertion?" Chopin is saying his farewells, gasping and faint. "George, you would be the death of him."
"And you, Monsieur Liszt, would once more reign as composer-king." She tweaks his nose. "So how can I take your admonitions to heart?"
George courts Chopin like a terrier down a rabbit's hole, teeth bared, tongue dripping. He flees, but every so often turns to look over his shoulder with liquid, changeable eyes. She lives for those glances, drawn into flashing moments when he is less than human and more than prey.
In early autumn, she corners him playing in the parlor, at a house party. George crosses the room, thick carpet quieting her riding boots. He does not notice her; his dark head is inclined towards the keys. The air in the room is electric. George swallows against a thickness in her throat, holds fast to a small sound trembling in her larynx. She dares not break the silence.
Kneeling by the bench like a postulant, she lays her cheek against his leg. He starts; his notes go sour, and the charged atmosphere dissipates. He holds his artist's hands up high as if he is afraid to touch her, even to shoo her away.
"Angel," she says. "You are an angel, sent from God. Please, don't stop."
But he does not begin again. He closes his hands—soft, cool, uncalloused—over hers and lifts them from his knee. "Please, madame. This is most improper. Most distracting." He coughs with his mouth closed, wincing against the sharp convulsion. "Please."
"Please," she repeats, breathless. "Yes. Please. Go on."
When she does not leave him, he sighs at her stubbornness and slides his fingertips between the black ridges of the sharps and flats and plays: a single dark note that fades, then builds into furls of triplets and sixteenths.
George, with her cheek still pressed against him, feels the change in his body, the sudden strength in the long, lean muscles of his thigh. He is fevered, and where she touches him she can feel currents moving, sliding like a great cat through a shadowed jungle. Her hands climb the contours of the piano leg, skip from the varnished wood to the give of Chopin's flesh, grasp at him as the music swells. He is hard with need beneath the soft summer wool of his trousers, but ignores her in favor of his impromptu.
Chopin's left hand strokes the lower octaves. His right climbs in rolling arcs towards the high reaches of the keyboard. George has made love to many men in her life, but never experienced ecstasy like this. Her orgasm crescendoes, and she sinks back into her body, dizzy and prickling with sweat.
The piece finishes with a gentle undulation and chord that is little more than a suggestion of sound. Chopin lifts his hands from the keys and looks down at George. He seems surprised to find her there, surprised to find himself at the piano. He draws breaths to speak. It catches somewhere behind his breastbone and he doubles in on himself, wracked with coughing.
George pulls his mouth to hers and kisses him, seeking mysteries in the darkness of his mouth. She does not find them. His breath is sharp with the iron tang of tubercular blood. Nevertheless, she knows what she has seen: something lives within him, uses him, and she wants it.
She takes him to Majorca for a romantic winter in the Spanish sun. It almost kills him.
The abbey they sleep in is cold gray stone, slick with freezing rain. Chopin shivers in the drafts, but his music has never flowed from him with such ease, such pure grace and power. It pours forth in a volume almost equal to that of the blood from his lungs.
Despite his consumption, he is a strong and confident lover. When she coaxes him away from his keyboard, his artists' hands no longer hover, but command her flesh to move, coax sounds from her as if she is his instrument, not the piano. He does not seem to sleep, or eat. He is at the piano, or in her. Or he is bent over his handkerchief, wracked with painful coughing.
"Perhaps we should have a doctor come," she says, one afternoon, watching him pick at his meager luncheon. The locals on Majorca are hostile towards them, unmarried as they are, but surely a doctor... George worries that Chopin will grow too weak to play vessel, and she is willing to risk censure to save his body.
Chopin shakes his head, and almost speaks, but coughs into his plate instead. George goes to fetch the physician that afternoon.
The doctor is disinclined to come to the abbey. The price he proposes is extravagant. She promises to pay, offers him twice the amount. He grumbles, but buttons up his coat.
When George hauls aside the great iron gates of the abbey, Chopin's notes fall on them like snow, blowing out of the high, narrow windows. She lets the physician in ahead of her, follows him as he tracks the music through the halls. Chopin's left hand is rocking through somnambulant triads, his right picking out the first evening stars. The music slowly sinks into ringing chords, sweeping back and forth between major and minor, echoing against the sweating stone walls.
"You see," says George, turning to the doctor. He is blinking back tears. "You see why I—"
He flushes deep red, but nods. "I will treat him as well as I can."
George sits outside the bedroom, listening to the low murmur of men's voices behind the door. Chopin gasps and hacks his way through the visit. When the doctor leaves Chopin, he takes George aside and shakes his head. Her stomach clenches at the gesture, but she quickly realizes the doctor is not condemning her lover to death. It is a tip of the head signifying confusion, befuddlement.
"One sees, in consumptives, certain symptoms..." He chews at the tip of his mustache. "Madame, your... companion, he exhibits some of the signs, but he plays with such vigor, he cannot possibly be in such ill health as he is. Or else he should not play so well."
But the doctor only shakes his head again and leaves her wondering.
A second doctor is equally confused. The third advises her to call for a priest.
"For the last rites?" she wants to know. "Surely he is not on his deathbed yet."
The object of their hushed conversation is murdering a mazurka in the next room, hammering it from the bowels of his piano.
"Madame, no," says the third physician, "not that."
He will not say, and flees the abbey looking over his shoulder as if he expects to be chased. He is wiser than his colleagues, for all he is a coward.
At night, pressed against her lover in their narrow bed, George can feel his bones through his skin. He sticks to her, slick with fever sweat. He should be weak. He should be dead. Yet he is as virile a satyr, and there is a stack of freshly penned sheet music that speaks to his continued industry.
The wind howls in the abbey's embrasures. Chopin sighs in his sleep, and George can hear a rattle in his chest. It is the damp, she decides, and the cold. If she can but bring him somewhere the sun shines, his body will mend and all will be well.
In her country house at Nohant, the ancestral estate of the family Dupin, George settles her lover into a soft bed to watch spring sweep across the landscape. He is a cranky patient, but he is as weak as a kitten. She worries, at first, that taking him away from his music may sap the last of his will. But though he is pale and tired, full of gripes, he slowly improves.
Still, there is something missing from this Chopin. A flash of the teeth. An intensity. His eyes have lost their chameleon qualities; they are an unremarkable hazel, even in the sunlight streaming through the batiste curtains. He has not made love to her since Majorca, though he is well enough now that there is no reason not to. Still, he has not initiated, and she has not pressed. His flat eyes and trembling hands do not entice her.
Without music, without sex, life at Nohant drags into a passionless summer. One evening, in the stifling downstairs parlor where Chopin asks for a fire despite the heat, George snaps her book shut in the silence.
"Darling," she says, "why don't you play?"
He looks up from a letter. The fire casts deep shadows across half of his face. "I thought you were enjoying the quiet."
"There has been plenty of quiet," she says. "You are well enough to take the stairs to the parlor on your own. Why haven't you played?"
His cheeks flush. "I—"
"Play now," she says. She is tired of his listlessness.
He approaches the piano, in its dim corner, and sinks slowly onto the bench. "What shall I play? Beethoven? Clementi?"
She shakes her head. "No, dearest. Your music. Please."
There is a certain reticence in his movements as he settles his hands over the keys, but once he strikes his first notes, he plunges on without hesitation. The change starts just below his ribs and surges up. The delicate bones of his hands arc and bend and his breath comes in short, hard gasps.
George goes to him, puts her arms around his shoulders, slips her hands beneath the lapels of his dressing gown. He leans into her palms, straining to be closer to the piano, or to feel her touch more fully. His skin is hot. She pushes the heavy brocade from his shoulders and bends, kissing the hollow between his neck and shoulder. He throws his head back and she sinks her teeth into his flesh, hard enough to bruise.
The music builds and folds upon itself, humming down the long wires of the piano. She wants him to keep playing. But even more than that, she wants him to play her. She wraps her arms around his chest and pulls him from the bench. His hands slide across the keys, cacophonous. The two of them fall gracelessly to the thick carpet. He tangles his hands in her hair, pulling it, hurting her, but it is a sharp, sensual pain. His fingertips push divots into the meat of her thigh.
In the firelight, his eyes are dark, clear emeralds, deep as the sound of a bell. She kisses him, and there, in the heat and sharp teeth, she feels something, at last, kissing back. It bites and snarls, desperate for touch and recognition—for passion, and for hunger. She meets it, understands it, and answers its demands. It goes as Chopin spills inside her; a whisper, hot breath against her ear, a departing sigh. It clings to the skin at her jaw, a last caress, and then dissipates into the close air of the parlor.
Twined together like a knot of mating snakes, the two of them lie naked in a mess of rumpled clothes. George tucks her chin over Chopin's head. His curls brush her mouth when she breathes.
"George," he says. His chest expands, then constricts, and he goes tense in her arms, taken with a coughing fit. He tries again. "I—" But his voice hitches and he does not continue.
He sighs and turns in her arms, so they are face to face. With the fire behind him, his whole face is in shadow. She cannot see his eyes. But his voice is human, rough and miserable. "I tired myself beyond human endurance in Majorca. I made myself very ill."
"And you fear to do so again?"
He nods, once.
She is suddenly terrified, unwilling to lose her best and newest lover, the thing that lives inside this sickly man. "Will you stop playing?" It comes out sharp. George loathes fear. "And will this—" she takes a fistful of his discarded dressing gown "—will this stop as well?"
He ducks his head. "I do not know that I can live without the music. But I am afraid."
"You must not be afraid," she says, half to herself. "You have a gift. God speaks through you." Or something stranger does.
He shakes his head, and buries his face in her neck. His sweat or tears trickle down a crease in her skin.
She watches him intently, until she learns the patterns of the thing that wakes in him. Some mornings he rises and goes straight to the piano, and on these days, the power under his skin is like a great beast uncurling: one of Delacroix's painted tigers, all long, loose muscles and shining pelt. His voice, if she pays close attention, does not sound the same. There is a richer timbre, where tuberculosis should keep him quiet and short of breath. But George no longer blames consumption for her lover's pain.
When the creature wakes and prowls, she can see it eating Chopin from within. And still she holds her hand out to stroke it, coddle it. To fall beneath it. It obliges, reaching out with eager claws.
When the thing—demon? Spirit? Divine presence? —leaves him and he lies listless in bed, she sits in her study and writes, trying to ignore the silence of the house, the force of guilt that jumps in her throat when his wet cough echoes through the empty halls. She takes her meals with him, dining on goose and poached artichokes while he picks listlessly at toast, a few grapes.
"George," he says one night, holding his wineglass with both shaking hands, "why do you love me?"
She looks up from editing a manuscript. "Hm?"
He shakes his head, sips his wine. She watches him a moment longer, then goes back to scratching out the odd word, inserting commas and colons. Perhaps he will not ask again. But she is not that lucky.
"You are so passionate when I play. So intense." He sighs, coughs once, presses his hand to his sunken chest. "But now? When I am just a man?"
"What can you mean by that?" She asks the question carefully, on edge.
"I know..." he says, and at first she thinks he must have read her mind. The long groove of her spine fills with freezing water, a trickle of fear. But he goes on. "I know that my playing... inflames you. As it does me, I must admit, but I must think of my health. And I fear sometimes that you... do not think of it. Because you love the music, but not the sickly man who plays it."
He does not know, then. She climbs into bed with him and lays her head upon his breast. "Frédéric, pet, be still. I simply do not wish to overtax you."
The lie comes smoothly, and he smiles.
When autumn comes and the countryside turns cold, they return to Paris. Chopin's new work is greeted with astonishment, enthusiasm. He is much in demand at parties and onstage.
"We heard you were at death's door," says Franz. George wonders if he doesn't seem a little disappointed to find his rival alive, if not well. "The preludes are incredible, anyway." He plays the first few lines, his style too strident for the nuanced chords.
"No, Franz, no." And despite every fear he whispered into George's ear as summer waned at Nohant, Chopin settles beside him on the bench. "Here, let me show you."
"Ought we to prepare for a fight?" Marie d'Agoult, Franz's mistress, slips her arm into the crook of George's elbow. "I don't know whether to place bets on your gentleman or mine." It is a joke. Franz is taller than Chopin, strong and healthy. George bridles at Marie's crystalline laughter, hushes her as Chopin flicks back his coattails and prepares to play.
George watches Chopin's eyes.
He pushes against Franz to reach the low notes, his arms sweeping wide like gulls' wings. Marie's laughter fades. "My god," she says, so softly George almost does not believe she has said anything at all.
The piece is short, but when it is done, Franz does not speak for a long time. Finally, he pushes away from the piano and puts his hand across his mouth.
"She's done something to you," he says, nodding at George. "Marie, why can't you make me into a magician like that?"
"I've done nothing," says George. And it is true. She has not said a word to Chopin, about his eyes or anything. She has not asked a doctor for advice, or a priest for exorcism. If both Marie and Franz can see the power prowling within Chopin, where they could not before... it has grown stronger. And George has done nothing to stop it, because she does not want to.
It is her lover—the strong one, the hungry one—who catches her now in the brilliant green snare of his gaze. George makes their excuses to Marie and Franz, and in the carriage they tear at each other's clothes, exposing swathes of skin to the freezing night.
When they are finished, George pulls Chopin close beneath their furs. Emptied of the beast, he is as delicate as a spun sugar confection, all bones and trembling breath. Despite the cold, he is bathed in sweat.
"George," he says, through clashing teeth, "I cannot do this much longer."
She smoothes his hair and kisses his feverish temple.
"Each time," he says, "each time I touch the keys, I feel myself burning away." He shivers. "I cannot play this music and live."
"My dear," she says, the words falsely bright, comically melodramatic, painfully close to truth. "Don't be absurd. You must keep playing, because I cannot live without it."
He begins to lose time. One morning, he traces a bruise on her forearm in the shape of a pianist's delicate hand. "Who did this?" he asks, even as he wraps his fingers around her wrist and matches his palm perfectly to the purple flesh, finger for finger.
She asks her cook to feed him organ meat, raw and bloody, to keep his up his strength. When he is too weak to move from bed, some days, she cuts purple-black liver into pieces and feeds him with her fingers. The blood is sticky, and stains her nails.
Propped against a mound of pillows, he looks over compositions written in the heights of his possession, and he shakes his head in wonder. "George," he says, "I cannot write like this."
She shushes him. "Don't be so modest, ma petite."
"No," he says, and the force of it makes him cough. "You do not understand. I did not write it. This coda? I would never write it this way. This is not my music." She tries to smooth his curls, but he pushes her hand away. "Is this some joke? Did Franz put you up to it?"
"Darling," she says, "be still. It is no joke. Franz has looked the pieces over and proclaims them the work of a genius."
"A genius, yes." He shakes his head. "But not mine."
She tells him over and over, crooning in his ear, that he is a little fool, her little fool, too modest. But something has gone hard in his face, and he does not smile or break under her teasing.
Spring grows in the bulging pregnant belly of winter and bursts forth raw and wailing. Under the startling pink of cherry blossoms, George and Chopin return to Nohant. He travels reluctantly, for all she promises sweet breezes and quiet time to compose.
"To compose what? My music, or... something else?" He looks out the window of the carriage and the sun makes beads of sweat shine on his brow.
"Frédéric?" She takes his cold hand in hers.
"What is the matter with me, George?" He puts his hand over his eyes. "Madame d'Agoult took me aside, at her last salon, and asked—" he shakes his head.
"What did she say?"
"It hardly bears repeating. Unholy bargains. Witchcraft. It was blasphemy, and more than that, it was ridiculous."
Anger licks at George's heart like a flame searching for tinder. She knows Marie did not approach Chopin out of concern or piety. "Yes," she says. "Ridiculous." But it comes out flat and unconvincing.
He lowers his hand and looks at her. "But George. There is something—"
"Hush," she says.
"No." The mud clears from his eyes for half a breath, and they flash citrine-brilliant in the blossom-spangled sun. "No," he says again, but the growl is gone out of it. He sounds weary. "There is something wrong. And I am the last to realize."
She embraces him. It is like holding a wooden doll; he is rigid and unyielding.
"But you, George," he says, speaking into her chest, "you've known, all this time. And said nothing. You encouraged me to... to play on."
"And now you are adored," she says. "A famous composer."
"The devil that lives in me. That is what they adore. It is what you have loved, all this time."
She protests. He turns his face away from her, his shoulders high and tight. She can see his eyes reflected in the window glass, and in them there is the glint of chains, the locks and bars he will use to cage her beast.
"I will stay the summer at Nohant," he says. "And then... we will see."
"If you cannot get out of bed, you might at least be useful." George drops a sheaf of papers on the quilt, where the too-small shape of Chopin's body rises underneath the cloth. "My editor wants those chapters by next week. Proof them for me." She does not bother with a question mark.
He drags his eyes up from the manuscript, and she turns away: half guilty, half disgusted. She has not seen her lover in those eyes in months, not since the waning days of last year's August, and now the snow of their ninth winter together flies outside the townhouse window. At first, she badgered, pleaded, bribed, but he refused to play, refused to touch her.
"There is nothing in composing for me now," he said. "Nothing left to pursue, if it means sin and sickness." Poor beast, trapped in a crumbling prison.
In desperation, she has stooped to insults. Her latest novel is a florid romance, the story of an actress and a sickly Polish prince—too close to home to qualify as allegory. The prince is not presented well. It is not torture, she assures herself. It is a test. If she cannot rouse the beast with sex or music, she will play the reckless child and thrust a stick through the bars of its cage. Maybe, in a fit of rage, it will break free and claw at her, grab her wrists and bruise her. That would be enough like an embrace.
She folds herself into the window seat, drawing a blanket tight around her shoulders. The draft between the panes is cold, and doubtless does not help with Chopin's cough. Already, he has spit a little blood upon her pages. He tries to cover it with his blue-veined hand.
"I'm sure," he says, "that these will be as flawless as the rest." He slips the cover sheet to the back of the pile and begins to read, his wide, watery eyes moving over the words. George watches him, waiting. She sees him pause over some sentence he does not like, some not-so-subtle insult that readers will recognize as authorial comment on his own inadequacies. His lips thin to a white-rimmed line, and his eyes stop in their motion for a long moment. Then, without so much as one small sound, he keeps on reading.
George cannot do this anymore. Not after dry, cold months of grief and nothing. She tears the afghan from her shoulders and climbs onto the bed, knees to either side of Chopin's bony thighs. She traps him where he sits.
"God damn you," she shouts, making fists in his sweat-soaked nightshirt. "Come out! I know you're there." She shakes Chopin, and his neck is weak; his skull cracks on the headboard. George releases him, her stomach sick with terror.
He slumps against the curlicues of gilded wood, eyes fluttering. For one awful moment, she almost hopes he will not open them. But he does, and she only sees a man too exhausted to be angry, too resigned to be afraid. She lies down next to him, mute and weeping, her face in the hollow of his lap.
"Please," she says. "Come out."
She does not attend his funeral; those rites and requiems honor a stranger. She lets his mourners have their Mozart, their lengthy Catholic mass.
As the black procession winds its way along the second arrondissement, from La Madeleine to Père Lachaise, George sits with correspondence at her sunny breakfast table. In her career she has been called all manner of names, but never murderer nor saint. Now, she is variously branded killer, demon, cutthroat, witch, created angel, lover, doctor, grace. The slow moldering of her love affair has destroyed some friendships and strengthened others.
You nursed his genius through his darkest hours. You killed the age's greatest man.
Both sentiments, she thinks, flicking pastry from her fingertips, are equally the truth.
When the pageant is finished and the last of the crow-clad weepers gone, she goes to him. Though penniless, he died with wealthy friends; his tomb is grand white marble topped with Euterpe, the muse of melody and giver of delight. Her laureled head is bent with weeping. Her arms enfold a broken lyre.
George understands exactly. Euterpe is not crying for the splintered wood, the severed strings. The instrument is nothing. But without it, there is no song, no dance, no revelry. Euterpe weeps for the thing that lived in the dark hollow of the lyre, the shivering tension of a sinew string.