He did not wear wigs.
His untamed leonine mane vastly overshadowed the silly, neatly curly sheep’s heads and the disciplined, tightly braided horse tails in any group of males, the more as he stood at least half a head taller than most of them on any occasion. Later he began affecting ample, full-length robes of dark velvet, sustaining still more his appearance of a fairy-tale magician.
The robes were expensive, but I footed the bills – with no regrets.
Let me, however, tell it from the very beginning.
--- --- ---
I was sitting at a card table in Frau von Steiner’s drawing room, with only half my mind on the game – the other half was calculating how much my steward was cheating me and if giving him notice or trying to find a new husband was worth the trouble – when I heard the voice.
It was expounding some bizarre theory of “fluidum”, an invisible force emanating from all living beings. Discerning only bits and pieces of his utterances, I found the reasoning difficult to follow. I merely glanced over, as turning my head far enough to see him properly would have been unseemly. I did note that the academic-looking gentlemen who politely listened to him in the armchairs by the fireplace appeared to have similar difficulties, in spite of hearing his sentences in full.
Comprehension was not the issue, though.
His voice was what captured my attention.
If it was vocal velvet, it was a deep purple, violet or maroon, not bright and ostentatious, but firmly, irresistibly dominant. Its sound was not honey-sweet, but like a rich, complex wine that fascinates, draws you to taste just a little more to unlock all its secrets and, smoothly, insidiously, goes to your head, bewitches your mind and ensnares your senses, carries you off, persuades you – truly, falsely, no matter – to fly, by its glorious power, to distant places of wonder and marvel.
My partners at the card game grew impatient with my distracted silence, and I apologised, pleading worry about my steward’s possible deceit. They commiserated – money trouble is something people will understand. Frau von Nolte said, perhaps for the hundredth time that season: “There you are, my dear Frau von Posch. An estate without a master is like a body without a head. You really ought to marry again.”
I paused for a brief instant.
“You may be right, Frau von Nolte,” I replied, in a tone of a more honest conviction than usual.
The busybody von Nolte was certain to spread the rumour that the wealthy widow von Posch was on the marital market – and the rumour mill might bring me further information about the man with the fascinating voice.
From then on I noticed him occasionally in
His name was Mesmer, Franz Anton Mesmer, he had recently attained a doctoral degree in medicine and was attempting to set up a practice in Vienna.
Money, or rather the lack of it, was one of his problems.
Another one was the attitude of the medical establishment. Mesmer performed spectacular cures, sometimes in public. Most often the cure was applied to a young woman in whom it elicited ostentatiously ecstatic convulsions, the patient later oblivious of the incident but claiming to feel better.
The established medical profession resented his extravagant style and, still more, his often rather striking successes, and condemned his unorthodox methods as being unscientific.
But, be it through the action of natural physical magnetism, as Mesmer claimed, or through mental suggestion triggered by his captivating voice and personality, or perhaps through the release of the patients’ pent-up emotional needs, most of the women whom he treated did declare themselves to be free of their initial symptoms such as dizziness, faintness, fatigue and melancholia.
I observed Mesmer with fascination. Tall, dominant and self-assured, he carried himself with the easy confidence of a prince of the blood or an accomplished charlatan.
I have already mentioned his hair, only seldom covered by a wig; I have no single word for its colour, a light brown livened up by streaks of pale blond and a few premature traces of grey, a colour as leonine as the shape of the mass of large, soft locks rising above his forehead, framing his finely etched, utterly masculine features and falling past his cravat and tall collar.
His eyes were as changeable in colour as the autumn sky over an ancient heath, their expression mercurial as it shifted from sharply penetrating analysis to scathing disdain, deep contemplation or profound compassion.
A shapely, distinctive nose lent his features the dignity of a majestic mountain eagle or a Roman demi-god. His lips, in repose a smooth cupid’s bow curve, were constantly as ready to twist into a derisive sneer as to tighten in focused reflection; much more rarely did they disclose a row of pearly teeth in an immediate, disarming smile.
One day, as he was getting ready to treat a young woman who had fainted at a music soirée, his teeth caught at his lower lip – and it was as though they had caught at my very heartstrings. The heady sensation was like nothing I had felt in the past fifteen years, a youthful desire once more coursing through my body.
That time the treatment called for Mesmer to play a glass harmonica, his hands caressing the rotating glass bowls to call forth a haunting, painfully beautiful endless melody, surely what the music of the spheres must be like... and I found myself speculating what those hands, with their deeply focused, rich, nuanced sensitivity, might arouse in a woman’s body.
In due course I was to know. My newly recovered physical desire was tempered by the experienced, middle-aged woman’s patience and practical sense. Rumours found their way through the proper channels to the proper ears, proper contacts were taken and proper contracts signed.
Thus one night I found myself in a proper conjugal bed with Franz Anton Mesmer, suddenly doubtful, shivering with a cold that came from within, from the awareness of my worn, middle-aged body, its stocky waist and chunky hips, the small breasts, once sweetly rounded, now turned into ludicrously empty flabby pouches.
I said nothing to Franz, and he asked no questions. He read the answers in my eyes, even more than I myself had been aware of, and the remainder of the night needed no words. In the total darkness that enclosed and protected me, my other senses sharpened by the uselessness of eyesight, I became a musical instrument in my husband’s hands as he directed us to share a very private melody of inexpressible beauty.
Ours was a marriage of two human beings: all was not heavenly bliss and music of the spheres. My almost grown-up son, feeling his right to my property threatened, resented my new husband, who in turn objected to my son’s boorish, selfish, insensitive ways, the more as he realised that any effort to correct them came far too late.
What more, a vast majority of Franz Anton’s patients were women, mostly young ones, often beautiful. I was reasonably certain that nothing improper was going on; still, aware of my plain features and middle-aged body, I was jealous. Franz Anton, busy with his successful practice and his captivating research, seldom noticed my attacks of depression, but occasionally my tight-lipped bitterness, disguised as counting-house style common sense, exacerbated by our mutual awareness that I was the one holding the purse strings, would trigger brutal quarrels or bouts of icy silence between us.
There might be nothing openly improper in Mesmer’s treatment of his patients, but it did tax his physical and mental energy, sometimes quite cruelly, and our married life was erratic. Often he would stagger upstairs into bed directly after dinner, and be fast asleep when it was time for me to join him in the bedroom. But there were other times...
Franz had been treating a seventeen-year-old Hungarian baroness for chronic fatigue. The treatment was eminently successful: from being unable to rise from her bed, she had advanced to taking long carriage rides in the countryside and had even resumed her dancing lessons. But it was as though Franz was giving of his own life force to strengthen hers. He regularly came home exhausted, with an absent look on his face, consumed his meal without a word and went to bed.
On this particular day he had also had an
exasperating debate with two visiting physicians from Budapest.
Once the house was locked up for the night, I came upstairs, changed into my shift and stood looking at my husband who lay in bed, his face pale and drawn, the dark circles below his eyes revealing the extent of his fatigue and adding years to his features. He lay with his arms thrown up by his head as if in surrender, his rumpled hair spilling all over the pillow, his head tilted slightly to one side, his open shirt exposing the smooth, ivory skin of the throat, which his white silk cravats carefully concealed in the daytime.
He was not asleep, though. His eyes opened briefly, his lips curved in a hint of a smile, then his face relaxed again, as if relishing the safety of a familiar presence.
I cannot explain what possessed me. I lifted the duvet, crawled underneath it and straddled my husband’s body. He remained perfectly still. As the position of his arms seemed to invite the gesture, I reached out, leaned forward and pinned down his wrists. His eyelids fluttered, but did not lift; I could see his eyes moving beneath the smooth, soft folds covering them; his torso arched slightly, and as he exhaled, he...
The tiny, minute sound yanked and pulled at
the very centre of my being.
In response a vast shudder racked my entire body, suddenly I had no idea what to do, what I had begun, what the meaning was... through my confusion I discerned a low murmur. Still holding on to his wrists, I leaned close to Franz’ face and whispered: “I’m sorry, dearest, I can’t hear you.”
He murmured again, little more than a whimpering sigh: “Please, don’t hurt me.”
The force pulling at my core twisted and
rose, my whole body was hot and shaking with my ragged breaths, tears burned
behind my eyelids, dizziness claimed me as I almost climaxed at that very
moment. It was glorious, matchless, unbelievable, overwhelming.
Of course I could not hurt him, it was a physical impossibility, a vigorous six-foot-tall man, still quite young and in excellent condition. In a moment of heart-wrenching, ultimate trust he was giving himself up to a game of surrender, inviting a reversed pattern of dominance and submission, finding a precious temporary refuge from his routine role of the wise, powerful healer, ever strong and in control.
There was no hurt involved, but I was
merciless to both of us. He held himself totally, impossibly, desperately in
check as I recalled how his hands could play me like an instrument, remembering
every single one of his artifices and adding some of my own, driving him
further, higher, beyond himself, reducing him to a mass of shivers and wordless
pleading as my fingertips, my palms, my nails, my cheeks, my hair, my tongue,
my teeth explored, defined, provoked, asserted, promised, moved on.
Within me I sensed a tenderness that I had thought myself incapable of, a feeling far beyond anything a husband, a lover or a child had ever awakened, an exquisite pain that drove me on, towards the tension that coiled ever tighter deep inside me, sent waves of heat through my entire body and released the burning tears from my eyes.
We joined at long last, with me straddling his shivering, twitching groin and setting a torturously slow pace, while his effort to submit touched the limits of human self-control. I felt his desperate gasps and shudders and finally relented, directing his hands to my hips, inviting him to find his own rhythm. Our eyes met and locked, we were one, in a place apart from space and time, an everlasting instant, and the climax hit us blindingly, a vast roar of two throats in one single being...
... the colossal wave deposited us gently in a warm, safe nest where we rested together, gentle touches recalling and asserting that which had occurred, our bodies shuddering occasionally in the aftermath of the immense, beyond words, beyond understanding, an overwhelming event of pure sensation and emotion.
A little later, our bodies not quite touching any more but still sensing each other, Franz turned onto his side, facing me, his features relaxed into what was not quite a smile, and he fell asleep, his breathing deep and calm, occasionally turning into low, purring snores. He did not notice when I caressed the hair over his temple, lightly, gently, tenderly; then I just lay facing him, watching him sleep. Finally I pinched out the candle, lay back and listened to my husband’s breathing, delighting in the sensation of being close to him as I drifted off to sleep.
--- --- ---
It was not enough.
While Franz Anton continued treating nubile young women, the rumours persisted and intensified. Frau von Nolte, Frau von Steiner and all of their friends regarded me with pity and ill-concealed derision. As the rumours grew, so did my suspicion, bitterness and jealousy. Was I, after all, only the means to a steady income for my husband...
The case of Maria Theresia Paradies triggered the crisis.
Mesmer temporarily cured the young blind musician’s eyesight. How he achieved it, and just what occurred between them – I do not know. Maria Teresia’s feelings for my husband were certainly perfectly obvious, and perfectly natural.
With her vision restored, she complained that she had been deprived of her musical talent. Eventually the young woman relapsed into blindness and the medical establishment pounced on the opportunity to laugh Franz Anton out of Vienna.
He wished to go to Paris, where he hoped to find better opportunities to further his research and establish his theories. But my property could not support him financially – it could provide him with a basic livelihood, but more money was required for his research and the eventual publication of the results.
If Mesmer was to become a fashionable physician to the idle rich, if he was to intrigue the ladies and create a titillating aura of mystery for himself, he could not arrive with a plain-looking, middle-aged wife and an uncouth grown-up stepson in tow. Besides, the estate required my presence if the steward – or another one of his ilk – was not to steal us blind.
So Franz Anton left for Paris, alone.
Our personal correspondence dwindled. Eventually there were only the steward’s formal reports and whatever financial support the estate yielded.
Occasionally rumours arrived from Paris, of a book being published, of Mesmer failing to defend his theories before a Royal scientific commission, of his continued popularity as a physician.
The waves of the 1789 turmoil in France washed away any trace of Mesmer. The estate’s messengers returned, or sometimes not, bringing back the unread reports but rarely the money.
Someone mentioned travels abroad. Someone mentioned Switzerland. It became clear that Franz Anton Mesmer was not coming back to Austria.
Gradually I have come to accept the fact that I shall never see my husband again.
In spite of the physician’s pathetic attempts at secrecy, I am perfectly aware that this sick-bed will be my deathbed.
As I drift in and out of consciousness, my fingers scrabble desultorily at the sheet...
... in an effort to recover the memory...
... of a lock of hair.