Aloysia begins the life of a woman of the world. The Webers make a fateful move to Vienna.
Daily I pondered the paradox of our new life. Our family was better off than ever before, but it seemed as if we had only progressed from a state of occasional uproar to one that was continuous.
Count Hadik’s annual visit to his wife in Vienna had set off the latest. The very first night he was gone, Aloysia evaded her chaperon, a woman of Hadik’s who accompanied her everywhere, and disappeared for hours, probably spending them in the arms of handsome Baron von Schfhautl.
My mother was at her wit’s end. She knew Hadik would hear of it. “Don’t be a fool, girl. You’re going to ruin yourself and your family too. What do you suppose the Count will do?”
“Who cares?” Ignoring Mama, Aloysia studied her nails as if they were fascinating. “Karl Emil’s family is rich and nearly as influential.”
“Fridolin! Fridolin! Talk to her!” Mama cried.
“Why waste my breath?” Papa replied. “Aloysia is a woman of the world now. Neither of you listened when it might have done some good. Now I’ve got nothing to say.”
It wasn’t surprising when, after enduring many such escapades, Count Hadik began to bed a new young singer. When Aloysia was dismissed from the opera and the new mistress appointed in her place, a howl went up at our house of, “I told you so.”
Although frightened and mortified, my sister was brave. Some weeks later, she told Jo and me what she’d done. While we were all at market, she’d put on her plainest dress so she would escape notice by the Count’s servants. Then she went to beard the old lion in his den.
Finding him on his way to Court, she fell to her knees and caught his sleeve like a petitioner. Not mincing words, she reminded him about the promise he’d made on the night of her surrender.
An explosion might have been expected, but the wicked old rake burst out laughing.
“Impertinent and untimely as a lawyer. Still,” he went on, lifting her up, “you must admit, Mademoiselle Weber, that your own rash behavior has brought about your present predicament.”
Aloysia, eyes blazing with rage, surged forward, but the Count took a prudent step back.
“Wait, naughty girl,” he cautioned, “let me finish. I am going to give you exactly what you want, instead of the public spanking you deserve. Brockmann!” he summoned his secretary. “The letter from Vienna.”
The officer, portly and clearly unused to hurry, shuffled his fat hands through a case.
“It’s for you, Mademoiselle,” said the Count after the letter had been retrieved, “signed by Count Orsini-Rosenberg, Controller of the Emperor’s theater. From now on you shall sing in Vienna. You very talented, and very ungrateful, rascal.”
The letter was presented open. Aloysia seized it. As she read, she sank again to her knees. The Count, smiling, extended a leathery hand. This time it was humbly kissed.
“I always keep my promises, Fraulein Weber,” the Count said. “But I thought you deserved a few days of punishment. I’ve come to the conclusion you’ll be a far better prima donna than you’ll ever be a mistress.”
Papa could hardly wait to escape from Munich, the scene of so much humiliation. He took loans and within a month we were in Vienna.
What a change! The city was vast, larger than I could have ever imagined. Our new apartment was on the second floor of an enormous house, the Auge Gottes, which sat on the corner of two streets. It had four stories, but many of the buildings actually had five.
There were so many people, and the Viennese accent was so thick that at first we could hardly understand our new servants.
Everything went smoothly for Aloysia. Not only did she get the promised appointment to the new German opera, but a cashier’s job was secured for Papa as well.
With steady work and a daughter who was no longer someone’s mistress, Papa became much happier. He dashed around in his free mornings exploring the city. He found the shabby, energetic volksoper district on the edge of town and got to know one of the managers who started Josepha on her singing career.
“Of course, I can’t pay much, but you’ll learn. Hey! Always something to learn in the theater.” The manager seized Jo’s plump fingers and gave them a hearty kiss. It was clear, even to me, that the old potbelly fancied her.
“What a big, brave voice!” he enthused. “My God! The farmers will think they’ve got into the Court Opera. And what a figure. A real woman. Nothing like those skinny dollies the Emperor fancies.”
On the spot he offered Jo the part of a jealous wife in a rollicking singspiel. After that, our house had two practicing voices. Aloysia danced around the apartment, shiny-faced and chattering endlessly about her exciting new roles and her equally exciting new friends.
To everyone’s surprise, Jo made an instant success at the Volksoper. Not only did she sing and speak her parts well, but she had a natural gift for turning the laugh against hecklers. Her wicked tongue set the audience roaring and delighted her new boss.
We had been in Vienna only a few months when Papa died. One afternoon, he came home early, complaining that something he’d eaten was making him ill. His face looked gray and pinched and he kept rubbing his shoulder. He lay down, “to sleep for awhile,” and never woke up again.
Sophie and I were glad that we’d kissed him before he’d gone to take that final “nap.” Frankly, I don’t remember much about the days that followed except the ache. The downstairs neighbor and his servant helped Mama lay Papa out in the parlor on a board between two chairs.
That was the last place I saw him, the last time I touched him. The moment my fingers rested against his colorless, cold cheek, I knew that only the husk had been left behind. The warm, caring presence, the very stuff that had been Papa, was gone.
Everything of value had to be hidden downstairs at the Buckners, or we’d have lost it in death duties. Our neighbors, God bless them, were willing conspirators in deceiving the authorities.
His debts we couldn’t hide. Nine hundred gulden was owed, most of it incurred in our precipitous move to Vienna. Aloysia saved the day, requesting and receiving an advance on her salary.
Because of our connection with the Court theater, we were given a guardian who was an important man at the opera house, Herr Thorwart, Inspector of Music. The title was impressive, but the man wasn’t.
Unkempt, standing in our parlor in a greasy black jacket, Thorwart lectured Mama about her heavy responsibilities as a woman left alone with four daughters. Over and over again, he assured her that he was always available if she needed “either a man’s advice or a man’s authority.” During each repetition of that phrase, he’d slew his pale, cold eyes speculatively toward my sisters and me.
The days carry the living along and the dead fall behind. It was disconcerting to discover how everything went on without Papa. The sun came up and went down, the roses bloomed, the birds sang, the stars wheeled overhead; exactly as they had before.
There wasn’t much time to grieve. After Papa’s burial, Jo took every Volksoper job that was offered and more of the housework fell on me. My days were spent sewing, cooking and cleaning.
There was a lot of daily drudgery, but every now and then Aloysia would take us to the Court theater. It was so exciting to see all those oh-so-well dressed Viennese noblemen and their ladies. Sometimes, from a distance, we even saw the Emperor.
Generally, we enjoyed the shows, but once Aloysia took us to a play which Jo and I both agreed was horribly depressing. There was a ghost, which we liked, but then the hero’s sweetheart went mad and drowned herself. Her manner of death was described by one of the characters. I could just see it: The poor sad girl, slipping and falling into a river, surrounded by the flowers she’d been picking. It upset me so I could hardly pay any attention to the rest of the play.
The author was some long-dead Englishman. Despite that, Aloysia kept assuring us that the piece was terribly fashionable. The entire theatrical world, she said, was in raptures over this dismal play! As if to confirm her observation, on our way out we passed a crowd of gentlemen standing in the parterre, passing snuff and solemnly discussing “this profound work of antique genius.”
While I hated the story, I had to admit that the leading man, Joseph Lange, was splendid. He was tall, with a head of thick, dark curls, a melodious voice, and shapely legs. It was no surprise to learn that he was one of the biggest stars in Vienna. Whenever he was on stage, I stared like an idiot. During the applause at the end, Josepha agreed with me that Herr Lange had been the best part of that evening’s entertainment.
In the carriage, we begged Aloysia to take us to see Herr Lange in his very next role. I remember how coolly she said something about “that will be easy enough to arrange.”