Patricia Taylor Wells
Margaret Thistle waited for the sixth chime of the grandfather clock before throwing off her covers and sitting on the edge of her bed. She pressed her toes into the plush-lined slippers she had positioned beside her bed the night before. The wood floor creaked as she walked across the room to her closet. Margaret dressed quickly, choosing something from her small wardrobe appropriate for that day’s activities. She then pulled back the gossamer curtain of the large window that faced an oak shaded street. Light flooded her bedroom, which over time had darkened with age. Margaret stared through the glass as though seeing another time filled with people she had loved and lost, places she had been, and a medley of things that had happened along the way. She thought about her late husband, and the son they had lost in Vietnam. She thought about her wayward daughter who barely spoke to her anymore. Margaret went through the same routine every morning. And every morning, she felt lonely and tired of living.
Sometimes she would wander over to the antique secretary stationed in the little alcove next to the closet. She would always hesitate before opening its drop front desk, not really certain if she wanted to unearth its secrets. She would take the ornate brass key she kept hidden in a leather pouch in one of the desk’s cubby holes and unlock the center door. Inside were a stack of faded envelopes tied together with a blue satin ribbon. Margaret would carefully hold them to her breast before placing them against her lips--their faint mustiness a reminder of how long they had been hidden away. She would then close her eyes and remember one special moment in her life. Something she kept buried deep in her heart, something she still had difficulty believing had ever happened. Something that still felt as splendid as it had over thirty years before.
Even though she was well over fifty back then, she looked younger. Still, she was past the age when men would look her way and find her beautiful or captivating. Yet, even now just as then, there was a hint of the beauty time had faded in her piercing eyes, her delicate lips and the highlights in her hair that hid any signs of graying. To her advantage, age had sharpened her senses, had made her more interesting and in an unexpected way, very attractive. The sadness she suffered from losing her son had long since melded into a tenderness that was often mistaken as affection.
After their son died, Margaret and her husband Harold grew apart. Harold, an attorney, threw himself into his work, spending long hours at his office and then shutting himself in his study each night to pore over client files. Margaret busied herself with the Women’s Symphony League and the Blue Bonnet Garden Club.
It was on a summer evening that her life changed unexpectedly. The symphony league had booked a chamber orchestra, a quartet that included a flute, violin, cello and viola, for the garden club’s annual party. Margaret, with her vast knowledge of classical music, had helped plan the event and was influential when it came to selecting the orchestra. Having a quartet on tour from Cologne, Germany was exactly what was needed to attract new members for both the garden club and the symphony league. Everyone was talking about it.
The evening of the event, Margaret was eager to speak what limited French she knew with two of the orchestra members from Paris who were frequently asked to tour with the Cologne Chamber Orchestra.
“Bonsoir,” she greeted them. “C’est un plaisir de vous rencontrer.”
“Merci, Madame.” The young violinist kept his eyes on Margaret. “We are happy to be here. Thank you for inviting us.”
“You speak English extremely well,” Margaret observed.
Following the concert Margaret and several other symphony league members engaged in lively conversation with the musicians. Margaret was glad that Harold had opted not to attend the concert, as he would have insisted they leave right away. Most of Margaret’s conversation was with the violinist, who must have been half her age. But he was charming and they had much in common. Margaret offered to send copies of the photos she had taken that evening if any of the musicians were interested. Jules, the violinist, gave Margaret his address. The delightful evening ended with alternating kisses on the cheek. Margaret couldn’t help but notice that Jules had pulled her a little closer to him when they were saying goodbye.
As soon as Margaret’s film was developed, she selected several photos and mailed them to Jules along with a little note about how much she had enjoyed meeting him and hearing the quartet’s beautiful music. The haunting sounds of the violin, of course, were what she remembered almost as much as she remembered his tender embrace.
To her surprise, Jules wrote back, making several inquiries about her life that would require a polite response. Margaret tucked the letter away in the secretary desk, not certain if she should mention it to her husband. It seemed innocent enough, but Harold might not think it was a good idea for her to answer Jules’s letter. But she wanted to answer and she would think of a way to ensure a response back from him. Jules and Margaret began corresponding on a regular basis, each letter becoming a little more intimate. At Margaret’s request, Jules used the name Juliette in his return address so Harold would think the letters were from a former pen pal who now lived in Paris. But since Harold paid little attention to what Margaret did, the letters went unnoticed.
Margaret always used her finest linen stationary when writing to Jules. And her best ink pen to showcase her skillful handwriting. Sometimes she would dot the edge of the page with lavender, hoping its delicate scent would survive the journey to Paris. The letters became the highlight of her life and she would drop whatever she was doing to read each one when it arrived. She was very surprised when the words from one of his letters jumped out at her: “Come to Paris, my darling.” Surely not, thought Margaret. But the thought of it lingered in her mind for several months. She contacted her former friend who lived in Paris, informing her that she was planning a trip in the near future. This would be her cover – she was going to France to see her friend. Harold would certainly be okay with that. And so Margaret began making plans.
In early summer, Margaret flew to Paris. She and Jules spent the entire two weeks together, strolling along the Champs-Élysées, sipping expresso at sidewalk cafés, dining by candlelight and making love. Margaret had never been more fulfilled. But she could make no sense of what she felt. Here she was, a woman in her fifties acting like a school girl with a man half her age. What did he see in her? “Age does not matter when you love someone,” Jules repeatedly told her. “Why do you concern yourself with such nonsense?” Regardless, Margaret had her doubts. She would never leave Harold. She had a comfortable life and a husband who loved her. What could Jules possibly promise her other than romantic, sensuous love that would eventually fade away, especially after she grew even older? “No,” she told herself. “This must end.”
She returned home and wrote one last letter to Jules. He responded, pleading with her to not let their love end this way. Margaret did not answer him and she never heard from him again. But she did not forget him either. Not long after, Harold died suddenly of a heart attack. And even though she was now an unmarried woman, free to do as she pleased; she did nothing--other than to instruct her attorney to keep track of Jules’s address each year. And then she updated her will.
When Margaret passed away at age 87, her attorney immediately located Jules who still lived in Paris. Margaret’s instructions were very clear. She was leaving her entire estate to Jules, other than a small portion for her estranged daughter, under one condition: Jules was to play his violin at her funeral.
And so Jules arrived in the United States a few days later with his violin and a heavy heart. He had never forgotten the time he had spent with Margaret many years before. Now he was a little more than the age Margaret had been when they met. Margaret had specified the piece she wanted him to play; a Chopin Variation, Prelude in B Minor, a piece that was played at Chopin’s own funeral. Although written for piano, Margaret preferred an arrangement that was accompanied by a violin. And that was what she wanted Jules to play.
There was only a small gathering for Margaret’s service. Her attorney handed Jules a note when he arrived. Jules recognized the beautiful handwriting on the envelope. He carefully opened it and pulled out the familiar stationary that Margaret always used when writing him. His heart was filled with longing as he read her words.
My darling violinist,
One day many years from now,
Perhaps you will look up into the sky
And you will see a bright, shining star,
And you will know that it’s me
Looking down and watching over you.
All my love, M.
He placed the note in his vest pocket, close to his heart. And when it was time for the Chopin piece to begin, Jules looked out at the small audience as his eyes began to tear. The pianist began Chopin’s haunting melody as Jules lifted his violin and placed his cheek against its rest. Jules closed his eyes as his bow touched the strings, evoking the most beautiful music he had ever played. In his heart, he knew Margaret was smiling down at him.
Why I wrote this story:
The inspiration for “Final Curtain” was a portrait painted by my cousin, Cynthia Ross Vermie. The portrait was an elderly lady who was looking out a window as she clutched the gossamer curtains she had pulled aside. Her eyes were filled with sadness, as though she was peering into her past. At the same time, I was listening to one of my favorite pieces on the Music Channel, the Chopin Variation featuring a violin included in the story. And finally, I had just returned from a trip to Paris, retracing my own journey there as a young school girl. The story evolved from all of these elements.