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The Morning Gift

The Morning Gift

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Published by michie
Twenty-year-old Ruth Berger is desperate. The daughter of a Jewish-Austrian professor, she was supposed to have escaped Vienna before the Nazis marched into the city. Yet the plan went completely wrong, and while her family and fiancé are waiting for her in safety, Ruth is stuck in Vienna with no way to escape. Then she encounters her father's younger college professor, the dashing British paleontologist Quin Sommerville. Together, they strike a bargain: a marriage of convenience, to be annulled as soon as they return to safety. But dissolving the marriage proves to be more difficult than either of them thought-not the least because of the undeniable attraction Quin and Ruth share. To make matters worse, Ruth is enrolled in Quin's university, in his very classes. Can their secret survive, or will circumstances destroy their love?
Twenty-year-old Ruth Berger is desperate. The daughter of a Jewish-Austrian professor, she was supposed to have escaped Vienna before the Nazis marched into the city. Yet the plan went completely wrong, and while her family and fiancé are waiting for her in safety, Ruth is stuck in Vienna with no way to escape. Then she encounters her father's younger college professor, the dashing British paleontologist Quin Sommerville. Together, they strike a bargain: a marriage of convenience, to be annulled as soon as they return to safety. But dissolving the marriage proves to be more difficult than either of them thought-not the least because of the undeniable attraction Quin and Ruth share. To make matters worse, Ruth is enrolled in Quin's university, in his very classes. Can their secret survive, or will circumstances destroy their love?

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Published by: michie on Apr 27, 2009
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02/02/2013

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Heini had been ten days in Budapest. It was good to be back in his native

city; good to walk along the Corso beside the river and look up at the castle
on Buda hill; good to see the steamers glide past on their way to the Black
Sea and to taste again the fiery gulyas which the Viennese thought they could
make, but couldn't. There was a fizz, an edge of wit here that was missing in
the Austrian capital, and the women were the most beautiful in the world. Not
that Heini was tempted -he was finding it all too easy to be faithful to Ruth;
and anyway one always had to be careful of disease.
His father still lived in the yellow villa on the Hill of the Roses; the apple trees
in the garden were in blossom; they took their meals on the verandah looking
down over the Pasha's tomb and the wooded slopes on to the Gothic tracery
of the Houses of Parliament and the gables and roofs of Pest.
Heini did not care for his stepmother; she lacked soul, but with his father still
editing the only liberal German newspaper in the city, he had to be glad that
there was somebody to care for him.
Nor was there any problem about securing a visa for entry into Great Britain.
Hungary was still independent, there was no stampede to leave the country;
the quota was not yet full. It would take a little longer than he expected - a
few weeks - but there was nothing to feel anxious about.
Best of all, Heini's old Professor of Piano Studies at the Academy had
managed to arrange a concert for him.
'I'd have liked to organize something big for you in the Vigado,' Professor
Sandor said, mentioning the famous concert hall in which Rubinstein had
played and Brahms conducted, 'but it's too short notice - and who knows, if
you play here in the Academy, Bartok may come and that could lead to
something.'
Heini had been properly grateful. He remembered the old building with
affection; its tradition stretching back to Liszt and boasting now, in Bartok
and Kodaly and Dohnanyi, as distinguished a group of professors as any
music school in the world. It was to be an evening recital in the main hall; he
was to get half the proceeds; all in all, Professor Sandor had been most
helpful and generous.
But there was a snag. The Concert Committee had asked Heini to include in
his programme the sonata that the third -year piano students were studying
that term: Beethoven's tricky and beautiful Opus 99. Heini had no objection
to this, but though he had the last ten Beethoven sonatas by heart, this one
he would have to play from the score - and that meant a page turner.
It was here that things had begun to go wrong. For Professor Sandor had a
daughter, also a piano student, whom he had offered Heini in that role.
'You'll find her very intelligent,' the Professor had said proudly; and at Heini's
first rehearsal Mali had duly appeared - and been a disaster.
Mali was not just plain - an unobtrusively plain girl would not have upset him
- she was virulently ugly; her spectacles glinted and caught the light; she had

buck teeth. Not only that, but she drove him nearly mad with her humble
eagerness, her desperate desire to be of use, and though she could hardly fail
to be able to read music, she was so hesitant, so terrified of being hasty, that
several times he had had to nod at the bottom of the page. Worst of all, Mali

perspired.

Heini had missed Ruth ever since he had come to Budapest, but in the days
leading up to the concert his longing for her became a constant ache. Ruth
turned over so gracefully, so skilfully that one hardly knew she was there; she
smelled sweetly and faintly of lavender shampoo and never, in the years she'd
sat beside him, had he found it necessary to nod.
Nor was his stepmother at all aware of the kind of pressures that playing in
public put on him. Heini's hands were insured, of course, and taking care of
them had become second nature, but a pianist used all his body and when he
tripped over a dustpan she had left on the stairs, he could not help being
upset.
'I'm not being fussy,' he said to Marta, 'but if I sprained my ankle, I wouldn't
be able to pedal for a month.'
It had been so different in the Bergers' apartment, which had become his
second home. Not only Ruth but her mother and the maids were happy to
serve him, as he in turn served music.
But it was on the actual day of the concert that Heini's need for Ruth became
almost uncontainable.
The day began badly, when he was woken at nine o'clock by the sound of the
maid hoovering the corridor outside his room. He always slept late on the day
of a concert, but when he complained, his stepmother said that the girl had to
get through her work and pointed out that Heini had already spent ten hours
in bed.
'In bed, but not asleep,' Heini said bitterly - but he didn't really expect her to
understand.
Then there was the question of lunch. Heini could never eat anything heavy
before he played and in Vienna Ruth always made a point of getting to the
Cafe Museum early to keep a corner table and make sure that the beef broth,
which was all that he could swallow, was properly strained and the plain rusks
well baked. Whereas Marta seemed to expect him to play on a diet of roast
pork and dumplings!
Leaving the house earlier than he had intended, Heini, walking down the
fashionable Vaci utca, faced yet another challenge: the purchase of a flower
for his buttonhole. A gardenia was probably too formal for the Academy, a
camellia too, but a carnation, a white one, should strike the right note. Ruth,
of course, had bought his buttonholes - he had watched her once, searching
for a flawless bloom, involving the shop assistant, who knew her well, in the
excitement of kitting him out.

Bravely now, Heini went in alone and found a girl to help him. It was only
when he came out again, his flower safe in cellophane, that he realized that
he did not have a pin.
In the hall of the Academy, Professor Sandor was waiting.
'It's an excellent attendance - almost full. Considering we had less than two
weeks for the publicity and there's a premiere at the opera, we can be very
pleased.'
Heini nodded and went to the green-room - and there was Mali in an
unbelievably ugly dress: crimson crepe which clung unsuitably to her bosom
and exposed her collar bones. The splash of colour would distract the eye
even from the back of the hall. Ruth always chose dresses that blended with
the colours of the hall, quiet dresses which nevertheless became her
wonderfully.
'Do you have a pin?' he asked - and Mali did at least have that and managed,
fumbling and nervous, to fasten the carnation in his buttonhole. 'I shall need
to be quiet now,' he added firmly, and sat down as far away from her as
possible.
Not that this ensured him the peace he craved. Mali fidgeted incessantly with
the Beethoven sonatas, checking the pages; she cleared her throat… '-"
Ruth knew exactly how to quieten him during those last moments before a
concert or an exam. She brought along a set of dominos and they played for
a while, or she just sat silently with her hands folded and that marvellous hair
of hers bright and burnished, but taken back with a velvet band so that it
didn't tumble forward and distract the audience. Ruth made sure he had fresh
lemonade waiting for him in the interval; he never had to think about his
music, it was always there and in the right order. And now, glancing in the
mirror, he saw that his carnation was listing quite noticeably towards the left!
'Five minutes,' called the page, knocking on the door.
'My handkerchief!' said Heini suddenly in a panic. The white one in the pocket
of his dinner jacket was there, of course, but the other one, the one with
which he wiped his hands between the pieces…
Mali flushed and jumped to her feet. 'I'm sorry… I didn't know that I…'
'It doesn't matter.' He found the one his stepmother had washed for him, but
cotton, not linen. The Bergers' maids always laundered his handkerchiefs;
they smelled so fresh and clean with just the lightest touch of starch: Ruth
saw to that.
It was time to go. Professor Sandor put his head round the door. 'Bartok is
here!' he said, beaming- and Heini rose.
The applause which greeted him was loud and enthusiastic for Heini Radek
was an amazingly personable young man with his dark curls, his graceful
body. This was how a pianist should look and in Liszt's city comparisons were

not hard to make.
Heini bowed, smiled at a girl in the front row, again up at the gallery, gave a
respectful nod in the direction of Hungary's greatest composer. Turning to
settle himself on the piano stool he found that Mali, her Adam's apple
working, was leaning forward in her chair. He had told her again and again
that she had to sit back, that the audience must not be aware of any figure
but his, and she jerked backwards. It was unbelievable - how could anyone be
so gauche? And she had drenched herself with some appalling sickly scent
beneath which the odour of sweat was still discernible.
But now there had to be only the music. He closed his eyes for a moment of
concentration, opened them -and began to play.
And Professor Sandor, who had slipped into the front row, nodded, for the boy
in spite of all was very, very musical and the persuasion, the work, he had put
into arranging the concert had been worthwhile.
It was after three encores, after the applause and the flowers thrown onto the
platform by an excited group of schoolgirls, that Heini thought of Ruth again.
She always waited for him wherever he played - unobtrusive, quiet, but so
very pretty, standing close by so that he could smile at her and claim her, but
never crowding in when people wanted to tell him how much they had
enjoyed the music. And afterwards she would take him back to the
Felsengasse and Leonie would have his favourite dishes on the table, and they
would talk about the concert and relive the evening till he was relaxed enough
to sleep. Or if he was invited to a party, to people who might be useful to him,
Ruth slipped quietly away without a word of reproach.
Whereas Mali now was waiting for praise, her eyes worried behind her
spectacles. 'Was it all right?' she asked breathlessly. 'Everything was all right,
wasn't it?'
'Yes, yes,' he said, managing to smile, and then returned to greet his well-
wishers, and to receive their volatile greetings, so different from the well-bred
handshakes and heel clicks of the Viennese.
But late that night, returning home, he realized again how bereft he was.
That his father would be working late in his editorial office he knew, but his
stepmother too had gone out. True she had left a note and a pot of goulash
on the stove, but Heini had never had to return to an empty house.
He was out on the moonlit verandah when his father came through the French
windows carrying two glasses of wine. 'How did it go?' 'Pretty well, I think.'
'I've heard good things already on the grapevine. You'll go far, Heini.'
Heini smiled and took his glass. 'I miss Ruth,' he said. 'Yes, I can imagine,'
said his father, who had met Ruth in Vienna. 'If I were you, I'd marry her
quickly before someone else snaps her up!'
'Oh, they won't do that. We belong.' Beside him, Radek was silent, looking

down at the lights of the city in which he had lived all his life. A man of fifty,
he looked older than his age and troubled. 'How's it going with your visa?' 'All
right, as far as I know.'
'Well, don't delay, Heini. I don't like the way things are shaping. If Hitler
moves against the Czechs, the Hungarians will try and get a share of the
pickings and that means kowtowing to the Germans. There aren't any laws
against the Jews yet, but they'll come.' And abruptly: 'I've taken a job in
Switzerland. Marta is going ahead next week to find us an apartment.'
Left alone again, Heini was filled with disquiet. For his father to leave his
home and the prestige he enjoyed in Hungary meant there was danger
indeed. Heini did not like the idea of England: The Land Without Music, the
country of fogs and men in bowler hats who had done unmentionable things
to each other at boarding school, but it looked as though he had better get
himself there quickly. And he was going to Ruth, his starling, his page turner,
his love. Humbly, Heini, staring down at the lights of a barge as it slipped
beneath the Elisabeth Bridge, admitted that he had taken Ruth too much for
granted. Well, all this was going to change. Not only would he make Ruth
wholly his, physically as well as mentally, but he was ready - yes, he was
almost ready now - to marry her. At twenty-one he was very young to be
taking such a step and his agent in Vienna had advised against it. So much
patronage at the start of a musician's career came from wealthy matrons and
they were apt to look with a particular kindness on unmarried youths. But this
did not matter. He was prepared to make the sacrifice.
On an impulse, he fetched a piece of paper and, lighting the lamp in the
corner of the verandah, sat down to write a letter. He told Ruth of the concert
and the disaster Mali had been, and wrote movingly and without hesitation of
his love. Knowing, though, how practical Ruth was, how she needed to help,
he wrote also of what he wanted her to do.
I shall have to have a piano as soon as I arrive, darling, wrote Heini. / don't
of course expect you to buy one - I know money may be a little tight till your
family gets settled — only to rent one. A baby grand would be ideal, but if
your parents' drawing room won't accommodate that, I'll make do with an
upright for the time being. A Bosendorfer would be best, you know how I
prefer them, but I'll be quite happy with a Steinway or a Bechstein, but if it's
a Bechstein it must be a Model 8, not any of the smaller ones. Perhaps you'd
better leave the tuning till the day before I come — and not an English piano,
Ruth, not even a Broadwood. I'm sure I can leave it all to you, my love;
you've never failed me yet and you never will.

When he had signed the letter, Heini still lingered for a while, inhaling the
scent of mignonette from the garden. 'I love you, Ruth,' he said aloud, and
felt uplifted and purged and good as people do when they have committed
themselves to another. He would have stayed longer, but for the whine of a
mosquito somewhere above him. Once, on the Grundlsee, a midge had bitten
him on the pad of his index finger and it had turned septic. Hurrying indoors,

Heini closed the window and then went to bed.

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