It had been one of those glittering evenings. It was a party, a concert for one of my distant relatives. Private concerts were all the rage, and we Hapsburgs knew how to make an evening. Mama had told me that Wolfgang Gottlieb was to play. You, reader, know him by his other name, Mozart. He was a child, like me. A prodigy. The son of Leopold Mozart. Like me, fortune had already kissed him on the forehead. Austria knew both of our identities. Sometimes I just wanted to hide. Would he want to climb over the garden wall with me? Would he be spoiled, ruined by the attention of adults? Would he be a miniature adult, interacting only with other adults, not interested in the things that people our age did? History knows me as Marie-Antoinette, and I had sampled each of these identities, the identity of a prodigy, as a child myself.
I was to wear the yellow gown, silk, brocaded. I had a bath. I remember it so vividly, sweet lilac and almond flowers. I loved to rest my nose in the crook of my arm, to smell the honeyed cleanness of my own baby skin. Then the hour struck, and it was time for me to appear in the great room. There was wine, of course, and abundant food, my favorites being the tiny marzipan fruits. They were arranged on trays, in beautiful cornucopias of nectarines, painted delicately with fine spun sugar fuzz on the outside, which resembled the real fruit. There were oranges, shiny and dimpled, glazed with an oil that made the exterior shiny, a tiny replica of the real fruit. There were miniscule bananas, just as exotic and beautiful as the real, rare delight. I took them by the handful, cupped them in my dress. It was funny to watch the guests throw sharp, jealous glances my way. They did not have to suffer my lessons—French and Morality, Music, Religion, all meticulous patience and work. My self-reward was to do as I pleased and take what I wanted at times like these.
As it turned out, Gottlieb was a hellion, and for that, I loved him from the start. He had a little moon face, pale with two dark eyes. He was quick of foot and wit, and he reminded me of my stories of mythology, of Mercury, lively and laughing. He’d easily learned to charm his audience. He wore little black coattails and high-heeled satin shoes. I saw him steal a glass of port wine when he thought no one was looking, and he secretly set dark and wet escargot on the clavier seat, so that when it was Leopold’s turn to play, he sat upon it, a look of shock and surprise when he discovered the cold wet mass. Gottlieb then went running, full speed into the kitchen. He ran without regard to objects or people, and when his little silk shoe touched the polished kitchen floor, he skidded like a pig on a frozen pond, full speed, his big dark eyes almost doubling in size until they became saucers, and there was nothing to do but hold out my arms and brace for the impact.
I closed my eyes for a second, just a second, and the entire world seemed to stop in that moment. I could see the party guests in my mind’s eye, and for just one moment, I knew, with complete certainty, that we would be two shining stars of the ages, he and I, and then we collided. It near knocked the breath out of me, and it did drop me, hard, to the ground. I found him in my lap, laughing, his little red mouth just stretched into a broad laugh, and for the first time, I saw his dark eyes turned up at the outer edges, laughter set within them.
He did not apologize to me. This was surprising, shocking even, but it made me like him the more. Instead, he took my little hand in his two, looked deeply into my eyes and said, “You must marry me!” I didn’t know what to say, this took me so by surprise. But old Helga, our cook, clasped her hands together and laughed until tears formed at the corners of her eyes. I saw all the marzipan fruits splayed on the floor, shot in all directions, and I gathered them back up, and put three into Mozart’s hand, curling his long fingers around it.
He was summoned back into the great room then. The adults wanted to fawn over him some more. I must admit I may have been a little jealous. It was hard to find myself, so used to attentions, suddenly, unnoticed, eclipsed by this little creature who could command silence of the room simply by seating himself on the bench in front of our clavier. The whispers! That his talent eclipsed his father’s, that his fine ability, so developed in such a young child, was a gift from God. The women fanned themselves. The men were transfixed. His music was pure happiness, a bird that alit in that glittering room, and all I could see through the tears in my eyes was the light of candles, the golden glow of twinkling lights and the sweet aftertaste of marzipan candy on my tongue.
We were all up late, but I was up the latest. The guests had left hours ago, and Mama and Papa had gone to bed. It was quiet, and I’d changed out of my gown into a soft flannel nightgown. My stomach was growling for something, so I’d tiptoed back down the back stairs to pick bites of leftover meat from the pheasant that had been left on the dining room table. He was there. He and Leopold. Leopold was putting a large, dark cloak around his shoulders and scolding him for showing off with an unrehearsed flourish at the end of a song. A mistake. I hadn’t even heard it, but I knew how this went. I’d made errors before guests, too, and had been taken to task afterwards. I saw his moon face become blank, and his large dark eyes staring into his father’s face.
“But, Father, didn’t you see when the Empress clapped her hand over her mouth in the third movement? She was spellbound.”
And Leopold: “You waste your talent when you overlook perfection. God has given you a gift. You must not squander it!”
I saw it then. He flinched. He flinched as though Leopold would have pulled out a willow switch and swatted his hands with it. From this one single moment, I knew more than anyone needed to tell me. He did not choose the life that he was to lead, one that others on the outside would have called charmed. A life that others would be envious of. They did not know the other edge of this sharp, swift and terrifying sword of Damocles.
I’d once had the experience of riding on an elephant. The creature was large, lumbering, and I was terrified of falling from such a great height. And yet all those who had seen me riding had clapped, and the elephant lumbered along, out of my control, almost galloping at a pace that felt terrifying and exhilarating at once. And, in all my anxiety about falling off, the elephant continued on, just as sure-footed as I was disturbed by the experience, until it finally stopped, and I was hoisted down, breathless shocked, terrified. Yet the ride was a gift. I dare not show my emotion. I’d disembarked from the elephant, and the handler who’d lifted me down was surprised to find my hands, cold and wet with anxious sweat, and my heart palpitating furiously through my chest. His fame reminded me of this experience—a relentless fear that could never be revealed, for a purpose that only the outsiders believed was a sign of privilege.
I followed him over the years. Fortune abandoned both of us. For a time, he traveled Vienna in a gold trimmed coat, and tried to affect the manners of the type of person that people expected him to be. I knew better. I’d heard that his mother was ailing, that her health failed, they were cold and suffering in a dingy apartment in the wrong part of town. The thought had crossed my mind to send money, a gold purse, to him, but my hands, alas, were also tied. I could not send alms to one of my native countrymen. The French public already blamed me for our childlessness and for squandering money. By this time, I was married, and I held no favor with my subjects. For a time, this being out of favor bothered me. It is hard to know that you are hated. But I grew harder. I suppose following Gottlieb was a form of release. I saw that he’d been abandoned, as well. The public’s love for him was latent, sleeping, just as it was for me.
Life races by. Popular love or something like it, found us both. By then I’d found methods of coping. I did not receive news from the populace. I ignored it. Reader, I know what you are thinking, but you have never felt the hot scrutiny of the spotlight, relentless, on your neck. You have not cried hot tears or felt the headache of a fickle populace whose approval does not follow logic. Gottlieb never strayed far from tradition, either. He did not innovate in his music, but he played the same formulaic music, filled with scales that he played well. He became what they expected of him, a phenom, gifted, touched by God. I did the same, seen as aloof and powerful, I might as well become it. Fine furnishings, good food and beautiful clothes. Just as with the marzipan candies when I was a child, I might as well take it for the suffering I’d endured.
His fortune fell again first. Some say he died of pneumonia, but I know better. He’d been poisoned, jealousy was the motive. For some days, I couldn’t help but to ponder this. There was unrest in my own life. The Jacobins debated publicly, and suddenly other countries, other royalty, began to weigh in on the unrest in France. We tried to escape. We were arrested. But at least I didn’t have to hide my inner fears any longer. I’d gone to a dark place internally. But it is OK to cry and complain when your unhappiness is at least seen as warranted. I saw my life crumble, piece by piece. My husband, abased, made to say things that were not true, apologies unwarranted, shame and disgrace upon our house.
The worst was yet to come. They took my children. They sent the Dauphin to be re-educated, by a sadistic and cruel shoemaker. One almost has to laugh at the absurdity of it. Such strange follies and foibles would be amusing if they did not bear the hard edge of reality. I was sent to prison, an experience I have erased mentally. The worst? They accused me of sexually abusing my son, the Dauphin. This gave birth to a new venom. My trial. I laugh. We all knew how it would turn out.
I remember the day of the guillotine. I had seen my fate that day that Gottlieb skidded into my arms, and we, for a moment, had looked into one another’s eyes. We were not prodigies. The hand of God was not upon either of us. We only became what you, fickle populace, said we were. And my advice to you, dear Reader, you, my innocent, who have only stumbled upon this story, perhaps as a method of amusing or educating yourself? Be careful in your perceptions. They are not Truth. What you believe becomes your reality. But you don’t see, you don’t discern what is inside a person. A prodigy exists only in the eye of the beholder.