Lusitania WWI Female Spies 4
Chapter Six - A Departure, A Party, A Rescue
The Steinburg Academy of Classical Music was a square, red brick building with the front door directly on the street. The garden was in the back. Tillie parked her bicycle along the side of the building where many bicycles leaned on stands. She had heard that soon no one would be allowed to drive vehicles in Frankfurt, other than military vehicles, of course. Only the buses could run their routes for the workers.
Tillie found Walter waiting for her in the practice room, and the work began. If it grew dark before they completed their practice, Tillie slept on a cot in the closet off the practice room. In fact, for the week remaining to work with Walter, Tillie left the school only twice. The first time she rode to her house and packed clothes and personal items. The second time, she went to her house to check the mail and clean both the house and herself. The music now lived in her brain. It lived in her body. The music was all and it was everything.
On Saturday morning, Walter’s last day, Tillie awoke early to the sound of piano keys in the practice room. Switching on her lamp that sat on the floor beside her cot, she saw on the round-faced clock beside the lamp that it was five o’clock in the morning. Quickly she slid on her skirt and buttoned her blouse and went barefoot into the practice room.
Walter sat at the grand piano. He looked up at her and said quietly, “We have two hours before I must leave.” Beside the door, his lumpy backpack sat like a watchman. On his face sat a silent, hard resolution that brought a lump to Tillie’s throat. Still, he would not speak of it. He would not speak of what he had to do.
“Will you save my place if I should return?” he asked her when she sat beside him.
For a second she was not sure of what he meant, and she glanced toward the sheet of music on the rack. Then she understood, and she nodded. “I will certainly save your place if it should come to be my decision,” she answered. “Your place will be here.”
“I will count on that,” he said quietly. “I will count on you to be my friend.”
And that was it. After two hours of relentless work, he shook her hand, picked up his bag and left. She went to the window and watched him walk along the sidewalk; a tall, lean figure resolute in his steps. He did not look back. She watched until he stepped into a waiting bus that stood at the corner. She watched the bus door shut behind him, and then she watched the empty space where the bus once sat.
Emptiness filled the room. Emptiness filled the whole damn country. How were they all to live without any young men left whole and happy?
She did not return to the piano that day. She went to her house with her cloth bag containing her things sitting in the bicycle basket. In a few weeks, her stepfather would lock up the house. She knew he waited until her birthday, but then she would be cut from his purse like a frayed and dirty string. She had to have a plan. She had to have a place.
While Mrs. Steinburg fed her, it was difficult. The dark, harsh-faced wife of her instructor, kept a book, noting each thing and jotting marks beside it. Tillie disliked both the woman and her little black accounting book. She disliked eating alone every night after Walter went home. On those nights, she desperately wished for Antonius. She saw his smile, his intelligent eyes. She wrote letters. The letters to Antonius she would mail. The letters to Rose she stacked in her small, wood jewelry box.
Each evening inside her windowless closet she chewed her dry bread with bits of sausage and sauerkraut. She was forbidden to eat in the practice room. She had beer to drink, sometimes sour wine. She wanted better, but knew many had less. All of it, the discomfort, the loneliness, was a small price to pay for the music. And until today she had Walter for company, a man who shared part of her soul.
Now, she checked the mailbox which hung on the side of her stepfather’s house and found it empty. As she trod down the rock steps along the side of the house to the garden and the side door into the downstairs sitting room, she knew her stepfather would not think of this door. He likely would change the lock upstairs to the front door and to the outside kitchen door, but he had never accessed this area. She hoped he would not think of it which meant perhaps she could sleep here, after the concert. Perhaps.
She did laundry and cleaned the house. He would not find a speck of dust or a hairbrush. He would find no trace of her as though she cared as little as he. But she tucked carefully into her bag the key to that shaded backdoor. As she was about to leave from the downstairs parlor door, she heard the upstairs front door opening.
Jarvis, she thought. Her heart raced. She could sneak away without a word. Of course her bike on the sidewalk told of her presence but he would be glad to see nothing of her. Then the familiar voice of Matilda came down the stairs along with her heavy tread. “Tillie, child, are you down here?”
She barely paused as she entered the parlor and saw Tillie standing by the outside door. “He told me to come over and make sure the place was clean and to get ready for his guests. He’s having company tonight for dinner. Managed to procure ham and potatoes.” Finally she stopped her babble and looked at Tillie.
She came over to her and tilting her head she studied her like the ham she was about to bake. “My goodness, child, you are as pale and thin as you shouldn’t be. I read in the paper that you have the solo for the concert. I meant to send congratulations but didn’t know where to reach you. Mr. Jarvis said you wasn’t here anymore.”
“Who’s coming?” Tillie didn’t care but the question came unbidden as something to say.
“Some Austria Duke and Duchess, the Mr.’s boss from Berlin, and one of the Kaiser’s nephews. All very uppity-up except for the Captain who hangs on the Mr. like a shadow. A bit over his head at this party I would say, but the Mr. won’t be without the man. There’ll be eight altogether.” She put her hands on her hips and raised her chin as though making a request of God to bring help.
Tillie went blank. She had hoped to sleep in her own bed. After all she had near to two months before her scheduled exit. She could not crash the party nor hide in her room. She supposed one more night in the closet with hard bread and beer for supper would have to be accepted. The school was deserted on Saturday night and felt haunted.
“No thoughts on that,” Matilda said, referring to the guest list she had just named. “Since you are here, I have a plan for you. Starting about seven you can play the piano, down here, this piano. I’ll open the stair doors and the music can just drift upstairs like we have angels in the house.”
“What?” Tillie meant for Matilda to repeat her words, but the woman rolled her eyes. “Something Austrian, of course. The Mr. should be pleased. The guests will leave by ten. You can stop playing at nine and give them a hint that’s it’s time to go. Then you will have your own bed and your own house.”
Tillie had intended to ride to the Red Cross building though the line on Saturday afternoon would be two blocks long. Instead she searched through her music for something Austrian. She helped set the table and polish the glass and the silver. For the first time since her mother left for America Tillie felt comfortable about the house, at peace. A little after six Matilda sent her downstairs. At the last minute she remembered to wheel her bicycle down the stone steps.
Tillie arranged her music. Then she fetched a pillow from her bed and positioned it carefully on the wood stairs. Making sure the stairway door opening from the dining room stood ajar by an inch, she positioned herself stomach down on the pillow. She learned from previous spying expeditions as a child to stay low. She could see across the dining room, and she would see Robert’s supper partner.
Not allowing herself to feel childish, not allowing any second thoughts whatsoever, she braced her feet on a lower step and her elbows and chin on the pillow. Within minutes the knocker sounded and boots walked on the hardwood floor and silk skirts swished softly.
Tillie saw a military man in full dress with braid and rows of medals and the hat with the protruding point under his arm. The duchess wore a full skirt that nearly brushed the floor and the man beside her was dressed in a black tux. She waited for Robert but could not see him from her position. She did see Jarvis’s mother. No mystery were Jarvis got the egg shape of his head.
Suddenly her line of vision was filled with sky blue silk. A slim cut skirt rising to an obvious butt filled the narrow space allowed by the door. Was this the wife from Berlin? She looked up as far as her neck allowed to see a blond French twist on the back of a female head. Just as she strained to see more she saw the wide eyes of Captain Lundgren staring at her. Never expecting to see surprise on the face of the Captain, she gasped. The door closed.
Making sure the downstairs door to the stairway stood open Tillie began to play precisely at seven. She played the compositions by the Haydn brothers from seven to eight and Strauss from eight to near nine. Then she played only a taste of Mahler. She enjoyed Mahler, always a challenge and a bit of rebellion. She smiled as she closed the lid over the keys. Only the music kept the burning blush still on her cheeks from reaching painful. What were the odds that she would ever speak to Robert again?
At eleven Matilda brought her a plate of supper including a piece of pie and a mug of coffee. Matilda told her the music was perfect. Jarvis had said nothing about it, but the guests were in rapture. Captain Lundgren sent his regards.
On Sunday Tillie went to church and then to the school to practice. When Mr. Steinburg entered the practice room she slid over to allow him room beside her on the bench. For two hours she played a single phrase while he said “Timing, pause.” At the end with his eyes closed he said, “Perfect.”
Tillie also closed her eyes briefly and took several deep breaths. Professor Steinburg stood. “I came to tell you that the school will be closed tomorrow. Practice at home if you can. We will be having visitors from the Kaiser’s tax collectors. They wish to examine the books. I could have saved them this trouble by telling the man on the telephone that I moved the funds from Walter’s account to your account, but I didn’t want to save them the trouble.”
“Jarvis instigated this?” Tillie voiced the shock she felt. The man was crazy.
“Of course,” the professor said.
“I’m sorry to be such trouble.” Tillie felt the blush of shame on her cheeks.
“No trouble for me. In fact we can all use a day off.” The man smiled at her. Only his shrewd eyes showed no humor. This visit was an outrage. Tillie could only nod, but she would find a way to get even.
“Why does he hate me?” She didn’t intend the words to be spoken out loud.
“I would say because he is a hateful man.”
Tillie trembled. “Is he dangerous?” She couldn’t believe he was dangerous.
“Ah, yes, he is dangerous. But not to me or my wife or the school, not at this time. But I would like you to be careful of him. Do not cross his path.” The professor left the room, and Tilly returned to her music. Tomorrow she would visit the munitions factory and make sure Mrs. Schulton was all right.
Mrs. Schulton steam rolled up the narrow walkway between the lockers and the first row of machines. Tillie thought the machines whirred louder and with greater pride as the woman passed. “Hello, Tillie.”
“Hello. I stopped by to see how you are.” She looked fine other than a sag to her dress that indicated weight loss.
“I thought perhaps you came to deliver my tickets.” The woman showed a pleasant smile with clean, even teeth.
Tillie had not forgotten the tickets. “Too early for that though every ticket is spoken for including yours.” She did not allow the relief she felt to show in her face.
“Good. Thank you, Tillie.” She hesitated as though drawing courage and then sighed and plunged. “I was speaking about you just yesterday. Seeing you today gives me a bit of a start.”
Tillie waited, heart pounding but forcing calmness on her face.
“A young man, a handsome navy officer, came up to me and said he was visiting on behalf of Mr. Kapaun. Well he could see plain as the nose on my face that you wasn’t here, so I gibbered a bit and then told him that I pulled your card. I told him that you shouldn’t be working here at all, a girl with your gifts. God help us all.”
A pincher tightened around Tillie and she struggled to draw breath. Mrs. Schulton touched her elbow but did not direct her to move. Instead she continued talking. “He asks me if the plant will meet quota. I told him if we had two plants we might meet quota but putting you at a machine wouldn’t change that. The machines work twenty-four hours and can’t do any more.” She stopped to breathe, hands on hip and fierce expression on her face.
“What did the navy man say to that?” Tillie thought she sounded easy, conversational, but Mrs. Schulton peered into her face with concern.
“He smiled at me. A man right enough to even make my old heart pump a bit. He smiled and said he would report to Mr. Kapaun on the quota needing more machines. And not to worry about you either. He would handle it. Then he left.”
Who was Robert? A friend or a foe or a man with his own agenda unknown. He was a chameleon and not to be trusted. Tilly was sure Robert could not be trusted. And, yet her heart knew the lie. She did trust Robert. She could not even imagine what Jarvis was doing. Why he wanted trouble at the conservatory or why he hated her. Of one thing, Tillie was sure. Robert stood as a barrier between her and Jarvis. Whatever else Robert was, he was her protector. She would believe that.
Chapter Seven - A Vision and a Performance
The day came for Tillie’s costume to be fitted. Judith Steinburg entered the costume room, her arms full of material and a sewing basket hanging from her elbow. She was thin like a scarecrow. Her elbows protruded from her arms like joints on the bullet machine. She conserved energy, never using any unnecessary motion. The woman frightened Tillie.
Tillie could not completely deny the thrill that ran down her spine at the site of the glossy satin, deep rose colored material. She tried to remain as still on the outside as Judith. She understood to Judith she was an object to be prepared for the show. Absolute professionalism was expected of her. So she calmed herself to stillness and followed Judith’s every instruction.
Only when Judith was ready to pull pins from the cushion strapped to her arm and fit the seam along the bodice, did Tillie glance down from her stand and observe the slightest tremble in the woman’s fingers.
“Are you nervous, Mrs. Steinburg?” Tillie asked, only slightly afraid of the pins picking up the tremble from the long, bony fingers.
“I dream,” Judith answered. “Strange and frightening dreams for a month now.”
The manner in which she said this troubled Tillie. She spoke low and quiet like confessing in a confessional with the tiny, sliding door above the kneeler open for the only light. Tillie stared down at the black hair tied painfully tight into a bun. From inside a secret place in Tillie’s heart came the question that she asked in a whisper. She could only wonder what made her ask. “Are you psychic? Can you see things?”
Even more astounding to Tillie than the question that came from her own mouth was the answer that came from Judith. “Yes,” she said without inflection in her voice and only the slightest pause in her pinning.
Tillie felt the chill that became a shiver start in her neck and run through her fingertips. “What do you see?”
“I see horror and death for Jews. I see fire and bombs but from machines that do not exist. And,” she paused again, inhaling deeply, “I see your sister.”
“You see Rose?” The skin on Tillie’s face went stiff, her lips could barely form the words and she did not understand her racing heart while her body remained perfectly still.
“She is alive. That is all I know for sure. She sits in a garden and is not unhappy.” Judith spoke softly as she finished the final tuck along the dropped waistline.
She looked up at Tillie, almost a suspicious expression in her eyes. “You are perfect,” she said. “You are beautiful. The performance will be a success as all of the Kaiser’s important people watch you play.”
“The Kaiser’s people?” The question burst from Tillie in shock and surprise. And she asked this before she asked the second question in her mind. She asked about the Kaiser before she asked about Rose. What if she had only one question? What if she had only one wish? What was wrong with her?
“Yes,” Judith told her, standing back and looking at her. Judith had too much knowledge in her harsh expression. She was more than anything else a frightening woman. Tillie had to draw courage to so much as meet Judith’s eyes. “The Kaiser’s Court will attend the performance on opening night. Mr. Steinburg did not want you to know. He thought it would overwhelm you. But I do not think you are so easily overwhelmed. I think it will add to your performance of the music.”
“Please tell me about Rose.” Tillie asked the question that should have been first to her lips. Judith bent to adjust the hem, and Tillie looked down at the black hair. She looked at the thin fingers moving pins by tiny bits. She could barely breathe. Shame burned her cheeks.
“I can tell you nothing more. I knew the pretty little girl in the dream was your sister. I knew she was alive and not a ghost. She sat in a drab garden on a homemade carved chair. It was a glimpse, nothing more.” Judith shrugged and began to remove the pins.
Tillie felt faint. She would have wobbled on her stand if Judith hadn’t stood and steadied her with a hand on Tillie’s hip. “Why, Mrs. Steinburg, do you tell me about your dreams?” Tillie could not keep her voice steady. She instinctively felt something sinister in the woman, but shook the feeling away. Her instinct was wrong. Harsh wasn’t sinister, and hopelessness wasn’t evil. Judith feared to allow happiness. Tillie had to be strong. She was not a child any more.
“And why, Miss Tillie, should I be the only one with a troubled soul? Maybe I thought it would comfort you to know your sister lived. You could play the concert with some peace.” With that Judith smiled, showing even, well tended teeth but a cold, odd smile.
While removing the material that rustled gently in her hands, Judith said nothing more. She focused only on the dress in her hands. Then with the fitting completed and Tillie once again in her black skirt, Judith sighed. “This at least, the performance will be marvelous.”
Judith turned at the door and looked back at Tillie. She searched Tillie’s face and her gaze penetrated Tillie’s soul. “I am only telling you what I dream. In my past I have been sometimes correct and sometimes wrong and sometimes what I see is not what it seems. I’ve learned to rarely speak of what I see because people do blame the messenger. I tell you what I see because I know you go early in the morning two days a week to stand in line at the Red Cross. They can’t help you to find your sister. Also there is flu in the city, so stop going there. I am not who you should fear.” She stated her words calmly and turned to leave the room.
Tillie shook all over. Her hands were cold and her throat parched. It hurt to swallow. Rose was alive, and Rose was not suffering which was a happiness to know, if the dream was true. The urgency she felt to find Rose had calmed in her heart. She would plan how to find her sister rather than run willy-nilly about. She would plan how to get to England.
Tillie, at first could not focus on her music. Then she forced herself to focus all the harder because she had to stop repeating Judith’s words in her head. She practiced first alone on her solo and then with the entire orchestra, but she could not think straight and did not do well. Mr. Guderman stopped the group three times on her account and finally had the orchestra practice without her.
He said nothing to her as she sat on the piano bench, her hands on her lap while everyone quietly left the stage. When she alone remained, he came up to her. He towered above her and looked down with a stern and dour expression. He appeared to be unraveling with mismatched socks and crooked pants. “It is nerves, Tillie. Tomorrow is dress rehearsal. By then you must be ready. We have no alternative plan.” He tried to be kind, and she nodded.
She went to the practice room and played the music, the complicated signatures, the pauses and pace. She heard the orchestra and closed her eyes and then opened them to watch her fingers play the notes. She did this until a gray light began to show through the practice room windows. She thought she could perform though the passion no longer burned in her gut. She still struggled in thinking she put the concert before her sister because she had asked about the Kaiser before asking about Rose.
The Kaiser’s name had come first to her lips, and she could not forgive herself. The relief at knowing Rose lived was powerful, but she was not sure if it was true. It came from a dream. But she knew it was true that she asked first for herself and not for Rose. How could she even play at all?
A knock on the door frightened her, and she jumped. The door opened slowly and the head of a young girl, a fellow student, popped into the room. “Final fitting,” the girl said excitedly. “I knew you would be here. I’m so glad because I did not want to bike to your house. Wait until you see your dress. It is the most beautiful dress I have ever seen. So glamorous.”
The exuberant girl prattled on for the entire walk from the practice room to the fitting area inside the costume room. Tillie heard little of it. She had not slept all night, and everything in her was the music.
Judith slid the dress over Tillie’s head and shoulders. She took the matching shoes from inside tissue paper and slid them on Tillie’s feet. Then she stepped back and looked at her. She left the room and returned with Mr. Steinburg in tow. He looked and nodded approval. “Lovely,” he murmured.
“Now,” Judith whispered to her as she slid the dress over her head, “You must go to your cot and sleep. I heard you practice through the night. Now is not the time to worry about things. You must have the strength of character to overcome this self-inflicted worry. You must make the music come first. I will get you in time to dress for the final rehearsal.”
Tillie did as she was told. Her head buzzed with exhaustion and she saw her own fingers moving on the piano keys as she walked. The next thing she knew, Judith was standing by her cot. Everything was exactly the same as it was to be for the performance. Her hair, her make-up, her shoes and her dress were all done to perfection. And not just she, everyone in the orchestra was dressed in tuxedoes with rose colored boutonnières or black dresses with thin rose trim on the necklines.
“Now you must play,” Judith hissed in her ear. And she did.
For the week of the performances, Sunday night to the following Saturday afternoon, she would stay at the conservatory, sleep in her closet. Judith’s housekeeper would bring her food. Hours before the performance, Mr. Steinburg would drive her to the concert hall. She would have the best dressing room, complete with a huge bathtub on squat legs.
These arrangements were made known to her in detail. All of it was intended to keep her safe, focused and prepared. Tillie found she did not care very much about where she slept or where she dressed. How odd, Tillie thought as she lay on her cot trying to sleep, a year ago, even a few months ago, the desire to be chosen for this moment was more important than anything and now she wanted the performance to be over. She wanted the music to end. She thought of Antonius. Did he feel the same about his airplanes? He must be flying by now. Why hadn’t he written to her?
No giddy girl strode with her fellows onto that stage. She was someone else. Someone Tillie did not know. She felt separated from herself, outside of her own body. Everyone else peeked through the peepholes backstage and whispered the names of the people in the boxes. Everyone else was excited, nearly overwhelmed by the attendance, but not Tillie. She did not look, did not care to know. Her mother was not there. Rose was not there nor Antonius or Walter. She thought of Robert. Perhaps Robert watched her.
Someone, not her, played the music, and played it perfectly. Tillie saw her fingers on the keys. She saw her feet in rose cloth shoes tap the pedals. But it was a different soul that filled her body, a different Tillie, a stranger. After laying her hands palm up gracefully to her lap, she heard the hush and then the standing applause. Later, her dressing room filled with flowers.
Tillie scanned the cards as she looked at the flowers in vases on stands throughout the room. Curious as to who would send her flowers, she found only one name she recognized, Robert. She smiled, pleased and warm. Tucking the card from Robert into her bag, she removed her shoes. Judith would set the flowers about the practice rooms at the school. Once changed into her usual black skirt, she rode with Mr. Steinburg back to the school. The ride was silent. No one would break the performance aura that engulfed them.
Mr. Steinburg unlocked the door to the living quarters that he and Judith occupied on the top floor of the classroom wing. He spoke quietly with the housekeeper then turned to Tillie and said, “Bravo. Even better than I expected. We will get through this week and then see what happens next.”
Tillie considered his words to be odd. What would happen next? She hadn’t thought about it. Of course, her tuition was at an end. Maybe she could work as an instructor to the younger students. But he had sounded so vague. His tone worried her as Tillie followed the housekeeper through the halls to the practice room. The attractive gray haired woman carried a tray with Tillie’s supper.
The housekeeper did her best to set a nice table for her inside that closet, which was big for a closet but barely held the small table and a stool squeezed at the foot of her cot. The housekeeper smiled and left. Tillie ate alone. She tried to read, but all she could see was music notes and her fingers. She relived the performance while holding the card from Robert until she slept.
With only two changes, each day followed the same as the first. A change that surprised Tillie was the appearance of two cold-eyed men guarding her dressing room door. They offered no opening for conversation so Tillie did not speak to them and soon forgot them. The second change was an additional hour scheduled for photographers.
She was pummeled and posed and patted while as many as forty men with bulky cameras yelled instructions and took pictures. The flashes left lights on in her eyes for several minutes. Judith accompanied her and stood as a protector. Her only comment was simply, “Such an outrageous fuss.”
Tillie dream-walked through these days. The person standing on a platform before a fake shadowed stage background was not her. That person was the other Tillie. Tillie lived on subdued excitement that began with a waking moment and stopped only when she finally slept.
On Saturday came the final matinee; for this performance she made sure of the tickets for Mrs. Schulton. A first-year student delivered the tickets and returned with a thank-you note. At last, she had someone to play for. She could be herself. This was a younger, poorer, more rowdy audience which included soldiers on rare home leave. For a minute, Tillie thought she saw Antonius among the men in uniform, but it was not him. She sighed.
The performance reflected the audience. There was gaiety and some frivolity. The Conductor allowed some freedom and pointed to his violinist to play. For the first time, Tillie had fun, real fun. She smiled a real smile. The audience stood to applaud again and again until at last everyone was tired.
The flowers were fewer and in smaller baskets, but she glanced through them until she saw a card from her supervisor. She pulled the card and put it in her handbag. As she changed into her skirt she heard commotion in the hall. At first she thought it was the performers preparing for the cast party to be held downtown in the backroom of a nightclub. Then, slowly, she realized it was something more personal, directed at her. As the voices reached her door, she recognized Robert’s voice. Tillie moved quickly to open the dressing room door.