Authors: Danil Rudoy
Throughout life, I have been remarkably fortunate meeting women who deserved to be called “outstanding” in the true sense of this overused word. My relationships with them, though differing widely by the degree of intimacy, always led to powerful creative experiences resulting in various works of art.
A Million for Eleanor
, a novella I began writing in Russian in 2010 and subsequently submitted, in English, as my senior thesis early in 2011, is one of them. As far as my consciousness can tell, there are at least 4 different women whose traits, biographies and predilections went into the making of Eleanor, and yet the sum of their respective contributions does not add up to the totality of her image. What I tried to create in Eleanor was a female character fully complementary to that of Richard, a nearly impossible task given his sharply misanthropic bend of nature, and was forced to supplement her with features I am yet to encounter in real women. As such, Eleanor is as fictional as a literary heroine can be, although whether or not the same can be said about her male counterpart is still open to question.
A Million for Eleanor
“Richard, I repeat once again: I
like this idea.”
“Yes, mother, I know.”
He also knew this conversation could not be avoided, and that it would happen here, in the library.
“You know my opinion. Money should go to charity.
Especially such large sums. Do you know how many people are starving right now?”
“No. Do you?”
“A lot! You better think about them.”
Sitting in a brown leather armchair with her legs crossed as elegantly as only a woman who dedicated fourteen years to ballet could do, Mrs.
Charlester was eying her son with unabating reproach. He was withstanding her stare with remarkable composure, thinking to himself that, in her emerald house dress, she looked like a novel heroine from a work of classical literature, missing perhaps only a lorgnette. That optical device, however, could not be allowed as, despite having read thousands of books, Mrs. Charlester enjoyed perfect vision.
“How many of them would have thought about me had we swapped around?” He tapped on the arm of the armchair he was sitting in. It was identical to his mother’s, and so was the pose he assumed in it. “Not to mention that the planet is already overpopulated.”
“What about offering help to your father’s hospital? You know I think it’s a shame you didn’t follow his example to start with, but why do you keep refusing to…”
“Because it would make me a hypocrite.
Don’t you remember,
works of charity done in a lukewarm and half-hearted way are without merit and of no avail
“You can quote whoever you please, and I will stand where I am. You have been fooling around long enough, and now you are just becoming preposterous.”
He remained absolutely motionless, staring at his mother like a stone monument and waiting for her to realize the obvious. She was silent and stern for a few seconds, then her thin lips curved in a knowing smile and she said in a somewhat incredulous tone:
“You consider yourself a connoisseur of beauty, don’t you?”
“Only when it comes to women,” he returned, unsure of where she’d go now.
“Well, then, here is a question for you. What if a young and beautiful woman is dying in your father’s hospital at this very moment because she can’t afford surgery? Wouldn’t her death upset you if you knew you could rescue her and didn’t?”
“Metaphorically?” He realized he indulged in motionlessness so much he forgot to breathe. But this time it was his mother’s turn to remain still. He studied her face for at least a minute, and the only thing that changed on it was the mischievous smile that was gradually growing wider. Finally, he sighed.
You got me there. Like you always do.”
What are you going to do?”
“I’ll go to the father’s tomorrow and try to find an angel there. If I do, and if her life can be saved by money, it will be.”
“Do you promise?”
“Sounds like you haven’t let reason go completely,” Mrs. Charlester said, shaking off her austere masquerade. “I am glad you finally changed your mind.”
“Well, I didn’t.” He hated to smile at her in this sardonic way, but the only alternative to that would be anger. “I appreciate your idea, but I am not giving up mine.”
“But don’t you…”
“No,” he said, knowing exactly how this phrase would end.
“Because I can’t be anyone but myself.”
“You’re just stubborn, that’s all. And you always have been.”
“And I always had my reasons for that.”
“Well, I know your reasons for
“Then you can’t have anything against it, can you?”
“I probably wouldn’t, had you…”
“Had I what?” he asked, genuinely surprised.
“Chosen someone worthier!”
“Oh, please!” He almost rolled his eyes, but remembered she hated it. “It would upset you anyway. The money part, I mean.”
“Of course. You’ve already poured enough of it down the drain.”
“Do you know how much the recession cost me? If you did you’d need more than your chamomile tea to fall asleep tonight.”
“I switched to catnip recently. Works faster. But why lose more? The recession at least wasn’t your fault, and now everything is up to you.”
We just look at it differently. You see a waste, but I assure you nothing will delight me more than spending money on this particular purpose.”
“I should hope so. Otherwise the whole thing isn’t worth a dime.”
“A lot depends on you. And Elisa. Where is she, by the way?”
“Marble Chamber, of course.
“The First Hungarian Rhapsody.”
His eyebrows curved in disbelief. “When is the contest?”
“Next week. She is so worried.” Mrs.
Charlester moved in her armchair, and the book in a dark blue cover which was lying on her lap slid off her knees and would have hit the floor, had it not been for a quick, almost feline move of her hand.
“That’s what you call a good catch!” Mrs.
Charlester said triumphantly, feigning annoyance at his silence.
“It’s such a good one, no call was necessary,” he returned seriously,
marvelling at this mother’s reaction. “So, I take it she’s practicing a lot these days?”
“She is, and you would have known it, too, had you had the habit of escaping your headquarters for at least half an hour each day.”
“How long have we been talking?” he said jokingly. “But why the First Rhapsody? She told me it is insanely hard, and I couldn’t disagree. Besides, she never even liked Liszt.”
“Maybe because you always did?
Ask her yourself. By the way, she still doesn’t know a thing.”
“I thought you’d tell her.”
“I thought I’d make you change your mind!”
“When was the last time you managed that?”
“About ten years ago. I advised you not to major in science at college.”
“That’s right,” he said, slipping into momentary nostalgia. “How do you feel about robbing the world of a great astrophysicist?”
“Great who? Dear, this reminds me of something. Did you know you can purchase a paper stating that you own one of the stars in the universe?”
“Visible universe, I hope,” he said peevishly. “And you want me to save these people?”
“Not those.” Mrs. Charlester shook her head calmly. “Others.”
Though you may be right. There is nothing in the sky to sell. I’d probably become a platinum metals dealer. Did you know iridium cannot be dissolved in any acid. Which, now that I am talking about it, makes me think I need an iridium ring, so that it would be easy to identify me if necessary.”
This phrase was followed by an oppressive silence broken only by dry ticking of the floor clock oozing from the niche in the corner. The pause was getting so long he thought the clock could strike any time, but, much to his relief, it didn’t.
“Don’t bring this up, please,” his mother said icily. “We have already talked about it.”
“I know, I shouldn’t have.”
He nodded guiltily. “I’m really glad you agreed to come, though. I know you are doing it for me.”
“Don’t have high expectations. I am sure I won’t see anything new.”
“I know I will,” he said, standing up. “Excuse me, but I have to talk to Elisa. I hope you’ll like your book. What is it, by the way?”
“James Hadley Chase. Ever heard of him?”
“No, but I knew a guy who had,” he said with a smile, castigating himself for not recognizing the volume which he most likely had read. “But what’s up with you? No Henry James in the lazy afternoon? You must be bored or something.”
“I’m switching gears, so it isn’t boredom: it’s the reverse. Tell Elisa she never ate her lunch.”
Just as Mrs. Charlester suspected, his sister was in the Marble chamber, the most spacious room in the house starring a magnificent grand piano brought, according to his inflexible whim, from the Vienna Philharmonic. The sum of money involved in that transaction could surely save a great number of lives, but he was willing to sacrifice them for his sister to play on one of the finest instruments in the world, knowing she would do it perfect justice. When he entered the room, she had just started the piece anew, and for some five minutes he remained frozen, waiting for his favorite part, the brisk alternations of high and low chords that gave him an impression of a passionate exchange between a nobleman and a fragile young lady who were destined to find happiness with each other but still refused to believe it.
“Elisa,” he said when the exchange was over. “I have news that you may like.”
The piano fell silent, and his sister turned around.
The most curious detail about Elisa’s appearance was that it begged to compare her to an angel, and yet, despite all the stereotypical cherubic features, she had an unmistakable mark of boldness, making it impossible to take her for a meek being obediently exercising someone’s will. Those given to romantic exaggerations could
compared Elisa to the muses of Velasquez, Goya or Botticelli, but at her seventeen she was yet to find a true artist who could appreciate her uniqueness. He was very proud of his sister and loved her immensely, seeing the only serious blemish of her character in excessive emotional magnanimity. He believed her to be too generous in giving credit to others, but at the same time he recognized that no disappointment, no matter how bitter, could exhaust Elisa’s optimism.
“Did you decide to get married?”
He looked at her perplexedly. Elisa’s insights confused him so much that at times he suspected her of clairvoyance. Not this time, though.
“Well, how shall I put it…
Elisa shrugged her shoulders; it could seem a sign of indifference, but he knew she was hiding impatience.
“Do I know her?” Elisa continued, turning back to the keys.
about her. You may have even seen her photos if you ever went through my computer files. Although I doubt that.”
?” Elisa’s left hand fell on the low keys.
“Yes.” He winced at the pain that suddenly pierced his temples. “But you’ll have to tell me how you guessed that.”
“You showed me her photo yourself.” Now Elisa was playing a joyous fragment from the
. “But even if you didn’t it wouldn’t be hard. She was the only one you actually loved. It’s just…” she added after a short contemplation while, silent and motionless, he stared at her blond hair flowing down her beige frock. “Something’s wrong here.”
“What do you mean?” he inquired cautiously, trying to shake off the stupor. The dialogue seemed to be slipping out of his control and, much as he appreciated his sister’s cleverness, this was not the time to celebrate it.
“I thought you never forgave her for what happened between you two. Or, rather, for what didn’t happen. Besides, it was such a long time ago.”
“Well, isn’t it wonderful that after so many years nothing changed?”
“Do you, then, acknowledge she was the best woman you met?” He heard some strange intonation in her voice but couldn’t understand what it hid. Elisa ran her fingers over the keys again, filling the room with a flavor of a Chopin’s nocturne.
“She’s a whore, isn’t she?” Elisa said, suddenly dropping the melody. “At least that’s what
think. Which is all that matters.”
He was happy the music stopped but couldn’t shake off the last chord hanging in the air like a ciphered reproach.
“Where does this vocabulary come from?” he grumbled.
But tell me, is it true?”
“Do you think I can hold such an opinion of a woman I am going to marry?”
“Well, I don’t know
you’re marrying. I don’t even know
you are marrying. I don’t know anything, but it doesn’t seem strange to anyone in this house.”
“Tonight you can find out everything you want. I am intending to take her out to dinner and want both you and mother to join us.”
“What about dad?” Elisa exclaimed. “Why tonight? He is on a graveyard shift, you know that!”
“Because that’s how it is supposed to be,” he returned peremptorily.
“Are you afraid he’d like her? She has blond hair and blue eyes? And a soprano, to top it all?”
It’s been a long time.” He leaned on the door jamb with his elbow trying to find a more relaxed pose.
“Oh, you don’t have to pretend, I already know!” Elisa said joyfully. “I just remembered that opera singer you ordered for you birthday last year. I thought you’d have a heart attack when she started Santa Lucia.
Tu sei l’impero dell’armonia…”
she sang, leisurely accompanying herself.