“This looks excellent, Elizabeth. You’ve done good work.”
Elizabeth sighed in relief and smiled at Dr. Laura Church, director of the Music Education graduate program at NYU, and her advisor. They were meeting to review the latest draft of Elizabeth’s master’s thesis in preparation for her oral defense the following Monday.
“I can’t believe I’m almost done! I’ve been working so hard I haven’t really thought about it.”
“How is the job search going?” Laura asked
“Well, I already told you about the interview at Pacific Conservatory. I have another one on Friday at Hunter College. And I’ve had a few calls in response to my letters to the arts high schools.”
“Let me know if you need me to call anyone on your behalf.”
“Thanks. I will.”
“We got a lot done today. I think you’re all set for Monday.”
“I will be by then; I still have five days to polish my presentation.”
Laura laughed. “You work too hard, Elizabeth. It’s already well polished. You should take a little break and have some fun. In fact, do you have plans for Saturday night?”
“I was going to spend all of my free time this weekend working on the presentation.”
“I have a better idea. My husband and I have tickets to a benefit recital this Saturday evening, but then he and his buddies planned a weekend golf outing. So I have an extra ticket. Would you like to come with me?”
“You said it’s a benefit. What’s the cause?”
“The scholarship fund for Juilliard’s Pre-College Division. It’s being sponsored by the Darcy Arts Trust.”
“As in William Darcy?”
“That’s right. And, wow, did I ever bury the lede—he’s the one performing. His foundation does wonderful work supporting music education programs, plus, it’s always worthwhile seeing him in concert. Have you ever seen him perform?”
“Um … yes, I have.” Elizabeth decided not to elaborate.
“Then you already know what an incredible performer he is. Easy on the eyes, too,” Laura said with a mischievous grin. “So, how can you refuse? Think of it as a graduation present.”
Elizabeth considered the situation. She would have no reason to speak to William; he would never even know she was there. Besides, there was no way she could resist seeing him perform. “I’d love to go. Thank you.”
“Great! It’s at Alice Tully Hall at 7:30. Let’s meet there. Oh, and it’s black tie, so be sure to dress up.”
By the time Elizabeth reached her apartment, she had just an hour left before she had to leave for work. She collapsed on the threadbare sofa in the living room for a quick rest, feeling the cumulative effect of several late nights working on her thesis.
So she would see William—though only on stage—on Saturday night. It had been almost two weeks since their argument at City Hall Park, and he had been on her mind frequently since then. The worst of her anger had long since abated, and now she could see that his visit had been a sincere, if hopelessly clumsy, attempt to make amends. She, by contrast, had pounced on his slightest misstep, choosing to view everything he said in as offensive a light as possible for one simple reason: so she could feel justified in ripping him to shreds.
Until her emotions had gotten the better of her, crossing verbal swords with William had been exhilarating. She had relished the energy crackling between them as she intentionally provoked him. But after a remark of his had reminded her of painful incidents in the past, she had gone on relentless attack. He had deserved criticism for his behavior, but not to be torn limb from limb.
The wounded expression on William’s face as she said goodbye still haunted her. She had wanted the last word, and she got it. She had wanted to get even, and she had. She had wanted to hurt him, and … mission accomplished. At the rehearsal dinner, she had been surprised that her sarcastic speech and performance had hurt him; she had learned then that he was more vulnerable than his aloof exterior suggested. But this time, she had attacked him with full knowledge that she was capable of causing him pain.
Elizabeth was deeply ashamed of herself. She had never been as tolerant as Jane, whose patience and kindness qualified her for sainthood, but she had never before made a conscious effort to hurt someone. What was it about him that encouraged her to sharpen her claws?
She had considered sending him a note of apology, but decided instead to let the matter drop. Since Jane and Charles were no longer together, there was no reason for her to ever see him again. Before the weekend in San Francisco, she had simply been one of his many fans, and at the recital on Saturday, she would be just one of a thousand faces in the darkened concert hall. It was for the best.
The following day, Elizabeth sat hunched over her laptop in a study carrel at NYU’s Bobst library. She couldn’t seem to concentrate; every noise, no matter how slight, drew her attention away from her thesis presentation.
Succumbing to a temptation that had been plucking at her sleeve all morning, she Googled “William Darcy.” Scanning the first page of search results, she saw old genealogical records, many referring to a Sir William Darcy of the 15th century. Another William Darcy, she discovered, worked for the Department of Defense. Scattered among these results were others of more interest. She repeated her search, this time specifying “William Darcy pianist.”
She clicked on an interesting-looking result about halfway down the page and found herself at a fan site devoted to William. The photo on the home page showed him in the departure area at JFK Airport, smiling weakly while standing beside a middle-aged woman with a huge smile on her face. Elizabeth chuckled; she had watched this photograph being taken. She followed a link below the photo and found a breathless story written by Linda Hopewell, the site’s owner, about her encounter with her idol.
Another link led to an illustrated biography, and she spent some time reading about William’s career and studying a series of photographs. Her expression softened as she inspected a photo of him at age eight, dressed in formal wear and standing beside a grand piano, his huge dark eyes staring gravely at the camera.
Next came his teenage years. He had told her about starting at Juilliard at 15, but he hadn’t mentioned his mother’s death in a car accident just a few weeks before the beginning of the school year. In addition, according to the biography, “William won the prestigious Van Cliburn piano competition on June 11, 1989. At the age of 18, he was the youngest pianist ever to win the gold medal. Sadly, his father died of a heart attack on the same day.” Elizabeth inspected the photo of William accepting his award. Had he known of his father’s death then, or did he learn of it later? Either way, it was a great triumph marred by great tragedy.
The biography continued, chronicling his rapid ascent to international fame. He gradually grew older in the photographs until the William she knew looked back at her, intense and unsmiling. Near the end of the biography, it mentioned that he was executive director of the Darcy Arts Trust. She followed a link to the organization’s home page, curious to learn more about the causes it supported.
Elizabeth soon saw that Laura Church had been correct: the Darcy foundation did a great deal to support music education programs. The list of recent grants included an impressive array of awardees, including several gifts to university scholarship funds.
The site also included a page advertising Saturday’s upcoming recital, “to benefit the scholarship program of the Juilliard Pre-College Division, which helps young musicians to develop their talent and realize their dreams.” The scholarships were earmarked for students from lower-income families in the New York metropolitan area.
The picture emerging of William was one that surprised Elizabeth. She had chosen to become a music teacher because she believed in the power of music to change lives; William was giving generously of his time and his family fortune for the same purpose.
She returned to the home page of the fan site and again studied the photo of William at the airport. There’s a lot more to you than meets the eye, isn’t there? But she wasn’t sure, with all the sides of him she had seen, which one was real.
“I haven’t been here that long myself. But we’d better go find our seats.”
As they entered the concert hall, Laura said, “I love your dress, by the way.”
They settled themselves in their seats in the tenth row, to the left of center. The hall was nearly full. “What great seats!” Elizabeth exclaimed.
Laura nodded. “It’s worth some extra money to get closer to the stage so you can really see him play. Also, the more expensive tickets include admission to the reception afterwards.”
“Oh, didn’t I mention it? That’s the best part.” The house lights dimmed, and Laura whispered, “I’ll tell you about it at intermission.”
William strode onstage, his appearance greeted by thunderous applause. He bowed briskly, and as his gaze swept the crowd it seemed that he looked directly into her eyes for a moment. She felt an electric shock that reminded her of the first time their eyes had met, just a few weeks ago at the airport. He looked powerful and confident, the respected artist in his element, and Elizabeth was humbled. How could she ever have imagined that this extraordinary man would have any interest in her?
He flipped the tails of his coat behind him, seated himself at the piano, and paused for a moment, staring at the keyboard, as a hush descended over the concert hall. Then his fingers attacked the keys. Elizabeth inhaled sharply as the opening octave of Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu2 gave way to the restless energy of the first theme of the piece. His skillful fingers brought out the brilliant, ringing tones of the piano as the melody swirled through the concert hall. As always, his artistry wove a spell around her heart, one she was helpless to resist.
The piece ended, and he rose to acknowledge the enthusiastic applause. When he resumed his seat at the piano, he sat still for a moment, concentrating on the keyboard. He began to play a slow, mournful Rachmaninoff prelude3. Elizabeth was struck by the tone of despair in the music. Tears blurred her vision as she remembered his bewildered expression that day in City Hall Park.
The recital continued with a variety of selections that demonstrated William’s wide range as a performer, though his affinity for Romantic-era composers was clear. Then Elizabeth heard the opening notes of the Chopin Ballade4 he had played at the rehearsal dinner. The last time she had heard the piece, she was regretting the way she had treated him. And here she was again.
She pushed away her guilt and immersed herself in the music, emerging from her fog only when he departed the stage for intermission and the house lights came up. She blinked several times and looked around her, feeling oddly disoriented. During the performance she had been unaware of the rest of the crowd, as if she and William were alone in the dark as he played just for her. She shook her head. That was a ridiculous idea.
“He gets more amazing every year,” Laura said.
Elizabeth nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
“I’m going to run to the ladies’ room before the line gets too long.” Laura rose to her feet.
“Okay. I think I’ll just wander around.”
Suddenly, she realized how long she had been gone—intermission might already have ended. She hurried back to Alice Tully Hall, slipped into her seat just as the house lights dimmed, and mouthed, “Sorry,” to Laura as they applauded William’s return to the stage.
He opened the second half with Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata5, a special favorite of Elizabeth’s. She had listened to his recording of the Pathétique dozens of times, but his live performance was even more emotional and more lyrically beautiful. As the recital continued, she was struck by how many of his choices were restless, passionate pieces in minor keys, as though he was pouring out some private pain through his music.
The final selection of the recital departed from the overall dark tone of his selections. Chopin’s Grande Valse Brilliante6 evoked a grand celebration, and he played the piece with a delicate, playful touch. It reminded her of William on the beach at Crissy Field, laughing at the image of Caroline as the Creature from the Black Lagoon, mischief and delight in his eyes.
As the triumphant final chord of the waltz echoed through the hall, he rose from the piano and bowed, and the audience came to its feet. Elizabeth stood with the rest, applauding fiercely. Shouts of “Bravo!” punctuated the tumultuous applause. Her eyes followed him as he walked off stage with his characteristic confident stride. The ovation continued unabated, and upon his return the cheers and shouts became louder still. He smiled, the same boyish grin that had captivated Elizabeth in San Francisco, and she felt an ache in her heart.
He motioned to the audience, requesting quiet, and his voice resonated powerfully through the hall. “Thank you. It’s been an honor to perform for you tonight. On behalf of my family, the Juilliard School, and all the young musicians who will benefit from your generosity, thank you for being here.” He sat at the piano amidst scattered applause as the audience members took their seats.
Elizabeth was expecting a jazz piano solo, as was William’s habit with encores, but instead the brilliant tones of Chopin’s Black Key Etude7 rang out in the hall. His hands flew over the keyboard in a remarkable demonstration of his virtuosity. The brief selection ended, and as he rose to his feet, so did the audience. He bowed, unsmiling, and left the stage. He returned once more to accept the continuing ovation; however, this time he merely bowed and departed again without playing another encore. The applause continued for a time, but when it became obvious that he would not return, it faded, replaced by a buzz of excited conversation as people collected their belongings to depart.
Laura turned to Elizabeth. “Wasn’t he phenomenal?”
Elizabeth nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
“What’s wrong? You look like you’ve been crying.”
Elizabeth cleared her throat. “I just—I don’t know. His playing does that to me. He’s so … I can’t explain it.”
“I know. There’s so much emotion in it. During the Pathétique, I wanted to run up on stage and hug him. I get the feeling that he knows a lot about despair. Strange, since you’d think he must have led a charmed life.”
Elizabeth closed her eyes and ordered herself to stop over-dramatizing. The man who had just brought a thousand people to their feet cheering wouldn’t let anything an insignificant music teacher said bother him for long.
“Ready to head over to the reception?” Laura asked,
“Oh, Laura, I don’t know. I should get home and work on my presentation.”
“Nonsense, you don’t want to miss this. I never got a chance to tell you about it at intermission, did I? About 150 people attend, and he makes himself available to speak to everyone. You want to meet him, don’t you?”
Elizabeth searched frantically for an excuse. “Oh, no, I don’t need to do that. It was enough just to see hIm play.”
“Well, that’s another reason to come to the reception. He usually plays something. Please come; it won’t be as much fun if I have to go alone.”
Elizabeth was trapped. Laura had been a tremendous help to her throughout her master’s program. To keep her company at the reception was little enough to ask in return. She would try to avoid William; if that was impossible, she would make the best of the awkward situation.
“You’re right; I don’t want to miss it,” Elizabeth said, forcing a smile onto her face. “Let’s go.”
William sat slumped forward in a chair in his backstage dressing room, his elbows propped on the counter in front of the mirror. The harsh light from the bulbs above the mirror made him look pale and haggard.
Being on stage usually gave him a surge of adrenalin that carried him through his performances with energy. But lately he often crashed back to earth in the aftermath, and tonight he was particularly drained. He knew that the audience had hoped for a second, or even a third, encore, but he had simply lacked the energy to keep playing.
And now he had to get through the reception. He would be the focus of attention; many of the donors attended primarily in the hope of meeting him, and it was important for them to feel that their time and money had been well spent.
Since his conversation with Sonya several days before, he had done his best to hide his inner turmoil from those around him with some success. Georgie, Gran, and Mrs. Reynolds had relaxed in his presence, though Mrs. Reynolds was still on culinary red alert due to his finicky appetite. Sonya knew the truth, and he saw her subtly trying to help him, treating him with solicitude and even protecting him from Richard’s jests. She made no further attempts to get William to talk about Elizabeth, for which he was grateful. If he intended to forget her, discussing her continually was not going to help.
Forgetting her: that part wasn’t going very well. Concealing his sadness was an emotionally demanding enterprise, made worse every time he retreated to his inner sanctum on the third floor, surrounded by reminders of his solitary state. He had spent hours at the piano preparing for the recital, but for the first time in his life he had failed to find solace in his emotional communion with the instrument.
It wasn’t just Elizabeth herself that he couldn’t forget. Her angry words, combined with Sonya’s frank advice, presented a disturbing portrait. He had always considered himself a good man. He took care of his loved ones, treated family obligations seriously, gave generously of his time and financial resources to those less fortunate, and devoted himself to achieving the highest possible musical standard so as not to disappoint his audiences. He was not as friendly and sociable as someone like Richard, but it was not a crime to be introverted.
It had been a painful shock to see himself through others’ eyes: a man who lived his life surrounded by impenetrable walls of pride and arrogance. Rather than allow any cracks to be spotted in the façade of strength and confidence he attempted to exude, he held people at arm’s length with an air of superiority and indifference.
In addition, as Sonya had pointed out, he had gradually come to believe that this superiority was genuine. He cringed at the memory of the things he had said to, and about, Elizabeth during his trip to San Francisco. He saw himself standing alone in the corner before the rehearsal dinner, silently observing the other guests, and recognized how conceited and ridiculous he must have looked.
He had ruined his chances with Elizabeth; she despised him, and with good reason. He resolved, though, that should he ever happen to see her again, he would show her that he was a better man, one she might even be able to like and respect. And if he wanted to be a better man, that meant he needed to stop procrastinating, get over to the reception, and play the genial host. But he wished he knew where he would find the energy to do it.
1 I’ve cheated a bit with the photos. Alice Tully Hall underwent a major renovation from 2007-2009, after the years when the story is set, but I’m using exterior photos from after the renovation.
2 Fantasie-Impromptu, Opus 66, by Frederic Chopin. Performed by Van Cliburn on The World’s Favorite Piano Music, © 1992, BMG Music. Available on Amazon; recordings by other pianists available on Apple Music. Hear on Spotify. Hear on Youtube.
3 Prelude in C# minor, Opus 3, No.2, by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Performed by Van Cliburn. From My Favorite Rachmaninoff, © 2000, BMG Entertainment. Available on Amazon and iTunes Store. Hear on Spotify. Hear on Youtube.
4 Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Opus 23, CT 2, by Frederic Chopin. Performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy, Essential Chopin, © 1995, Decca Records. Available on Amazon and iTunes Store. Hear on Spotify. Hear on Youtube.
5 Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 (“Pathétique”) by Ludwig von Beethoven, First movement (Grave—Allegro di molto e con brio). Performed by Daniel Barenboim on Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas, © 1999, Deutsche Grammophon. Available on Amazon and iTunes Store. Hear the first movement on Spotify. See Daniel Barenboim perform the sonata on Youtube.
6 Grande Valse Brilliante, Op. 18, by Frederic Chopin. Performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy on Essential Chopin, © 1995, Decca Records. Available on Amazon and iTunes Store. Hear on Spotify. See Lang Lang perform it on Youtube (it’s a great video, though Lang Lang’s style is very different from William’s).
Bonus for pianists and piano music lovers: See Vladimir Horowitz play the Black Key Etude in his living room on Youtube.