The Pommier Chenin (originally the name of a kind of apple tree) was a structure, for all intents and purposes in ruins, that Hermin had managed to render habitable despite the inhospitality of the lower foothills of the Bourbonnais. The squat building’s stone façade had been standing up to heavy rains and icy blasts for at least two centuries, proving by that very fact how staunchly it could resist the interminable winters. Nevertheless, its isolation, more than anything else, left it exposed to the cold of the dark months, and the young composer often found himself cut off from the nearest village by a virtually impassable accumulation of snow. At such times he had to stay shut up for days in what he ironically called “the Great Room” until he felt he could safely venture outside. Needless to say, during those periods he had very few visitors. Who would have dared defy the elements to reach him?
And yet, on a January evening when darkness was falling, there was one who dared. The only one imaginable, the master of the dazzling gesture, the friend who had one day vanished: Lenny.
“Ich bin wiedergekommen,” was all the apparition from the past said, but with a smile.
Hermin froze. Ten years of absence, ten years without music, without words—and now, to reconnect, one simple sentence: I’m back. That was the boy, all right…
To come to where Hermin was, Lenny must have traveled so many snowy miles, so many muddy paths! Lenny’s passion for long hikes and the nickname he’d been given were of course well known to Hermin; but Lenny’s rambles, in his memory, had remained more literary than real, and he was surprised to see that the young man had chosen—in the middle of January—to swap his copy of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage for hiking boots. And besides, to disappear in the heart of the Monts de la Madeleine, to abandon rehearsals and concerts to pay him a visit, him, after ten years of oblivion! Hermin was stunned. What common ground could there be at this point between the composer holed up in the depths of the forest and the young pianist with the entire musical world at his feet? Love for Schubert, no doubt; but what else?
“You decided it was time for your Winter Journey, is that it?” Hermin asked jokingly.
Lenny smiled another small smile and said, “In a way…”
His silhouette stood out against the background of the snow-covered slope. Although his features were drawn by fatigue, his eyes shone. Almost laughing, he added, “Admit it, you were not expecting this.”
Which was putting it mildly. A teenager had left him; a man had returned.
“Well, you have taken me by surprise,” said Hermin, who was nevertheless quite aware that the boy had always been surprise incarnate, that the role he played was the unexpected guest, the stranger passing through: on this evening, he came as a vagabond seeking shelter for a night, and that was all.
As his only reply, Lenny shrugged his shoulders. Then, casting a quick glance around, he said, “I never thought you would leave your garret for burying yourself here…”
“Solitude is composition’s surest ally.”
This was as good a reply as any; Hermin wasn’t certain he believed it. “You must be tired,” he went on, pulling his friend into the Great Room, which would have seemed quite shabby had the fire not enriched it with sooty and golden-brown reflections that danced in the darkness on the furniture huddled around the hearth. Instead of switching on the lamp, Hermin grabbed two bronze candlesticks to prolong the spell. A light gleamed in the boy’s eyes.
“I remember I got those from a junk dealer!”
“As you see, I still have them.”
Dust from the pianos danced in the sunbeam filtering in through the shop’s half-open door…
Hermin disappeared. He returned a moment later with a savory pie and two plates, which he put down without saying a word. Equally mute, Lenny watched him; it seemed that each of their movements complied with a liturgy whose proceedings must at all costs remain uninterrupted. Outside, the darkening sky added to the fragility of the instant. It was raining melted snow.