It was late afternoon when he sauntered into her office, wearing his third nicest waistcoat and smelling slightly of alcohol. Nevertheless, he seemed sober.
‘How did it go?’ Hanna asked, after greeting him with a brief, businesslike kiss.
‘I spoke to the supervisor at the factory, and he reassured me everything was fine,’ he explained, taking off his coat and draping it over the back of a chair. ‘Then I spoke to five different foremen on three different floors, who also told me everything was fine.’
‘But then?’ prompted Hanna.
‘But then I bought gin for four of them and let the fifth one beat me at cards and it turns out nothing is fine after all. The older batch of sewing machines is in atrociously bad repair, the lighting in the basement workshop is too low for the seamstresses to see properly, and you were right about Herr Bamberger. He does try to embezzle everything that isn’t nailed down.’
‘Thank you,’ she sighed, already preoccupied. ‘People never tell me anything. They still think I’m too stupid to understand.’
‘Or too clever to put up with it?’ asked Danilo with a placating smile.
‘Maybe,’ she conceded, already rummaging through her desk, looking through her stacks of reports, item after item of supposedly stolen or damaged goods. The Lyons factory, ran by Herr Bamberger, was missing more bales of raw silk than the eight others put together. She began adding up the numbers, trying to figure out if with the right words, she could squeeze some of the stolen money out of her idiotically corrupt employee, or if she should just fire him without further ado. It was unbelievable, the man had the nerve to blame the missing silk on spoilage, and to take it out of the seamstresses’ wages. Her pen flew quickly over the paper, a quick note with definite numbers and a pronounced threat of police involvement.
‘You’re good at this,’ remarked Danilo, looking down at her from his seat perched on the corner of her desk.
‘Well, business. And running it,’ he responded vaguely. ‘Your husband’s will implied that you’d be terrible at it.’
‘Well,’ sighed Hanna, slipping the note into an envelope. ‘The late Mr Glawari knew I married him for his money. Letting him know I had a head for business would have been adding insult to injury.’
She rang for her assistant, handed him the envelope and told him to send the telegram without delay – he hurried out.
‘Did you never slip up?’ asked Danilo, companionably. “With your husband, I mean. Did you never lean over his shoulder to correct his figures?’
‘Not until he was too old and infirm to notice,’ she responded. ‘By that time, I was running most of the Glawari Corporation myself.’
She almost added that she wasn’t new to it. She had begun to help out in her father’s shop when she was so little she couldn’t even see over the counter, and by the time she first met Danilo, she would run the shop for days at a time while her father was away for supplies, trying to get a bargain on printed fabrics or salt or sewing needles, whatever might sell in their little corner store. The shop was much smaller than the grand financial empire Herr Glawari had built, but that was exactly why she had to learn to keep track of every last coin. But she didn’t mention it – after all, being the third daughter of a small-town Jewish shopkeeper was the reason he had refused to marry her, that first time, when they were both young. He had that rakish, glimmering smile on his face when he told her that she couldn’t possibly expect him to marry her, not even if she converted, then he tried to comfort her by telling her she could still be his mistress. She is not proud to remember how she had begged. But it was over soon, and then within the month, she was married to the wealthy Glawari.
‘Hanna, I…’ began Danilo. He slid off the desk, stood at attention in front of her, oddly formal. His eyes raked over her figure, her simple dove-grey silk gown, the strict bun she had pulled her hair into, the mess of documents on her desk, the rows and rows of numbers in the ledger she had opened and the calculations she had jotted down on scraps of paper, the autumn sunlight streaming into the room through the wide windows at her back. He shifted on his feet, loosened his cravat a little, then spoke, the words falling out in a hurried jumble.
‘Hanna, I don’t think I should marry you.’ He looked at her with a strange imploring look, utterly unsuited to what he had just blurted out.
She froze, trying to remind herself that this time she wasn’t nineteen and penniless, that she was not lost without him, not entirely.
‘May I ask why?’ she said finally, her voice even colder than she had intended.
‘You’re good at this,’ he said, with a gesture encompassing her and her desk and her ledgers and the entire office. ‘You’re good at this and you’re good at having this, and if I married you, I’d have to take it from you. What would I even do with the Glawari fortune? I don’t even know how to balance my own chequebook at the end of the month.’
‘I could make you my darling little wife, very sweet, very domestic, you’d never have to trouble your pretty little head about finance or politics ever again. Oh, and you’d be penniless, unless I generously gave you some pin money out of your own bloody inheritance! I’m not going to sign a contract that beggars you.’
‘So you want me to be your mistress,’ Hanna repeated, to clarify. ‘You’re refusing to marry me but want me to be your mistress because… you admire my business acumen so much.’
‘Mistress?’ he asked, with a quick bark of laughter. ‘That’s much better than being my wife, but it still sounds like a raw deal. I can’t give you any jewellery you couldn’t buy yourself, and all the money I could send you is less than what you spend on whatever, postage stamps in a month. Not a great life for a kept woman.’
‘So what do you suggest?’ asked Hanna.
‘I don’t know,’ he shrugged. ‘I don’t want to make you Madame Danilovitch, but I can’t see you as my mistress either.’
‘So why don’t we do it the other way around?’ asked Hanna, she felt, reasonably, since all other options were exhausted.
‘What way round?’
‘The way we’ve been doing. You grace me with your company, I pick up the cheque.’ It had clearly been the wrong thing to say. A stranger wouldn’t have noticed, but to Hanna, his hurt anger showed clear in the paleness of his cheeks, the tension in his shoulders.
‘Why not,’ he agreed, slowly. ‘I could be your mistress, your kept man. I could be your darling little husband. You could deck me out in pink silk and diamonds, then parade me around town like I was one of the girls from Maxim’s. I would flirt and fawn and mix you drinks, and then I’d never have to trouble my pretty little head about finance or politics or the like.’
His voice was bright, enthusiastic and thoroughly false, the sharp edge of disgust glinting through the levity. He hadn’t spoken to her this way for a long while, not since the embassy ball where he thought he was hiding his feelings behind loud sarcasm, and was therefore transparent as a window pane. She suddenly understood that he was more ashamed of his relative poverty, of his joke of a diplomatic posting and of the last wasted decade than she had guessed. He felt lesser, and some part of him wanted to punish her for that, and the other part, the part that loved her, held back.
‘Danilo,’ she began, trying for the playfully chiding tone that tended to get his attention. ‘You have quite a low opinion of the girls at Maxim’s, even though you certainly know them better than I do. They’re hardworking girls, every one of them, and it’s not their fault that pretending to be silly, carefree creatures gets them bigger tips at the end of the day.’
‘Heh, maybe not,’ Danilo laughed, a tense little puff of breath.
‘I know you despised me for marrying rich…’ she continued.
‘Hanna, no,’ he interrupted, rubbing a weary hand over his face. ‘I mean I did, because I was a jealous idiot. But I shouldn’t have. You had your family to think of, hell, you had yourself to think of. You did the best you could.’
‘And so did you, but you’re not even marrying me for my money. You told me multiple times how little you want that. You’re not a kept man. You’ve just accepted my invitation to live with me, to travel with me, is there anything wrong with that?’
‘Nothing,’ he responded, uncomfortable.
‘So what’s the matter if I choose to take my gentleman friend to the opera?’ she asked, leaning in a little. ‘Is it anybody’s business if I like to feed him oysters and champagne, and I have him sleep on the softest satin sheets?’
Danilo shook his head, amused, but not entirely convinced.
‘In that case, I hope I get some diamonds out of the bargain,’ he said with a lopsided grin.
‘You needn’t worry.’
She walked over to her desk and unlocked a cleverly hidden drawer, taking out an unremarkable wooden box. It held her diamonds – the ones she very rarely wore, only when she needed to make an impression, and the impression absolutely had to be ‘incredibly filthy rich’ with shades of ‘I could buy you, all of you.’ She took it out of the box, a sparkling cascade of perfectly identical stones set into a necklace. Danilo stood stock still, frowning in confusion until she reached towards his neck.
‘What are you-’ he exclaimed, but she put a hand on his shoulder, stilling, gentling. She slowly untied his cravat, put it down on the desk behind her, she undid the top three buttons on his shirt, then laid the diamonds around Danilo’s neck and clicked the clasp shut.
He shuddered a little when the necklace touched his bare skin. First she thought the stones must have been cold, but the shivering did not quite stop. Danilo stood still, silent, with his eyes open but downcast, his hands at his sides, shaking. His neck was slender, but thicker than a woman’s would have been, so the necklace fit very closely, moving with every breath, with every swallow. She couldn’t tell if he was blushing with embarrassment or pleasure, but the cold fire of the diamonds against his flushed skin made a very pretty picture, and Hanna couldn’t help touching him, running a hand over his cheek, his hair, his neck. But not kissing him, not yet. Standing this close to him, she could feel his breath on her cheek, feel his blood rush underneath her palms. It occurred to her that this strange still moment felt like seeing him naked, before remembering that she had seen him naked almost every day for the past few months, and it hadn’t been anything like this.
‘Danilo,’ she asked, suddenly certain. ‘What do you want?’
‘Keep me,’ he gulped, all at once, hurried and graceless, just like the first time he told her he loved her in the middle of an international diplomatic crisis. ‘I’ll be your kept man, I’ll be your husband, I’ll be your can-can dancing courtesan, just keep me.’
‘I will,’ she said, steady and soft and solemn. She let him kiss her first.
‘You don’t have anything against being my husband, do you?’ she asked when he broke away.
‘No,’ he breathed against her lips. ‘I love my Hanna. I just don’t want to turn her into Madame Danilovitsch.’
‘You’d rather become Monsieur Danilo Glawari?’ she asked, teasing.
‘No.’ She could feel him shake his head. ‘Monsieur Danilo Leibowitz.’
It has been almost a decade since she had last heard the name of her childhood, the name that wasn’t good enough to marry into the noble Danilovitsch family. Tears choked her, and she couldn’t find the words anyway, so she just held him, tight as she could, and hoped that he would know that it was a yes.
After a long moment, she carefully stepped back to wipe her eyes and take a look at her strange wilful fiancé. He grinned at her, suddenly self-assured again.
‘So we’ll marry,’ he said, in a voice that brooked no opposition, not even his own. ‘We’ll marry, but only after we’ve found some sort of loophole to let you keep the money. I could sign a waiver, or you could sell the shares to yourself, there must be something…’
He petered off, looking at her in a searching, curious way.
‘You already have it figured out, don’t you,’ he groaned. ‘Here I am having a crisis of conscience, and you probably figured out a way to marry me and keep the Glawari corporation, weeks ago.’
He knew her, he knew her well. She had written the first draft of the contract the very day after the embassy ball, seven months earlier.
‘That’s settled then,’ he declared. ‘We’ll get married whenever you’re sure you’ve got the legal technicalities ironed out.’
‘And in the meantime,’ she said, glancing at her bracelet watch, ‘we’re late to the opera.’
‘I’d love to stay in,’ he answered, already shrugging his coat back on, ‘but I’d hate to be responsible for you missing Cosi fan Tutte.’
He was fidgeting with the clasp of the necklace, his fingers too clumsy to undo it, before she laid her hand on his.
‘That stays on,’ she said, on a whim, but the moment she said it she knew it had been the right thing to say. ‘Just cover it up. I’ll take it off you when we’re back home.’
He gave her a fond, disbelieving look, and tied his cravat back on.