Today, I thought I’d treat you to a short story – dedicated to Erin Davies – detailing the sad fates of Lieutenant Sixten Sparre and his paramour, tightrope dancer Elvira Madigan. The below takes place in July of 1889, in Denmark. It is a perfect summer day….
He took her by the hand when they left the inn. Her skirts swished through the dew-hung grass, their footprints dark patches in their wake. He tightened his hold on her hand. One last morning, one last day with her, and then it would all be over. It nearly broke his heart, even more so when she smiled at him, the reflection of an endless line of future days glittering in her eyes. Maybe he should reconsider – but he knew there was no choice. He knew, she refused to accept this truth of his, being too young, too filled with hope, to not believe in their love. His little Elvira, his circus girl. Sixten tightened his hold on her hand, casting his mind back to a day, more than a year in the past, when he had first seen her.
He’d had no intention of going to the circus. But his wife nagged and begged, wanting to see the American director, the elephant and the clowns. Sixten had no interest in clowns – or Americans – but when his wife told him there were horses, he reluctantly agreed to take her.
Everyone who was anyone in Kristianstad was there. There was an excited buzz that quieted into an expectant hush when the music began, ushering in the director, resplendent in red and polished boots. Sixteen quickly became bored – until she came in. At the sight of Elvira, Sixten forgot about horses, about his wife, about his commanding officer, sitting just behind him. Round and rosy, the girl seemed too plump to glide across the tightrope, but no sooner did she set her delicate little foot on the wire, and she transformed into a fairy, so light upon her feet one could think her made of down and air, no more.
“You’re gawking,” his wife had hissed, sounding most affronted.
“No I’m not.” It was all Sixten could do to remain seated, all of him yearning to leap off the bench, rush to enfold the girl presently twirling on the tightrope in his arms. He was sweating – strange, in mid-February – and his heart was thumping so hard in his chest he was sure everyone in his proximity could hear it. His wife gave him a look as if she could, narrowing her eyes into glacial slits. “I’m looking at the construction,” Sixten had explained. “How do you think they make sure it doesn’t collapse?” A stab of pain rushed through him at the thought of the tightrope dancer tumbling to the sandy ground. His wife wrinkled her nose, looking as if she didn’t believe him. But now that he’d given her a plausible excuse, he could continue with his open staring.
After the performance, Sixten and his wife stayed behind, invited by the major to meet Mr Madigan, the circus director himself. There was beer and wine, there were miniature pies and cheese – and there was her, the fairy, now reverted back to a girl with ample curves. Now and then, her almond shaped eyes would meet his over the crowd, and every time they did, he would smile, rewarded by a responding flash of teeth.
Next day, Sixten had strolled down from the barracks and over the bridge of the Helge river, to where the circus people had set up their camp. It was far too cold for a walk, and even colder to loiter round the collection of caravans and tents, but loiter he did, drawn by an inexplicable desire to see her again.
She looked different in daylight. Her long dark hair was pulled into a tight braid, and where yesterday she had worn a creation of pink and yellow tulle, now she was in dark green skirts with a matching bodice. But when she saw him, she smiled, and Sixten bowed.
“Mr Sparre, is it not?” she said.
“Lieutenant,” he corrected.
“Ah, yes. A gallant officer, no less. And what brings you here, Lieutenant Sparre?”
You, he wanted to reply. But he mumbled something about taking a walk, and the girl laughed, a delightful gurgling sound that had him laughing with her.
“I was hoping for some conversation,” he admitted once he’d stopped laughing.
“With me? What can I possibly say that may interest a man like you?”
Anything, really – as long as he could hear the sound of her voice, that sufficed. She was standing a mere foot or so away, and when he inhaled, she smelled of cheap rose-water and horse liniment, not an entirely pleasant combination. But it didn’t matter, because she was young and pretty, her nose was covered in freckles, and her mouth was soft and plump.
“Hmm?” Sixten looked at her.
Elvira grinned. “I said, what do you do, when you’re not out walking?”
Sixten furrowed his brow. Being an officer during peacetime was rather tedious. “I train young men in the fine arts of shooting and disembowelling.” He’d only said that to shock her, but Elvira shrugged.
“Future soldiers – a handsome lot. Maybe you should come and visit me at the barracks one day.”
“To look at other men?” She gave him a sultry look. Sixten coughed and she laughed again. “You have horses as well, don’t you? In the barracks?”
“Well, in the stables, actually,” he replied.
“Do you have your own horses?” she asked.
“Three. One’s in foal, the other is as yet not broken to the saddle, so I’m stuck with my gelding for now.”
“A gelding?” She was suddenly close enough that he could feel the warmth emanating from her. “I would have though a man like you would have ridden a stallion.”
“A stallion?” The little minx was teasing him, her eyes, her mouth, far too close.
“Oh yes, you look like a man who knows how to ride. Those hands, those strong thighs…” Sixteen made the first truly spontaneous gesture in his life. He cupped her face and kissed her silent.
That was how it all had begun. A married man – an officer, no less – seducing a chit of a girl, or maybe it was the other way around. Since that cold February day, well over a year in the past, Sixten’s life had shrunk to consist only of her, his Elvira. A girl made a woman – by him. A girl with no future – thanks to him.
He had not planned on anything but a short dalliance, taken over by images of her supple body entwined with his, but somewhere along the line he lost his heart to this woman with her throaty laugh and bright innocent eyes, eyes that adored him, made him glow as no other woman ever had. He shrugged as if to dislodge the sudden weight that settled on his shoulder; guilt, he analysed, guilt for what he had done to his wife, to his children. Guilt for what he was about to do to her, to his Elvira who danced by his side, humming softly under her breath.
Lieutenant Sparre drew himself up straight. Officers of the crown did not behave as he had done. He almost wished someone had called him out, demanded retribution on behalf if his betrayed wife. Swords clashing, the heavy panting of two men circling each other – yes, he would have relished the opportunity to show the world he was no coward. Instead he had fled, deserted his regiment, leaving behind wife, children and a reputation in tatters. All for a circus girl, a low born artiste who slid like an ethereal fairy over the tightrope, seemingly weightless as she hung suspended in space.
”Sixten?” Elvira shook his hand, recalling him to the splendid July day, to fields of ripening golden wheat and pastures in which the grass was studded with dandelions and harebells.
”Yes?” Sixten looked down at her, and she leaned against him, as she was wont to do, those soft curves pressing against him.
”Where are we going?”
”I thought we’d have a picnic,” he said. Elvira skipped a couple of steps, detached herself from him and clapped her hands, looking like a happy child. He stretched his lips into an attempted smile. So young, so vibrant, and soon… He had to stop, drag a hand through his hair to regain some composure.
Her hand snuck into his. ”It will all work out,” she told him in a reassuring voice. ”It doesn’t matter if we don’t have any money, we have each other.”
No money? He owed the inn for the best part of a week, there was nothing left of value to pawn, and Lieutenant Sparre was persona non grata – a deserter, a nobleman up to his ears in debt – both in Denmark and in Sweden. There was nowhere to go, no one to help, and here he was, with a young woman who regarded him with the trusting look of a dog, so certain he would take care of her. Sixten swallowed – painfully. His grip on the basket slipped, and he had to set it down to wipe his sweaty hand against the light grey wool of his trousers. Right at the bottom of the basket, nestling among the ham and the eggs, the rye bread and the cheese, was his pistol.
They found a spot in the shade of a huge beech. A soft breeze had sprung up, rustling the leaves of the canopy above them, and to the far right was a little stream, a narrow band of glittering water that burbled and sang its way across the little glade. The shade shivered with the wind, sunlight streaking the blanket, Elvira’s skirts, Sixten’s legs.
One last time. He fed her raspberries and wine, kissed her until she was breathless and rosy. One last time. Her skirts came off, her bodice joined it, and there she was, lying on her back with her arms extended towards him, inviting him to take her. He laid his coat aside, undid his cravat and joined her on the grass. One last time. These round breasts, her soft gurgling laugh, her breathless exclamations when he touched her where she liked it the most. One last time. One last time, one last time, one last time. Sixten fell to lie beside her, panting. He gripped her hand and raised it to his mouth, voicing a silent thank you for all the moments of joy she had given him. With a contented sigh, Elvira rolled towards him and pillowed her head on his chest. She slept, safe in his arms. One last time.
He sat up carefully, trying not to wake her, and rummaged through the basket until his hand closed on the loaded pistol. Such a beautiful day, such a perfect ending note to their mesalliance.
”Sixten? What are you doing? Why…” Her voice broke off, mouth falling open. Wide, wide eyes gazed at him, and she shook her head, slowly.
”There is no choice,” he groaned. Elvira scooted backwards, away from him, and the movement caused her thin cotton shift to ride up her legs, bunching around her hips.
”No,” she begged, ”I don’t…”
”Shhh, my love.” He embraced her, kissed her, and she twisted in his arms, struggling against his hold.
”I don’t want to die!” She pushed at him.
”I don’t either,” he told her. ”I want to be with you, only with you.” He set down the pistol and smoothed at her hair, her back, gentling her as he would a restless filly. ”You’re right; I’m being foolish. Of course I don’t want to die,” he repeated, and it was the truth. He wanted to live, with her, but knew it was impossible. Elvira slumped against him, clenching her hands round his shirt.”As long as we’re together,” she murmured.
”Yes,” he crooned. ”You and I, together for ever.” She never noticed when he picked up the gun. The bang echoed through the woods, and Sixten collapsed, holding her body in his arms. He wept. For her, for him, for the futility of it all. The sun moved towards the west, sinking the glade in shadow, and still he could not relinquish her cooling body, stop kissing her face.
In the distance, Sixten heard voices, a laugh. With one last kiss, he laid Elvira’s body down, smoothing her shift down her legs and covering her with the blanket. Sixten put on his jacket, buttoned up his shirt and adjusted his cravat. He raised the gun to his head. It trembled, pressing uncomfortably against his temple. No more life, no more days in the sun with Elvira. His fingers tightened round the trigger. The shot went off. An instant of blinding pain, an agonising roar in his head. After that, nothing. Nothing at all.