Pairing: Gilbert Beilschmidt/Roderich Edelstein (Prussia/Austria)
Summary: WW2 AU. Austrian musician Roderich Edelstein and German soldier Gilbert Beilschmidt are forced into an army prison unit and a fight for survival on the Russian Front. But in the midst of blood and death and hell on earth, how long can they fight their desire for each other?
This story is part of my ongoing Hetalia WW2 AU, the Veraverse. It stands on its own, however if you are interested, check out my profile page for other fics in the series.
A thousand thanks must go to my wonderful beta Kay (/u/2680825/) This story would have not been written if not for you, my dear. Thank you for first putting the idea for a PruAus in my head all those months ago, for your brilliant ideas and for listening to mine, for looking over my drafts and making them better, and for putting up with my terribly slow message replies. All the best ideas in here belong to you, and all remaining mistakes are mine.
WARNINGS: This story will be darker than the others in the series. Warnings mainly for language and attempted sexual assault.
The Russian Front
Roderich tried to focus on the bowl of food before him. Well, it was alleged to be food. It was actually some sort of grey sludge, like a revolting mixture of three month old caviar and the icy mud that collected in Vienna's street gutters in winter. It was making him sick to look at, so he chanced a furtive glance around the long, battered, crowded town hall instead. The windows were smashed, the furniture broken and overturned, the walls imprinted with bullet holes. A sweating, shouting mass of soldiers filled the temporary mess hall. Most of them had finished eating and were talking amongst themselves, but when a nearby soldier looked over at Roderich and laughed, the rest of his small group quickly did the same. Roderich immediately looked down again, his cheeks burning, the cold, nauseous churning in his stomach refusing to subside. He focused again on the hideous sludge in his bowl.
It was only Roderich's second day here. His second day in this dirty makeshift encampment in this dirty abandoned village. His second day surrounded by unfamiliar tanks and trucks and weapons, by loud, dirty German soldiers who had been fighting on this front for years and who couldn't seem to stop staring and laughing at the new recruit. Of course people were often discarded to the Russian front – it was a convenient punishment to keep the jails empty. No questions were asked, no training given, no briefing or reason or explanation. Roderich had simply been given a uniform, given a gun, and then thrown to the wolves. He shifted uncomfortably at the unfamiliar, scratchy feel of his dreadfully ugly grey uniform. The men around him were dressed practically identically, although Roderich was slowly starting to learn the subtle signifiers of things like different ranks and marks of bravery. No one seemed likely to explain these things to him, after all.
Roderich's skin crawled uneasily when he realised that the nearby group of soldiers were still staring at him, talking about him, not even bothering to keep their voices down. "Have you seen the new recruit? It's a joke. This unit's getting desperate, I tell ya. Next thing we'll be letting the Jews in."
The hair stood up on Roderich's neck and he swallowed a brief wave of fear. If it ever got out… if anyone here found out… He took a few deep breaths. And tried to tell himself that he had a chance here. As hopeless as this seemed, he still had a chance to survive. Not a very big one, true. But even the Russian Front was better than a train to Auschwitz.
"The Austrian didn't volunteer. They say his music was a favourite of the Führer, but then he pissed off the wrong people somehow. Punishment – the Front."
"Musician, huh? That pretty boy won't last a week."
Roderich's face burned angrily. How was this happening? How was he here? Only two days, and yet this was a world away from his life only a week ago. From his successful career as a composer, his beautiful house in Vienna, his music and piano and concerts and dinners… how had it all gone to hell? For what? A tiny voice answered him... For your stupid principles. Roderich's spectacles started to fog and suddenly he was furious. He had done nothing wrong. He did not deserve this. His hands started to shake. He wanted to scream, he wanted to fight, he wanted to throw this repulsive bowl of grey slush against the wall... Roderich startled when someone suddenly sat heavily against the wall beside him.
"Well, hello there."
Roderich turned to glare at the soldier. His grin was too cheerful for this place, his hair was so pale it was white – but it was the eyes that made Roderich pause. Such incredibly unusual eyes - startling even - bright and intense and such a deep bronze they were almost red. By the time Roderich thought to respond, he realised he had stared too long, so he simply looked away. He had no idea how to act around these men. Roderich could usually hide behind his haughty, aristocratic demeanour to avoid speaking with people. When it was absolutely necessary, he usually only had to answer questions about his music, which he could do. But here there was no orchestra on the stage or string quartet in the corner; no talk of Mozart interpretations or the latest opera performances to fall back on. So he just stayed silent.
The man beside him continued, seemingly unfazed at Roderich's silence. "Héderváry, wasn't it? Roderich Héderváry."
Roderich felt only the slightest twinge of surprise. After three years, he was almost used to being addressed by his wife's name. He was sure it had not been mentioned here, however… "How do you know my name?" he asked quietly.
"Oh, I… must have overheard it." The soldier continued quickly. "I'm Private Beilschmidt. Call me Gilbert."
Roderich raised one eyebrow. He noticed that the front of this soldier's uniform was covered with medals, more than Roderich had yet seen on any other enlisted man here. How was he only a private? Roderich realised he was staring again and hastened to respond. "No, I don't think I shall."
Gilbert seemed to find that amusing. He nodded to Roderich's bowl. "You're not eating."
"This is not food."
"It's the closest you're gonna see for a while, friend."
"I am not your friend."
"No, but you are a bit of a stuck up little shit, aren't you?"
Another wave of anger surged through Roderich's veins. He had never been spoken to like that. What an uncouth, distasteful, disagreeable gentleman… Roderich tried to summon the courage to respond angrily, but once again, he just looked away. He told himself it was because it wasn't worth it. He refused to admit it was because he was afraid.
"You should eat, though." Did this barbaric soldier actually sound concerned? Roderich shook the idea from his head. No one cared about anyone out here.
"The very notion disgusts me. I couldn't possibly eat this."
"This ain't exactly the Ritz, little prince. Eat now or you'll regret it."
Roderich's anger overrode his fear and he glared disdainfully at the grinning, too-cheerful German. "Who do you think you are? Do not dare to give me an order."
Gilbert laughed again, loudly. "Oh, you really have no idea, do you. This is the army you're in now. Better get used to taking orders. Of course in the end it's up to you, but if you keel over from starvation ain't no one gonna carry you on their back."
Roderich's glare darkened. "I thank you for the advice. But I also thank you to keep it to yourself."
Gilbert just kept laughing and Roderich clenched his fists. What, did this man think this was all a joke? Did he have some strange, twisted sense of humour? "Just what are you doing here, little prince? I'm guessing you didn't volunteer."
"No." Roderich left it at that. It was none of this man's business to know why he was here. He looked away again, eyes darting once more toward the nearby group of soldiers who were still laughing and talking about him far too loudly. Roderich looked down and shifted uncomfortably. He glanced shortly, uncertainly at the man by his side. There was no one else to ask after all… "Why... why do they keep looking at me like that?"
Gilbert did not laugh this time. "Well, there ain't many women out here, you know. And you're a damn sight prettier than anything we've seen for a while."
Roderich felt his limbs turn rigid and his throat turn dry. The way they were laughing, staring him up and down… Roderich was shocked, then disgusted, then alarmed. Then he looked again at Gilbert. Roderich's eyes widened, he shrunk into himself and leant as far away as he could manage. Gilbert just scoffed dismissively.
"Settle down, sweetheart. I'm not after anything. Just giving you a warning to watch your back. And keep your rifle on you."
Brief relief, but then Roderich looked down at the rifle by his side. And again he was terrified. He did not even know how to use it. Oh, he was in so far over his head. How had he ever let himself end up in this situation? He shouldn't have said anything, should have kept quiet… That irritating little voice nagged at him again. Should have let them use your music as Nazi propaganda? Even as he thought it, Roderich knew that was never an option. Even if he lived as a coward in hiding, he could never let himself become involved in that. And especially not his music – the most important thing in his life. He would die first. He almost laughed at the irony. After all, he probably would.
"We'll be pushing out tomorrow," said Gilbert quietly. Roderich had almost forgotten he was there. His head turned light and blurry.
"Oh. So soon?"
"We've been here for three days. It's not soon."
Roderich knew nothing about that. "I suppose not."
"Have you…" Gilbert again sounded almost concerned. "Have you been given any basic training?"
Roderich shook his head.
"Someone want you dead or something?"
Roderich's eyes flashed to the soldier who had made the comment about Jews earlier. "Quite a few people, I believe."
"Just try and stay at the back, yeah?"
Roderich felt dizzy. Why wouldn't this man leave him alone? Roderich glared at him, then very deliberately placed his bowl on the ground and stood. "I think I need…" I need some air, I need to breathe, I need this to stop, I need to wake up in my own bed and have this awful nightmare finally stop twisting the world around me… "I need to go away."
Roderich marched swiftly out of the busy hall. He needed to get away, but there was nowhere to go. He was stuck in this mass of men, stuck in this living nightmare. He was in the German army now, and there was nowhere to go anymore but where he was told. He walked as far from the crowd as he could, out into the cool, dark night, across the narrow road and into the space behind one of the small wooden houses that lined the road. This village was barely even worthy of the name – it was little more than a single town square surrounded by fences of wire. Pools of bright light from military vehicles and spotlights cut through the town, but it was dark and unseen where Roderich stood behind the little house. He leant his head back against the wood and closed his eyes. It was almost quiet now. Of course, the air was still filled with the noise from the mess hall and the roaring of engines and the occasional shout from guards around the fenced perimeter, but it was the closest to silence Roderich had experienced all day.
Roderich was just starting to feel like he could breathe properly when a blast of sound exploded from a nearby truck. The blast immediately softened and evened into the recognisable sound of a crackling radio, and other trucks quickly followed suit. Soon the sound poured through the narrow streets, the voice of the radio announcer drowning out even the noise from the hall. "It is 9:55pm and this is Radio Belgrade, signing off. But finally, again tonight, we have Lale Andersen with 'Lili Marlene...'" The noise from the hall flared briefly in a cheer, then fell quiet as the music flowed through the tiny village.
Then Roderich could breathe again. It was a manipulative marching tune, a sickly sentimental popular song manufactured for the masses. But it was strangely charming, and the untrained voice was honest and sweet; and it was music, so Roderich craved it. He drank it in, felt that voice soothe his shaking nerves; the strident brass shiver down his spine, the marching beat thrum with his heart into his veins. He almost breathed it, and as he did, his fingers ached for the smooth, yielding touch of piano keys or the strong, familiar pull of violin strings. How long had it been… a week? A lifetime. Roderich lost himself in these too short minutes of music, in these sad and pointless lyrics.
Underneath the lantern, by the barrack gate,
Darling I remember, the way you used to wait.
'Twas there that you whispered tenderly,
That you loved me, you'd always be,
My lily of the lamplight,
My own Lili Marlene.
When finally the music stopped and the night turned silent, Roderich gasped aloud and almost reached out to bring it back. But then the cold world came flooding back - the lights of the tanks and the roar of the soldiers in the distant hall - and he sighed in frustration, covering his face with a shaking hand. The silence he had craved moments ago was now agonising. How was he supposed to survive out here without music?
"Why hello, pretty Austrian."
Roderich dropped his hand and pulled himself upright. His chest constricted and his stomach turned cold as three soldiers rounded the corner of the wooden house, striding towards him, their laughing, leering faces just visible in the filtered glow from the light-flooded town square. Roderich recognised them as the soldiers who had stared at him earlier in the hall. Gilbert's words suddenly rang though his head … you're a damn sight prettier than anything we've seen for a while... and Roderich felt panic rise in his chest. He immediately turned to run, but the men were too fast. A shout caught in Roderich's throat when he felt his wrist grabbed roughly. He was slammed face first against the wall of the house, his arm twisted painfully behind his back. He tried to strike back with his other arm, but it was grabbed just as quickly and also pinned to his back. He couldn't move. The soldier's grip was like iron. Fire blasted through his head. The men laughed behind him and a hot, oily voice spoke beside his ear.
"Now, now, none of this. It's no use anyway, and you don't want to hurt yourself, pretty Austrian."
Roderich fought to keep calm, even as his pulse pounded hazy and unreal in his ears. He responded evenly. "Unhand me immediately, you perverted scoundrel, or I shall…"
"Shall what?" Roderich's lungs squeezed the breath from him when a hand snaked around his hip and wandered over his waist. He struggled again against the grip, but was just pressed bodily to the wall in response. He shuddered in disgust at the heavy weight against his back.
"Doesn't look like he has a pistol," said the soldier, removing his hand.
"Get on with it, then," responded one of the others.
Roderich felt the hand on him again, this time fumbling with the buckle of his belt. Icy fear clawed at his throat as his mind finally managed to acknowledge what was happening. He opened his mouth to scream.
A gunshot tore suddenly through the air. The man behind him jumped, his grip slackened, and Roderich used all his strength to twist in the man's grasp and get his back against the wall. To his surprise, the soldier released him, and Roderich prepared to run. He stopped when he followed the soldiers' blank stares. His stomach shot into his throat.
"Not a good idea, boys." Gilbert, the white-haired soldier from the hall, stood pointing a pistol in the attacker's direction.
The attacker snarled back at him. "Wait your turn Beilschmidt, you crazy fuck, and lower your goddamn pistol…"
"No, I don't think so, Müller. You're gonna stand there and you're gonna listen to me. All three of you." Gilbert nodded at Roderich. "You ain't gonna touch him now, and you ain't gonna touch him any time in the future. You got it?" Gilbert spoke easily, sounded almost friendly, but even in the filtered light Roderich could see those striking eyes blazing red. The effect was astonishing.
Müller practically spat his response. "What the fuck, what's your…"
Gilbert took a few steps towards Roderich, the pistol still aimed at Müller, his blazing eyes still glued to the three men. "He's mine. No one else's. Understand?"
Roderich was both affronted and relieved, the terrified nausea turning to something else. But he didn't think he could speak, and didn't know if it was a good idea if he did. The three soldiers glared at Gilbert furiously.
"He's yours since when, Beilschmidt? He's been here what, a day?"
"Two, and obviously you're a bit late. If I find you even looking at Héderváry again, it'll be you up against that wall, and it'll be something a little different to what you're used to up your arse." Gilbert waved the pistol threateningly. Müller opened his mouth to respond but was cut off by a sudden loud shout.
"BEILSCHMIDT!" Everyone turned in direction of the voice. Two officers charged towards them from the street, a small group of armed soldiers with pistols drawn following behind. "Drop your weapon now!"
Gilbert swore and dropped the pistol before lifting his hands and shrugging nonchalantly. "Hey, no need to overreact…"
"What was that gunshot earlier?" The officer at the front, a colonel if Roderich remembered correctly, had his hands on his wide hips and a furious expression on his fat, red face.
Gilbert shrugged again. "Just practicing my aim."
The colonel glanced at the captain beside him before looking to the three soldiers who had attacked Roderich. Müller gave a short, glinting, slowly brightening sideways glance at Gilbert. Roderich shuddered unpleasantly at the man's sinister smirk. "Actually, the crazy bastard shot at us, sir."
Gilbert's eyes flashed; his nostrils flared. "That's a lie."
"It's not a lie," said one of the soldiers.
"It's the truth," added the other.
Everyone looked at Roderich. His head was hazy, everything was happening so fast; this was too hard to understand, to comprehend… "It is a lie," said Roderich, surprising himself at the evenness of his reply. "It's as Gil… as Beilschmidt says. He did not shoot at anyone."
Gilbert spread his hands and smiled. Müller took a step forward. "Of course he would say that. Considering the position we found these two in moments ago."
"Position?" asked the colonel, looking from Müller to Gilbert.
Gilbert's smile faltered. "I don't know what he's talking about."
Müller smirked again. "We were just walking through the square when we heard noises coming from back here. We came to see what was happening when we found Beilschmidt here with this new Austrian up against the wall. We shouted out and Beilschmidt turned and shot at us. It's as simple as that."
Gilbert's face twisted in indignant fury. "Oh, that is BULLSHIT!"
"That is not the case…" started Roderich.
"Have a look at his trousers, sir," Müller interrupted, smiling sickeningly at Roderich. "They're undone."
Roderich's blood burned with sick fury as everyone followed Müller's stare, looking openly at Roderich's undone belt and half opened trousers. He felt disgusted with shame, overcome with an undignified embarrassment that crawled into his skin and rose like bile in his throat. He tried to turn from their stares, to hide himself from their accusations. Why should he care… these people were nothing… he was better than this… oh Lord, he was standing in a dirty backstreet in a Russian village with unbuttoned pants and the accusing stares of a group of uncouth commoners... Roderich pulled his jacket close around him. His eyes started to sting but he refused the tears. This was shameful enough.
"They're undone," spat Gilbert through gritted teeth, "because these sick fucks were about to…" Gilbert's eyes flicked briefly to Roderich. "…attack this guy before I turned up and shot my pistol to interrupt and stop them."
The officers looked skeptical, especially when Müller spread his hands and said, "Sir, you're going to believe Beilschmidt over the three of us?"
The colonel nodded angrily. "He has a point, Beilschmidt. This has to be the twelfth serious incident you have been involved in this month."
The captain added, "And I thought you said earlier that the gunshot was you practicing your aim?"
Gilbert was almost red with fury. Roderich did not know what to think or feel. Everything was settling into a sort of numbness. "Well, I said that, but…"
"Enough, Beilschmidt." The colonel was fuming. "I am sick of it. I am sick of this. Last time was that brawl three nights ago…"
Gilbert rolled his eyes. "Keller started that brawl, the bastard insulted my brother, and only I'm allowed to do that…"
"And the time before that was on the road last week…"
Gilbert threw his hands up. "That corporal stole my last cigarette ration!"
The colonel continued. "And how can we be expected to forget what you did to Private Schmidt at Dolgova village?"
Gilbert's expression changed. Now he did not just look furious. He looked murderous. His eyes again flashed red and his lips drew into a snarl. When he spoke his voice was curiously flat. "Did you see what that sick fuck did to that Russian girl? A few broken bones and an eye patch for life is nothing to what that piece of rotted shit would have got if I'd been able to finish what I started on him."
Roderich got the feeling this was not the right thing to say. The officers glanced at each other, then glared again at Gilbert. "This is one step too far, Beilschmidt. We have an armed punitive guard coming through tomorrow morning before we push out. They'll be heading on to the prison unit stationed at the next village. After this latest incident, you'll be going with them."
The numbness broke and Roderich was left weak and breathless. He did not know how to feel about this strange man. He was loud and overbearing and terribly uncivilised. He had also just saved Roderich from a fate he would rather not think about, and beyond the exterior, he seemed to be the only decent man in this place. Roderich did not know Gilbert, had barely spoken to him, and yet the thought of being left here without him was terrifying. He stared at him, wide-eyed, overwhelmed.
Gilbert looked stunned. "I've done nothing. I've done nothing wrong here, you can't just send me to a punitive unit! You have to accuse me, there has to be a trial, this is fucked up and illegal and…" It was no use. The armed guards had Gilbert quickly in handcuffs. He growled at the officers, glared at the laughing Müller and his friends. "You filthy swine. Doesn't military law mean anything any more…"
"What about the Austrian?" asked one of the military guards. Gilbert broke off. Roderich froze.
"Arrest him too," said the colonel, waving a hand dismissively as he turned to leave. "He's no use to us."
"No," said Roderich reflexively as cold handcuffs were clapped on his wrists. Too much fear, too much confusion…
Gilbert shouted. "Fuck you, we've done nothing wrong! You can't do this, you fat lazy arsehole son of a…" Roderich felt his gut wrench when a guard slammed the butt of his gun between Gilbert's shoulders, sending him stumbling to his knees. He was immediately wrenched again to his feet as the colonel spoke to the guards.
"Take them to the cells. Tomorrow, hand them to the prison guards. The charge is perpetration of illicit activity." The colonel turned and glared disdainfully at Gilbert, a tiny smirk on his lips. "Congratulations, Beilschmidt. You're now a walking dead man."
Four years earlier
Gilbert pushed through the crowd of people clustered around the door and was immediately assaulted by the sound of bright, cheerful cabaret music, of loud speech and laughter, of heels clacking rhythmic patterns onto the polished floor. Thankfully the light in here was not the blinding glare of most cabarets, but just bright enough to throw moving, walking, dancing shadows onto the walls. A spotlight shone onto the stage, illuminating a pretty blonde performer in too much makeup and not enough clothes. Gilbert stared for a few moments then stumbled towards the bar. What was this, the fourth bar this evening? The ninth? The twenty-third? But Gilbert could still feel his limbs and the room was not yet turning upside down, which meant that this bar would not be the last.
Gilbert again pushed through the crowd, past soldiers in uniform, men in dresses and women in suits, all blending together in the richly decorated cabaret. Garish lighting fixtures and rich fabrics draped the wide, open space; champagne flowed freely; constant, unending music and singing and dancing came from the wide, prominent stage. Outside these walls, control was tightening, rumours were growing, war was beginning. But in this little corner of Berlin, people were drinking and dancing, laughing and kissing; forgetful or willfully ignorant of the changing world outside.
Gilbert had barely reached the bar before he stopped abruptly, struck still by possibly the most intriguing sight he had seen tonight. An ornately decorated lamp cast a soft pool of light directly around a young gentleman at the bar. He wore a perfectly pressed suit of old-fashioned style, with a high collar and a purple cravat. His hair was a rich, dark brown, falling straight over his ears with a few odd little curls. He perched rigidly on the edge of the barstool, his fingers barely brushing his glass; his arms held close to his sides and his anxious eyes darting nervously behind his glasses. He looked like he was trying to touch as little of his surroundings as possible. He looked like a little prince taken a wrong turn into the wrong place. He looked like a lamb being led to the slaughter. Gilbert felt his eyes flash, his lips twitch, his shoulders square and straighten as an almost predatory instinct surged through his veins. He grinned to himself, took a few firm steps towards the lost little prince, then staggered to a halt when a hand of iron gripped his shoulder. A voice growled threateningly behind him.
"What do you think you're doing?"
Gilbert spun around so fast he nearly fell flat on his arse. "Jesus Chri…" He choked off mid-blasphemy and his chest lurched in shock. "Eliza?"
Elizaveta Héderváry. Childhood friend. Worst enemy. Beautiful Magyar goddess. Scary, scary bitch. She smiled at him, teeth bared like a lion with her mane of thick, tawny locks; her green eyes flashing with a familiar mixture of anger and amusement. "Gilbert Beilschmidt! What the fuck are you doing about to hit on my husband?"
"Your…" Gilbert looked from Elizaveta to the man at the bar and back again. Then he broke into an uncontrollable fit of laughter. Elizaveta put a hand on her hip and rolled her eyes. "Husband?" Gilbert managed to choke out the word. "Your… oh, come off it darling, you're not serious!"
"I'm not? And don't call me darling, you son of a bitch." Elizaveta looked just as Gilbert remembered from teenage summers spent on the Austro-Hungarian border. True, she was wearing a men's style black suit and tie instead of the old denim overalls he remembered fondly, but she had the same strong, assured, just-try-and-fuck-with-me manner that Gilbert remembered so well. He found himself easily slipping into his old teasing demeanour.
"Come on, Eliza. How old is pretty boy over there? Fifteen?" Gilbert gasped suddenly, horrified. "Oh Lord, Francis is having a bad influence on me…"
Elizaveta groaned and shook her head. "Eighteen, actually."
"Bit young for you, isn't he?"
"Oh, but then I was too young for you, Gilbert," said Elizaveta sweetly.
Gilbert narrowed his eyes. "You took advantage of me," he muttered.
Elizaveta laughed in that familiar, airy way. "You loved it. What the hell are you doing in Berlin?"
"Drinking steadily, actually."
"Have one with me then." Elizaveta dragged Gilbert through the crowd to the large square-shaped bar in the centre of the room. Shelves of differently shaped and coloured bottles filled the centre space and the actual bar was covered with vases of long-stemmed white lilies. A pretty blonde bargirl bounced over immediately, flashed Elizaveta a bright smile, and leant over far too close to take her order. A moment later a stein of beer and a glass of water appeared before them. Gilbert eyed the water disdainfully, but Elizaveta pushed it insistently towards him. "Humour me, darling. Have one at least."
Gilbert drained the water and motioned for a beer. "You're not going to join your husband? Poor thing looks terribly lost on his own over there. Someone of ill intent might see fit to take advantage."
Elizaveta raised an eyebrow. "I believe I just prevented that little situation." She took a deep swig of beer and peered at Gilbert over the rim of the glass. "You look like hell."
Gilbert just grinned. "I'm celebrating."
"My last night of freedom. I've given in and joined the army."
Elizaveta's eyes hardened, her mouth setting into a solid line. Her body almost shook as she glared with fiery eyes, shoulders tense and hands clenched. She shook her head once, a short sharp twist of disappointment. "Oh, Gilbert. How could you?"
Gilbert ignored her and focused instead on the beer placed before him. "Don't start."
"What did your grandfather say?"
Oh, what didn't he say... "It doesn't matter. It's none of his business. I'm sick to death of his whole 'when I fought in the Great War' nonsense."
"He's joining the Luftwaffe in a month, the day he is old enough to be accepted. You know Ludwig. His heart, his soul, his blood for Germany." Gilbert rolled his eyes. "Even tried to join the Hitler Youth before Grandfather knocked some sense into him."
Elizaveta winced and glanced away. "He doesn't understand."
"Of course he doesn't, and neither do you, and I don't expect you to. You are not a German."
Elizaveta looked across the room to her husband and back. "Maybe that's why I understand better than you, Gilbert."
Gilbert pretended that he did not know what Elizaveta meant. He nodded towards where Elizaveta's beautiful husband still sat looking lost at the bar. People shot him admiring glances as they passed, but he did not seem to notice. "What's the name of the little prince, then?"
"Roderich," said Elizaveta after a brief pause.
Gilbert tilted his head just slightly. "Roderich?"
"Roderich Héderváry," said Elizaveta smoothly, expressionlessly.
Gilbert blinked at her blankly. Why was this new husband taking Elizaveta's name? "Excuse me?"
"That's his name." Smoothly, blankly.
"Okay, right. So he's trying to hide his name. What is it? Goldstein or something?"
Silence. Elizaveta glared at Gilbert coldly before answering. "Edelstein."
Gilbert froze for a moment, then his eyes widened in shock. He hadn't for a second actually thought... "Oh, Eliza."
Elizaveta practically snarled at him. "What?"
"And you married him?"
Elizaveta looked furious. "Yes, I married him! Why wouldn't I marry him? What are you going to say, that I've dirtied myself, that I've lowered myself to marry a Jew, is that what you…"
"Oh, shut it Eliza, that's not what I mean! Don't you see the danger you've just put yourself in?"
"He's a brilliant man, you know, Gilbert. He's been famous in Austria since he was a child. He plays dozens of instruments and he's simply a genius composer. He's been commissioned to write music for the state even. His work is important, and that's why he has to continue it, because we can't let this system - the system you've just sold yourself to - we can't let it break down and destroy everything…"
Gilbert did not even care. An Austrian, a musician, so what… "Doesn't he care about your safety at all?"
"Of course he does, and that's why…" Elizaveta broke off abruptly and looked into her drink.
"That's why?" prompted Gilbert.
"That's why I'm leaving. Of course I don't want to go. I told him I would stay by his side. But he refused." Elizaveta looked angry, the way she always did when trying to hide her emotions. "I married him to protect him. Thanks to me he has a name to hide behind and papers proving a line of Aryan heritage. But he only accepted on one condition - that I leave to Switzerland. His family has an estate there, in a little town on the border with Liechtenstein. I leave tomorrow."
"Ah." Gilbert drained his beer then reached for Elizaveta's, finishing it as well. He paused to catch his breath before continuing. "Smart thing to do, really. Marry a Jew, leave him your name, then bugger off to a nice neutral little spot to ride out this whole catastrophic disaster."
"You're a bastard, Gil. A complete and utter one."
Gilbert shrugged and motioned for more beer. "I'm honest. Few people are. But who knows? Maybe you'll meet a charming little Swiss girl with plaits and a basket who likes to yodel on mountaintops."
Elizaveta stayed silent, and Gilbert wondered if he should be angry at himself. But he was just angry at this situation and what it was forcing people to do. Everyone always said he was a bastard. Antonio had screamed it at him when told of Gilbert's intention to join the German army; Francis had muttered it quietly, laughing, when he stepped onto the last train bound for Paris. And even Elizaveta said it, who understood that Gilbert was just angry and didn't know how to express it. Eventually she stared up at him sideways, her eyes narrow, with what could have been a smile or a snarl on her lips.
"You're a bastard, Gil, but regardless... do be careful."
Gilbert flashed Elizaveta a brilliant, wide grin. "Don't worry, my dear. It'll take a row of tanks to bring me down."
They drank together a little longer, speaking of silly little things, of nothings; and as Elizaveta's green eyes shone in the dim cabaret light, Gilbert was reminded of long ago sunny days by sparkling lakes and stormy afternoons under overhanging rocks. Despite their past arguments and shouting matches and occasional full on brawls, Elizaveta meant more to Gilbert than any woman he had ever known. It was strange, this feeling. To know that they were saying goodbye forever, yet neither able to admit it.
The music stopped and the crowd cheered, the singer on stage bowing to the audience. "Thank you my dears! Oh stop, you're too gorgeous, really, you're beautiful." Gilbert realised that the blonde performer he had thought was a woman was actually a pretty young guy in drag. But then this was the Berlin cabaret, after all. Gilbert laughed as he wondered how Ludwig would react to all this. It would be a few years before his oblivious little brother figured out what had been obvious to Gilbert for years. The blonde performer continued, "I don't normally do this, but I figured why not - let's take a request! Come on darlings, throw it at me!"
The crowd was almost unanimous in their decision. "Lili Marlene!" they shouted raucously. A young man with shoulder-length brown hair took a lily from a vase on the bar and threw it onto the stage. The performer winked at the brunet, then picked up the lily and gestured to the band. His accent was rather unfamiliar, probably Polish if Gilbert had to guess. "Very well. 'Lili Marlene,' boys and girls. Hit it."
Gilbert had heard the tune of course. Since being released earlier in the year, it had been played practically nonstop on the more popular airwaves. He turned from the stage to smile again at Elizaveta, who gazed at him with a sad, resigned expression. "It's a lovely song to say farewell to, isn't it?"
Gilbert shrugged in response. "I'm sure it is nicer to say hello to."
Underneath the lantern, by the barrack gate,
Darling I remember, the way you used to wait.
'Twas there that you whispered tenderly,
That you loved me, you'd always be,
My lily of the lamplight,
My own Lili Marlene.
The farewell was quick. Elizaveta always preferred it that way. No sentimental nonsense; no tears and endless hugs. Gilbert watched from a distance as she finally joined her husband, watched as she hugged him tenderly, as his face lit up. He watched as they talked, as they laughed, as Roderich let his uncomfortable guard down and leant easily against the bar. Gilbert watched for far too long before he realised that it wasn't Elizaveta he was staring at. It was him. Roderich Edelstein, the brilliant Jewish Austrian Gilbert had never met, the brilliant composer he knew nothing about. Well, nothing except for one thing. That somehow, when he smiled like that - with those big, dark eyes behind his glasses and those parted lips and that soft, beautiful face – somehow, he was one of the most beautiful things Gilbert had seen in all his life.
Feeling an irritating confusion, but also a sort of hasty recklessness, Gilbert plucked a single lily from one of the vases on the bar before him. If nothing else, this would be a last little joke for Elizaveta to remember him by. He made his way over to Elizaveta and her lovely husband, Elizaveta noticing him and drawing her eyebrows together in apprehension as he approached. But Gilbert just leant on the bar beside Roderich, blocking the soft light of the lamp, and handed the lily to him with a bright smile. Roderich looked up with a beautifully innocent air of bewilderment. This close, Gilbert was actually a little thrown - Roderich was stunningly beautiful. His light, violet eyes, his perfectly defined yet gentle features - even a charming little beauty mark Gilbert had not noticed earlier. Gilbert's heart beat faster in his chest, an unfamiliar sensation. He pressed the lily insistently into Roderich's soft, cool, unresisting hand. "You'll always be my lily of the lamplight. My own dear Roderich."
Roderich appeared utterly stunned. Gilbert did not give him or Elizaveta a chance to respond. He simply turned and headed for the exit, a feeling like air filling his chest and head. He laughed to himself, the last lines of the song drifting behind him as he left the cheerful, crowded cabaret for the cold and real street outside.
You wait where that lantern softly gleamed,
Your sweet face seems to haunt my dreams.
My lily of the lamplight,
My own Lili Marlene.
To be continued…
'Lili Marlene' English lyrics by Tommie Connor.
The German lyrics are quite different to the English lyrics, I know. I am taking artistic liberties :-)
'Lili Marlene' sung by Lale Andersen, 1939 German version – (YouTube) /watch?v=bUsePoATbrU
'Lili Marlene' sung by Vera Lynn, English version – (YouTube) /watch?v=YGvrCvEmaMI