Monday, September 29, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 4 (Part 1)

The Lost Chord

(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)

In the previous installment, following Rob's remarks before dinner was served and joking good-naturedly about a possible Schweinwald Curse, we find out what little Rob has told people about his new opera, Faustus Inc., and meet a timid composer named Lionel Roth and his therapist, a large-built and rather exotic-looking fellow, Dr. Iobba Dhabbodhú. Rob excuses himself to go get something he'd left in his room.
= = = = = = =

CHAPTER 4 (Part 1)

A brilliant day as I drove from Connecticut: Rob had arrived barely an hour earlier than me that spring afternoon, no surprise considering his shorter drive from his parents’ home near Philadelphia. He joked his first stay at Benninghurst was better than mine for having been there this little bit longer. Parking my car and dragging my bags up to the mansion’s porch, I took in the view from the hilltop, then turned to see Rob waiting for me at the door. Adding this to his never-ending joke of being older by mere hours, it wasn’t necessary for me to point out I’d already finished my doctorate and recently started teaching in college, while he could point out he made several times what I earned even if it was his dad’s company.

We arranged our first stays at the Benninghurst Colony to coincide, whoever suggested it first, but I chuckled he used me as a reference since he was still, technically, in grad school. I got in largely on the recommendation of my colleague, Sebastian Crevecoeur; Rob had the Juilliard clout behind him. Recently turned 27, we'd rarely seen each other aside from the occasional dinner when I’d go into New York: this was our first extended visit since his wedding five years ago.

It was the new arrivals’ first day of registration for the summer, like going to college all over again, not very much to do but Rob carefully guided me through it, first checking in with the tall young Black girl set up at a simple folding table in the foyer. The rules were few and uncomplicated, how we would gather for breakfast then work in our studios without disturbing anyone else until dinner, after which we could do whatever we wanted. It was recommended to take a walk around the gardens after breakfast, though we both had a good walk to our studios, cottages in the woods fairly far from the mansion.

(This, we found out later, was an intern hoping to study composition, a bright, personable girl named Porgia Moore.)

After receiving my official Benninghurst tote-bag and a set of old-fashioned keys – I would be working in the Bartók Cottage down the outer pathway not far from Rob in the Riegger Cottage – Rob led me up the staircase and down this long hallway to find my room, right next to his. He pointed out one room we passed, originally Hearst Benning’s master bedroom, a grand salon on the outside perimeter with an imposing bay and its own private balcony overlooking the garden.

Usually reserved for one of their celebrity fellows or a resident teacher, it would be empty for another two weeks but Porgia wouldn’t tell him who would be occupying it, then. Meanwhile, they’d left it unlocked on purpose but even so, we felt like students sneaking in against the rules.

This was one of the few rooms in the main mansion that had a piano, a combination bedroom and studio, a baby grand carefully tucked away in the voluptuously curtained bay window. There was a large four-poster bed at the opposite end, a small central fireplace with a delicate writing desk. And windows everywhere, panels of glass across the balcony, letting in sunlight filtered through a row of protective pines. Everything about the room spoke of luxury, conducive to opulent Wagnerian Romanticism.

By comparison, our rooms were fairly Spartan affairs, tucked away at the back of the third floor, after many turns, something of a let-down having caught a glimpse of the master bedroom. These, he told me, had originally been part of the servants’ quarters, quaint and simple but still modestly comfortable. If it made me feel any better, there might have been two maids or footmen to one such room, suddenly feeling much more spacious knowing I had it all to myself.

Not sure how Rob felt, compared to what he was used to, for me it was a place to sleep or, in the evening, perhaps look back over the day’s work. With its ample desk, even a plush wing-back chair, I could work on the orchestration or spend time reading.

Tucked up under the roof-line, these rooms were not gloomy and didn’t even seem that stuffy, considering the summer heat, the walls thin enough we could tap Morse code to each other. But the ceilings were high, the windows airy, one long panel giving a decent view across the back yard.

Of course, the whole purpose was to spend the day – from 9am to 5pm – at work in our studios so there was little concern about finer things in our private rooms.

The mansion was a large rectangular affair, largely symmetrical – and larger than you’d think, seeing it from the front – built by Hearst Benning’s father Spencer, a coal baron of the 1880s. There were parlors, dining rooms and a library balancing the central ballroom along with some fifteen guest rooms upstairs. The bedroom parallel to the master suite was originally for Hearst’s mother, a dowager’s room which, after her death, became his wife Elizabeth’s, as the couple inevitably sought their separate ways.

The servants’ quarters – ten rooms now reserved for the younger first-time fellows – were accessible by stairs from the main upstairs hallway and, less sweeping but more practical, down into the kitchen. Old-timers joked that while the guest rooms were more luxuriant, the servants’ rooms had direct access to the refrigerator.

Cutting through the kitchen where a small but smiling staff was preparing that evening’s dinner – meatloaf with homemade macaroni salad – we quietly disappeared through the side door out into the back yard. A few guests strolled around without any particular purpose, enjoying a break, but we headed out toward our studios. Rob had been warned the cuisine rarely matched the mansion’s extravagant environment: oatmeal for breakfast; a sandwich with fruit packed for your lunch; more likely basic meat and potatoes for dinner. You didn’t come to Benninghurst to eat – it wasn’t a spa, despite the grand nature of the main house – you came to work, to find a creative spark in its atmosphere which worked hard to protect you from everyday intrusions and which, amazingly, was all free, maintained primarily through contributions.

There were two paths, nearly concentric: the Inner Path which went through the garden and down past the duck pond – someone had made an ornate sign referring to this as Swann’s Way – and the Outer Path which curved with seemingly aimless disposition through the woods and hence called the Tao Path. Along the way were road signs which, aside from jokingly pointing the way to New York and Paris, Los Angeles and (for some reason) Anchorage, guided you toward various well-hidden cottages.

Riegger, Rob’s home-away-from-home for the next month, was a little further down the path, out-of-sight beyond mounds of rhododendrons. We stopped first at Bartók, a quaint hut on a tiny hill, looking like a cross between Mahler’s “composing hut” and a place you’d expect to find a family of elves. Even more Spartan than the servants’ quarter, it boasted little more than an upright piano, a simple but sturdy desk, a drafting table, two different chairs and a faded damask day-bed.

A few hundred yards further, Rob’s cottage only looked considerably different for being a two-story tower overlooking a stream, one large high-ceilinged room with a single set of small shuttered windows and steps curving up the one wall to a high window looking into the middle of a giant hemlock.

Unpacking everything from our tote-bags, we set up shop in our respective cabins, preparing to “rough it,” getting out blank manuscript paper, various pens and pencils, notebooks and a few reference books. Rob joked about finding a can labeled “Bat Repellent” while I made a note to find some ant traps. There were phones with signs asking us to limit their use to emergencies and a box with several umbrellas and flashlights because, inevitably, you always left them back at the house.

Another sign I found recommended we take any newly completed work back to the mansion each evening for safe-keeping, whether because of fire or a rash of thieving bears left unsaid, also advising us not to stay past sunset as the paths through the woods were not lit after dark.

We stayed a few hours, mostly acclimating ourselves, before packing things up for the long walk back to the mansion, both of us fairly subdued though not from any sense of disappointment. I hoped for good weather for the duration – such a walk in the rain was not pleasant to contemplate. Going around to the front entrance, we stopped and looked up at the Benning Suite, as it was called, sneaking up the balcony’s steps to peer longingly into the room’s luxuriousness.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

“If it’s 7:30 here, it’ll be 1:30 in the morning in Schweinwald.” He made the usual calculations in his head, hurrying toward the steps, leaving the din of the ballroom behind him. “So if I send him that file now, D’Arcy will have it first thing after he wakes up, Munich-time.” He would’ve mailed it earlier but he wanted to check that one English horn line – the one before Arachne Webb’s final solo – and he’d already been running late for the dinner.

Robertson Sullivan was staying in the Benning Suite, the old master bedroom, a far cry from that first stay when he had to sleep in a closet on the third floor, not to mention how he tried working in that dank dungeon out by the stream, almost a mile away.

One of the first things he did for Benninghurst once he’d established himself as a composer people paid attention to, was to put electronic keyboards with headsets in each of its bedrooms. That way, any resident could work privately without disturbing anyone in the next room, making the separate studios obsolete. Built when complete isolation was necessary to avoid the mind-numbing cacophony of row after row of student practice rooms, these small studios dotting the landscape had served their purpose for generations.

Rob never considered himself nostalgic in that sense of the word but this morning after breakfast, he took the once familiar walk down the Outer Path back to the gray tower and decided to leave a memento there, hiding something someone someday might find and realize Robertson Sullivan worked here. Despite some minor, last-minute changes, it was like a back-up copy he’d have to remember to tell Terry about, in case anything happens to him – not that that was really likely.

He kept having these vague images of his friend, Franz-Dieter Zeitgeist, sitting in his favorite restaurant, “The Wolf’s Glen,” telling him what sounded like paranoid nonsense about these threats he’d received. But then, not much later, Zeitgeist was dead, killed on a ski-slope in an accident that just sounded suspicious.

The long hallway was quiet, darker than usual. “Wait, it’s still early, yet – they haven’t turned the hall lights on.” No wonder people thought the old house was haunted, full of ghosts. Everywhere you turned, there was a pattern in the carpeting, a shadow on the wall that made you stop. Old floors creaked and door hinges could squeak like souls in agony; the steps down into the kitchen would often echo like some peg-legged pirate was following you late at night.

“What did I want to talk to Terry about?” he wondered. “So many things – I should’ve made a list. That’s what he would’ve done, I’m sure, him and his damned lists…” As organized as he was, Rob was finding, the older he got, the more lists he needed to make.

”Maybe he could figure it out,” he thought, with some annoyance, “make sense out of what Franz-Dieter was telling me. Maybe I’m just too close to it, thought about it too much…”

People always told him there’s something to getting an outside mind to deal with things like this, another perspective.

“I should burn another disc with the score and give that to Terry,” he decided, “just another back-up copy – a precaution,” he said, practicing his delivery so he didn’t sound paranoid.

“And wasn’t it great,” he thought, “seeing Porgia and Terry together, all of us back here at the same time? Those discussions we’d had after dinner or while out taking a walk…” They’d probably sit up all night reminiscing about everything when they met that first summer, over thirty years ago. He remembered how Terry would dominate the phonograph, getting them to listen to those old recordings in the library. “Lemm hated that,” he chuckled, “like he was doing some remedial tutoring.”

Who would’ve known at the time how things would turn out later, Terry the one whose career never blossomed? If he thought about it much – and at the time, he had – he’d bet on his own inevitable failure, not the guy who knew so much and had such evident talent.

True, Arthur Lemm was the one who inevitably annoyed him the most, a man with no talent but overloaded with enough bravado and political skills to more than make up for it. Rob admitted it did feel good, despite his usual non-competitiveness, vetoing the premiere of Lemm’s new opera at Schweinwald.

“And appropriately,” he laughed, walking down the hall to his room, “Lemm’s staying over in the old Dowager's Suite.” Rob wondered if that was enough to make Arthur Lemm his bitch.

And whatever was wrong with the dinner tonight – aside from starting so late – perhaps it would’ve been better not to over-tax the kitchen and just serve the traditional Benninghurst meatloaf and potatoes.

“Yeah, it would’ve seemed cheap to do that, but then that’s what everybody’s used to when they stay here.”

Knowing not everyone would appreciate the joke, he preferred going the high road, turning it into a real banquet. Besides, Rob certainly preferred making an impression, going out with a bang.

“Wait a minute,” he thought, stopping at the door, “what’s that noise? It sounds like somebody’s in my room.”

There was another flash of Franz-Dieter Zeitgeist at Die Wolfsschlucht, looking alarmed.

Thinking it’s too late for the cleaning crew, he opened the door carefully and walked in.

“What the hell…?”

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

It was bad enough Mrs. Pomfrey was off sick that day, leaving him in charge of Benninghurst’s barely efficient kitchen, but now Manuel had to deal with Chef Garmond from Ambrosian Catering, the whole place on the verge of chaos, the chicken breasts delivered late and now a knife gone missing. He’d noticed it earlier in the afternoon, figuring it had just been misplaced but now he wasn’t so sure – not just any knife but a carving knife from the Benning silverware. When it still hadn’t turned up by the time they needed to start their prep work, he began worrying: if someone stole it, for whatever reason, it happened on his watch. The police might be able to track it down to a local pawn shop, but still, it was annoying.

The kitchen may have been old and small but guided by Mrs. Pomfrey it all functioned smoothly under normal circumstances where the standard colony clientele was one thing, a fancy banquet, another. No wonder Mrs. P had called in sick – she hated working with Ambrosian, especially relinquishing her authority to Garmond. And that sense of mistrust permeated through the whole staff, something Garmond was used to from past experience, here: he preferred to just go in and – bang! – do it all himself.

Considering the substantial fee Ambrosian was getting paid for this evening’s event, the kitchen could’ve had the night off but Manuel understood they wanted to look good with a big staff, even if Ms. Darlinghurst was aware that meant things were too crowded with too many of their responsibilities overlapping. When it came to practicalities, he knew the Assistant Director was more realistic to deal with but on an occasion like this, she was overridden by the Director’s need for showmanship.

Everything had turned into a perfect storm not long after Manuel arrived: deliveries were late, Ambrosian's crew was early and Garmond’s mood, rarely if ever good, was even fouler than normal. Nothing met his expectations: nothing was good enough, nothing was clean enough and above all, nothing was going right.

The green beans lost their crunch waiting for the baked potatoes which were being annihilated by a cantankerously outmoded oven while someone had set the flame too high for the sauté pan despite Manuel’s explanation concerning their general inexperience with sautéing or how the oven always worked fine for Mrs. Pomfrey.

In the midst of his ensuing tantrum about artists having to work under such abysmal conditions, Garmond bumped into a cook who dumped a whole container of curry into the soup.

If that weren’t enough, some oaf had chopped up all the red herrings, then dropped them onto the floor.

“You fucking maladroit,” Garmond screamed, slamming a cleaver into the chopping block. “Those were for the god-damned salads which are now, thanks to your idiocy, merely a pile of stupid greens!”

“God knows you can never have enough red herrings,” one of the surlier waiters mumbled under his breath, tired of waiting around in such cramped quarters for the appetizers to be served.

“You think it’s funny, having the salad ruined and no more herring within fifty miles of this god-forsaken hell-hole?”

And with that, Garmond grabbed the cook stirring the soup and the surly waiter, firing them on the spot.

The waiter stormed out into the yard, shouting back expletive for expletive.

From Manuel’s perspective, the rest of the evening turned into one giant, on-going blur, fast-forwarding from one obscenity to another, the kind of killer headache a whole bottle of aspirin couldn’t help, glad to leave Garmond on his own in the kitchen after the entrees were finally ready to be served. Then he could revert to his barely calmer role as headwaiter, wondering if he could ever speak to Mrs. Pomfrey again for having called in sick and missing all the excitement.

When the waiters started serving the dessert, Manuel’s thoughts again returned to the still missing carving knife, surprised, if it had been stolen, it hadn’t ended up lodged in Garmond’s back.

“What are you looking for? There’s nothing more to prepare, you moron,” Garmond snarled, stuffing his face in Manuel’s.

Manuel told him about the knife, how he’d noticed it missing when he came in, but he hadn’t had the time yet to report it stolen, hoping it would just turn up. “Maybe once the dust settles after the dinner,” he said, looking around shrugging his shoulders, “while we’re cleaning up.”

“At least you admit it was already missing before any of my staff got here,” Garmond hissed at him, “you sorry excuse for a garbage disposal,” attacking him with his fists.

He was momentarily distracted from his rage by the sight of something small racing out of the side pantry, brown and furry with large googley-looking eyes and a mouthful of teeth.

“Oh my God,” Garmond yelped, “look at the size of that rat!” It snarled and yapped back at him.

“That’s not a rat,” Manuel explained, “that is Poco, our house mascot – she’s a Cairn terrier and she keeps…”

“That’s a dog?” Garmond yelled. “Get that bitch out of my kitchen!”

A waitress tried corralling Poco before she got too close to Garmond, already rabid about how letting a dog anywhere near a kitchen was a clear violation of the health codes.

“Un-fucking-believable!” he screamed. “I’ll fire you,” tossing a tray full of plates after her, “and your little dog, too!”

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

As the waiters carried out the last of the empty entree plates and others began bringing in the dessert, Annie M, looking primly efficient, slid into the dining room and behind the head table to whisper something to Director Drummoyne who nodded back to her, responding with a few brief words.

I would’ve pointed out she’d apparently dispatched Wiener with her wicked aplomb, letting the Wizard know all was well, except everyone else at our table was already busy talking but me.

Dessert was being met with approval across the room, generous slices of cheesecake, plain but creamy, with an alternative bowl of rice pudding and whipped cream for the more diet conscious. Considering it was such a special occasion, I joked with LauraLynn that was sufficient excuse to ignore any calories.

She started telling me how she and Rob were talking about pooling foundation resources to bring musical instruments and teachers to kids in poor inner-city neighborhoods and how they’d like my advice, setting up a program in Philadelphia – since Rob grew up in the area – modeled on Venezuela’s famous El Sistema.

Perhaps that was what Rob wanted to talk about, though I suspected it might be more about the threats: he seemed pretty upset thinking about his friend Zeitgeist having been murdered.

Speaking of Rob, I kept turning around, looking toward the doorway wondering when he’d get back from his room, and each time noticed Lionel Roth didn’t seem to get any calmer. He completely ignored the cheesecake placed in front of him, like he needed any more sugar in his system.

Annie M just as efficiently slid back out of the dining room before I managed to get her attention, before I could ask her to go take a look at Roth.

When I pointed him out to Cameron, since he was starting a psychology degree in college, he looked over and thought if someone would just talk to him, it might help.

There was a clatter in the hallway of broken plates and glasses barely covering somebody’s cursing at a dog.

A little brown lapdog barged into the room, yapping its head off.

“Oh, look, Sol,” Felice cooed, “it’s Poco!”

Followed by a frazzled waitress charging after her, Poco yapped a few times, turned and ran back out the door, eluding capture to dash up the steps, the waitress in lukewarm pursuit.

“It’s not unusual for Poco to get loose,” Drummoyne sighed, sitting down. We could hear her still yapping upstairs. “Sorry – they’ll be able to catch her before she becomes a problem.”

A moment later, the waitress came back, perplexed, and beckoned to the head-waiter and Annie M to follow her.

“Poco is the colony mascot,” Sol explained, “but not everybody likes dogs.”

Roth certainly seemed not to, getting more worked up. I couldn’t understand why his friend had left him alone.

A woman’s scream cut through the confusion like a buzz-saw, conversation stopping the instant Drummoyne leapt up, his brows furrowed. I noticed concern on other guests’ faces, questions raised by the scream.

Annie M and the headwaiter, both looking terrified, rushed back down the steps, colliding with Drummoyne in the doorway.

Only Lionel Roth, visibly shaken, had buried his face in his hands, hunched over, leaning back against the wall, as if knowing some foreboding he’d had, something dreaded, had come true.

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To be continued...

posted by Dick Strawser

The novel, The Lost Chord, is a music appreciation comedy thriller completed in 2013, and is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2014

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