Monday, January 12, 2015

The Lost Chord: Act III, Chapter 33 (Part 1)

(you can read it from the beginning, here.)

In the previous installment, the brief conclusion to Act II, Zenn's sanctuary has been invaded by agents from both SHMRG and the International Music Police. As the smoke clears and it's discovered LauraLynn has been abducted, IMP Special Forces director Leahy-Hu explains what her investigation has so far discovered. But that doesn't answer the question: if that wasn't Dhabbodhú, then who is he and why is he after what now turns out to be a statue of Beethoven?

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Chapter 33

...being the 2nd installment of Master Harrison Harty's Journal, Summer of 1880
(which, for some reason, suddenly continues in code)

...that I should proceed cautiously, holding a mirror to Brahms and Mahler before finding myself reflected in its circumstances: if in fact Gutknaben had been murdered, was I also in danger? My new friends seemed more than distressed by these sudden possibilities thrown into our anxious if otherwise happy midst. What peril had Gutknaben found himself in; how would it affect us? As it was, none of us could sleep after discovering the body and sat up long into the night discussing various possibilities about what had happened but especially why it happened and why in particular practically everyone on the faculty seemed so quick to dismiss it as an unfortunate accident. We four friends sat in Mahler and Rott's room talking about it until long after the sun had come up and we heard the bell announcing it was now time for breakfast. Ethel was the lone voice of reason while Mahler sank into silence and Rott ran wild with numerous theories. He seemed to be obsessively focused on the mysterious appearance of Brahms, despite no one else having seen him, until I also pointed out how Knussbaum had shown up almost immediately.

Once everyone settled down to their breakfast after Knussbaum improvised his fugue, this morning based on "Vor deinen Thron," Dean Bezsmyertnikov stepped up to the podium and spoke solemnly to everyone, confirming rather matter-of-factly that news then circulating throughout the school was true, that young Gottlieb Gutknaben was found dead.

"It was, and I stress this," he continued quietly, "an unfortunate accident, a most tragic accident, considering all that, that a student so talented should have died so uselessly so young."

It made me wonder what a useful death would have been like, how that could have been any better, when Bezsmyertnikov announced that, while avoiding details, local police had already arrived, thoroughly examined the scene and its particulars and agreed with the assessment already reached by the faculty: "an accident."

While everyone else, clearly stunned by the announcement, was watching Bezsmyertnikov closely, I instead watched the face of Director Böhm and noticed he in turn was watching Knussbaum, seated by the organ, whose face was turned downward, a frown barely hidden by the beard he constantly stroked apparently with considerable misgivings. I sensed the students' sudden restraint in not shouting out their approval when Bezsmyertnikov announced morning classes were canceled, despite my never finishing Fabbro's counterpoint assignment meant this was welcome news. The chapel would be open if we needed a place to meditate, something he strongly urged us to consider, and Percival Porlock, Schweinwald's chaplain, was available for anyone needing spiritual guidance. Like many fellow students, we four friends chose to stand in contemplation by the statue where Gutknaben had died.

By the time we managed to arrive at the castle's Great Landing, a considerable crowd had already begun to gather around a traditional mourning wreath placed there with white lilies and edelweiss. Several students, including many I didn't know, came over to express condolences, a few adding, "find who did this." It surprised me that, given the circumstances, there were others who believed this had not been a simple accident. It made me feel even more resolved to figure out what happened.

We continued standing, well after everyone else had left or passed by, then looked at each other before looking around to make sure we were, by this time, completely alone and unobserved. Mahler, stroking his beard again, had been getting increasingly impatient with everyone, dropping hints we wanted to be alone. As the deep furrows in his brow darkened over his intense stare, I could see him concentrating on something. His habitual foot-tapping now became less noticeable despite his clearly increasing annoyance. A head shorter than Rott or myself, Mahler was still a presence except when 'the tic' was upon him, this irritating tapping of his right foot or his uneven, unrhythmical walk. We all, perhaps, had our little idiosyncrasies but given his ill-proportioned stature, these were without doubt difficult to ignore.

"There is nothing to show it was even an accident," Mahler said, "if it weren't for this one small bloodstain. Otherwise he could have simply dropped dead – as if his heart stopped."

"Are you thinking he might have been..." Rott paused, "...scared to death?"

"That," I considered, "sounds a little far-fetched."

I'd read enough 'penny-dreadfuls' in my day, particularly Matthew Lewis' The Monk, to know one could open secret passageways that would lead to a hidden room where someone might be imprisoned.

But no sooner had Mahler noticed a fragment of a bloody fingerprint than we heard the echo of footsteps coming quickly toward us down the steps from the faculty residences above. Mahler showed me how someone, pushing against the statue's base just there, had gotten their finger in Gutknaben's blood.

It was Ethel who first saw who was coming and went to distract him with a bit of conversation.

"Dr. Porlock," she said, coughing, "what a horrid day this has been!"

"Just so, my dear," Porlock said impatiently, not slowing down his pace while producing a rag wreaking of carbolic. "And these rumours I hear of murder? Most dreadful," he said, clucking. "Who first would be suspected of such? Those who find the body!" He laughed, wiping away the bloody stain.

"Do you think Old Porlock was trying to frighten us," Rott asked, raking his fingers through his thick hair.

"He apparently did a good job of frightening you," Ethel told him.

We were hurrying back to my room, sitting anywhere while avoiding the bed Gutknaben would never sleep in again.

"But what did he mean by that," I wondered aloud, twisting uncomfortably, trying not to look at Gutknaben's things. Ethel, with obvious superiority, sat right down at his desk, totally unconcerned.

"You don't think one of our professors could've killed Gutknaben, do you?" Rott looked uncomfortable at the thought of it. "I mean, what would be the point? Why would they do that?"

"Why would anyone commit murder," Mahler mumbled, "except for some specific reason? Very likely, someone has to gain something."

"But it makes no sense with Gutknaben," Ethel said, sounding very methodical. "Who was going to gain from killing him?" She began mindlessly poking around his desk and left her question hang.

"Perhaps he had a composition," Mahler suggested, "that someone wanted to steal, maybe pass it off as his own?"

Rott continued to twist his legs nervously. "I've got a symphony – maybe..."

"Yes, Hans, we know," Ethel chided him.

"The difference is, Rott, nobody'd want to steal your symphony," I joked.

Ethel sat drumming her fingers over some papers on Gutknaben's desk in a gesture that began to annoy me; then she stared up toward the ceiling as if lost in thought.

"Did either of you notice anything about the body," she asked casually, "anything that was – well, different or unexpected?"

"Nothing beyond the wound on his forehead," I said, looking somewhat confused. "It hadn't struck me as that serious."

"It was a jagged wound, wasn't it," Rott said, "not a bump?"

"Right, because a jagged wound would have been from a sharp corner, not a smooth surface, am I right?"

"So, the bloodstain marks the corner of some opening on the pedestal?"

"And the fingerprint would belong to whoever closed it later," Mahler assumed, "except that Old Porlock's wiped it away."

Ethel, now quiet, was reading a paper she'd found on the desk, having lost any interest in our conversation.

"More to the point," Rott continued, "is who opened it and why?"

I still thought it might be the opening to some secret passage leading to some place underneath the statue.

"You think it's a secret Gutknaben knew, somebody else wanted to know but yet it was worth killing for?"

Rott sounded like he didn't believe me but he suggested no alternatives.

"But remember, nobody else had been there after we sounded the alarm except," I pointed out, "either faculty or administration."

"So it's someone who's on the staff?"

"Or maybe Brahms," Rott suggested.

"What I'm still wondering about," I added, "is what Professor Böhm said right before Gutknaben disappeared from the reception."

"But this doesn't make the least sense," Ethel muttered, slowly turning around, like it was something we didn't already know. "This piece of paper on Gutknaben's desk – Harty, is this his handwriting?"

She handed me some old manuscript paper with strange symbols on it which clearly were not written by Gutknaben.

"Perhaps it was one of his assignments," I pondered, shrugging my shoulders. The bell sounded for classes to resume.

"You haven't seen this before?" she asked. "A fine detective you'd make!"

After Ethel pocketed the paper and left, we went about our day though it was difficult for us to concentrate, after sitting through a fairly somber lunch, then attending our afternoon classes. The rest of my schedule was light, just Old Hammerschlag's harmony class and my piano lesson with Frau Hammerschlag. I wanted to talk to Professor Böhm, but according to his secretary, the suitably hatchet-faced gorgon, Frau Medusa Steindreher, he was unfortunately involved in meetings all afternoon and was otherwise unavailable.

Much of my time was spent day-dreaming, reminiscing about Lewis' The Monk which I had read as a child and which kept coming back to me, especially one particularly dramatic scene where the heroine's rescued after having been imprisoned in a secret vault, left to die beneath a cemetery statue.

Whenever I managed to walk through the Great Landing past Sechter's monument, there were always several other students standing about, so I never got to check the pedestal for a secret panel when I noticed someone removed all the flowers placed in Gutknaben's memory that had been piling up all day. Returning to my room before dinner, then, I found an official notice which had been posted on my door: my things were taken to another room and Gutknaben's had been removed.

My new location, in a different hall far distant from Mahler's room, had previously been occupied by an Italian who, quite predictably, had already left Schweinwald for lack of any progress. My new roommate, a taciturn Russian named Ivan Nakyablokhoff, spoke no English and possessed a most intimidatingly churlish attitude. When I reported that some of my notebooks seemed to be missing, one of the proctors apologized rather lamely they must've been jumbled with Gutknaben's things and returned to his family. So instead, I spent the night trying to sleep on Mahler's couch after an unsatisfactory dinner with guarded conversation until our curiosity, newly revived, managed to get the better of us. We then decided, under cover of darkness, to steal down the hallway and examine the statue's pedestal more thoroughly.

We had no sooner reached our goal, aided by our dim candles, and started pushing and prodding around the statue when we all simultaneously became aware we were not in fact alone. Watching us from the shadows was someone tall, dressed all in black and accompanied by a large black cat. I immediately recognized Bezsmyertnikov's assistant, Carmilla Varné, and her cat Czerny (one assumed he'd been named after Beethoven's pupil). She also edited Dunkle Welle – 'Dark Wave' – a periodical espousing modernist aesthetics.

Stepping forward into our pool of light, she was wearing dark make-up that accentuated the paleness of her face, diaphanous sleeves of black gauze giving her the appearance of having wings. In her insinuating hiss of a voice, she threatened to tell Bezsmyertnikov – "if you know what I mean, Werner!"

Once we stopped running and reached safety, locking the door behind us, Mahler accused Rott of rhapsodizing over the occult, seeing vampires when there was nothing to suggest it beyond over-stimulated nerves. Rott and I both read a great deal about such unsavory things, unable to disregard them quite so easily.

"The problem," I argued, "is there is too much to suggest it but not enough one could prove it." Nonetheless, the three of us spent an uncomfortable night unable to sleep.

The next morning after breakfast, we found Professor Knussbaum in his studio, a space little more than a massive clutter surrounding a score-laden grand piano topped by a huge bust of Beethoven. The inner room, if one could navigate the numerous piles of manuscripts, was where an assistant could copy parts.

"You know, boys, I've never been backward about coming forward," he muttered, "even when I've said more than enough, but you know how everything can be traced back to the Master."

We knew how Old Knussbaum (who must by now be over eighty) never failed to mention he'd met Beethoven, a spindly teen-aged dance-band musician at Teplitz the summer Beethoven was there. Friends for the rest of his life, he ran errands for him, especially regarding a close lady-friend outside Vienna.

Now when the Master died, Knussbaum cut a lock of Beethoven's hair and secretly left it with this special friend. In turn, she gave him their letters which, as requested, he burned.

"It pained me so to do that," he said, wiping his brow, "but he wanted her to have it."

He'd placed the hair in a locket, silver and beautiful, easily recognizable, which returned one summer, addressed to him. This locket was passed on to Sechter and eventually to Professor Böhm.

"Was that the locket I'd seen Gottlieb Gutknaben wearing after Liszt's recital? Böhm had placed it around his neck. Now I remember – he wasn't wearing it when we found his body!"

Before I could ask him, "But why," Knussbaum nodded toward the door with a cautionary finger to his lips.

After hiding us in the copyist's room, he opened his studio door to find Dr. Porlock ready to knock. Summoned to a special meeting with Bezsmyertnikov, Knussbaum at first excused himself.

"I'm sorry," Porlock said, "but your presence is urgently required. Please hurry."

Knussbaum said he must first clean his pens.

"Then join us as soon as you've put things away," Porlock sniffed.

Knussbaum hurried us into the fireplace, telling us to make no turns. We found ourselves in a dark passageway.

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The biggest problem, perhaps, with trying to write regularly in this journal is that writing regularly is not so easy, the time available being what it is, compared to the time required. No sooner had I gotten around to finally recording this climactic moment than it was time for another class. It occurred to me to wait until we had achieved our goal before writing out a complete, detailed account, except it's like taking notes in class to prepare for the exam. So, if I failed to keep up with events as they happened, I am sure I would forget things: who knows what tiny item, in hindsight, might prove to have significance? What matter of detail or strange turn, at the moment seemingly minor, would later turn out to be monumental? It seemed odd that I and my friends should feel so strongly about what had happened to my poor roommate in the face of almost universal opposition regarding his most unfortunate death. It was as if some inexplicable conspiracy arose to keep the truth from making any sense of the tragedy. Every time I pondered some new question, it wasn't answers I found but a whole new array of questions. By working these out in my journal, perhaps some conclusion is possible.

It had not occurred to me before that we would find ourselves involved in some enterprise that was dangerous, but why did we have to hide when Porlock interrupted our visit? Why was Knussbaum concerned Porlock would see him talking with some students unless we were unwittingly breaking some rules? Why was the Dean of Students' assistant roaming the halls enforcing curfew, something usually left to the upperclass proctors, unless Carmilla was specifically on the look-out only at one specific location? What if it wasn't just some students Knussbaum was seen talking to but it was we four in particular, if rumours of our quest to find Gutknaben's murderer were unwelcome ones? If students knew there were too many unanswered questions regarding Gutknaben's death, who would find such skepticism a threat?

And so I find myself sitting at my desk late at night, "studying" by the guttering light of my candle, listening to the implacable snores of my roommate, the menacing bully Nokyablokhoff, a mindful presence even when fast asleep, a nosy one when awake, always looking over my shoulder, ever vigilant. The code seemed like a double safety since he understood no English, except that I was writing everything backwards: would that give my secret purpose away more than by writing normally? Yet this wasn't just protection from him or anyone he reported to, assuming he was another spy for Bezsmyertnikov, but protection against any other prying eye who'd wonder what I'm writing. The code was difficult enough to familiarize myself with, writing al rovescio, but I soon mastered it quite naturally.

And yet I see I have just written "another spy for Bezsmyertnikov." Why did that suddenly pop into my head? Both he and Nokyablokhoff are Russians, true, and Carmilla is Bezsmyertnikov's assistant. Am I somehow assuming the Dean is the one behind Gutknaben's murder and he is trying to protect himself? Considering other notebooks of mine had 'disappeared' when my belongings were moved, this journal cannot attract attention to itself: so I'll start taking all my notes for every class in code.

Could that mean that Bezsmyertnikov – how I hate even writing his name – might perceive us as a danger to himself and that we need to be eliminated as, perhaps, he eliminated Gutknaben? Here we are, running down a dark passageway through ancient castle walls, keeping ourselves hidden from... whom – and why? Why couldn't we have just remained out of sight in Knussbaum's study until it would be safe to leave? Was Porlock spying for Him Whom I Do Not Wish to Name? If HWIDNWTN had killed Gutknaben because the boy knew something he shouldn't, it stood to reason he'd kill us to protect himself regarding whatever Gutknaben knew which we might now uncover. Which led us to yet another question which needed to be answered: "what the hell was going on, here?"

I should beg any future reader's pardon for using such salubrious language unbecoming to those on the verge of gentlemanhood but I am only quoting Ethel who never considered herself a gentleman. She wondered what was behind Knussbaum's concern, what other meanings there were, while Mahler tried looking behind the metaphor. Rott dismissed Knussbaum as a batty antique – "he must be close sixty!" – with all his talk of secret letters, then shoving us off through his fireplace into some dark secret passage.

Shoving a well-spent candlestick into my hand, Knussbaum said, "Make no turns," his hand meanwhile weaving back and forth, "until you reach a kind of 'T,' then press the stone gingerly." In fact, we found ourselves in a tunnel making nothing but turns, a tunnel made of nothing but stone. Where this path would eventually lead us, none of us could say, nor who might greet us upon arrival. One thing was abundantly clear: this tunnel was clean and frequently used.

I can only hope in the future, should anything happen to us, someone follows this journal to the end and discovers what perhaps we have not or only come close to; because quite clearly all is not well this summer at Castle Schweinwald, that there is more beneath the surface.

Another break, quickly overcome by sleep before I could finish this entry, desperately trying to keep myself abreast of events: soon, I will be so hopelessly behind, catching up will be impossible. Anyway, we'd reached the 'T' Knussbaum mentioned but there seemed many stones, all of which we tried pushing against. Rott pointed out Knussbaum had said 'gingerly' and, being red-haired, he thought it meant he should do the pushing. He was also the tallest, though not nearly as tall as Knussbaum. I suggested he reach up and try the keystone of this archway with two small holes just beneath it. Peering through the holes, Rott saw nothing but a poorly lit space. When the wall gave way, gliding open, a draft extinguished our candle, leaving just enough room to squeeze through.

We found ourselves on the Great Landing not far from Sechter's statue, having walked through the portrait of Director Böhm which now, with equal silence, proceeded to glide effortlessly back into place. So this was how Knussbaum mysteriously appeared the night of the murder – and perhaps explained Herr Brahms' mysterious disappearance. Opposite us, I saw my roommate standing with his back to us: I doubt he noticed our sudden arrival. The bell had already rung: I was late for my composition lesson.

When Frau Secretary Steindreher looked up and croaked "You're tardy, Herr Harty," I apologized I'd been lost in thought. "Contemplating another compositional conundrum, I wouldn't doubt," she sighed in mild exasperation. "I'm convinced composers are all the same with all the same excuses, the most disorganized creatures in the world."

"That's not entirely fair, Ma'am," I stuttered. "I'm sure Professor Fabbro's different. I've never met anyone quite so organized."

"And thank Heaven for that," she sniffed. "But Professor Böhm is waiting."

It was reassuring to think Frau Steindreher, usually so efficient and brusque, could take even two seconds to chat, that someone behind such a foreboding exterior could like anyone, especially me. But once past the gorgon's fearsome gate, inside was warmth and ease: Professor Böhm looked up and smiled welcomingly.

He apologized for having only just returned from a meeting with Bezsmyertnikov, frowning a little at the taste it left, glad that I was only later still and didn't have to wait. "Otherwise," he said, nodding toward the door, "she would still be complaining if I had kept a student waiting."

As we seated ourselves at the piano, he held out his hand and closed my sketchbook with a smile. "How have you been taking all this? You seem a bit preoccupied."

Without getting into any of the details or mentioning Gutknaben by name, he said how 'this' had affected everyone, sitting back comfortably, a tall thin man with an expansive graying beard. His gray eyes were deep with concern as he nodded his head, listening to me as I unburdened myself.

Böhm began quietly at first, how "a composer is a bundle of nerves pulled taut like piano wires" – he chuckled – "how, in order to resonate, composers must feel up to the task. If we are in tune with ourselves, then," he added, "we succeed. If not..." He left the statement hang.

"We each have this 'Inner Chord' that vibrates to our own frequency. It is this which feeds our creativity. Remember – losing that, you can lose everything!"

Someone knocked at the door.

= = = = = = =
To be continued...

posted by Dick Strawser

The novel, The Lost Chord, is a classical 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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