Thursday, March 05, 2015

The Lost Chord: Act IV, Chapter 49

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

In the previous installment, Dr. Kerr, left alone in his practice room/prison, listening to Tr'iTone's music, has heard a mysterious, distant hymn - Sir Arthur Sullivan's "The Lost Chord" - and imagines he is at his own funeral. 

(You can read the second installment of Harrison Harty's Journal beginning here and the first installment, beginning here)

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Chapter 49

...being the 3rd installment of Master Harrison Harty's Journal, Summer of 1880

If you said we would all die then, I would not have been in the least surprised, considering our situation as Ethel tried desperately to regain control before poor Grimgerde threatened to take the remains of our carriage airborne. Slamming into a tree on our right, the back of the carriage fell off, nearly breaking a rear wheel. Careening around the next bend, we swung hard and hit a rock. We all hung on for dear life, something none of us thought we would have much longer to enjoy when without warning we emerged from under the dark canopy of trees that opened onto the gently sloping meadows leading toward the Falkenstein's home where the Director's coach entered the gate.

Also without warning, Grimgerde gave a snort and came to a halt, the carriage ready to fly over her head. Dusty and disheveled, we straightened ourselves up, just happy to be alive. We decided to hide her in the bushes beside the road, then sneak up to the house on foot. I would glance back toward the castle convinced I heard something approaching, but there was nothing to be seen. The others said I was imagining things: what could possibly be there?

"D'you think someone tampered with the horse?" Rott always looked for conspiracies.

"What, like Hannes fed her opium before he gave us the carriage?" Ethel, for her part, was always skeptical.

"I think something spooked her, something that was following us," I suggested. "There was definitely someone there. But who?"

Mahler laughed, scrambling through the undergrowth with this strange walk of his. "Perhaps it was our infamous professor of..."

"Yes," I said, interrupting him, "you know He-Whom-I-Do-Not-Wish-to-Name is on to us."

"Do you really think the killer is..." but Ethel paused more out of disbelief than any sense of fear. She couldn't bring herself to name him any more than I could.

"But it can't be him," Rott said, "he was ahead of us!"

"You mean Fabbro?" Ethel asked.

"No – Brahms!"

I was ready to correct their inaccurate assumptions when Mahler observed we were approaching the back of the sprawling house where it appeared the dinner would take place out on the terrace. Everybody was in evening dress, even Brahms, the Countess resplendent in a shimmering golden gown, her diamond jewelry sparkling. Servants bustled about with trays of drinks, while others lit the candelabra. The evening was sure to prove fine. Brahms tried to look his most attentive but couldn't hide his impatience.

"I look forward to seeing this latest invention of yours, Herr Count," Brahms said in his gruff, squeaky voice. "Professor Fabbro has spoken highly of it and it sounds most fascinating."

"Oh, I am but a mere tinkerer," Count von Falkenstein said obsequiously. "Without Fabbro's design, it would be nothing."

Fabbro, clicking his heels and bowing his head, explained he would take Brahms into the Count's basement laboratory after dinner and show him how "the machine" worked, putting it through its paces.

"Invention? Fabbro's design?" I whispered to Ethel, "is this what we'd overheard? They were talking about some mechanical contraption?"

"It will definitely revolutionize the whole concept of composing," the Count explained, "or so Professor Fabbro, here, constantly insists."

Just then, Rott unexpectedly sneezed, a mysterious hand grabbing him from behind.

We heard the hiss of a familiar voice as Rott disappeared struggling into the hedge, farther into the evening shadows.

"What are you doing here?" It was Carmilla Varné. "You'll ruin everything!"

Behind us was the unmistakable silhouette of HWIDNWTN, lurking in the camelias. He quickly made a lunge for us.

I grabbed Mahler's arm but by now Ethel was too far away, having gotten much closer to the terrace. Rott broke free from Carmilla and was soon running ahead of us.

Who else was there, I didn't know: I saw only these two. We had no choice – we'd been discovered! There was only one thing to do and that was to escape. So far, we crashed through the woods, managing to elude our pursuers continuing deeper into the dense mountain forest.

The terrain was steeper now, and full of rocks and fallen trees. The light of the moon was hardly helpful. Instead, if anything, it made things worse, turning bushes into lurid monsters. Maybe we survived the ride with Grimgerde but should they catch us, I am sure we four were doomed.

My lungs close to bursting, my heart pounding and ready to explode, I had no idea where we were. All I knew, to reach the castle, we must continue running up-hill.

Behind us I could sense the onward rush of our two pursuers. Mahler, falling even further behind, his body a mass of nervous ticks, suddenly tripped over a stone and screamed.

Was that the cry of a victorious beast I heard behind me or the blood coursing through my brain?

I was torn knowing I should go back to rescue my friend but my feet would not turn 'round. I should run for help, but wasn't it too late for that?

Rott, his chest heaving, waited for me once he reached the castle. I turned but nothing else was forthcoming once we'd left the forest and crossed the stream into the cemetery.

Mahler was lost, perhaps captured if not already killed by the evil-doers. And Ethel, poor child, was left behind.

We couldn't organize a search party to find Mahler in the darkness – considering we were forbidden to enter the forest when we were not allowed outside after dark in the first place – so we hurried back to Rott's room and sat immobilized with fear, dazed and afraid for our very lives.

Perhaps an hour went by. There was a knock at the door. Ethel flounced in, quite pleased with herself.

"What happened to you?" she asked airily. "You missed all the fun."

She proceeded to explain, before we could blurt out a word edgewise, after Rott's sneeze had given us away, how "Dr. Brahms recognized me when I stepped forward, and said, happily, 'Aren't you the young lady who writes sonatas but doesn't know counterpoint? Fabbro, here's a fine challenge for you!'

"The Count was somewhat mystified but the Countess was most delightfully intrigued: 'Imagine, a young lady who can compose music!' And with that, they invited me to join them on the terrace.

"I looked around for you, but you had fled in a panic, afraid what would happen if we're caught.

"At the table, they placed Brahms between me and Elisabetta von Hammerschlag – who'd been the concert pianist, Mlle. Muzio? – he called her 'My dearest Bessie-Mae Muzio' whenever her husband wasn't looking..."

Ethel regaled us with the witty conversation she had taken part in and I saw Rott was practically fuming after she'd said how Brahms remembered her songs "with fondness" from Leipzig.

When Brahms said "All composers are liars," Ethel responded, "that means, then, you are lying even now, Herr Doktor.

"Fabbro tried to explain that Brahms meant how all composers must learn not to be themselves when they composed, but Brahms laughed and said, 'No, dear Fabbro, she makes a joke!'

"After we finished our wine," she continued, "and Fabbro passed around these foul-smelling cigars to Brahms and the Count – oh, I so wanted one but didn't dare shock them any further – Brahms said 'And now, dear Fabbro, would you do me the honour of showing me this contraption of yours?'"

Rott and I sat up – at last! Now this was something interesting! Wasn't this what we had hoped to discover? Ethel continued, unaware our level of curiosity had suddenly increased.

"Yes – and...?"

She explained how Fabbro and the Count led the way into a dark, basement room, deep beneath the house.

Inside was this large machine, she said, as big as a room, consisting of thousands of tiny, intricate cylinders which combined together in incredibly intricate ways to weave certain musical patterns.

"'These punched heavy paper cards contain various algebraic patterns,' Fabbro carefully demonstrated, once he got the machine running smoothly, 'which, inserted here, with coded pitches, rhythms and various harmonies and textures, activated these larger cylinders here and converted them into arithmetical notation, there, then translated them into traditional musical notation.'

"You see," she said triumphantly, holding out Gutknaben's page of mathematical computations, "Fabbro's compositional contraption is like a mechanical loom, capable of weaving elaborate pieces of music with any degree of complexity. That's what Gutknaben had been working on – Fabbro had shown him how: it's a fugue written by a machine!"

We both stared at the mathematical configurations, looking like gibberish to me.

"And Brahms is interested in this, why...?"

"By the way," she interrupted, standing up and looking around, "where's Mahler?"

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It's now the middle of the night and quite impossible to sleep with worrying about Mahler alone in the woods. A storm is brewing, I feel it, and it will be bad. The night has been a mild one with the moon nearly set. I write hoping he can return safely. I couldn't see what had happened, then – he'd fallen too far behind – and I hated just leaving him there. I know I should have gone back but I had no choice.

Father always said women have this instinctive power to perceive men's character and, to our detriment, find it wanting. Anything we'd done was open to discussion without ever changing their minds. Such was the case with Ethel tonight, and there was nothing we could do to make her think differently.

"You thought you'd heard a scream, some pathetic inhuman scream," shed argued, "and you just left him lying back there? What if he'd been caught by wolves or had broken a leg?"

I wouldn't tell her I was thinking more of vampires than wolves, much less of one vampire in particular.

"But Rott had seen who grabbed him and it was definitely Carmilla. And I definitely saw HWIDNWTN close by. What," I argued, "were they doing there? Why did they chase us?"

"So you're saying this triumphant, satanic howl was actually Carmilla's cat, Czerny? Is it possible to be so stupid?" In that tone of voice, it did, I was forced to admit. But it didn't help the current situation: Mahler was still out there. And how could we help him now?

Ethel, ever the most logical, considered the various options we could take, all of which Rott found contained flaws. Basically, there was nothing we could do, forbidden to leave the castle.

"Forbidden – really?" she scoffed, turning to leave. "That never stopped us before! What are rules but to be broken?" She stood waiting impatiently by the door till we pulled ourselves together. It was well after midnight, by now: who would even notice us? "We have to go rescue our friend!"

My resolve managed to overcome my fears until we reached the landing where not long since we'd discovered Gutknaben's body. If he were killed here, would someone try to kill us here? It didn't help, as we skirted the open area around Sechter's monument, that we heard footsteps not too distant. Holding our breath collectively, we waited nervously until the sound faded away, some professor returning late to his residence. Slipping down the stairs through the parlor, we found an unlocked door.

It creaked terribly, the castle being old, as we pushed it open, but at last we were standing outside, ready to cross the courtyard then, skirting the cemetery, enter the woods. The moon, about to set, would not help us in the forest – I could feel my resolve shrinking accordingly.

We hunkered down, hoping the smaller we appeared nobody could see us, and followed Ethel's lead across the open courtyard. The Beethoven fountain sparkled in the moonlight, its profile against growing clouds. He seemed to be looking where we needed to go, I thought. Perhaps he would protect and guide us.

That was when I noticed a figure sitting on the fountain's edge who also looked pensive and somewhat ominous.

"Dear God," I squeaked, "look! Over there, by the fountain – it's Mahler!"

He was dirty and disheveled, one shoe lost and his jacket torn, his beard and hair fairly encrusted with leaves. He looked a mess, sitting there dazed, eyes brooding over the ground. He glanced up when he saw us starting to run toward him but he shrank back as if afraid.

"Mahler, thank God," I said, "we thought... well, we don't know what..."

"I'm fine," he said, somewhat distantly, "fine..."

We led him back inside and made it safely to the room.

He told us how he had fallen, how he couldn't get up as if something sat upon his chest but yet couldn't see what it was, more a presence, cold – evil.

"I heard a scream – probably mine – answered by another one, not mine. It was then I must have fainted."

Or maybe not, he reconsidered, fainting as becoming mesmerized by it all, the sounds of the night and the darkness: owls rather than songbirds, numerous toads croaking, mice scurrying across the ground.

"I'd no idea how long I sat – sitting now on a stump. I felt calm until I looked around."

Then he saw himself appearing in the shadows just beyond the trees and immediately felt this inconsolable emotional pain, as though his double were trying to force its way into him.

After he ran past it, he found himself standing in the cemetery and there, by the stream, was a casket around which stood, as if guarding it, various rabbits, foxes and deer.

"A hunter being mourned by the hunted? How very odd, I thought. But the body lying inside – was mine!"

Mahler said he knocked the flowers over while trying to run away and stumbled against a beautifully well-kept tombstone.

"Then I looked up directly into the face of Ludwig van Beethoven!"

So relieved was he to recognize the statue on the courtyard's fountain, the castle's towers looming up behind it, he very nearly broke down and cried at the sight of it.

"I have no idea what this means, dream or reality," Mahler said, "but we must go talk to Knussbaum!"

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But getting to Knussbaum's room was not going to be that easy, as we realized after reaching the Great Landing: for some reason – had we been seen? – the area was being patrolled. Yes, there was Carmilla Varné talking to one assistant near the steps as another assistant came down from upstairs. Was her evil cat Czerny somewhere about? (perhaps that cat wasn't named for the composer of innumerable piano exercises: wasn't chair-niy, Russian for 'black,' short for Chernobog the Black God – Satan?!)

While I peered through the darkness trying to locate the black cat, I overheard Carmilla talk to the assistants. "So, keep your eyes open – if you know what I mean, Werner."

What – or, more likely, who – was it they were out looking for? This, I thought, did not bode well.

"Wait," I blurted out, almost too loudly, "this is Director Böhm's portrait." We were standing directly in front of it. "Remember how the secret passageway led us here right from Knussbaum's studio?"

We immediately began pressing against every corner and block in our search to open it before we'd be discovered.

Suddenly, the frame began to slide out just enough to squeeze through and long enough for us to enter. It started gliding shut immediately, nearly catching Ethel's skirt as it closed.

Though not easy to follow with all its various twists and turns, we retraced our path to Knussbaum's fireplace. Across from us was an old man propped up on a day-bed. There lay Knussbaum beneath a pile of blankets, mumbling in his sleep, apologizing to Beethoven about losing his secret.

"Ach, it's you," he snorted, suddenly waking up, his eyes wide open but not surprised to see us there. "I thought you were my maker coming to fetch me," he sighed.

"Your maker?" Mahler asked him. "I thought you were talking to Beethoven."

"Well, yes, in a way, I was."

The old man leaned forward. "For many composers, Beethoven is our maker."

But then he spluttered a bit and leaned back with a chuckle. "Don't tell Professor Porlock I'd said that!"

With that, someone else entered the room, startling us with his appearance: wearing a tattered dressing gown was Director Böhm. "Ah, it's you, good," he said, nodding. "I'm glad that you've come. You see, dear Herr Knussbaum is ill, feeling very tired, he is, and possibly even dying, sad to say."

We gasped and gathered closer except for Rott who quickly stood back, not sure how to express our thoughts. Knussbaum gripped at his blankets and smiled weakly, his face deeply furrowed.

"I really ought to tell them," Knussbaum started, "don't you think, Dudley? Otherwise the secret might die with me!"

Director Böhm patted him on his forehead and smoothed back his hair.

"It won't die while I'm still alive, Rainer, you can rest assured. But perhaps we ought to tell them..."

Suddenly, our anxiety over what had happened tonight vanished with our concern for this man who has been our friend, whatever this talk of secrets and dying meant in the larger scheme.

Knussbaum nodded and smiled, his eyes closed, as he started humming something barely audible as the 'Ode to Joy.'

"You see," Böhm explained, "Rainer and I are the last at Schweinwald among those who actually knew The Master. And as Professor Sechter's pupil, I vowed to keep this legacy alive."

Naturally, even fifty-three years since Beethoven died, we could understand the power such a memory must still have for them, keeping alive the very idea of having been in The Master's presence. This is something many old people do, keeping themselves connected to the distant past, but then, this is Beethoven. The way their eyes had become misty, looking deep into their youth, would have been amusing under other circumstances, yet it made me feel I was in his presence even now.

"When I was still a young lad, I went with my teacher, Simon Sechter, to visit his friend Beethoven who at the time was already dying, a piteous sight to see. There was this mountain of a boy standing next to The Master: that was how I met Rainer Knussbaum."

At the mere mention of his name, Knussbaum smiled and nodded again as he rallied momentarily to continue the story. "He made us three promise to help look after a special friend..."

"The Immortal Belovèd," I blurted out, astounded. "You know who she is?" The story of that letter was legendary.

"Her name is not important," Knussbaum explained. "That needs to remain secret. It's her location we need to protect."

"You mean, she's still alive?"

"Ah, well, she is the Immortal Belovèd..."

As they continued their story, we learned that Sechter brought Beethoven's friend – Knussbaum referred to her as 'Rosa Kohl' – to live here at Schweinwald though they mentioned nothing beyond her death.

"We continue looking after her and fulfilling Beethoven's original request," Böhm explained, "but what happens after we are gone?"

"The secret must be kept a secret and the promise still maintained," Knussbaum said, wiping away a few tears.

Meanwhile, Director Böhm reached under Knussbaum's desk, retrieving a plain wooden case.

Lifting out a bronze model of Beethoven's statue on the courtyard fountain, Böhm said we must take this tonight and hide it in the crypt beneath the chapel at Falkenstein Manor.

"There are secrets here that need to be kept for the future, yet also kept from too-numerous prying eyes."

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Admittedly, I was not looking forward to another trip in Grimgerde's phaeton especially considering how the wind had picked up, entrusted with a secret mission or not – even to preserve Beethoven's legacy. Director Böhm had given us careful instructions and wished us all God-speed, but still I had misgivings about it. For one thing, why send all four: wouldn't one of us suffice, with fewer people knowing anything about it? – not that I'd want to go alone, but then that's just me. True, we had no idea of the significance behind this weighty statue, what secret it was meant to protect – nor what the urgency was that this couldn't have waited till daylight – but it seemed to gain in weight the longer I held it, as if I carried a terrible burden.

Flying along the dark and lonely road, I couldn't help but think how Böhm had given Gutknaben the silver locket and it wasn't long before we'd discovered poor Gutknaben had been killed. If he had been killed for a lock of Beethoven's precious hair, what danger lay in store for us? What was the significance of the statue, the markings inscribed on it or the secret it meant to protect? Having killed somebody once already, would it be worth killing for again?

Soon, we arrived without any calamitous incident and followed Böhm's explicit directions, locating the ancient chapel of the Falkensteins, all that remained of the old monastery built here seven centuries since. Why hide it here, I wondered while traversing the broad empty field, except there might be fewer prying eyes. Looking back toward the Falkensteins' spacious house across the road from us, I saw a single room lit up as if someone, suffering a sleepless night, might be watching for us.

Certainly there would be more secure locations within the massive castle itself, protected by a constant crowd of witnesses. No, some lonely place would be best, both isolated and practically inaccessible. As Böhm said, we found the altar near the chapel's far end with its carved relief of Risen Christ.

"Gently press your right hand against the up-raised left hand of Christ," Böhm had instructed us, "placing thumb to thumb. This," he said, "will open the doorway leading down into the crypt."

But Mahler, being a Jew, could not bring himself to do this, and Rott, a Catholic, thought it sacrilegious.

Impatiently, Ethel, cursing under her breath with something like "weak as water," pushed them aside and glanced quickly around before slapping her palm "thumb to thumb" against the hand of Christ.

Nothing happened, not at first. Rott thought she used too much force. Then we heard a soft, grating sigh, like stone rubbing against stone, like someone not used to being bothered. The whole front panel of the altar swung slowly back into darkness, an unwelcoming entrance leading us to – where?

"Well," Ethel postulated, "I opened the door. Mahler, you're holding the lantern. Perhaps that means you should lead the way." Reluctantly, he moved past her and so we disappeared into the passageway.

At the bottom of a steep ramp, we found the crypt's door which Mahler and Rott leaned heavily against.

It opened with another long, sad sigh. Then I smelled it: brimstone! What hit me, next, I'd no idea.

When I finally came to, both the statue and Ethel were gone.

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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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