Wednesday, 20 September 2017

The Lost Stradivarius by John Meade Falkner

The preamble of this story is that it is being told to the son of John Maltravers by his aunt the sister of his father. It is told in a stolid, laboured way that assures us that what she is telling us is true for she would not have the imagination to concoct a florid lie. This is a stroke of craftsmanship that when I come to think of it is often used and moreover can disguise limitations in the prose style of the author.

It all began in his rooms at Magdalen College Oxford where the manuscripts of 17th.century music that his friend Gaskell had brought back from Italy lay on a table.

Perhaps by accident, or perhaps by some mysterious direction which our minds are incapable of appreciating, his eye was arrested by a suite of four movements with a basso continuo, or figured bass, for the harpsichord. The other suites in the book were only distinguished by numbers, but this one the composer had dignified with the name of "l'Areopagita." Almost mechanically John put the book on his music-stand, took his violin from its case, and after a moment's tuning stood up and played the first movement, a lively Coranto. The light of the single candle burning on the table was scarcely sufficient to illumine the page; the shadows hung in the creases of the leaves, which had grown into those wavy folds sometimes observable in books made of thick paper and remaining long shut; and it was with difficulty that he could read what he was playing. But he felt the strange impulse of the old-world music urging him forward, and did not even pause to light the candles which stood ready in their sconces on either side of the desk. The Coranto was followed by a Sarabanda, and the Sarabanda by a Gagliarda. My brother stood playing, with his face turned to the window, with the room and the large wicker chair of which I have spoken behind him. The Gagliarda began with a bold and lively air, and as he played the opening bars, he heard behind him a creaking of the wicker chair. The sound was a perfectly familiar one—as of some person placing a hand on either arm of the chair preparatory to lowering himself into it, followed by another as of the same person being leisurely seated. But for the tones of the violin, all was silent, and the creaking of the chair was strangely distinct. The illusion was so complete that my brother stopped playing suddenly, and turned round expecting that some late friend of his had slipped in unawares, being attracted by the sound of the violin, or that Mr. Gaskell himself had returned.

This is the beginning of his oppression by the spirit of Adrian Temple who once had these rooms. The primary vehicle of his reach is the Stradivarius that he left after him in a secret cupboard built into the wainscoting but obscured by a century of overpainting. Playing the Gagliarda becomes obsessive, at first on his own violin but then on the instrument owned by Temple. This misprision or larceny by finding Maltravers hides from his friend Gaskell who has been accompanying him on the piano. They both hear the creaking of the cane armchair but see nothing. After the completion of the gagliarda the reverse manouver of a person leaving the chair is heard. The guilt that he feels at the retention of this valuable instrument begins his alienation from the world at large and it creates the void that is filled by the malign spirit. Naturally as an Englishman and a Protestant one looks for a rational explanation:

I shall not weary you, my dear Edward, by recounting similar experiences which occurred on nearly every occasion that the young men met in the evenings for music. The repetition of the phenomenon had accustomed them to expect it. Both professed to be quite satisfied that it was to be attributed to acoustical affinities of vibration between the wicker-work and certain of the piano wires, and indeed this seemed the only explanation possible. 

The tragic events that unfold utterly belie the rationalism that tries to comprehend the evil that reaches them from the past. Its path is enhanced by the connection that Temple has with the wife to be of Maltravers. He is an ancestor of hers and the portrait in the gallery of her home has always unsettled. Coincidence? With a fate many paths cross.

A good read find it on Gutenberg project:the lost stradivarius

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