A graveyard, sinister music, a small child's nightmare...
A children's tune played on a hurdy-gurdy
A small boy's nightmare
The same tune played by an old blind beggar outside a foggy graveyard - and heard again by an old, bed-ridden woman
And heard again, at the dead of night on a London street corner
What is the connection - and why is this disturbing melody the prelude to a brutal crime ...
Release date: July 5, 2022
Print pages: 208
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In the House of Dark Music
The red-headed boy sleeping in one of the alley’s dark doorways shivered at its icy touch, but did not wake. He was dreaming, and uttered small frightened cries, held fast in the sinister grip of his nightmare. His jaw quivered and his eyelids fluttered, his hands clutching feverishly at the sawn-off handle of the stiff-bristled broom lying between his knees. He twisted his tousled, carroty head from side to side. But still he did not wake.
One side of Goodwin’s Court was bounded by a high blank wall. On the other there stood a row of tall, narrow houses, once elegant and respectable. Now they were neither. For the alley lay to the east of Leicester Square, on the Covent Garden side—that is to say, the disreputable side.
The boy’s name at that time was Midge. This was not his Christened name, but it served him very well. He was small and thin, yet by no means weakly. Though he could not himself have told you how old he was, he had in fact been discovered some ten years before, very new and wrinkled, wrapped in a shabby blanket on the nearby steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields. And now he was a crossing-sweeper, with a stand in St Martin’s Lane.
Faring better than the majority of foundlings, he had been taken in by the vicar’s wife and farmed out shortly afterwards to one of her husband’s parishioners, a man called Meiklejohn. Mrs Meiklejohn, only recently brought to bed of her fifth stillborn infant, had welcomed the boy, calling him Reuben, sentimentally, after her deported brother.
Mr Meiklejohn’s welcome, however, had been rather more worldly, for the boy brought with him two shillings weekly, paid by the vicar’s wife. Thus, when the vicar was moved to another parish a few years later and the allowance terminated, Mr Meiklejohn’s welcome terminated also. By then the child was nearing five years of age and, so Mr Meiklejohn considered, well able to make his own way in the world. He contrived therefore to lose Reuben shortly afterwards, somewhere during a long Sunday afternoon walk in Hyde Park. And Mrs Meiklejohn, by then with two demanding children of her own, was for all her protestations secretly relieved to see her husband return without him.
Now, at the age of ten, young Reuben had indeed made his own way in the world, for he had won himself an established profession. And his only notable loss along the road had been that of the name his adopted mother had chosen for him. But he was not a large child, and Midge suited him a great deal better. He slept in Goodwin’s Court because it was only a stone’s throw from his crossing on St Martin’s Lane and he needed to be close at hand, in case some flash lad turned up early one morning, planning to half-inch it.
Besides, he liked the girls who worked in the houses there. Sometimes at night they gave him pennies as they passed, or peppermints in little screws of scented paper …
Again, trapped still in his nightmare, he cried out. His carroty head jerked, and his bare feet scrabbled on the doorstep. And then, suddenly, mysteriously, he managed somehow to break the dream’s eerie possession of his mind. With a final convulsive shudder he woke, cold sweat upon his brow, and stared wildly about him.
No one can know another’s dreams, certainly not a child’s. Even he can only know them confusedly, perceived through the warped glass of the window of memory. Midge crouched in his doorway, aware simply that he had been terribly afraid. There had been a great darkness, and a figure even darker than the darkness. And music … He knew the music, remembered it as a tinkling melody he had heard played long ago by a hurdy-gurdy man in a coat covered with brightly-coloured patches. A sad little melody, not at all frightening. Why, then, had it seemed so in his dreams?
But already the horror was fading. Midge felt the thick, strong handle of the broom between his knees, and was reassured. It was a good broom, his most important possession. And it was safe.
He forgot his fear. Two large brown rats, disturbed in their scavenging, sat up on their hind legs to peer at him where he sat, huddled in the shadows. He shooed them away and they sidled off, twittering angrily. He wrapped his man’s reefer jacket more tightly about himself, and settled back to sleep.
It was at that moment that approaching footsteps caught his attention. He looked up, saw the fiddler enter the far end of the alley, the Bedford Broadway end, where the gas lamp flickered on the wall by the arch. Midge knew the man was a fiddler from the fiddle-shaped box he was carrying. He was used to musicians—they often came and went along the alley. They played either in Drury Lane or at the Italian Opera House in Covent Garden.
The fiddler came towards him, picking his way between the muddy puddles. He interrupted a group of cats squabbling over a mouldy rabbit skin. Distantly a late cab clattered by on cobbles. One of the windows above his head screeched open, a square of light slanted out across the opposite wall, and a young woman shouted something down. But the fiddler took no notice, and the light died abruptly as the window was closed again, to the accompaniment of mocking laughter.
Suddenly, just as the man came abreast of the place where Midge sat crouched in the shadows, a second, bulkier man appeared beneath the archway behind him. He stood beneath the street lamp, watching the fiddler walk away from him. And then he began to whistle.
Instantly Midge’s body stiffened, every muscle locked in a sudden spasm of horror. For the tune the man whistled was from his nightmare. The very same tune, it came to him softly, caressingly, out of the very same darkness. Simple, innocent, childlike, it crept into the most secret parts of his mind, filling them with incomprehensible terror. He would have fled, but could not. Incapable of even the smallest movement, he stayed in his doorway, eyes wide and unblinking.
The whistling ceased. In front of Midge the fiddler had paused, intrigued, not certain where the sound was coming from. Behind him the man beneath the street lamp raised his hand and called.
“Herr Falconer … A moment of your time, if you please, Herr Falconer.”
Midge could see him clearly, the figure from his nightmare: tall black hat, high-buttoned coat with a curly fur collar, one hand raised, the other holding a slender walking stick with a silvery band that gleamed in the lamplight.
The fiddler turned warily. “My name is Falconer. Who wants me?”
“A friend, Herr Falconer. Just an old friend.”
The other, larger man started slowly forward, nearer and nearer. Midge began to tremble convulsively. Here, in the figure of this smooth, black-garbed foreigner, was all the nameless horror of his dream. He cowered away, struck dumb with childish fears. He struggled to speak, to warn the fiddler, but the words stuck fast in his throat. He watched, agonised, as the fiddler took a fatal pace back along the alley.
“I know that voice,” the fiddler said. “Is it not—?”
But the question died on his lips. For in an instant the other had quickened his steps to a lumbering run. And in his hand there was now no longer a walking stick but rather the glancing blade of a sword. Its steel seemed to shimmer like the light of a thousand stars. He came at the fiddler, thrusting wickedly.
His victim had no time to flee. Watchfully, in silent concentration he stepped back against the wall and parried the sword with his instrument case. Midge was weeping now, the sobs wrung from him with terrible, soundless intensity. The fiddler’s instrument case was struck from his hand. He grappled with his opponent. The two men staggered back and forth, grunting desperately, their feet slithering on the wet pavement. Midge gazed up at them from the safe shadows of his doorway. Strangely, the worst of his fear was passing. His weeping ceased. He had seen men fight before. This was real, human, no longer dream-like.
The larger man had his left hand at the other’s face, gouging for the eyes. Midge had a brief glimpse of gold glinting on his finger. Then the fiddler bit the hand and for an instant, fatally, the two men parted. And in that instant the attacker wrenched his right arm free and drove his sword into the fiddler’s body. It grated hideously on the wall behind.
The fiddler cried out then, a single piercing cry that faded quickly to a whisper, then to silence. And Midge knew, with absolute certainty, that the fiddler was dead.
Once again curtains were drawn above him and a square of light slanted down as a window was opened. And once again a woman shouted, though this time more in anger than enticement. Across the alleyway the murderer had his victim propped up against the wall, one arm now in friendly fashion about the corpse’s shoulders. And his voice was friendly too, as he shouted back.
“A thousand pardons, gnädiges Fräulein. My companion has taken too much wine, I fear. But you may depend on me—I’ll see he doesn’t trouble you anymore.”
He laughed then, cheerfully. But Midge saw how he kept his head studiously averted all the while.
There was muttering overhead, then the window was closed and darkness returned to Goodwin’s Court. At once the murderer stepped back, letting the body of his victim sag and tumble slowly forward on to the stones. In haste he stooped and lifted the fiddler’s wrist, holding it between finger and thumb and glancing anxiously up and down the alley as he waited, his head tilted as if listening. Then, satisfied, he nodded to himself.
“Gut. Gut…” he murmured. “Ohne Zweifel ist der Schwein jetzt tot.”
He let the dead man’s hand fall. Picking up instead the instrument case from the pavement where it had fallen, he hurried off with it down the alley, back the way he had come.
Suddenly Goodwin’s Court was uncomfortably silent, deserted save for the crumpled body of the man called Falconer, its arms flung out, its head lying in a muddy puddle not two yards from the doorway where Midge still cowered. For a moment the boy watched and waited, reminded of his dream, its darkness, its nameless horror. Then, farther down the alleyway, a man emerged from one of the houses. Turning up his coat collar, he hurried towards Midge, looking neither to right nor left. At the fiddler’s body he paused, peered briefly down, then stepped round it and hurried on, disappearing into St Martin’s Lane without a backward glance.
His going dispelled Midge’s uneasiness. It too had been real, human, no part of his dream. He ventured out into the alley, leaving his broom on the step behind him. The dead held no fears for him: he’d seen dead men before, had touched them too. Once he’d filched a pair of boots their owner had no further use for. He’d sold the boots for twopence to a rag man with a barrow.
Midge stood by the corpse, pushed at it tentatively with his bare foot. There’d be money in its pockets, perhaps even a watch on a golden chain. And the shoes—so shiny black, they’d be worth a tanner at the very least.
A tiny sound disturbed him, and he looked round fearfully. The murderer—what if he returned? But it was only the cats, tussling again at their rabbit skin. Midge summoned his courage, squatted down, and began to fumble with trembling fingers at the buttons of the dead man’s coat. They were horribly stiff, and the yielding warmth of the body made his stomach heave. But the boy persevered. Wealth was within his grasp. Security …
Suddenly a man’s voice rang out down the alley, high-pitched and angry. Midge froze. It was the murderer come back, he had no doubt of it. Another second and his own lifeless body would join that of the fiddler. He ducked away and fled, half on all fours, whimpering with terror, away from the shrill, insistent shouting. Blindly he scuttled the length of Goodwin’s Court and was gone.
Behind him a tall, slender figure in dove-grey cloak and tight, elegant trousers, stepped gingerly down the alleyway. Peering about him, his stout malacca cane with its weighted head hefted ready in his right hand, the man came at last to the body of the dead fiddler. As the boy had done, he pushed at it tentatively with his foot. The body rolled over and its coat, loosened by Midge, fell open to reveal a white shirt-front ominously darkened with a stain above the heart, about the size of a baby’s hand.
“A deader, by Gad. And within the hour…”
The man raised his eyebrows in cool surprise. Then he turned and fastidiously retraced his steps. Only when he was clear of the alley, under the gas lamp in the relative safety of St Martin’s Lane, did he fumble beneath his cloak and produce, on a long bright chain, a silver police whistle which he put to his lips and blew, piercingly and repeatedly.
At that moment, far away in a broad-eaved house high on a Bavarian cliff above a snowy valley, a toothless old woman was sitting up in bed, a smile on her wizened lips, staring with unseeing eyes at the flame of the scented nightlight in its saucer beside her. Her sleep, like that of the boy’s, had been restless that night, as if disturbed by dreams. She had twisted and turned, and once she too had cried out. But there had been no terror in her cry—rather a strange exultation. As if what she had dreamed had brought her a fierce, malignant pleasure.
Her cry had aroused the younger woman, thick-limbed and ugly, sleeping in the next room. She had lain motionless, not breathing, listening to the snow-laden silence of the night, ready on an instant to hurry to the old woman’s side. But the cry had not been repeated, and the younger woman had breathed again, turned over in her narrow bed, and gone thankfully back to sleep.
Now the old woman was awake. She had hauled herself laboriously up till she was sitting, propped awkwardly against her fine, lace-edged pillows. Normally, once fully roused, she would at once have rung the bell on the table beside her. She was not, in the usual course of events, one to suffer sleeplessness gladly, or to show undue consideration for the rest of others.
Tonight, however, the old woman smiled, and the silver bell on her side table remained silent. The dream—if dream it was—had left her elated. She stared entranced at the tranquil flame of her night-light. She thought of her son in far-off London. Soon now, his tasks completed, he would be returning to her. She smiled.
Somewhere out in the frozen night an owl hooted. She heard it and shifted her thin, crippled body, picturing its flight among the moonlit pine trees. And smiled again. She too, that night, had gone hunting.
After a while she stretched an arm down beside her bed and brought up a fine leather violin case. She placed it upon her knees, opened it, and took the instrument out. The dim light shone softly on its reddish flowing curves. The old woman rested then, half-dreaming again as she plucked absently at its strings, the sound no more than a faint ticking in the vast black stillness of her room. Then, when she was ready, she lifted the bow from its velvet cradle within the case’s lid, tucked the fiddle beneath her chin, and began to play. Her hands jerked and trembled, so that she could scarcely find the notes she wanted.
The younger woman stirred again in the adjoining room, woke, listened to the thin, uneven scraping. But she made no move to leave her bed, for she recognised the melody. It was a song from a music box, a children’s song, ages-old, innocent and sweetly sad.
Always the old woman hated to be interrupted when she was playing, but never more so than when she was playing this tune. It had been her daughter’s favourite. Her dead daughter’s favourite.
So the younger woman lay quietly in the lonely darkness of her room. And, as she listened to the music, she wept. For no proper reason that she could understand, save that the song was so hauntingly pretty, and played so badly, with such crabbed, uncertain fingers.
Ach, du lieber Augustin,
Ach, du lieber Augustin,
Alles ist hin.
In London, in Mattie Falconer’s little basement kitchen, the clock on the wall struck one. Mattie looked up from her patchwork and frowned. Surely the clock must be wrong? Even allowing for more curtain calls than usual, Albert should have got away from the theatre by twelve-fifteen. And it wasn’t more than a twenty-minute walk from Covent Garden to their home in Bacon Street, one of the narrow grey streets behind Waterloo Station.
But the clock was never wrong. It was an American clock, oblong, with a large glass door and a painting of the Rocky Mountains on the glass below the face. It had kept excellent time, ever since Albert had brought it home from the market on the Lambeth Road six years before, just after they were married.
Mattie laid aside her needlework. Albert was late. Something bad must have happened. She got up, went to the outside door and opened it, letting in a blast of cold night air. She shivered slightly, and went back for her shawl. She was an upright, graceful young woman, with a slim waist and a fullness of figure that not even her simple brown worsted dress and white apron could conceal. Neither could the workmanlike set of her hair, its thick dark tresses parted in the middle and drawn back over her ears into a bun at the nape of her neck, detract from the hint of passion in her full mouth and finely curved brows. Her face was heart-shaped, her eyes wide apart and of a russet brown colour in which, when she was laughing, flecks of bright gold danced.
Now, however, her broad, high forehead was furrowed. She stood for a moment in the open doorway, listening. The street above was silent, save for the distant, night-long clatter of the railway. Behind her she heard the rocking chair creak slowly back and forth, then stop. Pinning her shawl tightly across her chest, she closed the door and went up the steep area steps. She stood for a long time, staring down Bacon Street, certain that at any second Albert would appear, his coat tails flapping in the wind. She’d wave to him and he’d wave back. And when he reached her he’d kiss her forehead in his tired, absent-minded fashion, and tell her what a goose she was to worry.
There could well be, she knew, several perfectly harmless reasons why Albert might be late. He played his fiddle in the band at the Italian Opera House on Covent Garden. The following night there was to be a Masked Ball at the theatre, so the conductor, Mr Costa, might easily have delayed the musicians, handing out new band parts. Or Albert might just have lingered, chatting with the actors.
But Mattie believed neither reason. Today had been Professor Anderson’s Gala Benefit, offering a long and difficult programme, and Albert had been at the theatre since noon. He’d be anxious to get home to his bed.
For a long time she stood, shivering in the bitter March wind. Then she turned and went back down the steps to her warm kitchen. She crossed to the range and poked up the coals in the black-leaded grate. She gazed about her. The oil lamp cast a tranquil glow over everything—her sewing on the table, all the scraps of bright fabric lying tumbled where she had left them. But she drew no comfort from the calm, safe little room. Something bad had happened. And she didn’t know what to do.
There was, in fact, nothing that she could do. Except wait. She daren’t leave little Victoria alone in the house. Neither, at that hour of the morning, dare she rouse her friendly neighbour, Aggie Templeton, and ask her help. Aggie’s man was a demon where his sleep was concerned.
Thinking of her child, Mattie was filled with a sudden, unreasonable panic. She snatched up the lamp and hurried to their bedroom, with its big iron bedstead, and the mahogany wardrobe her mother had given her, and the cot with its white starched frills. She held the lamp high, gazed down at her small, flaxen-haired daughter, sleeping peacefully beneath her snug counterpane.
The sight filled her heart with such a passion of relief and love that she pressed a hand tightly to her breast, simply to still its beating. Her husband was a good man, and unfailingly kind, but it was her daughter to whom she gave her profoundest devotion. And Vickie was safe. The child made a small sleepy sound, disturbed perhaps by the brightness of the light on her face, and turned over, burrowing deeper, like a mouse, beneath the bedclothes.
Mattie left the room, closed the door softly behind her. She replaced the lamp on the kitchen table, settled herself again in her rocking chair, and picked up her needlework. It was her custom always to wait up for Albert, his supper keeping warm in the oven. It was the very least she could do. He worked long, hard hours, and brought his wages home to her, every penny, and a man had the right to expect a little thoughtfulness in return. She always waited up, so she would wait up now. Even if—
But she could not bear to think of it. Cruelly the picture came into her mind of his journey home on foot through the dark London streets. She put it from her. Certainly there were thieves, violent, wicked men. But it was the rich they preyed on, with sovereigns in their purses and gold watch-chains across their ample waistcoats. What would they want with a poor, shabby musician? Determinedly she bent to her work, cutting the neat paper shapes, tacking the scraps of material over them.
At two o’clock she was still working. And at three o’clock also. While the child slept on, innocently unaware. It was with the coming of three o’clock that Mattie, remembering Albert’s dinner still warming in the oven, paused in her work to take it out. It was dried up, ruined, so she put it outside on the kitchen windowsill for the cats. Then she returned again to her assiduous stitching.
By the time the American clock struck four, however, Mattie’s hands were still, her eyes closed, her head fallen awkwardly forward upon her chest. The coals in the grate settled and died. The lamp faded also, its wick charred now and trailing wisps of sour smoke. The room grew steadily colder. Five o’clock came, and six, and seven on that drear March day, and still Mattie slept on in the old rocking chair, safe for a while from the bitter reality of her situation.
It was nearly eight o’clock when the scrape of hob-nailed boots on the area steps roused her. She lifted her head, saw the grey light of day filtering in through the curtains, and was instantly wide awake. Heavy knuckles rapped on the door. In a flash she was across the room, dragging the door open, staring beseechingly out at the two men who stood there, squashed together in the tiny space at the bottom of the steps. Only one of them wore uniform, but she had no doubt at all that they were both policemen.
“Tell me he’s not dead. Dear God, please tell me Albert’s not dead.”
But she knew from their faces that he was.
“Mrs Falconer? Mrs Albert Falconer?”
She nodded, biting her lip. Behind her she could hear little Victoria, disturbed by the sudden racket, calling to her.
“Could we come in, please?” The policeman’s thin face was as grey as the morning “Inspector Gradbolt, ma’am. I’m afraid I have bad news for you.”
She stepped back a pace. “Yes. Yes, of course …” She gestured vaguely. “I … I was expecting you. But I’ve been asleep, you see. And now the fire’s gone out, and I … I don’t seem to—”
“She’s going to faint, Sergeant Griffin. Catch her, you fool.”
But she didn’t faint. It was just that she was confused. Events seemed to be repeating themselves. Bent over her needlework she’d already lived through this moment a hundred times, the solemn policemen, their hugeness in her tiny, cold kitchen. She walked calmly away to the window and drew back the curtains. This too had happened before, the clatter of the curtain rings, and the two men shifting their feet in the doorway.
“Come in,” she said. “Sit down. Make yourselves comfortable.” She fumbled with the strings of her apron. It wasn’t right for these strange, important men to see her wearing her apron. “I’m afraid you must excuse me while I go and see to my little girl. Your knocking on the door—I think it’s frightened her.”
She left them without another glance, taking off her apron as she went and rolling it into a tight ball. Victoria was sitting up in bed, not yet worried, simply curious. Mattie fetched the child’s doll from the mantelpiece and gave it to her.
“Tell ’Melia there’s no need to fret, will you, dearest? You know how quickly she gets into one of her states.” The doll’s waxen face looked up at her unblinkingly. “There’s two nice gentlemen come to see Mama. Tell her if she’s quiet and good she can have a boiled egg for breakfast when they’re gone.”
Victoria hugged the doll defensively. “ ’Melia’s always good, if I tell her so.”
Mattie straightened her back. “That’s my best girl,” she murmured, turning away. Across the passage, in the kitchen, the clock on the wall began to strike eight. She put the rolled-up apron down on the bed and paused in front of the wardrobe mirror to pin up stray wisps of hair.
She was almost through the door when her daughter called after her. “Have the horrid gentlemen come to see Papa too?” she asked.
Mattie looked back. “They’re not horrid gentlemen,” she said firmly. “They’re nice. Very nice. Sometimes I don’t think you listen to a word I say.”
She closed the door then and leaned for a moment against the wall, examining its purple roses, gathering the strength necessary to return to the nice gentlemen. Up to the moment of Vickie’s question she had been safe, protected by her sense of unreality, by the feeling that everything had happened before. Now, suddenly, the world was real. Even the roses on the wallpaper were real. And she was horribly afraid.
Back in the kitchen the police sergeant was on his knees in front of the grate. He had emptied it of cinders and was busy laying a new fire. He had even found her bundle of kindling sticks where she kept them in the bottom oven. She wondered if his wife also had a bottom oven that was good for nothing except drying sticks.
Inspector Gradbolt had taken off his heavy green tweed ulster and hung it on the back of the door. Now he was seated at the table. Mattie’s sewing things were pushed to one side, and the inspector was rolling to and fro a small metallic object that glinted in the growing daylight.
He rose as Mattie came into the room and stood, quite still, looking sombrely down at her. He was not, she thought, at the best of times a cheerful person. His clean-shaven face was long, with hollow cheeks below high cheek-bones, and thin, almost colourless hair recently sleeked down with pungent bay rum. The knuckles of his bony hands were painfully chapped.
He cleared his throat. “Mrs Falconer,” he began, “I’m afraid we have serious news for you concerning your husband. He—”
“He’s dead.” She walked calmly to the table, sat down in her rocking chair. “Albert’s dead. I realise that. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here …”
Her voice tailed off. She shrugged her shoulders then, suddenly, leaned forward and hid her face in her hands. She needed to think. There were plans to be made. And she was so tired.
She felt the inspector’s hand upon her shoulder. “Perhaps you have a neighbour, Mrs Falconer,” he said gently. “Someone who could come in and … and be with you.”
Looking up at him, she saw that he cared. In his eyes there was knowledge of all the petty ugliness of the world. But there was compassion also. His work had not embittered him, had not armoured him against the suffering of others.
“Please tell me what happened,” she said. “I must know, you see. I won’t make a fuss, I promise. But you must tell me.”
Down on the floor beside her the police sergeant struck a match and held it to the paper and sticks he had laid in the grate. He was a solid man, broad and dependable, with a heavy black moustache, and he watched the fire as if it were the most important thing in all the world. Mattie felt that she was among friends.
Inspector Gradbolt sat down opposite her. “Your husband’s body was found in the early hours of the morning, ma’am. In Goodwin’s Court. You may know the place.”
She shook her head, stared down at her hands. “How did Albert … how did my husband die?”
The inspector produced small oval eyeglasses, breathed on them, and began to polish them on a large, very white handkerchief. “You must have had a long and worrying night, ma’am. For which I’m profoundly sorry. But there was the management of the theatre to be consulted, concerning next of kin. And these matters take time, I fear.”
“How did my husband die?”
She saw the inspector’s glance flick sideways to his sergeant, then back again. Poor man, she thought, I wouldn’t like his job.
“It’s the doctor’s opinion, ma’am, that Mr Falconer can have suffered very little. Death would have been . . .
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