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The Lost Stradivarius

The Lost Stradivarius

Author:John Meade Falkner


Your father, John Maltravers, was born in 1820 at Worth, and succeeded his father and mine, who died when we were still young children. John was sent to Eton in due course, and in 1839, when he was nineteen years of age, it was determined that he should go...
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  Your father, John Maltravers, was born in 1820 at Worth, and succeededhis father and mine, who died when we were still young children. Johnwas sent to Eton in due course, and in 1839, when he was nineteen yearsof age, it was determined that he should go to Oxford. It was intendedat first to enter him at Christ Church; but Dr. Sarsdell, who visited usat Worth in the summer of 1839, persuaded Mr. Thoresby, our guardian, tosend him instead to Magdalen Hall. Dr. Sarsdell was himself Principal ofthat institution, and represented that John, who then exhibited somesymptoms of delicacy, would meet with more personal attention under hiscare than he could hope to do in so large a college as Christ Church.Mr. Thoresby, ever solicitous for his ward's welfare, readily waivedother considerations in favour of an arrangement which he consideredconducive to John's health, and he was accordingly matriculated atMagdalen Hall in the autumn of 1839.

  Dr. Sarsdell had not been unmindful of his promise to look after mybrother, and had secured him an excellent first-floor sitting-room, witha bedroom adjoining, having an aspect towards New College Lane.

  I shall pass over the first two years of my brother's residence atOxford, because they have nothing to do with the present story. Theywere spent, no doubt, in the ordinary routine of work and recreationcommon in Oxford at that period.

  From his earliest boyhood he had been passionately devoted to music,and had attained a considerable proficiency on the violin. In the autumnterm of 1841 he made the acquaintance of Mr. William Gaskell, a verytalented student at New College, and also a more than tolerablemusician. The practice of music was then very much less common at Oxfordthan it has since become, and there were none of those societiesexisting which now do so much to promote its study among undergraduates.It was therefore a cause of much gratification to the two young men, andit afterwards became a strong bond of friendship, to discover that onewas as devoted to the pianoforte as was the other to the violin. Mr.Gaskell, though in easy circumstances, had not a pianoforte in hisrooms, and was pleased to use a fine instrument by D'Almaine that Johnhad that term received as a birthday present from his guardian.

  From that time the two students were thrown much together, and in theautumn term of 1841 and Easter term of 1842 practised a variety of musicin John's rooms, he taking the violin part and Mr. Gaskell that for thepianoforte.

  It was, I think, in March 1842 that John purchased for his rooms a pieceof furniture which was destined afterwards to play no unimportant partin the story I am narrating. This was a very large and low wicker chairof a form then coming into fashion in Oxford, and since, I am told,become a familiar object of most college rooms. It was cushioned with agaudy pattern of chintz, and bought for new of an upholsterer at thebottom of the High Street.

  Mr. Gaskell was taken by his uncle to spend Easter in Rome, andobtaining special leave from his college to prolong his travels; did notreturn to Oxford till three weeks of the summer term were passed and Maywas well advanced. So impatient was he to see his friend that he wouldnot let even the first evening of his return pass without coming roundto John's rooms. The two young men sat without lights until the nightwas late; and Mr. Gaskell had much to narrate of his travels, and spokespecially of the beautiful music which he had heard at Easter in theRoman churches. He had also had lessons on the piano from a celebratedprofessor of the Italian style, but seemed to have been particularlydelighted with the music of the seventeenth-century composers, of whoseworks he had brought back some specimens set for piano and violin.

  It was past eleven o'clock when Mr. Gaskell left to return to NewCollege; but the night was unusually warm, with a moon near the full,and John sat for some time in a cushioned window-seat before the opensash thinking over what he had heard about the music of Italy. Feelingstill disinclined for sleep, he lit a single candle and began to turnover some of the musical works which Mr. Gaskell had left on the table.His attention was especially attracted to an oblong book, bound insoiled vellum, with a coat of arms stamped in gilt upon the side. It wasa manuscript copy of some early suites by Graziani for violin andharpsichord, and was apparently written at Naples in the year 1744, manyyears after the death of that composer. Though the ink was yellow andfaded, the transcript had been accurately made, and could be read withtolerable comfort by an advanced musician in spite of the antiquatednotation.

  Perhaps by accident, or perhaps by some mysterious direction which ourminds are incapable of appreciating, his eye was arrested by a suite offour movements with a _basso continuo_, or figured bass, for theharpsichord. The other suites in the book were only distinguished bynumbers, but this one the composer had dignified with the name of"l'Areopagita." Almost mechanically John put the book on hismusic-stand, took his violin from its case, and after a moment's tuningstood up and played the first movement, a lively _Coranto_. The light ofthe single candle burning on the table was scarcely sufficient toillumine the page; the shadows hung in the creases of the leaves, whichhad grown into those wavy folds sometimes observable in books made ofthick paper and remaining long shut; and it was with difficulty that hecould read what he was playing. But he felt the strange impulse of theold-world music urging him forward, and did not even pause to light thecandles 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 thewindow, with the room and the large wicker chair of which I have spokenbehind him. The _Gagliarda_ began with a bold and lively air, and as heplayed the opening bars, he heard behind him a creaking of the wickerchair. The sound was a perfectly familiar one--as of some person placinga hand on either arm of the chair preparatory to lowering himself intoit, 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 thechair was strangely distinct. The illusion was so complete that mybrother stopped playing suddenly, and turned round expecting that somelate friend of his had slipped in unawares, being attracted by the soundof the violin, or that Mr. Gaskell himself had returned. With thecessation of the music an absolute stillness fell upon all; the light ofthe single candle scarcely reached the darker corners of the room, butfell directly on the wicker chair and showed it to be perfectly empty.Half amused, half vexed with himself at having without reasoninterrupted his music, my brother returned to the _Gagliarda_; but someimpulse induced him to light the candles in the sconces, which gave anillumination more adequate to the occasion. The _Gagliarda_ and the lastmovement, a _Minuetto_, were finished, and John closed the book,intending, as it was now late, to seek his bed. As he shut the pages acreaking of the wicker chair again attracted his attention, and he hearddistinctly sounds such as would be made by a person raising himself froma sitting posture. This time, being less surprised, he could more aptlyconsider the probable causes of such a circumstance, and easily arrivedat the conclusion that there must be in the wicker chair osiersresponsive to certain notes of the violin, as panes of glass in churchwindows are observed to vibrate in sympathy with certain tones of theorgan. But while this argument approved itself to his reason, hisimagination was but half convinced; and he could not but be impressedwith the fact that the second creaking of the chair had been coincidentwith his shutting the music-book; and, unconsciously, pictured tohimself some strange visitor waiting until the termination of the music,and then taking his departure.

  His conjectures did not, however, either rob him of sleep or evendisturb it with dreams, and he woke the next morning with a cooler mindand one less inclined to fantastic imagination. If the strange episodeof the previous evening had not entirely vanished from his mind, itseemed at least fully accounted for by the acoustic explanation to whichI have alluded above. Although he saw Mr. Gaskell in the course of themorning, he did not think it necessary to mention to him so trivial acircumstance, but made with him an appointment to sup together in hisown rooms that evening, and to amuse themselves afterwards by essayingsome of the Italian music.

  It was shortly after nine that night when, supper being finished, Mr.Gaskell seated himself at the piano and John tuned his violin. Theevening was closing in; there had been heavy thunder-rain in theafternoon, and the moist air hung now heavy and steaming, while acrossit there throbbed the distant vibrations of the tenor bell at ChristChurch. It was tolling the customary 101 strokes, which are rung everynight in term-time as a signal for closing the college gates. The twoyoung men enjoyed themselves for some while, playing first a suite byCesti, and then two early sonatas by Buononcini. Both of them weresufficiently expert musicians to make reading at sight a pleasure ratherthan an effort; and Mr. Gaskell especially was well versed in the theoryof music, and in the correct rendering of the _basso continuo_. Afterthe Buononcini Mr. Gaskell took up the oblong copy of Graziani, andturning over its leaves, proposed that they should play the same suitewhich John had performed by himself the previous evening. His selectionwas apparently perfectly fortuitous, as my brother had purposelyrefrained from directing his attention in any way to that piece ofmusic. They played the _Coranto_ and the _Sarabanda_, and in thesingular fascination of the music John had entirely forgotten theepisode of the previous evening, when, as the bold air of the_Gagliarda_ commenced, he suddenly became aware of the same strangecreaking of the wicker chair that he had noticed on the first occasion.The sound was identical, and so exact was its resemblance to that of aperson sitting down that he stared at the chair, almost wondering thatit still appeared empty. Beyond turning his head sharply for a moment tolook round, Mr. Gaskell took no notice of the sound; and my brother,ashamed to betray any foolish interest or excitement, continued the_Gagliarda_, with its repeat. At its conclusion Mr. Gaskell stoppedbefore proceeding to the minuet, and turning the stool on which he wassitting round towards the room, observed, "How very strange,Johnnie,"--for these young men were on terms of sufficient intimacy toaddress each other in a familiar style,--"How very strange! I thought Iheard some one sit down in that chair when we began the _Gagliarda_. Ilooked round quite expecting to see some one had come in. Did you hearnothing?"

  "It was only the chair creaking," my brother answered, feigning anindifference which he scarcely felt. "Certain parts of the wicker-workseem to be in accord with musical notes and respond to them; let uscontinue with the _Minuetto_."

  Thus they finished the suite, Mr. Gaskell demanding a repetition of the_Gagliarda_, with the air of which he was much pleased. As the clockshad already struck eleven, they determined not to play more that night;and Mr. Gaskell rose, blew out the sconces, shut the piano, and put themusic aside. My brother has often assured me that he was quite preparedfor what followed, and had been almost expecting it; for as the bookswere put away, a creaking of the wicker chair was audible, exactlysimilar to that which he had heard when he stopped playing on theprevious night. There was a moment's silence; the young men lookedinvoluntarily at one another, and then Mr. Gaskell said, "I cannotunderstand the creaking of that chair; it has never done so before, withall the music we have played. I am perhaps imaginative and excited withthe fine airs we have heard to-night, but I have an impression that Icannot dispel that something has been sitting listening to us all thistime, and that now when the concert is ended it has got up and gone."There was a spirit of raillery in his words, but his tone was not solight as it would ordinarily have been, and he was evidently ill atease.

  "Let us try the _Gagliarda_ again," said my brother; "it is thevibration of the opening notes which affects the wicker-work, and weshall see if the noise is repeated." But Mr. Gaskell excused himselffrom trying the experiment, and after some desultory conversation, towhich it was evident that neither was giving any serious attention, hetook his leave and returned to New College.