We learnt these words at school. I’m sure you did too:
If Music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
And the especially pertinent line:
That strain again: it had a dying fall.
Shakespeare’s words so often glue themselves to your thoughts, and I find they can stay with me all through the day. Don’t they with you? But let’s not talk of Shakespeare or of school, or of anything that reminds us of school’s drudgery, and the days spent cramped at a desk with our heads bowed over those detested sheets of paper. Let us talk instead of village life, for Shakespeare himself was born a country boy.
No, I said I wouldn’t speak of Shakespeare. I want to tell you about Mrs Arnott.
In our village everyone knew dear Mrs Arnott. She was as softly-spoken, white-haired, and delightful an old lady as you might hope to find in any country village, or indeed, if you are very lucky, in your own family. Her voice, her smile, her touch, her every movement were the outward signs of a gentle mind. She kept the shop in our village and sold a wonderful variety of domestic articles, from pins and needles to sheets of music and reproductions of famous oil paintings. Most of her trade came on market days, while for the remainder of the week her little shop slumbered in the sun. On market days, Mrs Arnott smiled and chattered with her customers from morning to evening, and it would puzzle London tradesmen and all those men who think they know so much better to see how she could be so pleasant and yet do so much business. And yet … since she was so strong and hard-working, it seemed odd that her two sons were far less robust. Odd, that is, till one recalled that Mrs Arnott’s husband had died of consumption some ten years earlier.
Nevertheless, her two sons — grown men at the time we are remembering — were popular in the village; they helped Mrs Arnott in the shop and even if, as everyone said, Master Matthew was ‘artistic’ and Master Herbert a truly capable ‘musician’, even if, to us village folk, both sons seemed prodigiously clever, I can assure you that neither was in any way ‘stuck up’ or felt himself to be above chatting with simple farming folk.
At the back of the Arnott house and shop I remember their long garden planted with old-fashioned annual flowers and cabbage roses, beyond which was the boys’ studio and a space beyond for vegetables and herbs. Mrs Arnott called her sons ‘the boys’ even when Herbert was twenty-five and Matthew twenty-three. Now, I mentioned their ‘studio’ — well, the two boys had built it for themselves, some years before this tale begins. It must have been around the time… no, I remember now, it was a few months after their father had died of that dreadful consumption. ‘What will become of those boys?’ we wondered, but the two lads pulled to and helped their mother and altogether behaved in a way that would have made their father proud of them, poor man.
Before long, Herbert had installed a harmonium at one end, while at the other end of the same studio you might find Matthew and his painting apparatus. (I expect he had a better word for it than ‘apparatus’ but we farming people don’t know much about art.) When I say the boys had a ‘studio’ you will no doubt think they were setting their sights above themselves or, worse, that they were hoping to make the kind of life we’re told bohemians live in Paris. Well, no, for right in the centre of the studio they had left a kind of neutral ground where their mother could have her work table and a large cane chair. She would sit at her embroidery and watch her boys or she’d look out across the flower beds or through the back door of the house into the shop. She didn’t have to stay in the shop, you see, because except on market days she might not have three customers the livelong day.
That was their ‘artist’s studio’!
The brothers who, as I say were never strong, had their mother’s sweetness of disposition, yet I must also tell you that they differed, both from each other and from her. Matthew — that was the artist, if you remember — was not ambitious. Quite a dreamer, in fact. I don’t think he ever went more than a dozen miles from his home. ‘Ten miles out and ten miles back are enough for any reasonable man to walk,’ he’d say. ‘Where can you find a finer sunset or sweeter daybreak than over these nearby hills?’ Well, there’s many a person here in the village would agree with him. Why go trampling about the country or on the continent when you have nature’s beauty close at hand? And for all that Matthew wasn’t a strong lad, and for all that he’d spend hours dreaming in his studio with a paintbrush or a pencil in his hand, why, when that boy set his mind to it, he could easily do a twenty mile walk. And I’ll tell you another thing: no one was ever dull in Matthew’s company. In fact, I’ve known folk make a pretext of buying a sketch from him just so they could tell him their griefs and worries. Invariably they would walk away afterwards with lightened hearts. Matthew’s outward cheerfulness, I think, showed the innate cheerfulness of his disposition. It can’t have been only because he was an artist that he was always able to find a patch of bright colour in the dreariest prospect. Nor was there ever such a fellow for whistling and singing.
Ah, but for ‘whistling and singing’, for music (I mean proper music) we must look to his brother Herbert, for to Herbert music was a serious business. He loved music. He lived and died for it, you might say — but, for all that, I never heard him whistle. His kind of music was not the kind you could whistle. Herbert was thinner and paler than his brother, and had a pensive reserve and silence of the kind you might expect from a man who lived in his imagination and sat at his harmonium dreamily improvising for hours on end. Now, don’t let me make you think I didn’t like his music. How could anyone not like it? We in the village would hear his beautiful music and when we did it was enough to recall the words of Thomas Gray — do you remember? — that, like some ‘mute inglorious Milton’:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Herbert spoke, as it were, through his music, which was just as well, in truth, for he never said a lot in words. When he did drop a few syllables into general conversation they were signs that Herbert made, Matt used to joke, only to assure you that he was not fast asleep. As I say, he lived and died for music — so much so, in fact, that he had been known to leave a meal table abruptly or to rise from bed at unearthly hours to go out to his harmonium. Perhaps, on some of those early mornings, his mother and brother thought it just as well they had built the studio away from the house and out in the garden, though if his playing was an inconvenience for the rest of the house, I’m sure he’d be forgiven because he could play so well and because the melodies he invented were so lovely. No one could listen to his music without feeling that Herbert’s harmonies should be revealed to a far larger audience than to we untutored folk in the village, and he himself, I know, was ambitious and dissatisfied with the limits forced by his position. I heard him say to Matthew once that he wanted to ‘learn, learn, learn and listen to great works and great masters… but I know that will never be.’
Knowing that her son had these ungratified yearnings must have been a grief to Mrs Arnott. I’m sure she had always shared her love impartially between her two boys and she maintained them equally in her affection, yet I think in her heart of hearts she loved Herbert more, partly because it can be a mother’s capricious way to love most the child who responds the least, and partly because she knew and was saddened by his aspirations. She would not have wanted Herbert to discard his hopes but she must have wished he could be content to confine himself to their simple life. Had she had just a little more money she might have sent him to London or to wherever he needed to go to realise his ambitions but, because it was not possible, she did whatever she could to make our simple village life appear agreeable to him.
Mrs Arnott and her boys were well known to everyone in the neighbourhood, even if the boys were now well over twenty years of age. As they were both well-mannered and well-liked young men, they could have chosen wives from wherever they liked among us. Not only were they respectable and intelligent, both young men were handsome, and perhaps it’s my prejudice but, in my opinion, among Mrs Arnott’s customers were many amiable, pretty and marriageable young ladies. We may not be sophisticated in our village but we have our merits!
Mrs Arnott, industrious as she was, used to organise little picnics and strawberry feasts, and scarcely a week passed by without her bringing visitors to the boys’ studio; visitors from among her female customers, of course, for what men in the village found themselves free in the daytime for strawberry feasts? Matthew has told me recently that this used to make him smile, because he and his brother were well aware of their mother’s intentions; yet, good as these intentions were, Mrs Arnott’s little schemes did not seem destined for success. ‘And why was that?’ I asked. ‘For haven’t our young ladies always been worthy of smiles, and didn’t they do their prettiest to win them?’
Matthew shrugged his shoulders and did not properly answer. Perhaps that was because, to the disappointment perhaps of Mrs Arnott, our young village ladies tended to devote themselves more to him than to his brother Herbert, who seemed serenely unaware of them and who was more interested in his harmonies. The young ladies, in their turn, chose more often than not to drift to the other end of the studio to chat with Matthew, though in Matthew’s absence they might stay to sit and quietly regard his musical brother in silent awe. They were simple, good-hearted village girls, unlike the newcomers to the village, the Rileys, family to the new estate manager who had moved into the old Green Cottage. Here was fresh blood indeed, and theirs was a family in which there were two unmarried daughters. Ah yes, I hear you think: now we are coming to the point! And I suppose you will not be surprised to learn that, before long, Mrs Arnott had somehow arranged for Herbert to be engaged to teach the Riley’s eldest daughter to play the organ.
The young lady’s name was Jane, and she seemed anxious to learn to play. She was also a perfect beauty, thought Mrs Arnott, sighing over the hopeless condition of her son, who could sit beside Miss Riley at the organ and guide her fingers but was unable later to answer whether Jane was plain or otherwise. He seemed to recall nothing of her conversation; he remembered the music they had played, but little more. The lessons progressed, and Mrs Arnott made herself stop asking questions, and so it must have come upon her and Matthew like a thunderclap from a clear sky when one day at tea time Herbert, in his quiet manner, said, ‘I wish you would ask Jane Riley here to the house one afternoon, Mother.’
‘Oh, my dear Herbert! Why have you never said anything before?’
‘I hadn’t thought of it,’ he said, ‘until just now, when you were pouring out the tea.’
Matthew burst out laughing. ‘Oh, there’s a romantic man!’ he cried, taking up his cup of tea. ‘Here’s a toast to Herbert’s success and happiness.’
Their mother pressed Herbert a little more. He seemed surprised that she should ask, but he eventually conceded that if ever he were to marry, he would like Jane Riley to be his wife.
Now, at this time the strawberry season had passed over, and it was a matter of particular concern to Mrs Arnott that because the delightful season had ended she could no longer find an opportunity to invite a chosen guest to a strawberry tea. Nevertheless, she noted, having carefully perused the garden, that the mulberries were swelling, and did not mulberries taste as sweet as strawberries (even if, as she privately admitted, they ‘did stain dreadfully’)? She wrote in a neat and trembling hand to ask a certain two young ladies to drink tea with her, and to eat mulberries. The Misses Riley accepted her invitation.
As we in this country know all too well, September’s weather can be unpredictable, but that afternoon was warm and fine and, to Mrs Arnott’s great relief, it was possible for her to serve tea under the mulberry tree out on the lawn. She engaged poor old Margery to come and wait on them and, before she came, that good soul starched her best cap so stiff that she could hardly turn her head, for perhaps she knew what was going forward. Miss Margery waited upon Herbert and Miss Jane Riley, and she quite neglected not only Mrs Arnott but Matthew and the younger Miss Riley too — but did that other young lady mind? No. She had Matthew to attend to her, and his sense of fun removed any solemnity from the occasion and saved everyone from embarrassment. After tea, Mrs Arnott had the pleasure of watching her two sons set off in the gloaming to accompany the two young ladies back to Green Cottage. As they strolled along the shady lane, Matthew and the younger sister moved far ahead, and in his merriment Matt scared the hedge birds, while Herbert and Jane followed more slowly, as silent and thoughtful as the gathering twilight that settled around them.
‘I think there is nothing sweeter than birdsong,’ Jane said eventually.
Herbert glanced at her. ‘Do you sing, as well as play?’
‘A little,’ replied Miss Riley, surprised perhaps that he had not realised. ‘I hope you don’t mean to ask me to perform?’
I think she hoped that he would ask her, but he had a different question in his mind, and he seemed to be composing his next words with more difficulty than when he composed his music. ‘Perhaps,’ he began, then stopped. ‘Perhaps one day, I might dare to hope that … one day … perhaps I might then have the pleasure of hearing you sing without restraint.’ She smiled briefly, but did not reply. ‘Of course, our relationship is not yet close enough,’ he said.
Miss Riley thought a moment, then remained silent. The village was new to her and she had known Herbert but a short time, yet she wondered: did not his words amount almost to a declaration? She waited, expecting to hear more. But he said nothing. He had said all that he had meant to say. It was clear to Herbert that he had come to love the girl and he felt relieved that, as he conceived of it, he had made his feelings known. The position was clear, he felt: he had said what he had never said before or that he had even considered saying to a woman, and his words were ones that would not be repeated to another. Had he not resolved that Jane should be his wife? He had, he decided, yes, and she had not rebuked him for it. In consequence, he would never stray from that resolution nor would he alter it by a single letter. In those few words, he thought, he had told Jane all he meant, she had responded, and there was no need of more.
As she walked the lane beside him, Jane Riley pondered on what Herbert had meant when he had uttered those carefully chosen phrases. She knew he was a man of few words, that he lived and expressed himself in music, and she was confident that he was and always would be honourable. Herbert Arnott was a fine man, a principled man, and in this quiet village she had met no better. He was pensive; well, she could be pensive, there was nothing wrong with being pensive, although at this moment, especially at this moment, she might have preferred to skip ahead, to laugh and joke with her sister who was walking ahead of them with Matthew. But Jane maintained the twilight silence. She had her pensive moods, she had her merry ones; she could as happily walk in the summer lane with grave Herbert as run ahead and sport with Matthew and her sister. She could do either. Which, she wondered, might she prefer?
Herbert had surely declared his love for her. Though she had done nothing that might be construed as unladylike encouragement, neither had she done anything to deter him. Nor would she now, for to do so would have been ignoble: Herbert had honoured her, and Jane had no reason to repudiate him or to hurt him in any way. She would not hurt anyone, and certainly not him. It was in this way, I think, without Jane’s actually intending to, that she found herself virtually engaged to him. He had asked no direct question to which she could answer but, nevertheless, having told her his feeling, she understood that he took it for granted that she returned his love.
In the weeks that followed, it was strange for Jane to realise that she had agreed to be married to this oddly unknowable man, a man enthusiastic and darting with his music, yet silent and pensive in his speech, and you may think it odd that she, like Herbert, remained silent on the topic. Yet that’s how it was. The two young people did not say anything, no one else said anything, yet it was tacitly understood by Jane that such a marriage lay before her. To Jane Riley it was as certain as if she had replied formally to a formal solicitation. She did not ask herself whether she loved Herbert. She knew she admired him above any man in the world —that must be the most important thing — and if she was conscious also of something wanting in the nature of her regard for him, she did not brood on it. To do so would not be seemly. Nevertheless, she thought, if only he would speak more to her, if only he would lead the conversation onto the subject as ordinary lovers do, then she could have explained her feelings to him. They could have talked. But Herbert said nothing, and by saying nothing he gave her no opportunity to speak.
She came to realise that it was up to her to make an opportunity. Since nothing explicit had been announced, Herbert was able to continue giving her organ lessons in the church, and there, seated beside each other on the bench which is, of course, alone and isolated from the main church, she found the courage to ask, ‘How long, Herbert dear, do you think we might remain master and pupil, and nothing more, in this very private way?’
He gazed at the keyboard for several moments. She could not tell whether he might be composing an answer or a tune. ‘I have always known that I cannot talk as other men do,’ he said eventually. He touched the keys. ‘This is my voice. Let this tell you what is in my heart.’
As his sensitive fingers caressed the keys, Jane sat beside him with her hands folded. The sound of the organ throbbed around them, and when she glanced at his expressive and handsome face she saw it fired with warmth and passion. She did not recognise the tune, she barely listened to it, perhaps it was extempore, but when it finally subsided into a dreamy reverie, she saw Herbert’s hands linger over the final bars as if he could not bear to end the melody. She was awed by the music, she was awed by him, and she felt herself raised into an unknown and spiritual region in which she would blush to acknowledge her human yearnings. Then, as the tune drifted to its close, she felt herself float down again to become the earthly Jane Riley, loved by a man of genius, and shortly to be this man’s for ever. A tear sprang to her eye. Was it a tear of joy, she might have wondered, or was it like the regret one feels when one has come to the end of a quiet walk among spring flowers and warm sunlight?
Still nothing had been resolved; yet, I beg you, do not think that Herbert himself was not disturbed. It seemed to Herbert that, when he watched the woman he loved, he found no reflection of his own love in her sweet eyes. In fact, he thought, rather than reflect his passionate longing for her, Jane’s lovely eyes appeared full of sadness. Could that be true? Could she be sad? Did she not feel as he did? It made him wretched to know that because of his shy nature he could not properly convey his earnest love to her. He had only one means of expression, and as the days remorselessly passed by he made himself work harder in the struggle to set down and convey his thoughts in music. He wanted his compositions to convey thoughts he could not utter. But all those hours spent at the organ bench made Herbert grow thinner and paler day by day, and, as Jane watched with troubled mind, it seemed to those of us who watched that she grew paler too.
If your life is music its call is irresistible. That is why the man who strolled by the church that evening and heard the organ’s lament was compelled to stop and listen, then come inside. He sat in a pew, the only member of the audience — for there was no service, no congregation — and he waited until the powerful music came to its end. Only then did he move from the main body of the church and take himself to the organ loft to find the organist.
When the man appeared, Herbert was tidying away his sheet music. He smiled politely but continued to tidy the music into its case until the man accosted him. ‘I know you are the organist! How can I tell? Well.’ The man’s accent was foreign, Herbert noticed. Why, he wondered idly, do foreigners have such trouble with the letter W?
‘You see, sir, although now you are not sitting at your instrument, I must tell you that I can see your calling in your hands and — may I say? — in your bent shoulders, your eyes and lips as well, they all insist that you must be a musician.’ Definitely foreign, Herbert could tell. He studied the man in the way he might examine a new harmonium. ‘But, excuse me, sir, I have not recognised the piece you played. It was written by an Englishman?’
‘I wrote it,’ Herbert replied.
‘I knew so! I was saying to myself, this cannot be a mere church player, this man has the body and soul of a composer. So. And I heard you playing Bach earlier, yes? Do you know some other German composers?’
‘Of course — ’
‘Do you know Frümmel?’
Herbert frowned. ‘I believe… isn’t there an anthem?’
‘Many more pieces than that, my friend! Frümmel’s anthem. Look, I show you.’
‘I have turned the organ off.’
‘It is no matter. Listen.’ The man sat himself on the stool and began playing the silent keys, singing the notes loudly as he played, as if he himself were the organ.
‘Ah, yes,’ laughed Herbert. He joined in, singing the bass harmony line to the stranger’s melody. ‘I do know that one, yes, I remember it now.’
Suddenly the man stopped. ‘Frümmel’s Te Deum… do you know that piece also? Ah, it is schöne.’
‘You are German?’
‘I am Frümmel! So. Let me shake your hand. We are brothers, you see, sir, yes? Is it not so? Come, sir, you must play some more for me.’
‘But the organ is turned off. ’
‘It is no matter. We can turn it on. Who is to stop us? We shall sit here in the organ loft and make some fine music. We shall talk fine music. We shall live fine music. You must play more of your compositions… but I warn you, my friend: with all your melodies, for every one you play, I will play two of mine! And I have hundreds.’
That was how their acquaintance began, an acquaintance that deepened so rapidly that in two days you might have thought they had known each other for many years. It expanded on both sides into warm friendship and enthusiastic admiration. Herbert’s normal lack of conversation did not matter, for day after day they sat together at the organ, arranging, altering, expanding, comparing and trying each other’s musical compositions. So engaged was Herbert with his new friend that in those two days he failed to talk with Jane Riley at all. Music, after all, was his first love, and one might almost say that Herr Frümmel became part of his love. Both men felt the same. ‘You are the first man in England who can understand me,’ Frümmel declared.
This was not his most astounding declaration. It seemed astounding enough to Herbert that Frümmel was a composer whose travels through Britain had brought him to our village, but that he applauded Herbert’s work was even more astounding. And to learn that in Germany Herr Frümmel was renowned and rich was a revelation. On top of this — most astounding of all, it seemed to Herbert — was the invitation from Herr Frümmel that his new friend, the young unknown English composer, should come, at Frümmel’s expense, to Germany to study there, ‘and to help me, of course, to help me every day, for I warn you that I am always a ferocious worker! Oh, yes. But in return I will help you… ’ These words were unbelievable, but Herbert did believe them and was determined to seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
He broke the news to his mother: ‘For two years, Mother. Herr Frümmel says he will let me study in Germany for two years. I shall have a room in his house. He will introduce me to the great masters. I shall compose in his own study, play in his own cathedral…’
‘For two years?’ his mother queried.
‘In his own cathedral?’ Matthew laughed. ‘He has his own cathedral?’
‘He is Kapellmeister there. He says I should write an opera, and he will have Herr Bülow produce it.’
‘An opera?’ Mrs Arnott breathed.
‘You will leave everyone here?’ asked Matthew. ‘Everyone?’
‘Herr Frümmel says that in two years, everyone will speak of me. I shall be famous.’
‘Oh, that Herr Frümmel!’ Mrs Arnott cried. ‘A German.’ She said no more. She could see from her son’s face that as far as he was concerned the German Frümmel was a god, and it was as if God himself had descended from the sky. Nothing would deflect Herbert from his fate.
He had never seemed so animated. He talked of music and Germany and could not keep to himself the memory of Herr Frümmel’s prediction: ‘Soon all the world will speak of you, Herr Arnott, and when eventually you return to your sweetheart in England you will tell her, “This I have done for you. This is a gift I want you to accept.” The wedding bells will ring, my friend, and it will be to the glorious sound of her own husband’s triumphal wedding march that the beautiful bride shall step towards the altar. This shall be, my friend, yes, it shall be, I tell you! All of this and so much more.’
Now, when Herbert left England he had not bound himself formally to Jane. On the few occasions that he was with her, he was almost as speechless as before. At their time of parting he held her hand for several minutes, and she waited, sure that now at least Herbert must speak. But he did not. Or rather, he did speak a little, but he did not ask her formally to become his wife. Eventually, Jane gathered courage to lift her eyes from the ground, and she prepared herself to tell him the thoughts that oppressed her mind. ‘Herbert,’ she began.
He turned towards her eagerly, but she saw immediately that his thoughts were elsewhere: in Germany with his friend Frümmel! So she kept silent. This was not the time. After all, what better man could she have for a husband? Jane chided herself for being selfish, for it seemed to her that were she not to let him go it would be the same as not to love him, a childish caprice. That, at least, is what I believe. That, I think, is why Jane spoke no more to him, other than to say, ‘Farewell.’
Later, though, that evening in the privacy of their little kitchen, his mother asked Herbert more. ‘Have you asked her to wait for you? What have you asked her?’
‘Jane and I have looked into each other’s eyes,’ Herbert said simply. ‘We saw fidelity there. No, mother,’ he said as she tried to speak. ‘Love cannot be bound by oaths or words. I have told Jane that at the end of two years I shall return, and I know that if she loves me as I love her today, she will still love me then.’
Mrs Arnott felt a lump come to her throat. Her son, she saw, had changed. He had become a man, and as men will do at such a time, her son would leave her.
By now, I am sure you will have realised that Herbert was a dutiful son. Every week he wrote to his mother, and during his first year away, he received from Mrs Arnott and from Matthew ample information about Jane. He heard that Jane visited Mrs Arnott and took tea with her regularly once a week, and that Matthew had now been engaged to teach the two Riley sisters drawing. Indeed it was mainly from Matthew’s postscripts that Herbert learned all that was to be known of Jane. Not that Mrs Arnott didn’t mention her. Far from it: she wrote that she loved Jane as if she were already her own daughter, and that Jane became sweeter and prettier at every visit, and that the more she was known the more she must be loved. But this told Herbert little; what little there was to learn he learned from Matt.
After the first year it must be admitted that the news of Jane began to diminish. It seemed that she came less frequently to tea, though the weather that winter had been bad, explained Mrs Arnott. Another letter explained that Matthew was to give up his teaching engagement in consequence of ill health. The poor boy seemed unwell; she couldn’t say why. Herbert expressed his deep concern but did not offer to come home. The spring months passed into summer, and with the sunnier weather Herbert found that he missed his Jane. She must be the dearest and sweetest and best girl breathing, even if he heard little about her now. Mrs Arnott mentioned her less and less. Jane did not write to him herself. It would not be right, and in that second year a hasty postscript from Matthew mentioned her only once. He said that Jane continued to sing well, and Herbert realised that she must still be singing somewhere for Matt to have heard her, but he thought it a shame if she would have to end her singing lessons.
Though it was frustrating for Herbert to receive only these scraps of news, he had, in his second year of absence, many other things to occupy him. The good-hearted Frümmel had carried out his promise, and Herbert found that, if ‘the whole world’ did not yet speak of him, he did at least have some small fame in a section of German musical society. That small fame gave him position, and money to boot, but he did not let this go to his head. He missed England. Now, although I’m sure there would have been no need for him to see out his final term like a schoolboy or apprentice, he chose to wait until shortly before the end of his second year before he told Herr Frümmel that he had a determination to pay a visit home. ‘Then go, my friend. I am surprised you never went before.’
Herbert started by the first train the very next morning, a little surprised and even proud, perhaps, at his impulsiveness. He was older now, more mature, and he found that he could manage the journey like an experienced traveller, and when eventually he arrived at the old cottage he was only moderately tired. But no one was at home. Only then did he remember that it was a Sunday morning and that everyone in the village would be at church. Ah well, he thought, how long he had been away! He had a wash, left his suitcase in the bedroom, then went out to the garden studio and slipped inside. After two years, the room had inevitably altered. More space was given over to Matthew’s paintings now, but he was pleased to see that there was still a musical corner reserved for his return. There was the old harmonium, which must be out of tune, he thought. He sat down to it and began to play.
That’s where he was when his mother discovered him. On returning from church, she heard the harmonium and immediately rushed to the studio, kissed her son ardently and welcomed him home.
‘But where is Matthew?’ Herbert asked.
‘It is so wonderful to have you home, though you’re a few days earlier than we expected. Matthew, you say? Why, Matthew has gone for a walk.’
‘I hope he walked you home from church?’
‘Matthew didn’t come to church today. He is … he was too restless. He went out after breakfast, but he will be home with us for tea.’
‘Does he not still sing in the choir?’
‘Oh, he gave that up long ago. Now, come now, Herbert, let’s not talk of Matthew. Tell me all about how you’ve been and what you have done.’
She sat down beside Matthew’s easel. Mrs Arnott was eager to hear Herbert’s stories, and twice she interrupted to exclaim that he seemed much more loquacious now. ‘It must make a change to speak in English,’ she declared.
‘How is Matthew. Is he well?’
‘Oh, he’s … he has been reasonably well. He’s a little out of sorts just now.’
‘Did he know I was coming home?’
‘Yes, but he didn’t know it would be today. Nobody did. Tell me about Mr Frümmel’s family.’
‘And how is Miss Riley?’ he asked her carefully. ‘You haven’t mentioned her yet.’
‘Well, she… she doesn’t know you’re back yet, does she? Oh, well, perhaps tomorrow. Let’s delay seeing Jane until tomorrow.’
‘As a surprise?’
‘Yes. Let it be a surprise.’
Herbert watched his mother. After these two years she seemed older. He was older too, of course, and had become a man. Mother had always run the family and he found it amusing that, even in his twenties, she still thought of him as her ‘boy’. But he wasn’t a boy now.
‘Is Jane happy, Mother?’
‘Well, she… it has been a long time since I have seen her. I don’t often.’
‘And is Matthew happy?’
‘Well, he’s not— ’ She didn’t know what to say. ‘Let’s wait until he comes home, shall we, my dear?’
Herbert frowned. ‘Perhaps we should talk about Matthew now.’ His mother gazed at him helplessly. ‘I can’t help seeing the anxiety in your face, mother, and you have told me nothing.’
‘What is there to — ’
Mrs Arnott looked away. ‘I didn’t know how to tell you.’
‘Oh, I’m a man now,’ he said, although for the first time since his return he did not feel quite like a man. Mrs Arnott, for the first time also, heard the false note in Herbert’s voice, as if a string somewhere had been stretched slightly out of tune. She looked away as he continued: ‘Don’t fear to tell me what it is that makes your heart so heavy, Mother. There’s no need to conceal the truth. Look at me.’ She did so. ‘Don’t you see that I’m much stronger now than when I went away?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t. In fact, you look rather pale, my boy.’
‘Pale! That’s nothing. It must be the effect of the sea voyage, nothing more. But you are right to say I have altered. You cannot tell how tough I have become. Listen, and I shall prove it to you. I shall play you an affecting Leid by Schubert, full of the most dreadful pulls upon the heart.’ He laughed, in a rather harsh way, Mrs Arnott thought. ‘Yet, if you observe my face as I am playing, you will find my expression unchanged from start to end.’
He sat at the old harmonium. It was, as he had already discovered, rather tired and out of tune. As he gently played, with his eyes closed and an absent smile about his lips, his mother crept closer to tell him what it seemed that Herbert already knew, even if he had only known it in these last moments. He knew already that his love for Jane was wasted and that she now loved another. ‘Is that not true, Mother?’
She could not reply. But Herbert, his head inclined to the keys and with his eyes closed all the while, continued in a murmur, ‘Matthew. Does he love her in return?’
His mother whispered confirmation. He continued playing, and he did not speak again until he had finished the wordless song. ‘Poor Matt,’ he sighed. ‘Poor Jane. Indeed, I should say poor mother! How all three of you must have suffered.’
His mother began to sob. But her son was stronger than she; he had indeed become a man. ‘No, please,’ commanded Herbert, and to drown his mother’s sobs he began the tune all over again. ‘Can you imagine the words to this?’ he asked. ‘They are suggested by the melody, and are telling the story of our lives. Listen, Mother, and you shall hear the music speak to us. What can you hear?’
Did Mrs Arnott hear the words? It does not matter. She could not answer.
But Herbert sounded gay. ‘There is a knight… look, just here, in this deep passage… and you can hear that he is filled with passion, and that he has no thought of anything other than his goal. He is preparing for the crusade. Listen… this is where he departs from the maiden… do you hear the maiden’s tune? Just here. Ah. And before he leaves, he binds her to eternal fealty. Then he gives her to the care of his younger brother.’
‘Oh, don’t!’ his mother cried.
‘In this next passage… is it not tender? We begin to experience the true and human passion that grows between maiden and brother, but the brother is too true, too loyal to the absent crusader to tell anyone of his love. Ah, here she is again. Do you hear her sigh? Now… this passage… we are outside the church… there, can you hear the bell? The two ill-fated lovers have shunned each other and she goes in alone. But the brother, that poor wretched man, stands outside in the cold. He can only listen to the voice of the girl he loves as she sings within. She is singing of Heavenly joy. But what the poor boy cannot see is that as she sings her eyes have begun to fill with tears. Oh, isn’t this just so beautiful?’
He played some more, and his mother muttered that it was beautiful, although she still could not hear the words. Herbert shifted on his stool, and she thought for a moment that he might be about to hum the tune. But he started to speak again, very quietly. So quietly she could hardly hear.
‘The mood will break here. It is another day. And this martial tune will mark the return of the poor boy’s brother, laden with the spoils he went to seek. He has arrived. Do you hear the trill? He asks for his dogs, then for his brother, then at last for his old love. And here the steward speaks: “Sir Knight,” he says. “Tonight they sleep in separate graves.” The knight shivers. Yet it is beautiful. So sad.’
Herbert played through to the end.
‘Now, Mother, I must put a different end to this affair. I too went abroad to seek my goal but I have not returned laden with spoils, though I have, at least, returned a man. And now I can have only one goal.’ He played a chord. ‘I shall play the bridal march for my brother and his bride.’
Herbert did indeed play the wedding march, and he played it on the organ in the old church. Loud and joyous pealed the music, and greatly stirred were those who heard it. That day it seemed that joy and gladness poured over the happy pair, and when they stepped out from our old church they were loudly clapped and cheered. The village crowd bustled about them as Matt and Jane walked arm in arm along the lane towards her old home, the Riley’s home at Green Cottage, outside which Mrs Riley had covered every table with cakes and pastries and refreshing drinks. Many a speech was made, and many fond toasts were drunk. Some people perhaps noticed that Herbert was not there, and those of us who knew the history nodded and praised him for his tact.
Herbert, you see, had remained in the organ loft at the church, empty now of everyone except he. He played the Lied of Schubert, and then began some soft Lieder of his own. He played quietly, so quietly that he might have been playing on the old cottage harmonium for himself alone. For who was there to hear? There was one person, only one. It was the old pew-opener, shuffling around the church. She wanted to get home to her own housework, but she couldn’t leave until the organist came to the end of his lengthy tunes. She sat down heavily on a pew, and in a snatch of silence she jingled her keys. But the organist didn’t seem to hear. She thought of her tiny kitchen and the potatoes waiting to be peeled, the fire to tend, the children who by now were sure to be up to mischief. Would the organist never be done?
Then she heard him change his theme. For a little while the woman stopped jingling her keys so she could listen to what he played. The music had grown ineffably pathetic, and for some reason its throbbing chords called to the old lady’s mind the face of her firstborn child, the beautiful one that had died, and she thought she could see the little child’s face again, as it lay helpless in pain and suffering. Tears filled the woman’s eyes. More plaintive grew the melody and, as it grew even weaker, she felt again the agony of parting from the body of her long-dead child. The poor lady sobbed aloud.
She couldn’t bear it there in the church. She would let the organist play, the woman decided, and would come back later when he had done. At first, as she hurried away, the soft melody seemed to accompany her on her path. But he was playing so softly that the further she went, the easier it was to lose the sound beneath the bright and chirpy birdsong in the evening air.
Still Herbert played. The melody slowed. By now the tune had lost itself in mournful harmonies. You would never have thought an organ could be played so softly. There was little to hear but occasional chords. There were pauses, he would begin again, and then finally, when he played the last note, there was only a discordant but quivering sigh. The organ fell silent. The night drew in. But Herbert did not emerge from the darkening church. His song had ended.
Nicola Nickleby asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work