Night music, p.20
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       Night Music, p.20

           John Connolly
 

  “And you?” she asked gently. “You must have lost someone, too?”

  But she already sensed the answer. She would not have asked otherwise. Women have a way of detecting absences.

  “We all lost someone,” I said, as I stood and wiped my hands and mouth.

  I could see that she wanted to inquire further, but she did not. Instead she said, “Pain and loss are so strange, are they not?”

  “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

  “I mean we have all suffered in the same war, and we all have spaces in our lives now that were once filled by people whom we loved, but none of us experiences it in exactly the same way,” she said, and her gaze was set far from me, and far from the inn. “When we talk about it—if we talk about it—nobody quite understands what we’re saying, even when we’re speaking to someone who is also living with such loss. It’s as if we are speaking versions of the same language, but the most important words have slightly different meanings to each one of us. Everything has changed, hasn’t it? It’s just as you said: the world can never be the same as it was before.”

  “Would you want it to be?” I said. “The seeds of the war were sown in the old world. Perhaps the only good thing to come out of it all is that those seeds have been blasted from the earth and will never grow again.”

  “Do you really believe that?” she said.

  “No.”

  “I don’t either. But we have to hope, don’t we?”

  “Yes,” I said, “I suppose we do.”

  •  •  •

  Mrs. Gissing came to the inn shortly after. She was a small, dour woman of indeterminate age, but probably somewhere between forty and fifty, and dressed entirely in black. The landlord’s wife had told me that Mrs. Gissing had lost two sons in the war, one at Verdun and the other at Ypres, and was now entirely alone, having been widowed when her boys were still infants. It was about a mile or so to Bromdun Hall, and Mrs. Gissing informed me that she usually walked to and from there, so I walked with her.

  We had to pass through the village to reach Bromdun Hall, and there were the usual greetings given and received, although nobody asked me my name or my business, and I could only assume that those who did not know did not care, and those who did care already knew from the men who had kept me company at the bar the night before. At the center of the village was a small green, and on it stood a war memorial. There were fresh flowers laid at its base. Mrs. Gissing kept her face to the road, as if she could not bear to look at the monument. Perhaps I should have kept quiet but, as Quayle pointed out, I have a perverse habit of speaking my mind, and the landlord’s wife had set me to thinking.

  “I was sorry to hear of your loss,” I said to Mrs. Gissing.

  Her features tightened for a moment, as though reacting to a physical pain, then resumed their previous expression.

  “Twelve boys left this village and nine never came back,” she said. “And the ones who did return lost something of themselves over there in the mud. I still don’t understand the point of it all.”

  “I was there, and I don’t understand the point of it either,” I said.

  She softened at that: just a little, but enough.

  “Were you at Verdun or Ypres?” she asked. There was a kind of hope in her voice, as though I might have been able to tell her that I knew her sons, and they had spoken of her often, and their deaths were quick, but I could tell her none of those things.

  “No. The war ended for me at High Wood.”

  “I don’t know where that is.”

  “The Somme. The French call it Bois des Forcaux. It has something to do with pitchforks. There was a place called Delville Wood nearby, but the men I served with always called it Devil’s Wood. They didn’t clear it after the war. They say thousands of bodies are still buried beneath it.”

  “You left friends there?”

  “I left everything there. I don’t suppose it matters, though. The dead are past caring.”

  “I don’t know if that’s true,” she said. “I talk to my boys, and I feel them listening. They listen, the dead. They’re always listening. What else is there for them to do?”

  And she said no more.

  •  •  •

  Bromdun Hall was a huge, rambling pile set on about five acres, and every inch of the house spoke of slow decay. It was falling into disrepair, and I could feel the drafts as soon as we were in sight of the place. I couldn’t imagine that one small woman would be able to maintain a house of that size, even with some help from its resident, but Mrs. Gissing said that most of the rooms were used for storage and nothing more. Her main duties consisted of cooking three meals a day, doing laundry, and keeping a handful of rooms in a clean and habitable condition. Mr. Maulding, it seems, made few other demands upon her. She displayed considerable fondness toward him, though, and seemed genuinely concerned for his welfare. When I asked if she had considered calling the police at any point, she replied that Mr. Quayle in London had expressly ordered her not to do so. It was, it seemed, to Quayle that she had first reported her concerns about her master. Maulding’s nephew, Mr. Forbes, had only learned of his absence later, when he called at the house, as he was occasionally wont to do when he needed money, and Mrs. Gissing was forced to inform him of the situation.

  What I did learn was that Maulding had made a number of sojourns into London in the months before his disappearance, trips of which Quayle appeared to have been entirely unaware, for he had not mentioned them to me. Mrs. Gissing had been surprised by this change in her master’s routine, but had made no comment upon it. On such occasions, a cab would collect him at the door first thing in the morning, deliver him to the station, and then return him to his home following the arrival of the last train from London. He had made three such trips, and had always informed Mrs. Gissing the day before of his intention to travel.

  “Is it possible that he might have gone to London without your knowledge, and simply not have returned?” I asked.

  “No,” she said, and her tone brooked no contradiction. “He always got the same driver to take him to the station and bring him home after, and he always made his timetable known. He’s a delicate man, Mr. Maulding. He had polio as a boy, and it left him with a twisted right leg. He can’t walk very far without it causing him pain. It’s one of the reasons why he has traveled so rarely. There’s just too much discomfort in it for him.”

  “And do you have any idea where in London he might have been going, or whom he might have been seeing?”

  “He didn’t share such matters with me,” she said.

  “Had he any enemies?” I asked.

  “Lord, no,” she said. “He had no friends, neither—not because there was anything wrong with him,” she hastened to add. “He just had all that he needed here.”

  She gestured to the house, which was now looming above us.

  “This was—” She corrected herself. “This is his home. He didn’t want to go out into the world, so he found a way to bring the world to him.”

  It was an odd thing to say, and I didn’t comprehend her meaning until I entered the house itself, and then I understood.

  There were books everywhere: on the floors, on the stairs, on furniture both built for that purpose and constructed for other ends entirely. There were bookshelves in the main hallway, in the downstairs rooms, and in the upstairs rooms. There were even bookshelves in the bathroom and the kitchen. There were so many volumes that, had it been possible to extract the skeleton of the house, its walls and floors, its bricks and mortar, and leave the contents intact, then the shape of the building would still have been visible to the observer, but constructed entirely from books. I had never seen anything like it. Even the reading rooms of the British Library itself seemed to pale beside it. Standing among all those books it was possible to believe that there was no other space in the world so crammed with manifestations of the printed word than Lionel Maulding’s home.

  As I walked through the house,
Mrs. Gissing at my heels, I examined the titles. There were books on every subject, and in every major language. Some were so large that special tables had been made to hold them, and to move them safely would have required two men. Others were so small that they lived in glass cases, a magnifying glass hanging beside them on a chain so the microscopic print within could be made legible.

  “Astonishing,” I said.

  “Every day more arrive,” said Mrs. Gissing. “I’ve left the new ones in the library for Mr. Maulding’s return.”

  For the first time, she showed some sign of distress. Her voice caught, and her eyes grew moist.

  “You will find him, sir, won’t you? You will bring him back safely to his books?”

  I told her that I would try. I asked if the grounds had been searched, and she told me that they had. There was a groundsman, Ted Willox, who knew the property intimately. He and his sons were the only other people in the village aware of Lionel Maulding’s disappearance. Willox had engaged his sons to help him search Maulding’s land, and they had gone over it, every inch. They had found no trace of the master of the house.

  Willox was away that day, visiting a sister who was ill, but was due to return to Maidensmere the following morning. I told Mrs. Gissing to send him to me as soon as he arrived. I was, I confess, surprised at the loyalty of Gissing and Willox to Maulding, and their willingness to protect his privacy even as they feared for his safety. Mrs. Gissing seemed to sense this, for as she showed me to my room, she spoke once more.

  “Mr. Maulding is a good and kind man. I just want you to know that, sir. He’s always been generous to me. My boys, my lovely boys, they’re buried in the cemetery here, and I get to speak to them every day. There are always fresh flowers for them, no matter the season, and the weeds are kept at bay. Mr. Maulding arranged that, sir. He spoke to the generals in London, and they brought my boys home for me, each of them in turn. I’ve never wanted for anything, Mr. Willox neither. All Mr. Maulding asks in return is for his meals to be prepared, his clothes to be cleaned, and his bed to be made, and otherwise to be left in peace with his books. There is no harm to the man, and no harm should come to him.”

  I wanted to tell her that such was not the way of the world until I remembered that she had buried two sons and was thus more conscious of the world’s true workings than any of us. Our arrival at my room saved me from uttering any further foolishness, and she left me to unpack the small bag I had brought with me and to explore my environs alone. There was a bathroom next to my room, with a fine claw-toed bathtub. I could not recall when last I had enjoyed a bath that didn’t involve a tin tub, and saucepans of water with which to fill it, and I promised myself the luxury of a lengthy immersion that evening.

  None of the other rooms was locked. As Mrs. Gissing had intimated, most were being used for storage, and the only items that Lionel Maulding desired to store were books. I began to grasp a sense of the house’s arrangement for it was, in truth, simply one large library: here were volumes on geography, there on history. Three adjoining rooms gathered together studies on biology, chemistry, and physics respectively, with a series of shelves in the final room being given over to more general works that touched on all three aspects of the sciences. There were many rooms for fiction, and almost as many for poetry and drama. One sizable area was given over to beautiful books of art reproductions, some of them very old, and probably very expensive. A few were of an erotic nature, but did not appear to have been perused any more closely than the others.

  In time I came to Maulding’s bedroom. Once again, there were books on every surface, and each wall was furnished with shelves, floor to ceiling, except for the wall behind his bed, although even here a single shelf had been placed to accommodate those works that were clearly occupying Maulding’s attention at any particular time. Bookmarked on that shelf were a volume of Tacitus, a book on beekeeping, a guide to growing one’s own vegetables, and two oddities: A Lexicon of Alchemy by Martin Rulandus the Elder, dating from 1612; and a single-volume edition of Henry Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books on Occult Philosophy. The Rulandus bore a leather bookmark in the “Supplement to the Alchemical Lexicon,” and two paragraphs had been underscored. A pencil lay beside the book, so I took it that Maulding had made the marks. The two entries, one beneath the other, were:

  ANGELS—The chemical Philosophers sometimes gave this name to the Volatile Matter of their Stone. They then say that their body is spiritualized, and that one will never succeed in performing the Grand Work unless one corporifies spirits, and spiritualizes bodies. This operation is philosophical sublimation, and it is certain that the fixed never becomes sublimated without the assistance of the volatile.

  ANGLE—The thing which has three angles—a term of Hermetic science. The Philosophers say that their matter, or the Philosophical Mercury, is a substance having three angles as regards the substance of which it is composed, of four as regards its virtue, and of two in respect of its matter, while in its root it is one. These three angles are salt, sulphur, and mercury; the four are the elements; the two are the fixed and the volatile, and the one is the remote matter, or the chaos from which all has been produced.

  These final words—“the chaos from which all has been produced”—had been more heavily underlined than the rest, although I could make no more sense of them than I could of anything else that I had read there. I completed the search of Maulding’s room, but found nothing that might help in discovering his whereabouts. I then continued my examination of the house, until I came at last to the kitchen where Mrs. Gissing was preparing enough food to last a whole family for a week, as I had informed her that it would not be necessary for her to come to the house every day while I was there. My needs, I explained, were probably even fewer than her master’s.

  “Where does Mr. Maulding spend most of his time?” I asked.

  “In his study, sir.”

  Hardly surprising: I should probably have guessed that for myself. I had poked my head into it on the way to the kitchen, and the only thing to distinguish it from the rest of the house was that it contained marginally more books than any other room, although it was a close-run thing.

  “Where would I find his papers and the household accounts?”

  “In his desk, I should imagine.”

  “Does he keep it locked?”

  “Why would he do that?” she asked. She seemed quite surprised at the question.

  “Well, some men are rather private about the matters of their finances.”

  “But what kind of person would pry into the affairs of another?”

  “A person like me,” I replied.

  She didn’t have an answer to that, or not one that she felt inclined to speak aloud, so I left her to her pots and pans and made my way to the study.

  III

  It took me some time to make sense of Maulding’s filing system, in part because there wasn’t one, as such: there were simply piles of paper, some older than others, separated loosely into invoices and receipts, and all relating to the year in hand. Some digging behind three sets of encyclopedias produced binders containing details of his income and expenditure in previous years. Most of his purchases were made by personal check, but sometimes in cash, and he kept notes of expenses, major and minor, in a small ledger. So, over the course of the afternoon, and fueled by tea and sandwiches from Mrs. Gissing, I became familiar with the processes by which he maintained order in his finances. I could find little personal correspondence, some begging letters from his nephew apart, as any mail that he received related almost exclusively to the purchase and, very occasionally, the sale of books. He appeared to deal with booksellers throughout Britain and, indeed, a number on the Continent and in America.

  Still, it was the most recent of his purchases that interested me and gave some clue as to his purpose in traveling to London. It appeared that he had begun dealing with two new suppliers of books in the months preceding his disappearance: Steaford’s, the specialists in scientific
literature in Bloomsbury; and an antiquarian establishment, of which I had previously been unaware, called Dunwidge & Daughter. I counted at least thirty receipts from Dunwidge, all acknowledging cash payments for books, the nature of which were detailed on the documents themselves. There was The Hermetic Museum, which appeared to relate to something called “the Philosopher’s Stone,” a first English translation from 1893 of a work apparently originally published in Latin in 1678; The Art of Drawing Spirits in Crystals, undated, by Johannes Trithemius; the Grimorium Imperium, alleged to be a copy of a work originally owned by the alchemist Dr. John Dee, published in Rome in 1680; The Theatre of Terrestrial Astronomy by Edward Kelly, Hamburg, 1676; and assorted others in a similar vein. I could not claim to be an expert on such matters, but it seemed to me that Lionel Maulding had spent a great deal of time, effort, and money to begin acquiring a library of the occult, and Dunwidge & Daughter had been the principal beneficiaries of this new enthusiasm. Unlike the better-known Steaford’s, though, Dunwidge & Daughter had not appended a contact address to their receipts, merely the name of their business.

  I paused in my perusals. Something had been nagging at me ever since I had begun reading this list of esoteric volumes. Slowly, I retraced my steps through the house, examining shelves and taking note of the divisions and subdivisions of subjects. It took me some hours, and by the time I was done the light had begun to fade. My back ached and my eyes could barely focus, but I was certain of this: I could find no trace of a section devoted to occult literature in Maulding’s amassment, the two volumes on the shelf above his bed excepted. Neither could I find any trace of the books that he had apparently purchased from Dunwidge & Daughter. Naturally, it was entirely possible that I might have missed them, or that they had been misfiled, but the former seemed to me more likely than the latter, for Maulding struck me as a meticulous cataloguer of his collection. I determined to make a second search the following day, just to be sure. Maulding had no telephone in his house, so I asked Mrs. Gissing to send a telegram to London on my behalf on her way home, asking Quayle’s assistant Fawnsley to ascertain the location of the business known as Dunwidge & Daughter, and to reply by return of telegram the following morning, which Mrs. Gissing would collect and bring to the house.

 

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