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Authors: Catherine Shaw

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Fatal Inheritance

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FATAL INHERITANCE

CATHERINE SHAW

 

To the daughter whose cello fills my soul with music

 
VANESSA WEATHERBURN’S CASE DIARY
 

Winter 1900

 
 
CHAPTER ONE
 
 

In which Vanessa listens to a concert of chamber music and learns of a suicide

 

The music spilt forth, welled up, flooded over, and ran down and away in twinkling rivulets that thinned as they disappeared into unfathomable distance.

The piano rose up in a roar, then subsided as the deep voice of the cello became audible, and swelled to ride the crest of the piano’s wave. The violin entered then, its pure and steady tones bringing to mind a small but sturdy boat, handled by competent sailors, forging a path through wild seas under a mad Northern sky filled with streaks of swaying light and gleaming stars.

I listened to the trio for more than a quarter of an hour, allowing free rein to the images which the music evoked naturally in my mind, before beginning, imperceptibly at first, then more clearly, to wonder if they were really the images that the composer would have intended. The cockle boat, tossed up and down by the violent waves, always at risk but never quite succumbing, had provoked my admiration; now it began to cause a certain irritation. Listen to this theme, now – why so tame? I thought. Should the violin not be soaring ever higher and more powerful, dominating the underlying clamour of the other instruments, representing the very power of nature, like a gigantic ocean bird, wings outstretched, gliding unaffected over the turmoil below? Or a powerful ship, the captain stern at the helm, cleaving the water in spite of the troubled waves and crashes beneath?

The prick of irritation jerked me back to conscious thought, and I turned my eyes to the offending violinist, then glanced down at the programme to see his name.

John Milrose sat on the edge of his chair, his dark hair parted at the side and combed smoothly over his broad, clear forehead. His fingers flew over the ebony fingerboard, and his bow swept the strings with large and generous gestures; his tone was pure and melodic, he paid careful attention to his partners, there was no cheap showmanship in his playing, his love of the music was patent and sincere. In fact, he played altogether beautifully, and really, I exhorted myself, there was nothing one could reproach him with.

Except … that little cockle boat!

The piano took the theme again. The young woman playing had white hands which lifted high into the air like flying birds after each sweeping chord; her face was lowered, her cheeks flushed, and sometimes I thought she closed her eyes. Rose, my little pupil Rose – a blooming young woman now – sat near her, playing her cello with total abandon; she almost never glanced at the music on the stand low in front of her, but watched now the pianist, now the violinist, and melted her entrances into theirs, or paused with a waiting as alive as breathing, till they had reached the very point of diminishment to allow a new voice to rise up in all its ripeness. The sound of her instrument, thick as honey, strong as mead, overshadowed the violin in intensity, though never fully covering its fluting higher notes.

The trio came to an end, and the three players stood up and bowed. They were dressed in deep mourning, and the small stage had been decorously draped in crêpe. I fingered my programme. It was black-edged and folded over; the front held only a box enclosed in a small wreath of black leaves, containing the words:

 

 

IN MEMORIAM

 

The remainder of the information about the concert lay within the flap.

 

A concert by the Cavendish Trio

dedicated to the memory of Sebastian Cavendish

 

 

John Milrose, violin

Claire Merrivale, piano

Rose Evergreene, violoncello

 
Piano Trio in D major (‘Ghost’)
Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770–1827
Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat major
Franz Schubert, 1797–1828
 

Inside my programme lay the small note that I had received along with it in my mail earlier in the week, the note which had brought me to London without a moment’s hesitation, and for which I was seated presently in this small theatre, with its dim lights and lugubrious atmosphere of mourning.

Dear Vanessa,

It has been at least three years since we last saw each other. I know the fault is entirely mine. I have been so busy, and I am really very remiss! I hope you forgive me enough to attend the concert shown in the enclosed programme. It would give me immense pleasure to see you again, and also – I wish to speak to you about a very strange matter.

Very sincerely,

Your former pupil,

Rose Evergreene

 

I slipped the note back into the programme and closed it as applause began and grew all around me. I joined in, but my gloved hands made almost no noise; I wondered for a moment whether it was worth removing the gloves, and then decided not to, for the sound of the applause in general was muted and respectful as befitted a mourning ceremony. The clapping went on for exactly the seemly amount of time; the three musicians, having left the stage, returned, bowed once again politely, and left again in single file. They were deadly serious; the face of the young pianist was ravaged.

The audience began to rise and gather up fans, programmes, handkerchiefs, reticules and other personal items. The large double doors at the back of the hall opened up, leading into the foyer. I joined the line forming in front of this door and, after some minutes of advancing very slowly up the aisle between the seats, reached it and emerged into the large space, dazzling with lights, gilt mouldings and a shining copper counter on which glasses and bottles had been placed, surrounded with piles of snowy but black-edged napkins.

A hall led away from this foyer, curving around the concert hall itself from the outside. I followed it, and passing through a baize door at the end, found myself in the rooms behind the stage set aside for the use of the artists. A murmur of voices led me to the area where the three musicians were still engaged in packing away their instruments and their scores. A man’s voice was speaking; the youthful violinist.

‘You’re kind to say that, but I know it isn’t true. I can’t be part of the Cavendish trio. It was just for this evening; for this one time. I can’t replace Sebastian and you know it.’

‘Oh, John, can we not always play together?’ asked the pianist, who was holding his arm, looking straight up into his face. ‘It isn’t a question of replacing Sebastian. Of course no one can replace him, ever. But you
understand
about him – you were his friend! That’s why I couldn’t bear the idea of anyone but you playing with us tonight.’

Rose said nothing; her back was turned to the other two, and she was kneeling down in front of the large, open cello case, fitting her instrument carefully into its velveteen bed. This done, she took a silken square and dusted the traces of rosin carefully from the burnished wooden surface, passing under all the strings. She then used the square to tuck in the instrument as tenderly as a child, after which she closed and latched the lid. The round shape of her shoulders as she concentrated made me suspect that she wished to stay out of the discussion. I thought that perhaps she did not wish for John Milrose to continue as part of the trio.

‘Well, we’ll see, Claire,’ Mr Milrose was saying. The baize door behind me swung again, and two or three more people entered to greet the artists; an elderly couple, a dark-haired young lady, then a moment after, two young men. One of them wore the red, rubbed mark of a violinist under the left side of his chin. Mr Milrose and Miss Merrivale separated immediately and turned to greet the newcomers. Rose stood up and came forward also. Her face lit up with a wonderful smile as she saw me.

‘Vanessa!’ she cried eagerly. ‘I am so glad that you came. It has been much too long! Let me introduce you to Claire and John.’ She kissed me warmly, and taking me by the hand, drew me over to where John was now talking to the people who had entered behind me. Claire was standing near him, listening, but her attention had wandered to Rose, and she took a quick step towards us as we approached.

‘This is Vanessa Weatherburn,’ Rose told her, in a tone which clearly indicated that she had already spoken of me to Claire, and that Claire was expecting, for some reason, to meet me. I shook her hand and spoke admiringly of her playing. But still holding my right hand in hers, she brushed off my praise with a quick sweep of her left, and said,

‘Rose tells me I can talk to you – I
must
talk to someone, I don’t know what to do – I can’t bear it any longer!’

‘Just ten more minutes,’ said Rose quickly, ‘we must be polite. Let’s just wait until everyone’s gone.’

A few more people had entered. Claire saw them, and drew herself together sharply.

‘There’s his mother,’ she said, and crossed over, as though pulled by a string, reluctant but compelled, to a somewhat elderly lady who was speaking to John Milrose. I drew nearer to observe, and noticed how the woman’s banal words seemed charged with meaning, because of the quiet intensity and poise with which she spoke them. Her hair, a greying ash-blonde, was dressed with the kind of simplicity that bespeaks taste in ample quantities, compensating, perhaps, a certain lack of wealth. Like the three members of the trio, she was wearing deep mourning; the cut of her gown was just fashionable enough to hint at an awareness of fashion without the slightest ostentation. The shoulders puffed too gently to be qualified as leg-of-mutton sleeves, underlining the slender waist without unduly attracting the eye. The skirt was close fitting, deeply gored at the back but devoid of ruffles and ribbons, and the collar rose high on the neck. A row of jet buttons gleamed down the front of the bodice. The woman who wore this dress was a woman of quality.

Her voice was quite extraordinary; it was of an exceptionally rich timbre, as though it came more directly from the chest cavity than from the throat, and her speech was very slow, each syllable enunciated carefully and yet without any sign of particular effort. She radiated a strong personality in which Claire Merrivale seemed caught like a little silver fish in a net. She looked up at the older woman, her voice trembled, she seemed unable to find words.

‘That’s Mrs Cavendish,’ Rose explained in my ear, ‘Sebastian’s mother.’ She tapped the
In Memoriam
on the front of the programme that still dangled from my fingers. ‘We’ll tell you everything in a minute.’ She went to join Claire, and half-consciously laying a comforting hand on the other girl’s arm, she undertook to answer the lady’s remarks herself, with more aplomb than her friend. I watched intently, guessing that this little scene and everything concerning the defunct Sebastian Cavendish would soon become the focal point of my attention.

Claire and Rose were much of a size, and Mrs Cavendish dominated them by a good five inches; however Claire appeared slight and weightless in front of her, whereas Rose stood firm and strong. I found it odd how, although the lady spoke with only the kindest words, her remarkable tallness and the sheer force of her character produced a desire to oppose some resistance to it, even though there was not the slightest conflict in her speech or attitude. But perhaps this impression did not emanate from the lady only, but also from Claire’s display of weakness; she seemed on the point of breaking down. Perceiving this, Mrs Cavendish bent down a little towards her, taking her hand, and I heard her say,

‘Try not to yield to despair, my dear. You must take courage from your art.’

She then kissed her affectionately, turned away, and departed upon the arm of an extremely elegant gentleman with side-whiskers and a gold-topped cane, who had been waiting silently at some little distance. The room having emptied considerably, Rose addressed a vigorous goodbye, tantamount to a dismissal, to John Milrose who was still standing amongst a few remaining friends. He smiled at the girls, took up his violin case and left with his group, and we found ourselves entirely alone in the green room.

‘There,’ said Rose. ‘Now, Claire, you can tell Vanessa everything.’

There was a short silence, during which Claire struggled with tears.

‘Well, I had better begin,’ said Rose, although even she seemed to have some difficulty finding the words to tell me what had happened. ‘You see, Vanessa,’ she explained finally, ‘the violinist of our trio, Sebastian Cavendish – Claire was engaged to him – he – well, he died a month ago. Tonight’s concert was already planned; we turned it into a memorial concert for him … we had to find another violinist … John Milrose was one of Sebastian’s closest friends … No, why am I talking about him? The problem is …’

Her voice tailed off, and I perceived that although more stable and less emotional than her friend, she was also deeply troubled. A cold fear seized me. What dreadful thing could have so disturbed her?

‘How did he die?’ I asked gently, leaning forward to look in her face.

‘He committed suicide,’ said Rose with what was clearly a conscious effort to steady her voice. ‘He left a note for Claire. That is what she wants to ask you about. Claire – Claire? Come, you must explain things to Vanessa. And show her the note.’

Claire was already fumbling with the clasp of a little black brocade bag she held in her hands. The note she took out was written on a sheet of small, thick letter-paper of admirable quality. The ink had penetrated deeply into the soft fibres. The gentleman’s handwriting was large and dashing. The short note filled the entire page, which had been rendered soft and grey by Claire’s incessant handling of it.

Darling Claire,

How can I say this to you? I’ve found out something about myself – I can’t go on with it any more. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Cursed inheritance – it’s too dangerous to take such risks. Please try to understand.

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