Based on the story by Vernon Lee
The notes swelled together in a sharp spiral before bursting and scattering across the room, the high walls, domed ceiling and wooden floorboards, continuing the melody even after I’d finished playing. My fingers rested on the ivory keys as Selena’s rested on my shoulder, her touch light but firm, imprisoning me by the piano.
Although it was my life, music was not something I enjoyed. My parents had instilled into me from a young age the importance of carrying on ‘the family business’ as they called it, locking me in my room for hours at a time until I had practised to perfection the arts of classical piano and vocal performance. It was all I was good at, yet these days I made a point to play only for money, never for pleasure – until now, although it was not my own pleasure.
‘See Daddy, what did I tell you? Is he not remarkable, a master of the art? Surely he could rival your great Bale!’ Selena seemed mocking.
‘Ba’al,’ Count Alvise let out a stream of smoke as he said the name, sucking again on his cigar before continuing, his face impassive. ‘Tell me, Matt-y-uh.’ I struggled to recognise my name in that funny accent of his and only just caught myself from turning, expecting someone else. ‘Have you heard of the great Ba’al?’
I had to confess that I hadn’t. Selena groaned. ‘Now you’ve done it. He’ll be talking about him all night.’
Alvise only smiled. ‘You see that portrait behind you, Matt-y-uh?’ I turned to look. It was a small square piece, set in a golden frame with elaborate spirals. A pair of dark eyes glittered back at me. It was an effeminate face with pale, angular features, long dark curls gathering at the neck, and red lips parted in a voiceless song of passion. ‘That is Ba’al, undoubtedly the greatest singer and composer of the last century and a personal acquaintance of my ancestors. In fact, there’s an interesting story there, if you’d care to hear it?’
I nodded, my eyes still on the painting.
‘Ba’al visited here once in his prime, when my father was very young. My grandfather Benjamin was a great lover of music, and when he heard Ba’al he was entranced and invited him to stay here with them. This house has always been home to music. You are sitting, Matt-y-uh, in a great musical haven.
‘My grandmother Zilla, however, did not take to him. She found Ba’al arrogant and resented the attention her husband gave him. She laughed upon hearing his boast that no woman had ever been able to resist his singing. Ba’al saw it as a challenge. He waited until one evening he was alone with her and began to sing. Zilla turned quite pale and lovesick, her eyes downcast and body swaying with the music. She begged him to continue, but by the end of his concert she had visibly worsened, her body limp and struggling for breath. She died two days later. Of course, you may say: perhaps she had been already ill before he began? Yet Ba’al also went missing that day. No one has seen or heard of him since.’
The next evening, I was looking again at the portrait of Ba’al when Selena came in. ‘Not you too? That picture gives me the creeps, the way those eyes always seem to be watching you, following you.’ She shivered.
‘He seems an interesting character. It’s a shame he lived so long ago, I would’ve liked to have heard him.’
‘Oh, we have a recording of him!’
I looked at her in surprise.
‘It’s very rare. Daddy reckons we must be the only people alive to have heard him. Supposedly it’s the last song he ever sang; the last song my great-grandmother ever heard. Daddy’s grandfather – that is, Grandpa Benjamin – had just bought a gramophone and when Ba’al came to visit he persuaded him to try out his new toy and record a piece. It was shortly after that Ba’al disappeared.’ She paused and then, pointing to a glass cabinet, added, ‘You can listen to it if you like? Careful though – it’s so old the record’s made of glass.’
The recording was fuzzy and distorted with age, yet a piercing voice cut through the noise, a voice of passion, freedom, life.
Selena sighed. ‘I don’t know why Daddy loves it so much. Even without the distortion, he —’ The music was lost beneath her words, and without thinking I crushed my lips onto hers, silencing her, trying to tell her with my lips what I could not with my voice: that this was much more than music or a song. Ba’al’s voice gained strength once more, the melody rising to an unbearable peak. My body seemed to melt with the music and dissolve into Selena. The world became sound. The music was everything.
The melody trickled to its end and we came apart panting.
I went out on the balcony to clear my head. Count Alvise’s house was more of a castle, set atop a mountain that seemed to rise up to the heavens. Like some mini Olympus, one could well imagine here that we lived among the gods. It was flanked by a couple of lesser hills and rolling grassland on one side, with the sea stretched out on the other. The moon was full and shrouded in fog, its rays smothered, struggling under cloud. Its pale reflection was mirrored in the water below, the waves breaking it into fragments that dissolved then repeated further on. The black shadows of trading ships slid through liquid silver. Surrounding me, clusters of white flowers opened their mouths to sing, their yellow tongues reaching for air in a voiceless concert. The smoke from my cigar caught on the breeze and curled into mist, its tendrils twisting through the gloom. Almost beyond hearing, there came a voice, so low I thought I must be imagining it. Without rising, it seemed to take hold of the night, above the sounds of the waves. Amidst the melody, I made out the words: Pie Jesu domine, dona eis requiem. Compassionate Lord Jesus, grant them rest.
I was brought back to myself by the sound of a familiar voice. I swung round, smiling. ‘Lewis!’
I had known Lewis since childhood. We had grown up together and boarded at the same school. It was at boarding school that I had fallen ill, an illness from which I have never quite recovered. Lewis had hoped his cousin would help restore me to health, and had orchestrated our meeting, putting on a house party and paying me handsomely to perform for his guests. Selena claimed she had loved me before she even saw me, falling for my voice as it reached her in the doorway. She was not unattractive, her fair hair falling in waves to her waist, long lashes framing eyes so pale-blue they were almost silver, and her limbs white and delicate as china. Yet neither her wealth nor her beauty attracted me. Lewis was anxious to see me happy and I was anxious to please him.
A similar party had been planned for tonight, although, thank God, I wasn’t expected to sing. It was a small family affair.
Lewis’ boyish face grinned back at me. His features had yet to mature, his figure slight and angular, his cheeks glowing with an invisible heat. Thick blond hair ran wild and fell across his face and his ruffled suit was paired with a tie that screamed colour. Wherever he went, eyes turned to follow, drinking in the life that poured out of him.
They were gathered around the painting, although this time it was Lewis who was speaking, telling the story of Ba’al as though it were a performance, a revival of the singer himself. The crowd listened, mouths parted in rapture, breathing in the lives of their ancestors. I couldn’t join them. Something about Ba’al had begun to embarrass me. I could feel those dark eyes watching me and I was ashamed to meet them.
As Lewis spoke, I sensed more than heard the voice singing again. It seemed to come from below, from within the house. Was the gramophone on? As the party drew closer to Lewis, no one noticed me leave. I followed the music as it led me through the house, to the half that was no longer inhabited. Flickering candles marked my path, although they gave no heat, and my breath rose up in a plume of orange mist.
At the end of the corridor lay what appeared to be an old theatre, also lit, the candles throwing shadowy figures across the stage. I descended the stairs and crossed the faded carpet to a small alcove, which turned out to be a dressing room. Dozens of old costumes hung from a trolley, with others strewn across the floor. I bent to look, lifting a hooded cloak to my face before I could make it out. It was the cowl of a monk, greyed with age and dust. I held it up against me, considering my reflection in the full-length swinging mirror that was set to one side. The same elaborate framework was wrought upon it as around the portrait of Ba’al. The music, sounding muffled, seemed to be coming from behind it, the voice the same I had heard out on the balcony, the words a low hum. But as I moved closer the singing stopped.
Selena must have noticed my absence. I heard her soft footsteps stop in the doorway, her anxious whisper: ‘Matthew?’ I grinned. She couldn’t see me. She came closer. The voice started up again and Selena froze. ‘Matthew? Is that you?’
I came out from behind the mirror, dressed in the monk’s cowl. The hood covered my face. ‘Pie Jesu domine, dona eis requiem,’ I chanted, as I moved towards her.
Selena breathed out in a nervous laugh. ‘Oh, thank God, it is you. Why are you down here? We were missing you upstairs.’
‘Pie Jesu domine, dona eis requiem.’
‘That’s not funny, Matthew. And you’d better take off that dusty old cowl. It’s probably riddled with moths and worms. And spiders,’ she shuddered.
‘Pie Jesu domine, dona eis requiem.’ The hood fell back as I chanted and her eyes went wide.
‘God! What the —?’
Perhaps it was the shadows playing with my face, but when I glanced at the mirror the skin seemed to have stretched across my cheeks, the cheekbones pushed forwards, my nose shrunk. Without my being conscious of their moving, my lips spread, pulled back over browning teeth. A low laugh grew, swelling in my ears, my body convulsing; my face was damp with sweat or tears. My reflection seemed to grow darker and darker.
Selena swooned against me, yet I could not bring myself to touch her. I watched her face in the glass grow paler and paler, the skin almost transparent. Blue-grey veins crept close to the surface, forming a spider-web along her bare arms. There was a thud as her body hit the floor, and her breath rattled as she tried to speak.
‘Mat-thew,’ she gasped out.
Only then did my eyes allow me to turn away from the mirror to her. I crouched down beside her, my fingers searching her neck. Her pulse fluttered out, extinguished. I surveyed her without surprise, without tears. The chanting began again, deafening, relentless. I looked back at the man in the mirror. My hair in the shadows seemed to darken and curl, the candlelight casting a crimson glow in my eyes, and I watched my red lips part again in a grin.