Authors Note: "Shadowcrest's Hammer" and "Nightingale's Strain" are the first two novels in the "Nightingale Odyssey" series (on this site), a series rooted primarily in Susan Kay's "Phantom" with a little Leroux. In their tradition, the entire five novel series is a researched historical fiction. It is not essential to read the first two, but it would be helpful as I have embedded themes and symbolism that build throughout. This novel hinges on Erik's personal history as established by Kay's version, reading Kay's would be helpful. Individual characters are not representative of entire nationalities-they are acting within their own personal experience. Historic people and places, such as Carnegie Hall, Walter Damrosch, Andrew Carnegie are used fictionally with effort to reflect reality. There are some dark segments within this novel exploring the depth of motivation-this is not a happy fairy tale by any means. Be prepared!
"You are not feeling it."
"Yes I am, it's just not coming naturally!"
Deep shadows cut into the cream walls framed by the gold-leafed moldings that lined the stage. With the main hall's lights only at half current, both men standing amidst the Symphony Societies chairs on the otherwise empty stage of Carnegie Hall were cast deeply in the relief of the subdued illumination. A hesitant melody issued forth from the strings of a solitary violin before a short laugh once more resulted in an aborted attempt.
"Damn it, Erik! I can't get that transition in, no matter what I try." Walter Damrosch, resident conductor of both the Oratorio and Symphony Societies of New York, swung the bow through the air in a frustrated arc. Youthful, with short dark hair and prominent features, he cut a vigorous stance as he glared at the violin in his outstretched hand. "It just won't come!"
Tucking his chin to try and quell the laughter, Erik steadfastly held the prominence of the nearly empty stage. Over six feet tall, silver-haired with a gracile build, he moved with unrestrained grace, bringing his own Stradivarius up below the white mask that covered his face, leaving only his mouth and eyes visible to the world; one of brilliant blue, the other a deep brown. He was attired in a black tailcoat of the finest wool set with obsidian buttons. A vest of midnight blue shimmered in the lights matching the cravat about his neck that tucked deep into the recesses. A golden wedding band adorned his left ring finger, a silver signet ring on his right little finger. That silver ring spoke volumes. Engraved with an elegant sweeping curved E, it also bore a slanted feather quill leaning from left to right, framed by an architect's compass. The elements that drove his heart resided there: stone masonry and music. He bore an unerring wariness of the unkind years he had spent on this earth, ever present in the tension dwelling beneath every motion. Though he was unable to pinpoint the exact date of his birth in Boscherville, France, Erik was approaching the summer of what would have been his sixty-fifth year. He only knew for a fact that his years had passed six decades. Despite his advanced age, he had maintained remarkable fitness that revealed itself by feats that defied his slender build. This man was a born survivor, a man of many talents—and many flaws.
His long skeletal fingers gently rested upon the strings as he closed his eyes and drew the bow. Music flowed from the beautiful wooden instrument, nearly magical in its sheer complexity. He swayed to the building rhythm, letting the whim of the composition take him and with it poured forth the soul of the piece for the stunned Damrosch. Taking a step back, the younger director shook his head. "I cannot possibly play that! How did you … the fingers cannot humanly manage that!"
Lowering the instrument, Erik's eyes flashed open to lock Damrosch with an accomplished stare. By now, after years of association, Damrosch had grown accustomed to the mismatched pair appraising him. "And yet, they have. Of course it can be done. It just takes a bit of dexterity."
"A bit?" scoffed Damrosch. "Be serious! That's a little more than a bit. Besides, you're cheating!"
"Cheating?" Beneath the cut of the mask, Erik's lips turned in an amused smile. "How do you come by that conclusion?"
Pointing the bow to the left hand that enclosed the neck of the aged Stradivarius, he remarked, "You're left handed. That puts the hand with the greater dexterity to the finer motions on the strings."
Erik shrugged nonchalantly as he set his violin down. "Is it my fault that someone hundreds of years ago decided the left should hold the neck while the right controls the bow? It is not as though I was the one who invented the violin. Merely perfected its performance."
"Did you have to compose the piece with such bloody complexity? You better have a name for it soon, and all the parts finished before the autumn season if the symphony is to learn them in sufficient time for the holiday concerts."
"All of my works are complex. Surely you know that by now, dear Damrosch." Holding up a finger, Erik pointed smugly to the violin in the conductors hands. "Besides, just because you cannot play it does not mean that it cannot be played. Perhaps there is a reason you conduct and do not play."
A dark scowl crossed Walter Damrosch's face. "Careful! You may not be the concertmaster for much longer with such remarks."
Erik's laughter filled the hall before he fixed his friend with a pointed glare. "I dare you to try and replace me after how much you begged me to audition in the first place! We both know it is not simply on the bearing that I am the director of the arts here, but that I hold the position of first chair by sheer talent."
Defeated by the logic, Damrosch set his violin aside and ran a hand through his sweaty hair. "Damn it, Erik. You have to stop that … being all … logical."
Raising an eyebrow beneath the mask, he cocked his head before replying quietly. "I know of no other way. Dare I ask how you would prefer me to be?"
"Sorry. I don't mean to be so upset. It's just … " He took a short breath before tossing an inquiring glance up. "Have you heard from Andrew lately?"
Erik rolled his eyes before folding his arms across his chest, a gesture of unyielding frustration that Damrosch was all too aware of the source. "Frequently. The wires are coming at all times of the day and night."
"So … " he asked tentatively. "You two are back to speaking terms once more?"
"In a manner of speaking." His fingers drummed against his elbows. "If sending wires back and forth qualifies, then yes. I am responding in some degree to his requests."
"Dear God, Erik." He drew in a short breath. "The way you two fought last time you were in a room together, I swore someone was going to get hurt over a simple suggestion."
Tensely, Erik shifted a dark glare to the young director. The voice that before had been elegant and full of life suddenly cast cold and venomous. "Simple suggestion? Removing the roof from Carnegie Hall to install the studio towers, in his idea to increase revenue, is no simple suggestion! You cannot simply take down any wall and put a door anywhere you please! Structural integrity must be considered. If this had been his plan from the beginning, I dearly wish he would have shared that knowledge years ago when Tuthill and I were first drafting the building! We could have planned for the expansion instead of the maze we have been forced to create!"
Beneath the tirade, Damrosch had drawn back. "I don't think he foresaw the financial problems we have been having. We have yet to turn a profit."
"Who cares!" Throwing an arm into the air Erik shouted back, his already powerful voice amplified by the perfect acoustics of the hall. "How many times do I have to tell that man there is nothing to worry about! Have not all her expenses been covered through the years? As long as I breathe her roof is safe—that is until Carnegie ordered the damn thing removed! Do you know how long it took to put that roof on in the first place?"
Shaking his head, he confessed. "I wasn't on the site at that time, Erik. But I see Andrew's point about the towers, it should make a wonderful place for artists to come and form a community. I would think, as an artist of various disciplines, that is something you should relish. Besides, it is another lucrative contract for your company."
"Like I required another to add to the five already in progress." Erik growled savagely. "Do you have any idea the level of complexity it is to manage six construction sites throughout the city with only three trusted foremen at my disposal? I did not require another contract. But there is certainly no way I would trust anyone else to touch this building!" Forcing the tension from his body, he cast his gaze to the ornate ceiling of his beloved hall, his voice softening with the shift of focus. "So far as the vision, in that much you are correct. The idea is wonderful. A place for artists to grow and nurture each other." Morosely he sighed. "If I had access to a place like that as a boy … I wonder."
Nodding, Damrosch replied quietly. "A place that would have been in awe of your talents instead of shunning you for your deformity."
Erik stiffened before locking his venomous gaze once more. "Carnegie told you?"
Hastily his hands came up in defense. "It wasn't Andrew's fault! He had been drinking that night and I got him talking. Besides, it's not like it is any grand leap of logic as to why a grown man is never seen without a mask on. Clearly you were hiding something."
Exhaling gruffly, he turned away hanging his head in a gesture akin to shame. "No secrets are sacred anymore, I swear honor means nothing. I told him not to tell anyone, ever!"
"It doesn't matter to me what's beneath the mask, Erik." Damrosch held his ground. Close association over the past few years had taught him enough to know when this man turned away he was forcing back a violent temper, the gesture like a dam holding back an immense lake. "How bad can it truly be?"
Erik's hand tightened into a fist by his side, and with it Damrosch's eyes widened as he took a panicked step back. The voice trembled with barely contained fury. "Pray you never lay eyes upon the truth, Damrosch."
Swallowing hard, the conductor's slow steps carried him a few more feet back away from the potential danger that still loomed within striking distance. It was safer now for him to hold his tongue and he knew it. Minutes ticked by before the tension slowly ebbed from the masked man's body. Gradually, he turned halfway to Damrosch, clearing his throat before remarking, "Carnegie is right in creating a place in this city to foster the growth of artists. He understands the essential nature of the requirement of moral support for the gifts to flourish. I had only wished he had shared that vision with me earlier, that we might have planned that addition before the cornerstone of the hall had been laid. That is all. And lately he has been distracted by other things, too distracted to answer my questions concerning the addition. The distance and communications have made this already delicate issue all the more troublesome."
"Other things?" Damrosch approached the calmer Erik with some caution, just because the first wave of the storm had passed did not mean it was entirely over. "What is happening? Is it the steel industry?"
"The word confidant is entirely lost upon you," he scoffed dryly. "The information he has shared is not for everyone to know. It is not even being entrusted to those in his companies and likely for good reason."
Scratching his head, he mused. "Why not within his own companies?"
Erik shrugged, resting his masked forehead in a hand. "I suppose there is good reason he is not sharing this specific information with them now. Trust me, having played chess against the man, I can tell you there is absolutely a grand strategy behind his reasoning. Employing me as a sounding board is assurance enough that word will go no further by a loose tongue. And he does require someone trustworthy. It should be simpler without coded wires back and forth across the Atlantic. But you know him and his summer trips. The strike at Homestead that nearly destroyed him proved insufficient to keep him within the boundaries of this country. This is proving no more capable of restraining him."
"Yes," he sighed. "Every year off to Scotland for a time and then some journey to a distant land of some sort. I'd be afraid of running short on money."
With a laugh, Erik shot him a knowing glance. "Money is not something that Carnegie has need to fret over, of that I can safely assure you having seen his books. All the more reason he and I had the argument over how the towers were to be constructed. Between his fortune and my own there is no need to be concerned with cost effective solutions, nor the Hall's books needing to be in the black any time soon. I even offered to buy the building from him in an effort to preserve the initial roof construction and install the towers with my own plan."
"You offered to buy Carnegie Hall?" With disbelief he approached right under Erik's brooding gaze. "What did he say?"
"He would have nothing of it. Threatened to break my contract and throw me out as director of the arts." In defeat, his shoulders sagged. "If I wished to maintain a connection here to my lifeblood, it was made clear I had no choice than to concede to his execution."
Shaking his head, Damrosch looked away dumbfounded. "Dear heavens, no wonder you didn't speak to him after that! I never heard any of that."
"Then you did not hear how I ensured Shadowcrest was to be involved in the tower's construction." A flicker of a sly grin stole across his lips. "Granted, it had been an idle threat as my integrity never could have carried it out."
"What?" On pins and needles, Damrosch leaned forward as if about to be entrusted with a great secret.
"I told him if my company was not the lead contract on the towers, I would relentlessly hire all the entertainment for Carnegie Hall from the local vaudeville companies for the next year."
Shivering at the very idea, the conductor contorted his features into that of a man about to vomit.
Erik laughed darkly."I know. I almost could not stomach writing the wire of that threat. Thankfully, it meeting had not taken place in person. He would have deduced instantly there was no way that was anything aside from an idle threat." He sighed. "Fortunately, that was the end of the negotiation. We agreed on terms after that and since then it has been back to business as usual."
"Six contracts." He shook his head in utter bewilderment. "Six. That's a lot of stone to be broken by you." Pausing for a moment in thought, his eyebrow raised up. "How much stonework do you actually partake in yourself?"
"It has been some time since I have taken part in the rough work, at least a year since I have even visited the quarry. That is usually reserved for men of lesser experience and skill. Master masons tend to concentrate effort on the finishing work; less physically strenuous but requiring far more attention to detail." Stretching out his thin arms, there was not an ounce of fat upon them, pure muscle dressed over bone. "If you are asking if I might be able to still break out a rough block, I should reply why ever not? I am still strong enough."
"Even after you broke your arm?"
"That was years ago." He dismissed the comment with a flourishing stroke of his right arm. "Clearly the humerus healed sufficient for me to play my violin tirelessly as though nothing occurred. My strength and dexterity returned unhindered."
Doubtfully, Damrosch shook his head. "Still, that requires a lot of strength to split a stone block."
"Have you ever done it?" Crossing his arms over his chest, Erik lowered his gaze, effecting it with a challenge. The reply was obvious enough as the younger man shook his head. "It is less about strength and more about knowing where to strike then you can even fathom."
"Just remember, when you're conducting all this stonework, that I still need you here for rehearsals. The summer season is upon us and well rehearsed, but we'll have the fall and winter to plan shortly." His eyes widened as he noted Erik's weary nod. "Please don't tell me you're going to pull out of first position!"
"Whatever makes you think I would make an absurd decision like that?" He cocked his head, a mild note of anger dwelling as an undertone. "You know what music means to me, Damrosch! I would sooner sell Shadowcrest than leave the Symphony Society. What is it with you today? When I accepted your request for a lesson I did not anticipate you would go to such lengths to anger me."
Holding up his hands defensively, he struggled to find the right words under the overpowering gaze of an increasingly volatile Erik. "It wasn't my intention to upset you."
"Really?" Drawing up to his full height, he glared down upon the shorter conductor. "Then what had your intentions been? I assure you it certainly seems like a ploy to waste my already limited time."
"I admit I was worried about the future of the hall." He fretted, a bead of nervous sweat rolling down his face. "This had been my father's dream, and thus I inherited it with the baton of both societies. It's a lot of pressure and I just want to be certain that, now that they have a home, it won't be taken away."
With narrowed eyes, his icy reply came like a whiplash. "Why would it?" Gritting his teeth, he bit off each word forcefully. "For the final time, this hall's destiny is assured by me. So long as I live the integrity of this hall is assured regardless of profit. Profit is hardly the reason I became involved in the first place! You know by now I am here strictly for the music. Nothing and no one will ever come between me and maintaining the highest standard of performances upon this stage."
"Even the construction of the towers?" He asked tentatively despite Erik stiffening once more.
"Even the construction of the studio towers, which is why Carnegie and I came to an agreement." He held out his hands in concession. "You have nothing to worry about. Somehow I will manage my time to meet all my contracts, help you with the selections for the upcoming programs, and be there for all the rehearsals."
"As usual I will go without sleep." It took a conscious effort for him to try and break into humor, to turn the conversation into something of a joke. "Sleep is such an abysmal waste of time anyway. Lying there completely idle for hours on end, who wants to do that over being productive?"
Innocently, Damrosch shrugged. "Most normal people, actually."
"Which explains why very little gets accomplished by normal people." Taking up his violin he threw Damrosch an expectant glance. "Are we finished or are you still determined to master my composition?"
"Do I have a chance at it?" His hands embraced his own instrument as he brought it up to his chin. "Be honest."
"At your current skill level … " A small dismissive shrug escaped Erik as he watched Damrosch placing his fingers. "No, not like that. You will never get the transition from that angle."
"But, it's the correct placement by classical training." He protested.
"Limitations. That is why you cannot get it. You are trapped in a paradigm where the fingers can rest in only one position. Did the audience come to observe the precise placement of your fingers on the neck or to hear the music brought forth from the instrument with an unbound spirit?"
Staring at the strings, Damrosch blinked as it dawned upon him that it didn't matter how correct his fingers were placed. "No, I suppose they would not be observing that at all."
"Precisely. Now, let me show you how to rest your fingers to allow the rapid note progression this composition requires. It was not written entirely within the classical element, thus the struggle you find yourself in. My inspiration comes from the more fluid patterns heard in the music of Romany. To execute such rapid transitions that transcend measure and beat … " Placing the violin beneath his chin, Erik's supple fingers demonstrated the alternate grip, dancing soundlessly along the strings.
At the rear of the auditorium, the door opened to admit two young men, both bearing violin cases. "Pardon my manners, I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Adam Wallbeck. Welcome to Manhattan. It was Friedrich wasn't it?"
"Yes, Friedrich Reiniger." They cordially shook hands as they walked down the lengthy aisle. "I came from Germany where I played first chair for some time. I was told that Carnegie Hall's Symphony Society was the best to join in all of America."
"First chair?" Wallbeck glanced down at the violin case embraced in the hand of the burly immigrant. "Violin, well I daresay you won't stand much of a chance of ranking the concertmaster in this hall."
Reiniger placed a proud hand to his chest. "You have yet to hear me play. No one is faster or more precise on the strings than I."
Shaking his head, Wallbeck pointed to the stage. "He is. And I would stake my position on that."
Frozen halfway up the aisle, Reiniger narrowed his eyes as he took in the odd figure of the masked man coaching Damrosch on the stage. "The one in the mask? That tall, skinny wisp of a man is your concertmaster?"
"Mmm hmm." Wallbeck nodded with respect. "That's Erik. You can trust me, there is no one on this continent that can play like he can. The man opposite him is Walter Damrosch, he's the conductor."
"Amusing that a conductor is receiving instruction from a simple musician." Reiniger observed quietly, rooted in his position as he watched Damrosch try once more to unsuccessfully play Erik's composition.
Damrosch requested. "Alright, show me again. But this time play it aloud with me."
With a flourishing bow, Erik brought the bow to the strings and in a blur of minute motions, the selected measures poured forth from the violin with seemingly no effort. Beside him, Damrosch was slashing away dripping with sweat, while Erik remained fully composed. The strokes of his bow were minimal, the finger motions conservative. Glancing over, Erik's eyes grinned at the conductor. "Less-is-more." He finished with a bow. "It requires not so much muscle as finesse."
In the aisle, Reiniger's jaw was taut at the display he had just observed, his eyes taking in the feat. This was a challenge! Obviously there was more to this first chair violinist then met the eyes!
Beside him, Wallbeck nodded. "See what I mean? Good luck."
"We'll see about that." The German nodded curtly before approaching the foot of the stage. "Excuse me, Gentlemen."
Damrosch lowered his violin and curiously walked to the edge of the stage. "Can I help you?"
"I was informed you are Walter Damrosch, the conductor of this fine musical hall?" Reiniger placed a hand upon the edge of the stage. "I have recently arrived here in America from my home in Germany and am eager to join the best symphony here."
From his vantage point, Erik remained stock still. His shadowed eyes locked upon the newcomer with a wary glare as he observed Damrosch bending down to shake hands with him. "Indeed I am. Who do I have the pleasure of meeting?"
"Reiniger, Friederich Reiniger." A strong grip embraced Damrosch's hand. "It is with great pride that I offer my skills as first chair violinist to you."
With a nod over his shoulder to the dark and now silent figure, Damrosch replied. "Concertmaster has already been taken. Besides, we have our set for the summer season and won't be holding auditions until the autumn. However, you are certainly welcome to attend our concerts and become familiar with our selections until that time."
"I could play for you now, honestly you have no idea what you are missing." Offering a little bow, he smiled graciously. "It would be an honor."
"I apologize, Reiniger." Withdrawing from the edge of the stage, he gestured back to Erik. "But both myself and the director of arts have a tight schedule for today. We regretfully must decline the offer. Please do come to the concert next week. Perhaps we may have a moment to hear you then."
Lowering his eyes, he heaved a long sigh. "I shall simply have to starve until then." Turning from the stage, the German began a long, lonely walk down the aisle towards the rear door of the hall—a pair of mismatched eyes tracking him the whole way.
After the door shut, Damrosch blinked up at the still frozen Erik. "Well, that was rather odd. If he's that skilled he won't starve."
Erik nodded stiffly, his eyes still watching the door. "He spoke remarkably fluent English for someone fresh off the boat from Germany, there was hardly an accent."
With a gentle nudge, Damrosch chided. "You're one to remark! How many languages can you speak?"
Offering a shrug, Erik clarified. "Those languages took time to learn, time to acquire the ability to speak like a native without my original French accent effecting the vowels."
"You are entirely too suspicious."
Tucking his Stradivarius back into its case, he shook his head. "On the contrary, you are entirely too trusting. Now, if you will excuse me, while you do whatever it is conductors do when they are not conducting, I have three work sites to check on the progress of before the sun sets this evening."