Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie (for previous chapters see archives)

Chapter 3.

Before moving to the inn for dinner, Branch stretched out on his bed and thought about what Margo had told him. In a way, the fact that Esme was married, and that the fact might not inhibit her, jibed with Branch’s fantasy of a no-attachment affair. But he wondered about the husband. Was he a willing cuckold, a knowing participant in a so-called open marriage? It would be the first time Branch had part in adultery, and as a believer in and upholder of law and order, his temptation troubled his sense of ethics. Besides, she may just be flirting. He found that he liked what he had seen of Margo, but she might be married too, for all he knew. And she seemed the sort of woman he might get attached to if he got too close. He still hadn’t met the redhead. He sat up and scanned the list of participants, wondering which she might be. Margo was Margo Ball, from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Esme was Mrs. Howard Pilkington of Danbury, Connecticut. Harriet Downey was from Weekapaug, Rhode Island, as was Sharon Green. These last two lived on the same street in what seemed to be neighboring numbers.
He grew restless and checked his watch. Still a half hour before dinner. Maybe a walk around the neighborhood. Outside, the sun was declining and a cool breeze was coming in from the bay. The sky was clear. Branch breathed deeply. Better just keep things simple and enjoy the music and not being in Houston.
Around the corner of the inn, the lawn sloped down toward the grove of pines that looked like a pleasant destination for his walk. As he topped a rise, he found the redhead who had shared Margo’s table at lunch. She was in a leotard and sweatshirt, making slow, graceful moves. Tai chi, Branch thought, I shouldn’t interrupt, and walked by with a wave. Might as well be friendly. He continued toward the pines. The grove was free of undergrowth, shady, and fresh-smelling. He hummed some Mozart whose tempo matched his stride. On his way back he caught up with the redhead, who was walking toward the inn.
“I didn’t like to interrupt,” he said as he approached, “but I’d just like to say hello and introduce myself.”
She kept moving, but said, “You’re Aldo, right? I’m Daphne. Thanks for not breaking my focus. Tai chi helps my music.”
“Sure. I was just thinking you might be a cellist, since I don’t see a fiddler’s mark on your jaw.”
“You’re right.”
“I am a trained detective,” he said with a smile. He was pleased to see her smile as well. “I played with your friend Margo this afternoon. She’s very good.”
“Yes she is. I hear you got stuck with Harriet.”
“Yep. It’s too bad about her. Has anyone tried to help her?”
“God, yes. Doesn’t do any good.”
“I understand that after dinner people are free to form groups on their own—mix and match. Any advice about how a new guy should handle it?”
She looked at him with a half smile. “I’m sure at dinner you will be courted with many offers. The word gets around quickly if you’re a good player.”
Maybe there’s safety in numbers, Branch thought. “Is your group full?”
She smiled again and shook her head slightly. “Well, we had a piano trio set up, but we could turn it into a piano quartet.”
“I’d enjoy that if you wouldn’t mind. I love those Brahms quartets. Who’s the pianist?”
“Esme, of course.” She almost laughed.
“Oh.”
Daphne stopped and faced Branch, hands on hips. “I’ll save you a lot of trouble. I’m gay. But I’ll play with any good musician. Music, that is.”
“Fine with me.”
“And here’s a further bulletin you can do with what you like. Margo is straight and single.”
“Ok.”
“We’ll play in the lobby after dinner. That’s the only good piano on the place. I’m sure Margo won’t mind. Or Esme.” She smiled again and headed toward the section of the inn that contained the rooms.
Branch continued his walk, pondering the underworld of female communication. Daphne understood that both Esme and Margo were interested in him, and wanted to let him know. Did everyone come to this Party thinking about getting laid? Back in his room, Branch checked the list of participants. Daphne Kennedy was from Boston, with a Boston University email address. Probably not those Kennedys, Branch thought.
Dinner was a sit-down affair. Daphne, Esme, and Margo were seated together and gestured that he should join them. He did, trying his best to show nothing but cool. The food was good, lasagna and a big salad, and the conversation focused on the piano quartet literature. Daphne preferred the third Brahms quartet, which had a gorgeous cello solo in the slow movement. Esme liked the first, with its lively gypsy finale. Margo liked them all, but was partial to the passionate middle of the slow movement of the second quartet. Everyone agreed that both Faure quartets were good. They preferred the first Mozart quartet, the one in G minor. They laughed at the words music students put to the opening theme, “Answer the telephone.” The second Mozart was good, but Daphne thought it too much like a piano concerto. The conversation descended into a kind of quiz, guided by Esme. Who had played the second Dvorak? The Saint-Saens? The Turina? The Walton? Only then did any tension between Margo and Esme emerge. Esme insisted that Shostakovich had written a piano quartet, and Margo calmly said that she must be thinking of the piano quintet, which she had played several times. Branch said he had played the quintet too. Maybe there was a piano quartet buried in the Russian archives.
Branch noted that their table elicited some glances and smiles among the other players. Harriet and Sharon sat by themselves in a corner.
Little Elsie left her parents’ table and circulated, showing the many grandparents at the other tables a crayon drawing and smiling at the “Oh’s” and compliments. She even submitted to a few hugs.
After the dinner crowd thinned, Branch’s table gathered by the piano and began the third Brahms quartet. Daphne played well, with good tone and feeling. Esme played with flair and brilliant technique, but a little too loudly for Branch’s taste, and insisted on her own tempos. Margo, as expected, played with accuracy and taste. Afterward, Esme invited everyone to her room for a nightcap.
“Thanks, but I’ll take a rain check,” Branch said, realizing that he was very tired. “I’ve had a long day.”
Esme pouted. “We’ll just have to have a hen party, then.”

The next morning, Branch woke early, feeling much refreshed. After a shower and shave, he wandered into the dining room in search of coffee. Sheila, the little woman with the British accent, was at the coffee bar looking through the tea bags. She looked up and smiled.
“Good morning!” she said. “You’d think they would have at least one bag of lapsang souchong. All I can find is hippie herb tea—‘Parsely Peacefulness,’ ‘Cinnamon Comfort.’”
“Any coffee?”
“There’s a pair of thermoses. Guess I’ll settle for plain old Lipton’s.”
Branch found a mug and pumped it full of coffee. “Did you have some good music yesterday?”
“Not bad. Didn’t get out of my depth.” She looked up sharply. “I see you are in the fast crowd. Your Brahms sounded good.”
“I just tried to keep up.”
Sharon entered the room, looking concerned. “Good morning. Is the water hot?” “Moderately,” Sheila said. She looked at Sharon and frowned. “Anything wrong?”
“Oh, Harriet is not feeling well. I’m bringing her some tea.”
“Poor Harriet. Try the ‘Cinnamon Comfort.’”
“Oh no. Plain tea.” Sharon filled a mug and scooped in sugar.
“Do you think she’ll feel like playing this morning?” Branch asked hopefully.
Sharon looked at him a second and tightened her lips. “You’re hoping she won’t. Well, I understand. But I hope you’ll come to understand Harriet better.” She left.
“Poor Harriet, indeed,” Sheila said. “She drives everyone crazy. But I suppose Sharon is right. We should be more understanding. She’s had a hard life, despite her money.”
“Oh?”
“Oh yes. Family rejection, lawsuits over her inheritance. And,” she leaned closer and spoke softly, “she’s gay, you know. Her family was horrible about that.”
“And Sharon is—“
“Her partner. Bless her patient soul. And she’s not in it for the money. No, the lawsuit decreed that her awful family would inherit if she had no children. And unless there’s a biblical miracle, that’s not going to happen.”
Branch took his coffee out on the long porch and gazed out on the bay. The air was crisp and cool, the sky clear. The lobster boat was back, putting from one buoy to another, hauling in traps, emptying and baiting them, and dropping them back in the water. Branch hoped there would be lobster on the menu at some point.
At eight, the staff—college kids, by their looks–loaded the buffet table with steam trays of eggs, bacon, ham, and sausage, plus cereal and bagels. Branch picked the leanest slice of ham he could see—he needed protein for stamina—and a bagel, some mixed fruit, and another mug of coffee. He took a seat by his cellist, Asa, and they were soon joined by the smiling owner wearing an apron.
“ Jill,” Asa said, “you get the prize for keeping our tummies happy.”
Branch complimented the food.
“Just wanted to be sure everything is ok,” she said. “Your room comfortable?”
“Fine,” Branch said. “You have a nice place here. Very homey.”
“Well, I hope you enjoy it,” Jill said, and ran off to the kitchen.
“Think you can stand Harriet another day?” Asa asked.
“How about this,” Branch said. “Before the coach comes, let’s try to help her. We can stop and tune—you know, play a chord and make adjustments until we’ve got it. And go over passages where she comes in late. And let her set the tempo.”
Asa looked skeptical. “We can try.”
“She may not show,” Branch said. “Sharon said she was not well.”
“Oh, she’s never well. But she’ll show up eventually.”
As Asa predicted, Harriet wandered in after they had played one tantalizing movement of a Beethoven quartet. Branch took the lead in trying to bring Harriet into the ensemble. “Let’s slow this movement down some,” he suggested. Harriet still dragged. “Let’s go over that passage again. Everybody try to anticipate the entrances.”
Harriet was late. “Again, please.” Harriet was late again. The final chord of the first movement was badly out of tune. “Let’s play that again and hold it until we get it in tune.” Harriet held her flat E. “Up a little, Harriet.” Harriet glanced up, frowned, then played the note sharp. Just then Alicia arrived, so Branch gave up.
Alicia worked with them for half an hour, making good suggestions. When she left, they took a stretch break. Branch gently approached Harriet.
“That’s a big viola. Do you ever think about trying a smaller one?”
“I like this one. Don’t you think it has a good tone?”
“Sure, but—“
“Try it,” she said and handed it to him.
Branch played a scale up from the C-string. “Wow. This is a great instrument.” He looked for the label through the f-hole.
“It’s a Montagnana,” Harriet said smugly.
Branch knew that it was worth at least six figures. And Montagnana violas tended to be large. It was at least an inch longer than Branch’s modern instrument, and Branch’s reach was at least six inches longer than Harriet’s. What she should do is sell or loan this viola to a poor professional—a large person–and get a smaller one for herself. But Branch was beginning to understand that Harriet would resist that suggestion as she did others.
After the morning session and lunch, Gerald made some announcements. After lunch on Tuesday there would be a master class, in which each group would play one movement they had been working on, with all the coaches making comments. Beginning that afternoon, there would be a “shakeup”: they would assign new groups. Branch grasped at the hope that Harriet would be out of his group.
The afternoon session had Branch’s quintet trying to select which movement they would present to the master class. They decided on the slow movement with the violin-viola duet. Unspoken but crucial was the decision that Harriet’s playing would damage that movement least.
Dinner was a delicious fish stew. Afterward, the piano quartet of the previous night gathered again for another session of Brahms. Esme didn’t repeat her invitation, and the group dispersed around ten.
Branch, still dressed, was lying on his bed reading when he heard a knock at the door. He opened it to find Esme with a bottle and two glasses. “Here’s your rain check,” she said, and slipped inside. She was wearing a slinky green silk robe. And, as Branch soon discovered, nothing else.

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2 Responses to “Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie (for previous chapters see archives)”

  1. leeanderson46 Says:

    How can you leave us like this 🙂 I am REALLY enjoying your novels, as a violist myself, I found out about you through our Yahoo Viola List. I love your attention to musical detail – it’s like watching a “music movie” where the string players really ARE playing! As for the other details, well I AM a violist and am enjoying your writing immensely 😉 can’t wait for the next chapter!! cheers…. Lee

  2. Elle Says:

    He always ends a chapter like this! One has no choice but to begin the next, and then you have to keep reading that one. I’m impatiently waiting for the next installment of his latest novel.

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