A Star Tribune serialized novel by Richard Horberg


Chapter 14 continues

The story so far: Allen’s father gets his cartoons published.


In the dead of winter, Ruth Armstrong, the art teacher, sent Allen an invitation to a concert at her home. It had been slipped under his door while he slept: The Thorson Club Presents an evening of chamber music. You are invited. Jan. 29, 1950, 7:30 p.m.

With the invitation came a small program: “Death of a Maiden,” Schubert, No. 14 in D minor; “Quartet in E Minor,” Verdi; Intermission and “Cypresses,” Dvorak. Below that was a list of the musicians: First Violin, Agnes Wheatley; Second Violin, Clara Wheatley; Viola; Ruth Armstrong; Cello, Orville Christopherson.

Ah, Allen thought, culture comes to the small town at last — just when it’s most needed.

Ruth lived in a gray house with black shutters (the only one in town, she told him when he called to accept) at the opposite end of the street from the Catholic church. He had seen it on his walks, a four-square, two-story Victorian with elaborate white gingerbread trim at the eaves and a widow’s walk on top.

At the door he was greeted by a girl of high school age wearing a plain gray dress. She curtsied and led him to what she called the Music Room, where he found several folding chairs lined up in three rows of four each. Two of the chairs were already occupied by George Schuelke and his wife. Soon Jerry Sadowski, the math teacher, and his wife arrived, followed by a middle-aged couple he didn’t know. To his great surprise, the woodcutter and his wife showed up. Both were considerably more presentable than he had last seen them, the man wearing a tweedy suit somewhat too large for him and the woman a dark green dress with a black collar and black piping on the pockets. “In Borrowed Clothes,” he thought, would be a good title for a short story. Last of all, while George Schuelke lit a cigarette and glanced at his watch, Evelyn Wilson, the librarian, appeared, together with two grade-school teachers whom he had seen in the school but whose names he did not know.

The room was rather elegant: floor-length, heavy maroon drapes cascaded from gold rods, a carpet of faded violet, polished oak floors at the edges, carved oak cornices at the ceiling and an elaborate chandelier above. At the head of the room stood four music stands.

Unfortunately, the room was overheated.

Ruth entered first, wearing a black dress, a gold chain hanging from her neck. She thanked them for coming and told them that the Thorson Club (named for Marjorie Thorson, who had died three years ago at the age of 97) presented four such concerts to small audiences each year. It was Marjorie Thorson, she added, who had left funds in care of Jason Vorgt, the town lawyer, to provide a small scholarship to the student who showed the most progress in music each year. While she talked, one by one, as though carefully orchestrated, the other members of the quartet entered quietly and stood before their music.

Ruth spent a moment tracing the origins of the string quartet and its popularity in the 18th century. She mentioned Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Dvorak.

George Schuelke interrupted. “Don’t forget Hoagy Carmichael,” he said, chuckling.

She gave him an icy smile.

“It was Haydn,” she continued in a slightly higher pitched voice, “who did most to encourage the four-movement piece so popular today — with, occasionally, a solo in the second or third part. You shall hear such a solo this evening by Clara Wheatley in Verdi’s ‘Quartet in E Minor.’ ”

Clara Wheatley, holding her violin, bowed slightly. She and her sister, Agnes (perhaps they were twins, Allen thought), were thin, hawk-faced ladies dressed identically in long gray gowns and high black shoes. Orville Christopherson, behind them, was in a dark brown suit Allen had often seen him wear to school.

George Schuelke asked if he could smoke.

Ruth Armstrong stared at him for a moment, then suggested that he wait until intermission, at which time refreshments would be served.

“One more thing,” she said. “Someone once wrote that to be a member of a string quartet is to have the best job in the world. Indeed, it’s an honor. I’m sure that Clara and Agnes and Orville would all agree. The truth is, as someone else once said — and I find this charming — that you cannot dislike someone with whom you have played true music. Nor, I hope, can you as the audience dislike us.”

Impressed, Allen nodded. He wondered if Orville shared the house with her and the two sisters. Certainly there must be four bedrooms upstairs.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, the music.”

There were a few moments of tuning up. Then the four musicians looked at each other, nodded approvingly and began.

Allen found the opening strains of “Death of a Maiden” surprisingly unpleasant — like music from an alien world. He knew nothing about classical music. He had never attended a concert in his life. Once, at Christmastime, passing through the student center at the University, he’d paused to listen to a string quartet in the main hall, a most pleasant experience. This, however, was entirely different, whether because of the music or the musicians, he had no way of knowing.

Nor did he know why the piece they played was called “Death of a Maiden.” Was the maiden being lamented? Had she gone to hell? In part it was grim, in part it was solemn, in part it was turgid, but for the most part it was incomprehensible. He didn’t understand how the musicians could possibly know where they were in the score, it was such a jumble of sounds.

At one moment it was shockingly loud — even George Schuelke seemed to sit bolt upright at times — bows striking strings too sharply, and in the next moment nearly inaudible. There was no purity of line, no rhythm, no harmony. Whenever the music appeared to announce the coming of something profound, as it sometimes did, nothing of interest followed. Somebody must be out of sync, he thought. Or were they still tuning up? Three times he thought the piece was over, but it always started up again. He had no idea whether or not one of the Wheatley women had played her solo. He closed his eyes. He opened them again. Covertly, he looked at his watch.

During the second piece he began to doze off. Embarrassed, he changed his position in the chair and tried to focus on one of the musicians. But almost at once his eyes glazed over. Twice he woke with the impression that he was being suffocated, again that his body was being pierced by arrows. The violins screeched, the cello thundered. He had momentary dreams, jolting awake and trying to look interested. When the piece ended, he waited for it to begin again — and couldn’t believe his good fortune when he realized it was really over.


Tomorrow: Chapter 14 continues.