The Last Concerto
by James A. Andrew
I know that many speculate about the disappearance of Radcliffe Willowsby, some assuming that, since I was last to see him, that I must be the cause of it. I hear the whispers, the accusations. They say I killed him, but I assure you it is not so.
Not so, because his soul was damned beforehand.
I met Radcliffe at the Royal Academy of Music in the year of our Lord 1832. He was a second-year, and I a first. I was, at this time, already an accomplished harpist and he a noted pianist and conductor. When I first met him I was immediately reminded of a small lumpish blob of dough; he was quite rotund, and seemed lackadaisical to a fault. However, his eyes hinted at the intelligence and sheer force of will that was his true nature. We became fast friends, and we would often visit the Oriental Club together, as both of our fathers were members.
Something life-changing happened to Radcliffe in the summer of 1834. We were sitting in the smoking room at the club, enjoying our pipes, when a gentleman slightly older than ourselves sat at our table.
At first I was quite repulsed because he was gaunt and jaundiced, but it seemed like a twist of fate that this man, Thomas Henderson, entered the club as a visitor and found the only seat available was with us. He had just come back from the Royal Observatory in South Africa, having calculated the distance to some space matter or another. Radcliffe had a singular obsession with the stars, and immediately began to strike up a conversation with Henderson. I grew tired of their semi-private chat so I excused myself and left.
Radcliffe was nowhere to be found for over a week. Finally, I saw him at the Academy. His face and clothes were unkempt and he had a slight cold, but a look of sheer delight was upon him. I asked him where he had been; he said he had been with Henderson since that night at the Oriental Club, gazing at the stars. He seemed to have a secret, something he was privately delighted about, but upon pressure revealed nothing.
Weeks passed with no event. One day, Radcliffe told me he was going to try his hand at composing. He was able to persuade the Head Master to play his sonata for strings at the All Hallow's Eve ball, and spent as much time as possible furiously writing. He was very proud of his work, and at the concert bowed deeply to the polite applause given at the announcement of his name. However, the piece could only be described as dreadful. Some called it childish; others, uninspired. Willowsby was crestfallen. His spirit was crushed, but he resolved to continue composing until he created something worthy of praise. He continued to release his works, but he did so anonymously. Still, his creations were met with less than favorable criticism.
Radcliffe became more and more introverted; we no longer met at the Oriental Club, and when I did see him at the Academy, he was distant and cold. I was confused by the spurning. In August of last year, I managed to corner him and ask him why he had changed. He stated he felt thin and broken, but that he had 'given in and made his masterpiece.' He invited me to accompany him in his concerto for piano and harp. We began to practice with the Academy's orchestra, and after a whirlwind month of practice the day of the unveiling was upon us. Willowsby was proud to have his name announced, and from the first chord of the first movement those former critics were amazed by the new-found mastery exhibited by Radcliffe. The notes of the melodies bespoke of cosmic wonder undreamt by man, the rests told of the vast chasms of maddening nothingness lurking between the stars. Many, including I am unashamed to say myself, were moved to tears by the utter power of Willowsby's masterpiece. At the end of the final movement Radcliffe jumped to his feet and bowed before a standing ovation. His eyes roamed the hall, looking for something or someone, but he never found it. Later when I asked him he said dejectedly that Henderson promised to come, but he never showed.
All the critics and papers raved about Radcliffe's work, and he was instantly projected into the upper crust of society. But as his star brightened, it was eclipsed by an extreme melancholy. I saw him even less, except for the rare occasion when he deigned to join us at practice, and when he deigned to join us he looked more and more sickly. Some of the younger students whispered rumors that he was Syphilitic, but I didn't believe them.
Over the next five months he had composed seven more concertos, each more heart-wrenching and beautiful than the last. They were all extremely well-received. However, Radcliffe began exhibiting peculiarities; each time one of his pieces was mentioned he would enter fits of exclaiming 'It's mine! I wrote it! Mine and no one else!' I just assumed he was filled with conceit, and I, in turn, was filled with hatred and jealousy.
On January the fifth of this year, as you no doubt read in the papers, Radcliffe collapsed on stage. His sister Margaret and I rushed to his aide. After being seen by a physician, it was recommended that he be confined to his apartment near Pall Mall until the fainting spell had passed. His sister lived in Portsmouth with her husband, so she pleaded with me to stay with Willowsby until his health returned. Apparently she believed I was his sole friend, although I no longer felt any friendship on his part. I reluctantly agreed, and moved into his apartment three days later.
To call his home disgusting does not do it justice. Garbage and night-soil littered every room. Thick cobwebs covered the rafters, stretching down to the huge fireplace in the living room. It seemed as though the shadows were unnaturally thick in the corners of the apartment, almost tangible things reluctant to give way to light. I was sure this unclean environment was the reason for Radcliffe's illness, so I set to work at once cleaning the place, making it habitable.
During the day Radcliffe and I would sit and talk, and we immediately rekindled our friendship. However, as soon as the sun set Radcliffe would lock himself in his room and not come out til morning, nor answer my knocks. When I asked him about it, he explained that he did so to concentrate on his music composition, and so I thought nothing of it. Although our strong friendship returned, his body seemed to show no signs of returning to it's healthy state. He continued to look pallid, almost jaundiced. He had become frightfully thin, as if no amount of food or drink would sustain him. I became worried, and doubled my efforts at cleaning the apartment in the hopes of curing my friend. The darkness in the corners continued to thwart my efforts to remove them, looking like the deep black soot from inside a mine.
One day, Radcliffe was taking a mid-day nap in an overstuffed armchair in the drawing room so I thought to attempt to tidy up his bedroom. While dusting his considerable library I noticed a book sticking out slightly, the only one not covered in the fine dust of lack of use. Curiosity overtook me, and I looked inside. It was his journal. Sitting at his desk I opened it to a random page.
'13 August 1834. Henderson and I continue our search for the shadow he found in the sky. We have looked around Orion's belt, where he saw it last, for the past three nights to no avail. I cannot fathom how sound could travel over immeasurable distance, but he claims to have heard thin music and a voice from within the shadow, and I believe him. It is a pity that illness overcame him and he could not continue his research into this phenomenon while he was in South Africa.
'Addendum: WE HAVE FOUND IT! The shadow has found its way to our solar system, orbiting the Sun roughly near Mars. It sings to us in a voice full of wisdom and lore. We can both barely hear its music, a sound both sad and astounding. It calls to me, filling my mind with promises of power and notoriety in exchange for guiding it to Earth.'
I sat there in silence for some time, mulling over what I read. During that heady summer Radcliffe and I began smoking Opium, and I assumed he was under the dragon's influence when he wrote this entry. All the same, I felt a queer chill run up and down my spine, and momentarily I thought the room darkened slightly. I decided to read on, hoping this entry was just drug-addled rambling.
'3 November 1834. Their voices, their words, haunt me. They think I'm no more than a novice at composing, do they? We shall see. I have made my decision. Soon they will see the greatness of my works! With its help I'll show those fools! With its help I will create my masterwork!'
This passage was to be the last I read. Radcliffe was stirring in the drawing room, and I did not wish to incur the man's wrath if he should see me reading his journal. I returned it to its place on the shelf and left the room quietly.
Dusk came and went, and as usual Willowsby locked himself in his room. I sat in the living room, staring at the flickering flames in the hearth. I had just procured a case of decent sack from Portugal and attacked it with vigor.
Two hours and many glasses later, I began to feel the hairs stick up on the back of my neck. The chill I had felt whilst reading Radcliffe's journal returned. The shadows lengthened in the living room as if the fireplace was putting out heat but no light. I looked to it to make sure it wasn't dying out, and when I did so I noticed something very singular about the flame: it stood up perfectly straight from the logs, about a foot and a half high, as if frozen in time.
All about me the shadows closed in menacingly. I couldn't take it anymore, and springing from my chair, I ran to Radcliffe's room. I banged on the door for what seemed like an eternity, to no avail. My wits at an end, I set my shoulder against it and pushed with all my might, shattering the doorjamb about the weak lock. I stumbled in, falling to my knees just inside.
I looked up at once, and what I saw is now permanently etched into my mind.
I see it in my waking moments.
I see it in my dreams.
Radcliffe sat at his desk, facing the door. His head was at an unnatural angle, tilted back over ninety degrees so that all I could see was the underside of his chin. His right hand was hovering over a scrap of staff paper, and jammed under the nail of his index finger was the metal tip of a quill. Above him an indescribable shadow loomed. Tendrils of utter void reached down from the shadow and wrapped around Radcliffe's arms and body like a cosmic mockery of a marionette's strings. As I watched, horrified, the tendrils bounced his right hand up and down, and with each motion blood dripped from the quill point, setting down musical notes on the staff paper. With each drip a thin, hollow sound on the edge of hearing wailed to the pitch of the notes. And with each note on the staff Radcliffe seemed to become more and more transparent, whilst the shadow above him began to take his countenance more and more.
Right before my eyes the final note sounded, and the transformation was complete. The Radcliffe I knew was gone, leaving nothing but his shadow sitting in his chair. Above it, clinging to the corner of the ceiling was a horrific doppelganger of my friend. It seethed at me through clenched teeth, its yellow eyes glaring at me in satisfaction, and then jumped out the window, landing perfectly on its feet in a shower of broken glass.
I sat there on my knees, dumbfounded. Either minutes or hours passed, I'm not sure. When I finally collected my wits, I ran into the living room and took the pistols from above the mantle, loaded them, and raced after the monster.
I caught a glimpse of it somewhere in Hyde Park, and followed until it reached the Serpentine. It seemed unsure of the water, as if water is a foreign concept to it, and in the light of a wan moon I shot it. The monster fell to the ground, and I walked up and put another bullet into it from close range. The yellow eyes became glazed over and finally returned to their original color. I stood over the corpse until I was certain the malignant shadow had fled, and then rolled the body into the water to make certain it would never return to spread horror throughout humanity.
I returned to Radcliffe's apartment in the hopes that, with the fiend gone, he would have been delivered back to me. Sadly this was not so. I decided it would be in everyone's best interest, especially his poor sister Margaret, if I destroyed any evidence of this nightmare creature, lest any who happened upon the evidence would go mad. That is why I took his journal and burned it in the fireplace. I only hope I've spared some the agony of knowing the truth.
I have sent Xiaojian along with this letter so that you, Sir Robert Peel, might know the truth that has haunted me since that fateful night. I see the horror in my mind's eye always, I feel the pangs of debilitating sadness always, and only the blissful bosom of the poppy keeps me at ease. I feel the heady weariness of the Opium coming upon me already, and so my tale ends here. The Serpentine swallowed the shadow, and I am the hero, not the villain, in the death of Radcliffe Willowsby.
© 2010 James A. Andrew
Bio: J.A. Andrew was born in Chicago, Illinois, and lives with his wife and son in nearby Naperville. He is an avid fan of Arsenal Football Club, and hopes to one day be able to afford to go to a match. He works in the insurance field, and in his free time enjoys war games and reading fantasy, sci fi, and history books.His story The Gold Idol appeared in the December 2008 Aphelion.
E-mail: James A. Andrew
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