The Wonderful Tune by Jessie Douglas Kerruish

It seemed such an innocent little thing when Larssen rehearsed the details. Besides, it was Magic; ergo, Bosh.

“What is the Huldra King’s Tune?” asked Iris.

“It is the crowning piece of Huldra music; and there is a spell attached to it,” said Larssen.

“As long as it is played in its entirety all present must dance to it,” he further informed her. “Also the player cannot stop playing it—however he wishes to…”

Heaven knows he himself wished to stop playing it that night! I’d like to forget it myself—get that tune out of my head, and the sound of the beastly thuds, the disgusting pad, padding! If I set it out in words perhaps they may not come into my reluctant memory so often.

This happened a good while ago, when it meant rough travelling if you wanted to get from Davos to Italy in winter. But I can only tell the tale now, by arrangement with Einar Larssen, because years have steeled Madame Larssen’s nerves, and it will not upset her for life if she comes across this account and recognizes, behind the substitute names, what she missed in the Fasplana Inn.

A telegram summoned Mrs. Walsh and Iris to the bedside of a relative who was in extremis, for the tenth time in three years, in a North Italian health resort. Iris and I had only been engaged a week, so even strong-minded Mrs. Walsh had to stretch a point and let me escort them. We set off from Davos comfortably enough, and it was a matter of carriages until late afternoon.

Twilight shut down on us negotiating an uncommonly trying pass of the Rhaetic Alps. Snowflakes big as one’s joined thumbs coming down thick, the landscape blotted into unstarred greyness, only the ashy reflection of the nearer snow showing that we were on earth and not jolting over derelict worlds in an infinitude of blank space. At the Hospiz at the top of the pass we changed to a sledge and the driver removed all the horse bells before starting. The chime of them might start off some delicately poised mass of snow from the heights on top of us.

So, hushedly, we drove over a snow floor, coming at times on the top of a telegraph pole just over the surface, the wires making a slow Aeolian harping level with our feet. The snow was falling its thickest when the accident occurred.

A bad spill over a buried obstruction. The women fell into the snow, I landed against a telegraph post and sustained all the casualties—a right wrist that began to swell and pain abominably and a left shoulder that appeared to be shrivelling and losing all feeling. The rest of the drive was nightmare, the wires playing the deuce’s own melody, and myself almost light-headed before the flicker of lanterns came suddenly into view.

WHEN my senses were really at my beck and call again we were in a big timber-built hall, a fire crackling in the chimney and an enormous number of Swiss of all ages and sizes acting sympathetic chorus while Iris and her mother attended to my injuries, aided by a slim young man with a mop of tow-coloured hair.

“Allow me to introduce myself, Monsieur, and then you will perhaps fulfil the formality, so beloved in your country, by introducing me to the ladies with whom I have had the pleasure of working for some time.” Thus the yellow-haired man, when I was propped in a chair. His French was good, but not of France. “I am your fellow guest, forced to stay for the night through the blocking of the farther road. My wife is here also, but at present she is resting in her own apartment. And my name—I have no card on my person—is Einar Larssen.”

We three started in unison—”The violinist?” exclaimed Iris, and he bowed and pushed back a straggling lock self-consciously.

I made the necessary introductions. The landlord interposed nervously, “It is perhaps advisable to inform the ladies—” he began. Larssen interrupted. I distinctly saw him bestow a warning frown on the man, and the Switzer’s face expressed the comprehension of one who receives secret orders. “Our host would impress on you that the ‘Four Chamois’ has but little accommodation to offer at the best of times, Madame Walsh,” the violinist said smoothly. “I hear Madame coming, she will arrange with you for a fair division.”

Madame Larssen appeared now, a frail, pretty little woman in the early twenties, and bustled Mrs. Walsh and Iris off. I saw all the Swiss, the landlord and his wife, the several servants, and our driver exchange looks as the trio departed.

“It is most awkward, Monsieur Lambton,” said Larssen, suddenly become businesslike. “Madame Larssen is of a nervous temperament, and for her sake we have been forced to a certain concealment and we might as well extend the concealment to Madame Walsh and Mademoiselle; they will rest the easier for not knowing about it.”

I could not imagine what the fellow was driving at. Infectious disease? Robbers? “It is behind that door they rest. Monsieur,” the landlord volunteered, indicating one at the side of the hall. “Three corpses.”

“Most ladies are averse to such house-fellows,” Larssen proceeded gently. “We will all be on our way in the morning; there is no need for them to know, eh?”

I agreed. “They will rest the easier for knowing nothing. Three corpses? Three at once?”

The landlord waxed voluble. They were the aftermath of an avalanche. There are several kinds of avalanche, and the nastiest is the dirt avalanche. It’s like the tipping out of a titanic dust-cart; a filthy tide of mud and shingle, slabbed together with half-melted snow, packed with the trees, turves, rubbish heaps, and corpses it has gathered in its course. The snow avalanche enfolds you dead in its chaste whiteness; the dirt variety pinches, chokes, and suffocates you slowly, then acts threshing-machine and steam-roller combined to the mortal part of you, until its force is spent and it settles with you interred somewhere in it.

Such an abomination had trickled its way down the valley hard by the Inn of the Four Chamois early that winter, three men were lost in it, and that day diggers had found their remains. “Caspar Ragotli is entire,” said mine host, with a nod at the door; “Melchoir Fischer—” He told us, detailedly, how this Melchoir was in pieces, most of them there, while of the third, Hans Buol, only one hand had been discovered, “But we know it for Buol’s, by the open knife grasped in it,” our entertainer proceeded, gloatingly. “A fine new knife from your Sheffield, Monsieur Lambton; and the hand being the right it sufficed for the whole, as the gentlemen will know-“

I felt thankful for Larssen’s concealment when the ladies reappeared, prepared to make the best of things. We were merry enough over our mishap, now that food, fire, and four walls were our portion, with sounds of storm brushing up louder and louder without to add zest to enjoyment. The most awkward thing was that, with my injuries, I was limited to the stiff use of one hand alone and could scarcely lift that. I would stay up, if only to convince Iris there was nothing much the matter. If it had not been for my crocking I knew she would have been enjoying everything in this small adventure enormously, from the unexpected company to the robustious dog and severe cat who slipped in when a servant was sent to bring wood from the outhouse where they had been banished.

“But what makes them fidget round that door?” she asked innocently.

Larssen was behind her. Under fear of his eye the landlord answered composedly: “There is in that room a—a stock of meat, Madame.”

Now came the son of the house with the bag of an afternoon’s hunt: a pair of marmots to be stuffed against the next tourist season. He placed them on a chest by the lethal door while his father took him aside for a word of caution. We made the three, host, hostess and son, sup with us; and all was so comfortable that I forgot the other guests until Larssen whispered apologetically:

“It is not really disrespectful, Monsieur Lambton.”

WE kept shocking hours for a Swiss inn, the eight of us, after the tired servants had been packed off to their quarters.

“This is like home,” said Larssen dreamily, when we were all basking round the fire. “I come from a farm—up in the wilds beyond Romsdal—and it was even so in the old hall. The big fire in the big fireplace—the cats and dogs going crackle, crackle, over the supper bones—the wind whistling—the clatter of voices—”

“The one thing missing is the scraping of thy violin, my Einar,” his wife put in. “Come, thy fingers twitch; I know it; and our friends here would not, perhaps, object—eh?”

“A recital by Herr Larssen, free, and without the trouble of sitting still in a stuffy concert hall!” said Mrs. Walsh, and the ensuing chorus of rapturous assent sent Madame Larssen running for her lord’s instrument.

“You have heard of my Da Salò?” Larssen inquired, as he lifted the violin from its travelling case. “My Cavalancti Da Salò? It is said Cavalancti sold his eternal welfare for the power to make a certain number of instruments that should approach as near the God-given perfection of Stradivarius’s work as devilry could accomplish.”

He tilted the violin to show the play of light sinking in the amber lustre of it. “We will have no set pieces,” he added, “but such old tunes as I played in our farm kitchen so far away and long ago!”

Tucking it under his chin, he swept us with the first notes right into the faery realm of sound. A realm of tingling frost that whipped the blood along the veins racingly, of icy wind that sang of the Elder Ice at the Back of Beyond: a very vocalization of the eternally young, eternally pure spirit of the Northland.

Ending with a queer suggestion of a lit farmhouse at night, the loneliness of stars and ice and snow crowding to it outside and inside fire and company, and the family spirit concentring round the holy hearth and stretching out invisible strands of love to absent ones far out in the frozen whaling fields, or at mean work in foreign cities, or dead and cherishing in the other world memory of home.

Then he plunged into another tune, and another; snatches all, all singing of the North, and the Northern chasteness that is fierce and passionate as the foulest vice of all other quarters of earth.

“You will not hear these at a paid-for concert—God forbid!” he observed, his dreamy voice filling a pause between two melodies. “You are hearing, my friends, what few but children of Norway ever hear, scraps of the Huldrasleet. The melodies of the Elf-Kind—the Huldra Folk we name them—no less. Snatches that bygone musicians overheard on chancey nights out in the loneliness of fiords and fells, and passed on down the ages. The Huldra Folk are the musicians of all time.”

“You would like to hear them?” asked Mrs. Walsh quizzically.

“I have heard them, ‘dear Madame. Five times have I heard the Elf-Kind, invisible but audible, holding revels out in the empty winter nights and summer early mornings on the heights of the Dovrefeld—I, Einar Larssen.”

Mrs. Walsh started a little; but the rest of us were not much surprised, if I can speak from analysis of my own feelings and a glance in the eyes of the others.

“There was one tune,” Larssen went on meditatively. “It was a dark and windy night—like this one. I was searching for a strayed sheep. I found it in a field. Then, over a hedge, the melody began to flow. It was a tune! It got into my fingers and toes; I began to dance to it. There in the snow I danced, and my senses flowed out of my body in sheer ecstasy, while my emptied heart and head were filled with the tune.”

His face queerly lit by firelight, his yellow mane tossing as he gesticulated illustratively, he carried us all on by the conviction of his voice over the monstrosity of his relation.

“Then the stark pines on the slope beyond the hedge bent and waved their branches—in time to the tune. The snow was swished about in powder, as the frozen grass-blades beneath waked and waved—to the tune. The stars began to glide about in the sky, and to bow themselves to and from the earth; growing bigger as they approached it and shrinking as they swirled back in the mazes of the dance—to the tune. Then, if you please, I woke. Woke, with the moon much farther across the heavens than she had been when the first note of the tune came to me, and the sheep I had come to find lying exhausted in a patch trampled flat and muddy by its hoofs. And I, also, lay in the middle of a bare trampled patch in surrounding snow. That is the truth.”

He drew breath and proceeded:

“I did not remember the tune entirely, though I had heard it repeated many times. A short tune; very short. When the Huldra fiddler reached its end he began again, round and round in a circle of music. The middle part I remember, but of the end and beginning only certain detached notes. I tried often by playing what I recollect to make the forgotten parts slip into their places, but unavailingly—”

He went to the main door and opened it. The wind swept in steadily, but the snowfall had stopped and a big moon looked down on piled white mountains and glaring snowfields. “It was so; clear, windy, and white, when I heard the tune,” he said thoughtfully.

“Similarity of outward circumstances will revive a train of emotion or thought experienced long ago,” Mrs. Walsh nodded.

He closed the door, and came back to the fire. Then his eyes lit and he drew the bow across the strings with a large gesture. Followed a few bars of melody. “The middle part,” he explained.

Madame Larssen gave an abrupt little cry. “Einar, can it be you heard the Huldra King’s Tune? Then thank Heaven you cannot play it!”

“Why, my beloved?” he lifted his eyebrows gently.

“In my district there was a tradition that one man once played it through and something happened.”

“What happened?”

“Nobody quite remembered. But it was dreadful.”

“What is the Huldra King’s Tune?” asked Iris.

“It is the crowning piece of Huldra music, and there is a spell attached to it. An enchantment, Mademoiselle,” Larssen elucidated.

“…As long as it is played in its entirety, all who are present must dance to it,” he further informed her, after reflection.

“That does not sound very dreadful,” she laughed.

“There’s something further.” He became thoughtful. “Ah; it is that the player cannot stop playing, whether he would or not. He can only stop if—let me consider—yes, if he plays it backward or, failing that, if the strings of his violin are cut for him.”

“You could safely play it now, Monsieur,” said the landlord. “So far as I am concerned. My rheumatics would stop my dancing, however magically you played.”

“And we”—Mrs. Walsh’s gesture indicated the other ladies—”are resting to summon energy enough to crawl to bed. So, Herr Larssen, we are a safe audience if you can remember your wonderful tune.”

“There was one more detail,” he went on. “Ah, it is that if the tune is played often enough, inanimate things must dance, too.”

“That’s danger for us, as we are all nearly inanimate!” Mrs. Walsh yawned frankly now.

He leant against the carved mantel and for a little while he played absently, his subconscious mind busy with reconstruction, fumbling amidst its orderly lumber, connecting, paring, arranging. Then he straightened himself and swept the bow purposefully across the strings.

Slowly at first, then with added lilt and swing, there rippled forth the complete, horrible tune.

I KNEW it, for between a chiming start and a clattering last bar the broken chords he had first remembered fitted in followingly. It was not very long, that tune; he reached the end, leapt, as it were, to the beginning, played it through again, and so to a third repetition.

Then the wonder began. During the second repetition a movement like the passing of a breeze had run round our little assembly. Sleepy eyes opened, heels beat time, figures stiffened. At the third we were on our feet.

It seemed perfectly natural. Though I was almost too tired and shaken to stand, the tune ran into my feet; I made a step towards Iris and almost fell, fetched up against the wall, and so fell to dancing. Dancing calmly and solemnly all by myself.

Iris made a step towards me, too; paused and shook her head. “Poor boy, you must sit and rest,” she murmured, and paired off with the Swiss lad.

Somehow one knew the steps on first hearing the music. It was, perhaps, the Dance Primitive, holding in itself the potentialities of all saltatory art. Mainly it consisted of a mazy circling with a little crossing and up-and-down work, going on, over and over; monotonous yet tirelessly fascinating, like some Eastern music.

I repeat, it seemed perfectly natural. The landlord led off with his wife; they danced with decorous determination. Mrs. Walsh and Madame Larssen were footing it with all the abandon two women paired together could be expected to indulge in. Larssen himself had begun to dance, playing conscientiously the while. I circled about, a little uncertain on my feet, my slinged arm for partner, and Iris and the lad sailed amongst us, light as thistledown.

Those clumsy-looking Swiss boys are amongst the best dancers in the world. Whenever she passed me, Iris smiled, her eyes full of far-away ecstasy.

The music quickened and took a richer tone; it rang back from the walls, it melted and echoed in the timber ceiling; the floor-boards hummed with it; every nerve in us was tingling, laughing, almost crying with too much rapture of sound and motion.

Time, weariness, place, all were not. The dead beyond the door were forgotten, there was no Earth, no more Time, nothing but a ringing emptiness of melody, a singing storm of tunefulness on which one could lean and be carried like an eagle down the wind.

Yet, through all the intoxication of it, I was dimly aware that we were in a homely Swiss inn-parlour, at the same time that we were in the Fourth Dimension of music. I was rapt out of my shaken body, yet saw my surroundings clearly; saw, presently, the cat and dog rise and, on their hind legs, join in, keeping time and threading the maze unerringly.

That appeared neither wonderful nor laughable, only natural; but my dazed senses half-awoke when the two dead marmots slithered off the chest, rose on their hind feet, and, with pluffed-out tails swaying in time to the tune, and a queer little pit-a-pat of tiny feet, that I seemed to hear through the other noises, set to one another and circled with the best of us. They swung past me, their heads level with my knees, and vanished amidst the other dancers. I noted their furry little faces, dropped jaws, frothy teeth, and glazed eyes. Dead, most undoubtedly dead, and dancing!

The cat and dog passed me again, and the marmots chanced to be near at the same time. The dog wrinkled his upper lip, disgusted at the deadness of them; the cat snapped at them in passing. The queerest thing was the others, with one exception, did not seem to notice the four small additions to the company. Only Larssen, figuring solemnly with his fiddle for partner, saw. His eyes protruded as they squinted along the Da Salò at the quartette. “Dead,” he gulped.

“Stop now, man!” I called. “This fooling—”

“I cannot,” he cried back hoarsely, and began the melody over again for the fifteenth time at least. “The tradition is true—”

Then, as the opening movement rippled forth again, in the inner room three crashes sounded.

Two almost simultaneously, yet singularly distinct from one another, the third a few seconds later. Loud, resonant, wooden crashes. Then silence in that room, and in ours the swell and swing of the infernal melody and the pat of dancing feet.

THE sound had been too pronounced for even enthralled senses to disregard. All looked at the door for a moment. The others forgot the interruption at once and danced on, eyes blank with ecstasy; only Larssen’s face went white and the landlord’s mottled grey. “Stop, Monsieur!” the landlord cried.

“I cannot!” wailed Larssen, his voice shrill with horror. “I cannot! For Heaven’s sake, Monsieur Lambton, come and cut the strings!”

“My hands are useless—” I began, and stopped at a new sound.

You must understand that I had danced nearer to the door by that time. The new sound behind it was one of scuffling and scrambling, half a dozen sounds merged in one, then—pat, pat, patter, patter, pat—was a noise of steps keeping time to the tune.

Soft steps, you’ll understand, not the click of shod feet, like ours. I went round, came in range again, and listened.

A fairly heavy thumping—like a man on stockinged feet—was approaching the door. “What’s the matter, Cyril?” asked Iris, swaying by, still rapt, as the boy and the three other women were. She did not wait for an answer. The latch of the door rattled. The latch inside the other room, you understand.

“I’ll play it backwards when I can!” gasped Larssen, as we crossed each other’s track. The noises in the fatal room circled away from the door, then approached, and the latch was unhasped this time before the horrible soft-falling thumps retreated. You see how it was: as we were compelled to circle round our room so, whatever it was in the other room had to circle likewise, making an attempt whenever the door was in reach to open it and join us and the tune.

Larssen was fiddling desperately. “Backwards now!” I implored.

“I cannot—yet. But if I repeat it a few more times, I shall be able to reverse it,” he called back.

A few more rounds would be too late. The inner room noises reached the door and it opened a crack. If—what was striving to come—joined us, would even ecstasy blind the women? And when the waking came—? I flung myself against the door in passing; it snapped to again. “A few more repetitions!” panted Larssen.

Inspiration came to me. The others, dancing in a hypnotized state, circled widely, but I could do the steps within a small compass: in front of the door.

I could do it. I did it. Larssen made an attempt to reverse the melody. He failed.

Two more repetitions. Iris and her partner, passing me, smiled at the quaint figure I must have cut, dancing by myself in narrow circles before the door. Larssen’s ashen face was running with sweat that dripped from his chin and trickled, like the slack of a tide, over the amber glory of the Da Salò. The padding steps approached the door; it was jerked a little ajar. I drove it back with my sound shoulder; but a new danger arose. They—the dancers within—were imitating my tactics. They danced in a circumscribed space that grew smaller as the minutes passed If only we could have got the women out of the way! I gyrated, as well as I could, before the door all the time, driving it back with my shoulder as it was thrust ajar, again and again.

Picture it. See me, one arm in a sling and the other nearly powerless, prancing and twirling before the door, trying the while to keep a temperate expression on my sweat-drenched features for the benefit of the women. The landlord only kept from dropping with fear by the magic of the tune. Larssen stepping it absurdly, trickling features set like a Greek tragic mask, his long yellow tresses bobbing about, matted into rats’-tails, his eyes glaring down at the flooded, humming Da Salò. The women and the lad, unconscious of everything save the melody, dancing with the introspective gaze of the drugged.

The door was thrust ajar once more. I dashed it back, but not before a soft padding had pattered from the bottom of the opened crack into our room.

I almost collapsed. Cat and dog and dead marmots—oh, they were respectable beside the latest addition to our company!

The people circled on; the dog, the cat, the dead marmots, they all circled; and circling with them—but keeping ever a course that drew it nearer and nearer to Larssen all the while—was a little dark shadow with a long, thin, tarnished white gleam sticking from it. I beat back the door and what more was pressing against it, and fought with nausea.

Round and round Larssen’s feet, nearer and nearer, the little shadow hopped, leapt, and pattered. Leaping and springing. It jumped higher and higher, always in time to the music—higher and higher—high as Larssen’s elbow. In another minute I knew even the enraptured dancers could not fail to see it. The door was now beaten on, beaten with soft-falling, fierce thuds. I could not keep it shut much longer…

Up sprang the little shadow and the tarnished gleam, clear over Larssen’s shoulder. A series of twangling, discordant snaps, that seemed to prick one’s brain physically, and the tune stopped dead.

Thud! It sounded behind the door—very heavy. Then a succession of smaller thuds. I leant against the wall, panting. The dancers stopped, every face dazed and stupefied, and in an automatic way each dropped into the nearest seat.

LARSSEN dashed his handkerchief over his face. I contrived to throw my own on the floor behind him before he staggered to the fireplace. With my most usable hand I also managed to pick up my property again and place it on the seat, behind me, as I sat down on the chest by the door. The marmots were on the floor near my feet; I was enabled to hide my face for a few seconds, and to compose it, as I picked them up.

The eyes of the others cleared and became intelligent. “I really think I’ve been asleep,” said Mrs. Walsh.

“I believe I have,” Iris rubbed her eyes.

“I think I have too,” laughed Madame Larssen.

The landlord had made himself scarce at once, probably doubting his histrionic powers at such short notice. His wife followed him. The boy sat dazed.

“I had a dream, a ridiculous dream, too ridiculous to repeat,” Mrs. Walsh proceeded.

“I had a dream, likewise too absurd to relate,” said Madame Larssen.

“I had—” Iris checked herself, and looked sudden apology at Larssen, who had arranged himself with the light at his back.

“Do not fear to hurt my feelings,” he said blandly, his voice still a little unnatural. “You were all tired before I began. In brief, Mademoiselle, I am not broken at the heart because my music had a soporific effect on you all.”

“It wasn’t as if you had been playing one of your own compositions,” she apologized. “I am sleepy, mother; I vote we make a move.”

“Yes, we will tuck up our drowsiness in bed before it has a chance to insult anyone further,” Madame Larssen chimed in gaily.

They trooped off; Larssen kept his face in shadow, I stood carefully before the chest, while bidding them good night. When they had gone, the landlord came back. For a little while we four men stared at one another. “Surely I have had a dream, gentlemen,” said the landlord imploringly.

We said nothing. He hesitated, then, with the haste of dislike, snatched a candle and flung open the inner door. “Oh, Holy Virgin!” he cried.

Three coffins lay as they had tumbled from their trestles. About the room was spilt and tangled the coarse linen that charity had contributed——

The landlord reeled against one doorpost. Larssen clung, limp, to the other. “I’ll burn the Da Salò before I’ll play that tune again!” he whispered hoarsely.

I stepped back into the large room, brought my handkerchief, and from its folds replaced in one of the coffins a shrivelled hand grasping the tarnished knife that had cut the violin strings. The boy, most composed of us all, said stolidly:

“Ah, Messieurs, it appears that the dead do not enjoy being disturbed!”