John Meade Falkner (1858 – !932) was an English poet and novelist perhaps best known for Moonfleet. The Lost Stradivarius links gothic horror with a love of the arts, and the fear of the occult.
The story starts with a letter from Miss Sophia Maltravers to her nephew, Sir Edward Maltravers, then a student at Christ Church, Oxford. It seems of utmost importance to her that she tell him about his father’s last request. That Sophia tell him the story of her brother’s experience. The story is about John, father of Edward, and narrated by Sophia.
Dr Sarsdell represented that John, who then exhibited some symptoms of delicacy, would meet with more personal attention under his care than he could hope to do in so large a college as Christ Church. From his earliest boyhood he had been passionately devoted to music, and had attained a considerable proficiency on the violin.
The study of music wasn’t as popular in that day and age, so John was pleased when he found a kindred musical spirit in William Gaskell, although he was very talented at the pianoforte. Gaskell spent his summer holiday in Italy and returned from his trip with music of seventeenth century composers, some of which he left in John’s rooms when he retired for the night.
His attention was especially attracted to an oblong book, bound in soiled vellum, with a coat of arms stamped in gilt upon the side. It was a manuscript copy of some early suites by Graziani for violin and harpsichord, and was apparently written at Naples in the year 1744.
his eye was arrested by a suite of four movements with a basso continuo, or figured bass, for the harpsichord, this one the composer had dignified with the name of “l’Areopagita.”My brother stood playing, with his face turned to the window, and as he played the opening bars, he heard behind him a creaking of the wicker chair
He was so convinced that someone had sat themselves in the wicker chair for a listen that he stopped playing to look at the chair, but he was greeted by silence. The same thing happened when Will came to make music. John pretended not to have heard the mysterious sounds, which only seemed to be heard when either one of them were playing the Gagliarda. They both convinced themselves that it was merely the vibrations causing the strange sounds.
Suppose that all our theories of vibration and affinity are wrong, suppose that there really comes here night by night some strange visitant to hear us, some poor creature whose heart is bound up in that tune; would it not be unkind to send him away without the hearing of that piece which he seems most to relish?
He did not stop playing, and in a few seconds the impression of a presence in the room other than his own became so strong that he was actually afraid to look round. In this cold but clear light he saw seated in the wicker chair the figure of a man.Thenher brother put down his violin, and he assuredher that a horror overwhelmed him of an intensity which he had previously believed impossible.
He wore a long cut-away coat of green cloth with an edge of gold embroidery, and a white satin waistcoat figured with rose-sprigs, a full cravat of rich lace, knee-breeches of buff silk, and stockings of the same.
John told Will of his vision, who was certain that John’s newly found passionate love, lack of sleep and highly active imagination may be a better explanation for the apparition. The two of them decided to try and conjure up the figure again, but to no avail. They went their separate ways for a few months, during which John told Sophia about his spooky experience.
John kept a copy of Graziani’s suites with him, although Sophia never saw the book. He did however play his violin quite often. Then one evening he asked Sophia to join him in playing from said book.
As I closed it a streak of evening sunlight fell across the room and lighted up a coat of arms stamped in gilt on the cover.here I saw before me the same florid foreign blazon, a cherub’s head blowing on three lilies on a gold field.
When John returned to his rooms he discovered by chance that the books near his chimney were becoming warm, so he decided to move the books and bookcase lest they be damaged by the warmth.
Inspection soon showed him another hinge a little further up, and by degrees he perceived that one of the panels had been made at some time in the past to open, and serve probably as the door of a cupboard. It lay there between the dish of medlars and the decanter, veiled indeed with thick dust as with a mantle, but revealing beneath it the shape and contour of a violin. He began to see more clearly the delicate curves of the body and of the scroll.
Although covered in dust it seemed as if the violin was still sound, despite the broken strings.
the wood was as sound as when it left the maker’s hands; but the strings were of course broken, and curled up in little tangled knots. The body was of a light-red colour, with a varnish of peculiar lustre and softness. The neck seemed rather longer than ordinary, and the scroll was remarkably bold and free. His heart leapt with a violent pulsation as he read the characters, “Antonius Stradiuarius Cremonensis faciebat, 1704.”
John kept his discovery from his sister, however he did tell Will about the secret compartment in his room and who he thought the mysterious ghostly figure might be. John decided to take the violin to Mr. Smart a famous collector of Stradivarius fiddles, esteemed one of the first authorities in Europe in that domain of art, and author of a valuable work of reference in connection with it.
This violin is of the great master’s golden period, is incontestably genuine, and finer in some respects than any Stradivarius that I have ever seen, not even excepting the famous Dolphin itself. The label is perfect, but if I am not mistaken I can see something higher up on the back which appears like a second label. This excites my interest, as I know of no instance of an instrument bearing two labels.”
Of course Mr Smart assumed the violin was perhaps a family heirloom and John said nothing to clear up this misapprehension.
this, as you will see, does not give his name, but merely the two words ‘Porphyrius philosophus.
John became more secretive and a while later he fell ill. He also started to see visions of the man during important episodes of is life. Sophia was concerned for him, especially when she happened upon a painting, which depicted an exact description of the man John keeps seeing.
‘”Yes, it is a splendid painting, though of a very bad man. His name was Adrian Temple, and he once owned Royston. He was, I believe, a man of remarkable talent, and spent most of his time between Oxford and Italy,
Adrian used to have a boon companion called Jocelyn until Adrian did something so shocking that his companion decided to become a monk instead. Sophia became obsessed with the portrait of Temple. There was just something that kept drawing her back to his image.
Gaskell has often told me that when he played it the music brought with it to his mind a sense of some impending catastrophe, which culminated at the end of the first movement of the Gagliarda. It was just at that moment, Sophy, that an Englishman who was dancing here was stabbed in the back and foully murdered.”
After we had descended about twenty steps we could see the entry to some vault or underground room, and it was just at the foot of the stairs that I saw something lying, and I saw that what I had taken for a man’s form was instead that of a clothed skeleton. “Do you know whose bones those are? That is Adrian Temple. After it was all over, they flung his body down the steps, dressed in the clothes he wore.”
The violin and the strange figure are the reason for John’s deterioration and his death, although Mr Gaskell gives his own account at the end of the book. He mentions how John also found manuscripts with the violin in the form of diary entries. The diaries of Adrian Temple. He believes John became obsessed with the books and instead of hallucinations he was actually basing it on factual knowledge. Including how Adrian obtained the infamous violin.
Though it was of his golden period, and probably the finest instrument he ever made, Stradivarius would never sell it, and it had hung for more than thirty years in his shop. It was said that from some whim as he lay dying he had given orders that it should be burnt; but if that were so, the instructions were neglected, and after his death it came under the hammer.
Gaskell was convinced that John had ripped three pages from the diaries. The three pages that told the story, which would explain the death of John and the retreat of Jocelyn. Some terrible experiment John had decided to replicate. An unforgivable heinous act that will forever remain a mystery.
only I knew that whatever Sir John had done or seen, Adrian Temple and Jocelyn had done or seen also a century before and at the same place. whatever was done, I feel sure that the music of the Gagliarda formed part of the ceremonial. we burnt the book containing the “Areopagita” of Graziani, and the Stradivarius fiddle. The diaries of Temple I had already destroyed,
To be honest I don’t think I have done this excellent story justice. There is the morbid fascination with guilt and the occult Poe is famous for, combined with a love of the arts. Like our Mr Gaskell I also believe music can conjure up strong emotional responses, depending on the piece of music and person those images can be innocent and happy, whereas for others they may be of a darker nature.
I say this advisedly, because I am sure that if some music is good for man and elevates him, other melodies are equally bad and enervating. An experience far wider than any we yet possess is necessary to enable us to say how far this influence is capable of extension.
Falkner only wrote a few books, and I do believe in his own way he was an early talent of the horror genre.
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