The Baron's Daughter

Submitted by Arthur Tiberio to Contest #26 in response to: Write about a character who was considered a prodigy when they were young.... view prompt

They locked the cello in the cellar. Now, before we go any further, understand that this was not the sort of cellar in which we find homey cabinets of jams and pickled beets. Mrs. Maganis is more than fond of the story and, before the incident, acquired quite a knack for telling it.

Her husband was the sort of man who takes great pride in the guests he brings to his table, and though he was not usually a proponent for letting the women "prattle on through gentlemen's business," as he put it, it was not long before she developed such a reputation of odd fascination that he decided to keep his own mouth on the matter firmly shut. He would approach a baronet at a ball, or perhaps it was a minister, and upon receiving his courteous invitation to dinner on the following Saturday, they would invariably say something along the lines of: "And what about that woman of yours? Quite the entertainer, or so I hear. . . ."

So she would join them. After a while, he saw it as only natural, part of the regular routine of things. The courses were served, politics were discussed, and after the meal was done and pipes were being produced, Mrs. Maganis would turn whatever conversation she was currently engaged in, and ever so slightly raise her voice . . .

"Well, it's a very old house," she'd begin, nodding vigorously through the cigar smoke of the men, swiveling her gaze from the one to the many. "18th century, they told us. It belonged," a pause, full of satisfaction, "to a baron." At this point, someone -- perhaps the aged Mr. Cardin or the Lady Mornet, with her silly Eastern scarves, would invariably pipe up, and half murmur, half ask:

"Odd, that. Do you know, I've heard it was a steel magnate."

Mrs. Maganis would tilt her head. Even after the hundredth repetition of this question, she would tilt her head, and say, "No, no. I'm sure it was a baron. His name was Amnith. The Baron Amnith. This was ages ago, see, long before the Industry swept the isles. He had the manor specially commissioned, by an architect he shipped in from Paris."

"Paris!"

"Oh, but naturally!" she smiled. "He, too, was a name of the time, though the records have since blurred it out of significance. But he had it commissioned," and her voice dipped, in a way that was decidedly conspiratorial, "because of his daughter."

"Ah," smirked Cardin, "that sort of girl." The murmur of soft laughter rippled through the room, but fleetingly. All eyes watched Mrs. Maganis, and Mrs. Maganis watched them back. Above all, she knew when she'd won the attention of an audience.

"Not at all," she said. "But, you see, there were . . . circumstances. It was her birth, see. She was their first child, and the Baron insisted on, but my, just the grandest gathering on this side of Sussex, since the Kings' galas. There were flags, of course. And tents that soared almost halfway up the height of the towers. He brought in jugglers, fire-eaters, men who walked on ropes strung between the trees and chefs that catered to ten thousand tastes."

"Marvelous," muttered Mr. Hausier, who was a tubby man and a Junior Minister of the Interior. Several people gave him a silencing glare.

Mrs. Maganis went on. "But the most fascinating thing that day, and the main attraction of the entire affair (besides the baby, of course) was a boy with a name that is no longer written down, in any of the books of our age. To history, he is a phantom. On that day, he was all too real. All too wonderfully real, and the longer he stayed, the larger the crowds around him became, until the Baron, annoyed at this newfound center of attention, left his child with the Baronet and made his way through the gathering mass, to see what the commotion was all about." A maid shuffled in and began to relight the candles. Erratically, the flames jumped from shadow to shadow across the smoke and watching eyes. Their light played upon the angles of Mrs. Maganis' face in a very impressive way.

"For you see, in all the hundreds of entertainers and showmen that the Baron had summoned that day, the boy was not in their number. He appeared, out of nowhere! And he had this cello. No one could match his skill. Not, I expect, even our own Monsieur Umair, whose music (it is said) can tame the rabid wolves. The Baron heard him for only a minute, but it seemed to pass as a century."

Mrs. Maganis cleared her throat lightly, and motioned for a glass of water. It was brought to her, and under the collective gaze of the room, she drank with quiet grace. When she finally finished, the impatience in the room was as palpable as the lingering smoke of the pipes.

"And of course," she said, "this is when it really began. He grew enamored with the boy, insisting he stay on, become a performer of his household, and he raised him like a son. I see, gentlemen, that you wonder at his own parents? He had none. He came to the House of Amnith with nothing but the cello, and the clothes on his back.

"They say he was quiet, as reserved as the subtle whispers of the birds. The beauty of his music wasn't as loud as your Beethoven and Wagner. It was simple. It flowed like rivers. No, creeks, running very quietly under the shade of painted willows that kissed the damp and sleeping stones." Her hands moved in tandem with her words, subtly tracing the contours of the water, conducting the music which of course had never needed a conductor. "It was spectacular. They all came to see it, the lords and well-to-do folk, even the Austrian King, whose regiment paraded all the day in the surrounding village, passing out parcels of gold and sweets to the passing children."

"Yes, but what of the boy?" came the voice of Mr. Cardin, filled with impatience. "And what of the house? You told us the baron built the house because of the boy, not to host him."

"I'm getting to that. See, the years passed quickly under the tutelage of Baron Amneth. Soon, five years had trickled by, then ten, and now the daughter was a young woman, of fine marrying age. With knowledge of her heritage, the manor was soon full of not only swooning ladyfolk and passing regents, but also a teeming mass of young scions intent on winning the hand of pretty Ms. Amneth.

"More than her hand, I'll expect." More chuckling, but now, a few scattered "Shush!"s came trickling from around the room. Mrs. Maganis beamed.

"Yes, well, with all this going on, Baron Amnith's heart was fit to burst with pride. Pride for his daughter, now considered one of the great beauties of the age, and pride for his adopted son, who continued to surpass and amaze even the veterans of his art. But then," she paused, condensing the suspense of the moment, balancing the word she was about to utter at the very back of her tongue . . .

"Disaster."

Someone chuckled from the back of the room. "Boy has his needs, eh? Custom can take a right stone to the balls when there's a girl involved," he confided, either unaware or uncaring to the fact that his voice traversed the entirety of the room, though in a sort of embarrassed shuffle. Mrs. Maganis raised her chin and shot an icy glare at the silhouette, which fell promptly silent.

"Where was I?" She mused coldly. "Oh, yes. Disaster. The boy was in the garden, they say, playing his music with charming abandon, oblivious to the setting sun, when suddenly he felt someone watching him. Eyes, hidden behind the peonies.

"It was the girl, of course. Young Vivian Amneth, who had snuck from her quarters to squat and stare at the heavenly movement of the strings." She paused, annoyed, at another epidemic of lewd snorts from the back of the parlor. "Shame on your mothers!" she scowled, and out of the corner of her eye she saw her husband rise wearily to expel the men, who began whispering urgent protests that quickly faded into the hall. A door closed shut. Mrs. Maganis cleared her throat.

"In any case, that's where it all started. It was terrible when the father found out, of course. A musician and a baron's daughter? Why, it wasn't just unthinkable -- it'd have been terrible to the family prospects. The Baroness had passed just a year earlier, which meant that whoever Vivian married, would then be the heir of Amneth's entire fortune. He was livid.

"Now, the Baron, after establishing friendly terms with the King of Austria, had once been invited to dinner at the King's palace. It was an old castle, old as the empire itself, and he had been so privileged as to be given a grand tour, if he would in exchange allow the boy to play for the assembled guests. He'd seen treasures and tapestries which defy the grasp of words. More importantly," said Mrs. Maganis with a grimace, "he saw the dungeons.

"And here's where the house comes in." She gestured at the luxurious parlor around them. "He had it built specially, on the exact ground where the old house had stood. At first, he just wanted to excavate a basement, but as this would require . . . what was it, dear?"

Her husband snapped back from his daze. "Work on the foundations, I believe."

"That's right. The foundations. So he tore it all down, with the intent of building something far grander, which of course he did. And the cellar . . . oh, was it something! You know, we've gone down there our share of times, and it's not a maze. A maze is meant to be got out of, but these halls . . . there are doors that lead into walls, and walls that, when broken, lead to doors. There are rooms within rooms under rooms within rooms, and they're all so devilishly odd. Just last month, we broke through seven panes of glass and a mortared archway, to find a room filled all with soured wine and dead cats. Cats! All rotted to the bone."

"Why, whatever for?"

Mrs. Maganis only shrugged. "Who knows? And, besides, that's the last anyone ever heard of it."

"You mean"-

"No one ever saw the boy again. Last I heard, Vivian married -- why, but yes, it was -- a steel magnate from America, and of course the father lived to a ripe old age. Oh, don't all look so sour. He wasn't buried alive, you know. That'd be ridiculous. They say the old man burned his cello, hid the remains down there, in the dark and wet. It broke his heart."

"But the cats . . ."

Another shrug. "Eccentric, I'm sure. Or perhaps they snuck in one night, looking for a warm place to sleep, then got locked away. Who's to say?"

"And where did he go, this boy?"

For the first time all night, Mrs. Maganis hesitated. Why was it, she wondered, that she'd never heard that question before? In hindsight, it was an obvious one, wasn't it? Why hadn't she wondered it? "Albania," she lied, and looked at her shoes with something approaching worry.

"Ah," said Mr. Jonsion, a doctor. He nodded, and it was clear that Mrs. Maganis's part in the conversation had ended. A light ripple of laughter dispelled the last of the suspense of the story. "This cellar of yours sounds like quite the adventure, Jack," the doctor continued. "You must stage a hunt for us. I'll bring around the dogs." Fresh chuckles broke the tension. Jack Maganis sighed heavily.

"Not so very interesting, I'm afraid," he said, shooting a glance at his wife that warned her to stay silent. "The details have been rather embellished, you'd find. Really a drab sort of place. Dust. Boxes."

"Boxes in boxes in boxes in boxes," someone cried, and Mrs. Maganis' cheeks flushed red.

****

Later, when the last of the guests had gone, she shot a glare at her husband that would have melted spoons.

"What was that for?"

"What, the joke about the friar and the busted"-

"You poked fun at me!" she said, her voice high with injured pride. "In front of near everyone we know, you made a fool of me!"

He sighed. "They'll forget it by next week," he said. "You know they will."

"And if they don't?"

Mr. Maganis pinned her with a look. She quieted, but reluctantly. "What good comes of telling them?" He said softly. "The cats. Shall we tell them about the diamonds next? Or perhaps the skulls. They were awfully small, weren't they?" He saw her shudder, but the eyes were still full of fire. "I'm sorry. But some things, they go too far. Some things, why, they're better off never said at all."

"That's not your decision to make," she hissed. "You don't tell me what to say and what not to. And what if I do? Did you see the way some of them looked at me? Like I was a housemaid, telling tall tales in the servant's quarters. Does it do you proud, to see your wife treated like that?"

Mr. Maganis shifted uncomfortably. "You know it doesn't. You know that. But there must be . . ." he broke off with another sigh. Undoing the tight buttons of his shirt, he moved to the bedroom. "Do you still hear it?" he wondered aloud, framed in the warm glow of the candles.

The temperature of the air dropped suddenly in the air around Mrs. Maganis' body. She looked away. Her husband looked at her with a gaze approaching helpless sympathy. "I'm sorry."

"Go to bed, Jack."

"Mary"-

"Go." Her face was gray and set. He nodded, and closed the door. She stared at it for a while, not necessarily devoid of feeling, but momentarily detached.

To us, she sits in silence.

Alone, however, she waits and listens closely, to a sound as rich as the newborn summer earth.


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15 likes 3 comments

22:03 Feb 05, 2020

That was really cool- the interaction between the husband and the wife at the end read so believably yet was unexpected. The desire for attention of Mrs. Maganis was also so honest abd accurate. Great story!

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21:57 Feb 07, 2020

Raises so many questions. Peaks reader's curiosity.

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01:50 Feb 03, 2020

Beautifully written! I can nearly hear the music myself. :-) Thank you for sharing! - Lee

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