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Prelude and Fugue on the name of B.A.C.H. (spurious?)

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Mary Wimsey Parker had few religious sentiments. During her most fervid Communist period she had paid lip service to the death of God as she had done to His death and rebirth during her childhood at the church in Duke’s Denver; in neither case had she felt any personal attachment to the issue. Upon marrying, she had found herself possessed not only of a husband but of a glass-fronted bookcase containing a wide assortment of theological tomes; her stance on these was that as long as Charles did not expect of her a reasoned acquaintance with their contents, she hardly cared to prohibit such an innocent dalliance.

As Charles Parker’s own religious feelings were inclined more to the academic than the sabbatarian, there was little conflict in the Parker-Wimsey menage on this issue. They did, however, agree that—if only to avoid drawing excess fire from Helen—it was as well to have their children baptised. Charles Peter was christened in an odour of sanctity at St. Martin-in-the-Fields with all his maternal relations in attendance; it seemed only fair that for Mary Lucasta’s ceremony, her father should be allowed to select the church.

Baby Polly’s impious uncle delighted in suggesting the congregation of his friend Bill Rumm; Mary was rather tempted, if anything, but Charles’ innate sense of the proper sadly came to the fore. He proposed instead a church in Peckham Rye where he had been known to attend worship on occasion, St. Julian’s. Soot-stained brick and dull oak pews made it seem an unpromising prospect, but the morning of Polly’s christening was sunny, and dozens of small glass panes let in clean shafts of light.

Charles’ mother was in attendance, having come down from Barrow for the occasion with a friend; she kindly saw to keeping Charlie occupied while his small sister was the centre of attention. To the unspoken relief of all concerned, Gerald and Helen had sent their regrets; to the genuine regret of all concerned, the Dowager Duchess was unable to attend, having sprained an ankle two days previously in an episode involving Ahasuerus and some clean linen. The maternal side was represented by Lord Peter and, unexpectedly, their niece and nephew. Gerry was down from his first term at Oxford, looking every inch the dissolute undergraduate, and yet endearingly fascinated by his smallest relations. Winifred, pale and proper in her school tunic, had refused to let her older brother out of her sight during his rare time at home.

After the main ceremony was over, Mary found herself unexpectedly at loose ends. Baby Polly was being held by Gerry, and apparently serving to ease the normally rather constricted channel of conversation between Gerry and her father. Charlie was still being looked after by his paternal grandmother, or vice versa as the case might be. Winifred, improbably enough, seemed to be deep in conversation with the elder Mrs. Parker’s friend Mrs. Last; Mary cocked an ear and found them discussing something about blank copybooks.

She couldn’t see the last member of their party at first, and then caught a glimpse of his ash-blond hair up in the organ loft. Curious, she followed along, pausing on the steps to listen.

“…really a very fine Fantasia,” Lord Peter was saying. “It’s all too common, as I’m sure you are aware, to be regaled with “Art thou weary” at best and “Abide with me” at worst from organists…”

“I hadn’t been aware you were a connoisseur of music as well as detection, Lord Peter.” The organist’s voice was a baritone to Peter’s tenor. Mary had no particular image of him from the ceremony itself, other than a vague sense of “man of Charles’ vintage or so”; she had never shared Peter’s passion for Bach.

“Must have something to fill the weary hours, what?” Peter in full Mayfair mode (thought the wife of the Chief Inspector rather smugly). “I rarely get the chance to mingle with the professionals, though. Where do you stand on Buxtehude?”

The organist cleared his throat. “Before we touch on that fascinating topic, Lord Peter, might I ask you something related to your other speciality?” His voice dropped to a confiding murmur. Mary strained her ears in fascination as the conversation unfolded.

 

“My concern,” said Miss Climpson, refilling their teacups, “is your beliefs, my dear. I know that for some of us, to present oneself as a fervent believer in a heathen tradition is hardly an easy thing to do, and surely your family is Scotch Presbyterian…”

The italics were falling thick and fast today, Miss Murchison reflected; usually a sign that Lady Kitty had her delicate claws well into a new project and her ears well pricked. Well and good; she would enjoy herself too.

“I’m not a church-goer, of course, though I can impersonate one in a good cause,” she replied, pausing for a sip of tea. “In any case, my people were never of the particularly fanatical variety; I believe they left that behind in the North with the Covenanters. I might find myself a bit at a loss if asked to speak in tongues,” (with a passing nostalgic thought of Bill Rumm’s tabernacle), “or believe in alchemy and whatnot, but there should be no great difficulty about appearing as a would-be pillar of the parish.”

“I am relieved to hear it! Now let me inform you of the background. Are you familiar with St. Julian’s of Peckham Rye?”

“I can’t say I am…”

“It is a rather unrefined but most respectable congregation, I am given to understand―“ (Miss Murchison translated this without difficulty into “lower middle class edging toward securely employed working-class”)―“and boasts quite a large number of faithful parishioners. It has been brought to our attention by one of the perhaps less regular in attendance but surely no less faithful of these, who happens to be the brother by marriage of dear Lord Peter―“

“Chief Inspector Parker,” Miss Murchison filled in, with increasing delight at the cast and stage properties appearing before her.

“Just so. His dear daughter was christened there, I understand, and dear Lord Peter, who was naturally in attendance, happened to be addressed by a member of the church staff.” (Miss Murchison sipped tea in order to avoid raising her eyebrows at “naturally”.) “This gentleman, a Mr. Phillipson, was most distressed. The Vicar, one Reverend David Shephard by name―a very suitable name for a gentleman of the cloth, one feels―is a great friend of his as well as a colleague, and is thus twice over the repository of his trust.”

“And yet?” Miss Murchison suggested, wondering about the precise attachment of this Mr. Phillipson―a curate or some such?―to his Vicar.

“And yet,” Miss Climpson resumed after a mouthful of tea, “Mr. Phillipson feels that Rev. Shephard may be abusing his position in some way.”

“Surely not, er, choirboys?” As a longtime colleague of Miss Climpson’s, Miss Murchison did not share Lord Peter’s estimation of her delicate sensibilities.

Miss Climpson, indeed, confined herself to a pained look which seemed induced not so much by the possibility itself as by the relatively straightforward phrasing. “Happily, I believe his concerns are nothing so outré. They have, instead, to do with the most generous contributions to church activities of a group of ladies of the parish. Rev. Shephard is, you see, greatly concerned with the well-being of unfortunates in Africa―he was most struck with the plight of the native South Africans upon visiting a brother there, I understand, and feels that his more blessed congregation should do its part for them as they may.”

“Commendable,” Miss Murchison suggested.

“Oh, most. This support took two forms, Mr. Phillipson reports: that of various swaddling clothes and other useful objects sewn by the hands of the parish ladies, and of financial contributions made by the parishioners on a regular basis, to―“ Miss Climpson peered at her tiny copperplate handwriting in the minuscule leather-backed notebook she never relinquished. “The Sisters of Miriam Fund, I believe. Administered by a connection of Rev. Shephard’s brother in South Africa―in―I am afraid I cannot make head or tail of the name of this town!”

“I take it Lord Peter isn’t seriously proposing that I go out to South Africa to concern myself with this?”

“No, good gracious no, that would be quite off the mark when what he wants to investigate is here in London―not to speak of putting a strain on even dear Lord Peter’s resources,” Miss Climpson added, sounding slightly winded. “No. Mr. Phillipson has reason to believe that this Fund may be a false front of some sort, and he would like to know the truth of it—and whether Rev. Shephard himself is involved, or is having the wool pulled over his eyes. As well as where the ladies’ sewing is destined for in fact!”

“Well then.” Miss Murchison decided that she was about a shilling on the pound disappointed and the rest relieved. “I am to become a helpful parishioner, then? I’ll have to brush up on my embroidery.”

Miss Climpson looked delighted. “Better than that, my dear. The lady who managed the parish accounts has gone off to Tunbridge Wells to see her daughter through a confinement, and they are terribly in need of someone who knows something about office work…”

 

The atmosphere of a church proved to turn one’s mind not to God alone. On Miss Murchison’s second visit to the tiny, dusty vestry office, she had heard a most familiar sound coming from the organ loft, and found herself climbing the stairs in spite of herself to listen at close range. When the piece had finished and the organist lifted his hands from the keyboard, she said, to his back, “I beg your pardon. Is that not the Prelude and Fugue on B.A.C.H.?”

He turned, showing her a narrow, very Welsh face, clean-shaven but topped with a shock of unruly, greying dark hair. “Why, yes…yes, it is. Are you fond of Bach?”

“Very much so,” Miss Murchison said honestly. “And the B.A.C.H. fugue has long been a favorite, although I stumble so badly when trying to play it myself that I’ve given it up by now, there seems no need to torment the soul of the old man. Yours was a much more exciting performance; I’ve never heard it on the organ before and I wouldn’t have thought the staccatos would come through so cleanly.”

“Very kind of you to say.” He had focused on her, obviously for the first time. “You are…Miss Matthews, was it? The lady new to the parish who is kindly assisting with the vestry’s accounts.”

“Murchison is my name. And I know you are the organist, but I don’t seem to recall…”

“Phillipson, at your service. I do beg your pardon.” So this was the instigator of Lord Peter’s venture, she realized, immediately revising the image of a chinless and devotional curate she had previously held. “They say that music and mathematics often go hand in hand; I see that applies to bookkeeping as well.”

“Pure mathematics, applied to bookkeeping, tends to result in bankruptcies,” Miss Murchison said drily, speaking from experience. “I might have been a musician, if I had had a little more money and a great deal more talent.”

“Few of us have as much talent as we wish,” Phillipson said with straightforward honesty. “I am sorry, Miss Murchison, won’t you sit down? If you don’t mind the page-turner’s seat—“

“You’re very kind. I mustn’t take up too much of your time.”

“Nor I yours. I do want to ask of you, though—the fugue on B.A.C.H.—what is your opinion of its provenance? Scholarship has suggested that it may in fact be spurious—“

“I’m sure I don’t care who wrote it,” Miss Murchison said with spirit. “Anyone who can compose such a fine piece deserves all the praise we can muster, whether it was Bach himself, one of his sons—or daughters—or some nameless associate.”

Phillipson’s face shone. “Just as you say. I would even go so far as to venture that whoever wrote it was Bach while he—or she, as you say—was writing, whether or not it was Bach himself.”

After that, the discussion moved on by leaps and bounds, finishing in another piece he thought she must hear.

From that day on her time in the vestry and his at the organ often seemed to coincide, and they conversed regularly on musical topics. Miss Murchison was able to share Phillipson’s passion for Bach on no uncertain terms, although they had to agree to disagree on Buxtehude; he also introduced her for the first time to the recondite but real delights of Schütz, and one day she covered herself with glory by recognizing a piece by Messiaen which she had heard the previous year at a concert of moderns.

This wandering through a garden of bright images had not distracted her wholly from her original purpose at St. Julian’s, however, and in almost a shorter time than she would have wished, Miss Murchison was able to make her report to Lord Peter, corroborated by a handful of careful excursions in other locations. On a day very shortly thereafter, she opened the vestry door to see Phillipson not at the organ but seated in the front pew, reading and rereading a letter which, straining her eyes, she suspected to be written in a familiar aristocratic hand.

Before she could decide whether to approach him, the main door of the church opened and closed, and brisk footsteps rang along the nave. Miss Murchison withdrew very delicately into the vestry, allowing the door to close all but a crack; she could not see what was happening without risking being seen, but she could hear quite clearly.

“Hullo, Phil, how goes it?” She had met Reverend David Shephard only a handful of times, but his flexible tenor was easy to recognize.

The organist’s deeper voice held none of the same spring. “Thank you for coming in, David. I have a difficult issue to raise with you.”

“Oh?”

“To plunge straight in—I happened to dine the other evening with a friend of a friend, a Miss Holtby, who visited South Africa in ’26 and is very much involved in working for the people there. In the course of the conversation I mentioned your Fund, and found that she had never heard of it. She promised to look into it for me through her various connections, and later confirmed that no one else seems to have heard of it either.”

“How interesting,” David Shephard said mildly. “Perhaps I should cultivate your Miss Holtby; she seems a helpful person to know.”

“Many people think the same, I understand; but that is beside the point. I have also found, through other channels, that the Cut is home to a market stall selling embroideries and handwork by the ladies of St. Julian’s. The proceeds thereof—just as with the Sisters of Miriam Fund, I am told—seem to go straight back whence they came. To your pocket, that is.”

Shephard laughed. “Phil, you’re turning into quite a detective. What motivated this burst of activity? Are you really so shocked as you sound? Nothing comes of nothing, you know. This sort of thing goes on everywhere.”

“David, this cannot go on.”

“Narrow-minded as ever, Phil?” The rector’s voice had dropped, and she missed part of his following statement, hearing only “…no vow of poverty…many ways to do the work of…” and then the final, teasing, “…or are you resenting your exclusion?”

“I don’t find it amusing.” Phillipson spoke sharply. “I wonder if your ultimate superior would not feel the same. And don’t delude yourself that I refer to the Bishop, or indeed to Cantuar.”

“That, Phil, is an unkind blow. You’re the last man in a position to discuss ultimate fidelity to Our Lord.”

“Am I?”

“Considering that your supreme deity spells his name B-A-C-H…” (At this Miss Murchison nearly gave herself away with a chuckle.) “If old Johann Sebastian were to have written a Black Mass in B minor, you’d be at the organ in the Church of Satan Ascendant at this moment.”

“Beside the point,” Phillipson said irritably. “The loyalty of the trenches only operates so far, David. I’ve had enough.”

“Now lettest thy servant depart in peace?” at which the listener once again nearly disgraced herself.

“If you will. Surely you might do more good in South Africa than here? Bearing in mind, I hope, how much I would prefer not to see your name in the morning paper for anything other than services to the Church of England.”

“If you do see it in the wrong column there—“ with a sudden iciness—“your own will be beside it, believe me. I’ve no intent of letting you leave me to pay the parson, as it were.”

“The innocent have nothing to fear, David—if that means anything to you now. But you may set your mind at ease. I am looking for another post, and I’ll take one in Aberdeen or Land’s End if needs must.”

“You? Away from the London fleshpots—in your case, of course, the concerts and adoring keyboard students?” the vicar scoffed.

“I have the Gesamtausgabe,” Phillipson replied. “Better men have made do with less—and a few good women too, perhaps. You’ll let me know when your passage is confirmed, then, David.”

Shephard’s feet, heavier than before, receded up the nave; the main door opened, and closed. Before Miss Murchison could consider her next move, she heard Phillipson climbing the steps to the organ loft; almost immediately the church was full of Bach, crisp minor-key chromaticism ricocheting off the brick walls, expressing righteous anger and the regret of betrayal far more precisely than any words might have done.

Keeping her own steps silent, Miss Murchison emerged from the vestry and crept up the steps until she could sit down on the top step and listen.

It was only a short piece, and she waited some time after the music had ceased; however, when there came no further sound from the console, she rose to her feet again and came to stand by the page-turner’s seat. “From the German Organ Mass, I think?”

Phillipson, who had been sitting very still, raised his head sharply. “Miss Murchison. I did not see you there.”

“I was listening,” she said plainly. “From the beginning of your conversation.”

“That was not—“ sharply.

“Let me add,” she plunged on, “that it was nothing new to me. You received a letter from Lord Peter Wimsey today, I think? How do you imagine he came by his information?”

Phillipson’s face worked for a moment, in a salutary struggle between anger, amusement, and revelation. “The lady with a talent for accounts who arrived so soon after my discussion with Lord Peter—naturally—I should have known. Let me congratulate you on your discretion, Miss Murchison.”

“Not at all. I should say that I really didn’t mean to overhear your talk with Mr. Shephard,” she added. “If you had chosen to meet with him of an evening in the pub, or at your home or his, or somewhere else in less proximity to the vestry, I would not have been there.”

The silence which greeted this remark was due, it seemed, to Shephard’s name rather than her presence or absence. “Poor David,” Phillipson said at last, more to himself than to her. “It does seem that the men I call friends come to bad ends, one way or another.”

“Mr. Shephard seems to have let himself in for it,” Miss Murchison remarked crisply.

“Fair enough. But I thought him a better man…Still, dum spirat spero. At least, all alive-alive-o, he may live to become what I would have had him be… My generation has already lost too many. When I was at school—our last term in the Sixth—we played the Trout, a group of us. Brittain’s violin—he could have been a professional, if he hadn’t run onto the Eyeties’ guns at Asiago. Tucker, who took the viola—he made it through the war, but didn’t last long afterwards. Andrews on the bass. A Scotsman, and probably the best friend I had. I’ve always got along well with Scots, perhaps it’s the Celt in us…Ypres, of course.”

He paused, as if observing a minute of silence.

“And the cello?” she inquired, giving in to her tendency to address loose ends.

“Oh, Schlesinger? He’s still with us, doctoring somewhere. Married. A Jew. Good chap.”

“You have not married yourself, Mr. Phillipson,” Miss Murchison found herself remarking, relieved that the quintet had not left him its only rememberer. “I’m sure you would not find it difficult, when one considers all the newspaper articles about the surplus women.”

“Do you consider yourself surplus, Miss Murchison?”

“Perhaps in the mathematical sense, but we already know my views on matters mathematical. Surplus to requirements, of course, begs the question of whose requirements they may be.”

“Indeed. I expect that, had I simply wanted a helpmeet to see the joint was cooked and the mantelpiece swept, I might have found one without great difficulty. Finding a woman who could worship at the altar of Bach with me—and that intelligently—has not been so simple a task, however.” He was looking straight at her.

“But this is so sudden, Mr. Phillipson,” she said, absurdly taken back to those very dramatic weeks when she had first encountered Lord Peter. Irresistibly “I hope you will not think me mad, but I assure you I have my methods: I must confirm, you are not by any chance a murderer? Apart from the exigencies of war, of course.”

Phillipson looked at her with a lively speculation which gave her a great sense of promise. “To the best of my understanding, Miss Murchison, that is one sin which—apart, as you say, from what may or may not have happened in the fog of war—I have never committed. Does that set your mind at rest?”

“Hardly, if anything it puts my mind all atumble,” Miss Murchison said honestly. She suited action to words, allowing herself to sit down on the page-turner’s seat, close at his side as its office required. “I’m hardly of an age to expect proposals to worship in company at any altars whatsoever, you know.”

“Neither am I, at that. Do you require a conventional approach? I could attempt it, if you would prefer that.”

“Certainly not. I think—“ she drew breath—“the role of matchmaker has already been played by Herr Bach and his cohorts, and on that basis I would be a fool to turn away.”

Phillipson smiled at her, a little shyly now. “On that understanding—might you vouchsafe me the honor of using my Christian name, and allowing me to know yours? Mine is Luke, as befitting the third son of a good Christian family. I’m sure you will not be surprised to hear that my brother currently back at the family firm in Cardiff is Matthew, and the one we lost to Vimy Ridge was Mark. Our parents did not, I fear, succeed in providing a John to fill out the voicing.”

“Perhaps I could contribute something there,” Miss Murchison said, amused. “I was christened Joan. Although—“ with a sudden sense of taking a step out into the harsh clean air of the unknown—“when my parents were living, I was always called Jenny. The Scots nickname, you know. Perhaps…Luke...? you might do the same.”

“Say I’m growing old, but add…” he replied, and completed the quotation with action rather than words.

 

“Phillipson offered Shephard a choice in the end,” Lord Peter recounted to his sister and brother-in-law, taking their ease over brandy and soda in an air of comfortable post-supper domesticity at the Great Ormond St. flat. “Have a bobby drag him into your office, Charles, by the scruff of his neck, or take passage to South Africa and actually attempt to make good on some of his promises.”

“And he chose the latter?”

“Oh, quite. Some of his ill-gotten gains were sold to pay for passage, and while not terribly enthused about the idea of looking abroad in foreign lands per se, he did seem to have some sense of vocation with regard to ministering to the various and sundry heathen abroad, what? Not actually a whited sepulcher, he, so much as a reverend gentleman who simply wanted a touch more comfort in his life than the occupation generally offers.”

“Lay not up for yourselves…” Parker began.

“Yes, well, you’re hardly in a position to say any such thing, are you, Charles? Look at the treasures you’ve laid up on earth.” Wimsey indicated his sister, sitting with feet tucked under her on the window-seat and appearing more a woman undergraduate than a sedately married mother of two, and added a vaguer wave in the direction of the nursery, intended to take in small Charles Peter and smaller Polly.

“I beg your pardon,” Mary sniffed, uncoiling herself, although in the event only to freshen her husband’s and brother’s glasses. “Anyway, surely all that money would have done more good being returned to the original congregation’s pockets whence it came?”

“Rather difficult to explain the route it had taken, without scandal, don’t you know. And this way they have the unique pleasure of feeling themselves benevolent and blessèd by the Lord for their good deeds unto others,” Wimsey concluded, orotundly.

Parker sighed. “I expect a lot of one’s good deeds take just as convoluted a path to fruition, if one only knew. Will Phillipson remain at the church, then?”

“No.” Wimsey cleared his throat. “Shephard’s failings have, if nothing else, conferred the blessing of matrimony on his colleague, in fact―or are scheduled to do so in short order. He’s marrying the lady Miss Climpson sent in to investigate the matter.”

“Is he now!” Mary laughed. “That’s an unexpected result and a happy one. But organists aren’t constrained from marriage, surely? He could keep his job at St. Julian’s.”

“Oh, he could, but he’s had another offer to work as music master at a grammar school in Cardiff and organist at the associated church. His people are there and it’s a better living, so they’ll begin their wedded bliss in Wales.”

“I take it that means Miss Climpson’s coterie is losing one of its most valuable members,” Parker remarked with regret.

“For the moment, yes, sad to say―one to whom I have a particular debt, in fact, and am sorry to see the back of. She and I and Miss Climpson had a word on the subject. She says that, having had no chance to accumulate experience as a wife to date, she prefers to begin by concentrating on learning her new job as such.”

Mary considered her own early days as Mrs. Parker, and thought the lady’s argument might be well-founded, assuming always that Mr. Phillipson was prepared to see his position as a newly minted husband in a similar light.

“However,” Peter went on, “once she’s learned the ropes, as it were, she allowed as how she might be convinced to open up something on the order of a Welsh branch of the Cattery, on a smaller scale. Very promising, what?”

Mary drained her glass. “Do make sure I know about it when she does it, Peter. I expect she could use a subvention from funds ill-gotten three centuries ago rather than more recently.”

“Why, Polly! Returning to your Communist ideals?”

“What if I was? I feel responsible, after all; they would never have met if not for small Polly’s christening. And in any case, Peter, why should you have all the fun?”