We are the Music Makers
a short story by Garry Kilworth
In the month of June, at the beginning of the century, the men began to drift back from the wars. By July they were arriving in Bohemia by the thousand, some still in soiled and shabby though recognisable regimental uniform, but mostly they were in rags. Their muskets had been thrown away to rust in foreign ditches. Their cannons and mortars were stuffed with dirt and moss. Their swords were broken or hidden under rotten logs, along with ammunition pouches full of percussion caps.
'It was a massacre,' Alexi said after the attack. 'We were cut down like wheat under scythes.'
The colonel was shocked. 'What are you saying? It was a the turning point of the battle. If we had not charged, the day would have been lost.'
The wars were not yet over, in fact they had only just begun again. But this was not even their fight. The men of Bohemia had joined one army or the other for various reasons, mostly to do with poverty rather than patriotism, while their officers had gone out seeking to add glory to their other accomplishments, needing to be rich in honour if not in wealth.
'You are my friend, Alexi,' said the colonel, 'but I totally reject your view of this incident.'
'It was no incident, it was a slaughter.'
There were those of course, who had returned with limbs missing, parts of their bodies left lying in the mud of some alien land keeping company with dead and rotting comrades. These men tended to cluster round the Charles Bridge, in the beautiful city of Prague, where they begged for crusts of bread. The narrow cobbled streets around the bridge, whose architecture and statues were the envy of all other European cities, echoed with the clump of wooden crutches, the scraping of dragged legs, the clip-clip of the blind man's cane. They clogged the passageways under nearby arches in the rain and hindered the carriages on the bridge when the sun shone.
Once the war has no more need of such creatures, cripples become an embarrassment to the state.
'Henceforth,' muttered the colonel, turning from his former friend, 'we are as strangers.'
'As you wish,' replied Alexi, stiffly, 'but you know, I'm not blaming you. I'm simply giving my opinion. You should not turn from the truth because it hurts.'
The authorities issued a decree that any man found loitering in the streets, with no visible means of occupation, would be deemed a vagrant and thrown into the city's prison. Thus their numbers were thinned and those who remained behind gathered together such coin as they had and purchased barrel organs and hurdy-gurdies, on which they played punched-paper music written by Haydn, Handel and Mozart. In this respect they had their occupations, required of them by law, and continued to ply their trade on and around the Charles Bridge.
There was a cripple who ground his organ from first light to the snuffing of the evening lamps. He stood on the palace side of the bridge, in the shadow of a hero's statue, and filled the air around him with the strains of great composers, asking only a small coin in return. The right arm and right leg of the former soldier had been torn off by grapeshot and scattered over the remains of a dead Hussar's mount. Nonetheless, the cripple was not a bitter man, though he knew common sense had been in short supply on the day he had been ordered to charge the enemy.
It was in October, on a dull grey evening when the mist swirled lazily around the lamps, when the colonel first walked past this wretched fellow. The colonel was intending to cross the Charles Bridge on his way back to his lodgings. A glass of port awaited him there, along with a hot dinner of cabbage and beef. There was a bed too, with soft white sheets, and a willing maid with a copper bed-warmer full of hot coals.
'Sir!' cried the man, as the colonel hurried on by, ignoring both the music and the proffered tin cup. 'Remember me?'
The colonel turned and stared at the man, half-hidden in the shadow of the statue. The organ grinder shuffled out on his crutch, awkwardly, into the jaundiced light. He looked like a thousand other men: broken, pathetic and near an early death. His face was pitted and ravaged with the vestiges of past hungers and his eyes held knowledge of both emotional and physical pain. He was a man who had looked into the pits of hell, but had so far managed to decline their invitation to enter.
'No,' replied the colonel shortly. 'Should I?'
The man cleared his throat of phlegm and spat on the slick cobbles. Then he said, 'I was there, sir, at the charge. You remember? We went right into them cannons and they cut us to pieces. You was up there too, up the front, but you must have had the angels on your shoulders, sir - you came out without a scratch, while the rest of us - why, we was chopped up like mincemeat. Thirty of us left alive, out of near a hundred-and-forty men, and most of us not whole.'
The colonel narrowed his eyes and stared hard. How could he tell one from another? They were just men from the fields or the cities, all much the same: stunted, hollow-chested men, good only to make up an army's numbers, fill its ranks with blood, flesh and bone, but not to be seen as individuals. These were the masses, who died like flies of starvation or disease in the streets if not on the field of battle. They had small square faces, dull eyes, and grubby hands with which to clutch coins. No, he did not recognise the man - nor should he.
'Sergeant Kesnek,' murmured the creature before him, leaning heavily on his crutch. 'You must remember. The men didn't want to charge, but you spoke to me, quiet like, and talked of honour and such, and then I roused 'em with one of my speeches, told 'em what was at stake - of the glory that was waiting for them on the other side of the valley - just the same as you described to me, colonel. You remember?'
The colonel reached into his pocket and pulled out a coin. He stepped forward and dropped it into the tin cup, where it clattered breaking the stillness. The colonel was aware of shapes going by, shadows in evening dress and gowns, muffled by the fog. It was getting late and people, real people, were on the way to the theatres and the opera. He did not want to be seen by one of his friends, talking to this ragged beggar, and he walked away, quickly, having performed his act of charity.
The incident quickly passed from his mind and later that evening he went out to play a game of chemin-de-fer at his club. On leaving the building however, he was again accosted by the same man, who played a tune on the organ as he approached, and then stopped when the colonel stepped into the street to pass him by. The tin cup was thrust under his chin, it seemed almost aggressively, and the colonel raised his stick to strike it away, angry at being solicited twice during the same evening.
'You have forgot, haven't you?' hissed the man named Kesnek. 'You told me, "I'll remember this, sergeant - I'll see you're rewarded for your bravery in this matter." That's what you said. You was a major then. Now you're a colonel, made up after that charge, promoted because you captured the guns, even though you lost most of your men getting them. What do they get, but their graves. What do I get, but this.' He banged his crutch on the pavement with his one good arm.
'Don't take that tone with me, fellow,' said the colonel, sharply. 'I'll call the constable and have done with you. We'll see if a prison cell is more to your liking than bothering citizens in the streets of Prague.'
'God damn you then!' cried Kesnek, with such enmity and rancour it drained the blood from the colonel's face and left him trembling on the stone slabs, unable to speak. 'May you rot by slow degrees, you dirty bastard!'
By the time he had got over the shock of this verbal attack, Kesnek had gone.
The cripple had clunked away quickly, down a side alley without lamps: into a darkness where the colonel dare not follow. The colonel knew the ex-sergeant would be heading for the river, down by the bank, where the other beggars gathered to spend their nights. Most of them would be dead before the end of the winter - frozen or starved - but that did nothing for the fury of the colonel, once he had recovered his wits. He determined to hire some men, to go down to the river and seek out Kesnek, to give the fellow a beating he well deserved.
The thugs were hired, but they failed to find their man. Instead they beat the wrong victims, other soldiers from the wars, until the colonel wisely realised it was time to stop searching. He might murder all the scoundrels in Prague and still come up without the man Kesnek.
He satisfied himself with the thought that a man with those hollow eyes and sallow, sunken cheeks was surely not far from death in any case, and that the winter would slowly squeeze the breath from his lungs, until the time came for his fellow beggars to throw him into an icy sarcophagus, the river.
The colonel soon forgot the sergeant and went back to his comfortable life, visiting friends, enjoying the convivial atmosphere of his club, eating in good restaurants, and attending functions which to one of his class attendance was essential. In the late evenings or early mornings, he would stroll back through the narrow, misty streets to his lodgings, to find a maid or other waiting beneath the sheets.
In the chapels and churches, the halls and houses of Prague can be heard beautiful music, mostly baroque, at almost any hour of the day. The colonel was not especially fond of music, but it was no great punishment to him to go to the Chapel of Mirrors, or the Opera House, and listen to a concert. He went with friends of course, more to please them than himself. The streets too, were always full of musicians, some of them playing the violin or flute, some turning a handle.
One morning in January the colonel was hurrying back along the river walk, with the freezing fog chilling his ankles, when he heard the sound of a tune being played. He stopped and listened, not because it was a pleasant sound, but because it grated on his nerves. It was the tune Kesnek had been playing, on the Charles Bridge, at their first post war encounter.
Once he had established the direction of the player, he went off at another point of the compass, away from the music, taking a circuitous route back to his lodgings.
He was no sooner in bed, without company on this occasion, when the tune came again, insistent, reaching up from the streets below and invading his room. The colonel tried to ignore it, pulled the heavy blankets over his head and attempted to sleep. The notes of the song penetrated his bedclothes, however, and he soon developed a sharp headache. At one point he rose in fury, to fling open his window, only to find the street below empty of any musician. He thought there might be a shape in the fog, a man with a barrel organ, but too far away to hear a shout.
In the morning the colonel complained to his landlord.
'Did you hear that infernal music? At three o'clock in the morning, I ask you! If it happens again, I shall be forced to think of moving my accommodations, unless you do something about it.'
'I never heard a blamed thing,' answered the landlord, peeved that he should be receiving the short end of the colonel's temper when he had supplied a very nice breakfast. 'But if it comes back, you let me know. I'll send out Pik.'
Pik was the boot black, a man of low intellect but of great strength. If Pik caught anyone outside, and had been given instructions to deter their further presence, then even if that man was not a cripple, he would be once Pik had finished with him. This thought warmed the colonel's heart and he said no more on the subject but enjoyed his breakfast ham bone.
That night the musician returned, playing the same song over and over again, driving the colonel to madness. The headache returned. The colonel could feel the artery in his temple, constricting with the tension, and the blood pulsing through the narrowness of it in a painful manner. Pik was sent out into the street, though the landlord could still hear nothing himself, but returned looking forlorn and expecting a row. Pik had found no one within two streets of the lodgings and yet the colonel could still hear the dreadful music drifting into his room.
After eight nights of the same, the colonel hired a gang of men to comb the streets around the lodgings. They had strict instructions to break the player's limbs, to smash a hole in the ice on the river, and to drop the broken man down into its freezing currents. The pack found nothing, though they hunted high and low, and even entered private houses hoping to find the player hiding in some room or closet. In the end the colonel paid them off, moved his rooms to the other side of the city, and waited in apprehension for the player to find him.
It took less than twelve hours before the music was again heard by the colonel. He moved yet again, secretly, without even telling his new landlord. And again. And yet again. And each time the musician found his new accommodation. It was a hopeless task, to attempt to divest himself of the phantom player, and finally the colonel gave in and tried to accept the situation. His headaches continued, but he took medicine to relieve them. At night he put wax in his ears, but the faint sound of music was now in his head, trapped there it seemed, and plagued him even in his dreams.
One day the colonel woke from a troubled sleep to the agony of a terrible pain in his leg.
He went straight to his physician in Old Town Square.
After a long examination, the physician gave the colonel the bad news.
'You're losing your limb,' said the doctor. 'The arteries have constricted and cut off the supply of blood. I've seen it happen in smokers, but you don't smoke, do you? Perhaps it's this tension of which you keep complaining?'
'I don't complain of the tension,' snapped the grieving colonel, 'I complain of the music.'
'Well, whatever is causing your stress, that leg will have to be amputated...'
'Never!' stormed the colonel, shocked to the very centre of his being. 'I'm a soldier. How can I fight a war with only one leg? Think of some other treatment. Is there no cure? What about medicines? Pills? Give me something.'
But the physician could recommend nothing, so the colonel changed his doctor, just as he had changed his lodgings, and the answer was more or less the same from each and every one of them, and finally he woke up to the foul smell of gangrene wafting up from beneath the sheets, and screamed for assistance.
They took off the right leg that very morning.
The colonel dived into misery as no man had ever done before him, feeling that his life was completely at an end. Left to his own desperate desires, he would have ended it all in the river, or taken to his bed and starved himself to death, but his friends would not let him. They took pity on him, bestowed upon him all their charity, made him live, made him feel twice as wretched because their sympathy ate at his heart with worse consequences to his pride than the rot which had eaten at his limb. He hated them, but hated himself more, because he could not find it in himself to shoot out his brains while they still fawned over what was left of his body.
The music returned yet again, merciless in its outpourings, ruthlessly penetrating his spirit. This time, when his arm developed the pain, he knew what it meant. He walked straight down to the river and jumped from the Charles Bridge. Unfortunately it was summer, the water was warm, and he was fished out half-drowned by some boatmen. When he woke in hospital his right arm had been removed. The surgeon explained how necessary the operation had been, to save his life.
'What am I to do?' cried the colonel in despair. 'God help me!'
Even while he was lying in the hospital, the musician found him, and tormented him with the crippling tune.
By the time he left the hospital he was a poor man, his money having been eaten into by doctors' bills and care fees. Now that he was caught in the hole of poverty, his friends abandoned him. The colonel was no longer the colonel, but a vagrant, clumping around the streets on a crutch, begging for bread. He was thrown into prison twice, where he developed pneumonia and bronchial troubles. Once on the streets again he stole a woman's purse and bought himself a hurdy-gurdy, to avoid arrest and detention, and played outside the Opera House.
During the following winter, because of severe malnutrition, the hurdy-gurdy player lost his sight.
The blind man was playing outside the Opera House, a place his former acquaintances would no longer visit for fear that they would see him standing there, when he heard a familiar voice in his ear.
'Remember me, colonel?'
'Sergeant Kesnek?' murmured the blind player. 'How could I forget?'
'It's only been a short time, colonel, but here you are, same as me - playing the streets. How do you feel?'
'You must feel very smug, sergeant.'
'Who sir, me sir, no sir,' replied Kesnek. 'Why should I take delight in some other poor creature's downfall?'
'You might, if you caused it.'
The was a long silence, then came the answer.
'I played the tune, that's true, from the stinking sewers beneath the streets - from amongst the chimney pots of the high roofs - but you supplied the rest colonel. You supplied the guilt which robbed you of your limbs. Not me. I just meant to irritate you, give you a fright. It was your body and your mind turning against you, made you into something like me. Don't expect me to feel sorry for you - if I did I would have to feel sorry for myself, and that wouldn't do.'
'What nonsense, I feel no guilt, not for any act of mine.'
The colonel reached out, with a ragged-gloved hand, and felt the cold hard features of Sergeant Kesnek. This was a man with no heart. This was a man who understood nothing of the colonel's world - his former world - a man who made uninformed judgements on those with whom dreadful decisions rested. This was a man who knew nothing of higher responsibility, only of taking orders, of carrying out the will of men who were culpable and were accountable for the safety of nations.
He let his hand fall, knowing that anything he said to Kesnek, would make no difference to that creature's convictions.
There were footsteps, coming from the direction of the Opera House. It was too early for the crowd, but the beggar made ready to produce a tune from his hurdy-gurdy, eager not to miss an opportunity. Another familiar voice stayed his hand.
'Colonel? Is that you?'
'Who is that? I know you. Tell me, I am blind.'
'Colonel, good God, it is I - Alexi. Have you come to this? Begging on the streets?'
'One needs bread to live.'
The beggar did not want pity. He wanted coin. Alexi was no longer his friend. He was a patron, or he was nothing.
'Will you give?' he asked. 'Are you generous?'
'Of course I will give you some money, but tell me, to whom were you talking. Are you mad too? Do you see phantoms?'
'Why, to this wretch Sergeant Kesnek - do you not see him too, man?'
A hand touched his shoulder, resting there.
'There is no one here. I have been watching you this last half hour. You are alone, colonel. Completely alone.'
The beggar shook his head, vigorously.
'No - for I sense his presence still - by my side.'
'But that is not a real man,' said Alexi. 'You are standing by a statue.'
The beggar remained where he was, not needing to reach out and confirm these words. He had felt the cold features of the stone. It was as Alexi had said. A statue.
'Tell me,' said the beggar. 'I need to know. The statue - who is it?'
'Why,' replied Alexi, in the quietest of tones, 'it is the Universal Soldier.'
© Garry Kilworth 1998
This story appears here for the first time.
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