by Nupur Tustin
While not entirely a Valentine’s Day mystery, it is close–see author’s note below.
Author’s Note: Celebrated on July 26, the Feast of St. Anna served nearly the same purpose in Austria as did the Feast of St. Valentine in other countries. Girls and women named Anna were feted and serenaded. I’ve assumed the saint was Maria Anna Haydn’s name saint since she was also the name saint of Archduchess Maria Anna, Maria Theresa’s oldest surviving daughter.
“Herr Bruck is unfortunately no more.” The Bürgermeister stood in the middle of Maria Anna’s kitchen, a nervous energy propelling his girth back and forth on his heels while his hat twirled slowly from his forefinger.
“No more?” Haydn repeated. He lit another candle, quite at a loss to understand Herr Groer’s presence in his house. Or his extreme consternation. To be sure Herr Bruck was a man of considerable wealth, a silversmith recently elected an alderman. But to look at Herr Groer one might think it was the Empress herself who had died.
He heard Maria Anna come down the stairs and wondered if Frau Bruck had insisted the townspeople be informed at once of her husband’s demise. Had she demanded a funeral mass as well? It would be just like her to do so. The woman had been giving herself airs even before her husband became alderman.
But surely the Bürgermeister could have waited until morning. It was barely dawn.
The Kapellmeister stood barefoot on the cold stone floor. Wigless. Still in his nightclothes, rousted out of bed by the Bürgermeister’s ungodly hammering on his door.
“What is it?” Maria Anna entered the cold kitchen, her hair disheveled. “Was it you causing such an unholy racket at our door, Herr Groer?”
“I—er. It is Herr Bruck, you see.”
“What about him?” Maria Anna’s hands went to her hips, a displeased furrow beginning to form on her temple.
“Deceased, I fear,” the Bürgermeister replied, wiping his brow with a portly hand.
“Taken ill, I suppose,” Haydn said, although the last he had seen of him, the silversmith had seemed in fine fettle. God forbid, it should be anything worse. Not that Herr Groer’s demeanor gave him much hope.
The Bürgermeister had developed an irksome propensity for involving Haydn whenever anyone in Eisenstadt died under suspicious circumstances. “Your father was a Marktrichter, Herr Haydn. It is in your blood, detecting the truth.”
Haydn would ordinarily have no objection to lending a hand. But it was the Feast Day of St. Anna. And Maria Anna, like all her fellow Nannettes, expected the occasion to be marked in some way. Besides, there was a mass that required his presence at the Parish Church of Kleinhöflein that afternoon.
What Maria Anna would say if he were not there, he did not know.
He glanced at his wife. Maria Anna had turned unaccountably pale at the news. Why it should affect her so, he knew not. And why, he now wondered, had Frau Bruck been so desirous of seeing her the day before?
“But how?” she demanded. “Herr Bruck seemed robust enough. Apart from an inability to perform his duties in bed.”
And how, Haydn wondered, did his wife know of the silversmith’s deficiencies in bed? She had betrayed him once. Was it possible—
“But that has never caused anyone to die,” Maria Anna was saying.
“No. No, it has not,” the Bürgermeister agreed. He wiped his brow again.
Ach so! So that was what had brought Frau Bruck to his doorstep. Haydn had been so certain it was himself she had come to see, and so relieved to learn it was not, he had failed to enquire too closely into the matter.
“You admit to it, then?” The Bürgermeister was suddenly alert. “You provided her with herbs from your garden.”
“Why should I have any trouble admitting it, Herr Groer?” Maria Anna said, staring at the Bürgermeister as though he were demented. “Frau Bruck sought me out herself, wanting to know if I could brew her a love potion.”
The Bürgermeister scratched his head. A sheepish expression descended upon his features as his eyes roved aimlessly around the kitchen.
“What is the matter, Herr Groer?” Haydn frowned. Surely the Bürgermeister did not hold Maria Anna responsible for the silversmith’s demise.
Herr Groer sighed. “Frau Bruck would have it you poisoned her husband, Frau Haydn. She is quite adamant on the subject. I have no choice but to. . .” he spread his palms helplessly out.
* * *
Haydn paced the kitchen floor restlessly. What had possessed the newly widowed Frau Bruck to point the finger of blame at Maria Anna? What possible reason could his wife have for poisoning the silversmith?
The Bürgermeister had agreed she had none, but it had not stopped him from taking Maria Anna in. “Those are the Police Commissioner Herr Lichtenegger’s orders. My hands are tied,” he had said. She would be held in the dungeons beneath the town hall until His Serene Highness returned from Pressburg to attend to the matter.
Or until Haydn himself could get to the bottom of it. His mind chewed on what little he knew.
Yet, Frau Bruck would have it that no sooner had her husband consumed the potion than he had fallen violently sick, regurgitating all his food. That had been followed by convulsions before the silversmith had fallen into a stupor from which he was never to awake.
An awful way to go, Haydn thought with a shudder as he paced the floor. But what had caused it?
Had Herr Bruck some illness that not even his wife had been aware of? If Maria Anna had prepared a potion, unaware of any ailments the silversmith might have suffered from, then. . .
Haydn stopped pacing, gripping the back of a chair so hard his palm hurt. His wife had a tongue sharper than vinegar. Money slipped through her fingers as though it were the finest sugar. But no one could fault her for being careless.
Maria Anna would never prepare a remedy for anyone without making an effort to ascertain the state of their health.
Medicaments were strange things. The effect of one thing could be completely counteracted by another. An herb that could cure one man might kill his fellow. And a drop too much of even the most efficacious remedy could prove fatal. Maria Anna knew this. It was the reason for her meticulous questions.
Could Frau Bruck have deliberately misled his wife? But why?
* * *
Haydn twisted the chair around and sank into it. If only Johann or Luigi were here. But they had both accompanied His Serene Highness to Pressburg.
Was it possible Frau Bruck wanted to rid herself of her husband? He had been surprised to hear it was a love potion she wanted. Nothing he knew of her suggested she was the kind of woman eager for her husband’s affections.
Haydn had first made Frau Bruck’s acquaintance during the preparations for the Empress’s second visit to Eisenstadt a few months back. She had been among the troupe of town singers who had serenaded Her Majesty as her carriage rolled through the town gates.
Haydn had prepared the singers himself and he recalled her tendency to cast herself at every man who came her way. Not a particularly beautiful woman, Frau Bruck seemed in continual need of male adulation.
She had batted her eyelashes at Luigi to no effect. Sought out Johann at every opportunity, behavior that had embarrassed his shy younger brother no end. And finally, she had latched herself onto the Kapellmeister.
“But do you not find me beautiful?” she had asked in a throaty whisper when he reminded her they were both married.
“Unutterably beautiful, Madam,” he had forced himself to reply. Her features were passable enough and her figure not altogether without merit. But the too-sharp nose and thin, colorless lips marred any claims to beauty. “Your husband is a most fortunate man.”
She had pressed herself closer to him. “Are you not the least bit tempted, Herr Kapellmeister?”
“Under other circumstances I might be,” he had said, making haste to withdraw from her. “But I regret neither one of us is free to pursue a closer acquaintance.” God be thanked for that fortunate circumstance.
She had seemed to accept his explanation, but her eyes never failed to seek his out whenever they happened to meet. And yesterday when she had arrived at his doorstep—
He had feared at first she had discovered him alone at home and come to inflict herself on him. He had been so relieved to hear it was Maria Anna she wished to see, he had simply directed her to their herb garden outside the town gates. If only he had accompanied the woman.
Should he seek her out now? He would need to discover more about the silversmith’s last hours to determine whether Frau Bruck’s accusations held any merit. The Bürgermeister had been strangely reluctant to divulge any information.
“Herr Lichtenegger wishes you to stay away from the affair. He fears. . .” The Bürgermeister had looked supremely uncomfortable. “He fears you might confound the issue,” he finally said.
Haydn could think of nothing Maria Anna could have used that would affect Herr Bruck so powerfully. Unless—It hardly seemed likely, but the question had to be asked.
* * *
He plucked his wig from the peg on which it hung, thrust it upon his head, and was about to set out when he realized he was still in his nightclothes. Ach, what a dummkopf he was! It took no more than a few minutes to get dressed.
It was a warm July day, and at any other time Haydn would have reveled in the scent of the alpine roses and carnations that bloomed in every window. He kept his fists tightly clenched together. How was it possible his wife was implicated in murder?
His anger rose like bile at Frau Bruck. What had the woman against Maria Anna? To insist so strenuously that it was Maria Anna’s doing Herr Bruck was dead that the Police Commissioner must order her arrested and placed within the town’s dungeons like a common criminal. Why, it was an outrage!
He was almost at the town hall when it occurred to him that Maria Anna may not have broken her fast. A basket of sweet rolls or some powidl-filled kuchen may not come amiss. He walked past the town hall and the Esterházy Palace, turning onto Hauptstrasse where Herr Altdorfer had his bakery.
“Ah! A few sweet things for your sweet Anna.” Herr Altdorfer smiled at Haydn as he filled a cloth-lined basket. “For all your bickering, it is plain to see you love your wife well.” He sighed, recalling, no doubt, his own unfaithful wife. “And she must love you, too.”
Haydn felt himself blush. Not even Maria Anna would have accused him of such a sentiment. He was about to explain her predicament but thought better of it. The entire town will know soon enough, he said to himself.
At the town hall, the Bürgermeister was not overly pleased to see him. He pointed toward the basket. “She has already eaten, Herr Kapellmeister. My wife prepared a tray herself. Few prisoners are treated as well as she.”
“It is merely a small token to mark the day, Herr Groer. After all, every Nannerl is entitled to a gift of some kind. Why not Maria Anna for all that she finds herself locked in your dungeon?”
“Very well,” the Bürgermeister sighed. “Go on down, then, although I know not what the Police Commissioner will have to say about this. It is most irregular.”
* * *
“No, of course not, I—”
“There is no one but you to conduct the choir.”
“And there is no one but I to prove your innocence, Maria Anna. Would you rather I let you rot in this dungeon?” Haydn handed her a kuchen through the bars, too miffed to even explain why he had bought them.
“Oh, the Bürgermeister will let me go soon enough. Once he realizes it is all a mistake.”
“Was there nothing in the potion you brewed that could have caused the symptoms he described? Yarrow, perhaps? Or Juniper?”
It was pleasantly cool within the cells. The stone floors, chipped from long use albeit clean enough, and the walls kept the heat at bay. His words, however, appeared to have made Maria Anna’s blood boil.
“Why would I use yarrow, husband? Or juniper berries for that matter? Frau Bruck required her husband aroused, not put to sleep.”
“Yes, yes,” Haydn conceded the point. “But what killed the man, then?” Yarrow could cause a man to bleed to death and juniper berries had been known to cause convulsions. But Maria Anna would have had to use them in such large quantities that they would have sedated the man instantly.
He leaned forward and gripped one of the iron bars between them. “Can you think of nothing that could have caused Herr Bruck to die as he did?”
Maria Anna slowly chewed her kuchen. “There is one substance. But if it was in the potion, Frau Bruck put it there herself.”
* * *
On his way out, Haydn accosted the Bürgermeister again. “Are you certain the poison was in the potion, Herr Groer?”
“The barber-surgeon has just confirmed it.”
“But Maria Anna had no reason to kill the man.”
The Bürgermeister moved uneasily, shifting the weight of his portly frame from one foot to the other. “An accident, perhaps. It would be as well if your wife stopped dispensing remedies from her garden.”
Haydn frowned. Few women knew as much about herbs as Maria Anna and no one could be more careful in their use. “What was in the potion?” he demanded again. “What was it that killed, Herr Bruck?”
The Bürgermeister shifted his weight again. “It is not something I can disclose to. . .to a suspect.” The last words hurtled out of his mouth. “Herr Lichtenegger, the Police Commissioner—”
“It was mandrake, I suppose.”
The Bürgermeister’s eyes widened. “Your wife has confessed to using it, then?”
“Of course, not. She would never use such a thing. But it is the only substance that accounts for Herr Bruck’s last moments.”
“Your wife’s knowledge of mandrake and its uses does not bode well for her, Herr Haydn.” The Bürgermeister ceased to shuffle his feet; his eyes pierced Haydn’s. “God forbid that it should be discovered growing on your grounds. The Police Commissioner has instructed the barber-surgeon to search your herb garden.”
* * *
The barber-surgeon, a short man with a halo of graying hair framing his unlined features, was already at the herb garden bent over the mandrake plant that grew near the gate when Haydn arrived there.
The purple flowers were mostly gone, replaced by the golden-hued, apple-shaped fruit of the plant. “Mostly ripe,” the barber-surgeon said, glancing up at Haydn. “But the fruit can cause great harm unless it is fully ripe, and it is easy enough to be mistaken about a thing like that.”
“Maria Anna made no such mistake,” Haydn declared. “It was she who surmised the mandrake might have been responsible for Herr Bruck’s death.”
The barber-surgeon’s eyebrows rose. “She has confessed to poisoning the alderman, then?”
“Why would she confess to a crime she has not committed? If anyone poisoned the man, it was Frau Bruck herself.”
The barber-surgeon stood up and cleared his throat noisily. “The alderman was a handsome man. Frau Haydn, no doubt, thought so as well.”
Haydn stared at the barber-surgeon. “What has that to do with anything, Herr Hipfl?”
“The alderman professed to having rebuffed your wife’s advances—”
“To whom did he profess such a thing?” God in heaven, had Maria Anna truly sought a relationship with the man?
“To his wife. The day before he died. It was the reason for Herr Bruck’s reluctance to approach her for a remedy. And if that were the case,” the barber-surgeon continued in a rush, “well, you know only too well, Herr Haydn, how easily a woman may be angered, and to what ill-effect.”
Haydn opened his mouth to respond, then closed it again. He had supposed Frau Bruck had merely wanted to rid herself of her husband. What if her motive had been more sinister? Had Frau Bruck implicated Maria Anna for his own repudiation of her advances?
He said as much to the barber-surgeon. “And I recall now that as she left my doorstep yesterday, she looked over her shoulder and said: ‘Your troubles will soon be over, Herr Kapellmeister.’ What could she have meant by that?”
The barber-surgeon looked away. “I know not, Herr Haydn. But if what you have told me is true, you should look to your own well-being. With Herr Bruck dead and your own wife in prison, people might say you are free to pursue your own interests.”
* * *
There was nothing for it but to confront Frau Bruck, Haydn decided. If what he suspected was true, she might in her excitement to see him confess to her misdeeds and then—
He stopped short. And then it would be his word against hers that she had despatched her husband. Who would believe it if even the barber-surgeon was disinclined to trust his opinion?
“All of Eisenstadt has heard how the two of you bicker, Herr Haydn,” the barber-surgeon had said. “Any man would seek solace in the arms of another woman.” He had turned away. “And there has been talk. . .”
Haydn clenched his fists. The entire town seemed resolved to put a Haydn in the noose. “It will either be Maria Anna or me,” he muttered to himself. “Unless I can find a way to bring that woman to justice.”
He knew not how he would do it, but he stepped forward, undeterred.
“There you are at last. Mistress has been waiting for you.” The maid who responded to his knock hustled him in. Discretion appeared not to be one of her virtues, for she went on: “Mistress said nothing would keep you away, once you heard Master was gone.”
Frau Bruck’s delight, as she glided languidly into the parlor where Haydn waited, was evident. “I knew you would come to me, Herr Kapellmeister. Did I not promise you your troubles would be over?” She entwined her arms around him.
“My troubles seem to have just begun.” Haydn withdrew from her embrace. “Thanks to your accusation of my wife, Frau Bruck. She is being kept in the town hall, treated like a common murderer.”
Frau Bruck’s lips curved into a smile. “And when she goes to the gallows, as surely she must for depriving me of my husband, you will be free just as you longed to be.” She drew closer to him. “You said you wanted me, Herr Kapellmeister. You regretted not being free.”
It was just as he had suspected, then. If only there were some way of conveying her words to the Bürgermeister and the Police Commissioner.
“Did you take the mandrake berries from our garden?” he asked sternly.
“Oh, I did no such thing, Herr Kapellmeister.” She smiled up at him, her fingers attempting to unbutton his jacket. “I know nothing about herbs.”
“Yes, but you see, no one truly believes Maria Anna had anything to do with your husband’s death.” It was not quite the truth, but perhaps it would serve his purpose in some way. “She had no reason to kill your husband, no matter what you may have told the Bürgermeister.”
Frau Bruck looked up at him, her smile all but gone. “How do they think my husband died then?”
“The whole town has seen how relentlessly you pursue other men. Perhaps, you did it yourself.”
“They will never be able to prove that.”
“Then, perhaps, the alderman, your husband, consumed the mandrake berries of his own accord in a misguided effort to excite his ardor. An unfortunate accident, but one that Maria Anna can scarcely be responsible for.”
Her face was looking pinched and he pressed home his point. “Where your husband found those berries, who can say? The ones found in our garden were ripe and, therefore, entirely harmless. Maria Anna will be let out soon enough. Within the hour, the barber-surgeon assures me.”
“I doubt that will happen, Herr Kapellmeister. My maid accompanied me to your herb garden, and she saw as plainly as did I, the herbs your wife used for that potion. She will confirm that nothing but the very greenest berries were used.
* * *
Haydn trudged home, his hopes crushed. Why had he said anything at all to Frau Bruck? He had hoped to trap her into making a mistake. Something that would reveal her involvement in her husband’s demise. But he had only succeeded in making things worse for Maria Anna.
The maid’s words would drive the last nail into his wife’s coffin. The girl was so plainly incapable of subterfuge, who could fail to believe her? He would never be able to prevail upon the authorities now.
There had been hope for them until he had foolishly goaded Frau Bruck. Even the barber-surgeon had believed the incident to be an unfortunate accident. A fine might have been imposed. The herb garden taken from them, perhaps. But his poor wife would have been spared the gallows.
He had almost reached his house when he saw his musicians leaving the Esterházy Palace. The mass in honor of St. Anna would begin in an hour. Had Luigi or Johann been here, he would have delegated the task of conducting the music to one of them.
He pushed open his door and climbed the stairs up to his bedchamber. The house seemed empty and strangely silent without his wife. He was so accustomed to hearing her voice and the sound of her feet as she bustled about the kitchen.
He may not have wanted to marry her, but she had been his wife for over a decade. He wanted no other.
The livery she had washed and pressed hung neatly within the closet. He dressed himself with his usual care. Was there nothing that could be done for his wife?
He was about to go down when he heard the door open. God in heaven, surely it was not Frau Bruck. He hastened down the stairs and into the kitchen.
“Maria Anna?” He stared at his wife and Herr Groer, the Bürgermeister, who stood behind her, rocking back and forth on his feet.
“I told you I would be home once Herr Groer and Herr Hipfl realized it was all a mistake.”
“But how?” Haydn stammered. “Frau Bruck—”
“Is not quite so clever as she thinks, husband. I was sure the town authorities would discover the truth once they spoke to that maid of hers.”
“You asked them to speak with the maid?” Haydn was surprised.
“I could hardly have expected you to do it, husband, you pay so little attention to anything beyond your music. She cannot tell a lie, that one, or keep a secret.”
“No, it would appear not,” Haydn said, recalling his own encounter with the girl that morning.
“But Frau Bruck said she would instruct her to inform the authorities you had used the greenest of the mandrake berries.”
“The maid did tell us the potion included the fruit of the mandrake,” the Bürgermeister explained. “But when the barber-surgeon asked how she knew, she said it was because her mistress had instructed her to mix them into the remedy. ‘Be sure to take only the green fruit,’ Frau Bruck said to her.”
“A most fortuitous circumstance. I feared I had consigned you to the gallows when I confronted Frau Bruck.” Haydn sought his wife’s hand, glad to have her back.
But Maria Anna merely snorted. “Did I not tell you to leave well enough alone, husband? And now, thanks to you, we shall be late for Saint Anna’s mass.”
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories (including more Halloween mystery short stories) in our mystery section.