by Nupur Tustin
This story was originally published in Kaye George’s Day of the Dark anthology in July 2017.
“When day turns to night, the world will be turned upside down.” The crone’s throaty cackle penetrated Joseph Haydn’s consciousness as he walked through St. Michael’s square to his quarters in the Michaelerhaus.
He glanced up from the letter he was reading. The precise hour at which the sun would be overshadowed, plunging all of Vienna into darkness, had yet to arrive. But his own world had already been overturned.
It was bad enough that the bookseller to whom he’d taken a set of his minuets had rejected them. “They will never sell, boy,” he had assured Haydn, casting no more than a cursory glance at the music.
It was even worse that all his hopes of cutting a dashing figure before his family were crushed. The position of first violinist he had counted on as all but his, was irretrievably lost; squandered on a man scarcely deserving of the honor, but far better connected than Haydn himself could claim to be.
And now his father’s letter informed him that his brother Michael, five years younger than he, had already eclipsed him. The Bishop of Grosswardein had taken Michael into his employ, promising a salary of no less than two hundred gulden a year.
What could a man not do with such a sum? It was beyond Haydn’s wildest imaginings. He had until now counted himself fortunate to receive a meal and lessons as the opera composer Nicola Porpora’s musical valet.
“Can the good Lord have intended you to be a composer, Sepperl?” his father gently inquired in his letter. “Such ill luck dogs you in your pursuits, my boy, can it not be possible your true calling lies with the Church? Your talents would not go unappreciated there. Why, Pfarrer Reinhard assures me the position of organist at St. Catherine’s is yours, if you will but have it.”
It was a better proposition than joining a monastery as his mother had once suggested. A secure position, yet the thought of taking it plunged Haydn in despair. It would mean giving up all ambition of becoming a composer such as Hasse or Mattheson or even Gluck.
“Beware the darkness that comes.” She brought out a yellowing shred of linen from her basket. “There is no power against it, but through the Grace that comes from keeping a piece of the Lord’s Shroud nearby.
“Come one, come all. There is a piece for everyone. Five kreutzers will cast your woes from you.”
Would it really? Haydn wondered. He felt in his pocket. A few coins jingled within. Just enough for a hearty bowl of beef soup with potato dumplings that would fill his stomach. Or for a piece of cloth that…Well, who knew what it could do?
It was money he could ill afford to spend. But he had tried every other avenue and failed. What harm could there be in trying one more?
A crowd had formed before the wrinkled old woman. Haydn stepped forward, taking his place behind poor Hans, the baker’s boy.
“I see dark times in your future,” the crone said to the idiot baker’s boy when it was his turn. “This piece of sacred cloth will dispel it, never fear.”
She turned to Haydn. “The wheel is turning; he who is down must go up,” she intoned, pressing a coarse bit of linen into his palm. Would that it were true!
The day passed uneventfully enough. Vienna was briefly plunged into darkness. But that was all.
No Prussians thundered in through the gates, ready to take the city captive and unseat Their Imperial Majesties, Maria Theresa and her consort Francis of Lorraine. The fortune-tellers crowding St. Michael’s square had been predicting the dire event for months, selling relics, and crosses to ward off the evil.
But then neither did Prince Eugene’s Kapellmeister send word of having reversed his decision against Haydn’s appointment. Even so, the small piece of shroud did much toward restoring his good humor and his faith. And that night when he went to bed, he laid it carefully on the wine crate that served him as a nightstand.
He arose, as always, on the ninth peal of the Angelus, eager to read a portion of Mattheson’s Vollkommene Capellmeister before going down to Porpora’s apartment. If there were time, he would sit at his harpsichord and work out an idea for a divertimento he had. Maybe that would fare better than his minuets.
He had just buttoned his shirt and washed his face when an uproar from the streets caught his attention. He turned toward the small window, surprised. What commotion was so loud as to penetrate the thick walls of his damp, miserable attic in the Michaelerhaus?
Filled with a strange apprehension, he learned out the small window. What calamity could have befallen the world today? A sea of people thronged the square below. His eye followed their movement, caught sight of a solitary police guard, then paused on the closed door of Master Bettler’s shop.
Had some evil befallen Hans, the baker’s lad? Haydn clutched the shroud tightly in his fist. He had not thought much of the old crone’s words, but now they rang unpleasantly in his ears.
The door to the baker’s shop opened just then. Two police guards emerged into the gray dawn, laboring under the weight of the litter they carried forth.
“Make way!” the first man standing guard outside shouted, swinging his truncheon this way and that to carve a path among the crowd.
Heedless of his own safety, Haydn leaned farther out, straining to see. Whatever lay on the makeshift bed was almost entirely covered in coarse white linen. But from the mounds the sheet formed, it was clear a body lay under it.
A corpse, the thought flashed through his brain as he hastily pulled himself back in.
Dear God! Was Hans dead?
As if in response to his question, the door to the baker’s shop opened again. Two more guards stepped out, dragging a struggling figure between them.
“I didn’t do it. I swear it, I did not!” The baker’s lad thrashed around as he protested his innocence. One of the guards cuffed him a blow that sent his head lolling back.
Haydn, staring down into the other’s gray eyes, wide with terror, thought the despair they held would haunt him until he went to his grave. What had Hans done? Risen up against Master Bettler?
Haydn did not believe it. Hans, no more than a year or two older than Haydn’s fourteen-year-old youngest brother, Johann, was a harmless lad. Too much of a simpleton, Haydn thought, to kill his master.
Besides, for all that Master Bettler berated the lad for his stupidity, cuffing his ears for the frequent mistakes the idiot boy unwittingly made, the baker was the only man willing to employ the half-witted boy.
“They will lead the poor lad to the gallows,” he muttered to himself as Hans still protested his innocence.
“Master Bettler was like a father to me. I would never hurt him.”
His tone and his eyes strongly proclaimed his innocence. But when Haydn saw his blood-besmirched apron, his misgivings returned. Could such a vast quantity of blood be explained away? If so, surely the police guards, more experienced in such matters, would have done it already?
But he could not settle the question so easily in his own mind. It seemed important to do so, however. What protection had the shroud afforded Hans, if it had not prevented him from killing his master? And if he had not done the deed, why had it not saved him from the gallows?
His own fate, Haydn felt, was bound up with that of the lad’s. If the shroud had no power to save Hans, it would be powerless to reverse his own fortunes. His fingers tightened around the bit of cloth. No, no, surely that was not possible?
He found Porpora an hour later in a foul mood, pacing the floor in his nightgown. “Where have you been, then? There is no bread for my breakfast. The baker seems to have managed to get himself killed before making his deliveries.”
“Yes, I know,” Haydn replied instantly, only to realize a mere second later that Porpora expected him to have already made provisions for the morning meal. “I can procure a loaf or two, I am sure, from Master Mueller in the Kohlmarkt.”
“What good does it do to go now?” Porpora grumbled, his shrunken cheeks looking more pinched than ever. “Our first pupil arrives in a few minutes. I shall have to teach on an empty stomach, I suppose.”
The day wore on. Pupils came and went. Haydn, unable to rid himself of the image of Hans’s eyes, could barely concentrate. It did not show in his playing, or so he thought until the departure of the last pupil when Porpora hurled his stick at him and called him a blockhead.
“Do you think I tolerate your presence to admire your beauty?” The insult left Haydn unfazed. He had a pock-marked face, a nose too pronounced, like a rugged promontory, but his musical skills more than made up for all that.
But he was mortified by Porpora’s next words. “All day today,” the great singer scolded, “you have either lagged behind the singer or raced so far ahead, we have had to rush through the lyrics to catch up with you. What were you thinking?”
Haydn hung his head. “I was not, I fear. The untoward event of the morning seems to have stricken my mind.” He sought out Porpora’s eyes. “I cannot but think they lead an innocent lad to the gallows. What justice is there in this world if a thing like that can happen?” Try as he might, he was unable to keep the despair out of his voice.
But instead of scoffing at him, Porpora’s features softened. “The only justice there is, is the one that we fight for, Sepperl. Sitting by and hanging your head in despair will get you nowhere.”
Haydn frowned, puzzling over his master’s remarks. What could he, a young man barely able to keep himself alive, do to help Hans? He hadn’t even been able to prevail upon Prince Eugene’s Kapellmeister to hire him.
Before he could say anything more, Porpora flung a few coins down on the clavier. “Be off with you, then! Get me a loaf or two of bread and half a pound of meat. I am starving.”
By the time he crossed the square, arriving near the door of Master Bettler’s bakery, Haydn had gleaned a little more of what had happened. The baker had been stabbed in the early hours of the morning while he had been busy baking his bread.
Hans had found him barely alive, or so he said, when he arrived that morning at the first peal of the Angelus. Master Bettler, lying in a pool of his own blood near a pan of freshly baked bread, had died in his assistant’s arms.
There was nothing to say this was not the case. But it was equally probable that Hans had killed the baker, and been discovered before he could make his own escape.
A police guard was still posted by the bakery door. Frau Bettler stood before him in her Sunday finery, trying in vain to convince him to let her in.
“Are the bags of flour and the loaves within to rot, then? We have lost good money this morning from all the deliveries my husband failed to make. What purpose can it serve to close the bakery?”
“I cannot tell, Frau Bettler. But those are my orders. No one can go in.”
Haydn walked slowly past. Why Frau Bettler thought she would be able to sell any of her husband’s loaves of bread, he didn’t know. Word of his gruesome death, barely a few feet from his own oven, seemed to have already spread around the city.
Even if the loaves were not spattered with the dead man’s blood, who would want them? God alone knew what evil humors rose from a corpse.
The thought made Haydn’s empty stomach churn. On the other hand, why stand guard over the bakery? Were there really people who wouldn’t hesitate to go in and steal a loaf or two? The Bürgermeister thought so, no doubt.
He purchased his loaves of bread from Master Mueller in the Kohlmarkt, then entered the butcher’s shop next door. The butcher was nowhere to be seen, so Haydn prepared to wait. Ten minutes went past. Porpora must be impatiently awaiting his return.
Haydn rapped loudly on the countertop. “Master Goss? Are you within?”
“Coming,” a voice called from within, followed almost immediately by a burly man in a bloody apron.
“You have not been waiting long, I hope, Master Sepperl,” he said, wiping his hands on a bloodied towel. “Frau Lichtenberger’s maid sent for two freshly slaughtered pigs at midday. I have just finished preparing the meat. It is bloody work, I can tell you that.”
“So I see,” Haydn responded, compelled, he knew not why, to scrutinize the butcher’s person. Blood was sprayed all over his hair and face. Splotches of it ran down his apron, too. The butcher seemed to notice his gaze, for he glanced ruefully down.
“There is no preventing that. The blood gushes forth like a fountain as soon as the blade plunges in.”
“Gushes forth?” Haydn repeated, staring at the upside-down, teardrop-shaped stains sprayed on the butcher’s apron. An image of Hans’s apron formed in his mind, far different in appearance from the butcher’s. There had been a single large patch of blood smeared on the front of it, around the waist and going up toward the boy’s chest.
Had Hans been telling the truth, after all?
He glanced up at the butcher. “Are your aprons so sprayed every time you slaughter an animal, Master Goss?”
The butcher nodded. “Every time, I fear, Master Sepperl. I usually wear a black apron, so it matters not. But no amount of scrubbing will take the stains out of this white one. I shall have to discard it.”
With his purchases under one arm, the butcher’s blood-soiled apron under the other, Haydn hurried back to Porpora’s apartment. He had eaten nothing since midday yesterday, but his hunger was all but forgotten in the excitement of the discovery he’d made. width=”288″ height=”288″ class=”alignright size-medium wp-image-38100″ />
Here was a way to save Hans from the gallows. He should never have doubted the good Lord. The butcher’s apron, soiled from the blood spurting out of a dying animal, looked nothing like the bloodied apron Hans had been wearing.
Did that not confirm Hans was no murderer? He had the butcher’s apron to prove it. And if that did not help, Master Goss was quite willing to slaughter another pig before the police guards and the Bürgermeister.
The demonstration would show the pattern of stains likely to form on whoever had wielded the knife against Master Bettler. The murderer had undoubtedly been covered in a spray of blood just like the butcher.
Porpora was reading when Haydn returned. He looked up briefly, but if he noticed the bloodied apron under his valet’s arm, he showed no sign of it.
Haydn quickly prepared the midday meal: slicing one of the loaves of bread, setting out the butter, chopping the meat up, and frying it with some onions and salt. A rude meal, but Porpora, long accustomed to his rudimentary culinary efforts, tolerated it well enough.
After the meal, Porpora prepared to leave for his afternoon walk.
“You may have the rest of the day off,” he said to Haydn, wrapping himself in a thick, woolen cloak despite the warmth of the day. “You will want it, I suppose, to help your friend. Although what purpose Herr Goss’s apron can serve, I know not, unless you mean to tell the police guards it was the butcher who killed the baker.”
Haydn was quite sure the butcher had done no such thing. But who had? Frau Bettler, the baker’s wife?
She had seemed more distressed by the loss of money and flour her husband’s death had occasioned than by his untimely demise. Not surprising, Haydn supposed, given that the baker, not an unattractive man by any means, was said to have a wandering eye.
Then there was the matter of Frau Bettler’s dress. A stylish gown of dove-grey silk he had seen her wear to Church on Sunday. Why wear it in the middle of the week?
The more he thought about it, the more likely it seemed that Frau Bettler had committed the evil deed. The blue linen dress she usually wore was, no doubt, so spattered with her husband’s blood, she had been forced to rid herself of it.
But the police guard, still standing in front of the baker’s shop, thought little of the apron—”Are we to knock on every door in the city, asking to examine people’s garments?”—and still less of Haydn’s theory.
“Nonsense! Someone would have seen Frau Bettler running through the streets all covered in blood. Why, there are police guards who patrol the streets all night. Very little escapes their notice.”
“She could’ve slipped out of her dress,” Haydn persisted.
“What! And roamed the streets in her shift? Someone would have seen that for sure.”
Haydn sighed. A woman in a state of undress would be even more noticeable than one covered in blood.
He was about to give up when he noticed Porpora at the other end of the square, still wrapped in his cloak, deep in conversation with a beautiful, young woman, similarly wrapped. He had little time to wonder why. The garment itself attracted his attention.
He turned back to the guard. “Do you see that woman?”
“I do indeed,” was the reply. “But I would set my sights far lower, my friend. She is much too pretty for the likes of you.”
“It was her cloak I was interested in,” Haydn explained. “The garment covers a woman so completely, she could be as naked as the day she was born under it, and no one would know it. And it was cold last night.”
“I suppose it is possible,” the guard admitted sourly. “But that tells us nothing about which woman committed the deed. Mere suppositions will not persuade the Inspector to let the baker’s lad go.”
Haydn scratched his chin. He was quite sure it was Frau Bettler who had killed her husband. But if an apron covered in pig’s blood and a theory about a cloak did little to prove Hans’s innocence, it did still less to prove Frau Bettler’s guilt.
“Now, if you could find her dress covered in blood,” the police guard’s gruff voice broke in upon Haydn’s ponderings. The words brought an inspired thought.
“I think I can!” he announced. “But I will need your help.”
Late that night, Haydn stood concealed behind the entrance of the Michaelerhaus, his eyes trained on the bakery shop across the dark square. The door stood invitingly ajar. The police guard who had stood sentry all day was gone. But a bell in Haydn’s pocket would summon the man should the need arise.
He had waited thus, shivering in the cold, for nearly an hour. The piece of shroud he had purchased was folded in his palm. He knew not how long he would have to wait, but he did not think his plan would come to naught.
He was beginning to doze off when a soft creaking sound aroused him. He stared across the street. The shop door, open just a little while back, was now closed. Was someone within? He thought he discerned a dim light through the crack at the bottom.
He sprinted across the square, his fingers closed over the bell to muffle its jangling. The bakery windows were too high for him to see through. He tried the door, pushing it open, and peered in. Finding no one within, he stepped inside.
It was where the ovens were, no doubt. He lifted the end of the countertop, went behind it, and thrust the curtain aside. The ovens were stoked, a welcoming warmth arising from them.
A tall, slim woman wrapped in a cloak stood with her back to him. As Haydn watched, she reached up to a shelf set into the wall, removed the flour barrel, and withdrew the tightly rolled up bundle concealed behind it.
From within her cloak, she brought out a large pair of scissors and proceeded to unfurl the bundle—a lavender-blue dress, its waist and white yoke heavily spattered with teardrop-shaped blood stains. Just as her fingers—curled into the scissor loops—pulled the blades apart, Haydn stepped forward.
“Stop!” he called, ringing his bell at the same time. The woman froze. Her hands went to her ears to shut out the shrill clanging of his bell. Then she slowly spun around.
But it was not Frau Bettler.
For a single startled moment, they stared at each other, Haydn recognizing the young woman who had been walking with Porpora that afternoon. Before either one of them could break the silence, the guards, drawn by the sound of his bell, had swarmed into the shop.
Haydn found his voice at last. “What reason could you have for killing Master Bettler?” he asked as the guards restrained the woman.
Her chin jutted stubbornly out, but she remained silent.
I suppose I have you to thank for losing a good singer,” Porpora greeted Haydn the next morning, but he didn’t seem particularly annoyed at the turn of events.
“Was she one of your pupils?” Haydn asked. He had never seen her before yesterday.
“Of course not. Maria had no need of lessons. She had the voice of an angel. I heard her singing in the square on one of my walks and offered to procure her a position at the Kärntnertortheater. What made her kill the baker?”
“She was in love with Master Bettler. Had been his mistress for some time,” Haydn replied, recounting the details he had managed to glean from the guard he had befriended. “But he apparently wanted nothing more to do with her.”
“Why not?” Porpora demanded. “She was better looking than that horse-featured wife of his.”
Haydn fingered his shroud and smiled. “Do you recall the old hag who sat on the steps of the Michaelerkirche selling pieces of the Lord’s Shroud?”
Porpora looked puzzled. “What has she to do with anything?”
“It seems Master Bettler bought a piece of the shroud from her and was told that a ‘woman would be the death of him.’ He took that to mean his wife would murder him for his philandering, so he made haste to break it off with his mistress.
Haydn’s smile widened at the irony of it all. “Thus bringing about the very fate the old crone had warned against.”
But the shroud had helped Hans just as she had promised it would. And who knew, perhaps his own fortunes would turn, too. He may have been overlooked as first violinist, but perhaps he would someday be Kapellmeister.
“Stop daydreaming, Sepperl!” Porpora’s voice broke gruffly into Haydn’s thoughts. “We have a long day ahead of us.”
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