The Music of Death (Synopsis and Fragment)

Clark Ashton Smith



{Ms.} left by Adrian Thomas, young piano-tuner of Pine Valley. Thomas is returning homeward after several visits to rural houses, and is passing the unkempt grounds of the ^Legris^ [Agren] mansion at dusk, on the outskirts of Pine Valley. It had been deserted for ^many^ [twenty] years, and has been repeatedly offered for sale because of long-delinquent taxes, but without buyers.

Thomas is surprised, even startled, when the figure of a stooped and aged man in butler's costume steps forward from the untrimmed cypresses at the entrance and accosts him by name. Thomas has never seen the man before. Bits of strange, old, village rumors concerning the Legris family pass through his mind as the butler tells him that the services of a piano-tuner are needed by Mrs. Wamyre, daughter of Saul Legris, long-dead eccentric musician, who has just returned after ^several decades^ [twenty years] in Europe and the Orient, and has been renovating the dilapidated house. Several guests, piano-players of note, are expected that evening. {Thomas agrees} reluctantly, but his curiosity is aroused more and more. Driving into the dark, creeper-muted {?} grounds, he finds that the old roadway has been briskly cleared of weeds and bushes. The house, as he approaches it, blazes with illuminated windows.

It is a large two-story building with brick porches upheld by colonial pillars. Repairs have been made so skillfully but unobtrusively that the place has all the aspect of its prime. It is filled with antique furniture that shows neither dust not' the ravages of time, and is lit by newly burnished candelabrae.

The piano-turner wonders why he has heard nothing of these restorations, and a sense of mystification grows upon him. This feeling is complicated by other and stranger ones when he meets Mrs. Wamyre, the former ^Thessalia Legris^ [Vivian Agren], who has the slim beauty of a girl of nineteen or twenty, though rapid calculation assures him that she must be nearer ^sixty^ [to fifty]. He is fascinated by her, yet vaguely repelled by something that he cannot define.

Mrs. Wamyre leads Thomas to the large drawing-room in which the piano is installed. On the way, they pass through a hall containing several family portraits. One of these is of Saul Legris, Thessalia's father, an eccentric person who was said to have combined great musical talent and erudition with a leaning toward the darker side of occultism. Another picture portrays her husband, ^Adrian^ [Paul] Wamyre, a youth who had died within a year following the marriage from pernicious anemia. Thomas is startled to note a resemblance between Wamyre and himself, and realizes, by the peculiar appraisal in her glance, that the woman has also perceived it.

The piano, a grand of extraordinary size which had been made especially for Saul Legris, is backed against the wall on a platform, the room before it being filled with chairs, as if for a sizable audience. Thomas finds that the keys are full of curious and shifting discords. {... } When he examines the piano's interior, he finds that many old musical mss., written in a queer brownish ink on yellowed paper, are piled on the piano strings. He removes them: forthwith the discords {vanish} from the keys, and the instrument seems to need remarkably little tuning.

"These are some of my father's compositions, {which} he must have hidden {prior to his} death," observes Mrs. Wamyre. "He was a composer of singular genius, unrecognized by the living world... but not unknown in other regions."

Pondering this odd remark, Thomas perceives the wild, macabre titles and wilder notation of some of the scores, which Thessalia is now piling; with others on the piano-top. One is called Amour [Funèbre] de la Lamie, another L'Amour Nécromantique, Les Aphrodisiaques des {... }, Mortels des Démoniaques; still another Les Satyriasis des Momies, {and another} L'E-ithalame des Cadavres Verdâtres. Thomas recalls half-forgotten rumors about the outré scholarship of Saul Legris; the books on necromancy and black magic that he was said to have collected and studied; the sinister secret orgies reputed to have taken place in his mansion.

"Our guests and performers will appear soon," Mrs. Wamyre tells him. "You must remain," she adds imperatively. "The soirée we have planned, I promise, will enthrall and enchant you."

Already a spell has been woven upon Thomas by the charm of Thessalia. He forgets his {... } forgets that he has neither eaten nor drunk {... } Yet this fascination is tinged by a strange {sense} of something vaguely wrong, unnatural, uncanny.

Many candelabrae, casting a light that is somehow touched with irresoluble shadow, have been lit by the aged butler. "They come," Thessalia announces.

In surprise verging upon stupefaction, Thomas sees that the chairs nearest to the platform, empty a moment ago, are occupied by figures in the costumes of a past century . He recognizes in them the exact likeness of four famous and long-dead musicians: Chopin, Paganini, Beethoven, Liszt. A fifth is Saul Legris. Other forms, appearing unobstrusively and silently, have filled the chairs behind. Some of the faces resemble the family portraits in the hall. Others are strange. All have the aura of a past period: their garments are those of the nineteenth century. Thomas turns to Mrs. Wamyre with a question that he finds himself somehow powerless to utter. The blood-red lips of Thessalia curve in a strange smile amid her marble pallor. "I see that you have recognized our guests. The thing that men call death is nearer to life than you dream: it is merely another condition, another dimension, of being." She paused, then quoted softly: "Le Passé n'est jamais une chose

morte … Listen... and forgotten things will live for you again."

Thomas {... } the words.

Pale, silent, with features set like those of a somnambulist, the frail figure of Chopin rises and seats himself before the piano. Thessalia places one of the strange compositions of her father on the music rack beside him.

The dead master's fingers wake the keys to chords of a pagan sensuality that darkens by subtle degrees into the cruel and macabre. Thomas has never heard such music before, and is stirred to emotions he had never suspected in himself. The violence of necrophilic lamias{?}, the eroticism of black magicians and necromancers, the demoniac lubricity of the possessed, is in this baleful but superb music.

Successive pieces, played in turn by the other great musicians, display similar qualities. It is like the rioting of satyrs in charnels; a sabbat of the dead embued with energies both Dionysian and diabolic.

Finally, when the dead masters have retired to their seats, the huge gaunt form of Saul Legris succeeds them at the piano. His fingers are extrordinarily long and powerful, spanning far more than the traditional octave.

The composition he plays is the {... } in the beginning {... } seems to promise undercurrents of delights, raptures beyond those at which the forbidden books of erudite eroticism have hinted. Suddenly they turn to the feasting of a lamia on some enthralled and ecstatic victim.

Thomas experiences all the sensations conveyed so consummately in the music. He shares the victim's raptures, the pangs of the serpent-woman's teeth, the constriction of her coils, the mortal languor of veins from which the blood ebbs slowly and insidiously.

One by one the tapers go out, the faces of the audience grow dim and phantasmal under palls of thickening shadow. The last candelabra expires. Still, in the darkness, the infernal chords continue. Thomas feels the faintness of a moribund at the brink of death. Before his consciousness leaves him, cold and thrilling lips are pressed upon his own, and he hears the whisper of Thessalia Wamyre, telling incredible things, and naming an assignation which he does not specify in his narrative. At the last, an unspecified object is {thrust into his hand}. He seems to die; but awakens at dawn in the half-ruinous mansion, in whose decade-accumulated dust he can find no footprints {... ~ whose familiar titles he re-reads with a shiver not wholly due to the chilliness of the autumn dawn.

His car is parked before the dilapidated porch. The road by which he had entered is choked with rank grass and weeds and sapling bushes. As he starts the car he finds that a strange rusty key is still clutched in his hand. He knows the key; knows its purpose and purveyance.

Henceforth he is a changed man, neglecting his business entirely, and going out only at night. His narrative becomes broken and incoherent, with hints of some weird delusion that he is suffering... hints that he has identified himself with Adrian Wamyre, the long-dead husband of Thessalia, and is haunted by memories not wholly those of Adrian Thomas. He hints also at the tryst which he must keep with Thessalia, but does not specify the place and circumstances.


Certain notes are added by Philip Hastane, fiction-writer, and friend of Thomas, whom the latter had named as his executor. Hastane has read the above narrative, left in a sealed envelope addressed to him, on Thomas' desk.

From accounts given by the people of Pine Valley, Thomas had displayed eccentricities bordering upon madness or partaking of it. Several times he had been seen at night, in an outmoded costume, haunting the old cemetery outside the town. Finally he had disappeared; but the common knowledge of his queerness and nocturnal habits had caused people to defer any investigation.

One morning, the cemetery caretaker finds that the door of the old Wamyre vault, long-locked and unvisited, is now slightly ajar. The key has been left in the lock. Entering, the old man discovers a situation no less ghastly than unaccountable. Hastane merely hints at certain details of what was found.

The vault contains several coffins. One, lying open, contains the body of Thessalia Wamyre, which has been brought there secretly at some unknown date, since there had never been any certainty even of her death. The date, presumably, must have been quite recent, since the body is perfectly preserved.

Unbelievably, its arms are locked about another corpse, which is identified as that of Adrian Thomas, in spite of certain unnamed mutilations and a decomposition unaccountably advanced.

The caretaker swears that the torn and bloodstained clothing worn by Thomas is identical with garments ^in which the deceased Adrian Wamyre was buried^ [worn many years ago by the deceased Adrian Wamyre]. The style is an outmoded one and the black fabric has assumed the greenness of age.


Butler is strangely deformed; twisted features and spine; one club foot.

Piano-keyboard extends the known scale. At first, Thomas can merely sense a strange vibration from the end-keys; during the playing, he begins to hear the sub-auditory and super-auditory chords …Unrecognized notations in score.

Magic circle drawn on platform behind black curtain. Chanting voice. Curtain rises to reveal Legris and the dead masters he has summoned.

Circle still remains, clear of dust, when Thomas awakens after his experience.

The Music Of Death


Thy heart is fed
With murmurs and music of the dead.
  - George Sterling

I The Narrative of Adrian Thomas

I am writing this to explain, if explanation is possible, the change I have undergone in the period of a single lunation. Few or none will believe me. If any should believe, it will be the man to whose care and discretion I shall bequeath my manuscript in a sealed, addressed envelope.

Up to the past month my life has been the commonplace one of a country piano-tuner, varied mainly by a brief sojourn in San Francisco's Bohemia. I had never believed, or found reason to believe, in the supernatural. Love as a personal passion has remained unknown to me heretofore: though I have thrilled to its evocation in the music of the great masters, in the philtred chords of Tannhauser, of Tristan and Isolde, and the pagan magistral of L'Apres-midi d'un faune. Recently I have listened to a stranger, madder music; and the listening has altered me beyond recognition or redemption.

The events I must now relate began without the least foreknowledge or premonition on my part. Perhaps, however, they were foreknown to others, or to one other, and were predestined from past years. I shall never again be free from that sense of a fatal and damnable recurrence.

I was driving homeward at sunset after a day's tedious round of visits to rural houses, and was nearing the outskirts of Pine Valley. A few more minutes would find me in my cabin on the farther side of the small foothill town, heating the ^wood stove^ [gas range] for my solitary supper. I desired nothing, expected nothing, beyond food and rest.

A sanguine afterglow, burning and darkening behind me, was reflected in the mirror of my ^coup^ [battered Dodge]. Before me, the swollen harvest moon, rising over the grounds of the old Legris property, began to tinge the October dusk with its spectral quicksilver.

Certain boyhood memories returned, as always, when I approached the Legris place. Even when I was a child its desolation had already become a legend: The townspeople had somehow grown to avoid it; and no tramp had ever been known to use the big, half-ruinous mansion for a lodging.

I recalled the times when I and a few playfellows, daring each other, had climbed the rusty-chained iron gate and had furtively threaded the unkempt overgrown shrubbery. Curious, half-afraid, we had circled the two-story colonial-styled house, had paused before the dilapidated porch strewn with dead leaves of bygone winters. One or two of our band had thrown rocks at the dust-blurred windows, and had dodged quickly behind the cypress trees, apprehending they knew not what. Somehow I had not shared in this vandalism.

At the time, the place had been deserted for two decades; since then twenty more years had elapsed. The place had been offered repeatedly for sale because of long-delinquent taxes, but no one had ever made a bid for it.

Therefore I was surprised when I saw that the gate stood unchained and open. My surprise deepened when a man stepped forward from the shadow of the unpruned hedge and raised his hand, uttering my name in a voice that was little more than a rusty croak.

^xxx^ xxx was added by Smith.
[xxx] xxx was deleted by Smith.

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