As from the pow'r of Sacred Lays The Spheres began to move; And sung the great Creator's praise To all the bless'd above; So, when the last and dreadful Hour This crumbling Pageant shall devour, The TRUMPET shall be heard on high, The dead shall live, the living die, And MUSICK shall untune the Sky.
John Dryden "A Song for St. Cecilia's Day"
It was a quiet St. Kilda morning in the summer of 1929. The Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher was sitting in her jasmine bower, drenched in scent. She was wearing a pale green silk gown embroidered with golden phoenixes, the symbol of the empress. Flaming pearls of longevity burned their way, comet-like, upon her fluttering sleeves. Her hair was as shiny as patent leather, cut in a neat bob which swung forward as she read. She was nibbling a croissant and drinking cafe au lait. With her pink cheeks and red lips and green eyes, she looked like a hand-coloured French fashion plate.
Sitting on the table in a pose made famous by Basht, goddess of cats, was her black cat Ember. He was waiting for the tidbits that her fellow breakfaster would undoubtedly award such a beautiful cat who had not even ventured a paw toward that luscious stack of crispy bacon, though if a suitable offering wasn't made fairly soon, was contemplating preemptive action.
Phryne ought to have been reading Vogue, or perhaps some yellow-backed scandalous French novel, occasionally making arch comments to her lover, who would be exhausted from a night of passion. Instead, to ruin the picture, she was reading an autopsy report, and her companion was a tired-out police detective, eating one of Mrs. Butler's breakfasts and absorbing very strong tea as a corrective to not getting any sleep.
Dot, Phryne's companion, was embroidering waratahs on her hope chest table linen. She fully intended to marry Detective Sergeant Hugh Collins in due course, and had no wish to be found unprepared for that happy event. Tinker and Jane were playing chess in the arbour. Ruth was in the kitchen with Mrs. Butler, cook to the household, shelling peas and discussing ways to cook pineapple. The black and white sheepdog Molly was lying under the table with her head on the inspector's foot, confident that he would drop bacon rind before his toes went numb. This trick had always worked for Molly, and if it didn't on this occasion, she had a way of laying her head confidingly in a male lap with just a hint of teeth that invariably produced results.
A steady hum of useful activity serenaded Mr. Butler as he sat down on his comfortable chair and sipped his after-breakfast cup of coffee. Fortunately, he could not hear the topic of conversation.
"All right," said Phryne, putting down the report and pouring her favourite policeman another cup of the stewed licorice black tea. Just the way he liked it: enough tannic acid to dye a cauldron full of stockings. To which he then added milk and three lumps of sugar. Generations of tea aficionados rolled in their graves. "I've read it. Someone has stifled an orchestral conductor with really quite a lot of sheets of Mendelssohn's Elijah stuffed down his throat."
"Right," said the detective inspector.
"Seems excessive, even as musical criticism," commented Phryne. "Your doctor has done a competent examination. Taken samples of blood, urine, and stomach contents. Noted no signs of struggle, no scratches or bruises except those on his shoulders, which seem to mean that the murderer knelt on him while suffocating him. I think those are kneecap marks. And he didn't struggle because he had a tummy full of—" her eyebrows lifted "—enough opiates to knock out a smallish rhinoceros. In fact, enough to kill him, which makes the added sheet music supererogatory. Baroque, verging on rococo. A flamboyant murderer, Jack dear, with a point to prove."
"Yes," said Jack. "But what point? I don't know anything about music. And I don't know anything about these ... these sort of people. I thought." His voice trailed off and he took a strengthening gulp of the tar-water tea.
Phryne smiled. She knew how much Jack Robinson hated asking for her unofficial and potentially world-shattering help. She volunteered.
"I have always liked Mendelssohn," she told him. "Who is performing it?"
"The Melbourne Harmony Choir, with the Occasional Orchestra. Amateurs but with professional soloists and a professional conductor," Jack read from his notebook. "The dead man was called Hedley Tregennis. Forty-five, born in Richmond, separated from his wife, no children. Bit of a reputation for being loud, insulting, and impatient."
"That applies to most conductors," said Phryne.
"See? I don't know all this stuff. They're having a rehearsal tonight at the Scots Church Assembly Hall, just before the lantern lecture. Can you come along with me? You're sure to notice things that I won't. Just as long," added Jack Robinson anxiously, noticing the bright interest in those green eyes, "you don't get the idea that it's your case, or anything silly like that."
"Of course not," cooed Phryne. "What time? Can I pick you up?"
"Mr. Butler driving?" asked Jack Robinson. Miss Fisher drove like a demon and he had to keep his eyes shut the whole journey, in case he saw how many breaches of the traffic laws she committed, and closing his eyes in a moving car made him queasy.
"Yes, there will be nowhere to leave the car on Collins Street."
"Right, then, five thirty at the police station," he told her.
"What's the lantern lecture?" she asked, as he dropped bacon rinds to Molly, fed Ember a large piece of the same, and wiped his mouth preparatory to facing the world again.
"Some bloke called Rupert Sheffield," he said. "On the science of deduction. Ought to ask him to help," he added, and left, thanking Mrs. Butler on the way out through the kitchen.
Phryne was unexpectedly stung. Science of deduction? What did any man called Rupert know about deduction that the Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher didn't know?
Ridiculous. She shook herself into order like an affronted cat and ate the rest of her croissant with a sharp snap of her white teeth.
"We got a case, Guv?" asked Tinker. A Queenscliff fisher boy, he had attached himself at heel, like a small scruffy terrier, and Phryne had decided that he might be useful. As well as being endearingly intelligent. And devoted to Sexton Blake. He had fitted in well. Phryne's adopted daughter Jane found him clever and was teaching him chess. Her other adopted daughter Ruth liked his appetite, which was reliably voracious, even for cooking experiments which had slightly failed. Mr. and Mrs. Butler appreciated the supply of fresh fish and Dot liked having someone sleeping in the back garden, which made her feel more secure. Molly liked accompanying him on fishing expeditions. Ember tolerated him with his usual amused disdain. Ember was utterly uninterested in any other humans apart from his own family (Phryne, Ruth, and Jane), whom he considered to be under his protecting paw. Others might be awarded some passing notice if they came bearing food. Possibly. Tinker was bearable, and pleasantly free with his fish.
That meant that Tinker was enveloped in a glow of approval from the entire household, which in turn had meant that Tinker could be easy in their company. He adored Phryne with his whole heart. And, together with Dot, he worried about her. She was far too bold for someone who was only five-foot-two and weighed in at about seven stone in a wringing wet army overcoat.
However, he thought, as he returned to Phryne's briefing on this odd murder, even the Guv'nor couldn't get into too much trouble at a choir rehearsal and a lantern lecture.
As he often did, Tinker felt uneasy, and shared a glance with Dot. She was concerned, too.
"Any ideas?" Phryne asked her household.
"Must be very angry," offered Jane.
"Didn't just want Mr. Tregennis dead," said Jane, who was destined to be a doctor. "He would have died with that overdose. He was dying, in fact, wasn't he, when the music was stuffed into his mouth?"
"Probably," agreed Phryne.
"If the murderer just wanted to get rid of the bloke, then the morphine would have done the trick," said Tinker, with the callousness of fourteen. "But that wasn't enough."
"And if the murderer wanted him to suffer, he went the wrong way about it," said Dot. "The poor man can't have felt a thing."
"Yes, and isn't that odd?" commented Phryne. "The music stuffed into the mouth is, as my learned colleague says, an act of rage. But the method of death, as my other learned colleague observes, is peaceful and painless. Not a mark on him, no struggle, no bruises. And from this we can surmise."
"Well," said Jane, "either the murderer is mad, a person of moods."
"Yes," said Phryne. "Or?"
"Or the murderer is two people," said Dot. "One who just wants him dead and one who's real furious at him."
"Yes," said Phryne, "or ...?"
"The murderer's weak," said Tinker. "Not strong enough to hold the bloke down and suffocate him without drugging him first."
Phryne continued, reading from her notes. Jack had rather meanly taken his file with him. "Now, stomach contents disclose that he had eaten a rather expensive snack just before he died. Half a dozen fresh oysters, a slice or two of smoked salmon, a small piece of stilton, and water biscuits."
"Expensive is right," commented Ruth. "Stilton has to be specially imported, oysters are really unsafe to eat unless you buy the ones from select fishmongers, and smoked salmon comes from Scotland."
"Correct. As last meals go, it is a rather lavish one. He seems to have drunk ..."
"Champagne?" suggested Ruth, who knew which wines were appropriate for shellfish. Mr. Butler was a mine of information on the subject.
"No, oddly enough, a sweet dessert wine. Muscat, perhaps, or Imperial Tokay," replied Phryne. "Which is costly, but in my opinion has a tawdry taste and is far too sugary."
"But I bet it would cover up the taste of the poison," said Dot. "Like putting bitter medicine into syrup."
"Never fooled me," said Phryne, brooding darkly on the cough medicines of her youth. She particularly had it in for Buckley's Canadiol Mixture, which tasted like rendered-down pine trees. "But a good notion, Dot dear. Presumably Mr. Tregennis had a sweet tooth, his poisoner knew that, and instead of providing a light dry sparkling wine with his after-rehearsal amuse-bouche, gave him a glass of some noxious wine which would hide the poison. Morphine is extremely bitter. Only other way to hide it would be in a naturally bitter drink or food. Keep that in mind next time you are contemplating murder."
"Six months ago, Miss, I would have been shocked at that comment," said Dot.
Phryne beamed at her. "See how you've been coming along, Dot dear? Well done!"
Dot was not sure whether this was a sign of growing sophistication or an indication of moral degeneracy, and decided to confess it to her local priest in due course. He was an old priest. He would cope.
"The body was found on the floor of the conductor's room. He had been dead for some time. The cleaning lady found him when she came in to sweep at six this morning. He was last seen—by everyone else—retreating there and slamming the door after an unusually fraught rehearsal. He seems to have been a short-tempered bully, and one wonders if the entire choir—or perhaps only the basses—decided to remove him."
She looked up to see if the joke had registered. No one smiled. She decided that she really must see to the musical education of her minions, and went on.
"No sign of any plates, glasses, or cutlery," she told them. "Whoever brought the food took all evidence away with them. The usual police search found no suicide note, no useful calling cards, matchbooks, foreign coins, obscure words written on the walls, or scales of rare venomous reptiles."
"Oh." Tinker was disappointed.
"The choir departed in a body and caught the tram into Carlton, where they went to a sly-grog pub and sang very rude songs until at least three in the morning."
"But they can't have been in full view all the time," objected Dot. "Some of them must have, you know, visited the conveniences, gone out for a breath of air—any one of them could have come back to poison Mr. Tregennis."
"Yes, Dot, true," said Phryne. "That is why Jack wanted me to come and look at his choristers. In case something leaps to mind."
"Where did the food come from?" asked Ruth, who had been thinking deeply. "That's not ordinary pie cart stuff, that's expensive hotel food."
"Another thing which the overworked constabulary are even now trying to ascertain." Phryne leafed through her notes. "Questions?"
"Any sign that he had ... been with a lady?" asked Dot, even more convinced of her eventual destination. "No lipstick marks, things like that?"
"I am not going to harrow your innocent ears with the ghastly details, Dot, but he certainly hadn't had any close communion with anyone for some days, and only Jane can ask me how I know that, and only if she looks up the anatomy text first on seminal vesicles. And asks me in private. No lipstick, greasepaint, love bites, or other indelicate things, but long blonde hairs on his coat. Blondes are being asked pointed questions as we speak."
"Because it is the sort of intimate supper they describe in Larousse Gastronomique," added Ruth. "Oysters, smoked salmon, wine. Even though it's the wrong wine." Ruth was aggrieved. Anyone who could afford smoked salmon ought to know that it went with champagne.
"It might have been a love affair gone wrong," said Jane.
"Then why stuff music down the poor bloke's throat?" asked Tinker.
Phryne patted his shoulder.
"We need, as Sherlock Holmes would say, more data. So I shall go out this evening and get some, and I would rather go alone, darlings. Then I shall come back and we shall discuss it. All right?"
"If you say so, Guv," said Tinker, on behalf of them all.
"Good. Very good, all of you." Phryne smiled general approval. "You have all done very well. Science of deduction, indeed," she added, and swept into the house to bathe and dress.
"It's just a choir rehearsal," said Jane to Tinker. "How much trouble can she get into at a choir rehearsal?"
"She's Miss Phryne," said Dot. "She could get into trouble in heaven. God forgive me," she added, and crossed herself.
All things shall perish from under the sky, Music alone shall live, music alone shall live, Music alone shall live, never to die.
Phryne remembered the stairs up to the Scots Church Assembly Hall. She put on a low-heeled pair of shoes, as she had slightly sprained her ankles dancing the Charleston two nights before. Not wishing to overawe the choir, she dressed in a decently quiet turquoise dress, jacket, and hat and took a large handbag. As usual her petticoat pocket contained emergency requisites: a spare lighter, a banknote, cigarettes, a pearl-handled .22 Beretta. One never knew what the exigencies of rehearsal might entail. Mr. Butler drove Phryne and her policeman with calm and dignity into the city, left them at the corner of Collins and Russell streets, and took the car to the garage where it had been built. He had instructions to come back at nine. Phryne had decided to watch the lantern lecture. It might even be instructive.
She was making suggestions to Jack Robinson as she felt her way, a little gingerly, up the stairs. Hugh Collins waited at the door.
"You need to find out who brought that food, Jack dear, and I suggest you start with the hotel just across the road. That was, as Ruth pointed out, expensive provender, not available from just any soup kitchen. Then you need to find the conductor's lover."
"His lover?" asked Jack.
"Well, yes, that aphrodisiac little supper was an invitation of sorts. Then you need to talk to the choir's librarian."
"Why?" asked Jack.
At that moment someone caught Phryne around the waist and dragged her into a close embrace. He never knew how close he was to a knee where it would not have been appreciated because, fortunately for him, Phryne recognised him and flung her arms around his neck.
"John!" she exclaimed. "John Wilson, how can you possibly be here? One moment." She turned in his arms and said to Jack Robinson, "The librarian has all the scores, numbered. Get her to call them all in. That music had to come from somewhere. I'll be in directly."
Jack Robinson shook his head, collected his detective sergeant, and entered the hall. John Wilson chuckled.
"Still the same Phryne, eh?" he asked. "And it's Dr. John, now."
"Oh, excellent, so you went back after ... afterwards?"
John Wilson had been a medical student in 1918 when he had been dragged from his residency and dropped into the Battle of the Somme. He had run a forward casualty-clearing station, dipped deep in blood and death. Horrified, shell-shocked and twenty-two years old, he had met Phryne, bringing in the wounded. There, in her ambulance, under bombardment, he and Phryne had mutually ripped the clothes off each other and mated fiercely, deaf from shelling, desperate to find a warm living body to hang on to while the world bled and fractured and blew up around them. Thereafter Phryne had invited him into her ambulance frequently. He had always been delighted to accept her invitation, alone of the women in the world, for John Wilson's heart was given to men. Phryne seemed to be in a different category. He had often puzzled about it. However, she was exceptional.