The Venerable Bede School for Young Gentlemen
Most criminal acts could be carried out in silence. Playing a thirty-six rank, three-manual pipe organ on a quiet Sunday afternoon wasn’t one of them.
Dylan Rutledge knew he would more than likely be expelled by the end of the day, but it was worth the risk finally to hear his music on a decent instrument. He was tired of tinkering with it on what he considered the “little” organ in the choir loft, the only one he was authorized to touch. He had borrowed—no, he corrected himself, the proper word was stolen—the console key and he did not regret it. The two unseen students who were pumping the bellows would be disciplined also, but he was paying them a healthy slice of his monthly allowance, and they had agreed to do it for money as well as a lark. Dylan pulled out the stops he needed, poised his hands over the bottom and middle manuals, and placed his feet over the pedals. He sent up a silent prayer that he would not be stopped before he had finished. He had to hear the music or die. His hands came down upon the keys. Majestic basses and frigid flutes rolled out from the pipes.
Outside, two masters in robes, deep in conversation, approached the ornate doors. The taller master, Laurence Northcliff, was younger by several decades, and had his head inclined to hear the reedy voice of his small, frail, and elderly companion. Just as Northcliff reached for the door handle, a thundering discord like the wrath of God poured in a tidal wave of sound through the heavy closed doors of the church.
The elderly choirmaster and organist of the school cried out in distress and wailed, “Rutledge!” He always spoke in agitated exclamations when Dylan Rutledge was the subject.
“That terrible boy! He’s—he’s—” Winston Montgomery frantically checked the pocket in his gown. “My console key! It’s gone! He’s taken it—the thief. How did he—the sneaking thief!” He struggled with the heavy door.
“No—Winston—wait,” Northcliff said, grabbing the old man’s arm. His eyes were bright with pleasure and surprise at the unusual combination of sounds they were hearing. “It’s magnificent. Let’s just go in and listen to it with open minds.”
“Go in? We don’t need to go in. We could be standing on the Isle of Man and hear it!”
“Clear the cobwebs from your ears, Winston.” Then Laurence urged again, “Just listen to the music.”
“It’s not music! You’re as addled as that insolent brat. And he’s a thief!”
“Please. Let him finish. Drop the net over him later. There’s a good fellow.” Laurence opened the door and went inside with the choirmaster. He looked toward the large alcove beneath the bell tower, where the sanctuary organ reigned supreme. From that angle, all he could see of the organist was an occasionally lifting hand and a mane of thick brown hair. He knew without seeing the musician’s face that a deep cleft of concentration was between his eyebrows and that his hazel eyes were fixed with intensity upon the music.
Montgomery was so overwrought that Laurence could feel his arm trembling. Suddenly, a chord never before heard by man roared from the pipes and shook the floor beneath their feet. Montgomery threw up his hands. “I can’t listen another minute! I’m going to the headmaster.” He left, still shaking his head.
Laurence sat down in a pew near the front and lost himself in the strange progressions and combinations of notes. He wished Winston could hear what he heard: adolescent genius making its share of mistakes—and God knew some of them were quite dreadful—but genius nonetheless. He prayed that someday others would hear what he heard in Rutledge’s music.
The musician apparently made an error. The organ stopped instantly, and he heard the boy say, “Oh, bugger!” The vulgarity echoed in the silence and from the dusty darkness behind the organ, the bellows workers guffawed in response. When Laurence, too, burst into involuntary laughter, the organist twisted his head around to see who had heard him curse. “Who’s there?”
Laurence stood and went closer, so the student musician could see him. “It’s only I, Rutledge. Mr. Northcliff.”
“Oh. I didn’t know you were here, Sir. I wish you had made yourself known.”
Only Rutledge, he thought, would be cheeky enough to take that tone with a master, especially after having been caught cursing in the church and possibly stealing from another master. “I shall remember that next time, Rutledge.” There was a long silence. “Are you going to play again?” he asked.
“Yes, Sir,” came the answer. “When I am quite alone.”
Laurence did not know why the boy amused him so much. He was headstrong, a disaster in academics because he didn’t care a damn about any of it, and it was not unusual for him to cross the line between self-expression and insolence, as he had just done. “I’d like for you to continue. I enjoy hearing you play,” he said.
“You do?” Rutledge turned completely around on the bench. “Do you mean it?”
“I mean it. What were you were playing just now?”
“It’s nothing much. Just a piece of my own.” It was clear from his tone that his modesty was outrageously false.
“It sounded very grand to me.”
“Did it really? It was meant to portray the Battle of Waterloo. From the proper side, of course.”
“Of course. Rutledge, I’m going to ask you something and I want the truth. How did you get the key to the console? Mr. Montgomery never lets it out of his sight.”
“I stole it.” Dylan’s gaze and his voice were steady. “I intended to return it.”
“And how did you think you could get away with playing undetected?”
“I didn’t, Sir. I’m not witless.” He looked down at his hands and locked them together as he said, “I knew I’d be expelled.” When he again raised his eyes, they were full of defiance. “I’m not sorry I did it.”
“Why did you?”
“You wouldn’t understand, Sir.”
“Perhaps I would. I’m not witless, either.”
Rutledge smiled briefly. “No, Sir. I’ve had this music in my head for a long time and I finally wrote it down. I could hear it but—but it’s not the same as hearing it actually played, you see. And the choir organ suffices for accompanying, but not for what I wrote. I had to hear it. I had to.”
Laurence sighed. “Rutledge, what are we to do with you? You’ve been sent down at least once every year since I’ve known you. And this…Rutledge, theft of any kind is a serious offense. This is your last year here and you’ve put it in jeopardy.”
“I don’t care.”
“You’re a gifted musician, Rutledge. But I doubt you have one grain of common sense.”
“I’m certain you’re right, Sir. Not only that, but I’m likely the worst student in the history of Bede. I don’t care about that, either.”
Laurence made a hopeless gesture. “Rutledge, what you did was wrong. But I don’t believe it was done from malice. I’ll do what I can to keep you from being expelled. I may not be able to prevent it.” Softly, he added, “I’m sure you have some time left before you’re shut down. Take advantage of it.”
What a strange creature Rutledge is, Laurence thought. Yet I feel I understand him perfectly. As he stepped outside and closed the heavy oak door, the music resumed, as strange and compelling as before. And the world is going to break his heart.
Finally, against his wishes, Dylan had to stop playing. His bellows workers were complaining and exhausted. After he paid them and sent them on their way, he sat for a while longer, fingering the silent keys, hearing his music again in his head. Whatever happened to him now, he was proud. It was good music. It was more than good. It might even be great.
In the solitude, he had to face the possibility that he would be permanently sent from Bede. He winced at the thought of explaining it to his father. His mother would weep and forgive him. His father… well, his father was a different kettle of fish altogether. The elder Rutledge wanted Dylan to stop “fooling about and wasting time with music” and plan a solid, respectable future as he and Dylan’s older brother had both done. He was a solid Englishman, a renowned architect. Dylan’s brother, Marion, was a solid, successful barrister. Their sister Constance was planning a solid, respectable future with her fiancé, a member of Marion’s law firm. Only he, Dylan, the youngest, was going to besmirch the Rutledge name, because he was neither solid nor respectable. He knew that was how his father saw it. It was a bitter thought. Nobody cared how solid the upper class was, because it had money. Nobody cared how solid the lower class was, because it had none. It was only the middle class that bore the burden of having to be respectable. It wasn’t fair.
“Dyl?” A familiar voice spoke from the doorway. “Are you in here?”
“At the organ, Rob.”
“And you’re not still making that unholy noise?”
Dylan was in no mood to be jollied by his childhood friend, Rob Colfax. “They’re going to kick me out of Bede, Rob. This time forever.”
“Nonsense. They always allow you back in.”
“Not this time,” Dylan said dolefully. Since they were children at their first school, Robert Colfax and Dylan Rutledge had been friends and rivals. When they grew older and moved on to Bede, they discovered another facet of friendship, one that required nerve-wracking-but-exciting secrecy, dark corners, and haste. Of such a friendship, complete honesty was born. He told Rob what he had done that day.
Rob whistled. “You stole the key from old Monty? I say, Dyl, don’t know if they’ll let you off this time.”
“As I said.” Dylan’s elation at hearing his music was rapidly fading, and he was just beginning to realize the seriousness of his situation. “I may as well pack my trunk and be ready.”
Rob, though always the optimist, had no encouragement to give.
Even Dylan Rutledge’s infamous defiance wilted at the hearing on Monday before the headmaster. The aggrieved choirmaster presented his evidence of the crime, still so furious his thin nose quivered. Mr. Northcliff appeared for the defense, acknowledging the crime of theft while pleading for understanding and leniency. When the hearing was over and the sentence of permanent expulsion had been passed, Dylan waited for Laurence outside the headmaster’s office.
He held out his hand. “I want to thank you, Sir,” he said. “I knew it was hopeless, but I appreciate it all the same.” As he looked into Laurence Northcliff’s blue eyes for the last time, he suddenly wished Northcliff would hold him in his arms. The notion took him completely by surprise, and he hastily withdrew his hand and took a step back.
“I’m sorry I was not more persuasive,” Laurence said.
“Perhaps, Sir, if I did not already have the reputation of being incorrigible, you would have had better luck.”
“Perhaps.” Laurence smiled. “Shall I walk out with you?”
“If you care to be seen with me, Sir.”
“Really, Rutledge, don’t be so melodramatic. You’re being sent away from a school for stealing a key. It isn’t as if you were being sent to the hangman for murdering a sleeping nun.” He lightly rested his hand for a moment on Dylan’s shoulder. “Now you will have time to work on your music.”
Dylan looked sideways at him. “Sir, aren’t you supposed to be lecturing me? Telling me that I’ve ruined my life by throwing away my education?”
“I’ll leave the lecture to your father. All I shall do is wish you well.”
The hand on his shoulder was warm, and again Dylan had the puzzling and almost overwhelming urge to be in Mr. Northcliff’s arms. He swallowed hard. “Thank you, Sir,” he said. Though he had never been a good student and had always rebelled against the rigid discipline of Bede, he felt a profound sense of loss at the precipitous end to it all.