Charles Jessold, Considered As a Murderer

by Wesley Stace

Paperback, 389 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $15 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Charles Jessold, Considered As a Murderer
Author
Wesley Stace

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Book Summary

A music critic named Leslie Sheppard tells the gripping story of composer Charles Jessold, who, after co-writing an opera with Sheppard, went on to murder his wife and her lover and then commit suicide, in a haunting sequence of events that mirrors the opera's plot. By the author of Misfortune. Original.

Read an excerpt of this book

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Charles Jessold, Considered As A Murderer

I met Charles Jessold, the murderer, on 21 May 1910, the day after

King Edward’s funeral. We were guests at a Hatton Manor

Saturday-to-Monday, and it was on that very fi rst eve ning that I

had occasion to tell of Carlo Gesualdo, the composer whose story

made such a lasting impression.

I had just entered the room, a quick inventory of which revealed:

three composers (one of note, two of naught), a conductor,

and a miscellany of vicars, musical scholars and enthusiasts; not to

mention Cedric Mount (our most esteemed member) and of course

Antic Jackson who, despite arriving on the same late train from

town, had managed to beat me downstairs. I was, as ever, the token

musical critic.

The only stranger was a young man standing over the piano. In

impeccably creased grey flannels and gaudily striped tie, he was our

junior by some years. His face, a pick-and-mix assortment, conformed

to no classical ideal. His forehead was too broad and his

lips too mean for his fleshy cheeks, although the ever-glimmering

smile at their left corner gave an impression of geniality. His thick

black hair was slicked lavishly with pomade.

His eyes, later described as devilish, were nothing of the kind;

rather they were beady, though being a lucid emerald green, not

unattractively so. In conversation, they spoke directly to you, a

somewhat unnerving compliment that turned a stranger into a

confi dant whether he cared to be or not. When it was his turn to

listen, those eyes never strayed from yours. To avoid his gaze, one

sought refuge in the perfectly straight line from the top of his nose

to the cusp of the chin that he was later to disguise with a goatee

(interpreted as Mephistophelean, of course). Above his eyes, that pale

billboard of forehead advertised his every fl icker of emotion.

This newcomer leaned in rapt attention, back arched to a stylised

forty- five degrees, his elbow on the lid of the piano, hand to

his chin, thumb tucked under: a remarkably self-conscious pose. I

found myself wondering whether he was perhaps used to being

observed. He certainly ‘lit up’ a room. Any producer worth his salt

would have plucked him from a crowd.

I realised that someone was playing the piano only when he

stopped. The pianist, Mark Wallington, rose and with a sweep of

the hand surrendered his stool to the young man, whose mask of

deliberation disappeared into a broad smile that bared unruly

teeth dominated by handsomely vampirical incisors. He raised his

hands, as if to demonstrate that there was nothing up his sleeves,

and played what he had just heard to an astonishing degree of accuracy.

The performance, brought off with some relish, was

greeted by applause from a group by the fireside.

‘The arrangement and harmonisations to boot!’ proclaimed St

John Smith à la ringmaster. ‘Will anyone else try to stump him?’

The young man bowed. Not so self-conscious after all; just youthful,

serious, in the spotlight.

I called casually to our host, the fifteenth Viscount Hatton, who

met my eyes with a raised finger implying that I was far more interesting

than what ever minor obstacles stood in his path. He was

known as ‘Sandy’ for his sun-freckled, desert complexion, though

all he knew of the Sahara was a bunker at Sunningdale.

‘You’re like a German verb, Leslie,’ he said when he finally materialised.

A calculated insult. ‘Always last.’

‘But just on time, and like a French adjective, agreeable.’ I

waved a vague finger towards the young man: ‘Who’s the performing

seal?’

‘Now now.’

‘Can he balance a red ball on his nose?’

‘Probably.’ Sandy surveyed his domain with satisfaction. Jackson

and I were the last pieces in his weekend’s jigsaw. ‘A pleasure,

Leslie.’ I bowed. ‘Ah,’ he said with an approving smile at the cabal

in question. ‘A reprise of the star turn.’

Again a somewhat tuneless original was rendered; again the

young man duplicated it, as though the first player had printed a

piano roll and he merely pedalled it through. It seemed the Memory

Man had reached the climax of his act.

‘I didn’t know there was to be a music-hall turn in addition to

our fishing expedition,’ I said pianissimo as we broadcast smiles

about us.

‘A mere trifle. The pièce de résistance is yet to come.’

‘Oh, I am disappointed.’

‘I believe he was something of an . . . infant prodigy.’ He savoured

the words for my benefit.

‘Played Three Blind Mice in all keys by the age of four? Wrote

his first sonata in utero?’

‘Very possibly. But his days of prodigiousness are done. He is

unhappily studying composition under Kemp at St Christopher’s,

Cambridge . . .’

Kemp’s was a name I was known to pooh-pooh at every opportunity,

so I instead indicated the wunderkind’s tie. ‘Are those Kit’s

colours?’

‘No, I believe that may be the tie of . . .’ he paused for comic

effect . . . ‘the Four Towns Music Festival in Kent. There’s a

mother, I am told, to whom he is very loyal, and she has him work

as accompanist at that august provincial gala. Jessold may not

strictly be from the top drawer, dear Shepherd, but I saw a young

man of promise.’

You invited him.’ I thought we had been speaking of an interloper,

an extraneous other making up numbers in the back of someone’s

Bentley. Sandy waved away my apology.

‘He is going down this year, and when Kemp asked me to speak

to the University Madrigal Society I unavoidably met Jessold, its

president.’ The keen madrigalist was currently attacking a bit of

ragtime with venom, pounding the keys into submission.

‘What’s he got against the piano?’

‘His touch is a little agricultural, probably years of banging out

“Poor Wandering One” for the daughters of the local clergy, but

then Jessold has no pretensions to be a concert pianist.’

‘Eureka! He has pretensions to be a composer?’

‘Yes.’

‘He angled for an invitation to mingle with the great and the

good?’

‘Far from it. Kemp can’t speak highly enough of him. So I con-

vinced Jessold that the one that got away was lurking here in the

Lower Thames. And lo! There he sits! The very image of the

young composer, earnestly ingratiating himself to the crowd as a

child seeks to please his parents. He’ll get over that. I have yet to

hear any work.’

St John extricated himself from the knot around the piano.

‘Racket rather sets my teeth on edge,’ he said with a grimace. ‘It’s

so desperately jaunty. Youth must, I dare say.’

Sandy slipped off his signet ring, tinkling the side of his champagne

fl ute. Glasses of Oeil de Perdrix were raised towards him in

toast. ‘Hatton welcomes you. I welcome you. Tomorrow we work;

to night we play. But first, I know Jessold, new of this parish, has

been diverting some of you. We’ll let the boy take a breather . . .

but I’d like to make him sing once more for his supper. Freddie, to

the piano.’

Fat Frederic Desalles was so cruelly camouflaged by his jacket

that his head appeared to be peeking from behind the cushions

of the sofa. He struggled to attention and made his way to the piano.

We held our breath nervously on the stool’s behalf. Landing

was achieved.

‘I am here.’ He played a little something that he intended us to

imagine effortlessly thrown off, but even this little doodle bore the

tragic hallmarks of his many other failures. Some thought Freddie’s

sole qualifications to be a composer were that he believed in

God and his name sounded foreign; but he could Handel a religious

theme as well as any man in Britain. ‘At your service!’

‘Jessold, make yourself scarce,’ commanded Sandy.

The butler escorted Jessold from the room. I looked at the young

man as he left; he glanced over his shoulder, catching me, as it were,

red-handed. A departing star knows there is always someone looking.

‘When they are at a suitable distance,’ Sandy continued, ‘I will

ask Freddie to play a melody, of say four or fi ve lines, unknown

to Jessold. Perhaps one you might like to improvise for us now,

maestro; perhaps a little something from your redoubtable

arsenal.’

No one could doubt the size of Desalles’ arsenal. Drinks, pale

and pink, were replenished as he sketched his rough draft. It was

typically Desallesean (there is certainly no such word, nor ever

shall be): churchfully plain, easily ignored.

‘We shall now bring Jessold back into the room.’ Sandy tugged

the bell pull imperiously. ‘And you, Freddie, will play him the first

half of your melody. But no more than that.’

On his return, the young man again assumed that study of

trance-like meditation as he refined the music’s possibilities in his

mind. Desalles ended his rendition on a suspended D minor, an

appropriately haunting chord for this demonstration of Cecilian

clairvoyance. Jessold did not move. He was not yet ready.

‘Once more, Freddie, please,’ asked Sandy.

This time, when Desalles reached that inconclusive D, Jessold

took his place, played the first three lines, and elided effortlessly

into the next two, melodically twinned, if not identically harmonised,

with Frederic’s originals. We’ve all heard pieces where the composer’s

next thought was predictable (and Desalles was not the

most unconventional), but this was something quite apart. Jessold,

alert to every possible melodic path, had narrowed it down to one:

this one. It was more akin to the reduction of a mathematical

equation.

His final flourish was a plagal chord of amen that parodied Desalles’

Messiah complex. No one clapped more enthusiastically than

Freddie himself. I willingly joined in, delighted that the boy had

none of the fear of self-expression endemic in those schooled in

composition. One marvelled at the strength of character that had

escaped unscathed from Kemp’s clutches!

‘Rather better than the prototype,’ I muttered.

‘Ask him how he does it,’ said Sandy as the bell rang for dinner.

The first toast was to the departed king; the second, to the new

George. I had feared that the funeral and its surrounding sea of

dark blue serge might spell the postponement of our weekend’s

pleasure, but our party was of sterner stuff.

My reward for years of uninterrupted friendship with our host

was a seat next to the man of the moment who boasted the unseasonable

glow of a cross-country runner on a freezing December

morning, with babyish skin that seemed ruddy with overly zealous

shaving. A tureen hovered to my left as a ghostly consommé, complete

with ectoplasm, was ladled into my bowl. I introduced myself

to Jessold by name.

‘Of The World?’ he asked without a semiquaver rest.

I nodded, flattered. ‘I know you only as Jessold.’

Charles Jessold.’

A smile, perhaps a little reptilian, slid across my face. ‘Charles

Jessold?’

‘I hope you are not going to ask me if I am the Charles Jessold,

for I am almost certainly not.’ There was a forthrightness about

him: nothing ungracious or rudely done, but he spoke his mind. ‘I

am a composer, but I have yet to trouble the critics with anything

worth their ink.’

‘I look forward to the imposition. Does anyone remark on your

name?’

‘Never. Jessold is rare, apparently, almost extinct in Britain except

in parts of Suffolk.’

‘No. It is the two names in tandem . . . not merely Jessold.’ He

looked at me uncomprehending. ‘Together they put me in mind of

a composer. You have perhaps never heard of Carlo Gesualdo?’ His

expression did not change. ‘Being the president of a madrigal society,

and being a Charles Jessold, you ought.’

‘Well, I already feel an etymological kinship with him.’

‘Ha! Have a care, Jessold. His is not a name to take in vain.’

As I installed myself to tell Gesualdo’s remarkable story, I uttered

the composer’s name as a bold headline.

‘Carlo Gesualdo!’ hooted Forbes, our pet literarian, eavesdropping.

Forbes and I enjoyed a cantankerous relationship, taking

nothing personally: we were used to riding against one another.

‘Carlo Gesualdo! Beware of the Shepherd, young Jessold. Behind

his public face, that of an unassuming, if violently nationalist, musical

scribe, lurks a ridiculous antiquarian. Inky- fingered goeth he,

under a layer of dust, slicing through the musty cobwebs of our

musical history as he may.’ All good-natured, no doubt, but I did

not care to be the butt of his chaffi ng when I had such a story to

tell. I turned back to my food, mindful not to give an impression

of pique. On blundered Forbes, undaunted: ‘What ever made you

think of that ghoulish character, Shepherd? The vaguest coincidence

of two names? Please spare our young friend that Halloween

horror. At least while he’s eating.’

I had barely noticed the arrival of the chaud-froid, a Hatton favourite.

The promise of conversation had withered like Klingsor’s

garden so I took a momentary, dignified vow of silence, content to

postpone my revelations. Sandy had referred to Jessold’s promise. I

had scoffed, but I could feel it too.