The Music Thief
Flanagan Doyle had enjoyed a lofty profession of being a thief-taker. One day, it dawned on him, as he was the best in the business, that he should make for himself a very fine quill with a point sharper than an eagle’s beak; and that he should sit at a steady oaken table on a very comfortable chair, before an empty book;
Flanagan Doyle had enjoyed a lofty profession of being a thief-taker. One day, it dawned on him, as he was the best in the business, that he should make for himself a very fine quill with a point sharper than an eagle’s beak; and that he should sit at a steady oaken table on a very comfortable chair, before an empty book; and that he should write down the principles of the art of thievery and pilferage. This he did very readily, after a decade of procrastination.
The first words of the book went thus—and he read them out as he wrote them:
“If you are a thief or are aspiring to be one, you must never steal perfume, food, animals, clothes, and most especially, money. In fact, never steal at all!”
In the climax of his ingenious writing, he heard a bang on his door. The intrusion got him into a rasp and he almost dealt the knocker a vicious verbal clout, but he restrained himself when he discovered it was only a postman on his steps.
“Letter from His Highness, the Prince Regent,” said the postman as he handed Flanagan a crimson letter, turning at once and disappearing down the alley.
For hours, Flanagan stared at the royal letter, wondering why it was addressed to him. When the answer did not come from staring at the seal, he opened it and read it.
“Leave everything and come at once!” were the simple words emblazoned on the fine vellum.
Flanagan went for his coat as fast as a witch on a broom and sprinted out of his house faster than a scurrying rat caught red-handed stealing from its landlord’s pantry. He boarded the first coach he saw and twiddled his fingers nervously as it approached the precinct of the king’s palace. He showed the letter to the guards parading the entrance and they let him in at once.
However, instead of being ushered into the keep; he was diverted to another tower where the castle maids, laundresses, and cooks worked. Therein, within a small room littered with broken objects and forgotten items— such as a jester’s accessories, rusted chainmail, a three-legged table, and things as ominous as fetters and chains—Flanagan found a man waiting for him.
The man was smallish with a jaw big enough to strain his neck. His clothes were velvet and so very well laundered that they were a sight to behold. Flanagan harbored a foolish thinking that he was the prince; but the man stated plainly that he was not, indeed, his highness but the Prince’s valet.
“The prince is… indisposed at the moment. But he wishes a thief caught in three days’ time.”
“Where?” asked Flanagan, glad at the prospects of doing such an honorable task for the prince. “I may go at once!”
“Brussels,” said the valet.
Flanagan’s hopes of royal favor deteriorated slowly. “Is the thief English?”
“The prince cannot say.”
“Tell the prince that I do not harbor a death wish—he must know I have no jurisdiction abroad. I do, however, appreciate his patronage.”
There was no time to waste. Once that was said, Flanagan sought to escape the palace walls at once. He didn’t get far though when a detail of guards stopped him at the drawbridge and took him back inside. This time, the valet led him into the keep, and straight to the prince’s dressing room.
The prince sat to a gothic mirror while a tailor took his measurements. He was naked, wearing nothing but his undergarments, looking like a fat adult baby. Like Flanagan, the tailor was uncomfortable with the nudity, but neither could protest for fear of losing their heads.
The prince sensed Flanagan’s entry and, with his back to him, asked offered Flanagan a tray of exotic fruits; to which Flanagan denied politely.
“What guts!” said the prince spinning on his seat; his potbelly dangling as if emancipated from a prison of tight royal clothes; and his fat chin quivering with extreme admonishment. “You reject my task and now, you reject my generous hospitality?”
“No sire... you must under—”
“Silence!” ordered the prince, immediately returning to his mirror. “You will go to Brussels, thief-taker, and you will catch a thief.”
Flanagan thought it best not to annoy the prince further. So instead of rejecting the task outright, he dillydallied for time by asking who this thief was and what he stole.
“He has put me in great suffering,” cried the prince in anguish. Flanagan wondered what form of suffering a prince could possibly endure; perhaps his bread for breakfast had no butter in it. “I went to an Opera in Naples. My lady made me go because, you know, I never quite fancy these things. So I decided to take some opium along so I could be quite elevated during the bouffe.”
“Now the opera had begun and I wished for nothing more than to run away and find a pretty damsel to drink Italian wine and share stories with—Alas, I couldn’t, so I decided to down the opium. All of a sudden, I heard a tune and I noticed, in my elevated state that, slowly but surely, everyone around me was falling into a kind of sleep paralysis. Then I saw the thief, walking the gangway and picking people’s belongings. Even as if he took my torque, it felt like a dream to me…”
Flanagan mulled this over but said nothing.
“Now,” the Prince rose, “there is another opera in Brussels. It is bound to be the biggest because all of the whole world will be there— though I doubt France will make an appearance, considering Napoleon’s great defeat...” And then he drawled on about how the fallen French Emperor was nothing but a weasel.
“Perhaps you lost the torque sire,” Flanagan said suddenly.
“Nonsense! It was stolen. I know it was!”
“Your highness,” persisted Flanagan, “the world hangs on a rickety beam. If I take a thief who does not share my nationality, I might as well plan my own death, and another war may occur.”
The prince gave Flanagan a long stare. “Gentleman’s papers,” he said, in a manner of finality. “If you catch the thief—and only if you do—you get to live a gentleman’s life. And if you recover my torque, you may have a favorable recompense.”
“If I fail in both?”
The prince smiled. “Then you may never return to England.”
Flanagan accepted the terms, for he never really had a choice. “Will I travel with you, sire?”
The prince was taken aback by the idea. “Goodness grace, no! You shall be conveyed by a merchant’s ship in two days. Be ready.”
Afterwards, the prince’s valet escorted Flanagan home and provided him with the papers he needed to travel.
“I will not lie to you,” said the valet. “The music thief is as slippery as Adam’s ale.”
Flanagan was bemused by the valet’s use of thieves’ cant and asked if he had ever been a thief, to which the valet affirmed. “These days, it’s easier being a prig than a black-box. However one must consider a new char or risk being noosed at the gallows by the nubbing-cove.”
“How do I catch the music thief?”
“The music is his cloak and the auditorium his backyard. For someone who’s never been seen, how then can he be caught?”
Such was the mastery of this thief and somehow Flanagan felt very motivated to catch him. Two days later, he boarded the ship to Brussels, and had the luxury of staying at a very pristine inn. Like the prince, he procured for himself opium and as an extra, acquired a large quantity of coffee seeds. Perhaps, he thought, if he combined the two, he could stay awake while being asleep—a sort of lucid dream. He had no time, however, to test the concoction and rode on luck for it to work at the Opera.
The Opera began as scheduled in the biggest theatre in Brussels, eight o’clock at night. A long procession took the better part of an hour before the Opera really took off. Nobles and kings sat at the upper floor while common folk, like Flanagan, sat below at the auditorium’s base.
From the orchestra pit, the concertmaster sang a symphony and the orchestra followed smoothly, in the melodic overture. The curtains rose, and from the proscenium, emerged an Italian woman, who sang the opening aria with a dreamy soprano. In her solo, she told a sad tale of women being raped by soldiers. Flanagan felt very hollow inside. He had never heard music so beautiful.
After the lady’s song, the orchestra, in the full force of strings and percussions, played an instrumental solo. Flanagan found himself touched within and at the point of tears. As the orchestra continued to play, Flanagan felt a rush of contrasting emotions and discovered that he was falling into a stupor.
“For goodness sake, Doyle,” he chided himself and struck himself in the face to hasten his awaking. This was indeed what the music thief wanted, him falling into a daze; he thought. He would not allow that. He took the opium-coffee concoction from his pocket, which he kept in a vial, and gulped the entire thing. Then he waited for the drug to kick in. When it eventually did, the Opera had transitioned into an allegoric theme with songs carried by bass voices. Now, there was laughter all around and Flanagan found himself also laughing, hysterically, at the satirical number.
Perhaps the thief wanted him to exert himself by laughing, he thought. In response, he shut his mouth and frowned hard at the performance. When the opera finally reached its climax; Flanagan knew the music thief was present. Every performer was on stage playing their part in the final aria. It seemed as though the orchestra and the singers were raising the theatre to the gates of heaven with this final performance; and Flanagan felt his heart flutter.
“I will not be fooled,” said Flanagan, feeling a bit lightheaded.
Soon, and surely, people around him fell into a swoon. “Aha!” cried Flanagan, “He’s here! I will catch him! I know I will!”
Now, Flanagan fell into a dilemma as to who played the tune inducing the grogginess. He searched the stage for an absentee, but there was none. The conductor stood where he was waving his baton; the singers were all present, and every instrumentalist were seated in the orchestra pit.
Where was the thief?
Suddenly, he spotted a hooded fellow walking down the gangway. The thief had finally revealed himself! But there was something queer about the thief’s movement; it felt musical. As the thief approached, he heard a gentle tune; like a flute playing in the distance. Very soon he began to loll, as the tune brought a sweet smell of lavender and bergamot infiltrated his olfactory nerves.
I must fight the sleep.
Flanagan gave his all to stay awake. And when the thief got close, he grabbed the crook by the arm and repeated the words. “The prince’s torque,” Alas, his strength left him, and a flurry of strange smelling aromas entered his nostrils as he fell into a deep sleep.
Moments later, Flanagan woke to discover that it was morning, and the Opera was long over. He was the only one seated in the auditorium, with a finely dressed chubby man staring down at him.
“You know,” said the prince, yanking something off Flanagan’s neck. “I remember now what tune the thief played. It was a whistle, clear as driblets of water slapping against a rock. It seems you failed to catch the thief, as expected. However, you managed to recover my torque—although, really, I took it off your neck. Regardless, you played a role in recovering this piece of jewelry that I may throw in the gutter someday. For your efforts, thief-taker, here is your recompense. I hope we never meet again.”
Flanagan took what the prince had given him. It was a return ticket to England. He watched, disappointingly, as the prince swaggered away with the torque in hand. All that hard work for a return ticket home; the Prince was truly a fraud. He shook his head vehemently as he made his way out of the auditorium.
On his way home, Flanagan thought long and hard on his failure. The music thief was the first thief to ever escape his grasp and this gave him a sense of insecurity. He entered his home later that day and sat down quietly to his unfinished book. The words he had written before, now made no sense to him.
He canceled everything he had written, tossed his book aside, and stared at the ceiling for a while.
“The music thief,” he mumbled.
The mumble soon turned into a spirited action, as Flanagan jumped to his feet. He looked about him for the day’s newspaper and smiled when he found what he was looking for. At the extreme end of the back page of the newspaper, a little column struck Flanagan’s attention. UPCOMING OPERA EVENTS was the headline. Flanagan stamped a finger indignantly at the location of the next opera…
He smiled at his luck. In two days’ time, the music thief was coming to his shores. In two days’ time, he would catch himself a thief, live a gentleman’s life and retire peacefully.