The Haunted Violin
When Stephen awoke, the old violin hung in the blue moonlight at his window, just where a tall man might have held it, the bow now shadow, now a flash as it played, softly: not as if afraid of discovery, but as though certain no one else was near enough to hear.
He might have closed his eyes on it, as a scrap of dream, if it hadn’t been for the song it was playing: a melody both new and inevitable, and one he knew he could never have made, even deep in his dreams.
That evening, instead of putting the violin to rest in its blue velvet coffin, he had left it on the little wooden table by the second-story window, for the first time.
Now, bare-chested in his dirty bed, he watched through the gloom as the melody rose and fell: a girl in the rain on a gray beach, an endless journey over the sea. As the last notes faded, the violin hung at the glass for a few silent beats, almost thoughtful. Then it sank through the shadows to his case, which still lay open on the floor, and settled among the worn folds of fabric.
A moment later, Stephen rose from his bed and crept across the chilled floorboards. He knelt by the case, dropped the lid into place, and latched it.
Stephen had bought the violin from Albert Crittenden earlier that winter. Albert was a querulous, supercilious second violin whose pale features and thick, formless body gave the impression that his sculptor had given up halfway through the job, exasperated by bad stone. His abrupt sale of the instrument had been a cause for mild gossip at the time of the purchase. Stephen knew better than to ask him about it directly.
Instead, the following afternoon, as the chairs shrieked back and the musicians began to scatter into the decaying auditorium after practice, he played the melody’s unforgettable opening notes.
Albert had been smiling, a dead smile held too long after it was born, probably at the small humiliation of some imagined enemy. But when the notes rose again from the old violin, his smile vanished: replaced, though only for a moment, by the naked stare of real grief.
Sophie turned back, her leather case bumping against the low forest of black stands that surrounded them. “What is that?” she demanded.
Stephen lowered the instrument, speechless, as he often was, when confronted by the heart that raged behind her blue eyes.
“Did you write it?” she asked.
He shook his head.
She turned from him with the grace and precision of a music-box dancer, and walked away—angry at him again, for lying
Sophie had left him because she believed he was a genius, which Stephen knew, with his everyman’s ruthless humility, was untrue. He was a solid player, but no star. He could improvise a drunken melody, but a real song was beyond him. But when he had begun to dream of leaving the poor pay and the drafty orchestra hall for the gold, or lemon plantations, or government grants of the west, she had been furious.
“The angels sing to you!” she’d cried. “And you don’t want to listen?"
Sophie’s father had been a soldier of the British Empire; when he’d died in India, among the things that were returned to her grieving mother was an inexplicable violin, wrapped in yards of spice-scented orange silk, which Sophie, at age eight, had chosen rather than her doll or picture book as the single possession allowed her on the boat to America. She had already spent two years teaching herself to scratch out children’s songs and hymns on the old instrument when a lucky move placed her in the same building as a dying violinist. Age had curled his hands into permanent claws, but Sophie’s eagerness unmanned him, and before his death, a few months later, he had taught her proper bow hold and fingering, as well as the scraps of several symphonies.
No orchestra would take her when her mother died the next year, but her inquiries led her to a job as a novelty act in a troupe of traveling lady musicians, with which she covered over a hundred thousand miles between the fledgling small towns of the middle west, singing at uncounted small-town pavilions and church functions before becoming the only female member of their present orchestra at age sixteen, through a combination of sweetness, beauty, threats, and trickery which their conductor still refused to illuminate.
Music was a different disease for each member of the orchestra. Some lived for the endless repetition of practice, which drove all thought from a troubled mind. Some relished the ache in their arms and the blood on their fingertips. Some spent thousands of hours for the single moment of perfection, which instantly collapsed back into a hundred separate parts, each slightly out of time or tune, again. Some counted the songs themselves their closest friends. But for Sophie, music was a complete religion. Her faith in Stephen’s genius might simply have sprung from an inability to imagine herself in love with someone who was not a true priest of it.
In any case, with the outrage of a true believer, she had struck his violin with the flat of her perfect hand as she swept towards the door, then gaped in horror when the ebony fingerboard sprang loose from the wooden neck and the taut strings fell limp.
Because Stephen was not a rare musician, his violin wasn’t a rare instrument. But the repair would have cost almost half of what he’d paid for it, and in the meantime he would have lost weeks of a salary he could barely live on as it stood. So when Albert had offered his finer instrument at almost a third of what it was worth, and generous terms, Stephen had sold his own for what he could still get, and taken Albert up on it.
The bartendress across the street had won the patronage of the orchestra musicians through her willingness to stow instruments behind the bar, on the floor against the far cupboards where the players could see them, a trait that more than made up for the almost pious silence in which she presided, the cheap wine, and the fake absinthe.
To the right of Albert’s hulking shadow, a seat was empty. Stephen slipped into it.
“Albert,” he said. “I never asked you where you found our violin.”
Albert glanced sideways at him with the shrewdness of a mistreated child, calculating fiercely, but without enough information.
“Some old shop,” he mumbled, with a failed attempt at carelessness. “I never remember.”
Stephen leaned in, pressing the violin’s case against Albert’s doughy leg. Albert quivered like a tuning fork, shaken at such high frequency that his edges seemed to blur.
“Albert,” Stephen said. “Where is it?”
The shop didn’t sell instruments, but second-hand things. Glass and crystal chandeliers, one dripping with blood-red beads, obscured the front windows. Inside, Stephen made his way through the tangle of merchandise: a pair of forlorn rocking horses nuzzling for comfort, a wreath of peacock and black ostrich feathers, a mahogany dining set trying to maintain its dignity while supporting an entire committee of faded silk-shaded lamps.
Behind the glass case filled with turquoise and amber jewelry sat a white-blonde little girl in a trim gray dress.
“Hello,” Stephen said, laying his case on the glass. The little girl glanced at it with what might have been a flicker of recognition, then composed herself again.
“Is your Papa about?” Stephen asked.
She shook her head. “He went to Boston,” she told him. “Shall I give him a message?”
“When do you expect him back?”
“After the weekend.”
“Thank you,” he said, lifting the case. “You’re very grown-up.”
Silent, she watched him with a child’s mild contempt for an adult caught catering.
As he threaded the irregular maze back to the entrance, she began to whistle to herself—a tune he’d never heard before, but familiar like an unknown piece by a beloved composer whose name he couldn’t recall. The shock of recognition turned his whole body cold. He made the door and stepped out into the rain-soaked street without daring to look back.
Lise had always been trying to improve his style: shining his defeated shoes, buying cheap but fancy cravats that only served to further humiliate the rest of his wardrobe. Ella wanted a bear and not a man: she was forever falling down, with the clear but unspoken expectation that he must then scoop her up and carry her around. It was a game he’d always enjoyed playing with the ladies: trying on this trait or that from each new girl’s cues, escaping into a new character, stealing kisses as some other man.
But Sophie’s faith in him was different, and unbearable. It wasn’t a new variation on the age-old game. It was something rare, and holy. He loved her unspeakably for believing him capable of such things. But he was completely unable to do them.
For a while the first flush of love was excuse enough. But then she began to worry.
“You haven’t been writing,” she murmured one morning, light streaming through her golden curls.
He caught one and pulled her face down.
“Stephen,” she said.
“I love you,” he told her neck.
She broke his hold, pushed away, and stepped out of bed. “It’s my fault,” she said. “I’m going to do better.”
He awoke with a start to the heavy downstroke which opened the movement of a thundering symphony, all peacocks, cannon, and rich fabrics. The haunted violin weaved and shuddered at the window, while Stephen reached slowly for the case which yawned beside his bed, and dropped the lid. At the sound, the instrument paused for a moment: perhaps for a solo played in some other world, perhaps from lost concentration. Then it played on.
Stephen sat in the moonlight for hours, holding his breath to stay awake, drifting into sleep and pulled back to the world by the strains of the lost symphony, a string of fragile dances, a handful of songs, a perfect waltz. As morning threatened, his ignorance of magic began to trouble him: could the spirit survive without moonlight? Would it be killed forever by the sun? As the stars winked out and the black began to bleed from the sky, leaving a royal blue shot through with thin silver clouds, Stephen opened the case again, and when that song was through, the violin laid itself to rest.
Before he could put the instrument away that afternoon, Sophie was standing over him.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I don’t care who wrote the song. But play it again?”
As the orchestra dissolved into the wings and the lobby, he played the violin’s first song. Midway through, she sank into the chair beside him, frowning slightly, her wide eyes vacant.
When he finished, she looked up again, begging.
He played her the waltz, the songs, the dances he could remember. By this time they were completely alone in the drafty auditorium.
“Anything else?” she murmured.
He shook his head. Then, gently, while his hands still held them, the violin raised itself to his chin, lifted the bow to the strings, and played a final song, tender, dissonant, and filled with longing.
Before the last note died, he had kicked open his case and put the thing away.
Sophie rose and laid a hand on his face. Trembling, he caught it in his own hand, cold with horror.
The old man didn’t recognize him, but he knew the violin. “Ah,” he said. “Yes.”
Behind him, the little girl was dwarfed by a carved straight back chair. Over her head, the mouth of a great lion opened in the mahogany.
“I’m curious about the history,” Stephen told the old man.
“It was my brother’s,” the little girl said.
“This has been with us a few times,” the old man said. “He sometimes played it.”
“He’s dead,” the girl added.
“There were no papers,” the old man said. “Only a few stories. But I’m was told its very old. Italian. Came to this country in the last century, by way of France and England.”
“And the stories?”
“I wouldn’t call them history,” the old man said.
Stephen’s gaze didn’t waver.
“Some people think they make a piece more valuable. But anyone can tell a story. The first seller told me it came from the estate of a great musician who died with it in his hands, and no one dared to play it since. When it came back to us, the buyer said one of his colleagues had recognized it as the instrument of a young player who had recently frozen to death.”
“They could both be true,” Stephen murmured.
“Almost,” the old man said.
Stephen stared down at his own reflection, warped by the thick varnish.
“I’d take it back again,” the old man said. “My girl is fond of it.”
Stephen glanced at her. She gazed back like the Sphinx.
He closed the case and lifted the violin from the counter, shaking his head. “No,” he said. “Thank you.”
Sophie lived at the top of a narrow flight of stairs that were dim by day and invisible by night. Her room was protected only by a simple hook lock which yielded easily enough to the tip of his knife. Inside she slept peacefully, her pale hair matted on the pillow like damp wheat exposed by the first thaw, all its color lost to winter.
With a musician’s steady hand, Stephen laid the case on the braided wool rug beside the bed, in the square of moonglow that fell through her single window, which was placed so high in the wall that nothing could be seen through it but sky and light. Silently, he unfastened the latches and lifted the lid. The outer curve of the violin glimmered in the darkness.
He rose and backed out of the room. On the landing, he teased the lock-hook back into place with the edge of his blade. Then he stumbled down the tricky stairs to the street, where he walked through the first light to the station, to buy a ticket for the early train.