Brandy for the Damned
Caroline first noticed the man with no gap between his eyebrows when she was doing the Brahms in Berlin. He was glowering at her from the second row of the stalls when she looked forward in that abstracted moment of drawing all the energy she could from the audience, and the suddenly silent orchestra, before plunging her bow into the cadenza.
She looked out at him again, as she stood, with one hand brushing her fringe from her eyes, smilingly acknowledging the standing ovation at the concerto's end. He was quite cute, she supposed, if you like them young and sardonic.
He caught her eye, half smiled and shrugged. Not bad, it seemed to her that he was saying in a superciliously conciliatory tone, but I have heard better.
This was particularly annoying, because, honestly, she doubted that he had. Except, perhaps, for Franz's rather ragged management of the woodwind during the adagio. But then, she thought, he is probably a critic, and you know how satanically arrogant and perverse they can be ! He was there again in Detroit, when she did the second Prokofiev. Again he caught her eye at the end, and again he shrugged. You could be better, she heard distinctly in her head, in an accent that seemed familiar, but which she knew she had never heard.
She hoped she would see him at the reception afterwards and be able to ask Franz who he might be, but he wasn't there, and Franz insisted on her going for sushi with some Sony executives, who wanted her to do even more contractual obligation recordings of the over-recorded or justifiably never played.
'The world does not need my Glazounov,' she said to Franz and the limo. 'The world does not need anyone's Korngold except the Heifetz. The world should take the Paganinis and burn them in a bin.'
'I would have thought, katzchen,' Franz said, ' that you would have liked the Paganinis at least. The others, I confess, I suggested because they have some entertaining work for me in them, but those are just the violin, with the orchestra twanging away in accompaniment like an oversize guitar. Something pure about that, I would have thought.'
'"Pure?!', Caroline said, ' Oh, come on, Franz.'
'Had things, or more precisely talent, been otherwise, they are the sort of thing I would have liked to perform myself,' Franz said. ' But, I admit, I should have asked you first.'
He feigned abashment, and stuck out a liver-spotted hand for her to smack, knowing that she would instead respectfully kiss it. '
All the same,' she said, 'they are just the sort of abstract fiddling I hate. Just technique and precious little music; whir and scrape and tweedle. No real music. I'm surprised that the Sony people are interested - they usually have better taste.'
'Ah well,' Franz said. 'That's the interesting bit - there are other investors than the Japanese, you know. And one of the European backers apparently specifically asked...'
It was nice to have the world's most respected septuagenarian conductor acting as your unpaid, unofficial management, but sometimes you could hardly call your soul your own. Then again, even now, at twenty-nine, there had been men who asked for a lot more and did a lot less.
Franz flew off to Hamburg, where he was doing a Dutchman. Caroline hung around for a day and then flew back to London. She decided to study the Beethoven Op.132 on the way; she rarely got the chance to do any quartet playing these days, but there is no point in not being prepared. And at least it was proper music, not just fiddling.
The young man with no gap between his eyebrows arrived in the next seat just after the champagne and smoked salmon.
'String quartets?' he said. 'Why bother with all that whirring and scraping when there is real music to play, music with some real dexterity to it, some real art.'
'Paganini used to play the Beethoven quartets,' she said. 'I read a biography. In Detroit, after I learned that someone is trying to make me record the complete concertos. When he got bored with all the virtuoso nonsense, he would sit down with friends and play this.'
She tapped the score.
'Real music,' she said.
'A bad habit,' the man with one eyebrow said,' and one of which I broke him.'
On an impulse, she turned to the third movement, and looked at its inscription: "A convalescent's holy song of thanksgiving to God, in Lydian mode." She noted her companion's look of mild alarm, and ran her finger slowly across the words.
She started awake, and was alone. Yet there was a bite out of her sandwich less delicate than she usually took, and the seat beside her was uncomfortably warm to the touch.
It all started to bother her when the man turned up again, in the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing. She was playing all three Bach partitas to a hushed and, she feared, rather baffled group of geriatric politicians and industrial managers, and there he was, sharing a table with the Tanzanian ambassador, the commander of the People's Army Second Tank Brigade and the head of the Shanghai People's Bank.
It was noticeable that he seemed even less comfortable with the music than they did.
'Do business with me, kid, the voice said in her head, 'and you'll never have to bore a commissar again.'
Caroline was starting to get annoyed with this, so she tossed her head back, pulled away the ribbon that was holding her hair in a bun, and retaliated by giving them the Bartok solo sonata as an encore, full of sparks and rather too much rubato.
'That's my girl, the voice said in her head, that's what I like to hear.
Franz was there, and he took her to task in the dressing room.
'The Bach were really rather nice,' he said. 'Disciplined, almost austere, much too good for that bunch of butchers. But whatever got into you, doing the Bartok of all things as an encore? You played like a barbarian - a very talented barbarian of course.'
'There is a man,' Caroline said.
'There usually is,' Franz said, 'Lucky you - but not when you are playing, Missie.'
'Not like that,' Caroline said, repairing her lipstick for the reception - waste of time with Chinese food, she thought. 'He seems to be following me. He was in Berlin, and then in Detroit. And on the plane. And now here.'
'It could be someone racking up frequent flier points, liebchen,' Franz said. 'But most likely it is our old friend mistaken identity. I used to think there was a secret policeman who trailed me everywhere, disguised as a second trombone, but then I realised that all second trombones look more or less the same, and usually play at the same level of mediocrity.'
'Honestly,' Caroline said, 'I know it is the same man.'
'Luckily,' Franz said, 'you have no bookings for three weeks and your birthday is coming up. Unless you are living in a police state - trust me on this, I know - paranoia is a sign of tiredness, not of good sense.'
One of Franz's old boyfriends owned a palazzo in Venice - for someone whom the exigencies of life in the late German Democratic Republic had supposedly forced into the closet, Franz had managed a fair number of jet-set indiscretions - and he swept Caroline off there, ignoring her not wholly sincere protests that she wanted to spend longer in China.
She really did need a rest, she supposed, and, besides, she could use the time to practice her way into the Berg concerto.
Franz and his friend Baldassaro were most insistent, though, that she spend afternoons religiously in tourist mode; Franz even provided the Raybans and the espadrilles. '
'You know how to play the violin,' Franz said. ' But there is an overgrown Hampstead bourgeois schoolgirl in you, who has never learned how to play.'
'That is why I want to practice,' Caroline said.
'You are not listening,' Franz said. 'I am talking about playing. Not thinking, not thinking about playing, just playing.'
On her birthday, they took tea in St. Mark's Square, or rather she took tea, and the other two devoured rather too many cocktails, multicoloured ones, with more than one paper umbrella each.
One of the cafe bandmasters recognised her, or, more probably, had been primed to do so by Baldassaro, and, after leading the band in an improbably segue from 'Funiculi, Funicula' into 'Happy Birthday', sent a minion to the table to ask her over to his bandstand.
She took the surprisingly decent little fiddle they offered her, and conferred quickly with the piano player, a cute young man with a moustache and with brilliantine on the collar of his scarlet and gold uniform jacket. Short and sweet, she thought, and gave the punters the tenth Slavonic Dance in E minor, and Elgar's Salut D'Amor.
The sun was bright even in the shade of the square, and the audience was uncritically happy in a way that a concert audience almost never is, but really, she thought, this really is not at all bad.
As she ended, and handed the violin back to the bandsman, there echoed across the square a sudden screech of bow across strings, a C Minor chord, that sent the pigeons tumbling and cracked the glass of the cafe windows into crazing, without the smallest shard falling from its place.
'Happy birthday, my dear, said the voice in her head, and as she stepped down from the stand, she saw a cloaked figure with an out of season carnival mask disappear limping past the end of the colonnade. The mask had no eyebrows at all, just a nose, but she knew perfectly well who it was.
When she sat down, back at their table, Franz said that perhaps she was finally taking what he had said about playing to heart.
'Life is too short,' he said, ' for it not to be fun.'
This was one of those areas, Caroline thought, where her mentor and she would always be at odds. Music was pity and terror and skill and exhilaration and calculation. It was not fun
Sometimes, though, it is better to hold one's tongue.
When, after Baldassaro payed a bill that Caroline shuddered to contemplate by scrawling a signature across it, they got up to go.
They had not gone a few yards when the headwaiter bustled up to them, with a violin case in his hands. The signorina, he said, had obviously forgotten that she had left her so valuable instrument on the floor, under her chair.
'But it is not my violin, I assure you,' she said. 'That is back at the Count's palazzo.'
The headwaiter insisted, silently thrusting the case at her. Look, he pointed out with a voluble finger, 'Caroline Spenser ' inlaid on the case in letters of gold worryingly too buttery in tone to be mere gilt.
She opened the case and found within a violin, whose wood was darkened with what appeared to be smoke, but showed no sign of the warping of heat. It was strung with gut, in the fashion of an earlier age, and goblin faces peered, delicately carved, from the scrollwork and the frets.
She pulled it from its case and took the bow, striking an attitude and an experimental C Major chord. The pigeons tumbled again and, she noticed incredulously, the cracks in the glass of the cafe windows disappeared as if, as she held the chord, a sponge were steadily wiping its way across them.
The bow, she noticed, was unusually heavy. It had more hair, pulled tauter, than is common, and there seemed to be a steel wire of some sort braided among it.
'A nice tone, ' Franz clucked, 'obviously a present from an admirer.'
'Darling Franz,'- she reached up and pecked him on the cheek - ,'where on earth did you find it.'
'Not me, I assure you,' he said.' As I said, obviously an admirer.'
Baldassaro stared at the violin with wide eyes and a shudder.
'Nowhere on earth,' he said. 'Corpo di Christo, nowhere on earth. It is the Black Stradivarius of Niccolo Paganini.'
He moved as if to cross himself, then fingered his Lenin lapel badge for luck instead.
'I know about the viola that's being played in some string quartet,' Franz said,' and his favourite Guarnerius is in Genoa of course. And the guitar went up in smoke during the Fall of Berlin.'
'The Black Stradivarius?' Caroline said. 'Come on, Baldassaro, you started this hare. Now spill the beans.'
Baldassaro's face recovered its colour and he pulled his face into a rather tight-nostrilled lecturing mode that Caroline rather liked - it reminded her, against the odds, that he was essentially a serious person.
'It is the one in the Ingres' drawing,' he said,' except that Ingres had heard all the rumours and did not draw the decorations too precisely, just to be on the safe side. And, of course, that was before the Nice incident, so that it lacked that particular infernal finish.'
Franz and Caroline looked at each other; Baldassaro was going to draw this out for maximum effect, but she was damned if she was going to encourage him by asking questions.
After a moment's significant pause, he continued.
'It was of course widely rumoured that Paganini had sold his soul to the devil to play so remarkably well; what is less well known is that the rumours were entirely true. And though he played equally well on violin, viola and guitar, there was one violin in particular that was the talisman of his damnable transaction - the first valuable violin he ever owned - the violin that you are holding.'
'So the great virtuoso,' Franz said,' was carried off to Hell like Don Giovanni and Herr Doktor Faust? I would expected to have come across this information in a programme note before now.'
'Don't be silly,' Caroline said. 'The early Nineteenth century was a heyday of sharp business practice - industrial capitalism and all that - so we can assume Paganini died in the odour of sanctity.' '
Ah yes,' Baldassaro said. 'When he felt his time upon him, he confided in Liszt, who had some such small problem of his own, hence the Holy Orders he took in later life, you understand. And he took it to a shrine of the Virgin in Nice, and hung it up as an ex voto offering. Dressed in the cassock of a poor friar, he confessed and was anointed and in due course died. The histories tell it differently, of course. Holy Mother Church does not like to encourage this sort of thing.'
'And the chapel?' Caroline prompted.
'In due course,' Baldassaro said,' and luckily when completely empty, it burned down. Totally to ashes, except for the violin, which acquired its distinctive look at the time. They try to keep it locked up in the Vatican, but it always seems to find its way into the hands of aspiring young soloists.'
'Humph,' Caroline reacted to the 'aspiring' tag, but Baldassaro carried on regardless and enthusiastically.
'I could take it round to the Patriarch's palace straight away, if you like.'
'Nonsense,' Franz said. 'Don't be credulous, dear. It is Caroline's birthday, and she deserves a present.'
'She is not bringing it under my roof,' Baldassaro said. 'I am a hereditary Grand Knight Counsellor of the Knights of the Hospital of St. John in Jerusalem, and I have some standards.'
Caroline stood there, slightly amazed, as the two white- haired old men proceeded to get very red in the face and shout at each other in a variety of languages. They moved off the subject of her and the violin with remarkable rapidity, and remarks about credulity and godless atheism became general. There was nothing useful she could say or do, and it is undignified to be the subject of public quarrels. She put the violin and bow in their case and strolled away.
Back at Baldassaro's palazzo, she had only to stick her spare pair of jeans and two sweaters in a travelling bag - the servants could repack her evening clothes, collect her music and her good violin; before an hour was up, she had moved into a suite at the Gritti.
She checked with the management, and they indicated that it was a positive pleasure to have her practice in the hotel - the other guests would be charmed, they were sure.
She spent the earlier part of the evening practising the Samuel Barber, which Franz had persuaded her to contract to record in the autumn; it was so hard to get the right note of nostalgic delicacy into the slow movement, and avoid sentimental schwarmerei. Then, slightly guiltily, she opened the case with the gold lettering, and took out the Stradivarius.
As she did so, the phone rang. She lifted it, with enough of a sense of foreboding that she hummed the 'Dies Irae' under her breath.
It was the voice she had heard in her brain.
'Miss Spenser,' the man with no gap between his eyebrows said, 'I think it is time we talked business. I remarked to your predecessor that it was always a good idea to talk business at an early stage; that was in Lucca, of course, in 1809, though it was some ten years before we clinched the deal. In modern times, of course, the pace of things is rather faster.'
'What were you trying to sell him?' she said testily. 'I was not aware that they had double-glazing or time shares in the early Romantic period.'
Then she hung up.
She was so annoyed that she put the Strad and its unusual bow back in their case, unplayed.
She dined in her room, on tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, the hotel's own bread and a fairly unassuming Frascati.
There came a knock at the door, and she waited a second before opening it, time enough for Franz to whistle the twelve note theme from the Brahms Piano Quintet, their private identifying code.
He handed her two apologetically large orchids and a vellum envelope scrawled in Baldassaro's hand.
It would, it appeared, be all right for her to return as long as she kept the Stradivarius in the palazzo's well-appointed chapel; it had a peculiarly large font, now entirely full of holy water, and its draperies were cunningly carved from marble, and thus fireproof.
'What a load of nonsense,' she said, handing Franz the letter back to read.
'I know,' Franz said. 'The poor lamb has always been superstitious, and gets worse the older he gets.'
'I had a phone call,' Caroline said. 'My mysterious admirer turns out to be trying to sell me something.'
'I thought you were supposed to try and sell them something,' Franz said.
'No,' Caroline said. 'I don't think so.'
Franz walked over and took the case in his hands. He opened it and took out the bow, picking at it with distaste.
'There are stories about this bow, apparently,' he said.
'Don't tell me,' Caroline said, 'it's not horsehair.'
'No,' Franz said. 'It is the hair of a woman executed for adultery and blasphemy and the wire is the garotte. From the tone Baldassaro adopted, I am surprised there is nothing especially sinister about the leather of the case.'
'Less is more,' Caroline said, 'even in the affairs of Hell. I am surprised that someone capable of your level of imaginative vulgarity, Franz, is capable of such delicacy as a conductor.'
Franz looked at her from under his shaggy white eyebrows.
'Have you played it yet?' he asked.
'No,' Caroline said.
'Surely just trying it out doesn't commit you to anything?' he said, inquisitively. 'There must be some sort of trial offer involved.'
'I wouldn't count on it,' Caroline said. 'Not with a tempter this pushy for a deal. I mean, buying a significant enough chunk of Sony shares is not a cost effective way of damning souls in any day or age. I'd be worried about that chord I struck in the square if it weren't C Major. I think C Major is probably more or less safe.'
Franz looked at her with envy naked in his eyes.
'I play the piano,' he said. 'And for relaxation the flute. But I am not good enough, you know. I have music in me, but at the end of the day, I am the bureaucrat, the one who makes trades between the score and the orchestra, and can hardly hear the beauty some time for the haggling and the thinking. But, perhaps, just this once.'
He seized the violin and the bow.
Caroline, no believer save in the proprieties, crossed herself as he started to play that bloody Paganini caprice -how vulgar of him - tum titittleytum titittleytum titittleytum titittleytum tum. It was terrible, unless you liked that sort of thing - there is an audience for the Kennedy boy after all, she thought.
'Oh for God's sake,' she shouted.
But he was not listening; his normally kempt hair had fallen in elf-locks across his forehead and his tongue was hanging out like a dog on a hot day. He played it all the way to the end, and then sunk back exhausted into his chair.
As he relaxed, the metal wire snapped out of one end of the bow, and struck at his wrist like a viper. As blood gushed from his wrist, the wire snapped itself back into its slot.
Caroline pulled the ribbon from her hair, thinking to use it as a tourniquet.
Then, with a rather gratuitous clap of thunder, the wardrobe door opened, gushing sulphurous fumes and flames, and the man with one eyebrow stepped out. There was a look of mild disappointment on his face when he saw that it was Franz rather than Caroline that lay with the violin in his hand.
'This is quite impossible,' he said. 'I can't take his soul. He's a conductor. They have their own tempter.'
'I have never seen him,' gasped the dying Franz, already white from blood loss.'
'Yes, you have,' the demon said. 'He generally goes around trying to tempt conductors to the sin of rage and to provoke them into fatal apoplexy by bad playing. He usually performs as a second trombone.'
Caroline dropped the ribbon, and darted across the room, seizing the violin and the bow. She stared into those dark red eyes and smiled defiantly.
The violin and bow tried to buck in her hands, but she had strong fingers and the instrument soon knew its mistress and lay still. In her head, she summoned the notes of the score, the chorale like unisons with which the movement starts; she had always known this music - her parents argued constantly about the respective merits of the Busch and the Italian, and it was a mixture of the two quartets she heard playing along with her. "A convalescent's holy song of thanksgiving to God, in Lydian mode."
She had done a charity performance of 'The Soldier's Tale' and knew how magic violins work, and their cost, and she was not disappointed. The blood that had begun to pool on the floor near Franz began to flow upstream as she played the long slow phrases and, as they alternated with trills in the middle section, the wound closed, the colour came back to his cheeks. She played the movement to the end - bad luck to break the charm and this would be, she assumed, the last music she ever played.
Franz was deeply asleep - he had always thought Beethoven a bore except for the symphonies - and she walked across and kissed him on the cheek.
She held out the violin and bow in submission, and curtsied to the demon.
'I am, of course, now entirely at your disposal,' she said.
'I don't think you understand,' the demon said. 'That is not good enough. You cannot damn yourself by an unselfish act.'
'Oh,' Caroline said. 'I never thought of that.'
'Well, precisely,' said the demon.
The smell of sulphur in the room had been replaced by Franz's snores and a general air of embarrassment and impasse.
Caroline put the violin bow back in their case, and placed it firmly in the demon's hands. Then she walked to the drinks cabinet and poured herself a large gin and tonic. She looked enquiringly across the room.
'Brandy,' said the demon with no gap between his eyebrows.
'You look as if you need a drink, actually,' she said, noticing his uncommon degree of pallor.
'You don't understand,' he said, 'they'll punish me for this. I don't know why it has never worked. I came as close as well, as dammit , with Paganini. And it has never worked since. And I have quotas to make. Magic violins are expensive. There will be Hell to pay.'
'Not a very serious tempter, are we?' Caroline said.
'It's what I do,' said the demon. 'It's what I know.'
'But it is not what you love,' Caroline said, ' is it?'
'I don't know what you mean,' the demon said, shifting embarrassedly from hoof to hoof.
'Why do you hang around violinists ?' Caroline said. 'We are not, in general, a very prepossessing bunch of people, and thus far we have not given you our souls, and yet you still persist.'
'So ?' the demon said. 'I don't know what you are driving at.'
'Quite obviously,' Caroline said, 'you love the music. I bet that you could play really well if you set your mind to it.'
The demon looked even more embarrassed.
'Do you think so?' he said.
'Why don't you find out,' Caroline said, 'after all, it's your violin.'
He blushed all the way to purple, took the violin and began to play, his eyes closed and his expression sickeningly soulful.
It was the Mendelsohn, never Caroline's favourite concerto, and it was thoroughly dreadful. Not incompetent or anything - far from it - just ineffably vulgar.
She was so embarrassed at his lack of musical good taste that she almost failed to notice the disappearance of his horns, and of his hoofs, and the sudden arrival of a gap between his eyebrows.
He played the solo part right through, with a particularly irritating amount of rubato in the cadenza. Franz woke up half way through and politely applauded at the end.
The demon looked down at his feet.
'That's not supposed to happen,' he said.
'It happens all the time,' said Franz,' in Wagner. The demonic male tamed and redeemed by the love of a good woman.'
'Oh perlease,' Caroline said. 'Not my type at all. It is simply a case of the transformative power of great art, or something like that.'
'I did not,' Franz said, ' specify what the love might be for. Heaven forfend that the great and good Caroline Spenser should feel an ordinary human emotion for an ordinary human being.'
'But he's not...' she said, and realised with embarrassment that she was, for once, wrong.
But about that, only. Even as a human, she decided, no one who played like that could possibly be her type. Mendelsohn would never forgive her, let alone Johann Sebastian Bach.
The Sony executives turned up in town that evening, with another draft of the new contract, and Caroline seized the opportunity to cry off the Barber, and the Paganinis, suggesting that they use it to debut this new young virtuoso, recently escaped from an oppressive regime. And of course it worked the moment he played the Mendelsohn to them - they had even less taste than she had supposed.
On the other hand, they let her do the Schoenberg as well as the Berg; she won several major prizes for the record, and sold remarkably few copies.
Over the next few months, she noticed from the music press that there seemed to be an awful lot of virtuosos turning up suddenly with refugee status, making debut recordings of infinite vulgarity, and, alas, appeal. Even Franz got in on the act, neglecting her slightly for his newest protégé , a burly youth whose conducting was frenetic in the extreme and whose recordings always featured an over-miked brass section.
'Why does he do it?' she asked Franz one night as they listened to the young conductor's 'Symphonie Fantastique'. 'Look, that note from the opheicleide practically jogged my glass off the table.'
'It is loyalty to his origins,' Franz said, with a poker face. ' After all, he used to be a second trombone.'
Caroline and the man with two eyebrows meet sometimes, on the juries of international violin competitions; they never speak of personal matters and they always disagree on the choice of finalists.