Niccolớ Paganini was the most celebrated violin virtuoso of the 1800s, unparalleled even today. But his reputation is forever tarnished by persistent rumours that his extraordinary speed and skill on his instrument were thought to be a ‘gift from the devil’. It was said that his doppelganger was seen on numerous occasions ‘complete with horns and hoofs’, and his licentious and decadent lifestyle indeed bore testament to devilry – he even gambled away his beloved Amati violin during one of his spells of drunkenness, womanising and debauchery. A hundred years later, in the United States, Robert Leroy Johnston, a ham-fisted and hopeless guitar player, allegedly kept an appointment with the devil at a crossroads near Dockery Plantation, Mississippi, where he sold his soul to Beelzebub in exchange for getting an instant and remarkable talent for playing guitar and singing his glorious Delta Blues numbers. Johnson died mysteriously at the tender age of twenty-seven, and it was said that the devil claimed his soul. There’s even a modern-day country music song entitled The Devil rode down to Georgia, all about a man playing a fiddle faster and faster, in a desperate attempt to save his soul, that no doubt harks back to legends lost in the mists of time.
Selling your soul to Satan in exchange for getting an extraordinary musical talent is a horribly sinister concept, yet such a Faustian pact makes perfect sense. If music is a gift from God, then why shouldn’t the Devil bestow such gifts too?
On this, the hottest day ever recorded in Britain, let me tell you my own story.
It all started when my cousin sent me a large packing crate full of books that had once belonged to our shared ancestor, Jacob Anstruther, who had died many years ago. All Jacob left behind was his bankrupt cobblers’ shop in Scotland and as far as I know had only distant relatives to inherit his few possessions and many debts. It seemed that this forgotten box of his books had been cluttering up a loft in a house where another elderly relative had recently died. Since Bernard, my cousin, knows I’m an antique dealer, and keen on antiquarian books, he hoped I could make some use of our ancestor’s ancient tomes. Bernard is the only family member I have anything to do with and I do not know him well. Indeed, I have to admit that I have always been one of life’s outsiders, the kind of man who has never acquired the knack of making friends. As I’ve got older I’ve settled into my solitary lifestyle and adjusted to my lonely life. As a younger man I longed to have a girlfriend, dreamed of having a family of my own, but I knew that it was never to be . . .
The box contained nothing of value. However, there was one slim volume which immediately drew my attention. It was a large desk diary of 1890. When I opened it, I saw it was filled with spidery copperplate handwriting, the dates ignored, apparently he’d used it simply as a notebook. It gripped me from the start. Clearly it was an account written by my ancestor Jacob, and it was a pretty chilling read, as if he was here with me, talking from beyond the grave.
It began like this:
I was so so lucky that after my training as a violinist at the academy in London, I was offered an opportunity to join a German orchestra. The tragedy was of course that I couldn’t accept it, for the violin I owned, while perfectly acceptable for a student, was not of the quality required for performing with a prestigious orchestra and my poor family had no prospects of paying for such an instrument, nor did I have any savings of my own. Indeed it was something of a miracle that I’d been accepted at the academy, for though I was considered to have a rare talent for music, I was a somewhat lonely and unhappy young person, very much involved in my family’s religious life of the Plymouth Brethren, a deeply committed group of Christians who shunned wider society, and who considered most forms of entertainment as a sin.
But as luck would have it, after explaining my predicament to the conductor and leader of the orchestra, the kind and lovable Herr Kessler, who happened to be in London, he gave me an address in a part of London I was unfamiliar with, and told me to go there immediately. This turned out to be a tiny attic at the top of a rambling and ramshackle old house in the East End that appeared to be in the final stages of collapse. As I entered the porch, all around there was the smell of decay and filth. I longed to leave, but, since I’d made a promise to Herr Kessler I knocked on the door. It was opened by an unsmiling, squint-eyed crone, who was bent double by age and infirmity. She led me across the bare boards to the many flights of stairs which we climbed in gloom and silence, the stench assaulting me from all sides. Once we were apparently in the roof itself, she opened a narrow door and led me across a filthy room, towards her aged husband, who was hunched down in an armchair in a shadowed corner, his legs twisted and bent. His hands were shrunken and bony, with such repulsive long curling yellow fingernails that they resembled claws. He explained that he had been a concert violinist, but arthritis had attacked his hands and had ruined his career many a long year ago. Then he picked up a violin case from the floor opened the lid and handed it to me, with the blessing: “May it give you luck and long success, my boy. . .”
It was without doubt a magnificent and valuable instrument, in fact when I later examined it I read the label inside the left hand f hole, which read ‘Amati’. Could it really be a genuine Amati violin? If so it was worth a fortune! I protested to the old couple that I couldn’t accept such a precious item, but they insisted. They wanted no payment, but I assured them that if my career prospered I would not forget them, and would try to pay them back as much money as I could.
And so I was able to take up my opportunity with the Kessler Pashlow Philharmonic Orchestra and travelled with them to tour around Europe.
Our first concert was to be in the Austrian town of Ghebershallenstein, an ancient city, full of magnificent buildings, and also on the outskirts, many old ruins.
My excitement at the start of my career was tempered by the fact that not many of my fellow musicians spoke English, and I spoke hardly any German, or Italian, which seemed to be the two languages favoured by most of them, consequently I was even more lonely than usual.
On the first afternoon, I wandered on my own around the outskirts of the town, and came upon an old ruined church, and went inside.
I remember the strange smell of the place, decay and the sweetness of rotting wood, and there hung in the air a deep abiding aura of gloom and misery. And then a woman came in through the ruined front entrance.
A woman? To me, such was my wonder that she seemed like a goddess who had stepped down from heaven; As a sheltered and naïve young man, I had not been given to consorting with women, apart from my mother and my sister, and meeting this lady literally took my breath away. She spoke English. She spoke English so fluently and so beautifully, that I was even more captivated by her pure sweet voice than I was with her beauty.
Who was she? I wondered, Where on earth had she come from?
“You will play well tonight,” she whispered in my ear. I had already explained that I was a violinist, nervous about my first ever performance as a professional, and that I had even got a few seconds of a solo part to play in the middle of tonight’s Schubert symphony.
“You will play well,” she repeated. And then she kissed me. I was taken to unspoken heights of rapture as things progressed, and if you asked me what happened I would be loathe to be able to tell you. Suffice to say that I was not even aware of the sharp stones on the ground when we lay together naked, I was uncaring of the cobwebs that clung on to our bare skins as we rolled around in the most astonishing and exciting way as our bodies became as one and she helped me to do things I had never before even dreamed of.
“We will meet after the concert,” she told me as we dressed hurriedly afterwards. “Play to me and I will come to you.”
“But who are you?” I asked her desperately. “I don’t even know your name!”
“Play for me and I will come to you!”
When she had gone I felt lost, unaware of what was happening to me. Had I imagined her? Was I going mad? Would I see her again? Did I really kiss her and do all those other things that I’ve never in my life done before? Things that I blush to think of, that my family’s religious convictions only would have considered appropriate within marriage? I can still remember the odd feeling, also the smell of something hot and burning, like sulphur or brimstone that I associated with her. Who was she? I didn’t even know her name. And yet I knew her, I had seen her in a million now-forgotten dreams, I had known her in a thousand long-gone lifetimes. The glimpses I had had of her had been fleeting but powerful, and now, mixed with a thrilling excitement there was some other feeling stirring in my soul. Dread? A feeling of stepping into an empty void? Of falling thousands of feet down a ravine to my death?
Time had slipped away faster than I had realised, so in the end I had to pull myself together and run back to our lodgings in order to get dressed in the customary dinner jacket, and collect my precious Amati violin and join the others at the Grand Palace Concert Hall in the centre of town.
I was nervous, keyed-up and scared, Yet once the concert began I began to calm down, aware of the other kindly violinists sitting around me, who knew my plight and were keen to set my nerves at rest.
And when the conductor pointed his baton my way, just as in rehearsals I launched into my oh-so-brief solo performance.
But then a very strange thing happened.
Instead of stopping at the appointed time, I was so absorbed in my playing that I couldn’t stop. I was on fire, playing faster and more fantastically than I ever believed I could possibly have played in my life, fast and wild and a totally unknown tune, something like a gypsy reel and my fingers flew like fire, my heart was beating wildly, I was giving the performance of a lifetime, it was as if I was someone else entirely. The rest of the orchestra, indeed the entire concert, was forgotten by me. I was alone, alone entertaining the crowd, who were watching me, spellbound.
Or so I thought.
Finally I was aware of my fellow performers on either side of me, pulling at my sleeves and hissing and whispering, as in the horrified silence I realised that everyone in the hall was staring at me in fury because I had completely ruined the concert for everyone.
My humiliation was complete.
I remember very little else about that night, only the hot sweating fever that struck me afterwards, the raging sore throat and the trembling and choking as my limbs couldn’t stop shaking.
They tell me that afterwards some lady was asking for me, but I could not speak to her. I was raving and delirious, and they took me to the town’s famous General Hospital, where my mysterious fever raged for a week. Mr Kessler had kindly organised and paid for all my medical treatment, but naturally my job with the orchestra was over. Diagnosed with extreme nervous disorder, unable to talk without a stutter, hardly able to repress my trembling limbs, they arranged passage home to Britain, and my parents, through our church, were able to arrange for me to go to Crieff Montgomery’s Lunatic Asylum, near Inverness in Scotland, run by brethren of our church’s branch up there. I also had a wasting disease, I could not eat. But after many months something in the raw Scottish air revived me, and one morning the terrible dreams I had been plagued by stopped, and I found restful sleep. I still had my violin, but some odd thing had happened, meaning that I had lost all my ability to play the instrument, I found I couldn’t remember any of my training or my years of practice, it had completely vanished and I had no idea at all how to play, nor could I abide to listen to any kind of classical music.
Luckily I grew stronger every day, until such time as I was able to leave the asylum. On one of my outings I had seen a small cobblers shop, and in the window they were advertising for an apprentice. So I went into the shop, and Mr McDougal, Jock as I later came to know him, agreed to give me a start.
And from that day to this I have enjoyed practising my trade as a shoe repairer, and the work suited me well, as did the monastic lifestyle of a lonely craftsman who never mixes socially and who nobody troubles to get to know beyond the confines of business.
I kept my violin, of course I did. It was the key to my former life, a reminder of what might have been. But I kept it locked away in its case, only occasionally taking it out to stare at and marvel at what my life might have been.
And so that is my story, my grim tale of a brush with things of which I have no understanding, the briefest foray into the world of sexual pleasure that came and went all too soon in a flash. Just like my ability to play the violin, any talent I might have once had for chatting or making friends with members of the opposite sex had been utterly extinguished,
My life has been happy and contented, if perhaps a little dull. Sometimes, in my deepest darkest dreams, I think of the woman I once loved, but the feeling is terrifying and dreadful, the associated feelings are of monstrous terror and revulsion, most of all of a terrible unearthly fear of something I know not what. Anyone who might read this private account is welcome to make of it what you will, for I have no answers. . .
There the writing ended.
I sat there for a long time, alone and stunned, wondering at my poor ancestor and his weird and wonderful experience that had ruined his life.
I picked out the remaining books in the box, and there, right at the bottom, was a bundle wrapped up in old newspapers. I pulled it out and noticed the writing at the top of the page The Times, 21 June 1901. After unwrapping the newspapers, underneath it was cotton wool and when I removed that, there was an old violin case, which I opened. In the depths of my memory I remembered having a violin as a child, even having a few lessons, and the memories came back as I tautened the strings of the bow, wedged the chin rest into place and drew the bow across the strings, my fingers finding their places by instinct. And somehow, weirdly, I was able to play. I was able to play an astonishing tune, a melody I had never even heard before, a beautiful pure angelic sound that I could not possibly believe had any connection to my own hands and fingers. For those moments I was lost in the glorious melody and somehow, in some way, I played on and on and on. I couldn’t stop!
But then I finally ended my performance when I heard a ringing on the doorbell of the shop downstairs.
Strange, the closed sign had been there for an hour or more. Yet now someone was now hammering on the door, a loud and insistent crashing that I couldn’t ignore.
Mystified as to who it might be, I ran down the stairs and, stared at the door. My heart hammered in fear as I knew that what was on the other side was something or someone I had been dreading meeting, perhaps for all of my life. But something made me draw back the bolt and open it.
The woman standing there, came straight into my shop, slamming the door behind her.
And then, without saying a word, she kissed me on the lips.
“Play for me and I will come,” she whispered. “Do you remember my promise?”
I remembered Jacob’s recollected words, alive in the deepest depths of my own consciousness.
I stared into the woman’s eyes, but saw only a cruel, limitless blackness in their depths, a searing pit of nightmares and horror. And I tried to pull away, knowing that I was falling, falling and I could not stop.
But then she kissed me again.
And from that moment on, I knew that I was lost.