by David Wright
Draco Donatello entered the director’s office visibly distempered—shirttail loose, bow tie missing, wine stains on his high-necked, starched-white collar. The director felt his afternoon yogurt turn immediately sour in the pit of his formidable stomach.
“Herr Donatello, what on earth has happened to you?”
“You will not believe it. I dare not say.” Draco plopped himself into one of the director’s aging velvet chairs and began, with great dramatic effect, to dab the sweat from his forehead.
“But the concert! You have only a few hours to prepare. Are you ready?”
Draco waived away the question with a flurry of his pink pouf. “There will be no concert tonight nor ever. Can you not see my state of mind? I am harrowed, vexed, perplexed and aghast all at once. No, no. A concert now is out of the question, especially not after what I have just seen.” Draco’s eyes grew to the size of ripe grapes.
The director waited patiently, but Draco said no more, returning to the foppish task of dabbing his perspiration with his pink pouf. The director thought of the money he had already invested in this temperamental artist and the sour feeling in his stomach blossomed into a full-blown bellyache. He was merely Munich’s Senior Concert Master and could not afford to lose his temper. Herr Donatello, on the other hand, was a delicate genius and an Italian. He could do what he liked.
“What have you seen, Herr Maestro?” the director asked carefully, his voice as gentle as the e-string on Draco’s Stradivarius.
“Magic! Wonders beyond your wildest dreams.”
And thus began his story.
I arrived at the house of my friend Paganini just before noon. My carriage had bogged in the mud making me almost a full hour late. And yet apart from the grim-faced servants flanking the doors, the parlor of Paganini's luxurious Munich townhouse was completely empty. I beat the rain from my beaver-felt, top hat and advanced on the lonely figure in front of the hearth. There the noble Paganini sat quietly brooding on his lush, rosewood sofa, smoking an opium pipe and sipping mulled brandy. My heart went out to him.
“Blessings be on you, my dear friend,” I said by way of greeting. Paganini looked up from his pipe, slightly bemused. Despite the many years which had passed since our last meeting, he looked not a day older.
“I'm surprised to hear you wax so holy in the presence of the world's most famous devil.”
“Balderdash. You are a sinner, yes, but no more the devil than I. In fact, you are much better than most. Perhaps your only true sin, apart from the occasional smoke of that wretched substance, is being blessed by God with the fingers of angels.”
Paganini grimaced as if in pain, put a brandy in my hand, and motioned for me to sit in one of the opulent armchairs (upholstered in authentic Indian silk) that were before him.
Ever since Paganini had first graced the European concert stage, he had been a sensation. His command of the violin, viola and cello were unparalleled. He was a genius among geniuses, and hated for it. It wasn’t long before the rumors began—secret nocturnal meetings, pagan rituals, occult practices. In the parlors of the rich and indolent, foolish women and spiteful men were saying that the great Paganini had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his incomparable musical talent. It was balderdash, of course. Could they not see that this man, this great man, was simply blessed by God?
“You were always a good friend, Draco,” Paganini said sadly. “And, as it appears, my only friend. But now, I'm afraid, I have to ask you in the name of friendship to break your honor as a gentleman. For I have a secret truth that cannot be spoken to anyone, but must be covered up with more lies.”
“What secret, my friend?” Draco felt his heart sink with doubt. Could there be any truth to the spiteful lies?
Paganini paused a moment in silent contemplation, sniffing his brandy, and then all at once made up his mind. “The great Paganini that you see here before you is a robot.”
I shrugged. I had not heard the word ‘robot’ before and supposed it to be some foreign term that he had picked up on one of his many travels abroad.
Paganini smiled again. “An automaton, a machine—like some elaborate wind up toy or that ridiculous old grandfather clock that paces over there in the corner.”
“You are speaking metaphorically, of course.”
“No, sir. I am speaking quite literally.” Paganini put his brandy down on the rosewood table before him and began to unbutton his tunic.
“Really, Niccolo. I don't think that's quite necess-- Good heavens!”
I cannot relate to you in words the sight that was before me—half-man, half-machine. My brandy dropped to the floor, the crystal shattering into a million pieces and the wine spilling into an irregular stain on the Persian rug's finely knitted mosaic of the woman at the well. Paganini shook his head and buttoned up his tunic. When I had sufficiently recovered and my glass of brandy had been replaced, Paganini began a tale of the most baffling and remarkable nature.
Paganini came, as it turned out, from a far away place and a far away time where men and women live like angels or gods with power over life and death and all creation—a place where there is nothing left to discover, and nothing left to do but to watch the ticking clock and wait for oblivion. While some of Paganini's kind were content to live out this destiny of devils, Paganini was not. Stripping himself of almost all his powers, he became pure thought, and traveled backwards through time. Because of the indomitable rules of the universe, the speed of light and the fabric of space, only pure thought can travel through time, or so he explained.
After sampling the minds and madness of the ages, Paganini possessed the mind of a poor Italian farmer, his own Geppetto so to speak, on the man's sixtieth birthday. He possessed his aging fingers and brain with knowledge and skills far beyond the sages of his time, to build a boy, the boy that God had never given him, out of ceramic, iron and glass. He labored without eating or sleeping for three days, and when he had finished, Paganini (although that was not yet his name) was born anew into a perfect body that would never age and would always be subject to his will. The robot boy stayed with his new father for five years, faithfully playing the part of a model child and giving his earthly father nothing but happiness in his final days. When death at last claimed the old man, the robot boy set out into the world to start his new adventure.
On the road to Venice, he came across an unfortunate fellow who had been thrown from his horse. His back was broken and he had been lying in the mud for a day and half. With his dying breath, the man whispered his name, “Paganini.” The name meant nothing to the boy but the man's clothes were well crafted, his perfume pleasant. The boy thought he might like to have such a life, to own such things as fine clothes and perfume. So when the boy was sure that Paganini was dead, the boy assumed his clothes, his stature and his face, and headed into town.
“Paganini!” A man was yelling from somewhere in the crowded train station. “Paganini!” Suddenly, the man became visible—short, round, bald—as he burst out from behind the mass of regularly sized Venetians and travelers.
“Yes, I am Paganini.”
The man ran up to Paganini and grabbed his arm. “Come on. The train is leaving.” The man talked incessantly about schedules and rehearsals and other things about which Paganini, in his new limited form, knew nothing. Paganini listened, his recording device working while his higher brain functions concentrated on more important events like the rapid passing of the canals, trees and buildings outside his window. He had never been on a train. The speed was exhilarating.
“Do you understand?”
Paganini replayed the recording as he carefully regarded the short, fat, bald man whose name was Ralpho. “The train will arrive in Paris at 6:00, and I am to perform at 7:00.”
“May I ask what I am to perform?”
Ralpho looked at Paganini as if he had suddenly transformed into the antichrist. “The Tchaikovsky! You can't go changing repertoire at so late a date. The brochures have already been printed. Contracts have been signed.”
“The Tchaikovsky will be fine.” Paganini nodded knowingly, although in actuality he knew nothing of Tchaikovsky or his music. Fortunately, his human father had known enough about music to bang out a few folksongs and hymns on the guitar.
“Do you, perchance, have the score?”
Ralpho squinted in apparent agony, as he dug through his bag. “I might have it here somewhere. I don't know why you want to look at it now. You've played it a thousand times. Here it is.”
Paganini looked at the cryptic notations, placing his finger on his lips and again nodding. He was sure of one thing. This was not guitar music. “I'm sorry to trouble you, Ralpho. One last question—What instrument will I be using?”
Ralpho began to laugh as tears welled in his eyes and streamed in unison down either cheek. A moment later, he was running down the train aisle, pulling at his hair and mumbling curses into the air.
By the time the train arrived at the Paris terminal, a shaking Ralpho had recovered enough to lead Paganini to the concert hall in the heart of Paris. Promptly at seven, a Stradivarius was placed in his hands and Paganini played the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto Number One with flawless, robotic perfection.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
* * *
* * *
An hour after Draco Donatello had finished his remarkable story and left the concert hall, the director was still in his office staring at the empty velvet chair in front of him, his eyes larger than grapes, perhaps the size of new plums. He heard some words in Italian and looked up. Paganini was standing in the doorway with his diminutive but portly manager, Ralpho.
“The Maestro wishes to know if you are well,” Ralpho said. Ralpho spoke German with a thick Italian accent. Paganini spoke no German at all.
“Yes, yes. I am quite well, thank you.” The director stood up, slightly embarrassed. “Please come in and make yourselves comfortable. Can I get you some refreshment?”
“Opium?” Ralpho asked immediately.
The director cringed. “No, I’m afraid not, but I have a lovely brandy.”
The Maestro and his manager exchanged a few fleeting words in Italian and then sat down in the director’s aging velvet chairs. “No, thank you, but the Maestro wishes to know why you have sent for him early. He is not due to perform for another week,” Ralpho continued.
“Ah, yes. Well.” The director put his fingers together thoughtfully. “Draco Donatello is, well, ill. I’m afraid tonight’s concert will have to be cancelled unless…”
“Unless the Maestro can take his place? Tonight? Why, that is preposterous.” At this exclamation, Paganini touched Ralpho’s arm ever so slightly. Ralpho’s indignity vanished like a gentle spring Zephyr. “The Maestro agrees. What is he to play?”
“It is a new piece.” The director handed Paganini a weighty manuscript. “But of course the Maestro is welcome to play whatever he likes.”
Paganini flipped through the score with disinterest and then nodded.
“The Maestro will play the piece,” Ralpho interpreted.
The director laughed. “So it is true.”
Ralpho and Paganini exchanged a quick glance. “The Maestro would like to know what you mean by that. He does not enjoy being laughed at.”
The director cringed. “Oh, my good sirs, please forgive me, but I am not laughing at the Maestro. It was just something Herr Donatello said. It is of no consequence. I believe he was a colleague of the Maestro.”
“Yes, but they had a bit of a falling out of late. The Maestro would like to know what his colleague is saying about him behind his back.”
“Oh, no. It is nothing like that. Herr Donatello speaks quite highly of the Maestro. He told me about his amazing ability to memorize an entire concerto at a single glance.”
“Yes. The Maestro is an unparalleled genius. What else did Draco Donatello have to say?”
“It is nothing, as I said. Herr Donatello is quite ill.” The director felt the sweat bead on his brow and reached for the pink pouf that Draco had left on his desk. He felt the Maestro’s eyes bearing down upon him and knew he must confess. “He said that it was impossible for a human being to do such things. He said that Paganini was a ro-bot.”
Ralpho’s bushy eyebrows lifted quizzically. “Please forgive me. My German is not perfect. What is a ro-bot?”
“A machine of some sort, like a train or a clock.”
Ralpho stood up, his face bright red with sudden fury. “What an outrage! How dare he speak such things? We are leaving immediately.” There was a short exchange in Italian and once again Ralpho’s anger evaporated. “The Maestro will agree to play tonight.”
The director clapped his hands together. “That’s wonderful.”
“Upon one condition.”
“All proceeds from tonight’s concert will go directly to Herr Donatello’s medical treatment.”
The director thought again of all the money he’d sunk into tonight’s concert. Would he get nothing for his investment? But there was something other than mere money to think about. There was his reputation. Canceling a concert of this magnitude could ruin him.
“Agreed,” he said at last and then all eyes fell on Paganini. The silent Maestro nodded slowly, and then something like the workings of a great clock clicked in his neck. It was a loud noise, impossible to miss, especially in the small confines of the director’s office. Nevertheless, the director pretended not to notice.
David Wright is a writer and teacher living on Canada’s majestic west coast. He has a lovely wife, two sparkling daughters and more than forty published short stories. His work has appeared in a dozen magazines including Larks, Nautilus Engine and Neo-opsis. His latest eNovels, Elf Lord, Codename Vengeance and Flight of the Cosmonaut, are available at Smashwords.com. Visit his website at wright812.shawwebspace.ca.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
I'm often inspired by what I read, whether history, fiction, news or science. Sometimes I think I only read to be inspired. In the case of "Paganini's Secret," however, I was more inspired by what I heard. Paganini was an unparalleled genius of his art. What could possess a man to play the violin as he did? What could drive him to such fevered excess of skill? Well, I guess now we know.