The Fifth String

by John Philip Sousa

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Chapter VI

WHEN Diotti left New York so precipitately he took passage on a coast line steamer sailing for the Bahama Islands. Once there, he leased a small cay, one of a group off the main land, and lived alone and unattended, save for the weekly visits of an old fisherman and his son, who brought supplies of provisions from the town miles away. His dwelling-place, surrounded with palmetto trees, was little more than a rough shelter. Diotti arose at daylight, and after a simple repast, betook himself to practise. Hour after hour he would let his muse run riot with his fingers. Lovingly he wooed the strings with plaintive song, then conquering and triumphant would be his theme. But neither satisfied him. The vague dream of a melody more beautiful than ever man had heard dwelt hauntingly on the borders of his imagination, but was no nearer realization than when he began. As the day's work closed, he wearily placed the violin within its case, murmuring, "Not yet, not yet; I have not found it."

Days passed, weeks crept slowly on; still he worked, but always with the same result. One day, feverish and excited, he played on in monotone almost listless. His tired, over-wrought brain denied a further thought. His arm and fingers refused response to his will. With an uncontrollable outburst of grief and anger he dashed the violin to the floor, where it lay a hopeless wreck. Extending his arms he cried, in the agony of despair: "It is of no use! If the God of heaven will not aid me, I ask the prince of darkness to come."

A tall, rather spare, but well-made and handsome man appeared at the door of the hut. His manner was that of one evidently conversant with the usages of good society.

"I beg pardon," said the musician, surprised and visibly nettled at the intrusion, and then with forced politeness he asked: "To whom am I indebted for this unexpected visit?"

"Allow me," said the stranger taking a card from his case and handing it to the musician, who read: "Satan," and, in the lower left-hand corner, "Prince of Darkness."

"I am the Prince," said the stranger, bowing low.

There was no hint of the pavement-made ruler in the information he gave, but rather of the desire of one gentleman to set another right at the beginning. The musician assumed a position of open-mouthed wonder, gazing steadily at the visitor.

"Satan?" he whispered hoarsely.

"You need help and advice," said the visitor, his voice sounding like that of a disciple of the healing art, and implying that he had thoroughly diagnosed the case.

"No, no," cried the shuddering violinist; "go away. I do not need you."

"I regret I can not accept that statement as gospel truth," said Satan, sarcastically, "for if ever a man needed help, you are that man."

"But not from you," replied Diotti.

"That statement is discredited also by your outburst of a few moments ago when you called upon me."

"I do not need you," reiterated the musician. "I will have none of you!" and he waved his arm toward the door, as if he desired the interview to end.

"I came at your behest, actuated entirely by kindness of heart," said Satan.

Diotti laughed derisively, and Satan, showing just the slightest feeling at Diotti's behavior, said reprovingly: "If you will listen a moment, and not be so rude to an utter stranger, we may reach some conclusion to your benefit."

"Get thee behind—"

I know exactly what you were about to say. Have no fears on that score. I have no demands to make and no impossible compacts to insist upon."

"I have heard of you before," knowingly spoke the violinist, nodding his head sadly.

"No doubt you have," smilingly. "My reputation, which has suffered at the hands of irresponsible people, is not of the best, and places me at times in awkward positions. But I am beginning to live it down." The stranger looked contrition itself. "To prove my sincerity I desire to help you win her love," emphasizing her.

"How can you help me?"

"Very easily. You have been wasting time, energy and health in a wild desire to play better. The trouble lies not with you."

"Not with me?" interrupted the violinist, now thoroughly interested.

"The trouble lies not with you," repeated the visitor, "but with the miserable violin you have been using and have just destroyed," and he pointed to the shattered instrument.

Tears welled from the poor violinist's eyes as he gazed on the fragments of his beloved violin, the pieces lying scattered about as the result of his unfortunate anger.

"It was a Stradivarius," said Diotti, sadly.

"Had it been a Stradivarius, an Amati or a Guarnerius, or a host of others rolled into one, you would not have found in it the melody to win the heart of the woman you love. Get a better and more suitable instrument."

"Where is one?" earnestly interrogated Diotti, vaguely realizing that Satan knew.

"In my possession," Satan replied.

"She would hate me if she knew I had recourse to the powers of darkness to gain her love," bitterly interposed Diotti.

Satan, wincing at this uncomplimentary allusion to himself, replied rather warmly: "My dear sir, were it not for the fact that I feel in particularly good spirits this morning, I should resent your ill-timed remarks and leave you to end your miserable existence with rope or pistol," and Satan pantomimed both suicidal contingencies.

"Do you want the violin or not?"

"I might look at it," said Diotti, resolving mentally that he could go so far without harm.

"Very well," said Satan. He gave a long whistle.

An old man, bearing a violin case, came within the room. He bowed to the wondering Diotti, and proceeded to open the case. Taking the instrument out the old man fondled it with loving and tender solicitude, pointing out its many beauties—the exquisite blending of the curves, the evenness of the grain, the peculiar coloring, the lovely contour of the neck, the graceful outlines of the body, the scroll, rivaling the creations of the ancient sculptors, the solidity of the bridge and its elegantly carved heart, and, waxing exceedingly enthusiastic, holding up the instrument and looking at it as one does at a cluster of gems, he added, "the adjustment of the strings."

"That will do," interrupted Satan, taking the violin from the little man, who bowed low and ceremoniously took his departure. Then the devil, pointing to the instrument, asked: "Isn't it a beauty?"

The musician, eying it keenly, replied: "Yes, it is, but not the kind of violin I play on."

"Oh, I see," carelessly observed the other, "you refer to that extra string."

"Yes," answered the puzzled violinist, examining it closely.

"Allow me to explain the peculiar characteristics of this magnificent instrument," said his satanic majesty. "This string," pointing to the G, "is the string of pity; this one," referring to the third, "is the string of hope; this," plunking the A, "is attuned to love, while this one, the E string, gives forth sounds of joy.

"You will observe," went on the visitor, noting the intense interest displayed by the violinist, "that the position of the strings is the same as on any other violin, and therefore will require no additional study on your part."

"But that extra string?" interrupted Diotti, designating the middle one on the violin, a vague foreboding rising within him.

"That," said Mephistopheles, solemnly, and with no pretense of sophistry, "is the string of death, and he who plays upon it dies at once."

"The—string—of—death!" repeated the violinist almost inaudibly.

"Yes, the string of death," Satan repeated, "and he who plays upon it dies at once. But," he added cheerfully, "that need not worry you. I noticed a marvelous facility in your arm work. Your staccato and spiccato are wonderful. Every form of bowing appears child's play to you. It will be easy for you to avoid touching the string."

"Why avoid it? Can it not be cut off?"

"Ah, that's the rub. If you examine the violin closely you will find that the string of death is made up of the extra lengths of the other four strings. To cut it off would destroy the others, and then pity, hope, love and joy would cease to exist in the soul of the violin."

"How like life itself," Diotti reflected, "pity, hope, love, joy end in death, and through death they are born again."

"That's the idea, precisely," said Satan, evidently relieved by Diotti's logic and quick perception.

The violinist examined the instrument with the practised eye of an expert, and turning to Satan said: "The four strings are beautifully white and transparent, but this one is black and odd looking.

"What is it wrapped with?" eagerly inquired Diotti, examining the death string with microscopic care.

"The fifth string was added after an unfortunate episode in the Garden of Eden, in which I was somewhat concerned," said Satan, soberly. "It is wrapped with strands of hair from the first mother of man." Impressively then he offered the violin to Diotti.

"I dare not take it," said the perplexed musician; "it's from—"

"Yes, it is directly from there, but I brought it from heaven when I—I left," said the fallen angel, with remorse in his voice. "It was my constant companion there. But no one in my domain—not I, myself—can play upon it now, for it will respond neither to our longing for pity, hope, love, joy, nor even death," and sadly and retrospectively Satan gazed into vacancy; then, after a long pause: "Try the instrument!"

Diotti placed the violin in position and drew the bow across the string of joy, improvising on it. Almost instantly the birds of the forest darted hither and thither, caroling forth in gladsome strains. The devil alone was sad, and with emotion said:

"It is many, many years since I have heard that string."

Next the artist changed to the string of pity, and thoughts of the world's sorrows came over him like a pall.

"Wonderful, most wonderful!" said the mystified violinist; "with this instrument I can conquer the world!"

"Aye, more to you than the world," said the tempter, "a woman's love."

A woman's love—to the despairing suitor there was one and only one in this wide, wide world, and her words, burning their way into his heart, had made this temptation possible: "No drooping Clytie could be more constant than I to him who strikes the chord that is responsive in my soul."

Holding the violin aloft, he cried exultingly: "Henceforth thou art mine, though death and oblivion lurk ever near thee!"

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