THE little dinner party passed off pleasantly, and as old Sanders lighted his cigar he confided to Diotti, with a braggart's assurance, that when he was a youngster he was the best fiddler for twenty miles around. "I tell you there is nothing like a fiddler to catch a petticoat," he said, with a sharp nudge of his elbow into Diotti's ribs. "When I played the Devil's Dream there wasn't a girl in the country could keep from dancing, and 'Rosalie, the Prairie Flower,' brought them on their knees to me every time;" then after a pause, "I don't believe people fiddle as well nowadays as they did in the good old times," and he actually sighed in remembrance.
Mildred smiled and whispered to Diotti. He took his violin from the case and began playing. It seemed to her as if from above showers of silvery merriment were falling to earth. The old man watched intently, and as the player changed from joy to pity, from love back to happiness, Sanders never with drew his gaze. His bead-like eyes followed the artist; he saw each individual finger rise and fall, and the bow bound over the finger-board, always avoiding, never coming in contact with the middle string. Suddenly the old man beat a tattoo on his cranium and closed his eyes, apparently deep in thought.
As Diotti ceased playing, Sanders applauded vociferously, and moving toward the violinist, said: "Magnificent! I never have heard better playing! What is the make of your violin?"
Diotti, startled at this question, hurriedly put the instrument in its case; "Oh, it is a famous make," he drawled.
"Will you let me examine it?" said the elder, placing his hand on the case.
"I never allow any one to touch my violin," replied Diotti, closing the cover quickly.
"Why; is there a magic charm about it, that you fear other hands may discover?" queried the old man.
"I prefer that no one handle it," said the virtuoso commandingly.
"Very well," sighed the old man resignedly, "there are violins and violins, and no doubt yours comes within that category," this half sneeringly.
"Uncle," interposed Mildred tactfully, "you must not be so persistent. Signor Diotti prizes his violin highly and will not allow any one to play upon it but himself," and the look of relief on Diotti's face amply repaid her.
Mr. Wallace came in at that moment, and with perfunctory interest in his guest, invited him to examine the splendid collection of revolutionary relics in his study.
"I value them highly," said the banker, both for patriotic and ancestral reasons. The Wallaces fought and died for their country, and helped to make this land what it is."
The father and the violinist went to the study, leaving the daughter and old Sanders in the drawing-room. The old man, seating himself in a large arm-chair, said: "Mildred, my dear, I do not wonder at the enormous success of this Diotti."
"He is a wonderful artist," replied Mildred; "critics and public alike place him among the greatest of his profession."
"He is a good-looking young fellow, too," said the old man.
"I think he is the handsomest man I ever have seen," replied the girl.
"Where does he come from?" continued Sanders.
"St. Casciano, a small town in Tuscany."
"Has he a family?"
"Only a sister, whom he loves dearly," good-naturedly answered the girl.
"And no one else?" continued the seemingly garrulous old man.
"None that I have heard him speak of. No, certainly not," rather impetuously replied Mildred.
"How old is he?" continued the old man.
"Twenty-eight next month; why do you wish to know?" she quizzically asked.
"Simply idle curiosity," old Sanders carelessly replied. "I wonder if he is in love with any one in Tuscany?"
"Of course not; how could he be?" quickly rejoined the girl.
"And why not?" added old Sanders.
"Why? Because, because—he is in love with some one in America."
"Ah, with you, I see," said the old man, as if it were the greatest discovery of his life; "are you sure he has not some beautiful sweetheart in Tuscany as well as here?"
"What a foolish question," she replied. "Men like Angelo Diotti do not fall in love as soldiers fall in line. Love to a man of his nobility is too serious to be treated so lightly."
"Very true, and that's what has excited my curiosity!" whereupon the old man smoked away in silence.
"Excited your curiosity!" said Mildred. "What do you mean?"
"It may be something; it may be nothing; but my speculative instinct has been aroused by a strange peculiarity in his playing."
"His playing is wonderful!" replied Mildred proudly.
"Aye, more than wonderful! I watched him intently," said the old man; "I noted with what marvelous facility he went from one string to the other. But however rapid, however difficult the composition, he steadily avoided one string; in fact, that string remained untouched during the entire hour he played for us."
"Perhaps the composition did not call for its use," suggested Mildred, unconscious of any other meaning in the old man's observation, save praise for her lover.
"Perhaps so, but the oddity impressed me; it was a new string to me. I have never seen one like it on a violin before."
"That can scarcely be, for I do not remember of Signor Diotti telling me there was anything unusual about his violin."
"I am sure it has a fifth string."
"And I am equally sure the string can be of no importance or Angelo would have told me of it," Mildred quickly rejoined.
"I recall a strange story of Paganini," continued the old man, apparently not noticing her interruption; "he became infatuated with a lady of high rank, who was insensible of the admiration he had for her beauty.
"He composed a love scene for two strings, the 'E' and 'G', the first was to personate the lady, the second himself. It commenced with a species of dialogue, intending to represent her indifference and his passion; now sportive, now sad; laughter on her part and tears from him, ending in an apotheosis of loving reconciliation. It affected the lady to that degree that ever after she loved the violinist."
"And no doubt they were happy?" Mildred suggested smilingly.
"Yes," said the old man, with assumed sentiment, "even when his profession called him far away, for she had made him promise her he never would play upon the two strings whose music had won her heart, so those strings were mute, except for her."
The old man puffed away in silence for a moment, then with logical directness continued: "Perhaps the string that's mute upon Diotti's violin is mute for some such reason."
"Nonsense," said the girl, half impatiently.
"The string is black and glossy as the tresses that fall in tangled skeins on the shoulders of the dreamy beauties of Tuscany. It may be an idle fancy, but if that string is not a woven strand from some woman's crowning glory, then I have no discernment."
"You are jesting, uncle," she replied, but her heart was heavy already.
"Ask him to play on that string; I'll wager he'll refuse," said the old man, contemptuously.
"He will not refuse when I ask him, but I will not to-night," answered the unhappy girl, with forced determination. Then, taking the old man's hands, she said: "Good-night, I am going to my room; please make my excuses to Signor Diotti and father," and wearily she ascended the stairs.
Mr. Wallace and the violinist soon after joined old Sanders, fresh cigars were lighted and regrets most earnestly expressed by the violinist for Mildred's "sick headache."
"No need to worry; she will be all right in the morning,"said Sanders, and he and the violinist buttoned their coats tightly about them, for the night was bitter cold, and together they left the house.
In her bed-chamber Mildred stood looking at the portrait of her lover. She studied his face long and intently, then crossing the room she mechanically took a volume from the shelf, and as she opened it her eyes fell on these lines: "How art thou fallen from Heaven, O Lucifer, son of the Morning!"
Old Sanders builded better than he knew.