ON leaving the house of the dead man Diotti walked wearily to his hotel. In flaring type at every street corner he saw the announcement for Thursday evening, March thirty-first, of Angelo Diotti's last appearance: "To-night I play for the last time," he murmured in a voice filled with deepest regret.
The feeling of exultation so common to artists who finally reach the goal of their ambition was wanting in Diotti this morning. He could not rid himself of the memory of Sanders' tragic death. The figure of the old man clutching the violin and staring with glassy eyes into the dying fire would not away.
When he reached the hotel he tried to rest, but his excited brain banished every thought of slumber. Restlessly he moved about the room, and finally dressing, he left the hotel for his daily call on Mildred. It was after five o'clock when he arrived. She received him coldly and without any mark of affection.
She had heard of Mr. Sanders' death; her father had sent word. "It shocked me greatly," she said; "but perhaps the old man is happier in a world far from strife and care. When we realize all the misery there is in this world we often wonder why we should care to live." Her tone was despondent, her face was drawn and blanched, and her eyes gave evidence of weeping.
Diotti divined that something beyond sympathy for old Sanders' sudden death racked her soul. He went toward her and lovingly taking her hands, bent low and pressed his lips to them; they were cold as marble.
"Darling," he said; "something has made you unhappy. What is it?"
"Tell me, Angelo, and truly; is your violin like other violins?"
This unexpected question came so suddenly he could not control his agitation.
"Why do you ask?" he said.
"You must answer me directly!"
"No, Mildred; my violin is different from any other I have ever seen," this hesitatingly and with great effort at composure.
"In what way is it different?" she almost demanded.
"It is peculiarly constructed; it has an extra string. But why this sudden interest in the violin? Let us talk of you, of me, of both, of our future," said he with enforced cheerfulness.
"No, we will talk of the violin. Of what use is the extra string?"
"None whatever," was the quick reply.
"Then why not cut it off?"
"No, no, Mildred; you do not understand," he cried; "I can not do that."
"You can not do it when I ask it?" she exclaimed.
"Oh Mildred, do not ask me; I can not, can not do it," and the face of the affrighted musician told plainer than words of the turmoil raging in his soul.
"You made me believe that I was the only one you loved," passionately she cried; "the only one; that your happiness was incomplete without me. You led me into the region of light only to make the darkness greater when I descended to earth again. I ask you to do a simple thing and you refuse; you refuse because another has commanded you."
"Mildred, Mildred; if you love me do not speak thus!"
And she, with imagination greater than reasoning power, at once saw a Tuscan beauty and Diotti mutually pledging their love with their lives.
"Go," she said, pointing to the door, "go to the one who owns you, body and soul; then say that a foolish woman threw her heart at your feet and that you scorned it!" She sank to the sofa.
He went toward the door, and in a voice that sounded like the echo of despair, protested: "Mildred, I love you; love you a thousand times more than I do my life. If I should destroy the string, as you ask, love and hope would leave me forevermore. Death would not be robbed of its terror!" and with bowed head he went forth into the twilight.
She ran to the window and watched his retreating figure as he vanished. "Uncle Sanders was right; he loves another woman, and that string binds them together. He belongs to her!" Long and silently she stood by the window, gazing at the shadowing curtain of the coming night. At last her face softened. "Perhaps he does not love her now, but fears her vengeance. No, no; he is not a coward! I should have approached him differently; he is proud, and may be he resented my imperative manner," and a thousand reasons why he should or should not have removed that string flashed through her mind.
"I will go early to the concert to-night and see him before he plays. Uncle Sanders said he did not touch that string when he played. Of course he will play on it for me, even if he will not cut it off, and then if he says he loves me, and only me, I will believe him. I want to believe him; I want to believe him," all this in a semi-hysterical way addressed to the violinist's portrait on the piano.
When she entered her carriage an hour later, telling the coachman to drive direct to the stage-door of the Academy, she appeared more fascinating than ever before.
She was sitting in his dressing-room waiting for him when he arrived. He had aged years in a day. His step was uncertain, his eyes were sunken and his hand trembled. His face brightened as she arose, and Mildred met him in the center of the room. He lifted her hand and pressed a kiss upon it.
"Angelo, dear," she said in repentant tone; "I am sorry I pained you this afternoon; but I am jealous, so jealous of you."
"Jealous?" he said smilingly; "there is no need of jealousy in our lives; we love each other truly and only."
"That is just what I think, we will never doubt each other again, will we?"
"Never!" he said solemnly.
He had placed his violin case on the table in the room. She went to it and tapped the top playfully; then suddenly said: "I am going to look at your violin, Angelo," and before he could interfere, she had taken the silken coverlet off and was examining the instrument closely. "Sure enough, it has five strings; the middle one stands higher than the rest and is of glossy blackness. Uncle Sanders was right; it is a woman's hair!
"Why is that string made of hair?" she asked, controlling her emotion.
"Only a fancy," he said, feigning indifference.
"Though you would not remove it at my wish this afternoon, Angelo; I know you will not refuse to play on it for me now."
He raised his hands in supplication. "Mildred! Mildred! Stop! do not ask it!"
"You refuse after I have come repentant, and confessing my doubts and fears? Uncle Sanders said you would not play upon it for me; he told me it was wrapped with a woman's hair, the hair of the woman you love."
"I swear to you, Mildred, that I love but you!"
"Love me? Bah! And another woman's tresses sacred to you? Another woman's pledge sacred to you? Tasked you to remove the string; you refused. I ask you now to play upon it; you refuse," and she paced the room like a caged tigress.
"I will watch to-night when you play," she flashed. "If you do not use that string we part forever."
He stood before her and attempted to take her hand; she repulsed him savagely.
Sadly then he asked: "And if I do play upon it?"
"I am yours forever—yours through life—through eternity," she cried passionately.
The call-boy announced Diotti's turn; the violinist led Mildred to a seat at the entrance of the stage. His appearance was the signal for prolonged and enthusiastic greeting from the enormous audience present. He clearly was the idol of the metropolis.
The lights were lowered, a single calcium playing with its soft and silvery rays upon his face and shoulders. The expectant audience scarcely breathed as he began his theme. It was pity—pity molded into a concord of beautiful sounds, and when he began the second movement it was but a continuation of the first; his fingers sought but one string, that of pity. Again he played, and once more pity stole from the violin.
When he left the stage Mildred rushed to him. "You did not touch that string; you refuse my wish?" and the sounds of mighty applause without drowned his pleading voice.
"I told you if you refused me I was lost to you forever! Do you understand?"
Diotti returned slowly to the center of the stage and remained motionless until the audience subsided. Facing Mildred, whose color was heightened by the intensity of her emotion, he began softly to play. His fingers sought the string of Death. The audience listened with breathless interest. The composition was weirdly and strangely fascinating.
The player told with wondrous power of despair,—of hope, of faith; sunshine crept into the hearts of all as he pictured the promise of an eternal day; higher and higher, softer and softer grew the theme until it echoed as if it were afar in the realms of light and floating o'er the waves of a golden sea.
Suddenly the audience was startled by the snapping of a string; the violin and bow dropped from the nerveless hands of the player. He fell helpless to the stage.
Mildred rushed to him, crying, "Angelo, Angelo, what is it? What has happened?" Bending over him she gently raised his head and showered unrestrained kisses upon his lips, oblivious of all save her lover.
"Speak! Speak!" she implored.
A faint smile illumined his face; he gazed with ineffable tenderness into her weeping eyes, then slowly closed his own as if in slumber.