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Authors: Paul Adam

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BOOK: Paganini's Ghost
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Guastafeste took a photograph from his jacket pocket and passed it across to me.

“The jewellery restorer has finished cleaning up the gold violin. That's what it looks like now.”

I studied the photograph. I could hardly believe what I saw, the transformation was so astounding. The shapeless, black, tar-covered object that had been cut from the summer house at Castenaso was now a glittering, magnificent piece of jewellery—as bright and glorious as the day it had first left Jeremiah Posier's workshop in Saint Petersburg. The gold was polished to a fine sheen, the diamonds, rubies, and emeralds scintillating like tiny white, red, and green stars.

“Not bad, is it?” Guastafeste said. “Every stone was intact, too.”

“It's stunning,” I said.

I showed the photograph to Margherita. She let out a low gasp of appreciation.

“That is beautiful. I've never seen anything like it.”

“What's going to happen to it?” I asked.

“That's a decision for the Ministry of Culture,” Guastafeste replied. He grinned sardonically. “So we could be in for a long wait.”

“It should be on display somewhere,” Margherita said. “People ought to be able to see it.”

“That would be good,” Guastafeste said. “But I wouldn't hold your breath. A lot of people are going to be interested in it. I can smell the stench of lawyers already. Viotti's heirs probably have a claim over it; the Church, too. It was stolen from one of their convents, after all. Maybe Isabella Colbran's descendants, as well. You want my educated guess? It will be locked away in a storeroom in Rome for ten years while everybody argues over it; then it will mysteriously disappear, along with all the official paperwork, and surface a few months later—unbeknown to the world, of course—in the private collection of some billionaire in America. Or China, if you want to get really depressed.”

“You're probably right,” I said.

I looked at the photograph again, thinking of all the people who had possessed the violin over the years—from Catherine the Great through Viotti, Paganini, Domenico Barbaia, and Isabella Colbran—and Olivier Delacourt, who had killed to possess it. It was a fabulous piece of jewellery, but no object, no matter how special, was worth a human life.

I handed the photograph back to Guastafeste and stood up. I'd seen a taxi pulling into the drive at the front of the house, Yevgeny and Ludmilla Ivanova inside it. I went out to greet them. Yevgeny had his violin case in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. He was looking less gaunt than before. His face and body were filling out. Above all, he looked happy. He gave me a big affectionate hug and smiled.

“Gianni! It's good to see you.”

“How was New York?” I asked.

“Fantastic.”

“They loved him,” Ludmilla said.

I turned to look at her, a little wary of what kind of reception I might receive. But she spread out her arms and embraced me warmly.

“Thank you for coming,” I said.

“It's our pleasure,” Ludmilla replied.

“Come inside. Lunch won't be long.”

Father Arrighi was the next to arrive, timing his appearance once again, with unnerving accuracy, to the exact moment when Guastafeste was distributing his potent custom-made apéritifs. Then, twenty minutes later, came the moment I had been dreading. A small white Fiat turned into the drive and Mirella got out.

This wasn't her first encounter with Ludmilla—that had been some weeks earlier, an undoubtedly nervewracking event at which, I am glad to say, I had not been present—but it was probably only the second or third time they'd met, and I was apprehensive about the outcome.

I had briefed Margherita and Guastafeste beforehand and they carried out their appointed tasks with commendable efficiency. While
Margherita engaged Ludmilla in intense conversation, Guastafeste drifted across to the sitting room door and loitered there, blocking the exit, but only after I had slipped out with Yevgeny and taken him into the kitchen to meet Mirella. I gave the two of them five minutes alone together, then escorted them to the sitting room, where Yevgeny introduced Mirella to the others. Though clearly nervous, Mirella handled herself well, and Ludmilla behaved impeccably. She kissed Mirella on both cheeks and even managed a facial contortion that could charitably have been interpreted as a smile.

After that, everyone seemed to relax. Yevgeny and Mirella retreated to a corner, where they conversed in low, intimate whispers, while Ludmilla held court in the centre of the room, describing to the rest of us Yevgeny's triumphant New York debut.

Lunch passed without incident, in no small measure due to Margherita, who had the enviable knack of stimulating conversations to which everyone could contribute, then nursing them expertly, as if she were tending a wood fire, allowing flames to flare occasionally, sparks to fly, and embers to glow without ever fully dying down.

“I'm so glad you're here,” I said when we'd left the others and gone into the kitchen to make coffee.

“You think it's going well?” Margherita said.

“Really well. Mostly thanks to you.”

“Hardly. I'm not doing anything at all.”

“You're holding everything together.”

“Yevgeny and Mirella seem very happy.”

“It's nice to see, isn't it?”

“Even Ludmila must have noticed how different he is. When you think about the last time they were here . . . He's come out of his shell, matured. He's comfortable with himself, and with others.”

I smiled at her.

“Women do that to us.”

She arranged the coffee cups on a tray and poured milk into a jug.

“I'm not looking forward to the next bit, though.”

I could hear the anxiety in her voice.

“You'll be absolutely fine,” I said.

“I'm not good enough, Gianni. I wish now I hadn't said yes. You should have got a professional in. It's going to be really embarrassing.”

I put my arm round her shoulders and squeezed.

“That's utter rubbish, and you know it.”

“It will be. Yevgeny's one of the best violinists in the world, and what am I? A complete amateur.”

“We're among friends,” I said. “It's not a performance; it's just a bit of fun. And don't run yourself down like that. You're a very good pianist.”

She wasn't to be reassured—I could tell from her face while we drank our coffee. She looked nervous, and she didn't say much. But when the moment finally came and she sat down at the keyboard in the music room, the tension seemed to evaporate from her. She'd been practising her part for weeks. She knew she could do it. She nodded at Yevgeny, watching his bow arm; then the first sonorous chords of the Serenata
Appassionata
rang out across the room.

Rarely have I felt so privileged, so enormously lucky. Here we were in my house, just seven of us, listening to a piece that had not been heard for two hundred years. And what a piece it was. Paganini's music is not renowned for its depth. His compositions were mostly written to showcase his virtuosity, to astound audiences with breathtaking pyrotechnics. But the Serenata
Appassionata
was different. Instead of a violin solo with perfunctory piano accompaniment, this was a genuine duet for the two instruments—music created not to show off, but to show feeling. This was a piece written from the heart. Paganini was a young man when he composed it, a young man in love, and that fact was manifest in every note, every harmony. The artificial harmonics, the left-hand pizzicato and all the other tricks for which he was famous were absent. There was just a simple melodic line of exquisite beauty, perfectly complemented by the rippling counterpoint of the piano, then a development section full of lover's fervour that more than justified the
Appassionata
of the title, before the melody returned, lingering long in the air, in the silence after the two instruments had stopped playing.

What had Elisa written in her letter to Paganini? “I can still hear
that haunting melody in my head. I think of it as your ghost, a spirit that is constantly with me . . .”

I knew now what she had meant. That melody, that love song, would be with me, too, for a very long time.

Twenty seconds, thirty passed. No one spoke. No one wanted to be the first to break the moment. Then Guastafeste began to clap.


Bravo!
” he called. “
Bravissimo!

Ludmilla, Mirella, Father Arrighi, and I joined in the applause. Yevgeny beamed and bowed to us. Margherita smiled shyly, holding my gaze for a time. Then I went to her and hugged her.

“That was wonderful. Truly wonderful.”

“You're sure?” she said.

“You don't believe me? Let's ask Yevgeny.”

“You were magnificent, signora,” Yevgeny said. “And what a piece of music. It must be published. And recorded, too. What do you think, Mama?”

“I think it can be arranged,” Ludmilla said.

“Let's make it soon. The whole world must hear it.”

I pulled open the French windows and we spilled out onto the terrace. Guastafeste fetched a bottle of wine and filled our glasses and we drank a toast to the Serenata
Appassionata
. Then Yevgeny and Mirella drifted away down the garden. Margherita slipped her arm through mine and we strolled across the lawn.

“I'll treasure that forever,” Margherita said.

“So will I.”

“Does it have to be published and recorded? It seems a shame to share our secret with anyone else. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be Elisa Baciocchi? Having music like that written for you, hearing it for the first time, knowing it was a love token from a man like Paganini, a man you adored.”

“We can't all compose,” I said. “But there are many other ways of showing love.”

At the bottom of the garden, Yevgeny and Mirella were holding
hands. They disappeared behind a trellis and I caught a glimpse of them kissing.

“What time were you planning on going back to Milan?” I asked.

“I hadn't thought about it.”

“You don't have to, you know.” I paused. “You could always stay the night here.”

She turned and looked at me, smiling.

“I'd like that,” she said.

BOOK: Paganini's Ghost
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