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The Paganini Curse
By Giselle M. Stancic
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Giselle M. Stancic
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAurora Lewis hugged her black violin case closer to her body, waiting on the corner of Fifty-Seventh Street and Seventh Avenue for a break in the chaos of honking motor cars. Every week the noise and confusion got worse, with more of those smoking four-wheel contraptions crowding out the few horse-drawn carts left in New York Cityautomobiles driven by fools with no sense about going too fast or staying on the right side of the road.
Father said they were working on a signaling tower for the intersection, but Mother wasn't about to believe that some newfangled device was going to bring order to the bedlam. To her the street noise was just another reason to move from Grandmother's lovely flat in the Osborne Building to the edge of nowhere on the Upper West Side, into one of those fancy apartment suites in the Dakota.
The Dakota was simply the place to live in 1911, Mother was quick to remind them. But fifteen-year-old Aurora wasn't expecting to share an elevator with the Rockefellers anytime soon, not on Father's accountant salary. Besides, as far as she was concerned, this was the center of the universe. Just a five-minute walk to Carnegie Hall, and her Saturday morning music lessons with Professor Schmieder.
Brrr. She stomped her feet to keep warm. January's bitter temperatures cut through her wool coat and red leather gloves. Not to mention that in her rush out the door she'd forgotten her hat. Her wavy auburn hair would be a tangled mess, and she could hear Mother now, scolding her about catching her death of cold in this weather.
But she wasn't about to get sick, not before the most important week of her life. Maud Powell was finally here.
The newspapers called her the "First Lady of the American Violin." To Aurora, Maud Powell was the perfect combination of talent and beauty, with her upswept dark brown hair, flowing evening gown, and virtuoso violin technique. Ever since Father had brought home one of Miss Powell's records to play on their Victrola, it had been Aurora's dream to see her idol in person.
She and Grandmother had tickets to hear Miss Powell play with the New York Philharmonic tomorrow afternoon. But more important, Aurora was going to be in Miss Powell's master class next Saturday in Carnegie Hall, where she would play a solo for the famous violinist in front of the other students and an audience.
She'd just found out before the holidays that she had been chosen for the class, and this morning would be her first chance to share the news with Professor Schmieder. With all her practicing, and playing her teacher's arrangement for solo violin of the Paganini "Romanze," she was certain she would make an unforgettable impression on Miss Powell.
The sound of crunching metal brought the traffic to a sudden halt. In a blur, one of those crazy bicycle messengers sped past her down the avenue. He must have startled an unsuspecting driver, causing him to swerve into the path of another automobile. But only bent fenders and bruised egos seemed to be the casualties, given how quickly both men jumped out of their cars and started throwing punches. As for the pedaling menace, he just kept on going, not even noticing the ruckus caused in his wake.
Aurora used the temporary lull to cross the street, trying not to listen to the salty language that would have had her mother washing her ears out with soap. Gripping her violin case in one hand and lifting up her long green skirt with the other, she stepped around the sink holes and horse piles dotting the rutted avenue, careful not to scuff her polished black leather boots. She was nearly across when a revving engine backfired behind her. Aurora leapt to the curb and let out a few salty words of her own. What would Mother think now?
Safe on the other side of the street, she found herself elbow-to-elbow with people streaming out of Carnegie Hall. Since it was too early for a concert, she figured Mr. Carnegie must be holding one of his peace conferences again.
Father thought Andrew Carnegie was a crackpot for promoting something called a "League of Nations" to solve the world's problems. Aurora didn't know much about politicsthat was men's business, after all. But Mr. Carnegie couldn't be completely off-key. Just look at the beautiful music hall that carried his name.
The elegant building rose above New York's grimy streets, its classic brick and brownstone exterior graced with tall, arched windows. When Mr. Carnegie built the hall back in 1891, the critics said he would never get an audience all the way uptown for a concert. Twenty years later, the city had grown up around the place.
Aurora worked her way through the crowd to the building's entrance and then into the lobby to the elevator going up to the Carnegie Towers. The Towers gave musicians and artists inexpensive studio space to rent, and all the inspiration they needed from the performances going on next door in the concert hall. Sometimes when Maestro Mahler demanded an extra Saturday rehearsal for the Philharmonic, Aurora could even hear the music coming in through the heater vents in Professor Schmieder's studio.
"Fourth floor, please," she said to the elevator attendant, a stooped little man obviously undersized for his wrinkled brown uniform.
"Yes, miss," he said, his eyes never looking up from the floor.
She clung to the railing as the narrow box shimmied its way upward, whining even more than usual as if the cables were going to break. When they finally arrived on the fourth floor, Aurora exited in a hurry. Now if she could just get past the drama school without being noticed.
Most lesson days she enjoyed the good-hearted bantering with the young men from the Academy of Dramatic Arts, on break from their play rehearsal or acting class. Especially cute little Eddie Robinson, with his bushy hair and tough-guy attitude. She liked him ever so much better than Bill Powell, who was all slicked back and smirking, forever bragging about how he was going to be in the moving pictures like the ones they were showing down on Forty-Second Street. As if being in those short ditties was ever going to be more important than acting on the stage.
Then there was the third member of their troupe, Theo Eckstein. Tall, gangly, with a pale complexion and rimless oval glasses, he always wore a sensible gray sweater and dark blue trousers to complete his studious, almost invisible look.
But today she didn't have time to chat with the boys. She wanted to get to her lesson early to tell Professor Schmieder the good news about the master class with Miss Powell.
She'd almost made it past the academy when a long wolf whistle stopped her in her tracks.
"Hey there, beautiful. Not even a 'hello' for us?"
Aurora spun around and took a few steps toward the young man leaning out from the school's doorway.
"Shh, Eddie." She drew her finger to her lips. "You know Professor Schmieder doesn't like it when you boys make too much noise out here."
Seeing that she was still wearing her gloves, she slipped them off and tucked them into her coat pocket.
Eddie turned his head away. "Hey, Bill, Aurora's here. But she doesn't want to associate with us unsophisticates no more."
When Bill joined Eddie, Aurora couldn't help giggling. They must have been rehearsing an Arabian melodrama. Eddie was dressed as if he'd just stepped off a pirate boat, with bright purple pantaloons and a jeweled scabbard slung over his shoulder. A scraggly mustache and black eye patch finished off his buccaneer costume. Bill wore a long white robe and a turban perched lopsided on his head.
A few seconds later, Theo appeared behind them. As usual, he was hanging back a step, still in his no-nonsense street clothes. While the other boys talked about Theo becoming a great director someday, Aurora could hardly believe such a shy fellow would be able to command the attention of a group of rowdy actors.
"Aurora, you're hurting our feelings." Eddie reached for her violin case, his hand covering hers. "Here, let me hold your fiddle for you. We wait all week for the chance to see you."
"That's right, Aurora," said Bill, taking hold of her other hand. "Forget about that old grouch and spend the day with us. We think you're the prettiest girl in Manhattan."
"Come now." She blushed. "There are plenty of pretty girls right here at the academy."
"Not like you," said Eddie, looking at her admiringly.
"Not like you," Theo repeated softly, surprising them all by joining in the conversation.
"Well, well. I think our Theo is smitten," said Bill. "And why shouldn't he be, with your lovely green eyes and all that gorgeous Titian hair? Aurora could be the fair maiden in your first moving picture, couldn't she, Theo? And I'll be the hero who rescues her from the snake pits of the Yucatan."
Aurora ignored Bill's puffery to check Professor Schmieder's studio door at the end of the corridor. Odd, it was still closed. Usually he would have it open for her a few minutes before the start of her lesson.
"Don't worry," said Eddie. "Your teacher's probably still busy with the student that went in earlier this morning."
"Yes, she was a fine-looking lady," said Bill, smiling at the memory of her.
What? Professor Schmieder had a student come in before her? He always said his best teaching was done first thing in the morning, and he saved his Saturdays especially for her. Now another girlno, a fine-looking ladyhad moved into her spot on the professor's schedule?
She pulled away from the boys. "You're going to get me in trouble. I'll talk with you later."
"Play nice for the teacher," Eddie called after her.
As Aurora drew nearer to Professor Schmieder's studio, she realized the door wasn't completely closed after all. She pressed her ear to the wooden panel, expecting to hear his new protégé rattling off the cadenza from the Mendelssohn concerto or some other virtuoso solo. But the studio was quiet.
Maybe Professor Schmieder was telling his new favorite student about how she would be the first woman concertmaster in the New York Philharmonic. Wait a minute; that was Aurora's destiny. She leaned into the door accidentally, or maybe not so accidentally, and opened it a little wider.
She hesitated, expecting to hear the professor's low voice on the other side. But there was still no sound.
As nonchalantly as she could, Aurora announced her arrival by knocking on the door.
"Professor Schmieder, it's me, Aurora. I just wanted to let you know I'm here."
Now that was strange. Even if she irritated the professor, which she did on occasion with her excessive chattering, as he called it, he still wouldn't give her the silent treatment.
She knocked louder, calling out his name again. Finally, unable to contain her curiosity, Aurora stuck her head around the door to take a quick peek.
The professor's studio was furnished more like a Victorian sitting parlor than a place for music lessons. A high-backed, floral-print sofa and matching chair were set in the middle of the room, although Aurora couldn't remember ever sitting on the stiff cushions. The deep-red wallpaper was flocked in velvet and ornately framed paintings of the professor's homeland in Bavaria decorated the room.
With no sight or sound of her teacher, Aurora let herself in. On the far side of the studio stood Professor Schmieder's grand piano, which he sometimes played to accompany her during her lesson. And his most treasured possession, his Gagliano violin, was safe in its black case, lying on the piano bench.
The professor's handwritten manuscript of the Paganini "Romanze" was set out on the carved wooden music stand if they needed to review the markings. Everything looked normal, except ...
A cold blast of wind slapped her cheek. The window behind the piano, which was usually covered by heavy curtains, stood wide open with the drapes pulled back. Frigid air filled the room with every gust from the outside.
What was the professor thinking? In the two years she had been studying with him, he'd always kept his studio warm. Almost stiflingly so, to ease the discomfort of his rheumatism. Aurora set her violin case down by the door and hurried over to shut the window. Moving around the piano, she noticed dark red spots on the lower end of the keyboard. She couldn't believe Professor Schmieder would allow anyone to soil the polished ivory keys.
Reaching to close the window, she could hear loud voices coming from the alleyway below. Probably those boys who dug through the garbage bins looking for something to sell or, God forbid, something to eat. Aurora leaned out the window to see what was going on.
The street kids were down there all right, but they weren't going through the trash. The boys were huddled together, nudging at something with their boots. Then one of the hooligans started pointing at the Towers building.
"There she is," he shouted. "She's up there."
The rest of the boys turned to take a look.
Aurora did as well, but all she saw were closed windows on her right and an empty fire escape off to her left.
"The girl with the red hair." The boy gestured excitedly. "In the window."
Aurora stared down at her coat collar, covered in jumbled curls. She didn't like being called a redhead, but she knew he was talking about her.
"She's the one that done it. She done pushed him."
What was he talking about? Pushed who?
"Come on, fellas. Let's catch her before she gets away."
The gang quickly disbanded and started running down the alley.
After they left, Aurora could see what they had been poking at on the ground. In horror, she recognized Professor Schmieder's shock of white hair and the red-and-green plaid scarf he wore when he was ailing in the cold weather. But what turned her stomach was the peculiar way his legs twisted away from his body, as if he was a rag doll and someone had pulled on him from opposite directions.
Aurora grabbed the window sill to steady herself, but her grip slipped on the wet, sticky surface. Turning her hand over, she stared at the blood smeared across her palm. Instinctively she started wiping her hand on her coat. But the more feverishly she tried to rub out the stain, the deeper it soaked into her skin.
Aurora didn't remember screaming, or brushing her bloody fingers across her forehead. Or hitting the dissonant chord on the piano as she sank to the floor. She didn't remember anything except the color of red.
And thinking, How will I ever explain this to Mother?
Chapter TwoAurora's eyes fluttered open, trying to focus on the strange faces hovering above her. A swarthy pirate with a long mustache and black eye patch stood next to a sultan of Sudan struggling to keep his turban from sliding off his head. Had she woken up on some faraway island never to see Mother and Father again?
Or maybe a witch had cast her into a deep sleep. Aurora closed her eyes to reverse the spell. Then she started hearing voices around her, but they weren't speaking in some strange, foreign language. They were talking in plain English, with a familiar from New York accent.
"She's fainted again," said one of them.
"Maybe she's dead," said another.
Someone grabbed her hand and started feeling around under the cuff of her coat sleeve. Now that was too much. She wouldn't have anyone touching her without her permission.
"Stop that!" Aurora's eyes opened wide as she sat up straight, stunning the room into silence.
She could see that she was in Professor Schmieder's studio, seated on the fine sofa that he never used. Of course, she was here for her violin lesson. But why were all these other people around, and where was her teacher? She searched the faces of the sheik and the buccaneer. Standing behind them was a group of ragtag boys with dirty cheeks and tattered collars. Blankly she turned from one to the next until her gaze finally rested on someone she recognized. Theo Eckstein, the boy from the drama school. Their eyes locked and she mouthed the words, "What's going on?"
Theo stepped forward, brushing the onlookers aside so he could sit down next to her.
"Do you feel all right?" he asked.
"You gave us quite a fright there," said Theo.
The pirate stepped in to take a closer look.
"Darn right you did," he said.
Aurora started to laugh. The Jolly Roger look-alike was Eddie Robinson wearing a silly costume. And the Arab prince next to him was his classmate, Bill Powell.
She laughed even harder.
"Aurora." Theo shyly took her hand. "You've had a shock. These boys say they saw you with the professor."
"That's right, she done him in." A scrawny young fellow stepped forward. She knew it wasn't polite to notice, but he had the biggest ears she'd ever seen, sticking out from underneath his red wool cap.
"She gave the old man a push." The kid demonstrated to the delight of his buddies. "Right out the window."
Excerpted from The Paganini Curse by Giselle M. Stancic Copyright © 2012 by Giselle M. Stancic. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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