Strings, Chapter 1
The Merino Rose is sitting on my coffee table. I can see it from where I’m working in my study, but seeing it doesn’t make it any more believable.
What’s even more incredible is that the Merino Rose—“the violin of angels”—is actually mine. The Brahms Concerto was played for the first time on this violin.
The king of strings.
And it doesn’t even exist. The Merino Rose was destroyed in the Trieste Opera fire in 1881. Everybody knows that. If a Guarnerius with inlaid roses around the back edge shows up at auction, it’s a fake.
Except—maybe not. What keeps those forgeries coming is that no one can prove that the fire destroyed the Merino Rose. No one can even prove the violin was actually in Trieste. It was Vittorio Bonacci who was there. Was the Merino Rose with him? Was he the thief who stole it from Joseph Joachim’s Berlin conservatory?
The questions don’t matter any more. The violin is real. It’s been gone for more than a century, and it vanished before sound recording was invented. Even so, the legend of the Rose’s unsurpassed brilliance has lived on. It defies reason, but the world still mourns the loss of a violin no one alive has ever heard.
I knew this was the Rose the instant I heard one note. Yes, I have years of experience playing and appraising stringed instruments, but that only served to corroborate what I knew the moment I plucked that string. The Merino Rose is more than a haunting memory. The world will soon find out that one of its loveliest treasures still occupies three dimensions.
I can already see the cameras, the microphones, the throngs of reporters. When I say the word, they’ll be here, each one more eager than the last to hear the edict of Edward Spencer IV. I’m the undisputed authority, after all, the expert with unimpeachable credentials to give them the answer to the one question they’re all dying to ask.
Oh, they’ll listen in rapt silence while I play the Brahms, and they’ll pretend they care when I speak of the Rose’s sweet perfection. But it’s not what they’re really after. All they want is a number.
In the end I’ll give them exactly that, and they’ll go away happy, believing I have priced the priceless. They will never know what it really cost to bring the Merino Rose to my coffee table. Only Olivia knows, and she’s not here.
I discovered I was a string man when I was eight years old and attending summer camp in Idaho. The music counselor handed me a violin when I arrived, and the moment I felt the smooth wood under my fingers, I was smitten.
At first, it was the construction of the thing that captivated me. I come from a manufacturing family—yes, I’m related to Spencer Luggage—and I’d spent my early years hearing about the intricacies of design and fabrication. I’d hung around our factory in Los Angeles every day after school, and I could have constructed a suitcase single-handed by the time I’d finished fourth grade. The violin was far finer than a valise, and its curved surfaces fascinated me. Even the bow seemed like a work of art.
If you think it odd that I’d never touched a violin until I was eight, you’ve never met my father. Edward Spencer III thought music was fine, in its place. He’d sung with the Yale Alley Cats when he was in college, but that was over once the sheepskin arrived. Singing was just wholesome recreation, the same as summer camp. There was no room for it in real life. Hobbies like building models belonged there—that was practical engineering. But music? Frank Sinatra on the hi-fi while you sipped your pre-dinner Scotch was where it belonged.
Fathers, however, have always had a hard time stifling their children’s infatuations. I was in love with the violin from that first moment of contact, and I spent the summer making it mine. The music counselor, happy to find an avid pupil, spent hours with me, got me excused from canoeing and archery. By the end of the summer, I could play.
And play I did. When my parents came to collect me on the last day of camp, I was the star of the talent show, the centerpiece of a group that included the music counselor and two of his friends who were members of the Spokane Symphony.
My parents were very proud, and they seemed to listen carefully when the music counselor told them I was a “natural talent.”
“He should have lessons,” Mike said, and he gave them the name of a teacher in Los Angeles.
My mother agreed that I should continue studying violin, and she arranged for lessons with Howard Stiles, who had just retired as concertmaster with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Mr. Stiles wasn’t the name my counselor had suggested. My mother moved in Los Angeles’ social stratosphere, and if her son was going to study violin, the teacher would have to be Someone.
My father didn’t start worrying about my love affair with music until I entered high school. I enrolled at Haviland, a boarding school located in the picturesque hamlet of Ojai in the oak-studded hills near Santa Barbara. The first three Edward Spencers had gone to Andover, but my father had decided when I was very young that if we were going to be a west coast family, we needed to start some west coast traditions. These new traditions didn’t extend past high school, however. I’d known since I started eating solid food that I was expected to graduate from Yale.
For the first three years I attended Haviland, I played in the orchestra. This meant several performances each term, and the big event was always the spring musical. I played for Oklahoma and The Music Man, but the closest I ever came to acting was the title role in Fiddler on the Roof. It never crossed my mind to audition for a speaking part in one of these productions until my senior year. I happened to be standing near the music department office when Mr. Harper emerged and posted a flyer on the bulletin board.
“Auditions for all roles in Camelot will begin Tuesday, January 16, in Goddard Hall at four o’clock,” the poster read. I would have thought no more about it if Bill Cross hadn’t read the words aloud.
“All roles except Lancelot,” he continued as though he were still reading. “No tryouts are necessary for a role custom made for Haviland’s pride, Ted Spencer.”
Andy Beecham and a few other guys were standing nearby, and they all hooted. I felt color rise in my cheeks, and I couldn’t stop myself from tossing my chemistry book into a hedge and tackling my best friend. Caught completely off guard, Bill landed in the hedge, too.
“Hey, this thing has thorns,” he yelped. “Damn you, Spencer. I was only joking.”
“Sorry,” I said, grabbing his hand and helping him up. “Don’t know what got into me.”
“Good thing he didn’t have his lance with him,” Andy said, and all the guys laughed again.
“Screw you,” I said, just as Mr. Harper stuck his head out the door.
“What’s going on out here?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Bill said quickly. “I just tripped, and Ted was just helping me up.”
Mr. Harper heaved a weary sigh.
“Get moving,” he said. “I know you all have someplace to be.”
“Hey, come on. Just do it,” Bill said as we headed toward the science building. “I’m stuck with doing the lights. Harper says I have to train my replacements—a couple of freshmen.”
“Ha,” I said. “If he only knew what they’re really going to learn.”
Bill had been Haviland’s light man since ninth grade. The light booth in Goddard Hall was his secret hideaway. Fortunately, he was very talented at snowing faculty members, or he would have been expelled many times over for what he did and stored in there.
“The key to doing anything you want,” he used to say, “is remembering that what you are and what you seem don’t have to match.”
I envied him that. I could never seem like anything different from what I was, a self-consciously square violin player. Bill was a chameleon. To the Haviland faculty, he was a valuable asset. Not only did he keep the antiquated wiring system in Goddard Hall working flawlessly, he once prevented a fire in the science building by noticing a leaky gas valve in the chemistry lab. Another time, he saw that the retaining wall above the gym was developing a big crack. It turned out a water pipe had broken, and he was credited with saving the gym from a giant mudslide. Deeds like that are unusual for a high school student, and they gave Bill an equally unusual invincibility.
“You have to admit you’d make a good Lancelot,” Bill went on. He dodged as I took another half-hearted swing at him. “No, Ted. I mean it. Good legs, golden curls, and we’ve all heard you in the shower. Perfect pitch.”
“The hell with you, Cross,” I said. Mr. Gillespie was standing at the door of the chemistry lab, or Bill might well have found himself in another hedge.
But Bill was right. Again. The guy was a master at pushing my buttons. If it hadn’t been for him, I never would have joined the tennis team, and I would have finished my entire high school career without once drinking beer or sneaking off campus. I wasn’t nearly appreciative enough at the time, but without Bill, I would have been an impossible goody-goody.
Which, of course, was exactly why I was such a good candidate for the role of Lancelot. Even though I detested the idea at first, I couldn’t help considering it. For starters, I actually had a little free time. Teachers know better than to try to get second-semester seniors to work very hard, and my college applications were in. Until the deciding envelopes arrived, I was in a tense holding pattern, and I longed for a little distraction. Gradually, I decided that an acting part in Camelot might be an amusing way to close out my four years at Haviland, and more chances to hang out with Bill in the light booth didn’t sound too bad, either.
And so it came to pass that on the appointed day, I arrived at the back door of Goddard Hall at precisely four o’clock. I was not carrying a violin.
The book continues…Strings at Amazon Kindle store