IN THE CITY, THERE WERE TWO types of people. These were the wealthy and the poor. And while there was always the chance for the affluent to slip into poverty, seldom could the unfortunate advance their place.
But Charles was among those blessed to rise up from his station, having done so through a modest talent with music. For the arts were in high fashion, and his skill with the piano made him a man in demand for the gatherings of high society.
He was the greatest, he was a wizard with the keys of ebony and ivory. Respect and admiration were heaped upon him as was money and the attention of many a noble lady. They whispered in wonder for the true talent of his hands. His place among musicians brought to him all his lowly birth had failed to provide.
But to his ears there came a sound most vile. A rumor spoke of another whose hands were gifted by the gods. Seeking him out, Charles found this newcomer, this upstart, was younger and more handsome. Soon, only withered grandams lustily eyed the poor Charles. Like a lightning stroke, he discovered his good fortune could wane as well as wax.
Second best would not do for Charles, who wisely and treacherously kept this enemy close to his heart. He embraced him as a friend and took a place as his mentor and guide. Though he praised him, he despised him, and he pushed his protégé to play only the most difficult pieces in the hope he could discourage the boy or engineer a public failure. But the boy rose to meet the challenge every time.
This Damion, was little more than a child and his considerable talent could only grow. Already Charles was being eclipsed by this savant and he knew in time he would be forgotten. Thus, he began to plot and scheme, and the thought of murder even crossed his mind. His jealous rage grew until one night he was forced to quit a party while the younger man played on.
He wandered the dark and lonely streets. As he crossed the great bridge, he even contemplated throwing himself into the water. Staring down into the moon’s reflection, he swore he’d part with his very soul to be rid of his rival.
Though the night there came the clicking of a cane on the cobblestones and a gentleman who tipped his hat but suddenly stopped.
“I say,” he began with a twinkle in his eye, “Are you not the great pianist, the legendary Charles?”
“A legend soon to be forgotten…” grumbled Charles in reply.
“Ah,” said the stranger, “so, then, this Damion is indeed as good as I have heard?”
“Bah!” spat Charles.
“Oh, please forgive my thoughtlessness. I meant no offense. For I am seeking a musician, one of great talent and one who is courageous in heart.”
“Indeed. I have acquired sheets of music supposedly composed by Ludwig the Mad.”
“I should think so myself, for Ludwig seems to be more legend than fact,” he noted with a friendly chuckle. “They said his music was composed by a demon summoned up from Hell. But I tell you, having no talent of my own, I have sought any who could reveal this cryptic sound. None have been able to play the piece, most claim it is beyond the talent of mortal man. Some have even driven themselves quite insane with the effort.”
“The great Damion,” said Charles with a twinkle now in his eye, “is a student of mine. If you provide the piece, Mr…”
“Call me Nick.”
“If you provide the piece, Nick, I will provide the imminent Damion.”
“I think we have a deal,” said Nick. “Here is my card. You will find me at the address, say… tomorrow night?”
“That can be arranged.”
“And do be sure to warn the boy, I should hate for him to be ignorant of the risk.”
“I surely shall.”
“I would be a terrible fiend to deprive the world of a talent such as his. Would I not? On the morrow, then.”
Charles watched as Nick went clicking back into the night.
The address was a lonely place, but grand. Towering and broad, it put to shame the veritable palaces that once had brought them awe. The two agreed there must be royalty in the blood of Old Nick.
Lead by a servant, they soon found themselves in a great chamber. They did not wait for long. While Damion inspected the beautiful grand piano, Nick pulled Charles aside.
“You have warned him?”
“I have.” Charles lied.
“Well then, gentlemen, let us begin,” he said, as the servant placed the sheets on the stand.
Damion stared and for a moment his face wrinkled in confusion. But the instant Charles smiled in cruel satisfaction, Damion’s hands moved into place. And he played.
The sound began low and slow, like a dirge in Heaven, joined swiftly by higher notes that danced like bird’s song above the deeper chords. The melody and harmony were more beautiful, more perfectly suited for each other, than anything Charles had ever heard before. But more delightful still was the expression worn by Damion.
His concentrated labors brought sweat quickly to his brow. His mouth began to twitch, his eyes to dart, but he did not falter and pressed on.
And now the sound came faster like a falcon on the wing and like a falcon’s talons and beak it stuck with fury into the heart. It was a sound to make the thunder tremble, and angels singing could not match the sweetness.
There was the ripping of cloth as Damion tore his shirt to meet his marks. His face was frightened and pained from the effort, but still the maniac music rumbled on. His fingers were so frenzied they left the keys vermilion.
Then the sound transcended beauty, becoming something far beyond. For in it was fury and pain given an unholy musical form. Charles almost shrieked as the notes stabbed his ears and pummeled him like the fists of an angry mob.
“Stop!” He screamed, clutching his hands to his ears. But his pleas were swallowed in a diabolical crescendo, one so unearthly it drove him to the floor. Too late he realized it was not merely playing it that made men mad, but hearing it as well.
Damion collapsed across the keyboard gasping and groaning, his hands and fingers broken.
From the floor Charles alternately laughed and sobbed. His ears were now deaf and would never again hear anything else but the sound stuck inside his head.
And Old Nick smiled, applauding softly.
story by Joe Stanley