Sunday 5 November 2023

Sunday Serial: The Story Weaver and Other Tales, by Sally Zigmond, lavendar infusion: THE ZANCANI CELLO


We found the cello by chance. We were on our honeymoon in Budapest where we had rented a room in a clean but shabby hotel. And there it was, wrapped in old newspaper under the bed. The owner shrugged and said it had been left behind by a Spanish lady and that it was probably as riddled with woodworm as she had been with consumption.

Despite an accumulation of grime it filled the bedroom with a golden glow. The wood was of the finest satinwood and the back was painted with the image of a saint or angel. I wondered whether it was a Stradivari or an Amati and decided to consult scholars and musicians.

            ‘Just think of the money we could make,’ I said.

            Sarah glared. ‘I don’t care if it’s worthless. It’s mine and it’s never leaving my side.’

From that moment on she never allowed me to touch it—or her. She caressed its curves and belly as if it were her lover and together they made the sweetest and saddest music. 

Whoever I asked told me I should show it to Professor Williams of the Royal Academy of Music.

            That night Sarah locked me out of the bedroom and I knew I had been usurped by a greater love.

            After an exchange of letters, Professor Williams and I finally met in his Oxford lodgings. Over port, he leaned forward in his chair. ‘My wife and I spent our honeymoon in Venice. Jane was a cellist of some distinction Ever since we met I had been seeking an instrument to match her talent and beauty. It was Carnivale but we avoided the noisy crowds and wandered through the quiet alleys, arm in arm. Then a sea-fret drifted in from the lagoon, shrouding the buildings and muffling all sounds but the slap of green water against the walls.’ He paused and looked far beyond the panelled wood and his untouched glass.  I think he had forgotten I was there.

            ‘The mist lifted for a moment,’ he eventually continued, ‘to reveal a dingy shop. In the window stood a cello; a cello so exquisite that we knew it was waiting for us. The padrone seemed only too eager to part with it.

‘We were so excited with our find we decided to return home immediately. You see, we both knew what it was.’  He looked at me. ‘What do you know of Isepo Zancani?’

            Before I could answer, he stood up and ushered me to the door.

            My continued research led me to the Edinburgh’s University Library. It was only when I opened the first book on the pile at my desk, I realised I had not asked the professor what happened once they owned the cello.

                        I found very little to begin with. Signor Zancani is a mystery. Some say he never existed; others that he lived in Cremona but disappeared, died or was incarcerated in an asylum, after having made only one instrument.

            One books contained a paragraph more from the realms of fairy-tale than history.  The story was that Zancani was apprenticed to the celebrated Nicolò Amati with whom Antonio Stradivari also learned his trade.

One day, a Lombardy financier and his daughter called on the great Amati. She was a gifted cellist and he wanted to buy her best instrument money could buy. Because he was mean and, knowing the prices Signor Amati charged, he suggested his apprentices each make one and he would buy the one that pleased him best. They all set to work, none more assiduously that Isepo Zancani for, you see, had fallen in love with the beautiful girl. He worked all day and all night for months. And win the contest he did, with the most exquisite instrument on which he himself painted the portrait of the Virgin fashioned in the image of the beautiful flaxen-haired Francesca. The financier was delighted. Then Zancani fell to his knees and asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Even worse than the ‘No!’ shouted by the man, Francesca began to laugh and couldn’t stop because not only was Zancani a poor apprentice, he was short and had a face like an artichoke.

            Isepo pointed at her and prophesied she would be the last woman to mock him. He said that any woman who touched that cello would fall in love with it and be his until death and beyond. Still the girl laughed. Zancani fled and was never seen again.

Within a week, Francesca was dead. She had been playing the cello when a string broke and struck her across the face. The wound became septic. On the day of her funeral, her father hurled the cello in the river.

            I wrote again to the professor about the story I had uncovered and to ask him what happened to his wife. He refused to see me but sent me this reply. ‘Jane died within a month of our honeymoon. The cello killed her. I went to her room to destroy it but it had vanished. Now do you see?’

            It was at that moment that madness seized me too. I had to destroy the cursed instrument. I gave Sarah a strong sleeping draft and stole it from her. 

I sat on a bench by the river. Rain spattered my face but I felt nothing but hot rage. I opened the case. I carefully unwound the silk cloth Sarah had wrapped around her ‘beauty.’

            The case was empty.

            She had tricked me. I was too late. When I returned home I found her on the bedroom floor, as cold and unyielding as the cello in her arms.

            When I returned with the doctor, my Sarah was still dead but the cello had gone.

That was fifty years ago.  I am now old and weary and close to death. I still search for news of the Zancani Cello.

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