The bell in the old Roman tower in the northwest corner of the Monastero di Chiaravalle began to toll at midnight. The golden tone flowed out over the sleeping campagna, caressing the vineyards and olive groves with its deep, hypnotic sound. The duke in his castle, the peasants in the village, the sheep in the fields, the foxes in their dens--they had listened to the Compline bell all their lives. If they noticed it at all that night, it was as a reminder that they were watched over by a power that never slept.
The monks, simply clad in unbleached woolen robes and sandals, stirred from their cells, moving quietly through torchlit gallerias and into the central courtyard. They stood with hands folded, not speaking, obedient to the brotherhood's vow of silence. The abbot moved to the front of the group in the courtyard, walking quickly despite his great age, his tonsured hair shining like a silver halo in the moonlight. The monks began to chant Gregorian plainsong as the bell fell silent. They followed the abbot in twos toward the chapel, the Latin verses reverberating against stone walls and rising up to heaven.
Bishop Georgio Falcone knew he would not be missed, one brother more or less among many. And even if he were, no one, not even the abbot, would question his absence.
In Florence, Bishop Falcone lived in a palazzo as splendid as any prince's, the walls hung with paintings and rich tapestries, secretaries and emissaries scurrying through the hallways attending to his business, responding to his summonses. On retreat at the monastery, Bishop Falcone lived the simple life of a Cistercian brother. He slept on a hard bed in a monk's cell equipped only with a wooden chair and a desk. He wore the humble robe of a brother, the gold-and-ruby bishop's ring the only outward sign of high office.
Bishop Falcone waited until the brothers were in the chapel before setting off across the courtyard, his destination a doorway set into an arch in the church's north wall. The door opened onto a landing at the head of a downward spiral of stone stairs. Beyond the weak circle of light thrown by his single candle, there was only the impression of a cavernous darkness falling sharply away, a yawning passageway plunging into the earth's musty womb.
Keeping close to the wall on the treacherous stone stairs, Bishop Falcone began to descend into the Monastero di Chiaravalle's crypt.
When he was a young man and new to the priesthood, Falcone thought his vocation would protect him from sin. He had been very naive then. Time taught him that there was no escape from the devil's tricks. You could resist evil in its usual forms, but just when you mastered it, temptation took on another shape, subtle and infinitely seductive in its new form. Even if you were constantly vigilant, sin could work its way into your heart, a worm boring into a rose, its presence unsuspected until it was too late.
"Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem, factorem coeli et terrae, visibilium omnium et invisibilium . . ."
The brothers' voices floated down from the chapel as Bishop Falcone's sandal-clad feet felt their way down stairs rubbed smooth and slippery by centuries of use. The monastery had been built on the ruins of a Roman villa, and the catacombs beneath it had been used for Mass in the early days of the church, during the Persecution, before the Church's ultimate triumph over paganism and sin.
The candle began to gutter. Bishop Falcone stopped, cupping his hand around the flame, willing it to live, not wanting to be caught in perfect darkness halfway between one world and the next.
"Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum, Filium Dei unigentum. Et ex Patre natum ante omnia saecula. Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine, Deum verum de Deo vero . . ."
The flame grew brighter, seeming to draw strength out of the music. Falcone's smile was bitter. He, too, was sensitive to music. If he had not taken vows, he would have become a musician and composer, like Corelli and Vivaldi. But Satan had turned that against him, using Falcone's love of music as a weapon to destroy his soul.
Cupping the flame, Falcone continued down into the crypt, each step as an admission of his descent into worldly temptation that had brought him to this place, in shame and penance.
"Genitum, non factum, consubstantialem Patri: per quem omnia facta sunt. Qui propter nos homines, et propter nostram salutem descendit de coelis. Et incarnatus de Spiritu sancto ex Maria Virgine: Et homo factus est. Crucufixus etiam pro nobis: sub Pontio Pilato passus et sepultus est . . ."
At the bottom of the stairs was a small chapel with a ceiling vaulted in the old Roman style. The air was chilly and damp, like a cave, and smelled of decay, gray cobwebs hanging in drooping loops from the ceiling. Four passageways led off into the catacombs, where the corpses of dead monks reposed on biers carved into the living rock. Each of the walls framed an alcove piled high with the skulls of monks whose bones, unstrung by death, had been removed from the catacombs to make room for newer arrivals.
There was a simple altar in one corner, the wooden cross blackened with age. Bishop Falcone lit the altar candles, but their combined light threw only a simulacrum of illumination in the chamber, the dim light serving mainly to draw more darkness from the crypt's far-reaching catacombs. The shadows loomed and danced in the flickering light. It was almost as if the darkness were a conscious, breathing entity fed on the rotting bodies of monks, hungry now for Bishop Falcone's soul.
"Et resurrexit tertia die, secundum Scripturas. Et ascendit in coelum: sedet ad dexteram Patris. Et iterum venturus est cum gloria judicare vivos et mortuos: cujus regni non erit finis . . ."
Bishop Falcone knelt down, the rough stone poking painfully into his knees. Making the sign of the cross, he began to pray.
"Free me, Lord, from my earthly lust. Drive from me the unholy desire consuming my heart."
"Et in Spiritum sanctum, Dominum et vivificantem: qui ex Patre Filioque procedit."
Footsteps came up slowly behind Falcone, stopping only a few feet behind.
"Replace the burning desire in my soul with your cleansing fire, Lord."
There was a slithering sound behind the bishop, like rats scuttling across the dusty floor. Falcone made the sign of the cross and slipped the robe off his shoulders. He nodded his head, acknowledging he was ready for what was to come. The cat-o'-nine-tails split the air with a serpentine hiss cut short with a loud slap when the whip struck the bare skin of Bishop Falcone's fleshy back. The blow bent Falcone over until his face nearly touched the floor before him.
"Qui cum Patre et Filio simul adoratur et conglorificatur: qui locutus est per Prophetus . . ."
The bishop pushed himself upright with one hand. His skin burned, the pain spreading out across his back, pulsing with each quickened beat of his heart. He drew in a slow, ragged breath.
"Et unum sanctam catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam . . ."
"Again," Falcone commanded.
The whip scourged him a second time, tearing into the welts raised by the first blow. Blood trickled down his back.
"Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum. Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum . . ."
"Again . . ."
The third blow nearly knocked him sideways.
Falcone had never truly wanted anything--not advancement in the Church, not a woman, not power and influence, not even the red cap of a cardinal--as much as he had lusted for the succubus haunting his nights and days. The desire never left his thoughts for more than a few minutes when he was awake, and it commanded his dreams when he slept. It even polluted his mind when he celebrated the Mass, a hungry wanting that would lead to his damnation, unless he could drive it out of his body and soul.
Falcone squeezed his eyes closed, anticipating the blow that pitched him forward. He lost consciousness for a few moments, his cheek pressed against the cool, dusty stone of the crypt floor. It came to him then, as it always did when his guard was down--a sound so sweet that an angel might have been singing to him in the secret language of heaven, soothing and caressing him, tenderly lifting his bleeding body and broken spirit. Falcone awoke then to the pain of his bleeding back, and to the greater spiritual pain that came when he realized he was not hearing the voice of an angel in his mind, but of the demon that had taken possession of his soul.
The bishop pushed away the brother's arm that solicitously helped him sit upright. "The whip," Falcone said, his voice weak. "Scourge me again, Brother, for I am not yet cleansed."
From the sanctuary far above the crypt, the last line of the Credo chanted in plainsong floated down to them as the brother slowly lifted the whip.
"Et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen."
The promise of the world to come seemed very far away to Bishop Falcone. He was enslaved mind, body, and heart, like a Hindu hashish eater who lived only to float lost in his intoxicated dreams. If it killed him, Bishop Falcone would be freed from his lust--his lust for a violin! On his last visit to Florence, he had been bewitched by the enchanted singing of one of Archangelo Serafino's magical violins. If he couldn't overcome the all-consuming obsession to possess one of the Angel violins, as they were called, he would lose his soul, for it was a mortal sin to love anything above God.
"Amen," the monk standing behind Bishop Falcone said.
And then, again, the sharp rush of the falling whip.
The blind old man's fingers felt the air until they located the stack of quarter-sawed spruce boards. He picked up the first, held it to his ear, rapped it with his knuckles.
"Bello," he said.
Yet evidently the quality was not sufficiently bello. He shook his head and put the board aside. He picked up another and repeated the process. This piece of spruce was set aside, too. He was halfway through the stack of wood before he found one that satisfied him.
The journeyman put down the clamp he was using to fasten the maple rib of a new violin to the frame.
"Listen to this one. Can you hear how she rings?"
"Meraviglioso! Like a bell."
As the two men worked in the shop on Via Bertisi, hardly speaking, each concentrating on his work, the sun climbed higher in the Lombard sky, warming the air, bringing out the rich aroma of linseed oil and pine resin. Occasionally the sound of a violin could be heard from one of the other shops on the street. The old man would raise his chin a little, smiling. His eyes were useless, but his ears were keen; he could judge the quality of an instrument from just a few notes. Cremona, Italy, was the center of violinmaking in 1745, as it had been one hundred years before, and probably would remain for however long there were violins. Still, there was a tremendous range in quality among the instruments produced by its masters, journeymen, and apprentices.
At noon the men took off their aprons and went upstairs for a simple lunch of bread, slices of sausage, and wine, prepared by Grazia, the padrone's only remaining servant, a woman nearly as old as he.
It was the habit of most violinmakers in Cremona to take a break in the early afternoon, especially during the summer, when the warmth made it difficult to stay awake leaning over a workbench, trying to concentrate on the finer work that required small, delicate, repetitive tasks. But time was precious to the padrone, and so the two returned to their labors after their meal.
In the middle of the afternoon, Silvio finished applying a coat of varnish to a green instrument. The padrone, who had no children of his own, had already passed the secret concoction on to Silvio, teaching him to mix it in a copper alembic that once belonged to an alchemist. He looked up from his work when he noticed the old man had stopped working and was looking up, his eyes focused, as they always were now, on something very far away.
"Is something the matter, Padrone?"
"Is the shop in order?"
"Of course, Padrone," Silvio said, looking around to assure himself that this was indeed the case. "Except for the wood shavings on your apron. Why do you ask?"
"We are about to have visitors," the old man said, brushing the wood dust and tiny spruce curlicues from his leather apron. He turned toward the door of Serafino Violins with a look of happy anticipation in his sightless eyes.
As if conjured up by the old blind man's wizardry, four men appeared in the doorway. When Silvio saw who they were, his throat tightened the way it used to in the presence of the harsh master of the orphanage where he lived before he had the good fortune to be apprenticed to Archangelo Serafino to learn violinmaking. Silvio had been anticipating the deputation's visit for a long time, and dreading it for the padrone's sake.
First through the door was Fausto Scolari, the presidente of the luthier guild, wearing a rich velvet cloak and a hat decorated with a purple feather. Behind him was Carlo Tartini, a journeyman in Fausto's shop and an officer in the guild. If the presence of Giovanni Capelli, a master violinmaker who had once been one of the padrone's apprentices, gave Silvio reason to hope, he did not know what to make of the other man, a thin young priest with a high forehead and dark, cold eyes.
"Buon giorno, gentiluomini," the padrone said, smiling and opening his arms in a welcoming gesture.
"Good day to you, Archangelo Serafino," Fausto said without removing his hat.
"It is always a pleasure to have you visit my shop, Giovanni," the padrone said, looking in the direction of his former apprentice as if his sightless eyes could see him perfectly. "And you other three gentlemen are welcome as well."
Fausto and the priest exchanged a troubled glance, as if the feat were evidence of witchcraft, but Giovanni, like Silvio, did not seem in the least surprised. Padrone Serafino "saw" more with his ears than most men did with their eyes.
"Good afternoon, Padrone," Giovanni said, removing his hat and bowing with grave solemnity.
Fausto cleared his voice to get the others to look at him, reminding them he was the one in authority among the visitors, a man who was, Silvio knew, well accustomed to putting himself forward.
Excerpted from The Vampire's Violin by Michael Romkey. Copyright © 2003 by Michael Romkey. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.