This is one of my favorites among the short stories I’ve written. I posted it here somewhere back at the beginning of the blog, but I thought I’d share it again.
When he shut his eyes, he could almost forget he was cold. February 1882 in Paris, and in all his long experience of nine years the boy couldn’t remember a colder winter. The wind howled down the street, past the shabby buildings and across the boy’s thin cheek. He kept his eyes shut and concentrated on the music.
The violin played in counterpoint to the wind, neither quite strong enough to defeat the other. The boy ignored the constant trudge of footsteps, the mutter of voices, the whistle of the wind, and tried very, very hard to hear only the music. He opened his eyes only at the sound of coins clinking together. He looked down at the violin case open on the ground at his feet, and easily identified the one that had been added. There weren’t very many coins there. He looked up to see a tall man wrapped in a long black cloak, hat pulled low over his forehead, casting his face in shadows.
“Merci, monsieur,” the boy murmured. His eyes dropped and he continued playing his violin.
The man didn’t move, and as the moments passed the boy became perplexed. People stood and listened, once in a while, in warm weather. In the cold and the dim of a winter twilight people wrapped their coats tight around them and hurried on, heads down, intent on whatever warm fireside was waiting before them. If they dropped a coin at all it was without stopping, often without even looking, certainly without waiting for the boy’s whispered “merci.”
The moments slipped past. The violin music didn’t falter but neither did the man move and finally the boy’s eyes stole up to his face again.
He couldn’t see the man’s eyes for the shadows and he couldn’t read his expression. The man reached into the depths of his cloak and brought out a bit of paper. He held it up—a bill of paper money, with very large numbers on it.
He raised it an inch, an offer, and then indicated the violin. “If you’ll let me see that for a moment.”
The boy stopped playing. He lowered the instrument, violin in one hand, bow in the other. He looked from the man’s face to the money and back again, then gathered the violin uncertainly to his chest.
A faint smile curved his lips. “I won’t hurt it,” he said, voice gentle. “And I promise to give it back.”
A moment more and then the boy set his teeth and held the instrument out at arm’s length.
The man bent down and placed the money in the case, moving two coins on top of it to anchor it against the wind. Then he rose and took the violin.
He looked it over critically, examining it carefully, and the boy’s eyes dropped again. He knew it wasn’t a very good violin. He knew it was old and battered and that the neck wiggled a little. But on the other hand he knew also that he took care of it as best he could. It was clean and cared for and anyway it was his violin and it played, didn’t it? He raised his eyes again and waited with a touch of defiance for whatever comment the man would make.
The man didn’t comment. In a practiced motion he brought the violin into place at his chin, touched the bow to the strings, and began to play.
The cold disappeared. The wind disappeared. The drafty buildings and hostile stares and ragged clothes, the sad mother and the tired father, the goosebumps and the dirt and the pinch of hunger at night disappeared. The boy stood entranced and the music flowed out in a golden stream and wrapped around him, blocking out the world and creating a new world that was warm and safe and beautiful.
Finally—or all too soon—the music faded away and the boy was released, still with a little gold-dust before his eyes. He stared at the man, mouth open. “I could never play like that, monsieur!”
The man smiled again, a little more this time. “You could one day. You have talent. And you care.”
The words were tinged with gold. They had to be from that other world of music, because in the world the boy knew no one said anything like that. “Merci, monsieur!”
“You’re welcome,” the man said softly, and offered him the violin.
The boy took it with reverent hands, looking at him with his dark eyes shining. The man extended his hand palm down, and closed it into a fist. Then he turned it over and unfolded his fingers. There on his palm, bright against the black of his glove, was an elegant gold engagement ring, set with sparkling diamonds. The boy stared at it curiously. Only when the man jerked his hand towards him did the boy understand.
The boy gasped, large eyes growing even more enormous in his thin face. “Oh no, monsieur, I…I cannot take…”
“Of course you can,” the man said brusquely, “take it.”
The boy didn’t move.
“I don’t want it, boy, take it!”
He stared at the ring for a moment longer, and then managed one of the bravest acts of his life. “Who was she, monsieur?”
“What?” the man said sharply.
“Who was the woman the ring belonged to?” he asked in a whisper.
The man looked away. “Just a girl.”
For a moment they both looked at the ring, still lying on his palm.
“If you don’t take it,” the man said abruptly, “I swear I’ll go throw it in the Seine.”
A heartbeat more, and the boy hesitantly reached out and took the ring.
“It’s worth a small fortune, don’t let anyone cheat you,” the man said curtly. “Buy yourself a good violin.” He glanced down, and the boy shamefacedly tried to hide one bare foot behind the other. “And some shoes.”
“Merci, monsieur,” the boy whispered for the third time. He stared at the ring, then tightly closed his fingers around it. “And God bless you, monsieur!”
The man touched one hand to the brim of his hat. “Merci. And good luck,” he said quietly, then turned and walked away into the night.
The boy stood on the corner and watched as the man in the black cloak disappeared into the night. “God bless you, monsieur,” he whispered again, feeling the outline of the ring against his fingers but hardly noticing the cold. He watched until the dark figure had merged once more with the shadows, then bent down and fished the man’s coin out of the violin case. It was easy to find the right one; it was the most valuable one there. He tucked it into a pocket, vowing never, ever, ever to spend it, no matter how hungry he got. Then he gathered up the rest of the money and put it into a different pocket, carefully returning the violin to the worn velvet case. Violin case under one arm and ring tightly clenched in one hand, the boy ran all the way home.
He sold the engagement ring at a pawn shop the next morning. He went to three before he found a dealer honest enough to give him a fair price. He bought a pair of shoes, and the nicest violin he could. The money the man had given him to see the violin paid for food for a month. The coin he really did keep forever. He still had it ten years later, when he played at the Paris Opera House.