Hardings bony nose twitched eagerly as he stooped and peered into the corner of the tiny shop window. It was a Stradivarius all right. He would stake his life on it.
Although antique shops abounded, he rarely visited this part of the old town with its cobbled streets and ancient houses. It was not normally a place for bargainsthe tourists had seen to that. But this was something else.
He peered again into the corner. The violin was almost hidden within the folds of an ancient remnant of orange crushed velvetonly the front could be seenbut there was no mistaking the unique scrollwork and the characteristic colour of the rich Cremona varnish. And in a strange way its bed of velvet enhanced the colour. True, the violin was lacking strings and the bridgework was slightly damaged, but a few hours work would soon remedy that. A film of dust on the instruments shoulders indicated that it had not been moved for some time, and to the untutored eye it was completely in keeping with the rest of the windows contentsa jumble of tasteless junk and house-clearance items.
Hardings pulse began to race. With any luck he was onto the bargain of a lifetime. He looked again at the windows contents and realised that there was another violin hanging in a more prominent position inside the shopa cheap modern instrument obviously made for the mass market. As Harding stared at it, a plan began to form in his head, and he moved to the shops entrance.
A bell tinkled as he entered the low doorway and threaded his way through a motley collection of old furniture to the counter at the back of the room. As he waited, he looked around with a connoisseurs eye, but his heart was set upon his astounding find.
At that moment a door behind the counter opened and the shops owner appeared. He was a man in his early eighties, shabbily dressed in an old cardigan and corduroy trousers but quite sprightly in spite of the fact that he was lame and had only one arm. "Good afternoon, sir. Can I be of assistance?"
Harding put his plan into operation. "Yes, I wonder if you can help. I have a grandson starting grammar school next term and I want to give him a present of some sort. Hes quite musical and keen to learn the violin. Hes been having lessons at primary school with a loaned instrument, but hed be thrilled to have his own. Have you anything that would fill the bill? Something not too expensive? I notice you have something in the window."
There was a pause. "Ah, yes." And then the shopkeeper smiled. "I think Ive just the thing for someone like you, sir." He took down the cheap violin and handed it to Harding. "I sell quite a few of these. Especially made for newcomers to the instrument. And only £150."
The exorbitant price took Hardings breath away and he had no difficulty in shaking his head. "Oh no," he said. "A price like that is far beyond my means. Have you nothing cheaper?"
"Im afraid not, sir. But I assure you. Its quite a competitive price."
"Wellin that case I shall have to look elsewhere." Harding made to leave the shop and then seemed to hesitate. "Theres just one thing. As I said, I noticed that you have an old violin in a corner of the window. I can see that its in bad shape and not worth a great deal. But I have a friend who may be able to patch it up. I can take it off your hands if you like. I could go to £25. I dont want to disappoint the lad."
The shopkeeper pursed his lips and then shook his head. "Oh no, sir," he said. "I couldnt sell that to you. You wouldnt be happy with it, I assure you. Its just there for show. Ive not moved it for years."
Harding chose his words carefully. "You know," he said. "I cant say why, but Im quite taken with it. Would you be prepared to accept a little more? Say perhaps fifty?"
The old man smiled. "Im afraid not, sir. As I said, it wouldnt suit you at all, believe me. Its just for window dressing."
But Harding now had the bit between his teeth. He lost all caution. "How about seventy-five?"
"Goodness, you are keen sir, but no."
Harding looked at the shopkeeper. For the first time he realised that there was a coldness in the old mans blue eyes and that his speech belied his appearance. "Hes on to me," he thought. "Ive overplayed my hand."
Seeing Harding hesitate, the shopkeeper pressed home his advantage. "And as for the old violin in the window, its no ordinary instrument. Its whats called a Stradivarius. A violin like that is worth a fortune. Far beyond your means. But you werent to know that, would you, sir? "
There was a pause and Harding shuffled uneasily. "Oh," he muttered. "I didnt know."
"But Ill tell you what, sir" the old man went on. "That instrument in
your hands. I dont want to disappoint you, so Ill let you have it for £75. Half price. Now I cant say fairer than that. Its a real bargain. What do you say?"
Harding shuffled uneasily and tried to maintain his dignity. "Well in that case," he said, "Ill take your offer."
But the old shopkeeper was merciless. "Case, you said? That reminds me. Youll need one for the violin. I can let you have one cheap. Say fifteen pound?" His eyes bored into Hardings.
By now Harding was only keen to leave the premises. The purchase was made and he left the shop in a hurry.
As the shop door closed, the old man smiled to himself. Not for the first time, he let his mind go back to that time in January 1944 and the Anzio beachhead. His hopes of becoming a virtuoso violinist ended on that day when he lost his arm in the ill-fated battle. It was only during the long days of his convalescence that the real irony of the situation became apparent.
One day, roaming the devastated countryside long after the war had moved north, he found himself in the bombed ruins of an ancient country house. To relieve his boredom, he poked around in the debris and turned over a glass cabinet, almost hidden in the rubble. And there, he found the Stradivarius. But his joy was short-lived. As was the case with himself, the war had rendered the instrument useless. The back was completely shattered. Only the front and neck remained. But no doubt from some deep psychological reason he had held on to the fragment and now, many years later, it reposed in the shop window.
The old soldier had never fully come to terms with his lost hopes, but he found some small solace when people like Harding tried to cheat him. As he watched Harding scuttle round the corner, he made a mental note to replenish his stock of cheap violins. And another coating of dust on the old Stradivarius wouldnt come amiss.
Ron is 80 years old and served with the British Army in India (and Ceylon) during World War II. He retired from the teaching profession in 1985 and, following his wife's death shortly afterwards, took up creative writing as a hobby. Since then he has had short stories and poetry published and broadcast. The North West Network of the B.B.C has broadcast seventeen of his stories.