A ROMAN SINGER
F. MARION CRAWFORD
I, Cornelio Grandi, who tell you these things, have a story of my own, of which some of you are not ignorant. You know, for one thing, that I was not always poor, nor always a professor of philosophy, nor a scribbler of pedantic articles for a living. Many of you can remember why I was driven to sell my patrimony, the dear castello in the Sabines, with the good corn-land and the vineyards in the valley, and the olives, too. For I am not old yet; at least, Mariuccia is older, as I often tell her. These are queer times. It was not any fault of mine. But now that Nino is growing to be a famous man in the world, and people are saying good things and bad about him, and many say that he did wrong in this matter, I think it best to tell you all the whole truth and what I think of it. For Nino is just like a son to me; I brought him up from a little child, and taught him Latin, and would have made a philosopher of him. What could I do? He had so much voice that he did not know what to do with it.
His mother used to sing. What a piece of a woman she was! She had a voice like a man's, and when De Pretis brought his singers to the festa once upon a time, when I was young, he heard her far down below, as we walked on the terrace of the palazzo, and asked me if I would not let him educate that young tenor. And when I told him it was one of the contadine, the wife of a tenant of mine, he would not believe it. But I never heard her sing after Serafino—that was her husband—was killed at the fair in Genazzano. And one day the fevers took her, and so she died, leaving Nino a little baby. Then you know what happened to me, about that time, and how I sold Castel Serveti and came to live here in Rome. Nino was brought to me here. One day in the autumn a carrettiere from Serveti, who would sometimes stop at my door and leave me a basket of grapes in the vintage, or a pitcher of fresh oil in winter, because he never used to pay his house-rent when I was his landlord—but he is a good fellow, Gigi—and so he tries to make amends now; well, as I was saying, he came one day and gave me a great basket of fine grapes, and he brought Nino with him, a little boy of scarce six years—just to show him to me, he said.
He was an ugly little boy, with a hat of no particular shape and a dirty face. He had great black eyes, with ink-saucers under them, calamai, as we say, just as he has now. Only the eyes are bigger now, and the circles deeper. But he is still sufficiently ugly. If it were not for his figure, which is pretty good, he could never have made a fortune with his voice. De Pretis says he could, but I do not believe it.
Well, I made Gigi come in with Nino, and Mariuccia made them each a great slice of toasted bread and spread it with oil, and gave Gigi a glass of the Serveti wine, and little Nino had some with water. And Mariuccia begged to have the child left with her till Gigi went back the next day; for she is fond of children and comes from Serveti herself. And that is how Nino came to live with us. That old woman has no principles of economy, and she likes children.
"What does a little creature like that eat?" said she. "A bit of bread, a little soup—macche! You will never notice it, I tell you. And the poor thing has been living on charity. Just imagine whether you are not quite as able to feed him as Gigi is!" So she persuaded me. But at first I did it to please her, for I told her our proverb, which says there can be nothing so untidy about a house as children and chickens. He was such a dirty little boy, with only one shoe and a battered hat, and he was always singing at the top of his voice, and throwing things into the well in the cortile.
Mariuccia can read a little, though I never believed it until I found her one day teaching Nino his letters out of the Vite dei Santi. That was probably the first time that her reading was ever of any use to her, and the last, for I think she knows the Lives of the Saints by heart, and she will certainly not venture to read a new book at her age. However, Nino very soon learned to know as much as she, and she will always be able to say that she laid the foundation of his education. He soon forgot to throw handfuls of mud into the well, and Mariuccia washed him, and I bought him a pair of shoes, and we made him look very decent. After a time he did not even remember to pull the cat's tail in the morning, so as to make her sing with him, as he said. When Mariuccia went to church she would take him with her, and he seemed very fond of going, so that I asked him one day if he would like to be a priest when he grew up, and wear beautiful robes, and have pretty little boys to wait on him with censers in their hands.
"No," said the little urchin, stoutly, "I won't be a priest." He found in his pocket a roast chestnut Mariuccia had given him, and began to shell it.
"Why are you always so fond of going to church then?" I asked.
"If I were a big man," quoth he, "but really big, I would sing in church, like Maestro De Pretis."
"What would you sing, Nino?" said I, laughing. He looked very grave, and got a piece of brown paper and folded it up. Then he began to beat time on my knees and sang out boldly, Cornu ejus exaltabitur.
It was enough to make one laugh, for he was only seven years old, and ugly too. But Mariuccia, who was knitting in the hall-way, called out that it was just what Maestro Ercole had sung the day before at vespers, every syllable.
I have an old piano in my sitting-room. It is a masterpiece of an instrument, I can tell you; for one of the legs is gone and I propped it up with two empty boxes, and the keys are all black except those that have lost the ivory—and those are green. It has also five pedals, disposed as a harp underneath; but none of them make any impression on the sound, except the middle one, which rings a bell. The sound-board has a crack in it somewhere, Nino says, and two of the notes are dumb since the great German maestro came home with my boy one night, and insisted on playing an accompaniment after supper. We had stewed chickens and a flask of Cesanese, I remember, and I knew something would happen to the piano. But Nino would never have any other, for De Pretis had a very good one; and Nino studies without anything—just a common tuning-fork that he carries in his pocket. But the old piano was the beginning of his fame. He got into the sitting-room one day, by himself, and found out that he could make a noise by striking the keys, and then he discovered that he could make tunes, and pick out the ones that were always ringing in his head. After that he could hardly be dragged away from it, so that I sent him to school to have some quiet in the house.
He was a clever boy, and I taught him Latin and gave him our poets to read; and as he grew up I would have made a scholar of him, but he would not. At least, he was willing to learn and to read; but he was always singing too. Once I caught him declaiming "Arma virumque cano" to an air from Trovatore, and I knew he could never be a scholar then, though he might know a great deal. Besides, he always preferred Dante to Virgil, and Leopardi to Horace.
One day, when he was sixteen or thereabouts, he was making a noise, as usual, shouting some motive or other to Mariuccia and the cat, while I was labouring to collect my senses over a lecture I had to prepare. Suddenly his voice cracked horribly and his singing ended in a sort of groan. It happened again once or twice, the next day, and then the house was quiet. I found him at night asleep over the old piano, his eyes all wet with tears.
"What is the matter, Nino?" I asked. "It is time for youngsters like you to be in bed."
"Ah, Messer Cornelio," he said, when he was awake, "I had better go to bed, as you say. I shall never sing again, for my voice is all broken to pieces"; and he sobbed bitterly.
"The saints be praised," thought I; "I shall make a philosopher of you yet!"
But he would not be comforted, and for several months he went about as if he were trying to find the moon, as we say; and though he read his books and made progress, he was always sad and wretched, and grew much thinner, so that Mariuccia said he was consuming himself, and I thought he must be in love. But the house was very quiet.
I thought as he did, that he would never sing again, but I never talked to him about it, lest he should try, now that he was as quiet as a nightingale with its tongue cut out. But nature meant differently, I suppose. One day De Pretis came to see me; it must have been near the new year, for he never came often at that time. It was only a friendly recollection of the days when I had a castello and a church of my own at Serveti, and used to have him come from Rome to sing at the festa, and he came every year to see me; and his head grew bald as mine grew grey, so that at last he wears a black skull-cap everywhere, like a priest, and only takes it off when he sings the Gloria Patri, or at the Elevation. However, he came to see me, and Nino sat mutely by, as we smoked a little and drank the syrup of violets with water that Mariuccia brought us. It was one of her eternal extravagances, but somehow, though she never understood the value of economy, my professorship brought in more than enough for us, and it was not long after this that I began to buy the bit of vineyard out of Porta Salara, by instalments from my savings. And since then we have our own wine.
De Pretis was talking to me about a new opera that he had heard. He never sang except in church, of course, but he used to go to the theatre of an evening; so it was quite natural that he should go to the piano and begin to sing a snatch of the tenor air to me, explaining the situation as he went along, between his singing.
Nino could not sit still, and went and leaned over Sor Ercole, as we call the maestro, hanging on the notes, not daring to try and sing, for he had lost his voice, but making the words with his lips.
"Dio mio!" he cried at last, "how I wish I could sing that!"
"Try it," said De Pretis, laughing and half interested by the boy's earnest look. "Try it—I will sing it again." But Nino's face fell.
"It is no use," he said. "My voice is all broken to pieces now, because I sang too much before."
"Perhaps it will come back," said the musician kindly, seeing the tears in the young fellow's eyes. "See, we will try a scale." He struck a chord. "Now, open your mouth—so—Do-o-o-o!" He sang a long note. Nino could not resist any longer, whether he had any voice or not. He blushed red and turned away, but he opened his mouth and made a sound.
"Do-o-o-o!" He sang like the master, but much weaker.
"Not so bad; now the next, Re-e-e!" Nino followed him. And so on, up the scale.
After a few more notes, De Pretis ceased to smile, and cried, "Go on, go on!" after every note, authoritatively, and in quite a different manner from his first kindly encouragement. Nino, who had not sung for months, took courage and a long breath, and went on as he was bid, his voice gaining volume and clearness as he sang higher. Then De Pretis stopped and looked at him earnestly.
"You are mad," he said. "You have not lost your voice at all."
"It was quite different when I used to sing before," said the boy.
"Per Bacco, I should think so," said the maestro. "Your voice has changed. Sing something, can't you?"
Nino sang a church air he had caught somewhere. I never heard such a voice, but it gave me a queer sensation that I liked—it was so true, and young, and clear. De Pretis sat open-mouthed with astonishment and admiration. When the boy had finished, he stood looking at the maestro, blushing very scarlet, and altogether ashamed of himself. The other did not speak.
"Excuse me," said Nino, "I cannot sing. I have not sung for a long time. I know it is not worth anything." De Pretis recovered himself.
"You do not sing," said he, "because you have not learned. But you can. If you will let me teach you, I will do it for nothing."
"Me!" screamed Nino, "you teach me! Ah, if it were any use—if you only would!"
"Any use?" repeated De Pretis half aloud, as he bit his long black cigar half through in his excitement. "Any use? My dear boy, do you know that you have a very good voice? A remarkable voice," he continued, carried away by his admiration, "such a voice as I have never heard. You can be the first tenor of your age, if you please—in three years you will sing anything you like, and go to London and Paris, and be a great man. Leave it to me."
I protested that it was all nonsense, that Nino was meant for a scholar and not for the stage, and I was quite angry with De Pretis for putting such ideas into the boy's head. But it was of no use. You cannot argue with women and singers, and they always get their own way in the end. And whether I liked it or not, Nino began to go to Sor Ercole's house once or twice a week, and sang scales and exercises very patiently, and copied music in the evening, because he said he would not be dependent on me, since he could not follow my wishes in choosing a profession. De Pretis did not praise him much to his face after they had begun to study, but he felt sure he would succeed.
"Caro Conte,"—he often calls me Count, though I am only plain Professore, now—"he has a voice like a trumpet and the patience of all the angels. He will be a great singer."
"Well, it is not my fault," I used to answer; for what could I do?
When you see Nino now, you cannot imagine that he was ever a dirty little boy from the mountains, with one shoe, and that infamous little hat. I think he is ugly still, though you do not think so when he is singing, and he has good strong limbs and broad shoulders, and carries himself like a soldier. Besides, he is always very well dressed, though he has no affectations. He does not wear his hair plastered into a love-lock on his forehead, like some of our dandies, nor is he eternally pulling a pair of monstrous white cuffs over his hands. Everything is very neat about him and very quiet, so that you would hardly think he was an artist after all; and he talks but little, though he can talk very well when he likes, for he has not forgotten his Dante nor his Leopardi. De Pretis says the reason he sings so well is because he has a mouth like the slit in an organ pipe, as wide as a letter-box at the post-office. But I think he has succeeded because he has great square jaws like Napoleon. People like that always succeed. My jaw is small, and my chin is pointed under my beard—but then, with the beard, no one can see it. But Mariuccia knows.
Nino is a thoroughly good boy, and until a year ago he never cared for anything but his art; and now he cares for something, I think, a great deal better than art, even than art like his. But he is a singer still, and always will be, for he has an iron throat, and never was hoarse in his life. All those years when he was growing up, he never had a love-scrape, or owed money, or wasted his time in the caffe.
"Take care," Mariuccia used to say to me, "if he ever takes a fancy to some girl with blue eyes and fair hair he will be perfectly crazy. Ah, Sor Conte, she had blue eyes, and her hair was like the corn-silk. How many years is that, Sor Conte mio?" Mariuccia is an old witch.
I am writing this story to tell you why Mariuccia is a witch, and why my Nino, who never so much as looked at the beauties of the generone, as they came with their fathers and brothers and mothers to eat ice-cream in the Piazza Colonna, and listen to the music of a summer's evening,—Nino, who stared absently at the great ladies as they rolled over the Pincio, in their carriages, and was whistling airs to himself for practice when he strolled along the Corso, instead of looking out for pretty faces,—Nino, the cold in all things save in music, why he fulfilled Mariuccia's prophecy, little by little, and became perfectly crazy about blue eyes and fair hair. That is what I am going to tell you, if you have the leisure to listen. And you ought to know it, because evil tongues are more plentiful than good voices in Rome, as elsewhere, and people are saying many spiteful things about him—though they clap loudly enough at the theatre when he sings.
He is like a son to me, and perhaps I am reconciled, after all, to his not having become a philosopher. He would never have been so famous as he is now, and he really knows so much more than Maestro De Pretis—in other ways than music—that he is very presentable indeed. What is blood, nowadays? What difference does it make to society whether Nino Cardegna, the tenor was the son of a vine-dresser? Or what does the University care for the fact that I, Cornelio Grandi, am the last of a race as old as the Colonnas, and quite as honourable? What does Mariuccia care? What does anybody care? Corpo di Bacco! if we begin talking of race we shall waste as much time as would make us all great celebrities! I am not a celebrity—I never shall be now, for a man must begin at that trade young. It is a profession—being celebrated—and it has its signal advantages. Nino will tell you so, and he has tried it. But one must begin young, very young! I cannot begin again.
And then, as you all know, I never began at all. I took up life in the middle, and am trying hard to twist a rope of which I never held the other end. I feel sometimes as though it must be the life of another that I have taken, leaving my own unfinished, for I was never meant to be a professor. That is the way of it; and if I am sad and inclined to melancholy humours, it is because I miss my old self, and he seems to have left me without even a kindly word at parting. I was fond of my old self, but I did not respect him much. And my present self I respect, without fondness. Is that metaphysics? Who knows? It is vanity in either case, and the vanity of self-respect is perhaps a more dangerous thing than the vanity of self-love, though you may call it pride if you like, or give it any other high-sounding title. But the heart of the vain man is lighter than the heart of the proud. Probably Nino has always had much self-respect, but I doubt if it has made him very happy—until lately. True, he has genius, and does what he must by nature do or die, whereas I have not even talent, and I make myself do for a living what I can never do well. What does it serve, to make comparisons? I could never have been like Nino, though I believe half my pleasure of late has been in fancying how I should feel in his place, and living through his triumphs by my imagination. Nino began at the very beginning, and when all his capital was one shoe and a ragged hat, and certainly not more than a third of a shirt, he said he would be a great singer; and he is, though he is scarcely of age yet. I wish it had been something else than a singer, but since he is the first already, it was worth while. He would have been great in anything, though, for he has such a square jaw, and he looks so fierce when anything needs to be overcome. Our forefathers must have looked like that, with their broad eagle noses and iron mouths. They began at the beginning, too, and they went to the very end. I wish Nino had been a general, or a statesman, or a cardinal, or all three like Richelieu.
But you want to hear of Nino, and you can pass on your ways, all of you, without hearing my reflections and small-talk about goodness, and success, and the like. Moreover, since I respect myself now, I must not find so much fault with my own doings, or you will say that I am in my dotage. And, truly, Nino Cardegna is a better man, for all his peasant blood, than I ever was; a better lover, and perhaps a better hater. There is his guitar, that he always leaves here, and it reminds me of him and his ways. Fourteen years he lived here with me, from child to boy and from boy to man, and now he is gone, never to live here any more. The end of it will be that I shall go and live with him, and Mariuccia will take her cat and her knitting, and her Lives of the Saints back to Serveti, to end her life in peace, where there are no professors and no singers. For Mariuccia is older than I am, and she will die before me. At all events, she will take her tongue with her, and ruin herself at her convenience without ruining me. I wonder what life would be without Mariuccia? Would anybody darn my stockings, or save the peel of the mandarins to make cordial? I certainly would not have the mandarins if she were gone—it is a luxury. No, I would not have them. But then, there would be no cordial, and I should have to buy new stockings every year or two. No, the mandarins cost less than the stockings—and—well, I suppose I am fond of Mariuccia.
It was really not so long ago—only one year. The sirocco was blowing up and down the streets, and about the corners, with its sickening blast, making us all feel like dead people, and hiding away the sun from us. It is no use trying to do anything when it blows sirocco, at least for us who are born here. But I had been persuaded to go with Nino to the house of Sor Ercole to hear my boy sing the opera he had last studied, and so I put my cloak over my shoulders, and wrapped its folds over my breast, and covered my mouth, and we went out. For it was a cold sirocco, bringing showers of tepid rain from the south, and the drops seemed to chill themselves as they fell. One moment you are in danger of being too cold, and the next minute the perspiration stands on your forehead, and you are oppressed with a moist heat. Like the prophet, when it blows a real sirocco you feel as if you were poured out like water, and all your bones were out of joint. Foreigners do not feel it until they have lived with us a few years, but Romans are like dead men when the wind is in that quarter.
I went to the maestro's house and sat for two hours listening to the singing. Nino sang very creditably, I thought, but I allow that I was not as attentive as I might have been, for I was chilled and uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I tried to be very appreciative, and I complimented the boy on the great progress he had made. When I thought of it, it struck me that I had never heard anybody sing like that before; but still there was something lacking; I thought it sounded a little unreal, and I said to myself that he would get admiration, but never any sympathy. So clear, so true, so rich it was, but wanting a ring to it, the little thrill that goes to the heart. He sings very differently now.
Maestro Ercole De Pretis lives in the Via Paola, close to the Ponte Sant' Angelo, in a most decent little house—that is, of course, on a floor of a house, as we all do. But De Pretis is well-to-do, and he has a marble door plate, engraved in black with his name, and two sitting-rooms. They are not very large rooms, it is true, but in one of them he gives his lessons, and the grand piano fills it up entirely, so that you can only sit on the little black horsehair sofa at the end, and it is very hard to get past the piano on either side. Ercole is as broad as he is long, and takes snuff when he is not smoking. But it never hurts his voice.
It was Sunday, I remember, for he had to sing in St. Peter's in the afternoon; and it was so near, we walked over with him. Nino had never lost his love for church music, though he had made up his mind that it was a much finer thing to be a primo tenore assoluto at the Apollo Theatre than to sing in the Pope's choir for thirty scudi a month. We walked along over the bridge, and through the Borgo Nuovo, and across the Piazza Rusticucci, and then we skirted the colonnade on the left, and entered the church by the sacristy, leaving De Pretis there to put on his purple cassock and his white cotta. Then we went into the Capella del Coro to wait for the vespers.
All sorts of people go to St. Peter's on Sunday afternoon, but they are mostly foreigners, and bring strange little folding chairs, and arrange themselves to listen to the music as though it were a concert. Now and then one of the young gentlemen-in-waiting from the Vatican strolls in and says his prayers, and there is an old woman, very ragged and miserable, who has haunted the chapel of the choir for many years, and sits with perfect unconcern, telling her beads at the foot of the great reading-desk that stands out in the middle and is never used. Great ladies crowd in through the gate when Raimondi's hymn is to be sung, and disreputable artists make sketches surreptitiously during the benediction, without the slightest pretence at any devotion that I can see. The lights shine out more brightly as the day wanes, and the incense curls up as the little boys swing the censers, and the priests and canons chant, and the choir answers from the organ loft; and the crowd looks on, some saying their prayers, some pretending to, and some looking about for the friend or lover they have come to meet.
That evening when we went over together I found myself pushed against a tall man with an immense gray moustache standing out across his face like the horns of a beetle. He looked down on me from time to time, and when I apologised for crowding him his face flushed a little, and he tried to bow as well as he could in the press, and said something with a German accent which seemed to be courteous. But I was separated from Nino by him. Maestro Ercole sang, and all the others, turn and turn about, and so at last it came to the benediction. The tall old foreigner stood erect and unbending, but most of the people around him kneeled. As the crowd sank down I saw that on the other side of him sat a lady on a small folding stool, her feet crossed one over the other, and her hands folded on her knees. She was dressed entirely in black, and her fair face stood out wonderfully clear and bright against the darkness. Truly she looked more like an angel than a woman, though perhaps you will think she is not so beautiful after all, for she is so unlike our Roman ladies. She has a delicate nose, full of sentiment, and pointed a little downward for pride; she has deep blue eyes, wide apart and dreamy, and a little shaded by brows that are quite level and even, with a straight pencilling over them, that looks really as if it were painted. Her lips are very red and gentle, and her face is very white, so that the little ringlet that has escaped control looks like a gold tracery on a white marble ground.
And there she sat with the last light from the tall windows and the first from the great wax candles shining on her, while all around seemed dark by contrast. She looked like an angel; and quite as cold, perhaps most of you would say. Diamonds are cold things, too, but they shine in the dark; whereas a bit of glass just lets the light through it, even if it is coloured red and green and put in a church window, and looks ever so much warmer than the diamond.
But though I saw her beauty and the light of her face, all in a moment, as though it had been a dream, I saw. Nino, too; for I had missed him, and had supposed he had gone to the organ loft with De Pretis. But now, as the people kneeled to the benediction, imagine a little what he did; he just dropped on his knees with his face to the white lady, and his back to the procession; it was really disgraceful, and if it had been lighter I am sure everyone would have noticed it. At all events, there he knelt, not three feet from the lady, looking at her as if his heart would break. But I do not believe she saw him, for she never looked his way. Afterwards everybody got up again, and we hurried to get out of the Chapel; but I noticed that the tall old foreigner gave his arm to the beautiful lady, and when they had pushed their way through the gate that leads into the body of the church, they did not go away but stood aside for the crowd to pass. Nino said he would wait for De Pretis, and immediately turned his whole attention to the foreign girl, hiding himself in the shadow and never taking his eyes from her.
I never saw Nino look at a woman before as though she interested him in the least, or I would not have been surprised now to see him lost in admiration of the fair girl. I was close to him and could see his face, and it had a new expression on it that I did not know. The people were almost gone and the lights were being extinguished when De Pretis came round the corner, looking for us. But I was astonished to see him bow low to the foreigner and the young lady, and then stop and enter into conversation with them. They spoke quite audibly, and it was about a lesson that the young lady had missed. She spoke like a Roman, but the old gentleman made himself understood in a series of stiff phrases, which he fired out of his mouth like discharges of musketry.
"Who are they?" whispered Nino to me, breathless with excitement and trembling from head to foot. "Who are they, and how does the maestro know them?"
"Eh, caro mio, what am I to know?" I answered indifferently. "They are some foreigners, some pupil of De Pretis, and her father. How should I know?"
"She is a Roman," said Nino between his teeth. "I have heard foreigners talk. The old man is a foreigner, but she—she is Roman," he repeated with certainty.
"Eh," said I, "for my part she may be Chinese. The stars will not fall on that account." You see, I thought he had seen her before, and I wanted to exasperate him by my indifference so that he should tell me; but he would not, and indeed I found out afterwards that he had really never seen her before.
Presently the lady and gentleman went away, and we called De Pretis, for he could not see us in the gloom. Nino became very confidential and linked an arm in his as we went away.
"Who are they, caro maestro, these enchanting people?" inquired the boy when they had gone a few steps, and I was walking by Nino's side, and we were all three nearing the door.
"Foreigners—my foreigners," returned the singer proudly, as he took a colossal pinch of snuff. He seemed to say that he in his profession was constantly thrown with people like that, whereas I—oh, I, of course, was always occupied with students and poor devils who had no voice, nothing but brains.
"But she," objected Nino,—"she is Roman, I am sure of it."
"Eh," said Ercole, "you know how it is. These foreigners marry and come here and live, and their children are born here; and they grow up and call themselves Romans, as proudly as you please. But they are not really Italians, any more than the Shah of Persia." The maestro smiled a pitying smile. He is a Roman of Rome, and his great nose scorns pretenders. In his view Piedmontese, Tuscans, and Neapolitans are as much foreigners as the Germans or the English. More so, for he likes the Germans and tolerates the English, but he can call an enemy by no worse name than "Napoletano" or "Piemontese."
"Then they live here?" cried Nino in delight.
"In fine, maestro mio, who are they?"
"What a diavolo of a boy! Dio mio!" and Ercole laughed under his big moustache, which is black still. But he is bald, all the same, and wears a skull-cap.
"Diavolo as much as you please, but I will know," said Nino sullenly.
"Oh bene! Now do not disquiet yourself, Nino—I will tell you all about them. She is a pupil of mine, and I go to their house in the Corso and give her lessons."
"And then?" asked Nino impatiently.
"Who goes slowly goes surely," said the maestro sententiously; and he stopped to light a cigar as black and twisted as his moustache. Then he continued, standing still in the middle of the piazza to talk at his ease, for it had stopped raining and the air was moist and sultry, "They are Prussians, you must know. The old man is a colonel, retired, pensioned, everything you like, wounded at Koeniggratz by the Austrians. His wife was delicate, and he brought her to live here long before he left the service, and the signorina was born here. He has told me about it, and he taught me to pronounce the name Koeniggratz, so—Conigherazzo," said the maestro proudly, "and that is how I know."
"Capperi! What a mouthful," said I.
"You may well say that, Sor Conte, but singing teaches us all languages. You would have found it of great use in your studies." I pictured to myself a quarter of an hour of Schopenhauer, with a piano accompaniment and some one beating time.
"But their name, their name I want to know," objected Nino, as he stepped aside and flattened himself against the pillar to let a carriage pass. As luck would have it, the old officer and his daughter were in that very cab, and Nino could just make them out by the evening twilight. He took off his hat, of course, but I am quite sure they did not see him.
"Well, their name is prettier than Conigherazzo," said Ercole. "It is Lira—Erre Gheraffe fonne Lira." (Herr Graf von Lira, I suppose he meant. And he has the impudence to assert that singing has taught him to pronounce German.) "And that means," he continued, "Il Conte di Lira, as we should say."
"Ah! what a divine appellation!" exclaimed Nino enthusiastically, pulling his hat over his eyes to meditate upon the name at his leisure.
"And her name is Edvigia," volunteered the maestro. That is the Italian for Hedwig, or Hadwig, you know. But we should shorten it and call her Gigia just as though she were Luisa. Nino does not think it so pretty. Nino was silent. Perhaps he was always shy of repeating the familiar name of the first woman he had ever loved. Imagine! At twenty he had never been in love! It is incredible to me,—and one of our own people, too, born at Serveti.
Meanwhile the maestro's cigar had gone out, and he lit it with a blazing sulphur match before he continued; and we all walked on again. I remember it all very distinctly, because it was the beginning of Nino's madness. Especially I call to mind his expression of indifference when Ercole began to descant upon the worldly possessions of the Lira household. It seemed to me that if Nino so seriously cast his eyes on the Contessina Edvigia, he might at least have looked pleased to hear she was so rich; or he might have looked disappointed, if he thought that her position was an obstacle in his way. But he did not care about it at all, and walked straight on, humming a little tune through his nose with his mouth shut, for he does everything to a tune.
"They are certainly gran' signor," Ercole said. "They live on the first floor of the Palazzo Carmandola,—you know, in the Corso—and they have a carriage, and keep two men in livery, just like a Roman prince. Besides, the count once sent me a bottle of wine at Christmas. It was as weak as water, and tasted like the solfatara of Tivoli, but it came from his own vineyard in Germany, and was at least fifty years old. If he has a vineyard, he has a castello, of course. And if he has a castello, he is a gran' signor,—eh? what do you think, Sor Conte? You know about such things."
"I did once, maestro mio. It is very likely."
"And as for the wine being sour, it was because it was so old. I am sure the Germans cannot make wine well. They are not used to drinking it good, or they would not drink so much when they come here." We were crossing the bridge, and nearing Ercole's house.
"Maestro," said Nino, suddenly. He had not spoken for some time, and he had finished his tune.
"Is not to-morrow our day for studying?"
"Diavolo! I gave you two hours to-day. Have you forgotten?"
"Ah,—it is true. But give me a lesson to-morrow, like a good maestro as you are. I will sing like an angel if you will give me a lesson to-morrow."
"Well, if you like to come at seven in the morning, and if you promise to sing nothing but solfeggi of Bordogni for an hour, and not to strain your voice, or put too much vinegar in your salad at supper, I will think about it. Does that please you? Conte, don't let him eat too much vinegar."
"I will do all that if I may come," said Nino readily, though he would rather not sing at all, at most times, than sing Bordogni, De Pretis tells me.
"Meglio cosi,—so much the better. Good-night, Sor Conte. Good-night, Nino." And so he turned down the Via Paola, and Nino and I went our way. I stopped to buy a cigar at the little tobacco shop just opposite the Tordinona Theatre. They used to be only a baiocco apiece, and I could get one at a time. But now they are two for three baiocchi; and so I have to get two always, because there are no half baiocchi any more—nothing but centimes. That is one of the sources of my extravagance. Mariuccia says I am miserly; she was born poor, and never had to learn the principles of economy.
"Nino mio," I said, as we went along, "you really make me laugh."
"Which is to say—" He was humming a tune again, and was cross because I interrupted him.
"You are in love. Do not deny it. You are already planning how you can make the acquaintance of the foreign contessa. You are a fool. Go home, and get Mariuccia to give you some syrup of tamarind to cool your blood."
"Well? Now tell me, were you never in love with anyone yourself?" he asked, by way of answer; and I could see the fierce look come into his eyes in the dark as he said it.
"Altro,—that is why I laugh at you. When I was your age I had been in love twenty times. But I never fell in love at first sight—and with a doll; really a wax doll, you know, like the Madonna in the presepio that they set up at the Ara Coeli, at Epiphany."
"A doll!" he cried. "Who is a doll, if you please?" We stopped at the corner of the street to argue it out.
"Do you think she is really alive?" I asked, laughing. Nino disdained to answer me, but he looked savagely from under the brim of his hat. "Look here," I continued, "women like that are only made to be looked at. They never love, for they have no hearts. It is lucky if they have souls, like Christians."
"I will tell you what I think," said he stoutly; "she is an angel."
"Oh! is that all? Did you ever hear of an angel being married?"
"You shall hear of it, Sor Cornelio, and before long. I swear to you, here, that I will marry the Contessina di Lira—if that is her name—before two years are out. Ah, you do not believe me. Very well. I have nothing more to say."
"My dear son," said I,—for he is a son to me,—"you are talking nonsense. How can anybody in your position hope to marry a great lady, who is an heiress? Is it not true that it is all stuff and nonsense?"
"No, it is not true," cried Nino, setting his square jaw like a bit and speaking through his teeth. "I am ugly, you say; I am dark, and I have no position, or wealth, or anything of the kind. I am the son of a peasant and of a peasant's wife. I am anything you please, but I will marry her if I say I will. Do you think it is for nothing that you have taught me the language of Dante, of Petrarca, of Silvio Pellico? Do you think it is for nothing that Heaven has given me my voice? Do not the angels love music, and cannot I make as good songs as they? Or do you think that because I am bred a singer my hand is not as strong as a fine gentleman's—contadino as I am? I will—I will and I will, Basta!"
I never saw him look like that before. He had folded his arms, and he nodded his head a little at each repetition of the word, looking at me so hard, as we stood under the gas lamp in the street, that I was obliged to turn my eyes away. He stared me out of countenance—he, a peasant boy! Then we walked on.
"And as for her being a wax doll, as you call her," he continued after a little time, "that is nonsense, if you want the word to be used. Truly, a doll! And the next minute you compare her to the Madonna! I am sure she has a heart as big as this," and he stretched out his hands into the air. "I can see it in her eyes. Ah, what eyes!"
I saw it was no use arguing on that tack, and I felt quite sure that he would forget all about it, though he looked so determined, and talked so grandly about his will.
"Nino," I said, "I am older than you." I said this to impress him, of course, for I am not really so very old.
"Diamini!" he cried impertinently, "I believe it!"
"Well, well, do not be impatient. I have seen something in my time, and I tell you those foreign women are not like ours, a whit. I fell in love, once, with a northern fairy,—she was not German, but she came from Lombardy, you see,—and that is the reason why I lost Serveti and all the rest."
"But I have no Serveti to lose," objected Nino.
"You have a career as a musician to lose. It is not much of a career to be stamping about with a lot of figuranti and scene-shifters, and screaming yourself hoarse every night." I was angry because he laughed at my age. "But it is a career, after all, that you have chosen for yourself. If you get mixed up in an intrigue now, you may ruin yourself. I hope you will."
"Grazie! And then?"
"Eh, it might not be such a bad thing after all. For if you could be induced to give up the stage—"
"I—I give up singing?" he cried, indignantly.
"Oh, such things happen, you know. If you were to give it up, as I was saying, you might then possibly use your mind. A mind is a much better thing than a throat, after all."
"Ebbene! talk as much as you please, for, of course, you have the right, for you have brought me up, and you have certainly opposed my singing enough to quiet your conscience. But, dear professor, I will do all that I say, and if you will give me a little help in this matter, you will not repent it."
"Help? Dio mio! What do you take me for? As if I could help you, or would! I suppose you want money to make yourself a dandy, a piano, to go and stand at the corner of the Piazza Colonna and ogle her as she goes by! In truth! You have fine projects."
"No," said Nino quietly, "I do not want any money or anything else at present, thank you. And do not be angry, but come into the caffe and drink some lemonade; and I will invite you to it, for I have been paid for my last copying that I sent in yesterday." He put his arm in mine, and we went in. There is no resisting Nino when he is affectionate. But I would not let him pay for the lemonade. I paid for it myself. What extravagance!
Now I ought to tell you that many things in this story were only told me quite lately, for at first I would not help Nino at all, thinking it was but a foolish fancy of his boy's heart and would soon pass. I have tried to gather and to order all the different incidents into one harmonious whole, so that you can follow the story; and you must not wonder that I can describe some things that I did not see, and that I know how some of the people felt; for Nino and I have talked over the whole matter very often, and the baroness came here and told me her share, though I wonder how she could talk so plainly of what must have given her so much pain. But it was very kind of her to come; and she sat over there in the old green arm-chair by the glass case that has the artificial flowers under it, and the sugar lamb that the padre curato gave Nino when he made his first communion at Easter. However, it is not time to speak of the baroness yet, but I cannot forget her.
Nino was very amusing when he began to love the young countess, and the very first morning—the day after we had been to St. Peter's—he went out at half-past six, though it was only just sunrise, for we were in October. I knew very well that he was going for his extra lesson with De Pretis, but I had nothing to say about it, and I only recommended him to cover himself well, for the sirocco had passed and it was a bright morning, with a clear tramontana wind blowing fresh from the north. I can always tell when it is a tramontana wind before I open my window, for Mariuccia makes such a clattering with the coffee-pot in the kitchen, and the goldfinch in the sitting-room sings very loud; which he never does if it is cloudy. Nino, then, went off to Maestro Ercole's house for his singing, and this is what happened there.
De Pretis knew perfectly well that Nino had only asked for the extra lesson in order to get a chance of talking about the Contessina di Lira, and so, to tease him, as soon as he appeared, the maestro made a great bustle about singing scales, and insisted on beginning at once. Moreover, he pretended to be in a bad humour; and that is always pretence with him.
"Ah, my little tenor," he began; "you want a lesson at seven in the morning, do you? That is the time when all the washerwomen sing at the fountain! Well, you shall have a lesson, and by the body of Bacchus it shall be a real lesson! Now, then! Andiamo—Do-o-o!" and he roared out a great note that made the room shake, and a man who was selling cabbage in the street stopped his hand-cart and mimicked him for five minutes.
"But I am out of breath, maestro," protested Nino, who wanted to talk.
"Out of breath? A singer is never out of breath. Absurd! What would you do if you got out of breath, say, in the last act of Lucia, so—Bell'alma ado—?? Then your breath ends, eh? Will you stay with the 'adored soul' between your teeth? A fine singer you will make! Andiamo! Do-o-o!"
Nino saw he must begin, and he set up a shout, much against his will, so that the cabbage-vendor chimed in, making so much noise that the old woman who lives opposite opened her window and emptied a great dustpan full of potato peelings and refuse leaves of lettuce right on his head. And then there was a great noise. But the maestro paid no attention, and went on with the scale, hardly giving Nino time to breathe. Nino, who stood behind De Pretis while he sang, saw the copy of Bordogni's solfeggi lying on a chair, and managed to slip it under a pile of music near by, singing so lustily all the while that the maestro never looked round.
When he got to the end of the scale Ercole began hunting for the music, and as he could not find it, Nino asked him questions.
"Can she sing,—this contessina of yours, maestro?" De Pretis was overturning everything in his search.
"An apoplexy on those solfeggi and on the man who made them!" he cried. "Sing, did you say? Yes, a great deal better than you ever will. Why can you not look for your music, instead of chattering?" Nino began to look where he knew it was not.
"By the by, do you give her lessons every day?" asked the boy.
"Every day? Am I crazy, to ruin people's voices like that?"
"Caro maestro, what is the matter with you this morning? You have forgotten to say your prayers!"
"You are a donkey, Nino; here he is, this blessed Bordogni,—now come."
"Sor Ercole mio," said Nino in despair, "I must really know something about this angel, before I sing at all." Ercole sat down on the piano stool, and puffed up his cheeks, and heaved a tremendous sigh, to show how utterly bored he was by his pupil. Then he took a large pinch of snuff, and sighed again.
"What demon have you got into your head?" he asked, at length.
"What angel, you mean," answered Nino, delighted at having forced the maestro to a parley. "I am in love with her—crazy about her," he cried, running his fingers through his curly hair, "and you must help me to see her. You can easily take me to her house to sing duets as part of her lesson. I tell you I have not slept a wink all night for thinking of her, and unless I see her I shall never sleep again as long as I live. Ah!" he cried, putting his hands on Ercole's shoulders, "you do not know what it is to be in love! How everything one touches is fire, and the sky is like lead, and one minute you are cold and one minute you are hot, and you may turn and turn on your pillow all night and never sleep, and you want to curse everybody you see, or to embrace them, it makes no difference—anything to express the—"
"Devil! and may he carry you off!" interrupted Ercole, laughing. But his manner changed. "Poor fellow," he said presently, "it appears to me you are in love."
"It appears to you, does it? 'Appears'—a beautiful word, in faith. I can tell you it appears to me so, too. Ah! it 'appears' to you—very good indeed!" And Nino waxed wroth.
"I will give you some advice, Ninetto mio. Do not fall in love with anyone. It always ends badly."
"You come late with your counsel, Sor Ercole. In truth, a very good piece of advice when a man is fifty, and married, and wears a skull-cap. When I wear a skull-cap and take snuff I will follow your instructions." He walked up and down the room, grinding his teeth, and clapping his hands together. Ercole rose and stopped him.
"Let us talk seriously," he said.
"With all my heart; as seriously as you please."
"You have only seen this signorina once."
"Once!" cried Nino,—"as if once were not—"
"Diavolo; let me speak. You have only seen her once. She is noble, an heiress, a great lady—worse than all, a foreigner; as beautiful as a statue, if you please, but twice as cold. She has a father who knows the proprieties, a piece of iron, I tell you, who would kill you just as he would drink a glass of wine, with the greatest indifference, if he suspected you lifted your eyes to his daughter."
"I do not believe your calumnies," said Nino still hotly, "She is not cold, and if I can see her she will listen to me. I am sure of it."
"We will speak of that by and by. You—what are you? Nothing but a singer, who has not even appeared before the public, without a baiocco in the world or anything else but your voice. You are not even handsome."
"What difference does that make to a woman of heart?" retorted Nino angrily. "Let me only speak to her—"
"A thousand devils!" exclaimed De Pretis impatiently; "what good will you do by speaking to her? Are you Dante, or Petrarca, or a preacher—what are you? Do you think you can have a great lady's hand for the asking? Do you flatter yourself that you are so eloquent that nobody can withstand you?"
"Yes," said Nino, boldly. "If I could only speak to her—"
"Then in heaven's name, go and speak to her. Get a new hat and a pair of lavender gloves, and walk about the Villa Borghese until you meet her, and then throw yourself on your knees and kiss her feet, and the dust from her shoes; and say you are dying for her, and will she be good enough to walk as far as Santa Maria del Popolo and be married to you! That is all; you see it is nothing you ask—a mere politeness on her part—oh, nothing, nothing." And De Pretis rubbed his hands and smiled, and seeing that Nino did not answer, he blew his nose with his great blue cotton handkerchief.
"You have no heart at all, maestro," said Nino at last. "Let us sing."
They worked hard at Bordogni for half an hour, and Nino did not open his mouth except to produce the notes. But as his blood was up from the preceding interview he took great pains, and Ercole, who makes him sing all the solfeggi he can from a sense of duty, himself wearied of the ridiculous old-fashioned runs and intervals.
"Bene," he said; "let us sing a piece now, and then you will have done enough." He put an opera on the piano, and Nino lifted up his voice and sang, only too glad to give his heart passage to his lips. Ercole screwed up his eyes with a queer smile he has when he is pleased.
"Capperi!" he ejaculated, when Nino had done.
"What has happened?" asked the latter.
"I cannot tell you what has happened," said Ercole, "but I will tell you that you had better always sing like that, and you will be applauded. Why have you never sung that piece in that way before?"
"I do not know. Perhaps it is because I am unhappy."
"Very well, never dare to be happy again, if you mean to succeed. You can make a statue shed tears if you please." Ercole took a pinch of snuff, and turned round to look out of the window. Nino leaned on the piano, drumming with his fingers and looking at the back of the maestro's head. The first rays of the sun just fell into the room and gilded the red brick floor.
"Then instead of buying lavender kid gloves," said Nino at last, his face relaxing a little, "and going to the Villa Borghese, you advise me to borrow a guitar and sing to my statue? Is that it?"
"Che Diana! I did not say that!" said Ercole, still facing the window and finishing his pinch of snuff with a certain satisfaction. "But if you want the guitar, take it—there it lies. I will not answer for what you do with it." His voice sounded kindly, for he was so much pleased. Then he made Nino sing again, a little love song of Tosti, who writes for the heart and sings so much better without a voice than all your stage tenors put together. And the maestro looked long at Nino when he had done, but he did not say anything. Nino put on his hat gloomily enough, and prepared to go.
"I will take the guitar, if you will lend it to me," he said.
"Yes, if you like, and I will give you a handkerchief to wrap it up with," said De Pretis, absently, but he did not get up from his seat. He was watching Nino, and he seemed to be thinking. Just as the boy was going with the instrument under his arm he called him back.
"Ebbene?" said Nino, with his hand on the lock of the door.
"I will make you a song to sing to your guitar," said Ercole.
"Yes—but without music. Look here, Nino—sit down. What a hurry you are in. I was young myself, once upon time."
"Once upon a time! Fairy stories—once upon a time there was a king, and so on." Nino was not to be easily pacified.
"Well, perhaps it is a fairy tale, but it is in the future. I have an idea."
"Oh, is that all? But it is the first time. I understand."
Listen. Have you read Dante?"
"I know the Vita Nuova by heart, and some of the Commedia. But how the diavolo does Dante enter into this question?"
"And Silvio Pellico, and a little literature?" continued Ercole, not heeding the comment.
"Yes, after a fashion. And you? Do you know them?"
"Che c'entro io?" cried Ercole, impatiently; "what do I want to know such things for? But I have heard of them."
"I congratulate you," replied Nino, ironically.
"Have patience. You are no longer an artist. You are a professor of literature."
"I—a professor of literature? What nonsense are you talking?"
"You are a great stupid donkey, Nino. Supposing I obtain for you an engagement to read literature with the Contessina di Lira, will you not be a professor? If you prefer singing—" But Nino comprehended in a flash the whole scope of the proposal, and threw his arm round Ercole's neck and embraced him.
"What a mind! Oh, maestro mio, I will die for you! Command me, and I will do anything for you; I will run errands for you, black your boots, anything—" he cried in the ecstasy of delight that overmastered him.
"Piano, piano," objected the maestro, disengaging himself from his pupil's embrace. "It is not done yet. There is much, much to think of first." Nino retreated, a little disconcerted at not finding his enthusiasm returned, but radiant still.
"Calm yourself," said Ercole, smiling. "If you do this thing you must act a part. You must manage to conceal your occupation entirely. You must look as solemn as an undertaker and be a real professor. They will ultimately find you out, and throw you out of the window, and dismiss me for recommending you. But that is nothing."
"No," said Nino, "that is of no importance." And he ran his fingers through his hair, and looked delighted.
"You shall know all about it this evening, or to-morrow—"
"This evening, Sor Ercole, this evening, or I shall die. Stay, let me go to the house with you, when you give your lesson, and wait for you at the door."
"Pumpkin-head! I will have nothing to do with you," said De Pretis.
"Ah, I will be as quiet as you please. I will be like a lamb, and wait until this evening."
"If you will really be quiet, I will do what you wish. Come to me this evening about the Ave Maria—or a little earlier. Yes, come at twenty-three hours. In October that is about five o'clock, by French time.
"And I may take the guitar?" said Nino, as he rose to go.
"With all my heart. But do not spoil everything by singing to her, and betraying yourself."
So Nino thanked the maestro enthusiastically and went away, humming a tune, as he now and again struck the strings of the guitar that he carried under his arm, to be sure it was there.
Do not think that because De Pretis suddenly changed his mind, and even proposed to Nino a plan for making the acquaintance of the young countess, he is a man to veer about like a weather-cock, nor yet a bad man, willing to help a boy to do mischief. That is not at all like Ercole de Pretis. He has since told me he was much astonished at the way Nino sang the love song at his lesson; and he was instantly convinced that in order to be a great artist Nino must be in love always. Besides, the maestro is as liberal in his views of life as he is conservative in his ideas about government. Nino is everything the most straight-laced father could wish him to be, and as he was then within a few months of making his first appearance on the stage, De Pretis, who understands those things, could very well foresee the success he has had. Now De Pretis is essentially a man of the people, and I am not; therefore he saw no objection in the way of a match between a great singer and a noble damigelia. But had I known what was going on, I would have stopped the whole affair at that point, for I am not so weak as Mariuccia seems to think. I do not mean now that everything is settled I would wish it undone. Heaven forbid! But I would have stopped it then, for it is a most incongruous thing, a peasant boy making love to a countess.
Nino, however, has one great fault, and that is his reticence. It is true, he never does anything he would not like me, or all the world, to know. But I would like to know, all the same. It is a habit I have fallen into, from having to watch that old woman, for fear she should be too extravagant. All that time he never said anything, and I supposed he had forgotten all about the contessina, for I did not chance to see De Pretis; and when I did he talked of nothing but Nino's debut and the arrangements that were to be made. So that I knew nothing about it, though I was pleased to see him reading so much. He took a sudden fancy for literature, and read when he was not singing, and even made me borrow Ambrosoli, in several volumes, from a friend. He read every word of it, and talked very intelligently about it too. I never thought there was any reason.
But De Pretis thinks differently. He believes that a man may be the son of a ciociaro—a fellow who ties his legs up in rags and thongs, and lives on goats' milk in the mountains—and that if he has brains enough, or talent enough, he may marry any woman he likes without ever thinking whether she is noble or not. De Pretis must be old-fashioned, for I am sure I do not think in that way, and I know a hundred times as much as he—a hundred times.
I suppose it must have been the very day when Nino had been to De Pretis in the morning that he had instructions to go to the house of Count von Lira on the morrow; for I remember very well that Nino acted strangely in the evening, singing and making a noise for a few minutes, and then burying himself in a book. However that may be, it was very soon afterwards that he went to the Palazzo Carmandola, dressed in his best clothes, he tells me, in order to make a favourable impression on the count. The latter had spoken to De Pretis about the lessons in literature, to which he attached great importance, and the maestro had turned the idea to account for his pupil. But Nino did not expect to see the young contessa on this first day, or at least he did not hope he would be able to speak to her. And so it turned out.
The footman, who had a red waistcoat, and opened the door with authority, as if ready to close it again on the smallest provocation, did not frighten Nino at all, though he eyed him suspiciously enough, and after ascertaining his business departed to announce him to the count. Meanwhile, Nino, who was very much excited at the idea of being under the same roof with the object of his adoration, set himself down on one of the carved chests that surrounded the hall. The green baize door at the other end swung noiselessly on its hinges, closing itself behind the servant, and the boy was left alone. He might well be frightened, if not at the imposing appearance of the footman, at least at the task he had undertaken. But a boy like Nino is afraid of nothing when he is in love, and he simply looked about him, realising that he was without doubt in the house of a gran' signor, and from time to time brushing a particle of dust from his clothes, or trying to smooth his curly black hair, which he had caused to be clipped a little for the occasion; a very needless expense, for he looks better with his hair long.
Before many moments the servant returned, and with some condescension said that the count awaited him. Nino would rather have faced the mayor, or the king himself, than Graf von Lira, though he was not at all frightened—he was only very much excited, and he strove to calm himself, as he was ushered through the apartments to the small sitting-room where he was expected.
Graf von Lira, as I have already told you, is a foreigner of rank, who had been a Prussian colonel, and was wounded in the war of 1866. He is very tall, very thin, and very grey, with wooden features and a huge moustache that stands out like the beaks on the colonna rostrata. His eyes are small and very far apart, and fix themselves with terrible severity when he speaks, even if he is only saying "good-morning." His nails are very long and most carefully kept, and though he is so lame that he could not move a step without the help of his stick, he is still an upright and military figure. I remember well how he looked, for he came to see me under peculiar circumstances, many months after the time of which I am now speaking; and, besides, I had stood next to him for an hour in the chapel of the choir in St. Peter's.
He speaks Italian intelligibly, but with the strangest German constructions, and he rolls the letter r curiously in his throat. But he is an intelligent man for a soldier, though he thinks talent is a matter of education, and education a matter of drill. He is the most ceremonious man I ever saw; and Nino says he rose from his chair to meet him, and would not sit down again until Nino was seated.
"The signore is the professor of Italian literature recommended to me by Signor De Pretis?" inquired the colonel in iron tones, as he scrutinised Nino.
"Yes, Signor Conte," was the answer.
"You are a singularly young man to be a professor." Nino trembled. "And how have you the education obtained in order the obligations and not-to-be-avoided responsibilities of this worthy-of-all-honour career to meet?"
"I went to school here, Signor Conte, and the Professor Grandi, in whose house I always have lived, has taught me everything else I know."
"What do you know?" inquired the count, so suddenly that Nino was taken off his guard. He did not know what to answer. The count looked very stern and pulled his moustaches. "You have not here come," he continued, seeing that Nino made no answer, "without knowing something. Evident is it, that, although a man young be, if he nothing knows, he cannot a professor be."
"You speak justly, Signor Conte," Nino answered at last, "and I do know some things. I know the Commedia of Alighieri, and Petrarca, and I have read the Gerusalemme Liberata with Professor Grandi, and I can repeat all of the Vita Nuova by heart, and some of the—"
"For the present that is enough," said the count. "If you nothing better to do have, will you so kind be as to begin?"
"Begin?" said Nino, not understanding.
"Yes, signore; it would unsuitable be if I my daughter to the hands of a man committed unacquainted with the matter he to teach her proposes. I desire to be satisfied that you all these things really know."
"Do I understand, Signor Conte, that you wish me to repeat to you some of the things I know by heart?"
"You have me understood," said the count severely, "I have all the books bought of which you speak. You will repeat, and I will in the book follow. Then shall we know each other much better."
Nino was not a little astonished at this mode of procedure, and wondered how far his memory would serve him in such an unexpected examination.
"It will take a long time to ascertain in this way—" he began.
"This," said the count coldly, as he opened a volume of Dante, "is the celestial play by Signor Alighieri. If you anything know, you will it repeat."
Nino resigned himself and began repeating the first canto of the "Inferno." When he had finished it he paused.
"Forwards," said the count, without any change of manner.
"More?" inquired Nino.
"March!" said the old gentleman in military tone, and the boy went on with the second canto.
"Apparently know you the beginning." The count opened the book at random in another place. "The thirtieth canto of 'Purgatory.' You will now it repeat."
"Ah!" cried Nino, "that is where Dante meets Beatrice."
"My hitherto not-by-any-means-extensive, but always from-the-conscience- undertaken reading, reaches not so far. You will it repeat. So shall we know." Nino passed his hand inside his collar as though to free his throat, and began again, losing all consciousness of his tormentor in his own enjoyment of the verse.
"When was the Signor Alighieri born?" inquired Graf von Lira, very suddenly, as though to catch him.
"May 1265, in Florence," answered the other, as quickly.
"I said when, not where. I know he was in Florence born. When and where died he?" The question was asked fiercely.
"Fourteenth of September 1321, at Ravenna."
"I think really you something of Signor Alighieri know," said the count, and shut up the volume of the poet and the dictionary of dates he had been obliged to consult to verify Nino's answers. "We will proceed."
Nino is fortunately one of those people whose faculties serve them best at their utmost need, and during the three hours—three blessed hours—that Graf von Lira kept him under his eye, asking questions and forcing him to repeat all manner of things, he acquitted himself fairly well.
"I have now myself satisfied that you something know," said the count, in his snappish military fashion, and he shut the last book, and never from that day referred in any manner to Nino's extent of knowledge, taking it for granted that he had made an exhaustive investigation. "And now," he continued, "I desire you to engage for the reading of literature with my daughter, upon the usual terms." Nino was so much pleased that he almost lost his self-control, but a moment restored his reflection.
"I am honoured—" he began.
"You are not honoured at all," interrupted the count, coldly. "What are the usual terms?"
"Three or four francs a lesson," suggested Nino.
"Three or four francs are not the usual terms. I have inquiries made. Five francs are the usual terms. Three times in the week, at eleven. You will on the morrow begin. Allow me to offer you some cigars." And he ended the interview.
In a sunny room overlooking the great courtyard of the Palazzo Carmandola, Nino sat down to give Hedwig von Lira her first lesson in Italian literature. He had not the remotest idea what the lesson would be like, for in spite of the tolerably wide acquaintance with the subject which he owed to my care and my efforts to make a scholar of him, he knew nothing about teaching. Nevertheless, as his pupil spoke the language fluently, though with the occasional use of words of low origin, like all foreigners who have grown up in Rome and have learned to speak from their servants, he anticipated little difficulty. He felt quite sure of being able to interpret the hard places, and he had learned from me to know the best and finest passages in a number of authors.
But imagine the feelings of a boy of twenty, perfectly in love, without having the smallest right to be, suddenly placed by the side of the object of his adoration, and told to teach her all he knows—with her father in the next room and the door open between! I have always thought it was a proof of Nino's determined character, that he should have got over this first lesson without accident.
Hedwig von Lira, the contessina, as we always call her, is just Nino's age, but she seemed much younger, as the children of the North always do. I have told you what she was like to look at, and you will not wonder that I called her a statue. She looked as cold as a statue, just as I said, and so I should hardly describe her as beautiful. But then I am not a sculptor, nor do I know anything about those arts, though I can tell a good work when I see it. I do not wish to appear prejudiced, and so I will not say anything more about it. I like life in living things, and sculptors may, if it please them, adore straight noses, and level brows, and mouths that no one could possibly eat with. I do not care in the least, and if you say that I once thought differently, I answer that I do not wish to change your opinion, but that I will change my own as often as I please. Moreover, if you say that the contessina did not act like a statue in the sequel, I will argue that if you put marble in the fire it will take longer to heat and longer to cool than clay; only clay is made to be put into the fire, and marble is not. Is not that a cunning answer?
The contessina is a foreigner in every way, although she was born under our sun. They have all sorts of talents, these people, but so little ingenuity in using them that they never accomplish anything. It seems to amuse them to learn to do a great many things, although they must know from the beginning that they can never excel in any one of them. I dare say the contessina plays on the piano very creditably, for even Nino says she plays well; but is it of any use to her?
Nino very soon found out that she meant to read literature very seriously, and, what is more, she meant to read it in her own way. She was as different from her father as possible in everything else, but in a despotic determination to do exactly as she liked, she resembled him. Nino was glad that he was not called upon to use his own judgment, and there he sat, content to look at her, twisting his hands together below the table to concentrate his attention and master himself; and he read just what she told him to read, expounding the words and phrases she could not understand. I dare say that with his hair well brushed, and his best coat, and his eyes on the book, he looked as proper as you please. But if the high-born young lady had returned the glances he could not refrain from bending upon her now and then, she would have seen a lover, if she could see at all.
She did not see. The haughty Prussian damsel hardly noticed the man, for she was absorbed by the professor. Her small ears were all attention, and her slender fingers made notes with a common pencil, so that Nino wondered at the contrast between the dazzling white hand and the smooth, black, varnished instrument of writing. He took no account of time that day, and was startled by the sound of the mid-day gun and the angry clashing of the bells. The contessina looked up suddenly and met his eyes, but it was the boy that blushed.
"Would you mind finishing the canto?" she asked. "There are only ten lines more—" Mind! Nino flushed with pleasure.
"Anzi—by all means," he cried. "My time is yours, signorina."
When they had done he rose, and his face was sad and pale again. He hated to go, but he was only a teacher, and at his first lesson, too. She also rose, and waited for him to leave the room. He could not hold his tongue.
"Signorina—" he stammered, and checked himself. She looked at him, to listen, but his heart smote him when he had thus arrested her attention. What could he say as he stood bowing? It was sufficiently stupid, what he said.
"I shall have the honour of returning to-morrow, the day after to-morrow, I would say."
"Yes," said she, "I believe that is the arrangement. Good-morning, Signor Professore." The title of professor rang strangely in his ear. Was there the slightest tinge of irony in her voice? Was she laughing at his boyish looks? Ugh! the thought tingled. He bowed himself out.
That was the first lesson, and the second was like it, I suppose, and a great many others about which I knew nothing, for I was always occupied in the middle of the day, and did not ask where he went. It seemed to me that he was becoming a great dandy, but as he never asked me for any money from the day he learnt to copy music I never put any questions. He certainly had a new coat before Christmas, and gloves, and very nice boots, that made me smile when I thought of the day when he arrived, with only one shoe—and it had a hole in it as big as half his foot. But now he grew to be so careful of his appearance that Mariuccia began to call him the "signorino." De Pretis said he was making great progress, and so I was contented, though I always thought it was a sacrifice for him to be a singer.
Of course, as he went three times a week to the Palazzo Carmandola, he began to be used to the society of the contessina. I never understood how he succeeded in keeping up the comedy of being a professor. A real Roman would have discovered him in a week. But foreigners are different. If they are satisfied they pay their money and ask no questions. Besides, he studied all the time, saying that if he ever lost his voice he would turn man of letters; which sounded so prudent that I had nothing to say. Once, we were walking in the Corso, and the contessina with her father passed in the carriage. Nino raised his hat, but they did not see him, for there is always a crowd in the Corso.
"Tell me," he cried, excitedly, as they went by, "is it not true that she is beautiful?"
"A piece of marble, my son," said I, suspecting nothing; and I turned into a tobacconist's to buy a cigar.
One day—Nino says it was in November—the contessina began asking him questions about the Pantheon, it was in the middle of the lesson, and he wondered at her stopping to talk. But you may imagine whether he was glad or not to have an opportunity of speaking about something besides Dante.
"Yes, signorina," he answered, "Professor Grandi says it was built for public baths; but, of course, we all think it was a temple."
"Were you ever there at night?" asked she, indifferently, and the sun through the window so played with her golden hair that Nino wondered how she could ever think of night at all.
"At night, signorina? No indeed! What should I go there at night to do, in the dark! I was never there at night."
"I will go there at night," she said briefly.
"Ah—you would have it lit up with torches, as they do the Coliseum?"
"No. Is there no moon in Italy, professore?"
"The moon, there is. But there is such a little hole in the top of the Rotonda"—that is our Roman name for the Pantheon—"that it would be very dark."
"Precisely," said she. "I will go there at night, and see the moon shining through the hole in the dome."
"Eh," cried Nino laughing, "you will see the moon better outside in the piazza. Why should you go inside, where you can see so little of it?"
"I will go," replied the contessina. "The Italians have no sense of the beautiful—the mysterious." Her eyes grew dreamy as she tried to call up the picture she had never seen.
"Perhaps," said Nino humbly. "But," he added, suddenly brightening at the thought, "it is very easy, if you would like to go. I will arrange it. Will you allow me?"
"Yes, arrange it. Let us go on with our lesson."
I would like to tell you all about it; how Nino saw the sacristan of the Pantheon that evening, and ascertained from his little almanac—which has all kinds of wonderful astrological predictions, as well as the calendar—when it would be full moon. And perhaps what Nino said to the sacristan, and what the sacristan said to Nino, might be amusing. I am very fond of these little things, and fond of talking too. For since it is talking that distinguishes us from other animals, I do not see why I should not make the most of it. But you who are listening to me have seen very little of the Contessina Hedwig as yet, and unless I quickly tell you more, you will wonder how all the curious things that happened to her could possibly have grown out of the attempt of a little singer like Nino to make her acquaintance. Well, Nino is a great singer now, of course, but he was little once; and when he palmed himself off on the old count for an Italian master without my knowledge, nobody had ever heard of him at all.
Therefore since I must satisfy your curiosity before anything else, and not dwell too long on the details—the dear, commonplace details—I will simply say that Nino succeeded without difficulty in arranging with the sacristan of the Pantheon to allow a party of foreigners to visit the building at the full moon, at midnight. I have no doubt he even expended a franc with the little man, who is very old and dirty, and keeps chickens in the vestibule—but no details!
Oh the appointed night Nino, wrapped in that old cloak of mine (which is very warm, though it is threadbare), accompanied the party to the temple, or church, or whatever you like to call it. The party were simply the count and his daughter, an Austrian gentleman of their acquaintance, and the dear baroness—that sympathetic woman who broke so many hearts and cared not at all for the chatter of the people. Everyone has seen her, with her slim, graceful ways, and her face that was like a mulatto peach for darkness and fineness, and her dark eyes and tiger-lily look. They say she lived entirely on sweetmeats and coffee, and it is no wonder she was so sweet and so dark. She called me "count"—which is very foolish now, but if I were going to fall in love, I would have loved her. I would not love a statue. As for the Austrian gentleman, it is not of any importance to describe him.
These four people Nino conducted to the little entrance at the back of the Pantheon, and the sacristan struck a light to show them the way to the door of the church. Then he put out his taper, and let them do as they pleased.
Conceive if you can the darkness of Egypt, the darkness that can be felt, impaled and stabbed through its whole thickness by one mighty moonbeam, clear and clean and cold, from the top to the bottom. All around, in the circle of the outer black, lie the great dead in their tombs, whispering to each other of deeds that shook the world; whispering in a language all their own as yet—the language of the life to come—the language of a stillness so dread and deep that the very silence clashes against it, and makes dull, muffled beatings in ears that strain to catch the dead men's talk: the shadow of immortality falling through the shadow of death, and bursting back upon its heavenward course from the depth of the abyss; climbing again upon its silver self to the sky above, leaving behind the horror of the deep.
So in that lonely place at midnight falls the moon upon the floor, and through the mystic shaft of rays ascend and descend the souls of the dead. Hedwig stood out alone upon the white circle on the pavement beneath the dome, and looked up as though she could see the angels coming and going. And, as she looked, the heavy lace veil that covered her head fell back softly, as though a spirit wooed her and would fain look on something fairer than he, and purer. The whiteness clung to her face, and each separate wave of hair was like spun silver. And she looked steadfastly up. For a moment she stood, and the hushed air trembled about her. Then the silence caught the tremor, and quivered, and a thrill of sound hovered and spread its wings, and sailed forth from the night.
"Spirto gentil dei sogni miei—"
Ah, Signorina Edvigia, you know that voice now, but you did not know it then. How your heart stopped, and beat, and stopped again, when you first heard that man sing out his whole heartful—you in the light and he in the dark! And his soul shot out to you upon the sounds, and died fitfully, as the magic notes dashed their soft wings against the vaulted roof above you, and took new life again and throbbed heavenward in broad, passionate waves, till your breath came thick and your blood ran fiercely—ay, even your cold northern blood—in very triumph that a voice could so move you. A voice in the dark. For a full minute after it ceased you stood there, and the others, wherever they might be in the shadow, scarcely breathed.
That was how Hedwig first heard Nino sing. When at last she recovered herself enough to ask aloud the name of the singer, Nino had moved quite close to her.
"It is a relation of mine, signorina, a young fellow who is going to be an artist. I asked him as a favour to come here and sing to you to-night. I thought it might please you."
"A relation of yours!" exclaimed the contessina. And the others approached so that they all made a group in the disc of moonlight. "Just think, my dear baroness, this wonderful voice is a relation of Signor Cardegna, my excellent Italian master!" There was a little murmur of admiration; then the old count spoke.
"Signore," said he, rolling in his gutturals, "it is my duty to very much thank you. You will now, if you please, me the honour do, me to your all-the-talents-possible-possessing relation to present." Nino had foreseen the contingency and disappeared into the dark. Presently he returned.
"I am so sorry, Signor Conte," he said. "The sacristan tells me that when my cousin had finished he hurried away, saying he was afraid of taking some ill if he remained here where it is so damp. I will tell him how much you appreciated him."
"Curious is it," remarked the count. "I heard him not going off."
"He stood in the doorway of the sacristy, by the high altar, Signor Conte."
"In that case is it different."
"I am sorry," said Nino. "The signorina was so unkind as to say, lately, that we Italians have no sense of the beautiful, the mysterious—"
"I take it back," said Hedwig, gravely, still standing in the moonlight. "Your cousin has a very great power over the beautiful."
"And the mysterious," added the baroness, who had not spoken, "for his departure without showing himself has left me the impression of a sweet dream. Give me your arm, Professore Cardegna. I will not stay here any longer, now that the dream is over." Nino sprang to her side politely, though, to tell the truth, she did not attract him at first sight. He freed one arm from the old cloak, and reflected that she could not tell in the dark how very shabby it was.
"You give lessons to the Signora von Lira?" she asked, leading him quickly away from the party.
"Yes—in Italian literature, signora."
"Ah—she tells me great things of you. Could you not spare me an hour or two in the week, professore?"
Here was a new complication. Nino had certainly not contemplated setting up for an Italian teacher to all the world when he undertook to give lessons to Hedwig.
"Signora—" he began, in a protesting voice.
"You will do it to oblige me, I am sure," she said, eagerly, and her slight hand just pressed upon his arm a little. Nino had found time to reflect that this lady was intimate with Hedwig, and that he might possibly gain an opportunity of seeing the girl he loved if he accepted the offer.
"Whenever it pleases you, signora," he said at length.
"Can you come to me to-morrow at eleven?" she asked.
"At twelve, if you please, signora, or half past. Eleven is the contessina's hour to-morrow."
"At half-past twelve, then, to-morrow," said she, and she gave him her address, as they went out into the street. "Stop," she added, "where do you live?"
"Number twenty-seven Santa Catarina dei Funari," he answered, wondering why she asked. The rest of the party came out, and Nino bowed to the ground, as he bid the contessina good-night.
He was glad to be free of that pressure on his arm, and he was glad to be alone, to wander through the streets under the moonlight, and to think over what he had done.
"There is no risk of my being discovered," he said to himself, confidently. "The story of the near relation was well imagined, and besides, it is true. Am I not my own nearest relation? I certainly have no others that I know of. And this baroness—what can she want of me? She speaks Italian like a Spanish cow, and indeed she needs a professor badly enough. But why should she take a fancy for me as a teacher. Ah! those eyes! Not the baroness'. Edvigia—Edvigia di Lira—Edvigia Ca—Cardegna! Why not?" He stopped to think, and looked long at the moonbeams playing on the waters of the fountain. "Why not? But the baroness—may the diavolo fly away with her! What should I do—I indeed! with a pack of baronesses? I will go to bed and dream—not of a baroness! Macche, never a baroness in my dreams, with eyes like a snake, and who cannot speak three words properly in the only language under the sun worth speaking! Not I—I will dream of Edvigia di Lira—she is the spirit of my dreams. Spirto gentil—" and away he went, humming the air from the "Favorita" in the top of his head, as is his wont.
The next day the contessina could talk of nothing during her lesson but the unknown singer who had made the night so beautiful for her, and Nino flushed red under his dark skin and ran his fingers wildly through his curly hair, with pleasure. But he set his square jaw, that means so much, and explained to his pupil how hard it would be for her to hear him again. For his friend, he said, was soon to make his appearance on the stage, and of course he could not be heard singing before that. And as the young lady insisted, Nino grew silent, and remarked that the lesson was not progressing. Thereupon Hedwig blushed—the first time he had ever seen her blush—and did not approach the subject again.
After that he went to the house of the baroness, where he was evidently expected, for the servant asked his name and immediately ushered him into her presence. She was one of those lithe, dark women of good race, that are to be met with all over the world, and she has broken many a heart. But she was not like a snake at all, as Nino had thought at first. She was simply a very fine lady who did exactly what she pleased, and if she did not always act rightly, yet I think she rarely acted unkindly. After all, the buon Dio has not made us all paragons of domestic virtue. Men break their hearts for so very little, and, unless they are ruined, they melt the pieces at the next flame and join them together again like bits of sealing wax.
The baroness sat before a piano in a boudoir, where there was not very much light. Every part of the room was crowded with fans, ferns, palms, Oriental carpets and cushions, books, porcelain, majolica, and pictures. You could hardly move without touching some ornament, and the heavy curtains softened the sunshine, and a small open fire of wood helped the warmth. There was also an odour of Russian tobacco. The baroness smiled and turned on the piano seat.
"Ah, professore! You come just in time," said she. "I am trying to sing such a pretty song to myself, and I cannot pronounce the words. Come and teach me." Nino contrasted the whole air of this luxurious retreat with the prim, soldierly order that reigned in the count's establishment.
"Indeed, signora, I come to teach you whatever I can. Here I am. I cannot sing, but I will stand beside you and prompt the words."
Nino is not a shy boy at all, and he assumed the duties required of him immediately. He stood by her side, and she just nodded and began to sing a little song that stood on the desk of the piano. She did not sing out of tune, but she made wrong notes and pronounced horribly.
"Pronounce the words for me," she repeated every now and then.
"But pronouncing in singing is different from speaking," he objected at last, and, fairly forgetting himself and losing patience, he began softly to sing the words over. Little by little, as the song pleased him, he lost all memory of where he was, and stood beside her singing just as he would have done to De Pretis, from the sheet, with all the accuracy and skill that were in him. At the end, he suddenly remembered how foolish he was. But, after all, he had not sung to the power of his voice, and she might not recognise in him the singer of last night. The baroness looked up with a light laugh.
"I have found you out," she cried, clapping her hands. "I have found you out!"
"You are the tenor of the Pantheon—that is all. I knew it. Are you so sorry that I have found you out?" she asked, for Nino turned very white, and his eyes flashed at the thought of the folly he had committed.
Nino was thoroughly frightened, for he knew that discovery portended the loss of everything most dear to him. No more lessons with Hedwig, no more parties to the Pantheon, no more peace, no more anything. He wrung his fingers together and breathed hard.
"Ah, signora!" he found voice to exclaim, "I am sure you cannot believe it possible—"
"Why not, Signor Cardegna?" asked the baroness, looking up at him from under her half-closed lids with a mocking glance. "Why not? Did you not tell me where you lived? And does not the whole neighbourhood know that you are no other than Giovanni Cardegna, commonly called Nino, who is to make his debut in the Carnival season?"
"Dio mio!" ejaculated Nino in a hoarse voice, realising that he was entirely found out, and that nothing could save him. He paced the room in an agony of despair, and his square face was as white as a sheet. The baroness sat watching him with a smile on her lips, amused at the tempest she had created, and pretending to know much more than she did. She thought it not impossible that Nino, who was certainly poor, might be supporting himself by teaching Italian while studying for the stage, and she inwardly admired his sense and twofold talent if that were really the case. But she was willing to torment him a little, seeing that she had the power.
"Signor Cardegna"—she called him in her soft voice. He turned quickly, and stood facing her, his arms crossed.
"You look like Napoleon at Waterloo, when you stand like that," she laughed. He made no answer, waiting to see what she would do with her victory. "It seems that you are sorry I have discovered you," she added presently, looking down at her hands.
"Is that all?" he said, with a bitter sneer on his pale young face.
"Then, since you are sorry, you must have a reason for concealment," she went on, as though reflecting on the situation. It was deftly done, and Nino took heart.
"Signora," he said, in a trembling voice, "it is natural that a man should wish to live. I give lessons now, until I have appeared in public, to support myself."
"Ah, I begin to understand," said the baroness. In reality she began to doubt, reflecting that if this were the whole truth Nino would be too proud—or any other Italian—to say it so plainly. She was subtle, the baroness!
"And do you suppose," he continued, "that if once the Conte de Lira had an idea that I was to be a public singer he would employ me as a teacher for his daughter?"
"No, but others might," she objected.
"But not the count—" Nino bit his lip, fearing he had betrayed himself.
"Nor the contessina," laughed the baroness, completing the sentence. He saw at a glance what she suspected, and instead of keeping cool grew angry.
"I came here, Signora Baronessa, not to be cross-examined, but to teach you Italian. Since you do not desire to study, I will say good-morning." He took his hat and moved proudly to the door.
"Come here," she said, not raising her voice, but still commanding. He turned, hesitated, and came back. He thought her voice was changed. She rose and swept her silken morning-gown between the chairs and tables till she reached a deep divan on the other side of the room. There she sat down.