A Roman Singer
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 neighborhood know that you are no other than Giovanni Cardegna, commonly called Nino, who is to make his début in the Carnival season ? ”
“ Dio mio ! ” ejaculated Nino in a hoarse voice, realizing 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,” be continued, “ that if once the Conte di Lira had an idea that I was to be a public singer he
Copyright, 1883, by HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN & Co.
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 morninggown between the chairs and tables, till she reached a deep divan on the other side of the room. There she sat down.
“ Come and sit beside me,” she said kindly, and he obeyed in silence.
“ Do you know what would have happened,” she continued, when he was seated, “ if you had left me just now ? I would have gone to the Graf von Lira and told him that you were not a fit person to teach his daughter; that you are a singer, and not a professor at all; and that you have assumed this disguise for the sake of seeing his daughter.” But I do not believe that she would have done it.
“ That would have been a betrayal,” said Nino fiercely, looking away from her. She laughed lightly.
“ Is it not natural,” she asked, “ that I should make inquiries about my Italian teacher, before I begin lessons with him ? And if I find he is not what he pretends to be, should I not warn my intimate friends ? ” She spoke so reasonably that he was fain to acknowledge that she was right.
“ It is just,” he said sullenly. “ But you have been very quick to make your inquiries, as you call them.”
“ The time was short, since you were to come this morning.”
“ That is true,” he answered. He moved uneasily. “ And now, signora, will you be kind enough to tell me what you intend to do with me ? ”
“ Certainly, since you are more reasonable. You see I treat you altogether as an artist, and not at all as an Italian master. A great artist may idle away a morning in a woman’s boudoir ; a simple teacher of languages must be more industrious.”
“ But I am not a great artist,” said Nino, whose vanity — we all have it — began to flutter a little.
“ You will be one before long, and one of the greatest. You are a boy yet, my little tenor,” said she, looking at him with her dark eyes, “and I might almost be your mother. How old are you, Signor Nino ? ”
“ I was twenty on my last birthday,” he answered, blushing.
“ You see ! I am thirty — at least,” she added, with a short laugh.
“Well, signora, what of that?” asked Nino, half amused. “ I wish I were thirty myself.”
“ I am glad you are not,” said she. “Now listen. You are completely in my power, do you understand ? Yes. And you are apparently* very much in love with my young friend, the Contessina di Lira”— Nino sprang to his feet, his face white again, but with rage this time.
“ Signora,” he cried, “ this is too much ! It is insufferable ! Good-morning,” and he made as though he would go.
“Very well,” said the baroness; “then I will go to the Graf and explain who you are. Ah—you are calm again in a moment ? Sit down. Now I have discovered you, and I have a right to you, do you see? It is fortunate for you that I like you.”
“ You ! You like me? In truth, you act as though you did ! Besides, you
are a stranger, Signora Baronessa, and a great lady. I never saw you till yesterday.” But he resumed his seat.
“Good,” said she. “Is not the Signorina Edvigia a great lady, and.was there never a day when she was a stranger too ? ”
“ I do not understand your caprices, signora. In fine, what do you want of me ? ”
“ It is not necessary that you should understand me,” answered the darkeyed baroness. “ Do you think I would hurt you — or rather your voice ? ”
“ I do not know.”
“ You know very well that I would not; and as for my caprices, as you call them, do you think it is a caprice to love music ? No, of course not. And who loves music loves musicians ; at least,” she added, with a most enchanting smile, “enough to wish to have them near one. That is all. I want you to come here often and sing to me. Will you come and sing to me, my little tenor ? ”
Nino would not have been human had he not felt the flattery through the sting. And I always say that singers are the vainest kind of people.
“It is very like singing in a cage,” he said, in protest. Nevertheless, he knew he must submit; for, however narrow his experience might be, this woman’s smile and winning grace, even when she said the hardest things, told him that she would have her own way. He had the sense to understand, too, that whatever her plans might be, their object was to bring him near to herself, a reflection which was extremely soothing to his vanity.
“ If you will come and sing to me, — only to me, of course, for I would not ask you to compromise your début, — but if you will come and sing to me, we shall be very good friends. Does it seem to you such a terrible penance to sing to me in my solitude ? ”
“ It is never a penance to sing,” said Nino simply. A shade of annoyance crossed the baroness’s face.
“ Provided,” she said, “ it entails nothing. Well, we will not talk about the terms.”
They say women sometimes fall in love with a voice: vox et prætcrea nihil, as the poet has it. I do not know whether that is what happened to the baroness at first, but it has always seemed strange to me that she should have given herself so much trouble to secure Nino, unless she had a very strong fancy for him. I, for my part, think that when a lady of her condition takes such a sudden caprice into her head, she thinks it necessary to maltreat the poor man a little at first, just to satisfy her conscience, and to be able to say later that she did not encourage him. I have had some experience, as everybody is aware, and so I may speak boldly. On the other hand, a man like Nino, when he is in love, is absolutely blind to other women. There is only one idea in his soul that has any life, and every one outside that idea is only so much landscape ; they are no better for him — the other women — than a museum of wax dolls.
The baroness, as you have seen, had Nino in her power, and there was nothing for it but submission ; he came and went at her bidding, and often she would send for him when he least expected it. He would do as she commanded, somewhat sullenly and with a bad grace, but obediently, for all that; she had his destiny in her hands, and could in a moment frustrate all his hopes. But, of course, she knew that if she betrayed him to the count, Nino would be lost to her also, since he came to her only in order to maintain his relations with Hedwig.
Meanwhile, the blue-eyed maiden of the North waxed fitful. Sometimes two or three lessons would pass in severe study. Nino, who always took care to know the passages they were reading, so that he might look at her instead of
at his book, had instituted an arrangement by which they sat opposite each other at a small table, He would watch her every movement and look, and carry away a series of photographs of her, — a whole row, like the little books of Roman views they sell in the streets, strung together on a strip of paper, — and these views of her lasted with him for two whole days, until he saw her again. But sometimes he would catch a glimpse of her in the interval, driving with her father. “He sang?” cried Nino, with an affectation of alarm. “ I must tell the maestro not to let him sing in the open air ; he will lose his voice.”
There were other days when Hedwig could not be induced to study, but would overwhelm Nino with questions about his wonderful cousin who sang; so that he longed with his whole soul to tell her it was he himself who had sung. She saw his reluctance to speak about it, and she blushed when she mentioned the night at the Pantheon ; but for her life she could not help talking of the pleasure she had had. Her blushes seemed like the promise of spring roses to her lover, who drank of the air of her presence till that subtle ether ran like fire through his veins. He was nothing to her, he could see; but the singer of the Pantheon engrossed her thoughts and brought the hot blood to her cheek. The beam of moonlight had pierced the soft virgin darkness of her sleeping soul, and found a heart so cold and spotless that even a moon ray was warm by comparison. And the voice that sang “ Spirto gentil dei sogni miei ” had itself become by memory the gentle spirit of her own dreams. She is so full of imagination, this statue of Nino’s, that she heard the notes echoing after her by day and night, till she thought she must go mad unless she could hear the reality again. As the great solemn statue of Egyptian Memnon murmurs sweet, soft sounds to its mighty self at sunrise, a musical whisper in the desert, so the pure white marble of Nino’s living statue vibrated with strange harmomies all the day long.
One night, as Nino walked homeward with De Pretis, who had come to supper with us, he induced the maestro to go out of his way at least half a mile, to pass the Palazzo Carmandola. It was a still night, not over-cold for December, and there were neither stars nor moon. As they passed the great house Nino saw a light in Hedwig’s sitting-room— the room where he gave her the lessons. It was late, and she must be alone. On a sudden he stopped.
“ What is the matter ? ” asked De Pretis.
For all answer, Nino, standing in the dark street below, lifted up his voice and sang the first notes of the air he always associated with his beautiful contessina. Before he had sung a dozen bars, the window opened, and the girl’s figure could be seen, black against the light within. He went on for a few notes, and then ceased suddenly.
“ Let us go,” he said in a low voice to Ercole ; and they went away, leaving the contessina listening in the stillness to the echo of their feet. A Roman girl would not have done that ; she would have sat quietly inside, and never have shown herself. But foreigners are so impulsive!
Nino never heard the last of those few notes, any more than the contessina, literally speaking, ever heard the end of the song.
“ Your cousin, about whom you make so much mystery, passed under my window last night,” said the young lady the next day, with the usual display of carnation in her cheeks at the mention of him.
“ Indeed, signorina? ” said Nino calmly, for he expected the remark. “ And since you have never seen him, pray how did you know it was he? ”
“ How should one know?” she asked scornfully. “ There are not two such voices as his in Italy. He sang.”
“Who is his master?” asked Hedwig, suddenly.
“I cannot remember the name just now,” said Nino, looking away. “ But I will find out, if you wish.” He was afraid of putting De Pretis to any inconvenience by saying that the young singer was his pupil. “ However,” he continued, “ you will hear him sing as often as you please, after he makes his début next month.” He sighed when he thought that it would all so soon be over. For how could he disguise himself any longer, when he should be singing in public every night? But Hedwig clapped her hands.
“ So soon ? ” she cried. “ Then there will be an end of the mystery.”
“ Yes,” said Nino gravely, “ there will be an end of the mystery.”
“ At least you can tell me his name, now that we shall all know it ?”
“Oh, his name — his name is Cardegna, like mine. He is my cousin, you know.” And they went on with the lesson. But something of the kind occurred almost every time he came, so that he felt quite sure that, however indifferent he might be in her eyes, the singer, the Nino of whom she knew nothing, interested her deeply.
Meanwhile he was obliged to go very often to the baroness’s scented boudoir, which smelled of incense and other Eastern perfumes, whenever it did not smell of cigarettes; and there he sang little songs, and submitted patiently to her demands for more and more music. She would sit by the piano and watch him as he sang, wondering whether he were handsome or ugly, with his square face and broad throat and the black circles round his eyes. He had a fascination for her, as being something utterly new to her.
One day she stood and looked over the music as he sang, almost touching him, and his hair was so curly and soft to look at that she was seized with a desire to stroke it, as Mariuccia strokes the old gray cat for hours together. The action was quite involuntary, and her fingers rested only a moment on his head.
“It is so curly,” she said, half playfully, half apologetically. But Nino started as though he had been stung, and his dark face grew pale. A girl could not have seemed more hurt at a strange man’s touch.
“ Signora ! ” he cried, springing to his feet. The baroness, who is as dark as he, blushed almost red, partly because she was angry, and partly because she was ashamed.
“ What a boy you are ! ” she said, carelessly enough, and turned away to the window, pushing back one heavy curtain with her delicate hand, as if she would look out.
“ Pardon me, signora, I am not a boy,” said Nino, speaking to the back of her head as he stood behind her. “it is time we understood each other better. I love like a man and I hate like a man. I love some one very much.”
“ Fortunate contessina ! ” laughed the baroness, mockingly, without turning round.
“ It does not concern you, signora, to know whom I love, nor, if you know, to speak of her. I ask you a simple question. If you loved a man with your whole soul and heart, would you allow another man to stand beside you and stroke your hair, and say it was curly ? ” The baroness burst out laughing. “ Do not laugh,” he continued. “ Remember that I am in your power only so long as it pleases me to submit to you. Do not abuse your advantage, or I will be capable of creating for myself situations quite as satisfactory as that of Italian master to the Signorina di Lira.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, turning suddenly upon him. “ I suppose you would tell me that you will make advantages for yourself which you will abuse, against me ? What do you mean ? ”
“ I do not mean that. I mean only that I may not wish to give lessons to the contessina much longer.” By this time the baroness had recovered her equanimity ; and as she would have been sorry to lose Nino, who was a source of infinite pleasure and amusement to her, she decided to pacify him, instead of teasing him any more.
“ Is it not very foolish for us to quarrel about your curly hair ? ” said she. “ We have been such good friends, always.”It might have been three weeks, her “ always.”
“I think it is,” answered Nino gravely. But do not stroke my hair again, Signora Baronessa, or I shall be angry.” He was quite serious, if you believe it, though he was only twenty. He forthwith sat down to the piano again and sang on. The baroness sat very silent and scarcely looked at him ; but she held her hands clasped on her knee, and seemed to be thinking. After a time Nino stopped singing, and sat silentalso, absently turning over the sheets of music. It was warm in the room, and the sounds from the street were muffled and far away.
“ Signor Nino,” said the lady at last, in a different voice, “ I am married.”
“ Yes, signora,” he replied, wondering what would come next.
“ It would be very foolish of me to care for you.”
“ It would also be very wicked,” he said calmly ; for he is well grounded in religion. The baroness stared at him in some surprise, but seeing he was perfectly serious, she went on.
“ Precisely, as you say, very wicked. That being the case, I have decided not to care for you any more — I mean, not to care for you at all. I have made up my mind to be your friend.”
“I am much obliged to your ladyship,” he answered, without moving a muscle. For you see, he did not believe her.
“ Now tell me, then, Signor Nino, are you in earnest in what you are doing ? Do you really set your heart on doing this thing ? ”
“What?” asked Nino, annoyed at the persistence of the woman.
“ Why need you be afraid to understand me ? Can you not forgive me ? Can you not believe in me, that I will be your friend ? I have always dreamed of being the friend of a great artist. Let me be yours, and believe me, the thing you have in your heart shall be done.”
“ I would like to hope so,” he said. But he smiled incredulously. “ I can only say that if you can accomplish what it is in my heart to do, I will go through fire and water at your bidding ; and if you are not mocking me, I am very grateful for the offer. But if you please, signora, we will not speak any more of this at present. I may be a great artist, some day. Sometimes I feel sure that I shall. But now I am simply Giovanni Cardegna, teacher of literature; and the highest favor you can confer on me is not to deprive me of my means of support, by revealing to the Conte di Lira my other occupation. I may fail hopelessly at the outset of my artistic career, and in that case I shall certainly remain a teacher of language.”
“ Very well,” said the baroness, in a subdued voice; for, in spite of her will and willfulness, this square-faced boy of mine was more than a match for her. “ Very well, you will believe me another day, and now I will ask you to go, for I am tired.”
I cannot be interrupted by your silly questions about the exact way in which things happened. I must tell this story in my own way, or not at all; and I am sacrificing a great deal to your taste in cutting out all the little things that I really most enjoy telling. Whether you are astonished at the conduct of the baroness, after a three weeks’ acquaintance, or not, I care not a fig. It is just the way it happened, and I dare say she was really madly in love with Nino. If I had been Nino, I should have been in love with her. But I would like you to admire my boy’s audacity, and to review the situation, before I go on to speak of that important event in his life, his first appearance on the boards of the opera. At the time of his début he wras still disguised as a teacher of Italian to the young contessina. She thought him interesting and intelligent, but that was all. Her thoughts were entirely, though secretly, engrossed by the mysterious singer, whom she had heard twice, but had not seen, as far as she knew. Nino, on the other hand, loved her to desperation, and would have acted like a madman had he been deprived of his privilege of speaking to her three times a wreek. He loved her with the same earnest determination to win her that he had shown for years in the study of his art, and with all the rest of his nature besides, which is saying much — not to mention his soul, of which he thinks a great deal more than I do.
Besides this, the baroness had apparently fallen in love with him, had made him her intimate, and flattered him in a way to turn his head. Then she seemed to have thought better of her passion, and had promised him her friendship, — a promise which he himself considered of no importance whatever. As for the old Conte di Lira, he read the German newspapers, and cared for none of these things. De Pretis took an extra pinch of his good snuff, when he thought that his liberal ideas might yet be realized, and a man from the people marry a great lady by fairly winning her. Do not, after this, complain that I have left you in the dark, or that you do not know how it happened. It is as clear as water, and it was about four months from the time Nino saw Hedwig in St. Peter’s to the time when he first sang in public.
Christmas passed by, — thank Heaven, the municipality has driven away those most detestable pifferari, who played on their discordant bagpipes at every corner for a fortnight, and nearly drove me crazy, — and the Befana, as we call the Epiphany in Rome, was gone, with its gay racket, and the night fair in the Piazza Navona, and the days for Nino’s first appearance drew near. I never knew anything about the business arrangements for the début, since De Pretis settled all that with Jacovacci, the impresario ; but I know that there were many rehearsals, and that I was obliged to stand security to the theatrical tailor, together with De Pretis, in order that Nino might have his dress made. As for the cowl in the last act, De Pretis has a brother who is a monk, and between them they put together a very decent friar’s costume; and Mariuccia had a good piece of rope, which Nino used for a girdle.
“What does it matter ? ” he said, with much good sense. “ For if I sing well, they will not look at my monk’s hood; and if I sing badly, I may be dressed like the Holy Father, and they will hiss me just the same. But in the beginning I must look like a courtier, and be dressed like one.”
“ I suppose so,” said I; “ but I wish you had taken to philosophy.”
I shall never forget the day of Nino’s first appearance. You may imagine whether we were in a state of excitement or not, after all these years of study and waiting. There was much more trouble and worry than if he had written a great book, and was just to publish it, and receive the homage of all the learning and talent in Europe; which is the kind of début I had hoped he would make in life, instead of putting on a foolish dress, and stamping about on a stage, and squalling love songs to a packed house, making pantomime with his hands, and altogether behaving like an idiot, — a crowd of people ready to hiss him at the slightest indication of weakness, or to carry him on their shoulders if they fancied his voice to their taste.
No wonder Nino was sad and depressed all day, and when he tried his voice in the afternoon thought it was less clear than usual, and stared at himself in the looking-glass, wondering whether he were not too ugly altogether, as I always told him. To tell the truth, he was not so ugly as he had been; for the months with the contessina had refined him singularly, and perhaps he had caught a certain grace of manner from the baroness. He had grown more silent, too, and seemed always preoccupied, as well he might be ; but he had concealed his affair with the Lira family from me until that day, and I supposed him anxious about his appearance.
Early in the morning came De Pretis, and suggested that it would be better for Nino to take a walk and breathe the fresh air a little ; so I bade him go, and I did not see him again until the afternoon. De Pretis said that the only cause for anxiety was from stage fright, and went away taking snuff and flourishing his immense cotton handkerchief. I thought a man must be a fool to work for years in order to sing, and then, when he had learned to do it quite well, to be afraid of showing what he knew. I did not think Nino would be frightened.
Of course, there was a final rehearsal at eleven, and Nino put off the hour of the lesson with the contessina to three in the afternoon, by some excuse or other, He must have felt very much pressed for time, having to give her a lesson on the very day of his coming out; and besides, he knew very well that it might be the last of his days with her, and that a great deal would depend on the way he bore himself at his trial. He sang badly, or thought he did, at the rehearsal, and grew more and more depressed and grave as the day advanced, He came out of the little stage door of the Apollo theatre at Tor di Nona, and his eyes fell upon the broad bills and posters announcing the first appearance of “ Giovanni Cardegna, the most distinguished pupil of the Maestro Ercole De Pretis, in Verdi’s opera the Favorita.” His heart sank at the sight of his own name, and he turned towards the Bridge of Sant’ Angelo to get away from it. He was the last to leave the theatre, and De Pretis was with him.
At that moment he saw Hedwig von Lira sitting in an open carriage, in front of the box office. De Pretis bowed low; she smiled; and Nino took off his hat, but would not go near her, escaping in the opposite direction. He thought she looked somewhat surprised, but his only idea was to get away, lest she should call him and put some awkward question.
An hour and a half later he entered her sitting-room. There she sat, as usual, with her books, awaiting him perhaps for the last time, a fair, girlish figure with gold hair, but oh, so cold ! — it makes me shiver to think of how she used to book. Possibly there was a dreaminess about her blue eyes that made up for her manner; but how Nino could love her, I cannot understand. It must have been like making love to a pillar of ice.
“I am much indebted to you for allowing me to come at this hour, signorina,” he said, as he bowed.
“Ah, professore, it looks almost as though it were you yourself who were to make your début,” said she, laughing and leaning back in her chair. “ Your name is on every corner in Rome, and I saw you coming out of a side door of the theatre this morning.” Nino trembled, but reflected that if she had suspected anything she would not have made so light of it.
“ The fact is, signorina, my cousin is so nervous that he begged me earnestly to be present at the rehearsal this morning; and as it is the great event of his life, I could not easily refuse him. I presume you are going to hear him, since I saw your carriage at the theatre.”
“ Yes. At the last minute, my father wanted to change our box for one nearer the stage, and so we went ourselves. The baroness — you know, the lady who went with us to the Pantheon — is going with us to-night.” It was the first time Hedwig had mentioned her, and it was evident that Nino’s intimacy with the baroness had been kept a secret. How long would it be so ? Mechanically he proceeded with the lesson, thinking mournfully that he should never give her another. But Hedwig was more animated than he had ever seen her, and often stopped to ask questions about the coming performance. It was evident that she was entirely absorbed with the thought of at last hearing to its fullest extent the voice that had haunted her dreams ; most of all, with the anticipation of what this wonderful singer would be like. Dwelling on the echo of his singing for months had roused her interest and curiosity to such a pitch that she could hardly be quiet a moment, or think calmly of what she was to enjoy; and yet she looked so very cold and indifferent at most times. But Nino had noticed all this, and rejoiced at it; young as he was, however, he understood that the discovery she was about to make would be a shock that would certainly produce some palpable result, when she should see him from her box in the theatre. He trembled for the consequences.
The lesson was over all too soon, and Nino lingered a moment to see whether the very last drops of his cup of happiness might not still be sweet. He did not know when he should see her again, to speak with her; and though he determined it should not be long, the future seemed very uncertain, and he would look on her loveliness while he might.
“I hope you will like my cousin’s singing,” he said, rather timidly.
“ If he sings as he has sung before, he is the greatest artist living,” she said calmly, as though no one would dispute it. “ But I am curious to see him, as well as to hear him.”
“ He is not handsome,” said Nino, smiling a little. “In fact, there is a family resemblance ; he is said to look like me.”
“ Why did you not tell me that before ? ” she asked quickly, and fixed her blue eyes on Nino’s face, as though she wished to photograph the features in her mind.
“ I did not suppose the signorina would think twice about a singer’s appearance,” said Nino quietly. Hedwig blushed and turned away, busying herself with her books. At that moment Graf von Lira entered from the next room. Nino bowed.
“ Curious is it,” said the count, “ that you and the about-to-make-his-appearance tenor should the same name have.”
“ He is a near relation, Signor Conte, –the same whom you heard sing in the Pantheon. I hope you will like his voice.”
“ That is what we shall see, Signor Professore,” answered the other severely. He had a curious way of bowing, as though he were made only in two pieces, from his waist to his heels, and from his waist to the crown of his head. Nino went his way sadly, and wondering how Hedwig would look when she should recognize him from her box in the theatre, that very evening.
It i.s a terrible and a heart-tearing thing to part from the woman one loves. That is nothing new, you say. Every one knows that. Perhaps so, though I think not. Only those can know it who have experienced it, and for them no explanations are in any way at all necessary. The mere word “parting” calls up such an infinity of sorrow that it is better to draw a veil over the sad thing and bury it out of sight, and put upon it the seal on which is graven “No Nope.”
Moreover, when a man only supposes, as Nino did, that he is leaving the woman he loves, or is about to leave her, until he can devise some new plan for seeing her, the case is not so very serious. Nevertheless, Nino, who is of a very tender constitution of the affections, suffered certain pangs which are always hard to bear, and as he walked slowly down the street he hung his head low, and did not look like a man who could possibly he successful in anything he might undertake that day. Yet it was the most important day of his life, and had it not been that he had left Hedwig with little hope of ever giving her another lesson, he would have been so happy that the whole air would have seemed dancing with sunbeams and angels and flowers. I think that when a man loves he cares very little for what he does. The greatest success is indifferent to him, and he cares not at all for failure, in the ordinary undertakings of life. These are my reflections, and they are worth something, because I once loved very much myself, and was parted from her I loved many times, before the last parting.
It was on this day that Nino came to me and told me all the history of the past months, of which I knew nothing; but, as you know all about it, I need not tell you what the conversation was like, until he had finished. Then I.told him he was the prince and chief of donkeys, which was no more than the truth, as everybody will allow. He only spread out his palms and shrugged his shoulders, putting his head on one side, as though to say he could not help it.
“ Is it perhaps my fault that you are a little donkey ? ” I asked; for you may imagine whether I was angry or not.
“Certainly not, Sor . Cornel io,” he said. “It is entirely my own doing; but I do not see that I am a donkey.”
“ Blood of Bacchus!” I ejaculated, holding up my hands. “ He does not believe he is a great stupid! ” But Nino was not angry at all He busied himself a little with his costume, which was laid out on the piano, with the sword and the tinsel collar, and all the rest of it.
“ I am in love,” he said. “ What would you have ? ”
“ I would have you put a little giudizio, just a grain of judgment and common sense, into your love affairs. Why, you go about it as though it were the most innocent thing in the world to disguise yourself, and present yourself as a professor in a nobleman’s house, in order to make love to his daughter ! You, to make love to a noble damigella, a young countess, with a fortune ! Go back to Serveti, and marry the first contadina girl you meet; it is much more fitting, if you must needs marry at all. I repeat it, you are an ignorant donkey ! ”
“ Eh ! ” cried Nino, perfectly unmoved, “ if I am ignorant, it is not for lack of your teaching; and as for being the beast of burden to which you refer, I have heard it said that you were once in love yourself. Meanwhile, I have told you this, because there will perhaps be trouble, and I did not intend you to be surprised.”
“ Surprised ? ” said I. “ I would not be surprised at anything you might fancy doing, now. No, I would not dream of being surprised ! ”
“ So much the better,” answered Nino imperturbably. He looked sad and weary, though, and as I am a prudent man I put my anger away to cool for a little while, and indulged in a cigar until it should be time to go to the theatre ; for of course I went with him, and Mariuccia too, to help him with his dress. Poor old Mariuccia! she had dressed him when he was a ragged little boy, and she was determined to put the finishing touches to his appearance now that he was about to be a great man, she said. His dressing-room was a narrow little place, sufficiently ill lighted, and there was barely space to turn round. Mariuccia, who had brought the cat and had her pocket full of roasted chestnuts, sat outside on a chair until he was ready for her; and I am sure that if she had spent her life in the profession of adorning players she could not have used her fingers more deftly in the arrangement of the collar and sword. Nino had a fancy to wear a mustache and a pointed beard through the first part of the opera; saying that a courtier always had hair on his face, but that he W'ould naturally shave if he turned monk. I represented to him that it was needless expense, since he must deposit the value of the false beard with the theatre barber, who lives opposite; and it was twenty-three francs. Besides, he would look like a different man — two separate characters.
“ I do not care a cabbage for that,” said Nino. “ If they cannot recognize me with their ears, they need not trouble themselves to recognize me at all.”
“It is a fact that their ears are quite long enough,” said Mariuccia.
“ Hush, Mariuccia,! ” I said. “ The Roman public is the most intelligent public in the world.” And at this she grumbled.
But I knew well enough why he wanted to wear the beard. He had a fancy to put off the evil moment as long as possible, so that Hedwig might not recognize him till the last act, — a foolish fancy, in truth, for a woman’s eyes are not like a man’s ; and though Hedwig had never thought twice about Nino’s personality, she had not sat opposite him three times a week for nearly four months without knowing all his looks and gestures. It is an absurd idea, too, to attempt to fence with time, when a thing must come in the course of an hour or two. What is it, after all, the small delay you can produce ? The click of a few more seconds in the clock-work, before the hammer smites its angry warning on the bell, and leaves echoes of pain writhing through the poor bronze,— that is Time. As for Eternity, it is a question of the calculus, and does not enter into a singer’s first appearance, nor into the recognition of a lover. If it did, I would give you an eloquent dissertation upon it, so that you would yawn and take snuff, and wish me carried off by the diavolo to some place where I might lecture on the infinite without fear of being interrupted, or of keeping sinners like you unnecessarily long awake. There will be no hurry then. Poor old diavolo ! he must have a dull time of it among all those heretics. Perhaps he has a little variety, for they say he has written up on his door, “ Ici I'on parle francais,” since Monsieur de Voltaire died. But I must go on, or you will never be any wiser than you are now, which is not saying overmuch.
I am not going to give you a description of the Favorita, which you may hear a dozen times a year at the theatre, for more or less money— but it is only a franc if you stand ; quite enough, too. I went upon the stage before it began, and peeped through the curtain to see what kind of an audience there was. It is an old curtain, and there is a hole in it on the right-hand side, which De Pretis says was made by a foreign tenor, some years ago, between the acts; and Jacovacci, the impresario, tried to make him pay five francs to have it repaired, but did not get the money. It is a better hole than the one in the middle, which is so far from both sides of the house that you cannot see the people well. So I looked through, and there, sure enough, in a box very near to the stage, sat the Contessina di Lira and the baroness, whom I had never seen before, but recognized from Nino’s description ; and behind them sat the count himself, with his great gray mustaches and a white cravat. They made me think of the time when I used to go to the theatre myself and sit in a box, and applaud or hiss, just as I pleased. Dio mio ! what changes in this world!
I recognized also a great many of our noble ladies, with jewels and other ornaments, and it seemed to me that some of them were much more beautiful than the German contessina whom Nino had elected to worship, though she was well enough, to be sure, in white silk and white fur, with her little gold cross at her throat. To think that a statue like that, brought up with all the proprieties, should have such a strange chapter of life! But my eye began to smart from peering through the little hole, and just then a rough-looking fellow connected with the stage reminded me that, whatever relation I might be to the primo tenore, I was not dressed to appear in the first act; then the audience began to stamp and groan because the performance did not begin, and I went away again to tell Nino that he had a packed house. I found De Pretis giving him blackberry syrup, which he had brought in a bottle, and entreating him to have courage. Indeed, it seemed to me that Nino had the more courage of the two ; for De Pretis laughed and cried and blew his nose, and took snuff with his great fat fingers, and acted altogether like a poor fool ; while Nino sat on a rush-bottomed chair and watched Mariuccia, who was stroking the old cat and nibbling roasted chestnuts, declaring all the while that Nino was the most beauful object she had ever seen. Then the bass and the baritone came, together, and spoke cheering words to Nino, and invited him to supper afterwards; but he thanked them kindly, and told them that he was expected at home, and would go with them after the next performance — if there ever were a “next.” He thought he might fail at the last minute.
Nino had judged more rightly than I, when he supposed that his beard and mustaches would disguise him from Hedwig during the first two acts. She recognized the wondrous voice, and she saw the strong resemblance he had spoken of. Once or twice, as he looked toward her, it seemed indeed that the eyes must be his, with their deep circles and serious gaze. But it was absurd to suppose it anything more than a resemblance. As the opera advanced, it became evident that Nino was making a success. Then in the second act it was clear that the success was growing to be an ovation, and the ovation a furore, in which the house became entirely demoralized, and vouchsafed to listen only so long as Nino was singing—screaming with delight before he had finished what he had to sing in each scene. People sent their servants away in hot haste to buy flowers wherever they could, and he came back to his dressing-room, from the second act, carrying bouquets by the dozen, small bunches and big, such as people had been able to get, or had brought with them. His eyes shone like the coals in Mariuccia’s scaldino, as he entered, and he was pale through his paint. He could hardly speak for joy ; but, as old habits return unconsciously at great moments in a man’s life, he took the cat on his knee and pulled its tail.
“ Sing thou also, little beast,” he said gravely; and he pulled the tail till the cat squeaked a little, and he was satisfied.
“ Bene ! ” he cried; “ and now for the tonsure and the frock.” So Mariuccia was turned out into the passage while he changed his dress. De Pretis came back a moment later, and tried to help him; but he was so much overcome that he could only shed tears and give a last word of advice for the next act.
“ You must not sing it too loud, Nino mio,” he said.
“ Diavolo ! ” said Nino. “ I should think not ! ”
“ But you must not squeak it out in a little wee false voice, as small as this ; ” the maestro held up his thumb and finger, with a pinch of snuff between them.
“ Bah ! Sor Ercole, do you take me for a soprano ? ” cried the boy, laughing, as he washed off the paint and the gum, where the beard had stuck. Presently he got into his frock, which, as I told you, was a real one, provided by Ercole’s brother, the Franciscan — quite quietly, of course, for it would seem a dreadful thing to use a real monk’s frock in an opera. Then we fastened the rope round his waist, and smoothed his curly hair a little to give him a more pious aspect. He looked as white as a pillow when the paint was gone.
“ Tell me a little, my father,” said old Mariuccia, mocking him, “ do you fast on Sundays, that you look so pale ? ” Whereat Nino struck an attitude, and began singing a love song to the ancient woman. Indeed, she was joking about the fast, for she had expended my substance, of late, in fattening Nino, as she called it, for his appearance, and there was to be broiled chickens for supper that very night. He was only pale because he was in love. As for me, I made up my mind to stand in the slides, so that I could see the contessina ; for Nino had whispered to me that she had not yet recognized him, though she stared hard across the footlights. Therefore I took up a good position on the left of the stage, facing the Lira box, which was on the right.
The curtain went up, and Nino stood there, looking like a real monk, with a book in his hand and his eyes cast down, as he began to walk slowly along. I saw Hedwig von Lira’s gaze rest on his square, pale face at least one whole minute. Then she gave a strange little cry, so that many people in the house looked toward her ; and she leaned far back in the shadow of the deep box, while the reflected glare of the footlights just shone faintly on her features, making them look more like marble than ever. The baroness was smiling to herself, amused at her companion’s surprise, and the old count stared" stolidly for a moment or two, and then turned suddenly to his daughter.
“ Very curious is it,” he was probably saying, “ that this tenor should so much your Italian professor resemble.” I could almost see his gray eyes sparkle angrily across the theatre. But as I looked, a sound rose on the heated air, the like of which I have never known. To tell the truth, I had not heard the first two acts, for I did not suppose there was any great difference between Nino’s singing on the stage and his singing at home, and I still wished he might have chosen some other profession. But when I heard this, I yielded, at least for the time, and I am not sure that my eyes were as clear as usual.
“ Spirto gentil dei sogni miei ” — the long sweet notes sighed themselves to death on his lips, falling and rising magically like a mystic angel song, and swaying their melody out into the world of lights and listeners ; so pathetic, so heart-breaking, so laden with death and with, love, that it was as though all the sorrowing souls in our poor Rome breathed in one soft sigh together. Only a poor monk dying of love in a monastery, tenderly and truly loving to the bitter end. Dio mio! there are perhaps many such. But a monk like this, with a face like a conqueror, set square in its whiteness, and yet so wretched to see in his poor patched frock and his bare feet; a monk, too, not acting love, but really and truly ready to die for a beautiful woman not thirty feet from him, in the house; above all, a monk with a voice that speaks like the clarion call of the day of judgment in its wrath, and murmurs more plaintively and sadly in sorrow than ever the poor Peri sighed at the gates of Paradise — such a monk, what could he not make people feel ?
The great crowd of men and women sat utterly stilled and intent till he had sung the very last note. Not a sound was heard to offend the sorrow that spoke from the boy’s lips. Then all those people seemed to draw three long breaths of wonder —a pause, a thrilling tremor in the air, and then there burst to the roof such a roar of cries, such a huge thunder of hands and voices, that the whole house seemed to rock with it, and even in the street outside they say the noise was deafening.
Alone on the stage stood Nino, his eyes fixed on Hedwig von Lira in her box. I think that she alone of all that multitude made no sound, but only gripped the edge of the balcony hard in her white hands, and leaned far forward with straining eyes and beating heart to satisfy her wonder. She knew well enough, now, that there was no mistake. The humble little Professor Cardegna, who had patiently explained Dante and Leopardi to her for months, bowing to the ground in her presence, and apologizing when he corrected her mistakes, as though his whole life was to be devoted to teaching foreigners his language; the decently clad young man, who was always pale, and sometimes pathetic when he spoke of himself, was no other than Giovanni Cardegna the tenor, singing aloud to earth and heaven with his glorious great voice — a man on the threshold of a European fame, such as falls only to the lot of a singer or a conqueror. More, he was the singer of her dreams, who had for months filled her thoughts with music and her heart with a strange longing, being until now a voice only. There he stood looking straight at her, — she was not mistaken, — as though to say, “ I have done it for you, and for you only.” A woman must be more than marble to feel no pride in the intimate knowledge that a great public triumph has been gained solely for her sake. She must be colder than ice if she cannot see her power when a conqueror loves her.
The marble had felt the fire, and the ice was in the flame at last. Nino, with his determination to be loved, had put his statue into a very fiery furnace, and in the young innocence of his heart had prepared such a surprise for his lady as might have turned the head of a hardened woman of the world, let alone an imaginative German girl, with a taste for romance — or without; it matters little. All Germans are full of imagination, and that is the reason they know so much. For they not only know all that is known by other people, but also all that they themselves imagine, which nobody else can possibly know. And if you do not believe this, you had better read the works of one Fichte, a philosopher.
I need not tell you any more about Nino’s first appearance. It was one of those really phenomenal successes that seem to cling to certain people through life. He was very happy and very silent when it was over; and we were the last to leave the theatre, for we feared the enthusiasm of the crowd. So we waited till every one had gone, and then marched home together, for it was a fine night. I walked on one side of Nino, and De Pretis on the other, all of us carrying as many flowers as we could; Mariuccia came behind, with the cat under her shawl. I did not discover until we reached home why she had brought the beast. Then she explained that, as there was so much food in the kitchen, in anticipation of our supper, she had been afraid to leave the cat alone in the house, lest we should find nothing left to eat when we returned. This was sufficiently prudent, for a scatter-brained old spendthrift like Mariuccia.
That was a merry supper, and De Pretis became highly dramatic when we got to the second flask.
F. Marion Crawford.