A Roman Singer
ON the day following Nino’s début, Maestro Ercole de Pretis found himself in hot water, and the choristers at St. Peter’s noticed that his skull-cap was awry, and that he sang out of tune ; and once he tried to take a pinch of snuff when there was only three bars’ rest in the music, so that instead of singing C sharp he sneezed very loud. Then all the other singers giggled, and said, “Salute ! ” — which we always say to a person who sneezes — quite audibly.
It was not that Ercole had heard anything from the Graf von Lira as yet ; but he expected to hear, and did not relish the prospect. Indeed, how could the Prussian gentleman fail to resent what the maestro had done, in introducing to him a singer disguised as a teacher ? It chanced, also, that the contessina took a singing lesson that very day in the afternoon, and it was clear that the reaping of his evil deeds was not far off. His conscience did not trouble him at all, it is true, for I have told you that he has liberal ideas about the right of marriage ; but his vanity was sorely afflicted at the idea of abandoning such a very noble and creditable pupil as the Contessina di Lira. He applauded himself for furthering Nino’s wild schemes, and he blamed himself for being so reckless about his own interests. Every moment he expected a formal notice from the count to discontinue the lessons. But still it did not come, and at the appointed hour Ercole’s wife helped him to put on his thick winter coat, and wrapped his comforter about his neck, and pulled his big hat over his eyes, — for the weather was threatening,—and sent him trudging off to the Palazzo Carmandola.
Though Ercole is stout of heart, and has broad shoulders to bear such burdens as fall to his lot, he lingered long on the way, for his presentiments were gloomy; and at the great door of the palazzo he even stopped to inquire of the porter whether the contessina had been seen to go out yet, half hoping that she would thus save him the mortification of an interview. But it turned out otherwise: the contessina was at home, and De Pretis was expected, as usual, to give the lesson. Slowly he climbed the great staircase, and was admitted.
“ Good-day, Sor Maestro,” said the liveried footman, who knew him well. “ The Signor Conte desires to speak with you to-day, before you go to the signorina.”
The maestro’s heart sank, and he gripped hard the roll of music in his hand as he followed the servant to the count’s cabinet. There was to be a scene of explanation, after all.
Copyright, 1883, by HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN & CO.
The count was seated in his great arm-chair, in a cloud of tobacco smoke, reading a Prussian military journal. His stick leaned against the table by his side, in painful contrast with the glittering cavalry sabres crossed upon the dark red wall opposite. The tall windows looked out on the piazza, and it was raining, or just beginning to rain. The great inkstand on the table was made to represent a howitzer, and the count looked as though he were ready to fire it point-blank at any intruder. There was an air of disciplined luxury in the room, that spoke of a rich old soldier who fed his fancy with titbits from a stirring past. De Pretis felt very uncomfortable, but the nobleman rose to greet him, as he rose to greet everything above the rank of a servant, making himself steady with his stick. When De Pretis was seated he sat down also. The rain pattered against the window.
“ Signor De Pretis,” began the count, in tones as hard as chilled steel, “ you are an honorable man.” There was something interrogative in his voice.
“ I hope so,” answered the maestro modestly ; “ like other Christians, I have a soul ” —
“ You will your soul take care of in your leisure moments,” interrupted the count. “ At present you have no leisure.”
“ As you command, Signor Conte.”
“ I was yesterday evening at the theatre. The professor you recommended for my daughter is with the new tenor one person.” De Pretis spread out his hands and bowed, as if to deprecate any share in the transaction. The count continued, “ You are of the profession, Signor De Pretis. Evidently, you of this were aware.”
“It is true,” assented Ercole, not knowing what to say.
“ Of course is it true. I am therefore to hear your explanation disposed.” His gray eyes fastened sternly on the maestro. But the latter was prepared, for he had long foreseen that the count would one day be disposed to hear an explanation, as he expressed it.
“ It is quite true,” repeated De Pretis. “ The young man was very poor, and desired to support himself while he was studying music. He was well fitted to teach our literature, and I recommended him. I hope that, in consideration of his poverty, and because he turned out a very good teacher, you will forgive me, Signor Conte.”
“This talented singer I greatly applaud,” answered the count stiffly. “ As a with-the-capacity-and-learning-requisite-for-teaching-endowed young man deserves he also some commendation. Also will I remember his laudable-andnot-lacking-independence character. Nevertheless, unfitting would it be, should I pay the first tenor of the opera five francs an hour to teach my daughter Italian literature.” De Pretis breathed more freely.
“ Then you will forgive me, Signor Conte, for endeavoring to promote the efforts of this worthy young man in supporting himself ? ”
“ Signor De Pretis,” said the count, with a certain quaint geniality, “ I have my precautions observed. I examined Signor Cardegna in Italian literature in my own person, and him proficient found. Had I found him to be ignorant, and had I his talents as an operatic singer later discovered, I would you out of that window have projected.” De Pretis was alarmed, for the old count looked as though he would have carried out the threat. “ As it is,” he concluded, “ you are an honorable man, and I wish you good-morning. Lady Hedwig awaits you, as usual.” He rose courteously, leaning on his stick, and De Pretis bowed himself out.
He expected that the contessina would immediately begin talking of Nino, but he was mistaken ; she never once referred to the opera or the singer, and except that she looked pale and transparent, and sang with a trifle less interest in her music than usual, there was nothing noticeable in her manner. Indeed, she had every reason to be silent.
Early that morning Nino received by a messenger a pretty little note, written in execrable Italian, begging him to come and breakfast with the baroness at twelve, as she much desired to speak with him after his stupendous triumph of the previous night.
Nino is a very good boy, but he is mortal, and after the excitement of the evening he thought nothing could be pleasanter than to spend a few hours in that scented boudoir, among the palms and the beautiful objects and the perfumes, talking with a woman who professed herself ready to help him in his love affair. We have no perfumes, or cushions, or pretty things at number twenty-seven, Santa Catarina dei Funari, though everything is very bright and neat and most proper, and the cat is kept in the kitchen, for the most part. So it is no wonder that he should have preferred to spend the morning with the baroness.
She was half lying, half sitting, in a deep arm-chair, when Nino entered ; and she was reading a book. When she saw him she dropped the volume on her knee, and looked up at him from under her lids, without speaking. She must have been a bewitching figure. Nino advanced toward her, bowing low, so that his dark curling hair shaded his face.
“Good-day, signora,” said he softly, as though fearing to hurt the quiet air. “ I trust I do not interrupt you ? ”
“ You never interrupt me, Nino,” she said, “except — except when you go away.”
“ You are very good, signora.”
“ For heaven’s sake, no pretty speeches,” said she, with a little laugh.
“ it seems to me,” said Nino, seating himself, “that it was you who made the pretty speech, and I who thanked you for it.” There was a pause.
“ How do you feel?” asked the baroness at last, turning her head to him.
“ Grazie — I am well,” he answered, smiling.
“ Oh, I do not mean that, — you are always well. But how do you eujoy your first triumph ? ”
“ I think,” said Nino, “ that a real artist ought to have the capacity to enjoy a success at the moment, and the good sense to blame his vanity for enjoying it after it is passed.”
“ How old are you, Nino? ”
“ Did I never tell you ? ” he asked, innocently. “ I shall be twenty-one soon.”
“You talk as though you were forty, at least.”
“ Heaven save us ! ” quoth Nino.
“ But really, are you not immensely flattered at the reception you had ? ”
“ You did not look at all interested in the public at the time,” said she, “and that Roman nose of yours very nearly turned up in disdain of the applause, I thought. I wonder what you were thinking of all the while.”
“ Can you wonder, baronessa?” She knew what he meant, and there was a little look of annoyance in her face when she answered.
“ Ah, well, of course not, since she was there. ’ Her ladyship rose, and taking a stick of Eastern pastil from a majolica dish in a corner made Nino light it from a wax taper.
“ I want the smell of the sandal-wood this morning,” said she; “ I have a headache.” She was enchanting to look at, as she bent her softly-shaded face over the flame to watch the burning perfume. She looked like a beautiful lithe sorceress making a love spell, — perhaps for her own use. Nino turned from her. He did not like to allow the one image he loved to be even for a moment disturbed by the one he loved not, however beautiful. She moved away, leaving the pastil on the dish. Suddenly she paused, and turned back to look at him.
“ Why did you come to-day ? ” she asked.
“ Because you desired it,” answered Nino, in some astonishment.
“ You need not have come,” she said, bending down to lean on the back of a silken chair. She folded her hands, and looked at him as he stood not three paces away. “ Do you not know what has happened ? ” she asked, with a smile that was a little sad.
“I do not understand,” said Nino, simply. He was facing the entrance to the room, and saw the curtains parted by the servant. The baroness had her back to the door, and did not hear.
“ Do you not know,” she continued, “ that you are free now ? Your appearance in public has put an end to it all. You are not tied to me any longer, — unless you wish it.”
As she spoke these words Nino turned white, for under the heavy curtain, lifted to admit her, stood Hedwig von Lira, like a statue, transfixed and immovable from what she had heard. The baroness noticed Nino’s look, and, springing back to her height from the chair on which she had been leaning, faced the door.
“My dearest Hedwig!” she cried, with a magnificent readiness. “ I am so very glad you have come. I did not expect you in the least. Do take off your hat, and stay to breakfast. Ah, forgive me : this is Professor Cardegna. But you know him ? Yes ; now that I think, we all went to the Pantheon together.” Nino bowed low, and Hedwig bent her head.
“ Yes,” said the young girl, coldly. “ Professor Cardegna gives me lessons.”
“ Why, of course ; how bête I am ! I was just telling him that, since he has been successful, and is enrolled among the great artists, it is a pity he is no longer tied to giving Italian lessons,— tied to coming here three times a week, to teach me literature.” Hedwig smiled a strange, icy smile, and sat down by the window. Nino was still utterly astonished, but he would not allow the baroness’s quibble to go entirely uncontradicted.
“ In truth,” he said, “ the Signora Baronessa’s lessons consisted chiefly ” —
“ In teaching me pronunciation,” interrupted the baroness, trying to remove Hedwig’s veil and hat, somewhat against the girl’s inclination. “ Yes, you see how it is. I know a little of singing, but I cannot pronounce, — not in the least. Ah, these Italian vowels will be the death of me ! But if there is any one who can teach a poor dilettante to pronounce them,” she added, laying the hat away on a chair, and pushing a footstool to Hedwig’s feet, “ that some one is Signor Cardegna.”
By this time Nino had recognized the propriety of temporizing ; that is to say, of letting the baroness’s fib pass for what it was worth, lest the discussion of the subject should further offend Iledwig, whose eyes wandered irresolutely toward him, as though she would say something if he addressed her.
“ I hope, signorina,” he said, “ that it is not quite as the baroness says. I trust our lessons are not at an end ? ” He knew very well that they were.
“ I think, Signor Cardegna,” said Hedwig, with more courage than would have been expected from such a mere child, — she is twenty, but Northern people are not grown up till they are thirty, at least, — “I think it would have been more obliging if, when I asked you so much about your cousin, you had acknowledged that you had no cousin, and that the singer was none other than yourself.” She blushed, perhaps, but the curtain of the window hid it.
“ Alas, signorina,” answered Nino, still standing before her, “such a confession would have deprived me of the pleasure — of the honor of giving you lessons.”
“ And pray, Signor Cardegna,” put in the baroness, “ what are a few paltry lessons, compared with the pleasure you ought to have experienced in satisfying the Contessina di Lira’s curiosity ? Really, you have little courtesy.”
Nino shrank into himself, as though he were hurt, and he gave the baroness a look which said worlds. She smiled at him, in joy of her small triumph, for Hedwig was looking at the floor again, and could not see. But the young girl had strength in her, for all her cold looks and white cheek.
“You can atone, Signor Cardegna,” she said. Nino’s face brightened.
“ How, signorina ? ” he asked.
“ By singing to us now,” said Hedwig. The baroness looked grave, for she well knew what a power Nino wielded with his music.
“ Do not ask him,” she protested. “He must be tired, — tired to death, with all he went through last night.”
“ Tired? ” ejaculated Nino, with some surprise. “ I tired ? I was never tired in my life, of singing. I will sing as long as you will listen.” He went to the piano. As he turned, the baroness laid her hand on Hedwig’s, affectionately, as though sympathizing with something she supposed to be passing in the girl’s mind. But Hedwig was passive, unless a little shudder at the first touch of the baroness’s fingers might pass for a manifestation of feeling. Hedwig had hitherto liked the baroness, finding in her a woman of a certain artistic sense, combined with a certain originality. The girl was an absolute contrast to the woman, and admired in her the qualities she thought lacking in herself, though she possessed too much self-respect to attempt to acquire them by imitation. Hedwig sat like a Scandinavian fairy princess on the summit of a glass hill; her friend roamed through life like a beautiful soft-footed wild animal, rejoicing in the sense of being, and sometimes indulging in a little playful destruction by the way. The girl had heard a voice in the dark, singing, and ever since then she had dreamed of the singer ; but it never entered her mind to confide to the baroness her strange fancies. An undisciplined imagination, securely shielded from all outward disturbing causes, will do much with a voice in the dark, — a great deal more than such a woman as the baroness might imagine.
I do not know enough about these blue-eyed German girls to say whether or not Hedwig had ever before thought of her unknown singer as an unknown lover. But the emotions of the previous night had shaken her nerves a little, and had she been older than she was she would have known that she loved her singer, in a distant and maidenly fashion, as soon as she heard the baroness speak of him as having been her property. And now she was angry with herself, and ashamed of feeling any interest in a man who was evidently tied to another woman by some intrigue she could not comprehend. Her coming to visit the baroness had been as unpremeditated as it was unexpected, that morning, and she bitterly repented it; but being of good blood and heart, she acted as boldly as she could, and showed no little tact in making Nino sing, and thus cutting short a painful conversation. Only when the baroness tried to caress her and stroke her hand she shrank away, and the blood mantled up to her cheeks. Add to all this the womanly indignation she felt at having been so long deceived by Nino, and you will see that she was in a very vacillating frame of mind.
The baroness was a subtle woman, reckless and diplomatic by turns, and she was not blind to the sudden repulse she met with from Hedwig, unspoken though it was. But she merely withdrew her hand, and sat thinking over the situation. What she thought, no one knows ; or, at least, we can only guess it from what she did afterwards. As for me, I have never blamed her at all, for she is the kind of woman I should have loved. In the mean time Nino caroled out one love song after another. He saw, however, that the situation was untenable, and after a while he rose to go. Strange to say, although the baroness had asked Nino to breakfast, and the hour was now at hand, she made no effort to retain him. But she gave him her hand, and said many flattering and pleasing things, which, however, neither flattered nor pleased him. As for Hedwig, she bent her head a little, but said nothing, as he bowed before her. Nino therefore went home with a heavy heart, longing to explain to Iledwig why he had been tied to the baroness, — that it was the price of her silence and of the privilege he had enjoyed of giving lessons to the contessina ; but knowing, also, that all explanation was out of the question for the present. When he was gone, Hedwig and the baroness were left together.
“ It must have been a great surprise to you, my dear,” said the elder lady kindly.
“ What ? ”
“ That your little professor should turn out a great artist in disguise. It was a surprise to me, too, — ah, another illusion destroyed. Dear child! You have still so many illusions,—beautiful, pure illusions. Dieu! how I envy you! They generally talked French together, though the baroness knows German. Hedwig laughed bravely.
“ I was certainly astonished,” she said. “ Poor man! I suppose he did it to support himself. He never told me he gave you lessons, too.” The baroness smiled, but it was from genuine satisfaction this time.
“ I wonder at that, since he knew we were intimate, or, at least, that we were acquainted. Of course I would not speak of it last night, because I saw your father was angry.”
“ Yes, he was angry. I suppose it was natural,” said Hedwig.
“ Perfectly natural. And you, my dear, were you not angry too, — just a little?”
“ I ? No. Why should I be angry ? He was a very good teacher, for he knows whole volumes by heart; and he understands them, too.”
Soqn they talked of other things, and the baroness was very affectionate. But though Hedwig saw that her friend was kind and most friendly, she could not forget the words that were in the air when she chanced to enter, nor could she quite accept the plausible explanation of them which the baroness had so readily invented. For jealousy is the forerunner of love, and sometimes its awakener. She felt a rival and an enemy, and all the hereditary combativeness of her Northern blood was roused.
Nino, who was in no small perplexity, reflected. He was not old enough or observant enough to have seen the breach that was about to be created between the baroness and Hedwig. His only thought was to clear himself in Hedwig’s eyes from the imputation of having been tied to the dark woman in any way save for his love’s sake. He at once began to hate the baroness with all the ferocity of which his heart was capable, and with all the calm his bold, square face outwardly expressed. But he was forced to take some action at once, and he could think of nothing better to do than to consult De Pretis.
To the maestro he poured out his woes and his plans. He exhibited to him his position toward the baroness and toward Hedwig in the clearest light. He conjured him to go to Hedwig, and explain that the baroness had threatened to unmask him, and thus deprive him of his means of support, — he dared not put it otherwise, — unless he consented to sing for her and come to her as often as she pleased. To explain, to propitiate, to smooth, — in a word, to reinstate Nino in her good opinion.
“ Death of a dog ! ” exclaimed De Pretis ; “ you do not ask much ! After you have allowed your lady-love, your innamorata, to catch you saying you are bound body and soul to another woman, — and such a woman! ye saints, what a beauty! — you ask me to go and set matters right! What the diavolo did you want to go and poke your nose into such a mousetrap for ? Via ! I am a fool to have helped you at all.”
“ Very likely,” said Nino calmly. “ But meanwhile there are two of us, and perhaps I am the greater. You will do what I ask, maestro; is not true ? And it was not I who said it; it was the baroness.”
“ The baroness — yes — and may the maledictions of the inferno overtake her,” said De Pretis, casting up his eyes and feeling in his coat-tail pockets for his snuff-box. Once, when Nino was younger, he filled Ercole’s snuff-box with soot and pepper, so that the maestro had a black nose and sneezed all day.
What could Ercole do? It was true that he had hitherto helped Nino. Was he not bound to continue that assistance ? I suppose so ; but if the whole affair had ended then, and this story with it, I would not have cared a button. Do you suppose it amuses me to tell you this tale ? Or that if it were not for Nino’s good name I would ever have turned myself into a common storyteller ? Bah ! you do not know me. A page of quaternions gives me more pleasure than all this rubbish put together, though I am not averse to a little gossip now and then, of an evening, if people will listen to my details and fancies. But those are just the things people will not listen to. Everybody wants sensation nowadays. What is a sensation compared with a thought ? What is the convulsive gesticulation of a dead frog’s leg compared with the intellect of the man who invented the galvanic battery, and thus gave fictitious sensation to all the countless generations of dead frogs’ legs that have since been the objects of experiment ? Or if you come down to so poor a thing as mere feeling, what are your feelings in reading about Nino’s deeds compared with what he felt in doing them ? I am not taking all this trouble to please you, but only for Nino’s sake, who is my dear boy. You are of no more interest or importance to me than if you were so many dead frogs ; and if I galvanize your sensations, as you call them, into an activity sufficient to make you cry or laugh, that is my own affair. You need not say “thank you ” to me. I do not want it. Ercole will thank you, and perhaps Nino will thank me, but that is different.
I will not tell you about the interview that Ercole had with Hedwig, nor how skill-fully he rolled up his eyes and looked pathetic when he spoke of Nino’s poverty, and of the fine part he had played in the whole business. Hedwig is a woman, and the principal satisfaction she gathered from Ercole’s explanation was the knowledge that her friend the baroness had lied to her in explaining those strange words she had overheard. She knew it, of course, by instinct ; but it was a great relief to be told the fact by some one else, as it always is, even when one is not a woman.
Several days passed after the debut without giving Nino an opportunity of speaking to Hedwig. He probably saw her, for he mingled in the crowd of dandies in the Piazza Colonna of an afternoon, hoping she would pass in her carriage and give him a look. Perhaps she did ; he said nothing about it, but looked calm when he was silent and savage when he spoke, after the manner of passionate people. His face aged and grew stern in those few days, so that he seemed to change on a sudden from boy to man. But he went about his business, and sang at the theatre when he was obliged to ; gathering courage to do his best and to display his powers from the constant success he had. The papers were full of his praises, saying that he was absolutely without rival from the very first night he sang, matchless and supreme from the moment he first opened his mouth, and all that kind of nonsense. I dare say he is now, but he could not have been really the greatest singer living, so soon. However, he used to bring me the newspapers that had notices of him, though he never appeared to care much for them, nor did he ever keep them himself. He said he hankered for an ideal which he would never attain ; and I told him that if he was never to attain it he had better abandon the pursuit of it at once. But be represented to me that the ideal was confined to his imagination, whereas the reality had a great financial importance, since he daily received offers from foreign managers to sing for them, at large advantage to himself, and was hesitating only in order to choose the most convenient. This seemed sensible, and I was silent. Soon afterwards he presented me with a box of cigars and a very pretty amber mouthpiece. The cigars were real Havanas, such as I had not smoked for years, and must have cost a great deal.
“You may not be aware, Sor Cornelio,” he said one evening, as be mixed the oil and vinegar with the salad, at supper, “ that I am now a rich man, or soon shall be. An agent from the London opera has offered me twenty thousand francs for the season in London, this spring.”
“ Twenty thousand francs ! ” I cried in amazement. “ You must be dreaming, Nino. That is just about seven times what I earn in a year with my professorship and my writing.”
“No dreams, caro mio. I have the offer in my pocket.” He apparently cared no more about it than if he had twenty thousand roasted chestnuts in Ins pocket.
“ When do you leave us ? ” I asked, when I was somewhat recovered.
“ I am not sure that X will go,” he answered, sprinkling some pepper oil the lettuce.
“ Not sure ! Body of Diana, what a fool you are ! ”
“ Perhaps,” said he, and he passed me the dish. Just then, Mariuccia came in with a bottle of wine, and we said no more about it; for Mariuccia is indiscreet.
Nino thought nothing about his riches, because he was racking his brains for some good expedient whereby he might see the contessina and speak with her. He had ascertained from De Prctis that the count was not so angry as he had expected, and that lied wig was quite satisfied with the explanations of the maestro. The day after the foregoing conversation he wrote a note to her, wherein he said that if the Contessina di Lira would deign to be awake at midnight that evening she would have a serenade from a voice she was said to admire. He had Mariuccia carry the letter to the Palazzo Carmandola.
At half past eleven, at least two hours after supper, Nino wrapped himself in my old cloak, and took the guitar under his arm. Rome is not a very safe place for midnight pranks, and so I made him take a good knife in his waist-belt ; for he had confided to me where he was going. I tried to dissuade him from the plan, saying he might catch cold ; but he laughed at me.
A serenade is an every-day affair, and in the street one voice sounds about as well as another. He reached the palace, and his heart sank when he saw Hedwig’s window dark and gloomy, lie did not know that she was seated behind it in a deep chair, wrapped in white things, and listening for him against the beatings of her heart. The large moon seemed to be spiked on the sharp spire of the church that is near her house, and the black shadows cut the white light as clean as with a knife. Nino had tuned his guitar in the other street, and stood ready, waiting for the clocks to strike. Presently they clanged out wildly, as though they had been waked from their midnight sleep, and were angry ; one clock answering the other, and one convent bell following another in the call to prayers. For two full minutes the whole air was crazy with ringing, and then it was all still. Kino struck a single chord. I led wig almost thought he might hear her heart beating all the way down in the street.
“ Ah, del mio dolce ardor bramato ogetto,” be sang, — an old air in one of Gluck’s operas, that our Italian musicians say was composed by Alessandro Stradella, the poor murdered singer. It must be a very good air, for it pleases me; and I am not easily pleased with music of any kind. As for Hedwig, she pressed her ear to the glass of the window that she might not lbse any note. But she would not open nor give any sign. Nino was not so easily discouraged, for he remembered that once before she had opened her window for a few bars he had begun to sing. He played a few chords, and breathed out the " Salve, dimora casta e pura,” from Faust, high and soft and clear. There is a point, in that song, near to the end, where the words say, " Reveal to me the maiden,” and where the music goes away to the highest note that any one can possibly sing. It always appears quite easy for Kino, and he does not squeak like a dying pig, as all the other tenors do on that note. He was looking up as he sang it, woudering whether it would have any elfect. Apparently Hedwig lost her head completely, for she gently opened the casement and looked out at the moonlight opposite, over the carved stone mullions of her window. The song ended, he hesitated whether to go or to sing again. She was evidently looking towards him ; but he was in the light, for the moon had risen higher, and she, on the other side of the street, was in the dark.
“ Signorina ! ” he called softly. Ko answer. “ Signorina ! ” he said again, coming across the empty street and standing under the window, which might have been thirty feet from the ground.
“ Hush ! ” came a whisper from above.
“ I thank you with all my soul for listening to me,” he said in a low’ voice. “I am innocent of that of which you suspect me. I love you, ah, I love you! ” But at this she left the window very quickly. She did not close it, however, and Kino stood long, straining his eyes for a glimpse of the white face that had been there, lie sighed, and striking a chord, sang out boldly the old air from the Trovatore, “ Ah, che la morte ognora è tarda nel venir.” Every blind fiddler in the streets plays it, though he would he sufficiently scared if death came any the quicker for his fiddling. But old and worn as it is, it has a strain of passion in it, and Nino threw more fire and voice into the ring of it than ever did famous old Boccardè, when he sang it at the first performance of the opera, thirty and odd years ago. As he played the chords after the first strophe, the voice from above whispered again : —
“Hush, for Heaven’s sake ! ” Just that, and something fell at his feet, with a soft little padded sound on the pavement. He stooped to pick it up, and found a single rose ; and at that instant the window closed sharply. Therefore he kissed the rose and hid it, and presently he strode down the street, finishing his song as he went, but only humming it, for the joy had taken his voice away. I heard him let himself in and go to bed, and lie told me about it in the morning. That is how I know.
Since the day after the début Nino had not seen the baroness. He did not speak of her, and I am sure he wished she were at the very bottom of the Tiber. But on the morning after the serenade he received a note from her, which was so fuil of protestations of friendship and so delicately couched that he looked grave, and reflected that it was his duty to be courteous, and to answer such a call as that. She begged him earnestly to come at one o’clock ; she was suffering from headache, she said, and was very weak. Had Nino loved Hedwig a whit the less, he would not have gone. But he felt himself strong enough to face anything and everything, and therefore he determined to go.
He found her, indeed, with the manner of a person who is ill, but not with the appearance. She was lying on a huge couch, pushed to the fireside, and there were furs about her. A striped scarf of rich Eastern silk was round her throat, and she held in her hand a new novel, of which she carelessly cut the pages with a broad-hafted Persian knife. But there was color in her dark cheek, and a sort of angry fire in her eyes. Nino thought the clean steel in her hand looked as though it might he used for something besides cutting leaves, if the fancy took her.
“ So at last you have honored me with a visit, signore,” she said, not desisting from her occupation. Nino came to her, and she put out her hand. He touched it, but could not bear to hold it, for it burned him.
“ You used to honor my hand differently from that,” she half whispered. Nino sat himself down a little way from her, blushing slightly. It was not at what she had said, but at the thought that he should ever have kissed her lingers.
“ Signora,” he replied, “ there are customs, chivalrous and gentle in themselves, and worthy for all men to practice. But from the moment a custom begins to mean what it should not, it ought to be abandoned. You will forgive me if I no longer kiss your hand.”
“ How cold you are ! — how formal! What should it mean ? ”
“ It is better to say too little than too much,” he answered.
“ Bah ! ” she cried, with a bitter little laugh. “ Words are silver, but silence — is very often nothing but silver-plated brass. Put a little more wood on the fire ; you make me cold.” Nino obeyed.
“ How literal you are ! ” said the baroness petulantly. “ There is fire enough, on the hearth.”
“ Apparently, signora, you are pleased to be enigmatical,” said Nino.
“ I will be pleased to be anything I please,” she answered, and looked at him rather fiercely. “ I wanted you to drive away my headache, and you only make it worse.”
“ I am sorry, signora. I will leave you at once. Permit me to wish you a very good-morning.” He took his hat and went towards the door. Before he reached the heavy curtain, she was at his side with a rush like a falcon on the wing, her eyes burning darkly between anger and love.
“ Nino ! ” She laid hold of his arm, and looked into his face.
“ Signora,” he protested coldly, and drew back.
“ You will not leave me so ? ”
“ As you wish, signora. I desire to oblige you.”
Oh, how cold you are ! ” she cried, leaving his arm, and sinking into a chair by the door, while he stood with his hand on the curtain. She hid her eyes. “ Nino, Nino ! You will break my heart! ” she sobbed; and a tear, perhaps more of anger than of sorrow, burst through her fingers, and coursed down her cheek.
Few men can bear to see a woman shed tears. Nino’s nature rose up in his throat, and bade him console her. But between him and her was a fair, bright image that forbade him to move hand or foot.
“ Signora,” he said, with all the calm he could command, " if I were conscious of having by word or deed of mine given you cause to speak thus, I would humbly implore your forgiveness. But my heart docs not accuse me. I beg you to allow me to take leave of you. I will go away, and you shall have no further cause to think of me.” He moved again, and lifted the curtain. But she was like a panther, so quick and beautiful. Ah, how I could have loved that woman ! She held him, and would not let him go, her smooth lingers fastening round his wrists like springs.
“ Please to let me go,” he said between his teeth, with rising anger.
“ No ! I will not let you ! ” she cried fiercely, tightening her grasp on him. Then the angry fire in her tearful eyes seemed suddenly to melt into a soft flame, and the color came faster to her cheeks. “ Ah, how can you let me so disgrace myself! how can you see me fallen so low as to use the strength of my hands, and yet have no pity ? Nino, Nino, do not kill me ! ”
“ Indeed, it would be the better for you if I should,” he answered bitterly, but without attempting to free his wrists from her strong, soft grip.
“ But you will,” she murmured passionately. “ You are killing me by leaving me. Can yon not see it?” Her voice melted away in the tearful cadence. But Nino stood gazing at her as stonily as though he were the Sphinx. How could he have the heart? I cannot tell. Long she looked into his eyes, silently ; but she might as well have tried to animate a piece of iron, so stern and hard he was. Suddenly, with a strong, convulsive movement, she Hung his hands from her.
“ Go ! ” she cried hoarsely. " Go to that wax doll you love, and see whether she will love you, or care whether you leave her or not! Go, go, go ! Go to her ! ” She had sprung far back from him, and now pointed to the door, drawn to her full height and blazing in her wrath.
“ I would advise you, madam, to speak with proper respect of any lady with whom you choose to couple my name.” His lips opened and shut mechanically, and he trembled from head to foot.
Respect ! ” She laughed wildly. “ Respect for a mere child whom you happen to fancy ! Respect, indeed, for anything you choose to do ! I — I — respect Hedwig von Lira? Ha ! ha ! ” and she rested her hand on the table behind her, as she laughed.
“ Be silent, madam,” said Nino, and he moved a step nearer, and stood with folded arms.
“ Ah ! You would silence me now, would you ? You would rather not hear me speak of your midnight serenades, and your sweet letters dropped from the window of her room, at your feet ? ” But her rage overturned itself, and with a strange cry she fell into a deep chair, and wept bitterly, burying her face in her two hands. “ Miserable woman that I am ! ” she sobbed, and her whole lithe body was convulsed.
“ You are indeed,” said Nino, and he turned once more to go. But as he turned, the servant threw back the curtain.
“ The Signor Conte di Lira,” he announced in distinct tones. For a moment there was a dead silence, during which, in spite of his astonishment at the sudden appearance of the count, Nino had time to reflect that the baroness had caused him to be watched during the previous night. It might well be, and the mistake she made in supposing the thing Hedwig had dropped to be a letter told him that her spy had not ventured very near.
The tall count came forward under the raised curtains, limping and helping himself with his stick. Hs face was as gray and wooden as ever, but his mustaches had an irritated, crimped look, that Nino did not like. The count barely nodded to the young man, as he stood aside to let the old gentleman pass; his eyes turned mechanically to where the baroness sat. She was a woman who had no need to simulate passion in any shape, and it must have cost her a terrible effort to control the paroxysm of auger and shame and grief that had overcome her. There was something unnatural and terrifying in her sudden calm, as she forced herself to rise and greet her visitor.
“ I fear I come out of season,” he said, apologetically, as he bent over her hand.
“On the contrary,” she answered; “ but forgive me if I speak one word to Professor Cardegna.” She went to where Nino was standing.
“ Go into that room,” she said, in a very low voice, glancing towards a curtained door opposite the windows, “ and wait till he goes. You may listen if you choose.” She spoke authoritatively.
“ I will not,” answered Nino, in a determined whisper.
“ You will not ? ” Her eyes flashed again. He shook his head.
“ Count von Lira,” she said aloud, turning to him, “ do you know this young man ? ” She spoke in Italian, and Von Lira answered in the same language ; but as what he said was not exactly humorous, I will spare you the strange construction of his sentences.
“ Perfectly,” he answered. “ It is precisely concerning this young man that I desire to speak with you.” The count remained standing because the baroness had not told him to be seated.
“ That is fortunate,” replied the baroness, “ for I wish to inform you that he is a villain, a wretch, a miserable fellow ! ” Her anger was rising again, but she struggled to control it. When Nino realized what she said, he came forward, and stood near the count, facing the baroness, his arms folded on his breast, as though to challenge accusation. The count raised his eyebrows.
“ I am aware that he concealed his real profession so long as he gave my daughter lessons. That, however, has been satisfactorily explained, though I regret it. Pray inform me why you designate him as a villain.” Nino felt a thrill of sympathy for this man whom he had so long deceived.
“ This man, sir,” said she in measured tones, “ this low-born singer, who has palmed himself off on us as a respectable instructor in language, has the audacity to love your daughter. For the sake of pressing his odious suit, he has wormed himself into your house, as into mine ; he has sung beneath your daughter’s window, and she has dropped letters to him, — love-letters, do you understand ? And now,” — her voice rose more shrill and uncontrollable at every word, as she saw Lira’s face turn white, and her anger gave desperate utterance to the lie, — “ and now he has the effrontery to come to me — to me — to me of all women — and to confess his abominable passion for that pure angel, imploring me to assist him in bringing destruction upon her and you. Oh, it is execrable, it is vile, it is hellish ! ” She pressed her hands to her temples as she stood, and glared at the two men. The count was a strong man, easily petulant, but hard to move to real anger. Though his face was white and his right hand clutched his crutch-stick, he still kept the mastery of himself.
“ Is what you tell me true, madam ? ” he asked in a strange voice.
“Before God, it is true!” she cried desperately.
The old man looked at her for one moment, and then, as though he had been twenty years younger, he made at Nino, brandishing his stick to strike. But Nino is strong and young, and he is almost a Roman. He foresaw the count’s action, and his right hand stole to the table, and grasped the clean, murderous knife : the baroness had used it so innocently to cut the leaves of her book, half an hour before. With one wrench he had disarmed the elder man, forced him back upon a lounge, and set the razor edge of his weapon against the count’s throat.
“If you speak one word, or try to strike me, I will cut off your head,” he said quietly, bringing his cold, marble face close down to the old man’s eyes. There was something so deathly in his voice, in spite of its quiet sound, that the count thought his hour was come, brave man as be was. The baroness tottered back against the opposite wall, and stood staring at the two, disheveled and horrified.
“ This woman,” said Nino, still holding the cold thing against the flesh, “lies in part, and in part tells the truth. I love your daughter, it is true.” The poor old man quivered beneath Nino’s weight, and his eyes rolled wildly, searching for some means of escape. Hut it was of no use. “ I love her, and have sung beneath her window; hut I never had a written word from her in my life, and I neither told this woman of my love nor asked her assistance. Siie guessed it at the first; she guessed the reason of my disguise, and she herself offered to help me. You may speak now. Ask her.” Nino relaxed his hold, and stood off, still grasping the knife. The old count breathed, shook himself and passed his handkerchief over his face before he spoke. The baroness stood as though she were petrified.
“ Thunder weather, you are a devilish young man ! ” said Von Lira, still panting. Then he suddenly recovered his dignity. “You have caused me to assault this young man, by what you told me,” he said, struggling to las feet. “ He defended himself, and might have killed me, had he chosen. Be good enough to tell me whether he has spoken the truth, or you.”
“He has spoken — the truth,” answered the baroness, staring vacantly about her. Her fright had taken from her even the faculty of lying. Her voice was low, but she articulated the words distinctly. Then, suddenly, she threw up her hands, with a short, quick scream, and fell forward, senseless, on the floor. Nino looked at the count, and dropped his knife on a table. The count looked at Nino.
“ Sir,” said the old gentleman, “ I forgive you for resisting my assault. I do not forgive you for presuming to love my daughter, and I will find means to remind you of the scandal you have brought on my house.” He drew himself up to his full height. Nino handed him his crutch-stick civilly.
“ Signor Conte,” he said, simply, but with all his natural courtesy, “ I am sorry for this affair, to which you forced me, — or rather the Signora Baronessa forced us both. I have acted foolishly, perhaps, but I am in love. And permit me to assure you, sir, that I will yet marry the Signorina di Lira, if she consents to marry me.”
“ By the name of Heaven,” swore the old count, “ if she wants to marry a singer, she shall.” He limped to the door in sullen anger, and went out. Nino turned to the prostrate figure of the poor baroness. The continued strain on her nerves had broken her down, and she lay on the floor in a dead faint. Nino put a cushion from the lounge under her head, and rang the bell. The servant appeared instantly.
“ Bring water quickly! ” he cried. “ The signora has fainted.” He stood looking at the senseless figure of the woman, as she lay across the rich Persian rugs that covered the floor.
“ Why did you not bring salts, cologne, her maid — run, I tell you ! ” he said to the man, who brought the glass of water on a gilded tray. He had forgotten that the fellow could not be expected to have any sense. When her people came at last, he had sprinkled her face, and she had unconsciously swallowed enough of the water to have some effect in reviving her. She began to open her eyes, and her fingers moved nervously. Nino found his hat, and, casting one glance around the room that had just witnessed such strange doings, passed through the door and went out. The baroness was left with her servants. Poor woman! She did very wrong, perhaps, but anybody would have loved her — except Nino. She must have been terribly shaken, one would have thought, and she ought to have gone to lie down, and should have sent for the doctor to bleed her. But she did nothing of the kind.
She came to see me. I was alone in the house, late in the afternoon, when the sun was just gilding the tops of the houses. I heard the door-bell ring, and I went to answer it myself. There stood the beautiful baroness, alone, with all her dark soft things around her, as pale as death, and her eyes swollen sadly with weeping. Nino had come home and told me something about the scene in the morning, and I can tell you I gave him a piece of my mind about his follies.
“ Does Professor Cornelio Grandi live here ? " she asked, in a low, sad voice.
“ I am he, signora,” I answered. “ Will you please to come in?” And so she came into our little sitting-room, and sat over there in the old green armchair. I shall never forget it, as long as I live.
I cannot tell you all she said in that brief half hour, for it pains me to think of it. She spoke as though I were her confessor, so humbly and quietly, — as though it had all happened ten years ago. There is no stubbornness in those tiger women when once they break down.
She said she was going away ; that she had done my boy a great wrong, and wished to make such reparation as she could, by telling me, at least, the truth. She did not scruple to say that she had loved him, nor that she had done everything in her power to keep him ; though he had never so much as looked at her, site added pathetically. She wished to have me know exactly how it happened, no matter what I might think of her.
“ You are a nobleman, count,” she said to me at last, “ and I can trust you as one of my own people, I am sure. Yes, I know : you have been unfortunate, and are now a professor. But that does not change the blood. I can trust you. You need not tell him I came, unless you wish it. I shall never see him again. I am glad to have been here, to see where be lives.” She rose, and moved to go. I confess that the tears were in my eyes. There was a pile of music on the old piano. There was a loose leaf on the top, with his name written on it. She took it in her hand, and looked inquiringly at me out of her sad eyes. I knew she wanted to take it, and I nodded.
“ I shall never see him again, you know.” Her voice was gentle and weak, and she hastened to the door; so that almost before I knew it she was gone. The sun had left the redtiled roofs opposite, and the goldfinch was silent in his cage. So I sat dowu in the chair where she had rested, and folded my hands, and thought, as I am always thinking ever since, how I could have loved such a woman as that; so passionate, so beautiful, so piteously sorry for what she had done that was wrong. All me ! for the years that are gone away so cruelly, for the days so desperately dead ! Give me but one of those golden days, and I would make the pomp of emperors ridiculous. A greater man than I said that, — a man over the seas, with a great soul, who wrote in a foreign tongue, but spoke a language germane to all human speech. But even he cannot bring back one of those dear days. I would give muck to have that one day back, when she came and told me all her woes. But that is impossible.
When they came to wake her in the morning — the very morning after that —she was dead in her bed; the color gone forever from those velvet cheeks, the fire quenched out of those passionate eyes, past power of love or hate to rekindle. Requiescat in pace, and may God give her eternal rest and forgiveness for all her sins. Poor, beautiful, erring woman !
F. Marion Crawford.