Delightful People

I

THE Roman season was governed by the liturgical year: it did not begin till after Christmas (no dancing was countenanced in Advent), and it ended with Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, when the masks of the Corso carried lighted tapers (moccoletti) that were constantly blown out by other masks and then relighted, only to be again extinguished, a symbol of our ephemeral earthly pleasures.

Then came Ash Wednesday with its Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, the reminder of the dust to which we must return; the Lenten sermons, the ‘Stations’ in the various churches. On its appointed day the church is hung with damask, and crystal chandeliers, holding innumerable wax candles, are all about the altar where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed. There is a sermon, music, and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

We continued to see our friends, in a lower key, at afternoon teas, small dinners, and the usual weekly ricevimenti. As the soft Roman days lengthened to spring, campagna picnics were in order, expeditions to Ostia, to Castel Fusano, to mountain towns in the Abruzzi or in the Alban Hills, to Santa Maria in Galera, that strange deserted city in the plains; to Veii, the Etruscan stronghold; to all the legendary places of the Roman Campagna.

In Holy Week we always attended the Office of Tenebræ. I particularly liked to hear it at St. John Lateran. The lamentations of Jeremiah are sung to ancient melodies whose origin is lost in the many centuries through which they have been handed down. Perhaps they were Hebrew threnodies; they are the immemorial cry of human sorrow and desolation, answered by the beautiful responsory: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum. Then the singing of the Miserere in the gathering dusk when all the candles had been extinguished save the one which was hidden behind the altar, and the crowd knelt in silent recollection till the final strepitus (the banging of books and benches) broke the spell, and sent us out into the tender twilight of the Roman spring, back to the present realities of our little human lives.

My brother, Marion Crawford, and I often walked home together; our way lay by all the great Roman monuments— Constantine’s Basilica, the Colosseum, the Forum, the Capitol; and the pageant of Roman history seemed to have a sharper outline than the happenings of our own existence. The great Past is not dead in Rome — rather does it at times make the Present seem shadowy and ephemeral; we become a part of the stream of life that has flowed for so many centuries past those same temples, arches of triumph, porticoes, and palaces.

Then came the enchanting Rome of early summer — all the foreigners gone, the air full of sound of fountains and scent of flowers; the streets deserted during the noon hours, coming to life in the cool of the evening; all the pleasant summer street life, leisurely and sentimental; little tables on the piazzas with ices and coffee, where the girls sat beside their mothers and exchanged shy amorous glances with young men they did not know, or well-chaperoned conversation with those who joined the family group.

The streets were full of love-making that floated in the air like pollen in a flower garden. Half the time the lovers had never exchanged a word. They might belong to very different classes, and know that they could never meet but in the long, long look, or perhaps in a dream. The young princess would sit demurely by her mother’s side in the open carriage, for the afternoon trottata, but who could prevent the young violinist who played in the orchestra from standing at the corner where they were sure to pass and sending out his whole heart to her through his love-lit eyes? These flirtations went on in every class of life; Rome was alive with them as were other Italian cities. In most cases they went no further than these ardent glances.

A Roman lady met a Danish doctor at my house; he was an old friend of ours and was taking care of my husband. I was telling her who he was when she gave her pretty laugh and said, ‘Oh, but I know him! He is an old street flirt of mine.’ She was very beautiful; a famous serenade was written to her, set to music and sung all over Italy; Lenbach had painted her as a girl and called the picture ‘A Roman Beauty.’

II

When I was about fourteen my mother took me one afternoon to see the great Madame Helbig. I was working hard at my music and Madame Helbig’s house was a centre of musical life. She was a Russian princess by birth — a gifted and unique figure. She had studied with Clara Schumann and later with Liszt, and was a good pianist and excellent musician. She married Professor Wolfgang Helbig, Director of the German School of Archæology in Rome. They lived on the Tarpeian Rock, in a roomy modern house built for the Archaeological Institute by the German Government, near the Palazzo Caffarelli, which was the German Embassy.

Madame Helbig was a huge woman — six feet tall and very stout. I have seen her sit down to play at a concert and draw the grand piano up to her seat rather than adjust herself to its angle. She wore her hair cut to her neck and a straight shapeless gown of a dark heavy material which fell from her shoulders to her feet. She had great vitality and passionate artistic enthusiasm. She drew, she painted, she decorated her house, she embroidered, she was interested in everything.

I was frightened enough when she asked me to play to her and motioned me to the Erard piano, which she explained had belonged to Liszt and was full of lovely musical ghosts. I managed to get through a Bach gavotte and a Scarlatti scherzo without offending them too much, and she must have taken a fancy to me, for when we rose to take our leave she told me to come again; to come, in fact, every Thursday afternoon and make music with her, and these Thursday afternoons became for the next few years the great events of my life.

There was a second piano, a Pleyel upright, and we read four-hand music sometimes on one and more often on two pianos. We went through the whole available repertoire of four-hand music. Schumann was one of our favorites; his symphonies and chamber music go well on the piano. Liszt’s Symphonic Poems, the Preludes, the Dante Symphony, Mazeppa, the Christus Oratorio, the Tasso.

Madame Helbig read with great facility and was patient with my shortcomings. There is a delightful excitement perhaps not wholly musical about reading with a good musician. It partakes a little of the tense pleasure of a good run to hounds; you see a big obstacle ahead and you gallop as fast as you can, without losing control, over the good going, and finish panting, ecstatic, hardly knowing how it was done. If she was satisfied with me and said, ‘Very good, my little Daisy,’ my cup was full.

Sometimes there were others to make music; famous artists would turn up or young musicians seeking encouragement; and sometimes there was no music, but just conversation round the samovar. All sorts of interesting and amusing people, the literary and the artistic, the fashionable and the learned, ladies of the Court, ambassadors, travelers of distinction, that motley gathering which every season shapes itself into a new pattern in the kaleidoscope of Cosmopolis. The two noted historians, Mommsen and Gregorovius, met there one day; and Mommsen, willfully ignoring Gregorovius’s fame, asked him, who had eight well-known volumes of Roman mediæval history to his credit, ‘Have you also been in Rome before, Herr Gregorovius?’

Eleonora Duse was an intimate friend. I saw her there for the first time off the stage, infinitely captivating, and surprisingly cheerful and healthy-looking. She never used rouge behind the footlights, and seeing her delicate and rosy skin in broad daylight one understood why she did not wish to ruin it with grease paint, but to her audiences she always looked pale and a little tragic. I remember once the talk ran on money, and Madame Helbig, who was not at all rich but never allowed herself to feel poor, exclaimed, ‘Money, money, one must not think about it!’

’Eh, cara mia,’ said Duse, ‘one must have a great deal of it in order not to think about it!’ Per non pensarci bisogna averne assai. Poor Duse. It was not for herself she needed so much money, but to satisfy the demands of her rapacious, implacable poet lover.

After the first great performance of Wagner’s Ring at Bayreuth, which was also the opening of the Festspielhaus and the first of the Bayreuth summer festivals, Joseph Rubinstein came to Rome. He had been at the piano during all the rehearsals of the great tetralogy; had trained the choruses, and had made the first piano scores and piano reductions of the operas. He undertook to initiate us, some dozen lovers of music, into the glories of the great cycle; the meetings took place at Madame Helbig’s.

It was a strange, exciting world for me to see and come in contact with, in the guise of friendly music lessons, and I saw it with beglamoured eyes. I always came away from those Thursday afternoons exhilarated, treading on air. Sometimes my brother Marion would come to fetch me and we would walk home together by way of the long, easy steps of the Capitol, pausing at the top between the great statues of the Dioscuri, on our right the steeper flight of the Aracoeli, where Gibbon sat and pondered on the Decline and Fall, with Rome at our feet in twinkling dusk, our heads in the clouds, feeling curiously elated. Was it Youth? Art? Rome? All three perhaps.

III

I think it was in the autumn of 1877 that Madame Helbig took me to congratulate Liszt on his sixty-sixth birthday. I had not met him before and felt as though I were being taken into a supernatural presence. Pictures of him as an old man are familiar to all, but I never saw one that was not something of a caricature, a portrait of his warts; none gave the exalted distinction of his personality, the look of penetrating intelligence combined with kindly gayety. He wore a Roman collar and a long black coat of clerical cut. He received us with great cordiality in his shabby little furnished apartment, whither all Rome was flocking on the same errand, everyone glowing with the same enthusiastic homage.

When we left he whispered to Madame Helbig that he was going to give lessons to a group of young pianists and that she must be sure to come and bring the ’little one,’ meaning me. I was not particularly little, but under Madame Helbig’s huge protecting wing I seemed a very small chicken. This was almost too good to be true; to be admitted even as a listener to these famous classes was an unhoped-for privilege. Liszt in those days occupied with infinitely more prestige the position later held by Leschetizky. All young pianists vied for the honor of being his pupils.

Liszt was sincerely religious. It was often said he became an Abbé (that is, took the first orders, for he never was a Mass priest) so as to escape from marrying the Princess Caroline SaynWittgenstein. Be this as it may, there was sincere piety in his spirit. There are passages throughout his work which bear witness to it. The Magnificat in the Dante Symphony, the Christus Oratorio with the beautiful chorus about the Magi, Et invenerunt puerum, show a kind of mystic contemplation.

There was no price on his teaching; he was a great prince or prophet of music, and literally gave, never sold, his lessons, to whom he chose. There never was anyone more generous in recognizing young talent, in doing all he could to develop it, and in helping the obscure virtuoso to make his way to fame.

On the appointed day we found our way to the Sala Dante, Rome’s only music hall. It was part of the big palace whose east wall supports the rocky background of the Fontana di Trevi and holds the niches of Bernini’s allegorical figures.

When we arrived the great Abbé met us at the door and asked at once for la petite, who was completely hidden behind Madame Helbig’s towering bulk. The class met in a smaller room not connected with the concert hall, a shabby unfurnished apartment that had been used as a storeroom after seeing better days, for it had traces of eighteenth-century decorations on its doors and window frames. It was dimly lighted by a few guttering candles stuck into bottles. We sat on rickety straw chairs, but the sordid accessories took nothing from the prestige of the occasion; rather they added to it a flavor of adventure. It was like seeing a great commander issuing orders from a wayside tavern or a baggage car.

Besides the four or five young pianists who formed the class there were perhaps half a dozen of us who had come to listen — Donna Laura Minghetti, Baroness Meyendorff, and one or two others. The pupils played what they had prepared and Liszt corrected, blamed, encouraged their work.

It was interesting to notice the varied degrees of tension that he brought to the different composers. When Chopin was being played, only the most delicate precision would satisfy him. The rubatos had to be done with exquisite restraint and only when Chopin had marked them, never ad libitum. Nothing was quite good enough to interpret such perfection. A student played one of Liszt’s own rhapsodies; it had been practised conscientiously, but did not satisfy the master. There were splashy arpeggios and rockets of rapidly ascending chromatic diminished sevenths. ‘Why don’t you play it this way?’ asked Liszt, sitting at his second piano and playing the passage with more careless bravura. ‘It was not written so in my copy,’objected the youth. ’Ja, das dürfen Sie nicht so genau nehmen ’ (Oh, you need not take that so literally), answered the composer. He intended his rhapsodies to be played rhapsodically, with a certain character of improvisation.

One of these lessons, the most memorable, was given to a young man who had prepared Beethoven’s Sonate für das Hammerklavier, an arduous work alike for listeners and for performer. The young man had worked hard and played all the notes in all their harshness. Liszt was not happy about the performance. He corrected and discussed; the soul of the matter had in no wise been reached. When it came to the divine Adagio, Liszt took the pupil by the shoulders, gently shoved him out of his seat, and sat down to play it himself, pouring out his soul to us in the dusk of that room, turning it into a space between stars with the distant splash of the Fountain of Trevi as bourdon to the heavenly melody. I do not think that movement can ever have been played better or moved any group of people so deeply before or since. It was the end of the lesson. Donna Laura and Madame Helbig had tears streaming down their faces. We had been in the Great Presence.

Liszt dismissed the pupils and offered to walk home with Madame Helbig and me. ‘Je prends la petite sous le bras.’ La petite was rapt to the seventh heaven. He asked me to play to him, but at that time my wrist, from too much practising, had developed a bad sinew and so I could not, and on the whole I was not sorry. I wanted him to think I played better than I did.

IV

Here I should like to make a digression and speak the praises of delightful people. They are generally so much better than famous ones. There have been so many ignored by history and the biographical dictionary. Like the golden threads in a precious tapestry we catch a glimpse of them here and there, on the Emperor’s cloak, on the warrior’s helmet, on the girdle of a great dame, on the dagger of a page, a few bright stitches — and they disappear into the duller background. They do not make the picture or have any importance in the action represented, but they incomparably enhance its beauty and its worth. This is but a poor image. Charming people are the light and the joy of the world.

For some we loved, the loveliest and the best,

and some we know only from what we have heard: Madame de Sévigné’s Abbé le tout bon, W. B. Yeats’s ‘ beautiful Mary Hines,’ only a name in a shining mist, and girls like Clara Middleton in The Egoist and Natasha in War and Peace and so many others. Delightfulness was the essence of their being. They have not made history, but their presence in the world made causes worth fighting for, made life worth living, turned the valley of tears into a place of smiles and laughter. It is good to know that such people have always enriched the world with their presence, without trumpet blasts of fame, leaving no tangible masterpieces to testify to their worth. Their masterpiece was their life.

My Uncle Sam Ward, my mother’s oldest brother, was one of these favored ones. His life had been varied and checkered; oldest son of a rich New York banker, well endowed and well connected, he had been sent abroad with an unlimited letter of credit after he graduated from Columbia University. We are not told whether he abused this paternal trustfulness. On his return he married Emily Astor, oldest daughter of William B. Astor, granddaughter of the original John Jacob. The marriage was happy while it lasted, but the young wife died in giving birth to a daughter, Margaret. The young widower grieved and then consoled himself by marrying a showy and fascinating Creole, the beautiful Medora Grimes. This was not at all to the taste of the staunchly respectable Astors, who had carefully selected their wives among the best families; and the grandparents took little ‘Maddie,’ who was not much younger than the youngest of their own large brood, and brought her up with the rest of their children. The marriage with Medora Grimes turned out badly; perhaps the Astors were right in their disapproval.

Sam Ward went West in the ’49 gold rush. He had lost a great deal of money. The bankruptcy of his father’s firm was attributed to him. He was not fortunate, or perhaps not skillful, in money matters; he lost three fortunes in the course of his life. But he never lost his zest for living and giving, and in California he found no gold, but much adventure. At one time he bought a canal boat and fitted it up as a hotel and restaurant, where food and drink were of the best.

There were legends about these years, romantic tales of which the family knew only whispered fragments; there were young women — one lived with him disguised as a boy; wild doings for those prim Victorian days — startling, considering the sober old New York background from which he sprang. One does not wonder the Astor family was shocked. Then he came East again without a fortune, but always living sumptuously. He went to Washington, where he made himself useful to Senators and Congressmen in bringing them together, always with the help of excellent food and rare wine; he was everybody’s friend and was proclaimed King of the Lobby. He was a real connoisseur of wines, and, to keep his palate delicate, he never drank spirits or seasoned his food with pepper or mustard. The only liqueur he approved was yellow Chartreuse, and he invented a drink called a ‘Sam Ward’ concocted with this and the peel of a lemon laid around the inside of a glass filled with cracked ice. He told me he was satisfied to have given his name to this as a claim to remembrance, pointing out that only a very few names were permanently associated with food and drink.

He had another passion which I should perhaps have mentioned first. He was not quite so successful in it as in the giving of little dinners, but poetry was very dear to his heart, and he wrote many verses which fluttered a little in the breeze of friendly intercourse and then took their way down the stream of forgetfulness.

V

In the late summer of 1883, Uncle Sam joined us in Sant Agnello di Sorrento at the Cocumella, an old-fashioned hotel established in what had once been a monastery. There were spacious terraces trellised with grapevine and paved with colored tiles; there was a flagged court with an old wellhead in the middle of it, and a domed chapel decorated with pale green and blue tiles and a few ecstatic stucco saints. Here it was always cool and quiet, and Monsignor Maresca, the beautiful saintly old Bishop of Sorrento, used to come and say Mass there every morning.

We were surrounded on every side by orange and lemon gardens ever green and fragrant, and beyond them we could see from our terrace the Gulf of Naples and Vesuvius. The Piano (Plateau) di Sorrento lies about two hundred feet above sea level, stretches its fruitful acres from the mountains to the sea, ending abruptly in sheer brown cliffs that go straight down to the water.

Here and there along this unapproachable coast there are little narrow beaches, often only just wide enough to allow the fisher folk to draw up their boats and to dry and mend their nets as in Homeric or Biblical days. These are called marine, and each village has its own marina with a steep stony descent from the upper to the lower town, impracticable for any kind of vehicle, sometimes even for donkeys. These little places exist on all the rocky shores of the Mediterranean, in Italy, Greece, and the Ægean islands. Where the coast shapes itself into a harbor the village grows into a town or a great city, sending its ships out to the seven seas, but the beach alone can support no more than a small fishing village, humble and poor through the centuries.

The Cocumella calata, or descent to the sea, was cut and hollowed out of the living rock, the brown, volcanic tufa; parts of it were dark steep corridors. Halfway down there was a landing with a big vaulted chamber open to the sea. It commanded the bluest view in the world — Vesuvius and the sky and water, blue and bluer and bluest — and was cool in the hottest weather.

This Marion had taken as his workroom, and here he spent his mornings writing in a cave like Saint Jerome, minus the lion and the cardinal’s hat, but, like Saint Jerome, attended and adored by a little circle of fond ladies. Just then the circle was formed by his family.

Mr. Isaacs had come out the preceding year, had obtained immediate and world-wide success, and the publishers were clamoring for more copy. As Mr.Isaacs was the first book he had ever written or thought of writing, there was no unpublished manuscript to give them, and he went to work on his second novel, Dr. Claudius, followed by To Leeward and many others.

He wrote very fast, sometimes as much as a chapter a day, covering sheet after sheet of foolscap with his neat scholarly characters; never a blot or an erasure. He had none of the tormenting doubt of self-criticism. Working hard and conscientiously, he had confidence in his work and saw no reason to think that by doing it over he might do it better. This gave his pages a certain freshness. His books were extremely successful — to this the publishers’ checks bore witness.

He cared little for society and was at his most delightful best in the intimacy of the home circle — a shining, joyful creature in those days when we would come down the calata toward the end of the morning to carry him off for the noon swim.

VI

No bathing has ever seemed half so enchanting as that in Sorrento, in the cool tideless rock-bound waters, very deep and clear and buoyant, of an indescribable blue that grows more vivid the deeper one plunges. Sorrento faces north, so that we were in the shadow of the high cliffs during the midday bathing hour.

Marion’s boat, a lateen-sailed felucca with four sailors, was another of our joys. It happened sometimes that instead of two or three hours it would take eight or ten to reach our destination. An evening sail often prolonged itself to an all-night expedition and we saw the moonlight turn gray before the rose of dawn, and ‘the baths of all the western stars’ before we got to bed. And many a lovely sail we took on these sapphire waters. When the wind gave out, as it often did, the sailors rowed with their big sweeps. We made many expeditions to neighboring islands and places along the shore — to Capri, to Salerno, to Amalfi, and to the Isles of the Sirens.

One day — it was my birthday — Marion prepared a special celebration. We were taken for a sail in the morning and after rounding several jutting headlands we landed in a beautiful great emerald grotto. On the little beach at the back of the cave we found a picnic spread — just such a picnic as Calypso might have arranged. We sat on the sand eating a delicious rustic meal of macaroni just cooked by the sailors, fresh cheese and fruit, bread and wine, while we watched the green waters rippling at our feet and casting reflections up into the rocky vault which made it all look a translucent jade. It is as fantastically green as the famous Capri Grotto is blue — not nearly so large, but easier of access.

At the Punta di Scutari (one of the many of that name that dot the Mediterranean shore) the swimming was superlatively good. There was a secluded ledge of rock which served as dressing room for the girls; the boys undressed in the boat. There were high overhanging cliffs and the water was very deep and dark blue-green. You could see fishes swimming far beneath the surface, but the bottom you could not see, even with the sun striking the water. There we disported ourselves like young porpoises, diving off the rocks, playing ball, dancing quadrilles. During one of these we terrified an American cousin whom we had invited to join us on his assuring us he knew how to swim. We were doing the figure in which one cavalier takes two ladies, one by each hand, and advances and retreats before the single cavalier, finally joining him, forming a circle, and then separating into two couples. It took very vigorous swimming, and his two ladies dragged him so hard through the water that they did not notice that his mouth and nose were submerged. He was sure we nearly drowned him.

Sometimes we went there in the late afternoon and sometimes even by moonlight. It was delightful to see the sunset from the water; the sun seemed very near when it dipped into the sea and disappeared in it a few hundred yards away. But the moonlight swimming was uncanny — the water was too black, we looked too white, and the sea seemed full of intangible, terrifying presences.

VII

Uncle Sam was a welcome addition to the family circle. Everyone loved him. He shared our life on land and water and brought with him a breath of the great world. We made expeditions with him to Capri, to Pompeii, to Amalfi and Pæstum. He was untiring in his enthusiasm to sec sights; made Marion go up Vesuvius with him and spent long hours in the Naples Museum. Early in the autumn we all went back to Rome and he stayed on with us there, visiting museums and churches, meeting our friends and casting on all the kindly radiance which drew everyone to him. We lived very simply at the Palazzo Altemps, my mother’s fortune having been lost by a speculating cousin, and the dear Sybarite found it hard, I dare say, to get used to the vino dei Castelli which was served at our table, a rather sour little Roman wine.

One evening we had asked a few friends to meet him, Monseigneur Puyol2 among others. My father had a few bottles of rare old French wines saved from the wreck of our Odescalchi days. Some of this was served. I shall never forget the look of sudden rapture as Uncle Sam lifted his glass to his mouth and the delicate bouquet struck his unexpectant nostrils. ‘ Château Lafitte ’67,’ he murmured, as in prayer. Giuseppe, the old butler, had not announced it and the good uncle had no reason to expect anything but the usual table wine. I hardly think nose and palate can be more delicately sensitive than that — to name the Château and the vintage at a whiff.

That spring he went to join his devoted friends, Lord and Lady Rosebery, in Malta on their way back from India, and returned to us early in April. The journey had tired him and he had caught a cold that turned to bronchitis; other symptoms aggravated his condition, which was obviously serious. He lay in his bed with Omar Khayyám on the counterpane and Horace’s Odes under his pillow. One night, which we all feared would be the last, he was very weak and could hardly make himself understood; I was with him and he evidently wanted something. I leaned over his pillow to catch the mumbled whispers; he wanted me to read ‘Come into the Garden, Maud’ aloud to him. His soul was young to the last.

He did not die that night, but rallied a little, and it was decided he should be taken to a better climate. Marion, his nurse, Sœur Marius, and I went with

him to Pegli — on the Italian Riviera. He bore the journey well enough, but in a few days there was a turn for the worse, and on the nineteenth of May it was all over. Two hours before his death he dictated a letter to Lord Rosebery, his faithful ‘Sycophant.’ Marion and I were heartbroken — we had lost our best friend.

Uncle Sam was a very high Mason, and Marion feared the local Masons might turn out to do him honor. The Masons in Italy are notoriously radical and anticlerical (Mussolini has seen fit to suppress them — if such a thing be possible). Marion thought it best to have a very quiet funeral the next day and bury the dear uncle in the little Pegli cemetery. There he lies on a sheltered hillside, under a marble tombstone ordered for him by Marion and Lord Rosebery, overgrown with ivy and climbing roses — just such a spot as his favorite Omar might have chosen for his final resting place. (Uncle Sam liked to call himself Omar’s successor.)

Yon rising Moon that looks for us again —
How oft hereafter will she wax and wane;
How oft hereafter rising look for us
Through this same Garden — and for one in vain!
And when like her, oh Sáki, you shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scattered on the Grass,
And in your joyous errand reach the spot
Where I made One — turn down an empty Glass!

We returned to Rome with heavy hearts.

(To be concluded)

  1. A previous chapter of Mrs. Winthrop Chanler’s reminiscences, ‘Roman Spring,’appeared in the July issue. — EDITOR
  2. He had been chaplain to the Empress Eugénie and was with her through the days of the Commune. He was at this time head of the French College of San Luigi dei Francesi. — AUTHOR