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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Roman Singer - Chapter 8
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A Roman Singer - Chapter 8 Post by :pandoy Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :3091

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A Roman Singer - Chapter 8

CHAPTER VIII

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 he 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 he 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 his pocket.

"When do you leave us?" I asked, when I was somewhat recovered.

"I am not sure that I will go," he answered, sprinkling some pepper on 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 Pretis that the count was not so angry as he had expected, and that Hedwig 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 de 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 Cormandola.

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 waistbelt; 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 everyday 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. He 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. Nino struck a single chord. Hedwig almost thought he might hear her heart beating all the way down the street.

"Ah, del mio dolce ardor bramato ogetto," he 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 lose 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 anyone can possibly sing. It always appears quite easy for Nino, 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, wondering whether it would have any effect. 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. No 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 Nino stood long, straining his eyes for a glimpse of the white face that had been there. He sighed, and, striking a chord, sang out boldly the old air from the _Trovatore_, "Ah, che la morte ognora e tarda nel venir." Every blind fiddler in the streets plays it, though he would be 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 Boccarde, 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 he told me about it in the morning. That is how I know.

Since the day after the _debut 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 full 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 colour 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 be used for something besides cutting leaves, if the fancy took her.

"So at last you have honoured 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 honour 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 fingers.

"Signora," he replied, "there are customs, chivalrous and gentle in themselves, and worthy for all men to practise. 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 does 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 fingers 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 colour 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 the strong, soft grip.

"But you will," she murmured, passionately. "You are killing me by leaving me. Can you 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 flung 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. His face was as gray and wooden as ever, but his moustaches 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 anger 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 realised 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 he was. The baroness tottered back against the opposite wall, and stood staring at the two, dishevelled 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. But it was of no use. "I love her, and have sung beneath her window; but I never had a written word from her in my life, and I neither told this woman of my love nor asked her assistance. She 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 his 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 arm-chair. 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, she 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 he 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 red-tiled roofs opposite, and the goldfinch was silent in his cage. So I sat down 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. Ah 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 much 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 colour gone for ever 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!

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