Read CHAPTER I of A Roman Singer, free online book, by F. Marion Crawford, on

I, Cornelio Grandi, who tell you these things, have a story of my own, of which some of you are not ignorant.  You know, for one thing, that I was not always poor, nor always a professor of philosophy, nor a scribbler of pedantic articles for a living.  Many of you can remember why I was driven to sell my patrimony, the dear castello in the Sabines, with the good corn-land and the vineyards in the valley, and the olives, too.  For I am not old yet; at least, Mariuccia is older, as I often tell her.  These are queer times.  It was not any fault of mine.  But now that Nino is growing to be a famous man in the world, and people are saying good things and bad about him, and many say that he did wrong in this matter, I think it best to tell you all the whole truth and what I think of it.  For Nino is just like a son to me; I brought him up from a little child, and taught him Latin, and would have made a philosopher of him.  What could I do?  He had so much voice that he did not know what to do with it.

His mother used to sing.  What a piece of a woman she was!  She had a voice like a man’s, and when De Pretis brought his singers to the festa once upon a time, when I was young, he heard her far down below, as we walked on the terrace of the palazzo, and asked me if I would not let him educate that young tenor.  And when I told him it was one of the contadine, the wife of a tenant of mine, he would not believe it.  But I never heard her sing after Serafino ­that was her husband ­was killed at the fair in Genazzano.  And one day the fevers took her, and so she died, leaving Nino a little baby.  Then you know what happened to me, about that time, and how I sold Castel Serveti and came to live here in Rome.  Nino was brought to me here.  One day in the autumn a carrettiere from Serveti, who would sometimes stop at my door and leave me a basket of grapes in the vintage, or a pitcher of fresh oil in winter, because he never used to pay his house-rent when I was his landlord ­but he is a good fellow, Gigi ­and so he tries to make amends now; well, as I was saying, he came one day and gave me a great basket of fine grapes, and he brought Nino with him, a little boy of scarce six years ­just to show him to me, he said.

He was an ugly little boy, with a hat of no particular shape and a dirty face.  He had great black eyes, with ink-saucers under them, calamai, as we say, just as he has now.  Only the eyes are bigger now, and the circles deeper.  But he is still sufficiently ugly.  If it were not for his figure, which is pretty good, he could never have made a fortune with his voice.  De Pretis says he could, but I do not believe it.

Well, I made Gigi come in with Nino, and Mariuccia made them each a great slice of toasted bread and spread it with oil, and gave Gigi a glass of the Serveti wine, and little Nino had some with water.  And Mariuccia begged to have the child left with her till Gigi went back the next day; for she is fond of children and comes from Serveti herself.  And that is how Nino came to live with us.  That old woman has no principles of economy, and she likes children.

“What does a little creature like that eat?” said she.  “A bit of bread, a little soup ­macche!  You will never notice it, I tell you.  And the poor thing has been living on charity.  Just imagine whether you are not quite as able to feed him as Gigi is!” So she persuaded me.  But at first I did it to please her, for I told her our proverb, which says there can be nothing so untidy about a house as children and chickens.  He was such a dirty little boy, with only one shoe and a battered hat, and he was always singing at the top of his voice, and throwing things into the well in the cortile.

Mariuccia can read a little, though I never believed it until I found her one day teaching Nino his letters out of the Vite dei Santi.  That was probably the first time that her reading was ever of any use to her, and the last, for I think she knows the Lives of the Saints by heart, and she will certainly not venture to read a new book at her age.  However, Nino very soon learned to know as much as she, and she will always be able to say that she laid the foundation of his education.  He soon forgot to throw handfuls of mud into the well, and Mariuccia washed him, and I bought him a pair of shoes, and we made him look very decent.  After a time he did not even remember to pull the cat’s tail in the morning, so as to make her sing with him, as he said.  When Mariuccia went to church she would take him with her, and he seemed very fond of going, so that I asked him one day if he would like to be a priest when he grew up, and wear beautiful robes, and have pretty little boys to wait on him with censers in their hands.

“No,” said the little urchin, stoutly, “I won’t be a priest.”  He found in his pocket a roast chestnut Mariuccia had given him, and began to shell it.

“Why are you always so fond of going to church then?” I asked.

“If I were a big man,” quoth he, “but really big, I would sing in church, like Maestro De Pretis.”

“What would you sing, Nino?” said I, laughing.  He looked very grave, and got a piece of brown paper and folded it up.  Then he began to beat time on my knees and sang out boldly, Cornu ejus exaltabitur.

It was enough to make one laugh, for he was only seven years old, and ugly too.  But Mariuccia, who was knitting in the hall-way, called out that it was just what Maestro Ercole had sung the day before at vespers, every syllable.

I have an old piano in my sitting-room.  It is a masterpiece of an instrument, I can tell you; for one of the legs is gone and I propped it up with two empty boxes, and the keys are all black except those that have lost the ivory ­and those are green.  It has also five pedals, disposed as a harp underneath; but none of them make any impression on the sound, except the middle one, which rings a bell.  The sound-board has a crack in it somewhere, Nino says, and two of the notes are dumb since the great German maestro came home with my boy one night, and insisted on playing an accompaniment after supper.  We had stewed chickens and a flask of Cesanese, I remember, and I knew something would happen to the piano.  But Nino would never have any other, for De Pretis had a very good one; and Nino studies without anything ­just a common tuning-fork that he carries in his pocket.  But the old piano was the beginning of his fame.  He got into the sitting-room one day, by himself, and found out that he could make a noise by striking the keys, and then he discovered that he could make tunes, and pick out the ones that were always ringing in his head.  After that he could hardly be dragged away from it, so that I sent him to school to have some quiet in the house.

He was a clever boy, and I taught him Latin and gave him our poets to read; and as he grew up I would have made a scholar of him, but he would not.  At least, he was willing to learn and to read; but he was always singing too.  Once I caught him declaiming “Arma virumque cano” to an air from Trovatore, and I knew he could never be a scholar then, though he might know a great deal.  Besides, he always preferred Dante to Virgil, and Leopardi to Horace.

One day, when he was sixteen or thereabouts, he was making a noise, as usual, shouting some motive or other to Mariuccia and the cat, while I was labouring to collect my senses over a lecture I had to prepare.  Suddenly his voice cracked horribly and his singing ended in a sort of groan.  It happened again once or twice, the next day, and then the house was quiet.  I found him at night asleep over the old piano, his eyes all wet with tears.

“What is the matter, Nino?” I asked.  “It is time for youngsters like you to be in bed.”

“Ah, Messer Cornelio,” he said, when he was awake, “I had better go to bed, as you say.  I shall never sing again, for my voice is all broken to pieces”; and he sobbed bitterly.

“The saints be praised,” thought I; “I shall make a philosopher of you yet!”

But he would not be comforted, and for several months he went about as if he were trying to find the moon, as we say; and though he read his books and made progress, he was always sad and wretched, and grew much thinner, so that Mariuccia said he was consuming himself, and I thought he must be in love.  But the house was very quiet.

I thought as he did, that he would never sing again, but I never talked to him about it, lest he should try, now that he was as quiet as a nightingale with its tongue cut out.  But nature meant differently, I suppose.  One day De Pretis came to see me; it must have been near the new year, for he never came often at that time.  It was only a friendly recollection of the days when I had a castello and a church of my own at Serveti, and used to have him come from Rome to sing at the festa, and he came every year to see me; and his head grew bald as mine grew grey, so that at last he wears a black skull-cap everywhere, like a priest, and only takes it off when he sings the Gloria Patri, or at the Elevation.  However, he came to see me, and Nino sat mutely by, as we smoked a little and drank the syrup of violets with water that Mariuccia brought us.  It was one of her eternal extravagances, but somehow, though she never understood the value of economy, my professorship brought in more than enough for us, and it was not long after this that I began to buy the bit of vineyard out of Porta Salara, by instalments from my savings.  And since then we have our own wine.

De Pretis was talking to me about a new opera that he had heard.  He never sang except in church, of course, but he used to go to the theatre of an evening; so it was quite natural that he should go to the piano and begin to sing a snatch of the tenor air to me, explaining the situation as he went along, between his singing.

Nino could not sit still, and went and leaned over Sor Ercole, as we call the maestro, hanging on the notes, not daring to try and sing, for he had lost his voice, but making the words with his lips.

Dio mio!” he cried at last, “how I wish I could sing that!”

“Try it,” said De Pretis, laughing and half interested by the boy’s earnest look.  “Try it ­I will sing it again.”  But Nino’s face fell.

“It is no use,” he said.  “My voice is all broken to pieces now, because I sang too much before.”

“Perhaps it will come back,” said the musician kindly, seeing the tears in the young fellow’s eyes.  “See, we will try a scale.”  He struck a chord.  “Now, open your mouth ­so ­Do-o-o-o!” He sang a long note.  Nino could not resist any longer, whether he had any voice or not.  He blushed red and turned away, but he opened his mouth and made a sound.

“Do-o-o-o!” He sang like the master, but much weaker.

“Not so bad; now the next, Re-e-e!” Nino followed him.  And so on, up the scale.

After a few more notes, De Pretis ceased to smile, and cried, “Go on, go on!” after every note, authoritatively, and in quite a different manner from his first kindly encouragement.  Nino, who had not sung for months, took courage and a long breath, and went on as he was bid, his voice gaining volume and clearness as he sang higher.  Then De Pretis stopped and looked at him earnestly.

“You are mad,” he said.  “You have not lost your voice at all.”

“It was quite different when I used to sing before,” said the boy.

“Per Bacco, I should think so,” said the maestro.  “Your voice has changed.  Sing something, can’t you?”

Nino sang a church air he had caught somewhere.  I never heard such a voice, but it gave me a queer sensation that I liked ­it was so true, and young, and clear.  De Pretis sat open-mouthed with astonishment and admiration.  When the boy had finished, he stood looking at the maestro, blushing very scarlet, and altogether ashamed of himself.  The other did not speak.

“Excuse me,” said Nino, “I cannot sing.  I have not sung for a long time.  I know it is not worth anything.”  De Pretis recovered himself.

“You do not sing,” said he, “because you have not learned.  But you can.  If you will let me teach you, I will do it for nothing.”

“Me!” screamed Nino, “you teach me!  Ah, if it were any use ­if you only would!”

“Any use?” repeated De Pretis half aloud, as he bit his long black cigar half through in his excitement.  “Any use?  My dear boy, do you know that you have a very good voice?  A remarkable voice,” he continued, carried away by his admiration, “such a voice as I have never heard.  You can be the first tenor of your age, if you please ­in three years you will sing anything you like, and go to London and Paris, and be a great man.  Leave it to me.”

I protested that it was all nonsense, that Nino was meant for a scholar and not for the stage, and I was quite angry with De Pretis for putting such ideas into the boy’s head.  But it was of no use.  You cannot argue with women and singers, and they always get their own way in the end.  And whether I liked it or not, Nino began to go to Sor Ercole’s house once or twice a week, and sang scales and exercises very patiently, and copied music in the evening, because he said he would not be dependent on me, since he could not follow my wishes in choosing a profession.  De Pretis did not praise him much to his face after they had begun to study, but he felt sure he would succeed.

“Caro Conte,” ­he often calls me Count, though I am only plain Professore, now ­“he has a voice like a trumpet and the patience of all the angels.  He will be a great singer.”

“Well, it is not my fault,” I used to answer; for what could I do?

When you see Nino now, you cannot imagine that he was ever a dirty little boy from the mountains, with one shoe, and that infamous little hat.  I think he is ugly still, though you do not think so when he is singing, and he has good strong limbs and broad shoulders, and carries himself like a soldier.  Besides, he is always very well dressed, though he has no affectations.  He does not wear his hair plastered into a love-lock on his forehead, like some of our dandies, nor is he eternally pulling a pair of monstrous white cuffs over his hands.  Everything is very neat about him and very quiet, so that you would hardly think he was an artist after all; and he talks but little, though he can talk very well when he likes, for he has not forgotten his Dante nor his Leopardi.  De Pretis says the reason he sings so well is because he has a mouth like the slit in an organ pipe, as wide as a letter-box at the post-office.  But I think he has succeeded because he has great square jaws like Napoleon.  People like that always succeed.  My jaw is small, and my chin is pointed under my beard ­but then, with the beard, no one can see it.  But Mariuccia knows.

Nino is a thoroughly good boy, and until a year ago he never cared for anything but his art; and now he cares for something, I think, a great deal better than art, even than art like his.  But he is a singer still, and always will be, for he has an iron throat, and never was hoarse in his life.  All those years when he was growing up, he never had a love-scrape, or owed money, or wasted his time in the caffè.

“Take care,” Mariuccia used to say to me, “if he ever takes a fancy to some girl with blue eyes and fair hair he will be perfectly crazy.  Ah, Sor Conte, she had blue eyes, and her hair was like the corn-silk.  How many years is that, Sor Conte mio?” Mariuccia is an old witch.

I am writing this story to tell you why Mariuccia is a witch, and why my Nino, who never so much as looked at the beauties of the generone, as they came with their fathers and brothers and mothers to eat ice-cream in the Piazza Colonna, and listen to the music of a summer’s evening, ­Nino, who stared absently at the great ladies as they rolled over the Pincio, in their carriages, and was whistling airs to himself for practice when he strolled along the Corso, instead of looking out for pretty faces, ­Nino, the cold in all things save in music, why he fulfilled Mariuccia’s prophecy, little by little, and became perfectly crazy about blue eyes and fair hair.  That is what I am going to tell you, if you have the leisure to listen.  And you ought to know it, because evil tongues are more plentiful than good voices in Rome, as elsewhere, and people are saying many spiteful things about him ­though they clap loudly enough at the theatre when he sings.

He is like a son to me, and perhaps I am reconciled, after all, to his not having become a philosopher.  He would never have been so famous as he is now, and he really knows so much more than Maestro De Pretis ­in other ways than music ­that he is very presentable indeed.  What is blood, nowadays?  What difference does it make to society whether Nino Cardegna, the tenor was the son of a vine-dresser?  Or what does the University care for the fact that I, Cornelio Grandi, am the last of a race as old as the Colonnas, and quite as honourable?  What does Mariuccia care?  What does anybody care?  Corpo di Bacco! if we begin talking of race we shall waste as much time as would make us all great celebrities!  I am not a celebrity ­I never shall be now, for a man must begin at that trade young.  It is a profession ­being celebrated ­and it has its signal advantages.  Nino will tell you so, and he has tried it.  But one must begin young, very young!  I cannot begin again.

And then, as you all know, I never began at all.  I took up life in the middle, and am trying hard to twist a rope of which I never held the other end.  I feel sometimes as though it must be the life of another that I have taken, leaving my own unfinished, for I was never meant to be a professor.  That is the way of it; and if I am sad and inclined to melancholy humours, it is because I miss my old self, and he seems to have left me without even a kindly word at parting.  I was fond of my old self, but I did not respect him much.  And my present self I respect, without fondness.  Is that metaphysics?  Who knows?  It is vanity in either case, and the vanity of self-respect is perhaps a more dangerous thing than the vanity of self-love, though you may call it pride if you like, or give it any other high-sounding title.  But the heart of the vain man is lighter than the heart of the proud.  Probably Nino has always had much self-respect, but I doubt if it has made him very happy ­until lately.  True, he has genius, and does what he must by nature do or die, whereas I have not even talent, and I make myself do for a living what I can never do well.  What does it serve, to make comparisons?  I could never have been like Nino, though I believe half my pleasure of late has been in fancying how I should feel in his place, and living through his triumphs by my imagination.  Nino began at the very beginning, and when all his capital was one shoe and a ragged hat, and certainly not more than a third of a shirt, he said he would be a great singer; and he is, though he is scarcely of age yet.  I wish it had been something else than a singer, but since he is the first already, it was worth while.  He would have been great in anything, though, for he has such a square jaw, and he looks so fierce when anything needs to be overcome.  Our forefathers must have looked like that, with their broad eagle noses and iron mouths.  They began at the beginning, too, and they went to the very end.  I wish Nino had been a general, or a statesman, or a cardinal, or all three like Richelieu.

But you want to hear of Nino, and you can pass on your ways, all of you, without hearing my reflections and small-talk about goodness, and success, and the like.  Moreover, since I respect myself now, I must not find so much fault with my own doings, or you will say that I am in my dotage.  And, truly, Nino Cardegna is a better man, for all his peasant blood, than I ever was; a better lover, and perhaps a better hater.  There is his guitar, that he always leaves here, and it reminds me of him and his ways.  Fourteen years he lived here with me, from child to boy and from boy to man, and now he is gone, never to live here any more.  The end of it will be that I shall go and live with him, and Mariuccia will take her cat and her knitting, and her Lives of the Saints back to Serveti, to end her life in peace, where there are no professors and no singers.  For Mariuccia is older than I am, and she will die before me.  At all events, she will take her tongue with her, and ruin herself at her convenience without ruining me.  I wonder what life would be without Mariuccia?  Would anybody darn my stockings, or save the peel of the mandarins to make cordial?  I certainly would not have the mandarins if she were gone ­it is a luxury.  No, I would not have them.  But then, there would be no cordial, and I should have to buy new stockings every year or two.  No, the mandarins cost less than the stockings ­and ­well, I suppose I am fond of Mariuccia.