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

Now I ought to tell you that many things in this story were only told me quite lately, for at first I would not help Nino at all, thinking it was but a foolish fancy of his boy’s heart and would soon pass.  I have tried to gather and to order all the different incidents into one harmonious whole, so that you can follow the story; and you must not wonder that I can describe some things that I did not see, and that I know how some of the people felt; for Nino and I have talked over the whole matter very often, and the baroness came here and told me her share, though I wonder how she could talk so plainly of what must have given her so much pain.  But it was very kind of her to come; and she sat over there in the old green arm-chair by the glass case that has the artificial flowers under it, and the sugar lamb that the padre curato gave Nino when he made his first communion at Easter.  However, it is not time to speak of the baroness yet, but I cannot forget her.

Nino was very amusing when he began to love the young countess, and the very first morning ­the day after we had been to St. Peter’s ­he went out at half-past six, though it was only just sunrise, for we were in October.  I knew very well that he was going for his extra lesson with De Pretis, but I had nothing to say about it, and I only recommended him to cover himself well, for the sirocco had passed and it was a bright morning, with a clear tramontana wind blowing fresh from the north.  I can always tell when it is a tramontana wind before I open my window, for Mariuccia makes such a clattering with the coffee-pot in the kitchen, and the goldfinch in the sitting-room sings very loud; which he never does if it is cloudy.  Nino, then, went off to Maestro Ercole’s house for his singing, and this is what happened there.

De Pretis knew perfectly well that Nino had only asked for the extra lesson in order to get a chance of talking about the Contessina di Lira, and so, to tease him, as soon as he appeared, the maestro made a great bustle about singing scales, and insisted on beginning at once.  Moreover, he pretended to be in a bad humour; and that is always pretence with him.

“Ah, my little tenor,” he began; “you want a lesson at seven in the morning, do you?  That is the time when all the washerwomen sing at the fountain!  Well, you shall have a lesson, and by the body of Bacchus it shall be a real lesson!  Now, then!  Andiamo ­Do-o-o!” and he roared out a great note that made the room shake, and a man who was selling cabbage in the street stopped his hand-cart and mimicked him for five minutes.

“But I am out of breath, maestro,” protested Nino, who wanted to talk.

“Out of breath?  A singer is never out of breath.  Absurd!  What would you do if you got out of breath, say, in the last act of Lucia, so ­Bell’alma ado ??  Then your breath ends, eh?  Will you stay with the ‘adored soul’ between your teeth?  A fine singer you will make!  Andiamo!  Do-o-o!”

Nino saw he must begin, and he set up a shout, much against his will, so that the cabbage-vendor chimed in, making so much noise that the old woman who lives opposite opened her window and emptied a great dustpan full of potato peelings and refuse leaves of lettuce right on his head.  And then there was a great noise.  But the maestro paid no attention, and went on with the scale, hardly giving Nino time to breathe.  Nino, who stood behind De Pretis while he sang, saw the copy of Bordogni’s solfeggi lying on a chair, and managed to slip it under a pile of music near by, singing so lustily all the while that the maestro never looked round.

When he got to the end of the scale Ercole began hunting for the music, and as he could not find it, Nino asked him questions.

“Can she sing, ­this contessina of yours, maestro?” De Pretis was overturning everything in his search.

“An apoplexy on those solfeggi and on the man who made them!” he cried.  “Sing, did you say?  Yes, a great deal better than you ever will.  Why can you not look for your music, instead of chattering?” Nino began to look where he knew it was not.

“By the by, do you give her lessons every day?” asked the boy.

“Every day?  Am I crazy, to ruin people’s voices like that?”

“Caro maestro, what is the matter with you this morning?  You have forgotten to say your prayers!”

“You are a donkey, Nino; here he is, this blessed Bordogni, ­now come.”

Sor Ercole mio,” said Nino in despair, “I must really know something about this angel, before I sing at all.”  Ercole sat down on the piano stool, and puffed up his cheeks, and heaved a tremendous sigh, to show how utterly bored he was by his pupil.  Then he took a large pinch of snuff, and sighed again.

“What demon have you got into your head?” he asked, at length.

“What angel, you mean,” answered Nino, delighted at having forced the maestro to a parley.  “I am in love with her ­crazy about her,” he cried, running his fingers through his curly hair, “and you must help me to see her.  You can easily take me to her house to sing duets as part of her lesson.  I tell you I have not slept a wink all night for thinking of her, and unless I see her I shall never sleep again as long as I live.  Ah!” he cried, putting his hands on Ercole’s shoulders, “you do not know what it is to be in love!  How everything one touches is fire, and the sky is like lead, and one minute you are cold and one minute you are hot, and you may turn and turn on your pillow all night and never sleep, and you want to curse everybody you see, or to embrace them, it makes no difference ­anything to express the ­”

“Devil! and may he carry you off!” interrupted Ercole, laughing.  But his manner changed.  “Poor fellow,” he said presently, “it appears to me you are in love.”

“It appears to you, does it?  ’Appears’ ­a beautiful word, in faith.  I can tell you it appears to me so, too.  Ah! it ‘appears’ to you ­very good indeed!” And Nino waxed wroth.

“I will give you some advice, Ninetto mio.  Do not fall in love with anyone.  It always ends badly.”

“You come late with your counsel, Sor Ercole.  In truth, a very good piece of advice when a man is fifty, and married, and wears a skull-cap.  When I wear a skull-cap and take snuff I will follow your instructions.”  He walked up and down the room, grinding his teeth, and clapping his hands together.  Ercole rose and stopped him.

“Let us talk seriously,” he said.

“With all my heart; as seriously as you please.”

“You have only seen this signorina once.”

“Once!” cried Nino, ­“as if once were not ­”

“Diavolo; let me speak.  You have only seen her once.  She is noble, an heiress, a great lady ­worse than all, a foreigner; as beautiful as a statue, if you please, but twice as cold.  She has a father who knows the proprieties, a piece of iron, I tell you, who would kill you just as he would drink a glass of wine, with the greatest indifference, if he suspected you lifted your eyes to his daughter.”

“I do not believe your calumnies,” said Nino still hotly, “She is not cold, and if I can see her she will listen to me.  I am sure of it.”

“We will speak of that by and by.  You ­what are you?  Nothing but a singer, who has not even appeared before the public, without a baiocco in the world or anything else but your voice.  You are not even handsome.”

“What difference does that make to a woman of heart?” retorted Nino angrily.  “Let me only speak to her ­”

“A thousand devils!” exclaimed De Pretis impatiently; “what good will you do by speaking to her?  Are you Dante, or Petrarca, or a preacher ­what are you?  Do you think you can have a great lady’s hand for the asking?  Do you flatter yourself that you are so eloquent that nobody can withstand you?”

“Yes,” said Nino, boldly.  “If I could only speak to her ­”

“Then in heaven’s name, go and speak to her.  Get a new hat and a pair of lavender gloves, and walk about the Villa Borghese until you meet her, and then throw yourself on your knees and kiss her feet, and the dust from her shoes; and say you are dying for her, and will she be good enough to walk as far as Santa Maria del Popolo and be married to you!  That is all; you see it is nothing you ask ­a mere politeness on her part ­oh, nothing, nothing.”  And De Pretis rubbed his hands and smiled, and seeing that Nino did not answer, he blew his nose with his great blue cotton handkerchief.

“You have no heart at all, maestro,” said Nino at last.  “Let us sing.”

They worked hard at Bordogni for half an hour, and Nino did not open his mouth except to produce the notes.  But as his blood was up from the preceding interview he took great pains, and Ercole, who makes him sing all the solfeggi he can from a sense of duty, himself wearied of the ridiculous old-fashioned runs and intervals.

“Bene,” he said; “let us sing a piece now, and then you will have done enough.”  He put an opera on the piano, and Nino lifted up his voice and sang, only too glad to give his heart passage to his lips.  Ercole screwed up his eyes with a queer smile he has when he is pleased.

“Capperi!” he ejaculated, when Nino had done.

“What has happened?” asked the latter.

“I cannot tell you what has happened,” said Ercole, “but I will tell you that you had better always sing like that, and you will be applauded.  Why have you never sung that piece in that way before?”

“I do not know.  Perhaps it is because I am unhappy.”

“Very well, never dare to be happy again, if you mean to succeed.  You can make a statue shed tears if you please.”  Ercole took a pinch of snuff, and turned round to look out of the window.  Nino leaned on the piano, drumming with his fingers and looking at the back of the maestro’s head.  The first rays of the sun just fell into the room and gilded the red brick floor.

“Then instead of buying lavender kid gloves,” said Nino at last, his face relaxing a little, “and going to the Villa Borghese, you advise me to borrow a guitar and sing to my statue?  Is that it?”

“Che Diana!  I did not say that!” said Ercole, still facing the window and finishing his pinch of snuff with a certain satisfaction.  “But if you want the guitar, take it ­there it lies.  I will not answer for what you do with it.”  His voice sounded kindly, for he was so much pleased.  Then he made Nino sing again, a little love song of Tosti, who writes for the heart and sings so much better without a voice than all your stage tenors put together.  And the maestro looked long at Nino when he had done, but he did not say anything.  Nino put on his hat gloomily enough, and prepared to go.

“I will take the guitar, if you will lend it to me,” he said.

“Yes, if you like, and I will give you a handkerchief to wrap it up with,” said De Pretis, absently, but he did not get up from his seat.  He was watching Nino, and he seemed to be thinking.  Just as the boy was going with the instrument under his arm he called him back.

“Ebbene?” said Nino, with his hand on the lock of the door.

“I will make you a song to sing to your guitar,” said Ercole.


“Yes ­but without music.  Look here, Nino ­sit down.  What a hurry you are in.  I was young myself, once upon time.”

“Once upon a time!  Fairy stories ­once upon a time there was a king, and so on.”  Nino was not to be easily pacified.

“Well, perhaps it is a fairy tale, but it is in the future.  I have an idea.”

“Oh, is that all?  But it is the first time.  I understand.”

Listen.  Have you read Dante?”

“I know the Vita Nuova by heart, and some of the Commedia.  But how the diavolo does Dante enter into this question?”

“And Silvio Pellico, and a little literature?” continued Ercole, not heeding the comment.

“Yes, after a fashion.  And you?  Do you know them?”

Che c’entro io?” cried Ercole, impatiently; “what do I want to know such things for?  But I have heard of them.”

“I congratulate you,” replied Nino, ironically.

“Have patience.  You are no longer an artist.  You are a professor of literature.”

“I ­a professor of literature?  What nonsense are you talking?”

“You are a great stupid donkey, Nino.  Supposing I obtain for you an engagement to read literature with the Contessina di Lira, will you not be a professor?  If you prefer singing ­” But Nino comprehended in a flash the whole scope of the proposal, and threw his arm round Ercole’s neck and embraced him.

“What a mind!  Oh, maestro mio, I will die for you!  Command me, and I will do anything for you; I will run errands for you, black your boots, anything ­” he cried in the ecstasy of delight that overmastered him.

“Piano, piano,” objected the maestro, disengaging himself from his pupil’s embrace.  “It is not done yet.  There is much, much to think of first.”  Nino retreated, a little disconcerted at not finding his enthusiasm returned, but radiant still.

“Calm yourself,” said Ercole, smiling.  “If you do this thing you must act a part.  You must manage to conceal your occupation entirely.  You must look as solemn as an undertaker and be a real professor.  They will ultimately find you out, and throw you out of the window, and dismiss me for recommending you.  But that is nothing.”

“No,” said Nino, “that is of no importance.”  And he ran his fingers through his hair, and looked delighted.

“You shall know all about it this evening, or to-morrow ­”

“This evening, Sor Ercole, this evening, or I shall die.  Stay, let me go to the house with you, when you give your lesson, and wait for you at the door.”

“Pumpkin-head!  I will have nothing to do with you,” said De Pretis.

“Ah, I will be as quiet as you please.  I will be like a lamb, and wait until this evening.”

“If you will really be quiet, I will do what you wish.  Come to me this evening about the Ave Maria ­or a little earlier.  Yes, come at twenty-three hours.  In October that is about five o’clock, by French time.

“And I may take the guitar?” said Nino, as he rose to go.

“With all my heart.  But do not spoil everything by singing to her, and betraying yourself.”

So Nino thanked the maestro enthusiastically and went away, humming a tune, as he now and again struck the strings of the guitar that he carried under his arm, to be sure it was there.

Do not think that because De Pretis suddenly changed his mind, and even proposed to Nino a plan for making the acquaintance of the young countess, he is a man to veer about like a weather-cock, nor yet a bad man, willing to help a boy to do mischief.  That is not at all like Ercole de Pretis.  He has since told me he was much astonished at the way Nino sang the love song at his lesson; and he was instantly convinced that in order to be a great artist Nino must be in love always.  Besides, the maestro is as liberal in his views of life as he is conservative in his ideas about government.  Nino is everything the most straight-laced father could wish him to be, and as he was then within a few months of making his first appearance on the stage, De Pretis, who understands those things, could very well foresee the success he has had.  Now De Pretis is essentially a man of the people, and I am not; therefore he saw no objection in the way of a match between a great singer and a noble damigelia.  But had I known what was going on, I would have stopped the whole affair at that point, for I am not so weak as Mariuccia seems to think.  I do not mean now that everything is settled I would wish it undone.  Heaven forbid!  But I would have stopped it then, for it is a most incongruous thing, a peasant boy making love to a countess.

Nino, however, has one great fault, and that is his reticence.  It is true, he never does anything he would not like me, or all the world, to know.  But I would like to know, all the same.  It is a habit I have fallen into, from having to watch that old woman, for fear she should be too extravagant.  All that time he never said anything, and I supposed he had forgotten all about the contessina, for I did not chance to see De Pretis; and when I did he talked of nothing but Nino’s debut and the arrangements that were to be made.  So that I knew nothing about it, though I was pleased to see him reading so much.  He took a sudden fancy for literature, and read when he was not singing, and even made me borrow Ambrosoli, in several volumes, from a friend.  He read every word of it, and talked very intelligently about it too.  I never thought there was any reason.

But De Pretis thinks differently.  He believes that a man may be the son of a ciociaro ­a fellow who ties his legs up in rags and thongs, and lives on goats’ milk in the mountains ­and that if he has brains enough, or talent enough, he may marry any woman he likes without ever thinking whether she is noble or not.  De Pretis must be old-fashioned, for I am sure I do not think in that way, and I know a hundred times as much as he ­a hundred times.

I suppose it must have been the very day when Nino had been to De Pretis in the morning that he had instructions to go to the house of Count von Lira on the morrow; for I remember very well that Nino acted strangely in the evening, singing and making a noise for a few minutes, and then burying himself in a book.  However that may be, it was very soon afterwards that he went to the Palazzo Carmandola, dressed in his best clothes, he tells me, in order to make a favourable impression on the count.  The latter had spoken to De Pretis about the lessons in literature, to which he attached great importance, and the maestro had turned the idea to account for his pupil.  But Nino did not expect to see the young contessa on this first day, or at least he did not hope he would be able to speak to her.  And so it turned out.

The footman, who had a red waistcoat, and opened the door with authority, as if ready to close it again on the smallest provocation, did not frighten Nino at all, though he eyed him suspiciously enough, and after ascertaining his business departed to announce him to the count.  Meanwhile, Nino, who was very much excited at the idea of being under the same roof with the object of his adoration, set himself down on one of the carved chests that surrounded the hall.  The green baize door at the other end swung noiselessly on its hinges, closing itself behind the servant, and the boy was left alone.  He might well be frightened, if not at the imposing appearance of the footman, at least at the task he had undertaken.  But a boy like Nino is afraid of nothing when he is in love, and he simply looked about him, realising that he was without doubt in the house of a gransignor, and from time to time brushing a particle of dust from his clothes, or trying to smooth his curly black hair, which he had caused to be clipped a little for the occasion; a very needless expense, for he looks better with his hair long.

Before many moments the servant returned, and with some condescension said that the count awaited him.  Nino would rather have faced the mayor, or the king himself, than Graf von Lira, though he was not at all frightened ­he was only very much excited, and he strove to calm himself, as he was ushered through the apartments to the small sitting-room where he was expected.

Graf von Lira, as I have already told you, is a foreigner of rank, who had been a Prussian colonel, and was wounded in the war of 1866.  He is very tall, very thin, and very grey, with wooden features and a huge moustache that stands out like the beaks on the colonna rostrata.  His eyes are small and very far apart, and fix themselves with terrible severity when he speaks, even if he is only saying “good-morning.”  His nails are very long and most carefully kept, and though he is so lame that he could not move a step without the help of his stick, he is still an upright and military figure.  I remember well how he looked, for he came to see me under peculiar circumstances, many months after the time of which I am now speaking; and, besides, I had stood next to him for an hour in the chapel of the choir in St. Peter’s.

He speaks Italian intelligibly, but with the strangest German constructions, and he rolls the letter r curiously in his throat.  But he is an intelligent man for a soldier, though he thinks talent is a matter of education, and education a matter of drill.  He is the most ceremonious man I ever saw; and Nino says he rose from his chair to meet him, and would not sit down again until Nino was seated.

“The signore is the professor of Italian literature recommended to me by Signor De Pretis?” inquired the colonel in iron tones, as he scrutinised Nino.

“Yes, Signor Conte,” was the answer.

“You are a singularly young man to be a professor.”  Nino trembled.  “And how have you the education obtained in order the obligations and not-to-be-avoided responsibilities of this worthy-of-all-honour career to meet?”

“I went to school here, Signor Conte, and the Professor Grandi, in whose house I always have lived, has taught me everything else I know.”

“What do you know?” inquired the count, so suddenly that Nino was taken off his guard.  He did not know what to answer.  The count looked very stern and pulled his moustaches.  “You have not here come,” he continued, seeing that Nino made no answer, “without knowing something.  Evident is it, that, although a man young be, if he nothing knows, he cannot a professor be.”

“You speak justly, Signor Conte,” Nino answered at last, “and I do know some things.  I know the Commedia of Alighieri, and Petrarca, and I have read the Gerusalemme Liberata with Professor Grandi, and I can repeat all of the Vita Nuova by heart, and some of the ­”

“For the present that is enough,” said the count.  “If you nothing better to do have, will you so kind be as to begin?”

“Begin?” said Nino, not understanding.

“Yes, signore; it would unsuitable be if I my daughter to the hands of a man committed unacquainted with the matter he to teach her proposes.  I desire to be satisfied that you all these things really know.”

“Do I understand, Signor Conte, that you wish me to repeat to you some of the things I know by heart?”

“You have me understood,” said the count severely, “I have all the books bought of which you speak.  You will repeat, and I will in the book follow.  Then shall we know each other much better.”

Nino was not a little astonished at this mode of procedure, and wondered how far his memory would serve him in such an unexpected examination.

“It will take a long time to ascertain in this way ­” he began.

“This,” said the count coldly, as he opened a volume of Dante, “is the celestial play by Signor Alighieri.  If you anything know, you will it repeat.”

Nino resigned himself and began repeating the first canto of the “Inferno.”  When he had finished it he paused.

“Forwards,” said the count, without any change of manner.

“More?” inquired Nino.

“March!” said the old gentleman in military tone, and the boy went on with the second canto.

“Apparently know you the beginning.”  The count opened the book at random in another place.  “The thirtieth canto of ‘Purgatory.’  You will now it repeat.”

“Ah!” cried Nino, “that is where Dante meets Beatrice.”

“My hitherto not-by-any-means-extensive, but always from-the-conscience-undertaken reading, reaches not so far.  You will it repeat.  So shall we know.”  Nino passed his hand inside his collar as though to free his throat, and began again, losing all consciousness of his tormentor in his own enjoyment of the verse.

“When was the Signor Alighieri born?” inquired Graf von Lira, very suddenly, as though to catch him.

“May 1265, in Florence,” answered the other, as quickly.

“I said when, not where.  I know he was in Florence born.  When and where died he?” The question was asked fiercely.

“Fourteenth of September 1321, at Ravenna.”

“I think really you something of Signor Alighieri know,” said the count, and shut up the volume of the poet and the dictionary of dates he had been obliged to consult to verify Nino’s answers.  “We will proceed.”

Nino is fortunately one of those people whose faculties serve them best at their utmost need, and during the three hours ­three blessed hours ­that Graf von Lira kept him under his eye, asking questions and forcing him to repeat all manner of things, he acquitted himself fairly well.

“I have now myself satisfied that you something know,” said the count, in his snappish military fashion, and he shut the last book, and never from that day referred in any manner to Nino’s extent of knowledge, taking it for granted that he had made an exhaustive investigation.  “And now,” he continued, “I desire you to engage for the reading of literature with my daughter, upon the usual terms.”  Nino was so much pleased that he almost lost his self-control, but a moment restored his reflection.

“I am honoured ­” he began.

“You are not honoured at all,” interrupted the count, coldly.  “What are the usual terms?”

“Three or four francs a lesson,” suggested Nino.

“Three or four francs are not the usual terms.  I have inquiries made.  Five francs are the usual terms.  Three times in the week, at eleven.  You will on the morrow begin.  Allow me to offer you some cigars.”  And he ended the interview.