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

In a sunny room overlooking the great courtyard of the Palazzo Carmandola, Nino sat down to give Hedwig von Lira her first lesson in Italian literature.  He had not the remotest idea what the lesson would be like, for in spite of the tolerably wide acquaintance with the subject which he owed to my care and my efforts to make a scholar of him, he knew nothing about teaching.  Nevertheless, as his pupil spoke the language fluently, though with the occasional use of words of low origin, like all foreigners who have grown up in Rome and have learned to speak from their servants, he anticipated little difficulty.  He felt quite sure of being able to interpret the hard places, and he had learned from me to know the best and finest passages in a number of authors.

But imagine the feelings of a boy of twenty, perfectly in love, without having the smallest right to be, suddenly placed by the side of the object of his adoration, and told to teach her all he knows ­with her father in the next room and the door open between!  I have always thought it was a proof of Nino’s determined character, that he should have got over this first lesson without accident.

Hedwig von Lira, the contessina, as we always call her, is just Nino’s age, but she seemed much younger, as the children of the North always do.  I have told you what she was like to look at, and you will not wonder that I called her a statue.  She looked as cold as a statue, just as I said, and so I should hardly describe her as beautiful.  But then I am not a sculptor, nor do I know anything about those arts, though I can tell a good work when I see it.  I do not wish to appear prejudiced, and so I will not say anything more about it.  I like life in living things, and sculptors may, if it please them, adore straight noses, and level brows, and mouths that no one could possibly eat with.  I do not care in the least, and if you say that I once thought differently, I answer that I do not wish to change your opinion, but that I will change my own as often as I please.  Moreover, if you say that the contessina did not act like a statue in the sequel, I will argue that if you put marble in the fire it will take longer to heat and longer to cool than clay; only clay is made to be put into the fire, and marble is not.  Is not that a cunning answer?

The contessina is a foreigner in every way, although she was born under our sun.  They have all sorts of talents, these people, but so little ingenuity in using them that they never accomplish anything.  It seems to amuse them to learn to do a great many things, although they must know from the beginning that they can never excel in any one of them.  I dare say the contessina plays on the piano very creditably, for even Nino says she plays well; but is it of any use to her?

Nino very soon found out that she meant to read literature very seriously, and, what is more, she meant to read it in her own way.  She was as different from her father as possible in everything else, but in a despotic determination to do exactly as she liked, she resembled him.  Nino was glad that he was not called upon to use his own judgment, and there he sat, content to look at her, twisting his hands together below the table to concentrate his attention and master himself; and he read just what she told him to read, expounding the words and phrases she could not understand.  I dare say that with his hair well brushed, and his best coat, and his eyes on the book, he looked as proper as you please.  But if the high-born young lady had returned the glances he could not refrain from bending upon her now and then, she would have seen a lover, if she could see at all.

She did not see.  The haughty Prussian damsel hardly noticed the man, for she was absorbed by the professor.  Her small ears were all attention, and her slender fingers made notes with a common pencil, so that Nino wondered at the contrast between the dazzling white hand and the smooth, black, varnished instrument of writing.  He took no account of time that day, and was startled by the sound of the mid-day gun and the angry clashing of the bells.  The contessina looked up suddenly and met his eyes, but it was the boy that blushed.

“Would you mind finishing the canto?” she asked.  “There are only ten lines more ­” Mind!  Nino flushed with pleasure.

Anzi ­by all means,” he cried.  “My time is yours, signorina.”

When they had done he rose, and his face was sad and pale again.  He hated to go, but he was only a teacher, and at his first lesson, too.  She also rose, and waited for him to leave the room.  He could not hold his tongue.

“Signorina ­” he stammered, and checked himself.  She looked at him, to listen, but his heart smote him when he had thus arrested her attention.  What could he say as he stood bowing?  It was sufficiently stupid, what he said.

“I shall have the honour of returning to-morrow, the day after to-morrow, I would say.”

“Yes,” said she, “I believe that is the arrangement.  Good-morning, Signor Professore.”  The title of professor rang strangely in his ear.  Was there the slightest tinge of irony in her voice?  Was she laughing at his boyish looks?  Ugh! the thought tingled.  He bowed himself out.

That was the first lesson, and the second was like it, I suppose, and a great many others about which I knew nothing, for I was always occupied in the middle of the day, and did not ask where he went.  It seemed to me that he was becoming a great dandy, but as he never asked me for any money from the day he learnt to copy music I never put any questions.  He certainly had a new coat before Christmas, and gloves, and very nice boots, that made me smile when I thought of the day when he arrived, with only one shoe ­and it had a hole in it as big as half his foot.  But now he grew to be so careful of his appearance that Mariuccia began to call him the “signorino.”  De Pretis said he was making great progress, and so I was contented, though I always thought it was a sacrifice for him to be a singer.

Of course, as he went three times a week to the Palazzo Carmandola, he began to be used to the society of the contessina.  I never understood how he succeeded in keeping up the comedy of being a professor.  A real Roman would have discovered him in a week.  But foreigners are different.  If they are satisfied they pay their money and ask no questions.  Besides, he studied all the time, saying that if he ever lost his voice he would turn man of letters; which sounded so prudent that I had nothing to say.  Once, we were walking in the Corso, and the contessina with her father passed in the carriage.  Nino raised his hat, but they did not see him, for there is always a crowd in the Corso.

“Tell me,” he cried, excitedly, as they went by, “is it not true that she is beautiful?”

“A piece of marble, my son,” said I, suspecting nothing; and I turned into a tobacconist’s to buy a cigar.

One day ­Nino says it was in November ­the contessina began asking him questions about the Pantheon, it was in the middle of the lesson, and he wondered at her stopping to talk.  But you may imagine whether he was glad or not to have an opportunity of speaking about something besides Dante.

“Yes, signorina,” he answered, “Professor Grandi says it was built for public baths; but, of course, we all think it was a temple.”

“Were you ever there at night?” asked she, indifferently, and the sun through the window so played with her golden hair that Nino wondered how she could ever think of night at all.

“At night, signorina?  No indeed!  What should I go there at night to do, in the dark!  I was never there at night.”

“I will go there at night,” she said briefly.

“Ah ­you would have it lit up with torches, as they do the Coliseum?”

“No.  Is there no moon in Italy, professore?”

“The moon, there is.  But there is such a little hole in the top of the Rotonda” ­that is our Roman name for the Pantheon ­“that it would be very dark.”

“Precisely,” said she.  “I will go there at night, and see the moon shining through the hole in the dome.”

“Eh,” cried Nino laughing, “you will see the moon better outside in the piazza.  Why should you go inside, where you can see so little of it?”

“I will go,” replied the contessina.  “The Italians have no sense of the beautiful ­the mysterious.”  Her eyes grew dreamy as she tried to call up the picture she had never seen.

“Perhaps,” said Nino humbly.  “But,” he added, suddenly brightening at the thought, “it is very easy, if you would like to go.  I will arrange it.  Will you allow me?”

“Yes, arrange it.  Let us go on with our lesson.”

I would like to tell you all about it; how Nino saw the sacristan of the Pantheon that evening, and ascertained from his little almanac ­which has all kinds of wonderful astrological predictions, as well as the calendar ­when it would be full moon.  And perhaps what Nino said to the sacristan, and what the sacristan said to Nino, might be amusing.  I am very fond of these little things, and fond of talking too.  For since it is talking that distinguishes us from other animals, I do not see why I should not make the most of it.  But you who are listening to me have seen very little of the Contessina Hedwig as yet, and unless I quickly tell you more, you will wonder how all the curious things that happened to her could possibly have grown out of the attempt of a little singer like Nino to make her acquaintance.  Well, Nino is a great singer now, of course, but he was little once; and when he palmed himself off on the old count for an Italian master without my knowledge, nobody had ever heard of him at all.

Therefore since I must satisfy your curiosity before anything else, and not dwell too long on the details ­the dear, commonplace details ­I will simply say that Nino succeeded without difficulty in arranging with the sacristan of the Pantheon to allow a party of foreigners to visit the building at the full moon, at midnight.  I have no doubt he even expended a franc with the little man, who is very old and dirty, and keeps chickens in the vestibule ­but no details!

Oh the appointed night Nino, wrapped in that old cloak of mine (which is very warm, though it is threadbare), accompanied the party to the temple, or church, or whatever you like to call it.  The party were simply the count and his daughter, an Austrian gentleman of their acquaintance, and the dear baroness ­that sympathetic woman who broke so many hearts and cared not at all for the chatter of the people.  Everyone has seen her, with her slim, graceful ways, and her face that was like a mulatto peach for darkness and fineness, and her dark eyes and tiger-lily look.  They say she lived entirely on sweetmeats and coffee, and it is no wonder she was so sweet and so dark.  She called me “count” ­which is very foolish now, but if I were going to fall in love, I would have loved her.  I would not love a statue.  As for the Austrian gentleman, it is not of any importance to describe him.

These four people Nino conducted to the little entrance at the back of the Pantheon, and the sacristan struck a light to show them the way to the door of the church.  Then he put out his taper, and let them do as they pleased.

Conceive if you can the darkness of Egypt, the darkness that can be felt, impaled and stabbed through its whole thickness by one mighty moonbeam, clear and clean and cold, from the top to the bottom.  All around, in the circle of the outer black, lie the great dead in their tombs, whispering to each other of deeds that shook the world; whispering in a language all their own as yet ­the language of the life to come ­the language of a stillness so dread and deep that the very silence clashes against it, and makes dull, muffled beatings in ears that strain to catch the dead men’s talk:  the shadow of immortality falling through the shadow of death, and bursting back upon its heavenward course from the depth of the abyss; climbing again upon its silver self to the sky above, leaving behind the horror of the deep.

So in that lonely place at midnight falls the moon upon the floor, and through the mystic shaft of rays ascend and descend the souls of the dead.  Hedwig stood out alone upon the white circle on the pavement beneath the dome, and looked up as though she could see the angels coming and going.  And, as she looked, the heavy lace veil that covered her head fell back softly, as though a spirit wooed her and would fain look on something fairer than he, and purer.  The whiteness clung to her face, and each separate wave of hair was like spun silver.  And she looked steadfastly up.  For a moment she stood, and the hushed air trembled about her.  Then the silence caught the tremor, and quivered, and a thrill of sound hovered and spread its wings, and sailed forth from the night.

“Spirto gentil dei sogni miei ­”

Ah, Signorina Edvigia, you know that voice now, but you did not know it then.  How your heart stopped, and beat, and stopped again, when you first heard that man sing out his whole heartful ­you in the light and he in the dark!  And his soul shot out to you upon the sounds, and died fitfully, as the magic notes dashed their soft wings against the vaulted roof above you, and took new life again and throbbed heavenward in broad, passionate waves, till your breath came thick and your blood ran fiercely ­ay, even your cold northern blood ­in very triumph that a voice could so move you.  A voice in the dark.  For a full minute after it ceased you stood there, and the others, wherever they might be in the shadow, scarcely breathed.

That was how Hedwig first heard Nino sing.  When at last she recovered herself enough to ask aloud the name of the singer, Nino had moved quite close to her.

“It is a relation of mine, signorina, a young fellow who is going to be an artist.  I asked him as a favour to come here and sing to you to-night.  I thought it might please you.”

“A relation of yours!” exclaimed the contessina.  And the others approached so that they all made a group in the disc of moonlight.  “Just think, my dear baroness, this wonderful voice is a relation of Signor Cardegna, my excellent Italian master!” There was a little murmur of admiration; then the old count spoke.

“Signore,” said he, rolling in his gutturals, “it is my duty to very much thank you.  You will now, if you please, me the honour do, me to your all-the-talents-possible-possessing relation to present.”  Nino had foreseen the contingency and disappeared into the dark.  Presently he returned.

“I am so sorry, Signor Conte,” he said.  “The sacristan tells me that when my cousin had finished he hurried away, saying he was afraid of taking some ill if he remained here where it is so damp.  I will tell him how much you appreciated him.”

“Curious is it,” remarked the count.  “I heard him not going off.”

“He stood in the doorway of the sacristy, by the high altar, Signor Conte.”

“In that case is it different.”

“I am sorry,” said Nino.  “The signorina was so unkind as to say, lately, that we Italians have no sense of the beautiful, the mysterious ­”

“I take it back,” said Hedwig, gravely, still standing in the moonlight.  “Your cousin has a very great power over the beautiful.”

“And the mysterious,” added the baroness, who had not spoken, “for his departure without showing himself has left me the impression of a sweet dream.  Give me your arm, Professore Cardegna.  I will not stay here any longer, now that the dream is over.”  Nino sprang to her side politely, though, to tell the truth, she did not attract him at first sight.  He freed one arm from the old cloak, and reflected that she could not tell in the dark how very shabby it was.

“You give lessons to the Signora von Lira?” she asked, leading him quickly away from the party.

“Yes ­in Italian literature, signora.”

“Ah ­she tells me great things of you.  Could you not spare me an hour or two in the week, professore?”

Here was a new complication.  Nino had certainly not contemplated setting up for an Italian teacher to all the world when he undertook to give lessons to Hedwig.

“Signora ­” he began, in a protesting voice.

“You will do it to oblige me, I am sure,” she said, eagerly, and her slight hand just pressed upon his arm a little.  Nino had found time to reflect that this lady was intimate with Hedwig, and that he might possibly gain an opportunity of seeing the girl he loved if he accepted the offer.

“Whenever it pleases you, signora,” he said at length.

“Can you come to me to-morrow at eleven?” she asked.

“At twelve, if you please, signora, or half past.  Eleven is the contessina’s hour to-morrow.”

“At half-past twelve, then, to-morrow,” said she, and she gave him her address, as they went out into the street.  “Stop,” she added, “where do you live?”

“Number twenty-seven Santa Catarina dei Funari,” he answered, wondering why she asked.  The rest of the party came out, and Nino bowed to the ground, as he bid the contessina good-night.

He was glad to be free of that pressure on his arm, and he was glad to be alone, to wander through the streets under the moonlight, and to think over what he had done.

“There is no risk of my being discovered,” he said to himself, confidently.  “The story of the near relation was well imagined, and besides, it is true.  Am I not my own nearest relation?  I certainly have no others that I know of.  And this baroness ­what can she want of me?  She speaks Italian like a Spanish cow, and indeed she needs a professor badly enough.  But why should she take a fancy for me as a teacher.  Ah! those eyes!  Not the baroness’.  Edvigia ­Edvigia di Lira ­Edvigia Ca ­Cardegna!  Why not?” He stopped to think, and looked long at the moonbeams playing on the waters of the fountain.  “Why not?  But the baroness ­may the diavolo fly away with her!  What should I do ­I indeed! with a pack of baronesses?  I will go to bed and dream ­not of a baroness!  Macche, never a baroness in my dreams, with eyes like a snake, and who cannot speak three words properly in the only language under the sun worth speaking!  Not I ­I will dream of Edvigia di Lira ­she is the spirit of my dreams.  Spirto gentil ­” and away he went, humming the air from the “Favorita” in the top of his head, as is his wont.

The next day the contessina could talk of nothing during her lesson but the unknown singer who had made the night so beautiful for her, and Nino flushed red under his dark skin and ran his fingers wildly through his curly hair, with pleasure.  But he set his square jaw, that means so much, and explained to his pupil how hard it would be for her to hear him again.  For his friend, he said, was soon to make his appearance on the stage, and of course he could not be heard singing before that.  And as the young lady insisted, Nino grew silent, and remarked that the lesson was not progressing.  Thereupon Hedwig blushed ­the first time he had ever seen her blush ­and did not approach the subject again.

After that he went to the house of the baroness, where he was evidently expected, for the servant asked his name and immediately ushered him into her presence.  She was one of those lithe, dark women of good race, that are to be met with all over the world, and she has broken many a heart.  But she was not like a snake at all, as Nino had thought at first.  She was simply a very fine lady who did exactly what she pleased, and if she did not always act rightly, yet I think she rarely acted unkindly.  After all, the buon Dio has not made us all paragons of domestic virtue.  Men break their hearts for so very little, and, unless they are ruined, they melt the pieces at the next flame and join them together again like bits of sealing wax.

The baroness sat before a piano in a boudoir, where there was not very much light.  Every part of the room was crowded with fans, ferns, palms, Oriental carpets and cushions, books, porcelain, majolica, and pictures.  You could hardly move without touching some ornament, and the heavy curtains softened the sunshine, and a small open fire of wood helped the warmth.  There was also an odour of Russian tobacco.  The baroness smiled and turned on the piano seat.

Ah, professore!  You come just in time,” said she.  “I am trying to sing such a pretty song to myself, and I cannot pronounce the words.  Come and teach me.”  Nino contrasted the whole air of this luxurious retreat with the prim, soldierly order that reigned in the count’s establishment.

“Indeed, signora, I come to teach you whatever I can.  Here I am.  I cannot sing, but I will stand beside you and prompt the words.”

Nino is not a shy boy at all, and he assumed the duties required of him immediately.  He stood by her side, and she just nodded and began to sing a little song that stood on the desk of the piano.  She did not sing out of tune, but she made wrong notes and pronounced horribly.

“Pronounce the words for me,” she repeated every now and then.

“But pronouncing in singing is different from speaking,” he objected at last, and, fairly forgetting himself and losing patience, he began softly to sing the words over.  Little by little, as the song pleased him, he lost all memory of where he was, and stood beside her singing just as he would have done to De Pretis, from the sheet, with all the accuracy and skill that were in him.  At the end, he suddenly remembered how foolish he was.  But, after all, he had not sung to the power of his voice, and she might not recognise in him the singer of last night.  The baroness looked up with a light laugh.

“I have found you out,” she cried, clapping her hands.  “I have found you out!”

“What, signora?”

“You are the tenor of the Pantheon ­that is all.  I knew it.  Are you so sorry that I have found you out?” she asked, for Nino turned very white, and his eyes flashed at the thought of the folly he had committed.