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

Nino was thoroughly frightened, for he knew that discovery portended the loss of everything most dear to him.  No more lessons with Hedwig, no more parties to the Pantheon, no more peace, no more anything.  He wrung his fingers together and breathed hard.

Ah, signora!” he found voice to exclaim, “I am sure you cannot believe it possible ­”

“Why not, Signor Cardegna?” asked the baroness, looking up at him from under her half-closed lids with a mocking glance.  “Why not?  Did you not tell me where you lived?  And does not the whole neighbourhood know that you are no other than Giovanni Cardegna, commonly called Nino, who is to make his debut in the Carnival season?”

Dio mio!” ejaculated Nino in a hoarse voice, realising that he was entirely found out, and that nothing could save him.  He paced the room in an agony of despair, and his square face was as white as a sheet.  The baroness sat watching him with a smile on her lips, amused at the tempest she had created, and pretending to know much more than she did.  She thought it not impossible that Nino, who was certainly poor, might be supporting himself by teaching Italian while studying for the stage, and she inwardly admired his sense and twofold talent if that were really the case.  But she was willing to torment him a little, seeing that she had the power.

“Signor Cardegna” ­she called him in her soft voice.  He turned quickly, and stood facing her, his arms crossed.

“You look like Napoleon at Waterloo, when you stand like that,” she laughed.  He made no answer, waiting to see what she would do with her victory.  “It seems that you are sorry I have discovered you,” she added presently, looking down at her hands.

“Is that all?” he said, with a bitter sneer on his pale young face.

“Then, since you are sorry, you must have a reason for concealment,” she went on, as though reflecting on the situation.  It was deftly done, and Nino took heart.

“Signora,” he said, in a trembling voice, “it is natural that a man should wish to live.  I give lessons now, until I have appeared in public, to support myself.”

“Ah, I begin to understand,” said the baroness.  In reality she began to doubt, reflecting that if this were the whole truth Nino would be too proud ­or any other Italian ­to say it so plainly.  She was subtle, the baroness!

“And do you suppose,” he continued, “that if once the Conte de Lira had an idea that I was to be a public singer he would employ me as a teacher for his daughter?”

“No, but others might,” she objected.

“But not the count ­” Nino bit his lip, fearing he had betrayed himself.

“Nor the contessina,” laughed the baroness, completing the sentence.  He saw at a glance what she suspected, and instead of keeping cool grew angry.

“I came here, Signora Baronessa, not to be cross-examined, but to teach you Italian.  Since you do not desire to study, I will say good-morning.”  He took his hat and moved proudly to the door.

“Come here,” she said, not raising her voice, but still commanding.  He turned, hesitated, and came back.  He thought her voice was changed.  She rose and swept her silken morning-gown between the chairs and tables till she reached a deep divan on the other side of the room.  There she sat down.

“Come and sit beside me,” she said, kindly, and he obeyed in silence.

“Do you know what would have happened,” she continued, when he was seated, “if you had left me just now?  I would have gone to the Graf von Lira and told him that you were not a fit person to teach his daughter; that you are a singer, and not a professor at all; and that you have assumed this disguise for the sake of seeing his daughter.”  But I do not believe that she would have done it.

“That would have been a betrayal,” said Nino fiercely, looking away from her.  She laughed lightly.

“Is it not natural,” she asked, “that I should make inquiries about my Italian teacher before I begin lessons with him?  And if I find he is not what he pretends to be should I not warn my intimate friends?” She spoke so reasonably that he was fain to acknowledge that she was right.

“It is just,” he said, sullenly.  “But you have been very quick to make your inquiries, as you call them.”

“The time was short, since you were to come this morning.”

“That is true,” he answered.  He moved uneasily.  “And now, signora, will you be kind enough to tell me what you intend to do with me!”

“Certainly, since you are more reasonable.  You see I treat you altogether as an artist, and not at all as an Italian master.  A great artist may idle away a morning in a woman’s boudoir; a simple teacher of languages must be more industrious.”

“But I am not a great artist,” said Nino, whose vanity ­we all have it ­began to flutter a little.

“You will be one before long, and one of the greatest.  You are a boy yet, my little tenor,” said she, looking at him with her dark eyes, “and I might almost be your mother.  How old are you, Signor Nino?”

“I was twenty on my last birthday,” he answered, blushing.

“You see!  I am thirty ­at least,” she added, with a short laugh.

“Well, signora, what of that?” said Nino, half amused.  “I wish I were thirty myself.”

“I am glad you are not,” said she.  “Now listen.  You are completely in my power, do you understand?  Yes.  And you are apparently very much in love with my young friend, the Contessina di Lira” ­Nino sprang to his feet, his face white again, but with rage this time.

“Signora,” he cried, “this is too much!  It is insufferable!  Good-morning,” and he made as though he would go.

“Very well,” said the baroness; “then I will go to the Graf and explain who you are.  Ah ­you are calm again in a moment?  Sit down.  Now I have discovered you, and I have a right to you, do you see?  It is fortunate for you that I like you.”

“You!  You like me?  In truth, you act as though you did!  Besides, you are a stranger, Signora Baronessa, and a great lady.  I never saw you till yesterday.”  But he resumed his seat.

“Good,” said she.  “Is not the Signorina Edvigia a great lady, and was there never a day when she was a stranger too?”

“I do not understand your caprices, signora.  In fine, what do you want of me?”

“It is not necessary that you should understand me,” answered the dark-eyed baroness.  “Do you think I would hurt you ­or rather your voice?”

“I do not know.”

“You know very well that I would not; and as for my caprices, as you call them, do you think it is a caprice to love music?  No, of course not.  And who loves music loves musicians; at least,” she added, with a most enchanting smile, “enough to wish to have them near one.  That is all.  I want you to come here often and sing to me.  Will you come and sing to me, my little tenor?”

Nino would not have been human had he not felt the flattery through the sting.  And I always say that singers are the vainest kind of people.

“It is very like singing in a cage,” he said, in protest.  Nevertheless, he knew he must submit; for, however narrow his experience might be, this woman’s smile and winning grace, even when she said the hardest things, told him that she would have her own way.  He had the sense to understand, too, that whatever her plans might be, their object was to bring him near to herself, a reflection which was extremely soothing to his vanity.

“If you will come and sing to me ­only to me, of course, for I would not ask you to compromise your debut ­but if you will come and sing to me, we shall be very good friends.  Does it seem to you such a terrible penance to sing to me in my solitude?”

“It is never a penance to sing,” said Nino simply.  A shade of annoyance crossed the baroness’ face.

“Provided,” she said, “it entails nothing.  Well, we will not talk about the terms.”

They say women sometimes fall in love with a voice:  vox et proeterea nihil, as the poet has it.  I do not know whether that is what happened to the baroness at first, but it has always seemed strange to me that she should have given herself so much trouble to secure Nino, unless she had a very strong fancy for him.  I, for my part, think that when a lady of her condition takes such a sudden caprice into her head, she thinks it necessary to maltreat the poor man a little at first, just to satisfy her conscience, and to be able to say later that she did not encourage him.  I have had some experience, as everybody is aware, and so I may speak boldly.  On the other hand, a man like Nino, when he is in love, is absolutely blind to other women.  There is only one idea in his soul that has any life, and everyone outside that idea is only so much landscape; they are no better for him ­the other women ­than a museum of wax dolls.

The baroness, as you have seen, had Nino in her power, and there was nothing for it but submission; he came and went at her bidding, and often she would send for him when he least expected it.  He would do as she commanded, somewhat sullenly and with a bad grace, but obediently, for all that; she had his destiny in her hands, and could in a moment frustrate all his hopes.  But, of course, she knew that if she betrayed him to the count, Nino would be lost to her also, since he came to her only in order to maintain his relations with Hedwig.

Meanwhile the blue-eyed maiden of the North waxed fitful.  Sometimes two or three lessons would pass in severe study.  Nino, who always took care to know the passages they were reading, so that he might look at her instead of at his book, had instituted an arrangement by which they sat opposite each other at a small table.  He would watch her every movement and look, and carry away a series of photographs of her, ­a whole row, like the little books of Roman views they sell in the streets, strung together on a strip of paper, ­and these views of her lasted with him for two whole days, until he saw her again.  But sometimes he would catch a glimpse of her in the interval driving with her father.

There were other days when Hedwig could not be induced to study, but would overwhelm Nino with questions about his wonderful cousin who sang, so that he longed with his whole soul to tell her it was he himself who had sung.  She saw his reluctance to speak about it, and she blushed when she mentioned the night at the Pantheon; but for her life she could not help talking of the pleasure she had had.  Her blushes seemed like the promise of spring roses to her lover, who drank of the air of her presence till that subtle ether ran like fire through his veins.  He was nothing to her, he could see; but the singer of the Pantheon engrossed her thoughts and brought the hot blood to her cheek.  The beam of moonlight had pierced the soft virgin darkness of her sleeping soul, and found a heart so cold and spotless that even a moon ray was warm by comparison.  And the voice that sang “Spirto gentil dei sogni miei” had itself become by memory the gentle spirit of her own dreams.  She is so full of imagination, this statue of Nino’s, that she heard the notes echoing after her by day and night, till she thought she must go mad unless she could hear the reality again.  As the great solemn statue of Egyptian Memnon murmurs sweet, soft sounds to its mighty self at sunrise, a musical whisper in the desert, so the pure white marble of Nino’s living statue vibrated with strange harmonies all the day long.

One night, as Nino walked homeward with De Pretis, who had come to supper with us, he induced the maestro to go out of his way at least half a mile, to pass the Palazzo Carmandola.  It was a still night, not over-cold for December, and there were neither stars nor moon.  As they passed the great house Nino saw a light in Hedwig’s sitting-room ­the room where he gave her the lessons.  It was late, and she must be alone.  On a sudden he stopped.

“What is the matter?” asked De Pretis.

For all answer, Nino, standing in the dark street below, lifted up his voice and sang the first notes of the air he always associated with his beautiful contessina.  Before he had sung a dozen bars the window opened, and the girl’s figure could be seen, black against the light within.  He went on for a few notes, and then ceased suddenly.

“Let us go,” he said in a low voice to Ercole; and they went away, leaving the contessina listening in the stillness to the echo of their feet.  A Roman girl would not have done that; she would have sat quietly inside, and never have shown herself.  But foreigners are so impulsive!

Nino never heard the last of those few notes, any more than the contessina, literally speaking, ever heard the end of the song.

“Your cousin, about whom you make so much mystery, passed under my window last night,” said the young lady the next day, with the usual display of carnation in her cheeks at the mention of him.

“Indeed, signorina?” said Nino, calmly, for he expected the remark.  “And since you have never seen him, pray how did you know it was he?”

“How should one know?” she asked, scornfully.  “There are not two such voices as his in Italy.  He sang.”

“He sang?” cried Nino, with an affectation of alarm.  “I must tell the maestro not to let him sing in the open air; he will lose his voice.”

“Who is his master?” asked Hedwig, suddenly.

“I cannot remember the name just now,” said Nino, looking away.  “But I will find out, if you wish.”  He was afraid of putting De Pretis to any inconvenience by saying that the young singer was his pupil.  “However,” he continued, “you will hear him sing as often as you please, after he makes his debut next month.”  He sighed when he thought that it would all so soon be over.  For how could he disguise himself any longer, when he should be singing in public every night?  But Hedwig clapped her hands.

“So soon?” she cried.  “Then there will be an end of the mystery.”

“Yes,” said Nino, gravely “there will be an end of the mystery.”

“At least you can tell me his name, now that we shall all know it.”

“Oh, his name ­his name is Cardegna, like mine.  He is my cousin, you know.”  And they went on with the lesson.  But something of the kind occurred almost every time he came, so that he felt quite sure that, however indifferent he might be in her eyes, the singer, the Nino of whom she knew nothing, interested her deeply.

Meanwhile he was obliged to go very often to the baroness’ scented boudoir, which smelled of incense and other Eastern perfumes, whenever it did not smell of cigarettes; and there he sang little songs, and submitted patiently to her demands for more and more music.  She would sit by the piano and watch him as he sang, wondering whether he were handsome or ugly, with his square face and broad throat and the black circles round his eyes.  He had a fascination for her, as being something utterly new to her.

One day she stood and looked over the music as he sang, almost touching him, and his hair was so curly and soft to look at that she was seized with a desire to stroke it, as Mariuccia strokes the old gray cat for hours together.  The action was quite involuntary, and her fingers rested only a moment on his head.

“It is so curly,” she said, half playfully, half apologetically.  But Nino started as though he had been stung, and his dark face grew pale.  A girl could not have seemed more hurt at a strange man’s touch.

“Signora!” he cried, springing to his feet.  The baroness, who is as dark as he, blushed almost red, partly because she was angry, and partly because she was ashamed.

“What a boy you are!” she said, carelessly enough, and turned away to the window, pushing back one heavy curtain with her delicate hand, as if she would look out.

“Pardon me, signora, I am not a boy,” said Nino, speaking to the back of her head as he stood behind her.  “It is time we understood each other better.  I love like a man and I hate like a man.  I love someone very, much.”

“Fortunate contessina!” laughed the baroness, mockingly, without turning round.

“It does not concern you, signora, to know whom I love, nor, if you know, to speak of her.  I ask you a simple question.  If you loved a man with your whole soul and heart, would you allow another man to stand beside you and stroke your hair, and say it was curly?” The baroness burst out laughing.  “Do not laugh,” he continued.  “Remember that I am in your power only so long as it pleases me to submit to you.  Do not abuse your advantage, or I will be capable of creating for myself situations quite as satisfactory as that of Italian master to the Signorina di Lira.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, turning suddenly upon him.  “I suppose you would tell me that you will make advantages for yourself which you will abuse against me?  What do you mean?”

“I do not mean that.  I mean only that I may not wish to give lessons to the contessina much longer.”  By this time the baroness had recovered her equanimity; and as she would have been sorry to lose Nino, who was a source of infinite pleasure and amusement to her, she decided to pacify him instead of teasing him any more.

“Is it not very foolish for us to quarrel about your curly hair?” said she.  “We have been such good friends always.”  It might have been three weeks, her “always.”

“I think it is,” answered Nino, gravely.  “But do not stroke my hair again, Signora Baronessa, or I shall be angry.”  He was quite serious, if you believe it, though he was only twenty.  He forthwith sat down to the piano again and sang on.  The baroness sat very silent and scarcely looked at him; but she held her hands clasped on her knee, and seemed to be thinking.  After a time Nino stopped singing and sat silent also, absently turning over the sheets of music.  It was warm in the room, and the sounds from the street were muffled and far away.

“Signor Nino,” said the lady at last, in a different voice, “I am married.”

“Yes, signora,” he replied, wondering what would come next.

“It would be very foolish of me to care for you.”

“It would also be very wicked,” he said, calmly; for he is well grounded in religion.  The baroness stared at him in some surprise, but seeing he was perfectly serious, she went on.

“Precisely, as you say, very wicked.  That being the case, I have decided not to care for you any more ­I mean not to care for you at all.  I have made up my mind to be your friend.”

“I am much obliged to your ladyship,” he answered, without moving a muscle.  For you see, he did not believe her.

“Now tell me, then, Signor Nino, are you in earnest in what you are doing?  Do you really set your heart on doing this thing?”

“What?” asked Nino, annoyed at the persistence of the woman.

“Why need you be afraid to understand me?  Can you not forgive me?  Can you not believe in me that I will be your friend?  I have always dreamed of being the friend of a great artist.  Let me be yours, and believe me, the thing you have in your heart shall be done.”

“I would like to hope so,” he said.  But he smiled incredulously.  “I can only say that if you can accomplish what it is in my heart to do, I will go through fire and water at your bidding; and if you are not mocking me, I am very grateful for the offer.  But if you please, signora, we will not speak any more of this at present.  I may be a great artist some day.  Sometimes I feel sure that I shall.  But now I am simply Giovanni Cardegna, teacher of literature; and the highest favour you can confer on me is not to deprive me of my means of support by revealing to the Conte di Lira my other occupation.  I may fail hopelessly at the outset of my artistic career, and in that case I shall certainly remain a teacher of language.”

“Very well,” said the baroness, in a subdued voice; for, in spite of her will and wilfulness, this square-faced boy of mine was more than a match for her.  “Very well, you will believe me another day, and now I will ask you to go, for I am tired.”

I cannot be interrupted by your silly questions about the exact way in which things happened.  I must tell this story in my own way or not at all; and I am sacrificing a great deal to your taste in cutting out all the little things that I really most enjoy telling.  Whether you are astonished at the conduct of the baroness, after a three weeks’ acquaintance, or not, I care not a fig.  It is just the way it happened, and I daresay she was really madly in love with Nino.  If I had been Nino I should have been in love with her.  But I would like you to admire my boy’s audacity, and to review the situation, before I go on to speak of that important event in his life, his first appearance on the boards of the opera.  At the time of his debut he was still disguised as a teacher of Italian to the young contessina.  She thought him interesting and intelligent, but that was all.  Her thoughts were entirely, though secretly, engrossed by the mysterious singer whom she had heard twice but had not seen as far as she knew.  Nino, on the other hand, loved her to desperation, and would have acted like a madman had he been deprived of his privilege of speaking to her three times a week.  He loved her with the same earnest determination to win her that he had shown for years in the study of his art, and with all the rest of his nature besides, which is saying much ­not to mention his soul, of which he thinks a great deal more than I do.

Besides this, the baroness had apparently fallen in love with him, had made him her intimate, and flattered him in a way to turn his head.  Then she seemed to have thought better of her passion, and had promised him her friendship, ­a promise which he himself considered of no importance whatever.  As for the old Conte de Lira, he read the German newspapers, and cared for none of these things.  De Pretis took an extra pinch of his good snuff, when he thought that his liberal ideas might yet be realised, and a man from the people marry a great lady by fairly winning her.  Do not, after this, complain that I have left you in the dark, or that you do not know how it happened.  It is as clear as water, and it was about four months from the time Nino saw Hedwig in St. Peter’s to the time when he first sang in public.

Christmas passed by, ­thank heaven the municipality has driven away those most detestable pifferari who played on their discordant bagpipes at every corner for a fortnight, and nearly drove me erazy, ­and the Befana, as we call the Epiphany in Rome, was gone, with its gay racket, and the night fair in the Piazza Navona, and the days for Nino’s first appearance drew near.  I never knew anything about the business arrangements for the debut, since De Pretis settled all that with Jacovacci, the impresario; but I know that there were many rehearsals, and that I was obliged to stand security to the theatrical tailor, together with De Pretis, in order that Nino might have his dress made.  As for the cowl in the last act, De Pretis has a brother who is a monk, and between them they put together a very decent friar’s costume; and Mariuccia had a good piece of rope which Nino used for a girdle.

“What does it matter?” he said, with much good sense.  “For if I sing well, they will not look at my monk’s hood; and if I sing badly, I may be dressed like the Holy Father and they will hiss me just the same.  But in the beginning I must look like a courtier, and be dressed like one.”

“I suppose so,” said I; “but I wish you had taken to philosophy.”