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

On the day following Nino’s debut, Maestro Ercole de Pretis found himself in hot water, and the choristers at St. Peter’s noticed that his skull-cap was awry, and that he sang out of tune; and once he tried to take a pinch of snuff when there was only three bars’ rest in the music, so that instead of singing C sharp he sneezed very loud.  Then all the other singers giggled, and said, “Salute!” ­which we always say to a person who sneezes ­quite audibly.

It was not that Ercole had heard anything from the Graf von Lira as yet; but he expected to hear, and did not relish the prospect.  Indeed, how could the Prussian gentleman fail to resent what the maestro had done in introducing to him a singer disguised as a teacher?  It chanced, also, that the contessina took a singing lesson that very day in the afternoon, and it was clear that the reaping of his evil deeds was not far off.  His conscience did not trouble him at all, it is true, for I have told you that he has liberal ideas about the right of marriage; but his vanity was sorely afflicted at the idea of abandoning such a very noble and creditable pupil as the Contessina di Lira.  He applauded himself for furthering Nino’s wild schemes, and he blamed himself for being so reckless about his own interests.  Every moment he expected a formal notice from the count to discontinue the lessons.  But still it did not come, and at the appointed hour Ercole’s wife helped him to put on his thick winter coat, and wrapped his comforter about his neck, and pulled his big hat over his eyes ­for the weather was threatening, and sent him trudging off to the Palazzo Carmandola.

Though Ercole is stout of heart, and has broad shoulders to bear such burdens as fall to his lot, he lingered long on the way, for his presentiments were gloomy; and at the great door of the Palazzo he even stopped to inquire of the porter whether the contessina had been seen to go out yet, half hoping that she would thus save him the mortification of an interview.  But it turned out otherwise:  the contessina was at home, and De Pretis was expected, as usual, to give the lesson.  Slowly he climbed the great staircase, and was admitted.

“Good-day, Sor Maestro,” said the liveried footman, who knew him well.  “The Signor Conte desires to speak with you to-day before you go to the signorina.”

The maestro’s heart sank, and he gripped hard the roll of music in his hand as he followed the servant to the count’s cabinet.  There was to be a scene of explanation after all.

The count was seated in his great arm-chair, in a cloud of tobacco smoke, reading a Prussian military journal.  His stick leaned against the table by his side, in painful contrast with the glittering cavalry sabres crossed upon the dark red wall opposite.  The tall windows looked out on the piazza, and it was raining, or just beginning to rain.  The great inkstand on the table was made to represent a howitzer, and the count looked as though he were ready to fire it point blank at any intruder.  There was an air of disciplined luxury in the room that spoke of a rich old soldier who fed his fancy with tit-bits from a stirring past.  De Pretis felt very uncomfortable, but the nobleman rose to greet him, as he rose to greet everything above the rank of a servant, making himself steady with his stick.  When De Pretis was seated he sat down also.  The rain pattered against the window.

“Signor De Pretis,” began the count, in tones as hard as chilled steel, “you are an honourable man.”  There was something interrogative in his voice.

“I hope so,” answered the maestro modestly; “like other Christians, I have a soul ­”

“You will your soul take care of in your leisure moments,” interrupted the count.  “At present you have no leisure.”

“As you command, Signor Conte.”

“I was yesterday evening at the theatre.  The professor you recommended for my daughter is with the new tenor one person.”  De Pretis spread out his hands and bowed, as if to deprecate any share in the transaction.  The count continued, “You are of the profession, Signor De Pretis.  Evidently, you of this were aware.”

“It is true,” assented Ercole, not knowing what to say.

“Of course it is true.  I am therefore to hear your explanation disposed.”  His grey eyes fastened sternly on the maestro.  But the latter was prepared, for he had long foreseen that the count would one day be disposed to hear an explanation, as he expressed it.

“It is quite true,” repeated De Pretis.  “The young man was very poor, and desired to support himself while he was studying music.  He was well fitted to teach our literature, and I recommended him.  I hope that, in consideration of his poverty, and because he turned out a very good teacher, you will forgive me, Signor Conte.”

“This talented singer I greatly applaud,” answered the count stiffly.  “As a with-the-capacity-and-learning-requisite-for-teaching-endowed young man deserves he also some commendation.  Also will I remember his laudable-and-not-lacking independence character.  Nevertheless, unfitting would it be should I pay the first tenor of the opera five francs an hour to teach my daughter Italian literature.”  De Pretis breathed more freely.

“Then you will forgive me, Signor Conte, for endeavouring to promote the efforts of this worthy young man in supporting himself?”

“Signor De Pretis,” said the count, with a certain quaint geniality, “I have my precautions observed.  I examined Signor Cardegna in Italian literature in my own person, and him proficient found.  Had I found him to be ignorant, and had I his talents as an operatic singer later discovered, I would you out of that window have projected.”  De Pretis was alarmed, for the old count looked as though he would have carried out the threat.  “As it is,” he concluded, “you are an honourable man, and I wish you good-morning.  Lady Hedwig awaits you as usual.”  He rose courteously, leaning on his stick, and De Pretis bowed himself out.

He expected that the contessina would immediately begin talking of Nino, but he was mistaken; she never once referred to the opera or the singer, and except that she looked pale and transparent, and sang with a trifle less interest in her music than usual, there was nothing noticeable in her manner.  Indeed, she had every reason to be silent.

Early that morning Nino received by messenger a pretty little note, written in execrable Italian, begging him to come and breakfast with the baroness at twelve, as she much desired to speak with him after his stupendous triumph of the previous night.

Nino is a very good boy, but he is mortal, and after the excitement of the evening he thought nothing could be pleasanter than to spend a few hours in that scented boudoir, among the palms and the beautiful objects and the perfumes, talking with a woman who professed herself ready to help him in his love affair.  We have no perfumes or cushions or pretty things at number twenty-seven Santa Catarina dei Funari, though everything is very bright and neat and most proper, and the cat is kept in the kitchen, for the most part.  So it is no wonder that he should have preferred to spend the morning with the baroness.

She was half lying, half sitting, in a deep arm-chair, when Nino entered; and she was reading a book.  When she saw him she dropped the volume on her knee, and looked up at him from under her lids, without speaking.  She must have been a bewitching figure.  Nino advanced toward her, bowing low, so that his dark curling hair shaded his face.

“Good-day, signora,” said he softly, as though fearing to hurt the quiet air.  “I trust I do not interrupt you?”

“You never interrupt me, Nino,” she said, “except ­except when you go away.”

“You are very good, signora.”

“For heaven’s sake, no pretty speeches,” said she, with a little laugh.

“It seems to me,” said Nino, seating himself, “that it was you who made the pretty speech, and I who thanked you for it.”  There was a pause.

“How do you feel!” asked the baroness at last, turning her head to him.

“Grazie ­I am well,” he answered, smiling.

“Oh, I do not mean that, ­you are always well.  But how do you enjoy your first triumph?”

“I think,” said Nino, “that a real artist ought to have the capacity to enjoy a success at the moment, and the good sense to blame his vanity for enjoying it after it is passed.”

“How old are you, Nino?”

“Did I never tell you?” he asked innocently.  “I shall be twenty-one soon.”

“You talk as though you were forty, at least.”

“Heaven save us!” quoth Nino.

“But really, are you not immensely flattered at the reception you had?”


“You did not look at all interested in the public at the time,” said she, “and that Roman nose of yours very nearly turned up in disdain of the applause, I thought.  I wonder what you were thinking of all the while.”

“Can you wonder, baronessa?” She knew what he meant, and there was a little look of annoyance in her face when she answered.

“Ah, well, of course not, since she was there.”  Her ladyship rose, and taking a stick of Eastern pastil from a majolica dish in a corner made Nino light it from a wax taper.

“I want the smell of the sandal-wood this morning,” said she; “I have a headache.”  She was enchanting to look at as she bent her softly-shaded face over the flame to watch the burning perfume.  She looked like a beautiful lithe sorceress making a love spell, ­perhaps for her own use.  Nino turned from her.  He did not like to allow the one image he loved to be even for a moment disturbed by the one he loved not, however beautiful.  She moved away, leaving the pastil on the dish.  Suddenly she paused, and turned back to look at him.

“Why did you come to-day?” she asked.

“Because you desired it,” answered Nino, in some astonishment.

“You need not have come,” she said, bending down to lean on the back of a silken chair.  She folded her hands and looked at him as he stood not three paces away.  “Do you not know what has happened?” she asked, with a smile that was a little sad.

“I do not understand,” said Nino simply.  He was facing the entrance to the room, and saw the curtains parted by the servant.  The baroness had her back to the door, and did not hear.

“Do you not know,” she continued, “that you are free now?  Your appearance in public has put an end to it all.  You are not tied to me any longer, ­unless you wish it.”

As she spoke these words Nino turned white, for under the heavy curtain, lifted to admit her, stood Hedwig von Lira, like a statue, transfixed and immovable from what she had heard.  The baroness noticed Nino’s look, and springing back to her height from the chair on which she had been leaning, faced the door.

“My dearest Hedwig!” she cried, with a magnificent readiness.  “I am so very glad you have come.  I did not expect you in the least.  Do take off your hat, and stay to breakfast.  Ah, forgive me; this is Professor Cardegna.  But you know him?  Yes; now that I think, we all went to the Pantheon together.”  Nino bowed low, and Hedwig bent her head.

“Yes,” said the young girl coldly.  “Professor Cardegna gives me lessons.”

“Why, of course; how bête I am!  I was just telling him that, since he has been successful, and is enrolled among the great artists, it is a pity he is no longer tied to giving Italian lessons, ­tied to coming here three times a week to teach me literature.”  Hedwig smiled a strange icy smile, and sat down by the window.  Nino was still utterly astonished, but he would not allow the baroness’s quibble to go entirely uncontradicted.

“In truth,” he said, “the Signora Baronessa’s lessons consisted chiefly ­”

“In teaching me pronunciation,” interrupted the baroness, trying to remove Hedwig’s veil and hat, somewhat against the girl’s inclination.  “Yes, you see how it is.  I know a little of singing, but I cannot pronounce ­not in the least.  Ah, these Italian vowels will be the death of me!  But if there is anyone who can teach a poor dilettante to pronounce them,” she added, laying the hat away on a chair, and pushing a footstool to Hedwig’s feet, “that someone is Signor Cardegna.”

By this time Nino had recognised the propriety of temporising; that is to say, of letting the baroness’s fib pass for what it was worth, lest the discussion of the subject should further offend Hedwig, whose eyes wandered irresolutely toward him, as though she would say something if he addressed her.

“I hope, signorina,” he said, “that it is not quite as the baroness says.  I trust our lessons are not at an end?” He knew very well that they were.

“I think, Signor Cardegna,” said Hedwig, with more courage than would have been expected from such a mere child, ­she is twenty, but Northern people are not grown up till they are thirty, at least, ­“I think it would have been more obliging if, when I asked you so much about your cousin, you had acknowledged that you had no cousin, and that the singer was none other than yourself.”  She blushed, perhaps, but the curtain of the window hid it.

“Alas, signorina,” answered Nino, still standing before her, “such a confession would have deprived me of the pleasure ­of the honour of giving you lessons.”

“And pray, Signor Cardegna,” put in the baroness, “what are a few paltry lessons compared with the pleasure you ought to have experienced in satisfying the Contessina di Lira’s curiosity.  Really, you have little courtesy.”

Nino shrank into himself, as though he were hurt, and he gave the baroness a look which said worlds.  She smiled at him, in joy of her small triumph, for Hedwig was looking at the floor again and could not see.  But the young girl had strength in her, for all her cold looks and white cheek.

“You can atone, Signor Cardegna,” she said.  Nino’s face brightened.

“How, signorina?” he asked.

“By singing to us now,” said Hedwig.  The baroness looked grave, for she well knew what a power Nino wielded with his music.

“Do not ask him,” she protested.  “He must be tired, ­tired to death, with all he went through last night.”

“Tired?” ejaculated Nino, with some surprise.  “I tired?  I was never tired in my life of singing.  I will sing as long as you will listen.”  He went to the piano.  As he turned, the baroness laid her hand on Hedwig’s affectionately, as though sympathising with something she supposed to be passing in the girl’s mind.  But Hedwig was passive, unless a little shudder at the first touch of the baroness’s fingers might pass for a manifestation of feeling.  Hedwig had hitherto liked the baroness, finding in her a woman of a certain artistic sense, combined with a certain originality.  The girl was an absolute contrast to the woman, and admired in her the qualities she thought lacking in herself, though she possessed too much self-respect to attempt to acquire them by imitation.  Hedwig sat like a Scandinavian fairy princess on the summit of a glass hill; her friend roamed through life like a beautiful soft-footed wild animal, rejoicing in the sense of being, and sometimes indulging in a little playful destruction by the way.  The girl had heard a voice in the dark singing, and ever since then she had dreamed of the singer; but it never entered her mind to confide to the baroness her strange fancies.  An undisciplined imagination, securely shielded from all outward disturbing causes, will do much with a voice in the dark, ­a great deal more than such a woman as the baroness might imagine.

I do not know enough about these blue-eyed German girls to say whether or not Hedwig had ever before thought of her unknown singer as an unknown lover.  But the emotions of the previous night had shaken her nerves a little, and had she been older than she was she would have known that she loved her singer, in a distant and maidenly fashion, as soon as she heard the baroness speak of him as having been her property.  And now she was angry with herself, and ashamed of feeling any interest in a man who was evidently tied to another woman by some intrigue she could not comprehend.  Her coming to visit the baroness had been as unpremeditated as it was unexpected that morning, and she bitterly repented it; but being of good blood and heart, she acted as boldly as she could, and showed no little tact in making Nino sing, and thus cutting short a painful conversation.  Only when the baroness tried to caress her and stroke her hand she shrank away, and the blood mantled up to her cheeks.  Add to all this the womanly indignation she felt at having been so long deceived by Nino, and you will see that she was in a very vacillating frame of mind.

The baroness was a subtle woman, reckless and diplomatic by turns, and she was not blind to the sudden repulse she met with from Hedwig, unspoken though it was.  But she merely withdrew her hand, and sat thinking over the situation.  What she thought, no one knows; or at least, we can only guess it from what she did afterwards.  As for me, I have never blamed her at all, for she is the kind of woman I should have loved.  In the meantime Nino carolled out one love song after another.  He saw, however, that the situation was untenable, and after a while he rose to go.  Strange to say, although the baroness had asked Nino to breakfast and the hour was now at hand, she made no effort to retain him.  But she gave him her hand, and said many flattering and pleasing things, which, however, neither flattered nor pleased him.  As for Hedwig, she bent her head a little, but said nothing, as he bowed before her.  Nino therefore went home with a heavy heart, longing to explain to Hedwig why he had been tied to the baroness, ­that it was the price of her silence and of the privilege he had enjoyed of giving lessons to the contessina; but knowing also that all explanation was out of the question for the present.  When he was gone Hedwig and the baroness were left together.

“It must have been a great surprise to you, my dear,” said the elder lady kindly.


“That your little professor should turn out a great artist in disguise.  It was a surprise to me, too, ­ah, another illusion destroyed.  Dear child!  You have still so many illusions, ­beautiful, pure illusions.  Dieu! how I envy you!” They generally talked French together, though the baroness knows German.  Hedwig laughed bravely.

“I was certainly astonished,” she said.  “Poor man!  I suppose he did it to support himself.  He never told me he gave you lessons too.”  The baroness smiled, but it was from genuine satisfaction this time.

“I wonder at that, since he knew we were intimate, or, at least, that we were acquainted.  Of course I would not speak of it last night, because I saw your father was angry.”

“Yes, he was angry.  I suppose it was natural,” said Hedwig.

“Perfectly natural.  And you, my dear, were you not angry too, ­just a little?”

“I?  No.  Why should I be angry?  He was a very good teacher, for he knows whole volumes by heart; and he understands them too.”

Soon they talked of other things, and the baroness was very affectionate.  But though Hedwig saw that her friend was kind and most friendly, she could not forget the words that were in the air when she chanced to enter, nor could she quite accept the plausible explanation of them which the baroness had so readily invented.  For jealousy is the forerunner of love, and sometimes its awakener.  She felt a rival and an enemy, and all the hereditary combativeness of her Northern blood was roused.

Nino, who was in no small perplexity, reflected.  He was not old enough or observant enough to have seen the breach that was about to be created between the baroness and Hedwig.  His only thought was to clear himself in Hedwig’s eyes from the imputation of having been tied to the dark woman in any way save for his love’s sake.  He at once began to hate the baroness with all the ferocity of which his heart was capable, and with all the calm his bold square face outwardly expressed.  But he was forced to take some action at once, and he could think of nothing better to do than to consult De Pretis.

To the maestro he poured out his woes and his plans.  He exhibited to him his position toward the baroness and toward Hedwig in the clearest light.  He conjured him to go to Hedwig and explain that the baroness had threatened to unmask him, and thus deprive him of his means of support, ­he dared not put it otherwise, ­unless he consented to sing for her and come to her as often as she pleased.  To explain, to propitiate, to smooth, ­in a word, to reinstate Nino in her good opinion.

“Death of a dog!” exclaimed De Pretis; “you do not ask much!  After you have allowed your lady-love, your inamorata, to catch you saying you are bound body and soul to another woman, ­and such a woman! ye saints, what a beauty! ­you ask me to go and set matters right!  What the diavolo did you want to go and poke your nose into such a mousetrap for?  Via!  I am a fool to have helped you at all.”

“Very likely,” said Nino calmly.  “But meanwhile there are two of us, and perhaps I am the greater.  You will do what I ask, maestro; is it not true?  And it was not I who said it; it was the baroness.”

“The baroness ­yes ­and may the malédictions of the inferno overtake her,” said De Pretis, casting up his eyes and feeling in his coat-tail pockets for his snuff-box.  Once, when Nino was younger, he filled Ercole’s snuff-box with soot and pepper, so that the maestro had a black nose and sneezed all day.

What could Ercole do?  It was true that he had hitherto helped Nino.  Was he not bound to continue that assistance?  I suppose so; but if the whole affair had ended then, and this story with it, I would not have cared a button.  Do you suppose it amuses me to tell you this tale?  Or that if it were not for Nino’s good name I would ever have turned myself into a common storyteller?  Bah! you do not know me.  A page of quaternions gives me more pleasure than all this rubbish put together, though I am not averse to a little gossip now and then of an evening, if people will listen to my details and fancies.  But those are just the things people will not listen to.  Everybody wants sensation nowadays.  What is a sensation compared with a thought?  What is the convulsive gesticulation of a dead frog’s leg compared with the intellect of the man who invented the galvanic battery, and thus gave fictitious sensation to all the countless generations of dead frogs’ legs that have since been the objects of experiment?  Or if you come down to so poor a thing as mere feeling, what are your feelings in reading about Nino’s deeds compared with what he felt in doing them?  I am not taking all this trouble to please you, but only for Nino’s sake, who is my dear boy.  You are of no more interest or importance to me than if you were so many dead frogs; and if I galvanise your sensations, as you call them, into an activity sufficient to make you cry or laugh, that is my own affair.  You need not say “thank you” to me.  I do not want it.  Ercole will thank you, and perhaps Nino will thank me, but that is different.

I will not tell you about the interview that Ercole had with Hedwig, nor how skilfully he rolled up his eyes and looked pathetic when he spoke of Nino’s poverty and of the fine part he had played in the whole business.  Hedwig is a woman, and the principal satisfaction she gathered from Ercole’s explanation was the knowledge that her friend the baroness had lied to her in explaining those strange words she had overheard.  She knew it, of course, by instinct; but it was a great relief to be told the fact by someone else, as it always is, even when one is not a woman.