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

Early in the morning after Nino’s visit to Signor Benoni, De Pretis came to my house, wringing his hands and making a great trouble and noise.  I had not yet seen Nino, who was sound asleep, though I could not imagine why he did not wake.  But De Pretis was in such a temper that he shook the room and everything in it, as he stamped about the brick floor.  It was not long before he had told me the cause of his trouble.  He had just received a formal note from the Graf von Lira, inclosing the amount due to him for lessons, and dispensing with his services for the future.

Of course this was the result of the visit Nino had so rashly made; it all came out afterwards, and I will not now go through the details that De Pretis poured out, when we only half knew the truth.  The count’s servant who admitted Nino had pocketed the five francs as quietly as you please; and the moment the count returned he told him how Nino had come and had stayed three-quarters of an hour just as if it were an everyday affair.  The count, being a proud old man, did not encourage him to make further confidences, but sent him about his business.  He determined to make a prisoner of his daughter until he could remove her from Rome.  He accordingly confined her in the little suite of apartments that were her own, and set an old soldier, whom he had brought from Germany, as a body-servant, to keep watch at the outer door.  He did not condescend to explain even to Hedwig the cause of his conduct, and she, poor girl, was as proud as he, and would not ask why she was shut up, lest the answer should be a storm of abuse against Nino.  She cared not at all how her father had found out her secret, so long as he knew it, and she guessed that submission would be the best policy.

Meanwhile, active preparations were made for an immediate departure.  The count informed his friends that he was going to pass Lent in Paris, on account of his daughter’s health, which was very poor, and in two days everything was ready.  They would leave on the following morning.  In the evening the count entered his daughter’s apartments, after causing himself to be formally announced by a servant, and briefly informed her that they would start for Paris on the following morning.  Her maid had been engaged in the meantime in packing her effects, not knowing whither her mistress was going.  Hedwig received the announcement in silence, but her father saw that she was deadly white and her eyes heavy from weeping.  I have anticipated this much to make things clearer.  It was on the first morning of Hedwig’s confinement that De Pretis came to our house.

Nino was soon waked by the maestro’s noise, and came to the door of his chamber, which opens into the little sitting-room, to inquire what the matter might be.  Nino asked if the maestro were peddling cabbages, that he should scream so loudly.

“Cabbages, indeed! cabbage yourself, silly boy!” cried Ercole, shaking his fist at Nino’s head, just visible through the crack of the door.  “A pretty mess you have made with your ridiculous love affair!  Here am I ­”

“I see you are,” retorted Nino; “and do not call any affair of mine ridiculous, or I will throw you out of the window.  Wait a moment!” With that he slammed his door in the maestro’s face, and went on with his dressing.  For a few minutes De Pretis raved at his ease, venting his wrath on me.  Then Nino came out.

“Now, then,” said he, preparing for a tussle, “what is the matter, my dear maestro?” but Ercole had expended most of his fury already.

“The matter!” he grumbled.  “The matter is that I have lost an excellent pupil through you.  Count Lira says he does not require my services any longer, and the man who brought the note says they are going away.”

“Diavolo!” said Nino, running his fingers through his curly black hair, “it is indeed serious.  Where are they going?”

“How should I know?” asked De Pretis angrily.  “I care much more about losing the lesson than about where they are going.  I shall not follow them, I promise you.  I cannot take the basilica of St. Peter about with me in my pocket, can I?”

And so he was angry at first, and at length he was pacified, and finally he advised Nino to discover immediately where the count and his daughter were going; and if it were to any great capital, to endeavour to make a contract to sing there.  Lent came early that year, and Nino was free at the end of Carnival, ­not many days longer to wait.  This was the plan that had instantly formed itself in Nino’s brain.  De Pretis is really a most obliging man, but one cannot wonder that he should be annoyed at the result of Nino’s four months’ courtship under such great difficulties, when it seemed that all their efforts had led only to the sudden departure of his lady-love.  As for me, I advised Nino to let the whole matter drop then and there.  I told him he would soon get over his foolish passion, and that a statue like Hedwig could never suffer anything, since she could never feel.  But he glared at me, and did as he liked, just as he always has done.

The message on the handkerchief that Nino had received the night before warned him to keep away from the Palazzo Carmandola.  Nino reflected that this warning was probably due to Hedwig’s anxiety for his personal safety, and he resolved to risk anything rather than remain in ignorance of her destination.  It must be a case of giving some signal.  But this evening he had to sing at the theatre, and, therefore, without more ado, he left us, and went to bed again, where he stayed until twelve o’clock.  Then he went to rehearsal, arriving an hour behind time, at least, a matter which he treated with the coolest indifference.  After that he got a pound of small shot, and amused himself with throwing a few at a time at the kitchen window from the little court at the back of our house, where the well is.  It seemed a strangely childish amusement for a great singer.

Having sung successfully through his opera that night, he had supper with us, as usual, and then went out.  Of course he told me afterwards what he did.  He went to his old post under the windows of the Palazzo Carmandola, and as soon as all was dark he began to throw small shot up at Hedwig’s window.  He now profited by his practice in the afternoon, for he made the panes rattle with the little bits of lead, several times.  At last he was rewarded.  Very slowly the window opened, and Hedwig’s voice spoke in a low tone: 

“Is it you?”

“Ah, dear one!  Can you ask?” began Nino.

“Hush!  I am still locked up.  We are going away, ­I cannot tell where.”

“When, dearest love?”

“I cannot tell.  What shall we do?” very tearfully.  “I will follow you immediately; only let me know when and where.”

“If you do not hear by some other means, come here to-morrow night.  I hear steps.  Go at once.”

“Good-night, dearest,” he murmured; but the window was already closed, and the fresh breeze that springs up after one o’clock blew from the air the remembrance of the loving speech that had passed upon it.

On the following night he was at his post, and again threw the shot against the pane for a signal.  After a long time Hedwig opened the window very cautiously.

“Quick!” she whispered down to him, “go!  They are all awake,” and she dropped something heavy and white.  Perhaps she added some word, but Nino would not tell me, and never would read me the letter.  But it contained the news that Hedwig and her father were to leave Rome for Paris on the following morning; and ever since that night Nino has worn upon his little finger a plain gold ring, ­I cannot tell why, and he says he found it.

The next day he ascertained from the porter of the Palazzo Carmandola that the count and contessina, with their servants, had actually left Rome that morning for Paris.  From that moment he was sad as death, and went about his business heavily, being possessed of but one idea, namely, to sign an engagement to sing in Paris as soon as possible.  In that wicked city the opera continues through Lent, and after some haggling, in which De Pretis insisted on obtaining for Nino the most advantageous terms, the contract was made out and signed.

I see very well that unless I hurry myself I shall never reach the most important part of this story, which is after all the only part worth telling.  I am sure I do not know how I can ever tell it so quickly, but I will do my best, and you must have a little patience; for though I am not old, I am not young, and Nino’s departure for Paris was a great shock to me, so that I do not like to remember it, and the very thought of it sickens me.  If you have ever had any education, you must have seen an experiment in which a mouse is put in a glass jar, and all the air is drawn away with a pump, so that the poor little beast languishes and rolls pitifully on its side, gasping and wheezing with its tiny lungs for the least whiff of air.  That is just how I felt when Nino went away.  It seemed as though I could not breathe in the house or in the streets, and the little rooms at home were so quiet that one might hear a pin fall, and the cat purring through the closed doors.  Nino left at the beginning of the last ten days of Carnival, when the opera closed, so that it was soon Lent; and everything is quieter then.

But before he left us there was noise enough and bustle of preparation, and I did not think I should miss him; for he, always was making music, or walking about, or doing something to disturb me just at the very moment when I was most busy with my books.  Mariuccia, indeed, would ask me from time to time what I should do when Nino was gone, as if she could foretell what I was to feel.  I suppose she knew I was used to him, after fourteen years of it, and would be inclined to black humours for want of his voice.  But she could not know just what Nino is to me, nor how I look on him as my own boy.  These peasants are quick-witted and foolish; they guess a great many things better than I could, and then reason on them like idiots.

Nino himself was glad to go.  I could see his face grow brighter as the time approached; and though he appeared to be more successful than ever in his singing, I am sure that he cared nothing for the applause he got, and thought only of singing as well as he could for the love of it.  But when it came to the parting we were left alone.

“Messer Cornelio,” he said, looking at me affectionately, “I have something to say to you to-night before I go away.”

“Speak, then, my dear boy,” I answered, “for no one hears us.”

“You have been very good to me.  A father could not have loved me better, and such a father as I had could not have done a thousandth part what you have done for me.  I am going out into the world for a time, but my home is here, ­or rather, where my home is will always be yours.  You have been my father, and I will be your son; and it is time you should give up your professorship.  No, not that you are at all old; I do not mean that.”

“No, indeed,” said I, “I should think not.”

“It would be much more proper if you retired into an elegant leisure, so that you might write as many books as you desire without wearing yourself out in teaching those students every day.  Would you not like to go back to Serveti?”

“Serveti! ­ah, beautiful, lost Serveti, with its castle and good vine-lands!”

“You shall have it again before long, my father,” he said.  He had never called me father before, the dear boy!  I suppose it was because he was going away.  But Serveti again?  The thing was impossible, and I said so.

“It is not impossible,” he answered, placidly.  “Successful singers make enough money in a year to buy Serveti.  A year is soon passed.  But now let us go to the station, or I shall not be in time for the train.”

“God bless you, Nino mio,” I said, as I saw him off.  It seemed to me that I saw two or three Ninos.  But the train rolled away and took them all from me, ­the ragged little child who first came to me, the strong-limbed, dark-eyed boy with his scales and trills and enthusiasm, and the full-grown man with the face like the great emperor, mightily triumphing in his art and daring in his love.  They were all gone in a moment, and I was left alone on the platform of the station, a very sorrowful and weak old man.  Well, I will not think about that day.

The first I heard of Nino was by a letter he wrote me from Paris, a fortnight after he had left me.  It was characteristic of him, being full of eager questions about home and De Pretis and Mariuccia and Rome.  Two things struck me in his writing.  In the first place, he made no mention of the count or Hedwig, which led me to suppose that he was recovering from his passion, as boys do when they travel.  And secondly, he had so much to say about me that he forgot all about his engagement, and never even mentioned the theatre.  On looking carefully through the letter again I found he had written across the top the words, “Rehearsals satisfactory.”  That was all.

It was not long after the letter came, however, that I was very much frightened by receiving a telegram, which must have cost several francs to send all that distance.  By this he told me that he had no clue to the whereabouts of the Liras, and he implored me to make inquiries and discover where they had gone.  He added that he had appeared in Faust successfully.  Of course he would succeed.  If a singer can please the Romans, he can please anybody.  But it seemed to me that if he had received a very especially flattering reception he would have said so.  I went to see De Pretis, whom I found at home over his dinner.  We put our heads together and debated how we might discover the Paris address of the Graf von Lira.  In a great city like that it was no wonder Nino could not find them; but De Pretis hoped that some of his pupils might be in correspondence with the contessina, and would be willing to give the requisite directions for reaching her.  But days passed, and a letter came from Nino written immediately after sending the telegram, and still we had accomplished nothing.  The letter merely amplified the telegraphic message.

“It is no use,” I said to De Pretis.  “And besides, it is much better that he should forget all about it.”

“You do not know that boy,” said the maestro, taking snuff.  And he was quite right, as it turned out.

Suddenly Nino wrote from London.  He had made an arrangement, he said, by which he was allowed to sing there for three nights only.  The two managers had settled it between them, being friends.  He wrote very despondently, saying that although he had been far more fortunate in his appearances than he had expected, he was in despair at not having found the contessina, and had accepted the arrangement which took him to London because he had hopes of finding her there.  On the day which brought me this letter I had a visitor.  Nino had been gone nearly a month.  It was in the afternoon, towards sunset, and I was sitting in the old green arm-chair watching the goldfinch in his cage, and thinking sadly of the poor dear baroness, and of my boy, and of many things.  The bell rang and Mariuccia brought me a card in her thick fingers which were black from peeling potatoes, so that the mark of her thumb came off on the white pasteboard.  The name on the card was “Baron Ahasuerus Benoni,” and there was no address.  I told her to show the signore into the sitting-room, and he was not long in coming.  I immediately recognised the man Nino had described, with his unearthly freshness of complexion, his eagle nose, and his snow-white hair.  I rose to greet him.

“Signor Grandi,” he said, “I trust you will pardon my intrusion.  I am much interested in your boy, the great tenor.”

“Sir,” I replied, “the visit of a gentleman is never an intrusion.  Permit me to offer you a chair.”  He sat down, and crossed one thin leg over the other.  He was dressed in the height of the fashion; he wore patent-leather shoes, and carried a light ebony cane with a silver head.  His hat was perfectly new, and so smoothly brushed that it reflected a circular image of the objects in the room.  But he had a certain dignity that saved his foppery from seeming ridiculous.

“You are very kind,” he answered.  “Perhaps you would like to hear some news of Signor Cardegna, ­your boy, for he is nothing else.”

“Indeed” I said, “I should be very glad.  Has he written to you, baron?”

“Oh, no!  We are not intimate enough for that.  But I ran on to Paris the other day, and heard him three or four times, and had him to supper at Bignon’s.  He is a great genius, your boy, and has won all hearts.”

“That is a compliment of weight from so distinguished a musician as yourself,” I answered; for, as you know, Nino had told me all about his playing.  Indeed, the description was his, which is the reason why it is so enthusiastic.

“Yes,” said Benoni, “I am a great traveller, and often go to Paris for a day or two.  I know everyone there.  Cardegna had a perfect ovation.  All the women sent him flowers, and all the men asked him to dinner.”

“Pardon my curiosity,” I interrupted, “but as you know everyone in Paris, could you inform me whether Count von Lira and his daughter are there at present?  He is a retired Prussian officer.”  Benoni stretched out one of his long arms and ran his fingers along the keys of the piano without striking them.  He could just reach so far from where he sat.  He gave no sign of intelligence, and I felt sure that Nino had not questioned him.

“I know them very well,” he said, presently, “but I thought they were here.”

“No, they left suddenly for Paris a month ago.”

“I can very easily find out for you,” said Benoni, his Bright eyes turning on me with a searching look.  “I can find out from Lira’s banker, who is probably also mine.  What is the matter with that young man?  He is as sad as Don Quixote.”

“Nino?  He is probably in love,” I said, rather indiscreetly.

“In love?  Then of course he is in love with Mademoiselle de Lira, and has gone to Paris to find her, and cannot.  That is why you ask me.”  I was so much astonished at the quickness of his guesswork that I stared, open-mouthed.

“He must have told you!” I exclaimed at last.

“Nothing of the kind.  In the course of a long life I have learned to put two and two together, that is all.  He is in love, he is your boy, and you are looking for a certain young lady.  It is as clear as day.”  But in reality he had guessed the secret long before.

“Very well,” said I, humbly, but doubting him, all the same, “I can only admire your perspicacity.  But I would be greatly obliged if you would find out where they are, those good people.  You seem to be a friend of my boy’s, baron.  Help him, and he will be grateful to you.  It is not such a very terrible thing that a great artist should love a noble’s daughter, after all, though I used to think so.”  Benoni laughed, that strange laugh which Nino had described, ­a laugh that seemed to belong to another age.

“You amuse me with your prejudices about nobility,” he said, and his brown eyes flashed and twinkled again.  “The idea of talking about nobility in this age!  You might as well talk of the domestic economy of the Garden of Eden.”

“But you are yourself a noble ­a baron,” I objected.

“Oh, I am anything you please,” said Benoni.  “Some idiot made a baron of me the other day because I lent him money and he could not pay it.  But I have some right to it, after all, for I am a Jew.  The only real nobles are Welshmen and Jews.  You cannot call anything so ridiculously recent as the European upper classes a nobility.  Now I go straight back to the creation of the world, like all my countrymen.  The Hibernians get a factitious reputation for antiquity by saying that Eve married an Irishman after Adam died, and that is about as much claim as your European nobles have to respectability.  Bah!  I know their beginnings, very small indeed.”

“You also seem to have strong prejudices on the subject,” said I, not wishing to contradict a guest in my house.

“So strong that it amounts to having no prejudices at all.  Your boy wants to marry a noble damosel.  In Heaven’s name let him do it.  Let us manage it amongst us.  Love is a grand thing.  I have loved several women all their lives.  Do not look surprised.  I am a very old man; they have all died, and at present I am not in love with anybody.  I suppose it cannot last long, however.  I loved a woman once on a time” ­Benoni paused.  He seemed to be on the verge of a soliloquy, and his strange, bright face, which seemed illuminated always with a deathless vitality, became dreamy and looked older.  But he recollected himself and rose to go.  His eye caught sight of the guitar that hung on the wall.

“Ah,” he cried suddenly, “music is better than love, for it lasts; let us make music.”  He dropped his hat and stick and seized the instrument.  In an instant it was tuned and he began to perform the most extraordinary feats of agility with his fingers that I ever beheld.  Some of it was very beautiful, and some of it very sad and wild, but I understood Nino’s enthusiasm.  I could have listened to the old guitar in his hands for hours together, ­I, who care little for music; and I watched his face.  He stalked about the room with the thing in his hands, in a sort of wild frenzy of execution.  His features grew ashy pale, and his smooth white hair stood out wildly from his head.  He looked, then, more than a hundred years old, and there was a sadness and a horror about him that would have made the stones cry aloud for pity.  I could not believe he was the same man.  At last he was tired, and stopped.

“You are a great artist, baron,” I said.  “Your music seems to affect you much.”

“Ah, yes, it makes me feel like other men for the time,” said he, in a low voice.  “Did you know that Paganini always practised on the guitar?  It is true.  Well, I will find out about the Liras for you in a day or two, before I leave Rome again.”

I thanked him and he took his leave.