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

Benoni had made an impression on me that nothing could efface.  His tall thin figure and bright eyes got into my dreams and haunted me, so that I thought my nerves were affected.  For several days I could think of nothing else, and at last had myself bled, and took some cooling barley-water, and gave up eating salad at night, but without any perceptible effect.

Nino wrote often, and seemed very much excited about the disappearance of the contessina, but what could I do?  I asked everyone I knew, and nobody had heard of them, so that at last I quite gave it over, and wrote to tell him so.  A week passed, then a fortnight, and I had heard nothing from Benoni.  Nino wrote again, enclosing a letter addressed to the Contessina di Lira, which he implored me to convey to her, if I loved him.  He said he was certain that she had never left Italy.  Some instinct seemed to tell him so, and she was evidently in neither London nor Paris, for he had made every inquiry, and had even been to the police about it.  Two days after this, Benoni came.  He looked exactly as he did the first time I saw him.

“I have news,” he said, briefly, and sat down in the arm-chair, striking the dust from his boot with his little cane.

“News of the Graf?” I inquired.

“Yes.  I have found out something.  They never left Italy at all, it seems.  I am rather mystified, and I hate mystification.  The old man is a fool; all old men are fools, excepting myself.  Will you smoke?  No?  Allow me, then.  It is a modern invention, but a very good one.”  He lit a cigarette.  “I wish your Liras were in Tophet,” he continued, presently.  “How can people have the bad taste to hide?  It only makes ingenious persons the more determined to find them.”  He seemed talkative, and as I was so sad and lonely I encouraged him by a little stimulus of doubt.  I wish I had doubted him sooner, and differently.

“What is the use?” I asked.  “We shall never find them.”

“‘Never’ is a great word,’” said Benoni.  “You do not know what it means.  I do.  But as for finding them, you shall see.  In the first place, I have talked with their banker.  He says the count gave the strictest orders to have his address kept a secret.  But, being one of my people he allowed himself to make an accidental allusion which gave me a clue to what I wanted.  They are hidden somewhere in the mountains.”

“Diavolo! among the brigands:  they will not be very well treated,” said I.

“The old man will be careful.  He will keep clear of danger.  The only thing is to find them.”

“And what then?” I asked.

“That depends on the most illustrious Signor Cardegna,” said Benoni, smiling.  “He only asked you to find them.  He probably did not anticipate that I would help you.”

It did not appear to me that Benoni had helped me much, after all.  You might as well look for a needle in a haystack as try to find anyone who goes to the Italian mountains.  The baron offered no further advice, and sat calmly smoking and looking at me.  I felt uneasy, opposite him.  He was a mysterious person, and I thought him disguised.  It was really not possible that, with his youthful manner, his hair should be naturally so white, or that he should be so old as he seemed.  I asked him the question we always find it interesting to ask foreigners, hoping to lead him into conversation.

“How do you like our Rome, Baron Benoni?”

“Rome?  I loathe and detest it,” he said, with a smile.  “There is only one place in the whole world that I hate more.”

“What place is that?” I asked, remembering that he had made the same remark to Nino before.

“Jerusalem,” he answered, and the smile faded on his face.  I thought I guessed the reason of his dislike in his religious views.  But I am very liberal about those things.

“I think I understand you,” I said; “you are a Hebrew, and the prevailing form of religion is disagreeable to you.”

“No, it is not exactly that, ­and yet, perhaps, it is.”  He seemed to be pondering on the reason of his dislike.

“But why do you visit these places if they do not please you?”

“I come here because I have so many agreeable acquaintances.  I never go to Jerusalem.  I also come here from time to time to take a bath.  The water of the Trevi has a peculiarly rejuvenating effect upon me, and something impels me to bathe in it.”

“Do you mean in the fountain?  Ah, foreigners say that if you drink the water by moonlight you will return to Rome.”

“Foreigners are all weak-minded fools.  I like that word.  The human race ought to be called fools generically, as distinguished from the more intelligent animals.  If you went to England you would be as great a fool as any Englishman that comes here and drinks Trevi water by moonlight.  But I assure you I do nothing so vulgar as to patronise the fountain, any more than I would patronise Mazzarino’s church, hard by.  I go to the source, the spring, the well where it rises.”

“Ah, I know the place well,” I said.  “It is near to Serveti.”

“Serveti?  Is that not in the vicinity of Horace’s villa?”

“You know the country well, I see,” said I, sadly.

“I know most things,” answered the Jew, with complacency.  “You would find it hard to hit upon anything I do not know.  Yes, I am a vain man, it is true, but I am very frank and open about it.  Look at my complexion.  Did you ever see anything like it?  It is Trevi water that does it.”  I thought such excessive vanity very unbecoming in a man of his years, but I could not help looking amused.  It was so odd to hear the old fellow descanting on his attractions.  He actually took a small mirror from his pocket and looked at himself in most evident admiration.

“I really believe,” he said at length, pocketing the little looking-glass, “that a woman might love me still.  What do you say?”

“Doubtless,” I answered politely, although I was beginning to be annoyed, “a woman might love you at first sight.  But it would be more dignified for you not to love her.”

“Dignity!” He laughed long and loud, a cutting laugh, like the breaking of glass.  “There is another of your phrases.  Excuse my amusement, Signor Grandi, but the idea of dignity always makes me smile.”  He called that thing a smile!  “It is in everybody’s mouth, ­the dignity of the State, the dignity of the king, the dignity of woman, the dignity of father, mother, schoolmaster, soldier.  Psh! an apoplexy, as you say, on all the dignities you can enumerate.  There is more dignity in a poor patient ass toiling along a rough road under a brutal burden that in the entire human race put together, from Adam to myself.  The conception of dignity is notional, most entirely.  I never see a poor wretch of a general, or king, or any such animal, adorned in his toggery of dignity without laughing at him, and his dignity again leads him to suppose that my smile is the result of the pleasurable sensations his experience excites in me.  Nature has dignity at times; some animals have it; but man, never.  What man mistakes for it in himself is his vanity, ­a vanity much more pernicious than mine, because it deceives its possessor, who is also wholly possessed by it, and is its slave.  I have had a great many illusions in my life, Signor Grandi.”

“One would say, baron, that you had parted with them.”

“Yes, and that is my chief vanity, ­the vanity of vanities which I prefer to all the others.  It is only a man of no imagination who has no vanity.  He cannot imagine himself any better than he is.  A creative genius makes for his own person a ‘self’ which he thinks he is, or desires other people to believe him to be.  It makes little difference whether he succeeds or not, so long as he flatters himself he does.  He complacently takes all his images from the other animals, or from natural objects and phenomena, depicting himself bold as an eagle, brave as a lion, strong as an ox, patient as an ass, vain as a popinjay, talkative as a parrot, wily as a serpent, gentle as a dove, cunning as a fox, surly as a bear; his glance is lightning, his voice thunder, his heart stone, his hands are iron, his conscience a hell, his sinews of steel, and his love like fire.  In short, he is like anything alive or dead, except a man, saving when he is mad.  Then he is a fool.  Only man can be a fool.  It distinguishes him from the higher animals.”

I cannot describe the unutterable scorn that blazed in his eyes as Benoni poured out the vials of his wrath on the unlucky human race.  With my views, we were not likely to agree in this matter.

“Who are you?” I asked.  “What right can you possibly have to abuse us all in such particularly strong terms?  Do you ever make prosélytes to your philosophy?”

“No,” said he, answering my last question, and recovering his serenity with that strange quickness of transition I had remarked when he had made music during his previous visit.  “No, they all die before I have taught them anything.”

“That does not surprise me, baron,” said I. He laughed a little.

“Well, perhaps it would surprise you even less if you knew me better,” he replied.  “But really, I came here to talk about Cardegna and not to chatter about that contemptible creature, man, who is not worth a moment’s notice, I assure you.  I believe I can find these people, and I confess it would amuse me to see the old man’s face when we walk in upon him.  I must be absent for a few days on business in Austria, and shall return immediately, for I have not taken my bath yet that I spoke of.  Now, if it is agreeable to you, I would propose that we go to the hills, on my return, and prosecute our search together; writing to Nino in the meantime to come here as soon as he has finished his engagement in Paris.  If he comes quickly, he may go with us; if not, he can join us.  At all events, we can have a very enjoyable tour among the natives, who are charming people, quite like animals, as you ought to know.”

I think I must be a very suspicious person.  Circumstances have made me so, and perhaps my suspicions are very generally wrong.  It may be.  At all events I did suspect the rich and dandified old baron of desiring to have a laugh by putting Nino into some absurd situation.  He had such strange views, or, at least, he talked so oddly, that I did not believe half he said.  It is not possible that anybody should seriously hold the opinions he professed.

When he was gone I sat alone, pondering on this situation, which was like a very difficult problem in a nightmare, that could not or would not look sensible, do what I would.  It chanced that I got a letter from Nino that evening, and I confess I was reluctant to open it, fearing that he would reproach me with not having taken more pains to help him.  I felt as though, before opening the envelope, I should like to go back a fortnight and put forth all my strength to find the contessina, and gain a comforting sense of duty performed.  If I had only done my best how easy it would have been to face a whole sheet of complaints!  Meanwhile the letter was come, and I had done nothing worth mentioning.  I looked at the back of it, and my conscience smote me; but it had to be accomplished, and at last I tore the cover off and read.

Poor Nino!  He said he was ill with anxiety, and feared it would injure his voice.  He said that to break his engagement and come back to Rome would be ruin to him.  He must face it out, or take the legal consequences of a breach of contract, which are overwhelming to a young artist.  He detailed all the efforts he had made to find Hedwig, pursuing every little sign and clue that seemed to present itself; all to no purpose.  The longer he thought of it, the more certain he was that Hedwig was not in Paris or London.  She might be anywhere else in the whole world, but she was certainly not in either of those cities.  Of that he was convinced.  He felt like a man who had pursued a beautiful image to the foot of a precipitous cliff; the rock had opened and swallowed up his dream, leaving him standing alone in hopeless despair; and a great deal more poetic nonsense of that kind.

I do not believe I had ever realised what he so truly felt for Hedwig until I sat at my table with his letter before me, overcome with the sense of my own weakness in not having effectually checked this mad passion at its rise; or, since it had grown so masterfully, of my wretched procrastination in not having taken my staff in my hand and gone out into the world to find the woman my boy loved and bring her to him.  By this time, I thought, I should have found her.  I could not bear to think of his being ill, suffering, heart-broken, ­ruined, if he lost his voice by an illness, ­merely because I had not had the strength to do the best thing for him.  Poor Nino, I thought, you shall never say again that Cornelio Grandi has not done what was in his power to make you happy.

“That baron! an apoplexy on him! has illuded me with his promises of help,” I said to myself.  “He has no more intention of helping me or Nino than he has of carrying off the basilica of St. Peter.  Courage, Cornelio! thou must gird up thy loins, and take a little money in thy scrip, and find Hedwig von Lira.”

All that night I lay awake, trying to think how I might accomplish this end; wondering to which point of the compass I should turn, and, above all, reflecting that I must make great sacrifices.  But my boy must have what he wanted, since he was consuming himself, as we say, in longing, for it.  It seemed to me no time for counting the cost, when every day might bring upon him a serious illness.  If he could only know that I was acting, he would allow his spirits to revive and take courage.

In the watches of the night I thought over my resources, which, indeed, were meagre enough; for I am a very poor man.  It was necessary to take a great deal of money, for once away from Rome no one could tell when I might return.  My salary as professor is paid to me quarterly, and it was yet some weeks to the time when it was due.  I had only a few francs remaining, ­not more than enough to pay my rent and to feed Mariuccia and me.  I had paid at Christmas the last instalment due on my vineyard out of Porta Salara, and though I owed no man anything I had no money, and no prospect of any for some time.  And yet I could not leave home on a long journey without at least two hundred scudi in my pocket.  A scudo is a dollar, and a dollar has five francs, so that I wanted a thousand francs.  You see, in spite of the baron’s hint about the mountains, I thought I might have to travel all over Italy before I satisfied Nino.

A thousand francs is a great deal of money, ­it is a Peru, as we say.  I had not the first sou toward it.  I thought a long time.  I wondered if the old piano were worth anything; whether anybody would give me money for my manuscripts, the results of patient years of labour and study; my old gold scarf pin, my seal ring, and even my silver watch, which keeps really very good time, ­what were they worth?  But it would not be much, not the tenth part of what I wanted.  I was in despair, and I tried to sleep.  Then a thought came to me.

“I am a donkey,” I said.  “There is the vineyard itself, ­my little vineyard beyond Porta Salara.  It is mine and is worth half as much again as I need.”  And I slept quietly till morning.

It is true, and I am sure it is natural, that in the daylight my resolution looked a little differently to me than it did in the quiet night.  I had toiled and scraped a great deal more than you know to buy that small piece of land, and it seemed much more my own than all Serveti had ever been in my better days.  Then I shut myself up in my room and read Nino’s letter over again, though it pained me very much; for I needed courage.  And when I had read it, I took some papers in my pocket, and put on my hat and my old cloak, which Nino will never want any more now for his midnight serenades, and I went out to sell my little vineyard.

“It is for my boy,” I said, to give myself some comfort.

But it is one thing to want to buy, and it is quite another thing to want to sell.  All day I went from one man to another with my papers, ­all the agents who deal in those things; but they only said they thought it might be sold in time; it would take many days, and perhaps weeks.

“But I want to sell it to-day,” I explained.

“We are very sorry,” said they, with a shrug of the shoulders; and they showed me the door.

I was extremely down-hearted, and though I could not sell my piece of land I spent three sous in buying two cigars to smoke, and I walked about the Piazza Colonna in the sun; I would not go home to dinner until I had decided what to do.  There was only one man I had not tried, and he was the man who had sold it to me.  Of course I knew people who do this business, for I had had enough trouble to learn their ways when I had to sell Serveti, years ago.  But this one man I had not tried yet, because I knew that he would drive a cruel bargain with me when he saw I wanted the money.  But at last I went to him and told him just what my wishes were.

“Well,” he said, “it is a very bad time for selling land.  But to oblige you, because you are a customer, I will give you eight hundred francs for your little place.  That is really much more than I can afford.”

“Eight hundred francs!” I exclaimed, in despair.  “But I have paid you nearly twice as much for it in the last three years!  What do you take me for?  To sell such a gem of a vineyard for eight hundred francs?  If you offer me thirteen hundred I will discuss the matter with you.”

“I have known you a long time, Signor Grandi, and you are an honest man.  I am sure you do not wish to deceive me.  I will give you eight hundred and fifty.”

Deceive him, indeed!  The very man who had received fifteen hundred from me said I deceived him when I asked thirteen hundred for the same piece of land!  But I needed it very much, and so, bargaining and wrangling, I got one thousand and seventy-five francs in bank-notes; and I took care they should all be good ones too.  It was a poor price, I know, but I could do no better, and I went home happy.  But I dared not tell Mariuccia.  She is only my servant, to be sure, but she would have torn me in pieces.

Then I wrote to the authorities at the university to say that I was obliged to leave Rome suddenly, and would of course not claim my salary during my absence.  But I added that I hoped they would not permanently supplant me.  If they did I knew I should be ruined.  Then I told Mariuccia that I was going away for some days to the country, and I left her the money to pay the rent, and her wages, and a little more, so that she might be provided for if I were detained very long.  I went out again and telegraphed to Nino to say I was going at once in search of the Liras, and begging him to come home as soon as he should have finished his engagement.

To tell the truth, Mariuccia was very curious to know where I was going, and asked me many questions, which I had some trouble in answering.  But at last it was night again, and the old woman went to bed and left me.  Then I went on tiptoe to the kitchen, and found a skein of thread and two needles, and set to work.

I knew the country whither I was going very well, and it was necessary to hide the money I had in some ingenious way.  So I took two waistcoats ­one of them was quite good still, ­and I sewed them together, and basted the bank-notes between them.  It was a clumsy piece of tailoring, though it took me so many hours to do it.  But I had put the larger waistcoat outside very cunningly, so that when I had put on the two, you could not see that there was anything beneath the outer one.  I think I was very clever to do this without a woman to help me.  Then I looked to my boots, and chose my oldest clothes, ­and you may guess, from what you know of me, how old they were, ­and I made a little bundle that I could carry in my hand, with a change of linen, and the like.  These things I made ready before I went to bed, and I slept with the two waistcoats and the thousand francs under my pillow, though I suppose nobody would have chosen that particular night for robbing me.

All these preparations had occupied me so much that I had not found any time to grieve over my poor little vineyard that I had sold; and, besides, I was thinking all the while of Nino, and how glad he would be to know that I was really searching for Hedwig.  But when I thought of the vines, it hurt me; and I think it is only long after the deed that it seems more blessed to give than to receive.

But at last I slept, as tired folk will, leaving care to the morrow; and when I awoke it was daybreak, and Mariuccia was clattering angrily with the tin coffee-pot outside.  It was a bright morning, and the goldfinch sang, and I could hear him scattering the millet seed about his cage while I dressed.  And then the parting grew very near, and I drank my coffee silently, wondering how soon it would be over, and wishing that the old woman would go out and let me have my house alone.  But she would not, and, to my surprise, she made very little worry or trouble, making a great show of being busy.  When I was quite ready she insisted on putting a handful of roasted chestnuts into my pocket, and she said she would pray for me.  The fact is, she thought, foolish old creature, as she is, that I was old and in poor health, and she had often teased me to go into the country for a few days, so that she was not ill pleased that I should seem to take her advice.  She stood looking after me as I trudged along the street, with my bundle and my good stick in my right hand, and a lighted cigar in my left.

I had made up my mind that I ought first to try the direction hinted at by the baron, since I had absolutely no other clue to the whereabouts of the Count von Lira and his daughter.  I therefore got into the old stage that still runs to Palestrina and the neighbouring towns, for it is almost as quick as going by rail, and much cheaper; and half-an-hour later we rumbled out of the Porta San Lorenzo, and I had entered upon the strange journey to find Hedwig von Lira, concerning which frivolous people have laughed so unkindly.  And you may call me a foolish old man if you like.  I did it for my boy.