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

Fillettino is a trifle cleaner than most towns of the same kind.  Perhaps it rains more often, and there are fewer people.  Considering that its vicinity has been the scene of robbery, murder, and all manner of adventurous crime from time immemorial, I had expected to find it a villainous place.  It is nothing of the kind.  There is a decent appearance about it that is surprising; and though the houses are old and brown and poor, I did not see pigs in many rooms, nor did the little children beg of me, as they beg of everyone elsewhere.  The absence of the pigs struck me particularly, for in the Sabine towns they live in common with the family, and go out only in the daytime to pick up what they can get.

I went to the apothecary ­there is always an apothecary in these places ­and inquired for a lodging.  Before very long I had secured a room, and it seemed that the people were accustomed to travellers, for it was surprisingly clean.  The bed was so high that I could touch the ceiling when I sat on it, and the walls were covered with ornaments, such as glazed earthenware saints, each with a little basin for holy water, some old engravings of other saints, a few paper roses from the last fair, and a weather-beaten game-pouch of leather.  The window looked out over a kind of square, where a great quantity of water ran into a row of masonry tanks out of a number of iron pipes projecting from an overhanging rock.  Above the rock was the castle, the place I had come to see, towering up against the darkening sky.

It is such a strange place that I ought to describe it to you, or you will not understand the things that happened there.  There is a great rock, as I said, rising above the town, and upon this is built the feudal stronghold, so that the walls of the building do not begin less than forty feet from the street level.  The height of the whole castle consequently seems enormous.  The walls, for the most part, follow the lines of the gray rock, irregularly, as chance would have it, and the result is a three-cornered pile, having a high square tower at one angle, where also the building recedes some yards from the edge of the cliff, leaving on that side a broad terrace guarded by a stone parapet.  On another side of the great isolated boulder a narrow roadway heads up a steep incline, impracticable for carriages but passable for four-footed beasts; and this path gives access to the castle through a heavy gate opening upon a small court within.  But the rock itself has been turned to account, and there are chambers within it which formerly served as prisons, opening to the right and left of a narrow staircase, hewn out of the stone, and leading from the foot of the tower to the street below, upon which it opens through a low square door, set in the rock and studded with heavy iron rails.

Below the castle hangs the town, and behind it rises the valley, thickly wooded with giant beech-trees.  Of course I learned the details of the interior little by little, and I gathered also some interesting facts regarding the history of Fillettino, which are not in any way necessary to my story.  The first thing I did was to find out what means of communication there were with Rome.  There was a postal service twice a week, and I was told that Count von Lira, whose name was no secret in the village, sent messengers very often to Subiaco.  The post left that very day, and I wrote to Nino to tell him that I had found his friends in villeggiatura at Fillettino, advising him to come as soon as he could, and recruit his health and his spirits.

I learned, further, from the woman who rented me my lodging, that there were other people in the castle besides the count and his daughter.  At least, she had seen a tall gentleman on the terrace with them during the last two days; and it was not true that the count kept Hedwig a prisoner.  On the contrary, they rode out together almost every day, and yesterday the tall gentleman had gone with them.  The woman also went into many details; telling me how much money the count had spent in a fortnight, bringing furniture and a real piano and immense loads of baskets, which the porters were told contained glass and crockery, and must be carefully handled.  It was clear that the count was settled for some time.  He had probably taken the old place for a year, by a lease from the Roman family to whom Fillettino and the neighbouring estates belong.  He would spend the spring and the summer there, at least.

Being anxious to see who the tall gentleman might be, of whom my landlady had spoken, I posted myself in the street, at the foot of the inclined bridle-path, leading to the castle gate.  I walked up and down for two hours, about the time I supposed they would all ride, hoping to catch a glimpse of the party.  Neither the count nor his daughter knew me by sight, I was sure, and I felt quite safe.  It was a long time to wait, but at last they appeared, and I confess that I nearly fell down against the wall when I saw them.

There they were on their horses, moving cautiously down the narrow way above me.  First came the count, sitting in his saddle as though he were at the head of his old regiment, his great gray moustaches standing out fiercely from his severe wooden face.  Then came Hedwig, whom I had not seen for a long time, looking as white and sorrowful as the angel of death, in a close black dress, or habit, so that her golden hair was all the colour there was to be seen about her.

But the third rider, ­there was no mistaking that thin, erect figure, dressed in the affectation of youth; those fresh pink cheeks, with the snowy moustache, and the thick white hair showing beneath the jaunty hat; the eagle nose and the bright eyes.  Baron Benoni, and no other.

My first instinct was to hide myself; but before I could retreat Benoni recognised me, even with my old clothes.  Perhaps they are not so much older than the others, compared with his fashionable garments.  He made no sign as the three rode by; only I could see by his eyes, that were fixed angrily upon me, that he knew me, and did not wish to show it.  As for myself I stood stock still in amazement.

I had supposed that Benoni had really gone to Austria, as he had told me he was about to do.  I had thought him ignorant of the count’s retreat, save for the hint which had so luckily led me straight to the mark.  I had imagined him to be but a chance acquaintance of the Lira family, having little or no personal interest in their doings.  Nevertheless, I had suspected him, as I have told you.  Everything pointed to a deception on his part.  He had evidently gone immediately from Rome to Fillettino.  He must be intimate with the count, or the latter would not have invited him to share a retreat seemingly intended to be kept a secret.  He also, I thought, must have some very strong reason for consenting to bury himself in the mountains in company with a father and daughter who could hardly be supposed to be on good terms with each other.

But again, why had he seemed so ready to help me and to forward Nino’s suit?  Why had he given me the smallest clue to the count’s whereabouts?  Now I am not a strong man in action, but I am a very cunning reasoner.  I remembered the man, and the outrageous opinions he had expressed, both to Nino and to me.  Then I understood my suspicions.  It would be folly to expect such a man to have any real sympathy or sense of friendship for anyone.  He had amused himself by promising to come back and go with me on my search, perhaps to make a laughing-stock of me, or even of my boy, by telling the story to the Liras afterwards.  He had entertained no idea that I would go alone, or that, if I went, I could be successful.  He had made a mistake, and was very angry; his eyes told me that.  Then I made a bold resolution.  I would see him and ask him what he intended to do; in short, why he had deceived me.

There would probably be no difficulty in the way of obtaining an interview, I was not known to the others of the party, and Benoni would scarcely refuse to receive me.  I thought he would excuse himself, with ready cynicism, and pretend to continue his offers of friendship and assistance.  I confess I regretted that I was so humbly clad, in all my old clothes; but after all, I was travelling, you know.

It was a bold resolution, I think, and I revolved the situation in my mind during two days, thinking over what I should say.  But with all my thought I only found that everything must depend on Benoni’s answer to my own question ­“Why?”

On the third day, I made myself look as fine as I could, and though my heart beat loudly as I mounted the bridle-path, I put on a bold look and rang the bell.  It was a clanging thing, that seemed to creak on a hinge, as I pulled the stout string from outside.  A man appeared, and on my inquiry said I might wait in the porch behind the great wooden gate, while he delivered my message to his excellency the baron.  It seemed to take a long time, and I sat on a stone bench, eying the courtyard curiously from beneath the archway.  It was sunny and clean, with an old well in the middle, but I could see nothing save a few windows opening upon it.  At last the man returned and said that I might come with him.

I found Benoni, clad in a gorgeous dressing-gown, stalking up and down a large vaulted apartment, in which there were a few new arm-chairs, a table covered with books, and a quantity of ancient furniture that looked unsteady and fragile, although it had been carefully dusted.  A plain green baize carpet covered about half the floor, and the remainder was of red brick.  The morning sun streamed in through tall windows, and played in a rainbow-like effulgence on the baron’s many-coloured dressing-gown, as he paused in his walk to greet me.

“Well, my friend,” said Benoni, gaily, “how in the name of the devil did you get here?” I thought I had been right; he was going to play at being my friend again.

“Very easily, by the help of your little hint,” I replied, and I seated myself, for I felt that I was master of the situation.

“Ah, if I had suspected you of being so intelligent, I would not have given you any hint at all.  You see I have not been to Austria on business, but am here in this good old flesh of mine, such as it is.”

“Consequently ­” I began, and then stopped.  I suddenly felt that Benoni had turned the tables upon me, I could not tell how.

“Consequently,” said he, continuing my sentence, “when I told you that I was going to Austria I was lying.”

“The frankness of the statement obliges me to believe that you are now telling the truth,” I answered, angrily.  I felt uneasy.  Benoni laughed in his peculiar way.

“Precisely,” he continued again, “I was lying.  I generally do, for so long as I am believed I deceive people; and when they find me out, they are confused between truth and lying, so that they do not know what to believe at all.  By the by, I am wandering, I am sorry to see you here.  I hope you understand that.”  He looked at me with the most cheerful expression.  I believe I was beginning to be angry at his insulting calmness.  I did not answer him.

“Signor Grandi,” he said in a moment, seeing I was silent, “I am enchanted to see you, if you prefer that I should be.  But may I imagine if I can do anything more for you, now that you have heard from my own lips that I am a liar?  I say it again, ­I like the word, ­I am a liar, and I wish I were a better one.  What can I do for you?”

“Tell me why you have acted this comedy,” said I, recollecting at the right moment the gist of my reflections during the past two days.

“Why?  To please myself, good sir; for the sovereign; pleasure of myself.”

“I would surmise,” I retorted tartly, “that it could not have been for the pleasure of anyone else.”

“Perhaps you mean, because no one else could be base enough to take pleasure in what amuses me?” I nodded savagely at his question.  “Very good.  Knowing this of me, do you further surmise that I should be so simple as to tell you how I propose to amuse myself in the future?” I recognised the truth of this, and I saw myself checkmated at the outset.  I therefore smiled, and endeavoured to seem completely satisfied, hoping that his vanity would betray him into some hint of the future.  He seemed to have before taken pleasure in misleading me with a fragment of truth, supposing that I could not make use of it.  I would endeavour to lead him into such a trap again.

“It is a beautiful country, is it not?” I remarked, going to the window before which he stood, and looking out.  “You must enjoy it greatly, after the turmoil of society.”  You see, I was once as gay as any of them, in the old days; and so I made the reflection that seemed natural to his case, wondering how he would answer.

“It is indeed a very passable landscape,” he said, indifferently.  “With horses and a charming companion one may kill a little time here, and find a satisfaction in killing it.”  I noticed the slip, by which he spoke of a single companion instead of two.

“Yes,” I replied, “the count is said to be a most agreeable man.”

He paused a moment, and the hesitation seemed to show that the count was not the companion he had in his mind.

“Oh, certainly,” he said at length, “the count is very agreeable, and his daughter is the paragon of all the virtues and accomplishments.”  There was something a little disparaging in his tone as he made the last remark, which seemed to me a clumsy device to throw me off the scent, if scent there were.  Considering his surpassing personal vanity, of which I had received an ocular demonstration when he visited me in Rome, I fancied that if there were nothing more serious in his thoughts he would have given me to understand that Hedwig found him entirely irresistible.  Since he was able to control his vanity, there must be a reason for it.

“I should think that the contessina must be charmed at having so brilliant a companion as yourself in her solitude,” I said, feeling my way to the point.

“With me?  I am an old man.  Children of that age detest old men.”  I thought his manner constrained, and it was unlike him not to laugh as he made the speech.  The conviction grew upon me that Hedwig was the object of his visit.  Moreover, I became persuaded that he was but a poor sort of villain, for he was impulsive, as villains should never be.  We leaned over the stone sill of the window, which he had opened during the conversation.  There was a little trail of ants climbing up and down the wall at the side, and he watched them.  One of the small creatures, heavily laden with a seed of some sort, and toiling painfully under the burden, had been separated from the rest, and clambered over the edge of the window-sill.  On reaching the level surface it paused, as though very weary, and looked about, moving its tiny horns.  Benoni looked at it a moment, and then with one finger he suddenly whisked the poor little thing into space.  It hurt me to see it, and I knew he must be cruel, for he laughed aloud.  Somehow it would have seemed less cruel to have brushed away the whole trail of insects, rather than to pitch upon this one small tired workman, overladen and forgotten by the rest.

“Why did you do that?” I asked involuntarily.

“Why?  Why do I do anything?  Because I please, the best of all reasons.”

“Of course; it was foolish of me to ask you.  That is probably the cause of your presence here.  You would like to hurl my boy Nino from the height he has reached in his love, and to satisfy your cruel instincts you have come here to attack the heart of an innocent girl.”  I watched him narrowly, and I have often wondered how I had the courage to insult him.  It was a bold shot at the truth, and his look satisfied me that I was not very wide of the mark.  To accuse a gray-haired old man of attempting to win the affections of a young girl would seem absurd enough.  But if you had ever seen Benoni, you would understand that he was anything but old, save for his snowy locks.  Many a boy might envy the strange activity of his thin limbs, the bloom and freshness of his eager face, and the fire of his eyes.  He was impulsive, too; for instead of laughing at the absurdity of the thing, or at what should have been its absurdity, as a more accomplished villain would have done, he was palpably angry.  He looked quickly at me and moved savagely, so that I drew back, and it was not till some moments later that it occurred to him that he ought to seem amused.

“How ridiculous!” he cried at last, mastering his anger.  “You are joking.”

“Oh, of course I am joking,” I answered, leaving the window.  “And now I must wish you good-morning, with many apologies for my intrusion.”  He must have been glad to be rid of me, but he politely insisted on showing me to the gate.  Perhaps he wanted to be sure that I should not ask questions of the servants.  As we passed through an outer hall we came suddenly upon Hedwig entering from the opposite direction, dressed in black, and looking like a beautiful shadow of pain.  As I have told you, she did not know me.  Benoni bowed to the ground as she went by, making some flattering speech about her appearance.  She had started slightly on first seeing us, and then she went on without speaking; but there was on her face a look of such sovereign scorn and loathing as I never saw on the features of any living being.  And more than scorn, for there was fear and hatred with it:  so that if a glance could tell a whole history, there would have been no detail of her feeling for Benoni left to guess.

This meeting produced a profound impression on me, and I saw her face in my dreams that night.  Had anything been wanting to complete, in my judgment, the plan of the situation in the castle, that something was now supplied.  The Jew had come there to get her for himself.  She hated him for his own sake; she hated him because she was faithful to Nino; she hated him because he perhaps knew of her secret love for my boy.  Poor maiden, shut up for days and weeks to come with a man she dreaded and scorned at once!  The sight of her recalled to me that I had in my pocket the letter Nino had sent me for her, weeks before, and which I had found no means of delivering since I had been in Fillettino.  Suddenly I was seized with a mad determination to deliver it at any cost.  The baron bowed me out of the gate, and I paused outside when the ponderous door had swung on its hinges and his footsteps were echoing back through the court.

I sat down on the parapet of the bridle-path, and with my knife cut some of the stitches that sewed my money between my two waistcoats.  I took out one of the bills of a hundred francs that were concealed within, I found the letter Nino had sent me for Hedwig, and I once more rang the bell.  The man who had admitted me came again, and looked at me in some astonishment.  But I gave him no time to question me.

“Here is a note for a hundred francs,” I said.  “Take it, and give this letter to the Signora Contessina.  If you bring me a written answer here to-morrow at this hour I will give you as much more.”  The man was dumfounded for a moment, after which he clutched the money and the letter greedily, and hid them in his coat.

“Your excellency shall be punctually obeyed,” he said, with a deep bow, and I went away.

It was recklessly extravagant of me to do this, but there was no other course.  A small bribe would have been worse than none at all.  If you can afford to pay largely it is better to bribe a servant than to trust a friend.  Your friend has nothing to gain by keeping your secret, whereas the servant hopes for more money in the future, and the prospect of profit makes him as silent as the grave.

I would certainly not have acted as I did had I not met Hedwig in the hall.  But the sight of her pale face and heavy eyes went to my heart, and I would have given the whole of my little fortune to bring some gladness to her, even though I might not see it.  The situation, too, was so novel and alarming that I felt obliged to act quickly, not knowing what evils delay might produce.

On the following morning I went up to the gateway again and rang the bell.  The same man appeared.  He slipped a note into my hand, and I slipped a bill into his.  But, to my surprise, he did not shut the door and retire.

“The signorina said your excellency should read the note, and I should accompany you,” he said; and I saw he had his hat in his hand as if ready to go.  I tore open the note.  It merely said that the servant was trustworthy, and would “instruct the Signor Grandi” how to act.

“You told the contessina my name, then?” I said to the man.  He had announced me to the baron, and consequently knew who I was.  He nodded, closed the door behind him, and came with me.  When we were in the street he explained that Hedwig desired to speak with me.  He expounded the fact that there was a staircase in the rock, leading to the level of the town.  Furthermore, he said that the old count and the baron occasionally drank deeply, as soldiers and adventurers will do, to pass the evening.  The next time it occurred he, the faithful servant, would come to my lodging and conduct me into the castle by the aforesaid passage, of which he had the key.

I confess I was unpleasantly alarmed at the prospect of making a burglarious entrance in such romantic fashion.  It savoured more of the last century than of the quiet and eminently respectable age in which we live.  But then, the castle of Fillettino was built hundreds of years ago, and it is not my fault if it has not gone to ruin, like so many others of its kind.  The man recommended me to be always at home after eight o’clock in the evening in case I were wanted, and to avoid seeing the baron when he was abroad.  He came and saw where I lived, and with many bows he left me.

You may imagine in what anxiety I passed my time.  A whole week elapsed, and yet I was never summoned.  Every evening at seven, an hour before the time named, I was in my room waiting for someone who never came.  I was so much disturbed in mind that I lost my appetite and thought of being bled again.  But I thought it too soon, and contented myself with getting a little tamarind from the apothecary.

One morning the apothecary, who is also the postmaster, gave me a letter from Nino, dated in Rome.  His engagement was over, he had reached Rome, and he would join me immediately.