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

“Nino mio,” I began, “I saw the contessina last night.  She is in a very dramatic and desperate situation.  But she greets you, and looks to you to save her from her troubles.”  Nino’s face was calm, but his voice trembled a little as he answered: 

“Tell me quickly, please, what the troubles are.”

“Softly ­I will tell you all about it.  You must know that your friend Benoni is a traitor to you, and is here.  Do not look astonished.  He has made up his mind to marry the contessina, and she says she will die rather than take him, which is quite right of her.”  At the latter piece of news Nino sprang from his chair.

“You do not seriously mean that her father is trying to make her marry Benoni?” he cried.

“It is infamous, my dear boy; but it is true.”

“Infamous!  I should think you could find a stronger word.  How did you learn this?” I detailed the circumstances of our meeting on the previous night.  While I talked Nino listened with intense interest, and his face changed its look from anger to pity, and from pity to horror.  When I had finished, he was silent.

“You can see for yourself,” I said, “that the case is urgent.”

“I will take her away,” said Nino, at last.  “It will be very unpleasant for the count.  He would have been wiser to allow her to have her own way.”

“Do nothing rash, Nino mio.  Consider a little what the consequences would be if you were caught in the act of violently carrying off the daughter of a man as powerful as Von Lira.”

“Bah!  You talk of his power as though we lived under the Colonnesi and the Orsini, instead of under a free monarchy.  If I am once married to her, what have I to fear?  Do you think the count would go to law about his daughter’s reputation?  Or do you suppose he would try to murder me?”

“I would do both, in his place,” I answered.  “But perhaps you are right, and he will yield when he sees that he is outwitted.  Think again, and suppose that the contessina herself objects to such a step.”

“That is a different matter.  She shall do nothing save by her own free will.  You do not imagine I would try to take her away unless she were willing?” He sat down again beside me, and affectionately laid one hand on my shoulder.

“Women, Nino, are women,” I remarked.

“Unless they are angels,” he assented.

“Keep the angels for Paradise, and beware of taking them into consideration in this working-day world.  I have often told you, my boy, that I am older than you.”

“As if I doubted that!” he laughed.

“Very well.  I know something about women.  A hundred women will tell you that they are ready to flee with you; but not more than one in the hundred will really leave everything and follow you to the end of the world when the moment comes for running away.  They always make a fuss at the last and say it is too dangerous, and you may be caught.  That is the way of them.  You will be quite ready with a ladder of ropes, like one of Boccaccio’s men, and a roll of banknotes for the journey, and smelling-salts, and a cushion for the puppy dog, and a separate conveyance for the maid, just according to the directions she has given you; then, at the very last, she will perhaps say that she is afraid of hurting her father’s feelings by leaving him without any warning.  Be careful, Nino!”

“As for that,” he answered, sullenly enough, “if she will not, she will not; and I would not attempt to persuade her against her inclination.  But unless you have very much exaggerated what you saw in her face, she will be ready at five minutes’ notice.  It must be very like hell up there in that castle, I should think.”

“Messer Diavolo, who rules over the house, will not let his prey escape him so easily as you think.”

“Her father?” he asked.

“No; Benoni.  There is no creature so relentless as an old man in pursuit of a young woman.”

“I am not afraid of Benoni.”

“You need not be afraid of her father,” said I, laughing.  “He is lame, and cannot run after you.”  I do not know why it is that we Romans laugh at lame people; we are sorry for them, of course, as we are for other cripples.

“There is something more than fear in the matter,” said Nino, seriously.  “It is a great thing to have upon one’s soul.”

“What?” I asked.

“To take a daughter away from her father without his consent, ­or at least without consulting him.  I would not like to do it.”

“Do you mean to ask the old gentleman’s consent before eloping with his daughter?  You are a little donkey, Nino, upon my word.”

“Donkey, or anything else you like, but I will act like a galantuomo.  I will see the count, and ask him once more whether he is willing to let his daughter marry me.  If not, so much the worse; he will be warned.”

“Look here, Nino,” I said, astonished at the idea.  “I have taught you a little logic.  Suppose you meant to steal a horse instead of a woman.  Would you go to the owner of the horse, with your hat in your hand, and say, ’I trust your worship will not be offended if I steal this horse, which seems to be a good animal and pleases me’; and then would you expect him to allow you to steal his horse?”

“Sor Cornelio, the case is not the same.  Women have a right to be free, and to marry whom they please; but horses are slaves.  However, as I am not a thief, I would certainly ask the man for the horse; and if he refused it, and I conceived that I had a right to have it, I would take it by force and not by stealth.”

“It appears to me that if you meant to get possession of what was not yours, you might as well get it in the easiest possible way,” I objected.  “But we need not argue the case.  There is a much better reason why you should not consult the count.”

“I do not believe it,” said Nino, stubbornly.

“Nevertheless, it is so.  The Contessina di Lira is desperately unhappy, and if nothing is done she may die.  Young women have died of broken hearts before now.  You have no right to endanger her life by risking failure.  Answer me that, if you can, and I will grant you are a cunning sophist, but not a good lover.”

“There is reason in what you say now,” he answered.  “I had not thought of that desperateness of the case which you speak of.  You have seen her.”  He buried his face in his hand, and seemed to be thinking.

“Yes, I have seen her, and I wish you had been in my place.  You would think differently about asking her father’s leave to rescue her.”  From having been anxious to prevent anything rash, it seemed that I was now urging him into the very jaws of danger.  I think that Hedwig’s face was before me, as it had been in reality on the previous evening.  “As Curione said to Cæsar, delay is injurious to anyone who is fully prepared for action.  I remember also to have read somewhere that such waste of time in diplomacy and palavering is the favourite resource of feeble and timid minds, who regard the use of dilatory and ambiguous measures as an evidence of the most admirable and consummate prudence.”

“Oh, you need not use so much learning with me,” said Nino.  “I assure you that I will be neither dilatory nor ambiguous.  In fact, I will go at once, without even dusting my boots, and I will say, Give me your daughter, if you can; and if you cannot, I will still hope to marry her.  He will probably say ‘No,’ and then I will carry her off.  It appears to me that is simple enough.”

“Take my advice, Nino.  Carry her off first, and ask permission afterwards.  It is much better.  The real master up there is Benoni, I fancy, and not the count.  Benoni is a gentleman who will give you much trouble.  If you go now to see Hedwig’s father, Benoni will be present at the interview.”  Nino was silent, and sat stretching his legs before him, his head on his breast.  “Benoni,” I continued, “has made up his mind to succeed.  He has probably taken this fancy into his head out of pure wickedness.  Perhaps he is bored, and really wants a wife.  But I believe he is a man who delights in cruelty, and would as lief break the contessina’s heart by getting rid of you as by marrying her.”  I saw that he was not listening.

“I have an idea,” he said at last.  “You are not very wise, Messer Cornelio, and you counsel me to be prudent and to be rash in the same breath.”

“You make very pretty compliments, Sor Nino,” I answered, tartly.  He put out his hand deprecatingly.

“You are as wise as any man can be who is not in love,” he said, looking at me with his great eyes.  “But love is the best counsellor.”

“What is your idea?” I asked, somewhat pacified.

“You say they ride together every day.  Yes ­very good.  The contessina will not ride to-day, partly because she will be worn out with fatigue from last night’s interview, and partly because she will make an effort to discover whether I have arrived to-day or not.  You can count on that.”

“I imagine so.”

“Very well,” he continued; “in that case, one or two things will happen:  either the count will go out alone, or they will all stay at home.”

“Why will Benoni not go out with the count?”

“Because Benoni will hope to see Hedwig alone if he stays at home, and the count will be very glad to give him the opportunity.”

“I think you are right, Nino.  You are not so stupid as I thought.”

“In war,” continued the boy, “a general gains a great advantage by separating his adversary’s forces.  If the count goes out alone, I will present myself to him in the road, and tell him what I want.”

“Now you are foolish again.  You should, on the contrary, enter the house when the count is away, and take the signorina with you then and there.  Before he could return you would be miles on the road to Rome.”

“In the first place, I tell you once and for all, Sor Cornelio,” he said, slowly, “that such an action would be dishonourable, and I will not do anything of the kind.  Moreover, you forget that, if I followed your advice, I should find Benoni at home, ­the very man from whom you think I have everything to fear.  No; I must give the count one fair chance.”  I was silent, for I saw he was determined, and yet I would not let him think I was satisfied.

The idea of losing an advantage by giving an enemy any sort of warning before the attack seemed to me novel in the extreme; but I comprehended that Nino saw in his scheme a satisfaction to his conscience, and smelled in it a musty odour of forgotten knight-errantry that he had probably learned to love in his theatrical experiences.  I had certainly not expected that Nino Cardegna, the peasant child, would turn out to be the pink of chivalry and the mirror of honour.  But I could not help admiring his courage, and wondering if it would not play him false at the perilous moment.  I did not half know him then, though he had been with me for so many years.  But I was very anxious to ascertain from him what he meant to do, for I feared that his bold action would make trouble, and I had visions of the count and Benoni together taking sudden and summary vengeance on myself.

“Nino,” I said, “I have made great sacrifices to help you in finding these people,” ­I would not tell him I had sold my vineyard to make preparations for a longer journey, though he has since found it out, ­“but if you are going to do anything rash I will get on my little ass and ride a few miles from the village until it is over.”  Nino laughed aloud.

“My dear professor,” he said, “do not be afraid.  I will give you plenty of time to get out of the way.  Meanwhile, the contessina is certain to send the confidential servant of whom you speak to give me instructions.  If I am not here, you ought to be, in order to receive the message.  Now listen to me.”

I prepared to be attentive and to hear his scheme.  I was by no means expecting the plan he proposed.

“The count may take it into his head to ride at a different hour, if he rides alone,” he began.  “I will therefore have my mule saddled now, and will station my man ­a countryman from Subiaco and good for any devilry ­in some place where he can watch the entrance to the house, or the castle, or whatever you call this place.  So soon as he sees the count come out he will call me.  As a man can ride in only one of two directions in this valley, I shall have no trouble whatever in meeting the old gentleman, even if I cannot overtake him with my mule.”

“Have you any arms, Nino?”

“No.  I do not want weapons to face an old man in broad daylight; and he is too much of a soldier to attack me if I am defenceless.  If the servant comes after I am gone, you must remember every detail of what he says, and you must also arrange a little matter with him.  Here is money, as much as will keep any Roman servant quiet.  The man will be rich before we have done with him.  I will write a letter which he must deliver; but he must also know what he has to do.

“At twelve o’clock to-night the contessina must positively be at the door of the staircase by which you entered yesterday. Positively ­do you understand?  She will then choose for herself between what she is suffering now and flight with me.  If she chooses to fly, my mules and my countryman will be ready.  The servant who admits me had better make the best of his way to Rome, with the money he has got.  There will be difficulties in the way of getting the contessina to the staircase, especially as the count will be in a towering passion with me, and will not sleep much.  But he will not have the smallest idea that I shall act so suddenly, and he will fancy that when once his daughter is safe within the walls for the night she will not think of escaping.  I do not believe he even knows of the existence of this staircase.  At all events, it appears, from your success in bribing the first man you met, that the servants are devoted to her interests and their own and not at all to those of her father.”

“I cannot conceive, Nino,” said I, “why you do not put this bold plan into execution without seeing the count first, and making the whole thing so dangerous.  If he takes alarm in the night he will catch you fast enough on his good horses before you are at Trevi.”

“I am determined to act as I propose,” said Nino, “because it is a thousand times more honourable, and because I am certain that the contessina would not have me act otherwise.  She will also see for herself that flight is best; for I am sure the count will make a scene of some kind when he comes home from meeting me.  If she knows she can escape to-night she will not suffer from what he has to say; but she will understand that without the prospect of freedom she would suffer very much.”

“Where did you learn to understand women, my boy?” I asked.

“I do not understand women in general,” he answered, “but I understand very well the only woman who exists for me personally.  I know that she is the soul of honour, and that at the same time she has enough common sense to perceive the circumstances of the situation.”

“But how will you make sure of not being overtaken?” I objected, making a last feeble stand against his plan.

“That is simple enough.  My countryman from Subiaco knows every inch of these hills.  He says that the pass above Fillettino is impracticable for any animals save men, mules, and donkeys.  A horse would roll down at every turn.  My mules are the best of their kind, and there are none like them here.  By sunrise I shall be over the Serra and well on the way to Ceprano, or whatever place I may choose for joining the railroad.”

“And I?  Will you leave me here to be murdered by that Prussian devil?” I asked, in some alarm.

“Why, no, padre mio.  If you like, you can start for Rome at sunset, or as soon as I return from meeting the count; or you can get on your donkey and go up the pass, where we shall overtake you.  Nobody will harm you, in your disguise, and your donkey is even more surefooted than my mules.  It will be a bright night, too, for the moon is full.”

“Well, well, Nino,” said I at last, “I suppose you will have your own way, as you always do in the world.  And if it must be so, I will go up the pass alone, for I am not afraid at all.  It would be against all the proprieties that you should be riding through a wild country alone at night with the young lady you intend to marry; and if I go with you there will be nothing to be said, for I am a very proper person, and hold a responsible position in Rome.  But for charity’s sake, do not undertake anything of this kind again ­”

“Again?” exclaimed Nino, in surprise.  “Do you expect me to spend my life in getting married, ­not to say in eloping?”

“Well, I trust that you will have enough of it this time.”

“I cannot conceive that when a man has once married the woman he loves he should ever look at another,” said Nino, gravely.

“You are a most blessed fellow,” I exclaimed.

Nino found my writing materials, which consisted of a bad steel pen, some coarse ruled paper, and a wretched little saucer of ink, and began writing an epistle to the contessina.  I watched him as he wrote, and I smoked a little to pass the time.  As I looked at him I came to the conclusion that to-day, at least, he was handsome.  His thick hair curled about his head, and his white skin was as pale and clear as milk.  I thought that his complexion had grown less dark than it used to be, perhaps from being so much in the theatre at night.  That takes the dark blood out of the cheeks.  But any woman would have looked twice at him.  Besides, there was, as there is now, a certain marvellous neatness and spotlessness about his dress; but for his dusty boots you would not have guessed he had been travelling.  Poor Nino.  When he had not a penny in the world but what he earned by copying music, he used to spend it all with the washerwoman, so that Mariuccia was often horrified, and I reproved him for the extravagance.

At last he finished writing, and put his letter into the only envelope there was left.  He gave it to me, and said he would go out and order his mules to be ready.

“I may be gone all day,” he said, “and I may return in a few hours.  I cannot tell.  In any case, wait for me, and give the letter and all instructions to the man, if he comes.”  Then he thanked me once more very affectionately, and having embraced me he went out.

I watched him from the window, and he looked up and waved his hand.  I remember it very distinctly ­just how he looked.  His face was paler than ever, his lips were close set, though they smiled, and his eyes were sad.  He is an incomprehensible boy ­he always was.

I was left alone, with plenty of time for meditation, and I assure you my reflections were not pleasant.  O love, love, what madness you drive us into, by day and night!  Surely it is better to be a sober professor of philosophy than to be in love, ever so wildly, or sorrowfully, or happily.  I do not wonder that a parcel of idiots have tried to prove that Dante loved philosophy and called it Beatrice.  He would have been a sober professor, if that were true, and a happier man.  But I am sure it is not true, for I was once in love myself.