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

It fell out as Nino had anticipated, and when he told me all the details, some time afterwards, it struck me that he had shown an uncommon degree of intelligence in predicting that the old count would ride alone that day.  He had, indeed, so made his arrangements that even if the whole party had come out together nothing worse would have occurred than a postponement of the interview he sought.  But he was destined to get what he wanted that very day, namely, an opportunity of speaking with Von Lira alone.

It was twelve o’clock when he left me, and the mid-day bell was ringing from the church, while the people bustled about getting their food.  Every old woman had a piece of corn cake, and the ragged children got what they could, gathering the crumbs in their mothers’ aprons.  A few rough fellows who were not away at work in the valley munched the maize bread with a leek and a bit of salt fish, and some of them had oil on it.  Our mountain people eat scarcely anything else, unless it be a little meat on holidays, or an egg when the hens are laying.  But they laugh and chatter over the coarse fare, and drink a little wine when they can get it.  Just now, however, was the season for fasting, being the end of Holy Week, and the people made a virtue of necessity, and kept their eggs and their wine for Easter.

When Nino went out he found his countryman, and explained to him what he was to do.  The man saddled one of the mules and put himself on the watch, while Nino sat by the fire in the quaint old inn and ate some bread.  It was the end of March when these things happened, and a little fire was grateful, though one could do very well without it.  He spread his hands to the flame of the sticks, as he sat on the wooden settle by the old hearth, and he slowly gnawed his corn cake, as though a week before he had not been a great man in Paris, dining sumptuously with famous people.  He was not thinking of that.  He was looking in the flame for a fair face that he saw continually before him, day and night.  He expected to wait a long time, ­some hours, perhaps.

Twenty minutes had not elapsed, however, before his man came breathless through the door, calling to him to come at once; for the solitary rider had gone out, as was expected, and at a pace that would soon take him out of sight.  Nino threw his corn bread to a hungry dog that yelped as it hit him, and then fastened on it like a beast of prey.

In the twinkling of an eye he and his man were out of the inn.  As they ran to the place where the mule was tied to an old ring in the crumbling wall of a half-ruined house near to the ascent to the castle, the man told Nino that the fine gentleman had ridden toward Trevi, down the valley, Nino mounted, and hastened in the same direction.

As he rode he reflected that it would be wiser to meet the count on his return, and pass him after the interview, as though going away from Fillettino.  It would be a little harder for the mule; but such an animal, used to bearing enormous burdens for twelve hours at a stretch, could well carry Nino only a few miles of good road before sunset, and yet be fresh again by midnight.  One of those great sleek mules, if good-tempered, will tire three horses, and never feel the worse for it.  He therefore let the beast go her own pace along the road to Trevi, winding by the brink of the rushing torrent:  sometimes beneath great overhanging cliffs, sometimes through bits of cultivated land, where the valley widens; and now and then passing under some beech-trees, still naked and skeleton-like in the bright March air.

But Nino rode many miles, as he thought, without meeting the count, dangling his feet out of the stirrups, and humming snatches of song to himself to pass the time.  He looked at his watch, ­a beautiful gold one, given him by a very great personage in Paris, ­and it was half-past two o’clock.  Then, to avoid tiring his mule, he got off and sat by a tree, at a place where he could see far along the road.  But three o’clock came, and a quarter past, and he began to fear that the count had gone all the way to Trevi.  Indeed, Trevi could not be very far off, he thought.  So he mounted again, and paced down the valley.  He says that in all that time he never thought once of what he should say to the count when he met him, having determined in his mind once and for all what was to be asked; to which the only answer must be “yes” or “no.”

At last, before he reached the turn in the valley, and just as the sun was passing down behind the high mountains on the left, beyond the stream, he saw the man he had come out to meet, not a hundred yards away, riding toward him on his great horse, at a foot pace.  It was the count, and he seemed lost in thought, for his head was bent on his breast, and the reins hung carelessly loose from his hand.  He did not raise his eyes until he was close to Nino, who took off his hat and pulled up short.

The old count was evidently very much surprised, for he suddenly straightened himself in his saddle, with a sort of jerk, and glared savagely at Nino; his wooden features appearing to lose colour, and his long moustache standing out and bristling.  He also reined in his horse, and the pair sat on their beasts, not five yards apart, eying each other like a pair of duelists.  Nino was the first to speak, for he was prepared.

“Good day, Signor Conte,” he said, as calmly as he could.  “You have not forgotten me, I am sure.”  Lira looked more and more amazed as he observed the cool courtesy with which he was accosted.  But his polite manner did not desert him even then, for he raised his hat.

“Good-day,” he said, briefly, and made his horse move on.  He was too proud to put the animal to a brisker pace than a walk, lest he should seem to avoid an enemy.  But Nino turned his mule at the same time.

“Pardon the liberty, sir,” he said, “but I would take advantage of this opportunity to have a few words with you.”

“It is a liberty, as you say, sir,” replied Lira, stiffly, and looking straight before him.  “But since you have met me, say what you have to say quickly.”  He talked in the same curious constructions as formerly, but I will spare you the grammatical vagaries.

“Some time has elapsed,” continued Nino, “since our unfortunate encounter.  I have been in Paris, where I have had more than common success in my profession.  From being a very poor teacher of Italian to the signorina, your daughter, I am become an exceedingly prosperous artist.  My character is blameless and free from all stain, in spite of the sad business in which we were both concerned, and of which you knew the truth from the dead lady’s own lips.”

“What then?” growled Lira, who had listened grimly, and was fast losing his temper.  “What then?  Do you suppose, Signor Cardegna, that I am still interested in your comings and goings?”

“The sequel to what I have told you, sir,” answered Nino, bowing again, and looking very grave, “is that I once more most respectfully and honestly ask you to give me the hand of your daughter, the Signorina Hedwig von Lira.”

The hot blood flushed the old soldier’s hard features to the roots of his gray hair, and his voice trembled as he answered: 

“Do you intend to insult me, sir?  If so, this quiet road is a favourable spot for settling the question.  It shall never be said that an officer in the service of his majesty the King and Emperor refused to fight with anyone, ­with his tailor, if need be.”  He reined his horse from Nino’s side, and eyed him fiercely.

“Signor Conte,” answered Nino, calmly, “nothing could be further from my thoughts than to insult you, or to treat you in any way with disrespect.  And I will not acknowledge that anything you can say can convey an insult to myself.”  Lira smiled in a sardonic fashion.  “But,” added Nino, “if it would give you any pleasure to fight, and if you have weapons, I shall be happy to oblige you.  It is a quiet spot, as you say, and it shall never be said that an Italian artist refused to fight a German soldier.”

“I have two pistols in my holsters,” said Lira, with a smile.  “The roads are not safe, and I always carry them.”

“Then, sir, be good enough to select one and to give me the other, and we will at once proceed to business.”

The count’s manner changed.  He looked grave.

“I have the pistols, Signor Cardegna, but I do not desire to use them.  Your readiness satisfies me that you are in earnest, and we will therefore not fight for amusement.  I need not defend myself from any charge of unwillingness, I believe,” he added, proudly.

“In that case, sir,” said Nino, “and since we have convinced each other that we are serious and desire to be courteous, let us converse calmly.”

“Have you anything more to say?” asked the count, once more allowing his horse to pace along the dusty road, while Nino’s mule walked by his side.

“I have this to say, Signor Conte,” answered Nino:  “that I shall not desist from desiring the honour of marrying your daughter, if you refuse me a hundred times.  I wish to put it to you whether with youth, some talent, ­I speak modestly, ­and the prospect of a plentiful income, I am not as well qualified to aspire to the alliance as Baron Benoni, who has old age, much talent, an enormous fortune, and the benefit of the Jewish faith into the bargain.”

The count winced palpably at the mention of Benoni’s religion.  No people are more insanely prejudiced against the Hebrew race than the Germans.  They indeed maintain that they have greater cause than others, but it always appears to me that they are unreasonable about it.  Benoni chanced to be a Jew, but his peculiarities would have been the same had he been a Christian or an American.  There is only one Ahasuerus Benoni in the world.

“There is no question of Baron Benoni here,” said the count severely, but hurriedly.  “Your observations are beside the mark.  The objections to the alliance, as you call it, are that you are a man of the people, ­I do not desire to offend you, ­a plebeian, in fact; you are also a man of uncertain fortune, like all singers:  and lastly, you are an artist.  I trust you will consider these points as a sufficient reason for my declining the honour you propose.”

“I will only say,” returned Nino, “that I venture to consider your reasons insufficient, though I do not question your decision.  Baron Benoni was ennobled for a loan made to a Government in difficulties; he was, by his own account, a shoemaker by early occupation, and a strolling musician ­a great artist if you like ­by the profession he adopted.”

“I never heard these facts,” said Lira, “and I suspect that you have been misinformed.  But I do not wish to continue the discussion of the subject.”

Nino says that after the incident of the pistols the interview passed without the slightest approach to ill-temper on either side.  They both felt that if they disagreed they were prepared to settle their difficulties then and there, without any further ado.

“Then, sir, before we part, permit me to call your attention to a matter which must be of importance to you,” said Nino.  “I refer to the happiness of the Signorina di Lira.  In spite of your refusal of my offer, you will understand that the welfare of that lady must always be to me of the greatest importance.”

Lira bowed his head stiffly, and seemed inclined to speak, but changed his mind, and held his tongue, to see what Nino would say.

“You will comprehend, I am sure,” continued the latter, “that in the course of those months, during which I was so far honoured as to be of service to the contessina, I had opportunities of observing her remarkably gifted intelligence.  I am now credibly informed that she is suffering from ill health.  I have not seen her, nor made any attempt to see her, as you might have supposed, but I have an acquaintance in Fillettino who has seen her pass his door daily.  Allow me to remark that a mind of such rare qualities must grow sick if driven to feed upon itself in solitude.  I would respectfully suggest that some gayer residence than Fillettino would be a sovereign remedy for her illness.”

“Your tone and manner,” replied the count, “forbid my resenting your interference.  I have no reason to doubt your affection for my daughter, but I must request you to abandon all idea of changing my designs.  If I choose to bring my daughter to a true sense of her position by somewhat rigorous methods, it is because I am aware that the frailty of reputation surpasses the frailty of woman.  I will say this to your credit, sir, that if she has not disgraced herself, it has been in some measure because you wisely forbore from pressing your suit while you were received as an instructor beneath my roof.  I am only doing my duty in trying to make her understand that her good name has been seriously exposed, and that the best reparation she can make lies in following my wishes, and accepting the honourable and advantageous marriage I have provided for her.  I trust that this explanation, which I am happy to say has been conducted with the strictest propriety, will be final, and that you will at once desist from any further attempts toward persuading me to consent to a union that I disapprove.”

Lira once more stopped his horse in the road, and taking off his hat bowed to Nino.

“And I, sir,” said Nino, no less courteously, “am obliged to you for your clearly-expressed answer.  I shall never cease to regret your decision, and so long as I live I shall hope that you may change your mind.  Good-day, Signor Conte,” and he bowed to his saddle.

“Good-day, Signor Cardegna.”  So they parted:  the count heading homeward toward Fillettino, and Nino turning back toward Trevi.

By this manoeuvre he conveyed to the count’s mind the impression that he had been to Fillettino for the day, and was returning to Trevi for the evening; and in reality the success of his enterprise, since his representations had failed, must depend upon Hedwig being comparatively free during the ensuing night.  He determined to wait by the roadside until it should be dark, allowing his mule to crop whatever poor grass she could find at this season, and thus giving the count time to reach Fillettino, even at the most leisurely pace.

He sat down upon the root of a tree, and allowed his mule to graze at liberty.  It was already growing dark in the valley; for between the long speeches of civility the two had employed and the frequent pauses in the interview, the meeting had lasted the greater part of an hour.

Nino says that while he waited he reviewed his past life and his present situation.

Indeed, since he had made his first appearance in the theatre, three months before, events had crowded thick and fast in his life.  The first sensation of a great public success is strange to one who has long been accustomed to live unnoticed and unhonoured by the world.  It is at first incomprehensible that one should have suddenly grown to be an object of interest and curiosity to one’s fellow-creatures, after having been so long a looker-on.  At first a man does not realise that the thing he has laboured over, and studied, and worked on, can be actually anything remarkable.  The production of the every-day task has long grown a habit, and the details which the artist grows to admire and love so earnestly have each brought with them their own reward.  Every difficulty vanquished, every image of beauty embodied, every new facility of skill acquired, has been in itself a real and enduring satisfaction for its own sake, and for the sake of its fitness to the whole, ­the beautiful perfect whole he has conceived.

But he must necessarily forget, if he loves his work, that those who come after, and are to see the expression of his thought, or hear the mastery of his song, see or hear it all at once; so that the assemblage of the lesser beauties, over each of which the artist has had great joy, must produce a suddenly multiplied impression upon the understanding of the outside world, which sees first the embodiment of the thought, and has then the after-pleasure of appreciating the details.  The hearer is thrilled with a sense of impassioned beauty, which the singer may perhaps feel when he first conceives the interpretation of the printed notes, but which goes over farther from him as he strives to approach it and realise it; and so his admiration for his own song is lost in dissatisfaction with the failings which others have not time to see.

Before he is aware of the change, a singer has become famous, and all men are striving for a sight of him, or a hearing.  There are few like Nino, whose head was not turned at all by the flattery and the praise, being occupied with other things.  As he sat by the roadside, he thought of the many nights when the house rang with cheers and cries and all manner of applause; and he remembered how, each time he looked his audience in the face, he had searched for the one face of all faces that he cared to see, and had searched in vain.

He seemed now to understand that it was his honest-hearted love for the fair northern girl that had protected him from caring for the outer world, and he now realised what the outer world was.  He fancied to himself what his first three months of brilliant success might have been, in Rome and Paris, if he had not been bound by some strong tie of the heart to keep him serious and thoughtful.  He thought of the women who had smiled upon him, and of the invitations that had besieged him, and of the consternation that had manifested itself when he declared his intention of retiring to Rome, after his brilliant engagement in Paris, without signing any further contract.

Then came the rapid journey, the excitement, the day in Rome, the difficulties of finding Fillettino; and at last he was here, sitting by the roadside, and waiting for it to be time to carry into execution the bold scheme he had set before him.  His conscience was at rest, for he now felt that he had done all that the most scrupulous honour could exact of him.  He had returned in the midst of his success to make an honourable offer of marriage, and he had been refused, ­because he was a plebeian, forsooth!  And he knew also that the woman he loved was breaking her heart for him.

What wonder that he set his teeth, and said to himself that she should be his, at any price!  Nino has no absurd ideas about the ridicule that attaches to loving a woman, and taking her if necessary.  He has not been trained up in the heart of the wretched thing they call society, which ruined me long ago.  What he wants he asks for, like a child, and if it is refused, and his good heart tells him that he has a right to it, he takes it like a man, or like what a man was in the old time before the Englishman discovered that he is an ape.  Ah, my learned colleagues, we are not so far removed from the ancestral monkey but that there is serious danger of our shortly returning to that primitive and caudal state!  And I think that my boy and the Prussian officer, as they sat on their beasts and bowed, and smiled, and offered to fight each other, or to shake hands, each desiring to oblige the other, like a couple of knights of the old ages, were a trifle farther removed from our common gorilla parentage than some of us.

But it grew dark, and Nino caught his mule and rode slowly back to the town, wondering what would happen before the sun rose on the other side of the world.  Now, lest you fail to understand wholly how the matter passed, I must tell you a little of what took place during the time that Nino was waiting for the count, and Hedwig was alone in the castle with Baron Benoni.  The way I came to know is this:  Hedwig told the whole story to Nino, and Nino told it to me, ­but many months after that eventful day, which I shall always consider as one of the most remarkable in my life.  It was Good Friday, last year, and you may find out the day of the month for yourselves.