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

Temistocle closed the door, then opened it again, and looked out, after which he finally shut it, and seemed satisfied.  He advanced with cautious tread to where Hedwig sat by the window.

“Well?  What have you done?” she inquired, without looking at him.  It is a hard thing for a proud and noble girl to be in the power of a servant.  The man took Nino’s letter from his pocket, and handed it to her upon his open palm.  Hedwig tried hard to take it with indifference, but she acknowledges that her fingers trembled and her heart beat fast.

“I was to deliver a message to your excellency from the old gentleman,” said Temistocle, coming close to her and bending down.

“Ah!” said Hedwig, beginning to break the envelope.

“Yes, excellency.  He desired me to say that it was absolutely and most indubitably necessary that your excellency should be at the little door to-night at twelve o’clock.  Do not fear, Signora Contessina; we can manage it very well.”

“I do not wish to know what you advise me to fear, or not to fear,” answered Hedwig, haughtily; for she could not bear to feel that the man should counsel her or encourage her.

“Pardon, excellency; I thought ­” began Temistocle humbly; but Hedwig interrupted him.

“Temistocle,” she said, “I have no money to give you, as I told you yesterday.  But here is another stone, like the other.  Take it, and arrange this matter as best you can.”

Temistocle took the jewel and bowed to the ground, eying curiously the little case from which she had taken it.

“I have thought and combined everything,” he said.  “Your excellency will see that it is best you should go alone to the staircase; for, as we say, a mouse makes less noise than a rat.  When you have descended, lock the door at the top behind you; and when you reach the foot of the staircase, keep that door open.  I will have brought the old gentleman by that time, and you will let me in.  I shall go out by the great gate.”

“Why not go with me?” inquired Hedwig.

“Because, your excellency, one person is less likely to be seen than two.  Your excellency will let me pass you.  I will mount the staircase, unlock the upper door, and change the key to the other side.  Then I will keep watch, and if anyone comes I will lock the door and slip away till he is gone.”

“I do not like the plan,” said Hedwig.  “I would rather let myself in from the staircase.”

“But suppose anyone were waiting on the inside, and saw you come back?”

“That is true.  Give me the keys, Temistocle, and a taper and some matches.”

“Your excellency is a paragon of courage,” replied the servant, obsequiously.  “Since yesterday I have carried the keys in my pocket.  I will bring you the taper this evening.”

“Bring it now.  I wish to be ready.”

Temistocle departed on the errand.  When he returned Hedwig ordered him to give a message to her father.

“When the count comes home, ask him to see me,” she said.  Temistocle bowed once more, and was gone.

Yes, she would see her father, and tell him plainly what she had suffered from Benoni.  She felt that no father, however cruel, would allow his daughter to be so treated, and she would detail the conversation to him.

She had not been able to read Nino’s letter, for she feared the servant, knowing the writing to be Italian and legible to him.  Now she hastened to drink in its message of love.  You cannot suppose that I know exactly what he said, but he certainly set forth at some length his proposal that she should leave her father, and escape with her lover from the bondage in which she was now held.  He told her modestly of his success, in so far as it was necessary that she should understand his position.  It must have been a very eloquent letter, for it nearly persuaded her to a step of which she had wildly dreamed, indeed, but which in her calmer moments she regarded as impossible.

The interminable afternoon was drawing to a close, and once more she sat by the open window, regardless of the increasing cold.  Suddenly it all came over her, ­the tremendous importance of the step she was about to take, if she should take Nino at his word, and really break from one life into another.  The long restrained tears, that had been bound from flowing through all Benoni’s insults and her own anger, trickled silently down her cheek, no longer pale, but bright and flushed at the daring thought of freedom.

At first it seemed far off, as seen in the magician’s glass.  She looked and saw herself as another person, acting a part only half known and half understood.  But gradually her own individual soul entered into the figure of her imagination; her eager heart beat fast; she breathed and moved and acted in the future.  She was descending the dark steps alone, listening with supernatural sense of sound for her lover’s tread without.  It came; the door opened, and she was in his arms, ­in those strong arms that could protect her from insult and tyranny and cruel wooing; out in the night, on the road, in Rome, married, free, and made blessed for ever.  On a sudden the artificial imagery of her labouring brain fell away, and the thought crossed her mind that henceforth she must be an orphan.  Her father would never speak to her again, or ever own for his a daughter that had done such a deed.  Like icy water poured upon a fevered body, the idea chilled her and woke her to reality.

Did she love her father?  She had loved him ­yes, until she crossed his will.  She loved him still, when she could be so horror-struck at the thought of incurring his lasting anger.  Could she bear it?  Could she find in her lover all that she must renounce of a father’s care and a father’s affection, ­stern affection, that savoured of the despot, ­but could she hurt him so?

The image of her father seemed to take another shape, and gradually to assume the form and features of the one man of the world whom she hated, converting itself little by little into Benoni.  She hid her face in her hands and terror staunched the tears that had flown afresh at the thought of orphanhood.

A knock at the door.  She hastily concealed the crumpled letter.

“Come in!” she answered, boldly; and her father, moving mechanically, with his stick in his hand, entered the room.  He came as he had dismounted from his horse, in his riding boots, and his broad felt hat caught by the same fingers that held the stick.

“You wished to see me, Hedwig,” he said, coldly, depositing his hat upon the table.  Then, when he had slowly sat himself down in an arm-chair, he added, “Here I am.”  Hedwig had risen respectfully, and stood before him in the twilight.  “What do you wish to say?” he asked in German.  “You do not often honour your father by requesting his society.”

Hedwig stood one moment in silence.  Her first impulse was to throw herself at his feet and implore him to let her marry Nino.  The thought swept away for the time the remembrance of Benoni and of what she had to tell.  But a second sufficed to give her the mastery of her tongue and memory, which women seldom lose completely, even at the most desperate moments.

“I desired to tell you,” she said, “that Baron Benoni took advantage of your absence to-day to insult me beyond my endurance.”  She looked boldly into her father’s eyes as she spoke.

“Ah!” said he, with great coolness.  “Will you be good enough to light one of those candles on the table, and to close the window?”

Hedwig obeyed in silence, and once more planted herself before him, her slim figure looking ghostly between the fading light of the departing day and the yellow flame of the candle.

“You need not assume this theatrical air,” said Lira, calmly.  “I presume you mean that Baron Benoni asked you to marry him?”

“Yes, that is one thing, and is an insult in itself,” replied Hedwig, without changing her position.  “I suspect that it is the principal thing,” remarked the count.  “Very good; he asked you to marry him.  He has my full authority to do so.  What then?”

“You are my father,” answered Hedwig, standing like a statue before him, “and you have the right to offer me whom you please for a husband, but you have no authority to allow me to be wantonly insulted.”

“I think that you are out of your mind,” said the count, with imperturbable equanimity.  “You grant that I may propose a suitor to you, and you call it a wanton insult when that suitor respectfully asks the honour of your hand, merely because he is not young enough to suit your romantic tastes, which have been fostered by this wretched southern air.  It is unfortunate that my health requires me to reside in Italy.  Had you enjoyed an orderly Prussian education, you would have held different views in regard to filial duty.  Refuse Baron Benoni as often as you like.  I will stay here, and so will he, I fancy, until you change your mind.  I am not tired of this lordly mountain scenery, and my health improves daily.  We can pass the summer and winter, and more summers and winters, very comfortably here.  If there is anything you would like to have brought from Rome, inform me, and I will satisfy any reasonable request.”

“The baron has already had the audacity to inform me that you would keep me a prisoner until I should marry him,” said Hedwig; and her voice trembled as she remembered how Benoni had told her so.

“I doubt not that Benoni, who is a man of consummate tact, hinted delicately that he would not desist from pressing his suit.  You, well knowing my determination, and carried away by your evil temper, have magnified into a threat what he never intended as such.  Pray let me hear no more about these fancied insults.”  The old man smiled grimly at his keen perception.

“You shall hear me, nevertheless,” said Hedwig, in a low voice, coming close to the table and resting one hand upon it as though for support.

“My daughter,” said the count, “I desire you to abandon this highly theatrical and melodramatic tone.  I am not to be imposed upon.”

“Baron Benoni did not confine himself to the course you describe.  He said many things to me that I did not understand, but I comprehended their import.  He began by making absurd speeches, at which I laughed.  Then he asked me to marry him, as I had long known he would do as soon as you gave him the opportunity.  I refused his offer.  Then he insisted, saying that you, sir, had determined on this marriage, and would keep me a close prisoner here until the torture of the situation broke down my strength.  I assured him that I would never yield to force.  Then he broke out angrily, telling me to my face that I had lost everything ­name, fame, and honour, ­how, I cannot tell; but he said those words; and he added that I could regain my reputation only by consenting to marry him.”

The old count had listened at first with a sarcastic smile, then with increased attention.  Finally, as Hedwig repeated the shameful insult, his brave old blood boiled up in his breast, and he sat gripping the two arms of his chair fiercely, while his gray eyes shot fire from beneath the shaggy brows.

“Hedwig,” he cried, hoarsely, “are you speaking the truth?  Did he say those words?”

“Yes, my father, and more like them.  Are you surprised?” she asked bitterly.  “You have said them yourself to me.”

The old man’s rage rose furiously, and he struggled to his feet.  He was stiff with riding and rheumatism, but he was too angry to sit still.

“I?  Yes, I have tried to show you what might have happened, and to warn you and frighten you, as you should be frightened.  Yes, and I was right, for you shall not drag my name in the dirt.  But another man ­Benoni!” He could not speak for his wrath, and his tall figure moved rapidly about the room, his heart seeking expression in action.  He looked like some forgotten creature of harm, suddenly galvanised into destructive life.  It was well that Benoni was not within reach.

Hedwig stood calmly by the table, proud in her soul that her father should be roused to such fury.  The old man paused in his walk, came to her, and with his hand turned her face to the light, gazing savagely into her eyes.

“You never told me a lie,” he growled out.

“Never,” she said, boldly, as she faced him scornfully.  He knew his own temper in his child, and was satisfied.  The soldier’s habit of self-control was strong in him, and the sardonic humour of his nature served as a garment to the thoughts he harboured.

“It appears,” he said, “that I am to spend the remainder of an honourable life in fighting with a pack of hounds.  I nearly killed your old acquaintance, the Signor Professore Cardegna, this afternoon.”  Hedwig staggered back, and turned pale.

“What!  Is he wounded?” she gasped out, pressing her hand to his side.

“Ha!  That touches you almost as closely as Benoni’s insult,” he said, savagely.  “I am glad of it.  I repent me, and wish that I had killed him.  We met on the road, and he had the impertinence to ask me for your hand, ­I am sick of these daily proposals of marriage; and then I inquired if he meant to insult me.”

Hedwig leaned heavily on the table in an agony of suspense.

“The fellow answered that if I were insulted he was ready to fight then and there, in the road, with my pistols.  He is no coward, your lover, ­I will say that.  The end of it was that I came home and he did not.”

Hedwig sank into the chair that her father had left, and hid her face.

“Oh, you have killed him!” she moaned.

“No,” said the count shortly; “I did not touch a hair of his head.  But he rode away toward Trevi.”  Hedwig breathed again.  “Are you satisfied?” he asked, with a hard smile, enjoying the terror he had excited.

“Oh, how cruel you are, my father!” she said, in a broken voice.

“I tell you that if I could cure you of your insane passion for this singer fellow, I would be as cruel as the Inquisition,” retorted the count.  “Now listen to me.  You will not be troubled any longer with Benoni, ­the beast!  I will teach him a lesson of etiquette.  You need not appear at dinner to-night.  But you are not to suppose that our residence here is at an end.  When you have made up your mind to act sensibly, and to forget the Signor Cardegna, you shall return to society, where you may select a husband of your own position and fortune, if you choose; or you may turn Romanist, and go into a convent, and devote yourself to good works and idolatry, or anything else.  I do not pretend to care what becomes of you, so long as you show any decent respect for your name.  But if you persist in pining and moaning and starving yourself, because I will not allow you to turn dancer and marry a strolling player, you will have to remain here.  I am not such pleasant company when I am bored, I can tell you, and my enthusiasm for the beauties of nature is probably transitory.”

“I can bear anything if you will remove Benoni,” said Hedwig, quietly, as she rose from her seat.  But the pressure of the iron keys that she had hidden in her bosom gave her a strange sensation.

“Never fear,” said the count, taking his hat from the table.  “You shall be amply avenged of Benoni and his foul tongue.  I may not love my daughter, but no one shall insult her.  I will have a word with him this evening.”

“I thank you for that, at least,” said Hedwig, as he moved to the door.

“Do not mention it,” said he, and put his hand on the lock.

A sudden impulse seized Hedwig.  She ran swiftly to him, and clasped her hands upon his arm.

“Father?” she cried, pleadingly.


“Father, do you love me?” He hesitated one moment.

“No,” he said, sternly; “you disobey me”; and he went out in rough haste.  The door closed behind him, and she was left standing alone.  What could she do, poor child?  For months he had tormented her and persecuted her, and now she had asked him plainly if she still held a place in his heart, and he had coldly denied it.

A gentle, tender maiden, love-sick and mind-sick, yearning so piteously for a little mercy, or sympathy, or kindness, and treated like a mutinous soldier, because she loved so honestly and purely, ­is it any wonder that her hand went to her bosom and clasped the cold, hard keys that promised her life and freedom?  I think not.  I have no patience with young women who allow themselves to be carried away by an innate bad taste and love for effect, quarrelling with the peaceful destiny that a kind Providence has vouchsafed them, and with an existence which they are too dull to make interesting to themselves or to anyone else; finally making a desperate and foolish dash at notoriety by a runaway marriage with the first scamp they can find, and repenting in poverty and social ostracism the romance they conceived in wealth and luxury.  They deserve their fate.  But when a sensitive girl is motherless, cut off from friends and pleasures, presented with the alternative of solitude or marriage with some detested man, or locked up to forget a dream which was half realised and very sweet, then the case is different.  If she breaks her bonds, and flies to the only loving heart she knows, forgive her, and pray Heaven to have mercy on her, for she takes a fearful leap into the dark.

Hedwig felt the keys, and took them from her dress, and pressed them to her cheek, and her mind was made up.  She glanced at the small gilt clock, and saw that the hands pointed to seven.  Five hours were before her in which to make her preparations, such as they could be.

In accordance with her father’s orders, given when he left her, Temistocle served her dinner in her sitting-room; and the uncertainty of the night’s enterprise demanded that she should eat something, lest her strength should fail at the critical moment.  Temistocle volunteered the information that her father had gone to the baron’s apartment, and had not been seen since.  She heard in silence, and bade the servant leave her as soon as he had ministered to her wants.  Then she wrote a short letter to her father, telling him that she had left him, since he had no place for her in his heart, and that she had gone to the one man who seemed ready both to love and to protect her.  This missive she folded, sealed, and laid in a prominent place upon the table addressed to the count.

She made a small bundle, ­very neatly, for she is clever with her fingers, ­and put on a dark travelling dress, in the folds of which she sewed such jewels as were small and valuable and her own.  She would take nothing that her father had given her.  In all this she displayed perfect coolness and foresight.

The castle became intensely quiet as the evening advanced.  She sat watching the clock.  At five minutes before midnight she took her bundle and her little shoes in her hand, blew out her candle, and softly left the room.