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

The gorge rises steep and precipitous between the lofty mountains on both sides, and it is fortunate that we had some light from the moon, which was still high at two o’clock, being at the full.

It is a ghastly place enough.  In the days of the Papal States the Serra di Sant’ Antonio, as it is called, was the shortest passage to the kingdom of Naples, and the frontier line ran across its summit.  To pass from one dominion to the other it would be necessary to go out of the way some forty or fifty miles, perhaps, unless one took this route; and the natural consequence was that outlaws, smugglers, political fugitives, and all such manner of men, found it a great convenience.  Soldiers were stationed in Fillettino and on the other side, to check illicit traffic and brigandage, and many were the fights that were fought among these giant beeches.

The trees are of primeval dimensions, for no one has yet been enterprising enough to attempt to fell the timber.  The gorge is so steep, and in many places so abruptly precipitous, that the logs could never be removed; and so they have grown undisturbed for hundreds of years, rotting and falling away as they stand.  The beech is a lordly tree, with its great smooth trunk and its spreading branches, and though it never reaches the size of the chestnut, it is far more beautiful and long-lived.

Here and there, at every hundred yards or so, it seemed to me, the countryman would touch his hat and cross himself as he clambered up the rocky path, and then I did likewise; for there was always some rude cross or rough attempt at the inscription of a name at such spots, which marked where a man had met his untimely end.  Sometimes the moonbeams struggled through the branches, still bare of leaves, and fell on a few bold initials and a date; and sometimes we came to a broad ledge where no trees were, but only a couple of black sticks tied at right angles for a cross.  It was a dismal place, and the owls hooted at us.

Besides, it grew intensely cold towards morning, so that the countryman wanted to stop and make a fire to warm ourselves.  Though it was the end of March, the ground was frozen as hard as any stone wherever it was free from rocks.  But Nino dismounted, and insisted upon wrapping his cloak about Hedwig; and then he walked, for fear of catching cold, and the countryman mounted his mule and clambered away in front.  In this way Hedwig and Nino lagged behind, conversing in low tones that sounded very soft; and when I looked round, I could see how he held his hand on her saddle and supported her in the rough places.  Poor child, who would have thought she could bear such terrible work!  But she had the blood of a soldierly old race in her veins, and would have struggled on silently till she died.

I think it would be useless to describe every stone on the desolate journey, but when the morning dawned we were at the top, and we found the descent much easier.  The rosy streaks came first, quite suddenly, and in a few minutes the sun was up, and the eventful night was past.  I was never so glad to get rid of a night in my life.  It is fortunate that I am so thin and light, for I could never have reached the high-road alive had I been as fat as De Pretis is; and certainly the little donkey would have died by the way.  He was quite as thin when I sold him again as when I bought him, a fortnight before, in spite of the bread I had given him.

Hedwig drew her veil close about her face as the daylight broke, for she would not let Nino see how pale and tired she was.  But when at last we were in the broad, fertile valley which marks the beginning of the old kingdom of Naples, we reached a village where there was an inn, and Nino turned everyone out of the best room with a high hand, and had a couch of some sort spread for Hedwig.  He himself walked up and down outside the door for five whole hours, lest she should be disturbed in her sleep.  As for me I lay, on a bench, rolled in my cloak, and slept as I have not slept since I was twenty.

Nino knew that the danger of pursuit was past now, and that the first thing necessary was to give Hedwig rest; for she was so tired that she could not eat, though there were very good eggs to be had, of which I ate three, and drank some wine, which does not compare to that on the Roman side.

The sturdy man from Subiaco seemed like iron, for he ate sparingly and drank less, and went out into the village to secure a conveyance and to inquire the nearest way to Ceprano.

But when, as I have said, Nino had guarded Hedwig’s door for five hours he woke me from my sleep, and by that time it was about two in the afternoon.

“Hi, Messer Cornelio! wake up!” he cried pulling my arm.  And I rubbed my eyes.

“What do you want, Nino?” I inquired.

“I want to be married immediately,” he replied, still pulling at my elbow.

“Well, pumpkin-head,” I said angrily, “marry, then, in Heaven’s name, and let me sleep!  I do not want to marry anybody.”

“But I do,” retorted Nino, sitting down on the bench and laying a hand on my shoulder.  He could still see Hedwig’s door from where he sat.

“In this place?” I asked.  “Are you serious?”

“Perfectly.  This is a town of some size, and there must be a mayor here who marries people when they take the fancy.”

“Diavolo!  I suppose so,” I assented.

“A sindaco, ­there must be one, surely.”

“Very well, go and find him, good-for-nothing!” I exclaimed.

“But I cannot go away and leave that door until she wakes,” he objected.  “Dear Messer Cornelio, you have done so much for me, and are so kind, ­will you not go out and find the sindaco, and bring him here to marry us?”

“Nino,” I said, gravely, “the ass is a patient beast, and very intelligent, but there is a limit to his capabilities.  So long as it is merely a question of doing things you cannot do, very well.  But if it comes to this, that I must find not only the bride, but also the mayor and the priest, I say, with good Pius IX., ­rest his soul, ­non possumus.”  Nino laughed.  He could afford to laugh now.

“Messer Cornelio, a child could tell you have been asleep.  I never heard such a string of disconnected sentences in my life.  Come, be kind, and get me a mayor that I may be married.”

“I tell you I will not,” I cried, stubbornly.  “Go yourself.”

“But I cannot leave the door.  If anything should happen to her ­”

“Macche!  What should happen to her, pray?  I will put my bench across the door, and sit there till you come back.”

“I am not quite sure ­” he began.

“Idiot!” I exclaimed.

“Well, let us see how it looks.”  And with that he ousted me from my bench, and carried it, walking on tiptoe, to the entrance of Hedwig’s room.  Then he placed it across the door.  “Now sit down,” he said, authoritatively, but in a whisper; and I took my place in the middle of the long seat.  He stood back and looked at me with an artistic squint.

“You look so proper,” he said, “that I am sure nobody will think of trying the door while you sit there.  Will you remain till I come back?”

“Like Saint Peter in his chair,” I whispered, for I wanted to get rid of him.

“Well, then, I must risk whatever may happen, and leave you here.”  So he went away.  Now I ask you if this was not a ridiculous position.  But I had discovered, in the course of my fortnight’s wanderings, that I was really something of a philosopher in practice, and I am proud to say that on this occasion I smoked in absolute indifference to the absurdity of the thing.  People came and stood at a distance in the passage, and eyed me curiously.  But they knew I belonged to the party of foreigners, and doubtless they supposed it was the custom of my country to guard doors in that way.

An hour passed, and I heard Hedwig stirring in the room.  After a time she came close to the door and put her hand on the lock, so that it began to rattle, but she hesitated, and went away again.  I once more heard her moving about.  Then I heard her open the window, and at last she came boldly and opened the door, which turned inward.  I sat like a rock, not knowing whether Nino would like me to turn round and look.

“Signor Grandi!” she cried at last in laughing tones.

“Yes, signorina!” I replied, respectfully, without moving.  She hesitated.

“What are you doing in that strange position?” she asked.

“I am mounting guard,” I answered.  “I promised Nino that I would sit here till he came back.”  She fairly laughed now, and it was the most airy, silvery laugh in the world.

“But why do you not look at me?”

“I am not sure that Nino would let me,” said I.  “I promised not to move, and I will keep my promise.”

“Will you let me out?” she asked, struggling with her merriment.

“By no means,” I answered; “anymore than I would let anybody in.”

“Then we must make the best of it,” said she.  “But I will bring a chair and sit down, while you tell me the news.”

“Will you assume all responsibility toward Nino, signorina, if I turn so that I can see you?” I asked, as she sat down.

“I will say that I positively ordered you to do so,” she answered, gaily.  “Now look, and tell me where Signor Cardegna is gone.”

I looked indeed, and it was long before I looked away.  The rest, the freedom, and the happiness had done their work quickly, in spite of all the dreadful anxiety and fatigue.  The fresh, transparent colour was in her cheeks, and her blue eyes were clear and bright.  The statue had been through the fire, and was made a living thing, beautiful, and breathing, and real.

“Tell me,” she said, the light dancing in her eyes, “where is he gone?”

“He is gone to find the mayor of this imposing capital,” I replied.  Hedwig suddenly blushed, and turned her glistening eyes away.  She was beautiful so.

“Are you very tired, signorina?  I ought not to ask the question, for you look as though you had never been tired in your life.”

There is no saying what foolish speeches I might have made had not Nino returned.  He was radiant, and I anticipated that he must have succeeded in his errand.

“Ha!  Messer Cornelio, is this the way you keep watch?” he cried.

“I found him here,” said Hedwig, shyly, “and he would not even glance at me until I positively insisted upon it.”  Nino laughed, as he would have laughed at most things in that moment, for sheer superfluity of happiness.

“Signorina,” he said, “would it be agreeable to you to walk for a few minutes after your sleep?  The weather is wonderfully fine, and I am sure you owe it to the world to show the roses which rest has given you.”

Hedwig blushed softly, and I rose and went away, conceiving that I had kept watch long enough.  But Nino called after me, as he moved the bench from the door.

“Messer Cornelio, will you not come with us?  Surely you need a walk very much, and we can ill spare your company.  My lady, let me offer you my arm.”

In this manner we left the inn, a wedding procession which could not have been much smaller, and the singing of an old woman, who sat with her distaff in front of her house, was the wedding march.  Nino seemed in no great haste, I thought, and I let them walk as they would, while I kept soberly in the middle of the road, a little way behind.

It was not far that we had to go, however, and soon we came to a large brick house, with an uncommonly small door, over which hung a wooden shield with the arms of Italy brightly painted in green and red and white.

Nino and Hedwig entered arm in arm, and I slunk guiltily in after them.  Hedwig had drawn her veil, which was the only head-dress she had, close about her face.

In a quarter of an hour the little ceremony was over, and the registers were signed by us all.  Nino also got a stamped certificate, which he put very carefully in his pocket-book.  I never knew what it cost Nino to overcome the scruples of the sindaco about marrying a strange couple from Rome in that outlandish place, where the peasants stared at us as though we had been the most unnatural curiosities, and even the pigs in the street jogged sullenly out of our way as though not recognising that we were human.

At all events, the thing was done, and Hedwig von Lira became for the rest of her life Edvigia Cardegna.  And I felt very guilty.  The pair went down the steps of the house together in front of me, and stopped as they reached the street; forgetting my presence, I presume.  They had not forgotten me so long as I was needed to be of use to them; but I must not complain.

“We can face the world together now, my dear lady,” said Nino, as he drew her little hand through his arm.  She looked up at him, and I could see her side face.  I shall never forget the expression.  There was in it something I really never saw before, which made me feel as though I were in church; and I knew then that there was no wrong in helping such love as that to its fulfilment.

By the activity of the man from Subiaco a curious conveyance was ready for us, being something between a gig and a cart, and a couple of strong horses were hired for the long drive.  The countryman, who had grown rich in the last three days, offered to buy the thin little ass which had carried me so far and so well.  He observed that he was blind of one eye, which I had never found out, and I do not believe it was true.  The way he showed it was by snapping his fingers close to the eye in question.  The donkey winked, and the countryman said that if the eye were good the beast would see that the noise was made by the fingers, and would not be frightened, and would therefore not wink.

“You see,” said he, “he thinks it is a whip cracking, and so he is afraid.”

“Do donkeys always wink when they are frightened?” I inquired.  “It is very interesting.”

“Yes,” said the countryman, “they mostly do.”  At all events, I was obliged to take the man’s own price, which was little enough, ­not a third of what I had given.

The roads were good, and the long and the short of the matter, without any more details, is that we reached Rome very early the next morning, having caught the night train from Naples.  Hedwig slept most of the time in the carriage and all the time in the train, while Nino, who never seemed to tire or to need sleep, sat watching her with wide, happy eyes.  But perhaps he slept a little too, for I did, and I cannot answer for his wakefulness through every minute of the night.

Once I asked him what he intended to do in Rome.

“We will go to the hotel Costanzi,” he answered, which is a foreigners’ resort.  And if she is rested enough we will come down to you, and see what we can do about being married properly in church by the old curato.”

“The marriage by the sindaco is perfectly legal,” I remarked.

“It is a legal contract, but it is not a marriage that pleases me,” he said, gravely.

“But, caro mio, without offence, your bride is a Protestant, a Lutheran; not to mince matters, a heretic.  They will make objections.”

“She is an angel,” said Nino, with great conviction.

“But the angels neither marry nor are given in marriage,” I objected, arguing the point to pass the time.

“What do you make of it, then, Messer Cornelio?” he asked, with a smile.

“Why, as a heretic she ought to burn, and as an angel she ought not to marry.”

“It is better to marry than to burn,” retorted Nino, triumphantly.

“Diavolo!  Have you had St. Paul for a tutor?” I asked, for I knew the quotation, being fond of Greek.

“I heard a preacher cite it once at the Gesù, and I thought it a good saying.”

Early in the morning we rolled into the great station of Rome, and took an affectionate leave of each other, with the promise that Hedwig and Nino would visit me in the course of the day.  I saw them into a carriage, with Nino’s small portmanteau, and Hedwig’s bundle, and then mounted a modest omnibus that runs from the termini to St. Peter’s, and goes very near my house.

All the bells were ringing gladly, as if to welcome us, for it was Easter morning; and though it is not so kept as it used to be, it is nevertheless a great feast.  Besides, the spring was at hand, and the acacia-trees in the great square were budding, though everything was still so backward in the hills.  April was at hand, which the foreigners think is our best month; but I prefer June and July, when the weather is warm, and the music plays in the Piazza Colonna of an evening.  For all that, April is a glad time, after the disagreeable winter.

There was with me much peace on that Easter day, for I felt that my dear boy was safe after all his troubles.  At least he was safe from anything that could be done to part him from Hedwig; for the civil laws are binding, and Hedwig was of the age when a young woman is legally free to marry whom she pleases.  Of course old Lira might still make himself disagreeable, but I fancied him too much a man of the world to desire a scandal, when no good could follow.  The one shadow in the future was the anger of Benoni, who would be certain to seek some kind of revenge for the repulse he had suffered.  I was still ignorant of his whereabouts, not yet knowing what I knew long afterwards, and have told you, because otherwise you would have been as much in the dark as he was himself, when Temistocle cunningly turned the lock of the staircase door and left him to his curses and his meditations.  I have had much secret joy in thinking what a wretched night he must have passed there, and how his long limbs must have ached with sitting about on the stones, and how hoarse he must have been from the dampness and the swearing.

I reached home, the dear old number twenty-seven in Santa Catarina dei Funari, by half-past seven, or even earlier; and I was glad when I rang the bell on the landing, and called through the keyhole in my impatience.

“Mariuccia, Mariuccia, come quickly!  It is I!” I cried.

“O Madonna mia!’ I heard her exclaim, and there was a tremendous clatter, as she dropped the coffee-pot.  She was doubtless brewing herself a quiet cup with my best Porto-Rico, which I do not allow her to use.  She thought I was never coming back, the cunning old hag!

Dio mio, Signor Professore!  A good Easter to you!” she cried, as I heard the flat pattering of her old feet inside, running to the door.  “I thought the wolves had eaten you, padrone mio!” And at last she let me in.