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

Nino is a man for great emergencies, as I have had occasion to say, and when he realised who the unwelcome visitor was, he acted as promptly as usual.  With a face like marble he walked straight across the room to Benoni and faced him.

“Baron Benoni,” he said, in a low voice, “I warn you that you are most unwelcome here.  If you attempt to say any word to my wife, or to force an entrance, I will make short work of you.”  Benoni eyed him with a sort of pitying curiosity as he made this speech: ­

“Do not fear, Signor Cardegna.  I came to see Signor Grandi, and to ascertain from him precisely what you have voluntered to tell me.  You cannot suppose that I have any object in interrupting the leisure of a great artist, or the privacy of his very felicitous domestic relations.  I have not a great deal to say.  That is, I have always a great deal to say about everything, but I shall at present confine myself to a very little.”

“You will be wise,” said Nino, scornfully, “and you would be wiser if you confined yourself to nothing at all.”

“Patience, Signor Cardegna,” protested Benoni.  “You will readily conceive that I am a little out of breath with the stairs, for I am a very old man.”

“In that case,” I said, from the other side of the room, “I may as well occupy your breathing time by telling you that any remarks you are likely to make to me have been forestalled by the Graf von Lira, who has been with me this morning.”  Benoni smiled, but both Hedwig and Nino looked at me in surprise.

“I only wished to say,” returned Benoni, “that I consider you in the light of an interesting phenomenon.  Nay, Signor Cardegna, do not look so fierce.  I am an old man ­”

“An old devil,” said Nino hotly.

“An old fool,” said I.

“An old reprobate,” said Hedwig, from her corner, in deepest indignation.

“Precisely,” returned Benoni, smilingly.  “Many people have been good enough to tell me so before.  Thanks, kind friends, I believe you with all my heart.  Meanwhile, man, devil, fool, or reprobate, I am very old.  I am about to leave Rome for St. Petersburg, and I will take this last opportunity of informing you that in a very singularly long life I have met with only two or three such remarkable instances as this of yours.”

“Say what you wish to say, and go,” said Nino, roughly.

“Certainly.  And whenever I have met with such an instance I have done my very utmost to reduce it to the common level, and to prove to myself that no such thing really exists.  I find it a dangerous thing, however; for an old man in love is likely to exhibit precisely the agreeable and striking peculiarities you have so aptly designated.”  There was something so odd about his manner and about the things he said that Nino was silent, and allowed him to proceed.

“The fact is,” he continued, “that love is a very rare thing, nowadays, and is so very generally an abominable sham that I have often amused myself by diabolically devising plans for its destruction.  On this occasion I very nearly came to grief myself.  The same thing happened to me some time ago ­about forty years, I should say, ­and I perceive that it has not been forgotten.  It may amuse you to look at this paper, which I chance to have with me.  Good-morning.  I leave for St. Petersburg at once.”

“I believe you are really the Wandering Jew!” cried Nino, as Benoni left the room.

“His name was certainly Ahasuerus,” Benoni replied from the outer door.  “But it may be a coincidence, after all.  Good-day.”  He was gone.

I was the first to take up the paper he had thrown upon a chair.  There was a passage marked with a red pencil.  I read it aloud: ­

“...  Baron Benoni, the wealthy banker of St. Petersburg, who was many years ago an inmate of a private lunatic asylum in Paris, is reported to be dangerously insane in Rome.”  That was all.  The paper was the Paris Figaro.

“Merciful Heavens!” exclaimed Hedwig, “and I was shut up with that madman in Fillettino!” Nino was already by her side, and in his strong arms she forgot Benoni, and Fillettino, and all her troubles.  We were all silent for some time.  At last Nino spoke.

“Is it true that the count was here this morning?” he asked, in a subdued voice, for the extraordinary visit and its sequel had made him grave.

“Quite true,” I said.  “He was here a long time.  I would not spoil your pleasure by telling you of it, when you first came.”

“What did he ­what did my father say?” asked Hedwig, presently.

“My dear children,” I answered, thinking I might well call them so, “he said a great many unpleasant things, so that I offered to fight him if he said any more.”  At this they both laid hold of me and began to caress me; and one smoothed my hair, and the other embraced me, so that I was half smothered.

“Dear Signor Grandi,” cried Hedwig, anxiously, “how good and brave you are!” She does not know what a coward I am, you see, and I hope she will never find out, for nothing was ever said to me that gave me half so much pleasure as to be called brave by her, the dear child; and if she never finds out she may say it again, some day.  Besides, I really did offer to fight Lira, as I have told you.

“And what is he going to do?” asked Nino, in some anxiety.

“I do not know.  I told him it was all legal, and that he could not touch you at all.  I also said you were staying at the Hotel Costanzi, where he might find you if he wished.”

“Oh!  Did you tell him that?” asked Hedwig.

“It was quite right,” said Nino.  “He ought to know, of course.  And what else did you tell him?”

“Nothing especial, Nino mio.  He went away in a sort of ill temper because I would not let him abuse you as much as he pleased.”

“He may abuse me and be welcome,” said Nino.  “He has some right to be angry with me.  But he will think differently some day.”  So we chatted away for an hour, enjoying the rest and the peace and the sweet sunshine of the Easter afternoon.  But this was the day of interruptions.  There was one more visitor to come, ­one more scene for me to tell you, and then I have done.

A carriage drove down the street and seemed to stop at the door of my house.  Nino looked idly out of the window.  Suddenly he started.

“Hedwig, Hedwig!” he cried, “here is your father coming back!” She would not look out, but stood back from the window, turning pale.  If there was one thing she dreaded, it was a meeting with her father.  All the old doubt as to whether she had done right seemed to come back to her face in a moment.  But Nino turned and looked at her, and his face was so triumphant that she got back her courage, and, clasping his hand, bravely awaited what was to come.

I went myself to the door, and heard Lira’s slow tread on the stairs.  Before long he appeared, and glanced up at me from the steps, which he climbed, one at a time, with his stick.

“Is my daughter here?” he asked, as soon as he reached me; and his voice sounded subdued, just as Nino’s did when Benoni had gone, I conducted him into the room.  It was the strangest meeting.  The proud old man bowed stiffly to Hedwig, as though he had never before seen her.  They also bent their heads, and there was a silence as of death in the sunny room.

“My daughter,” said Von Lira at last, and with evident effort, “I wish to have a word with you.  These two gentlemen ­the younger of whom is now, as I understand it, your husband ­may well hear what I wish to say.”

I moved a chair so that he might sit down, but he stood up to his full height, as though not deigning to be older than the rest.  I watched Hedwig, and saw how with both hands she clung to Nino’s arm, and her lip trembled, and her face wore the look it had when I saw her in Fillettino.

As for Nino, his stern, square jaw was set, and his brow bent, but he showed no emotion, unless the darkness in his face and the heavy shadows beneath his eyes foretold ready anger.

“I am no trained, reasoner, like Signor Grandi,” said Lira, looking straight at Hedwig, “but I can say plainly what I mean, for all that.  There was a good old law in Sparta, whereby disobedient children were put to death without mercy.  Sparta was a good country, ­very like Prussia, but less great.  You know what I mean.  You have cruelly disobeyed me, ­cruelly, I say, because you have shown me that all my pains and kindness and discipline have been in vain.  There is nothing so sorrowful for a good parent as to discover that he has made a mistake.”

(The canting old proser, I thought, will he never finish?)

“The mistake I refer to is not in the way I have dealt with you,” he went on, “for on that score I have nothing to reproach myself.  But I was mistaken in supposing you loved me.  You have despised all I have done for you.”

“Oh, father!  How can you say that?” cried poor Hedwig, clinging closer to Nino.

“At all events, you have acted as though you did.  On the very day when I promised you to take signal action upon Baron Benoni you left me by stealth, saying in your miserable letter that you had gone to a man who could both love and protect you.”

“You did neither the one nor the other, sir,” said Nino, boldly, “when you required of your daughter to marry such a man as Benoni.”

“I have just seen Benoni; I saw him also on the night you left me, madam,” ­he looked severely at Hedwig, ­“and I am reluctantly forced to confess that he is not sane, according to the ordinary standard of the mind.”

We had all known from the paper of the suspicion that rested on Benoni’s sanity, yet somehow there was a little murmur in the room when the old count so clearly stated his opinion.

“That does not, however, alter the position in the least,” continued Lira, “for you knew nothing of this at the time I desired you to marry him, and I should have found it out soon enough to prevent mischief.  Instead of trusting to my judgment you took the law into your own hands, like a most unnatural daughter, as you are, and disappeared in the night with a man whom I consider totally unfit for you, however superior,” he added, glancing at Nino, “he may have proved himself in his own rank of life.”

Nino could not hold his tongue any longer.  It seemed absurd that there should be a battle of words when all the realities of the affair were accomplished facts; but for his life he could not help speaking.

“Sir,” he said, addressing Lira, “I rejoice that this opportunity is given me of once more speaking clearly to you.  Months ago, when I was betrayed into a piece of rash violence, for which I at once apologised to you, I told you under somewhat peculiar circumstances that I would yet marry your daughter, if she would have me.  I stand here to-day with her by my side, my wedded wife, to tell you that I have kept my word, and that she is mine by her own free consent.  Have you any cause to show why she is not my wedded wife?  If so, show it.  But I will not let you stand there and say bitter and undeserved things to this same wife of mine, abusing the name of father and the terms ‘authority’ and ‘love,’ forsooth!  And if you wish to take vengeance on me personally, do so if you can.  I will not fight duels with you now, as I was ready to do the day before yesterday.  For then ­so short a time ago ­I had but offered her my life, and so that I gave it for her I cared not how nor when.  But now she has taken me for hers, and I have no more right to let you kill me than I have to kill myself, seeing that she and I are one.  Therefore, good sir, if you have words of conciliation to speak, speak them; but if you would only tell her harsh and cruel things, I say you shall not!”

As Nino uttered these hot words in good, plain Italian, they had a bold and honest sound of strength that was glorious to hear.  A weaker man than the old count would have fallen into a fury of rage, and perhaps would have done some foolish violence.  But he stood silent, eying his antagonist coolly, and when the words were spoken he answered.

“Signor Cardegna,” he said, “the fact that I am here ought to be to you the fullest demonstration that I acknowledge your marriage with my daughter.  I have certainly no intention of prolonging a painful interview.  When I have said that my child has disobeyed me, I have said all that the question holds.  As for the future of you two, I have naturally nothing more to say about it.  I cannot love a disobedient child, nor ever shall again.  For the present, we will part; and if at the end of a year my daughter is happy with you, and desires to see me, I shall make no objection to such a meeting.  I need not say that if she is unhappy with you my house will always be open to her, if she chooses to return to it.”

“No, sir, most emphatically, you need not say it!” cried Nino, with blazing eyes.  Lira took no notice of him, but turned to go.

Hedwig would try once more to soften him, though she knew it was useless.

“Father,” she said, in tones of passionate entreaty, “will you not say you wish me well?  Will you not forgive me?” She sprang to him and would have held him back.

“I wish you no ill,” he answered shortly, pushing her aside, and he marched to the door, where he paused, bowed as stiffly as ever, and disappeared.

It was very rude of us, perhaps, but no one accompanied him to the stairs.  As for me, I would not have believed it possible that any human being could be so hard and relentlessly virtuous; and if I had wondered at first that Hedwig should have so easily made up her mind to flight, I was no longer surprised when I saw with my own eyes how he could treat her.

I cannot, indeed, conceive how she could have borne it so long, for the whole character of the man came out, hard, cold, and narrow, ­such a character as must be more hideous than any description can paint it, when seen in the closeness of daily conversation.  But when he was gone the sun appeared to shine again, as he had shone all day, though it had sometimes seemed so dark.  The storms were in that little room.

As Lira went out, Nino, who had followed Hedwig closely, caught her in his arms, and once more her face rested on his broad breast.  I sat down and pretended to be busy with a pile of old papers that lay near by on the table, but I could hear what they said.  The dear children, they forgot all about me.

“I am so sorry, dear one,” said Nino soothingly.

“I know you are, Nino.  But it cannot be helped.”

“But are you sorry, too, Hedwig?” he asked, stroking her hair.

“That my father is angry?  Yes.  I wish he were not,” said she, looking wistfully toward the door.

“No, not that,” said Nino.  “Sorry that you left him, I mean.”

“Ah, no, I am not sorry for that.  Oh, Nino, dear Nino, your love is best.”  And again she hid her face.

“We will go away at once, darling,” he said, after a minute, during which I did not see what was going on.  “Would you like to go away?”

Hedwig moved her head to say “Yes.”

“We will go, then, sweetheart.  Where shall it be?” asked Nino, trying to distract her thoughts from what had just occurred.  “London?  Paris?  Vienna?  I can sing anywhere now, but you must always choose, love.”

“Anywhere, anywhere; only always with you, Nino, till we die together.”

“Always, till we die, my beloved,” he repeated.  The small white hands stole up and clasped about his broad throat, tenderly drawing his face to hers, and hers to his.  And it will be “always,” till they die together, I think.

This is the story of that Roman singer whose great genius is making such a stir in the world.  I have told it to you, because he is my own dear boy, as I have often said in these pages; and because people must not think that he did wrong to carry Hedwig von Lira away from her father, nor that Hedwig was so very unfilial and heartless.  I know that they were both right, and the day will come when old Lira will acknowledge it.  He is a hard old man, but he must have some affection for her; and if not, he will surely have the vanity to own so famous an artist as Nino for his son-in-law.

I do not know how it was managed, for Hedwig was certainly a heretic when she left her father, though she was an angel, as Nino said.  But before they left Rome for Vienna there was a little wedding, early in the morning, in our parish church, for I was there; and De Pretis, who was really responsible for the whole thing, got some of his best singers from St. Peter and St. John on the Lateran to come and sing a mass over the two.  I think that our good Mother Church found room for the dear child very quickly, and that is how it happened.

They are happy and glad together, those two hearts that never knew love save for each other, and they will be happy always.  For it was nothing but love with them from the very first, and so it must be to the very last.  Perhaps you will say that there is nothing in this story either but love.  And if so, it is well; for where there is naught else there can surely be no sinning, or wrongdoing, or weakness, or meanness; nor yet anything that is not quite pure and undefiled.

Just as I finish this writing, there comes a letter from Nino to say that he has taken steps about buying Serveti, and that I must go there in the spring with Mariuccia and make it ready for him.  Dear Serveti, of course I will go.