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A ROMAN SINGER

F. MARION CRAWFORD

1909




[Illustration: "Shut the door and double turned the lock." - Chap.
XXI.]




CHAPTER I


I, Cornelio Grandi, who tell you these things, have a story of my own,
of which some of you are not ignorant. You know, for one thing, that I
was not always poor, nor always a professor of philosophy, nor a
scribbler of pedantic articles for a living. Many of you can remember
why I was driven to sell my patrimony, the dear castello in the
Sabines, with the good corn-land and the vineyards in the valley, and
the olives, too. For I am not old yet; at least, Mariuccia is older,
as I often tell her. These are queer times. It was not any fault of
mine. But now that Nino is growing to be a famous man in the world,
and people are saying good things and bad about him, and many say that
he did wrong in this matter, I think it best to tell you all the whole
truth and what I think of it. For Nino is just like a son to me; I
brought him up from a little child, and taught him Latin, and would
have made a philosopher of him. What could I do? He had so much voice
that he did not know what to do with it.

His mother used to sing. What a piece of a woman she was! She had a
voice like a man's, and when De Pretis brought his singers to the
festa once upon a time, when I was young, he heard her far down below,
as we walked on the terrace of the palazzo, and asked me if I would
not let him educate that young tenor. And when I told him it was one
of the contadine, the wife of a tenant of mine, he would not believe
it. But I never heard her sing after Serafino - that was her
husband - was killed at the fair in Genazzano. And one day the fevers
took her, and so she died, leaving Nino a little baby. Then you know
what happened to me, about that time, and how I sold Castel Serveti
and came to live here in Rome. Nino was brought to me here. One day in
the autumn a carrettiere from Serveti, who would sometimes stop at my
door and leave me a basket of grapes in the vintage, or a pitcher of
fresh oil in winter, because he never used to pay his house-rent when
I was his landlord - but he is a good fellow, Gigi - and so he tries to
make amends now; well, as I was saying, he came one day and gave me a
great basket of fine grapes, and he brought Nino with him, a little
boy of scarce six years - just to show him to me, he said.

He was an ugly little boy, with a hat of no particular shape and a
dirty face. He had great black eyes, with ink-saucers under them,
_calamai_, as we say, just as he has now. Only the eyes are bigger
now, and the circles deeper. But he is still sufficiently ugly. If it
were not for his figure, which is pretty good, he could never have
made a fortune with his voice. De Pretis says he could, but I do not
believe it.

Well, I made Gigi come in with Nino, and Mariuccia made them each a
great slice of toasted bread and spread it with oil, and gave Gigi a
glass of the Serveti wine, and little Nino had some with water. And
Mariuccia begged to have the child left with her till Gigi went back
the next day; for she is fond of children and comes from Serveti
herself. And that is how Nino came to live with us. That old woman has
no principles of economy, and she likes children.

"What does a little creature like that eat?" said she. "A bit of
bread, a little soup - macchè! You will never notice it, I tell you.
And the poor thing has been living on charity. Just imagine whether
you are not quite as able to feed him as Gigi is!" So she persuaded
me. But at first I did it to please her, for I told her our proverb,
which says there can be nothing so untidy about a house as children
and chickens. He was such a dirty little boy, with only one shoe and a
battered hat, and he was always singing at the top of his voice, and
throwing things into the well in the cortile.

Mariuccia can read a little, though I never believed it until I found
her one day teaching Nino his letters out of the _Vite dei Santi_.
That was probably the first time that her reading was ever of any use
to her, and the last, for I think she knows the _Lives of the Saints_
by heart, and she will certainly not venture to read a new book at her
age. However, Nino very soon learned to know as much as she, and she
will always be able to say that she laid the foundation of his
education. He soon forgot to throw handfuls of mud into the well, and
Mariuccia washed him, and I bought him a pair of shoes, and we made
him look very decent. After a time he did not even remember to pull
the cat's tail in the morning, so as to make her sing with him, as he
said. When Mariuccia went to church she would take him with her, and
he seemed very fond of going, so that I asked him one day if he would
like to be a priest when he grew up, and wear beautiful robes, and
have pretty little boys to wait on him with censers in their hands.

"No," said the little urchin, stoutly, "I won't be a priest." He
found in his pocket a roast chestnut Mariuccia had given him, and
began to shell it.

"Why are you always so fond of going to church then?" I asked.

"If I were a big man," quoth he, "but really big, I would sing in
church, like Maestro De Pretis."

"What would you sing, Nino?" said I, laughing. He looked very grave,
and got a piece of brown paper and folded it up. Then he began to beat
time on my knees and sang out boldly, _Cornu ejus exaltabitur_.

It was enough to make one laugh, for he was only seven years old, and
ugly too. But Mariuccia, who was knitting in the hall-way, called out
that it was just what Maestro Ercole had sung the day before at
vespers, every syllable.

I have an old piano in my sitting-room. It is a masterpiece of an
instrument, I can tell you; for one of the legs is gone and I propped
it up with two empty boxes, and the keys are all black except those
that have lost the ivory - and those are green. It has also five
pedals, disposed as a harp underneath; but none of them make any
impression on the sound, except the middle one, which rings a bell.
The sound-board has a crack in it somewhere, Nino says, and two of the
notes are dumb since the great German maestro came home with my boy
one night, and insisted on playing an accompaniment after supper. We
had stewed chickens and a flask of Cesanese, I remember, and I knew
something would happen to the piano. But Nino would never have any
other, for De Pretis had a very good one; and Nino studies without
anything - just a common tuning-fork that he carries in his pocket. But
the old piano was the beginning of his fame. He got into the
sitting-room one day, by himself, and found out that he could make a
noise by striking the keys, and then he discovered that he could make
tunes, and pick out the ones that were always ringing in his head.
After that he could hardly be dragged away from it, so that I sent him
to school to have some quiet in the house.

He was a clever boy, and I taught him Latin and gave him our poets to
read; and as he grew up I would have made a scholar of him, but he
would not. At least, he was willing to learn and to read; but he was
always singing too. Once I caught him declaiming "Arma virumque cano"
to an air from Trovatore, and I knew he could never be a scholar then,
though he might know a great deal. Besides, he always preferred Dante
to Virgil, and Leopardi to Horace.

One day, when he was sixteen or thereabouts, he was making a noise, as
usual, shouting some motive or other to Mariuccia and the cat, while I
was labouring to collect my senses over a lecture I had to prepare.
Suddenly his voice cracked horribly and his singing ended in a sort of
groan. It happened again once or twice, the next day, and then the
house was quiet. I found him at night asleep over the old piano, his
eyes all wet with tears.

"What is the matter, Nino?" I asked. "It is time for youngsters like
you to be in bed."

"Ah, Messer Cornelio," he said, when he was awake, "I had better go to
bed, as you say. I shall never sing again, for my voice is all broken
to pieces"; and he sobbed bitterly.

"The saints be praised," thought I; "I shall make a philosopher of you
yet!"

But he would not be comforted, and for several months he went about as
if he were trying to find the moon, as we say; and though he read his
books and made progress, he was always sad and wretched, and grew
much thinner, so that Mariuccia said he was consuming himself, and I
thought he must be in love. But the house was very quiet.

I thought as he did, that he would never sing again, but I never
talked to him about it, lest he should try, now that he was as quiet
as a nightingale with its tongue cut out. But nature meant
differently, I suppose. One day De Pretis came to see me; it must have
been near the new year, for he never came often at that time. It was
only a friendly recollection of the days when I had a castello and a
church of my own at Serveti, and used to have him come from Rome to
sing at the festa, and he came every year to see me; and his head grew
bald as mine grew grey, so that at last he wears a black skull-cap
everywhere, like a priest, and only takes it off when he sings the
Gloria Patri, or at the Elevation. However, he came to see me, and
Nino sat mutely by, as we smoked a little and drank the syrup of
violets with water that Mariuccia brought us. It was one of her
eternal extravagances, but somehow, though she never understood the
value of economy, my professorship brought in more than enough for us,
and it was not long after this that I began to buy the bit of vineyard
out of Porta Salara, by instalments from my savings. And since then we
have our own wine.

De Pretis was talking to me about a new opera that he had heard. He
never sang except in church, of course, but he used to go to the
theatre of an evening; so it was quite natural that he should go to
the piano and begin to sing a snatch of the tenor air to me,
explaining the situation as he went along, between his singing.

Nino could not sit still, and went and leaned over Sor Ercole, as we
call the maestro, hanging on the notes, not daring to try and sing,
for he had lost his voice, but making the words with his lips.

"Dio mio!" he cried at last, "how I wish I could sing that!"

"Try it," said De Pretis, laughing and half interested by the boy's
earnest look. "Try it - I will sing it again." But Nino's face fell.

"It is no use," he said. "My voice is all broken to pieces now,
because I sang too much before."

"Perhaps it will come back," said the musician kindly, seeing the
tears in the young fellow's eyes. "See, we will try a scale." He
struck a chord. "Now, open your mouth - so - Do-o-o-o!" He sang a long
note. Nino could not resist any longer, whether he had any voice or
not. He blushed red and turned away, but he opened his mouth and made
a sound.

"Do-o-o-o!" He sang like the master, but much weaker.

"Not so bad; now the next, Re-e-e!" Nino followed him. And so on, up
the scale.

After a few more notes, De Pretis ceased to smile, and cried, "Go on,
go on!" after every note, authoritatively, and in quite a different
manner from his first kindly encouragement. Nino, who had not sung for
months, took courage and a long breath, and went on as he was bid, his
voice gaining volume and clearness as he sang higher. Then De Pretis
stopped and looked at him earnestly.

"You are mad," he said. "You have not lost your voice at all."

"It was quite different when I used to sing before," said the boy.

"Per Bacco, I should think so," said the maestro. "Your voice has
changed. Sing something, can't you?"

Nino sang a church air he had caught somewhere. I never heard such a
voice, but it gave me a queer sensation that I liked - it was so true,
and young, and clear. De Pretis sat open-mouthed with astonishment
and admiration. When the boy had finished, he stood looking at the
maestro, blushing very scarlet, and altogether ashamed of himself. The
other did not speak.

"Excuse me," said Nino, "I cannot sing. I have not sung for a long
time. I know it is not worth anything." De Pretis recovered himself.

"You do not sing," said he, "because you have not learned. But you
can. If you will let me teach you, I will do it for nothing."

"Me!" screamed Nino, "you teach _me_! Ah, if it were any use - if you
only would!"

"Any use?" repeated De Pretis half aloud, as he bit his long black
cigar half through in his excitement. "Any use? My dear boy, do
you know that you have a very good voice? A remarkable voice," he
continued, carried away by his admiration, "such a voice as I have
never heard. You can be the first tenor of your age, if you please - in
three years you will sing anything you like, and go to London and
Paris, and be a great man. Leave it to me."

I protested that it was all nonsense, that Nino was meant for a
scholar and not for the stage, and I was quite angry with De Pretis
for putting such ideas into the boy's head. But it was of no use. You
cannot argue with women and singers, and they always get their own way
in the end. And whether I liked it or not, Nino began to go to Sor
Ercole's house once or twice a week, and sang scales and exercises
very patiently, and copied music in the evening, because he said he
would not be dependent on me, since he could not follow my wishes in
choosing a profession. De Pretis did not praise him much to his face
after they had begun to study, but he felt sure he would succeed.

"Caro Conte," - he often calls me Count, though I am only plain
Professore, now - "he has a voice like a trumpet and the patience of
all the angels. He will be a great singer."

"Well, it is not my fault," I used to answer; for what could I do?

When you see Nino now, you cannot imagine that he was ever a dirty
little boy from the mountains, with one shoe, and that infamous little
hat. I think he is ugly still, though you do not think so when he is
singing, and he has good strong limbs and broad shoulders, and carries
himself like a soldier. Besides, he is always very well dressed,
though he has no affectations. He does not wear his hair plastered
into a love-lock on his forehead, like some of our dandies, nor is he
eternally pulling a pair of monstrous white cuffs over his hands.
Everything is very neat about him and very quiet, so that you would
hardly think he was an artist after all; and he talks but little,
though he can talk very well when he likes, for he has not forgotten
his Dante nor his Leopardi. De Pretis says the reason he sings so well
is because he has a mouth like the slit in an organ pipe, as wide as a
letter-box at the post-office. But I think he has succeeded because he
has great square jaws like Napoleon. People like that always succeed.
My jaw is small, and my chin is pointed under my beard - but then, with
the beard, no one can see it. But Mariuccia knows.

Nino is a thoroughly good boy, and until a year ago he never cared for
anything but his art; and now he cares for something, I think, a great
deal better than art, even than art like his. But he is a singer
still, and always will be, for he has an iron throat, and never was
hoarse in his life. All those years when he was growing up, he never
had a love-scrape, or owed money, or wasted his time in the caffè.

"Take care," Mariuccia used to say to me, "if he ever takes a fancy to
some girl with blue eyes and fair hair he will be perfectly crazy. Ah,
Sor Conte, _she_ had blue eyes, and her hair was like the corn-silk.
How many years is that, Sor Conte mio?" Mariuccia is an old witch.

I am writing this story to tell you why Mariuccia is a witch, and why
my Nino, who never so much as looked at the beauties of the generone,
as they came with their fathers and brothers and mothers to eat
ice-cream in the Piazza Colonna, and listen to the music of a summer's
evening, - Nino, who stared absently at the great ladies as they rolled
over the Pincio, in their carriages, and was whistling airs to himself
for practice when he strolled along the Corso, instead of looking out
for pretty faces, - Nino, the cold in all things save in music, why he
fulfilled Mariuccia's prophecy, little by little, and became perfectly
crazy about blue eyes and fair hair. That is what I am going to tell
you, if you have the leisure to listen. And you ought to know it,
because evil tongues are more plentiful than good voices in Rome,
as elsewhere, and people are saying many spiteful things about
him - though they clap loudly enough at the theatre when he sings.

He is like a son to me, and perhaps I am reconciled, after all, to his
not having become a philosopher. He would never have been so famous
as he is now, and _he_ really knows so much more than Maestro De
Pretis - in other ways than music - that he is very presentable indeed.
What is blood, nowadays? What difference does it make to society
whether Nino Cardegna, the tenor was the son of a vine-dresser? Or
what does the University care for the fact that I, Cornelio Grandi, am
the last of a race as old as the Colonnas, and quite as honourable?
What does Mariuccia care? What does anybody care? Corpo di Bacco! if
we begin talking of race we shall waste as much time as would make us
all great celebrities! I am not a celebrity - I never shall be now,
for a man must begin at that trade young. It is a profession - being
celebrated - and it has its signal advantages. Nino will tell you so,
and he has tried it. But one must begin young, very young! I cannot
begin again.

And then, as you all know, I never began at all. I took up life in the
middle, and am trying hard to twist a rope of which I never held the
other end. I feel sometimes as though it must be the life of another
that I have taken, leaving my own unfinished, for I was never meant to
be a professor. That is the way of it; and if I am sad and inclined to
melancholy humours, it is because I miss my old self, and he seems to
have left me without even a kindly word at parting. I was fond of my
old self, but I did not respect him much. And my present self I
respect, without fondness. Is that metaphysics? Who knows? It is
vanity in either case, and the vanity of self-respect is perhaps a
more dangerous thing than the vanity of self-love, though you may call
it pride if you like, or give it any other high-sounding title. But
the heart of the vain man is lighter than the heart of the proud.
Probably Nino has always had much self-respect, but I doubt if it has
made him very happy - until lately. True, he has genius, and does what
he must by nature do or die, whereas I have not even talent, and I
make myself do for a living what I can never do well. What does it
serve, to make comparisons? I could never have been like Nino, though
I believe half my pleasure of late has been in fancying how I should
feel in his place, and living through his triumphs by my imagination.
Nino began at the very beginning, and when all his capital was one
shoe and a ragged hat, and certainly not more than a third of a shirt,
he said he would be a great singer; and he is, though he is scarcely
of age yet. I wish it had been something else than a singer, but since
he is the first already, it was worth while. He would have been great
in anything, though, for he has such a square jaw, and he looks so
fierce when anything needs to be overcome. Our forefathers must have
looked like that, with their broad eagle noses and iron mouths. They
began at the beginning, too, and they went to the very end. I wish
Nino had been a general, or a statesman, or a cardinal, or all three
like Richelieu.

But you want to hear of Nino, and you can pass on your ways, all of
you, without hearing my reflections and small-talk about goodness,
and success, and the like. Moreover, since I respect myself now, I
must not find so much fault with my own doings, or you will say that
I am in my dotage. And, truly, Nino Cardegna is a better man, for all
his peasant blood, than I ever was; a better lover, and perhaps a
better hater. There is his guitar, that he always leaves here, and it
reminds me of him and his ways. Fourteen years he lived here with me,
from child to boy and from boy to man, and now he is gone, never to
live here any more. The end of it will be that I shall go and live
with him, and Mariuccia will take her cat and her knitting, and her
_Lives of the Saints_ back to Serveti, to end her life in peace,
where there are no professors and no singers. For Mariuccia is older
than I am, and she will die before me. At all events, she will take
her tongue with her, and ruin herself at her convenience without
ruining me. I wonder what life would be without Mariuccia? Would
anybody darn my stockings, or save the peel of the mandarins to make
cordial? I certainly would not have the mandarins if she were
gone - it is a luxury. No, I would not have them. But then, there
would be no cordial, and I should have to buy new stockings every
year or two. No, the mandarins cost less than the stockings - and - well,
I suppose I am fond of Mariuccia.




CHAPTER II


It was really not so long ago - only one year. The sirocco was blowing
up and down the streets, and about the corners, with its sickening
blast, making us all feel like dead people, and hiding away the sun
from us. It is no use trying to do anything when it blows sirocco, at
least for us who are born here. But I had been persuaded to go with
Nino to the house of Sor Ercole to hear my boy sing the opera he had
last studied, and so I put my cloak over my shoulders, and wrapped its
folds over my breast, and covered my mouth, and we went out. For it
was a cold sirocco, bringing showers of tepid rain from the south, and
the drops seemed to chill themselves as they fell. One moment you are
in danger of being too cold, and the next minute the perspiration
stands on your forehead, and you are oppressed with a moist heat. Like
the prophet, when it blows a real sirocco you feel as if you were
poured out like water, and all your bones were out of joint.
Foreigners do not feel it until they have lived with us a few years,
but Romans are like dead men when the wind is in that quarter.

I went to the maestro's house and sat for two hours listening to the
singing. Nino sang very creditably, I thought, but I allow that I
was not as attentive as I might have been, for I was chilled and
uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I tried to be very appreciative, and I
complimented the boy on the great progress he had made. When I thought
of it, it struck me that I had never heard anybody sing like that
before; but still there was something lacking; I thought it sounded a
little unreal, and I said to myself that he would get admiration, but
never any sympathy. So clear, so true, so rich it was, but wanting a
ring to it, the little thrill that goes to the heart. He sings very
differently now.

Maestro Ercole De Pretis lives in the Via Paola, close to the Ponte
Sant' Angelo, in a most decent little house - that is, of course, on a
floor of a house, as we all do. But De Pretis is well-to-do, and he
has a marble door plate, engraved in black with his name, and two
sitting-rooms. They are not very large rooms, it is true, but in
one of them he gives his lessons, and the grand piano fills it up
entirely, so that you can only sit on the little black horsehair sofa
at the end, and it is very hard to get past the piano on either side.
Ercole is as broad as he is long, and takes snuff when he is not
smoking. But it never hurts his voice.

It was Sunday, I remember, for he had to sing in St. Peter's in the
afternoon; and it was so near, we walked over with him. Nino had never
lost his love for church music, though he had made up his mind that it
was a much finer thing to be a primo tenore assoluto at the Apollo
Theatre than to sing in the Pope's choir for thirty scudi a month. We
walked along over the bridge, and through the Borgo Nuovo, and across
the Piazza Rusticucci, and then we skirted the colonnade on the left,
and entered the church by the sacristy, leaving De Pretis there to put
on his purple cassock and his white cotta. Then we went into the
Capella del Coro to wait for the vespers.

All sorts of people go to St. Peter's on Sunday afternoon, but they
are mostly foreigners, and bring strange little folding chairs, and
arrange themselves to listen to the music as though it were a concert.
Now and then one of the young gentlemen-in-waiting from the Vatican
strolls in and says his prayers, and there is an old woman, very
ragged and miserable, who has haunted the chapel of the choir for many


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