"Yes, yes, young ladies; shake youir heads as much as you like ! The best behaved and the cleverest of you all is — but I will not say who ; for she is the only one of my class who has any modesty, and I am afraid that if I were to name her she would instantly lose that rare virtue which I wish" —
"In nomine Patris,et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti," sang Costanza, impudently.
"Amen," sang all the other young girls in chorus.
"Horrid thing!" said Clorinda, pouting prettily and giving a little tap with the handle of her fan on the bony and wrinkled lingers which the singing master had left lying idly on the silent keyboard of the organ.
"Nonsense!" said the old professor, with the profoundly disillusioned air of a man who for forty years has been the butt of all the teasing and all the unruliness of successive generations of female children. " It is likewise certain," he added, putting his spectacles in their case and his tobacco-box in his pocket, without raising his eyes to the mocking, vexed swarm <p2>about him, " that this well-behaved, this docile, this studious, this attentive, this good child, is not you, Signora Clorinda, nor you, Signora Costanza, nor yet you, Signora Zulietta, nor Rosina, and still less Michela" —
"In that case it is I!" — "No, it is I!"— "Not at all, it is I!" — "I!" — "I!"— "I!" cried the soft or piercing voices of some fifty blondes and brunettes, who swooped down on him like a flock of noisy gulls on a poor shell-fish left high and dry on the strand by the retreating tide.
The shell-fish, that is to say, the maestro (for I maintain that no metaphor could be more appropriate to his angular movements, his beady eyes, his cheek-bones blotched with red, and, above all, to the thousand little curls, white and stiff and pointed, of the professorial wig) — the maestro, I say, forced back three times on the bench from which he had tried to rise, but calm and impassive as a shell-fish, rocked and toughened by tempests, refused for a long time to say which of his pupils deserved the praise of which he was usually so sparing, but of which he had just been so prodigal. Finally, yielding as if unwillingly to the prayers which he had slyly provoked, he took the official baton with which be was accustomed to beat time, and with it formed his undisciplined flock into two lines. Then, advancing with a grave air through this double row of giddy pates, he went and stood at the back of the organ-gallery in front of a young girl who sat crouched on a bench, elbows on knees, and fingers in ears to keep out the noise, practising her lesson in an undertone so as not to disturb any one. She was twisted and doubled up like a little monkey. He, solemn and triumphant, with foot advanced and arm extended, resembled the shepherd Paris awarding the apple, not to the most beautiful, but to the best behaved.
"Consuelo? The Spaniard? " cried the young singers with one voice, all amazement. Then a universal burst of Homeric laughter drove a flush of indignation and anger to the majestic brow of the professor.
Little Consuelo, whose stopped ears had not heard a word of this dialogue, and whose eyes were wandering about without seeing anything, so absorbed was she by her work, remained unconscious of the disturbance for some minutes. Then, perceiving at last the attention of which she was the object, she dropped her hands from her ears to her knees, and her books from her knees to the floor. She sat petrified with astonishment, not confused, but a little frightened, and ended by getting up to see if some strange object or some ridiculous person behind her was not the cause of this noisy gayety, and not herself.
"Consuelo," said the master, taking her hand without further explanation, "come here, my good child ; sing me Pergoiese's Salve Regina, which you have learned this last fortnight, and which Clorinda has been studying for a year."
Consuelo, without replying and without showing either fear, or pride, or embarrassment, followed the master to the organ, where he sat down again, and, with a look of triumph, gave the pitch to his young pupil. Then Consuelo, simply and easily, poured forth through the lofty arches of the cathedral the most glorious voice with which they had ever rung. She sang the Salve Regina without i slip of memory, without giving a note which was not absolutely true, full sustained, or ended at the right instant ; and following with passive exactitude the instructions which the learned master had given her, and rendering with her vigorous s powers the just and intelligent intentions of the old man, she did, with the inexperience and carelessness of a child, what knowledge, experience, and enthusiasm could not have caused a consummate artist to do, — she sang faultlessly.
"Very good, my child," said the old master, always reserved in his compliments. " You have studied attentively, and you sang conscientiously. Next time you may sing the Scarlatti cantata which I taught you."
"Si, Signore professore," replied Consuelo; "may I go now? "
"Yes, my child. Young ladies, the lesson is finished."
Consuelo put into a small basket her books, her pencils, and her little black-paper fan, the inseparable plaything of Spanish as well as of Venetian women, and which she hardly ever used, though she always had it with her. Then she disappeared behind the organ-pipes, slipped as lightly as a mouse down the mysterious stairs which led to the church, knelt a moment as she crossed the nave, and as she was going out, found near the holy-water basin a handhome young gentleman who held out the aspergill to her with a smile. She took some holy-water, and looking straight in his face with the self-possession of a little girl who does not yet think or feel herself a woman, mixed up so drolly her sign of the cross and her thanks that the gentleman began to laugh. Consuelo began to laugh too, and suddenly, as if remembering that some one was waiting, started away and was over the threshold of the church, down the steps, and out of the porch in a twinkling.
Meanwhile the professor had again put his spectacles in the large pocket of his waistcoat, and said to the silent pupils, " Shame on you, my fine young ladies ! This little girl, the youngest of you all, the newest in my class, is the only one of you capable of singing a solo properly ; and in the choruses, no matter what absurdities you commit around her, I always find her as firm and as true as a clavecin note. It is because she has zeal, patience, and what you have not, and never will have, any of you, — conscience. "
"Ah! there is his great word," cried Costanza, when he had gone out, " He only said it thirty-nine times during the lesson, and he would be ill if he did not reach the fortieth,"
"No wonder that Consuelo makes progress," said Zulietta, " she is so poor. She is hurrying to learn something as fast as possible, that she may earn her living."
"I have been told that her mother was a Bohemian," added Michelina, " and that she herself used to sing on the streets and highways before she came here. It cannot be denied that she has a fine voice, but she has not a shade of intelligence, poor child ! She learns by heart, follows the professor's directions slavishly, and her good lungs do the rest."
"She may have the best of lungs and the finest intelligence to boot," said the handsome Clorinda. "She is welcome to these advantages, so long as I do not have to exchange faces with her."
"You would not lose so very much if you did," replied Costanza, who was not enthusiastic in acknowledging Clorinda 's beauty,
"No, she certainly is not pretty," said another." She is as yellow as an Easter candle, and her big eyes have no expression. Besides, she is always so badly dressed ! Decidedly, she is an ugly girl,"
"Poor thing ! She is very unlucky — no money and no beauty."
And so they ended Consuelo's panegyric, and by pitying her consoled themselves for having admired her while she sang.