Open main menu

CHAPTER II.Edit

The scene which has been described occurred in Venice about a hundred years ago, in the Church of the Mendicanti, where the celebrated maestro Porpora had just been rehearsing his great musical vespers, which were to be sung there on the following Sunday, the feast of the Assumption. The young choristers whom he had scolded so sharply were pupils of the scuola, where they were instructed at the cost of the State, which was to dower them later, " either for marriage or for the cloister," says Jean Jacques Rosseau, who admired their superb voices about this time in this same church. Reader, you must remember these details only too well, and a charming incident which he tells concerning them in the eighth book of the "Confessions." I shall beware of transcribing these adorable pages, for after them you would certainly not return to mine, and I should unquestionably do as much in your place. I shall hope, therefore, that you have not the "Confessions" within reach just now, and go on with my story.

All these young people were not equally poor, and it is very certain that, in spite of the great integrity of the administration, some had slipped in to whom it was rather a speculation than a necessity to receive at the cost of the Republic the training of an artist, and means to establish themselves in life. It was for this reason that they allowed themselves to forget the sacred laws of equality, by which they had been allowed to take their places on the same benches with their poorer sisters. Nor did all of them share in the austere designs which the Republic had for their future. One or another would break away from time to time, and, having profited by the gratuitous education, give up the dower to seek a more brilliant future elsewhere. The administration, seeing that this was inevitable, had sometimes admitted to the school of music the children of poor artists, whose nomadic existence did not admit of a very long stay in Venice. Among this number was the little Consuelo, who had been born in Spain, and who had come thence to Italy by way of St. Petersburg, Constantinople, Mexico, Archangel, or any other still more direct route, employed peculiarly by Bohemians.

She was a Bohemian only by profession and in name, for by race she was neither Gitana nor Hindoo, nor yet a Jew. She was of good Spanish blood, which was undoubtedly of Moorish origin, for she was decidedly dark, and she possessed a repose which showed no traces of the characteristics of the wandering races. I di not wish to speak ill of these. If I were inventing the character of Consuelo. I do not say that I would not make her descended from the children of Israel, or ever from yet older ancestors ; but she was formed from a rib of Ishmael, and everything in her organization showed it. I never saw her, for I am not a hundred years old yet, but I have been told so and I cannot question the statement. She had not that feverish petulance, broken by fits of apathetic languor, which marks the zingarelle, nor had she the insinuating curiosity and the persistent mendacity of the poor ebbrea. She was as calm as the water of the lagoons, and at the same time as active as the light gondolas which ceaselessly furrow their surface

As she grew fast and as her mother n as wretchedly poor, her dresses were always a year too short for her, which gate to her long legs, accustomed to the public gaze, a sort of wild grace and frankness which caused one to feel mingled pleasure and pity. If her foot was small, one could not know it, so badly was it shod. On the other hand, her figure, imprisoned in waists which had grown too small and which were cracking at every seam, was slender and flexible as a young palm tree but without form, or roundness, or charm of any sort. The poor child hardly thought of it, accustomed as she was to being called "monkey" and "gipsy" by the blonde fair, and plump daughters of the Adriatic. Her round face, sallow and insignificant, would never have attracted attention had it not been that her thick hair, cut short and brushed behind her ears, and her manner, which was serious and indifferent to external affairs, lent her a somewhat disagreeable oddity. Faces which do not please lose by degrees the faculty of pleasing. Their possessors care no more for them than others do, and they take on a carelessness of expression which becomes more and more repulsive. Beauty watches and arranges and cherishes itself; it looks at itself and is eternally posing, so to speak, in an imaginary looking glass. Ugliness forgets itself and takes no pains. Still, there are two kinds of ugliness. One, which suffers and protests unceasingly against the general contempt by habitual bad temper and envy, is the true, the only ugliness. The other, which is frank and careless, which accepts the situation, and neither shuns nor invites criticism, which wins the heart while it offends the eye, was Consuelo’s ugliness. Kindly people who took an interest in her regretted at first that she was not pretty4 then, thinking better of it, they said, as they took her head between their hands with that familiarity which one does not have with beauty, “Well, you look like a good creature!” and Consuelo was satisfied, although she knew quite well that the words meant “good, and nothing more.”

Meanwhile, the young and handsome gentleman who had offered Consuelo the holy-water, stood by the basin until he had seen the last of the scolari go out. He looked at each one attentively, and when Clirinda, the most beautiful of them all, passed by him, he gave her holy-water in his hand, that he might have the pleasure of touching hers. The young girl blushed with pride, and as she went by, glanced at him with that look f mingled shame and boldness which is not the expression of either pride or modesty.

As soon as they had gone back into the convent, the gallant patrician returned to the nave, and going up to the professor, who was coming slowly down from the gallery, cried out, " By the body of Bacchus, tell me, my dear maestro, which of your pupils sang the Salve Regina ? "

"And why do you wish to know, Count Zustiniani?" said the professor, as they left the church together.

"That I may congratulate you on her," answered the patrician. " For a long time I have attended not only your vespers but your rehearsals, for you know how dilettante I am of sacred music. But really, this is the first time I have ever heard Pergolese so perfectly sung ; and as for the voice, it is the most beautiful that I have heard in my whole life."

"I believe you," replied the professor, as he absorbed a large pinch of snuff complacently and with dignity.

"Tell me the name of the heavenly creature who delighted me so much. In spite of your severity and your endless complaints, you have certainly made your school one of the best in Italy. Your choruses are good and your solos excellent, but the music that you perform is so great, so severe, that it is very rarely that these young girls can make us feel all its beauty."

"They cannot make you feel it," replied the professor, sadly, " because they do not feel it themselves. As far as fresh, extended, and brilliant voices are concerned, we have no lack of them, thank Heaven! but musical organisations, alas, are rare and incomplete

"You have one, at least, who is admirably gifted. The instrument is magnificent, the feeling perfect, and the skill remarkable. Tell me who it is."

"Did she not please you?" said the professor, avoiding the question,

"She touched my heart, she drew tears from me, and that by such simple methods and such natural effects that I could not understand it at first. Then I remembered what you have so often said to me in teaching me your divine art, dear master, and for the first time I understood how right you were."

"And what did I say to you?" asked the master, with a look of triumph.

" You told me that the great, the true, the beautiful in art is simplicity."

" But I told you also that there were brilliancy and ingenuity and cleverness, and that there was often cause to remark and admire these qualities."

"Undoubtedly. But you said that there was an abyss between these secondary qualities and the true manifestation of genius. Well, dear master, your cantatrice is on one side, and all the rest are on the other."

" It is true, and it is well put," remarked the professor, rubbing his hands.

" Her name? " repeated the count.

" Whose name? " said the sly professor.

"Per Dio santo ! the name of the siren, or rather of the archangel, to whom I have just been listening."

"And what do you want of her name, lord count?" asked the professor, severely.

"Why do you wish to make a secret of it, sir professor?"

"I will tell you the reason, if you will first tell me why you are so anxious to learn her name."

"Is it not a natural, and, indeed, an irresistible sentiment which impels us to know and to see the objects of our admiration?"

"Well, that is not your only motive. Allow me, dear count, to contradict you thus far. You are a great lover and good judge of music but you are, above all, owner of the San-Samuel Theatre. It is for your glory still more than for your profit that you gather the finest talents and the best voices in Italy into your theatre. You know that we give good lessons, — that we alone work seriously, and form great musicians. You have already stolen Corilla from us, and as she may any day be engaged by another theatre, you come prowling about the school to see if we have not formed another Corilla, whom you are ready to devour in turn. That is the real truth, count. Admit it frankly."

"Suppose it is true, dear maestro," replied die count, smiling, " what does it matter to you, and what harm is there in it? "

"I see a great deal of harm, count. You corrupt and ruin these poor creatures."

"What do you mean, most moral professor? When did you constitute yourself the guardian of these fragile virtues? "

"You know very well what I mean, count, and that I care neither for their virtue nor for its fragility. But I do care for their talent, which you debase and degrade in your theatres by making them sing music which is vulgar and in bad taste. Is it not a shame to see Gorilla, who was beginning to have a just cornprehension of serious music, descend from sacred to profane, from prayer to jesting, from the altar to the stage, from the sublime to the ridiculous, from Allegri and Palestrina to Albinoni and the barber Apollini?"

"So you refuse to tell me the name of this girl, on whom I cannot have designs, for the matter of that, because I do not know whether she possesses the other qualities which a theatre demands?"

"I refuse absolutely."

"And you think that I shall not discover her? "

"Alas! you will discover her, if you have determined to. But I will do my best to prevent your taking her away from us."

"Well, maestro, you are already half conquered, for I have seen your mysterious divinity. I guessed which one it was."

"Indeed!" said the master, with a reserved and doubtful air. "Are you quite sure?"

"My eyes and ray heart detected her, and I will draw you her portrait to convince you. She is tall — the tallest, I think, of all your pupils. She is white as the snow of Frioul and rosy as the horizon on a fine morning. She has golden hair, bhe eyes, and is pleasantly plump, anil she wears a little ruby on her finger which burned my hand when it touched it like a spark of magic fire."

"Bravo!" cried Porpora, sarcastically, "I have nothing to conceal from you if that is the case, and the name of your beauty is Clorinda. Go on and make your seductive ofTers to her. Give her gold and diamonds and dresses. You can easily engage her for your troupe, and she may perhaps replace Corilla, for the public of your theatres nowadays prefers handsome shoulders to beautiful sounds, and bold eyes to a lofty intelligence,"

"Am I mistaken then, dear master?" said the count, a little abashed, "Is Clorinda nothing but a commonplace beauty? "

"And if my siren, my divinity, my archangel, as it pleases you to call her, were anything but handsome? "

" If she were deformed, I should beg you never to point her out to me, for my illusion would be too cruelly destroyed. If she were only ugly, I could still adore her, but I should not engage her for the theatre, for talent without beauty is often only a misfortune and a torment to a woman. What are you looking at, maestro, and why do you stop ? "

"This is the landing and I do not see any gondolas. But what are you looking at yourself, count? "

"I was looking to see if that boy sitting on the steps of the landing beside that ugly little girl is not my protege Anzoleto, (he most intelligent and the handsomest of our little plebeians. Look at him, dear maestro, for this concerns you as much as it does me. This child has the most beautiful tenor voice in Venice, and he has a passionate love for music, joined to extraordinary talent. I have wanted to speak to you about him for a long time, and beg of you to give him lessons. I intend him to be the support of my theatre, and I hope in a few years to be well repaid for my pains. Hola, Zoto! Come here, my child, and let me present you to the illustrious maestro Porpora."

Anzoleto drew his naked legs from the water, in which they had been carelessly hanging, while he was employed in making holes with a large needle in those pretty shells which the Venetians have poetically named fiore di mare. His only dress was a pair of very rigged trousers and a fine but tattered shirt, through which one could see his white arms, modeled like those of a little antique Bacchus. His was, indeed, the Greek beauty of a young faun, and his face displayed that singular mixture of dreamy melancholy and ironical indifference so common in the creations of pagan sculptors. His hair, curly but fine, of a light blonde, slightly reddened by the sun, fell in thick and short ringlets about his alabaster neck. All his features were incomparably perfect, but there was an over bold expression in the glance of his ink black eyes which did not please the professor The child rose quickly at Zustiniani’s voice, threw all his shells in the lap of the little girl at his side, and while she, without interrupting her work, went on stringing them, and interspersing them with little golden pearls, he came up and kissed the count's hand, after the fashion of the country.

"Truly a handsome boy," said the professor, giving him a little tap on the cheek. "But his amusement seems a very childish one for his age, for he must be quite eighteen."

"Nearly nineteen, sior professore," replied Anzoleto, in the Venetian dialect. "But I am not playing with the shells, only helping Consuelo, who makes necklaces of them,"

"Consuelo," said the master, drawing near his pupil with the count and Anioleto, "I did not know that you cared for dress."

"Oh, they are not for me, sir," said Coasuelo, half rising carefully, so as not to drop into the water the shells heaped in her apron. "I make them to sell so as to buy rice and maize."

"She is poor, and supports her mother," said Porpora, " If you and your mother are in trouble, Consuelo, you must come to me, but I forbid you to beg. Do you understand ? "

"Oh, you need not forbid it, sior professore," replied Anzoleto, quickly. "She would not do it, and besides, I would prevent it."

"Hut you have nothing yourself," said the coiunt.

"Nothing but your bounty, illustrissimo signore, but Consuelo and I share."

"She is a relative of yours?"

"No ; Consuelo is a stranger."

"Consuelo? What a curious name !" said the count.

"A beautiful name, illustrissimo. It means consolation."

"Indeed! And you are friends, it seems."

"We are engaged, signore."

"Already? Just see these children, thinking of marriage at their age!"

"We are to be married on the day you sign my engagement at the San-Samuel Theatre, illustrissimo.

"At that rate, you will have a long time to wait,"

"Oh, we can wait," said Consuelo, with the playful calm of innocence.

The count and the maestro amused themselves a few minutes longer with the frankness and the repartees of the young couple, and then, having made an appointment with Anzoleto for the next day, when the professor was to try his voice, they went away, leaving him to his serious occupation.

"What do you think of the little girl?" asked the master of Zustiniani.

"I had already seen her, only a few minutes ago, and I thought her ugly enough to prove the truth of the proverb that ' all women are handsome to a boy of eighteen."

"Very good ! Now I can tell you that your heavenly singer, your mysterious beauty, was Consuelo."


"She ! That hideous child ! That thin, sallow grasshopper ! Impossible, maestro!"

"She herself, my lord count. Would she not make a fascinating prima donna?"

The count stopped, turned about, looked at Consuelo once more, and cried, wringing his hands with a comical expression of despair, "Merciful Heaven I how could you commit such a mistake as to place the fire of genius in such a shocking head?"

"So you give up your guilty projects?"

"Most assuredly."

"You promise me?" added Porpora.

"Oh, I swear it!"