The Romantic Story of Baroni
THE Emir of the Lebanon and his English friend did not depart from the desert city until the morrow, Fakredeen being so wearied by his journey that he required repose.
Unsustained by his lively conversation, Tancred felt all the depression natural to his position; and, restless and disquieted, wandered about the valley in the moonlight, recalling the vanished images of the past. After some time, unable himself to sleep, and finding Baroni disinclined to slumber, he reminded his attendant of the promise he had once given at Jerusalem, to tell something of his history. Baroni was a lively narrator, and, accompanied by his gestures, his speaking glance, and all the pantomime of his energetic and yet controlled demeanour, the narrative, as he delivered it, would have been doubtless much more amusing than the calmer form in which, upon reflection, we have thought fit to record some incidents which the reader must not in any degree suppose to form merely an episode in this history. With this observation we solicit attention to
The history of the Baroni family.
BEING A CHAPTER IN THE LIFE OF SIDONIA.
'I had no idea that you had a garrison here,' said Sidonia, as the distant sounds of martial music were wafted down a long, ancient street, that seemed narrower than it was from the great elevation of its fantastically-shaped houses, into the principal square in which was situate his hotel. The town was one of the least frequented of Flanders; and Sidonia, who was then a youth, scarcely of twenty summers, was on his rambling way to Frankfort, where he then resided.
'It is not the soldiers,' said the Flemish maiden in attendance, and who was dressed in one of those pretty black silk jackets that seem to blend so well with the sombre yet picturesque dwellings of the Spanish Netherlands. 'It is not the soldiers, sir; it is only the Baroni family.'
'And who are the Baroni family?'
'They are Italians, sir, and have been here this week past, giving some representations.'
'Of what kind?'
'I hardly know, sir, only I have heard that they are very beautiful. There is tumbling, I know for certain; and there was the Plagues of Egypt; but I believe it changes every night.'
'And you have not yet seen them?'
'Oh no, sir, it is not for such as me; the second places are half a franc!'
'And what is your name?' said Sidonia.
'Thérèse; at your service, sir.'
'You shall go and see the Baroni family to-night, Thérèse, if your mistress will let you.'
'I am sure she would if you would ask her, sir,' said Thérèse, looking down and colouring with delight. The little jacket seemed very agitated.
'Here they come!' said Sidonia, looking out of the window on the great square.
A man, extremely good-looking and well made, in the uniform of a marshal of France, his cocked hat fringed and plumed, and the colour of his coat almost concealed by its embroidery, played a clarionet like a master; four youths of a tender age, remarkable both for their beauty and their grace, dressed in very handsome scarlet uniforms, with white scarfs, performed upon French horns and similar instruments with great energy and apparent delight; behind them an honest Blouse, hired for the occasion, beat the double drum.
'Two of them are girls,' said Thérèse; 'and they are all the same family, except the drummer, who belongs, I hear, to Ypres. Sometimes there are six of them, two little ones, who, I suppose, are left at home to-day; they look quite like little angels; the boy plays the triangle and his sister beats a tambourine.'
'They are great artists,' murmured Sidonia to himself, as he listened to their performance of one of Donizetti's finest compositions. The father stood in the centre of the great square, the other musicians formed a circle round him; they continued their performance for about ten minutes to a considerable audience, many of whom had followed them, while the rest had collected at their appearance. There was an inclination in the curious multitude to press around the young performers, who would have been in a great degree hidden from general view by this discourteous movement, and even the sound of their instruments in some measure suppressed. Sidonia marked with interest the calm and commanding manner with which, under these circumstances, the father controlled the people. They yielded in an instant to his will: one tall blacksmith seemed scarcely to relish his somewhat imperious demeanour, and stood rooted to the ground; but Baroni, placing only one hand on the curmudgeon's brawny shoulder, while he still continued playing on his instrument with the other, whirled him away like a puppet. The multitude laughed, and the disconcerted blacksmith slunk away.
When the air was finished, Baroni took off his grand hat, and in a loud voice addressed the assembled people, informing them that this evening, in the largest room of the Auberge of St. Nicholas, there would be a variety of entertainments, consisting of masterpieces of strength and agility, dramatic recitations, dancing and singing, to conclude with the mystery of the Crucifixion of our blessed Lord and Saviour; in which all the actors in that memorable event, among others the blessed Virgin, the blessed St. Mary Magdalene, the Apostles, Pontius Pilate, the High Priest of the Jews, and many others, would appear, all to be represented by one family.
The speaker having covered himself, the band again formed and passed the window of Sidonia's hotel, followed by a stream of idle amateurs, animated by the martial strain, and attracted by the pleasure of hearing another fine performance at the next quarter of the town, where the Baroni family might halt to announce the impending amusements of the evening.
The moon was beginning to glitter, when Sidonia threw his cloak around him, and asked the way to the Auberge of St. Nicholas. It was a large, ungainly, whitewashed house, at the extremity of a suburb where the straggling street nearly ceased, and emptied itself into what in England would have been called a green. The many windows flared with lights, the doorway was filled with men smoking, and looking full of importance, as if, instead of being the usual loungers of the tavern, they were about to perform a principal part in the exhibition; they made way with respectful and encouraging ceremony to any one who entered to form part of the audience, and rated with sharp words, and sometimes a ready cuff, a mob of little boys who besieged the door, and implored every one who entered to give them tickets to see the Crucifixion. 'It's the last piece,' they perpetually exclaimed, 'and we may come in for five sous a head.'
Sidonia mounted the staircase, and, being a suitor for a ticket for the principal seats, was received with a most gracious smile by a pretty woman, fair-faced and arch, with a piquant nose and a laughing blue eye, who sat at the door of the room. It was a long and rather narrow apartment; at the end, a stage of rough planks, before a kind of curtain, the whole rudely but not niggardly lighted. Unfortunately for the Baroni family, Sidonia found himself the only first-class spectator. There was a tolerable sprinkling of those who paid half a franc for their amusement. These were separated from the first row, which Sidonia alone was to occupy; in the extreme distance was a large space not fitted up with benches, where the miscellaneous multitude, who could summon up five sous apiece later in the evening, to see the Crucifixion, were to be stowed.
'It hardly pays the lights,' said the pretty woman at the door. 'We have not had good fortune in this town. It seems hard, when there is so much for the money, and the children take such pains in going the rounds in the morning.'
'And you are Madame Baroni?' said Sidonia.
'Yes; I am the mother,' she replied.
'I should have thought you had been their sister,' said Sidonia.
'My eldest son is fifteen! I often wish that he was anything else but what he is, but we do not like to separate. We are all one family, sir, and that makes us bear many things.'
'Well, I think I know a way to increase your audience,' said Sidonia.
'Indeed! I am sure it is very kind of you to say so much; we have not met with a gentleman like you the whole time we have been here.'
Sidonia descended the stairs; the smoking amateurs made way for him with great parade, and pushed back with equal unkindness the young and wistful throng who still hovered round the portal.
'Don't you see the gentleman wants to go by? Get back, you boys!'
Sidonia halted on the doorway, and, taking advantage of a momentary pause, said, 'All the little boys are to come in free.'
What a rush!
The performances commenced by the whole of the Baroni family appearing in a row, and bowing to the audience. The father was now dressed in a Greek costume, which exhibited to perfection his compact frame: he looked like the captain of a band of Palikari; on his left appeared the mother, who, having thrown off her cloak, seemed a sylph or a sultana, for her bonnet had been succeeded by a turban. The three girls were on her left hand, and on the right of her husband were their three brothers. The eldest son, Francis, resembled his father, or rather was what his father must have been in all the freshness of boyhood; the same form of blended strength and symmetry; the same dark eye, the same determined air and regular features which in time would become strongly marked. The second boy, Alfred, about eleven, was delicate, fair, and fragile, like his mother; his sweet countenance, full of tenderness, changed before the audience with a rapid emotion. The youngest son, Michel, was an infant of four years, and with his large blue eyes and long golden hair, might have figured as one of the seraphs of Murillo.
There was analogy in the respective physical appearances of the brothers and the sisters. The eldest girl, Josephine, though she had only counted twelve summers, was in stature, and almost in form, a woman. She was strikingly handsome, very slender, and dark as night. Adelaide, in colour, in look, in the grace of every gesture, and in the gushing tenderness of her wild, yet shrinking glance, seemed the twin of Alfred. The little Carlotta, more than two years older than Michel, was the miniature of her mother, and had a piquant coquettish air, mixed with an expression of repose in one so young quite droll, like a little opera dancer. The father clapped his hands, and all, except himself, turned round, bowed to the audience, and retired, leaving Baroni and his two elder children. Then commenced a variety of feats of strength. Baroni stretched forth his right arm, and Josephine, with a bound, instantly sprang upon his shoulder; while she thus remained, balancing herself only on her left leg, and looking like a flying Victory, her father stretched forth his left arm, and Francis sprang upon the shoulder opposite to his sister, and formed with her a group which might have crowned a vase. Infinite were the postures into which, for more than half an hour, the brother and sister threw their flexible forms, and all alike distinguished for their agility, their grace, and their precision. At length, all the children, with the exception of Carlotta, glided from behind the curtain, and clustered around their father with a quickness which baffled observation. Alfred and Adelaide suddenly appeared, mounted upon Josephine and Francis, who had already resumed their former positions on the shoulders of their father, and stood immovable with outstretched arms, while their brother and sister balanced themselves above. This being arranged, Baroni caught up the young Michel, and, as it were, flung him up on high; Josephine received the urchin, and tossed him up to Adelaide, and in a moment the beautiful child was crowning the living pyramid, his smiling face nearly touching the rough ceiling of the chamber, and clapping his little hands with practised triumph, as Baroni walked about the stage with the breathing burden.
He stopped, and the children disappeared from his shoulders, like birds from a tree when they hear a sound. He clapped his hands, they turned round, bowed, and vanished.
'As this feat pleases you,' said the father, 'and as we have a gentleman here to-night who has proved himself a liberal patron of artists, I will show you something that I rarely exhibit; I will hold the whole of the Baroni family with my two hands;' and hereupon addressing some stout-looking fellows among his audience, he begged them to come forward and hold each end of a plank that was leaning against the wall, one which had not been required for the quickly-constructed stage. This they did with some diffidence, and with that air of constraint characteristic of those who have been summoned from a crowd to perform something which they do not exactly comprehend.
'Be not afraid, my good friends,' said Baroni to them, as Francis lightly sprang on one end of the plank, and Josephine on the other; then Alfred and Adelaide skipped up together at equal distances; so that the four children were now standing in attitude upon the same basis, which four stout men endeavoured, with difficulty, to keep firm. At that moment Madame Baroni, with the two young children, came from behind the curtain, and vaulted exactly on the middle of the board, so that the bold Michel on the one side, and the demure Carlotta on the other, completed the group. 'Thank you, my friends,' said Baroni, slipping under the plank, which was raised to a height which just admitted him to pass under it, 'I will release you,' and with his outstretched hands he sustained the whole burthen, the whole of the Baroni family supported by the father.
After this there was a pause of a few minutes, the stage was cleared and Baroni, in a loose great-coat, appeared at its side with a violin. He played a few bars, then turning to the audience, said with the same contemptuous expression, which always distinguished him when he addressed them, 'Now you are going to hear a scene from a tragedy of the great Racine, one of the greatest tragedy writers that ever existed, if you may never have heard him; but if you were at Paris, and went to the great theatre, you would find that what I am telling you is true.' And Josephine advanced, warmly cheered by the spectators, who thought that they were going to have some more tumbling. She advanced, however, as Andromache. It seemed to Sidonia that he had never listened to a voice more rich and passionate, to an elocution more complete; he gazed with admiration on her lightning glance and all the tumult of her noble brow. As she finished, he applauded her with vehemence. He was standing near to her father leaning against the wall.
'Your daughter is a great actress,' he said to Baroni.
'I sometimes think so,' said the father, turning round with some courtesy to Sidonia, whom he recognised as the liberal stranger who had so kindly increased his meagre audience; 'I let her do this to please herself. She is a good girl, but very few of the respectable savages here speak French. However, she likes it. Adelaide is now going to sing; that will suit them better.'
Then there were a few more bars scraped on the violin, and Adelaide, glowing rather than blushing, with her eyes first on the ground and then on the ceiling, but in all her movements ineffable grace, came forward and courtesied. She sang an air of Auber and of Bellini: a voice of the rarest quality, and, it seemed to Sidonia, promising almost illimitable power.
'Your family is gifted,' he said to Baroni, as he applauded his second daughter as warmly as the first; and the audience applauded her too.
'I sometimes think so. They are all very good. I am afraid, however, that this gift will not serve her much. The good-natured savages seem pleased. Carlotta now is going to dance; that will suit them better. She has had good instruction. Her mother was a dancer.'
And immediately, with her lip a little curling, a look of complete self-possession, willing to be admired, yet not caring to conceal her disgust, the little Carlotta advanced, and, after pointing her toe, threw a glance at her father to announce that he might begin. He played with more care and energy than for the other sisters, for Carlotta was exceedingly wilful and imperious, and, if the music jarred, would often stop, shrug her shoulders, and refuse to proceed. Her mother doted on her; even the austere Baroni, who ruled his children like a Pasha, though he loved them, was a little afraid of Carlotta.
The boards were coarse and rough, some even not sufficiently tightened, but it seemed to Sidonia, experienced as he was in the schools of Paris, London, and Milan, that he had never witnessed a more brilliant facility than that now displayed by this little girl. Her soul, too, was entirely in her art; her countenance generally serious and full of thought, yet occasionally, when a fine passage had been successfully achieved, radiant with triumph and delight. She was cheered, and cheered, and cheered; but treated the applause, when she retired, with great indifference. Fortunately, Sidonia had a rose in his button-hole, and he stepped forward and presented it to her. This gratified Carlotta, who bestowed on him a glance full of coquetry.
'And now,' said Baroni, to the people, 'you are going to see the crucifixion of Jesus Christ: all the tableaux are taken from pictures by the most famous artists that ever lived, Raphael, Rubens, and others. Probably you never heard of them. I can't help that; it is not my fault; all I can say is, that if you go to the Vatican and other galleries, you may see them. There will be a pause of ten minutes, for the children want rest.'
Now there was a stir and a devouring of fruit; Baroni, who was on the point of going behind the curtain, came forward, and there was silence again to listen to him.
'I understand,' he said, roughly, 'there is a collection going to be made for the children; mind, I ask no one to subscribe to it; no one obliges me by giving anything to it; it is for the children and the children alone, they have it to spend, that is all.'
The collectors were Michel and Adelaide. Michel was always successful at a collection. He was a great favourite, and wonderfully bold; he would push about in the throng like a Hercules, whenever anyone called out to him to fetch a Hard. Adelaide, who carried the box, was much too retiring, and did not like the business at all; but it was her turn, and she could not avoid it. No one gave them more than a sou. It is due, however, to the little boys who were admitted free, to state that they contributed handsomely; indeed, they expended all the money they had in the exhibition room, either in purchasing fruit, or in bestowing backsheesh on the performers.
' Encore un liard pour Michel, ' was called out by several of them, in order to make Michel rush back, which he did instantly at the exciting sound, ready to overwhelm the hugest men in his resistless course.
At last, Adelaide, holding the box in one hand and her brother by the other, came up to Sidonia, and cast her eyes upon the ground.
'For Michel,' said Sidonia, dropping a five-franc piece into the box.
'A piece of a hundred sous!' said Michel.
'And a piece of a hundred sous for yourself and each of your brothers and sisters, Adelaide,' said Sidonia, giving her a purse.
Michel gave a shout, but Adelaide blushed very much, kissed his hand, and skipped away. When she had got behind the curtain, she jumped on her father's neck, and burst into tears. Madame Baroni, not knowing what had occurred, and observing that Sidonia could command from his position a view of what was going on in their sanctuary, pulled the curtain, and deprived Sidonia of a scene which interested him.
About ten minutes after this, Baroni again appeared in his rough great-coat, and with his violin. He gave a scrape or two, and the audience became orderly. He played an air, and then turning to Sidonia, looking at him with great scrutiny, he said, 'Sir, you are a prince.'
'On the contrary,' said Sidonia, 'I am nothing; I am only an artist like yourself.'
'Ah!' said Baroni, 'an artist like myself! I thought so. You have taste. And what is your line? Some great theatre, I suppose, where even if one is ruined, one at least has the command of capital. 'Tis a position. I have none. But I have no rebels in my company, no traitors. With one mind and heart we get on, and yet sometimes——' and here a signal near him reminded him that he must be playing another air, and in a moment the curtain separated in the middle, and exhibited a circular stage on which there were various statues representing the sacred story.
There were none of the usual means and materials of illusion at hand; neither space, nor distance, nor cunning lights; it was a confined tavern room with some glaring tapers, and Sidonia himself was almost within arm's reach of the performers. Yet a representation more complete, more finely conceived, and more perfectly executed, he had never witnessed. It was impossible to credit that these marble forms, impressed with ideal grace, so still, so sad, so sacred, could be the little tumblers, who, but half-an-hour before, were disporting on the coarse boards at his side.
The father always described, before the curtain was withdrawn, with a sort of savage terseness, the subject of the impending scene. The groups did not continue long; a pause of half a minute, and the circular stage revolved, and the curtain again closed. This rapidity of representation was necessary, lest delay should compromise the indispensable immovable-ness of the performers.
'Now,' said Baroni, turning his head to the audience, and slightly touching his violin, 'Christ falls under the weight of the cross.' And immediately the curtain parted, and Sidonia beheld a group in the highest style of art, and which though deprived of all the magic of colour, almost expressed the passion of Correggio.
'It is Alfred,' said Baroni, as Sidonia evinced his admiration. 'He chiefly arranges all this, under my instructions. In drapery his talent is remarkable.'
At length, after a series of representations, which were all worthy of being exhibited in the pavilions of princes, Baroni announced the last scene.
'What you are going to see now is the Descent from the Cross; it is after Rubens, one of the greatest masters that ever lived, if you ever heard of such a person,' he added, in a grumbling voice, and then turning to Sidonia, he said, 'This crucifixion is the only thing which these savages seem at all to understand; but I should like you, sir, as you are an artist, to see the children in some Greek or Roman story: Pygmalion, or the Death of Agrippina. I think you would be pleased.'
'I cannot be more pleased than I am now,' said Sidonia. 'I am also astonished.'
But here Baroni was obliged to scrape his fiddle, for the curtain moved.
'It is a triumph of art,' said Sidonia, as he beheld the immortal group of Rubens reproduced with a precision and an exquisite feeling which no language can sufficiently convey, or too much extol.
The performances were over, the little artists were summoned to the front scene to be applauded, the scanty audience were dispersing: Sidonia lingered.
'You are living in this house, I suppose?' he said to Baroni.
Baroni shook his head. 'I can afford no roof except my own.'
'And where is that?'
'On four wheels, on the green here. We are vagabonds, and, I suppose, must always be so; but, being one family, we can bear it. I wish the children to have a good supper to-night, in honour of your kindness. I have a good deal to do. I must put these things in order,' as he spoke he was working; 'there is the grandmother who lives with us; all this time she is alone, guarded, however, by the dog. I should like them to have meat to-night, if I can get it. Their mother cooks the supper. Then I have got to hear them say their prayers. All this takes time, particularly as we have to rise early, and do many things before we make our first course through the city.'
'I will come and see you to-morrow,' said Sidonia, 'after your first progress.'
'An hour after noon, if you please,' said Baroni. 'It is pleasant for me to become acquainted with a fellow artist, and one so liberal as yourself.'
'Your name is Baroni,' said Sidonia, looking at him earnestly.
'My name is Baroni.'
'An Italian name.'
'Yes, I come from Cento.'
'Well, we shall meet to-morrow. Good night, Baroni. I am going, to send you some wine for your supper, and take care the grandmamma drinks my health.'
It was a sunny morn: upon the green contiguous to the Auberge of St. Nicholas was a house upon wheels, a sort of monster omnibus, its huge shafts idle on the ground, while three fat Flemish horses cropped the surrounding pasture. From the door of the house were some temporary steps, like an accommodation ladder, on which sat Baroni, dressed something like a Neapolitan fisherman, and mending his clarionet; the man in the blouse was eating his dinner, seated between the shafts, to which also was fastened the little dog, often the only garrison, except the grandmother, of this strange establishment.
The little dog began barking vociferously, and Baroni, looking up, instantly bade him be quiet. It was Sidonia whose appearance in the distance had roused the precautionary voice.
'Well,' said Sidonia, 'I heard your trumpets this morning.'
'The grandmother sleeps,' said Baroni, taking off his cap, and slightly rising. 'The rest also are lying down after their dinner. Children will never repose unless there are rules, and this with them is invariable.'
'But your children surely cannot be averse to repose, for they require it.'
'Their blood is young,' continued Baroni, still mending his clarionet; 'they are naturally gay, except my eldest son. He is restless, but he is not gay.'
'He likes his art?'
'Not too much; what he wants is to travel, and, after all, though we are always moving, the circle is limited.'
'Yes; you have many to move. And can this ark contain them all?' said Sidonia, seating himself on some timber that was at hand.
'With convenience even,' replied Baroni; 'but everything can be effected by order and discipline. I rule and regulate my house like a ship. In a vessel, there is not as much accommodation for the size as in a house of this kind; yet nowhere is there more decency and cleanliness than on board ship.'
'You have an obedient crew,' said Sidonia, 'and that is much.'
'Yes; when they wake my children say their prayers, and then they come to embrace me and their mother. This they have never omitted during their lives. I have taught them from their birth to obey God and to honour their parents. These two principles have made them a religious and moral family. They have kept us united, and sustained us under severe trials.'
'Yet such talents as you all possess,' said Sidonia, 'should have exempted you from any very hard struggle, especially when united, as apparently in your case, with well-ordered conduct.'
'It would seem that they should,' said Baroni, 'but less talents than we possess would, probably, obtain as high a reward. The audiences that we address have little feeling for art, and all these performances, which you so much applauded last night, would not, perhaps, secure even the feeble patronage we experience, if they were not preceded by some feats of agility or strength.'
'You have never appealed to a higher class of audience?'
'No; my father was a posture-master, as his father was before him. These arts are traditionary in our family, and I care not to say for what length of time and from what distant countries we believe them to have been received by us. My father died by a fall from a tight rope in the midst of a grand illumination at Florence, and left me a youth. I count now only sixty-and-thirty summers. I married, as soon as I could, a dancer at Milan. We had no capital, but our united talents found success. We loved our children; it was necessary to act with decision, or we should have been separated and trampled into the mud. Then I devised this house and wandering life, and we exist in general as you see us. In the winter, if our funds permit it, we reside in some city, where we educate our children in the arts which they pursue. The mother can still dance, sings prettily, and has some knowledge of music. For myself, I can play in some fashion upon every instrument, and have almost taught them as much; I can paint, too, a scene, compose a group, and with the aid of my portfolio of prints, have picked up more knowledge of the costume, of different centuries than you would imagine. If you see Josephine to-night in the Maid of Orleans you would perhaps be surprised. A great judge, like yourself a real artist, once told me at Bruxelles, that the grand opera could not produce its equal.'
'I can credit it,' said Sidonia, 'for I perceive in Josephine, as well as indeed in all your children, a rare ability!'
'I will be frank,' said Baroni, looking at Sidonia very earnestly, and laying down his clarionet. 'I conclude from what you said last night, and the interest that you take in the children, that you are something in our way, though on a great scale. I apprehend you are looking out for novelties for the next season, and sometimes in the provinces things are to be found. If you will take us to London or Paris, I will consent to receive no remuneration if the venture fail; all I shall then require will be a decent maintenance, which you can calculate beforehand: if the speculation answer, I will not demand more than a third of the profits, leaving it to your own liberality to make me any regalo in addition, that you think proper.'
'A very fair proposal,' said Sidonia.
'Is it a bargain?'
'I must think over it,' said Sidonia.
'Well; God prosper your thoughts, for, from what I see of you, you are a man I should be proud to work with.'
'Well, we may yet be comrades.'
The children appeared at the door of the house, and, not to disturb their father, vaulted down. They saluted Sidonia with much respect, and then withdrew to some distance. The mother appeared at the door, and, leaning down, whispered something to Baroni, who, after a little hesitation, said to Sidonia, 'The grandmother is awake; she has a wish to thank you for your kindness to the children. It will not trouble you; merely a word; but women have their fancies, and we like always to gratify her, because she is much alone and never complains.'
'By all means,' said Sidonia.
Whereupon they ushered forward a venerable woman with a true Italian face; hair white as snow, and eyes still glittering with fire, with features like a Roman bust, and an olive complexion. Sidonia addressed her in Italian, which greatly pleased her. She was profuse, even solemn, in her thanks to him; she added, she was sure, from all that she had heard of him, if he took the children with him, he would be kind to them.
'She has overheard something I said to my wife,' said Baroni, a little embarrassed.
'I am sure I should be kind to them,' said Sidonia, 'for many reasons, and particularly for one;' and he whispered something in Baroni's ear.
Baroni started from his seat with a glowing cheek, but Sidonia, looking at his watch and promising to attend their evening performance, bade them adieu.
The performances were more meagrely attended this evening than even on the preceding one, but had they been conducted in the royal theatre of a capital, they could not have been more elaborate, nor the troupe have exerted themselves with greater order and effect. It mattered not a jot to them whether their benches were thronged or vacant; the only audience for whom the Baroni family cared was the foreign manager, young, generous, and speculative, whom they had evidently without intention already pleased, and whose good opinion they resolved to-night entirely to secure. And in this they perfectly succeeded. Josephine was a tragic muse; all of them, even to little Carlotta, performed as if their destiny depended on the die. Baroni would not permit the children's box to be carried round to-night, as he thought it an unfair tax on the generous stranger, whom he did not the less please by this well-bred abstinence. As for the mediaeval and historic groups, Sidonia could recall nothing equal to them; and what surprised him most was the effect produced by such miserable materials. It seemed that the whole was effected with some stiffened linen and paper; but the divine touch of art turned everything to gold. One statue of Henri IV. with his flowing plume, and his rich romantic dress, was quite striking. It was the very plume that had won at Ivry, and yet was nothing more than a sheet of paper cut and twisted by the plastic finger of little Alfred.
There was to be no performance on the morrow; the niggard patronage of the town had been exhausted. Indeed, had it not been for Sidonia, the little domestic troupe would, ere this, have quitted the sullen town, where they had laboured so finely, and achieved such an ungracious return. On the morrow Baroni was to ride one of the fat horses over to Berg, a neighbouring town of some importance, where there was even a little theatre to be engaged, and if he obtained the permission of the mayor, and could make fair terms, he proposed to give there a series of representations. The mother was to stay at home and take care of the grandmother; but the children, all the children, were to have a holiday, and to dine with Sidonia at his hotel.
It would have been quite impossible for the most respectable burgher, even of the grand place of a Flemish city, to have sent his children on a visit in trim more neat, proper, and decorous, than that in which the Baroni family figured on the morrow, when they went to pay their respects to their patron. The girls were in clean white frocks with little black silk jackets, their hair beautifully tied and plaited, and their heads uncovered, according to the fashion of the country: not an ornament or symptom of tawdry taste was visible; not even a necklace, although they necessarily passed their lives in fanciful or grotesque attire; the boys, in foraging caps all of the same fashion, were dressed in blouses of holland, with bands and buckles, their broad shirt collars thrown over their shoulders. It is astonishing, as Baroni said, what order and discipline will do; but how that wonderful house upon wheels contrived to contain all these articles of dress, from the uniform of the marshal of France to the diminutive blouse of little Michel, and how their wearers always managed to issue from it as if they came forth from the most commodious and amply-furnished mansion, was truly yet pleasingly perplexing. Sidonia took them all in a large landau to see a famous château a few miles off, full of pictures and rich old furniture, and built in famous gardens. This excursion would have been delightful to them, if only from its novelty, but, as a substitute for their daily progress through the town, it offered an additional gratification.
The behaviour of these children greatly interested and pleased Sidonia. Their conduct to each other was invariably tender and affectionate: their carriage to him, though full of respect, never constrained, and touched by an engaging simplicity. Above all, in whatever they did or said, there was grace. They did nothing awkwardly; their voices were musical; they were merry without noise, and their hearts sparkled in their eyes.
'I begin to suspect that these youthful vagabonds, struggling for life, have received a perfect education,' thought the ever-musing Sidonia, as he leaned back in the landau, and watched the group that he had made so happy. 'A sublime religious principle sustains their souls; a tender morality regulates their lives; and with the heart and the spirit thus developed, they are brought up in the pursuit and production of the beautiful. It is the complete culture of philosophic dreams!'
The children had never sat down before to a regular dinner, and they told Sidonia 50. Their confession added a zest to the repast. He gave them occasional instructions, and they listened as if they were receiving directions for a new performance. They were so quick and so tractable, that their progress was rapid; and at the second course Josephine was instructing Michel, and Alfred guiding the rather helpless but always self-composed Carlotta. After dinner, while Sidonia helped them to sugar-plums, he without effort extracted from each their master wish. Josephine desired to be an actress, while Adele confessed that, though she sighed for the boards, her secret aspirations were for the grand opera. Carlotta thought the world was made to dance.
'For my part,' said Francis, the eldest son, 'I have no wish to be idle; but there are two things which I have always desired: first, that I should travel; and, secondly, that nobody should ever know me.'
'And what would Alfred wish to be?' said Sidonia.
'Indeed, sir, if it did not take me from my brothers and sisters, I should certainly wish to be a painter.'
'Michel has not yet found out what he wishes,' said Sidonia.
'I wish to play upon the horn,' said Michel, with great determination.
When Sidonia embraced them before their departure, he gave each of the girls a French shawl; to Francis he gave a pair of English pistols, to guard him when he travelled; Alfred received a portfolio full of drawings of costume. It only arrived after dinner, for the town was too poor to supply anything good enough for the occasion, and Sidonia had sent a special messenger, the day before, for it to Lille. Michel was the guardian of a basket laden with good things, which he was to have the pleasure of dividing among the Baroni family. 'And if your papa come back to-night,' said Sidonia to Josephine, 'tell him I should like to have a word with him.'
Sidonia had already commenced that habit which, during subsequent years, he has so constantly and successfully pursued, namely, of enlisting in his service all the rare talent which he found lying common and unappropriated in the great wilderness of the world, no matter if the object to which it would apply might not immediately be in sight. The conjuncture would arrive when it would be wanted. Thus he generally had ready the right person for the occasion; and, whatever might be the transaction, the human instrument was rarely wanting. Independent of the power and advantage which this system gave him, his abstract interest in intellect made the pursuit delightful to him. He liked to give ability of all kinds its scope. Nothing was more apt to make him melancholy, than to hear of persons of talents dying without having their chance. A failure is nothing; it may be deserved, or it may be remedied. In the first instance, it brings self-knowledge; in the second, it develops a new combination usually triumphant. But incapacity, from not, having a chance of being capable, is a bitter lot, which Sidonia was ever ready to alleviate.
The elder Baroni possessed Herculean strength, activity almost as remarkable, a practised courage, and a controlling mind. He was in the prime of manhood, and spoke several languages. He was a man, according to Sidonia's views, of high moral principle, entirely trustworthy. He was too valuable an instrument to allow to run to seed as the strolling manager of a caravan of tumblers; and it is not improbable that Sidonia would have secured his services, even if he had not become acquainted with the Baroni family. But they charmed him. In every member of it he recognised character, and a predisposition which might even be genius. He resolved that every one of them should have a chance.
When therefore Baroni, wearied and a little disgusted with an unpromising journey, returned from Berg in the evening, and, in consequence of the message of his children, repaired instantly to the hotel of Sidonia, his astonishment was great when he found the manager converted into a millionaire, and that too the most celebrated in Europe. But no language can convey his wonder when he learnt the career that was proposed to him, and the fortunes that were carved out for his children. He himself was to repair, with all his family, except Josephine and her elder brother, at once to Vienna, where he was to be installed into a post of great responsibility and emolument. He was made superintendent of the couriers of the house of Sidonia in that capital, and especially of those that conveyed treasure. Though his duties would entail frequent absences on him, he was to be master of a constant and complete establishment. Alfred was immediately to become a pupil of the Academy of Painters, and Carlotta of that of dancing; the talents of Michel were to be watched, and to be reported to Sidonia at fitting periods. As for Adele, she was consigned to a lady who had once been a celebrated prima donna, with whom she was to pursue her studies, although still residing under the paternal roof. 'Josephine will repair to Paris at once with her brother,' said Sidonia. 'My family will guard over her. She will enjoy her brother's society until I commence my travels. He will then accompany me.'
It is nearly twenty years since these incidents occurred, and perhaps the reader may feel not altogether uninterested in the subsequent fate of the children of Baroni. Mademoiselle Josephine is at this moment the glory of the French stage; without any question the most admirable tragic actress since Clairon, and inferior not even to her. The spirit of French tragedy has risen from the imperial couch on which it had long slumbered since her appearance, at the same time classical and impassioned, at once charmed and commanded the most refined audience in Europe. Adele, under the name of Madame Baroni, is the acknowledged Queen of Song in London, Paris, Berlin, and St. Petersburg; while her younger sister, Carlotta Baroni, shares the triumphs, and equals the renown, of a Taglioni and a Cerito. At this moment, Madame Baroni performs to enthusiastic audiences in the first opera of her brother Michel, who promises to be the rival of Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn; all delightful intelligence to meet the ear of the soft-hearted Alfred, who is painting the new chambers of the Papal palace, a Cavaliere, decorated with many orders, and the restorer of the once famous Roman school.
'Thus,' continued Baroni to Tancred, 'we have all succeeded in life because we fell across a great philosopher, who studied our predisposition. As for myself, I told M. de Sidonia that I wished to travel and to be unknown, and so he made of me a secret agent.'
'There is something most interesting,' said Tancred, 'in this idea of a single family issuing from obscurity, and disseminating their genius through the world, charming mankind with so many spells. How fortunate for you all that Sidonia had so much feeling for genius!'
'And some feeling for his race,' said Baroni.
'How?' said Tancred, startled.
'You remember he whispered something in my father's ear?'
'He spoke it in Hebrew, and he was understood.'
'You do not mean that you, too, are Jews?'
'Pure Sephardim, in nature and in name.'
'But your name surely is Italian?'
'Good Arabic, my lord. Baroni; that is, the son of Aaron; the name of old clothesmen in London, and of caliphs at Bagdad.'