Littell's Living Age/Volume 129/Issue 1660/La Bella Sorrentina
From The Cornhill Magazine.
LA BELLA SORRENTINA.
The district that forms the southern horn of the Bay of Naples, with its orange-groves and vineyards, its aloes, olives and palms, its rocky hills, its white, glittering towns, its deep blue sea, its bare-legged fishermen and graceful, dark-eyed girls, has always been the very paradise of tourists. The faint, heavy scent of the orange-blossoms is wafted to you, as you sit in your balcony above the sea, on warm, moonlight nights; the tinkling of a guitar is heard from the distance, where somebody is singing "Santa Lucia" or "La Bella Sorrentina" before the door of one of the hotels; a long line of smoke is blown from Vesuvius towards the horizon; the lights of Naples wink and glitter on the other side of the bay; and presently (if you are inclined to pay for it) a little company of young men and maidens will come and dance the tarantella for you, till you are weary of watching so much activity in such a slumberous atmosphere.
There is no disappointment about this part of Italy. Pictures, poetry, books of travel—all that one has heard, seen, or read of this country—cannot have exaggerated its loveliness or idealized its perfection. The sky and sea are as blue and deep, the mountains as softly purple, and the vegetation as luxuriant as the most fervid imagination can have pictured them; the people are laughing, dancing, singing and chattering from morning till night; even when they work they seem to be only playing at toil, dragging up their nets, or tending their vines, as if only to make a pretty foreground to a picture. Life at Sorrento and Castellamare is, to quote the opinion of an enthusiastic French lady, as beautiful as a perpetual scene at the opera, and even more agreeable, as being free from the inconvenience of gas.
Tourists generally are apt to fall in, in some sort, with this way of thinking. Everything in this charming, perfumed, sensuous land is so full of pleasure, so fairylike and unreal, that it is difficult to believe that the cares and troubles of the world can have any place there, or that the inhabitants can have anything to do but to look picturesque and dance and sing from the cradle to the grave.
Nevertheless, the Piano di Sorrento is a country in which people love, hate, weep, struggle, pinch, and suffer in the same way as mortals do in other parts of this planet. Here is the history of a man and a woman, born and bred in Sorrento, to both of whom want and suffering were familiar in their earlier years; while one of them, at least, experienced more of the latter sensation than most people would hold to be the fair share of a lifetime.
The name of Annunziata Vannini, the famous prima donna, has become well known to the world, while that of Luigi Ratta will convey no idea to the mind of the reader, and would probably, indeed, never have been heard ten miles from his native village of Sorrento but for a circumstance which shall in due course be related. But everybody has seen and heard the Vannini; and even those who cannot claim to be considered as other than nobodies—that is to say, people who look upon a guinea and a half as too long a price to pay for an evening's amusement—must have become familiar with her features from her photographs in the shop-windows, where she has figured in a hundred different costumes and attitudes any time during the last fifteen years. Yet a very small proportion of the admiring and appreciative throngs who have applauded her to the echo while bouquets, laurel wreaths, and even diamond bracelets upon occasion, have been showered down upon her as she stood smiling and curtsying upon the stages of Covent Garden, St. Petersburg, and Paris, is aware that, not so very long ago, she was a bare-footed orphan girl, helping her aunt, old Marta Vannini, at the wash-tub, seldom tasting meat, sometimes getting cuffed for carelessness, and not unfrequently going hungry to bed.
In those old days, from which she has become so widely and utterly removed, Annunziata Vannini was a beautiful, laughing, happy, and good-natured girl, whom everybody was fond of, and whom some (notably Luigi Ratta) loved so much that they would fain have taken her, all poor and dowerless as she was, to gladden their homes permanently with her bright presence. Nowadays her beauty has lost something of its freshness, as is but natural after fifteen years of constant labour and excitement and contact with the world; her laughter is perhaps neither so frequent nor so hearty as it used to be; and it is proverbial that wealth does not of necessity confer happiness on its possessor. Good-natured the Vannini has always been, and always will be; one may suppose, till the end of the chapter.
The peasants of Sorrento gave her the sobriquet of "la bella Sorrentina", after the well-known song that bears that title—whether from her remarkable beauty or from the fact that Luigi, who played the guitar a little, was fond of trolling out the air at her garden-gate, I do not know. The name was, at all events, a sufficiently appropriate one.
Lovers, as has been said, were not wanting to her; but at the age of eighteen she had as yet declined to have anything to say to any of them—even to Luigi Ratta, whom perhaps she liked the best of all, and who had been constant to her ever since the time when, as children of ten and eight years old respectively, they had broken a small coin together, each promising to keep a half in sign of eternal fidelity.
Luigi, like herself, was, at the time our story opens, an orphan. His father had died about two years before, leaving him a small sum of money carefully locked up in a cash-box, a share in a good-sized fishing-boat, a couple of nets, and a little cottage just outside Sorrento. With this property Luigi, though not precisely well-to-do, felt himself in a position to support a wife; nor need he have sought long or far to find a willing partner, for he was steady, handsome, hard-working, and as strong as an ox. But there was only one girl in the world that Luigi felt any inclination for; and she, when one spoke to her of love, would only laugh; and if one mentioned marriage, was apt to retire into the house and slam the door in one's face. It was provoking; but Luigi was of a long-suffering and persevering nature; he doubted not but that, in the end, his hopes would be fulfilled, and in the mean time possessed his soul in patience, and got what comfort he could from long interviews with the girl of his heart, on fine nights after work-hours, at the end of old Marta Vannini's garden, which overlooked the sea. He used to take his guitar, on such occasions, and station himself by the low lava-built wall, singing love-songs till such time as it pleased Annunziata to become aware of his presence, and come down and talk to him.
Now it chanced that as he was thus employed, one fine November evening, a stout, elderly gentlemen came sauntering towards him from the direction of the hotel, smoking his after-dinner cigar, and stopped to listen to the rustic serenade. The air was deliciously soft and warm; there was just enough of gentle southerly wind to set the olives and evergreen oaks sighing; the moon was streaming down full upon the white walls of Marta Vannini's cottage; Luigi, with wide-open jaws and chest well thrown forward, was bawling out "La Bella Sorrentina" with all the power of a magnificent pair of lungs; and presently an exquisitely-formed little head was thrust out from Annunziata's window into the moonlight. The elderly gentleman was so pleased with the whole scene that he thought he would sit down on the wall and watch it for a few minutes while he finished his cigar.
"Che bella ragazza!" he ejaculated, under his breath, with a fat, approving smile, as Annunziata nodded and waved her hand to her tuneful swain. He sat and looked and listened till the song had been gone through down to the last word of the last stanza, only giving vent to an occasional shuddering "Ah-h-h!" when Luigi sang flat—as, to tell the truth, he pretty frequently did—and then got up to return to his hotel.
But why does that elderly gentleman suddenly whisk round upon his heels with an exclamation of delight? What causes him to tear off his white Leghorn straw hat, as if in a frenzy, and dash it upon the ground? And why does he presently pounce upon it again, and scamper off towards the hotel as fast as his fat little round legs will carry him? It is only that Annunziata, by way of reply to her lover, has begun to sing one of the songs of the country. Everybody in Sorrento has heard her sing; everybody knows that she sings well, and has a sweet voice; but upon no one have her vocal powers produced such an effect as this before.
The old gentleman clatters noisily up the wooden staircase of the Albergo della Sirena, and bounces into the sitting-room, where his wife, who is twice as fat as himself, lies dozing in an arm-chair.
"My dear!" he gasps, "my dear ———"
"Well, Sassi, what is it now?" says she, still only half awake.
"My dear, I have heard the voice of an angel!"
"Che, che! There would not be room in heaven for all the angels you have heard, Sassi."
"Carissima mia, come and hear! You shall judge for yourself—you who know what a voice is. It is but two steps from here—a little cottage, not a hundred yards off." And the enthusiastic Sassi seized his ponderous partner by the arm, and attempted to drag her tether feet.
"Decidedly," shrieked that lady, struggling violently, "I do not leave this chair till I go to bed! Let me alone, Sassi; you are causing me great pain and discomfort." And, being released, she flopped heavily back into her former position, with a grunt.
Signor Sassi sighed. "Well, well," he said, "I will bring her here in the morning. You will hear her, and be convinced. I will make the fortune of that girl!"
"Bah!" said the signora, shrugging her shoulders and depressing the corners of her mouth. "You are always going to make somebody's fortune—and what is the result? Remember that girl at Venice whom you took to live with us for six months, and who, as I had already prophesied, turned out to have no more power of understanding music than that table. Remember the tenor, as you called him (though he was really nothing but a barytone), who stole my rings and your cashbox at Ancona. But what is the use of wasting breath on those who will not hear? I suppose this new angel will come and stay with us from to-morrow. I only beg you to notice that I prophesy she will prove to be a failure, and that she will run away with all our clothes into the bargain."
"You will see—you will see," replied old Sassi, nodding his head and closing his eyes with an aspect of serene certainty.
The next morning, while old Marta Vannini was hard at work over the washing, by means of which she lived, somebody rapped at the door with the handle of a stick, and on going to admit her visitor she was somewhat surprised to see an elderly stranger of benevolent aspect, who took off his straw hat and bowed down to the ground.
"Signora," said he, "let me, first of all, felicitate you."
"Your Excellency is very good," replied the wondering Marta, "but with times as hard as they are now, I don't know———"
"You possess a treasure, signora."
"Santa Madonna! a treasure! I can assure your Excellency that this is the first I have heard of it."
"You possess a treasure, I was about to say, in your niece."
"Oh!" said Marta, with a lengthened countenance. "Well, yes; she is a good girl—one cannot complain; but she scarcely pays for her keep; and we poor people have to think of that."
"Not pay for her keep! Woman! is not a voice like hers payment enough for the keep of a whole regiment? Does not your heart leap into your mouth when you hear her sing?"
"But, caro signor mio," said old Marta, laughing a little (for she began to suspect that her interlocutor was not quite right in his head), "she is one of those who must work and not sing. One may sing all day long, like a cicala, but that will not bring in money."
"That is precisely where you are mistaken, my good madam; singing will sometimes bring in money enough to buy up the whole of Sorrento. Did you never hear of Alboni, and Grisi, and Malibran?"
No; Marta was unacquainted with any of these names.
"Well, they were ladies who made more money by singing one night at the opera than I suppose you would by washing in a couple of years. What do you think of that?"
"It is extraordinary," said Marta, with a sigh; "but surely, eccellenza, you do not mean that our Annunziata could do that!"
"Who knows? I should be better able to tell you if you would permit me to see her and hear her sing for a few minutes."
"Annunziata!" shrieked the old woman in her shrill nasal accents, "leave the washing, and come here. Here is a gentleman who wishes to speak to you."
Annunziata made her appearance, smiling and surprised, and was greeted with much cordiality by Signor Sassi. Like the generality of Italians, she was wholly free from shyness, and though somewhat taken aback by the visitor's request, she made no difficulty about obliging him with a specimen of her musical capabilities. She sang him first one song, then another, and finally, repressing a strong inclination to burst out laughing, consented, for the first time in her life, to be put through her scales. Higher and higher rose the clear, full, true notes till Signor Sassi could no longer contain his delight. He seized Annunziata by both hands, and went near to embracing her in his exultation. "Signorina," he exclaimed, "the world is open to you! A little work—a little perseverance—and everything you touch will turn to gold!" Then he twirled round, and faced the older woman—" And now, signora," he said, "for a few words with you. I am Signor Sassi—you may perhaps have heard me spoken of?"
But Marta was as ignorant of the fame of Signor Sassi as she had admitted herself to be of Grisi and Alboni. "Hum!" grunted the old gentleman; "I'm not altogether obscure, for all that, ft chance ever takes you to Paris, London, or Vienna, you will find that Alessandro Sassi, the singing-master, is pretty well known in all those places. Not that I am a singingmaster now,—I made money enough, years ago, to keep my wife and myself in comfort, and I have no children. Music and art occupy the place of children in my affections," said the little man, drawing himself up and tapping his breast. "Now this is what I propose to you," he continued. "During the present winter, which I intend to pass at Sorrento, the signorina shall come to me for singing lessons twice a day—two hours in the morning, one in the afternoon. In the spring I take her, under the care of my wife, to Paris, where we reside; I continue her instruction there, and in the autumn I hope to introduce her to the public. In three years or two years perhaps—who can say?—she will be earning, if I am not mistaken, a considerable salary."
"But, signore," gasped Marta, rather bewildered by the rapidity with which this programme was announced, "who is to pay you for all this?"
Sassi reddened a little. "I do not want money," he answered, in a slightly injured tone; "but you may feel at ease about incurring any obligation from me. The signorina shall repay me all I have spent upon her as soon as she is in a position to do so. And there is another thing. You will want some one to replace her in helping you with your work. I will pay what is necessary to secure you an assistant; and that also can be returned to me in due time. Now, what do you say? Are you contented?"
What could Marta say but that she accepted so liberal an offer with willingness and gratitude, and that Annunziata should begin her lessons as soon as the gentleman pleased?" But what if it turns out a mistake, after all," she suggested, "and all this expense leads to nothing?"
"Then there will be no harm done," replied Sassi, who had now quite recovered his good-humour. "I am well enough off to afford myself a caprice—it will not be the first time." And so Annunziata's destiny was settled.
Luigi Ratta, passing down towards the shore with his oars over his shoulder, caught a glimpse of the group through the open door. He saw the little fat man, in his black alpaca coat and white jean trousers, talking and gesticulating; he saw Annunziata standing leaning against the table, with her beautiful bare arms hanging down and her hands lightly clasped, gazing out into the sunshine with a pleased, dazed look in her eyes; he saw old Marta grinning from ear to ear with satisfaction; and a cold, undefined feeling of dread, which he often afterwards recalled, crept over him. Nobody noticed him, and he went on his way without his usual morning salutation.
The winter that followed was one of almost unalloyed happiness to Annunziata. Every day she spent three hours at the Albergo della Sirena, working hard at the drudgery of learning to get out her voice, under the auspices of Signor Sassi and his wife, the latter of whom, having been completely vanquished by the beauty of the young peasant girl, as well as by the undoubted excellence of her clear soprano, had now taken up her cause with as much enthusiasm as her more easily moved husband had done. Toiling at the wash-tub till one's back was like to break was now a thing of the past; Aunt Marta was always gracious, dinners at the Sirena, accompanied by unheard-of luxuries in the way of strange wines, were of frequent occurrence; good-natured Madame Sassi had gone into Naples, one day, and returned with a present of two beautiful dresses; everybody was complimentary, polite, and kind. Already some foreshadowing of the glory of success was beginning to make the world brilliant for the young aspirant.
Luigi, on the other hand, was cast down almost into the depths of despair by the changed order of things. He seldom saw Annunziata now; she was forever running over, on one pretext or another, to see her new friends; and although she was always kind and pleasant to Luigi, and seemed glad to see him, he could not but feel that a gulf had already begun to open between them. And if this were so thus early in the business, how would it be when she should have visited distant lands, and sung before vast audiences, and become a great lady—as they said she would do? There were times when Luigi felt that if he could induce the fat little singing-master to accompany him on a sail to Capri, and if he could contrive to upset the boat at a reasonable distance from the shore, it would be a satisfactory and an excusable thing. But Signor Sassi had been to Capri, and had been grievously sick on the way; insomuch that he had sworn by all he held most sacred to tempt the sea no more.
As for speaking of marriage to a young woman who was all exultant at the thought of quitting her native place and seeing the wonders of the great world, that was clearly out of the question. At the bottom of his heart Luigi nourished a faint hope that the cold and misery of these unknown foreign lands might prove insupportable to one who had been brought up in the warmth and colour and sunlight of Sorrento, and that, after a few months of struggling against the burden of cloudy skies and barbarian habits, Annunziata might gladly and repentantly return to her native Italy. In such an event, how willingly would he throw open the door of his cottage to receive her!
It was not much of a hope to build upon; but such as it was, it served to sustain him when, on a bright April morning, he stood sorrowfully watching the departure of the travelling-carriage that bore away Signor and Signora Sassi and Annunziata on the road to Castellamare. The carriage disappeared in a cloud of dust, taking with it Annunziata and her fortunes to Castellamare—to Naples—to the unknown. Would she ever come back again, Luigi wondered sadly, as he turned to go down to his boat on the shore.
When Luigi saw the last of Annunziata, on that spring morning, he determined that he would think about her as little as possible throughout the summer, that he would expect to hear nothing of her, and that he would devote all his time and energy to the saving of money and bettering of his position. He knew that there was no probability of the return of the wanderer before the autumn; and indeed it was to the storms and rain of that season that he principally trusted to bring about the fulfilment of his wishes. Even in the south, autumn is often a dreary time; north of the Alps Luigi supposed that the snow and wind began then, and only ceased with the return of spring.
But notwithstanding all his resolutions, he found that he could in no wise succeed in banishing the image of his absent love from his mind. Whether he was fishing, or mending his nets, eating or drinking, sleeping or waking—in every hour of the long blazing days, and throughout the sultry nights, the same sweet, kind face was always before him; and as the reflections that arose therefrom could scarcely be of a cheerful nature, Luigi became silent and morose, and sometimes even, as his companions remarked with surprise—for that had never been usual with him—a trifle quarrelsome.
Nor could he keep himself from going every now and then to get what news he could from old Marta Vannini, who did not receive his visits with much cordiality. Marta had begun to dream ambitious dreams with regard to her niece's future, and was disposed to look upon the young fisherman as a decided nuisance. She told him, however, pretty nearly all that she heard, not being able to refrain from imparting such good news to all who cared to listen. Annunziata was in Paris—then in London—then in Paris again; she was studying hard, and getting on admirably. Her voice had been heard in several of the great private houses—the milordi Inglesi had been enchanted with her—in Paris she had sung before the Princess A., the Due de B., and many others. Her appearance in public had been postponed, not from any incapacity on her part, but because Signor Sassi had wished to reserve for her a more brilliant triumph by withholding her from the public till the next London season, when she was to make her début at the principal opera of that great city.
All this Luigi heard, and went away with a heavy heart. He greatly feared that the society of dukes and princes would turn the head of the simple peasant girl; and in none of her letters, so far as he knew, had she given any hint of a return to her home in the south.
But with November and the arrival of the cool season came great news. Luigi, on entering Marta's cottage on his usual errand, one evening, was as astonished as he was delighted to be met with the intelligence that Annunziata was expected on a visit to her aunt, and that she would actually make her appearance on the following day. Luigi hardly slept a wink that night. He rose early in the morning, scrubbed himself carefully from head to foot—an operation which I am afraid it must be acknowledged that he did not go through everyday—arrayed himself in his best clothes, and then sat indoors doing nothing, till the hour which Marta had named as the probable time of her niece's arrival was past With a great effort of will, he succeeded in keeping within his own house for half an hour longer—for he thought it would not perhaps be quite the thing to pay a lady a visit immediately on her reaching the end of a long journey. Then he set out on the familiar road, and found, to his surprise, that his heart was beating fast, and that his hands were damp and cold. "I never knew I was a coward before," thought poor Luigi ruefully.
When he entered the well-known room there was such a buzzing in his ears, and such a mist before his eyes that he scarcely knew where he was or what he was doing; nor did he, for a moment or two, recognize in the elegantly dressed young lady who was seated by the window the barefooted companion of his childhood. The young lady, however, recognized him, and as she had no reason to feel embarrassed, was not slow in her greeting. She ran up to him, holding out both her hands, with the bright smile that he remembered so well.
"You dear, good Luigi!" she exclaimed, "I knew you would come as soon as you heard I was here. And how are you? And what have you been doing all these long, weary months? Has the fishing been good? Why have you put on your Sunday clothes, you foolish boy? I like you best in your every-day dress. Do you think I have become such a fine lady that my own best friends must dress up when I come to see them? I have not got the clothes I used to wear, or I would put them on while I am here. La zia has killed a fowl, and is gone out to cut salad for my supper—is it not silly of her? Now sit down there, and tell me all the news from the beginning to the end. Where is your guitar? I thought you would bring it, and sing 'La Bella Sorrentina' as you used to do. But perhaps you have found another bella Sorrentina now? "
Luigi was pleased, happy—perhaps, too, a little overpowered. He had hardly expected to be greeted so warmly. But he sat down, as he was bid, and presently began to talk in his deep, soft voice, answering the questions that had been put to him in order.
"There is but one bella Sorrentina" he said; "and as for news, I do not think there is any to tell. You will have heard that old Giuseppe is dead of an apoplexy, and that Marco Naldi is betrothed to the daughter of Masucci, the blacksmith at Torre del Greco. For myself, I have done pretty well in the way of business, thanks be to the saints!—and that I think is all; except that the sun ceased to shine the day you left, signorina, and that we have had neither sunshine, nor flowers, nor song of birds since then till now."
Annunziata laughed, "What a pretty compliment!" she said. "No one understands paying compliments as we Italians do. The French are too formal and forced; the Germans are too clumsy; and as for the English, they never pay compliments at all. But you are not to call me 'signorina,' if you please. Have you forgotten my name already?"
"I will call you Annunziata, if I may; I did not know whether you would like it. They paid you many compliments then—those foreign counts and dukes?"
Annunziata burst into one of her old hearty laughs. "An enormous number!" she said. "Luigi, you are a true Italian! It is lucky you were not with me in Paris. If you get jealous when I mention that strangers have made pretty speeches to me, what would you have done if you had heard them made? I believe you would have been capable of thrusting your knife into some of those poor young men."
"That is quite possible," remarked Luigi gloomily. "Annunziata," he resumed abruptly, after a short pause, "I have it on my mind to say something to you, and perhaps it had better be done at once!"
"Oh! no, dear Luigi—not if it is anything disagreeable! Do not say it—do not spoil my first day at home!"
"It is not disagreeable- that I know of—only I suppose it will be of no use. I want you to say you will marry me some day—there!"
"Oh, but, Luigi, you know that cannot be."
"Cannot be? I do not know that it cannot be. Why should it not be? Because I am poor, too ignorant, too common for you? You did not always think so. But I suppose nothing less than a duke or a prince will suit you nowadays."
"Ah! now you want to quarrel with me; but I will not quarrel. Listen, Luigi, and try not to be so hard and unjust. My life is no longer my own to dispose of. Signor Sassi has given me money, clothes, teaching—everything; and I must go on the stage, if it were only to repay him. I do not say that I would give up my profession now if I could—I would not. But you must see that I cannot, and that it is cruel and absurd to ask me to do such a thing."
"But I do not ask you to do it now. I only ask you to give me hope. Only say that in two or three years you will bp my wife, and I shall be the happiest man in all Italy. Annunziata, if you will not promise me that, I believe I shall go and drown myself!"
Annunziata burst into tears. "I cannot promise it—I cannot," she sobbed. "How can I tell whether I shall be free in two or three years to leave the stage? Very likely people will only then be beginning to listen to me. I don't want to marry anybody. Oh dear! oh dear! I wish there was no such thing as marrying in the world!"
Luigi was very much moved and humiliated at her distress^ He dropped on his knees before her, clasping his hands.
"Forgive me, my dear, forgive me!" he exclaimed. "I was rough and rude; but you do not know how I have suffered. You may sing at the opera to the day of your death, if you will, if only you will give me the right to go where you go, and live where you live. I need very little to live upon, as you know. I shall always be able to earn my own living, and no one need see me or hear of me but you. I could pass as your servant, if you wished it. God knows you could not have a more devoted one!"
Annunziata looked up, half-smiling through her tears. "As if I could let my husband occupy such a position as that! Believe me, dear Luigi, it is impossible. It is not your fault, nor mine; but our lives must be separate. I cannot come back to the old life here, nor could you be happy among the people I shall have to associate with."
"I know I am not fit to mix with your friends; but I can learn. I will take lessons in reading and writing—I will educate myself. Why should I not learn to be a gentleman, since you have become a lady?"
Annunziata saw a loophole of escape, and rushed at it. "If you really mean that, Luigi," she said—"if you could do that—but it will take a long time, you know—still, if you can learn to talk and behave as gentlemen do, so that you can associate with them without being unhappy—I might, in three years or so—but no! I will make no promises. It would be wrong to promise. Three years is such a long time, and so many things may happen ———"
But this encouragement, slight and vague as it was, sufficed to transform the despondent Luigi into a radiant and exultant conqueror. He started to his feet, and paced to and fro in the little room, beaming with happiness. "Now I have something to live for!" he shouted. "Now I can face the whole world! And I will learn quick enough—oh, I am not such a stupid fellow as I look! Three years! What are three years? I would wait three centuries. Oh, Annunziata, dear Annunziata, what a happy day this is!"
And he stepped towards her, as if he would have taken her in his arms.
But she drew back. "Remember, I have promised nothing," she said. "And, Luigi, I make one condition—you must speak no more of this to me so long as I am here."
Luigi made no protest against the injustice of imposing conditions when no engagement had been entered into. He sighed, and yielded; and so well did he keep his word that no further expression of love escaped his lips during the week that Annunziata spent in her native village. Some eloquent looks he did indulge in; but of these she either was, or affected to be, unconscious.
In spite of the restriction placed upon him, Luigi enjoyed to the full every hour of those glorified, but alas! too swift-footed, seven days. Annunziata was so gracious, so kind, so merry, so like her old self; she seemed to take such pleasure in going over all their old haunts with him, and in sailing in his boat under the shadow of the cliffs that the orange-trees and olives hang over, that the young fisherman felt himself in an earthly paradise, and would gladly have consented to lead the same kind of life forever. Once, by dint of much pressing, he was induced to get his guitar out from its hiding-place, and sing "La Bella Sorrentina;" but he would not do so a second time. "You have learnt music now, and know that I have neither ear nor voice," he said. And so the guitar was put away again.
The fatal day of departure came; and Annunziata, as she leant back in the carriage, covering her face with her hands and sobbing as only an Italian woman can, almost wished that she never had been tempted to leave her tranquil home at Sorrento at all. It was a natural feeling; and doubtless it was equally natural that she should overcome it as soon as she was in the train flying northwards towards Signor Sassi, and wealth and distinction, leaving Luigi, poverty, and peace behind.
She spent that winter at Milan, working harder than she had ever done yet, learning, practising, and rehearsing over and over again, with the indefatigable Sassi to encourage her, and a host of critics, professional and amateur, to praise her and prophesy for her a glorious career. The manager of the English opera came, in the course of the winter, to hear her, and expressed himself very strongly as to her improvement since she had left London. In the spring she was taken to England; and then, at last, the momentous day dawned on which, for the first time, she was to sing before a public audience.
The opera that had been chosen for her was Mozart's "Flauto Magico" and her role was that of the "Queen of the Night," a part which perhaps was never before selected for a débutante. It will be remembered that the "Queen of the Night," though she appears but three times in the course of the whole opera, and remains on the stage only for a few minutes on each occasion, has, during those few minutes, a task to perform or which many of the most famous prime donne have been found incapable. The part can only be taken by a pure soprano of almost abnormal compass, and any lady who undertakes to fill it may feel assured that she will produce a sensation—either on account of complete failure, or of equally complete success.
Now Signor Sassi, knowing that his pupil was capable of accomplishing this feat, and knowing also how great would be the fame that would attend her achievement of it, had not been able to resist the temptation of risking much on the hazard of her triumph. She had sung and acted the part over and over again, not only to him but to several other competent judges, and he thought he was justified in the venture. Nevertheless, considering the youth and total inexperience of the performer, it was not surprising that many of Annunziata's friends were terribly nervous when the important evening arrived, and the opera-house began to fill.
Signor Sassi, who was behind the scenes, was very pale, and his hand shook, though he endeavoured to keep up a demeanour of jaunty carelessness; the manager himself looked worried and anxious; Signora Sassi was perspiring in the stalls, fanning herself vigorously with a huge fan, and keeping up her courage by sniffing at a bottle of strong, sweet scent, whereby much ill feeling was engendered amongst her immediate neighbours. The coolest of them all was the principal person concerned, who, oddly enough, was perfectly at her ease, calm and self-confident She was conscious of no other feeling than an intense desire to succeed, and a strong determination and belief that she would succeed.
The last notes of the overture sounded, the curtain rose, and the opera began. With just a slight and not unpleasant tremor, Annunziata felt that there was now no retreat possible for her. She set her teeth, and her breath came quickly for a moment or two, but she was quite composed again before it became necessary for her to step out and face the audience.
Many people may remember the thrill of surprise that ran through the whole house when the Vannini for the first time appeared upon the boards where she has since become so well known. Her graceful carriage, her self-possession and her marvellous beauty, set off by the diaphanous draperies she wore and the diamond stars that rested, like a coronet, upon her masses of dark hair, filled every one there with amazement. In an unbroken silence she began to sing. Clear, round, and sweet each note rose, filling the vast building without apparently any effort to the singer, and several heads in the stalls began to nod approvingly. But Signora Sassi, who knew that this beginning was mere child's play, was scarlet in the face, and fanned away more violently than ever. Then came rippling runs and trills, and there was a murmur of applause, as will sometimes be the case with English audiences, even in the middle of a solo. The Vannini went on singing like a nightingale; and higher and higher rose her voice, till Signora Sassi dropped her fan and grasped her neighbour's arm with a force that nearly made the poor man cry out. The critical moment had come; the note—the great note—the wonderful, terrible note—was out, and out successfully. The signora, feeling as though she had had an operation performed upon her, sank back with a sigh of relief, and almost immediately the aria came to an end.
Then the applause began—a roll and a rattle that swelled and grew till the Vannini was frightened at the thunder she had evoked Her cheeks flushed and her eyes sparkled: applause- was intoxicating to her then—it does not occasion her much emotion now.
She had to sing her song twice again, and poor Signor Sassi passed a very agitated quarter of an hour; but all went off well, and then the successful cantatrice was free to receive the congratulations of her friends behind the scenes, and to repose herself till her second appearance in the third act. In this also she was triumphant. She left the theatre with the applause still ringing in her ears, followed by Sassi, whose arms were filled with bouquets; nor was there probably a happier supper-party in all London that evening, than was formed by the good singing-master and his wife and their fortunate pupil.
Such was the opening of the great Signorina Vannini's career. The details of that career cannot here be dwelt upon—space being insufficient; nor indeed did Annunziata's life differ much thenceforward from that usually led by the distinguished members of her profession. In the course of the two following years she sang at all the great capitals of Europe, and was everywhere received with enthusiasm. There was much pleasure in her life, plenty of work, some excitement, and also some anxiety. But she made a great deal of money; and we may be sure that one of the first things she did was to place her old aunt, Marta Vannini, in a position of ease and comfort. If amid the din and turmoil of the world she became a little forgetful of some of her old friends at Sorrento, I do not think any one can wonder or blame her much. But she blamed herself when, returning home one evening at Paris, after singing at the Italian Opera, a letter was put into her hand, signed "Luigi Ratta." Alas! had she not almost forgotten Luigi's very existence?
Now Luigi, mindful of Annunziata's promise—or half -promise—had resolved, immediately upon her departure, that he would henceforward set himself heart and soul to work at the task of learning to be a gentleman. Reading, writing, and a trifle of arithmetic he had already been taught, after a fashion; but something more than this would, he presumed, be necessary before he could be considered fit to associate with foreign dukes and princes. He therefore began by closely observing the manners and demeanour of the rich forestieri who frequented Sorrento during the winter months, and who often hired his boat to sail over to Capri and the famous Blue Grotto; but after long and conscientious study, he found himself unable to obtain any hints from them. That there was a difference between his ways and theirs he could easily see, but in what it consisted he could not, for the life of him, discover; nor did he think that he should ever succeed in imitating those gentlemen with any appearance of ease.
In this perplexity he decided on applying to one Antonio Bassano, surnamed Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 129.djvu/37 Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 129.djvu/38 Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 129.djvu/39 Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 129.djvu/40 Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 129.djvu/41 placed himself full in her path, and removed his hat.
"Luigi!" she exclaimed, starting back.
"Here are your diamonds!" said he; and he held out the morocco case which contained those jewels, as he spoke. Annunziata grasped it involuntarily, but almost immediately let it fall to the ground.
"Oh, Luigi!" she exclaimed, "what has made you do this?"
"It is scarcely you, signora contessa, who should put that question to me," he replied quietly.
"Oh, what a miserable woman I am!" she burst out, throwing herself down on the bank and beginning to cry bitterly. "I meant to do what was best—I did indeed! How could I know you would take things so to heart? I told you I could promise nothing—you must remember that. Oh, why should you have cared for me so much! There are so many others whom you might have married, and who would have made you far happier than I could. I meant to do what was kindest—and this is how it has ended!" And the tears poured down her cheeks.
Luigi looked at her sadly and calmly, and with just a faint touch of contempt, she thought.
"I have thought over that, and over many things lately," he said; "and I do not blame you. You intended to be kind—only you did not understand. I suppose you could not understand. I was in a hell of despair for a long time; but that is all over now, and I see that you are right, and that we never could have been happy together. Our robbing you was an accident. I had no notion that you were in these parts, or I might have prevented it. As it is, I have been able to restore you your diamonds under pretence of going down to Naples to dispose of them; but the rest of your property I am afraid you will have to lose. And now, signora, I must bid you good-bye."
"Oh, no, Luigi—not like this! Can I do nothing for you? Can I not save you from this dreadful life? See—here are my diamonds; take them—they are worth a great deal of money—enough to enable you to begin again in some other part of the country, and live honestly and happily."
Luigi shook his head with a smile. "I am greatly obliged to you, signora," he said, "but I am in no need of money; and as for 'this dreadful life,' I mean to abandon it to-morrow. Do you love your husband?"
"Of course," replied she, a little confused by this abrupt change of topic.
"I thought he looked a little old for you; but he seemed a good-natured fellow. Now you must go; it is getting too dark for you to be out alone. Good-bye, Annunziata—God bless you! Don't think of me any more."
"But Luigi," she pleaded through her tears, "you will let me hear from you?"
"No, signora; it will be better not. You understand that I must conceal myself for some time to come."
He turned to go, but suddenly faced about again, took her in his arms, and kissed her gently on the forehead. Then without another word, he walked quickly away up the hill.
Annunziata watched his tall figure striding away in the twilight till he was out of sight; and then she picked up her diamonds, and ran back to Amalfi. Luigi had not told her that escape from the mountains for so well-known a criminal as he had become was almost an impossibility, nor had he mentioned that his comrades, on his return to them without diamonds or money, would most assuredly put him to death as a traitor. But he was himself well aware of both facts, and was glad that it should be so—the world having now no attraction left in it strong enough to make him wish for life. His body was found, stabbed to the heart, in a wood near Ravello, a few days later; by which time the Comte and Comtesse de Chagny had, fortunately, left that part of the country.
The discovery of a murdered man more or less is not, or was not at any rate in those days, so unusual an incident in the neighbourhood of Amalfi as to create much stir beyond the immediate vicinity; and it was long before Annunziata became aware that when she had parted from her former lover on the hillside, he had left her only to go to his death.
M. de Chagny still relates the story of his adventure with the brigands of Amalfi, and the romantic generosity with which one of these rascals, dazzled by the beauty of the celebrated Vannini, made an appointment with her for the purpose of restoring her her diamonds. "It was a veritable Claude Duval affair," says the' count, "and is one of the most amusing reminiscences of our delightful Italian journey; but we have not been back there since; and as for my wife, she seems to have taken the country in horror."