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The Home Monthly

by Willa Cather.

From The Home Monthly, VII (August 1897):  5-6.

Nanette: An Aside.

Of course you do not know Nanette. You go to hear Tradutorri, go every night she is in the cast perhaps, and rave for days afterward over her voice, her beauty, her power, and when all is said the thing you most admire is a something which has no name, the indescribable quality which is Tradutorri herself. But of Nanette, the preserver of Madame's beauty, the mistress of Madame's finances, the executrix of Madame's affairs, the power behind the scenes, of course you know nothing.

It was after twelve o'clock when Nanette entered Madame's sleeping apartments at the Savoy and threw up the blinds, for Tradutorri always slept late after a performance. Last night it was Cavalleria Rusticana, and Santuzza is a trying role when it is enacted not merely with the emotions but with the soul, and it is this peculiar soul-note that has made Tradutorri great and unique among the artists of her generation.

"Madame has slept well, I hope?" inquired Nanette respectfully, as she presented herself at the foot of the bed.

"As well as usual, I believe," said Tradutorri rather wearily. "You have brought my breakfast? Well, you may put it here and put the ribbons in my gown while I eat. I will get up afterward."

Nanette took a chair by the bed and busied herself with a mass of white tulle.

"We leave America next week, Madame?"

"Yes, Friday; on the Paris," said Madame, absently glancing up from her strawberries. "Why, Nanette, you are crying! One would think you had sung 'Voi lo sapete' yourself last night. What is the matter, my child?"

"O, it is nothing worthy of Madame's notice. One is always sorry to say good bye, that is all."

"To one's own country, perhaps, but this is different. You have no friends here; pray, why should you be sorry to go?"

"Madame is mistaken when she says I have no friends here."

"Friends! Why, I thought you saw no one. Who, for example?"

"Well, there is a gentleman"—

"Bah! Must there always be a 'gentleman,' even with you? But who is this fellow? Go on!"

"Surely Madame has noticed?"

"Not I; I have noticed nothing. I have been very absent-minded, rather ill, and abominably busy. Who is it?"

"Surely Madame must have noticed Signor Luongo, the head waiter?"

"The tall one, you mean, with the fine head like Poor Sandro Salvini's? Yes, certainly I have noticed him; he is a very impressive piece of furniture. Well, what of him?"

"Nothing, Madame, but that he is very desirous that I should marry him."

"Indeed! And you?"

"I could wish for no greater happiness on earth, Madame."

Tradutorri laid a strawberry stem carefully upon her plate.

"Um-m-m, let me see; we have been here just two months and this affair has all come about. You have profited by your stage training, Nanette."

"O, Madame! Have you forgotten last season? We stopped here for six weeks then."

"The same 'gentleman' for two successive seasons? You are very disappointing, Nanette. You have not profited by your opportunities after all."

"Madame is pleased to jest, but I assure her that it is a very serious affair to me."

"O, yes, they all are. Affaires tres serieux. That is scarcely an original remark, Nanette. I think I remember having made it once myself."

The look of bitter unbelief that Nanette feared came over Madame's face. Presently, as Nanette said nothing, Tradutorri spoke again.

"So you expect me to believe that this is really a serious matter?"

"No, Madame," said Nanette quietly. "He believes it and I believe. It is not necessary that any one else should."

Madame glanced curiously at the girl's face and when she spoke again it was in a different tone.

"Very well: I do not see any objection. I need a man. It is not a bad thing to have your own porter in London and after our London engagement is over we will go directly to Paris. He can take charge of my house there, my present steward is not entirely satisfactory, you know. You can spend the summer together there and doubtless by next season you can endure to be separated from him for a few months. So stop crying and send this statuesque signor to me tomorrow and I will arrange matters. I want you to be happy, my girl—at least to try."

"Madame is good—too good, as always. I know your great heart. Out of your very compassion you would burden yourself with this man because I fancy him as you once burdened yourself with me. But that is impossible, Madame. He would never leave New York. He will have his wife to himself or not at all. Very many professional people stay here, not all like Madame, and he has his prejudices. He would never allow me to travel, not even with Madame. He is very firm in these matters."

"O, ho! So he has prejudices against our profession, this garçon? Certainly you have contrived to do the usual thing in a very usual manner. You have fallen in with a man who objects to your work."

Tradutorri pushed the tray away from her and lay down laughing a little as she threw her arms over her head.

"You see Madame, that is where all the trouble comes. For of course I could not leave you."

Tradutorri looked up sharply, almost pleadingly, into Nanette's face.

"Leave me? Good Heavens, no! Of course you can not leave me. Why who could ever learn all the needs of my life as you know them? What I may eat and what I may not, when I may see people and when they will tire me, what costumes I can wear and at what temperature I can have my baths. You know I am as helpless as a child in these matters. Leave me? The possibility has never occurred to me. Why, girl, I have grown fond of you! You have come entirely into my life. You have been my confidante and friend, the only creature I have trusted these last ten years. Leave me? I think it would break my heart. Come, brush out my hair, I will get up. The thing is impossible!"

"So I told him, Madame," said Nanette tragically. "I said to him: 'Had it pleased Heaven to give me a voice I should have given myself wholly to my art, without one reservation, without one regret, as Madame has done. As it is, I am devoted to Madame and her art as long as she has need of me.' Yes, that is what I said."

Tradutorri looked gravely at Nanette's face in the glass. "I am not at all sure that either I or my art are worth it, Nanette."


Tradutorri had just returned from her last performance in New York. It had been one of those eventful nights when the audience catches fire and drives a singer to her best, drives her beyond herself until she is greater than she knows or means to be. Now that it was over she was utterly exhausted and the life-force in her was low.

I have said she is the only woman of our generation who sings with the soul rather than the senses, the only one indeed since Malibran, who died of that prodigal expense of spirit. Other singers there are who feel and vent their suffering. Their methods are simple and transparent: they pour out their self-inflicted anguish and when it is over they are merely tired as children are after excitement. But Tradutorri holds back her suffering within herself; she suffers as the flesh and blood women of her century suffer. She is intense without being emotional. She takes this great anguish of hers and lays it in a tomb and rolls a stone before the door and walls it up. You wonder that one woman's heart can hold a grief so great. It is this stifled pain that wrings your heart when you hear her, that gives you the impression of horrible reality. It is this too, of which she is slowly dying now.

See, in all great impersonation there are two stages. One in which the object is the generation of emotional power; to produce from one's own brain a whirlwind that will sweep the commonplaces of the world away from the naked souls of men and women and leave them defenceless and strange to each other. The other is the conservation of all this emotional energy; to bind the whirlwind down within one's straining heart, to feel the tears of many burning in one's eyes and yet not to weep, to hold all these chaotic faces still and silent within one's self until out of this tempest of pain and passion there speaks the still, small voice unto the soul of man. This is the theory of "repression." This is classical art, art exalted, art deified. And of all the mighty artists of her time Tradutorri is the only woman who has given us art like this. And now she is dying of it, they say.

Nanette was undoing Madame's shoes. She had put the mail silently on the writing desk. She had not given it to her before the performance as there was one of those blue letters from Madame's husband, written in an unsteady hand with the postmark of Monte Carlo, which always made Madame weep and were always answered by large drafts. There was also another from Madame's little crippled daughter hidden away in a convent in Italy.

"I will see to my letters presently, Nanette. With me news is generally bad news. I wish to speak with you to night. We leave New York in two days, and the glances of this signor statuesque of yours is more than I can endure. I feel a veritable mère Capulet."

"Has he dared to look impertinently at Madame? I will see that this is stopped."

"You think that you could be really happy with this man, Nanette?"

Nanette was sitting upon the floor with the flowers from Madame's corsage in her lap. She rested her sharp little chin on her hand.

"Is any one really happy, Madame? But this I know, that I could endure to be very unhappy always to be with him." Her saucy little French face grew grave and her lips trembled.

Madame Tradutorri took her hand tenderly.

"Then if you feel like that I have nothing to say. How strange that this should come to you, Nanette; it never has to me. Listen: Your mother and I were friends once when we both sang in the chorus in a miserable little theatre in Naples. She sang quite as well as I then, and she was a handsome girl and her future looked brighter than mine. But somehow in the strange lottery of art I rose and she went under with the wheel. She had youth, beauty, vigor, but was one of the countless thousands who fall. When I found her years afterward, dying in a charity hospital in Paris, I took you from her. You were scarcely ten years old then. If you had sung I should have given you the best instruction; as it was I was only able to save you from that most horrible of fates, the chorus. You have been with me so long. Through all my troubles you were the one person who did not change toward me. You have become indispensable to me, but I am no longer so to you. I have inquired as to the reputation of this signor of yours from the proprietors of the house and I find it excellent. Ah, Nanette, did you really think I could stand between you and happiness? You have been a good girl, Nanette. You have stayed with me when we did not stop at hotels like this one, and when your wages were not paid you for weeks together."

"Madame, it is you who have been good! Always giving and giving to a poor girl like me with no voice at all. You know that I would not leave you for anything in the world but this."

"Are you sure you can be happy so? Think what it means! No more music, no more great personages, no more plunges from winter to summer in a single night, no more Russia, no more Paris, no more Italy. Just a little house somewhere in a strange country with a man who may have faults of his own, and perhaps little children growing up about you to be cared for always. You have been used to changes and money and excitement, and those habits of life are hard to change, my girl."

"Madame, you know how it is. One sees much and stops at the best hotels, and goes to the best milliners—and yet one is not happy, but a stranger always. That is, I mean"—

"Yes, I know too well what you mean. Don't spoil it now you have said it. And yet one is not happy! You will not be lonely, you think, all alone in this big strange city, so far from our world?"

"Alone! Why, Madame, Arturo is here!"

Tradutorri looked wistfully at her shining face.

"How strange that this should come to you, Nanette. Be very happy in it, dear. Let nothing come between you and it; no desire, no ambition. It is not given to every one. There are women who wear crowns who would give them for an hour of it."

"O, Madame, if I could but see you happy before I leave you!"

"Hush, we will not speak of that. When the flowers thrown me in my youth shall live again, or when the dead crater of my own mountain shall be red once more—then, perhaps. Now go and tell your lover that the dragon has renounced her prey."

"Madame, I rebel against this loveless life of yours! You should be happy. Surely with so much else you should at least have that."

Tradutorri pulled up from her dressing case the score of the last great opera written in Europe which had been sent her to originate the title role.

"You see this, Nanette? When I began life, between me and this lay everything dear in life—every love, every human hope. I have had to bury what lay between. It is the same thing florists do when they cut away all the buds that one flower may blossom with the strength of all God is a very merciless artist, and when he works out his purposes in the flesh his chisel does not falter. But no more of this, my child. Go find your lover. I shall undress alone to-night. I must get used to it. Good night, my dear. You are the last of them all, the last of all who have brought warmth into my life. You must let me kiss you to-night. No, not that way—on the lips. Such a happy face to-night, Nanette! May it be so always!"

After Nanette was gone Madame put her head down on her dressing case and wept, those lonely tears of utter wretchedness that a homesick girl sheds at school. And yet upon her brow shone the coronet that the nations had given her when they called her queen.