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The Library

by Willa Sibert Cather

From The Library, I (July 28, 1900):  15-16.

A Singer's Romance

The rain fell in torrents and the great stream of people which poured out of the Metropolitan Opera House stagnated about the doors and seemed effectually checked by the black line of bobbing umbrellas on the side walk. The entrance was fairly blockaded, and the people who were waiting for carriages formed a solid phalanx, which the more unfortunate opera goers, who had to depend on street cars no matter what the condition of the weather, tried to break through in vain. There was much shouting of numbers and hurrying of drivers, from whose oil cloth covered hats the water trickled in tiny streams, quite as though the brims had been curved just to accommodate it. The wind made the management of the hundreds of umbrellas difficult, and they rose and fell and swayed about like toy balloons tugging at their moorings. At the stage entrance there was less congestion, but the confusion was not proportionally small, and Frau Selma Schumann was in no very amiable mood when she was at last told that her carriage awaited her. As she stepped out of the door, the wind caught the black lace mantilla wound about her head and lifted it high in the air in such a ludicrous fashion that the substantial soprano cut a figure much like a malicious Beardsly poster. In her frantic endeavor to replace her sportive headgear, she dropped the little velvet bag in which she carried her jewel case. A young man stationed by the door darted forward and snatched it up from the side walk, uncovered his head and returned the bag to her with a low bow. He was a tall man, slender and graceful, and he looked as dark as a Spaniard in the bright light that fell upon him from the doorway. His curling black hair would have been rather long even for a tenor, and he wore a dark mustache. His face had that oval contour, slightly effeminate, which belongs to the Latin races. He wore a long black ulster and held in his hand a wide-brimmed, black felt hat. In his buttonhole was a single red carnation. Frau Schumann took the bag with a radiant smile, quite forgetting her ill humor. "I thank, you sir," she said graciously. But the young man remained standing with bared head, never raising his eyes. "Merci, Monsieur," she ventured again, rather timidly, but his only recognition was to bow even lower than before, and Madame hastened to her carriage to hide her confusion from her maid, who followed close behind. Once in the carriage, Madame permitted herself to smile and to sigh a little in the darkness, and to wonder whether the disagreeable American prima donna, who manufactured gossip about every member of the company, had seen the little episode of the jewel bag. She almost hoped she had.

This Signorino's reserve puzzled her more than his persistence. This was the third time she had given him an opportunity to speak, to make himself known, and the third time her timid advance had been met by silence and down-cast eyes. She was unable to comprehend it. She had been singing in New York now eight weeks, and since the first week this dark man, clad in black, had followed her like a shadow. When she and Annette walked in the park, they always encountered him on one of the benches. When she went shopping, he sauntered after them on the other side of the street. She continually encountered him in the corridors of her hotel; when she entered the theatre he was always stationed near the stage door, and when she came out again, he was still at his post. One evening, just to assure herself, she had gone to the Opera House when she was not in the cast, and, as she had hoped, the dark Signor was absent. He had grown so familiar to her that she knew the outline of his head and shoulders a square away, and in the densest crowd her eyes instantly singled him out. She looked for him so constantly that she knew she would miss him if he should not appear. Yet he made no attempt whatever to address her. Once, when he was standing near her in the hotel corridor, she made pointless and incoherent inquiries about directions from the bell boy, in the hope that the young man would volunteer information, which he did not. On another occasion, when she found him smoking a cigarette at the door of the Holland as she went out into a drizzling rain, she had feigned impossible difficulties in raising her umbrella. He did, indeed, raise it for her, and bowing passed quickly down the street. Madame had begun to feel like a very bold and forward woman, and to Drawing of a man standing on the side walk. blush guiltily under the surveillance of her maid. By every doorstep, at every corner, wherever she turned, whenever she looked out of a window, she encountered always the dark Signorino, with his picturesque face and Spanish eyes, his broad brimmed black felt hat set at an angle on his glistening black curls, and the inevitable red carnation in his button hole.

When they arrived at the hotel Antoinette went to the office to ask for Madame's mail, and returned to Madame's rooms with a letter which bore the familiar post mark of Monte Carlo. This threw Madame into an honest German rage, refreshing to witness, and she threw herself into a chair and wept audibly. The letter was from her husband, who spent most of his time and her money at the Casino, and who continually sent urgent letters for re-enforcement.

"It is too much, 'Toinette, too much," she sobbed. "He says he must have money to pay his doctor. Why I have sent him money enough to pay the doctor bills of the royal family. Here am I singing three and four nights a week,—no, I will not do it."

But she ended by sitting down at her desk and writing out a check, with which she enclosed very pointed advice, and directed it to the suave old gentleman at Monte Carlo.

Then she permitted 'Toinette to shake out her hair, and became lost in the contemplation of her own image in the mirror. She had to admit that she had grown a trifle stout, that there were many fine lines about her mouth and eyes, and little wrinkles on her forehead that had defied the arts of massage. Her blonde hair had lost its luster and was somewhat deadened by the heat of the curling iron. She had to hold her chin very high indeed in order not to have two, and there were little puffy places under her eyes that told of her love for pastry and champagne. Above her own face in the glass she saw the reflection of her maid's. Pretty, slender 'Toinette, with her satin-smooth skin and rosy cheeks and little pink ears, her arched brows and long black lashes and her coil of shining black hair. 'Toinette's youth and freshness irritated her to-night: She could not help wondering—but then this man was probably a man of intelligence, quite proof against the charm of mere prettinessl. He was probably, she reflected, an artist like herself, a man who revered her art, and art, certainly, does not come at sixteen. Secretly, she wondered what 'Toinette thought of this dark Signorino whom she must have noticed by this time. She had great respect for 'Toinette's opinion. 'Toinette was by no means an ordinary ladies' maid, and Madame had grown to regard her as a companion and confidant. She was the child of a French opera singer who had been one of Madame's earliest professional friends and who had come to an evil end and died in a hospital, leaving her young daughter wholly without protection. As the girl had no vocal possibilities, Madame Schumann had generously rescued her from the awful fate of the chorus by taking her into her service.

"You have been contented here, 'Toinette? You like America, you will be a little sorry to leave?" asked Madame as she said good-night.

"Oh, yes, Madame, I should be sorry," returned 'Toinette.

"And so shall I," said Madame softly, smiling to herself.

'Toinette lingered a moment at the door; "Madame will have nothing to eat, no refreshment of any kind?"

"No, nothing tonight, 'Toinette."

"Not even the very smallest glass of champagne?"

"No, no, nothing," said Madame impatiently.

'Toinette turned out the light and left her in bed, where she lay awake for a long time, indulging in luxurious dreams.

In the morning she awoke long before it was time for 'Toinette to bring her coffee, and lay still, with her eyes closed, while the early rumble of the city was audible through the open window.

Selma Schumann was a singer without a romance. No one felt the incongruity of this more than she did, yet she had lived to the age of two-and-forty without ever having known an affaire de coeur. After her debut in grand opera she had married her former singing teacher, who at once decided that he had already done quite enough for his wife and the world in the placing and training of that wonderful voice, and lived in cheerful idleness, gambling her earnings with the utmost complacency, and when her reproaches grew too cutting, he would respectfully remind her that he had enlarged her upper register four tones, and in so doing had fulfilled the whole duty of man. Madame had always been industrious and an indefatigable student. She could sing a large repertoire at the shortest notice, and her good nature made her invaluable to managers. She lacked certainly, that poignant individuality which alone secures great eminence in the world of art, and no one ever went to the opera solely because her name was on the bill. She was known as a thoroughly "competent" artist, and as all singers know, that means a thankless life of underpaid drudgery. Her father had been a professor of etymology in a German university and she had inherited something of his taste for grubbing and had been measurably happy in her work. She practiced incessantly and skimped herself and saved money and dutifully supported her husband, and surely such virtue should bring its own reward. Yet when she saw other women in the company appear in a new tiara of diamonds, or saw them snatch notes from the hands of messenger boys, or take a carriage full of flowers back to the hotel with them, she had felt ill used, and had wondered what that other side of life was like. In short, from the wastes of this hum-drum existence which seems so gay to the uninitiated, she had wished for a romance. Under all her laborious habits and thrift and economy there was left enough of the unsatisfied spirit of youth for that.

Since the shadow of the dark Signorino had fallen across her path, the routine of her life hitherto as fixed as that of the planets or of a German house wife, had become less rigid and more variable. She had decided that she owed it to her health to walk frequently in the park, and to sleep later in the morning. She had spent entire afternoons in dreamful idleness, whereas she should have been struggling with the new roles she was to sing in London. She had begun to A drawing of a man and a woman sitting on a bench, the man seen from the back. pay the most scrupulous attention to her toilettes, which she had begun to neglect in the merciless routine of her work. She was visited by many massageurs, for she discovered that her figure and skin had been allowed to take care of themselves and had done it ill. She thought with bitter regret that a little less economy and a little more care might have prevented a wrinkle. One great sacrifice she made. She stopped drinking champagne. The sole one of the luxuries of life she had permitted herself was that of the table. She had all her countrywomen's love for good living, and she had indulged herself freely. She had known for a long time that champagne and sweets were bad for her complexion, and that they made her stout, but she had told herself that it was little enough pleasure she had at best.

But since the appearance of the dark Signorino, all this had been changed, and it was by no means an easy sacrifice.

Madame waited a long time for her coffee, but 'Toinette did not appear. Then she rose and went into her reception room, but no one was there. In the little music room next door she heard a low murmur of voices. She parted the curtains a little, and saw 'Toinette with both her hands clasped in the hands of the dark Signorino.

"But Madame," 'Toinette was saying, "she is so lonely, I cannot find the heart to tell her that I must leave her."

"Ah," murmured the Signorino, and his voice was as caressing as Madame had imagined it in her dreams, "she has been like a mother to you, the Madame, she will be glad of your happiness."

When Selma Schumann reached her own room again she threw herself on her bed and wept furiously. Then she dried her eyes and railed at Fortune in deep German polysyllables, and gesturing like an enraged Valkyr.

Then she ordered her breakfast—and a quart of champagne.