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The scene was Dean Street, Soho, and this story opens on a snowy winter night in the January of 1888. The modern improvements of Shaftesbury Avenue were as yet unmade, and the foreign district of London had still to be opened up.
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William Le Queux
Madame Quéro was startled.
The scene was Dean Street, Soho, and this story opens on a snowy winter night in the January of 1888. The modern improvements of Shaftesbury Avenue were as yet unmade, and the foreign district of London had still to be opened up.
A cold north wind was blowing on the few pedestrians whom necessity, or some urgent obligation, had compelled to tramp the pavements laden with snow. A few cabs and carriages crawled along the difficult roadway to the Royalty Theatre, deposited their occupants and crawled back again.
Nello Corsini, a slim, handsome young Italian, poorly clad, carrying a violin-case in one hand, wandered down the narrow street, leading with his other a slender girl of about eighteen, his sister, Anita. She was dressed as shabbily as he was.
The snow was lying thickly on the streets and roads, but it had ceased to fall a couple of hours ago. The two itinerant musicians had crept out at once, as soon as the weather showed signs of mending, from their poor lodging.
They had only a few pence left. The bitter weather of the last few days had affected their miserable trade very adversely. It was necessary they should take advantage of to-night, for the purpose of scratching together something for the evening meal.
There were lights in several windows. It was, of course, far from being a wealthy quarter; but there could be none behind those warm-looking lights, safely sheltered from the cold and wind, so wretched as these two poor children of fortune who would have to go supperless to bed if they could not charm a few pence out of the passers-by.
Nello withdrew his violin from its case with his cold fingers. Just as he was about to draw the bow across the strings, a carriage passed down the street on its way to the Royalty Theatre. Inside was a handsome man verging upon thirty-five. Beside him sat a very beautiful girl. Nello glanced at them swiftly as they came by. They were evidently not English, but he could not for the moment guess at their nationality.
They certainly did not belong to any one of the Latin races, that was evident. It was not till later that he discovered their identity. The tall, imperious-looking man was Prince Zouroff, the Russian Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. The girl, about twenty, was his young sister, the Princess Nada.
The young Princess was as kind and sweet-natured as she was beautiful. She caught sight of the two mendicants, for as such she regarded them, standing there in the snow, and a gleam of compassion came into her lovely eyes. Impetuously, she pulled at the check-string, with the intention of stopping the carriage and giving them money.
Her brother laid his hand on hers roughly.
“What foolish thing were you going to do now, Nada? Your sentimentality is an absolute curse to you. If you had your own way, you would give to every whining beggar in the street.”
She shrank back as if he had struck her a blow. There was no love lost between the two. He despised her for her kind, charitable instincts; she disliked him for his hard, domineering nature, unsoftened by any lovable or generous qualities. She put back the purse which she had drawn hastily from her pocket. Her mouth curled in a mutinous and contemptuous smile, but she returned no answer to the brutal words.
Nello played on in the cold and biting wind. When he had finished, his sister had been the recipient of two small donations from the few passers-by. The girl’s heart already felt lighter. They could not expect very much on such an unpropitious night as this.
And then, as the young violinist paused, from the first floor of one of the houses close to them, there floated faintly into the air the strains of a sweet and melancholy air, played with exquisite taste and feeling.
Nello listened eagerly, while his heart contracted with a spasm of pain. The man who had played that beautiful little melancholy romance was as capable a violinist as himself. Alas, how different their lots!
When the sounds had died away, the young man resumed his instrument. He played over twice that beautiful theme which had impressed him so strongly, and then, as if inspired, wove into it a series of brilliant variations.
He felt he was playing as he had only played once or twice before in his life. Soon, a small crowd was gathered on the pavement, in spite of the icy temperature. And when Anita went round shamefacedly with her little bag, she met with a liberal response. Nello need play no more that night, they had enough for their humble needs; they would get home as quickly as possible. He had contracted a heavy cold from which he was still suffering. To-morrow he could stop indoors and she would nurse him, as she had so often done before.
She whispered the good news into her brother’s ear, and joyfully he placed the violin back into its case. The small crowd, noting the action, melted away. The friendless young souls linked their arms together, stepped on to the pavement and turned in the direction of their humble lodging.
But they had not taken half a dozen steps when the door of a house was opened very quietly, and an extraordinary figure stepped out and beckoned to them.
“My poor children, it is a wretched night for you to be out.” This peculiar-looking old man was speaking in a very kind and gentle voice. They noticed his face was withered and furrowed with the deep lines of age. He wore a bristling white moustache, which gave him rather a military air in spite of his stooping figure. He had on a tiny skull cap to defend himself against the keen night air, but underneath it his snow-white locks were abundant.
He turned to young Corsini, peering at him through his tortoise-shell-rimmed glasses. “You have the gift, my young friend; you played those variations divinely. Our neighbour over the way is a decent performer, he plays in a very good orchestra, but he has not your fire, your brilliancy.”
He fumbled in his pocket and produced a shilling, which he pressed upon Anita, who shrank back a little. She had not always been accustomed to this sort of half-charity.
The old man saw her embarrassment and smiled. “Ah, it is as I thought, my child. But there is no cause to blush. If your brother were a famous violinist and I paid half-a-guinea for a stall to hear him, you would not think he had lowered himself by taking my money for the pleasure he gave me. Well, I had my stall up here on the third floor! There is a convenient little hole in the blind through which I could peep and see the whole proceedings.”
They both thanked him warmly, and were about to move on, when the strange old man arrested them.
“Stop a second, my poor children. You must be numbed with standing so long in that frosty air. I have a good fire upstairs. Come and warm yourselves for a few moments.”
His voice and manner were compelling. Wonderingly they obeyed, although at the moment, they were thinking very intently of their supper. Still, the night was young yet. They could wait a little longer to make their purchases. Plenty of shops would be open. And a few minutes spent at a bright fire would be comfortable.
He opened the door wide as they entered it and closed it behind him. Then he skipped, wonderfully nimbly for a man of his age, in front of them.
“Follow Papa Péron, that is what they call me in these parts, where I have lived for Heaven knows how many years. It is a big climb and I don’t do it as easily as I used. But to children like you, it is a hop and a skip. Follow me.”
They followed him up the old-fashioned staircase into a small room, where a roaring fire was blazing. He drew forth two easy-chairs and motioned to them to seat themselves. He lighted another gas-jet in their honour. He looked intently at their white faces, and what he read there impelled him to a swift course of action.
The old Frenchman had heard Corsini’s knock at the door. He stood at the entrance to his shabby sitting-room, the only article of furniture being the piano, his kind old lined face illumined with smiles.
“Courage, my young friend. I did not sleep very well after the excitement of your visit. Inspiration came to me in the middle of the night. You see that letter?” He pointed to a small desk standing against the wall. “Go and see to whom it is addressed.”
Nello obeyed him. His eyes sparkled as he read the name on the envelope. “Mr. Gay, the leader of the orchestra at the Parthenon.”
Papa Péron nodded his leonine head, bristling with its snow-white locks. “A friend of mine. He is a composer as well as chef d’orchestre. I have corrected many of his proof sheets for a firm I work for.”
Corsini pricked up his ears at this statement. He and his sister had been curious as to the old man’s profession. The mystery was solved. He was no miser, no millionaire, just a music publisher’s hack. And once, according to his own statement, he had been a famous pianist, with a renown equal to that of Bauquel.
“I have asked him to give you the first vacancy in his orchestra. He will do it to oblige me, for I have helped him a little—given him some ideas. It is one of the best theatre orchestras in London. The pay, alas! Will not be good, but it will take you out of those miserable streets. Go to his private address this morning; I am sure he will see you at once.”
“How can I thank you?” began the young man; but Péron stopped him with an imperious wave of his long, thin hand.
“Tut, tut, my child! I want no thanks. I have taken a fancy to you and that dear little sister of yours. Now, listen; I have another scheme on hand.”
Rapidly the genial old man unfolded his plans.
“In my room there are two beds. The landlady has a little attic to let, by no means a grand apartment, but it will serve for your sister. You can share my room. Three people can live almost as cheaply as two.” There was a knowing smile on the wrinkled face, as the genial Papa enunciated this profound economic truth. “Come and live here. You can practise on the violin while I play your accompaniments.”
“But Monsieur, at the moment, we have no money,” stammered the embarrassed violinist. “Mr. Gay may not have a vacancy for some little time.”
Papa Péron frowned ever so little. He did not easily brook contradiction. “You are making difficulties where none exist. You must lodge somewhere. My landlady only asks five shillings a week for the attic. You share my bedroom and sitting-room. As for the food, you will be my guests till you earn something. Do not say me nay,” he ended fiercely. “I am resolved that you shall play no more in those miserable gutters. It is finished. You come here to-night.”
There was no resisting this imperious old man with the frail figure and the snow-white abundant hair. Nello promised that he and his sister would move into Dean Street that afternoon. In the meantime, he would take the letter of introduction to Mr. Gay, who had lodgings in Gower Street, no great distance.
Mr. Gay was a fat, rubicund man with a somewhat faded and slatternly wife. He read Péron’s note and a genial smile lit up his massive face.
“Good!” he cried heartily. “My old friend vouches for you, and you have come in the very nick of time. One of my men is leaving in a couple of days—got a better berth. You can take his place. But before we settle, you may as well give me a taste of your quality. We go in for rather high-class music at the Parthenon. Play me Gounod’s ‘Ave Maria,’ I always test a man with that.”
He called to the slatternly woman who was crouching over the fire. “Ada, please go to the piano and play the accompaniment for this young man.”
Mrs. Gay complied with the request. Nello played the beautiful piece with all his soul. Gay listened, attentively. When it was finished, he applauded loudly.
“By Jove, you are great! Péron was right. He has not exaggerated. You have had no chance, eh?”
Nello stammered that he had had no chances. He did not dare confess to this prosperous person, composer as well as conductor of an orchestra, that, lately, he had been playing in the streets for a living to pay for his miserable lodging and scanty food.
They arranged terms with many apologies on the part of Mr. Gay.
“It is an insult to a man of your talent to offer such a miserable pittance. But my hands are tied, and tied very strictly, I can tell you. Turn up at the Parthenon on Friday night; you will soon get something better. You can read music quickly?”
Nello assured him on that point. He could read music as easily as his newspaper. The terms which Mr. Gay offered him were riches compared to the few coppers he had earned in the streets.
That same afternoon he and the joyful Anita presented themselves in Dean Street, with their few belongings. Papa Péron furnished a royal supper and broached another bottle of the very excellent Chambertin.
There was, however, still the question of clothes. Nello had nothing but what he stood up in, and the Parthenon was a very swagger theatre. Péron was equal to the emergency. He took the young man round to a neighbouring costumier’s, and secured a dress-suit on the hire-purchase system, at a very small outlay of ready money which he advanced. For, although the good Papa was not rich, he was very thrifty, and usually had a shot in the locker.
It was a very happy ménage; the old Frenchman was kindness and geniality itself. He seemed to grow younger in the society of his youthful friends.
And in time the mystery that had seemed to surround him vanished, his means of livelihood became revealed. He was on the staff of a couple of big music publishers. He corrected their proof sheets, he occasionally advised on compositions of budding composers; but needless to say, at this hack work his remuneration was very modest.
But he always appeared cheerful and resigned. He would drop fragmentary hints of a brilliant past, when money flowed like water, when he had mixed with illustrious personages. But he could never be induced to dwell very long on this period, would enter into no convincing details.
“It is gone, it is a feverish dream,” he would say with a somewhat theatrical wave of the hand. It was evidently a weakness of his to enshroud himself in an air of romance and mystery. “What does it matter who and what I was? To-day I am Papa Péron, music publisher’s hack, earning a few shillings a week at a most uncongenial occupation. But, at my age, I want little.”
Nello and his sister were happy too. The salary at the Parthenon was not magnificent, but it was a certainty, and they were frugal young people. No more playing in the sleet-driven streets, no more terrible uncertainty as to the night’s lodging and the next day’s meal.
For a month they pursued this humble, but not uncomfortable life. And Nello, who had no opportunity of displaying his talent in this big orchestra, where he was one of many, played two or three hours a day to the brilliant accompaniment of the old Frenchman.
And then the clouds began to gather. Papa Péron was taken with a severe attack of bronchitis. Racked in spasms of severe coughing, he was unable to pursue his humble and not too remunerative occupation. He could no longer correct the proof sheets. The doctor’s visits, the necessity of extra and expensive nourishment, began to eat up his slender store. The few sovereigns he had hoarded for a rainy day began to melt rapidly.
This did not matter much for a while. The regular salary at the Parthenon sufficed, with Anita’s skilful management, for the three; but there was no longer any question of putting by. Anita knew now that she had been very mistaken in thinking the poor old Papa was a miser. With tears in his poor old eyes, he had been forced to confess that he had come to his last sovereign.
And Anita had cried too. “What does it matter, dear Papa?” she said. She had grown very fond of the kind old man. “You took us in when we were poor and friendless. Nello will work for you now, and I shall be very careful. You will see how well I can manage on a little.”
And so good old Papa Péron had his beef-tea, his little drops of brandy, his expensive chicken. Whoever went without, he must not experience want. And the doctor was paid punctually.
But misfortunes never come single. One very frosty night, on coming out of the Parthenon, Nello fell on the slippery pavement and seriously hurt his left hand. He went to the doctor on his way home, and his worst fears were confirmed.
“A longish job, I fear, Signor Corsini. The fingers are very much injured, and so is the arm. You are a musician, are you not?”
“A violinist, sir. If it had been the right arm instead of the left, I might have managed with the bow. But I cannot play a note.”
Mr. Gay was informed of the accident, in a letter from Anita. He was genuinely sorry, but the theatre had to be served. He had to procure another violinist at once. For four miserable weeks Nello ate his heart out, and Papa Péron seemed to grow weaker every day.
When life and motion returned to the poor damaged fingers, there were only a few shillings left in the house. Péron had announced that if help did not come soon they must sell the piano, the one bit of property he owned in the world. So, at least, he averred.
Nello could play now. He went round at once to Gay’s lodging in Gower Street. Could he be taken on again? The kindly conductor hemmed and hawed; he was obviously very much embarrassed.
“We had to fill up your place, my dear chap, and the new man has proved quite satisfactory. It is, of course, awfully hard on you. But, you see, I can’t sack him to put you in his place.”
“Of course not,” answered Nello quietly. Misery was gnawing at his heart, but he was just. The man who was taken on had possibly been in the same state of wretchedness as himself. He would hardly have cared to turn him out, if Gay had been willing.
“And how is the dear old Papa?” asked Gay, trying to relieve an awkward situation with the inquiry.
“He is very ill; not far from death, I fear,” was Nello’s answer. And then the truth, which he could no longer conceal, flashed out. “And very soon he will be close to starvation.”
Gay looked shocked. He had experienced his ups and downs, but he had never been in such a tight corner as this. He fumbled in his waistcoat pocket and produced a sovereign, which he thrust into the other man’s hand.
“Terrible, terrible! I am sorry I cannot do more; but I am a poor man, too.”
Nello took it, but his face burned, it was such obvious charity.
“I accept it, Monsieur, with gratitude, and I thank you for the kind thought. But can you help me to find work? I want to earn money, not to beg it.”
“Sit down a moment while I think.” The kind-hearted conductor was very distressed himself at the piteous state of affairs.
“I have it,” he exclaimed after a few moments of reflection. “You have heard of Paul Degraux?”
“One of the directors of the Covent Garden Opera?”
“Right,” said Gay. “Well, Degraux is a big man now, but twenty-five years ago we were playing in the same orchestra for a few shillings a week. He is there, I am here. We have never quite lost sight of each other, and I think he would always do me a good turn if it was in his power. I will give you a note to him. Take it round to him this morning. You will find him at the theatre.”
Ten minutes later, Corsini was on his way to the great man. Gay had written a most glowing and eulogistic introduction.
“The bearer of this note, Signor Nello Corsini, is a most accomplished violinist. I have had him in my orchestra, but he is too good for that. Give him a chance at one of your concerts and he will make good. You know my judgment is generally pretty accurate. Give him a helping hand and you will not regret it.”
The name of Gay seemed one to conjure with. Five minutes after the letter had been taken in, Nello was shown in to Monsieur Degraux’s private room.
He was a tall, handsome man, this musical director of the opera who, twenty-five years ago, had played in a small orchestra for a few shillings a week. His countenance was florid, he had a very striking personality. Emphatically he was the type of man who gets on, who shoulders his way in the world, pushing aside with his strong, resolute elbows his weaker and more timorous fellow creatures.
He was always urbane, even when he had to say No. At the present moment he had not decided as to whether he would say Yes or No to his old friend’s request. He was very much taken with the appearance of the slim, handsome young Italian. His clothes were certainly shabby: Degraux’s experienced eyes took in that fact at once; but there was a certain resolution in Nello’s bearing, a brightness and animation in his face, that showed he was no ordinary seeker for favours.
“Sit down, sit down,” he said genially, “although I cannot give you very long. I am a very busy man; all the day and half the night I have to cut myself into pieces, as it were. And always, I am frightfully worried. To-day I have been more worried than usual.”
“I am sorry to hear it, Monsieur,” said the Italian, sympathetically. If he wanted to get anything out of Monsieur Degraux, he must fall in with his moods. Privately he thought the director’s worries, whatever their magnitude, were as nothing compared to his own.
This plump, prosperous-looking person was not very close to starvation.
“You know, of course, the name of Bauquel?” inquired Degraux abruptly.
“A great genius, Monsieur.” In spite of Papa Péron’s hostile verdict, the younger musician had a great reverence for the celebrated violinist, who was a popular favourite in every European capital.
The director snapped his fingers, and indulged in an angry exclamation. “Not the genius that he thinks himself, not the genius his friends pretend he is. He is very astute on the business side, has worked his Press well, and always maintains a vigilant claque. I and people like myself have helped him very considerably also by taking him at his face valuation. Genius, certainly not; at any rate, not a great genius.”
Monsieur Degraux snapped his fingers more contemptuously, and reeled off the names of a few rivals. “Those are geniuses if you like, artists who disclaim his clap-trap methods.”
Nello felt uncomfortable and apprehensive. The irate director was evidently so occupied with the subject of the offending Bauquel that Mr. Gay’s letter stood in danger of being forgotten. And the great man had especially said that his time was short.
“Monsieur Bauquel has had the misfortune to incur your displeasure, sir?” he hazarded.
“I should think he had,” cried Degraux furiously. “He was to appear at my great concert next week; Royalty and the élite of London will be there. Two days ago we had a little tiff, in which I admit I told him some home truths. What happens? This morning I receive a letter, dated from Brighton, in which he throws me over. Pretends he is ill and that his doctor has ordered a complete rest.”
“And you do not believe this to be true, Monsieur?”
“True!” thundered Degraux. “An absolute lie. A friend of mine writes me at the same time from the Grand Hotel. He tells me that the so-called invalid is staying there with a rowdy party and looking the picture of health. The scoundrel has done it to put me in a corner. And what is to become of my concert? I cannot put my hand on a violinist of the first rank in the few days left me.”
Nello stood up, his face glowing, his limbs trembling with excitement. He pointed to Gay’s letter, which lay on the director’s desk.
“Monsieur, I beseech you, if it is not too great presumption, to let me take his place. I may not make a sensation, but certainly I shall not be a failure. And you will have so many stars of the first magnitude, that a smaller one may dare to give a little light. You have read what Mr. Gay says of me. I fancy he is no mean judge of music and musicians.”
Degraux was suddenly brought down from his heights of indignation by this direct appeal. He looked keenly at the young man, but in his eyes there appeared a humorous twinkle, as if he admired his audacity.
“You don’t miss a chance, I see, my young friend. But it is a big risk to run you in the place of Bauquel, and as soon as he gets wind of it, he will send his claque to hiss you.”
Monsieur Degraux thought for several seconds, and the young man went hot and cold. His hopes, his fate, hung upon the conductor’s caprice.
Degraux touched a bell on the desk with the air of a man who had made up his mind. An attendant answered the summons.
“Please send in Mr. Lemoin.” He turned to Nello. “This gentleman will accompany you, and you shall show what you can do. Remember, you will appear before one of the most appreciative, but also one of the most critical, audiences in the world.”
Monsieur Lemoin appeared, a fat chubby person. He accompanied very well; not perhaps with the assured artistic instinct of old Papa Péron, who was a part of the piano he played so skilfully.
Degraux listened intently. He had told Nello to play the pieces which, in his own opinion, he could render best. The young man finished with that sad little romance which he had heard in Dean Street on that well-remembered night, and into which he wove some brilliant variations.
The director rose and spoke, for him, rather enthusiastically. “Yes, my young friend, Gay is right. You are a true artist. Play that little romance at the end; you are at your best in that. Play it as you have done here and we need not fear Bauquel’s claque. I engage you for that concert. I will also boom you, but not extravagantly—just judiciously—in the short time that is left me. Now about terms?”
He named a fee that seemed to Corsini to represent absolute wealth. If he could only obtain a couple of sovereigns on account, to ease the hard conditions in Dean Street. Degraux did not seem a hard man; it was possible the request would be granted as soon as asked.
But prudence forbade. It would be the reverse of politic to plead absolute poverty on so brief an acquaintance. Till next week, they must draw their belts a little tighter. Well, experience had taught them to do that.
He hurried back to Dean Street with the joyful news. He was to appear before a most fashionable audience in place of the great Bauquel, squandering his money down at Brighton in order to revenge himself upon the too plain-speaking Degraux.
Papa Péron was sitting up in bed, Anita by his side. The poor old man had had one of his good days, the cough was less troublesome. The doctor had whispered as he went out that if the severe weather mended a little, they might pull him through. He smiled happily as his young protégé recounted what had happened.
“I have met Degraux once or twice in the years gone by, and I have been told that prosperity has not spoiled him. But, my dear boy, there is one little difficulty about that concert next week.”
“And that?” asked young Corsini. He was so overjoyed in his new-found fortune, that he could think of nothing else.
The old Frenchman chuckled quietly. “You will want an evening suit, my young friend. One does not appear before Royalty in ordinary clothes, and those not of the newest, does one?”
Nello groaned. The dress-clothes which Papa Péron had purchased for the engagement at the Parthenon had found their way to the pawn-brokers a few days ago, to provide food. What a fool he had been not to make a clean breast of it to Degraux and ask for a few pounds in advance!
“It crossed my mind to ask for a loan, and I was afraid I might offend him,” explained the young man.
“Quite right, my dear son, quite right. Those wealthy men are peculiar. We will not trouble this rich gentleman. There are other ways.”
He pointed his thin hand to a little cupboard standing against the wall. “Go and open the door. Within I have a small private box where I keep my papers. Bring it to me, please.”
Nello obeyed, and carried to him a beautiful little antique casket of ebony, inlaid with tortoise-shell and silver, with some cipher letters on the lid. The old man opened it with a key which he wore attached to a ribbon round his neck.
From the small box he carefully produced an antique ring with a tiny miniature portrait, exquisitely painted and set with diamonds. This he pressed reverently to his lips, and then handed it to the young man, saying:
“This is the likeness of my honoured Master, my Emperor Napoleon the Third—given to me with his own hand.”
He took out a jewelled star, all tarnished. “This is the Order of the Chevalier of St. Louis, bestowed upon me for my services to——” He could not finish his sentence; the tears were rolling down his thin, wasted cheeks.
Brother and sister exchanged a swift glance across the bed. Evidently, Monsieur Péron had, at one time, been a personage of some importance. Sovereigns did not bestow such gifts upon undistinguished people.
“Take that ring and the Order,” commanded the old man in his feeble, husky voice. “Go and pawn them. If you cannot get enough by pawning, sell them outright. And buy a dress-suit with the money to-day.”
Both Nello and his sister protested. These two objects and the piano were all that the old man had preserved out of his brilliant past.
Corsini spoke. “Listen, dear Papa! You would not part with these when we had not enough to eat. I can understand what they represent to you. Do not worry about me. I will go to Degraux in a couple of days and explain the situation. Even if he is annoyed, he will have gone too far to recede.”
But Péron was persistent. A flash of his old imperiousness came back to him.
“Go and do as I tell you. My days are numbered. My one hope is that I may live to see you successful. Go and dress yourself properly. Let me hear of your success before I die; that is all I wish.”
The strain of the interview had been too much for him. Taken with a violent fit of coughing, he sank back exhausted on his pillow. Anita pointed to the door.
“You cannot disobey his wishes. Come back and tell him you have done what he asked you. It may give him a few days more of life.”
The young man, fearing the old man’s death, rushed round to the nearest pawnbroker in Wardour Street. Upon the ring alone he raised sufficient to hire a dress-suit at a neighbouring costumier’s. On his return he was overjoyed to find that the poor Papa had rallied from his exhaustion.
On the night of the concert Nello came into the old man’s room to bid him good-night. Péron drew him towards him and kissed him on both cheeks.
“Courage, my son, courage!” Alas! every day the voice was getting feebler. “You play at the end that little romance with your own variations. Au revoir. I shall be awake when you return to hear the news. Anita and I will not have a wink of sleep till you come back.”
“Au revoir, bon Papa!” was Nello’s parting greeting.
Papa Péron raised himself in his bed, shook his hand at the air and almost shouted after him: “And if you do not outplay that charlatan, Bauquel, I will never forgive you.”
Nello stood facing the big and fashionable audience. A celebrated accompanist was already seated at the piano. There was perfect silence in the vast assembly. In a few seconds the pianist would strike the opening chords, and Nello Corsini, the unknown violinist, must justify the faith that had been placed in him by Paul Degraux.
He felt sick and a little faint. As he looked dimly into that vast sea of expectant faces, he realised the ordeal to which he was exposed. In the little room in Dean Street, with Papa Péron and his worshipping sister for an audience, it was not difficult to feel at ease, to pour out his artistic soul. Even to Gay and Degraux, in the privacy of their apartments, he had given of his best.
But to-night he was before a vast audience, critical and fastidious. Had they not already sampled many executants, many equal to himself, not a few superior?
The salient episodes of his later life floated before him. His meeting with Papa Péron, his introduction to Gay, the placid evenings when he had played at the Parthenon for a small wage, his accident and the miserable days that had supervened, his desperate visit to the powerful Degraux, the marvellous success of that interview. And behind the recollection of all this, the memory of that dreadful time when he had played in the streets for a few wretched coppers to keep himself and his sister from want.
But to-night he was playing for fame and fortune, through the lucky chance of the great Bauquel’s absence. If he made good to-night, if he could secure the plaudits of this fashionable crowd, coppers would no longer be his portion, but sovereigns and Bank of England notes.
It was a brilliant assembly. In the Royal box sat the Queen of England, with the Prince and Princess of Wales. Peers and Peeresses were there by the dozen. Every other person was more or less distinguished. This was no audience gathered from the corners of mean streets.
As the pianist struck the opening chords, the mist cleared from the young man’s brain. Those upturned faces which met his fascinated gaze were no longer charged with cold hostility, but full of friendliness, of welcome to a new and untried artist. He drew his bow caressingly across the strings, and began.
The last plaintive notes died away—he had chosen to open with an exquisite romance of Greig’s. The applause was sincere, but it was not fervent. Degraux, standing anxiously in the wings, had to admit that it was not fervent. And then, suddenly, Bauquel’s noisy claque burst forth in a storm of hisses. They were paid by the popular favourite to howl down any likely rival.
The young man’s face went white as death. Was the chance going to be snatched from him? Would he leave the theatre a failure, to the disgust of the man who had befriended him and put faith in him?
The storm of hisses, hired disapprobation, died slowly down, countered, as it was, with a little decorous and well-mannered applause. The charming romance of Greig, though exquisitely played, had failed to really touch the audience. If the great Bauquel, with his well-established reputation, had rendered it, the house would have been in a furore.
Corsini’s next item was a piece by Chopin. Amid the din of the contending hisses and applause, the pianist beckoned to the young man and they exchanged whispers.
“Take my advice; leave the Chopin piece. They are not in the melancholy mood to-night: they want something brilliant, an undernote of pathos with a cascade of fireworks to relieve the sadness. Play that romance of yours, with the variations. Cut the theme as short as possible; use it as just an introduction. Get to work on the variations, those will fetch them.”
Nello set his teeth firmly; opposition, the suspicion of failure, had goaded him to fresh effort, to a fuller belief in his own powers. He remembered the good old Papa’s injunction: “If you do not outplay that charlatan, Bauquel, I will never forgive you.”
And he played as one inspired. The violin, a legacy from his father, sang and sobbed and thrilled as it had never done before. When he had finished the applause was hearty and vehement. The hisses of the Bauquel claque could no longer be heard. The unknown young violinist had made good and won the plaudits of one of the most critical audiences in Europe.
Degraux met him in the wings and shook him warmly by the hand. “A thousand thanks. I see now I was right in engaging you, in speculating on a chance. Now, come to my room. You told me something yesterday about certain things in Dean Street. Cheques are no good to you. You want ready money.”
Nello admitted that it was so. Together they hastened into the director’s private room. Degraux went to a small safe, unlocked it and drew forth a roll of notes.
“See here, my young friend, you have saved the position. For the moment, that rascal Bauquel is temporarily eclipsed. Here is your fee, double what I promised.”
Nello protested faintly. “But, Monsieur, this is too much. And remember, please, I was very nearly a failure. Bauquel’s claque was almost too much for me.”
Degraux laughed light-heartedly. “Very nearly, but not quite. You say your good old Papa Péron calls him a charlatan. The expression is perhaps a little strong. He is not that, but he is perhaps not the genius he thinks himself, or his friends think him.”
“I should be more than delighted to possess his reputation, Monsieur,” interrupted the young Italian.
Degraux laid his hand lightly on Nello’s shoulder.
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