Apparently Tom was not greatly startled by the declaration which his sister had made to him. He was screwing up a new string which he had just put on his violin, and he continued twanging it with his thumb as he raised it to the proper note in the scale. She watched him, with his head slightly turned to one side, and she heard the string creep up by quarter-tones until at last it satisfied his fastidious ear. Then he played pizzicato on all the strings for a while before he said:

“He is an old man, is he not?”

“He is the man whom I am going to marry,” said she.

“He must be over fifty,” said he.

“He is the man I am going to marry,” said she.

“I saw by the papers that were sent to me from time to time that you had many suitors,” said he. “I did not pay much attention to the papers, but now I recollect that some of them made sport of an elderly admirer. I suppose Mr. Long was he?”

“I daresay. Mr. Long cannot help his age. ’Tis not more absurd for him to be old than it is for me to be young. I suppose some newspapers would think it no shame to slight me for being young.”

He gave a passable imitation of an Italian’s shrug—he had learned something beyond the playing of the violin in Italy.

Che sarà sarà,” said he, and there was a shrug in his voice. “After all, what does it matter whom one marries?”

“That’s exactly what I say!” she cried, her quick ear catching his cynical tone. “What does it matter? I must marry some one, and is it not better for me to marry a man to whom I am indifferent than one whom I detest?”

He mused for a few moments, and then he said:

“I have not given much thought to the matter, but I think I should prefer marrying a woman who hated me rather than one who looked on me with indifference. Never mind. I suppose this Mr. Long is rich?”

“He is very rich. I may be able to save Maria from having to be a singer. I shall certainly save myself from continuing one.”

His violin dropped upon his knees.

“What do you mean?” he cried. “It cannot be possible that it is your wish to cease from singing in public?”

“That is the only reason I have for agreeing to marry any one,” she replied.

Dio mio! You—you—you, who can become the greatest singer in the world; you, who have been given a voice such as might be envied by the very greatest of lyric artists; you with an intelligence that could not be surpassed, an imagination that actually stands in need of being restrained; you, who have it in your power to sway the souls of men and women as the tide of the sea sways the ships that are borne on its surface—you talk of ceasing to sing! Psha! ’tis not in your power to cease to sing. ’Tis laid upon you as a duty—a sacred duty.”

“Ah, Tom—brother, cannot you understand something—a little—of what I feel?” she cried almost piteously. “I looked forward to your return with such happiness, and felt sure that you would understand how it is that I shrink from coming forward on a platform to sing for the amusement—for the gratification of every one who can afford to pay half a crown to hear me—foolish men, and still more foolish women, caring nothing for music. You and I have always thought of music as something sacred, a gift of God, given to us as it is given to the angels—to be used in the service of God. Idle curiosity, fashion—foolish fashion, that is why they come to hear me sing. I know it. I know it. I have overheard them chattering about me. The Duchess of Devonshire, I overheard her say to Mrs. Crewe that she had come to see if I was as beautiful as she—as beautiful as Mrs. Crewe! And Mrs. Crewe said how lucky it was that they had an opportunity of judging upon this point for so small a sum as half a guinea. And there was I, compelled to stand up before them and sing, ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth,’ while they smiled, criticising me through their glasses, just as if I were a horse being put through its paces! Oh, my brother, I felt all the time that I was degrading my gift, that I was selling those precious words of comfort and joy and their wonderful interpretation into music that goes straight to the soul of men and women—selling them for money which I put into my own pocket! There they sat smiling before me, and Mrs. Crewe said she did not like the way my hair was dressed. I heard her whisper it just as I had sung the first phrase of ‘For now is Christ risen from the dead,’ just as the joy—the note of triumph that rings through the passage had begun to sound through my heart as it always does! Oh, what humiliation! I broke down; no one but myself knew it, for I sang the notes correctly to the end—the notes, but not the music. It is one thing to sing notes correctly and quite another to make music: the music is the spirit that goes to the soul of those who listen, producing its effect upon them either for good or bad. Alas! there was nothing spiritual in my singing that night. I was telling them that our Redeemer had risen from the dead, and they replied that they did not like the way my hair was dressed! Oh, brother, can you wonder that I shrink with absolute terror from coming before an audience—that all my longing is for a cottage among trees, where I may sing as the birds sing, without caring whether or not any one hears me?”

She was weeping in his arms before she had finished speaking. He was deeply affected.

“My poor sister—my poor dear sister!” he said, caressing her hair; “I feel for you with all my heart. You are too highly strung—you are over-sensitive. What can I say to comfort you? How have you come to allow yourself to be carried away by the foolishness of some members of your audience? Good heavens! Think that if Handel had suffered from such sensitiveness the world would to-day be without some of its sublimest music!”

“How did he do it? I cannot understand how he could suffer his music to be played and sung, knowing the people as he did,” she said. “It is all a mystery to me. It must have been an agony to him. But he was a genius; it may be different with a genius. A genius may be able so to absorb himself in his music that he becomes oblivious of the presence of every one. Alas! I am not a genius—I am only a girl. I cannot understand how Handel felt; I only know that I feel.”

“And I feel for you,” he said soothingly, as one addresses a frightened child.

“You do—I think that you do; and you will join your voice to mine in imploring our father to spare me the agony of appearing before an audience? Oh, surely there is something to live for besides singing to divert the people here! Surely Heaven has not given me a voice to make me wretched! Has Heaven given me a voice instead of happiness?”

“Do you indeed fancy that you could find any happiness apart from music?” said he. “If you do, you are not my sister. There is nothing in the world that is worth a thought save only music.”

“What, have you never loved?” she cried.

“Love—love! Ah, yes; ’tis a sentiment, a beautiful sentiment. I do not say that it was created solely to give a musician a sentiment to illustrate—I do not talk so wildly; but I do say that it lends itself admirably to illustration at the hands of a competent musician; so that if Heaven had decreed that it should exist for this purpose, I would not hesitate to say that the object of its existence was a worthy one.”

She put him away from her.

“I have talked to you to no purpose: you do not understand,” she said. “It is left to me to work out my own freedom, and I mean to do it by marrying Mr. Long.”

“I do not think that your feeling for Mr. Long would lend itself to interpretation through the medium of music,” said he, smiling, as he picked up his violin.

She threw herself wearily into the chair that it vacated, and listlessly, hopelessly, watched him screwing up another of the strings.

“Listen to me, Betsy,” said he, after a pause filled up by his twanging of the catgut: “I remember how good Bishop O’Beirne called you a link between an angel and a woman. Pray do not let the link be snapped, for in that case you would be all angel; let me talk to you as if there was still something of the woman in your nature. Handel was a genius. Mr. Garrick is a genius, too; each of them is the greatest in his own art that the world has ever known. And yet you do not hear that either of them thought as you do; you do not hear that Handel ever said that he was degrading himself because he overheard some fool saying that his suggestion of the hailstones in his treatment of the Plagues was only worthy of the ingenuity of the carpenter of a theatre; we have never heard that Mr. Garrick resolved to retire from Drury Lane stage because some fools preferred Spranger Barry’s Romeo to his.”

“Ah, genius; but I am only a girl.”

“Handel was a genius, and when he found that the public did not want his operas, he showed himself quite ready to give them what they did want. And yet there were as many fools and coxcombs in his day as there are in ours. My dear sister, it is for you and me to do what we can without minding what foolishness those who hear us may speak, being incapable of understanding us. When I was at Florence I was present one night at a great concert at which Maestro Pugnani was to play. Just before he began, one of the princes entered the theatre, and began to talk and jest in a loud tone with an officer who was in attendance. It was clear that he was not quite sober, and he continued to make himself offensive even after the Maestro had begun to play. We were all very indignant, and we felt certain that Pugnani would retire from the stage. He did not do so. When he had played his first movement, he looked up to the royal box, and then he smiled down at us. I saw the look that was upon his face, a look of determination—the look which is on the face of a master of fence when he is about to engage a tyro. In a second he had drawn his bow across the strings, and the jest that the prince was in the act of uttering remained frozen on his lips. We saw that—we saw the Maestro smile as he went on playing; he had the prince in his grasp as surely as if he had had his hand on the fellow’s throat; he kept him enthralled for a quarter of an hour, and then, without a pause, he went on to the Andante. Before he had reached the second bar the prince was in tears. We saw that—yes, for a few bars, but after that we could see nothing, for we also were in tears. At the conclusion of that incomparable performance the Maestro left the stage, smiling his smile of triumph. He had conquered that scoffer by the sheer power of his genius. When he appeared later on he was wearing on his breast the diamond order that the prince had worn.... Dear sister, let that be an example to you. When you find that you have scoffers among your hearers, you should feel yourself stimulated, rather than discouraged. You should remember that you are the greatest singer in the world, and that to be a great singer is to be able to sway at will the souls of men. You sent me a copy of Dr. Goldsmith’s lovely poem. You remember that line in it, ‘Those who went to scoff remained to pray’! That is how it should be when you are singing.”

“How can you liken me to these men—all of them geniuses?” she cried with some measure of impatience. “Their life is their music; they live in a world of their own, and it is a world the air of which I have never breathed. It is the breath of their nostrils to face a great audience: I have been told that they feel miserable if they see a single vacant chair. But my life—— Ah, if I could but be allowed to live in a cottage!”

“What folly!” he cried. “And you intend to marry this old man in order to be released from the necessity to sing?”

“Is it an unworthy reason?” she asked. “I think ’tis not so. I shall be a good wife to Mr. Long.”

“Oh, what folly! You—a good wife! Heavens! a girl with such a voice as you possess talking of becoming a good wife—a good wife—in a cottage, counting the eggs, milking the cows!” He was almost fierce in his scorn. “Is it possible that this is the sum of your ambition!”

“I ask for nothing better.”

“As if there were any scarcity of good wives in the world! Any girl may become a good wife, but only one in a generation can become a great singer, and I tell you that you may be the greatest singer that lives. ’Tis not I alone who have said it, though I have heard the best in Italy and I am capable of judging; no, ’tis your rivals who have said it—and Mr. Garrick. Would he have offered such sums to get you to sing at Drury Lane if he had not known that you were without an equal? And you talk about a cottage! I tell you, my sister, if you were to give up singing you would be guilty of a crime—the crime of spurning the greatest gift that Heaven can bestow upon a human being!”

“Ah, no!” she said. “If Heaven had designed that I should sing in the presence of all those frivolous people who pay their money to see me as well as to hear me, should I not have been endowed also with that talent which your maestro was able to exercise? Should I feel that shrinking from the platform which I now feel every time I have to sing? Should I not feel the pride which comes to every great musician on stirring an audience to its depths?”

“You tell me that you feel not that pride?—that you remain unmoved, no matter how greatly you have moved your hearers?”

“Weariness—only weariness, that is what I feel. My sole joy comes from the thought that it is all over. Indeed, I can honestly tell you, my brother, that when I get more applause than usual, I feel no pride, I only feel oppressed by the thought that I have pleased so well that the managers will be anxious to have me to sing soon again.”

He looked at her with wonder in his eyes for a long time. Then he shook his head, saying:

“You were wrong to fancy that I would understand you. I confess that ’tis beyond my power to sympathise with you in your weakness. I could understand the nervousness of a girl such as you on coming forward to sing an exacting part in an opera or an oratorio; but for one to be endowed with such a gift as yours, and yet to feel—as you say you do—— Oh, it is impossible for me to fathom such a mystery! ’Twere unjust to blame you, but—— Oh, well, a girl is a queer thing. My Maestro holds that every woman comes into the world not merely as a portion of that mystery—Woman, but as an individual mystery in herself. He might have founded his theory on you. But I will not say a word of blame to you—no, not a word, unless you marry Mr. Long and then give up singing.”

“I will marry Mr. Long,” she said after another pause.

She walked firmly to the door, and then upstairs to her room. Before she had got to the top of the stairs she heard him play the first bars of Bach’s Chaconne which he was practising.

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