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ZANONI: A ROSICRUCIAN TALE

CHAPTER 3

Fra si contrarie tempre in ghiaccio e in foco,
In riso e in pianto, e fra paura e speme
L'ingannatrice Donna -- 
"Gerusal. Lib.," cant. iv. xciv.
(Between such contrarious mixtures of ice and fire, laughter and tears,  --  fear and hope, the deceiving dame.)

Now notwithstanding the triumph both of the singer and the opera, there had been one moment in the first act, and, consequently, BEFORE the arrival of Pisani, when the scale seemed more than doubtful. It was in a chorus replete with all the peculiarities of the composer. And when the Maelstrom of Capricci whirled and foamed, and tore ear and sense through every variety of sound, the audience simultaneously recognised the hand of Pisani. A title had been given to the opera which had hitherto prevented all suspicion of its parentage; and the overture and opening, in which the music had been regular and sweet, had led the audience to fancy they detected the genius of their favourite Paisiello. Long accustomed to ridicule and almost to despise the pretensions of Pisani as a composer, they now felt as if they had been unduly cheated into the applause with which they had hailed the overture and the commencing scenas. An ominous buzz circulated round the house: the singers, the orchestra, -- electrically sensitive to the impression of the audience, -- grew, themselves, agitated and dismayed, and failed in the energy and precision which could alone carry off the grotesqueness of the music.

There are always in every theatre many rivals to a new author and a new performer, -- a party impotent while all goes well, but a dangerous ambush the instant some accident throws into confusion the march of success. A hiss arose; it was partial, it is true, but the significant silence of all applause seemed to forebode the coming moment when the displeasure would grow contagious. It was the breath that stirred the impending avalanche. At that critical moment Viola, the Siren queen, emerged for the first time from her ocean cave. As she came forward to the lamps, the novelty of her situation, the chilling apathy of the audience, --  which even the sight of so singular a beauty did not at the first arouse, -- the whispers of the malignant singers on the stage, the glare of the lights, and more -- far more than the rest -- that recent hiss, which had reached her in her concealment, all froze up her faculties and suspended her voice. And, instead of the grand invocation into which she ought rapidly to have burst, the regal Siren, retransformed into the trembling girl, stood pale and mute before the stern, cold array of those countless eyes.

At that instant, and when consciousness itself seemed about to fail her, as she turned a timid beseeching glance around the still multitude, she perceived, in a box near the stage, a countenance which at once, and like magic, produced on her mind an effect never to be analysed nor forgotten. It was one that awakened an indistinct, haunting reminiscence, as if she had seen it in those day-dreams she had been so wont from infancy to indulge. She could not withdraw her gaze from that face, and as she gazed, the awe and coldness that had before seized her, vanished like a mist from before the sun.

In the dark splendour of the eyes that met her own there was indeed so much of gentle encouragement, of benign and compassionate admiration, -- so much that warmed, and animated, and nerved, -- that any one, actor or orator, who has ever observed the effect that a single earnest and kindly look in the crowd that is to be addressed and won, will produce upon his mind, may readily account for the sudden and inspiriting influence which the eye and smile of the stranger exercised on the debutante.

And while yet she gazed, and the glow returned to her heart, the stranger half rose, as if to recall the audience to a sense of the courtesy due to one so fair and young; and the instant his voice gave the signal, the audience followed it by a burst of generous applause. For this stranger himself was a marked personage, and his recent arrival at Naples had divided with the new opera the gossip of the city. And then as the applause ceased, clear, full, and freed from every fetter, like a spirit from the clay, the Siren's voice poured forth its entrancing music. From that time Viola forgot the crowd, the hazard, the whole world, -- except the fairy one over with she presided. It seemed that the stranger's presence only served still more to heighten that delusion, in which the artist sees no creation without the circle of his art, she felt as if that serene brow, and those brilliant eyes, inspired her with powers never known before: and, as if searching for a language to express the strange sensations occasioned by his presence, that presence itself whispered to her the melody and the song.

Only when all was over, and she saw her father and felt his joy, did this wild spell vanish before the sweeter one of the household and filial love. Yet again, as she turned from the stage, she looked back involuntarily, and the stranger's calm and half-melancholy smile sank into her heart, -- to live there, to be recalled with confused memories, half of pleasure, and half of pain.

Pass over the congratulations of the good Cardinal-Virtuoso, astonished at finding himself and all Naples had been hitherto in the wrong on a subject of taste, -- still more astonished at finding himself and all Naples combining to confess it; pass over the whispered ecstasies of admiration which buzzed in the singer's ear, as once more, in her modest veil and quiet dress, she escaped from the crowd of gallants that choked up every avenue behind the scenes; pass over the sweet embrace of father and child, returning through the starlit streets and along the deserted Chiaja in the Cardinal's carriage; never pause now to note the tears and ejaculations of the good, simple-hearted mother, -- see them returned; see the well-known room, venimus ad larem nostrum (We come to our own house.); see old Gionetta bustling at the supper; and hear Pisani, as he rouses the barbiton from its case, communicating all that has happened to the intelligent Familiar; hark to the mother's merry, low, English laugh. Why, Viola, strange child, sittest thou apart, thy face leaning on thy fair hands, thine eyes fixed on space? Up, rouse thee! Every dimple on the cheek of home must smile to-night. ("Ridete quidquid est domi cachinnorum." Catull. "ad Sirm. Penin.")

And a happy reunion it was round that humble table: a feast Lucullus might have envied in his Hall of Apollo, in the dried grapes, and the dainty sardines, and the luxurious polenta, and the old lacrima a present from the good Cardinal. The barbiton, placed on a chair -- a tall, high-backed chair -- beside the musician, seemed to take a part in the festive meal. Its honest varnished face glowed in the light of the lamp; and there was an impish, sly demureness in its very silence, as its master, between every mouthful, turned to talk to it of something he had forgotten to relate before. The good wife looked on affectionately, and could not eat for joy; but suddenly she rose, and placed on the artist's temples a laurel wreath, which she had woven beforehand in fond anticipation; and Viola, on the other side her brother, the barbiton, rearranged the chaplet, and, smoothing back her father's hair, whispered, "Caro Padre, you will not let HIM scold me again!"

Then poor Pisani, rather distracted between the two, and excited both by the lacrima and his triumph, turned to the younger child with so naive and grotesque a pride, "I don't know which to thank the most. You give me so much joy, child, -- I am so proud of thee and myself. But he and I, poor fellow, have been so often unhappy together!"

Viola's sleep was broken, -- that was natural. The intoxication of vanity and triumph, the happiness in the happiness she had caused, all this was better than sleep. But still from all this, again and again her thoughts flew to those haunting eyes, to that smile with which forever the memory of the triumph, of the happiness, was to be united. Her feelings, like her own character, were strange and peculiar. They were not those of a girl whose heart, for the first time reached through the eye, sighs its natural and native language of first love. It was not so much admiration, though the face that reflected itself on every wave of her restless fancies was of the rarest order of majesty and beauty; nor a pleased and enamoured recollection that the sight of this stranger had bequeathed: it was a human sentiment of gratitude and delight, mixed with something more mysterious, of fear and awe. Certainly she had seen before those features; but when and how? Only when her thoughts had sought to shape out her future, and when, in spite of all the attempts to vision forth a fate of flowers and sunshine, a dark and chill foreboding made her recoil back into her deepest self. It was a something found that had long been sought for by a thousand restless yearnings and vague desires, less of the heart than mind; not as when youth discovers the one to be beloved, but rather as when the student, long wandering after the clew to some truth in science, sees it glimmer dimly before him, to beckon, to recede, to allure, and to wane again. She fell at last into unquiet slumber, vexed by deformed, fleeting, shapeless phantoms; and, waking, as the sun, through a veil of hazy cloud, glinted with a sickly ray across the casement, she heard her father settled back betimes to his one pursuit, and calling forth from his Familiar a low mournful strain, like a dirge over the dead.

"And why," she asked, when she descended to the room below, --  "why, my father, was your inspiration so sad, after the joy of last night?"

"I know not, child. I meant to be merry, and compose an air in honour of thee; but he is an obstinate fellow, this, -- and he would have it so."

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