Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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"IN a great place like London," remarked a gentleman of my acquaintance, "strange characters of all sorts and kinds are to be met with, and, amongst the class we have most to do with, the unexpected often happens.
"I remember some years ago, being at the Police Court one day, when an Italian was brought up, charged with causing an obstruction by playing in the street, and refusing to move on when requested. The complaint was lodged by an old gentleman, who said he was a literary man, and that street music of all kinds upset him at his work and interfered with the current of his thoughts. The Italian was an old, or at least elderly man, and almost in rags, but more cleanly-looking than street musicians of that nation usually are, and in appearance not by any means, I thought, a bad-looking fellow. He was tall, and had a profusion of dark hair and beard, streaked with grey. His head was certainly finely formed, and his dark eyes were bright and piercing.
"In reply to the charge, the defendant urged, in broken English, that he had not known he was doing anything wrong, and that he had not solicited money.
"I do not ever ask for any mo-nee," he averred.
"What, then, do you play about the streets for?" asked the Magistrate. "'For ze love,' was the unexpected answer; which produced a roar of laughter in Court. The idea of an Italian itinerant musician's playing, not for money, but for love, was too absurd to be accepted as fact by those present. The Italian looked round indignantly, his eyes flashed, and he drew himself up proudly, and took up his violin and bow, which he had brought into Court with him.
"'I am not ze canaille!' he said slowly, 'I am an artiste.' At which there was another outbreak of hilarity and derision.
"'Let me zat I play you someting,' said the musician. 'It is joost zat you let me, to show it is true vat I zay.'"
"The Magistrate consented to humour the man, since he was a foreigner, on condition that he restricted his performance to one short piece; at which suggestion the crowd, seeing the innuendo it contained, indulged in another round of merriment.
"Then the old man began. He played a strange, but exquisitely charming, piece, a wild, curious melody of weird, thrilling cadences, the like of which I had never heard before; and it was executed with masterly skill, and played upon an instrument of a sweet, full tone. When he finished, you could have heard a pin drop; all were hushed and expectant; waiting for, wishing for, more; but slowly, deliberately, the musician put the violin and bow down beside him, and drooping his head with a saddened air, remained looking on the ground in a despondent, troubled manner.
"Then there burst out a roar of applause; no hilarity, no ridicule this time, but hearty applause that could not, would not, be restrained, though the place was a Police Court, and though the ushers called silence again and again, and tried their utmost to repress the unexpected demonstration. The Magistrate himself looked at the player in unmistakable surprise and admiration.
"'Why,' he said, 'surely you have no need to go playing about the streets for money! You could earn good money anywhere, I should say, or I know nothing of music.'
"The Italian shrugged his shoulders, and said again:
"'I do not do it for ze mo-nee, but for ze love;' and this time what he said was received in silence, albeit wonderingly; but there was no ironical laughter.
"He was fined a small nominal sum, which he paid, and, when he was leaving the Court, I accosted him. I said that if he wanted introductions I might be able to help him, and I told him I agreed with what the Magistrate had said—that he ought to be able to do better than play about the streets. I explained, to him who I was, and gave him my address, that he might call on me if he liked.
"He looked at me very earnestly, and at last said—
"'You are ver kind, zare. I tank you much. Yes, yes. I zee what you are, and p'r'hap—p'r'haps—one day you shall help me. I will come to zee you.' And, with a dignified bow, he went away.
"He called on me some time after, not once, or twice, but several times; occasionally, too, I came across him playing in the street, accompanied by a fellow-countryman, who played the guitar, and played it well, too. And always they had a large and attentive crowd round them, and always amongst other pieces, they played that strange, thrilling melody that had heard that day in the Police Court—only, with the guitar accompaniment, it developed an even greater charm. And still they never asked for money; though, if any were offered to the violin player, he would vindicate, by a gesture, that it might be given to his companion, and the latter would take it.
"Sometimes, when the old man called on me, he would seem to be on the point of making some confidential statement; and then he would check himself, and hasten away, as though, afraid to remain. He had offers, through my initiative, of more than one engagement, but he firmly refused them all. He would, however, now and again allow himself to be coaxed into playing before my family, and once or twice permitted me to invite a few friends to listen to him, for there was no doubt his playing was that of a finished master. I have heard many musical celebrities at St. James's Hall, who were, I feel certain, his inferiors. Never, however, would he consent to take money for a performance.
"Now, one day a sudden idea occurred to me that set me thinking. From the first moment I had set eyes on the man, his face had seemed to remind me of someone I had seen before—where I could not recall. Every time I met him this impression grew upon me, but the identity of the person he resembled long eluded me—as so often happens. But, at last, as I have just said, the long-sought recollection flashed upon me.
"Some two or three years before, I had been asked by an Italian to use my influence to get a fellow-countrywoman of his into a hospital. She was suffering from a serious complaint. 'She is a widow,' he said, 'and is striving hard to maintain herself honestly I know; a thing difficult enough for a poor English- woman, but doubly difficult for a foreigner. She has no children, but is handicapped in another way; she is very ill, and, unless something can be done to cure her, must either starve or go into the workhouse. A doctor to whom I sent her tells me he can do nothing, practically she wants rest and quiet, good nursing and diet, and then there must be an operation. After that, if all goes well, she may be strong enough to work again.'
"I promised to see what I could do, and in a short time succeeded. When, later on she came out of the hospital, she was cured, and between us we managed to get her a little work to do—millinery and artistic needlework. She was rather clever—so I have heard—in that way; had all an Italian's taste and aptitude for ornamental work, but she earned only just enough to keep body and soul together. Who she was, or where she came from, she would never say. All we know was that she was Italian; we could see she was still very good-looking, and had reason to believe she had been gently nurtured. I believe, too, that she had a good voice, and could sing; but she refused all counsel of trying for an engagement on the stage—as the Italian who first spoke to me of her told me he had suggested—and seemed satisfied to be able to earn just enough to live quietly and unobtrusively. She had married an Englishman, and her name, she told us, was Mrs. Austin.
"It was of this woman that the street musician's face reminded me; and, when once the idea occurred to me, I wondered I had never thought of her before. A dozen little traits of speech and manner now came to my recollection, besides the likeness, and with them a suspicion that there was some bond of union between the two. After much pondering I devised a plan for putting this suspicion to the test, without speaking of it to either; for the two were curiously shy and proud in their own different ways.
"Exactly how I managed it I need not state. It required a good deal of planning, and the details would be but tedious. It will suffice to say that I induced Mrs. Austin to walk one evening with me past a place where I guessed the strange musician, would be performing just at that particular time. She was thinking only of seeing my wife about a little sewing work that—as we pretended—was required at once; and I suppose the thought of staying to listen to a street musician was about the last that would have come to her.
"I remember it was a mild evening in May; it was after sunset, and overhead was a full moon, that with its pale light seemed to make the street lamps look dull and red. We turned out of a main thoroughfare into a quiet side street, where the din of the traffic could be scarcely heard; and there, a short distance away, we saw a crowd of people, and in the midst the old man and his companion, playing a melody from one of the operas. Immediately my companion stopped, and seemed to listen intently. The moon was shining on her face, which bore a strained, but extremely sweet, expression. The piece the two musicians had been playing came to an end, and after a pause they began the strange theme that had so affected the police court audience. Then my companion gave a start that made me watch her even more closely. She leaned forward, and her eyes seemed almost ready to start out of her head. She swayed to and fro, as though she were going to fall, and, thinking she was fainting, I was about to step forward to catch her if necessary, when she sprang from me, and ran up to the old man, seizing him by the arm, and gazing eagerly into his face. What was said I do not know. It was in Italian, and I could not understand; but a moment after she gave a cry, and next was locked in his arms. I stepped up and helped to keep back the crowd that pressed round them, at which the old musician recognised me, and begged me to call a four-wheeled cab, and this I did. The younger musician gave the address to the cabman, and the three got in and were driven away, leaving a gaping crowd behind, looking at one another in much wonderment.
"I walked quietly home, thinking over what I had seen, and greatly pleased at the success of my little plan; for, somehow, it was borne in upon me that the strange musician had gained his end, whatever it was, and that those who had listened to his masterly playing would hear him no more in the streets of London. And so it turned out.
"A few days after, a hansom drove up to my door, and a gentleman and lady got out came up the steps, and knocked. When they came in, I had some difficulty in recognising, in the faultlessly dressed, stylish-looking maestro, and the neatly, but almost richly attired lady, my ragged musician and the young woman with whom he had had the dramatic meeting in the street. She was his daughter, he explained to me, long sought for, and now found, at last. Little had she suspected while working so hard to maintain herself that her father was seeking her day and night through the streets of this great city. He had feared to find her in, perhaps, shame or disgrace, for she had run away from home years before, and he had no other hope of finding her than that she might, one day, hear and recognise that composition of his that she knew so well, and had heard played many and many a time in her childhood. And he knew that if she were in poverty, or worse, if she could recognise him, the only way to make sure of inducing her to make herself known to him was by affecting to be very poor—so poor as to be reduced to playing in rags upon the streets! Truthfully had he spoken when he had said at the police court that he played 'for love' and not for money!
"They were now staying, they told me, at the Hotel Metropole; and he invited me to dine with them a few evenings later. There I found them installed in a sumptuous suite of apartments, and with them was the younger man who had played the guitar. Ere long I learned that he had once been a suitor for the daughter's hand but she had been wilful, had chosen another, and eloped with him. Now his long devotion was likely, I thought, from what I saw, to be at last rewarded.
"After dinner the old man said—
"'You have seen people give us money in the street, zare. I have never touched any of it. Each day we enter ze amount in a book, and next day we pay into a bank to one separate account. There, zare, is the account. You see it is a good deal—near two hundred pounds. I have kept it, and zaid to myself it shall go to ze poor of my natif town in Italy. But now my daughtare, she tell me zat your good Hospital people zaved her life, and she vish zat I give it to zem. Zey zaved her—zaved her for me. And she but a foreigner, a stranger in ze land! Zat is great—zat is wonderful! Zey shall have it all; yes, and as much more of my own zat I will zend!'
"'And some from me too, in the future. I hope,' said Mrs. Austin, laying her hand on my arm. 'Each year, while I live, I shall send something—whatever I can.'
"'And I, too,' added the other. 'We all owe a debt to your noble hospital, and to those who send money to support it.'
"A few days afterwards they called to say good-bye; but not till they had left the hospital richer by a handsome sum.
"It was about six weeks later that I received a newspaper from Florence, with a paragraph marked, which, being translated, ran thus—
"'There was a grand opera night last Saturday, when almost the whole city seems to have made its way to the theatre to give a welcome to our distinguished Chef d'Orchestre, Signor L—, on his taking up the conductor's baton in his old place once more, after his prolonged tour abroad for the benefit of his health. That the change has done him good seemed to be undoubted, for all declared they had never seen him look better; and he met with an overwhelming enthusiastic reception. The maestro has brought back his widowed daughter, Madam Austin, who married and settled in England some years ago. We understand that he has employed his leisure, while away, in composing another grand opera which is shortly to be produced here. If he repeats the successes his former works have attained, his long holiday will not have been all lost time.'"