Caesar's Column, by Ignatius Donnelly

Chapter 23.

Max’s Story-The Songstress

When Max came home the next evening I observed that his face wore a very joyous expression — it was indeed radiant. He smiled without cause; he moved as if on air. At the supper table his mother noticed these significant appearances also, and remarked upon them, smiling. Max laughed and said:

“Yes, I am very happy; I will tell you something surprising after supper.”

When the evening meal was finished we adjourned to the library. Max closed the doors carefully, and we all sat. down in a group together, Max holding the withered hand of the gentle old lady in his own, and Estella and I being near together.

“Now,” said Max, “I am about to tell you a long story. It may not be as interesting to you as it is to me; but you are not to interrupt me. And, dear mother,” he said, turning to her with a loving look, “you must not feel hurt that I did not make you my confidante, long ere this, of the events I am about to detail; I did not really know myself how they were going to end — I never knew until to-day.

“You must understand,” he continued, “that, while I have been living under my own name elsewhere, but in disguise, as I have told you; and conscious that my actions were the subject of daily espionage, it was my habit to frequent all the resorts where men congregate in great numbers, from the highest even to the lowest. I did this upon principle: not only to throw my enemies off the track as to my real character, but also because it was necessary to me, in the great work I had undertaken, that I should sound the whole register of humanity, down to its bass notes.

“There is, in one of the poorer portions of the city, a great music hall, or ‘variety theater,’ as they call it, frequented by multitudes of the middle and lower orders. It is arranged, indeed, like a huge theater, but the audience are furnished with beer and pipes, and little tables, all for an insignificant charge; and there they sit, amid clouds of smoke, and enjoy the singing, dancing and acting upon the stage. There are many of these places in the city, and I am familiar with them all. They are the poor man’s club and opera. Of course, the performers are not of a high order of talent, and generally not of a high order of morals; but occasionally singers or actors of real merit and good character begin on these humble boards, and afterwards rise to great heights in their professions.

“One night I wandered into the place I speak of, took a seat and called for my clay pipe and pot of beer. I was paying little attention to the performance on the stage, for it was worn threadbare with me; but was studying the faces of the crowd around me, when suddenly I was attracted by the sound of the sweetest voice I ever heard. I turned to the stage, and there stood a young girl, but little more than a child, holding her piece of music in her hand, and singing, to the thrumming accompaniment of a wheezy piano, a sweet old ballad. The girl was slight of frame and small, not more than about five feet high. She was timid, for that was her first appearance, as the play-bills stated; and the hand trembled that held the music. I did not infer that she had had much training as a musician; but the voice was the perfection of nature’s workmanship; and the singing was like the airy warbling of children in the happy unconsciousness of the household, or the gushing music of birds welcoming the red light of the dawning day while yet the dew and the silence lie over all nature. A dead quiet had crept over the astonished house; but at the close of the first stanza a thunderous burst of applause broke forth that shook the whole building. It was pleasant to see how the singer brightened into confidence, as a child might, at the sound; the look of anxiety left the sweet face; the eyes danced; the yellow curls shook with half-suppressed merriment; and when the applause had subsided, and the thrumming of the old piano began again, there was an abandon in the rush of lovely melody which she poured forth, with delicate instinctive touches, fine cadences and joyous, bird-like warblings, never dreamed of by the composer of the old tune. The vast audience was completely carried away. The voice entered into their slumbering hearts like a revelation, and walked about in them like a singing spirit in halls of light. They rose to their feet; hats were flung in the air; a shower of silver pieces, and even some of gold — a veritable Danaë shower — fell all around the singer, while the shouting and clapping of hands were deafening. The debutante was a success. The singer had passed the ordeal. She had entered into the promised land of fame and wealth. I looked at the programme, as did hundreds of others; it read simply: ’A Solo by Miss Christina Carlson — first appearance.‘ The name was Scandinavian, and the appearance of the girl confirmed that supposition. She evidently belonged to the great race of Nilsson and Lind. Her hair, a mass of rebellious, short curls, was of the peculiar shade of light yellow common among that people; it looked as if the xanthous locks of the old Gauls, as described by Cæsar, had been faded out, in the long nights and the ice and snow of the Northland, to this paler hue. But what struck me most, in the midst of those contaminated surroundings, was the air of innocence and purity and lightheartedness which shone over every part of her person, down to her little feet, and out to her very finger tips. There was not the slightest suggestion of art, or craft, or double-dealing, or thought within a thought, or even vanity. She was delighted to think she had passed the dreadful ambuscade of a first appearance successfully, and that employment — and bread— were assured for the future. That seemed to be the only triumph that danced in her bright eyes.

“‘Who is she?’ ‘Where did she come from?’ were the questions I heard, in whispers, all around me; for many of the audience were Germans, Frenchmen and Jews, all passionate lovers of music, and to them the ushering in of a new star in the artistic firmament is equal to a new world born before the eyes of an astronomer.

“When she left the stage there was a rush of the privileged artists for the green-room. I followed them. There I found the little singer standing by the side of a middle-aged, careworn woman, evidently her mother, for she was carefully adjusting a poor, thin cloak over the girl’s shoulders, while a swarm of devotees, including many debauched old gallants, crowded around, pouring forth streams of compliments, which Christina heard with pleased face and downcast eyes.

“I kept in the background, watching the scene. There was something about this child that moved me strangely. True, I tried to pooh-pooh away the sentiment, and said to myself: ‘Why bother your head about her? She is one of the “refuse;” she will go down into the dark ditch with the rest, baseness to baseness linked.’ But when I looked at the modest, happy face, the whole poise of the body — for every fiber of the frame of man or woman partakes of the characteristics of the soul — I could not hold these thoughts steadily in my mind. And I said to myself: ‘If she is as pure as she looks I will watch over her. She will need a friend in these scenes. Here success is more dangerous than misery.’

“And so, when Christina and her mother left the theater, I followed them, but at a respectful distance. They called no carriage, and there were no cars going their way; but they trudged along, and I followed them; a weary distance it was — through narrow and dirty streets and back alleys — until at last they stopped at the door of a miserable tenement-house. They entered, and like a shadow I crept noiselessly behind them. Up, up they went; floor after floor, until the topmost garret was reached. Christina gave a glad shout; a door flew open; she entered a room that seemed to be bursting with children; and I could hear the broader voice of a man, mingled with ejaculations of childish delight, as Christina threw down her gifts of gold and silver on the table, and told in tones of girlish ecstasy of her great triumph, calling ever and anon upon her mother to vouch for the truth of her wonderful story. And then I had but time to shrink back into a corner, when a stout, broad-shouldered man, dressed like a workingman, rushed headlong down the stairs, with a large basket in his hand, to the nearest eating-house; and he soon returned bearing cooked meats and bread and butter, and bottles of beer, and pastry, the whole heaped up and running over the sides of the basket. And oh, what a tumult of joy there was in that room! I stood close to the closed door and listened. There was the hurry-scurry of many feet, little and big, as they set the table; the quick commands; the clatter of plates and knives and forks; the constant chatter; the sounds of helping each other and of eating; and then Christina, her mouth, it seemed to me, partly filled with bread and butter, began to give her father some specimens of the cadenzas that had brought down the house; and the little folks clapped their hands with delight, and the mother thanked God fervently that their poverty and their sufferings were at an end.

“I felt like a guilty thing, standing there, sharing in the happiness to which I had not been invited; and at last I stole down the stairs, and into the street. I need not say that all this had vastly increased my interest in the pretty singer. This picture of poverty associated with genius, and abundant love shining over all, was very touching.

“The next day I set a detective agency to work to find out all they could about the girl and her family. One of their men called upon me that evening, with a report. He had visited the place and made inquiries of the neighbors, of the shop-keepers, the police, etc., and this is what he had found out:

“There was no person in the building of the name of ‘Carson,’ but in the garret I had described a man resided named ‘Carl Jansen,’ a Swede by birth, a blacksmith by trade, and a very honest, worthy man and good workman, but excessively poor. He had lived for some years in New York; he had a large family of children; his wife took in washing, and thus helped to fill the many greedy little mouths; the oldest girl was named Christina; she was seventeen years of age; she had attended the public schools, and of late years had worked at embroidery, her earnings going into the common stock. She was a good, amiable girl, and highly spoken of by every one who knew her. She had attended Sunday school, and there it had been discovered that she possessed a remarkably fine voice, and she had been placed in the choir; and, after a time, at the suggestion of some of the teachers, her mother had taken her to the manager of the variety hall, who was so pleased with her singing that he gave her a chance to appear on the boards of his theater. She had made her début last night, and the whole tenement-house, and, in fact, the whole alley and neighboring streets, were talking that morning of her great success; and, strange to say, they all rejoiced in the brightening fortunes of the poor family.

“‘Then,’ I said to myself, ‘Carlson was merely a stage name, probably suggested by the manager of the variety show.’

“I determined to find out more about the pretty Christina.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37