The Singer’s Christmas by Eugenia Dunlap Potts

Story type: Literature


The air of the December day was soft and mild. All the world was in the streets, glad of a respite from the late cold “snap,” which had brought out furs and heavy wraps.

Signora Cavada was taking her accustomed drive, chaperoned by a comfortable looking American woman; for this was an American city, and the famous prima donna was winning nightly laurels at the Louisville Opera House.

To-day, the carriage with its high-stepping bays sought a new neighborhood, that the great singer might not be bored with repeated views of the same places. As it bowled along an old man in tattered garments approached, hat in hand, and held it toward the open window for alms. The driver cracked his whip peremptorily above the straggling gray locks of the suppliant, and drove on toward the suburbs.

“Who was that poor old man?” asked the singer in excellent English.

“Oh, only a beggar; the streets are full of them just before Christmas,” replied her companion.

“Is he very poor?” persisted the signora. “In my own country we have beggars–they make a business of begging. But that was a grand face. I shall go back again to look for him; tell the driver.”

Accustomed to obey the caprices of her mistress, the duenna gave the order and the carriage turned back. There stood the old man as before, but this time he did not approach the equipage.

“Come here,” said the signora, holding out a neatly gloved hand.

Fixing his faded eyes, now kindling with something like hope, upon her lovely face, he came nearer, and at her bidding told his story. It was a common one: Ill-health, a vagabond son, his earnings all gone, no work, and finally beggary.

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“And have you no one to take care of you? Where do you live?”

“In that old shed, madam,” he answered, pointing to a tumbled down cabin once used as a cobbler’s shop. “And I have with me my little girl, my grandchild.”

“A little girl in that place? Where is she? How do you keep her?”

“Ah, madam, she makes flowers–her mother taught her–and earns a few pennies now and then. She sings, too, madam,” he added with pride.

“Sings?” eagerly echoed the signora. “Fetch her here; I want to see her.”

“She has gone away to the woods to gather evergreens. To-morrow is Christmas Day.”

“Yes, yes, I remember! And how do you celebrate the day?” added the lady.

“In feasting and rejoicing,” said the duenna, before the old man could answer.

“And the poor? I have read some very pretty stories about the poor in your cities on Christmas Day.”

“Oh, the poor get along well enough,” she said, with an accent of indifference or contempt. “They have more than they deserve.”

But the singer was again leaning toward the waiting figure outside, seeing which the old man said as if in apology:

“That is why I was asking for help, madam; people are generous at Christmas. But I have known better times; I do not like to beg.”

The prima donna was not rich. She supported her own old father and mother, and was educating her brother for a grand tenor. With one of those quick impulses born of heaven, she ordered the driver to descend from his box and throw open the carriage. When the roof parted and the sunshine came flooding down upon her, the singer faced the crowd that had been steadily gathering for ten minutes, eager to see the Signora Cavada, whose voice was the most jealously guarded jewel of her store. For she had been recognized by a chance passer-by.

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Suddenly there stole on the air a divine strain that caused a hush as by magic to fall upon the restless groups. Louder, sweeter, stronger, more entrancing it rose, then sunk to the whispering cadence of a sigh. The old man’s hands were crossed before him, and tears poured down his withered cheeks. Ere the charmed listeners realized that the voice had ceased, the singer gave the poor supplicant a coin, and waving him toward the crowd, which was increasing every moment, said,–

“Tell them I will sing again.”

The old man went from one to another till the worn hat grew so heavy that he had to carry it in his arms. Money for his needs, money for his dear little girl. Then the signora sang again; when about to depart she scribbled an address which she handed the bewildered man, and drove on to her hotel.

What a Christmas was that! And what a feeling of happiness filled her heart! And the duenna said nothing.

A day or two later the beggar and his grandchild appeared at the private entrance of the hotel where the signora was sojourning. The paper he carried in his hand was a passport, and he soon stood in her parlor. He was dressed in a neat new suit, and the child was as sweet as a wild rose.

“Come and kiss me, little one,” said the beautiful lady. “I want to hear you sing.”

Unappalled by the richness of the apartment, and conscious only the kindness shown her, the child, who was about twelve years old, sang one of the popular street ballads of the day.

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“Santa Maria!” exclaimed the signora, who always ejaculated in her own tongue. “But you have a treasure here, my friend! The child is a wonder. This voice must be trained–we will see–we will see.”

Touching an electric bell, she summoned a messenger and hastily wrote a line which she gave him. During the boy’s absence she questioned the strange pair in whom she felt so absorbing an interest, and gathered what there was to tell of their daily life. Their neighbors were kind, and the women exercised a sort of motherly care over the little girl; but the very best there was to know seemed bad enough, and the singer shuddered as she imagined the dreariness of such poverty as their’s.

In answer to the call a young man stood before her.

“Beppo,” she said, “your fortune is made; look at that old man.” She spoke in Italian, and the face of the artist, for such he was, lit up with enthusiasm, as he marked the striking head and face of the person indicated. “Your model for the Beggar of San Carlo,” continued the lady.

Beppo Cellini, at the bidding of his countrywoman, at once made terms with the old man to sit to him for his great Academy picture.

The little girl, whose voice now commands thousands of dollars on the operatic stage, was placed under training at the joint expense of her benefactress and two other artist friends.

The old man, Signor Beppo’s model, is at rest now, but he still lives in the “Beggar of San Carlo.” And the Signora Cavada, among all the good deeds of her charitable career, has never known a truer thrill of happiness than she experienced on her American Christmas Day.

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