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.
“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.