For those Who Loved Music, by Axel Munthe
I had engaged him by the year. Twice a week he came and went through his
whole repertoire, and lately, out of sympathy for me, he would play the
Miserere of the Trovatore, [Footnote: Miserere of the
Trovatore. Trovatore is an opera by Verdi.] which was his show piece,
twice over. He stood there in the middle of the street looking
steadfastly up at my windows while he played, and when he had finished
he would take off his hat with an "Addio, Signor!" [Footnote: Addio
Signer: "Good-by, Sir."]
It is well known that the barrel-organ, like the violin, gets a fuller
and more sympathetic tone the older it is. The old artist had an
excellent instrument, not of the modern noisy type which imitates a
whole orchestra with flutes and bells and beats of drums, but a
melancholy old-fashioned barrel-organ [Footnote: A melancholy barrel
organ. What does the author mean by this?] which knew how to lend a
dreamy mystery to the gayest allegretto, [Footnote: Allegretto: lively,
a musical term to denote the tempo of a composition.] and in whose
proudest tempo di Marcia [Footnote: Tempo di Marcia: marching time.]
there sounded an unmistakable undertone of resignation. And in the
tenderer pieces of the repertoire, where the melody, muffled and
staggering like a cracked old human voice, groped its way amongst the
rusty pipes of the treble, then there was a trembling in the bass like
suppressed sobs. Now and then the voice of the tired organ failed it
completely, and then the old man would resignedly turn the handle during
some bars of rest more touching in their eloquent silence than any
True, the instrument was itself very expressive, but the old man had
surely his share in the sensation of melancholy which came over me
whenever I heard his music. He had his beat in the poor quarter behind
the Jardin des Plantes, [Footnote: Jardin des Plantes: the botanical
garden.] and many times during my solitary rambles up there had I
stopped and taken my place among the scanty audience of ragged street
boys which surrounded him.
It was not difficult to see that times were hard—the old man's clothes
were doubtful, and the pallor of poverty lay over his withered features,
where I read the story of a long life of failure. He came from the
mountains around Monte Cassino, [Footnote: Monte Cassino: a monastery on
a hill near Cassino, Italy, about forty-five miles from Naples.] so he
informed me, but where the monkey hailed from I never quite got to know.
Thus we met from time to time during my rambles in the poor quarters.
Had I a moment to spare I stopped for a while to listen to a tune or
two, as I saw that it gratified the old man, and since I always carried
a lump of sugar in my pocket for any dog acquaintance I might possibly
meet, I soon made friends with the monkey also. The relations between
the little monkey and her impressario [Footnote: Impressario: the
conductor of an opera or a concert.] were unusually cordial, and this
notwithstanding that she had completely failed to fulfil the
expectations which had been founded upon her—she had never been able to
learn a single trick, the old man told me. Thus all attempts at
education had long ago been abandoned, and she sat there huddled
together on her barrel-organ and did nothing at all. Her face was sad,
like that of most animals, and her thoughts were far away. But now and
then she woke up from her dreams, and her eyes could then take a
suspicious, almost malignant expression, as they lit upon some of the
street boys who crowded round her tribune [Footnote: Round her tribune:
a curious use of this word, which means a pulpit or bench from which
speeches were made.] and tried to pull her tail, which stuck out from
her little gold-laced garibaldi. [Footnote: Garibaldi: a jacket which
took its name from its likeness in shape to the red shirt worn by the
Italian patriot Garibaldi.] To me she was always very amiable;
confidently she laid her wrinkled hand in mine and absently she accepted
the little attentions I was able to offer her. She was very fond of
sweetmeats, and burnt almonds were, in her opinion, the most delectable
thing in the world.
Since the old man had once recognized his musical friend on a balcony of
the Hotel de L'Avenir, [Footnote: Hotel de L'Avenir: literally, "Hotel
of the Future."] he often came and played under my windows. Later on he
became engaged, as already said, to come regularly and play twice a
week,—it may, perhaps, appear superfluous for one who was studying
medicine, but the old man's terms were so small, and you know I have
always been so fond of music. Besides it was the only recreation at
hand—I was working to take my degree in the spring.
So passed the autumn, and the hard times came. The rich tried on the new
winter fashions, and the poor shivered with the cold. It became more and
more difficult for well-gloved hands to leave the warm muff or the
fur-lined coat to take out a copper for the beggar, and more and more
desperate became the struggle for bread amongst the problematical
existences [Footnote: The problematical existences. Explain this
expression.] of the street.
Now and then I came across my friend, and we always had, as before, a
kind word for one another. He was now, wrapped up in an old Abruzzi
cloak, [Footnote: Abruzzi cloak. Abruzzi is a division of western Italy
including three provinces.] and I noticed that the greater the cold
became the faster did he turn the handle to keep himself warm; and
towards December the Miserere itself was performed in allegretto.
The monkey had now become civilian, and wrapped up her little thin body
in a long ulster such as Englishmen wear; but she was fearfully cold
notwithstanding, and, forgetful of all etiquette, more and more often
she jumped from the barrel-organ and crept in under the old man's cloak.
And while they were suffering out there in the cold I sat at home in my
cosy, warm room, and instead of helping them, I forgot all about them,
more and more taken up as I was with my coming examination, with no
thought but for myself. And then one day I suddenly left my lodgings and
removed to the Hotel Dieu to take the place of a comrade, and weeks
passed before I put my foot out of the hospital.
I remember it so well, it was on New Year's Day we met each other again.
I was crossing the Place de Notre Dame, [Footnote: Place de Notre Dame.
The square in front of Notre Dame Cathedral.] mass was just over, and
the people were streaming out of the old cathedral. As usual, a row of
beggars was standing before the door, imploring the charity of the
church-goers. At the farther end, and at some distance from the others,
an old man stood with bent head and outstretched hat, and with painful
surprise I recognized my friend in his threadbare old coat without the
Abruzzi cloak, without the barrel-organ, without the monkey. My first
impulse was to go up to him, but an uneasy feeling of I do not know what
held me back; I felt that I blushed and I did not move from my place.
Every now and then a passer-by stopped for a moment and made as if to
search his pockets, but I did not see a single copper fall into the old
man's hat. The place became gradually deserted, and one beggar after
another trotted off with his little earnings. At last a child came out
of the church, led by a gentleman in mourning; the child pointed towards
the old man, and then ran up to him and laid a silver coin in his hat.
The old man humbly bowed his head in thanks, and even I, with my
unfortunate absent-mindedness, was very nearly thanking the little donor
also, so pleased was I. My friend carefully wrapped up the precious gift
in an old pocket-handkerchief, and stooping forward, as if still
carrying the barrel-organ on his back, he walked off.
I happened to be quite free that morning, and thinking that a little
walk before luncheon could do me no harm after the hospital air, I
followed him at a short distance across the Seine. [Footnote: Seine.
Paris is on the River Seine. "buon giorno": "Good day."] Once or twice I
nearly caught him up, and all but tapped him on the shoulder, with a
"Buon giorno, Don Gaetano!" Yet, without exactly knowing why, I drew
back at the last moment and let him get a few paces ahead of me again.
We had just crossed the Place Maubert [Footnote: Place Maubert:
Boulevard St. Germain: streets in Paris.] and turned into the Boulevard
St. Germain; the boulevard was full of people, so that, without being
noticed, I could approach him quite close. He was standing before an
elegant confectioners' shop, and to my surprise he entered without
hesitation. I took up my position before the shop window, alongside some
shivering street arabs [Footnote: Street Arabs. What is meant by this
term?] who stood there, absorbed in the contemplation of the
unattainable delicacies within, and I watched the old man carefully
untie his pocket-handkerchief and lay the little girl's gift upon the
counter. I had hardly time to draw back before he came out with a red
paper bag of sweets in his hand, and with rapid steps he started off in
the direction of the Jardin des Plantes.
I was very much astonished at what I had seen, and my curiosity made me
follow him. He slackened his pace at one of the little slums behind
Hopital de la Pitie, [Footnote: Hopital de la Pitie: literally,
"Hospital of Pity."] and I saw him disappear into a dirty old house. I
waited outside a minute or two and then I groped my way through the
pitch-dark entrance, climbed up a filthy staircase, and found a door
slightly ajar. An icy, dark room, in the middle three ragged little
children crouched together around a half-extinct braziero, [Footnote:
Brazier: a pan for burning coals. Tuscan. Tuscany is one of the
divisions of northern Italy.] in the corner the only furniture in the
room—a clean iron bedstead, with crucifix and rosary hung on the wall
above it, and by the window an image of the Madonna adorned with gaudy
paper flowers; I was in Italy, in my poor, exiled Italy. And in the
purest Tuscan the eldest sister informed me that Don Gaetano lived in
the garret. I went up there and knocked, but got no answer, so I opened
the door myself. The room was brightly lit by a blazing fire. With his
back towards the door, Don Gaetano was on his knees before the stove
busy heating a saucepan over the fire; beside him on the floor lay an
old mattress with the well-known Abruzzi cloak thrown over it, and close
by, spread out on a newspaper, were various delicacies—an orange,
walnuts, and raisins, and there also was the red paper bag. Don Gaetano
dropped a lump of sugar into the saucepan, stirred it with a stick, and
in a persuasive voice I heard him say, "Che bella roba, che bella roba,
quanto e buono questa latte con lo zucchero! Non piange anima mia,
adesso siamo pronti!" [Footnote: "What nice things, what nice things,
how good this milk with sugar is! Don't cry, my darling, it is ready
A slight rustling was heard beneath the Abruzzi cloak and a black little
hand was stretched out toward the red paper bag.
"Primo il latte, primo il latte" admonished the old man. "Non importa,
piglio tu una," [Footnote: "The milk first, the milk first—never mind,
take one."] he repeated, and took a big burnt almond out of the paper
bag; the little hand disappeared, and a crunching was heard under the
cloak. Don Gaetano poured the warm milk in a saucer, and then he
carefully lifted up a corner of the cloak. There lay the poor little
monkey with heaving breast and eyes glowing with fever. Her face had
become so small and her complexion was ashy gray. The old man took her
on his knees, and tenderly as a mother he poured some spoonfuls of the
warm milk into her mouth. She looked with indifferent eyes towards the
delicacies on the table, and absently she let her fingers pass through
her master's beard. She was so tired that she could hardly hold her head
up, and now and then she coughed so that her thin little body trembled,
and she pressed both her hands to her temples. Don Gaetano shook his
head sadly, and carefully laid the little invalid back under the cloak.
A feeble blush spread over the old man's face as he caught sight of me.
I told him that I happened to be passing by just as he was entering his
house, and that I took the liberty of following him upstairs in order to
bid him good-morning and to give him my new address, in the hope that he
would come and play to me as before. I involuntarily looked round for
the barrel-organ as I spoke, and Don Gaetano, who understood, informed
me that he no longer played the organ—he sang. I glanced at the
precious pile of wood beside the fire-place, at the new blanket that
hung before the window to keep out the draught, at the delicacies on the
newspaper—and I also understood.
The monkey had been ill three weeks—"la febbre," [Footnote: La febbre:
the fever.] explained the old man. We knelt one on each side of the bed,
and the sick animal looked at me with her mute prayer for help. Her nose
was hot, as it is with sick children and dogs, her face wrinkled like
that of an old, old woman, and her eyes had got quite a human
expression. Her breathing was so short, and we could hear how it rattled
in her throat. The diagnosis was not difficult—she had consumption. Now
and again she stretched out her thin arms as if she implored us to help
her, and Don Gaetano thought that she did so because she wished to be
bled. I would willingly have given in in this case, although opposed in
principle to this treatment, if I had thought it possible that any
benefit could have been derived from it; but I knew only too well how
unlikely this was, and I tried my best to make Don Gaetano understand
it. Unhappily I did not know myself what there was to be done. I had at
that time a friend amongst the keepers of the monkey-house in the Jardin
des Plantes, and the same night he came with me to have a look at her;
he said that there was nothing to be done, and that there was no hope.
And he was right. For one week more the fire blazed in Don Gaetano's
garret, then it was left to go out, and it became cold and dark as
before in the old man's home.
True, he got his barrel-organ out from the pawn-shop, and now and then a
copper fell into his hat. He did not die of starvation, and that was
about all he asked of life.
The spring came and I left Paris; and God knows what become of Don
If you happen to hear a melancholy old barrel-organ in the courtyard, go
to the window and give a penny to the poor errant [Footnote: Errant:
wandering.] musician—perhaps it is Don Gaetano! If you find that his
organ disturbs you, try if you like it, better by making him stand a
little farther off, but don't send him away with harshness! He has to
bear so many hard words as it is; why should not we then be a little
kind to him—we who love music?
—AXEL MUNTHE (adapted).
[Footnote: What interested the author in the old organ-grinder? What was
the music like? Explain the title of the story. By what incidents does
the author show the unselfish devotion of the old musician for his pet?
Was his pet winning or lovable? Why did the old man care so much for it?
Is the picture of the old man dignified or sordid?
Why? Point out instances of dramatic contrast. Are the descriptions in
the story simple or elaborate?]
Louise de la Ramee