I TAKE SANCTUARY
Past fatigues and present danger did not disturb my happy meditations. I paced the cloister of San Lorenzo without regard for them, absorbed in considering my future conduct, and the relationship in which I stood to my little world of circumstance. It was necessary that I should make plans for myself and for Virginia, and I made and rejected many without modifying them one and all, as well I might have done, by allowing for the part which the gallows, the gaol or the hulks might play in them. As my habit has always been, I endeavoured to judge the case upon its merits, and to adjust myself to it, not so much according to my desires as to my duties towards it. Here—to remind the reader—are the three factors of my problem.
1. I had, of my own act, withdrawn myself from Aurelia's society, having done her all the reparation I could, and obtained her forgiveness.
2. I had constituted myself Virginia's champion against the Marchese Semifonte.
3. I had killed Fra Palamone.
Now, to take these in order, it was plainly my duty to quit the side of the fair Aurelia. Even though she were and were to remain for me the shining orb of my firmament, in whose beam I must for ever walk—I must not see her again. I had obtained from her all that I could hope for, and given her quite as much as, if not more than, she desired. To stay by her now would be to compromise her; I could not be blind to the conviction of all my acquaintance, which saw in me that horrible spectacle, the lover of a married woman, accepted as such by her lawful master. Robbery! of which I could never be capable. No more of Aurelia, then, no more. She must depart like a dream before the stern face of the morrow—or I must depart. Happy, perhaps, for her, whatever it may have been for me, that she herself had taken the first step when she turned her back upon me in pique.
I disregarded Palamone's bloody end. I had executed a criminal, a procurer for hire, a vile thing unworthy to live; but what was I to do with Virginia? There was a young woman of capacity, merit and beauty, whose honour I had taken in charge. So far I had maintained it, and there were two ways in which I could continue so to do. In return, she had given me devotion of the most singular kind—for it is extreme devotion that a girl should bear obloquy and humiliation for the sake of a man who has defended her. There was no doubt also but that I was master of her heart; no doubt at all but that she would give herself to me without thought if I lifted a finger. The conviction of such a truth is a dangerous possession for a man, and I don't pretend that I was insensible to it, any more than I was to her definite and personal charm. He is divine, not human, who remains cold and unbiased with the knowledge that here, at his disposal, is a lovely and ardent female, longing to be in his arms. Now, I had withdrawn her from her home, defied a claimant to her, and killed a man who sought her ruin, and what was I going to do? I saw that there were two courses open; but that unless it were possible to do as the rest of her acquaintance had tried to do, there was but one. Was I to kill Palamone in order that I might ruin her myself? Good Heavens! my name was Strelley of Upcote. There was one course, and I must take that.
I did not love Virginia; I admit it. I knew that she was beautiful, and knew that she was mine for the asking, but a truce to casuistry! In her safety was involved my own honour, to her defence must go my own life. I admired, I respected, I was grateful, I wished her well. I determined to marry her, and the sooner the better. Having come to this conclusion, I knew myself well enough to believe that no power in the world could shake me from it.
When, therefore, the good girl returned to me, white and out of breath, with sausages, bread, and a flask of wine under her apron, I welcomed her as befitted one in the position in which I now designed her to stand. I took off my hat to her and relieved her of her burden. She noticed the courtesy; the colour flew back to her cheeks, but I observed that her breath was not thereby restored.
She became very voluble—to hide her confusion; for by ordinary she was sparing of speech (or did she guess the lover in the master? Who can tell?). The wine, she told me, was easy got, and the bread. "The sausage," she went on—"ah, it would have been as easy to give you one of my legs for sausages. I went first to Il Torto's in the Borgo; it was shut for mezzodi. I begin tapping—the wife opens. 'Chi e?' says she; and I see a sbirro in the shop, eating polenta. 'Niente, niente,' I say, and run. That told me that the babbo was away, and that his wife had a lover in the constabulary. Remember it, Don Francis, we may have need of her—who knows? Shall I confess to you that I stole your sausage?"
"Confess what you please, my dear," said I, "I shall shrive you." Her eyes were dewy, but she lowered them too soon.
"It was a sin," she said, "but I do not intend to eat any sausage, so I shall be forgiven. But you see that the spies are all abroad. Now, I have just thought of something, Don Francis. We cannot remain in this cloister—at least, I cannot. If a canon awoke before his time—and it needs but a fly to settle on a nose to cause it—and if he poke his head out of his door, the first thing he will do will be to look at me—"
"Naturally, Virginia," I said. "It is what I am doing."
"I am well aware of it," said Virginia, and showed that she spoke the truth; "but the second thing he will do will be to look at you. I don't think we can afford ourselves this honour, so let us go. There is a way from here into the library, thence into the church, and from there to the Sagrestia Nuova, if we could only find it, whither nobody goes but a grand duke—and he only when he is dead. Let us go by that—will you not come? It is true that I am rather frightened by now."
I got up at once. "Come, then, child, let us hunt out our way." We went upstairs.
The long library was quite empty. We went to the further end on tiptoe. There were three doors at the bottom in three bays, surmounted by busts. We chose for the right hand and turned the handle. It gave into a narrow passage, lined with bookcases and dimly lighted. "I think this will be the way," Virginia said, and took the key out of the door and locked it on the inside. We followed the passage to a flight of stone steps, descended these in their curving course round a pillar, and came upon a little arched doorway. Virginia opened it. It led directly into the church of San Lorenzo. We saw the hanging lamps before the altars, and a boy in a short surplice asleep in a confessional.
"Wait here, wait here," says Virginia. "I will make him lead us into the Sagrestia."
I saw her go, lightly as a hare in the grass, towards the boy, and wondered. She stooped over him where he was huddled anyhow, as children are when they are asleep, and whispered in his ear. "Carino, carino, do you sleep? I am talking to you, carino, do you hear me? Say yes."
"Si, si," the boy murmured, and sighed and struggled.
"I am speaking to you, carino. I am tired; I want to sleep also. Tell me how to reach the Sagrestia, where the monsters lie sleeping and waking; whisper it, whisper it, and I will kiss you for it." I heard her soothing "Hush! Hush!" as he stirred. She went on whispering in his ear. It seemed to me that she was insinuating herself into his dreams. He stirred more than once, turned his head about; every moment I expected to see him open his eyes; but no. As Virginia continued to whisper, he began to murmur in his sleep, she directing him. He answered, laughed softly, turned about, slept always. I saw Virginia kiss his forehead. Then she came winging back to me; she seemed hardly to touch the pavement. "Come, come. I know the way. The door is open." She flitted away towards the high altar, I following. We gained the ambulatory behind. A door from this stood ajar; Virginia pushed in, I after her. We followed a flagged corridor for some distance and found ourselves in the Sagrestia Nuova with Michael Angelo's monsters sprawling and brooding in the half light. Virginia clasped me in her arms. "Francesco mio, I have saved thee. Sanctuary with thee! Oh, love thy poor Virginia!"
She pressed closely to me, and began to touch and stroke my cheeks; she put her hand at the back of my head, as it were to force my face down to look at her. Touched, excited, amorous in my turn, I encircled her with my arms and kissed her fondly.
"Dearest, best, kindest Virginia," I said, "you have proved my friend indeed. I have much to thank you for, much to say to you. Let us choose a place in which to eat our breakfast; I am as hungry as the devil."
Cruel, abominable speech of mine! I wounded her dreadfully; scalding tears testified to a bruised heart; but to her relief came pride.
"Stop," said she, "you shall not eat yet. I am hungrier than you, whom bread will satisfy. I am famished." I would have made amends, but she drew away from me, and folded her arms. "Let me understand. You kissed me just now. Were you false to Aurelia? Did you intend to insult that girl whom you taught to fear insult?"
I said, No, that had never been my intention, but it had been quite otherwise. "Donna Aurelia," I said, "has been restored to her proper place. She will find salvation where her happiness is, and I have been considering mine, whether I can find it in my happiness also."
"One thing at a time," said she, breathing very fast. "Has Donna Aurelia's husband returned?" I told her that he had not, but that there were good hopes of him shortly.
"And you have said farewell? You are free—free as the air?"
"It is my duty," I told her, "never to see Donna Aurelia again, and I will not if I can help it."
She frowned, then threw up her hands. "I don't understand anything about you! Is this love or madness? You love a lady, who loves you—you find her here—alone—you meet—you speak—you look at each other—you take her by the hand and lead her back to her husband—and tell her that she will never see you again. And she allows it!"
"Not only so," said I, "but it was she who turned her back upon me. And she did rightly."
"Why did she so?" she asked me. I had to tell her that it was on her account.
It made her peer with her eyes, in which, however, a keen light burned. She took a step towards me; I thought she would be in my arms; but instead she stopped short, breathing fast through her nostrils.
'"Tell me this, tell me this," she said, "was she the fool, or were you?"
I laughed. "My girl," I told her, "if I am a fool it is not for you to say so. But I believe, for all that, that you are paying me a compliment." She did not comprehend me, so took refuge in a quip— tossing her head at me.
She said, "I wish your worship joy of my compliment."
I took her. "I intend that you shall do more than wish me joy, child. I intend that you shall give it me, and be my joy."
This altered her tune. She quickly released herself and pointed to the victuals she had risked herself to get. "Let us eat," she said, "and talk afterwards. Forgive me if I troubled you just now. I have suffered and am a little over-wrought. Forgive me."
I kissed her again, she not forbidding me; we put our cloaks below that enormous figure of the Thinker, and sat down to our breakfast; we ate our sausages and drank our wine. Colour came back into Virginia's grave face, light danced in her eyes; she became more herself, but with an excitement latent within her which betrayed itself in little hasty acts of affection, quick movements, half caressing, half petulant—as if she would soothe me, and, half way, change her mood and be minded to scratch. I became interested, I wondered how long she would leave our affairs in doubt; rather unkindly, I held my tongue, just for the pleasure of seeing her make the next advance. And then—in spite of my curiosity—fatigue began to creep over me. I had been thirty-six hours awake, had bid an everlasting farewell to a mistress, restored, or done my best to restore, a banished wife to her husband's arms, shot a man, saved a virgin's honour, made matrimonial advances, run for my life. Here was a good day and a half's work. After a profusion of yawns, which, try as I would, I could not stifle, I said, "Forgive me, my dear, if I go to sleep. I find myself mortally tired—and you must be in the same case. Let us lie down here and rest ourselves."
"Sleep, my lord, sleep," said she, with beautiful, tender seriousness, and spread my cloak on a bench for me. She took off my sword and knelt, as her custom of old had been, to kiss my hand. I felt then that I must needs love this loving child. I lifted her up, and, "Kneel no more to me, my girl," I said. "You and I are ruined together. I cannot obey my father, who will disinherit me. You are no better off. Hunted animals don't kneel to each other, but league themselves to face their persecutors. Virginia, be mine!"
She said nothing, and would not meet my eyes. I drew her to me, embraced her with my arm, kissed her cold lips.
"Do you know what I am doing, Virginia?" I said. "Do you know what I need of you, my only friend?"
"Yes, Don Francis," she said. "You are making love to me, and it is your right. I have never refused you, and never shall. But you must not ask me to marry you."
If I were nettled, it was because a man, having made up his mind, is not willingly thwarted—for no other reason. But I do not know that I can accuse myself even of so much. I did not let her go, nor did I cease to kiss her. I told her, I believe, with as much calmness as is possible under the circumstances, that I was perfectly determined; I said that she need have no fear of the future, even though in taking me she would take no such fortune as I ought to offer to my wife. She flamed up at this and cried out that she wanted no fortune and had never led me to believe it. "Well and good, child," I replied, "in that case you need have no fears at all, for I, on my side, can ask you to admit that I have given you no reason to suppose me a villain. If I take you and all that you have, believe me I shall give you in return my mind and affection as well as the respect and gratitude which you have already. Believe me, Virginia—"
She moaned and rocked herself about. "Oh, I love you so! Oh, do not tempt me—oh, my lord, my lord, what shall I do? Oh, Madonna purissima, help me now!" I caught her to my heart.
"Virginia! as beautiful as you are true, you are worthy of a better love than mine," I cried. "But a more tender love you will never have. Friend, saviour, dear and faithful, beloved companion, I need you— come!"
She struggled faintly to put me away. She withheld her lips by averting her head; but I caught at her wrists and held her arms to her sides. By- and-by she let me have my will, and gave me kiss for kiss. I had won her; she was mine utterly from that hour.
"My lord and my love," she said, "you have conquered me. I will be yours in the manner you desire. You may be humbling yourself, but you are exalting me. Have no fear—I will make you happy. Ah, but how I will work for you! You have never seen me work yet! I am your servant still— your faithful servant."
"We shall serve each other, I hope, my child," I said. "There will be work for me to do also. But what is immediately before us is to escape from Florence."
Virginia got up. "Sleep you here, my soul, I will go out and see how the land lies. Before morning I will see you again." She clasped me to her bosom and kissed me fondly, then went quickly out, as swift and salient in her joy as a keen wind of spring that carries health in its forceful pride. I slept profoundly until daylight, little knowing what her immediate errand was.
I MARRY AND GO TO LUCCA
Virginia was pleased to be very mysterious on the subject of our marriage, keeping me in the Sagrestia for three or four days, visiting me only to give me food and such news as she cared to impart. She told me, for instance, that Professor Lanfranchi had undoubtedly arrived in Florence, and that he was staying with Aurelia at the Villa San Giorgio. As to our own affair, she said that everything was in good train. She had found a church and a priest in the Ghetto; she would need a little money—not very much—and promised, directly the coast was clear, to get me over to that safe quarter. To be done with this part of my history, so she did, and was made mine in the church of Sant' Andrea on October 24, 1724, three years, almost to a day, since my arrival in Padua in 1721. I took her back to a mean lodging in that meanest part of Florence, and spent three days with her there alone. I then wrote to my father, as I felt bound in duty to do—fully, unreservedly, with candour and, I hope, modesty. I wrote to Father Carnesecchi, to Professor Lanfranchi. Such money as I could consider mine by right I converted into cash; the rest, which I thought to be my father's—being that share of my monthly allowance which I had received after I had decided to disobey him—I returned by bills of exchange to his London bankers. I believe that, on the day of my departure from Florence, I stood up possessed of some fifty guineas—no great capital upon which a man and his young wife could begin the world. Nor had I any great idea how I should increase or husband my little store. But I was young, zealous, proud. I believed in myself, I loved Virginia. In a word, as always happened to me, I looked studiously forward, and was happy. As for her, she hardly touched the ground with her feet when she walked. You never saw so radiant a creature.
We left the Ghetto at a good hour of the morning, intending for Lucca; but at the gate of San Frediano a difficulty about post-horses bade fair to detain us for a day in very unfortunate publicity. The man of whom we had bespoken them met us there with despair upon his face. He was vexed, he was harrowed, his nicest feelings of honour were wounded—at least he said that they were. The horses had been fed and watered; he was about to put them to, when an order which he dared not disobey had supervened. No less was this than a precept from the Pratica Segreta that the horses were to be put at the disposition of the Cavaliere Aquamorta, of whom the State was most anxious to be rid. Had it been anything under a Government order, said he, he would have laughed in the bearer's face. Not even the Grand Duke could make an honest man break his word, &c. &c.; but I could see he was helpless. I saw nothing so clearly as that I was. I expostulated, offered more money than I could afford. Virginia stormed. All to no purpose. I was for walking, and was about to command Virginia to accompany me, when who should appear but my gentleman himself, the Cavaliere Aquamorta, inquiring the cause of the uproar. He presented a truly magnificent appearance in that squalid place.
No sooner was he informed that he was the cause of our distress than he addressed himself to me with elaborate politeness—all the more singular as that my appearance and equipage contrasted most unfavourably with his. My clothes had not been improved by the adventures I had undergone; my linen was soiled; I had no baggage. Virginia was respectably dressed and looked beautiful, but had no pretensions to a rank which she did not possess of herself and which I did not propose to give her. For I had thought it only honourable in me, as I was dispensing with my father's injunctions, to dispense also with his money. I had renounced the world in which I had gained nothing but misery and crime. In this fine gentleman's eyes, therefore, I must have seemed a simple young artisan, and Virginia a pretty country girl. However, he begged to be of service to us. He was himself going to Lucca, he said. If he took our horses it was only fair we should take seats in his chariot. In fine, we should hurt him deeply if we did not. All this was put before me with so much frankness and good humour that I could not well refuse it. I saw, moreover, that in addition to my horses he had two of his own. I accepted his offer, therefore, with many thanks. He handed Virginia in with a bow; he begged me to precede him, which I did, but to the back seat. He took the place next my wife, and we left Florence.
"If," said this remarkable man, "I lay it down as an indispensable preliminary to our acquaintance, which I hope may be long and warm, that you accept me for a gentleman, it is because, as I do not happen to be one, I have devoted all my energies to demonstrating the exact contrary. No man can help the accident of his birth. My mother was an actress of Venice: God knows who was my father, but I tell myself that he was peculiarly mine. I was educated in the slips of the theatre of San Moise; at ten I ran away from home, and from the age of twelve made my fortune my own care. It was then that I found out the advantages of being what I was not, for I observed that while nobody scrupled to cheat a gentleman if he could safely do it, nobody (on the other hand) resented the fact that a gentleman cheated him. At the age of fifteen, when I served in Zante in the company of the noble Mocenigo, and received a decoration for gallantry and a commission of lieutenant, I killed my captain for permitting himself to doubt my gentility. I should be sorry to have to reckon how many more have gone his way, or for how many years I have been obliged to shed blood in every new State I have chosen to inhabit. Those days are past and over; my reputation is made; this order which I wear was presented to me by the Holy Father, and is at once my patent and my passport. If I need another, it is here." He pointed to his sword, which reposed upon a narrow ledge of the chariot, behind my back.
I then told him a difficulty of my own, which was that, although I was a gentleman by birth who had waived his rank for reasons unnecessary to be named, I had no passport into the Republic of Lucca. "I think it right to inform you, cavaliere," I added, "that I also found it necessary to shed blood in Florence, and that consequently I have left that city somewhat abruptly and without a passport. I should be sorry to put you to any inconvenience on my account, and assure you that you have only to express a doubt—a hint will be enough—to be relieved of me and my wife at our first baiting-place."
He clasped my hand, saying, "I like your frankness—it pleases me vastly. And I see that I can help you. I have a very commodious passport which will pass your charming lady, yourself and half a dozen children— if you had been so precocious as to have them. Let us talk of more pleasant things than my magnanimity, if you please; the subject is naturally familiar to me."
This Cavaliere Aquamorta—he had the Order of the Golden Spur from his Holiness—was a tall spare man of a striking, if truculent, presence, with a high forehead, prominent eyebrows, densely black, cheekbones like razors, a complexion of walnut, and burning dark eyes. He carried his head high, and punctuated his vivacious utterances with snorts and free expectoration. He was, as I had seen at once, very much overdressed; his jabot was too full, he had three watches, ring-laden fingers, not unduly clean, and no less than five snuff-boxes, which he used in turn. He had certain delicate perceptions, however, which I must do him the justice to record; for if he was overdressed, I (God knows) was not, and yet not one glance of his penetrating eyes was turned in my direction which was not of deference and amiability. He treated me in every respect as if I had been his equal in appearance, address and fortune. His gallantry to Virginia would have been, I thought, excessive if displayed to any woman in the world. Before we had gone a league he had hold of her hand, to illustrate a story he was telling us of an intrigue he had had with the Princess of Schaffhausen. "I took her Highness' hand—thus," says he, and took my wife's. "'Madame,' I said, 'upon the honour of Aquamorta, the affair, having gone so far, must go all lengths. Logic and love alike demand it.'" The story was long; by the end of it, it was to be seen that he still held Virginia's hand. Indeed, he held it more or less until we stopped at Empoli to dine; and when we returned to the carriage, if I may be believed, this knight of the Spur resumed possession, and (as if it had been a plaything) nursed, flourished, flirted, made raps with my wife's hand until we were near the end of the day and within a few miles of the frontier of Lucca. Then at last he released it, kissing it first—popped his head out of the window, looked about and started, gave a prodigious Ha! cleared his throat, spat twice, and sat down again.
He looked at me pleasantly but with penetration. "We have arrived at the dreadful field of Altopascio, where Castruccio Castracane cut up the Florentine legions," says he, "and now, friend, your trials begin. My dear Signor Francis, believe me that I shall never forget the honour you and your charming lady have done to the equipage and solitary splendour of Aquamorta, nor the many marks of confidence and esteem you have both shown me throughout our delightful journey. Unhappily, so far as you are concerned, dear sir, it is over for a while. It will be necessary for you to leave us. My passport"—he produced it—"is made out for the Cavaliere Aquamorta, his lady, and servants. Your plan, therefore, will be to mount the box. I would take your place and give you mine, but that I am too well known to be supposed my own lacquey; nor could my sensitive honour brook it if I were. I would offer you my cloak, again, but that I fear it would betray you. It is perhaps a little out of key with the rest of your apparel. Better, after all, take one of those rascals'. For the next few hours you are Fritz, remember—Fritz from Buda Pesth; and I," he cried with a sprightly air, "am the happy, the indulged possessor of the most lovely of women." Again he kissed Virginia's hand. Deeply annoyed as I was, there was nothing for it but to obey; and it was under these by no means dignified circumstances that I entered the Republic of Lucca for the first time.
Worse was to follow—much worse. The man was without conscience in exacting from me the uttermost farthing of the bargain. Arrived at the inn, where, it seemed, he had already bespoken the whole of the first floor, he led Virginia upstairs with the greatest deference, hat in hand, past the bowing landlord and all his array of scullions, maidservants, lacqueys, porters and cooks; and took no more notice of me than he had done of the horde of beggars at the door. Full of indignation, I started to follow him, but his body-servant, an assured rogue if ever there was one, stopped me with a firm grip of my elbow. "Softly, comrade, softly," says he. "They won't need you yet awhile. When hot metal is on the anvil my master is accustomed to strike."
"What do you mean, you rascal?" I cried; and he, still holding my arm, "Why, my fine man," says he, "since you won't take a hint, I must deal plainly with you." As we were then at the foot of the stairs, he suddenly wheeled me to the right about, and plunged me into the crowd of inn-servants. "Landlord," cried he, "take this fellow in and give him his hire on my master's account. 'Tis a runaway gaolbird by the look of him for whom we have no sort of use here. A few pauls will be handsome."
He carried out his part with such bounce that he was completely successful; between him and the landlord and his crew I was hustled into the kitchens where I found the preparations for the cavaliere's supper in full blast.
MY ADVENTURES AT THE INN
I hope I may say that, in the painful position in which I found myself, I did what was becoming to a man of honour more jealous of his wife's than of his own. I reasoned with myself that a scandal, an uproar, an exhibition of my resentment would not only be no protection to Virginia, but would be, on the other hand, the clearest evidence that I doubted her. It could only end in my being turned out of the inn and in her being held by every man and woman of the place for what she was not. I remembered here with admiration the conduct of Father Carnesecchi, who, having on one occasion conducted two ladies and their cavaliers about the church of San Giovannino, and pointed out what beauties it possessed—and many which it did not—was mistaken by them for the sacristan and offered a small gratuity at the door. He thanked them and humbly accepted it, and (as I think), did well; for, as he said afterwards, it would have hurt their esteem much more to have been refused than it could possibly hurt his to have been offered the gift. It was in the spirit of this that I acted in the present state of my affairs. Virginia was undoubtedly my wife, and therefore of my own rank. To doubt a gentleman in any situation, however delicate, were to be offensive; it could not therefore be less offensive, but must needs be more, to doubt a gentlewoman. Not only did I not doubt her in truth, but I would not let it be supposed by any one that I did. There then, in that steaming kitchen, among sweating cooks and greasy cook-aids did I stand, with what countenance I had.
They were too busy just then for any notice to be thrown my way. I sat in a corner out of sight and watched their preparations for a superb banquet. It might have seemed that the cavaliere was going to entertain all the Ancients of the Republic, to judge by the capons and turkeys, the strings of ortolans, the quails, the partridges, roasting, basting or getting trussed. There was a cygnet, I remember; there were large fish stuffed with savoury herbs, crawfish, lampreys, eels in wine; there were pastry, shapes of cream, jellies, custards: you never saw such a feast—and I am sure there were a score of persons of both sexes busy about it. The maids flew from saucepan to stewpan, the boys staggered under piles of plates; the dressers and servers were always in and out, carrying dishes to the lacqueys of the table or coming back for more. The head-cook, a mountain of brawn and lard, seemed fresh from the bath— so he dripped and shone. The hubbub, bustle, heat and worry are not to be described by me.
When the dinner was at last completed and sent to table, the master-cook straightened himself and gave a short order, which was immediately obeyed. I saw him go into the scullery near by and souse his head and neck in a bucket of cold water. In a trice the tables of his late business were cleared, and the scullions laid out the materials for supper. These were, as may be supposed, distinguished by abundance rather than refinement: a dish of tripe, a chine of beef, spaghetti in wash-hand basins, onion salad with garlic, sausages, blood-puddings, pigs' feet in vinegar. High wicker flasks of wine stood in iron cages, to be swung down by the finger; there was one bottle of water: all was ready. But nobody sat down until the master-cook appeared. The men stood on one side of the table, the maids on the other, like soldiers on parade. He entered, the huge fellow, red from his cold douche, his hair all rumpled from the rude embraces of the jack-towel, and walked over to the men's side, wiping the wet from his ears as he went. He stood—this captain of the kitchen—in front of his company, and with a sweeping and appraising eye surveyed the ordered nymphs. He selected the partner of his choice, a modest-mannered creature who answered to the name of Gentucca; she came forward and stood by his side. With no more waiting he took his seat at the head of the board, and, plunging his fingers into a steaming bowl of spaghetti, began to gobble at it in the unedifying way which his nation have—and which, indeed, the dish demands. Gentucca sat at his right hand, but took nothing until she had helped him to drink. Meantime the others had made their arrangements— from the second in command down to the merest pot-boy selections had been made from among the maids. I heard, "Lisabetta, come here," or, "No, no, Liperata, I have chosen you"—or it was Caterina, or Giocosa, or Bettina, as the case may have been. To be brief, down sat everybody in the kitchen, Jack by his Gill, save my unhappy self.
It was the highly favoured Gentucca who pointed me out to the Grand Master of the Cooks. As I still wore the cape and long coat of Aquamorta's servant I was naturally accepted as such. The master-cook, who saw directly that I was a foreigner, courteously invited me to the right hand of Gentucca, ordering a bouncing girl of the name of Maria- Maddelena to make room for me. She very pleasantly did so; my plate was heaped, my cup was filled; all the company stood up and drank my health. Nothing could have been kinder than this humble society. My eyes clouded more than once to recognise it.
My host exerted himself to entertain me, though he tried (and I cannot blame him) to entertain the company at the same time. Perhaps his curiosity got the better of his good nature; certainly he pumped me as dry as I could be induced to go, and it was not until he had learned everything I cared to tell him that he remembered that he could impart as well as receive. He discussed my master (as he supposed him to be), the cavaliere, and by what he told me gave me some entertainment not unmixed with anxiety. That obliging and imperturbable person was, I found out, a gentleman of fortune—a term which implies that he was not a gentleman at all and had no kind of fortune but what he could secure of his neighbours. He travelled like a prince, and spent his money freely, but all was, as my host said, a case of casting nets. "Not but what my gentleman loves his belly as much as you or I," said the master- cook; "and small blame to him if he do. A man's head has no more stout ally than his paunch, while it is well lined, and no more arrant deserter if he cut short the supplies. But if you suppose, sir, that the banquet which I have sent upstairs is all for Aquamorta and his lady to consume en tete-a-tete, you know very little about him. Why, I'll wager that demirep of a valet of his has collected half our young blades to the board. Good food, good wine, good talk there will be, never fear. And afterwards—what follows? So soon as the tables are cleared out come the cards and the fishes. His Excellency, to oblige the company, will make a faro-bank; the company—well fed and well drunken—to oblige his Excellency, will punt. The signora will do the same for the ladies, the ladies for the signora. Now do you see the drift of his net? Should any little dispute arise—as will be on occasion—the cavaliere's sword is at the disposition of the gentleman offended. He is something of a marksman, too, as you cannot fail to have heard if you are a traveller. He has killed a man and undone a couple of ladies in every Court of Europe. He has been under the leads at Venice, and out again, deuce knows how. He has been expelled from half the cities of Italy, and has turned the story into capital in the other half. A most exorbitant, irresistible droll of a master you have there, sir; but who his decoy- duck of the moment may be, I dare say you can tell better than I. A fine young woman, and a cool hand, I could see for myself. I thought she looked waspish and gave herself more graces than were hers by nature. He has a taste for a bitter with his food, it appears; something tart and sharp to give an edge to his palate, perhaps. Do you happen to know her name?"
I said she was known to me as Donna Virginia, whereat he laughed gaily, and taking Gentucca round the waist, kissed her heartily, saying that she was the virgin for him.
Shortly after this, with a few words of polite excuse, he broke up the table and retired with his partner. The rest of the company gave itself up to pleasures which were as zestful as they were free. It may be imagined that I had little taste for such simple sports as these worthy persons could devise. I sat, an unhappy spectator of their gambols—but a diversion of a vigorous kind was at hand. In the midst of the scuffling and babel of voices in the kitchen I heard the strident tones of the cavaliere, evidently in a great rage.
"Where is that dastardly dog? Where is that villain of a cook?" I heard him roar on the stairs. "Bring me that scoundrel that I may slit his ears!" At this moment he burst through the doors, a terrific spectacle of fury, his eyes burning like fires, his face inflamed, his drawn sword in his hand. The company scattered to the walls or dived beneath the tables, chairs were overturned, the maids began to scream.
He glared about him at the desert he had made. "Produce me the cook, you knaves," cried he, "or I mow you down like thistles." The master-cook's face peeped through the gently opened door, and the cavaliere, across the room in two strides, seized his victim by the ear and pulled him headlong into the kitchen. "Hound!" he roared, "and son of a hound! Take the punishment you have earned."
"Sir, sir!" says the unhappy cook, "what have I done?"
"Done!" cries the cavaliere, screwing him unmercifully by the ear, "you have compassed my death by your infernal arts. I am poisoned—a dying man, but my last ounce of strength shall be enough to avenge me." So said, he began to belabour the wretch with the flat of his sword, and at each stroke the cook gave a howl of terror. His poor little mistress ran out of her concealment and clung to his helpless person, seeking to receive upon hers the blows as they fell. It was then that I interposed.
"Cavaliere," I said, "you are acting, with I know not what justice, against a man who has just proved more hospitable to me than yourself has thought fit to do. I must now tell you that any further indignity offered to him must be considered as done to me."
He paused in his furious attack, and "Ha!" says he, "here's the husband." He began to laugh; he laughed with such gusto and abandoned himself to such uproarious mirth that very soon all the company except myself was laughing with him. All of a sudden he stopped, with a mighty serious face. "Harkee, my friend," says he to me, "upon reflection I do believe that I have been hasty. The spasm passes. It may well be that it was the excellence of this honest man's catering which betrayed me, and not any infernal design. A passing cholic, after all!" He smiled benevolently upon his recent prisoner. "Rise, my worthy friend," said he, "and receive a pardon from the right hand of fellowship, sugared, as I hope, to your liking." His hand was full of gold pieces. "Nobody shall say," he added proudly, "that Aquamorta cannot requite good service, because he knows so well how to reprimand bad service." The cook humbly thanking his Excellency, the storm was over.
But I had another brewing, or thought that I should have. As the cavaliere was about to retire, I stopped him and said that I wished to accompany him. He scratched his head.
"Why, my dear sir," says he, "that will be plaguily inconvenient at this moment. My rooms are full of guests, d'ye see? Your charming lady is entertaining all the Senators' mistresses, and I am in the midst of a carouse with their Serenities. I am not one for hard-and-fast categories, as you know. Your dirty shirt and ragged elbows are nothing to me—but zounds! I can't answer for the most Serene Ancients."
I said then that I would retire to my room and wait for my wife—but to that he objected that, in strict truth, and to keep up the fiction upon which my safety depended, I had no room, at all. My wife was considered to be his wife, while I was supposed to be what I had professed myself, his servant. Would I, he asked me, for the sake of a night's gratification, imperil the many happy years which, he hoped and would take care, should be in store for me?
I was somewhat slow in meeting this preposterous question as it deserved, and when I opened my lips to speak he stopped me with, "Say no more. I don't ask your thanks. Your safety is as dear to me as my own." He beckoned to one of the scullions, and "Hi, you," says he, "show this fellow of mine where he can sleep, and see to it that his company be honest." With that he ruffled upstairs with the airs of a grand duke, and left me once more stranded with the cooks. To come to an end of this humiliating page, rejecting all offers of company, I was accommodated with a wretched cupboard below the stairs, which smelt vilely of sour wine and mildewed cheese, and ruefully prepared to spend what sort of night I could, with my thoughts for bedfellows.
I know not what hour of the night it was when I was roused out of a dream-tortured sleep by the creaking of my cupboard door. Looking up, the light of a candle which she held showed me Virginia.
"Behold Virginia," she said. "Did you doubt whether I should come?"
"I never doubted but you would come if you could," I replied, "but I did not see how it was possible." She blew out the candle and crept to my side. "The cavaliere, by diverting his friends with your plight," she said, "revealed to me where he had left you. I excused myself to the company and retired. I think he will be disagreeably surprised before morning."
I was much touched by her devotion and wifely duty, and assured her of it by every means in my power.
WE LIVE HAPPILY IN LUCCA
Whatever trick Virginia may have designed for the humiliation of the cavaliere—and I never inquired of her what it was—it failed of any apparent effect. He presented himself before us in the morning with undisturbed serenity, and the same elaborate professions of good-will. He was going, he said, to spend the day in my rehabilitation. "Be of good cheer, my dear Don Francis," were his comfortable words, "for I never yet failed a friend. It would, indeed—to put it at its lowest—be a deplorable want of policy on my part, for since I wish to be thought a gentleman, every act of my life must be more gentlemanlike than that of the greatest gentleman in Europe. As you have found me hitherto, so you shall find me now. Make me your banker at the tailor's, the perruquier's, the barber's, the shirtmaker's, the hosier's, and the hatter's. Add the shoemaker to your list, to oblige me. I go out to beat at every influential door in Lucca in your favour. Before nightfall, you shall have papers of identity and safe-conduct which will take you all over our peninsula."
I thanked him, but declined any assistance whatsoever. I had money enough for my needs; my wife was prepared to share the fortunes of her husband. I said that I intended to take a small lodging, to settle myself there, and by honest industry to make my way in the world. Both of us could work; we had no desire for fine society; and as for credentials, the excellency of our handiwork and our obedience to the laws would be the best in the world.
He was vexed, and showed that he was. "As for your handiwork, my dear sir," says he, "all that I have seen of it is that it has left you with scarce a shirt to your back. Your respect for the law has induced you to shoot a Capuchin in broad daylight, and forced you to leave Florence disguised as a manservant. However, these things are no concern of mine. Go your own way, young gentleman, consider me your friend, and permit me to kiss your lady's hand, vowing myself her grateful and obliged servant for more favours than perhaps you would care to hear recounted."
Scorning such insinuations as they deserved, Virginia held him out her hand, which he kissed as if he would have bitten it. I ought to have been warned by the glitter in his hard black eyes, but being conscious of my moral altitude above the base wretch, I took no further notice of him.
I had still in my possession my fifty guineas, with which, judiciously laid out, I had no doubt but that we could make our way good in Lucca. Full of hope, and fortified by all the privileges which the Church can bestow upon a Christian, or a complaisant wife upon her husband, I set about my business, which was to secure honourable employment for both of us. After much discussion with Virginia and the exhibition of reasons on my part with which I shall be less particular to trouble the reader, since I have dwelt upon them more than once already, I decided to begin in one of the humblest positions a man can take up. I would do journeyman's work of any sort or kind until I had won what in the finer walks of life we call the spurs. Not to be behind me in effort, Virginia would work also. I hesitated for some time between the carpenter's and the gardener's profession, for both of which I had always had an aptitude; but the former had my choice. Virginia ultimately chose for laundry-work, because that took her more into the open air, which she dearly loved.
I remember that we came to these decisions, after a day or two of talk about them, upon the grassy ramparts which overlooked the beautiful city on one side and the green meads of the Serchio, with their background of purple hills, on the other. It was there that Virginia, holding my hand in hers, spoke in this manner. "Francis," said she, "my lord and master, I have never yet asked you why you paid me the extreme honour of making me your wife, when, as you know very well, I was yours to dispose of in any other way you pleased; and I shall never ask you. It is enough for me that you have raised a poor girl out of the mire and made her a proud woman. But proud as I am—or because I am proud—I shall not forget to be humble. Don't suppose that I think myself raised to your degree because you have taken me in your arms; no, indeed, I am a little peasant and shall always be a little peasant. If I was found good in your eyes—as I am bound to believe I was—it was for that reason. Such as I am, for such as you have taken me, I shall never fail you. I will work the flesh off my bones for you, I will lie, cheat, steal, commit any sin under the sky if you bid me. I am utterly yours to take or put away, to live or die, for Heaven or Hell—you have only to require of me. It is in my power to sink for your pleasure, for we can always go lower than our best; but I cannot rise without you. If you ask me to set up for a lady, I tell you plainly I cannot. Have patience with me, Francis; do not condemn me to fail you. If I cannot rise, you must stoop. If I cannot be a fine lady, you must be content to do without your gentlehood. If I am a peasant, you must be a peasant. As such I shall please you—I am certain of it. In any other way you will stab me at every turn of your head. I shall break my back for you—and do well in my own way; but in yours I shall break my heart—and not advantage you one inch. Remember this too, that you may abandon me whenever you please, and get no reproaches from me."
She spoke modestly, courageously, and well. I kissed her, saying, "You are a good wife to me, Virginia. I agree with everything you say. Come, my dear, kiss me. I think we shall be happy."
She dashed her hand across her eyes as if to fend off a sudden storm of tears; then threw her arms round my neck and pressed me close to her bosom. She kissed me a thousand times, eagerly and warmly. "I love you, my lord, I love you, my saviour and king. If you are kind to me, I shall die. Beat me, misuse me, neglect me, be unfaithful—it is your right— and I shall serve you the better for it. But if you love me I cannot bear it. I shall suffocate with joy—my heart will crack. O Francis, Francis, wilt thou never understand thy poor girl?" All this time she was straining me to her with frenzy, kissing me, almost blind with tears. She was frantic, panting and struggling for breath. I had seen her before in possession of this dangerous ecstasy of love, and though I could not but love her for it in my turn, it was not the kind of happiness I wished her to enjoy. Her scene ended in a very passion of weeping, distressing to witness, but no doubt soothing; after which, moaning like one sore beaten, she lay lax and languid in my arms. Deeply touched, I laid her down upon the grass and watched her fade off into a quieter sleep. In this state she lay for an hour of more, and awoke refreshed, her usual shrewd and reticent self.
Therefore, loving, and being passionately loved in return, working diligently at a clean trade, living in the sweat of my brow, owing no man anything, the next few months of my life—few as they were, not more than six all told—were some of the happiest I have ever spent. They recalled those weeks at Pistoja, but only to excel them; for then I was idle and Virginia not satisfied. Then I had none of the sweet uses of domestic life—the hearth in common, and the heart too; the nuptial sacraments of kiss and embrace, the united outlook, the rational hope of increase. We forgot the world, which had forgotten us; our appetites were simple and easily satisfied; we fed each other and knew deep content. Happy, happy days at Lucca, too soon ended! We shared the uses of a single room with a couple as young and newly wedded as ourselves, rose at five in the morning, and worked at our employment until late in the evening. We ate frugally, drank a little wine and water, loved temperately, and slept profoundly. On Sundays and festivals we went to Mass together, and spent our leisure in excursions in the fields and pleasant groves with which Lucca is engirdled. We never ventured outside the territory of the Republic, but felt secure within it, trusting to our honest intentions, our simplicity and complete insignificance. Ah, blessed content! Blessed, thrice blessed obscurity! Would to God that you had been assured to us for ever! On rare occasions one or other of us had sight of the Cavaliere Aquamorta, who maintained the same magnificence at the Albergo del Sole, and was reputed to be making large sums with his faro-bank. A new scheme of his for a State lottery upon a scale never before conceived by this thrifty little State was said to be under the consideration of the Senators. Working in my master's yard, I used to see him now and again being carried in his chair to this great house or that, half a dozen link-boys before him, and his valet behind carrying his sword and gloves. Virginia often met him in the course of her errands, but, as she said, was never recognised by him. We nattered ourselves that he had forgotten our co-existence with him upon this planet. Hope never stooped to falser cozenage; we were to be rudely undeceived.
TREACHERY WORKS AGAINST US
One evening—I believe, as I said, that it was after nearly six months' calm and temperate life that our troubles began—upon returning from my day's work, I found Virginia in a pensive mood. She accepted, but hardly returned, my salute, was very silent throughout the preparation and eating of our supper; now and then, glancing at her, I caught her gaze fixed upon me, and fancied that there was a hard light in her eyes. Our companions, Gioiachino and his wife Teresa, rallied us on what they thought to be one of those domestic differences common to the most affectionate couples. "A tiff, a tiff!" said they, nudging each other. "Virginia has caught him with the gardener's wife. We shall get no sleep to-night." This gardener's wife was an obese and asthmatic matron of some two-score years; who occupied a room in our little house, and was kinder to me than I cared for. It was not until Gioiachino and his Teresa were asleep that I could hope to discover what had affected Virginia. She then told me that, as she had been at work that afternoon, kneeling on the boards by the river with the other women, the Cavaliere Aquamorta with a party of gentlemen had come by the meadows and stopped to jest and bandy familiarities with the laundresses. Although he had pretended not to recognise her, Virginia was not deceived. Finding his opportunity, he drew near to her side, and whispered in her ear, "Can I believe my senses? You, my charming consort of a few weeks ago, in such a plight, in such a company!" Virginia had replied that the company had been of her own choosing up to this hour, and that what he complained of now could be remedied very easily, and by himself only. He said, "No, my honour will not allow it. I must needs remember what I might have made you, and what you have become. Count upon Aquamorta, who has never yet failed his friends. Count upon his memory and passionate aspirations."
"I told him," said Virginia, "that I should do nothing of the kind. I said that I was wife to a gentleman born, who also happened to be an honest man. 'If,' I said finally, 'you wish to do Virginia a real service, you will be pleased to forget that you ever saw her.' He laughed, and said that that was impossible to a man of his tumultuous passions, and went away with a profound salutation. This," said my poor Virginia, "has troubled me more than I care to own. I think we should be wise to leave Lucca until—evil wind that he is—he blows over."
Though I comforted her pretty well and bade her think no more about the man, I very soon had reason to be of her opinion. Two or three days later, as I was sawing planks in the yard, to make a trellis, that saturnine person came in, resplendently dressed, and filled the wholesome place with the reek of his essences. He saluted me with extravagant politeness, telling me that he had words for my private ear which he was sure would interest me. When I took little or no notice of him he came to closer quarters. "Hearken, Signor Manifold," says he, "my news concerns Donna Aurelia."
How he knew that sacred name I cannot conceive. It had never passed from my lips into his wicked ears. But I was unprepared for it, and started violently the moment I heard it. "Ha!" cried he, "now I have passed your guard, Don Francis, have I? Now perhaps you will do me the honour of conversing?" I blush to record that I led him within the workshop and begged him to be quick with his news.
There is no need for any reader of mine to tell me my duty. I ought not to have allowed her name to rest upon his mouth; I ought not to have allowed it to touch mine. I ought not to have remembered Aurelia, I ought not to have adored her. Was I not wedded? Was I not beloved? O God of Heaven and earth, if regrets did not avail me then, how can they avail me now? But I will no more look back than I will anticipate in this narrative. I will repeat with what face I can that I led this hardy ruffian into the workshop, cleared a bench for him to sit upon, and bade him tell his story.
Then said he, "My news would at any other time than this give you great pain, Don Francis, for it is not altogether to the credit of one to whom you have paid the most tender of your vows. But seeking, as I have always done, your honour and advantage, I feel that I shall really increase both of them by what I have to say. For if I remind you that you are a fortunate husband, it ought to enhance your consciousness of that fact when I go on to tell you that Donna Aurelia was unworthy of your attentions, since she took no pains to deserve them."
I said here that I knew beforehand his malice and the reasons for it. I said, "You have proved yourself already so unworthy of belief that I tell you now I shall not credit one word you say. How dare you speak of the unworthiness of any lady, being yourself the most worthless of men?"
He smiled, and continued, "What will you do, but thank God, my dear Don Francis, when I tell you that it was she herself who put Fra Palamone in your way? What will you say when you know that you were not intended to kill the Capuchin so that you might be chased out of Florence, as you have supposed, but instead, it was hoped that he would carry off Miss Virginia to her marchese? What will you now say to Donna Aurelia's share in that plot, when I tell you that she——"
He paused here, grinning his triumph.
"I will tell you what I have to say," I answered him, standing up with folded arms. "I say that you lie. You have never done anything but lie and cheat since the moment I saw you. You live by cheating, and will die lying. That is what I have to say. I salute you and beg you to be gone."
"The fair and cruel-kind Aurelia——" he began unconcernedly, but I struck the bench on which he sat.
"Cavaliere," I said, "if you speak one word more of that lady I shall kill you here in this place."
I had an adze in my hand, and I suppose he believed me, for he shrugged his shoulders, got up and walked out of the carpenter's shop. He had accomplished one part of his infamous design, at least. With every symptom of the most exquisite torture of mind I recalled throughout that day and night the lovely, fleeting, unattainable image of Aurelia Gualandi. She was fatally present, every bend and turn of her head, every motion of her bosom, the weaving of her hands, every flutter of her breath, every sigh, every flash of her eyes danced before me, mocking, deluding, beckoning, beguiling, enchanting me. My poor Virginia had reason to complain of my dejection, coldness, inattention, God knows! But He knows too, and will reward her for it, that the brave girl never once did complain. My torment endured atrociously all night, and all the next day; then subsided somewhat, and by the Sunday following was almost gone. On the Monday, moreover, I had something else to think of: this, namely——
On Monday evening, just as I was about to leave the yard, Virginia, with a hood over her head, came into it. This was extraordinary, and so did she appear—vividly coloured, with the eyes of one in a fever, but not alarmed; elated rather, and full of strong resolve. Before I could speak she put her finger to her lip, and said, "Hush! Come with me to the ramparts instead of going home. I have something to tell you." I followed her at once. The ramparts were very empty, as it was nearly dark. She took my arm and began to walk slowly under the trees, speaking calmly, mastering the excitement which she evidently suffered.
She said, "At noon to-day, after the dinner-hour, the padrona gave me three baskets of linen, and told me to carry them to their owners, with the bills which were pinned upon them. I put all three on my head and went away. The first errand was to the apartment of that old colonel of artillery, where I have often been before. I delivered the basket, unpacked it in his presence, received the money and my buona mano, and departed. The second took me to Don Filiberto, the parroco of Santa Lucia. As usual, he inquired after you, asked me that certain question which you know, gave me two whites, patted my cheek, and hoped for better news next week. When I came to look at my third basket, judge my dismay to find that it was addressed to the Cavaliere Aquamorta, at the Albergo del Sole. It was the largest by far—and that was why I had put it at the bottom—and had a substantial bill upon it, including the arrears of three weeks. I suppose he had planned it with the padrona, for I had never been to him before, and did not even know that we washed for him. However, there was no help for it. I must go.
"He received me with a grin, expressing surprise, which I knew he had not, and pleasure, which I fear he had. I was as unconcerned as I knew how to be, and began unpacking the linen; but he came behind me at once, and, kneeling beside me on one knee, began to be unpleasantly attentive, praising my beauty extravagantly, talking, joking, whispering—and worse—doing all he could, in fact, to make me as bad as he was. He owned that he had laid this 'little stratagem of love,' as he called it, and that the bill, far from being in arrear, had been paid, and twice paid. There, then, was the price of my betrayal. Then he spoke of you, Francis, asking whether I had discovered the cause of your recent distemperature. 'I have given him some news of his Aurelia of late,' he said, 'which may have inclined him to neglect a far more charming nymph.' I replied to that, that if he had put himself to the trouble of telling you lies of Donna Aurelia, there was no wonder that you were unhappy; for, says I, 'To have her name, which you held sacred, tripped off lips which you knew to be profane was a horrible thing.' He laughed at me, and called me his incorrigible charmer, his dearest tease, delight and provocation. He grew very attentive, and would have embraced me; whereupon, biding my time, I gave him such a slap in the left eye as he won't soon recover from. Then, while he was cursing me and calling for his servant, I made my escape."
I praised her warmly, as she deserved. She had done what became her with the only weapon she possessed. "The rest," I said, "is mine. I shall know how to maintain your honour and my own. This very night I shall send a friend to the cavaliere, and leave him the choice of weapons."
She stopped our walk, and faced me with agitation. "Dio mio, my lord, what are you saying?" I repeated my words, and she became dry, as she always did when she disapproved.
"Good, my lord," she said; "and may your handmaid know the name of the friend whom you propose to send with your cartel to the Cavaliere Aquamorta?"
I said that I should ask Gioiachino, our fellow-lodger, to oblige me.
"Excellent," said Virginia with irony, "excellent indeed! Gioiachino, a cat's-meat man, waits upon the Cavaliere Aquamorta on behalf of his friend Francesco, a journeyman carpenter!"
This made me more angry than I had any business to be, for she was perfectly right from the cavaliere's view of the thing. I said, "Virginia, my condition in this world has never been hidden from you. Apart from my birthright, which is an advantage not of my own making, I hope I have never been to you other than an honourable man. Gioiachino, who has been a good friend to you and me, certainly deserves no less credit. If a gentleman, as I claim to be, is condescending enough to send a person perfectly honest to a vulgar, libidinous, lying bully and cheat, who happens to have robbed to better purpose than I have worked— then, I say, you should agree with me that I am paying more honour to a thief than he can hope to deserve. I am sorry to have to speak so plainly to you, but it is not for you, any more than for me, to reproach Gioiachino with being an honest man."
She was silent for a few minutes, then knelt down and kissed my hand. When I raised her up and embraced her, I found tears on her cheeks. We walked home in the dark without another word said, and I prevailed upon Gioiachino to convey my challenge, though he did what he could to dissuade me. "This," he said, "is madness. Do you not know that the less your man is assured of his gentility the more exacting he will be in the profession of it? Do you know what will occur? He will call for some lacquey or another to kick me downstairs."
My answer to that was that such conduct to the bearer of a gentleman's cartel was unheard of. I added that if the cavaliere prided himself, against all evidence, upon being a gentleman, he was not at all likely to convict himself of being a ruffian. Very ruefully, in the end, the good-natured Gioiachino went out to oblige me.
It happens that I was right, or had good grounds for thinking so. The cavaliere received the poor fellow with perfect affability, and after a short colloquy with some of his companions, introduced a certain Prince Gandolfo Dolfini, with whom Gioiachino was to arrange a meeting in the fields for seven o'clock on the Wednesday morning. The cavaliere having the choice of weapons, his friend the prince decided for WHIPS.
If this was to make me feel ridiculous it failed. I was much too angry. "Whips he shall have," said I, and went to bed.
On the morning appointed I rose at my usual hour and went to the workshop, intending to go on with my duties until the time appointed. I left Virginia in tears, and Teresa, no less wretched, clinging to her in her bed. At a quarter before seven, Gioiachino with me, armed with a stout cart-whip, I left the Porta del Vescovo and walked briskly over one or two water-meadows towards a retired grove of trees not far from the Pisa road. I flattered myself that we were first in the field; but there I was mistaken. I found a numerous company assembled—tall persons in cocked hats, coats and badges, a posse of police, and the villainous cavaliere smirking in the midst. So soon as we entered the grove he pointed to me with his cane and said in a loud voice: "There, Signor Sindaco, there is the fugitive assassin, the betrayer of an innocent girl. Speed him back to Tuscany with the added wages he has richly earned in Lucca." The police advanced, seized me, bound my wrists. An old gentleman without teeth read a long legal instrument without stops, at the end of which I was stripped to the shirt, horsed upon Gioiachino's back and vigorously whipped. I was then haled by my harsh executioners some league or more over the marshes to the confines of the Republic of Lucca and told to take myself out of sight unless I wished for more taste of the whip. Without prayers, without words, without a coat, without money, rich in nothing but innocence and despair, I reached the hillside and flung myself face downwards upon the sward. There I lay far into the night.
I FALL IN WITH THE PLAYERS
My present situation was of that shocking description which defies thought and paralyses the will. I was utterly alone, deprived of the means of joining the only person in Italy who loved me, utterly destitute of means, placed in a country from which I had been banished as a criminal. I shall be understood, then, when I say that for a week or more I wandered over the face of the land, not regarding whither I went (so only that I avoided my kind), nor what became of me. How I subsisted I am at a loss to tell; I have no clear recollections—nothing but a confused sense of abiding despair, hunger, haste and desolation. I know not through what regions I passed, the names of what villages I avoided, the names of what farm-houses I pillaged of eggs and milk in order that I might keep a soul in my body. It is true that I became a common thief; it is very true that during this most dreadful period I spoke not to one living person—for whenever I saw man, woman or child I crouched in whatsoever shelter I could find, and lay there trembling like a beast of chase until the enemy (as I deemed him) had passed and I could venture out again to seek for food. Providentially for me, my banishment from Lucca had taken place in the summer; I suffered nothing from exposure, and had no real lack of sustenance. I used to rummage the streets of villages at night to get broken meat; as I have said, I did not scruple to rob henroosts, or to suck the teats of cows and goats in the byres. During this time I neither prayed to God nor thought of Virginia in her horrid peril. All my efforts of mind and sense were directed to hiding and finding food. I was very near losing my wits.
Gradually, however, I recovered my self-possession, and with that, one by one, my proper faculties returned. I was surprised at myself when one day, seeing a man hoeing in a field, I felt the desire to speak to him and ask my whereabouts. I was in a dreadful fright when it came to the point that I had gone too far towards him to recede; but I mastered myself by an effort and brought myself to accost him. Without any surprise at my appearance, which was, indeed, no worse than his own, he told me that I was in the Vale of Chianti, between Certaldo and Poggibonsi, and that if I persevered upon the road I saw before me I should reach the latter place by nightfall. "But, brother," said he, "you look to have seen better days, and I advise you to push on to Siena. May be you'll find employment there—for that is a rich city. Here I tell you there is nothing. It is little use my offering you a crust, for I have not got one." I thanked him, and having broken cover, stoutly took the road and limped along as best I could.
Perhaps I had gone a league and a half when I came to a village full of people. Half a dozen miserable houses placed streetwise, one of them a disreputable inn, formed a background to a motley assembly of tattered vagrants, of which peasants of the countryside of both sexes, children, pigs and turkeys formed a small part. The others were men and women of the most extravagant attire and behaviour it is possible to imagine. I saw a punchinello on stilts wading among the rest; there were women flaunting feathers on their tousled heads, and moustachioed bullies who might have come from the ruck of some army on the march; pages, minions, magicians, astrologers, women's ruffians, castrati—it was as if one of the wildest hours of the Piazzetta of Venice had been transported by witchcraft to this quiet place. As I approached, wondering at what I saw, a creature, I knew not then whether man or woman, came and stood in my path, and with a great gesture of the arm greeted me in this remarkable apostrophe: "Hail, all hail, Bombaces, King of the Halicarnassians!" He, or she, repeated this shrilly three or four times, but nobody took any notice.
This hermaphrodite had a face of the most vivid and regular beauty I ever saw—a face of perfect oval, freshly and rarely coloured, a pair of dark and lustrous eyes, a straight, fine nose and a mouth exquisitely shaped, provokingly red. Its hair, which was dark brown, fell in a tide of wealth far over its shoulders. It wore a woman's bodice cut square in the neck, after the fashion of unmarried women in Venice, and short in the sleeves; but at the waist that sex stopped and the male began, for it had on a pair of man's breeches, worsted stockings and Venice slippers, and its shape as revealed by these garments was not that of a woman. The creature, as a fact, declared itself to be a male; and when he began to declaim against me again, I addressed him for what he was. "My good young man," I said, "I am too weary, too desperate and too hungry to be entertained by your antics, and too poor to reward you for them—being, as you see me, an exile and a stranger. If you can find me something to eat, I shall be grateful; if you cannot, go in peace, and leave me to do the same."
The droll beauty changed his tone in an instant. "Follow me, sir," said he, "and you shall have everything you want. I entreat your pardon for inflicting my impertinences upon you at such an ill-judged moment." He took me by the hand and addressed himself to the crowd about the inn doors; by pushing, punching, jostling, cursing, praying and coaxing in turns, he made a way into the house. But that was full to suffocation of the actors and their belongings, and of the peasantry who had come to gape at them. Everybody was engaged in getting drunk who was not drunk already. Some were fighting, some lovemaking, some filching. I saw a curious sight. A man dressed like a harlequin was picking a countryman's pocket, and having his own picked, while he was in the act, by some sharp-featured imp of a castrato. In fine, the whole house from floor to rafters was full; the bedchambers, to call them so which had no beds in them, were worse than the kitchen. I could not see that I had gained anything by following my questionable guide; but he, who had more resources than I knew of, having snatched a half-loaf and bottle of wine from the lower quarters, trampled and fought his way upstairs with them, showed me a ladder which gave on to the roof, and went up it like a bird, without using his hands. I followed him, and saw a proud light in his eyes as he invited me to survey my private room. We were in the valley formed by the two pitches of the roof, nothing between our heads and the evening sky. The revellings and blasphemies of the house were not to be heard; pigeons clustered on the chimney-pots or strutted the ridges of the house; a cat, huddled up, watched them from a corner. Stars showed faintly here and there; we were sheltered from the wind; I heard far off the angelus bell ringing.
"Here, at any rate, you won't be disturbed," said my protector. "Eat, sir, drink, and repose yourself. When you feel inclined you shall tell me how I can serve you further."
The evening bell, and this kindness of the lad's, had reminded me of what I was. I said, "My friend, I shall first thank God for having made your nation the boldest, the most ingenious, the gentlest, the most modest, most open-hearted in the world. You see before you a man of all men most unfortunate; but yet I say to you in the presence of God and of his household, whose lights are kindling even now, that, but for the like of you, many and many a time I should have died unannealed."
He was confused and, boylike, tried to laugh off my praises. "You give me too high a character, sir," said he. "I am a graceless devil of the Veneto, without prospect or retrospect to be proud of, a poor creature who has to go to market with what wares he has. If I can look forward it is because I dare not look back. What I am doing for you now, for which you are so kind as to praise me, is not virtue. I wish to Heaven virtue were so easy got. Eat, however, drink and rest. If I am no better than I should be, I suppose I am not worse than I could be. And I cannot allow you to praise me for that."
"You are of the race of the Samaritans," said I, "whether you hail from Venice or Tuscany. I am an Englishman, my name is Francis. How are you called?"
He said, "I believe my name is Daniele; but they call me here, in the company, Belviso."
"And they do well," I returned, "for that you certainly are, and, as far as I am concerned, you prove as good as you are good-looking."
He shrugged his shoulders. "No one is better than he can help, I fancy, sir," he said. "There is every inducement to be wicked in this world. But I will say this of myself—and I dare say everybody else can say the same—that when I am good I am as good as gold, for I realise perfectly well my unusual estate and become a very usurer of virtue. But this is of rare occurrence, seeing that I am an actor. By ordinary, for the fifteen years that I have been in the world, I am remarkably vicious."
"I cannot hear you say that, Belviso," I told him, "without giving you warning that, so long as I am in your company, and to the utmost of my powers, I shall restrain you from being anything of the sort."
He started, looked at me for a moment, then kissed my hand. "I believe our Saviour sent you here to be his vicar in my regard," he said. "I don't know how long you may be in my company, for it depends mostly upon yourself. But I promise you in my turn that I shall never take ill whatsoever your honour may please to say to me; and I say that if I have the misfortune to lose sight of you this very night, I shall be the better for having known you, and shall go to sleep with more prospect of a decent to-morrow than I have ever done in the whole of my life."
I judged that the best thing for this youth was to think more about my misfortunes than his own. I therefore told him how it was that I came before him in this plight, barefoot, bareheaded, bleeding and in rags. I told him of my concern for Virginia, of the deadly perils that beset her, and concluded by assuring him that the one service of any moment which he could do me was to devise me some means of communicating with Gioiachino, the vendor of cat's-meat in Lucca. Belviso had put his head between his knees, and so remained for some time after I had done speaking, in earnest meditation.
After a while he lifted up his face, and said, "I shall go to Lucca for you, Don Francis. It is certain that you must not cross the frontier, and equally certain that there is no other person here who could strive more heartily to help you. But I dare not myself go alone. I shall get Il Nanno to go with me—a very good old fellow and as shrewd as a winter wind. We shall disguise ourselves, of course, and be off before dawn to- morrow. He shall go as my wife."
"Your wife, my dear!" I exclaimed. "I should like to know what old fellow could play the woman beside you." "Seeing that I get my living by so doing, I don't mind owning that there is no one," he agreed. "The trouble is that I should do it too well. When you see Il Nanno you will admit that my proposals are as prudent as they seem the reverse. I'll go and fetch him, and you shall judge. Remember always that his name is Aristarcho; it would be a mortal affront to use that nickname of ours, for he is sensitive to a degree, like all these hunchbacks, and as fierce as a wild cat. Stay here—I will bring him up to you." He disappeared into the house, and presently returned, followed by his proposed wife.
Signor Aristarcho was a dwarf of the most repulsive and uncompromising type. He cannot have been much more than four feet in height; he had a head nearly as large as his body, the strong-jawed, big-nosed, slit- mouthed head of some Condottiere of old, some Fortebraccio or Colleone of history and equestrian statuary. His eyes were small, staring, but extremely intelligent, his flesh spare and strained under the skin; he was beardless and as warty as a toad's back; he never smiled, spoke little and seemed to be afraid lest the air should get within him and never get out again, for he only opened the corner of his mouth to emit a word or two, and screwed it down immediately he had done. His poor deformed body was like that of Punchinello, a part for which he was famous in the theatres—protuberant before, hunched up between his shoulders behind, and set upon little writhen fleshless legs like wooden spigots. In manner he was excessively punctilious, grave, collected, oracularly sententious. I know that he was exquisitely sensitive to ridicule and remorseless in punishing it. It was not hard to understand— the moment I set eyes upon this poor monster—that, with the young and beautiful Belviso masquerading as a woman by his side, trouble must succeed trouble without end. On the other hand, I could not for the life of me see how the parts were to be reversed with any reasonable assurance. But the good youth himself had no misgivings.
After an exchange of careful courtesies I addressed myself to the dwarf. "Signor Aristarcho," I said, "this charitable young man has assured me of your active sympathy with my anxieties. You see before you a victim of fortune's extremest spite, who can sue for your favours with nothing but his tears——"
"Don't shed them," says he at the side of his mouth, "they are precious."
"—and offer you nothing in return but his thanks. But I am speaking to a gentleman——"
"You are not," he said gruffly. "You are speaking to a man."
"—of honour," I pursued, "and sensibility. In a word, I am speaking to a Christian. If then you, a Christian, can save the soul of my young and newly wedded wife—ah, Jesu! my darling from the lions——"
He put up his hand. "No more," he said; "I will do what I can."
I said, "Sir, my boundless gratitude——"
"No more," he stayed me; "I am paid already."
"Alas, sir——" I felt that I must go on; but he would not have it.
"You have called me a Christian," he said. "No one has ever called me that before. I thank you. I would die for you."
"Live for me!" I cried. "Sir, sir, sir, I do find that the lower my bodily fortunes descend, the nearer I get to the kingdom of Heaven."
Aristarcho bowed gravely and said, "I thank you. Count upon me."
He bowed again profoundly, and I returned the salute. When he had retired I told Belviso that I saw nothing in his state to deserve our pity, but that, on the contrary, I envied him the possession of a constant and discerning mind.
My friend replied, "Yes, yes, he is a good fellow and will serve you well. You have earned his gratitude; but let me warn you again never to hurt his feelings. You will be sorry for it for many a day."
When we went down, long after dark, to the inn kitchen, I found the actors seated at supper and was kindly received. Belviso presented me to the principals—to a pleasant, plump old gentleman, who looked like the canon of a cathedral foundation, and was, in fact, the famous Arlecchino 'Gritti; to the prima donna, a black-browed lady, who, because she came from Sicily, was called La Panormita, her own name being Brigida, and her husband's Minghelli; to the cheerfulest drunkard I ever met, who played the lovers' parts, and was that same Minghelli; to the sustainers of Pantaleone, Scaramuccia, Matamorte, Don Basilio, Brighella and the rest of them—a crew all told of some twenty hands, all males with the exception of La Panormita. The reason of that was that the company was very poor, and that fine women did not get sufficiently lucrative side- issues, as I may term them, to be tempted to join it. And again there were several restrictions placed by some States—such as those of the Church—upon female performers, only to be overcome by heavy fees to the officials. If it was inconvenient to them to drop Signora Minghelli in one place and pick her up at another, to have had more women in the same case might well have ruined them. They therefore had with them half a dozen boys and lads, of whom Belviso was by far their best—Pamfilo, Narcisso, Adone, Deifobo and the like, wicked, graceless little wretches as they were. Belviso took the leading woman's part in La Panormita's absence, and when she was present he came second. Notably he was Columbine in the comedy, and, as they said, one of the most excellent. I found all these people, as I have never failed to find Italians of their sort, simple, good-hearted and careless, sometimes happy, sometimes acutely miserable; but always patient and reasonable, and always expressing themselves unaffectedly, in very strong language. Of their kindness I cannot say too much; of their moral behaviour I must not. Their profession, no doubt, which forced them to exhibit themselves in indelicate or monstrous situations for the pleasure of people who were mainly both, had made them callous to much which is offensive to a man of breeding. Il Nanno was a great exception to their rule. I never knew him, but once, behave otherwise than as a gentleman. I never heard him hold unseemly conversation. Belviso, too, was, as far as I was concerned, honest, decent and self-respecting. I am inclined to hope, and have some grounds for believing, that he had given himself a worse character than he deserved. All I shall say about him here is that, had he been my son, I could not have been troubled by anything which he said or did so long as I was in his company.
Sufficient of my story had been made common property by Il Nanno to save me the trouble of trying to enlist their sympathies. They were mine from the moment of my appearance in their midst. They were entirely willing to let my two champions go to Lucca on my account, and I was glad to hear that the company would not stand to lose much by so generous an act. They were on their way to Siena, and except for an open-air performance or two in mean villages would not need either Belviso or the dwarf until they reached that city, where the pair would rejoin them. They offered me their protection and hospitality in the frankest manner— in such terms, indeed, that I could not but have accepted them had my necessities been lighter than they were. I took them thankfully, and asked leave further to propose that, as I had a good memory and a person not otherwise unsuitable, I might place myself and my abilities at their whole disposal. "Use me, gentlemen," said I, "if I suit you; make me of service elsewhere than on your scene if I do not. By so doing you will lighten my load of debt, and make me feel less of a stranger and a burden. I have won two friends already by the recital of my sorrows"— here I placed a hand on Belviso's shoulder and gave the other to Il Nanno—"let me hope that I can gain yet more by some exhibition of my talents."
This was loudly applauded. "Stand up, Don Francis," said Belviso to me, "and spout us out whatever bombast you can remember."
I gave them, first, the opening speech of the Orfeo of Politian, where the sad shepherd accounts his plight, his pursuit of the nymph Euridice, her abhorrence of him, and the like. All eyes were fixed upon me; I saw those of La Panormita glisten. The smooth-flowing verses moved her. They were silent when I had done, which a little disconcerted me; but presently the dwarf snapped out, "More." Emboldened, I began upon the Aminta of Tasso, reciting the opening speech of Daphne in the fourth act. To my delight the part of Silvia, which Virginia in our old days at Pistoja had been wont to take, was caught up and continued by Belviso. We fired each other, capped each other, and ended the great scene. The last six lines of it, to be spoken by the Choragus, were croaked by Il Nanno in his bull-frog's voice. We stopped amid a storm of bravas, and La Panormita, with a great gesture, crowned us with flowers. I was made free of the company by acclamation.