This is another work of art from Benson. The novel describes many events in England: the First World War, the mentality of that time, the life of the British and visitors there. The first half of the book describes reflections on war. The denouement we can see more sentimental.
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I do not know whether in remote generations some trickle of Italian blood went to the making of that entity which I feel to be myself, or whether in some previous incarnation I enjoyed a Latin existence, nor do I greatly care: all that really concerns me is that the moment the train crawls out from its burrowings through the black roots of pine-scented mountains into the southern openings of the Alpine tunnels, I am conscious that I have come home. I greet the new heaven and the new earth, or, perhaps more accurately, the beloved old heaven and the beloved old earth; I hail the sun, and know that something within me has slept and dreamed and yearned while I lived up in the north, and wakes again now with the awakening of Brünnhilde...
The conviction is as unfathomable and as impervious to analysis as the springs of character, and if it is an illusion I am deceived by it as completely as by some master-trick of conjuring. It is not merely that I love for their own sakes the liquid and dustless thoroughfares of Venice, the dim cool churches and galleries that glow with the jewels of Bellini and Tintoret, the push of the gliding gondola round the corners of the narrow canals beneath the mouldering cornices and mellow brickwork, for I should love these things wherever they happened to be, and the actual spell of Venice would be potent if Venice was situated in the United States of America or in Manchester. But right at the back of all Venetian sounds and scents and sights sits enthroned the fact that the theatre of those things is in Italy. Florence has her spell, too, when from the hills above it in the early morning you see her hundred towers pricking the mists; Rome the imperial has her spell, when at sunset you wander through the Forum and see the small blue campanulas bubbling out of the crumbling travertine, while the Coliseum glows like a furnace of molten amber, or pushing aside the leather curtain you pass into the huge hushed halls of St. Peter’s; Naples has her spell, and the hill-side of Assisi hers, but all these are but the blossoms that cluster on the imperishable stem that nourishes them. Yet for all the waving of these wands, it is not Bellini nor Tintoret, nor Pope nor Emperor who gives the spells their potency, but Italy, the fact of Italy. Indeed (if in soul you are an Italian) you will find the spell not only and not so fully in the churches and forums and galleries of cities, but on empty hill-sides and in orchards, where the vine grows in garlands from tree to tree, and the purple clusters of shadowed grapes alternate with the pale sunshine of the ripened lemons. There, more than among marbles, you get close to that which the lover of Italy adores in her inviolable shrine, and if you say that such adoration is very easily explicable since lemon trees and vines are beautiful things, we will take some example that shall be really devoid of beauty to anyone who has not Italy in his heart, but to her lover is more characteristic of her than any of her conventional manifestations.
So imagine yourself standing on a hilly road ankledeep in dust. On one side of it is a wine-shop, in the open doorway of which sits a lean, dishevelled cat, while from the dim interior there oozes out a stale sour smell of spilt wine mingled with the odour of frying oil. A rough wooden balcony projects from the stained stucco of the house-front, and on the lip of the balcony is perched a row of petroleum tins, in which are planted half a dozen unprosperous carnations. An oblong of sharp-edged shadow stretches across the road; but you, the lover of Italy, stand in the white of the scorching sunshine, blinded by the dazzle, choked by the dust, and streaming with the heat. On the side of the road opposite the wine-shop is a boulder-built wall, buttressing the hillside; a little behind the wall stands a grey-foliaged olive-tree, and on the wall, motionless but tense as a curled spring, lies a dappled lizard. From somewhere up the road comes the jingle of bells and the sound of a cracked whip, and presently round the corner swings a dingy little victoria drawn by two thin horses decorated between their ears with a plume of a pheasant’s tail feathers. The driver sits cross-legged on the box, with a red flower behind his ear, and inside are three alien English folk with puggarees and parasols and Baedekers. You step aside into the gutter to avoid the equipage, and as he passes, the driver, with a white-toothed smile, raises and flourishes his hat and says, “Giorno, signor!” The lizard darts into a crevice from which his tail protrudes, the carriage yaws along in a cloud of dust... It all sounds marvellously ugly and uncomfortable, and yet, if you are an exiled Italian, the thought of it will bring your heart into your mouth.
It was just this, of which I have given the unvarnished but faithful jotting, that I saw this morning as I came up from my bathe, and all at once it struck me that this, after all, more than all the forums and galleries, and gleams of past splendour and glory of light and landscape, revealed Italy. But that was all there was to it, the sense of the lizard and the dust and the trattoria, and yet never before had my mistress worn so translucent a veil, or so nearly shown me the secret of her elusive charm. Never had I come so near to catching it; for the moment, as the Baedekers went by, I thought that by contrast I should comprehend at last what it is that makes to me the sense of home in the “dark and fierce and fickle south,” as one of our Laureates so inappropriately calls it, having no more sympathy with Italy than I with Lapland. For the moment the secret was trembling in the spirit, ready to flower in the understanding... But then it passed away again in the dust or the wine-smell, and when I tried to express to Francis at lunch in beautiful language what I have here written, he thought it over impartially, and said: “It sounds like when you all but sneeze, and can’t quite manage it.” And there was point in that prosaic reflection: the secret remained inaccessible somewhere within me, like the sneeze.
Francis has been an exceedingly wise person in the conduct of his life. Some fifteen years ago he settled, much to the dismay of his uncle, who thought that all gentlemen were stockbrokers, that he liked Italy much better than any other country in the world, and that, of all the towns and mountains and plains of Italy, he loved best this rocky pinnacle of an island that rises sheer from the sapphire in the mouth of the Bay of Naples. Thus, having come across from Naples for the inside of a day, he telegraphed to his hotel for his luggage and stopped a month. After a brief absence in England, feverish with interviews, he proceeded to stop here for a year, and, when that year was over, to stop here permanently. He was always unwell in England and always well here; there was no material reason why he should ever return to the fogs, nor any moral reason except that the English idea of duty seems to be inextricably entwined with the necessity of doing something you dislike and are quite unfitted for. So herein he showed true wisdom, firstly, in knowing what he liked, and secondly, in doing it. For many otherwise sensible people have not the slightest idea what they like, and a large proportion of that elect remainder have not the steadfastness to do it. But Francis, with no ties that bound him to the island of England, which did not suit him at all, had the good sense to make his home in this island of Italy that did. Otherwise he most certainly would have lived anæmically in an office in the City, and have amassed money that he did not in the least want. And though it was thought very odd that he should have chosen to be cheerful and busy here rather than occupied and miserable in London, I applaud the unworldliness of his wisdom. He settled also (which is a rarer wisdom) that he wanted to think, and, as you will see before this record of diary is out, he succeeded in so doing.
Many Mays and Junes I spent with him here, and six months ago now, while I was groping and choking in the fogs, he wrote to me, saying that the Villa Tiberiana, at which we had for years cast longing glances as at a castle in Spain, was to be let on lease. It was too big for him alone, but if I felt inclined to go shares in the rent, we might take it together. I sent an affirmative telegram, and sat stewing with anxiety till I received his favourable reply. So, when a fortnight ago I returned here, I made my return home not to Italy alone, but to my home in Italy.
The Villa Tiberiana, though not quite so imperial as it sounds, is one of the most “amiable dwellings.” It stands high on the hill-side above the huddled, picturesque little town of Alatri, and is approachable only by a steep cobbled path that winds deviously between other scattered houses and plots of vineyard. Having arrived at the piazza of the town, the carriage road goes no further, and you must needs walk, while your luggage is conveyed up by strapping female porters, whom on their arrival you reward with soldi and refresh with wine. Whitewashed and thick-built, two-storied and flat-roofed, it crouches behind the tall rubble wall of its garden that lies in terraces below it. A great stone-pine rears its whispering umbrella in the middle of this plot, and now in the May-time of the year there is to be seen scarcely a foot of the earth of its garden beds, so dense is the tapestry of flowers that lies embroidered over it. For here in the far south of Europe, the droughts of summer and early autumn render unpractical any horticultural legislation with a view to securing colour in your flower-beds all the year round. However much you legislated, you would never get your garden to be gay through July and August, and so, resigning yourself to emptiness then, you console yourself with an intoxication of blossom from March to June. And never was a garden so drunk with colour as is ours to-day; never have I seen so outrageous a riot. Nor is it in the garden-beds alone that rose and carnation and hollyhock and nasturtium and delphinium unpunctually but simultaneously sing and blaze together. The southern front of the house is hidden in plumbago and vines with green seed-pearl berries, and as for the long garden wall, it is literally invisible under the cloak of blue morning-glory that decks it as with a raiment from foundation to coping-stone. Every morning fresh battalions of blue trumpets deploy there as soon as the sun strikes it, and often as I have seen it thus, I cannot bring myself to believe that it is real; it is more like some amazing theatrical decoration. Beyond on the further side lies the orchard of fig and peach, and I observe with some emotion that the figs, like the lady in Pickwick, are swelling visibly.
Within, the house has assumed its summer toilet, which is another way of saying that it has been undressed; carpets and curtains have been banished; doors are latched back, and the air sweeps softly from end to end of it. A sitting-room that faces south has been dismantled, and its contents put in the big studio that looks northwards, and even in the height of summer, we hope, will not get over-hot, especially since a few days ago we had the roof whitewashed and thick matting hung over its one southern window. Breakfast and dinner, now that the true May weather has begun, we have on the terrace-top of the big cistern in the garden, roofed over between the pilasters of its pergola with trellis, through which the vineleaves wriggle and wrestle. But now at noon it is too hot in the garden, and to-day I found lunch ready in the square vaulted little dining-room, with Pasqualino bringing in macaroni and vine-leaf-stoppered decanter, and Francis, who refrained from bathing this morning owing to the Martha-cares of the household, debating with Seraphina (the cook) as to whether the plumbago ought not to be pruned. It has come right into the room, and, as Seraphina most justly remarks, it is already impossible to shut the window. But since we shall not need to shut the window for some months to come, I give my vote to support Francis, and suffer the plumbago to do exactly as it likes. So we are two to one, and Seraphina takes her defeat, wreathed in smiles, and says it is not her fault if burglars come. That is a poor argument, for there are no burglars in Alatri, and, besides, there is nothing to steal except the grand piano...
Just now social duties weigh rather heavily on Francis and me, for the British colony in Alatri consider that, as we have moved into a new house, they must behave to us as if we were new-comers, and have been paying formal visits. These civilities must be responded to, and we have had two house-warmings and are going to have a third and last to-day. The house-warmings should perhaps be described as garden-warmings, since we have tea on the terrace in great pomp, and then get cool in the house afterwards. Rather embarrassing incidents have occurred, as, for instance, when Miss Machonochie came to a garden-warming the day before yesterday. She is a red amiable Scotchwoman, with a prodigious Highland accent, which Francis, whom she has for years tried to marry, imitates to perfection. So perfect, indeed, is his mimicry of it, that when Miss Machonochie appeared and began to talk about the wee braw garden, Pasqualino, who was bringing out a fresh teapot, had to put it hurriedly down on the ground, and run back again into the kitchen, from which issued peal after peal of laughter. So overcome was he, that after a second attempt (Miss Machonochie being still full of conversation) he had to retire again, and Seraphina must serve us till Miss Machonochie went away. This she did not do for a long time, since, after just a little vermouth, she wanted no persuasion at all to sing a quantity of Scotch ditties about Bonnie Charlie and Loch Lomond, and other beautiful and interesting topics. Technically, I should say that she had one note in her voice, which she was in a great hurry to get on to and very loath to leave. This had an amazing timbre like a steam siren, and as I played her accompaniment for her, my left ear sang all the evening afterwards. But her accent was indubitably Highland, and Mrs. Macgregor declared she could smell the heather. I was glad of that, for I was afraid that what I smelled (it being now near dinner-time) was the fritura that Seraphina was preparing in the kitchen.
This island-life is the busiest sort of existence, though I suppose a stockbroker would say it was the laziest, and, in consequence, these social efforts give one a sense of rush that I have never felt in London. The whole of the morning is taken up with bathing (of which more presently), and on the way up you call at the post-office for papers and letters. The letters it is impossible to answer immediately, since there is so much to do, and the pile on my table grows steadily, waiting for a wet day. After lunch you read the papers, and then, following the example of the natives, who may be supposed to know the proper way of living in their own climate, you have a good siesta. After tea, the English habit of physical exercise asserts itself, and we walk or water the garden till dinner. After dinner it is, I take it, permissible to have a little relaxation, and we either play a game or two of picquet up here in the studio, or more often stroll down to the piazza and play in the café, or attend a thrilling cinematograph show. In the country it is natural to go to bed early, and, behold, it is to-morrow almost before you knew it was to-day. When it rains, or when the weather is cold, it is possible to do some work, and Francis asserts that he does an immense quantity during the winter. I daresay that is so; I should be the last person to quarrel with the statement, since he so amiably agrees that it is impossible to behave like that in the summer.
The mind is equally well occupied, for we always take down books to the bathing-place, and for the rest the affairs of the island, Pasqualino and his family, Seraphina and her family, the fact that Mrs. Macgregor has dismissed her cook, that Mr. Tarn has built a pergola, completely absorb the intellectual and speculative faculties. What happens outside the island seems not to matter at all. England, with its fogs and its fuss, is less real and much further away than the hazy shores of the mainland, where all that concerns us is the smoke of Vesuvius, which during the last week has been increasing in volume, and now stands up above the mountain like a huge stone-pine. The wiseacres shake their heads and prophesy an eruption, but che sarà, sarà–if it comes, it comes, and meantime it is a marvellous thing to see the red level rays at sunset turn the edges of the smoke-cloud into wreaths of rose-colour and crimson; the denser portions they are unable to pierce, and can but lay a wash of colour on them, through which the black shows like a thing of nightmare. In the calm weather, which we have been having, this stone-pine of smoke is reflected in the bay, and the great tree of vapour steals slowly across the water, nearer and nearer every day. The observatory reports tell us that its topmost wreaths are eight vertical miles away from the earth. Sometimes when it is quite calm here we see these tops torn by winds and blown about into fantastic foliage, but the solidity of the trunk remains untouched.
But Vesuvius is far away, twenty-five miles at the least, and here in this siren, lotus-eating island nothing across the sea really interests us. But island affairs, as I have said, are perfectly absorbing, and during this last fortnight we have been in vertiginous heights of excitement. Only yesterday occurred the finale of all this business, and Francis thinks with excellent reason, that he is accomplice to a felony. The person chiefly concerned was Luigi, nephew of our cook Seraphina, who till six months ago was valet, butler, major-domo, and gardener to Francis. Then, in a misguided moment, he thought to “better himself” by going as hall-boy to the Grand Hotel in Alatri. There were tips, no doubt, in the tourist season at the Grand Hotel, but there was also trouble. It happened like this.
From the day of the supposed crime the sympathy of the island generally was on the side of Luigi, in the fiery trials that awaited him. It was felt to be intolerable that a boy who had just changed into his best clothes, and had taken a carnation from one of the tables in the dining-room, and was actually going out of the hotel gate to spend the afternoon of the festa in the Piazza, should have been summarily ordered back by the porter, and commanded to show a fat white German gentleman, who was staying in the hotel, the way to the bathing-place at the Palazzo a mare, and carry his towels and bathing-dress for him, the latter of which included sandals, so that the fat white gentleman should not hurt his fat white toes on the shingle. This abominable personage had also preferred, in the unaccountable manner of foreigners, to go all the way on foot, instead of taking a victoria, which would have conveyed him three-quarters of the distance and saved much time. But he would go on his feet, and being very fat had walked at tortoise-pace along the dusty road, under a large green umbrella, perspiring profusely, and stopping every now and then to sit down. There was Luigi standing by, carrying the sandals and the bathing-dress and the towels, while all the time the precious moments of this holiday afternoon were slipping along, and the Piazza, where Luigi should have been (having been granted a half-holiday on account of the festa), was full of his young friends, male and female, all in their best clothes, conversing and laughing together, and standing about and smoking an occasional cigarette, in the orthodox fashion of a holiday afternoon. Then, after this interminable walk, during which the German gentleman kept asking the baffled Luigi a series of questions in an unknown tongue, and appeared singularly annoyed when the boy was unable to answer him except in a Tower-of-Babel manner, he drew three coppers from his pocket, and after a prolonged mental struggle, presented Luigi with two of them, as a reward for his services. He then told him that he could find his way up again alone, and having undressed, swam majestically off round the promontory of rock that enclosed the bathing-beach.
An hour afterwards Luigi, defrauded of half his holiday afternoon, returned to the gaiety and companionship of the Piazza, and recounted to an indignant audience this outrageous affair. But some time during the afternoon, Francis, looking out of his bedroom window after his siesta, thought he saw Luigi slipping across the garden of the Villa Tiberiana, and climbing down over the wall at the bottom. He says he was not sure, being still sleepy, and when he shouted Luigi’s name out of his window, there came no answer.
Luigi returned to the Grand Hotel in time to get into his livery again before dinner, and on entrance was summoned into the manager’s bureau, where he was confronted with his Teutonic taskmaster of the afternoon, and charged with having picked his pocket while he was bathing. A portfolio was missing, containing a note for a hundred liras, and this the German gentleman was gutturally certain he had on his person when he started off to bathe, and equally certain that he had lost when he came to dress for dinner. His certainty was partly founded on the fact that he had tipped the boy when they arrived at the Palazzo a mare, and to have tipped him he must have had his money in his pocket. In answer, Luigi absolutely denied the charge, and then made a dreadful mistake by suggesting that the Signor had a hole in his pocket, through which the portfolio had slipped. This was quite the most unfortunate thing he could have said, for, as the German gentleman instantly demonstrated, the hole in his pocket was undoubtedly there. But how, so he overpoweringly urged, could Luigi have known there was a hole there, unless he had been examining his pockets? And an hour later poor Luigi, with gyves upon his wrists, was ignominiously led through the Piazza, all blazing with acetylene lights and resonant with the blare of the band, and was clapped into prison to await the formal charge.
Arrived there, he was searched, and a similar examination was made in his room at his mother’s house, where he went to sleep at night, but nothing that ever so remotely resembled a German portfolio or a note for a hundred liras was found, and he still doggedly denied his guilt. Then, since nothing incriminating could be got out of him, the key was turned, while through the small high-grated window came the sound of the band in the Piazza for this festa night. Later, by standing on his board bed, he could see the fiery segment of the aspiring path of the rockets, as they ascended from the peak above the Piazza, and listen to the echo of their explosions flap and buffet against the cliffs of Monte Gennaro. But it was from prison that he saw and heard.
Outside in the Piazza the tragic history of his incarceration formed a fine subject for talk, and public opinion, which cheerfully supposed him guilty, found extenuating circumstances that almost amounted to innocence. The provocation of being obliged to spend the best part of a festa afternoon in walking down to the sea with a fat white Tedesco was really immense, and the reward of twopence for those lost hours of holiday was nothing less than an insult. What wonder if Luigi for a moment mislaid his honesty, what wonder if when so smooth-faced and ready-made a temptation came, he just yielded to it for a second? Certainly it was wrong to steal, everyone knows that–Mamma mia, what a rocket, what a bellezza of stars!–but it was also primarily wrong to dock a jolly boy of his promised half-holiday. No wonder, when the German signor–ah, it was the same, no doubt, as was sick in Antonio’s carriage the other day, and refused to pay for a new rug–no wonder, when that fat-head, that pumpkin (for who but a pumpkin would carry a hundred liras about with him?) swam away round the corner of those rocks, that Luigi’s hand just paid a visit to his great pockets to see if he was as poor as that miserable tip of twopence seemed to say! Then he found the portfolio, and turned bitter with the thought of the quattro soldi which was all that had been given him for his loss of the half-holiday. Ah, look! Was it really a wheel like that on which Santa Caterina had been bound? How she must have spun round! What giddiness! What burning! A steadfast soul not to have consented to worship Apollo; no wonder that Holy Church made a saint of her. But what could Luigi have done with the portfolio and the note for a hundred liras? He had been searched and on him was nothing found; his room had been searched, but there was nothing there. Was it possible that he was innocent, il povero? Could the sick German gentleman really have lost his foolish pocket-book by natural means as he came up from his bathe? It might be worth while taking a walk there to-morrow, always keeping a peeled eye on the margin of the path. It was possible, after all, that he had lost his pocket-book all by himself, without aid from Luigi, for the hole in his pocket was admitted, and shown to the manager of the Grand Hotel. But then there was Luigi’s fatal knowledge of the hole in his pocket. That was very bad; that looked like guilt. If only the boy had held his tongue and not said that fatal thing! He only suggested that there was a hole in his pocket? No, no; he said there was a hole in his pocket, didn’t he? What a lesson to keep the tongue still! Luigi had always a lot to learn about keeping the tongue still, for who will soon forget the dreadful things he shouted out last winter at the priest, his mother’s cousin’s uncle, when he had smacked his head? They were quite true, too, like the hole in the pocket... Ah, there is the great bomb. Pouf! How it echoes! So the fireworks are over! Buona notte! Buona notte!
All this, while lounging in the Piazza, listening to the band and watching the fireworks, I heard from the tobacconist and the barber and a few other friends. I coupled with this information that which Francis told me as we strolled up homewards again, namely, that he thought he had seen Luigi that afternoon slipping through the garden. He was not sure about it, so leaving it aside, he recalled a few facts about Luigi when he was in his service. He used to hurry over his house-work always, for he preferred his rôle of gardener to all others, and used to wander among the flower-beds, making plants comfortable, and giving this one a drop of water, and that a fresh piece of stick to lean on. Then he would make a mud pie by turning on the cistern tap, and plant verbenas in it, or in more mysterious fashion made caches in a hole behind loose masonry in the cistern wall. Francis has got a just appreciation of the secrecy and rapture of making caches, and never let Luigi know that he was aware of this hidden treasure. But after Luigi had gone home to his mother’s of an evening, he would yield to curiosity and see what the boy had put there. Sometimes there would be a matchbox, or a pilfered cigarette, or a piece of string carefully wrapped up in paper... And now poor Luigi was behind his grated window, and Seraphina, with deepest sarcasm, said that this was what he called bettering himself. He would have done better to have done worse and remained at the Villa Tiberiana in the service of the Signori.
But suddenly next day, like a change in the weather coming from a cloudless sky, a fresh train of thought was suggested by the Luigi-episode, and the mention of the lottery, and how the various incidents and personages bore on the luck of numbers. On the instant Luigi and all he had done or not done ceased to interest anybody except in so far as the events were concerned with the science and interpretation of numbers in the lottery as set forth in the amazing volume called “Smorfia.” There you will find what any numeral means, so that should an earthquake occur or an eclipse, the wise speculator looks out “earthquake” or “eclipse” in “Smorfia,” and at the next drawing of the National Lottery or the lottery at Naples backs the numbers to which these significations are attached. As it happened, no event of striking local interest had occurred in Alatri since, in April last, the carpenter in the Corso Agosto had unsuccessfully attempted to cut his throat with a razor, after successfully smothering his aunt. This had been the last occasion on which there was clear guidance as to the choice of numbers in the Naples lottery, and nobody of a sporting turn of mind who had the smallest sense of the opportunities life offers had failed to back No. 17, which among other things means “aunt,” and numbers which signified “razor,” “throat,” “blood” and “bolster.” Nor had “Smorfia,” the dictionary that gives this useful information, disappointed its adherents, for Carmine, Pasqualino’s brother, had backed the numbers that meant “throat,” “razor,” “carpenter,” “aunt” and “Sunday,” the last being the day on which those distressing events occurred, and went to bed that night to dream of the glories which awaited him who nominated a quinterno secco. (This means that you back five numbers, all of which come out in the order named.) Once, so succulent tradition said, a baker at the Marina had accomplished this enviable feat, after which Alatri saw him no more, for his reward was a million francs, a marquisate and an estate in Calabria, where soon afterwards he was murdered for the sake of his million. This stimulating page of history was not wholly repeated in the case of Carmine and the carpenter’s aunt, but by his judicious selection he had certainly reaped two hundred francs where he had only sowed five. The doctor also, who had attended the abortive suicide, had done very well by backing salient features of the tragedy, and astute superstition had, on the whole, been adequately rewarded.
Next day, accordingly, the Piazza seethed with excitement as to the due application of the Luigi episode to the enchanting Lorelei of the lottery. It had magnificent and well-marked features; “Smorfia” shouted with opportunities. First of all, there was Luigi himself to be backed, and, as everyone knew, “boy” was the number 2. Next there was the German gentleman. (“Michele, turn up ‘German.'”) Then there was “pocket” and “hole” and “portfolio” and “bathe.” All these were likely chances. Other aspects of the affair struck the serious mind. “Festa” was connected with it; so, too, was “prison,” where now Luigi languished. Then there was “theft” and “denial.” Here were abundant materials for a quinterno secco, when once the initial difficulty of selecting the right numbers was surmounted. And marquisates and millions hovered on the horizon, ready to move up and descend on Alatri.
Among those who were thus interested in the affaire Luigi from the purely lottery point of view, there was no more eager student than the boy’s mother. Maria was a confirmed and steadfast gambler, of that optimistic type that feels itself amply rewarded for the expenditure of ten liras on a series of numbers that prove quite barren of reward, if at the eleventh attempt she gained five. She had been to see her son in prison, had wept a little and consoled him a little, had smuggled a packet of cigarettes into his hand, and had reminded him that the same sort of thing, though far worse, had happened to his father, with whom be peace. For at the most Luigi would get but a couple of months in prison, owing to his youth (and the cool of the cell was really not unpleasant in the hot weather), and the severity of his sentence would doubtless be much mitigated if he would only say where he had hidden the portfolio and the hundred liras. But nothing would induce Luigi to do this; he still firmly adhered to his innocence, and repeated ad nauseam his unfortunate remark that there was a hole in the fat German’s pocket.
Expostulation being useless, and Luigi being fairly comfortable, Maria left him, and on her way home gave very serious consideration to the features of the case which she intended to back at the lottery. She had ascertained that Luigi had his new clothes on (which was the sort of flower on which that butterfly Chance alighted), and on looking up the number of “new clothes, novelty, freshness,” found that it was 8. Then, on further study of “Smorfia,” she learned that the word “thief” was represented by No. 28, and following her own train of thought, discovered that No. 88 meant “liar.” Here was a strange thing, especially when, with an emotional spasm, she remembered that “boy” was No. 2. Here was the whole adventure nutshelled for her. For was there not a boy (2) who put on his new clothes (8), showed himself a thief (28) and subsequently a liar (88)? 2 and 8 covered the whole thing, and almost throttled by the thread of coincidence, she hurried down to the lottery-office, aflame with the premonition of some staggering success, and invested fifteen liras in the numbers 2, 8, 28, 88.
She lingered in the Piazza a little, after laying this touching garland on the altar of luck, to receive the condolences of her friends on Luigi’s wickedness, and had a kind word thrown to her by Signor Gelotti, the great lawyer, who had come over for a week’s holiday to his native island. Ah, there was a man! Why, if he got you into the witness-box, he could make you contradict yourself before you knew you had opened your mouth. Give him a couple of minutes at you, and he would make you say that the man you had described as having a black coat and a moustache had no coat at all and whiskers, and that, though you had met him at three o’clock precisely in the Piazza, you had just informed the Court that at that hour you were having a siesta in your own house. Luigi’s father had at one time been in his service, and though he had left it, handcuffed, for a longer period of imprisonment than his son was threatened with, Lawyer Gelotti had always a nod and a smile for his widow, and to-day a pleasant little joke about heredity. Ah, if Lawyer Gelotti would only take up the case! He would muddle everybody up finely, and in especial that fat German fellow, who, like his beastly, swaggering, truculent race, was determined to press home his charge. But Lawyer Gelotti, as all the world knew, never held up his forefinger at a witness under a thousand liras. What a forefinger. It made you tell two more lies in order to escape from each lie that you had already told.
Three days passed, while still Luigi languished behind bars, and then a sudden thrill of excitement emanating from the offices of the lottery swept over the island. For the Naples lottery had been drawn, and the five winning numbers were issued, which in due order of their occurrence were 2, 8, 28, 4, 91. Alatri grew rosy with prospective riches, for in this affaire Luigi it would have been slapping the face of the Providence that looks after lotteries not to have backed No. 2 (boy) and No. 28 (thief). At least ten dutiful folk had done that. But–che peccato–why did we not all back No. 8, as Luigi’s mother had done, for we all knew that Luigi must have had his new clothes on, as did every boy on a festa? What a thing it is to use rightly the knowledge you possess! The lucky woman! She had won a terno, for the first three numbers she backed came out in the order she nominated. Never was such a thing seen since the days of the classical baker! Why, her terno would be worth three thousand liras at least, which was next door to the title of a marchioness. But No. 91 now: what does No. 91 mean? Quick, turn it up in “Smorfia”! Who has a “Smorfia?” Ernesto, the tobacconist, of course, but he is a mean man, and will not lend his “Smorfia” to any who does not buy a packet of cigarettes. Never mind, let us have both; a cigarette is always a cigarette. There! No. 91! What does No. 91 signify? Dio! What a lot of meanings! “The man in the moon”... “the hairs on the tail of an elephant”... “an empty egg-shell.”... Who ever heard the like? There is no sense in such a number! And No. 4–what does No. 4 mean? Why, the very first meaning of all is “truth.” There is a curious thing when we all thought that Luigi was telling lies! And No. 4, look you, was the fourth number that came out. It would have been simple to conjecture that No. 4 would be No. 4. Pity that we did not think of that last week. But it is easy to be wise after the event, as the bridegroom said.
The talk on the Piazza rose to ever loftier peaks of triumph as fresh beneficiaries of Luigi, who had made a few liras over “boy” and “thief,” joined the chattering groups. He had done very well for his friends, had poor Luigi, though “pocket” and “portfolio” had brought in nothing to their backers. And it was like him–already Luigi was considered directly responsible for these windfalls–it was like him to have turned up that ridiculous No. 91, with its man in the moon, and its empty egg-shell. Luigi, the gay ragazzo, loved that extravagant sort of joke, of which the point was that there was no point, but which made everybody laugh, as when he affixed a label, “Three liras complete,” to the fringe of Donna Margherita’s new shawl from Naples as she walked about the Piazza, showing it off and never guessing what so many smiles meant. But No. 4, which stood for “truth,” it was strange that No. 4 should have turned up, and that nobody dreamed of supposing that Luigi was telling the truth. His mother, for all her winnings, must be finely vexed that she had not trusted her son’s word, and backed “truth,” instead of putting her money on “liar.” Why, if she backed “truth,” she would have gained a quaterno, and God knows how many liras! Ah, there she is! Let us go and congratulate the good soul. Her winnings will make up to her for having a son as well as a husband who was a thief.
But Luigi’s mother was in a hot haste. She had put on all her best clothes, not, as was at first conjectured, because in the affluence that had come to her they had been instantly degraded into second-best, but because she was making a business call on Lawyer Gelotti. She was not one to turn her broad back on her own son–though it is true that she had confidently selected No. 88 with its signification of “liar”–and if the satanic skill of Lawyer Gelotti could get Luigi off, that skill was going to be invoked for his defence. A hundred thanks, a hundred greetings to everybody, but she had no time for conversation just now. Lawyer Gelotti must be seen at once, if he was at home; if not, she must just sit on his doorstep and wait for him. Yes; she had heard that a thousand liras was his fee, and he should have it, if that was right and proper. There was plenty more where they came from! And this bravura passage pleased the Piazza; it showed the gaiety and swagger proper to a lady of property.
In due course followed the event which Alatri was quite prepared for when it knew that Lawyer Gelotti was engaged on Luigi’s behalf, and that the full blast of his hurricane of interrogations would be turned on the fat German gentleman. Never was there such a tearing to shreds of apparently stout evidence; its fragments were scattered to all points of the compass like the rocket-stars which Luigi had watched from his grated window. The Tedesco was forced to allow that he had not looked in his pockets, to see if his portfolio was safe, till full three hours after he had returned from his bathe. What had he done in those three hours? He did not know? Then the Court would guess! (That was nasty!) Again he had told the manager of the hotel that he knew he had his portfolio with him when he went to bathe, because he had tipped the boy. Ah, that wonderful tip! Was it, or was it not twopence? Yes: Lawyer Gelotti thought so! Twopence for carrying a basket of towels and a bathing costume and two elephant sandals all over the island! Tante grazie! But was it really his custom to carry coppers in his portfolio? Did he not usually carry pence loose in a pocket? Had he ever to his knowledge carried pennies in his portfolio? Would he swear that he had? Come, sir, do not keep the Court waiting for a simple answer! Very good! This magnificent tip did not come out of the portfolio at all, as he had previously affirmed.
Lawyer Gelotti had a tremendous lunch at this stage of the proceedings, and tackled his German afterwards with renewed vigour. Was it credible that a man so careful–let us say, so laudably careful–with his money as to make so miserly a tip, would have taken a portfolio containing a hundred liras down to the bathing-place, and left it in his clothes? And what was the number of this note? Surely this prudent, this economical citizen of Germany, a man so scrupulously careful of his money as to tip on this scale, would have taken the precaution to have registered the number of his note. Did he not usually do so? Yes. So Lawyer Gelotti suspected. But in this case, very strangely, he had not. That was odd; that was hard to account for except on the supposition that there was no such note. And this portfolio, about which it seemed really impossible to get accurate information? It was shabby, was it, and yet an hour before we had been told it was new! And who else had ever set eyes on this wonderful portfolio, this new and ragged portfolio with its note of unknown number? Nobody; of course, nobody.
There followed a most disagreeable forensic picture of the fat German gentleman, while above him, as a stained glass window looks down on Mephistopheles, Lawyer Gelotti proceeded to paint Luigi’s portrait in such seraphic lines and colour that Maria, brimming with emotion, felt that sixteen years ago she had given birth to a saint and had never known it till now. Here was a boy who had lost his father–and Gelotti’s voice faltered as he spoke of this egregious scamp–who from morning till night slaved to support his stricken mother, and through all the self-sacrificing days of his spotless boyhood never had suspicion or hint of sin come near him. The Court had heard how blithely and eagerly he had gone down to the Palazzo a mare–it was as well the Court had not heard his blithe remarks as he passed through the Piazza–on the afternoon of what should have been his holiday. What made him so gay? Gentlemen, the thought that inspired him was that by his service he might earn a franc or perhaps two francs, since it was a festa, to bring home to his aged parent. And what was his reward? Twopence, twopence followed by this base and unfounded and disproved and diabolical accusation. Prison had been his reward; he languished in a dungeon while all Alatri kept holiday and holy festival. As for the admission of which the prosecution had made so much, namely, that Luigi had said that the German gentleman had a hole in his pocket, how rejoiced was Lawyer Gelotti that he had done so. It was suggested that Luigi must have searched his clothes, and found there the apocryphal portfolio and the note that had no number. But it was true that Luigi was intimately acquainted with those voluminous trousers. But how and why and when?... And Lawyer Gelotti paused, while Luigi’s friends held their breath, not having the slightest idea of the answer.
Lawyer Gelotti wiped his eyes and proceeded. This industrious saintly lad, the support of his mother’s declining years, was hall-boy at the Grand Hotel. Numerous were the duties of a hall-boy, and Lawyer Gelotti would not detain them over the complete catalogue. He would only tell them that while others slept, while opulent German gentlemen dreamed about portfolios, the hall-boy was busy, helping his cousin, the valet of the first floor, to brush the clothes of those who so magnificently rewarded the services rendered them. Inside and outside were those clothes brushed: not a speck of dust remained when the supporter of his mother had done with them. They were turned inside and out, they were shaken, they were brushed again, they were neatly folded. In this way, gentlemen, and in no other came the knowledge of the hole in the pocket...
Dio mio! Who spoke of fireworks?
That evening Luigi came up to the villa to receive Francis’s congratulations on his acquittal and departed through the garden. Next morning Francis, strolling about, came to the wall of the cistern, where Luigi’s cache used to lurk behind the loosened masonry. The garden-bed just below it looked as if it had been lately disturbed, and with a vague idea in his mind he began digging with his stick in it. Very soon he came upon some shredded fragments of leather buried there... I am rather afraid Francis is an accomplice.
We have had a month of the perfect weather, days and nights of flawless and crystalline brightness, with the sun marching serene all day across the empty blue, and setting at evening unveiled by cloud or vapour into the sea, and a light wind pouring steadily as a stream from the north. But one morning there gathered a cloud on the southern horizon no bigger than a man’s hand, which the weather-wise say betokens a change. On that day, too, there appeared in the paper that other cloud which presaged the wild tempest of blood and fire. Here in this secure siren isle we hardly gave a thought to it. We just had it hot at lunch and cold at dinner, and after that we thought of it no more. It seemed to have disappeared, even as the column of smoke above Vesuvius disappeared a few weeks ago.
It had been a very hot clear morning, and since, the evening before, it had been necessary to tell Pasqualino that the wages he received, the food he ate, and the room he occupied were not given him gratis by a beneficent Providence in order that he should have complete leisure to make himself smart and spend his whole time with his Caterina, he had been very busy sweeping and embellishing the house, while it was still scarcely light, in order to put into practice the fervency of his reformed intentions. He had come into my bedroom while dawn was yet grey, on tiptoe, in order not to awaken me, and taken away the step-ladder which he needed. As a matter of fact, I was already awake, and so his falling downstairs or throwing the step-ladder downstairs a moment afterwards with a crash that would have roused the dead did not annoy but only interested me, and I wondered what he wanted the step-ladder for, and whether it was much broken. Soon the sound of muffled hammering began from the dining-room below, which showed he was very busy, and the beaming face with which he called me half an hour later was further evidence of his delighted and approving conscience. It was clear that he could hardly refrain from telling me what he had been doing, but the desire to surprise and amaze me prevailed, and he went off again with a broad grin. Soon I came downstairs, and discovered that he had woven a great wreath of flowering myrtle, gay with bows of red riband, and had nailed it up over the door into the dining-room. A cataract of whitewash and plaster had been dislodged in the fixing of it, which he was then very busy sweeping up, and he radiantly told me that he had been on the hill-side at half-past four to gather materials for his decoration. Certainly it looked very pretty, and when the plaster and whitewash was cleared away, you could not tell that any damage had been done to the fabric of the house. Soon after Caterina came in with the week’s washing balanced in a basket on her head, and Pasqualino took her through to show her his wreath. She highly approved, and he kissed her in the passage. I may remark that she is sixteen and he seventeen, so there is plenty of time for him to do a little work as domestic servant before he devotes himself to Caterina. Of all the young things in the island these two are far the fairest, and I have a great sympathy with Pasqualino when he neglects his work and goes strutting before Caterina. But I intend that he shall do his work all the same.
There is no such delicious hour in this sea-girt south as that of early morning ushering in a hot day. The air is full of a warm freshness. The vigour of sea and starlight has renewed it, and though for several weeks now no drop of rain has fallen, the earth has drunk and been refreshed by the invisible waters of the air. The stucco path that runs along the southern face of the house, still shadowed by the stone-pine, glistened with heavy dews, and the morning-glory along the garden walls, drenched with moisture, was unfolding a new galaxy of wet crumpled blossoms. Yet in spite of the freshness of the early hour, there was a certain hint of oppression in the air, and strolling along the lower terrace, I saw the cloud of which I have spoken, already forming on the southern horizon. But it looked so small, so lost, in the vast dome of blue that surrounded it, that I scarcely gave it a second thought.
Presently afterwards Francis and I set out to walk down to the bathing-place. We stopped in the Piazza to order a cab to come down to the point where the road approaches nearest to the beach from which we bathed, for the midday walk up again would clearly be intolerable in the heat that was growing greater every moment, and set out through narrow ways between the vineyards, in order to avoid the dust of the high road. The light north wind, which for the past month had given vigour to the air, had altogether fallen, and not a breath disturbed the polished surface of the bay, where twenty miles away Naples and the hills above it were unwaveringly mirrored on the water. So clear was it that you could see individual houses there, so still that the hair-like stalks of the campanulas which frothed out of the crevices of the walls stood stiff and motionless, as if made of steel. Above us the terraced vineyards rose in tiers to the foot of the sheer cliffs of Monte Gennaro, fringed with yellow broom; below they stretched, in an unbroken staircase down to the roofs of the Marina, to which at midday comes the steamer from Naples carrying our post and a horde of tourists who daily, for the space of three or four hours, invade the place. Still downwards we went between vines and lemon orchards, and an occasional belt of olive-trees, till the bay opened before us again and the flight of steps that led to the enchanted beach of the Palazzo a mare.
Here on the edge of the sea the Emperor Tiberius built one of his seven island palaces, but in the course of centuries this northern shore has subsided, so that the great halls that once stood on the margin of the bay are partly submerged, and the waves wash up cubes of green and red marble from tesselated pavements that once formed the floors of the palace. Portions of the cliff-side are faced with the brickwork of its walls, from the fissures in which sprout spurge and tufts of valerian, and tumbled fragments of its foundations lie about on the beach and project into the water, in lumps twenty feet thick of compounded stone and mortar. The modern historian has been busy lately with Tiberius, devoting to his memory pailfuls of antiquarian whitewash, and here, where tradition says there lay the scene of infamous orgies, we are told now to reconstruct a sort of Sunday-school presided over by an aged and benevolent emperor, who, fatigued with affairs of state, found here an innocent and rural retreat, where he could forget his purple, and refresh himself with the beauties of Nature. Whatever the truth of that may be, there is no doubt that he built this palace in a most delectable place, and I sincerely hope that he was as happy in it as I am every morning among its ruins.
At one end of this little bay project huge masses of the palace walls, forming the promontory round which the fat and thwarted German swam, the day that he brought Luigi down to carry his clothes and his towels and his shoes. These latter were to enable him to cross the shingly beach, which, when the feet are unaccustomed to it, is undeniably painful. Along it, and by the edge of this tideless water, are pockets and streaks of grey sand, and to-day the sea lies as motionless as if it was the surface of some sheltered lake. Not a ripple disturbs it, not a breath of wind ruffles its surface. Standing knee-deep in it and looking down, you might think, but for a certain fullness and liquid clarity in the pebbles that lie at the bottom, that there was no water there at all, so closely does its translucence approach to invisibility. But it is impossible to stand dry-skinned there for long, so hotly does the sun strike on the shoulders, and soon I fall forward in it, and lie submerged there like a log, looking subaqueously at the bright diaper of pebbles, with a muffled thunder of waters in my ears, longing to have a hundred limbs in order to get fuller contact with this gladdest and loveliest of all the creatures of God.
But even in this hedonistic bathing one’s ridiculous mind makes tasks for itself, and it has become an affair of duty with me to swim backwards and forwards twice to a certain rock that lies some three hundred yards away. There (for Luigi is not alone in this island in the matter of caches) I have what you may really call an emporium stowed away in a small seaweed-faced nook which I believe to be undiscoverable. If you know exactly where that nook is (it lies about two feet above the surface of the water), and put your hand through the seaweed at exactly the right spot, you will find a tin box containing (i) a box of matches, (ii) a handful of cigarettes, (iii
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