Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 10/Beppo, the conscript - Part 13

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When Lisa was left alone with Giulia, at the corner of the little lane leading to the osteria frequented by the contadini from the Santa Lucia part of the country, in the manner that has been described at the close of the last book of this history, she was not a little frightened at the state in which Giulia was, and not a little indignant against Beppo for his conduct. She was not aware, it will be remembered, how much reason he had for being angry. She knew nothing, in the first place, of the scene under the cypress, which alone gave Beppo any right to tax Giulia with falsehood; nor, in the second place, had she witnessed the unfortunate scene in the great hall of la Dossi's house, having been more agreeably occupied herself the while in that slumbering lady's quiet sitting-room; nor could she guess that Beppo's mind had been poisoned by the malicious insinuations, to which what he had himself seen lent such unlucky confirmation.

Giulia had swooned, and, to Lisa's great terror, did not recover herself for some minutes. Fainting fits are not so common on the shores of the Adriatic as they are in some other latitudes, and the nature of them, consequently, is not so well understood. Lisa feared that her friend was dying, killed by Beppo's cruel words!

The two girls were on their way from the palazzo publico—where poor Giulia had already received a shock from the announcement of Beppo's bad number, which, despite all her efforts, she had been unable to conceal from Lisa—to the house of la Signora Dossi, when they had met Beppo on his way to his inn. The spot was an unfrequented one; and today, when everybody in the city was in the great square before the palazzo publico, it was absolutely solitary. There was not a human being within sight or within call. It was a great comfort to Giulia as soon as she recovered her senses; but it considerably increased little Lisa's embarrassment and distress in the meantime. She hung over her, calling to her again and again by her name in increasing terror, and imploring her to answer her, or at least make some sign, if she could not speak.

At last the colour began to come back into her ghastly pale cheeks, and she opened her eyes. After wearily and languidly looking round her for a moment or two she said:

"Oh yes! I remember it all now! Lisa, dear, how long have I been asleep? Why did you not wake me up? Did I fall down, or how was it?"

"Yes, dear, you fell down! And, oh me! I was so frightened! I thought you were dead or dying! Do you think you can stand up? Do you feel ill?"

"I can get up now," said Giulia, doing so as she spoke by the help of Lisa's hand.

"Are you ill, dear?"

"I feel very strange—much as if I had been stunned. But I am better now; I can walk home I think, though I feel a little giddy."

"Lean on me, dear! It will be a long time before I can forgive Signor Beppo, I can tell him. E proprio da contadino!" said Lisa, using the townsfolk's usual expression for signifying anything bearish, or unmannered or ignorant.

"Ah! now it all comes back to me!" said Giulia, with a long-drawn sigh. "Ah, yes! now I remember it all! Poor Beppo!"

"Poor Beppo davvero! He ought to be ashamed of himself! I never heard of a man behaving in such a way. To say such horrid words!"

"Yes, Lisa dear, they were very dreadful words to hear; but—but—but it is not all his fault."

"It is true, he had just drawn a bad number, and no doubt he was much put about. But that's no excuse for treating a girl as he did you!"

"Yes, he drew a bad number; and he won't like to leave the country; poor Beppo! but—but that was not all that vexed him, Lisa."

"Let what would vex him, he had no business to speak as he did!"

"He said I was false and worthless! But I have not been false!" sobbed poor Giulia, and the tears began to overflow her eyes.

"False! how should you be false? I have been hearing any time this two years from him of his love for you, and how you never would listen to him, nor look at him! What business can he have to talk about falseness then, I should like to know? I was all in his favour, and hoped you and he might come together,—mainly because I didn't want him myself, as you know, dear! But now, upon my word, I think you had better listen to the Corporal. Signor Giocopo says he is as good a little man as ever stepped, and will have a snug little bit of land of his own when his uncle dies."

"Nonsense, Lisa;—what nonsense you are talking. You can't really think that there can ever be anything serious between Corporal Tenda and me! He has no more thought of it than I have."

"Well! I am sure I don't see why you should not, nor why he should not. My belief is that he thinks a great deal about you in serious earnest."

"Oh, don't, Lisa, don't say such things; I don't like it!"

"Why not? If there was nothing between you and the Corporal, what was it put Signor Beppo into such a dreadful passion? And why did you say it was not all his fault? Whose fault was it, then?"

"Why,—Corporal Tenda's fault!" said Giulia, blushing a little and speaking with some hesitation. "He will go on in such a way! And Beppo made me angry that day. And I spoke unkindly to him," said Giulia; and the tears again ran down her cheeks, and her voice was broken by suppressed sobbing; "—and when the Corporal laughed at him, I laughed too; and I could have knocked my head against the wall afterwards. And I hate Corporal Tenda, Lisa!"

"I am sure you don't seem to hate him, Giulia! What is he always coming to the house for? And why do you let him come into the kitchen, and talk and laugh and go on?" said Lisa, the last phrase having in similar context, it will be observed, the force of an "et cetera," and being capable of a very extended significance.

"How can I help it?" replied Giulia, not without a certain amount of self-consciousness, which imparted a degree of embarrassment to her manner, and a little extra colour to her cheeks. "He will go on in such a way, and he makes me laugh in spite of myself; and he is so different, you know, from our own paesani (the people of our village); and Beppo does not understand such ways; and—and—what could I do, you know, Lisa dear? Could I seem for all the world as if I was breaking my heart, because I had been sent away from Bella Luce, and I sent away because they were afraid that I—that I should listen to Beppo? Could I now, Lisa dear? And Don Evandro himself told me the night before I came away" (here a pause, while certain other reminiscences connected with that same night caused a little half-suppressed but audible sob, not perfectly intelligible to Lisa)—"the night before I came away, that I was not to shut myself up like a nun, but was to make acquaintance with any people that fell in my way; and—and—and that's all I did, you know, Lisa!"

"Any way, let Signor Beppo have been pleased or not pleased with your knowing the Corporal, he had no business to speak in that way, seeing that he never had any right to think that you cared about him!" said Lisa, still indignant at the way she had seen poor Giulia treated. "And I, like a fool, to go telling him that you took on so when he drew the bad number! I don't wonder you were vexed at me for saying so!"

"But, Lisa dear—come in just a moment." They had, as Lisa was speaking, reached the great entrance of the Bollandini palace. "Just come up-stairs a moment; I want—I want to speak to you."

So the two girls went up the great stairs together, and sat down on the stone window-seat of the large window at right angles with the door of la Dossi's apartment, by which the staircase was lighted. The great staircase was as silent and as solitary as the grave, and la Dossi was doubtless busy in superintending the progress of her casseroles.

"Look here," continued Giulia, who had taken her pocket-handkerchief from her pocket, and busied her hands and eyes with folding it and refolding it on her lap, "Lisa dear. You must not be too hard on Beppo. I—suppose he thought that—that I was different from when we parted at Bella Luce."

"Different! How different? If you had always refused to listen to him, why should you not be free to listen as much as you pleased to the Corporal or to anybody else?"

There is nothing so provoking in some circumstances as a confidant who will see nothing but the plain logical meaning of what is said to them. Lisa would be so deplorably reasonable. Giulia could not fold her handkerchief to her satifaction. Yet it was not for want of giving all her eyes to the operation. She tried again and again; and even her shoulders seemed to writhe and twist themselves with the difficulty of the task. Presently, too, her foot began to beat the pavement with nervous impatience. The handkerchief would not get folded right.

"But—perhaps—Beppo—thought—that—thought—that—I did care for him!" and each word came as if it had been squeezed out of her by some mechanical means that forced out a little panting groan with it.

"But the question is, what right had he to think so?" said the pitilessly logical Lisa.

"And—and you said just now, Lisa, yourself, that I did not seem to hate Corporal Tenda."

"And why should you hate him? He is a very nice little man."

"And Beppo, perhaps, thought I seemed not to hate him—though I do! I do, Lisa!"

"And what if Beppo did think so? What right has he to object, I should like to know, if you liked the Corporal ever so much?"

"Because I told him once, Lisa, that—that—I—hated—all—men!"

"Meaning him in particular, of course. That is one way for a girl to tell a man that she cannot love him. That don't bind her, I suppose, always to hate all the men she ever sees."

"But I told him, Lisa,"—and here the little panting groans became out-and-out sobs, and the difficulty with the handkerchief became so complicated that the fingers began to twitch and jerk at it in impatient desperation,—"I told him that I did not hate him!"

"Giulia! you told him that you hated all other men, and did not hate him. Oh, Giulia! that seems to me very like the same thing as telling him that you did love him."

Then, at last, the flood-gates were opened, and the great pent-up deeps of poor Giulia's soul poured themselves forth.

"And I do!" she cried. "I do! I do! I do love him! I do love him better than all the world beside! And oh, Lisa, Lisa! I am so miserable—so very, very miserable. And I can do nothing but make misery for him! I could have kissed his feet when he was saying those dreadful things in the street, I could. Oh, Lisa! you don't know how good he is, and how true! And he thinks me false and worthless! Oh, me! oh, me! what shall I do? what shall I do? Oh, Lisa! I shall die! I shall break my heart!"

"And you do not care anything, then, for the Corporal?" said Lisa, much perplexed, but persisting in drawing her logical inferences, and putting two and two together.

"Lisa!" cried Giulia, turning on her with the air of an enraged tigress; "Lisa! how can you? I would tear him limb from limb, if it would do Beppo a service, or make him know that I was not false!"

"But why not tell him so, then? Why did you make him think, for these two years past, that you did not care for him?"

"What else could? do? And he rich, and his father's heir! And I living there upon their charity! And all of them watching me from morning to night to see if I so much as looked at him! To be told that I paid their charity by snaring the love of their son, because he was rich! My heart is breaking, Lisa—it is! but I would rather it should break, twenty times over, than live to hear that said. I wish I could die, Lisa! I wish I could die! But I am as strong as a horse!" she said, shaking her head, and stretching out, as she spoke, her two magnificently rounded and moulded arms in front of her, and gazing on them ruefully. "I wish I was tisica, and could die! Then Beppo might be told afterwards that I was not false, but loved him, oh, so dearly, so dearly! And then he would be free to forget me, and marry some rich wife, according to his father's will."

"But if you as good as told him that you loved him," persisted Lisa.

"But I did not. I told him there could never be any love between us: I told him that I would never love him. And now, must I not do all I can to make him believe me, and show him that I was in earnest? Must not I all the more make him think that I do not care for him, if I let him see how much I did care when I left Bella Luce? But it is very, very hard."

"I should tell him that I loved him," said Lisa.

"I cannot do it, Lisa. And you would not, if you had heard and seen the sneers and hints and all the cruel words that I have heard. I could not do it to save my soul. You will keep my secret, Lisa?" she cried suddenly, half getting up, turning towards her companion, and seizing her hand in her own: "you will keep my secret?"

"Of course I will, Giulia. Though I think you are wrong, your secret is safe."

"You promise—swear to me that you will breathe to no living soul what I have told you. I could not help telling you, because you were blaming Beppo, when it is I who ought to be blamed—only I."

"I swear to you that I will tell no one, unless you some day give me leave," replied Lisa.

"Ah! that time will never, never come in this world!" said Giulia, sighing heavily. "I must go in, or la Dossi will be wondering what has become of me. Are my eyes very red?"

"Yes, very; and you look like a ghost. You had better wash your eyes before you go to her; and tell her that the heat of the hall where the drawing was knocked you up. Good bye, dear! I shall see you again soon—perhaps this evening."

"Thanks, Lisa dear; come, if you can. But I hope Corporal Tenda will not come this afternoon. I should be more apt to cry than to laugh with him."

So Giulia let herself in with a latch-key; and Lisa returned down the great staircase alone, with a phase of human nature that was new to her to study.

Lisa could have told her friend, if she had seen any necessity for doing so, that she would be disappointed in her hope that Corporal Tenda would not make his appearance that evening at the Palazzo Bollandini; for her own intention of returning was mainly due to an intimation to that effect, which she had found the means of conveying to Captain Brilli in the hall of the drawing; and there was very little doubt that the Corporal would accompany him.

La Signora Dossi's dinner, and therefore her siesta, took place at a later hour than usual that day, in consequence of the ceremony of the drawing for the conscription, which in the little city of Fano made that day an exceptional one. Giulia, when she went in to her mistress, was expected to give an account of all she had seen at the palazzo publico—how those who had escaped had rejoiced, and how those who had been hit bore their bad chance, &c. All which she did, poor girl, feeling all the time the heavy weight at her heart, not got rid of at all, but put by to be brought into the foreground again whenever she should have leisure to attend to it.

Then the dinner was got over; and Giulia had to be scolded because she did not eat, and had to tell lies as best she could about the heat of the room and the fatigue, and so on.

And then la Dossi went to her siesta; and the time for bringing out the great heavy sorrow came round, and Giulia sat down in the silent house all by herself to think.

"Had she been to blame in the matter of the Corporal? Had she been to blame in the matter of that last parting under the great cypress-tree—that greatest event of her life—that most precious memory for all her future years?" She feared that she could not quite acquit herself on this latter head. It was a break-down; a fall from the line of duty that she had chalked out for herself. Had she been stronger on that occasion—had she made a better fight, Beppo would have had no reason to call her false. He would have been spared the suffering of thinking her so. Yet would he on the whole have been happier? Was it not possible that the remembrance of that moonlight farewell might, despite all, be as precious to him as it was to her? Yes, she had been wrong and weak on that occasion, but she found it very difficult to repent of the wrong-doing.

With respect to the Corporal, her conscience acquitted her more easily. Care about the little man, in any such sort as could make any lover or husband in the world jealous? Che! She had spoken the truth from the very bottom of her heart, when she had said to Lisa on the staircase that she could have annihilated the Corporal, if by so doing she could have served or pleasured Beppo. He was less than nothing to her in comparison with him! Had she been pleased, more pleased than was right, with the evident admiration of the Corporal? Well! pleased? She had been amused by him. She had found it pleasant to talk to him; pleasant to laugh with him and at his joking. But her heart had been heavy, God knew it had been heavy, all the time! Would it have been judicious to remain glum and moody in la Dossi's house? She had come to the city with the firm determination not to wear the willow, to give no curious spy the slightest reason to sneer or suspect that she had left her heart at Bella Luce. Was it not absolutely necessary that she should do so? Would the Corporal have any right to think himself ill-used if she told him to-morrow that her heart was, and had long been, given to her cousin? Certainly not the least. If only there were no other reasons for not doing so, how gladly, how triumphantly, would she tell him so to-morrow.

But was there any possibility that what Lisa had said might be true? Was it possible that the lively little man had mistaken her good-humour and frank courtesy, and was seriously thinking of her? Giulia thought not. But it behoved her at all events to take care that such should not be the case. But he was one of those men whom it is very difficult to keep at a distance; how different from poor dear, dear, modest Beppo! It would be far more difficult to make Beppo believe that he was loved, than to make the Corporal understand that he was not. She wished with all her heart that he knew she had no love to give to any one—that it was all given away! She wished he knew all about Beppo, and her unhappiness. She felt sure that if he did, lie would not quiz Beppo any more, and would respect her unfortunate attachment. For after all he was a good, honest-hearted little man. She felt sure of that. But how was she to behave to him when he came there? Here was already Lisa taking notions into her head. Good Heaven! if any such reports should get about in the town, and should come to Beppo's ears! The mere thought made her blood run cold. It was evidently necessary that she should be more guarded in her manner to the Corporal, and when he came next——"

Exactly as Giulia reached that point in her meditations the bit of twine outside the magnificent walnut-wood door was pulled, and the little bell which hung on the inside of it tinkled. Before going across the great hall to open the door, she stepped lightly to the door of la Dossi's room, for the allotted time for her nap was just about completed, and, looking in, saw that, faithful to her habitudes, her mistress was awake and on the point of rising.

"There is somebody at the door, signora," she said, "so I thought I would look to see if you were ready to receive any visitors. Shall I let them come in?"

"Yes! Let them come in, whoever it is, my girl! I have been alone all day till you came home, and I want to wag my tongue a little! Let them come in! I am coming out into the salottino in two minutes."

So Giulia went to the door, and there, as she had feared, were Captain Brilli, and his shadow, Corporal Tenda.

"Good evening, Signora Giulia! Are we too early? Is the padrona stirring yet? May we come in?"

"Si, Signor Capitano! Walk in; my mistress is awake; she will be in the salottino in a minute! Good evening, Signor Caporale!"

"Gentilissima Signora Giulia!" said the Corporal, with a military salute, performed in a slightly exaggerated fashion; "I am delighted to see that you have not altogether deserted this sublunary world for your native skies, as I begun to fear must be the case, when you vanished so suddenly from your place in the palazzo to-day! I was coming through the crowd to speak to you after your—guardian—ahem!—drew his bad number; and when I got across the hall, to that private box sort of a place they had put you to sit in, you had vanished, and the Signorina Lisa too!"

"Did the Signorina Lisa say she was coming here this afternoon?" asked Captain Brilli.

"Si, signore. At least, she said that it was very likely she might come. She said, Signor Capitano, that she would come to see me!" said Giulia, looking at him with a smile in her eye.

"Of course! For what else should she come?" said Brilli, in the same tone. "Did she say about what time she would be here?"

"Oh! I suppose about the hour of the paneggiato," replied Giulia. "Will your worships be pleased to walk in to the drawing-room? I dare say la Signora Dossi has come out from her room by this time."

"I like a large airy room like this, I do," said the Corporal. "I think I had rather stay here while my officer goes to pay his respects to la Signora Dossi," he added, giving Giulia a look as he spoke that plainly uttered a very earnestly pleading entreaty that she would remain there also.

"As you please, Signor Caporale! The room is entirely at your service!" said Giulia, speaking with perfect good-humour, but evidently about to precede Captain Brilli into the sitting-room.

The Corporal stood looking after her as she crossed the great hall to the opposite door till she had just reached it, then springing after her with a hop, skip, and jump, he said:

"I think I won't stay here after all; I am disappointed in the big room. All its charm is leaving it,—leaving it now at this moment, and it seems very dull and cold all of a sudden. I think I shall like the sitting-room best!"

"As you please, Signor Caporale!" said Giulia, again with unaltering good-humour; "or if your worship prefers to remain here, to being exposed to the cold of the great room, you are welcome to shut yourself in with the old sedan-chair in the corner!"

"Oh, Signora Giulia, you are cruel today! What have I done to offend you? Perhaps you were displeased at the result of the drawing this morning. But remember that I am not commander-in-chief,—at least not yet. I need hardly assure you that when I am, nobody shall be drawn except those whom your ladyship has no objection to see in the ranks. But in the meantime I confess I thought the blind goddess had done very well in sending the big cousin, who takes it upon himself to superintend the comings in and goings out of the most discreet as well as the loveliest young lady in all Romagna, to learn proper subordination in the ranks. It's a capital school, signora, for teaching presumptuous people to mind their own business and not their neighbours'."

"And you have had the advantage of some years' education in it?" said Giulia, raising her eyebrows with an affected expression of surprise.

"Yes, Signora Giulia; and accordingly I am, I assure you, minding my own business at this moment—and the most pressing and important business to me in all the world!"

"Dear me! I never should have guessed that, if you had not told me so!" retorted Giulia; "but as to the drawing to-day," she added after a little pause, in a more serious tone, "it was in all earnest and seriousness a matter of great sorrow to me. I would have given much to have saved my cousin from drawing his bad number. It was because I was so vexed," she added, with a manner that seemed to indicate a determination to speak what she felt reluctant to confess, "that I left the hall in such a hurry. And la Signora Lisa was kind enough to come with me."

"Excuse me, signora, I was not aware that you had such a tender interest in Signor Beppo. He is a more fortunate man than I thought him!"

"I said nothing of the kind! I said no word about tender interest," replied Giulia, firing up, and flashing the lightning out upon him.

"Well, of whatever sort the interest is—family interest, perhaps," returned the Corporal in a more serious tone, "I am sorry for what makes your sorrow, Signora Giulia; and above all had no thought of offending you. But I confess that the Signor Capitano here, and I, as we were looking on the drawing, congratulated one another on the army having got such a soldier. But I thought that there was small chance of our getting Signor Beppo! I fancied that his father was in a position to buy him off. It seems to me a great pity he should not go. He would be sure to rise to be a corporal!"

"I fancied it was pretty certain, Signora Giulia, that your cousin would pay his bad number by proxy," said Captain Brilli; "and I confess I thought it a great pity that the service should lose a man who would make such a fine soldier. That is the sort of men we want, not a lot of poor, rickety scum from the towns."

"I don't know whether Signor Vanni will buy him off, or not," said Giulia; "but I know that he is very unwilling to serve."

"Why should he be? What is his objection to the service?" said Brilli

"I am sure I don't know, Signor Capitano; the same, I suppose, that all our contadini have. They don't like being sent out of the country, away from their homes—"

"And their cousins!" said the Corporal.

Giulia tossed her head, and turned her shoulder to him, without deigning any reply to this shot.

"It is a very great pity," said Captain Brilli, gravely, "that there should be so widespread a dislike to the service throughout all this district: and they are just the best men who manifest the most unwillingness to serve their country. It is a very great pity; the more so as the government is fully determined to enforce the law. There has been so much difficulty about it, that it will go hard with those who are contumacious. There seems to be a notion among the people," continued the Captain, "that they will escape by absenting themselves for a time, a little more or a little less, from their homes, and that all inquiry after them will then blow over. It is a most unfortunate mistake. The men will be brought in and tried as deserters; or, if they should succeed in eluding the pursuit of our fellows, they must remain bandits and outlaws, under the penalties of felony, all their days. It is quite a mistake to imagine that they will be able to return to their homes after a while."

Captain Brilli said all this as if it was a matter of ordinary conversation. But Giulia could not help thinking that it was intended as a special advertisement to her, for the use and behoof of her cousin. She had no certain knowledge of his intentions in this respect; but she knew the avarice of old Paolo Vanni, and thought it little likely that he would be persuaded to disburse a sum large enough to procure a substitute for Beppo. She knew, also, how strongly Beppo shared the aversion of his countrymen for service in the army. She feared that he might take to the hills, rather than submit to it; and the thought of Beppo a bandit, an outlaw, a felon, who could never any more return to his home without meeting a felon's doom, was very shocking to her.

No doubt the thoughts that rose in her mind, as Captain Brilli was speaking, made themselves legible in her face; and as little that the Corporal, whose eyes were very sure to be employed in that direction, read them there.

Then la Signora Dossi came in; and in a few minutes afterwards Lisa.

When she and the Captain were fully engaged in paying exclusive attention to each other, Corporal Tenda made a variety of efforts to induce Giulia to come out into the great hall. But they were all in vain. Giulia persisted in remaining close to la Dossi all the rest of the evening.