Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/A fellow-traveller's story - Part 1

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Wishing to trace the valley which runs from the mouth of the Magra to Parma, I arrived at Sarzana, where I was told that a vetturino could easily be procured to make the journey in two easy days. I discovered, however, that the information—like a good deal of that one picks up from chance sources in Italy—was at fault. Sarzana has few vetturini, and none of them at all disposed to travel out of the beaten tracks on one side to Pietra-Santa and Pisa, and on the other to Sestri; or, perhaps, to Chiavari.

To induce an Italian to do anything out of his ordinary routine, can only be done at a considerable sacrifice of money. All the difficulties, obstacles, even dangers of the newly suggested plan, will be set forth by him with an eloquence positively astounding.

Though he should never have travelled the intended road in his life, he will assume to be familiar with all its obstacles and perils. The torrents, the mountains, the bad roads, the wretched villages, the lawless people who live in them, the vile accommodation to be paid for prezzo d'oro, and the atrocious forage, only procurable by bribery, are all themes for description, not the less ample and gloomy because untrammeled by truth.

I was not entirely unacquainted with this feature of Italian travel, and bore up tolerably patiently for two days under the usual torrent of such eloquence, always ending with the same peroration. "But if his Excellency", meaning myself, "insists and must actually go that road, he will surely not grudge to recompense handsomely a poor fellow, who may never bring his horses back to his village, if happily he should return there himself with life again." All this, be it remarked, for a journey of about seventy odd miles on a splendid macadam road, with every possible accommodation for halting by the way.

I say that I endured two days of this sort of pleading; and, on the third, I was so utterly disgusted with the exaggerated demands of these roguish dealers, that I resolved to give up my intended excursion, and pursue my way along the "riviera" to Genoa. A severe storm of wind and rain, one of those really awful storms which counterfeit tropical hurricanes, detained me the whole of the day; which I passed in all the unabated misery of a bad inn, without books, papers, or companionship.

After reading a little dirty newspaper, called the "Pungolo," till I had it by heart, from the distinguished catalogue of certain chevaliers, decorated with the older of "St. Maurice and St. Lazare," down to an illustrated advertisement of somebody's "Cod Liver Oil," I sat moodily at the window watching a man polishing a slab in a small archway opposite, a labour so curious and interesting, as to have attracted six spectators, who with loose coats hanging sleeveless on their backs, watched him also, the live-long day, never moving from the spot till the night closed in and ended his work. Wearisome as such superinspection had often seemed to me, I felt at last that there was a state of mind in which it might be pleasurable; and I own, I sympathised with the patient onlookers, seeing that, had I been a gentleman of Sarzana, I should have come to the like fate.

As night closed in, and the polisher moved away, I sallied forth to see what life might be had in the cafés. Blank disappointment again: of all the dreary abodes of stale tobacco-smoke, flat anise-seed, and dirty guests, there is nothing to compare with a low Italian café. The squalid tables, the unswept floor, and the unwashed company, are about the nastiest things I know of.

I recognised several of my vetturino acquaintances at table, some supping, some domino playing; while a select circle near the stove, of which the judge and the chief revenue officer formed a part, were exchanging their experiences on the subject of knives, assisted by specimens in all gradations, from the pen-maker, to what one enthusiast proclaimed un vero scucitore, "a regular ripper."

Rather overcome by the fumes of the place and a cup of chocolate, I had been rash enough to invest in, I was making my way to the door, when a deep voice from a corner called out:

"Ha! Inglese, Signorino!"

I turned, and saw a fellow I had been bargaining with in the morning, playing cards with a very poorly clad and sickly-looking priest.

"Ecco!" cried the fellow aloud. "Ecco," pointing to the priest; "Lo affare suo."

I own I did not see how my interest could possibly attach me to the poor ecclessiastic; but it was soon explained. The priest lived at a village near Parma, and was about to return thither the next day, in a little calessina, or poney-carriage of his own; of which, for a consideration, he was disposed to let a place.

The contract was soon made, though greatly to the vetturino's disgust, not paid for in anticipation, for he was intently bent on despoiling the priest of every "soldo" of it ere they parted; a scheme which I read and thwarted with some pleasure; and it was settled that the Father, whose name was Don Lertora!—every priest is a Don!—should call for me at daybreak on the following morning.

Nothing could be humbler than my fellow-traveller, except his pony; indeed, until I saw the quadruped, I believed the man to have reached the climax of all humility, but the beast beat him hollow. He was a skinny, starved, cow-hocked little creature, with a low shoulder, a heavy head, and a back-bone like a bow. As for the carriage, it was, I suspect, constructed by the priest's own hands, and was something like a three-sided box on wheels; the feet of the travellers being supported by a matting, so very frail and worn withal, as to exclude all notion of resting any weight on it. My heart failed me as I beheld the equipage; but there was a gentle humility about the poor priest, as he apologised for all its shortcomings, which I could not bring myself to offend, and so, I gulped down all my forebodings, and took my place beside him.

It was a glorious morning of early autumn, and the sun had just gained the crest of the hills, the last spurs of the Apennines as they descend to the sea, when we set forth. The scene before us was a very fine one; for, although, the Magra is only a full river when swollen by rain and mountain torrents, the high grounds on either side, are eminently graceful in outline, and clad with all the wealth of vine and olive. The summit is invariably crowned with villages, picturesque in tower, or campanile, and the whole clothed in richest colouring, from the ensanguined brown of the copper beech to the mellow green of the chest nut, or the more sombre depth of the olive.

We had ample time, too, to enjoy it: our pace, I am sure I flatter when I call it four miles an hour; and, even this, accomplished by a continuous stream of coaxings, suggestings, and small flatteries, which so occupied the Don, as to make my conversation with him only possible in the intervals between his exhortations. "Ha! Basilio, foot it lightly, fleet son of the mountains, show his Excellency," meaning me, "the true blood of the Lusignano; shake your bells gaily, my son. Let the illustrissimo," me again, "see that your father came from Aleppo." Such phrases as these were occasionally blended with little compliments on the beast's discretion when he would come to a dead halt in front of some rural effigy of the Virgin, or some wayside shrine, not one of which the priest would pass without a prayer. These practices, I need scarcely observe, were sad impediments to anything like continuous conversation, since an appeal to his pony, or an entreaty to a saint, constantly interrupted some reply as to the name of a village or the age of a church.

If at moments I was angry with myself for selecting such a companion and such a mode of travel, I was quickly recalled to better thoughts by observing the submissive patience of the poor Padre under every difficulty, his untiring good temper, and his desire to please. In the little he said about himself, and his way of life, all bespoke contentment. His parishioners were such good folk; his village was so healthful; the figs that grew there were often sent to Parma; and the wine—it had no distinctive name, to be sure, but it only needed to be known to be sent to the cafés of Milan and Turin. Then they had a fruit fair and a cattle fair; at the latter he had bought Basilio—the name was enough to call forth a flood of endearing epithets, and make him utterly forgetful of all but the perfections he was recording.

I asked him about the late war in Lombardy, and its results; but he gave me to believe that he never followed the course of such events; none of his flock had fallen in battle, nor had the sound of a bugle startled one of the dwellers in his secluded village. He believed there had been hard fighting, though, and a neighbour—Jean Baptiste Somebody—had actually seen some wounded men, lying in a cart with straw in it, on the road to Modena. In like manner he professed not to know, nor speculate on, what might be the future fate of his country. "Speriamo!" (let us hope!) he'd say quietly to my sanguine anticipations—if wise men thought that all these troubles and convulsions were necessary, of course, it was right they should have them. He wasn't wise; thank God for it! he was only a poor parish priest not called on to know such high themes, and he took the world as it was given to him. "Non è vero, Basilio mio?" Is it not true, Basil, my son? Basil, my first-born? Basil, my idol?

I felt half provoked at this apathy, and told him roundly that it was a sorry proof of a man's patriotism not to take a deeper interest in his country's fortunes, and that Basil, for aught I saw, was as worthy a citizen as himself; and he agreed with me; and, so far from feeling angry, continued to repeat to Basil for the next mile or so all the civil things his Excellency had been saying of him.

I questioned him on religion, education, agriculture, the taxes that he paid, the books he read, the people he lived with, but throughout all I could get nothing beyond a general trustfulness that everything was for the best, so far as he understood it; and where he did not, that he was sure it was the same there also, if he had only ingenuity enough to comprehend it—till at last I came to a stand-still, fairly worn out in my search for the subject he cared for, and almost as sick of myself as of him. Could all this fatalism—for it was fatalism—be one phase of that infidelity which I had so often heard imputed to the lower walks of the Romish priesthood?

Many had asserted that, as a class, they were men remarkable for erudition and attainments, eminently alive to the great changes going on around them, and shrewd observers of the stupendous convulsions which shook the old world of Europe. Was this man, then, one of them, and was all his assumed indifference only a crafty reserve in presence of the stranger? He had seen how I passed the various saintly effigies and images on the wayside without any reverential recognition—he knew, therefore, that I was a heretic—might not this fact have impressed him with caution? And was it not almost certain that his whole manner was a mask and a disguise? I looked at him steadfastly, and that sad pale face and drooping eyelid gave no corroboration to my suspicion.

"You are pressing on eagerly, Don Lertora," said I, as I saw him shake the reins and make other peaceful incentives to speed. "Are you afraid of a coming storm?"

"No, signore," said he; "but there is a bad spot in the road before us, and I'd like to get over it before dark."

"Is it a torrent?" asked I.

No; it was not a torrent, nor was it an unsafe bridge, or a new cutting, or a steep declivity,—so that I was forced to ask, "How is it so bad as you say?"

"As the signore is not a Christian, he would only laugh at me if I told him," said he, after a pause.

"Stay," said I; "I may not observe Christianity after your forms, or accept it entirely at your teachings, but I trust still I am as much a Christian as you are."

A little discussion ensued on this point, wherein by abstaining from anything offensive, and by the exercise of a little patience, I satisfied my companion that, at least, I was not totally unworthy of what I aspired to.

"Well," said he, after some minutes of silence, "we are coming to a spot on the road where a traveller was murdered, and where his spirit still wanders, though the Church has endeavoured in various ways to give him peace. It was no common murder—not one of those crimes instigated by love of gain—for all that he had, purse, watch, and a medal, were found on the dead body."

"But who ever saw the ghost! Have you yourself?"

"No; not his, but I saw his brother's."

"His brother's ghost! Was his brother also murdered, then?"

"Wait awhile—we are just close to the spot now," said he, in a low voice. "I'll tell you the story when we have passed the place."

And so saying, he turned away from me, and I saw by the motion of his hand as he crossed himself that he was praying. I, of course, would not disturb his devotions, and sat silently thinking over what he had said; and in this way we reached a little one-arched bridge over a dried-up torrent. There was no balustrade to the sides, but on the crown of the arch a little wooden cross stood, on arriving at which the priest pulled me sharply by the sleeve, while, in low quickened mutterings, I could perceive how intently and eagerly he now prayed. As I looked down, the bed of the stream seemed about twenty or four-and-twenty feet beneath, but several sharp rocks stood up and made the fall more perilous.

"They threw him over, I suppose?" said I, questioning.

The priest nodded, and continued his prayers. "The blessed Virgin be praised!" said he, or rather, to use his less reverent expression, "Viva Maria, we are past it!" were his first words after we had gone about a quarter of a mile.

"Now for the story, I want to hear that," said I.

"Will you not wait till we reach Gariglano; we shall be there in an hour, and when we have got a good supper and a flask of old wine the story will tell all the better?"

I agreed. Indeed there was a smack of good-fellowship in the proposal which pleased me all the more, perhaps, as I scarcely looked for it.



Gariglano did not, as we entered it, give much promise of those convivialities the priest had depicted. It was a regular tumble-down Italian village, with streets so narrow as barely to admit our little calessina, and a pavement so uneven that we could only creep along step by step. All, too, was in darkness; no lamps without, not even the solitary flicker of a candle within a window, under an archway, or an open door as we passed. Some indistinct traces of men asleep—confused, misshapen groups they were, but except these, not a sign of life or humanity to be seen.

At last we emerged from the dreary labyrinth of close alleys into what, by an imperfect light, I saw was a piazza: there always is a piazza where there is the slightest possible pretension to township. All that I could perceive was a little square, irregularly built, and a sort of basin or fountain in the centre, indicated by a low trickling ripple audible in the intense stillness.

At a low-arched doorway, over which a bough of pine tree hung, in lieu of sign, the priest knocked stoutly with his whip-handle, shouting out a prolonged note of "Ho—oh, Desiderio!" at the same time. No response came to this summons, and he changed it after a while for "Ho—oh, Teresina!" but apparently Teresina slept as soundly as Desiderio, and did not mind us.

"Corpo di Bacco!" said the priest, "how these peasants sleep when once they lay their heads down: you'd think they were in the Campo Santo."

"Is not that large house yonder an inn?—let us try there," said I, pointing to a great massive-looking edifice on the opposite side of the piazza.

"The Madonna protect us from ever setting foot in it," cried he, in terror; when suddenly facing round to the little door, he redoubled his efforts, like one in some great emergency. At last, but not before a long assault, a crackling old casement opened at the very top of the house, and a voice called out—

"Who's there?"

"Don Lertora, the Parroco of San Frediano—your old friend."

"Indeed! Can it be true?"

"Yes: come down quickly and open the door."

"But why are you so late on the road?"

"You shall hear all when you come down."

"Santissima Madre, how impatient you are! Was there any fall of snow on the Fauce as you passed?"

"None whatever, the road as good as this."

"Ah, then, we'll have a wet winter of it. I always said so," said the other, in a reflective and meditative tone.

"Are we to pass the night out here in the open piazza?" cried I, utterly driven beyond all further endurance.

"Who is the Signore?" cried the voice from above.

"Un ricco Inglese, who'd pay extravagantly for his supper this minute, and never grumble about as much more for his wine; but who'll not give one bajocco if he's detained here much longer."

"I thought as much," replied the voice; "they talk of these rich Inglese, but, for my part, I never met one of them."

I am unable to say what line of persuasive eloquence Don Lertora now adopted, for he suddenly changed to a patois quite unknown to me; the result, however, was that the window was closed, and after a rather sharp dialogue inside, the bars of a heavy door were withdrawn, and a middle-aged man with a very small allowance of raiment admitted us into the house.

"Better the kitchen than anywhere else, for we are cold with the night air," said Don Lertora, and into the kitchen we were ushered.

I am not exactly certain that at another moment the close inspection of the cookery intended to regale us would have strongly contributed to appetite. Indeed, I suspect that Teresina's tastings of the brodo, and Desiderio's occasional experiences of the omelette, daintily performed by his forefinger, might have impaired a full enjoyment of the meal; but I was many degrees below the zero of fastidiousness, and I ate like a wolf. Don Lertora, too, played a distinguished part, and he drank tumbler after tumbler of old Gariglano wine—a really full-bodied little liquor in its way—till his eyes twinkled, and a shade of red, like the line of a paint-brush, marked either cheek, a spot of the same hue picking out his chin, giving him on the whole the look of an old picture restored and repainted by some inept artist.

The change, however, pleased me; it promised well besides for the story he was to tell me, and which I only waited supper to be over to remind him of.

I saw, too, that the priest's courage had so far rallied that he had no longer any reluctance to approach a theme which an hour back had impressed him only with terror.

"Come to the door," said he, "and I will show you the very spot."

Trusting to ascertain later on to what he referred by these words, I followed him to the little arched portal by which we entered. It was a calm night, without a moon, but the sky was lit up with thousands of stars, so that after the eye became a little habituated, objects could be descried with tolerable distinctness. We walked out into the piazza and drew nigh the fountain, when turning quickly about, the priest faced the large building I have already spoken of, and said:

"There, that's it; do you see that large window with the balcony over the gate?—it's walled-up now, and will be for ever; that was the spot; mark it well, and come away when you think you have seen it sufficiently."

As he said it he turned his back to the house, and bent his eyes to the ground. So far as the light permitted, I made out a large and somewhat handsome edifice. There were ornamental entablatures over the window; a richly carved armorial ensign over the entrance gate, and although only one wing of the building had been completed, along this there ran a spacious terrace, the balustrade of which was ornamented with marble urns, in which rare plants had once probably figured, but now were moulded and grass-grown.

Throughout the entire building, however, not a whole pane of glass was to be seen; all were smashed, and even the framework in some cases shared the ruin.

I drew nigh the entrance-gate, and saw that a brick wall had been built up to about the height of the lock; above this the panels, which were of massive oak thickly studded with nails, showed innumerable marks of ill usage from stones, with here and there the signs of an attempt by fire. Everything, in short, indicated that violence, even more than decay, was the cause of the ruin and dilapidation, and even to the headless trunks of two gigantic marble caryatides at the gate; all bespoke a popular vengeance.

A narrow lane flanked one end of the building, and I was about to proceed down this, and so obtain a view of the house from the back, when Don Lertora called out to me to return. His voice—whether the occasion, or the wine, the reason I cannot say—had assumed a tone so peremptory and self-assured, as actually to startle me; but fearing lest anything like resentment on my part might lose me the story, I suppressed whatever I felt on that score, and slowly walked after him to the house.

"You'll not forget it easily, I think," said the priest, as we resumed our seats beside the fire, and there was as much rebuke in his tone as there was approval.

I merely replied that it was a curious old building, and evidently had seen better days than those which now befel it.

To this he made no answer, but drank off a full bumper of the Gariglano, and refilled his glass.

"Better days," muttered he, repeating my last words. "It has seen the last of its 'better days.' I would not live in the town it stands in to be the canonico of the 'Dome' Church."

I saw that it were better to let him blow off the steam of his indignation than to control it, so I only filled my glass, and lighting my cigar, awaited the time he might think fit to open the story.

"Are you sleepy? Would you like to go to bed?" asked he, after a pause.

"Not in the least," said I. "I am Italian enough to think that these tranquil hours of the night are the most livable of the whole four-and-twenty, the pleasantest for conversation, as they are the best for thought and reflection."

"In that case, what if I tell you the story I spoke of?"

"With all my heart," said I, with a half-careless compliance, for I knew enough of the Don's countrymen to be aware that they always regard eagerness with suspicion, and seldom do with frankness what they perceive to be awaited with any interest or anxiety.

This is one feature of Italian mistrust, whoever has lived much amongst them will not hesitate to recognise.

I wish I could tell the tale as I heard it; I wish I could even approximate to the mode of Don Lertora's narrative, full as it was of little traits of village life he was so familiar with, and to whose habits he referred from time to time as the great and world-acknowledged standards in morals as well as manners. But to attempt this, I should be led into such constant interpolations of Italian words and phrases, such borrowing of expressions not native to our ears, and such allusions to things unusual to our ordinary ways and habits, that I must fain consent to give the events simply and plainly, without any of that colouring which I am free to own gave the story its chief charm to myself, and may not improbably have misled me when I hoped to make it of interest to others.

(To be continued.)