Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Beppo, the conscript - Part 9

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It was with a very bad appetite that Beppo sat down to the attorney’s table. Nor was the information that Signor Sandro had to communicate to him respecting the other great object of his visit to the city at all more consoling to him than that which had already made life seem not worth having to him since that morning. If the conscription had simply involved getting knocked on the head and put out of his pain at once, he felt as if he could have been quite contented to draw Number One!

The news which the attorney had to give him, indeed, confirmed all the worst fears of the poor fellows whom he left at Santa Lucia, anxiously awaiting the tidings that he would bring back from the city. The conscription was not merely threatened; it was certain. It was not for next year, but for this. The day for the drawing had not been appointed for Fano yet; but it would be very shortly known, and would certainly be not longer than a fortnight after the completion of the communal lists. His brother Carlo was exempt; but he, Beppo, was as surely liable as any man in the district;—“and it is not very easily that they will let a fellow of your inches out of their clutches, my friend, if you once get into them,” added the attorney.

“One can but take one’s chance!” said Beppo, striving to put the best face on the matter that he could. “After all, the chance is in one’s favour.”

“Well, yes, as far as equal chances go, it’s in your favour, of course; but the devil of it is that these Signori Uffiziali are bent upon getting the likeliest men. And if the draft were for a hundred, say, and you drew number two hundred, I should be sorry to insure you!”

“Why, how can that be, Signor Sandro? If a man is not fairly drawn, he cannot be taken, I suppose!”

“Aha! fairly drawn! That’s all very well! But it is not every man who is fit to serve! There is the medical examination! Ever so many are sure to be rejected! Then, as I tell you, they make all sorts of excuses to reject the smaller and weaker men, in order to get a chance of laying hold of a fellow like you. I suppose you can’t make out that you have got anything the matter with you?” said the attorney, with a laugh.

“Oh, yes, he has!” put in little Lisa; “he has got a sore heart; and I am sure that is a very bad complaint. He has a very sore heart ever since I have been telling him all about la Giulia!”

“Oh, if that’s his complaint, it’s likely enough to get worse instead of getting better,” said the attorney, affecting to give a low whistle, and turn his eyes up to the ceiling, as if that was a dull matter, about which the less was said the better.

“Why, what is there to be said against la Giulia?” said Beppo, almost fiercely.

“Against her? Oh, nothing! nothing at all! I never say anything against anybody. But it may be that all the world is not equally prudent or equally indulgent.”

“Come now, papa,” said Lisa, “you know there is nothing to be said against poor Giulia, at all. Of course it cannot be expected that such a girl as Giulia should not be admired!”

“Well, it may be so, of course. And some men may have no objection to take up with a girl who has been flirted with by half the town, and talked of by the whole of it. Others may not like it. It’s a matter of taste. If I was a young fellow in a respectable and good position, the head of my family—to be so one day, at least—and looked up to by all the country, I should not like to make a girl my wife who had gone through that sort of thing. Girls are easily spoilt;—and the handsomest perhaps the quickest.”

“Tell me the truth, now, as an old friend, Signor Sandro!” said Beppo, piteously, while the big drops of perspiration gathered on his brow; “do you mean that la Giulia has got herself talked about in a way—that—that a good girl should not?”

“Well, my dear friend, it is a difficult question to answer! It is hard to say what a good girl may do, and what she may not. I don’t wish to be severe. I dare say la Giulia is a very good girl, as girls in her position are,—a very good girl. But she has been very much—admired, we will say. She has been a good deal spoken of. Men will speak of such things in a tone like this. No doubt la Giulia has had her head turned a little! Che vuola? No doubt it would have been better if she had kept this Corporal Tenda—I think they call him—more at a distance. Still there is no great harm in it all! Only that if I, as a man who has some knowledge of the world, and as an old friend of the family, were asked for my advice in the matter of choosing a wife for your father’s son,—why I should not pitch upon Giulia Vanni. Girls of her sort make the most charming sweethearts in the world. But a good wife is another sort of article!”

Beppo knew perfectly well that the attorney had a motive for saying all this. He knew perfectly well what that motive was. Nevertheless it gave him exquisite pain to hear it. Did not what had fallen from Lisa, who had no such motive, but quite the contrary, confirm it? Worse than all, did not the evidence of his own eyes vouch for the truth of a good deal of it? He dreaded, yet longed for an interview with her. If only he could have heard her disculpate herself. He would believe every word she said. That he was quite determined on. Did Giulia ever lie? He would believe her in preference to all the calumnious tittle-tattle tongues in the city. If only she would say that—that—that—she loved him, Beppo Vanni, in short; that was, in point of fact, the exculpation that he thirsted to hear from her own lips!

Signor Sandro, if he had effected nothing else by his insinuations, had effectually destroyed the convivial capabilities of his guest. Beppo sat moody and silent, and could not be induced to drink, when the cheese and fruit were placed upon the table. The attorney made one or two hospitably-meant attempts to induce him to do so, but finding it of no avail, he said:

“Well, Signor Beppo, if you will not drink any more wine, I shall take my siesta! If you like to do the same, make yourself at home. And if you like to take Lisa to the passeggiata afterwards, I have no doubt she will be well pleased. You will find me in my study when you come back; and if you will look in for a moment before you mount, I will give you a line to take to your good father from me. A rivederla!

As soon as ever Lisa and Beppo were left alone together, Lisa said:

“Now, Beppo, you must not mind a word of all papa was saying. It is all stuff and nonsense, You know what he has got in his head,—more stuff and nonsense still. Don’t you believe a word of it!”

“But when I saw that corporal with my own eyes, Lisa!”

“Saw the corporal! What of that? Do you think Giulia is going to shut herself up as if she was a nun, for you; and you never to come near her for weeks and weeks? But, I tell you she don’t care a fig’s end for the corporal! Just you see her, and it will all come right!”

“How am I to see her, Lisa?” asked Beppo, in a very piteous tone.

“How? Why come to la Dossi’s house, now directly, with me, to be sure!”

“Oh, Lisa! and if that corporal is still there?”

“That is just what you must go for, Signor Beppo! You must go and see for yourself that there is nothing at all serious between Giulia and Corporal Tenda. And, besides that, you must go, to let Giulia know that you are thinking of her. You have stayed away too long. What do you suppose Giulia would feel if she heard that you had been to Fano, and gone away without so much as making any attempt to see her! I know what I should feel if Captain Brilli treated me in such a way. Why, she would be justified in taking up with the corporal or anybody else out of sheer despair, she would. Most likely,” continued Lisa, improving upon the idea which had only that instant come into her head for the first time, “most likely it’s merely that which has led her to encourage the corporal at all,—if she has encouraged him, which I, for one, don’t believe. But you must not think that if you don’t do your duty by poor Giulia, the corporal won’t make the most of it to her. Of course he will. And small blame to him! If he should hear—as of course he will hear—that you have been to Fano, and never been near her, he will make a pretty story of it to her;—and then—there’s no saying what a girl may do in such a case as that!”

We know that little Lisa had her own reasons for being determined to pay a visit that afternoon, while her father was enjoying his siesta, to her friend Signora Dossi. Nevertheless it cannot be denied that her arguments were sound; unless indeed Beppo were minded to give up the matter altogether; and once or twice the vision of that corporal at Giulia’s side, on the church-steps, and of her manner, as she listened to him, as it recurred to his mind, almost made him wish to do so. The words of Signor Sandro, too, had not been without their effect, even though he knew that the counsel given was interested. For the well-to-do contadino is very sensitive to the voice of his public in matters of the sort. It would not be well for Vanni of Bella Luce to take home a wife who had been the town-talk of all Fano! That was true, let what would be the attorney’s motive for saying it. It was true! and he was mad, and miserable, and infatuated! He could not give up Giulia, however much his reason might be convinced that it were better that he should do so. He could not do it. Give her up! He knew at the bottom of his heart, all the time that he was irresolutely hesitating whether he should consent to go with Lisa or not, that he would rather give up his life than give her up. And then he thought over all the incidents—the things spoken and the things done—under the cypress-tree, in the path between Bella Luce and Santa Lucia; and his anger was forgotten, and his heart yearned towards her; and he would forgive her everything—if only she would be forgiven!

“Come, Signor Beppo!—come along! You can at all events come with me as far as the door of Palazzo Bollandini. We can talk of your going in or not by the way. Any way it’s as well to be walking as sitting here. Come along!”

So—merely out of civility to la Lisa, and because he could not help himself, he put on his hat and accompanied her.

It had seemed to Beppo in the morning that the Palazzo Bollandini was a long way off from Signor Sandro Bertoldi’s house—very much further that it now appeared! Perhaps he had not come the shortest way in the morning. Perhaps the difference was due to the different attitude of his own mind. He had made very small progress towards determining what he would do when he got there, when he found himself with Lisa before the huge portal of the palace; and he recognised, with a shudder, the church front and the steps where that horrid vision of Giulia and the Bersaglieri corporal had blasted his eyes.

Lisa entered the great gateway, and tripped up the huge staircase without pausing a second to give Beppo time to think what he should do. She skipped up the stairs to the primo piano, and he had nothing for it but to run up after her. She seized the little bit of scarcely visible twine—knowing right well exactly where to look for it—while he was lost in awe and wonderment at the grandeur of the place he had entered, and rung as vigorous a peal as the little bell-pull would execute.

“But, Signora Lisa,” remonstrated Beppo; “I think—”

But they had not to wait for the opening of the door so long this time as when Giulia and Signor Sandro had stood before it, for they were lighter feet which went across the huge hall to admit them.

While Beppo’s hesitating remonstrances were yet on his lips, the door was opened by Giulia herself.

It was of course the most natural thing in the world that it should be so; but the possibility of it had never entered into Beppo’s head for an instant. Probably the truth was, that he hardly realised the fact that that huge and magnificent door was absolutely the private entrance to the dwelling in which Giulia resided, but rather had an idea that a whole nest of homes would be found within it, in the furthermost penetralia of some one of which she would be at length reached.

And when the tall door opened, and there, framed in the marble door-case, stood before him the figure of his enchantress, more beautiful than ever, set off with a hundred little town coquetries,—transmuted, glorified, but still unmistakeably the Giulia whose eyes had made the Bella Luce light deserve its name, and whose absence made all dark there. He was as much taken aback and rooted to the spot with speechless amazement as if he had suddenly met her at the antipodes.

He certainly had never seen her look so beautiful as she looked at that moment; and all—his own bitter agony, and the stinging insinuations of the attorney—would have been forgotten and forgiven on the spot, but for a withering sight that met his eyes as they looked beyond her into the space of the huge hall. There, immediately behind her, stood the odious, the intolerable corporal. He had evidently either been alone with her in the vast hall, or stuck to her so inseparably that he had accompanied her across it to open the door.

Beppo’s eyes glared with rage and indignation; and assuredly his whole appearance was very little like that of one meeting an old friend, to say nothing of an old love, with pleasure.

Giulia, too, was to a certain degree moved, and to a certain degree embarrassed by the presence of the corporal at her skirts and in her conscience. But when was ever a woman embarrassed under circumstances of the kind, let their difficulty be what it may, as a man is embarrassed.

Giulia’s blood rushed to her face and neck, but she did not lose for an instant either her faculty of speech or her presence of mind; nor did her voice shake, as she said:

“Ah, Signora Lisa! Buon giorno! buona festa! We have been expecting you!”

(Lisa stood nearest to the door, and Beppo’s tall figure was seen over and behind her; therefore it was natural to address her first.)

Buon giorno! Signor Beppo! Are they all well at Bella Luce? We did not expect to see you to-day.”

Lisa had at once stepped into the hall; and was greeting the corporal in the style of an old acquaintance, leaving Giulia face to face with Beppo, who was still standing gaping, and almost gasping, on the landing-place outside the doorway.

“Signor Caporale,” said she, turning to the corporal, after she had paused half-a-minute with the door in her hand, waiting for Beppo to enter, “will you have the kindness to await my cousin Beppo Vanni’s decision whether he will come in or not. I must go and take la Signorina Lisa to la padrona.”

And so saying she turned away to cross the hall, leaving Beppo and the corporal face to face. Lisa tried to throw an encouraging and inviting glance to poor Beppo, over her shoulder; but was obliged to hurry off with Giulia across the hall.

Beppo had a very good mind to turn on his heel without saying a word, shake the dust off his feet as a testimony against the abominable house he was in, and turn his back on it and Giulia for ever! Forgive her? No! he never, never could forgive her! It was monstrous! It was loathsome!

He had a very good mind to turn his back and walk away,—but he did not do it! For it was beyond his power.

“So you are Signor Beppo Vanni, are you?” Come in, comrade, come in! the more the merrier!” said Corporal Tenda, after the two men had remained staring at each other for a minute without speaking;—Beppo looking scared and savage, and the corporal perfectly self-possessed and perfectly good-humoured.

Corporal Tenda was a model corporal of Bersaglieri, small, light-made, wiry, active, with a shrewd, good-tempered, bright, sunburnt face, a frank, bold blue eye, and a bush of short, crisp, curly brown hair;—a dangerous man for a rival in the good graces of a high-mettled girl, though not comparable either in face or in person to the handsome, stalwart, classical-featured Romagnole. But if his limbs were nimbler than those of the Herculean-proportioned Beppo, his wit was far more so. A ready wit is not generally the distinguishing characteristic of the Piedmontese; and Corporal Tenda was a native of that province; doubtless of a stock deriving its origin as well as its name from the little mountain village which gives its well-known appellation to the picturesque Alpine pass between Nice and Turin. The corporal was, as Lisa had said,—and as has been by no means an uncommon case since Italy has needed all her stoutest arms and hearts in the ranks of her defenders—of a social position in his own country somewhat higher than that which he held (only provisionally, the corporal trusted) in the army. He was a man of some little education, of far more than poor Beppo could boast; and was, though a Piedmontese, a sharp, clever fellow. He was, moreover, a thoroughly good, honest-hearted little man; and though he had abundance of the military tendency to look down on the entire race of bumpkins, and quite a sufficiency of the provincial Piedmontese assumption of superiority to the inhabitants of the other provinces of Italy, yet any man who came into relationship of any kind with Corporal Tenda, and showed himself in that relationship to be a man of honour and character, was sure to be treated by him as he deserved.

“You know my name, then?” said Beppo, who had so far obeyed the corporal’s invitation as to come just sufficiently far across the door-sill as to make it possible for the latter to close the door behind him. He had done so because he did not know what else to do. And now he stood moodily measuring his smart little enemy from head to foot, thinking how easy it would be to pitch him out of one of those great windows into the street, and how much he should like to do it. It no more came into his head to be personally afraid of the corporal, than he would have been of a little terrier who barked at his heels. But he was much afraid of his uniform. The contadino mind stands in great and habitual awe of the military. For all that, Beppo would have been very glad to pick a quarrel with him; though he had a vague idea that to strike or resist such an embodiment of the forza pubblica would ipso facto subject him to be shot kneeling on his own coffin. But he felt as if he should rather like to be kneeling on his coffin than not, especially if Giulia could be compelled to witness his fate, and to know that he had incurred it by fighting to defend her from all snares, corporals, and other emissaries of the evil one. But Corporal Tenda did not seem to intend to give him any opportunity of entering on such a desperate course of conduct.

“Know your name, Signor Vanni!” said he; “Altro! I should think so, per Bacco! Who does not know the name of Vanni? Your lordship shares it with the divinest girl in all Romagna—in all Italy, I should say!”

“My business here was to see my cousin Giulia,” said Beppo, scowling more blackly than ever. “My father is in some sort responsible for—for her safety—and—and the decency of her conduct.”

“Hah! You come armed with parental authority, eh?” and the corporal winked in the most provokingly intelligent manner and the most perfect good humour as he spoke. “Pray walk in, and permit the Signorina Giulia to crave your blessing. It will be, I doubt not, supremely satisfactory to her! Allow me to do the honours of this poor mansion!” continued the corporal, waving his hand, as he spoke, with the mock airs of a host, and bowing low to Beppo as he motioned him to precede him.

“My cousin is but a poor servant in this house,” growled Beppo, while his mind was distracted from what he was saying by a desire rapidly becoming uncontrollable to spring on the accursed corporal, and strangle him then and there. “If she is disengaged, I might speak a few words to her before I leave the city; if not, it does not matter,—not the least in the world. Perhaps I had better not disturb her!”

Come! Vi pare! Can you dream of it? A nice kind of guardian and protector you are for a young girl. Oh—é! Signora Giulia!” he cried out, raising his voice till it echoed again in the large empty hall; “here’s Signor Beppo yearning to give you his fatherly blessing; but he is in such a hurry just now to be off that, if you do not come out for it directly, he will carry it off straight back to the hills with him. Oh—é, Signora Giulia!”

“Hush—h—h!” cried Giulia, running out from the inner rooms, and holding up her hand with a warning gesture; “are you mad, Signor Caporale, to make such a noise as that? Don’t you know that la padrona is taking her siesta?

La padrona was taking her siesta! And Giulia had been alone, then, with this animal of a profligate corporal! thought Beppo to himself. It was too bad—too barefaced! Thank God he had come into the city, and made himself acquainted with the truth! Thank God he had escaped wrecking his heart on a worthless girl! Escaped? Poor Beppo groaned inwardly as the word returned to his mind in the guise of a question.

They had not been absolutely tête-a-tête, however, he thought. For he supposed that Captain Brilli must be in the house somewhere. Lisa had vanished into the inner penetralia, and no doubt knew of the captain’s whereabouts.

The fact was that the attorney’s daughter and her lover were at that instant discussing all the chapter of their hopes and fears in a delicious tête-a-tête in la Dossi’s vacant sitting-room.

“How could I think about siestas or anything else, when your estimable guardian here was talking of leaving the house without seeing you, gentilissima Signora Giulia?” said the corporal, adding action with both hands, as he stood a few yards from Beppo on the paved floor of the vast hall, and affecting to speak in a voice of urgent remonstrance.

“My guardian!” said Giulia, tossing her head.

“I made no such claim,” said Beppo, sulkily; “I should be very sorry to assume such an office.”

“Come to see that the young lady conducted herself decently, on behalf of her family, if I understand your worship aright,” said the corporal, skipping into a new rhetorical attitude as he spoke.

“I said,” replied Beppo, stammering and turning very red, “that—my father—and mother—would—would be glad to hear that my cousin Giulia was—was—was going on well. I leave it to her to judge how far they will be satisfied with my report!”

Giulia’s eyes flashed at this, and the lightning was instantaneously followed by the thunderbolt.

“There is nobody at Bella Luce,” she said, “to whom my conduct is of the slightest importance. There is one way only in which I could grieve the heart of Signor Paolo Vanni, and in that way he may rest very sure I shall never afflict him!”

Corporal Tenda saw with undisguised admiration, and Beppo with an agony made up of a sense of self-blame conflicting with burning indignation and ardent love for his cousin, how much scorn could look beautiful in Giulia’s eyes as she spoke those last words—words which Beppo but too well understood.

Diavolo! If family matters of delicacy have to be discussed—if the lady has confidences to make to her father-confessor, allow me to suggest the privacy of a confessional!” said the corporal, waving his hand towards the old sedan-chair in a distant corner of the hall; “it would be impossible to desire better accommodation for the purpose.”

“Don’t be a fool, Signor Caporale,” said Giulia, as gravely as she could, but darting a laughing glance out of the corner of her eye at the corporal, as she spoke, which Beppo caught in transitu, and which formed perhaps the heaviest item in all the long bill against her, scored up in his much-lacerated heart. “If you choose to walk in, Signor Beppo,” she continued, in a milder tone, though still very haughty—for she had been grievously offended by that ill-judged slip of the tongue which poor Beppo had been guilty of in the excess of his embarrassment and ill-humour in speaking to the corporal, and which the latter had so remorselessly turned to the utmost account—“if you choose to walk in I shall be happy to present you to la Signora Dossi, as soon as she wakes.”

She spoke coldly and haughtily; but there was a feeling at her heart, due perhaps in some degree to the intensity of the misery which was legible in Beppo’s handsome face, which prompted her to accompany her words with a look—not precisely of tenderness, and still less of pleading; but certainly of reconciliation and invitation. It was but momentary, however, and Beppo was either too slow to see it or too angry to heed it.

“I do not see that I could be of any use in coming in,” said he, gloomily; “I should only interfere with the pleasant party assembled here. Besides I must be starting for Bella Luce, and I can easily understand that you are in no hurry for la Signora Dossi to wake!”

The last words were accompanied by a look of indignant and bitter reproach at Giulia.

“As you please, Signor Beppo!” said she, at once turning on her heel, and going towards the door of the inner rooms; “Signor Caporale,” she added, as she crossed the hall, “will you kindly open the door for my cousin. I wish you a pleasant ride home, Signor Beppo!”

And with those words she vanished; and instantly an immense and poignant repentance of his refusal of her invitation fell upon Beppo. He felt as if he would have given worlds to recall it, if only for the gratification of his burning curiosity to know what would pass between her and the corporal during the remainder of la Dossi’s siesta,—if only to protect her, ungrateful as she was, against that base and unprincipled wretch. Protect her! How could he protect her? He away at Bella Luce, and she with evidently all sorts of opportunities of meeting him as often as she pleased. And was he not already on terms of intimacy with her such as Beppo had never been able to attain, and that in a few weeks? and he had worshipped her, and lived under the same roof with her for years.

He turned slowly towards the door, with a hell of contending passions seething in his heart,—rage, bitter self-contempt, indignation, hatred, horrible jealousy, and desperate and unquenchable love.

Yes, love, after all, through all, and above all. He told his heart that he despised her, and cast her off, and hated her: and his heart knew that he lied, and loved her at the very moment as desperately as ever.

“Well, don’t look so black about it, friend Beppo,” said the corporal as he opened the door for him. “It seems that the young lady does not value the paternal blessing so much as I had supposed. Try her another way, next time.”

“I want no next time,” said Beppo. “It is not likely that I shall trouble your fun here another time.”

“Well, we must try not to break our hearts. I won’t answer for mine, for it’s a very tender one,” said the corporal, placing his hand on the organ in question, and bowing low as Beppo passed the door. “I dare say we shall meet again though, for all that,” he added, looking with a soldier’s eye after Beppo as he went slowly down the great staircase; “meantime, buon viaggio, à rivederlo.”

And Corporal Tenda shut the door after him with undiminished good humour.

It is so easy for a man to keep his good temper under such circumstances.

Beppo walked away through the streets, now filling with people in their holiday trim, for it was just the hour of the passeggiata, feeling as if he had been stunned and was reeling. He never thought of returning to Signor Sandro’s house for the letter the attorney had asked him to carry to his father; but found his way somehow or other unconsciously to the osteria at which he had left his horse, and ordered it to be brought out to him with a manner and voice that made the lame ostler, whose lameness had recently become so valuable a possession, say to a bystander, as he rode off: “There’s another that’s been baulked in his hopes of getting a substitute. Wait awhile, and you’ll see plenty more faces like that in Fano!”

Beppo let his nag choose his own pace, and find his own way back to Bella Luce. The old horse had no doubt on either point. He quietly sauntered along the well-known road, and never disturbed his master’s deep reverie till he came to a full stop at his own stable-door.

The lights seemed to be all out in the farm-house; for it was much beyond the usual bed-time of the inmates. Beppo, still moving as if in a dream, put his horse into the stable, took off his saddle; and then, after standing awhile gazing sadly into the distant moonlight far down the valley, heaved a deep sobbing sigh, and turning away from the house towards the path leading to the village, walked straight to the great half-way cypress in the middle of the path.

There he flung himself on the turf at his length, and burst, great strong man as he was, into a passionate fit of tears.

When these had in some degree calmed the storm that was raging in his heart and brain, he set himself to think over every word, every accent, every gesture of the last meeting on that spot between him and Giulia. He would fain have found some motive of excuse, some possibility of explanation, from the comparison of her words, and conduct then with what he had seen and heard that day. But each well-remembered look and phrase seemed to him only to make her present conduct appear the more odious, the more hideously inconsistent. False, false, false, as hell! “No love, no love!” she had cried in the bitterness of her heart. “I hate them! I hate all men!”

Oh, what a wreath of bitter, bitter scorn sate on Beppo’s usually inexpressive lips, as he recalled the words!

All thought of the conscription seemed to have gone far, far away into the background, as if it appertained to some distant matter; but still his mind would go over and over again the scene of that last night; and still the tender feelings which, despite his reason, would fill his eyes with tears at the thoughts of it, were alternated with the hot fit of burning rage and shame, and scathing jealousy, as he recalled those other memories of the morning.

And so passed the hours, till the morning Ave Maria from the tower of the neighbouring church of Santa Lucia recalled him to the necessity of reporting himself at home, and commencing with his father and brother the morning’s task.