Pietro of Abano/XIV
Antonio had not been mistaken. It was in fact the old woman that he had caught sight of in the crowd. She was living in a little hut, behind some ruinous houses, not far from the Lateran. Persecuted, destitute, deserted and hated and dreaded by all the world, she was here, in the abode of wretchedness, reduced to the brink of despair. She seldom ventured to shew herself abroad, and on this day too had only gone out from necessity, to bring her Crescentia, who had run away from her, back again.
As everybody shrank out of her path, as it was hard work for her even to obtain here and there an alms, and as her former arts found few lovers, she was no little astonisht that evening to hear a knock at her door, while cries and shouts were tossing without. She took her lamp, and, opening the door, saw a swarm of street-boys and of the lowest rabble at the heels of a little crooked figure fantastically clad in red velvet and gold.
— Does not the worthy Pancrazia live here? screamed the deformed dwarf.
— Ay, to be sure! said the old woman, as she forcibly banged the door to, and tried to drive away the people on the outside by abuse. Who are you, worthy Sir? what do you seek from an old forlorn lady?
— Set yourself down, said the little stranger, and kindle some more light, that we may spy and look at one another; and whereas you call yourself poor, take these gold pieces, and we will sip a glass of wine together to our better acquaintance.
The old woman smirkt, lighted some wax-candles which she kept lockt up in a drawer, and said:
— I have still a flask of good Florence, worshipful sir, that shall warm our insides.
She opened a little cupboard and placed the red comforter upon the table, pouring out the first glass for her unknown guest.
— Why do you call me worshipful? askt he.
— Don't the pieces of gold declare it? answered she: and your doublet, and the lace upon it, and the feather in your hat? Are you not a prince, not a magnate?
— No! howled the little one: what, odds bodikins! cousin, don't you know me in the least? and yet in my younger days people wanted to flatter me by assuring me that we in some degree resembled each other: and faith! when I come to look thus closely at your figure, your physiognomy, your expression, your sweet smile, and those twinkling stars in your eyes there, and when I weigh all this with scrupulous impartiality, why, cousin Pancrazia of the house of Posaterrena in Florence, and little Beresynth of the family of Fuocoterrestro in Milan, are for such degrees of kin, as cousinhood, like each other enough.
— O gemini! screamed the old woman in delight: so you are the Beresynth of Milan about whom I heard so much talk in my childhood. Hey! Hey! so am I at this late hour in the day, in the depth of old age, to become acquainted with such a lovely cousin face to face!
— Ay! said the dwarf: just nose to nose; for that great bastion thrown up there is certainly the biggest piece of bonework in our faces. For curiosity's sake, dear coz, let us make an experiment for once, whether we can manage to give each other a cousinly kiss — No, purely impossible! the far outjutting promontories immediately begin rattling against each other, and forclose our lowly lips from everything like a soft meeting. We must force our noble Roman noses aside with our two fists. So! Don't let it fly, my lady cousin! I might come by a box on the ears that would make my last teeth tumble out.
With a hearty laugh the hag cried:
— Hey! I have not been so merry this long time. But what did they want with you before the door there, cousin?
— What! screamed the little one: to look at me, to delight their eyes with me, nothing more. Is not man, my highly esteemed cousin gossip, a thoroughly silly animal? Here in Rome now have hundreds of thousands been assembled whole months, for their Redeemer's honour, as they give out, and to do penance for their sins and get rid of them; and the moment I peep out of the window (I only arrived here the day before yesterday) be it merely in my nightcap, and still more when I come forth at full length and in my Sunday suit into the marketplace, one can't help swearing that the whole gang of them have started out of every hole and corner in Europe merely for my sake: they so leer, and ogle me, and whisper, and ask questions, and laugh, and are in ecstacies. I might grow rich, meseems, were I to let myself be stared at for money while I stay here; and if I chance to give them all this pleasure gratis, forthwith a pack of blockheads begin barking and hallooing at my tail. To see a long-tailed monkey, apes or seals, the dogs must put themselves to some expense; yet instead of enjoying my magnanimity quietly and like sensible people, they rave and revile me all round, and hunt for every expression of loathing they can root out of the animal creation, to display their gross ignorance.
— Very true! very true! sighed the old woman: it fares no better with me. Are the beasts such sheer fools then? Only let a body have a regular, average, commonplace nose, eyes, and chin, and all goes on quietly.
— Look at the fish, continued Beresynth, who are dunces in many things. What philosophical tolerance! and yet among them many a fellow is all snout, and confronts the learned physiognomists of the ocean with a countenance, grave, cold, calm in the consciousness of its originality: nay, the whole deep brims and swims with one can't count how many eccentric faces, and gills, and teeth, and eyes astart from their sockets, and every other kind of striking contour: but every monster there floats his own way quietly and peaceably, without having his sleeve twitcht or any other annoyance. Man alone is so absurd as to laugh and sneer at his fellow creatures.
— And on what, said the beldam, after all does this mighty difference turn? I am sure I never yet saw a nose that was but a single yard long: an inch, at most two, hardly ever three, make the vast distinction between what they call monsters, and what they are pleased in their modesty to style beauty. And now to come to a hump. If it were not in one's way sometimes in bed, as you know, coz, it is in itself far more agreeable to the eye than those dull flats by way of backs, where in many a lank lathy booby the tiresome straight line stretches up as far as one can see without a single twist, or curl, or flourish.
— You are in the right, my dame cousin! cried Beresynth already drunk to his drunken hostess. What can Nature be about when she turns off the things they christen beauties from her pottery-wheel? Why, they are hardly worth the trouble of setting to work at them. But such cabinet pieces as you and I! there the creative power, or the principle of nature, or the soul of the world, or the mundane animal, or whatever title one chooses to give the thing, can look at its product with a certain degree of complacency and satisfaction. For it has your curved lines: it starts off into noticeable angles; it is jagged like corals; it darts forward like crystals; it agglomerates like basalt; nay, there is no conceivable line that does not hop, skip, and jump about our bodies. We, coz, are the spoilt, the cockered children of the formation: and this is why the common rabble of nature are so malicious and envious toward us. Their slim wretched fashion is next door to the slimy eel: there is nothing edifying in such an edifice. From that piece of monotony to the prawn is already a good step; and how far above that is the seal! how do we surpass them both, as well as the seastar, the crab, and the lobster, my trustiest cousin, in our excursive irregularities, which defy all the mathematicians in the world to find an expression for their law. But coz, pray where did you get those two gorgeous teeth? the incomparable couple cut a grand and gloomy figure there across the chasm of your unfathomable mouth, and form a capital bridge over the gulf that gapes between the dark cliffs of your gums.
— O you rogue! O you flatterer! laught the old woman: but your darling chin that comes forward so complaisantly, and is so ready to wait upon you and spread itself out like a table. Don't you think you could put a good-sized platter upon it comfortably, where your mouth might then quietly nibble away, while your hands were seeking work elsewhere. This I call an economical arrangement.
— We won't spoil ourselves by too much praise; said the dwarf: we are already, it seems, vain enough of our advantages; and after all we did not give them to ourselves.
— You are right, said she. But what profession are you of, cousin? where do you live?
— Oddly enough; answered Beresynth: sometimes here, sometimes there, like a vagabond: however I now mean to settle quietly; and as I heard there was still a near kinswoman of mine living, I resolved to seek her out and beg her to come and live with me. This is what brought me hither. In my youth I was an apothecary in Calabria; there they drove me away, because they fancied I manufactured love-powders. O dear, as if there was any need of 'em nowadays. Then once upon a time I was a tailor; the outcry was, I thieved too much: a pastrycook; all accused me of thinning the cat and dog population. I wanted to put on a monk's cowl; but no convent would let me in. Then came my doctoring days, and I was to be burnt; for they muttered about, what think you? witchcraft. I became a scholar, wrote essays, systems of philosophy, poems: those who could not read were sure I was blaspheming God and Christianity, and that was too bad. After many long years I betook myself to the man who was making such a pother in the world, Pietro Apone, and became his familiar, next a hermit, and what not? The best is that in every state of life I have made money and hoarded it up; so that I can now lay down my grey head free from want and care. And now, coz, for your history.
— Just like yours; answered she: the innocent are always persecuted. I have had a few times to stand in the pillory; have been banisht out of half a dozen countries; among other things they even wanted to burn me; they would have it I conjured, I stole children, I bewitcht people, I fabricated poisons.
— And coz, said Beresynth in the openness of his heart, there was some truth in all this, was not there? innocent as you are. I at least must confess it as to myself, and perhaps it may lie in the family, that I have given in to more than one of the aforesaid practices. My amiable gossip, he who has once swallowed a titbit of dear witchcraft, can never keep his fingers from it afterward as long as he lives. The thing is just like dram-drinking: once get the taste for it, and tongue, and throat, and gums, and marry! even lungs and liver, will never let it go.
— You know human nature, I see, my dear cousin; said the hag, with a grin that tried to be a simper. Such trifles as a little murder and witchcraft, poisoning and stealing, run in the blood even of the innocentest. Bawding was a thing in which I could never hit the mark. And what shall one say when one has to endure thanklessness and woe from one's own children? My daughter, though she has seen how I suffer hunger and trouble, and how I have stinted and starved my old mouth, merely to put her into fine clothes, the graceless wench would never let me coax her into earning but a single half-crown. Some time since she might have made a good match of it! there was Ildefonso and Andrea, and many other brave fellows besides, who supported our whole house, herself among the rest; but she set up the paltry pretense that the gentry were robbers and murderers, and that she could not let them into her heart. The gallants were such generous spirits, they meant to have the baggage actually tied to them in church; but silly youth has neither sense nor truth. Now they are lying in their graves, those worthy men, and have been turned out of life's doors in a most scandalous way. But this does not move her a whit more than my sorrow and distress; so that I can't make her consent to live with a rich young noble cavalier, the nephew of a cardinal, who could floor this whole room with gold. The silly jade has run away, and they absolutely won't give her up to me again. Such is the respect shewn to a mother in these days.
— Let her go, the worthless trumpery! cried Beresynth: we shall live happily together without her, I warrant; our ways of thinking and feeling are so well paired.
— But why should she run away, continued the old woman, like a faithless cat after a flogging? We might have parted as if we loved each other, and like two rational beings. Surely some occasion would have turned up before long of selling the greensick minx advantageously to an old lover or a young one; and this might have succeeded too, why should not it? if she had not lockt up a silly young fellow in her heart, whom she loves, as she tells me.
— O have done, gammer! screamed Beresynth, reeling and already half asleep. If you begin to talk about love, coz, I shall tumble into such a laughing convulsion that I shall not recover from it for this next three days. Love! that stupid word broke the neck of my famous master, Pietro. But for this tarantula-dance the great hawk-nose would still be sitting as professor at his lecturing desk, and tickling the young goslings with philosophy and wisdom as they perkt up their yellow beaks to catch the crumbs he dropt into them. Marry! old beldam, this monkey-trick of love, this Platonic drunkenness of the soul, was the only thing wanting to us, to me as well as you, and then the miracle of our heroic existence would have been quite perfect. — Well, goodbye, old dame; tomorrow night about this time I'll come to fetch you, and then we never part more.
— Cousin, said Pancrazia, goodbye, till we meet again. Since you came through my door, I have grown quite a different creature. We will make a royal housekeeping of it hereafter.
— So we too have had our jubilee now! stammered Beresynth, who was already standing in the street, and who reeled through the dark night to his lodging.