Much Ado About Peter/Chapter 5

 

THE RISE OF VITTORIO

 

 

V
THE RISE OF VITTORIO

DAVID MACKENNA, the gardener at Jasper Place, was a Scotchman of the Scotch. He was truculent when sober, and actively pugnacious when drunk. It may be said to his credit that he was not drunk very often, and that when he was drunk he was canny enough to keep out of Mr. Jasper's way. But one night, after a prolonged political discussion at Callahan's saloon, he was unsteadily steering homeward across the side lawn just as Mr. Harry and two friends who were visiting him emerged from the gap in the hedge that divided Jasper Place from Willowbrook. The gentlemen were returning from a dinner, and were clothed in evening dress. They in no wise resembled tramps; but David's vision was blurred and his fighting blood was up. He possessed himself of an armful of damp sods, and warily advanced to the attack. He was not in a condition to aim very straight, but the three shining shirt-fronts made an easy mark. Before his victims had recovered from the suddenness of the onslaught sufficiently to protect themselves, he had demolished three dress suits.

The next morning David was dismissed. The other workers, both at Jasper Place and Willowbrook, appreciated the justice of the sentence, but were sorry to see him go. David's argumentative temper and David's ready fists had added zest to social intercourse. They feared that his successor would be of a milder type, and less entertaining. The successor came some three days later, and Peter, observing his arrival across the hedge, paid an early call on Patrick to see what he was like. Peter returned to Willowbrook disgusted.

"He's a Dago! A jabberin' Dago out of a ditch. He can't talk more'n ten words, an' he don't understand what they means. Mr. Harry picked him all right for a peaceable citizen who won't be spoilin' no dress suits. He ain't got a drop o' fight in him. Ye call him a liar, an' he smiles an' says, 'Sank you!'"

Vittorio set about the weeding of his flower-beds with the sunny patience bred of love. Whatever were his failings in English and the war-like arts, at least he understood his business. Mr. Harry watched his protégé with pleased approval. He had always admired the Italian character theoretically, but this was the first time that he had ever put his admiration to the actual test; and he congratulated himself upon finding at last the ideal gardener with the pastoral soul that he had long been seeking. Mr. Harry had no racial prejudices himself, and he took it for granted that others were as broad.

Vittorio's pastoral soul, however, won less approval among his fellow-workers. Peter did not share Mr. Harry's enthusiasm for the Italian race, and Peter largely swayed public opinion both at Jasper Place and Willowbrook.

"It's somethin' awful," he declared, "the way this country's gettin' cluttered up with Dagoes. There ought to be a law against lettin' 'em come in."

In so far as he was concerned, Peter refused to let Vittorio come in; and the man was consigned to social darkness and the companionship of his plants. He did not seem to mind this ostracism, however, but whistled and sang at his work with unabated cheerfulness. His baby English shortly became the butt of everybody's ridicule, but as he never understood the jokes, he bore no grudge. The only matter in which he showed the slightest personal prejudice was the fact that they all persisted in calling him "Tony."

"My name no Tony," he would patiently explain half a dozen times a day. "My name Vittorio Emanuele, same-a de king."

Tony, however, he remained.

The man's chief anxiety was to learn English, and he was childishly grateful to anyone who helped him. The stablemen took a delighted interest in his education; it was considered especially funny to teach him scurrilous slang. "Come off your perch, you old fool," was one of the phrases he patiently committed to memory, and later repeated to Mr. Harry with smiling pride at his own progress.

Mr. Harry spoke to Peter on the subject.

"Yes, sir," Peter agreed easily, "it's disgustin', the language these Dagoes picks up. I can't imagine where they hears it, sir. They 're that familiar, ye can't pound no manners into them."

Mr. Harry wisely dropped the matter. He knew Peter, and he thought it safest to let Vittorio work out his own salvation.

Several of the practical jokes at the man's expense should, logically, have ended in a fight. Had he taken up the gauntlet, even at the expense of a whipping, they would have respected him—in so far as Irishmen can respect an Italian—but nothing could goad him into action. He swallowed insults with a smiling zest, as though he liked their taste. This unfailing peaceableness was held to be the more disgraceful in that he was a strongly built fellow, quite capable of standing up for his rights.

"He ain't so bad looking," Annie commented one day, as she and Peter strolled up to the hedge and inspected the new gardener at work with the clipping-shears. "And, at least, he's tall—that's something. They 're usually so little, them Eye-talians."

"Huh!" said Peter, "size ain't no merit. The less there is of an Eye-talian, the better. His bigness don't help along his courage none. Ye 're a coward, Tony. D'ye hear that?"

Their comments had been made with perfect freedom in Vittorio's presence, while he hummed a tune from "Fra Diavolo" in smiling unconcern. Unless one couched one's insults in kindergarten language and fired them straight into his face, they passed him by unscathed.

"Ye 're a coward, Tony," Peter repeated.

"Cow-ward?" Vittorio broke off his song and beamed upon them with a flash of black eyes and white teeth. "How you mean, cow-ward? No understand."

"A coward," Peter patiently explained, "is a man who's afraid to fight—like you. Eye-talians are cowards. They don't dare stand up man to man an' take what's comin' to 'em. When they 've got a grudge to pay, they creeps up in the night an' sticks a knife in yer back. That's bein' a coward."

The insulting significance of this escaped Vittorio, but he clung to the word delightedly. "Cow-ward, cow-ward," he repeated, to fix the syllables in his mind. "Nice word! Sank you." Then, as a glimmering of Peter's insinuation finally penetrated, he shook his head and laughed. The charge amused him. "Me no cow-ward!" he declared. "No afraid fight, but no like-a fight. Too hard work." He shrugged his shoulders and spread out his hands. "More easy take care-a flower."

The subtlety of this explanation was lost upon Peter, and the two went their ways; the one happily engaged with his weeding and his pruning, the other looking on across the hedge contemptuously scornful.

Peter's ideal of the highest human attainment was to become a "true sport." His vocabulary was intensive rather than extensive, and the few words it contained meant much. The term "true sport" connoted all desirable qualities. Abstractly, it signified ability, daring, initiative, force; it meant that the bearer attacked the world with easy, conquering grace, and—surest test of all—that he faced defeat no less than success with a high heart. Concretely, a true sport could play polo and ride to hounds, could drive a motor-car or a four-in-hand or sail a boat, could shoot or swim or box. All of these things, and several others, Mr. Harry Jasper could do. It was from observing him that Peter's definition had gained such precision.

The billiard-room mantelpiece at Jasper Place held a row of silver cups, relics of Mr. Harry's college days. The hall at Jasper Place testified to Mr. Harry's prowess with the rifle. A moose head decorated the arch, a grizzly bear skin stretched before the hearth, and a crocodile's head plucked from the mud of its native Nile emerged grinning from the chimney-piece. Some day Mr. Harry was going to India after a tiger skin to put over the couch; in the meanwhile he contented himself with duck-shooting on Great South Bay, or an occasional dip into the Adirondacks.

Patrick had accompanied him on the last of these trips, and it had been a long-standing promise that Peter should go on the next. Their camp was to be in Canada this year, as soon as the open season for caribou arrived. Peter's heart was set on a caribou of his own, and as the summer wore to an end his practice with the rifle was assiduous.

Mr. Harry had set up a target down on the Jasper beach—a long strip of muddy gravel which the inlet, at low tide, left bare—and had given the men permission to shoot. One Saturday afternoon Patrick and Peter and Billy were gathered on the beach amusing themselves with a rifle and a fresh box of cartridges. The target was a good two hundred yards away. With a light rifle, such as the men were using, it was a very pretty shot to hit one of the outer rings, the bull's-eye, through anything but a lucky fluke, being almost impossible.

"Mr. Harry's givin' us a run for our money," Peter grumbled, after splashing the water behind the target several times in a vain attempt to get his range. "Ye'd better keep out, Billy. This ain't no easy steps for little feet."

But Billy, with his usual aplomb, insisted upon trying. After his second shot Peter derisively shouted:

"Look out, Pat! It ain't safe to stand behind him; he's likely to hit 'most anything except the mark."

Billy good-naturedly retired and engaged himself in keeping score. The rivalry between Peter and Patrick was keen. The latter was the older hand at rifle-shooting, but Peter was the younger man and possessed the keener eye. As soon as they became accustomed to their distance they pulled into line, and the contest grew spirited. Presently Vittorio, a garden hoe in hand, came loping across the meadow, attracted by the shots. When he saw what was toward, he dropped down on the bank and interestedly watched the match. Patrick had been ahead, but his last shot went wild and splashed the water to the left of the target. Peter made the inner ring and pulled the score up even. He was in an elated frame of mind.

"Hello, Tony!" he called with unwonted affability as he paused to reload. "See that shot? Pretty near hit the bull's-eye. You don't know how to shoot—no? Eye-talians use knives. Americans use guns."

Vittorio smiled back, pleased at being so freely included in the conversation.

"I shoot-a more good dat. You no shoot-a straight; no hit middle." His tone was not boastful; he merely dropped the remark as an unimpassioned statement of fact.

Peter had raised the rifle to his shoulder; he lowered it again to stare.

"What are ye givin' us?" he demanded. "Ye think ye can shoot better'n me?"

Vittorio shrugged. He had no desire to hurt Peter's feelings, but at the same time he saw no occasion to lie.

"Course I shoot-a more good dat," he responded genially. "I shoot-a long time. You no learn how like-a me."

"Here," said Peter, stretching the rifle toward the man, "let me see ye do it, then! Either put up or shut up. I 'll show ye that it ain't so easy as it looks."

Vittorio sprang to his feet with an air of surprised delight.

"You let-a me shoot? Sank you! Sank you ver' moch." He took the rifle in his hand and caressed the barrel with a touch almost loving. His eyes were eager as a child's.

"Here, you, Tony," Peter warned, "don't get funny with that gun! Point it at the target."

Vittorio raised the rifle and squinted along the barrel; then, as an idea occurred to him, he lowered it again and faced the three men with his always sunny smile. He had a sporting proposition to make.

"You shoot-a more good me, my name Tony. I shoot-a more good you, my name Vittorio Emanuele, same-a de king. You call me Vittorio, I understand, I come; you call me Tony, I no understand, no come."

Peter, whatever his prejudices, was true to his ideals.

"It's a bargain, Tony. Ye beat me shootin' and I 'll call ye any bloomin' thing ye please—providin' I can twist me tongue to it."

Vittorio's eyes sought Patrick's. He removed the pipe from his mouth and grunted.

"All-a right!" said Vittorio. "We shoot-a free time. First me, den you, den you, den me again, like dat."

Without more ado he threw the gun to his shoulder, and, scarcely seeming to sight, fired, and snapped out the empty cartridge. As the smoke cleared the three strained forward in open-mouthed astonishment. He had hit the target squarely in the centre.

"By gum! he's done it!" Peter gasped; then, after an astonished silence, "Nothin' but luck—he can't do it again. Gi' me the gun."

Peter's surprise had not steadied his nerves; his shot went far astray, and he silently passed the rifle to Patrick. Patrick laid down his pipe, planted his feet firmly, and made the inner ring. He passed the rifle on to Vittorio, and resumed his pipe. Patrick was a phlegmatic soul; it took a decided shock to rouse him to words.

"Let's see ye do it again," said Peter.

Vittorio raised the rifle and did it again. His manner was entirely composed; he scored bull's-eyes as a matter of course.

Peter's feelings by now were too complicated for words. He studied the nonchalant Vittorio a moment in baffled bewilderment, then stepped forward without remark to take his turn. He sighted long and carefully, and scored the outer ring. He offered the rifle to Patrick, who waved it away.

"I'm out."

"Don't back down," said Peter. "Ye 've got two more tries. If ye let him beat us he 'll be so darned cocky there won't be no livin' with him."

Patrick copied the Italian's shrug and passed the rifle on. Vittorio advanced for his third turn under the keenly suspicious scrutiny of six eyes. They could not divine how such shooting could be accomplished by trickery, but, still more, they could not divine how it could be accomplished without. Vittorio sighted more carefully this time, but he made his bull's-eye with unabated precision.

"Dat make-a free time," he observed, relinquishing the rifle with a regretful sigh.

"Guess I 've had enough," said Peter. "You 're Vittorio Emanuele, same-a de king, all right. We don't appear to trot in your class. How'd ye learn?"

"All Italian mans know how shoot—learn in de army. I shoot-a long time. Shoot-a Afric'."

"Africa!" said Peter. "You been in Africa?"

"Two time," Vittorio nodded.

"What'd ye shoot there—lions?"

"No, no lion." Vittorio raised his shoulders with a deprecatory air. "Just man."

"Oh!" said Peter. His tone was noticeably subdued.

Mr. Harry Jasper, also attracted by the shooting, came strolling along the beach to see how the match was going, but arrived too late to witness Vittorio's spectacular exhibit. Mr. Harry considered himself a pretty good shot; he had often beaten Peter, and Peter entertained a slightly malicious desire to see him worsted once at his own game.

"Oh, Mr. Harry!" he called carelessly. "We 've been tryin' our hands at yer target, like ye said we might, an' this here new gardener-man come along an' wanted to have a try. He's a surprisin' good shot for an Eye-talian. Ye would n't believe it, but he beat Pat an' he beat me. Would you mind shootin' with him once? I'd like to show him what Americans can do."

Peter's tone was a touch over-careless. Mr. Harry glanced at him suspiciously, and from him to Vittorio, who was looking on with amiable aloofness, quite unaware that he was the subject of discussion. Mr. Harry had not been entirely blind to the trials of David's peaceable successor, and he was glad to see that the man was coming to the top.

"So he's beaten you? How does that happen, Peter? I thought you prided yourself on your shooting."

"I'm a little out o' practice," said Peter.

Mr. Harry ran his eye over Vittorio's well-set-up figure.

"Served in the army, Vittorio?"

"Si, signore, five year."

"What corps—Bersaglieri?"

"Si, si!" Vittorio's face was alight. "I b'long Bersaglieri. How you know?"

"Thank you for your interest, Peter," Mr. Harry laughed. "I don't believe I 'll shoot with him to-day. I'm a little out of practice myself."

Peter's face was mystified.

"The Bersaglieri," Mr. Harry explained, "are the sharpshooters of the Italian army, and a well-trained lot they are. You and I, Peter, are amateurs; we don't enter matches against them when we know what we 're about."

"He did n't tell me nothin' about bein' a sharpshooter," said Peter, sulkily. "He said he learned in Africa."

"Africa?" Mr. Harry echoed. "Did you go through the campaign in Abyssinia, Vittorio?"

The man nodded.

"Surely not at Adowa?"

A quick shadow crossed his face.

"Si, signore," he said, simply; "I fight at Adowa."

"Good heavens!" Mr. Harry cried. "The fellow's fought against Menelik and the dervishes." He faced the other three, his hand on Vittorio's shoulder.

"You don't know what that means? You never heard of Adowa? It means that this chap here has been through the fiercest battle ever fought on African soil. He was beaten—the odds against him were too heavy—but it was one of the bravest defeats in history. The Italians for three days had been marching across burning deserts in a hostile country, on half rations, and with almost no water. At the end of that time they accomplished a forced march of twenty miles by night, across hills and ravines so rough that the cannon had frequently to be carried by hand. Then, as they were, worn out and hungry, hopeless as to the outcome, they were asked to face an enemy six times larger than themselves—not a civilized enemy, mind you, but howling dervishes—and they did it without flinching. There's not a man who went through Adowa but came out a hero."

Vittorio had watched his face; here and there he had caught a word. He suddenly threw out his arms in a spasm of excitement, his eyes blazing at the memory of the fight.

"Dat's right! Menelik bad king—bad war. No like-a dose peoples—me. I shoot-a fast like dis." He snatched up the rifle and crouched behind a rock; in pantomime he killed a dozen of the foe in as many seconds. He threw the rifle away and sprang to his feet. "Not enough cartridges! No can shoot-a more. Den I get-a wound; lie like-a dis." He dropped his arms and drooped his head. "How you say? Tired? Yes, ver' tired like-a baby. Santissima Virgine! No can move, I bleed so moch. Sun ver' hot—no water—ver' t'irsty. Den come-a dose peoples. Dey cut-a me up."

He tore open his shirt. A broad scar extended from his shoulder across his breast. He lifted his hair and showed a scar behind his ear, another on his forehead.

"Si, signore, all over my body dey cut-a me up!"

Mr. Harry frowned.

"Yes, yes, I know. It was terrible! You put up a great fight, Vittorio—sorry you did n't do for 'em. You are brave chaps, you Italians. It's a great thing to have gone through Adowa, something to be proud of all your life. I am glad to know you were there." He glanced at Peter sharply, then nodded and turned away.

Peter studied Vittorio, a new look in his eyes. The man's momentary excitement had vanished; he was his old, placid, sunny self again.

"I guess we made a mistake," said Peter, and he held out his hand.

Vittorio obligingly shook it, since that seemed to be expected, but he did it with smiling uncomprehension. He had never known that he had been insulted, and he did not realize that amends were necessary. A pause followed while the three men gazed at Vittorio, and Vittorio gazed at the sun, slanting toward the western horizon.

"Six 'clock!" he exclaimed, coming to a sudden realization that duty called. "I go water flower." He shouldered his hoe and turned away, but paused to add, his eyes wistfully on the rifle: "You let-a me shoot some ovver day? Sank you. Goo'-bye."

Peter looked after him and shook his head.

"An' to think he's a Dago! I s'pose if ye could understand what they was jabberin' about, half the time, ye'd find they was talkin' as sensible as anybody else. 'Tis funny," he mused, "how much people is alike, no matter what country they comes from." He picked up the rifle and stuffed the cartridges into his pocket. "Get a move on ye, Billy. 'Tis time we was feedin' them horses."