Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 10/Beppo, the conscript - Part 14




Almost all the habitations that formed the little village of Santa Lucia were grouped together, apparently according to no other plan than such as chance and caprice had dictated, around an irregularly-shaped little piazza, on the lower or valley side of the church. On the other side of it—the side which looked towards the Apennine—were the churchyard, the Cura, or parsonage, and a half-ruined tower, the only remains of a small castle that had existed here in the days when the possessors of the soil lived on their land and in strong castles; the days before social progress turned them from rebels into courtiers. There were the landmarks of the old social arrangements still in their normal places: the lord’s castle on the highest, most prominent, and defensible point of the ground; the dwellings of the peasantry, his serfs and vassals, huddled together on the lower ground at its foot; and the church and the priest between the two.

The old tower was thus the last building of any sort towards the hills. There were, it is true, one or two other villages higher up, before the open ground of the mountain range was reached; and the little bridle-paths which were the only roads above Santa Lucia, meandered from one of these to the other in succession. But it was easy for anybody who had a general knowledge of the country, to reach the open hill-side without passing through these. It might have been rather difficult for one having no such knowledge to do so, for the country was broken into a labyrinth of little valleys, each with its small stream, ready to become a scarcely passable torrent after a little rain; and although it appeared easy enough to a wayfarer to steer his course directly for the high tops to the westward and northward of him when he stood at the top of any one of the lower hills, no sooner had he descended into the intervening valley, and plunged among the woods with which most of these valleys are more or less clothed, than he found himself wholly at a loss as to his direction and bearings. It was a difficult region, in short, for “going across country;” and a stranger under the necessity of traversing it, soon found that his most advisable plan was to bear with the tortuosity of the bridle-paths, and submit to be conducted to each hill-side hamlet in succession. Those to the manner born, however, knew how to reach the upper hills at need by a much more direct and a shorter route.

It was about three o’clock in the morning of a day some five or six days later than the date of the conversation given in the last chapter, that Beppo was standing in the deep shade of the western wall of the old tower above mentioned. The gloom was deepest on that side, and it was the side furthest away from the habitations of the village. But the precaution, if precaution it was, which had led him to choose that side for his watch, was little needed; for the moon that had lighted him home on his return from Fano after the day of the drawing, had waned; and the night was dark enough on all sides for the purposes of any who had deeds of darkness to do.

And Beppo Vanni, honest Beppo, who had never done anything that all the world might not have been witness to, for aught he cared—(save and except, indeed, that never-to-be-forgotten deed perpetrated in the moonlight under the half-way cypress!)—frank-eyed, up-looking Beppo, who had never quailed or dropped his glance before the eye of any man, was now to be numbered among those who loved not the light, because their deeds were evil.

Evil! In all honesty and truth he did not know it to be such; had every reason, indeed, to believe it to be the reverse. He was acting according to the best of his lights, and according to the counsel of the guide he had been taught to look up to, revere, and obey from his childhood upwards! Nevertheless, the honest, upright, open instincts of the man protested against the enterprise he was engaged in! It was exceedingly painful to him to be sneaking in the dark like a malefactor, fearing to be seen, and starting at every sound. It was not the idea of breaking the law that was shocking to him. The Romagnole peasant, ex-subject of the Papal Government, had small reverence for law as such; no idea that honour or morality was in anywise connected with the observance of it. It was the darkness, the skulking, the consciousness that it behoved him to be unseen, not only by the myrmidons of the law—an honest man’s natural enemies, according to Romagnole peasant-philosophy—but by his own comrades and fellows, that oppressed him. And specially it was inexpressibly painful to him to leave Bella Luce under such circumstances. In talking to the priest upon the subject previously, he had never realised how it would feel, this sneaking away, and leaving his friends and acquaintance to discover in the morning that he was missing. Now, the step he had taken was so repugnant to him, that he was on the point of returning to the farm-house while it was yet time, and telling the priest in the morning that he had finally determined on accepting service in the army as his lot in life, when the recollection came over him, that it was only by conforming to the priest’s counsel that he could obtain the recall of Giulia from the city. To shrink from the course he had embarked in would be to ensure her continuance in the society of that accursed man. The blood rushed to his head and clouded his eyes as the thought shaped itself with maddening distinctness of representation in his mind. No! come what come might to him—let him himself become what he might—that should not be. He would save her from that, at all events. It was horrible to think that even during these days they were together; and he was in a hurry to start at once on his path of exile, as if the performance of his part of the pact would hasten the coming of the moment when she should be snatched out of that man’s reach .

There was yet, however, one more thing to be done before Beppo could start on the journey that was to make an outlaw and a bandit of him. He was waiting there behind the old tower, by appointment, for a last meeting with the priest. That active and enterprising intriguer chose to see his man off, and to give him certain instructions for the facilitation of the object in view, when there should be no possibility of his making any confidences at Bella Luce or at Santa Lucia on the subject. It was necessary that these instructions should be precise with regard to certain names of places and persons which were to serve as pass-words and means of recognition. For, as may be imagined, Don Evandro was not the man to put anything in writing in such a business.

It has been mentioned that one other Santa Lucia man besides Beppo had drawn a number which condemned him to serve. But Don Evandro did not intend that any parishioner of his should swell the ranks of the excommunicate army. He had taken duo care that this companion in Beppo’s misfortune should also be found wanting when the day of the examination came. But he had avoided saying anything to Beppo on this subject. The man in question was of a different class, and of a very different character from Beppo; and it appeared to his reverence that the two cases had better be treated separately. It would not be likely by any means to commend the course of action in question to Beppo, to find that he was to be associated in it with his fellow parishioner; and besides, there were certain means of facilitation and provisions for the well-being of Beppo Vanni to be made, which the priest either did not care, or would not venture, to put in action in the case of a less valuable and reliable member of his flock. So Beppo, knowing nothing of the fate or intentions of his brother conscript, was to start alone.

The priest did not keep him waiting long. Three o’clock had been the hour named. Beppo, in his nervousness, had been at the trysting-place a few minutes before the time; yet, in coming up from Bella Luce, he had tarried awhile under the half-way cypress! The little bell in the church tower had not yet struck the quarter, when Beppo heard a footstep on the other side of the tower, and Don Evandro made his appearance.

“So you are here before me, figliuolo mio!” he said, scarcely above a whisper, though in truth there were no ears anywhere within hearing; “I am glad to see you so punctual; it is a good sign. Now give me your best attention, for it is very important that you should recollect the directions I am going to give you. In the first place, have you brought any food with you?”

“Yes, your reverence! I remembered what you told me. I have bread enough to last me through to-day, and a bit of salame” (a sort of sausage much used by the peasantry).

“That is all right! Because, observe, it will be well for you not to enter any village or house in the course of this day. You are sufficiently known in all this district to run the chance at least of being recognised. Not that there would be much fear of any harm from any of the people of our hills. Thank God, they are little likely to feel anything but sympathy for a fellow-subject of our Holy Father escaping from the clutches of the infidel Government. But there is no telling whom you might fall in with. There are all sorts of spies and evil-disposed persons about the country; and it is very desirable that no information of the route you have taken should reach the ears of the authorities. Therefore, keep at a distance from all habitations whatsoever during this first day. And for the first night—mark me!—make, in the first instance, as directly as you can consistently with avoiding all villages and houses, for Monte Conserva. Then, bearing southward, cross the river at Volpone, under Sant’ Andrea, and make for Monte Arcello; and thence go down till you are near the village of Aqualagna. You know Aqualagna?”

“Yes, your reverence; I have often been at Aqualagna; but I have been by the road through the Furlo.”

“Exactly so. That would be the usual way to go there, and much shorter than the route I have traced for you. But it is very desirable that you should put yourself on the other side of the Furlo, but should not pass through it;—you understand?”

The Furlo, it must be explained, is a very remarkable passage bored through the living rock by the Romans, by means of which the high road of communication between Umbria, Perugia, and Rome, and all the region to the south-west of the Apennines on the one side, and Romagna and the cities of the Adriatic on the other, is enabled to thread the valley of the Cardigliano torrent, instead of climbing the mountains, as it must have done if these great road-makers—the ancient masters of the world—had not opened this extraordinary passage. The Furlo is situated between the towns of Fossombrone and Cagli, a little to the north of the village of Aqualagna.

“Do not attempt to pass by the road through the Furlo,” continued the priest; “either now or on any future occasion while you may be out; for that is the spot where the road will be watched, and where any parties of soldiers who may be scouring the country will be sure to pass. Remember to avoid it. By placing it between you and this part of the country without ever passing through it, you will throw all pursuit off the scent more surely than in any other way. The track across the mountains which I have indicated to you is a long journey—a very long journey, for one day; but not more than such a pair of legs as yours can do: on the following day you may take it more easily. Now, observe just outside the village of Aqualagna, as you go on to the little bridge over the stream that runs into the river opposite Santa Lucia, you will see a Franciscan friar sitting by the road-side. He will get up as you come up to him, and you will say, instead of ‘Good evening, frate!’ ‘Good morning, frate!’ Do not say anything else. He will then walk on, and you must follow him till he comes to the door of a little oratory of our Blessed Lady on the other side of the village. He will just give a tap with his stick in passing, and walk on. Then you must go in at the door he struck. You will find clean straw, and food, and wine. Nobody will come near you. Eat, drink, and sleep; and start on your way before daylight in the morning, closing the door after you. The next day,” continued the priest, “take your way up the stream of the Cardigliano, towards Page:010 Once a week Volume X Dec 1863 to Jun 64.pdf/90