Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Beppo, the conscript - Part 3

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The seniors of the party, whose comfortable and reasonable arrangements were all thus disturbed and traversed by Dan Cupid’s tricksy perversities and self-willed rebelliousness, were not, however, disposed to give up the game without some further attempt at winning it. And matters stood at Bella Luce as has been indicated in the preceding chapter, when shrewd old Sandro Bartoldi, the rich Fano attorney, made a move with a view of weakening the enemy by a diversion. Intent on a scheme he had concocted with this purpose, the attorney ordered his stout, well-fed cob, one fine March morning, for a ride up to Bella Luce. Neither Sandro nor his beast were so well inclined to active movement as they once had been. They took the uphill work easily, therefore, among the lanes that crept up the green valleys; and though they left Fano betimes in the morning, only reached their destination some half an hour before noon.

That, indeed, was the hour at which the attorney had wished to time his arrival. For his errand required that he should hold a conference with the head of the Bella Luce family; and he knew very well that on this precious bright March morning all the males of the place would be at their avocations in the fields. But at noon came the hour of repose, and of the mid-day meal—the hours, rather, for few labourers, either in city or in country, of whatever class, allow themselves or are allowed by their employers less than two hours—from twelve till two.

March is a busy month in the country in Italy. It is the time for pruning and dressing the vines. And it was on this work that old Paolo Vanni and his two sons were engaged when Sandro Bartoldi rode up the last steep bit of the hollow lane that climbed from the bottom of the valley to the level of the house.

A French vineyard is one of the ugliest agricultural sights in nature. Nothing can be more unsightly than little low bushes, not much bigger than ugly brown cabbages, set in rows along the fields. But France produces good wine, and declares that this is the only way to do so. For the present, however, Italy is content to drink her somewhat harsher and coarser, but more generous wines, and to hold to the picturesque old method of cultivation that Virgil has described. Paolo, Beppo, and Carlo Vanni were tending their vines exactly as any Corydon, or Tityrus, or Thyrsis did two thousand years ago on the same hill-sides—marrying them with wedding-knots of withy, not exactly to elms, but to the white mulberry trees. Those also had been previously pruned, and the wood and the leaves carefully gathered, till little remained save the trunks, whose office was to support the vines, and a few leading branches cut into a cup-shaped form at the top of the trunk, destined to produce a fresh crop of shoots and leaves from the old, much-scarred, pollard head.

The rich, red tilled land of the large field in which they were all three at work, was now nearly covered with the bright green of the young crop. For the Italian agriculturist, unlike the French, does not think that his field has done enough when it has given him wine; the same land must give its corn, too; and, generally, to make up the Scriptural trio, its oil also.

The father and the two sons were in different parts of the field, at some distance from each other, each engaged on a separate tree. They were all mounted on broad double ladders, some five feet wide at the base, tapering as they rose to a height of about twelve feet or so from the ground, to a width of six or eight inches, and ending in a little platform of those dimensions. The old man was in his shirt-sleeves, and wore short fustian knee-breeches, and bright blue worsted stockings. The two young men wore trousers of cloth;—for Bella Luce was not utterly beyond the limits of fashion’s jurisdiction; though her writs were made returnable thence a considerable time after they were issued. Beppo and Carlo Vanni also had retained their jackets, either in consequence of a falling off from the hardiness of the previous generation, or from a sentiment of respect for the presence of the lovely Giulia. Each of the three had a peculiarly shaped small hatchet suspended, save at the moments when it was in use, by a hook at the end of its handle, from a strap around their loins, and a bundle of slender osier twigs tied in front of their shoulders;—the first to do the pruning; the second for the tying of that Virgilian marriage knot, which was to unite the drooping vine firmly to its support, till after the vintage.

Giulia was in the field, as has been intimated, and was busy in gathering, and binding into bundles the prunings, to be carefully carried to the homestead as precious food for the sheep and goats. This duty required her presence under the different trees on which the three men were engaged, one after the other; and Giulia was very careful to linger no longer over her work under the one tree than under the other. What! give old Paolo an opportunity of grumbling, or Carlo a chance of sneering, that she sought to make time for saying a few tête-à-tête words to poor Beppo! Not if she were never to have the chance of saying another!

Perhaps ball-room belles fancy that their lot only subjects them to the delicate embarrassments of similar considerations, and that the “happy simplicity of the peasant’s life,” frees them from all such little troubles. Ah! Giulia Vanni in the upland farm of Bella Luce could have told them a different story!

However, be scrupulous as she might to gather the vine cuttings under each plant as quickly as she could, and to linger no longer over one part of her work than another, it was impossible to avoid giving each of the three men, in turn, an opportunity of saying a few words to her from the top of his ladder, which was out of earshot of the others.

The field in which the party was at work commanded the hollow lane, by which the Fano attorney was approaching Bella Luce; and it so happened that Giulia, who was at that moment gathering up Beppo’s cuttings, was the first to catch sight of the guest.

“Beppo! there is a man on horseback coming up the lane! I declare I think . . . . yes, it certainly is,” she added, shading her eyes with her hand, “old Sandro, the attorney at Fano!”

“What can he be coming here for? . . . . no good, you may swear!” said Beppo, who considered the attorney only in the light of one of a conspiracy to deprive him of Giulia.

“Fie, Beppo! I am sure you ought not to say that of him of all people in the world! As if you did not know that he was coming here to propose his daughter for your Excellency’s acceptance!”

“The apoplexy catch him and his daughter, too! No, poor Lisa! I don’t mean that! But I wish he would let Lisa go her way, and me mine!”

“What a fine thing it must be to be a rich Signore, and to have the girls, pretty ones, too, like Lisa, coming to beg for the honour of your alliance! But it’s cruel to be hard upon her, Beppo! I would not refuse her, for we poor girls, you know, are apt to break our silly hearts for you ungrateful men.”

“Giulia! how can you go on so? As if you did not know! Ah! it’s only the girls who break their hearts, I suppose. Well! if you don’t know—”

“All I know is, that I must run and tell the padrone”—it was so that Giulia always spoke of the master of the family;—“that Ser Sandro is coming up the hill! Good bye, Beppo! Don’t be cruel to poor Lisa!”

And off she tripped to the part of the field where Paolo was at work, and from which that part of the hollow lane, in which the attorney was riding, was not visible.

’Gnor padrone! There is Ser Sandro, from Fano, coming up the hill! Had I not better run and tell the padrona?

“Ser Sandro coming? where?”

“He is in the hollow of the lane there; I saw him just now.”

“Whatever is in the wind to bring him out to Bella Luce to-day of all days in the year!” exclaimed old Paolo. “Yes, run, my girl, run, and tell la sposa that Ser Sandro will take a mouthful of dinner with us!”

Giulia waited for no second bidding, but ran off to the house, to prepare the mistress for the great and unusual event which was impending over Bella Luce, while old Paolo came down from his ladder, and, with his pruning-hatchet still hanging at his loins behind, and his bundle of withy twigs still stuck in front of him, hastened to the edge of the field where it overlooked the hollow way, to greet his visitor as he came up.

“Why, Signor Sandro!” he said from the top of the bank, as the attorney passed below him, “who would have thought of seeing you out at Bella Luce this morning! What news from town? How is the Signora Lisa? Come up, come up! there’ll be a mouthful of something or another to eat in the house.”

“Eat! Ah; you may talk about eating up here! What a beautiful air you have on the hill-side here. Per bacco, life must be worth fifty per cent. longer purchase here than down in the city there!”

“What time did you start this morning, Signor Sandro?”

“Oh, we’ve taken it easy, Moro and I! I knew there was no use in getting here before the angelus, if I wanted to speak with you, Signor Paolo! How are the vines looking?”

“There is not much to boast of! If we have a glass of wine to drink, it is as much as we shall have!”

“Why, they tell me that there are no signs of the disease yet, none even down in the plains; and you are sure to be better off here!”

“Wait a bit! It’s too soon yet! You’ll see in another couple of months! I never cry till I’m out of the wood. The disease will come quite time enough, never you fear! What else can you expect?”

“Expect! why should I expect it? There was much less of it last year than the year before! I expect to have none this year!”

“And do you think that is likely, Signor Sandro, with such maledictions as we have in these blessed times! With the beastly smoking, spluttering railway, that’s going to be finished they say this year, is it likely that the air would not be poisoned. There’ll be no more crops such as there used to be,—you mark my words!—as long as those things are in the country. Why, it stands to reason, they are against nature!”

“I know there are many that consider the vine disease to be caused by the railroad,” replied Signor Sandro; “very good judges and competent persons too, ay, and ’sponsible men like yourself, Signor Paolo. So I’m sure it’s not for me to say it is not so. Only they do say that the disease is just the same, where there are no railroads.”

Chatting thus, the attorney and the farmer approached the house and each other together—the former coming up the road which reached the level of the house and of the field, along the edge of which the latter was walking—a few yards only from the door.

Beppo and Carlo had come down from their pruning ladders, and were following their father at some distance towards the house.

Giulia meanwhile, after communicating her tidings to Signora Sunta, slipped away to her own chamber to make some little preparation for appearing before the eyes of the townsman. She would not have dreamed of doing anything of the sort for any visitors from any of the neighbouring farms or villages, young or old, male or female. But the Italian peasant has, without much—at all events acknowledged—respect or liking for the city or its inhabitants, a very great awe and admiration for the townsfolk. The peasant considers them to be less honest, less kind, less hearty and healthy, less instructed in all matters really worth knowing, than he himself is. At all events he professes so to consider. But he looks upon the luxury, the fasto, the pomp, the magnificence, and the finery of the neighbouring city, as something wonderful and stupendous;—affects to reprobate and despise it all, and probably, if an old man, would in reality not change his own life for a city one; but nevertheless looks up to his town-bred neighbours with a very considerable sense of their superior position.

This same feeling, which had sent Giulia off in a hurry to her chamber, manifested itself in la sposa in care for the reputation of her kitchen. It was supremely displeasing to her that a stranger from the city should arrive thus unannounced a few minutes only before the dinner hour. If she could have got warning in time, she would have sent into Fano for delicacies of all sorts. If there was no time for that, she would have ransacked the neighbouring villages. But here she was left to make the best figure she could entirely on her own resources. And she had no doubt that the townsman thus managed that his visit should be wholly unannounced, for the express purpose of triumphing over her unprovidedness. That he might himself be hungry and like a good dinner, and be pleased at getting one at Bella Luce, never occurred to her as a possible phase of the matter. It shaped itself to her mind as a contest between town and country, in which the townsman’s object would be attained, and his vanity gratified at the expense of hers, in proportion to the poorness of the fare set before him. For to an Italian the gratification of an appetite is a small matter in comparison with the gratification of a vanity.

So la sposa, much and deeply grumbling between her teeth, set herself to do all that could be done at so short a notice.

“Carlo,” she said to her second son, as he came in from the field, “run quick to his reverence, and tell him to come and take a bit of dinner with us, and ask la Nunziata (the priest’s housekeeper) to send me a pot of her quince preserve, and some biscuits,—quick.”

It must not be supposed that the priest was invited for the sake of the quince sweetmeats and the biscuits. He and they were equally benefactions to her board, and the priest himself by far the most important of the two. It was respectable and in good style, and perhaps even what Signor Sandro himself could not have accomplished at so short a notice, to have the parish priest at the board. His reverence, on his part, it may be observed, hastened to put on his very best coat and a clean collar, not so much from any personal care about or vanity in such matters, but in order to do honour to Signor Vanni’s board, and to support the country in its contest with the city. That was the feeling of the priest, as it would also have been of any of the neighbours. They were all in one boat, so far as the necessity for hiding the nakedness of their land, and making the best possible appearance in the eyes of the townsman went.

Meanwhile Sunta did her utmost within the cruelly short space of time which the cunning of the citizen had allowed her. Eggs in abundance were brought in from the poultry-house and stables, and la sposa proceeded to concoct a frittata with slices of ham cunningly introduced into a stratified formation of egg and flour, fried in abundance of oil, and flavoured with some herbs according to a special receipt in the possession of Signora Sunta, and which were supposed to be Apennine products unobtainable in the towns. Beppo was sent to catch and kill a fowl in all haste, and prepare it for instant spitch-cocking. This, with a sweet confection, in which more eggs were the principal ingredient, and the minestra—the pottage—which would have constituted the entire dinner for the family, if Signor Sandro had stayed at home, made out a tolerably presentable repast, especially when accompanied by an unstinted supply of Signor Vanni’s choicest wine, which they all knew was really such as the attorney did not drink every day of his life.

But for all this, be it observed, the Bella Luce family, however anxious to shine in the eyes of their guest, did not dream of changing the venue of their repast to the great eating-room upstairs. That would have been too serious and solemn an affair to be thought of for such a mere extemporary matter as the present. The dinners eaten in that state room were dinners indeed! To have placed the hurriedly prepared modest meal of to-day before their guest in that huge, bare-looking guest-chamber, would have been to render it and themselves ridiculous. So the little party sat down as usual at the table in the kitchen, which was the common living room of the family.

Giulia stole down from her room, the young men washed their hands and faces, the anxious and hard-working Sunta seized a moment to give one re-ordering touch to her hair and kerchief after her culinary labours, and then announced to her husband, and Don Evandro, and Signor Sandro Bartoldi, that “their lordships were served,” i.e., in base plebeian terms, that the dinner was ready.

“It’s not to be expected,” said Signora Sunta, as they sate down, with an aigre-doux manner, half mock-modest hospitality, and half self-asserting defiance, “that the like of us can set before a gentleman from the city anything fit for him to eat, and that too at a moment’s notice! I am afraid the soup is not what you can eat, Signor Sandro!”

“On the contrary, my dear madam, I positively must take the liberty of asking for another ladleful. I was just thinking that I had never tasted a better minestra in my life!”

“Ah! that’s our Bella Luce air! We can grow appetites up here, if our soil is too poor to grow anything else!” said farmer Paolo.

The farm of Bella Luce was anything but poor land; but an Italian farmer always calls his land poor, and a land-owner as invariably deems it rich.

“Any way,” said the priest, “I find that, let me bring what appetite I may to Bella Luce, I never take any away with me, and I daresay Signor Sandro will experience the same thing.”

“That I’ll be sworn I shall!” said the attorney.

“There’s no dinner, to say dinner!” replied la sposa. “You are sadly out of luck to-day, Signor Sandro! This is such a place out here in the mountains. There’s never a bit of meat to be got at Santa Lucia except Saturdays. There’s nothing for your dinner except a grilled fowl of my own fattening, and a Bella Luce frittata, and some rashers of our own curing, and a bit of salad”—the lettuce had been brought by Don Evandro in his handkerchief from his own little bit of garden, and given privately to the padrona with many precautions against the detection of the transaction by the guest,—and a dolce, and some preserve, and a few biscuits!

“Oh! oh! oh! What a dinner! What a feast!” exclaimed the attorney. “How you country people do live! Ah, one must come into the country to know what living means.”

“But you are not to think, Signor Sandro , that all my parishioners live as they do at Bella Luce,” said the priest. “Tutt’ altro, lo posso dir io![1] There’s not such another farm as Bella Luce, and not such another manager as la Signora Sunta in all the country side.”

“I believe you. Look at this cloth and these napkins,” rejoined the courtier-like attorney. “I think I know whose hands spun the yarn; and I think I could tell, if anybody in Fano asked me, where to find enough of the same make to turn all yonder cornfield as white as this table. Aha! la sposa! Am I in the secret, eh? I think I was honoured by a peep into the great press up-stairs once upon a time; and I never saw such a show, let the other be where it would!”

This touched the corde sensible in la Signora Sunta, and she was much flattered by the compliment. She smirked and purred, and admitted that, thank God! they were not badly off for linen at Bella Luce; they had enough for the needs of the house, and mayhap a trifle to furnish forth a son’s house at need—or maybe a couple of them for the matter of that!

And thereupon Beppo suddenly suspended halfway between the table and his open mouth the huge fragment of bread, with which he had been scouring his plate round and round, in order to mop up the last viscous particles of the frittata, and looked hard across the table at Giulia, blushing crimson the while all over his great frank face, as if the most excruciatingly delicate and suggestive thing had been uttered. Giulia, on her part, kept her eyes fixed on her plate, and would have been supposed by anybody, who had never had any daughter of Eve under his observation before, to have been wholly unaware of Beppo’s demonstration.

“You don’t drink, Signor Sandro! Yet the wine is not so bad as it might be, though I say it that should not,” observed old Paolo.

“Per Bacco! I’ve drunk enough to find out that we town’s-folk must not drink it without counting our glasses. È un gran’ vino, davvero! Che colore! Che squisito sapore! È fior di roba![2] said the attorney, holding his glass up to the light. “We don’t drink such wine down in Fano, I can tell you, Signor Paolo!”

“And we don’t make such at Bella Luce, now-a-days;—more’s the pity! And never shall again till these cursed railroads are cleared out of the country . . . . and something else has happened, that need not be more particularly mentioned,” said the old farmer.

Every one present knew very well that this something else meant the restoration of the papal government. And Signor Sandro Bartoldi thought to himself, that if no more good wine was to be made till that happened, it would be wise to make the most of the old while it lasted. But of course nobody was so un-Italianly impudent as to take any notice of the farmer’s manifestation of his political faith. Don Evandro turned up his eyes towards heaven, and took advantage of the action to drain his glass; but no word was said.

The railroad, however, was not a tabooed subject, and Beppo ventured, after mature consideration, to say that, if it was true, as he was told, that the vine disease had visited countries where there were no railroads, it did seem to him as if they could not be the cause of it!”

“What has that to do with it, figliuolo mio?” cried the priest, firing up. “Do you think that the Almighty did not know that those countries were going to make those abominable things against nature, upsetting all society, and sent his curses for their punishment accordingly? Why there is not one of those countries that you allude to that has not now, as I am informed, fallen into the iniquity. And are not the works of Providence thus justified, and is not the abomination of these nuisances proved past all denial!”

Beppo was too well brought up to dream of arguing with his parish priest. He made no reply; but set himself to consider the question, and soon arrived at the conclusion that he should like to ask Giulia what she thought about it?

Signor Sandro, protesting that he did not presume to judge the matter under its theological aspect, yet ventured to say that in a wholly worldly point of view, he thought the railway was adding, and would add, to the riches of the country.

The priest answered him that all such wealth would be found to be of the nature of devil’s money, and would turn to dust and ashes in the pockets of those who flattered themselves that they were enriched by it.

To this exposition of doctrine the attorney bowed meekly; but thought to himself that for all that he should not part with a single one of the shares which were locked up in his strong box at home.

And so the dinner and the conversation went on till la Signora Sunta rose and left the table to prepare coffee for the three seniors of the party.

The two young men put cigars in their mouths and strolled out of the kitchen-door, Beppo giving a beseechingly inviting glance to Giulia to follow him as he went.

Giulia, however, was as blind to this appeal as she had been to the look across the dinner-table, and stealing out of the opposite door of the kitchen, which opened on the huge staircase, tripped up to the privacy of her own room.

  1. Very much otherwise, I can assure you.
  2. It’s a grand wine, truly! What a colour! What exquisite flavour! It’s a very choice article;—literally “flower of goods.”