Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Beppo, the conscript - Part 4

BEPPO, THE CONSCRIPT.

BY T. ADOLPHUS TROLLOPE.

 

CHAPTER V. SIGNOR SANDRO BARTOLDI.

As soon as the three seniors had been thus left to themselves, sitting over the table, at which they had been dining, and which continued covered with the cloth that had excited Sir Sandro’s admiration, the attorney prepared to enter at once on the subject of his visit. The glasses and flasks were still upon the table; and the farmer and the priest replenished theirs yet once again; but the more abstemious townsman, less accustomed to deep potations, and who had been really in earnest when he said that farmer Vanni’s wine was of a quality that made it necessary to count the glasses, declined to drink any more, though strongly forced to do so by his two companions.

Signor Alessandro Bartoldi, the well-known attorney of Fano, was a good sort of man enough in his way. He had long been a widower, and lived only for his one daughter. He had very little comprehension of living for her, or doing anything for her in any other way, than by increasing the handsome fortune which he had already accumulated for her. Though too much disposed to be all things to all men, to be called a perfectly honest man in the largest sense of the word,—he was thoroughly such in the more restricted and ordinarily understood signification of the term. He was strictly honest in his professional avocation, and in his pursuit of wealth; being genuinely persuaded that for that purpose, at least in his department of the world’s affairs, honesty was the best policy. A veritable Vicar of Bray in politics, he had quite sense enough to understand, that the recent changes were calculated to increase the material prosperity of the country; and was, therefore, well disposed towards the new government. But, not being at all of the stuff of which martyrs are made, he had felt no disposition to risk getting himself into trouble by taking any part in the extrusion of the old order of things. He never talked politics, nor got into the way of hearing them talked if he could help it. He always obeyed the law; and was one of those men, who may take oaths of allegiance to a dozen different governments in succession, without being justly chargeable with any false swearing; for his allegiance was sincerely rendered to every ruler as long as he was in power; and he most assuredly never contemplated promising it for an hour longer. Besides, and after his daughter, the only thing he cared for in the world was his collection of ancient documents, charters, grants, contracts, and such like, which was noted as the most important collection of the kind in that part of Italy, and by means of which he purposed some day illustrating a work on the history of Romagna and the March of Ancona.

He was a little, alert, brisk old gentleman, with a small, round, closely and always cleanly shaven face, a florid complexion, a shrewd twinkling eye, a benevolent expression of features, an almost entirely bald head, and a forehead deeply marked with a whole series of horizontal furrows, the result probably of a life-long habit of raising his eyebrows and assuming an expression intended to suggest that there was a great deal to be said on both sides, which he always resorted to whenever any difference of opinion or difficulty of any sort was mooted before him. If that little pantomime was found insufficient to set the matter at rest, as far as he was concerned, he would, if sitting down, nurse one leg laid over the knee of the other, handling it with the greatest tenderness, as if it represented the question in hand; or, if standing up, stick his thumbs into the arm-holes of his waistcoat, throw his head back, and enunciate the ejaculation, “Per—r—r Bac—co!” or, sometimes, if the case were a grave one, “Per—r—din—ci Bac—co!” uttering the words very slowly and with a long-drawn breath, and following it up with three or four raisings and depressions of his chin, executed with a slow uniform motion like the working of a steam-engine piston.

Signor Alessandro Bartoldi was no fool withal; but these little peculiarities constituted the arms, offensive and defensive, which he had found most available for making his way and holding his own in a somewhat disjointed world, and in difficult times.

“I wanted to speak to you to-day, my esteemed friend,” said the attorney, addressing the farmer, “on a little matter, in which it has seemed to me that I might be able to be of use to you. I know I may speak freely before his reverence; for I am aware of the friendship that unites him to your family. Indeed, I am fortunate in having an opportunity of profiting by his valuable counsel in the matter;—though it is a bit of good fortune that I did not anticipate.”

The priest gave a little bow, but said nothing. Signor Alessandro Bartoldi was no favourite of his; for Don Evandro was a politician of the class, whose members consider every one against them who is not with them; and he knew what to expect from Sandro in that matter. Although the project of a marriage between Beppo Vanni and Lisa Bartoldi had been first set on foot by him, the idea had not arisen out of any personal intimacy between him and the attorney, but had first been suggested to him by a brother priest of Fano, who was anxious to secure the attorney’s wealth to the good cause; which Don Evandro had thought effectually to do by conferring it, with Lisa’s hand, on the submissive son of his eminently right-minded parishioner and intimate friend, old Farmer Vanni.

Honest little Sandro, on the other hand, did not much like the priest, who had now and then a way of looking at him which he did not fancy. He always felt in his company as if he were in the presence of a sharp detective officer prepared to make use against him of any word that might fall from his lips should a time ever come when the priest might find it desirable to do so. However, in obedience to his unfailing maxim and practice to hold the best candle he could lay his hands on to every devil or devil’s emissary whom he might be doomed to meet in his way through life, he spoke as above in opening his business with the farmer.

“Everybody knows,” resumed the little man, “the admirable and truly Christian manner in which you have received, educated, and supported your orphan relative, the Signorina Giulia. All Fano has rung with your praises on this score, my valued friend, and you have well deserved them!”

Don Evandro here looked at the farmer with a fixed and peculiar look that caused the hard-featured old man to drop his eyes before it. The priest had no special reason for thus reminding his parishioner of any circumstances that might be in both their hearts at that moment. But it was part of his system, so long practised as to have become quite habitual to him, never to lose any opportunity of acquiring or consolidating power over others, be they who they might, or let the means be what they might. That was all the object of the look—and the object was gained. The old man’s eyes fell, and his heart recognised his master.

“But,” resumed the attorney, “for a girl such as the Signorina Giulia, who has her bread to earn, and her way to make in the world, it would be a great thing to obtain some knowledge of many things which she would perhaps be more likely to pick up in the city than in your own undoubtedly more agreeable home. I put it to you, your reverence, since we are happy enough to have the benefit of your presence, whether it does not strike you in that light?”

“Most unquestionably!” replied the priest. “There can be no doubt about the matter. It would be extremely advantageous to la Giulia to sojourn for awhile in the city, if we only knew any means of placing her there with propriety. But that is the difficulty.”

“Just so! that was the difficulty! Now that difficulty I think I have been fortunate enough to find the means of removing!”

“Indeed, Signor Sandro!” said Vanni, beginning to see that the removal in question might be desirable for more reasons than that assigned by the cautious little attorney. “Truly we shall have reason to be very much obliged to you. What is it you are good enough to think of proposing for la Giulia, poverina?

“Why, this it is,” replied Signor Sandro, addressing himself to the farmer, but looking at Don Evandro, and evidently considering him as the more important personage to be consulted; “a friend and very good client of mine, an elderly widow lady, whose—a—companion has lately left her, wants to meet with—what shall I say? not exactly a servant, and perhaps not altogether a companion; somebody, in short, who for a moderate recompense—moderate, for my friend is not rich—would live with her, and take care of her and her house, and be taught all of housekeeping that my friend could teach—not a small matter, allow me to say, for la Signora Clementina Dossi is a capital housekeeper, I can tell you—and—do what there is to be done in the house.”

“Be a servant-of-all-work, in short!” said Farmer Vanni.

Che! che! che! che!” Servant-of-all-work!” cried the attorney, who had been particularly labouring to prevent his proposition from assuming any such appearance; for he well knew and understood the “contadino’s” pride, which would be likely to rise in arms against such a proposal. It was not, as the attorney knew perfectly well, any tenderness on the part of the old farmer for his adopted child that made the notion of accepting a place as maid-of-all-work distasteful to him, but that he shrank from having it said that an inmate of Bella Luce, one of his family and bearing his name, had been obliged to accept such a position.

“Nothing like a servant-of-all-work! scarcely a servant at all, I tell you.”

“I should not like Giulia to take a place of maid-of all-work. None of the Vannis have ever been in service!” said the old farmer, rather grimly.

“Of course not, my dear friend! Can you imagine such a thing! I should not like to stand in the shoes of the man who should come up to Bella Luce to propose to the head of the Vanni family to send one of its members to menial service. But this is quite a different matter. We are upon quite other ground. I appeal to his reverence here, whose opinion we should both of us bow to implicitly, whether there is any similitude between the two cases.”

And Signor Sandro ventured a speaking look at the priest as he spoke.

“Certainly it does seem to me,” said the priest, “since you ask my opinion, that this is a proposition which any man might freely accept without in any degree compromising the credit of his family. Judging, my dear Signor Vanni, from the details Signor Sandro has been good enough to lay before us, I should say that there was nothing in common between the position he has in view for the Signorina Giulia and that of a menial servant.”

“Clearly not! I was sure his reverence’s admirable judgment would see the thing in its true light at once. You see, my dear friend, there is no question of any wages as such;—merely a gratuitous douceur,—‘gratitudinis causa,’ I may say,—our friend Don Evandro will appreciate the appropriateness of the expression;—for service willingly rendered on the one hand, and thankfully received, rather than exacted, on the other. You will perceive, my esteemed Signor Vanni, all the essential differences of the position from that of one holding a menial capacity.”

The farmer would have been very much puzzled to explain in what the difference consisted, that Signor Sandro had been setting forth so eloquently. But he understood that his priest approved the measure. So he said:—

“I am sure, Signor Sandro, that we are very much obliged to you, on poor Giulia’s account; and, since il Signor Curato thinks well of it, it can’t be other than right. I should not have liked the girl to go to service, because it’s well known that none of the Vannis ever did go to service,” repeated the farmer once again.

“And then, you know, my much esteemed Signor Vanni, I will not attempt to conceal from you, that to a certain degree I had an eye to other considerations,—to a certain degree, I say,—and hoped in this matter, as I may say, to kill two birds with one stone.”

“Which was th’ other bird, then?” asked the farmer, bluntly.

“Well, now, I would bet a wager that his reverence the Curato has already guessed my thought upon the subject! Is it not so, your reverence?” asked the little man, putting his head on one side, and looking at the priest in a way that seemed to claim the fellowship of a kindred high intelligence.

“You have been thinking, Signor Sandro, that it might be just as well to remove la Giulia for awhile from the companionship of our young friend Beppo, if we are to hope to bring those arrangements to bear which I had the honour of proposing to my friend Vanni. That was your worship’s thought, I take it; and I agree with you.”

Rem acu tetigisti,’ which means, as your reverence knows better than I can tell you, that you have exactly hit the nail on the head! Don’t you see it, Signor Vanni?”

“I see that I don’t mean to allow our Beppo to have anything to say to Giulia,—not in the way of marrying;—it isn’t likely.”

“Well, then, my dear sir, since we have our eyes on a young lady who may perhaps with better reason pretend to the honour of an alliance with Signor Beppo, and since youth is sometimes apt to be blind and self-willed in these matters, does it not appear to you a judicious measure to remove the source of danger?”

“Surely, surely! And I do hope that, when she is gone, the lad will come round, and not break my heart any more!” said the old farmer.

“Ha! the best way to exorcise the charm, is to pack off the charmer, in these cases. Is it not so, your reverence?” laughed the attorney.

“I think, as I have said, that your proposal is a sound and judicious one, Signor Sandro,” replied the priest, “both with a view to our young friend Beppo’s advantage, and as likely to be exceedingly useful to la povera Giulia.”

“Then we may consider the matter as settled. I am sure I shall have killed three birds with one stone, and rendered a service to my old friend and client la Signora Clementina into the bargain. I have no doubt she and la Signorina Giulia will get on capitally together!”

“And we are all very much obliged to you, I am sure!” said the old farmer, a little more graciously than he had spoken hitherto. “When do you think that la Giulia had better go to her new home?”

“Well! of course I would not say a word to Signora Dossi till I had consulted you. I am quite sure she will be only too glad to get such a prize as the Signorina Giulia. I must see her, and settle about it. I should suppose it would be a case of the sooner the better!—perhaps next Sunday. You would then be at leisure to bring her into town yourself, Signor Vanni; and see my good friend Signora Dossi, which will be satisfactory to you. Would that suit you?”

“Yes, I could bring Giulia in on Sunday very well! Yes, that would suit very well!” replied the farmer.

“And then you should come and eat a bit of dinner with me, you know, before returning home,” added Signor Sandro, rubbing his hands cheerily.

“Well! thankye! You are very good! That would all suit very well! On condition, however, that you will come up and dine at Bella Luce on Lady-day!” put in the contadino pride. “Is it a bargain?”

“With pleasure, my dear sir! There is my hand upon it. I would ask my friend Beppo to come with you on Sunday, only——; you understand! There would be no use in long leave-takings, and chattering, and nonsense; you comprehend me! And it would be better, perhaps, if he and Lisa were to meet not so immediately, but after a little while.”

These conditions were quite beyond the reach of Farmer Vanni’s mental powers. He said, however, that “certainly that would be best;” and the priest gave the little attorney an intelligent nod, which the latter returned with half a dozen, accompanied by winks to match.

“It is understood, then, my dear Signor Vanni, that, unless you hear anything from me to the contrary, you bring in la Signora Giulia on Sunday. Come direct to my house, and I will go with you to Signora Dossi. You will find her, and la Giulia will find her, an excellent, worthy creature—a heart of gold! At what hour can you be in the city?”

“Oh! early! so as to be back at Bella Luce before the Ave Maria!”

“Then I’ll tell you! You must be early enough to go to la Clementina, before high mass—say before eleven o’clock. We will dine at midday, which will give you plenty of time.”

“Thank you. That will do very well. Will you come and have a look at the vines?”

Signor Sandro knew the contadino nature too well, and was too desirous of standing well with the wealthy farmer, to refuse this invitation. So they strolled out together into the field where Vanni had been at work, and to which his two sons had already returned. The first, remarking that he had a few words to say to la Signora Sunta, remained behind; and he and Signor Sandro exchanged an adieu with somewhat more cordiality than they usually adopted towards each other.

And thus poor Giulia’s destiny was settled for her, as women’s destinies mostly are settled, without their knowledge or co-operation in any way;—and the old gentlemen made up their minds that when the dangerous charmer should have been removed, the charm would cease to operate on the refractory Beppo.

 

CHAPTER VI. THE ANNOUNCEMENT.

As soon as the attorney had started on his way homewards, carefully leading his old horse Moro by the bridle down the first steep bit from the house of Bella Luce to the bottom of the valley, Farmer Vanni pulled off his jacket and returned to his work of dressing the vines in the home vineyard, without saying a word to any one of the family of the important business that had been determined on. He knew, however, that his wife would hear it all from the priest; but was pretty sure that it would not be mentioned by either of them to Giulia before he should himself communicate the tidings to her. He pondered a little on the question, how and when he should break the news to his son; and eventually determined to say nothing at all to him specially on the subject;—to mention it to Giulia in his presence, treating the matter as if it was one which very little concerned Beppo in any way.

Don Evandro, when the farmer and the attorney went out together, passed from the kitchen into the loggia, where he found la sposa, as he thought he should, quietly plying her distaff and spindle, seated on the squared trunk of a chestnut-tree, which had done duty for a bench in the loggia for more than one generation.

“Signor Sandro came up here to make a proposal which seems to me to have much good sense in it,” said the priest, sitting down by the side of Dame Anunta, and offering her a pinch of snuff as he spoke.

“A proposal, your reverence? And what was that?”

“Why, that this troublesome, headstrong girl, Giulia, should be sent to service in Fano, to a place he has found for her. Of course he has his own object to serve.”

“To service! Will Vanni consent to that? None of the Vannis ever did go to service!”

“He has consented. The lawyer made it out that it was not altogether a regular servant’s place; and in speaking to Vanni, you must not call it so, mind.”

“He has consented?”

“Yes! of course he did! It is a very good thing. What is the use of letting those two go on in the house together? The only way is to part them! Don’t you see?”

“I don’t think she gives him any encouragement!”

“Bah—h!” cried the priest, shrugging his shoulders and drawing out the expletive into an expression of the most utterly contemptuous unbelief. “She has got eyes in her head! I tell you, the only way is to separate them.”

“Well, I am sure, if your reverence thinks so!—— But I am afraid he won’t forget her a bit the more! He isn’t of the sort that forgets. The Vannis are all terrible holders-on to anything they once lay hold of,—terrible!”

“Forget! Well, perhaps his remembering may serve our purpose equally well! Is there no way of falling out with a lover, Signora Vanni, besides forgetting him? Don’t you see?”

“I don’t see what is to serve, unless we can get him to put the girl clean out of his head. I wish to Heaven she had never darkened these doors; I do with all my heart!”

“Ah! It’s too late in the day to wish that now! But, don’t you see what will happen? Look at that girl! You don’t see such a girl every day! Do you think the men won’t come round her down in the city, there, like the flies come to the sugar! And she with her spirit and giddy laughing ways, and eighteen years! You don’t think she is going to mope and pine, and think of nothing but Beppo! And he need not fancy anything of the kind.”

“I am quite sure the hussy will see nobody so well worth thinking of!” said the mother.

“That’s very likely. But she will think of what’s under her eyes! The fellows will come round her! She can’t help herself, if she would! Then what follows? Beppo will be jealous—angry—furious! He will hear all her goings on! Of course he will; it will be our own fault if he does not! And it’s odd to me if we can’t bring him to the point of marrying the first girl ready to have him!”

“But is Lisa Bartoldi ready to have him!” asked Signora Anunta.

“That will be Signor Sandro’s business to see to. A girl is always more easy to manage than a boy, in these cases. And such a girl as Lisa Bartoldi! I have seen her. There will be no difficulty with her. Signor Sandro has only got to say that it is what he chooses!”

“You think so!”

Altro! no doubt of it. So you see, signora mia, this plan of sending la Giulia to the city may serve our turn, even if we don’t persuade Signor Beppo to forget all about her,” said the priest looking, at her with a smile that was half a sneer.

“I hope it may; and I’ve no manner of doubt that your reverence knows what is best and wisest,” said the farmer’s wife, submissively. “Had I better tell Giulia that she is to go?”

“I think not. No doubt Signor Vanni will speak of it this evening. Perhaps you had better leave it to him to mention it.”

“Yes. I think I should like that best. Giulia is a good girl, poor thing, and submissive enough, mostly; but now and then she will break out, and then there is no speaking to her. I declare I have shaken in my shoes as I stood up to her, before now, though you would not think it.”

The priest smiled a peculiar smile, and took a pinch of snuff.

“It comes like a flash of lightning with her,” continued Signora Vanni, busily twirling away at her spindle as she talked, “and it’s all over in a minute; and then she runs away and shuts herself into her room. Yes, I should like best that Vanni should tell her himself. Is it fixed when she is to go to Fano?”

“Signor Vanni has promised the attorney to take her himself next Sunday, if he hears nothing from him to the contrary,” replied the priest, quietly.

“Next Sunday! And this is Thursday! Mercy upon us! that’s very sudden! And her things! The poor girl should be sent decent, you know. She is a Vanni, after all!” remonstrated the padrona, no little startled by the abruptness of the proposed measure, though her surprise did not avail to arrest the habitual plying of the spindle.

“The only question is, whether the time between the telling her and the sending her off is not too long, as it is,” said the priest. “I should have preferred letting her know nothing about it till Vanni called her to start with him for Fano!”

“But her things!” exclaimed the mistress of the house, whose housewifely notions of propriety were painfully shocked by the idea of having only forty-eight hours allowed her for preparation in that exclusively female department.

“Anything that is not ready can be sent after her. Do you not perceive,” continued the spiritual adviser, “that it is by no means desirable that there should be much opportunity for leave-taking and exchanging of promises, and vows, and tears, and all that sort of thing?”

“Oh, dear! I don’t think that Giulia would give in to anything of the kind. I don’t, indeed, your reverence! Bless your heart, if we had seen anything of that sort, we should have made short work of it before now, you may depend on it! Oh, no! Giulia is a sensible girl, and knows her place; though she does go off into a fit of tantrums now and again. Though I am his mother, I must say that the foolery has all been on Beppo’s part. But, there! we know what young men are! It was so in my time! And, though they do talk so much about the world being changed, I suppose it’s much as it was, in that matter.”

“Well! if you will take my advice, you will just keep an eye on them, as much as you can, for these two days, and don’t let them be together a bit more than you can possibly help.”

“I’ll take care, your reverence!”

“And, look here!” said the priest, as he rose from his seat on the chestnut log beside her, and turned to leave the loggia, you can send her up to the cura to lend Nunyiata a helping-hand. I’ll tell la Nunyiata to detain her all day; and that will help to keep her out of his way one day, at all events.”

“Yes, your reverence.”

“Good afternoon, Signora Vanni.”

“Good afternoon, and many thanks, your reverence.”

Breakfast, as a meal, is not known to Italian peasants, and is not a matter of much moment to the inhabitants of Italian cities. In the farm-houses, the usual practice is to eat at mid-day, and again when the day’s work is over in the evening. And there is very little difference, if any, between the two meals. La zuppa is the standing dish, generally the most important; and, in the poorer families, often the only dish at either meal. There is far less difference, however, between the more easily circumstanced and the poorer families of the contadino class, than is the case among our own rural population. The poorer are less hard pushed than are our own very poor; and the richer are more thrifty,—more niggardly, if the reader please,—and more given to saving, than our own people when in easy circumstances. A rich Italian countryman likes to make a show of his wealth; but it is only done on special and rare occasions and solemnities. The general staple of his life is fashioned on very much the same plan as that of his poorer neighbours.

The whole of the feast spread before the unexpected visitor at Bella Luce, the menu of which had been rehearsed by the mistress of the house with almost as much ostentation as that which struts in the written cartes of more aristocratic houses, had been, with the exception of the minestra, and probably the rashers, an improvised addition to the family repast. And at supper-time, the remnant of the frittata, and a fragment of the fowl, furnished an unusually luxurious second course after the never-failing zuppa or minestra; the difference between the two being, that the first is made with bread sopped (inzuppato) in broth, and the second always with some form of what is known in England as maccaroni, but which is more commonly called in all parts of Italy, save Naples, pasta. The latter is often, especially in the north of Italy, eaten with so large a proportion of the solid material, to so small a quantity of the liquid, as no longer to correspond with our idea of soup at all.

Giulia did not make her appearance again in the kitchen, till she came out from her hiding-place to prepare the evening meal. On any other occasion la Signora Vanni would probably have been after her before that time, to see that the spindle was duly twirling, and the ball of yarn on it duly swelling; though, to tell the truth, Giulia was not an idle girl, and generally got through the hank of flax on her distaff in as short a time as la sposa herself. But upon the present occasion, the mistress was not anxious for a meeting with Giulia; and the latter attributed the unusual prolongation of the privacy permitted to her to the dish of chat with the priest, which she knew Sunta was enjoying, and which she supposed was being prolonged during the whole afternoon.

When she came into the kitchen to perform her evening duty, la sposa was not there; and Giulia prepared the supper by herself.

The usual hour came; the sun was dipping his red disk behind exactly that bit of the crest of the Apennine, which he always touched every evening at the time when the vines were being pruned, and was flinging a great glowing patch on just that section of the far-off Adriatic, which was visible from the mouth of the Bella Luce valley; and Giulia, having completed her preparations for the evening meal, was standing at the door dreamily looking out at the slowly fading glory, when the farmer and his two sons came strolling slowly up from their light day’s work.

Reverie is generally accompanied by a graceful position and arrangement of the body and limbs. It is not advisable to practise reverie with a view to attaining this result, inasmuch as the intention would suffice to prevent the desired effect;—the cause of the fact being simply this, that reverie presupposes an absence of self-consciousness, and, therefore, ministers to grace exactly as an excess of self-consciousness mars it and insures awkwardness and affectation.

Giulia’s attitude, as she stood at the kitchen-door, is chargeable with this little excursus. It was singularly graceful; and her figure as she stood, so that a slanting ray just caught and lent a glory to her head, while the rest of her person was in shadow, if only it could have been transferred to canvas by some artist, who would have been contented to add nothing to what he saw, would have made the painter’s fortune.

She was dressed in that mixture of colours so much affected by the Italian peasantry—red and blue. She had a blue skirt, a scarlet body, and white linen sleeves. The skirt was short enough, and the shoe cut low enough, and the white stocking well drawn enough to show to proper advantage a specially trim ankle and well-formed foot. The scarlet body fitted well enough to set off admirably all the contours of a bust such as is rarely seen in cities—rarely among the over-luxurious rich; more rarely still among the imperfectly nourished poor. A little frilled collar, scrupulously clean, circled the matchless column of a throat, that, sunburnt as it was, carried the head so exquisitely poised upon it, in a manner, and with a proud expression of unconscious dignity, which would have become a maiden queen. The rare abundance of raven hair was neatly and indeed artistically arranged in masses on the sides and at the back of her head. A long silver bodkin, with a large round head of filagree work, was passed through the knot of it at the back. She was standing with her left shoulder slightly leaning against the door-post; the elbow of her right arm was resting on the palm of her left hand; and her chin, somewhat drooping, was supported by her right hand.

If it be asked whether all the girls in the farm-houses of the Romagna have their collars as scrupulously clean, and their whole costume as neat and attractive as that of Giulia Vanni undoubtedly was, I can only say that I have every reason to believe that the Romagna girls have the peculiarity of always appearing so when they live in the same house with such a young man as Beppo, whom they consider it to be their duty to keep at a distance.

The beauty of Giulia’s figure and attitude had not been lost on Beppo, as he approached the house. His eye had eagerly sought the door-way; for it often happened that she stood there a few minutes at that hour to look out on the sunset sea and landscape. But as soon as she saw him—was it quite as soon?—she flashed away like one of those pretty bright lizards of her country, which may be watched basking on a stone as long as they are unconscious of the watcher’s presence, but which flash out of sight with the speed of lightning as soon as they become aware that they are looked at.

Giulia vanished, and did not show herself in the kitchen till the men and the mistress of the family had taken their places at the supper-table. Then she slipped in and quietly took her usual place on the bench next the wall, by the side of the Signora Sunta. The farmer occupied one end of the long narrow table, and the two young men sat on the outer bench, opposite to their mother and cousin.

The meal proceeded in silence till the soup had been eaten, and then the farmer said, “There! a man can talk better when he has got something in the inside of him, especially when he has been in the fields all day; and I have got something to tell you. There is a benedizione del cielo[1] for you, Giulia. What should you say to going to live a spell at Fano, to learn—all manner of things that city-folks know, and that you might live up here everlasting without ever knowing?”

“Me, Signor Paolo!” said Giulia, looking up in amazement.

“Yes, you!—who else? And, to make it short, it don’t much signify what you think of it, for it’s all settled. There’s a place found for you!”

“A place! go away from Bella Luce!” gasped Giulia, while the open scarlet boddice began to rise and fall very perceptibly.

Beppo had remained fixed, as if suddenly turned to stone, with his mouth open, one hand with his fork in it raised in air, and the other grasping his knife, held bolt upright on the table, staring at his father, and making but slow progress as yet towards realising the full import of the announcement.

“Yes, a place, and a very good one too!” resumed the farmer.

“Oh! Si’or Paolo! please don’t send me away! I’ll work harder and spin more! Don’t send me to service! I’d far rather live always at Bella Luce!” said poor Giulia, wholly unconscious of the possible construction that might he put on her last words.

“Always live at Bella Luce! Ah! that I’ll be sworn you would!” sneered the old man, bitterly and grimly; but that is just what I don’t mean you to do, my girl!”

The blood rushed in an impetuous torrent all over Giulia’s brown cheek, and over her forehead and neck. Her ears tingled, her hands burned, and she felt as if she should have choked. It was some relief to her to know that no one of the party save the old man was looking at her. Beppo was still staring in speechless dismay at his father; and Carlo was watching his brother with a malicious smile. The eyes of la sposa were fixed upon her plate. With a mighty effort of will, Giulia prevented herself from sobbing or giving any other outward sign of her distress. Presently all the tingling blood flowed back again, and she sat as pale and motionless as a corpse, with her eyes fixed on the table.

“And what do you mean by talking about service?” continued the farmer, angrily. “Who said anything about service? You are not going to service; and you are never to speak of your position as such. None of the Vannis ever did go to service; and you are a Vanni, worse luck! You are never to speak to any one of going to service, do you hear?”

“But, father, everybody will know it! You can’t think to keep it a secret!” said his son Beppo, at last, flattering himself that he had found an unanswerable argument against the measure.

“You hold your tongue, booby!” said his father, roughly, yet with a very different sort of manner from that in which he had spoken to the stranger within his gates. “Believe me, you know nothing about it. What I mean is, that the place Giulia is going to is not the place of a menial servant. Do you hear, Giulia?”

“Yes, Signor Paolo!” said Giulia, now able to speak calmly, in a low, submissive voice.

“And you understand that you are never to speak to any one of being in service?”

“Yes, Si’or Paolo!” repeated Giulia, still keeping her eyes fixed on the table.

“And his reverence quite approves of it; and thinks you ought to be very thankful for your good fortune! Do you hear?”

“Yes, Si’or Paolo!”

“And Signor Sandro, who was good enough to think of you, and to find this fine opportunity, and to ride up here to-day on purpose to bring the offer of it, says that it’s a very advantageous thing!”

“Was it Signor Sandro’s kindness to think of this scheme?” asked Giulia, looking up at the farmer for a moment.

“Yes, it was! and very kind of him, I take it!” replied the old man.

“Very!” said Giulia, while a very legible sneer curved her lip into a form of beauty that was not habitual to it, and flashed in one brief gleam out of her eyes, before she again dropped them on the table.

“Do you think it necessary, Si’or Paolo,” she asked in a bard, constrained sort of tone, after there had been a minute or two of silence, “to send me away from Bella Luce, for—for—your own views, as well as for my advantage?” She knew that the old man would understand her, and that the others, at all events Beppo, would not.

He looked hard at her, as he answered, “Yes, I do think it is necessary.”

Giulia set her teeth hard together, and clenched her hands under the table till the nails nearly cut the skin, while a little shiver passed over her, leaving her as rigid, as pale, and as hard looking as marble. And she said nothing more.

“But you have said nothing about the time, Paolo!” said la Signora Sunta, who, with the difficulty about “the things” heavy on her mind, felt that the worse part of the farmer’s communication still remained untold.

“The time! why, as his reverence said, and Signor Sandro said too, the sooner the better! You can’t be too much in a hurry to make sure of a good thing! I shall be able to go into Fano with her on Sunday; and that will be the best day. It was all settled so with Signor Sandro!”

“It’ll be very difficult to get anything ready at all decent by that time! Do you hear, Giulia, my girl! You are to go on Sunday!” repeated la Sunta; for Giulia gave no sign of having heard a word more since the last answer the farmer had given to her question.

“Yes, Si’ora Sunta; I hear!”

“Well! how ever we are to get your things ready by that time, I don’t know!”

“It won’t signify much about the things!” said poor Giulia, making a very narrow escape from letting a sob escape her (and she would rather have knocked her head against the wall than have done so!) as she spoke.

“Nonsense! don’t signify! Why, you must go decent, child! You are a Vanni, after all!” remonstrated Signora Sunta.

“Worse luck!” said Giulia, re-echoing the farmer’s previous words.

The old man scowled at her, but said nothing.

“Come upstairs with me, child, and help me to see what there is to be done. And thank God that you are a Vanni, and have got decent people to think for you and care for you!”

So Giulia got up and followed the padrona out of the kitchen, venturing as she passed to cast one furtive side-long look at Beppo from under her eyelashes. It was by no means intended to meet any look of his. It was merely a look of observation.

It found him still in a state of collapse from the extremity of his astonishment and dismay.

 

 

  1. A popular phrase for a great and unexpected benefit.