Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Beppo, the conscript - Part 5





When Giulia at last escaped from la Signora Sunta, and the inspection and consideration of “things,” and was able to get away to her own little chamber for the night, she felt as if she had been stunned during the last two or three hours, and was only now for the first time able to bring her mind really to bear with anything that could be called thought, or the communication that had been made to her. She drew the rough bolt which supplied the place of lock and handle on the door of her room through its two rusty staples by its hanging handle, and having thus made sure of privacy, she sat down on the side of her bed to think.

And the thoughts that came were very bitter. It was not that she was being separated from Beppo. Che! What was Beppo to her? What could Beppo ever be to her? She had known all that before; not now for the first time. She knew very well that he loved her. What was the good of pretending not to be aware of it? But was that her fault? And she herself—did she care for him? What business had anybody to ask that? What right had anybody to think it? She was quite sure that Beppo must fancy she hated him. Had not she always behaved as if she had an aversion to him? Had she ever sought his love? Had she not abstained from even raising her eyes to look on the sacred heir-apparent of the house? Had she not striven loyally? She knew his position; she knew her own; she knew his father’s hopes and wishes. Had she not been loyal? And now she was turned out of the house for fear Beppo should make love to her! And others were to be consulted! She was to be talked over with strangers! This smooth-spoken attorney from Fano—his kindness to her! Oh bella! as if she did not see through his kindness, and understand it all! Had she tried to stand in the way of his daughter? Let the whitey-brown thing have Beppo, if she could catch him. She had a certain amount of doubt about her success in that respect; even though she, the poor cousin, were turned into the streets to secure it!

It was hard to bear; very, very hard! How cautious she had been! how proudly determined never to allow room for a suspicion that she had abused the charity of which she was the object, to the securing of a rich marriage! Cautious!—she had been cruel in her proud humility, yes, cruel to poor Beppo—honest, frank, simple, loving-hearted Beppo. Love her! That he did. At all events, she would never be guilty of the hypocrisy to herself of pretending not to know how truly, deeply, devotedly, untiringly he had loved her! And how proudly cold she had always been to him! How she had denied him every opportunity of being alone with her! How she had affected not to understand his simple, honest love-making, to despise his bluff, awkward compliments; to turn away from the frank, loving glance of his great blue eyes! And all for this! And as these thoughts passed through her mind the hard, proud mood gradually faded out of it, the lip began to quiver, her breath came short, the tears gathered slowly in her eyes; and presently, as a special recollection crossed her mind of poor Beppo’s look, when at his last ceppo he had walked into Fano, and bought a neck ribband of a colour she had praised, and she had told him at his return that he had better give it to Nina Sganci, at Santa Lucia, for that she had changed her mind, and should never wear that colour again. A passionate agony of weeping seized her. Oh! how she saw before her his look of pain and disappointment, as he flung the despised gift behind the kitchen fire! And she flung herself down on the pillow, sobbing at the thought as though her heart would break.

But when the paroxysm of uncontrollable weeping had in some degree subsided, she began to question herself about her future conduct, especially on the immediate occasion of her departure. Beppo would endeavour to speak with her;—to bid her farewell, at least. Was she to take care that he got no opportunity of doing so? Was it likely that he would confine himself to a simple farewell? Would not so fair, so plausible an opportunity, be seized for saying something else as well? And how was that something else to be answered? Must her answer—her final answer to him, be of a piece with all her past conduct? Had his father deserved of her that it should be so? Was she bound in honour and in gratitude for the charity, that was now about to be withdrawn from her, to continue to sacrifice his happiness, and—her own? Yes! the hot blush came with the thought, though no human eye was there to see it. It was the sacrifice of her own happiness. Yes! Conscience had spoken the truth! Let it stand. She would affect or attempt to deny it no more. Was she bound to continue this self-sacrifice? Had she not done enough? Might she not consider all accounts to be squared between herself and Paolo Vanni? In that case, with how different a heart should she go away from Bella Luce, and face the world! In that case—ah! would not the little attorney’s interference turn out to have been a blessing? In that case—at the delicious moment when those dear, honest blue eyes should look once again so wistfully into hers, and she should be able with one glance and half a word to let him know that all the past had been a delusion and a falsehood;—that the cruel duty, which had coerced her every word and look, was a duty no longer! And Beppo would know at last that she was not cold, nor proud, nor capricious, nor insensible. Ah! the happiness of giving this happiness!

But hold a moment! Was it solely duty and gratitude towards Paolo Vanni, and respect for his wishes, that had governed her conduct towards Beppo? Why had she felt at supper time, when he had misunderstood, or affected to misunderstand, her unlucky speech about her wish always to live at Bella Luce,—why had she then felt as if she wished the earth to gape and swallow her up? Surely that was not all because the old farmer seemed to suspect her of ungratefully opposing herself to his will! If he had accused her of any other form of ingratitude, would she have felt the same? No! assuredly she would not. There was some other feeling then at work, to stir her heart so powerfully and painfully?

She honestly then set to work to discover the nature of this other feeling.

Like to live at Bella Luce! She, the poor, portionless, destitute orphan! No doubt!—said old Paolo Vanni. And oh, what agony it had been to hear and see his sneer, as he spoke the words! Would nobody else say and think the same? If she were to suffer dear, honest Beppo to love her, would not the world also sneer, and say, that she liked to live at Bella Luce,—especially as its mistress? And could she endure that? Would not men tell each other, that the worst day’s work old Paolo Vanni ever did, was when he brought the orphan girl home to be received into his family? Would it be tolerable that such things should be said? Would not the women say, that she laid herself out for poor simple Beppo’s admiration,—had baited the hook with smiles, and who knows what else, and cleverly caught her fish? Could, oh! could she bear that? And for all the family, and the friends and relatives to look on her as an unwelcome intruder, who had pushed her way among them by—— Oh, it made her turn sick, and a cold shiver pass over her, to think of the filling up that would be supplied to that blank!

Like to live at Bella Luce, would she? I dare say! And poor Beppo too! Lord bless you, he never suspected anything!

No! no! no! she could not bear it! Death rather, a thousand times rather than such agony!

Bless you, sir, she snared him like a bird in a springe! He had no chance with her—there, in the same house with him! And he so simple and honest too! Ah, she was a cunning one! Love! don’t tell me! Yes, I dare say, she was in love with the broad acres of Bella Luce. Ah, it was a bad day for the Vannis when that sly baggage came into the house;—and she without a smock to her back. Why, if it had not been for her wiles and lures, Beppo might have had old Sandro Bartoldi’s daughter; and what a match that would have been!

And then the women would smile, and cast their eyes down, and say that a woman could always bring a man to her lure—if she chose to do so! Only it is not every woman, nor many women, thank Heaven! who would do it.

No! These things should never, never be said of her. No! Though her heart broke in the struggle. No! Though she should be obliged to keep a smiling face to-morrow, while her heart was dropping tears of blood. Ay, to-morrow! it would be a hard task that morrow,—and the day after! A hard and difficult task.

Poor Beppo, too! How he would be pained! How she must torture him! Avoid all possible meeting! That was the only way! No good-byes! No leave-takings! That would never do! She would not answer for herself, if on the eve of parting, those honest, loving eyes got a chance of looking full into hers, while Beppo asked her if she had no word for him,—if all his many years’ faithful love must go for nothing? How could she trust herself to answer that? No, no! no leave-takings!—no last words!

“Good-bye, Beppo!” with a nod and a saucy smile, as she turned on her heel to go.

She acted the scene as the thoughts passed through her mind, and burst afresh into passionate and bitter tears in the midst of it.

Sudden as a flash of lightning the thought dashed through her brain, “Could Beppo have understood these horrid words, at dinner, as his father understood them? Did he, too, think that living at Bella Luce might mean——” She started to an upright position, and put her hands to her forehead, as if to help her mind to answer this question. And the answer came from the depth of her own heart, with assurance of its truth. No! No such thought would have found entrance into Beppo’s heart. He was too good, too frank, too honest,—and—and—and loved her far too well!

And to leave him with the pain in his great loving heart without a word!

But no doubt he would soon console himself! There were plenty who would like to live always at Bella Luce. Was there not Lisa Bartoldi, a city lady, as fair and dainty as snow, and as rich as a Jew, ready to give him all the love of her heart! Oh! no fear of his pining!

And then she told herself that it was a lie—a wicked lie to say so! She knew that Beppo would never love Lisa Bartoldi. She knew that he would not console himself. She knew that none other than she could console him. She knew that he could love no other! And yet she must be mute, and say no word. She must be hard—hard as marble! cold, indifferent, gay as ever!

Oh! would to Heaven that these next two days were over! Would to Heaven that it were all over!

And then she cried herself to sleep.

The next morning la padrona would have availed herself of the priest’s hint, and sent Giulia to the parsonage to be out of the way, had it not been that the question of “the things” was still pressing too heavily on her. So she kept that resource in reserve for the next day, the Saturday, before the Sunday fixed for Giulia’s departure; and determined to keep her under her own eye all that day, assisting in the work of getting ready. Giulia acquiesced more than willingly in the commands of Sunta, to this effect. She was very glad to escape any meeting with Beppo that morning. As it was, she never went down-stairs till after the men had gone out to their work in the field.

The great room over the kitchen was turned into a laundry for the nonce, for the making ready of Giulia’s modest wardrobe; and there she and la sposa worked together till it was time to prepare the mid-day meal. That Giulia had no objection to venture down to do, for she knew that the men were away in the field. But when the time for dinner came, she had a strong inclination to say that she was not hungry, and would continue their work up-stairs while Sunta went down to dinner. But she was afraid of letting the old lady suspect that she feared meeting Beppo. She was afraid of the remarks that would be made, and the questionings. And especially she was afraid that the inevitable meeting, which must come, would be worse and more significative if it were deferred, and if it followed so unusual an event as her absence from the family mid-day meal.

So she made up her mind to go down to dinner. Only when the sunlight streaming in under the eaves of the farm-house touched that particular beam, which indicated that it was nearly noon, she said to la sposa, “Will you go and take the soup up, Sióra Sunta, while I finish plaiting this collar. I will come down directly it is done.”

But as soon as ever the old farmer’s wife was out of the room, Giulia ran to the window, which was over the kitchen-door, and looked out on the path by which the men would come home from the field; and carefully hiding herself behind the great heavy persiane, so as to be invisible from below, kept watch for their coming.

No chronometer can be more accurately true to time than the Italian peasant is in knocking off his work at mid-day! They carry no watches, but they never miss the time! It was not many minutes therefore that Giulia had to watch before the men came towards the house. Yes! there was Beppo, with his pruning-hatchet hanging from his loins behind, and his broad, shallow white hat on the top of his curly brown hair, just as usual!

Was he just as usual? Generally the men would come in talking to each other. There was something to be said about the morning’s work between the father and his eldest son; but this morning the old man and Carlo were walking in advance, and Beppo was lagging behind. Giulia could not help fancying too that there was not the usual springy elasticity in his step. He was looking down on the ground as he walked, and she could not see his face, therefore, as he entered the kitchen-door below her post of observation.

Giulia allowed a few minutes to elapse, to give them time to seat themselves at the table, and then slipping quietly down the stairs, she noiselessly entered the kitchen, and gliding to her usual place, sate down without raising her eyes or speaking. The meal passed in silence. Such a circumstance was not so strange at the table of a family of peasants, as it would have been at any other. The peasantry are less given to talking than the people of the towns, especially at table, unless indeed on the occasion of some festival. But that is a totally different thing—not differing in degree, so to speak, from the ordinary every-day dinner, but altogether in kind.

No remark therefore was elicited from any one of the party around the family table at Bella Luce, by the silence which prevailed among them. Nevertheless, every one of them knew what the cause of it was. Beppo tried hard to get an answering look from Giulia, as she sate opposite to him at the table, but in vain. She held her eyes obstinately glued to the table. He tried to get between her and the door, by which she had to leave the room when they got up from table; but she perceived or guessed his purpose, and was too quick for him, slipping through the door and bounding up the stair to the upper room, before he could get clear of the bench on which he had been sitting.

And so the dinner was got over! The slow hours of the afternoon wore away in completing the work of the morning by the two women up-stairs in the great room. La Sunta tried two or three times to enter on a little talk about Giulia’s prospects, about Signor Sandro’s kindness, about the place Giulia was going to; but she found her unwilling to talk. She answered in half-whispered submissive monosyllables, and seemed utterly indifferent alike to all the little information Sunta could give her, and her many speculations concerning La Signoria Dossi, and the duties that she, Giulia, would be expected to perform in her new sphere.

But when la padrona ventured on a few observations on the expediency of prudence as to her general conduct amid the dangers and temptations of the great world into which she was about to be launched—on the difficulties apt to arise from the combination of good looks such as hers, with poverty and a dependent position such as hers—and on the necessity of remembering always that she was a Vanni, Giulia’s eyes gleamed in a manner which admonished Sunta that there were signs of “tantrums” in the air! She raised herself up from the work over which she was stooping, as she stood at the long table, and flashing through the tears that rose to her eyes, at the mistress, who was on the other side of the table, opposite to her, she said,

“Would to God that I could forget it! Would to God everybody could forget it! Would to God a pestilence might blotch my face, and leave me as ugly as——

“Lisa Bartoldi” was on her tongue. But a sudden thought of all the revelation there was in such a display of temper dashed through her brain just in time to save her from uttering it. The sudden pull-up brought with it too a change of feeling.

“Not that am I ungrateful, Signora Sunta,” she added, in a submissive tone, “for all your kindness to me. I hope you will never think so. I know how much I owe to you!”

Va bene! Va bene!” said the old woman, glad that the threatened storm had dissipated itself after one lightning flash and thunderbolt; “there, let us get on with these sleeves and the collar, and then there will be nothing more to be done but to put a new hem to the petticoat; and everything will be ready.”

So they bent in silence over their work again. Sunta, considering that it was perhaps natural that the girl should be a little out of sorts at the change before her, and having been sufficiently admonished by the little outbreak that had taken place, did not torment her further by any attempt at talking. Nothing further was uttered by either of them, except such brief words as the work in hand rendered necessary; and before the Ave Maria Giulia’s little trousseau was completed.

And then came the supper, which was an exact repetition of the noontide meal. Again Giulia contrived to slip into her place after the others had taken their seats. And again she baffled Beppo in an attempt to gain one word, or at least one look, from her, by cutting off her retreat as they rose from the table.

And then there was another night of tears and passionate outbursts, succeeded by sad musings, which only confirmed her in the determination she had reached on the previous night, that no other course was open to her than an absolute avoidance of any private interview or last words of any kind with Beppo, and at every cost a continuation, for the few more hours that remained to her at Bella Luce, of the repelling conduct she had hitherto observed towards him.

And then, da capo!—tears, followed by the sleep that at eighteen years rarely fails to visit pillows so wetted.

In the morning of the Saturday she was still making something to do about the work that had been finished over-night, in order to avoid going down-stairs, till the men should have left the house, when la padrona came into the room, and told her that she had promised his Reverence the Curato that Giulia should go up that morning to the Cura to lend la Nunziata a hand at some work. Possibly, too, his Reverence might wish to say a few words to her, before parting with his parishioner.

Giulia perfectly well understood the meaning of this arrangement, and was not at all disposed to quarrel with it. She was well pleased to spend the day at the Cura; and only hoped that his Reverence’s few words might be as few as possible. So she dallied yet a few minutes in the room over the kitchen, till she saw from the window of it the old farmer and his second son go forth to their work in the vineyard! Could it be that Beppo intended to absent himself from his day’s work, and keep guard in the kitchen till she should come down! Surely under the present circumstances he would not venture upon such a step as that! What should she do? Could she tell la padrona that Beppo was alone in the kitchen, and that she could not pass through it except under her escort? She would jump out of the window rather!

She was not left long, however, in her difficulty. She was still standing at the window, not so carefully concealed as when she had been watching for the men to come home, when Beppo came slowly out of the door. He had only been lingering behind a few minutes in the hope that she would come down! When he had stepped two or three paces from the door, while Giulia was sadly marking his drooping head and dejected mien, he turned and looked up at the window. He evidently saw her, for his head was instantly raised and stretched upwards in an imploring attitude. He dared not raise his hands, for his father and brother were yet within sight of him. Yes! he evidently had seen her; but it could only have been for half an instant. For with a backward bound, as if she had put her foot on red-hot iron, she placed herself out of sight behind the shutter; yet so that she could still see him standing in the same attitude in anxious hope for awhile. Then he turned; his head dropped again on his chest, and he dragged his limbs heavily to his work.

Then Giulia hurried down, and flitting like a frightened thing round to the back of the house from the kitchen door,—for the village of Santa Lucia was a little way up the valley, whereas the vineyard on which the men were at work was to the front of the house, looking down the valley,—set off for the priest’s house.

His reverence, the Curato, was from home when she reached the Cura; but his housekeeper, la Nunziata, was evidently prepared to receive her. She had rather dreaded to encounter the preachment which she expected from the priest, and had still more shrunk from all the questioning and gossipping which she anticipated from la Nunziata. But she was agreeably disappointed in this respect. La Nunziata had evidently received her cue. She just said that she was sorry they were going to lose Giulia from Santa Lucia;—that it was very good of her to give her one more day’s help, as she had so often done, before she went; and then plunged into all the variety of little household matters, which she had, or had made a necessity for attending to.

The priest came home to his dinner at mid-day, but went out again, after his siesta, without Giulia having seen him. She began to flatter herself that the preachment part of the business would be spared her. The day passed better and more quickly than she had hoped; the evening came, and she told la Nunziata that it was time for her to go home. But the housekeeper said that she must not in any case go without having spoken to his Reverence;—that he would soon be in;—and that her orders were to keep Giulia till he came.

The preachment then was to be administered.

It was about half an hour after sundown when Don Evandro returned home,—just about the time they would be finishing supper, and going to their rooms to bed, at Bella Luce. As soon as ever he came in Giulia was called into his little sanctum, evidently for the preachment. She ventured, however, on entering, to say—perhaps with a view of shortening the infliction as much as might be,—that she was afraid they would all be gone to bed at Bella Luce, and would think she was very late.

“Yes! they are all gone to bed by this time, except la Signora Sunta. I have just returned from the farm. You need be in no uneasiness about the time. I told la Sunta to wait for you a little while, as I had not had time to speak to you during the day.”

And then came the expected few words. But, to Giulia’s great surprise, they were not all of the same sort with la padrona’s little attempt at preaching. Don Evandro spoke very kindly;—said not a word about any dangers of the town, or anything of the sort;—seemed quite unconscious of the existence of any such dangers. On the contrary, he spoke of his hopes that the amusements of the city, which were natural and proper for her age, would make her forget the regret which it was natural she would feel at first leaving her home of so many years;—spoke of the indulgence of la Signora Dossi;—she was an old woman now, but had been young herself; and would understand that a girl, such as Giulia, was not to be expected to lead the life of a woman of sixty. He had no doubt that she would find friends at Fano. Girls such as Giulia—(a priest’s smile here, half fatherly, half gallant)—rarely failed to find them! Let her cultivate any such—prudently and innocently of course; but by no means let her imagine that it was her duty to shut herself up like a nun.

And therewith the priest kindly dismissed her, telling her that she would find la padrona sitting up for her; and that she must make haste to go to bed, as she was to start before daybreak the next morning with Signor Paolo.

Giulia understood it all; and smiled to herself, somewhat bitterly, as she thought how much trouble they were all taking to secure the object, which was her own as much as theirs.