Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Beppo, the conscript - Part 7





Farmer Vanni, when he arrived with Giulia at the attorney’s house in Fano, did not seem much inclined to accompany her to that of her new mistress. He did not see that he could do any good, he said. The fact was partly that he was shy, as the peasantry always are with respect to the people of the city—even those of a social rank corresponding to their own—although they are at the same time most thoroughly convinced that they (the countrymen) are the superiors in every really good quality, and partly that he did not care to see how far Signor Sandro’s representations as to the exceptionally dignified character of the situation were strictly in accordance with the fact. He had a certain amount of doubt upon the subject, and preferred to remain in such a state of ignorance upon it as should justify him in boasting now and hereafter on all fitting occasions that no Vanni had ever been in service.

So he and Signor Sandro, and his daughter Lisa, and Giulia, dined together at the attorney’s house; the farmer started on his way back to Bella Luce, and then Signor Sandro took Giulia with him to her new home. He had never ceased during dinner time eulogising Signora Dossi, and speaking in the most glowing terms of Giulia’s good fortune in having obtained a position in every way so desirable.

Giulia, however, drew more consolation from a few minutes’ conversation which she had found an opportunity for with the gentle Lisa. Of course Lisa was in the first instance an object of no little interest to her. She was perfectly well aware of the wishes and hopes of her father and of Beppo’s father with regard to them both. She saw her now for the first time; and every daughter of Eve will perfectly well understand the quick, sharp glance with which Giulia scanned, measured, surveyed, and reckoned her up. Giulia was not strongly impressed with any high idea of her own personal perfections. The village lads had smiled at her. But Italian peasants do not much pay compliments, except by falling in love with the object that appears to them to merit them. She know that Beppo had paid her this compliment, but then that might be because they were so much thrown into the way of each other. Nevertheless, her survey of poor pale little Lisa was satisfactory to her. It seemed to her quite as conceivable that a man should fall desperately in love with a little white mouse as with Lisa Bertoldi.

Lisa also looked at Giulia with no little curiosity. The feeling was a different one on her side. She had heard much, as we know, from Beppo about her, and she had every reason to wish that he might be constant to his passion for her. As far as that went, the result of her inspection was satisfactory also. But it was not in the nature of womankind that it should be wholly so. Poor Lisa felt too unmistakeably the total eclipse into which this magnificent Diana of the mountains—magnificent in stature, in colour, in development, in vigour—threw her faded and modest attractions. And then Britti would see her—of course he would in the house of la Dossi; who could tell with what result? Heaven grant, at least, that Giulia might be sternly faithful to Beppo. Faithful to him! But Beppo had declared that Giulia cared nothing for him. She understood very well what his father’s purpose had been in bringing this superb creature away from Bella Luce. Alas! might it not turn out that his object might be served by it in yet another manner, if she should appear as lovely in Giacopo Britti’s eyes as she did in hers?

Nevertheless, the two girls made friends; for Lisa’s nature was a gentle one, and Giulia was in a frame of mind in which any proffered kindness was very acceptable to her. They made friends; and Giulia was in a great degree reassured as to the lot that was awaiting her, by Lisa’s account of Signora Dossi and her household. She fully confirmed all that her father had said about la Clementina’s kindness and indulgence. She explained to her her new mistress’s mode of life; told her the leading facts of her former history, and seemed to consider her on the whole as rather a butt for fun and quizzing, though the best and kindest old soul in the world.

“You’ll have to try her girdle on, Signorina Giulia, before you have been in her house half-an-hour. You won’t be able to put it on. I can; but then I am such a mite compared to you!”

“Put her girdle on!” said Giulia, in great amazement; “what on earth do you mean?”

“Oh! not the girdle she wears now. That would be a very different thing. You will see. It is a girdle she keeps, that she wore once when she was a favourite on the stage. She had a very beautiful figure, it seems,—very slender; and this girdle shows what she was then. She always makes all the girls try it on. Very few can wear it; I can,” repeated poor little Lisa for the second time; “but then I am such a little bit of a thing! Though I don’t think la Dossi can ever have been much taller than me. They used to call her the ‘Sylph.’ And you’ll see what she is now. So!” said Lisa, stretching her arms to their full extent. “And she keeps a girdle, such as she wears now, by the side of the other, to show the difference. Oh, she is such a queer old creature! but as good as gold!”

“Is she a little—?” and Giulia tapped her forehead with her fore-finger significantly.

“Oh, dear, no!” answered Lisa, laughing; “only funny. I know,” she added, mysteriously, and in a lower voice, “why it is that my father and Signor Vanni have settled for you to go and live there. Don’t you know?”

Giulia was for a moment inclined to be angry at this unceremonious allusion to matters that to her were sacred, and wrapped in the secresy of her inmost heart. But a moment’s refection showed her both the uselessness and the injustice of being offended at poor little Lisa’s friendly-intended confidences.

“Yes, Signorina Lisa;” she said sadly, “I know what I am sent away from Bella Luce for.”

“But you don’t mind it much, do you? I don’t think I should, if I were you. And you know, I suppose, why my father wanted it?”

“I suppose so,” said Giulia, while a feeling of startled surprise at the suddenness and unreserve of her new acquaintance’s mode of treating subjects which she only approached shyly and timorously, even in her communings with her own heart, mingled with her sadness.

“To make a match of it between me and Beppo, you know. But that will never be! Don’t you be afraid of that! Beppo is for you, and for nobody else. He and I quite understand one another!”

“But—but, excuse me, Signorina Lisa,” stammered Giulia, almost speechless from the extremity of her astonishment; “may I ask if you understood from Beppo that—that—I had ever accepted his addresses?”

“He, he, he!” giggled Lisa. “No! He said that you would have nothing to say to him. Poor Beppo!—he, he, he! But, between ourselves, we know what that means. Surely you have played the cruel long enough, Signorina Giulia! And poor Beppo absolutely adores you! He is desperate; he is indeed. And, hark! in your ear,” dropping her voice to a whisper as she spoke, “you may see him as often as you like at la Dossi’s house. Lord bless you! She is not the one to keep young people asunder. It is there that I see—somebody!”

“But suppose I don’t want to see—anybody?” returned Giulia, half-sadly and half-satirically.

“Oh! come now, Signorina Giulia, let us be friends! I am sure I wish to. And we can help one another,” said Lisa, in a voice of remonstrance.

“I am very much obliged to you, Signorina Lisa, for wishing to be friends with me. It is very kind of you. If I can be of any use to you, I shall be very happy;—you have only to command me! But—but—but I was quite in earnest in—in—what I said about myself.”

The two girls found great difficulty in understanding each other, in consequence of the vast distance from each other at which they were placed, not so much by the intrinsic and original difference in their two natures, as by that of their social position, and the mental training derived thence. The contrasted manner in which they felt and spoke on the great subject, which is more important and interesting than any other that can occupy a young girl’s mind at their time of life, was exhibiting the different tendencies of the town and country nature. It is true that Giulia’s was the deeper, richer and more earnest nature; but that was only in the second place the cause of the notable difference between them. It is the denizen of the town who runs out in fluent, abundant, and ready talk. The peasant nature is more reserved, more inarticulate. Less accustomed to constant contact and companionship with others, the contadino, and, perhaps, in a still greater degree, the contadina, is unready with the tongue, reserved in temper, shy, modest in thought as well as in word, unable to get readily spoken even that which she would desire to speak. It is the town girl who pins her heart upon her sleeve, makes gossip matter of the most delicate secrets, and is ready, at a moment’s notice, to discuss them with any street-corner or door-step female friend.

To Giulia Lisa’s mode of speaking was shocking and painful, as well as extraordinary. She could not understand her. The manner in which she plunged into the sacred places—the innermost holy of holies of Giulia’s guarded heart, seemed to her an impertinence; and the way in which she dealt with her own secrets almost an indecency. She was at a loss whether to think her worthless or half-witted.

“How do you mean in earnest about what you said of yourself? What did you say?” replied Lisa, quite unconscious of the slightest indiscretion.

“I said that I had no particular wish to—to—to see—a—anybody at the house of la Signora Dossi,” returned Giulia, casting down her eyes.

“Oh, don’t talk in that way! There’s nobody to hear but ourselves. You don’t really mean that you don’t care for poor Beppo. I can hardly believe that. I should be very sorry. And even if you did not, it would be reason the more why you should wish to see somebody else;” said Lisa, reflectively. “You are not—?” she said suddenly, completing her phrase by pantomimically taking an invisible rosary from the side of her dress, where it would have hung from her girdle, if she had worn one, and moving her fingers and lips as if she were going through the exercise of “telling her beads.”

“Oh, no!” said Giulia, laughing in spite of herself; “not that at all.”

It was the only conceivable theory on which Lisa could explain the case of a girl, who neither had a lover, nor yet was anxious to take the ordinary means towards having one. There was, however, one other means of explaining Giulia’s conduct;—it might be fear, and over-caution.

“Well, then,” she returned, “we ought to understand each other. You don’t suppose that I should say a word to my father! And what’s more, let me whisper in your ear, la Dossi won’t say a word either. She never tells tales,—had too many secrets of her own to keep once upon a time, I suppose. And she’s too good a creature. Lord bless you! Papa thinks she tells him everything. So she does, about her money and property, and such things. But—not matters which don’t concern him. Tell me, Giulia dear,” she added, sliding coaxingly up to her, putting her arm round her waist, and looking up with a roguish smile into her face, “you do care for Beppo, don’t you?”

“But what does it signify, Signorina Lisa, whether I care for him or not?” said poor Giulia, thus forced against her will into a half-confidence; “You know, even if I did, and he loved me ever so well, there could never be anything between us.”

“What! because of the old ones? Bah!—whish—sh—sh!” said Lisa, prolonging her hissing expletive, and vibrating the fingers of one extended hand, in a manner expressing to Italian perceptions the most intense derision and contempt. “Lord bless you!—now-a-days they can’t shut us up in prisons—no—nor make nuns of us either,” continued the well-instructed city-maiden; “you have nothing to do but to stick to it.”

Giulia felt an irresistible repugnance to attempting to make Lisa understand what were the feelings that really did place, to her mind, an insuperable bar between her and Beppo. It would have been better for her peace of mind, perhaps, if she had done so; for the light worldly wisdom and town-bred ridicule with which Lisa would have treated her scruples, might have to a certain degree been a useful corrective of Giulia’s high-minded but exaggerated pride. She felt it impossible for her, however, to do so. She turned the conversation, therefore, by reverting to the very natural subject of the life which awaited her with Signora Dossi.

“She does not keep any other servant, does she?” asked Giulia.

“No, only one; but you won’t find that you have any very hard work to do. I should think you would find it best not to have any one else in the house to interfere with you.”

“But, you say, she has people at her house?”

“Oh, yes, very often!—not regular parties, you know. But there are always people running in and out. La Dossi likes it. I think the poor old soul would annoiare herself to death if she had not people about the house. She can’t go about herself much, you know.”

“Why not?” asked Giulia.

“Why not! Wait till you see, and then you will know why not. Lord bless you! it’s as much as she can do to walk to the church next door every day.”

“Is she very religious?” asked Giulia.

“Yes, very—in a quiet way. But she don’t bother other people with it. She thinks it will come to your turn soon enough.”

“But with so many people about the house, and one servant to do everything, how shall I ever be able to get through?”

“Oh! you will do very well. She is not-like a gran’ Signorina dell’ alto celo,[1] la Dossi. She does half the work herself. She lives half in the kitchen; and you’ll live half in the drawing-room. She would not have any common servant girl, look you! So that was how babbo came to think of you, you see.”

To a certain extent, then, what the lawyer had said about the exceptional nature of the position he was proposing to “a Vanni” was founded in truth.

And then Signor Sandro himself came in from seeing his guest off on his return to Bella Luce; and announced that he was ready to accompany la Signorina Giulia to the house of his friend la Signora Dossi, and that it was time to be going.

So Giulia and the attorney set off together, Lisa having promised to see her again before long in her new home, and proceeded to the house of la Dossi, while Signor Sandro administered a lecture on the manner in which she was to behave towards her mistress, and on her own good fortune in being received into such a house.

It cannot be expected that our poor mountain nymph, fresh from the Apennine, should enter her now abode without much misgiving. Giulia felt not a little at the unexpected magnificence of the palace at which Signor Sandro stopped.

“Does la Signora Dossi live here?” she asked, with considerable awe.

“Yes; here we are! This is the Palazzo Bollandini. The Marchese lives at Rome. La Dossi lives on the first floor. There are very few other tenants in the house.”

So saying, he led the way up the enormous staircase; and Giulia was more astonished than ever at the magnificence of her mistress’s lodging. It was a huge wide staircase, built of yellow Travertini stone, with the steps so easy and shallow that it would have been no difficult feat to ride up it on horseback. The immense panelled walnut-wood folding doors, with chased gilt bronze handles in the middle of each of them, were on a scale of magnificence to match, and Giulia opened her simple eyes wider and wider as those splendours revealed themselves to her.

A small bit of greasy twine passed through a gimlet-hole in one of these grand doors, by way of a bell-pull, however, struck the first note of the descending scale, which connected the ancestral magnificence of the Bollandini of former generations with the habits and style of modern life at Fano. Signor Sandro and his companion had to wait a long time before the application of the former to the bit of twine—performed, as Italians invariably do, with a whole succession of pulls, as if he were intent on ringing a peal—produced any result.

Signor Sandro was neither surprised nor impatient. He knew that there was probably no one inside, save la Clementina herself,—that she travelled slowly, and that she had a long way to travel.

At last, however, the door was opened; and wide as its aperture was, it disclosed a portion only of the still ampler person of the lady of the mansion. There stood la Signora Dossi, the ex-sylph, firmly planted on both feet, so as to assign to each of them its fair share of the work of supporting her person, in the attitude generally adopted by persons of her inches—of circumference. There she stood, rather out of breath, but beaming with good-nature and good-humour.

“Signora Clementina,” said the little attorney, bowing still outside the door, for it did not seem to occur to the ex-sylph that the door-way was still as effectually closed by her own person, as if she had not opened it, “here is the young person of whom I spoke to you. She came from Bella Luce this morning; and so I brought her off to you myself at once.”

“Come in! come in! Signor Sandro; and bring in your young friend, who is to be my friend too!” said la Dossi, in a small piping voice that contrasted ludicrously with her appearance, turning round as she spoke by means of three separate steps, and then waddling back into the vast hall into which the magnificent doors opened.

It was a really grand apartment, loftier than the rest of the suite of rooms that opened off it, of great size and admirable proportions, with a carved coffered ceiling showing remains of gilding, and a half-obliterated painting of gods and goddesses in the centre. It was lighted by three large windows looking on to the street, and paved with square slabs of the same yellow Travertini stone of which the staircase was built. On the wall opposite to the entrance there hung an enormous escutcheon, on which the Bollandini arms were emblazoned; in one far corner of the huge hall there stood an old sedan-chair, with the scroll ornaments about the top, and the carved mouldings around its panels, which showed it to be the production of the last century; and there were four high-backed, square-built, leathern arm-chairs, with plain flat wooden arms, and ornaments of gilt carving surmounted by coronets on either side of the high straight backs, which as clearly belonged to a yet earlier period. These were placed, two against the opposite wall under the huge escutcheon, and two against the wall in which the door of entrance was, on the left-hand of it. For the door was nearly in the corner, near the street, with the three windows to the right of one coming in. There was another door to match in the other corner on the same side; but that was only a mock door, for uniformity’s sake. There were other two similar doors on the opposite side,—that, namely, on which the escutcheon hung; but these led to parts of the palace not in the occupation of Signora Dossi, and were locked up. In the middle of the fourth side, opposite to the windows, was another similar door, which led to the apartment inhabited by the ex-sylph.

And the huge escutcheon, which belonged to the sixteenth century, and the eighteenth century sedan-chair, and the four seventeenth century arm-chairs, were the only bits of furniture of any kind in the room.

Nevertheless it was there that la Dossi chose to receive her visitors; for she waddled no further than to the nearest of the arm-chairs in question, and there sat down, leaving her guest to occupy the one opposite to her, some forty feet distant, or to remain standing in front of her, at his pleasure. He selected the latter alternative.

“So this is la Giulia! Per Dio! what a creature! God forgive me for swearing! Ave Maria, gratiâ plena, Dominus taycoo—o—m.” (The compensatory formula was uttered with the utmost rapidity—all except the last word, which was prolonged in a sort of penetential whine. La Dossi was repentant for having been surprised into swearing; but she had a feeling that the good deed she had performed as per contra, left on the whole a balance in her favour on the transaction.) “Why this is a Juno, not a parlour-maid, let alone kitchen! My dear, I shall be afraid of you! I shall have to wash all the dishes myself! How she would bring the house down as Semiramide! You should be on the stage, my dear; you should indeed!”

“I trust you will find la Giulia quite as well fitted for mere every-day work, my dear madam. I have no doubt that you will soon get used to one another. Giulia, my good girl, you will find la Signora Dossi a kind and considerate mistress. Make her your friend, and you will find her a valuable one. You must remember, Signora, that Giulia has lived all her life in the country; and you will have to teach her many things. But you will make allowances; and I am sure that you will find her anxious to please. And now I must run away, for I have people from the country to see me about this troublesome conscription business at four. All the country is going mad about it, it seems to me; and the people are thinking of nothing but exemptions and substitutes. Good-by, Signora. Good-by, Giulia.”

“Shut the door after him, Giulia. There; now we can talk, and make acquaintance. How fond the men are of preaching! They are all alike in that. Have not you found them so, eh? Ah! but it is not preaching they give you, I’ll be bound. That will come by-and-by. Did you leave many broken hearts up at Bella Luce when you came away, eh?”


“Did you, now? Half the village, I should think. You are monstrously handsome, Giulia! But I suppose you don’t want an old woman to tell you that. There’s plenty of a different sort to whisper that in your ear. And small blame to them. And what about cousin Beppo?”

“Signora!” exclaimed Giulia, in a voice made up of two parts indignation to four parts of supplication, and twenty parts of astonishment.

“Well! and ought not I to know all about it? Am not I to be your mistress, and your protector, and counsellor and friend? Hey! do you think I have not heard all about Beppo and you? Do you think I don’t know what old Sandro has put you here for? But don’t you be afraid. And don’t stand there looking as if you were struck speechless. Did not Lisa tell you I knew it all?”

“Lisa said that you were very kind,” faltered Giulia.

“Well then, don’t you be afraid of me. Why, I’ve been in love, girl, before you were ever born or thought of. And Tina Dossi is not the one to put a spoke in a true lover’s wheel. Never was, and never will be per——Ave Maria, gratiâ plena, Dominus tay-coo—oo—oo—m!——{La Dossi, it will be observed, conscientiously and honourably paid the fine for the intention, even though the sin was not consummated. But she put down a proportionably large balance on the creditor side of the account.) “Now come along in and see what there is for dinner. Give me a hand to help me up. Pull away!—that’s it,” said la Dossi, slowly rising to her feet, in obedience to a vigorous pull of Giulia’s stalwart arm.

“Well done! You’re a capital one at that, any way. You would not think, Giulia, that I was once as active and lissome and slenderer than you! Yes—a good bit slenderer. But then I was smaller altogether. They used to call me the Sylph. I look like it, don’t I?”

And so chattering, she waddled across the wide stone floor of the hall to the door in the middle of the further wall, and led Giulia into the inner rooms of her habitation. From the hall they passed through a very small ante-room, very imperfectly lighted only by a borrowed light, in which there were two other doors, one fronting the great hall, leading into a sitting-room, and one on the left-hand, leading into a snug little room, once a store-room for linen, but fitted up as a kitchen for la Dossi’s special convenience.

“There’s my sitting-room,” she said, throwing open the door of it, and showing a tolerably well-furnished but rather bare-looking room, totally devoid of any sign of any sort of occupation or employment; but garnished with sundry prints of the ex-sylph, representing her in the various characters and costumes, which had made her fame and fortune in the days of her sylph-hood; among which, suspended on the wall in a place of honour, Giulia’s quick eye caught sight of the two contrasted belts hanging side by side, like the geographical representations of the shortest and longest rivers in the world; “and there,” she continued, pointing to a door at one side of the further wall, “is my bed-room; and there,” indicating a similar door on the other side of the same wall, “is yours. There we are, cheek by jowl, my dear. So you are in safe keeping, you see. Only the worst is,” and she winked at Giulia, who thereupon coloured up, though she could not have told why,—“the worst of it is, that I sleep like a stone two hours every day, from two to four, let alone all night, and should not hear if there were a dozen men in the great hall out there. But you are a good girl, and would not do anything wrong, I know. And this is the kitchen,” she continued, in a tone which seemed to indicate that she considered that to be by far the most important part of her habitation; “I generally eat here, unless I have anybody particular with me. It is very comfortable; and the things are hotter, you know. My hour is one o’clock every day, except Sundays. On Sunday I dine at three; so that the girl may always go to mass with me, and have time to make the soup afterwards. And then we have a mouthful of supper at eight. I do like a bit of supper. Ave Maria, gratiâ plena, Dominus tay-coo—oo-oo-m!” (The extra oo-oo showed that this was the weak point in La Signora Dossi’s conscience.) “And now come, and let us look after the dinner. I would not ask Don Civillo to come in and have a bit to-day, because I had no maid to help me. I suppose you don’t know much about cooking yet?”

Giulia rehearsed her small list of capabilities in this department, but la Dossi shook her head, saying, “Well, you will soon learn. Where there is a will there is a way. And it is a pleasure to teach a willing scholar. Now look here—”

So Giulia received there and then her first lesson in city cookery; and was thus installed into her new mode of life.

And then the mistress and the maid proceeded together to demolish the work of their own hands, amid the critical remarks and dissertations of the elder lady, who sat the while in a huge arm-chair provided specially ad hoc, while the younger, besides eating her own dinner, did the locomotive part of the business of the table.

And before the meal was over Giulia felt quite at home, and intimate with her mistress, and la Dossi had coaxed out of her the entire truth as to all her feelings and perplexities in the matter of cousin Beppo.



  1. A grandee—great lady of the highest class.