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Psmith of Pavia

A MYSTERY

BY W. L. ALDEN


AS I came out of the railway station at Pavia, one burning midsummer day, I noticed a thin, eager, hungry-looking man, in shabby black clothing, who was watching me closely. No sooner had I climbed into the omnibus of the hotel than he came to the side of the vehicle and said to me, in fairly good English: "You want a guide, sir? Show you all things visible. I am the unique guide."

I could not at first think what brought the Prayer-book suddenly into my mind, but presently I remembered, and felt mildly thankful that the guide had not offered to show me all things invisible as well as visible. I thanked him, "I will wait upon you at the hotel. I am English guide. Permit me—" and he offered me a printed card bearing the legend:


"John Psmith.

Unique Guide to
the Monuments
of Pavia.


Just then the omnibus moved on, and rattled swiftly down the street leading from the station. The unique guide followed on foot, with the air of one who knew that his prey could not escape him and that haste was therefore unnecessary.

When I descended at the hotel, there was the guide, standing on the opposite sidewalk, and apparently wrapped in deep meditation. He had evidently taken a short cut to the hotel, for he had not the slightest appearance of having raced an omnibus, with the thermometer at 92°. He was still standing thoughtfully on the sidewalk when I went to my room, and I temporarily forgot him while trying to solve the problem of bathing with three pints of water and a porridge-bowl.

I had come to Pavia in pursuance of a long-cherished purpose to visit all the Lombard cities that the tourist usually fails to see. Many travellers visit the Certosa of Pavia, which, in spite of its somewhat mongrel architecture, is imposing, and cannot fail to please those bold spirits who have not the fear of Ruskin before their eyes. But the Certosa is five miles from the town of Pavia, and the ordinary tourist, travelling between Genoa and Milan, catches only a passing glimpse of the old blue wall and the domes and towers of Pavia from the window of his railway-carriage. Perhaps I ought to say that the wall of Pavia is not blue, but that venerable sentence "the old gray wall" has grown painfully familiar to me, as it must have grown to every one who has read of Italian cities, and I refuse to make any further use of it. Also, the railway traveller sees the long bridge over the Ticino, and informs his wife, or other companion, that the river is the Po. This in pursuance of the ineradicable conviction of all tourists that all the rivers in Lombardy are the Po.

Pavia has many attractions. For example, it has its full share of historical associations. Hannibal fought his first battle with the Romans in Italy at Pavia, or at any rate in its immediate neighborhood. Columbus studied at the University of Pavia—a university which for more than a thousand years has held its place as one of the chief universities of Italy. What Columbus studied at Pavia is not known. It could not have been Bancroft's History of the United States, for in that case he would have been too tired to have cared to discover America. Possibly it was ecclesiastical seamanship; for we know that on his first great voyage he weathered a terrible g-ale by the clever expedient of vowing to go in procession to a shrine, clad only in his shirt. Seamanship such as this was precisely the sort that would probably be taught at a pious university, where eminent schoolmen had discovered how a man could convert himself into a procession by walking in his shirt. Furthermore, St. Augustine is buried in Pavia.

Late in the afternoon of the day of my arrival in Pavia I came down the stairs of my hotel with the intention of exploring the city. The unique guide was still waiting on the opposite side of the street, and I asked the porter if he knew him. "Sairtainly, sir," he replied. "He was Psmeet, the Greek. He is very goot guide."

"Oh!" I exclaimed. "So he is Greek? I thought he was English."

"I could not say," said the porter, stretching out both hands with a large gesture of apology. "We call him Greek because his father was an Englishman. He is very honest, and a stupendous intelligent guide."

It was, as I have said, a very warm day, and that perhaps was the reason why I failed to see that a man should be called a Greek because his father was an Englishman. I was wrestling with this problem as I passed the threshold of the hotel, and Psmith swooped down upon me and took immediate possession of me. Now I do not like guides. In fact, I would rather miss seeing an important saint or the very dingiest of pictures rather than to see them at the cost of an explanation in broken English from a hungry guide. But there was something in the happy expression of Psmith's face which conquered me. He had waited so patiently for me to be delivered into his hands, and was so obviously delighted when I came in sight, that I had not the heart to reject him.

We walked on together towards the Duomo, Psmith chatting cheerfully of the weather, but showing occasional signs of sadness over the depressed condition of the tourist-market in Pavia.

"They all go to Milan or Genoa," he said, mournfully. "In Milan and Genoa it is noisy, and the hotels are very dear. I know Genoa, for I was born there."

"You told me," said I, "that you were English. Why do the people here call you the Greek?"

"Yes," replied my guide, "my father was an Englishman. He was a sailor, and he married my mother, who kept a wine-shop in Genoa. He was a good man and a learned."

"But why," I insisted, "if your father was an Englishman, should you be called a Greek?"

"Ah, sir," answered the guide, "it is a long story, but I will tell you in the Duomo. Here it is too hot."

The Duomo boasts of a beautiful doorway and of the tomb of St. Augustine. Psmith gave me a long biography of the saint, in whom he took much pride. There was not much else to see in the Duomo, but it was dark and cool after the glare and heat of the streets, and I sat down, on the pedestal of a column and once more demanded to know why Psmith was called a Greek.

"Who knows ?" he answered. "Sometimes a man is called an Englishman and sometimes a Frenchman and sometimes a Spanish man. We do not always know why these things are."

"You spell your name queerly," I continued. And then it flashed upon me that Psmith began with the Greek letter Psi. Could this afford a clue to the mystery of the guide's nationality?

"My father he spelled his name likewise," replied Psmith, "but he had his misfortunes. He was compelled to kill a man in the wine-shop—a man who had said insults and had refused to pay for his wine. Yes! He spelled his name precisely as I spell."

I began to think that logic had never been taught in Pavia, either at the university or elsewhere. I had met a porter who thought that because a man was half an Englishman he should be called a Greek, and I had met a guide who spelled his name with a Greek letter because his father had killed a man in a wine-shop.

"I see!" I exclaimed, peremptorily. "You promised to tell me what you said was a long story about yourself, but you have told me nothing. Now tell me at once why you, who are half English and half Genoese and spell your name with a Greek initial, are called the Greek by the people of Pavia. This I must know, and know at once."

"I will tell you all, sir!" cried the guide. "My mother was not strictly Italian, for she was born in Switzerland, and I think her father was a Frenchman. She was not very happy with my father, for sometimes he drank too much wine, and then he would say that he would make my mother know that he was an Englishman, and he would beat her after the manner of the English. And she did not live to be very old, for her head was thin and it would break very easily; and twice every year I have masses said for her soul, but they cost much money."

"Come," I said, "let us see Pavia." And we went out of the church—Psmith wearing a sad smile, and I wondering if there was really any answer to the riddle of his true nationality.

As we passed through a narrow street a dog fled across our path, and at the same time a woman rushed to the door of a house and hurled a stone, which struck Psmith on the ankle. As he held the injured limb in one hand and hopped hither and thither on one leg in order to maintain his balance, he lavished sarcasm and abusive epithets on the woman, and called the universe to witness that no woman had sufficient intelligence to hit even a Spitz dog with a stone. Why a Spitz dog should afford a safer aim to a woman than any other species of dog Psmith did not condescend to explain. The woman listened in silence, and when he had finished his tirade she made a derisive gesture, and exclaiming, "Va-tene! porco tedesco!" she vanished into her house.

Now the expression the woman used may be literally translated into the dialect of Psmith's lamented father thus: "Garn, you German swine!" It seemed to wither Psmith, for he made no attempt to reply, and limped down the street, muttering to himself.

"Psmith," cried I, "this thing has got to stop. That woman called you German. If you don't explain why you are English, Italian, Swiss, Greek, and German all at once, you are going to meet with trouble."

"I cannot explain, sir," he replied. "These Pavians are pigs and the sons of pigs. They have no knowledge. Do not mind what they say, sir! Perhaps I am German. Who can tell."

I had to be satisfied with this explanation, for Psmith's feelings as well as his ankle had been deeply wounded, and he was not in a state to discuss matters of importance and intricacy. We walked on until we reached the university, where the guide showed me a statue of Volta, standing in a courtyard, and assured me that Volta had invented lightning. It was not a bad statue, and the courtyard in which it stood looked as if it had once been the cloister of a monastery. The sun striking on its marble columns made them dazzlingly white, and I wondered how it happened that the studious youth of Pavia had not covered the white surfaces with names and inscriptions, after the manner of youth.

I saw no students in Pavia, for it was vacation-time. The Italian university student is almost invariably a red-hot radical, and spends much of his time in making political demonstrations, or in actively rebelling against some unpopular professor. When he rebels or demonstrates, the authorities close the university for a few weeks, and thank Heaven that they have an unexpected vacation. At the university the students learn how to wear a sort of tam-o'-shanter cap jauntily on one side of the head, and practise, with much assiduity, the art of making unearthly noises in the street at dead of night. An Italian university student may be safely backed to talk for more hours and in a louder tone concerning nothing, immediately under your hotel window, than can any other species of being, human or otherwise. Pavia also has a reputation for teaching the medical art. This, as Herodotus would say, is all that I am permitted to say concerning the University of Pavia.

We went to see the two leaning towers of Pavia. The tower habit must have been very prevalent in Lombardy in the middle ages. Rich people of otherwise good moral character became addicted to the tower habit, and squandered their money in building towers. Most of these towers are built of common brick, after the model of the common factory chimney. They are extremely ugly, and, so far as can be ascertained, were utterly useless to their owners. Psmith, however, dwelt at some length on the beauty of the towers of Pavia.

"This," he said, "is the country of towers. Genoa is a fine city, but it has no towers, except, of course, the lighthouse, and therefore is not as healthy as Pavia."

This new fact in sanitary science interested me greatly. At first sight it seems improbable that the health of a city should depend upon the number of its towers, but then the more improbable a theory may seem, the more truly scientific it may prove to be.

We had a look at the outside of the Castello, which was once the palace and fortress of the Visconti family, in the days when they ruled over Pavia and enjoyed themselves in the hearty, strenuous, decapitating manner of the times. The Castello has been greatly modernized outwardly, and is now the barracks of the garrison of Pavia. The guide told me that there was nothing worth seeing inside the buildings, and if there were, we could not see it, since no civilians were allowed to enter the place. That gave me the comfortable feeling that as a sightseer I had done my whole duty towards the Castello. The most satisfactory moments in the tourist's experience are those in which he finds that he is not allowed to enter buildings which he has come to see.

After a cursory look into several churches of minor importance, the guide led me to the great bridge across the Ticino, where on summer evenings the beauty and fashion of Pavia come to promenade. At the time there was no one on the bridge, except a peasant with a donkey, neither of whom gave any marked evidences of the possession of either beauty or fashion. Psmith and I leaned over the parapet of the bridge between two of its many beautiful columns. The river ran swiftly, and looked as if it might be deep.

"Is the river deep in this place?" I asked.

"Immensely deep," replied Psmith. "Many persons come here to be drowned."

I placed my hand suddenly on his shoulder and said: "Psmith, I am a desperate man. I am not, as you think, an Englishman. I am an Arab, and terribly ferocious. Tell me instantly who and what you are, or else the river waits for you."

With a terrified expression of face, in which at the same time I seemed to detect relief and joy, Psmith clasped his hands and cried: "Ana arabi keman. Manish rubbawi. Ana Masrawi."

What he said was good Arabic—at all events, of the Egyptian variety. It was, in brief, a claim that he too was an Arab. And this new complication was all that I had gained by my clumsy trick!

I gave Psmith up then and there as an insoluble problem. I paid him his money and begged him to depart. He thanked me, assuring me that he would remember me "world without end," and then went away hastily. My joke had plainly frightened him, and for the fiftieth time, or thereabouts, I recognized the fact that jokes are not understood in Italy.


This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.