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SMORFIA

By E. F. BENSON

THE sympathy of the town generally was entirely with Pasqualino in that which had befallen him. It was felt to be intolerable that a boy who had just changed into his best clothes, and taken a carnation from one of the tables in the dining-room to put in his button-hole, and was actually setting off to go down to the Piazza, there to spend the afternoon of the festa, should have been called back by the unsympathetic porter of the Grand Hotel, where he was hall-boy, and be commanded to show the fat white German gentleman down to the bathing-place at the Palazzo a mare and carry his towels and bathing-dress for him. The fat white German gentleman also had preferred, in the unaccountable manner of foreigners, to go all the way on foot, instead of taking a carriage—which would have conveyed him three-quarters of the distance with much saving of time—and, being fat, had walked very slowly along the dusty road, under a large white umbrella, perspiring profusely, and stopping every now and then to sit down, while all the time the precious moments of the afternoon were slipping by, and the Piazza was full of Pasqualino's young friends, male and female, all in their best clothes, conversing and laughing together, and taking little walks, and standing about and smoking an occasional cigarette, in the orthodox manner of spending the holiday of Corpus Domini. Then, after this interminable walk, during which the German gentleman kept asking the infuriated Pasqualino a series of questions in a perfectly unknown tongue, and appeared singularly annoyed when the boy was unable to answer him, he drew three coppers from his pocket, and, after a prolonged mental struggle, presented him with two of them. He then undressed and swam majestically away round the promontory of rock that bounded the beach. An hour afterwards, Pasqualino, defrauded of half his holiday afternoon, returned to the gaiety and companionship of the Piazza, and recounted to an indignant audience his outrageous employment.

He returned to the Grand Hotel in time to get into his livery again before dinner, and was instantly summoned into the manager's bureau, where he was confronted with his odious taskmaster of the afternoon, and charged with having picked his pocket while he was bathing. A portfolio was missing, containing a note for a hundred francs, which the German gentleman was gutturally certain that he had on his person when he started off to bathe, and which he found he had lost when he began to dress for dinner. His certainty was partly founded on the fact that he had tipped the boy when they arrived at the Palazzo a mare, and that to have tipped him he must have had money in his pocket. In answer, Pasqualino absolutely denied the charge, and then made a dreadful mistake by suggesting that the Signore had a hole in his pocket, through which the portfolio had slipped. This was quite the most unfortunate thing he could possibly have said, for, as the German gentleman instantly demonstrated, it was perfectly true. But how, so he overpoweringly urged, could Pasqualino have known there was a hole there unless he had been examining his pockets? And an hour later, with gyves upon his wrists, he was solemnly and ignominiously led through the Piazza, all blazing with brilliant acetylene lights, and resonant with the sound of the band, and clapped into prison, there to await the formal charge.

Arrived there, he was searched, and a similar examination was made in his room at his mother's house, where he went to sleep at night, but nothing that ever so remotely resembled a portfolio or a hundred franc note was found, and still he steadfastly denied the charge. Then the key was turned on him, and through the small, high, grated window he could hear the entrancing blare of the band. Later, by standing on his board bed, he could see the fiery segment of the aspiring path of the rockets, as they were let off from the rocky eminence above the Piazza, and listen to the echo of their explosions flap and buffet against the cliffs of Monte Gennaro.

Outside, the news of his incarceration, and the tragic history of it, formed the principal subject of talk, and, as has been said, public sympathy, which cheerfully supposed him guilty, was largely in his favour. The provocation of being obliged to spend the afternoon of a festa in walking down to the sea with a fat white German was really immense, the reward of twopence, as compensation for those lost holiday hours, was nothing more than an insult, and what wonder if when temptation came in so smooth and ready-made a form, that it was yielded to? Certainly it was wrong to steal—Dio, what a rocket, what a bellezza of stars!—but it was also wrong to dock a boy of his holiday. No wonder, when the German signore—such a fat-head, such a pumpkin as he must be to carry a hundred francs about with him—swam away round the rocks, Pasqualino just paid a visit to his pockets, to see if he was really so poor as that twopence seemed to say. Then he found the portfolio, and thought of the quattro soldi which was all that had been given him. Ah, look! Was it really a wheel like that on which Santa Caterina had been bound? How she must have spun round! What giddiness! What burning! No wonder Holy Church caused her to be made a saint! But what could Pasqualino have done with the portfolio and the hundred franc note? He had been searched, and on him was nothing found, and his room had been searched, and there was found nothing there. Was it possible that he was innocent? Could the German gentleman really have lost his foolish pocket-book somewhere on the way down to his bathe? It would be worth while taking a walk there to-morrow, keeping one eye always on the margin of the path. It was possible, after all, that he had lost his portfolio all by himself, without help from Pasqualino, for the hole in his pocket was admitted, and shown to the manager of the hotel. But then there was Pasqualino's fatal knowledge of the hole in the pocket. That was very bad. If only the boy had held his tongue, and not made that lamentable remark! He only suggested there was a hole in his pocket? No, he said there was a hole in his pocket. What a lesson to keep the tongue still! Pasqualino had always a lot to learn about that, for who will ever forget the dreadful things he shouted out across the Piazza at the priest, his mother's cousin's uncle? Ah, there is the great bomb! The fireworks are over.

All this, which, lounging in the Piazza and listening to the band and watching the fireworks, I heard chiefly from the tobacconist and the haircutter, was of particular interest and concern to me, because Pasqualino had been, up till this last year, when he became hall-boy at the Grand Hotel, my own garden boy. As such his diversions had been to pick off dead geranium leaves and whistle a great deal, and daily pluck the most noticeable flowers in bloom, which, in the jaunty Italian fashion, he perched behind his ear. But he used to have real business in making caches in a hole where there was loose masonry in the cistern wall. I used to see him busy there, and when he had gone home, to discover the treasure, without disturbing it. Sometimes there would be a match-box, sometimes two or three pieces of string or a pilfered cigarette. I know well how the joy of a cache lies in its secrecy, in the sense of hidden treasure unknown to all the foolish world, and never let him know that I had guessed it. And now poor Pasqualino was behind his grated window, and the chemist came and joined the tobacconist.

Suddenly, like a change in the weather coming from a cloudless sky, a fresh train of thought was suggested by this Pasqualino episode, and the mention of the lottery ran from mouth to mouth. On the instant the personal Pasqualino, his guilt, his provocation, and his possible innocence ceased to interest anybody except in so far as they might be concerned with the science and interpretation of numbers, as set forth in the amazing volume called Smorfia. There you will find what any number means, so that, if an earthquake should occur, the prudent look out "earthquake" in Smorfia, and at the next lottery back the number to which this signification is attached. As it happened, no event of striking local interest had occurred in Capri since, in April last, the carpenter in the Corso Agosto had attempted to cut his throat with a razor after successfully smothering his daughter. That had been positively the last occasion on which there had been clear guidance as to the choice of numbers in the Naples lottery, and nobody of a sporting turn of mind who had the smallest sense of the opportunities which life offers had failed to back No. 1, which, among other things, means "girl," and the other numbers, which respectively signified "razor," "throat," "death," and "bolster." Nor had Smorfia, the dictionary which gives you this useful information, disappointed its adherents. Henrico, Pasqualino's brother, had backed numbers which signified "throat," "razor," and "carpenter," and filling in the train of thought suggested by the tragedy, the number that meant "blood" and that which stood for "Sunday," the day on which these distressing incidents had occurred, and had gone to bed that night to dream of the glories which awaited him who nominated a quinterno secco. Once, so tradition said, a baker had backed five numbers, which came out in the nominated order. A million francs had been instantly paid him, and a marquisate and an estate in Calabria were also returned into his bosom. That wonderful page of history had not in this instance been wholly repeated; but Henrico, by his judicious selection, had reaped two hundred francs for the risk of five. The doctor also who had attended the would-be suicide had done very well by backing salient points of the tragedy, and astute superstition generally had been handsomely rewarded.

Since, then, however, nothing sufficiently striking had occurred to indicate the duty of demonstrating, to personal advantage, the meaning of numbers, and the lottery had for the last two months been but sparsely supported; but the Pasqualino adventure lent itself admirably to a renewed consultation of Smorfia, and dreams of obtaining the quinterno secco. There were well-marked features about it; it lent itself to the science of numbers. First of all, there was Pasqualino himself to be backed. "Boy," as everyone knew, was No. 2. Next there was the German gentleman (Michele, turn up "German"). Then there was a pocket, and a hole in a pocket, and a portfolio, and a bathe. Other aspects of the affair struck the inquiring mind. "Festa" was connected with it, so, too, was "prison," where now Pasqualino languished. Then there was "theft" and "denial." Here were abundant materials for a quinterno secco, when once the difficulty of selecting the five right numbers was got over. Marquisates and millions were just waiting to descend on Silorno like the beneficent summer rain.

Among those who were thus interested in the affaire Pasqualino, from the lottery point of view, none was more eager than the boy's mother. Maria was a confirmed and steadfast gambler, of the type that feels itself amply rewarded for the expenditure of ten francs on a series of numbers to which nothing happens, if at the eleventh attempt she made five. She had been to see her son in prison, had wept a little and consoled him, and smuggled a packet of cigarettes into his hand, and had reminded him that the same sort of thing, though worse, had happened to his father, with whom be peace. For at the most Pasqualino would get but a couple of months in prison owing to his youth, and certainly the severity of his sentence would be much mitigated if only he would confess his guilt, and, above all, say where he had hidden the portfolio and the hundred francs. But nothing would induce Pasqualino to do this; he still firmly adhered to his innocence, and repeated that there was a hole in the fat German's pocket.

Expostulation was useless, and on her way home Maria gave very serious consideration to the words whose numbers she would back in the lottery. She had ascertained he had had his new clothes on, which was the kind of flower on which the butterfly Chance alighted, and on looking up the number for "new clothes, novelty, freshness," found that it was 8. Then on further investigation she found that the word "thief" was represented by No. 28, and, following her own train of thought, discovered that No. 88 meant "liar." Here was a strange thing, especially when, with an emotional spasm, she remembered that "boy" was the signification attached to No. 2, for the whole adventure was nutshelled in those two numbers 2 and 8. For was there not a boy (2) who put on his new clothes (8), showed himself a thief (28), and subsequently a liar (88)? The thread of coincidence almost staggered her; the premonition of some enormous success flamed high, and, hurrying down to the offices of the lottery, she invested fifteen francs in the numbers 2, 8, 28, 88.

She lingered in the Piazza for a little, on her way back to her house, after this offering on the altar of luck, to receive the condolences of her friends on Pasqualino's delinquency, and had a kind word given her by Signore Gelotti, the great lawyer, who had come over for a week's holiday to his native island. Ah, there was a man! Why, if he got you into the witness-box, he could make you contradict yourself before you knew you had opened your mouth. Give him a couple of minutes, and he would make you say that the man you had described as having a black coat on had no coat at all, and that you met him at three o'clock in the Piazza, at which hour, you had just informed the court, you were having a siesta in your own house, Pasqualino's father had at one time been in his service, and though he had left it for a longer term of imprisonment than his son was threatened with, Lawyer Gelotti had always a nod and a smile for his widow, and to-day a pleasant little joke about heredity. Ah, if Lawyer Gelotti would only take up the case! He would muddle everybody up in no time, and in particular the German gentleman, who, like the vindictive foreigner he was, was determined to press home his charge. But Lawyer Gelotti, so all the world knew, never held up his forefinger at an unfortunate witness under the sum of a thousand francs. What a forefinger! It made you tell lies in order to get out of the lie you had already told.

Three days passed, and a sudden thrill of excitement emanating from the offices of the lottery swept over the island. The five winning numbers of the Naples lottery were issued, which in due order of their occurrence were 2, 8, 28, 4, 91.

Silorno grew rosy with prospective riches, for in this affaire Pasqualino it would have been running in the face of Providence that looks after lotteries not to have backed No. 2 (boy) and No. 28 (thief). At least ten happy folk had done that. But che pecato—why did we not all back No. 8, like Pasqualino's mother, for we all knew that Pasqualino had his new clothes on, as every boy always did on a festa? What a thing to use the knowledge you possess! The lucky woman! She had won a terno for the first three numbers she backed came out in that order. Why, it would be a matter of three thousand francs at least, though her title of marchioness must still be considered in abeyance. But No. 91—now, what does No. 91 mean? Quick, turn it up in Smorfia. Who has a Smorfia? Ernesto, the tobacconist, of course, but he is a mean man; it will be necessary to buy a packet of cigarettes in order to get a look at it. Never mind, a cigarette is always a cigarette. There—No. 91! What does it mean? Dio! What a lot of meanings! "The man in the moon . . . the hairs on the tail of an elephant . . . an empty egg-shell" . . . Who ever heard the like? There is no sense in such a number! And No. 4—what does No. 4 mean? Why, the very first meaning of all is "truth." That is a curious thing, when we all thought Pasqualino was telling lies. And No. 4, look you, was the fourth number that came out. It would have been simple to conjecture that No. 4 would be No. 4. Pity that we did not conjecture it last week! But it is easy to be wise after the event, as the bridegroom said.

The talk in the Piazza rose higher and more triumphantly as fresh beneficiaries of Pasqualino who had made a few francs over "boy" and "thief" joined the chattering groups. He had done very well for his friends, the poor Pasqualino, though "pocket" and "portfolio" had brought in nothing to their adherents. And it was like him—already it was as if Pasqualino was directly responsible for these windfalls—it was like him to have turned up that ridiculous No. 91, with its "man in the moon" and its "elephant's tail." Pasqualino liked that extravagant sort of joke, of which the point was that there was none, but which made everybody laugh, as when he affixed a label "Three francs complete" to Donna Margherita's new shawl from Naples, so that she walked about all day on the Piazza, showing it off, and never guessing what so many smiles meant. She was purple, though, when she found out, and Pasqualino's jacket needed no further dusting for the next week. But No. 4—it was strange that No. 4 should have turned up, or that nobody ever dreamed of believing that Pasqualino told the truth about the matter; His mother, for all her winnings, must be finely vexed that she had not trusted her son's word, instead of putting money on "liar." Why, if she had backed "truth" instead, she would have gained a quaterno and the coronet of the marchioness would have loomed again out of the mists of chance. That would have been a wonderful thing for Pasqualino's mother. Ah, there she is! Let us all go and congratulate her. Good soul! That will make up to her for having a son as well as a husband who was a thief.

But Pasqualino's mother was in a hot hurry. She had put on all her best clothes, not, as was at first conjectured, because, in the affluence that had come to her, they had suddenly been translated into ordinary clothes, but because she was making a business call on Lawyer Gelotti. She was not one to turn her back on her own son—though she had confidently selected No. 88, with its signification of "liar"—and if the dumbfoundering skill of Lawyer Gelotti could get him off—well, that skill was going to be invoked for his defence. A thousand thanks, a thousand greetings to everybody, but there was no time for talk. Lawyer Gelotti must be seen at once, if he was at home; if not, she must just sit on his doorstep and wait for him. Yes, a thousand francs—he should have a thousand francs, if that was right and proper. There were plenty more where they came from. And this bravura passage pleased the Piazza; it showed a gaiety and swagger that was wholly commendable.

In due course followed the news which Silorno was quite prepared for when it knew that Lawyer Gelotti was engaged on Pasqualino's behalf, and that the full blast of his hurricane wits would be turned on the German gentleman. Never was there such a tearing to rags of apparently stout evidence; the shreds of it were scattered with loud explosions to all points of the compass, like the rockets Pasqualino had watched from his grated window. He was forced to allow that he had not looked in his pocket till three hours after he had come back from his bathe. He confessed that he had told the manager of the hotel that he must have had his portfolio with him when he went to bathe, because he had tipped the boy on his arrival at the bathing-place. Ah, that wonderful tip! Twopence for spending the afternoon in carrying a great basket of towels and bathing-costume all over the island! And was it really his custom to carry pennies in his portfolio? Did he not usually carry loose pence in his pocket? Had he ever carried pennies in his portfolio? Would he not swear that, to the best of his knowledge, he had never done such a thing? Come, sir, do not keep the court waiting for a simple answer!

Again, was it credible that a man so careful—let us say so laudably careful—over his money as to make such a tip would have taken a portfolio containing a hundred francs down to the bathing-place and left it in his clothes? And what was the number of the note? Surely a man so scrupulously careful over his money, who rewarded labour thus, would have taken the precaution, the prudent, the economical citizen of Germany, to have taken the number of the note. Did he not usually do so? Yes. So Lawyer Gelotti suspected. But in this case, very strangely, he had not. That was odd—that was hard to account for except—except by the supposition that there was no such note at all. For his own part, cudgel his brains as he might, Lawyer Gelotti could think of no other explanation. And this portfolio about which it seemed really impossible to get accurate information. It was worn, was it, and yet it was new! And who else had ever seen it? Already the German gentleman had been three weeks in the town, and not a soul had ever clapped eyes on this new ragged portfolio with its note of unknown number.

Then followed a most disagreeable forensic picture of the poor German gentleman, while above him, as a stained glass window looks down on Mephistopheles, Lawyer Gelotti proceeded to paint Pasqualino's portrait in such line and colour that the astonished Maria felt that sixteen years ago she had given birth to a saint and had never known it. Never in all the days of his smug and spotless boyhood had so dreadful a suspicion been breathed on him. Here was a fatherless boy—and Gelotti's voice faltered as he spoke of his scamp of a sire—who from morning till night slaved to support his aged and stricken mother. The court had heard how blithely and contentedly he had gone down to the Palazzo a mare—it was well the court had not heard his blithe remarks as he passed through the Piazza—on the afternoon of his holiday, with his new clothes on and his flower behind his ear, inspired by the beautiful reflection that thus he would earn a franc, or perhaps two francs, for it was a festa, to bring home to his dim-eyed parent. Twopence, gentlemen, twopence, followed by this base and unfounded accusation, which be scarcely understood even. Prison had been his reward—prison—the taint of the dungeon on the very day when all Silorno kept holiday and holy festival. And as for the admission of which the prosecution had made so much, namely, that he had said the German gentleman had a hole in his pocket, how rejoiced was Lawyer Gelotti that in his frank innocence he had done so! It was suggested that he must have looked in those avaricious pockets, that he must have searched them and found there the apocryphal portfolio and the numberless note. It was true that he was intimately acquainted with those voluminous tailorings. But how, and why, and when? And Lawyer Gelotti paused, while Pasqualino's friends held their breath.

This industrious, saintly lad, the support of his mother's declining years, was hall-boy at the Grand Hotel, that remarkable monument of the enterprise of their beloved town. Numerous were the duties of a hall-boy, and Lawyer Gelotti would not detain them over that great catalogue. He would only say that, while others slept, while opulent German gentlemen still dallied with their morning slumbers, the hall-boy had often been busy helping his friend, the valet of the first floor, to brush the clothes of those who so generously paid for services rendered them. Inside and outside were those clothes brushed; not a speck of dust remained when the assiduous supporter of his mother had done with them. They were turned inside out, they were shaken, they were brushed again, they were neatly folded, they were humbly laid on the chair.

In this way, gentlemen, and in no other, came the knowledge of the hole in the pocket.

Dio mio! Who spoke of fireworks?

*****

That evening, after Pasqualino had paid me a short visit to receive my congratulations, I strolled out into the garden and passed idly down the pergola to the wall of the cistern, where Pasqualino's cache used to lurk behind the loosened masonry. The garden-bed just below it looked as if it had been disturbed somehow, and, with a sudden vague idea in my mind, I began digging at it with my stick. Very soon I came upon some shredded fragments of leather buried there.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1940, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.