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It was high summer again, and the Roman shore was feverish. In the hot afternoon Ercole had tramped along the shore with his dog at his heels as far as Torre San Lorenzo to have a chat with the watchman. They sat in the shade of the tower, smoking little red clay pipes with long wooden stems. The chickens walked about slowly, evidently oppressed by the heat and by a general lack of interest in life, since not a single grain of maize from the morning feed remained to be discovered on the disused brick threshing-floor or in the sand that surrounded it. From some dark recess came the occasional grunt of the pig, attending in solitude to the business of getting fat before October. Now and then the watchman's wife moved a chair in the lower room of the tower, or made a little clatter with some kitchen utensils, and the sounds came out to the solitude sharply and distinctly.
There had been a flat calm for several days. Forty yards below the tower the sea lay along the sandy beach like a strip of glistening white glass, beyond which was a broader band of greenish blue that did not glitter; and beyond that, the oily water stretched out to westward in an unending expanse of neutral tints, arabesqued with current streaks and struck right across by the dazzling dirty-white blaze of the August sun.
Swarms of flies chased each other where the two men sat, settled on their backs and dusty black hats, tried to settle on their faces and were brushed away, crawled on the ground, on the walls, even on the chickens, and on the rough coat of Nino, the dog. He followed the motions of those he saw before him with one bloodshot eye; the other seemed to be fast asleep.
From time to time the men exchanged a few words. Ercole had apparently come over to enjoy the novelty of seeing a human being, and Padre Francesco, the watchman, was glad to talk with some one besides his wife. He enjoyed the title of "Padre," because he had once been master of a small martingane that traded between CivitÓ Vecchia and the south. In still earlier days he had been in deep water and had been boatswain of a square-rigger, yet there was nothing about his appearance now to show that he had been a sailor man. It was ten years since he had left the sea, and he had turned into a peasant.
Ercole had told Padre Francesco that the second hay crop had been half spoilt by thunderstorms; also that the price of wine in Ardea had gone up, while the price of polenta had remained the same; also that a wild boar had broken out of the king's preserves near Nettuno and was supposed to be wandering in the brush not far away; also that if Ercole and Nino found him they would kill him, and that there would be a feast. Padre Francesco observed that his wife understood the cooking of wild boar with vinegar, sugar, pine-nuts, and sweet herbs, and that he himself knew how to salt the hams; he had also salted the flesh of porpoises at sea, more than once, and had eaten pickled dog-fish, which he considered to be nothing but young sharks, in the West Indies. This did not interest Ercole much, as he had heard it before, and he smoked in silence for a while. So did Padre Francesco; and both brushed away the flies. Nino rolled one bloodshot eye at his master, every time the latter moved; and it grew excessively hot, and the air smelt of chickens, rotten seaweed, and the pig. Yet both men were enjoying themselves after a fashion, though Ercole distrusted Padre Francesco, as he distrusted all human beings, and Padre Francesco looked upon Ercole as a person having no knowledge of the world, because he had never eaten pickled dog-fish in the West Indies.
After a time, Padre Francesco remembered a piece of news which he had not yet told, cleared his throat, stirred the contents of his pipe with the point of a dangerous-looking knife, and looked at his companion for a full minute.
"Speak," said Ercole, who understood these premonitory signs.
"There has been one here who asked after you," Padre Francesco began.
"What species of Christian?" inquired Ercole.
"He was at the cottage when the blessed soul of the Signora departed, or just before that. It is a big gentleman with a brown beard and bright eyes. He looks for things in the sand and in the bushes and amongst the seaweed. Who knows what he looks for? Perhaps he looks for gold."
"Or the souls of his dead," suggested Ercole with fine irony. "But I know this Signore who was at the cottage, with the brown beard and the bright eyes. He sometimes came to shoot quail. He also killed some. He is a professor of wisdom."
"He asked if I knew you, but of course I said I did not. Why should he ask? How could I know what he wanted of you. I said that I had never heard of you."
"You did well. Those who have business with me know where to find me. What else did he say?"
"He asked if I had seen the young gentleman this year, and he told me that he had not seen him since the night before he was lost. So then I knew that he was a gentleman of some kind, since he had been at the cottage. I also asked if your masters were never coming to the Roman shore again."
"What did he answer?" inquired Ercole, with an air of utter indifference.
"He said an evil thing. He said that your young gentleman had gone off to foreign countries with a pretty peasant from Frascati, whose name was Regina; that it was she who had nursed him when he was ill, in some inn, and that out of gratitude, and because she was very pretty, he had given her much money, and silk dresses and earrings. That is what he said."
Ercole gazed down at Nino's bloodshot eye, which was turned to him just then.
"A girl called Regina," Ercole grumbled, in a tone even harsher than usual.
"That is what he said. Why should he tell me one thing for another? He said that your young gentleman would perhaps come back when he was tired of Regina. And he laughed. That is all."
A low growl from Nino interrupted the conversation. It was very low and long and then rose quickly and ended in a short bark, as the dog gathered his powerful hindquarters suddenly and raised himself, bristling all over and thrusting his sinewy forepaws out before him. Then the growl began again, but Ercole touched him lightly with the toe of his hob-nailed boot, and the dog was instantly silent. Both men looked about, but no one was to be seen.
"There is a boat on the beach," said Padre Francesco, who had caught the faint soft sound of the keel running upon the sand.
They both rose, Ercole picking up his gun as he did so; Nino, seeing that his master was on the alert, slunk to his heels without growling any more. A moment later a man's voice was heard calling on the other side of the tower.
"Hi! Watchman of the tower! A favour! Watchman of the tower! Hi!"
Padre Francesco turned the corner, followed by Ercole. A sailor in scanty ragged clothes and the remains of a rush hat was standing barefoot in the burning sand, with an earthen jug in his hand. A battered boat, from which all traces of paint had long since disappeared, was lying with her nose buried in the sand, not moving in the oily water. Another man was in her, very much like the first in looks.
On seeing Nino at Ercole's heels, the man who was ashore drew back with an exclamation, as if he were going to run away, but Ercole spoke in a reassuring tone.
"Be not afraid," he said. "This dog does not eat Christians. He gets enough to eat at home. He is not a dog, he is a lamb, and most affectionate."
"It is an evil beast," observed the sailor, looking at Nino. "I am afraid."
"What do you desire?" inquired Padre Francesco politely. "Is it water that you wish?"
"As a favour," answered the man, seeing that the dog did not fly at him. "A little water to drink. We have been pulling all day; it is hot, and we have drunk what we had."
"Come with me," said Padre Francesco. "Where is your vessel?"
"At Fiumicino. The master sent us on an errand to Porto d'Anzio last night and we are going back."
"It is a long pull," observed the watchman. "Tell the other man to come ashore and rest in the shade. I also have been to sea. The water is not very good here, but what there is you shall have."
"Thank you," said the man gratefully, and giving Nino a very wide berth as he followed Padre Francesco. "We could have got some water at the Incastro creek, but it would have been the same as drinking the fever."
"May the Madonna never will that you drink of it," said Padre Francesco, as they reached the shady side of the tower. "I see that you know the Roman shore."
"It is our business," replied the man, taking off his ragged rush hat, and rubbing his still more ragged blue cotton sleeve over his wet forehead. "We are people of the sea, bringing wine and lemons to CivitÓ Vecchia and taking charcoal back. Evil befall this calm weather."
"And when it blows from the west-southwest we say, evil befall this time of storm," said Padre Francesco, nodding wisely. "Be seated in the shade. I will fetch water."
"And also let us drink here, so that we may take the jug away full."
"You shall also drink here." The old watchman went into the tower.
"The last time I passed this way, it was in a west-southwest gale," said the man, addressing Ercole, who had sat down in his old place with his dog at his feet.
"It is an evil shore," Ercole answered. "Many vessels have been lost here."
"We were saved by a miracle that time," said the sailor, who seemed inclined to talk. "I was with a brigantine with wine for Marseilles. That vessel was like a rock in the sea, she would not move with less than seven points of the wind in fair weather. We afterwards went to Rio Janeiro, and it was two years before we got back."
"So it was two years ago that you passed?" inquired Ercole.
"Two years ago May or the beginning of June. She was so low in the water that she would have swamped if we had tried to carry on sail, and with the sail she could carry she could make no headway; so there we were, hove to under lower topsail and balance-reefed mainsail and storm-jib, with a lee shore less than a mile away. We recommended ourselves to the saints and the souls of purgatory, and our captain said to us, 'My fine sons, unless the wind shifts in half an hour we must run her ashore and save the cargo!' That is what he said. But I said that I knew this Roman shore from a boy, and that sometimes there was no bar at the mouth of the Incastro, so that a vessel might just slip into the pool where the reeds grow. You certainly know the place."
"I know it well," said Ercole.
"Yes. So I pointed out the spot to our captain, standing beside him, and he took his glasses and looked to see whether the sea was breaking on the bar."
"The bar has not been open since I came here," said Padre Francesco, returning with water. "And that is ten years."
The men drank eagerly, one after the other, and there was silence. The one who had been speaking wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and drew a long breath of satisfaction.
"No, I daresay not," he said at last. "The captain looked all along the shore for a better place. Then he saw a bad thing with his glasses; for they were fine glasses, and though he was old, he had good sight. And I stood beside him, and he told me what he saw while he was looking."
"What did he see?" asked Ercole, watching the man.
"What did he see? I tell you it was a bad sight! Health to us all, as many as are here, he saw one man kill another and drag his body into some bushes."
"Apoplexy!" observed Ercole, glancing at Padre Francesco. "Are there brigands here?"
"I tell you what the captain said. 'There are two men,' said he, 'and they are like gentlemen by their dress.' 'They shoot quail,' said I, knowing the shore. 'They have no guns,' said he. Then he cried out, keeping his glasses to his eyes and steadying himself by the weather vang. 'God be blessed,' he cried--for he never said an evil word, that captain,--'one of those gentlemen has struck the other on the back of the head and killed him! And now he drags his body away towards the bushes.' And he saw nothing more, but he showed me the place, where there is a gap in the high bank. Afterwards he said he thought he had seen a woman too, and that it must have been an affair of jealousy."
Ercole and Padre Francesco looked at each other in silence for a moment.
"Did you hear of no murder at that time?" asked the sailor, taking up the earthen jar full of water.
"We heard nothing," said Ercole promptly.
"Nothing," echoed Padre Francesco. "The captain was dreaming. He saw trees moving in the wind."
"Don Antonino had good eyes," answered the sailor incredulously.
"What was the name of your vessel?" asked Padre Francesco.
"The Papa" replied the sailor without a smile. "She was called Papa."
Ercole stared at him a moment and then laughed; and he laughed so rarely that it distorted the yellow parchment of his face as if it must crack it. The sound of his laughter was something like the creaking of a cart imitated by a ventriloquist. But Padre Francesco knit his bushy brows, for he thought the sailor was making game of him, who had been boatswain on a square-rigger.
"I went to sea for thirty years," he said, "but I never heard of a vessel called the Papa. You have said a silly thing. I have given you water to drink, and filled your jar. It is not courtesy to jest at men older than you."
"Excuse me," answered the man politely. "May it never be that I should jest at such a respectable man as you seem to be; and, moreover, you have filled the jar with your own hands. The brigantine was called as I say. And if you wish to know why, I will tell you. She was built by two rich brothers of Torre Annunziata, who wished much good to their papa when he was old and no longer went to sea. Therefore, to honour him, they called the vessel the Papa. This is the truth."
Lest this should seem extravagantly unlikely to the readers of this tale, I shall interrupt the conversation to say that I knew the Papa well, that "she" was built and christened as the sailor said, and that her name still stood on the register of Italian shipping a few years ago. She was not a brigantine, however, but a larger vessel, and she was bark-rigged; and she was ultimately lost in port, during a hurricane.
"We have learned something to-day," observed Ercole, when the man had finished speaking.
"It is true," the man said. "And the name of the captain was Don Antonino Maresca. He was of Vico."
"Where is Vico?" inquired Ercole, idly scratching his dog's back with the stock of his gun.
"Near Castellamare," answered Padre Francesco, willing to show his knowledge.
"One sees that you are a man of the sea," said the sailor, meaning to please him. "And so we thank you, and we go."
Ercole and the old watchman saw the two ragged sailors put off in the battered boat and pull away over the bar; then they went back to the shade of the tower and sat down again and refilled their pipes, and were silent for a long time. Padre Francesco's old wife, who had not shown herself yet, came and stood in the doorway, nodded to Ercole, fanned herself with her apron, counted the chickens in sight, and observed that the weather was hot. Then she went in again.
"It is easy to remember the name of that ship," said Ercole at last, without glancing at his companion.
"And the master was Antonino Maresca of Vico," said Padre Francesco.
"But the truth is that it is none of our business," said Ercole.
"The captain was mistaken," said Padre Francesco.
"He saw trees moving in the wind," said Ercole.
Then they looked at each other and nodded.
"Perhaps the Professor was mistaken about the girl, and the silk dress and the gold earrings," suggested Padre Francesco, turning his eyes away.
"He was certainly mistaken," asserted Ercole, watching him closely. "And moreover it is none of our business."
They talked of other things, making remarks at longer and longer intervals, till the sun sank near the oily sea, and Ercole took his departure, much wiser in regard to Marcello's disappearance than when he had come. He followed the long beach for an hour till he came to the gap in the bank. There he stopped, and proceeded to examine the place carefully, going well inside it, and then turning to ascertain exactly where Marcello must have been when he was struck, since at that moment he must have been distinctly visible from the brigantine. The gap was so narrow that it was not hard to fix upon the spot where the deed had been done, especially as the captain had seen Marcello dragged quickly away towards the bushes. Every word of the sailor's story was stamped with truth; and so it came about that when Corbario believed himself at last quite safe, a man in his own pay suddenly discovered the whole truth about the attempted crime, even to the name of the principal witness.
It was only in the quail season, when there were poachers about, during April, May, and early June, that Ercole lived in his straw hut, a little way from the cottage. He spent the rest of the year in a small stone house that stood on a knoll in sight of Ardea, high enough to be tolerably safe from the deadly Campagna fever. Every other day an old woman from the village brought him a copper conca full of water; once a month she came and washed for him. When he needed supplies he went to Ardea for them himself. His dwelling was of elementary simplicity, consisting of two rooms, one above the other, with grated windows and heavy shutters. In the lower one he cooked and ate, in the upper chamber he slept and kept his few belongings, which included a plentiful supply of ammunition, his Sunday clothes, his linen, and his papers. The latter consisted of a copy of his certificate of birth, his old military pass-book, showing that he had served his time in an infantry regiment, had been called in for six weeks' drill in the reserve, had been a number of years in the second reserve, and had finally been discharged from all military service. This booklet serves an Italian throughout life as a certificate of identity, and is necessary in order to obtain a passport to leave the country. Ercole kept his, with two or three other yellow papers, tied up in an old red cotton handkerchief in the bottom of the chest that held his clothes.
When he got home after his visit to Padre Francesco he took the package out, untied the handkerchief, and looked through all the papers, one by one, sitting by the grated window in the twilight. He could read, and had once been able to write more or less intelligibly, and he knew by heart the contents of the paper he wanted, though he had not unfolded it for years. He now read it carefully, and held it some time open in his hand before he put it back with the rest. He held it so long, while he looked out of his grated window, that at last he could see the little lights twinkling here and there in the windows of Ardea, and it was almost dark in the room. Nino grew restless, and laid his grim head on Ercole's knee, and his bloodshot eyes began to glow in the dark like coals. Then Ercole moved at last.
"Ugly animal, do you wish me well?" he asked, rubbing the dog's head with his knotty hand. "If you are good, you shall go on a journey with me."
Nino's body moved in a way which showed that he would have wagged his tail if he had possessed one, and he uttered a strange gurgling growl of satisfaction.
The next morning, the old woman came before sunrise with water.
"You need not bring any more, till I let you know," Ercole said. "I am going away on business for a few days, and I shall shut up the house."
"For anything that is in it, you might leave the door open," grumbled the hag, who was of a sour temper. "Give me my pay before you go."
"You fear that I am going to America," retorted Ercole, producing an old sheepskin purse from the inside of his waistcoat. "Here is your money. Four trips, four pennies. Count them and go in peace."
He gave her the coppers, and she carefully tied them up in a corner of her ragged kerchief.
"And the bread?" she asked anxiously.
Ercole went to the blackened cupboard, took out the remains of a stale loaf, drew a big clasp-knife from his pocket, and cut off a moderate slice.
"Eat," he said, as he gave it to her.
She went away grumbling, and Nino growled after her, standing on the door-step. When she was a hundred yards from the house, he lay down with his jaw on his forepaws and continued to watch her till she was out of sight; then he gave a snort of satisfaction and immediately went to sleep.
Ercole left his home after sunset that evening. He locked both the upper and lower doors and immediately dropped the huge key into a crevice in the stone steps, from which one might have supposed that it would not be easy to recover it; but he doubtless knew what he was about. He might have had one of the little horses from the farm if he had wanted one, for he was a privileged person, but he preferred to walk. To a man of his wiry frame thirty or forty miles on foot were nothing, and he could easily have covered the distance in a night; but he was not going so far, by any means, and a horse would only have been in the way. He carried his gun, from force of habit, and he had his gun-licence in his pocket, with his other papers, tied up in the old red handkerchief. There was all that was left of the stale loaf, with the remains of some cheese, in a canvas bag, he had slung over his shoulder, and he had plenty of money; for his wages were good, and he never spent more than half of what he received, merely because he had no wants, and no friends.
Under the starlight he walked at a steady pace by familiar paths and byways, so as to avoid the village and strike the highroad at some distance beyond it. Nino followed close at his heels and perfectly silent, and the pair might have been dangerous to any one inclined to quarrel with them.
When Ercole was in sight of Porta San Sebastiano it was past midnight, and he stood still to fill and light his little clay pipe. Then he went on; but instead of entering the gate he took the road to the right again, along the Via Appia Nuova. Any one might have supposed that he would have struck across to that highroad some time before reaching the city, but it was very long since Ercole had gone in that direction; many new roads had been opened and some old ones had been closed, and he was simply afraid of losing his way in a part of the Campagna no longer familiar to him.
A short distance from the gate, where the inn stands that goes by the name of Baldinotti, he took the turning to the left, which is the Frascati road; and after that he walked more slowly, often stopping and peering into the gloom to right and left, as if he were trying to recognise objects in the Campagna.
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