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"What do we eat to-day?" asked Paoluccio, the innkeeper on the Frascati road, as he came in from the glare and the dust and sat down in his own black kitchen.
"Beans and oil," answered his wife.
"An apoplexy take you!" observed the man, by way of mild comment.
"It is Friday," said the woman, unmoved, though she was of a distinctly apoplectic habit.
The kitchen was also the eating-room where meals were served to the wine-carters on their way to Rome and back. The beams and walls were black with the smoke of thirty years, for no whitewash had come near them since the innkeeper had married Nanna. It was a rich, crusty black, lightened here and there to chocolate brown, and shaded off again to the tint of strong coffee. High overhead three hams and half a dozen huge sausages hung slowly curing in the acrid wood smoke. There was an open hearth, waist high, for roasting, and having three square holes sunk in it for cooking with charcoal. An enormous bunch of green ferns had been hung by a long string from the highest beam to attract the flies, which swarmed on it like bees on a branch. The floor was of beaten cement, well swept and watered. Along three of the walls there were heavy tables of rough-hewn oak, with benches, polished by long and constant use. A trap-door covered the steps that led down to the deep cellar, which was nothing but a branch of those unexplored catacombs that undermine the Campagna in all directions. The place was dim, smoky, and old, but it was not really dirty, for in his primitive way the Roman wine-carter is fastidious. It is not long since he used to bring his own solid silver spoon and fork with him, and he will generally rinse a glass out two or three times before he will drink out of it.
The kitchen of the inn was cool compared with the road outside, and though it smelt chiefly of the stale smoke of green wood, this was pervaded and tempered by odours of fern, fresh cabbages, goats'-milk cheese, and sour red wine. The brown earthen pot simmered over one of the holes in the hearth, emitting little clouds of steam; but boiling beans have no particular smell, as everybody knows.
Paoluccio had pushed his weather-beaten soft hat back on his head, and sat drumming on the oak table with his knotty fingers. He was a strong man, thickset and healthy, with grizzled hair and an intensely black beard. His wife was fat, and purple about the jaws and under the ears. She stood with her back to the hearth, looking at him, with a wooden spoon in her hand.
"Beans," she said slowly, and she looked up at the rafters and down again at her husband.
"You have told me so," he growled, "and may the devil fly away with you!"
"Beans are not good for people who have the fever," observed Nanna.
"Beans are rather heavy food," assented the innkeeper, apparently understanding. "Bread and water are better. Pour a little oil on the bread."
"A man who has the fever may die of eating beans," said Nanna thoughtfully. "This is also to be considered."
"It is true." Paoluccio looked at his wife in silence for a moment. "But a person who is dead must be buried," he continued, as if he had discovered something. "When a person is dead, he is dead, whether he dies of eating beans or--"
He broke off significantly, and his right hand, as it lay before him, straightened itself and made a very slight vibrating motion, with the fingers all close together. It is the gesture that means the knife among the southern people. Nanna instantly looked round, to be sure that no one else was in the room.
"When you have given that medicine, you cannot send for the doctor," she observed, lowering her voice. "But if he eats, and dies, what can any one say? We have fed him for charity; it is Friday and we have given him beans. What can we know? Are not beans good food? We have nothing else, and it is for charity, and we give what we have. I don't think they could expect us to give him chickens and French wine, could they?"
Paoluccio growled approval.
"It is forty-seven days," continued Nanna. "You can make the account. Chickens and milk and fresh meat for forty-seven days! Even the bread comes to something in that time, at least two soldi a day--two forties eighty, two sevens fourteen, ninety-four--nearly five francs. Who will give us the five francs? Are we princes?"
"There is the cow," observed Paoluccio with a grin.
"Imbecile," retorted his wife. "It has been a good year; we bought the wine cheap, we sell it dear, without counting what we get for nothing from the carters; we buy a cow with our earnings, and where is the miracle?"
The innkeeper looked towards the door and the small window suspiciously before he answered in a low voice.
"If I had not been sure that he would die, I would not have sold the watch and chain," he said. "In the house of my father we have always been honest people."
"He will die," answered Nanna, confidently and with emphasis. "The girl says he is hungry to-day. He shall eat beans. They are white beans, too, and the white are much heavier than the brown."
She lifted the tin cover off the earthen pot and stirred the contents.
"White beans!" grumbled Paoluccio. "And the weather is hot. Do you wish to kill me?"
"No," answered Nanna quietly. "Not you."
"Do you know what I say?" Paoluccio planted a huge finger on the oaken board. "That sick butterfly upstairs is tougher than I am. Forty-seven days of fever, and nothing but bread and water! Think of that, my Nanna! Think of it! You or I would be consumed, one would not even see our shadows on the floor! But he lives."
"If he eats the white beans he has finished living," remarked Nanna.
A short silence followed, during which Paoluccio seemed to be meditating, and Nanna began to ladle the beans out into four deep earthenware bowls, roughly glazed and decorated with green and brown stripes.
"You are a jewel; you are the joy of my heart," he observed thoughtfully, as Nanna placed his portion before him, covered it with oil, and scattered some chopped basil on the surface.
"Eat, my love," she said, and she cut a huge piece from a coarse loaf and placed it beside him on a folded napkin that looked remarkably clean in such surroundings, and emitted a pleasant odour of dried lavender blossoms.
"Where is the girl?" asked Paoluccio, stirring the mess and blowing upon it.
As he spoke, the door was darkened, and the girl stood there with a large copper "conca," the water-jar of the Roman province, balanced on her head--one of the most magnificent human beings on whom the sun of the Campagna ever shone. She was tall, and she bent her knees without moving her neck, in order to enter the door without first setting down the heavy vessel.
Her thick dark hair grew low on her forehead, almost black, save for the reddish chestnut lights where a few tiny ringlets curled themselves about her small and classic ears. Straight black eyebrows outlined the snow-white forehead, and long brown lashes shaded the fearless eyes, that looked black too. She smiled a little, quite unconsciously, as she lowered herself with the weight and gracefully rose to her height again after she had entered. One shapely brown hand steadied the conca above, the other gathered her coarse skirt; then she stood still, lifted the load from her head with both hands and without any apparent effort, and set it down in its place on a stone slab near the hearth. Most women need a little help to do that.
She laid aside the twisted cloth on which the conca had rested while she carried it, and she smoothed her hair carelessly.
"There are beans," said Nanna, giving the girl one of the bowls. "There is the bread. While they are cooling take the other portion upstairs."
The girl looked at the bowl, and at Nanna, and then at Paoluccio, and stood stock still.
"Hey, there!" the man cried, with a rough laugh. "Hey! Reginella! Are you going to sleep, or are you turning into a statue?"
"Am I to give him the beans to eat?" asked Regina, looking hard at the innkeeper.
"You said he was hungry. That is what there is for dinner. We give him what we have."
Regina's dark eyes lightened; her upper lip rose in a curve and showed her closed teeth, strong and white as those of a young animal.
"Do as you are told," added Paoluccio. "This is charity. When you examine your conscience at Easter you can say, 'I have fed the hungry and cared for the sick.' The beans are mine, of course, but that makes no difference. I make you a present of them."
"Welcome," answered Paoluccio, with his mouth, full.
Regina took the fourth bowl and a piece of bread and went out. The steps to the upper part of the house were on the outside, as is common in the houses of the Campagna.
"How old is she?" Paoluccio asked when she was gone.
"She must be twenty," answered Nanna. "It must be ten years since her mother died, and her mother said she was ten years old. She has eaten many loaves in this house."
"She has worked for her food," said the innkeeper. "And she is an honest girl."
"What did you expect? That I should let her be idle, or make eyes at the carters? But you always defend her, because she is pretty, you ugly scamp!"
Nanna uttered her taunt in a good-natured tone, but she glanced furtively at her husband to see the effect of her words, for it was not always safe to joke with Paoluccio.
"If I did not defend her," he answered, "you would beat the life out of her."
"I daresay," replied Nanna, and filled her mouth with beans.
"But now," said Paoluccio, swallowing, "if you are not careful she will break all your bones. She has the health of a horse."
So the couple discussed matters amiably, while Regina was out of the way.
In a garret that had a small unglazed window looking to the north, the girl was bending over a wretched trestle-bed, which was literally the only piece of furniture in the room; and on the coarse mattress, stuffed with the husks and leaves of maize, lay all that the fever had left of Marcello Consalvi, shivering under a tattered brown blanket. There was little more than the shadow of the boy, and his blue eyes stared dully up at the girl's face. But there was life in him still, thanks to her, and though there was no expression in his gaze, his lips smiled faintly, and faint words came from them.
"Thank you," he said, "I am better to-day. Yes, I could eat something."
Regina bent lower, smiling happily, and she kissed the boy's face three times; she kissed his eyes and dry lips. And he, too, smiled again.
Then she left the bedside and went to a dark corner, where she cautiously moved aside a loose board. From the recess she took a common tumbler and a bottle of old wine and a battered iron spoon. She crouched upon the floor, because there was no table; she took two fresh eggs out of the folds of the big red and yellow cotton handkerchief that covered her shoulders and was crossed over her bosom, and she broke them into the glass, and hid the empty shells carefully in the folds again, so that they should not be found in the room. For she had stolen these for Marcello, as usual, as well as the old wine. She poured a little of the latter into the glass and stirred the eggs quickly and softly, making hardly any noise. From the recess in the wall she got a little sugar, which was wrapped up in a bit of newspaper brown with age and smoke, and she sweetened the eggs and wine and stirred again; and at last she came and fed Marcello with the battered spoon. She had put off her coarse slippers and walked about in her thick brown woollen stockings, lest she should be heard below. She was very quiet and skilful, and she had strangely small and gentle hands for a peasant girl. Marcello's head was propped up by her left arm while she fed him.
She had kept him alive six weeks, and she had saved his life. She had found him lying against the door of the inn at dawn, convulsed with ague and almost unconscious, and had carried him into the house like a child, though he had been much heavier then. Of course the innkeeper had taken his watch and chain, and his jacket and sleeve-links and studs, to keep them safe, he said. Regina knew what that meant, but Paoluccio had ordered her to take care of him, and she had done her best. Paoluccio felt that if the boy died it would be the will of heaven, and that he probably would not live long with such care and such nourishment as he would get up there in the attic. When he was dead, it would be time enough to tell the carabineers who passed the house twice every twenty-four hours on their beat; they would see that a sick boy had been taken in, and that he had died of the fever, and as they need never know how long he had been in the inn, the whole affair would redound to Paoluccio's credit with them and with customers. But as long as he was alive it was quite unnecessary that any one should know of his existence, especially as the watch and chain had been converted into money, and the money into a fine young cow. That Marcello could get well on bread and water never entered Paoluccio's head.
But he had counted without Regina; that is to say that he had overlooked the love and devotion of an intensely vital creature, younger, quicker, and far cleverer that he, who would watch the sick boy day and night, steal food and wine for him, lose sleep for him, risk blows for him, and breathe her strong life into his weak body; to whom the joy of saving him from death would be so much greater than all fatigue, that there would be no shadow under her eyes, no pallor in her cheek, no weariness in her elastic gait to tell of sleepless nights spent by his bedside in soothing his ravings, or in listening for the beat of his heart when he lay still and exhausted, his tired head resting on her strong white arm. And when he seemed better and at ease she often fell asleep beside him, half sitting, half lying, on the pallet bed, her cheek on the straw pillow, her breath mingling with his in the dark.
He was better now, and she felt the returning life in him, almost before he was sure of it himself; and while her heart was almost bursting with happiness, so that she smiled to herself throughout her rough work all day long, she knew that he could not stay where he was. Paoluccio expected him to die, and was beginning to be tired of waiting, and so was Nanna. If he recovered, he would ask for his watch and other things; he was evidently a fine young gentleman to whom some strange accident had happened, and he must have friends somewhere. Half delirious, he had spoken of them and of his mother, and of some one called Aurora, whom Regina already hated with all her heart and soul. The innkeeper and his wife had never come near him since the former had helped the girl to carry him upstairs, but if they suspected that he was recovering she would not be able to prevent them from seeing him; and if they did, she knew what would happen. They would send her on an errand, and when she came back Marcello would be dead. She might refuse to go, but they were strong people and would be two to one. Brave as Regina was, she did not dare to wait for the carabineers when they came by on their beat and to tell them the truth, for she had the Italian peasant's horror and dread of the law and its visible authority; and moreover she was quite sure that Paoluccio would murder her if she told the secret.
"If I could only take you to Rome!" she whispered, bending over him when he had swallowed the contents of the glass. "You could tell me where your friends are."
"Rome?" he repeated, with a vacant questioning.
She nodded and smiled, and then sighed. She had long been sure that the fever had affected his memory, and she had tried many times to awaken it.
She loved him because he had the face of an angel, and was fair-haired, and seemed so gentle and patient, and smiled so sweetly when she kissed him. That was all. He could thank her; he could tell her that he was better or worse; he could speak of what he saw; he could even tell her that she was beautiful, and that was much. He was Marcello, he had told her that, but when she asked what other name he had, he looked at her blankly at first, and then an expression of painful effort came over his face, and she would not disturb him any more. He could not remember. He did not know how he had come to the inn door; he had been walking in the Campagna alone and had felt tired. He knew no more.
If only she could get him to Rome. It was not more than seven or eight miles to the city, and Regina had often been there with Nanna. She had been to Saint John Lateran's at midsummer for the great festival, and she knew where the hospital was, in which famous professors cured every ill under the sun. If she could bring Marcello to them, he would get well; if he stayed much longer at the inn, Paoluccio would kill him; being a woman, and a loving one, Regina only regarded as possible what she wished, where the man she loved was concerned.
She made up her mind that if it could not be done by any other means she would carry Marcello all the way. During his illness she had often lifted him from his bed like a little child, for he was slightly built by nature and was worn to a shadow by the fever. Even Aurora could have raised him, and he was a featherweight in the arms of such a creature as Regina. But it would be another matter to carry such an awkward burden for miles along the highroad; and besides, she would meet the carabineers, and as she would have to go at night, they would probably arrest her and put her in prison, and Marcello would die. She must find some other way.
She laid his head tenderly on the pillow and left him, promising to come back as soon as she could. For safety she had brought the dish of beans with her, lest Nanna should follow her, and she took it with her, just as it was; but at the foot of the outer stairs she ran along the back of the house to the pig-sty, and emptied the mess into the trough, carefully scraping the bowl with the spoon so that it looked as if some one had eaten the contents. Then she went back to the kitchen.
"Has he eaten?" inquired Nanna, and Paoluccio looked up, too.
"You see," answered Regina, showing the empty bowl.
"Health to him!" answered Paoluccio. "He has a good appetite."
"Eat your own," said Nanna to the girl.
She suspected that Regina might have eaten the beans meant for Marcello, but her doubt vanished as she saw how the hungry young thing devoured her own portion.
"Are there any more left?" Regina asked when she had finished, for she understood perfectly what was going on in the minds of the other two.
She looked into the earthen cooking-pot which now stood on the corner of the hearth.
"Not even the smell of any more," answered Nanna. "There is bread."
Regina's white teeth crushed the hard brown crust as if she had not eaten for a week. There could be no doubt but that the sick boy had eaten the beans; and beans, especially white ones, are not good for people who have the fever, as Nanna had justly observed.
"On Sunday he shall have a dish of liver and cabbage," she said, in a cheerful tone. "There is much strength in liver, and cabbage is good for the blood. I shall take it to him myself, for it will be a pleasure to see him eat."
"The beans were soon finished," said Regina, with perfect truth.
"I told you how it would be," Paoluccio answered.
But Regina knew that the time had come to get Marcello away from the inn if he ever was to leave it alive, and in the afternoon, when Nanna was dozing in her chair in the kitchen and Paoluccio was snoring upstairs, and when she had smoothed Marcello's pillow, she went out and sat down in front of the house, where there was shade at that hour, though the glare from the dusty road would have blinded weaker eyes than hers. She sat on the stone seat that ran along the house, and leaned against the rough wall, thinking and scheming, and quite sure that she should find a way.
At first she looked about, while she thought, from the well-known mountains that bounded her world to the familiar arches of the distant aqueduct, from the dry ditch opposite to the burning sky above and the greyish green hillocks below Tivoli. But by and by she looked straight before her, with a steady, concentrated stare, as if she saw something happening and was watching to see how it would end.
She had found what she wanted, and was quite sure of it; only a few details remained to be settled, such as what was to become of her after she left the inn where she had grown up. But that did not trouble her much.
She was not delicately nurtured that she should dread the great world of which she knew nothing, nor had Nanna's conversation during ten years done much to strengthen her in the paths of virtue. Her pride had done much more and might save her wherever she went, but she was very well aware of life's evil truths. And what would her pride be compared with Marcello, the first and only being she had ever loved? To begin with, she knew that the handsome people from the country earned money by serving as models for painters and sculptors, and she had not the slightest illusion about her own looks. Since she had been a child people who came to the inn had told her that she was beautiful; and not the rough wine-carters only, for the fox-hunters sometimes came that way, riding slowly homeward after a long run, and many a fine gentleman in pink had said things to her which she had answered sharply, but which she remembered well. She had not the slightest doubt but that she was one of the handsomest girls in Italy, and the absolute certainty of the conviction saved her from having any small vanity about her looks. She knew that she had only to show herself and that every one would stand and look at her, only to beckon and she would be followed. She did not crave admiration; a great beauty rarely does. She simply defied competition, and was ready to laugh at it in a rather good-natured way, for she knew what she had, and was satisfied.
As for the rest, she was merely clever and fearless, and her moral inheritance was not all that might be desired; for her father had left her mother in a fit of pardonable jealousy, after nearly killing her and quite killing his rival, and her mother had not redeemed her character after his abrupt departure. On the contrary, if an accident had not carried her off suddenly, Regina's virtuous parent would probably have sold the girl into slavery. Poor people are not all honest, any more than other kinds of people are. Regina did not mourn her mother, and hardly remembered her father at all, and she never thought of either.
She owed Paoluccio and Nanna nothing, in her opinion. They had fed her sufficiently, and clothed her decently for the good of the house; she had done the work of two women in return, because she was strong, and she had been honest, because she was proud. Even the innkeeper and his wife would not have pretended that she owed them much gratitude; they were much too natural for that, and besides, the girl was too handsome, and there might be some scandal about her any day which would injure the credit of the inn. Nanna thought Paoluccio much too fond of watching her, as it was, and reflected that if she went to the city she would be well out of the way, and might go to the devil if she pleased.
Regina's plan for taking Marcello was simple, like most plans which succeed, and only depended for its success on being carried out fearlessly.
The wine-carters usually came to the inn from the hills between nine and eleven o'clock at night, and the carts, heavy-laden with wine casks, stood in a line along the road, while the men went into the kitchen to eat and drink. They generally paid for what they consumed by giving a measure or two of wine from the casks they were bringing, and which they filled up with water, a very simple plan which seems to have been in use for ages. It has several advantages; the owner of the wine does not suffer by it, since he gets his full price in town; the man who buys the wine in Rome does not suffer, because he adds so much water to the wine before selling it that a little more or less makes no difference; the public does not suffer, as it is well known that wine is much better for the health when drunk with plenty of water; and the carters do not suffer, because nobody would think of interfering with them. Moreover, they get food and drink for nothing.
While the men were having supper in the inn, their carts were guarded by their little woolly dogs, black, white, or brown, and always terribly wide-awake and uncommonly fierce in spite of their small size.
Now, just at this time, there was one carter who had none, and Regina knew it, for he was one of her chief admirers. He was the hardest-drinking ruffian of all the men who came and went on the Frascati road, and he had been quite willing to sell his dog in the street to a gentleman who admired it and offered him fifty francs for it, though that is a small price for a handsome "lupetto." But Mommo happened to be deeper in debt than usual, took the money, and cast about to steal another dog that might serve him. So far he had not seen one to his liking.
It is the custom of the wine-carters, when they have had plenty to eat and drink, to climb to their seats under the fan-like goat-skin hoods of their carts, and to go to sleep, wrapped in their huge cloaks. Their mules plod along and keep out of the way of other vehicles without any guidance, and their dogs protect them from thieves, who might steal their money; for they always carry the sum necessary to pay the octroi duty at the city gates, where every cart is stopped. As they are on the road most of their lives, winter and summer, they would not get much sleep if they tried to keep awake all night; and they drink a good deal, partly because wine is really a protection against the dangerous fever, and partly because their drink costs them nothing. Some of them drank their employers' wine at supper, others exchanged what they brought for Paoluccio's, which they liked better.
They usually got away about midnight, and Mommo was often the last to go. It was a part of Regina's work to go down to the cellar and draw the wine that was wanted from the hogsheads when the host was too lazy to go down himself, and being quite unwatched she could draw a measure from the oldest and strongest if she chose. Mommo could easily be made a little sleepier than usual, after being tempted to outstay the others.
And so it turned out that night. After the necessary operation of tapping one of his casks and filling it up with water, he lingered on before a measure of the best, while Nanna and Paoluccio dozed in their chairs; and at last all three were asleep.
Then Regina went out softly into the dark summer night, and climbed the stairs to the attic.
"I am going to take you to Rome to-night," she whispered in Marcello's ear.
"Rome?" he repeated vaguely, half asleep.
She wrapped him in the tattered blanket as he was, and lifted him lightly in her arms. Down the stairs she bore him, and then lifted him upon the tail of the cart, propping him up as best she could, and passing round him the end of one of the ropes that held the casks in place. He breathed more freely in the open air, and she had fed him again before the carters came to supper.
"And you?" he asked faintly.
"I shall walk," she whispered. "Now wait, and make no noise, or they will kill you. Are you comfortable?"
She could see that he nodded his head.
"We shall start presently," she said.
She went into the kitchen, waked Mommo, and made him swallow the rest of his wine. He was easily persuaded that he had slept too long, and must be on the road. The innkeeper and Nanna grumbled a good-night as he went out rather unsteadily, followed by Regina. A moment later the mules' bells jingled, the cart creaked, and Mommo was off.
Paoluccio and his wife made their way to the outer stairs and to bed, leaving Regina to put out the lights and lock up the kitchen. She lost no time in doing this, ran up the steps in the dark, hung the key on its nail in the entry, and went to her attic, making a loud noise with her loose slippers, so that the couple might hear her. She came down again in her stockings almost at once, carrying the slippers and a small bundle containing her belongings. She made no noise now, though it was almost quite dark, and in another instant she was out on the road to Rome. It had all been done so quickly that she could still hear the jingling of Mommo's mule bells in the distance. She had only a few hundred yards to run, and she was walking at the tail of the cart with one hand resting on Marcello's knee as he lay there wrapped up in the ragged blanket.
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