Before I begin my story, let me crave my reader's indulgence for a brief word of explanation, for which I know no better form than a parable. There is an Eastern tale—I forget exactly where or by whom told—of a certain poor man, who, being in extreme distress, and sorely puzzled as to how to eke out a livelihood, bethought him to give out that he was a great magician, endowed with the most marvellous powers, amongst others, that of tracing out crime, and detecting the secret history of all guilty transactions.
Day after day did he proclaim to the world his wonderful gifts, telling his fellow-citizens what a remarkable man was amongst them, and bidding them thank Destiny for the blessing of his presence.
Classic yearling sale
Now, though the story has not recorded whether their gratitude was equal to the occasion, we are informed that the Caliph heard of the great magician, and summoned him to his presence, for it chanced just at the moment that the royal treasury had been broken into by thieves, and gems of priceless value carried away. So saying, he went away, but was no sooner at home and in the solitude of his own house than be tore his beard, beat his breast, and, humbling his head to the ground, cried out.
Why did I ever pretend to gifts that I had not, or dare to tell men that I possessed powers that were not mine? See to what vainglory and boastfulness have brought me. In forty days I am to die an ignominious death!
Thus grieving and self-accusing, the weary hours passed over, and the night closed in only to find him in all the anguish of his sorrow; nor was it the least poignant of his sufferings, as he bethought him that already one of his forty days was drawing to its close, for in his heart he had destined this period to enjoyment and self-indulgence. Now, though aspiring to the fame of a magician, so little learning did he possess, that it was only by recourse to a contrivance he was able to reckon the days as they passed, and calculate how much of life remained to him.
The expedient he hit upon was to throw each night into an olive-jar a single date, by counting which at any time he could know how many days had elapsed. While his own conscience smote him bitterly for the foolish deception he had practised, there were, as it happened, others who had consciences too, and somewhat more heavily charged than his own.
These were the thieves who had stolen the treasure, and who firmly believed in the magician's powers. Now, it so chanced that on the very instant he was about to throw his first date into the jar, one of the robbers had crept noiselessly to the window, and, peering through the half-closed shutter, watched what was doing within.
Dimly lighted by a single lamp, the chamber was half shrouded in a mysterious gloom; still, the figure of a man could be descried, as, with gestures of sorrow and suffering, he approached a great jar in the middle of the room and bent over it. You, good reader, are the Caliph,—the mock magician is myself.
Our tale will probably, from time to time, reveal who may be.
One of the most depressing and languid of all objects is the aspect of an Italian city in the full noon of a hot summer's day. The massive buildings, fortress-like and stern, which show no touch of life and habitation; the glaring streets, un-traversed by a single passer; the wide piazza, staring vacantly in the broiling sun; the shop doors closed, all evidencing the season of the siesta, seem all waiting for the hour when long shadows shall fall over the scorched pavement, and some air—faint though it be—of coming night recall the population to a semblance of active existence.
No travellers are now to be met with; the heavy rumbling of the travelling-carriage no longer thunders over the massive causeway; no postilion's whip awakes the echoes of the Piazza; no landlord's bell summons the eager household to the deep-arched doorway. It is the People alone are abroad,—that gentle Italian people, quiet-looking, inoffensive as they are. A sort of languid grace, a kind of dignified melancholy, pervades their demeanor, not at all unpleasing; and if the stranger come fresh from the west of Europe, with its busy turmoil and zeal of money-getting, he cannot but experience a sense of calm and relief in the aspect of this easily satisfied and simple population.
As the gloom of evening thickens the scene assumes more of life and movement. Vendors of cooling drinks, iced lemonades, and such-like, move along with gay flags flaunting over the brilliant urnlike copper that contains the refreshing beverage. Watermelons, in all the gushing richness of color, are at every corner, and piles of delicious fruit lie under the motley glare from many a paper saucy flirt Myrtle MS.
Along the quays and bridges, on wide terraces or jutting bastions, wherever a breath of fresh air can be caught, crowds are seated, quietly enjoying the cool hour. Not a sound to be heard, save the incessant motion of the fan, which is, to this season, what is the cicala to the hot hour of noon.
One cannot help feeling struck by the aspect of a people come thus to blend, like the members of one large family. There they are, of every age and of every condition, mingling with a sort of familiar kindliness that seems like a domesticity. In all this open-air life, with its inseparable equality, one sees the embers of that old fire which once kindled the Italian heart in the days of their proud and glorious Republics.
They are the descendants of those who, in the self-same spots, discussed the acts of Doges and Senates, haughty citizens of states, the haughtiest of all their age—and now—.
One was an elderly, fine-looking man, of that hale and hearty stamp we like to think English; the young fellow at his side was so exactly his counterpart in lineament and feature that none could doubt them to be father and son. It is true that the snow-white hair of one was represented by a rich auburn in the other, and the quiet humor that lurked about the father's mouth was concealed in the son's by a handsome moustache, most carefully trimmed and curled. In feature he was acute and penetrating, with a mixture of melancholy and intrepidity peculiarly characteristic; his hair was long, black, and wave-less, and fell saucy flirt Myrtle MS over the collar of his coat behind; his dress was a suit of coffee-colored brown,—coat, waistcoat, and trousers; and even to his high-peaked conical hat the same tint extended.
In age, he might have been anything from two-and-thirty to forty, or upwards. There he is talking Italian, own brother to his French, and with the same success too! We make sad work of genders and declensions ourselves; and as for our American, I rather like him, and am not sorry to meet him again. There's not a fault of his nation that he does not, in one shape or other, represent; and, in a word, he is a bore of the first water.
Now, for my part, the Yankee does not bore me. He is a sharp, shrewd man, always eager for information. I heartily respect the honest zeal with which he tells you that there are no institutions, no country, no people to be compared with his own. And when I hear an American claim for his nation a pre-eminence, not alone in courage, skill, and inventive genius, but in all the arts of civilization and refinement, I own I'm at a loss whether to laugh at or leave him.
Half stung by the tone of reproof in these words, and half angry with himself, perhaps, for his own petulance, the young man flung the end of his cigar away, and walked out into the street. I hope I see you pretty well?
You were bound to do Lombardy, and the silkworms, and the rice-fields, and the ancient cities, and the galleries, and such-like,—and you 've done them? No, it don't! It's noways pleasing to a man with a right sense of human natur' to see a set of half-starved squalid loafers making a livin' out of old tombs and ruined churches, with lying stories about martyrs' thumb-nails and saints' shin-bones.
That won't make a people, sir, will it? I like Genoa,—they 're a wide-awake, active set there.
They 've got trade, sir, and they know it. Why should you or I object to people who prefer their own affairs to the pleasant task of amusing us?
What are you as a people but a hard-working, industrious, serious race, ever striving to do this a little cheaper, and that a little quicker, so as to beat the foreigner, and with all that you 'll stand up and say there ain't nothing on this universal globe to be compared to loafing! Why, when you want to exalt a man for any great service to the state, you ain't satisfied with making him a loafer,—for a lord is just a loafer, and no more nor no less,—but you make his son a loafer, and all his descendants forever.
What would you say to a fellow that had a fast trotter, able to do his mile, on a fair road, in two forty-three, who, instead of keeping him in full working condition, and making him earn his penny, would just turn him out in a paddock to burst himself with clover, and the same with all his stock, for no other earthly reason than that they were the best blood and bone to be found anywhere?
There ain't sense or reason in that, stranger, is there? They 've none of that rough-and-tumble with the world as makes men broad-minded and marciful and forgiving; and they come at last to that wickedest creed of all, to think themselves the superfine salt of the earth.
Now, there ain't no superfine salt peculiar to any rank or class.
Human natur' is good and bad everywhere,—ay, sir, I 'll go further, I 've seen good in a Nigger! Not that they can do us any mischief. Our constitution is a mill where there's never too much water,—the more power, the more we grind; and even if the stream do come down somewhat stocked with snags and other rubbish upon it, the machine is an almighty smasher, and don't leave one fragment sticking to the other when it gets a stroke at 'em. Have you never been in the States, stranger?
I have often planned such a ramble, but circumstances have somehow or other always interfered with the accomplishment. You have nothing to complain of on the part of our late travellers. They don't make such a fuss about chewing and whittling, and the like, as the first fellows; but they go on a-sneering about political dishonesty, Yankee sharpness, and trade rogueries, that ain't noways pleasing,—and, what's more, it ain't fair.
A word of apology for my title.
But as I say, sir, go and see for yourself, or, if you can't do that, send your son. Is n't that young man there your son? The young Englishman turned and acknowledged the allusion to himself by the coldest imaginable bow, and that peculiarly unspeculative stare so distinctive in his class and station. It's a fact, though, and that's better. Yes, sir, I like you!
The young man merely bowed his acknowledgment, and looked even more haughty than before.
It was plain, however, that the American attached little ificance to the disdain of his manner, for he continued in the same easy, unembarrassed tone,—. I saw how you buckled to your work, and I said to myself, 'There 's good stuff there, though he looks so uncommon conceited and proud. The American merely looked from one to the other, half sternly, and as if vainly trying to ascertain the cause of their mirth. The elder Englishman was quick to see the awkwardness of the moment, and apply a remedy to it. I believe that it's only amongst the Anglo-Saxon races that pugnacity takes place as a virtue.
They say courage is a bull-dog's property; but saucy flirt Myrtle MS any one like to be lower than a bull-dog? Besides, sir, it is what has made you great, and us greater. There was a tone of defiance in this speech evidently meant to provoke a discussion, and the young man turned angrily round to accept the challenge, when a ificant look from his father restrained him. With a few commonplace observations dexterously thrown out, the old man contrived to change the channel of conversation, and then, reminded by his watch of the lateness of the hour, he apologized for a hasty departure, and took his leave.
It was plain he did n't fancy our laughing so heartily, and wanted an explanation which he saw no means of asking for; and it was, perhaps, as a sort of reprisal he made that boastful speech; but I am deeply mistaken if there be not much to like and respect in that man's nature. And with this ungracious speech the conversation closed, and they walked on in silence.
One of them
It was a few days after the brief scene we have just recorded that the two Englishmen were seated, after sunset, on a little terraced plateau in front of an antiquated villa. As they are destined to be intimate acquaintances of our reader in this tale, let us introduce them by name,—Sir William Heathcote and his son Charles. With an adherence to national tastes which are rapidly fading away, they were enjoying their wine after dinner, and the spot they had selected for it was well chosen.
From the terrace where they sat, a perfect maze of richly wooded glens could be seen, crossing and recrossing each other in every direction. From the depths of some arose the light spray of boiling mountain torrents; others, less wild in character, were marked by the blue smoke curling up from some humble homestead.
Many a zigzag path of trellis-vines straggled up the hillsides, now half buried in olives, now emerging in all the grotesque beauty of its own wayward course. The tall maize and the red lucerne grew luxuriously beneath the fig and the pomegranate, while here and there the rich soil, rent with heat, seemed unable to conceal its affluence, and showed the yellow gourds and the melons bursting up through the fruitful earth. It was such a scene as at once combined Italian luxuriance with the verdant freshness of a Tyrol landscape, and of which the little territory that once called itself the Duchy of Lucca can boast many instances.
As background to the picture, the tall mountains of Carrara, lofty enough to be called Alps, rose, snow-capped and jagged in the distance, and upon their saucy flirt Myrtle MS the last rays of the setting sun now glowed with the ruddy brilliancy of a carbuncle. These Italian landscapes win one thoroughly from all other scenery, after a time. At first they seem hard and stern; there is a want of soft distances; the eye looks in vain for the blended shadows of northern landscape, and that rustic character so suggestive of country life; but in their clear distinctness, their marvellous beauty of outline, and in that vastness of view imparted by an atmosphere of cloudless purity, there are charms indisputably great.
This villa life was only endurable by your Italian noble, who came here once a year to squabble with his 'Fattore' and grind his peasants. He came to see that they gave him his share of oil and did n't water his miserable wine; he neither had society nor sport. As to our English country-house life, what can compare with it!