Read CHAPTER XIII of A Roman Singer, free online book, by F. Marion Crawford, on

I went to Palestrina because all foreigners go there, and are to be heard of from other parts of the mountains in that place.  It was a long and tiresome journey; the jolting stage-coach shook me very much.  There was a stout woman inside, with a baby that squealed; there was a very dirty old country curate, who looked as though he had not shaved for a week, or changed his collar for a month.  But he talked intelligently, though he talked too much, and he helped to pass the time until I was weary of him.  We jolted along over the dusty roads, and were at least thankful that it was not yet hot.

In the evening we reached Palestrina, and stopped before the inn in the market-place, as tired and dusty as might be.  The woman went one way, and the priest the other, and I was left alone.  I soon found the fat old host, and engaged a room for the night.  He was talkative and curious, and sat by my side when he had prepared my supper in the dingy dining-room downstairs.  I felt quite sure that he would be able to tell me what I wanted, or at least to give me a hint from hearsay.  But he at once began to talk of last year, and how much better his business had been then than it was now, as country landlords invariably do.

It was to no purpose that I questioned him about the people that had passed during the fortnight, the month, the two months back; it was clear that no one of the importance of my friends had been heard of.  At last I was tired, and he lit a wax candle, which he would carefully charge in the bill afterwards, at double its natural price, and he showed me the way to my room.  It was a very decent little room, with white curtains and a good bed and a table, ­everything I could desire.  A storm had come up since I had been at my supper, and it seemed a comfortable thing to go to bed, although I was disappointed at having got no news.

But when I had blown out my candle, determining to expostulate with the host in the morning if he attempted to make me pay for a whole one, I lay thinking of what I should do; and, turning on my side, I observed that a narrow crack of the door admitted rays of light into the darkness of my chamber.  Now I am very sensitive to draughts and inclined to take cold, and the idea that there was a door open troubled me, so that at last I made up my mind to get up and close it.  As I rose to my feet, I perceived that it was not the door by which I had entered; and so, before shutting it, I called out, supposing there might be someone in the next room.

“Excuse me,” I said, loudly, “I will shut this door.”  But there was no reply.

Curiosity is perhaps a vice, but it is a natural one.  Instead of pulling the door to its place, I pushed it a little, knocking with my knuckles at the same time.  But as no one answered, I pushed it further, and put in my head.  It was a disagreeable thing I saw.

The room was like mine in every way, save that the bed was moved to the middle of the open space, and there were two candles on two tables.  On the bed lay a dead man.  I felt what we call a brivido, ­a shiver like an ague.

It was the body of an old man, with a face like yellow wax, and a singularly unpleasant expression even in death.  His emaciated hands were crossed on his breast, and held a small black crucifix.  The candles stood, one at the head and one at the foot, on little tables.  I entered the room and looked long at the dead old man.  I thought it strange that there should be no one to watch him, but I am not afraid of dead men after the first shudder is past.  It was a ghastly sight enough, however, and the candles shed a glaring yellowish light over it all.

“Poor wretch!” I said to myself, and went back to my room, closing the door carefully behind me.

At first I thought of rousing the host, and explaining to him my objections to being left almost in the same room with a corpse.  But I reflected that it would be foolish to seem afraid of it, when I was really not at all timid, and so I went to bed and slept until dawn.  But when I went downstairs I found the innkeeper, and gave him a piece of my mind.

“What sort of an inn do you keep?  What manners are these?” I cried angrily.  “What diavolo put into your pumpkin head to give me a sepulchre for a room?”

He seemed much disturbed at what I said, and broke out into a thousand apologies.  But I was not to be so easily pacified.

“Do you think,” I demanded, “that I will ever come here again, or advise any of my friends to come here?  It is insufferable.  I will write to the police ­” But at this he began to shed tears and to wring his hands, saying it was not his fault.

“You see, signore, it was my wife who made me arrange it so.  Oh! these women ­the devil has made them all!  It was her father ­the old dead man you saw.  He died yesterday morning ­may he rest! ­and we will bury him to-day.  You see everyone knows that unless a dead man is watched by someone from another town his soul will not rest in peace.  My wife’s father was a jettatore; he had the evil eye, and people knew it for miles around, so I could not persuade anyone from the other villages to sit by him and watch his body, though I sent everywhere all day yesterday.  At last that wife of mine ­malédictions on her folly! ­said, ’It is my father, after all, and his soul must rest, at any price.  If you put a traveller in the next room, and leave the door open, it will be the same thing; and so he will be in peace.’  That is the way it happened, signore,” he continued, after wiping away his tears; “you see I could not help it at all.  But if you will overlook it, I will not make any charges for your stay.  My wife shall pay me.  She has poultry by the hundred.  I will pay myself with her chickens.”

“Very good,” said I, well pleased at having got so cheap a lodging.  “But I am a just man, and I will pay for what I have eaten and drunk, and you can take the night’s lodging out of your wife’s chickens, as you say.”  So we were both satisfied.

The storm of the night had passed away, leaving everything wet and the air cool and fresh.  I wrapped my cloak about me and went into the market-place to see if I could pick up any news.  It was already late for the country, and there were few people about.  Here and there, in the streets, a wine-cart was halting on its way to Rome, while the rough carter went through the usual arrangement of exchanging some of his employer’s wine for food for himself, filling up the barrel with good pure water that never hurt anyone.  I wandered about, though I could not expect to see any face that I knew; it is so many years since I lived at Serveti that even were the carters from my old place I should have forgotten how they looked.  Suddenly, at the corner of a dirty street, where there was a little blue and white shrine to the Madonna, I stumbled against a burly fellow with a gray beard carrying a bit of salt codfish in one hand and a cake of corn bread in the other, eating as he went.

“Gigi!” I cried, in delight, when I recognised the old carrettiere who used to bring me grapes and wine, and still does when the fancy takes him.

Dio mio!  Signor Conte!” he cried, with his mouth full, and holding up the bread and fish with his two hands, in astonishment.  When he recovered himself he instantly offered to share his meal with me, as the poorest wretch in Italy will offer his crust to the greatest prince, out of politeness.  “Vuol favorire?” he said, smiling.

I thanked him and declined, as you may imagine.  Then I asked him how he came to be in Palestrina; and he told me that he was often there in the winter, as his sister had married a vine-dresser of the place, of whom he bought wine occasionally.  Very well-to-do people, he explained, eagerly, proud of his prosperous relations.

We clambered along through the rough street together, and I asked him what was the news from Serveti and from that part of the country, well knowing that if he had heard of any rich foreigners in that neighbourhood he would at once tell me of it.  But I had not much hope.  He talked about the prospects of the vines, and such things, for some time, and I listened patiently.

“By the by,” he said at last, “there is a gran signore who is gone to live in Fillettino, ­a crazy man, they say, with a beautiful daughter, but really beautiful, as an angel.”

I was so much surprised that I made a loud exclamation.

“What is the matter?” asked Gigi.

“It is nothing, Gigi,” I answered, for I was afraid lest he should betray my secret, if I let him guess it.  “It is nothing.  I struck my foot against a stone.  But you were telling about a foreigner who is gone to live somewhere.  Fillettino?  Where is that?”

“Oh, the place of the diavolo!  I do not wonder you do not know, conte, for gentlemen never go there.  It is in the Abruzzi, beyond Trevi.  Did you ever hear of the Serra di Sant’ Antonio, where so many people have been killed?”

“Diana!  I should think so!  In the old days ­”

“Bene,” said Gigi, “Fillettino is there, at the beginning of the pass.”

“Tell me, Gigi mio,” I said, “are you not very thirsty?” The way to the heart of the wine carter lies through a pint measure.  Gigi was thirsty, as I supposed, and we sat down in the porch of my inn, and the host brought a stoup of his best wine and set it before us.

“I would like to hear about the crazy foreigner who is gone to live in the hills among the brigand,” I said, when he had wet his throat.

“What I know I will tell you, Signor Conte,” he answered, filling his pipe with bits that he broke off a cigar.  “But I know very little.  He must be a foreigner, because he goes to such a place; and he is certainly crazy, for he shuts his daughter in the old castle, and watches her as though she was made of wax, like the flowers you have in Rome under glass.”

“How long have they been there, these queer folks?” I asked.

“What do I know?  It may be a month or two.  A man told me, who had come that way from Fucino, and that is all I know.”

“Do people often travel that way, Gigi?”

“Not often, indeed,” he answered, with a grin.  “They are not very civil, the people of those parts.”  Gigi made a gesture, or a series of gestures.  He put up his hands as though firing a gun.  Then he opened his right hand and closed it, with a kind of insinuating twirl of the fingers, which means “to steal.”  Lastly he put his hand over his eyes, and looked through his fingers as though they were bars, which means “prison.”  From this I inferred that the inhabitants of Fillettino were addicted to murder, robbery, and other pastimes, for which they sometimes got into trouble.  The place he spoke of is about thirty miles, or something more, from Palestrina, and I began planning how I should get there as cheaply as possible.  I had never been there, and wondered what kind of a habitation the count had found; for I knew it must be the roughest sort of mountain town, with some dilapidated castle or other overhanging it.  But the count was rich, and he had doubtless made himself very comfortable.  I sat in silence while Gigi finished his wine and chatted about his affairs between the whiffs of his pipe.

“Gigi,” I said at last, “I want to buy a donkey.”

“Eh, your excellency can be accommodated:  and a saddle, too, if you wish.”

“I think I could ride without a saddle,” I said, for I thought it a needless piece of extravagance.

Madonna mia!” he cried.  “The Signor Conte ride bareback on a donkey!  They would laugh at you.  But my brother-in-law can sell you a beast this very day, and for a mere song.”

“Let us go and see the beast,” I said.  I felt a little ashamed of having wished to ride without a saddle.  But as I had sold all I had, I wanted to make the money last as long as possible; or at least I would spend as little as I could, and take something back, if I ever went home at all.  We had not far to go, and Gigi opened a door in the street, and showed me a stable, in which something moved in the darkness.  Presently he led out an animal and began to descant upon its merits.

“Did you ever see a more beautiful donkey?” asked Gigi, admiringly.  “It looks like a horse!” It was a little ass, with sad eyes, and ears as long as its tail.  It was also very thin, and had the hair rubbed off its back from carrying burdens.  But it had no sore places, and did not seem lame.

“He is full of fire,” said Gigi, poking the donkey in the ribs to excite a show of animation.  “You should see him gallop uphill with my brother on his back, and a good load into the bargain.  Brrrr!  Stand still, will you!” he cried, holding tight by the halter, though the animal did not seem anxious to run away.

“And then,” said Gigi, “he eats nothing, ­positively nothing.”

“He does not look as though he had eaten much of late,” I said.

“Oh, my brother-in-law is as good to him as though he were a Christian.  He gives him corn bread and fish, just like his own children.  But this ass prefers straw.”

“A frugal ass,” I said, and we began to bargain.  I will not tell you what I gave Gigi’s brother-in-law for the beast, because you would laugh.  And I bought an old saddle, too.  It was really necessary, but it was a dear bargain, though it was cheaper than hiring; for I sold the donkey and the saddle again, and got back something.

It is a wild country enough that lies behind the mountains towards the sources of the Aniene, ­the river that makes the falls at Tivoli.  You could not half understand how in these times, under the new government, and almost within a long day’s ride from Rome, such things could take place as I am about to tell you of, unless I explained to you how very primitive that country is which lies to the south-east of the capital, and-which we generally call the Abruzzi.  The district is wholly mountainous, and though there are no very great elevations there are very ragged gorges and steep precipices, and now and then an inaccessible bit of forest far up among the rocks, which no man has ever thought of cutting down.  It would be quite impossible to remove the timber.  The people are mostly shepherds in the higher regions, where there are no vines, and when opportunity offers they will waylay the unwary traveller and rob him, and even murder him, without thinking very much about it.  In the old days the boundary between the Papal States and the kingdom of Naples ran through these mountains, and the contrabbandieri ­the smugglers of all sorts of wares ­used to cross from one dominion to the other by circuitous paths and steep ways of which only a few had knowledge.  The better known of these passes were defended by soldiers and police, but there have been bloody fights fought, within a few years, between the law and its breakers.  Foreigners never penetrate into the recesses of these hills, and even the English guide-books, which are said to contain an account of everything that the Buon Dio ever made, compiled from notes taken at the time of the creation, make no mention of places which surpass in beauty all the rest of Italy put together.

No railroad or other modern innovation penetrates into those Arcadian regions, where the goatherd plays upon his pipe all the day long, the picture of peace and innocence, or prowls in the passes with a murderous long gun, if there are foreigners in the air.  The women toil at carrying their scant supply of drinking-water from great distances during a part of the day, and in the evening they spin industriously by their firesides or upon their doorsteps, as the season will have it.  It is an old life, the same to-day as a thousand years ago, and perhaps as it will be a thousand years hence.  The men are great travellers, and go to Rome in the winter to sell their cheese, or to milk a flock of goats in the street at daybreak, selling the foaming canful for a son.  But their visits to the city do not civilise them; the outing only broadens the horizon of their views in regard to foreigners, and makes them more ambitious to secure one, and see what he is like, and cut off his ears, and get his money.  Do not suppose that the shepherd of the Abruzzi lies all day on the rocks in the sun, waiting for the foreign gentleman to come within reach.  He might wait a long time.  Climbing has strengthened the muscles of his legs into so much steel, and a party of herdsmen have been known to come down from the Serra to the plains around Velletri, and to return to their inaccessible mountains, after doing daring deeds of violence, in twenty-four hours from the time of starting, covering at least from eighty to ninety miles by the way.  They are extraordinary fellows, as active as tigers, and fabulously strong, though they are never very big.

This country begins behind the range of Sabine mountains seen from Rome across the Campagna, and the wild character of it increases as you go towards the south-east.

Since I have told you this much I need not weary you with further descriptions.  I do not like descriptions, and it is only when Nino gives me his impressions that I write them, in order that you may know how beautiful things impress him, and the better judge of his character.

I do not think that Gigi really cheated me so very badly about the donkey.  Of course I do not believe the story of his carrying the brother-in-law and the heavy load uphill at a gallop; but I am thin and not very heavy, and the little ass carried me well enough through the valleys, and when we came to a steep place I would get off and walk, so as not to tire him too much.  If he liked to crop a thistle or a blade of grass, I would stop a moment, for I thought he would grow fatter in that way, and I should not lose so much when I sold him again.  But he never grew very fat.

Twice I slept by the way before I reached the end of my journey, ­once at Olevano and once at Trevi; for the road from Olevano to Trevi is long, and some parts are very rough, especially at first.  I could tell you just how every stone on the road looks ­Rojate, the narrow pass beyond, and then the long valley with the vines; then the road turns away and rises as you go along the plateau of Arcinazzo, which is hollow beneath, and you can hear the echoes as you tread; then at the end of that the desperate old inn, called by the shepherds the Madre dei Briganti, ­the mother of brigands, ­smoke-blackened within and without, standing alone on the desolate heath; farther on, a broad bend of the valley to the left, and you see Trevi rising before you, crowned with an ancient castle, and overlooking the stream that becomes the Aniene afterwards; from Trevi through a rising valley that grows narrower at every step, and finally seems to end abruptly, as indeed it does, in a dense forest far up the pass.  And just below the woods lies the town of Fillettino, where the road ends; for there is a road which leads to Tivoli, but does not communicate with Olevano, whence I had come.

Of course I had made an occasional inquiry by the way, when I could do so without making people too curious.  When anyone asked me where I was going, I would say I was bound for Fucino, to buy beans for seed at the wonderful model farm that Torlonia has made by draining the old lake.  And then I would ask about the road; and sometimes I was told there was a strange foreigner at Fillettino, who made everybody wonder about him by his peculiar mode of life.  Therefore, when I at last saw the town, I was quite sure that the count was there, and I got off my little donkey, and let him drink in the stream, while I myself drank a little higher up.  The road was dusty, and my donkey and I were thirsty.

I thought of all I would do, as I sat on the stone by the water and the beast cropped the wretched grass, and soon I came to the conclusion that I did not know in the least what I should do.  I had unexpectedly found what I wanted, very soon, and I was thankful enough to have been so lucky.  But I had not the first conception of what course I was to pursue when once I had made sure of the count.  Besides, it was barely possible that it was not he, after all, but another foreigner, with another daughter.  The thought frightened me, but I drove it away.  If it were really old Lira who had chosen this retreat in which to imprison his daughter and himself, I asked myself whether I could do anything save send word to Nino as soon as possible.

I felt like a sort of Don Quixote, suddenly chilled into the prosaic requirements of common sense.  Perhaps if Hedwig had been my Dulcinea, instead of Nino’s, the crazy fit would have lasted, and I would have attempted to scale the castle wall and carry off the prize by force.  There is no telling what a sober old professor of philosophy may not do when he is crazy.  But meanwhile I was sane.  Graf von Lira had a right to live anywhere he pleased with his daughter, and the fact that I had discovered the spot where he pleased to live did not constitute an introduction.  Or finally, if I got access to the old count, what had I to say to him?  Ought I to make a formal request for Nino?  I looked at my old clothes and almost smiled.

But the weather was cold, though the roads were dusty; so I mounted my ass and jogged along, meditating deeply.