CHAPTER I. THE THIEVES’ CORNER
At the foot of the hill on which stands the Campidoglio at Rome, and close beneath the ruins that now encumber the Tarpeian rock, runs a mean-looking alley, called the Viccolo D’Orsi, but better known to the police as the ‘Viccolo dei Ladri,’ or ‘Thieves’ Corner’—the epithet being, it is said, conferred in a spirit the very reverse of calumnious.
Long and straggling, and too narrow to admit of any but foot-passengers, its dwellings are marked by a degree of poverty and destitution even greater than such quarters usually exhibit. Rudely constructed of fragments taken from ancient temples and monuments, richly carved architraves and finely cut friezes are to be seen embedded amid masses of crumbling masonry, and all the evidences of a cultivated and enlightened age mingled up with the squalor and misery of present want.
Not less suggestive than the homes themselves are the population of this dreary district; and despite rags, and dirt, and debasement, there they are—the true descendants of those who once, with such terrible truth, called themselves ‘Masters of the World.’ Well set-on heads of massive mould, bold and prominent features, finely fashioned jaws, and lips full of vigour and sensual meaning, are but the base counterfeits of the traits that meet the eye in the Vatican. No effort of imagination is needed to trace the kindred. In every gesture, in their gait, even in the careless ease of their ragged drapery, you can mark the traditionary signs of the once haughty citizen.
With a remnant of their ancient pride, these people reject all hired occupation, and would scorn, as an act of slavery, the idea of labour; and, as neither trade nor calling prevails among them, their existence would seem an inscrutable problem, save on the hypothesis which dictated the popular title of this district. But without calling to our aid this explanation, it must be remembered how easily life is supported by those satisfied with its meanest requirements, and especially in a land so teeming with abundance. A few roots, a handful of chestnuts, a piece of black bread, a cup of wine, scarcely more costly than so much water, these are enough to maintain existence; and in their gaunt and famished faces you can see that little beyond this is accomplished.
About the middle of the alley, and over a doorway of sculptured marble, stands a small statue of Vesta, which, by the aid of a little paint, a crown of gilt paper, and a candle, some pious hands had transformed into a Madonna. A little beneath this, and on a black board, scrawled with letters of unequal size, is the word ‘Trattoria’ or eating-house.
Nothing, indeed, can be well further from the ordinary aspect of a tavern than the huge vaulted chamber, almost destitute of furniture, and dimly lighted by the flame of a single lamp; a few loaves of coarse black bread, some wicker-bound flasks of common wine, and a wooden bowl containing salad, laid out upon a table, constituting all that the place affords for entertainment. Some benches are ranged on either side of the table, and two or three more are gathered around a little iron tripod, supporting a pan of lighted charcoal, over which now two figures are to be seen cowering down to the weak flame, while they converse in low whispers together.
It is a cold and dreary night in December; the snow has fallen not only on the higher Apennines, but lies thickly over Albano, and is even seen in drifts along the Campagna. The wailing wind sighs mournfully through the arches of the Colosseum and among the columns of the old Forum, while at intervals, with stronger gusts, it sweeps along the narrow alley, wafting on high the heavy curtain that closes the doorway of the Trattoria, and leaving its occupants for the time in total darkness.
Twice had this mischance occurred; and now the massive table is drawn over to the door, to aid in forming a barricade against the storm.
‘’Tis better not to do it, Fra Luke,’ said a woman’s voice, as the stout friar arranged his breastwork. ‘You know what happened the last time there was a door in the same place.’
‘Never mind, Mrs. Mary,’ replied the other; they ‘re not so ready with their knives as they used to be, and, moreover, there’s few of them will be out to-night.’
Both spoke in English, and with an accent which told of an Irish origin; and now, as they reseated themselves beside the brazier, we have time to observe them. The woman is scarcely above forty years of age, but she looks older from the effects of sorrow: her regular features and deeply-set eyes bear traces of former beauty. Two braids of rich brown hair have escaped beneath her humble widow’s cap and fallen partly over her cheeks, and, as she tries to arrange them, her taper and delicately formed fingers proclaim her of gentle blood: her dress is of the coarsest woollen stuff worn by the peasantry, but little cuffs of crape show how, in all her poverty, she had endeavoured to maintain some semblance to a garb of mourning. The man, whose age might be fifty-seven or eight, is tall, powerfully built, and although encumbered by the long dress of a friar, shows in every motion that he is still possessed of considerable strength and activity. The closely cut hair over his forehead and temples gives something of coarseness to the character of his round full head; but his eyes are mild and gentle-looking, and there is an unmistakable good-nature in his large and thick-lipped mouth.
If there is an air of deference to his companion in the way he seats himself a little distance from the ‘brazier,’ there is, more markedly still, a degree of tender pity in the look that he bestows on her.
‘I want to read you the petition, Mrs. Mary,’ said he, drawing a small scroll of paper from his pocket, and unfolding it before the light. ‘’Tis right you’d hear it, and see if there’s anything you ‘d like different—anything mispleasing you, or that you ‘d wish left out.’ She sighed heavily, but made no answer. He waited for a second or two, and then resumed: ‘’Tisn’t the like of me—a poor friar, ignorant as I am—knows well how to write a thing of the kind, and, moreover, to one like him; but maybe the time’s coming when you ‘ll have grander and better friends.’
‘Oh, no! no!’ cried she passionately; ‘not better, Fra Luke—not better; that they can never be.’
‘Well, well, better able to serve you,’ said he, as though ashamed that any question of himself should have intruded into the discussion; ‘and that they may easily be. But here’s the writing; and listen to it now, for it must be all copied out to-night, and ready for to-morrow morning. The cardinal goes to him at eleven. There’s to be some grandees from Spain, and maybe Portugal, at twelve. The Scottish lords come after that; and then Kelly tells me he ‘ll see any that likes, and that has letters or petitions to give him. That’s the time for us, then; for ye see, Kelly doesn’t like to give it himself: he doesn’t know what the Prince would say, and how he ‘d take it; and, natural enough, he ‘d not wish to lose the favour he’s in by any mistake. That’s the word he said, and sure enough it sounded a strange one for helping a friend and a countrywoman; so that I must contrive to go myself, and God’s my judge, if I wouldn’t rather face a drove of the wild cattle out there on the Campagna, than stand up before all them grand people!’ The very thought of such an ordeal seemed too much for the poor friar, for he wiped his forehead with the loose cuff of his robe, and for some minutes appeared to be totally lost in reflection.
With a low sigh he at last resumed: ‘Here it is, now; and I made it short, for Kelly said, “if it’s more than one side of a sheet he ‘ll never look at it, but just say ‘Another time, my good friend, another time. This is an affair that requires consideration; I ‘ll direct Monsignore to attend to it.’ When he says that, it’s all over with you,” says Kelly. Monsignore Bargalli hates every one of us—Scotch, English, and Irish alike, and is always belying and calumniating us; but if he reads it himself, there’s always a chance that he may do something, and that’s the reason I made it as short as I could.’
With this preface, he flattened out the somewhat crumpled piece of paper, and read aloud:
‘”To His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, the true-born descendant of the House of Stuart, and rightful heir to the Crown of England, the humble and dutiful petition of Mary Fitzgerald, of Cappa-Glyn, in the County Kildare, Ireland———”
‘Eh, what?’ cried he suddenly; for a scarcely audible murmur proclaimed something like dissent or correction.
‘I was thinking, Fra Luke,’ said she mildly, ‘if it wouldn’t be better not to say “of Cappa-Glyn.” ‘Tis gone away from us now for ever, and—and——’
‘What matter—it was yours once. Your ancestors owned it for hundreds and hundreds of years; and if you’re not there now, neither is he himself where he ought to be.’
The explanation seemed conclusive, and he went on:
‘”County Kildare, Ireland. Ay! May it please your illustrious Royal Highness—The only sister of Grace Géraldine, now in glory with the saints, implores your royal favour for the orphan boy that survives her. Come from a long way off, in great distress of mind and body, she has no friend but your highness and the Virgin Mary—that was well known never deserted nor forsook them that stood true to your royal cause—and being in want, and having no shelter or refuge, and seeing that Gerald himself, with the blood in his veins that he has, and worthy of being what your Royal Highness knows he is—”
‘That’s mighty delicately expressed, ye see, not to give offence,’ said the friar, with a most complacent smile at his dexterity—
‘”——hasn’t as much as a rag of clothes under his student’s gown, nor a pair of shoes, barring the boots that the sub-rector lent him; without a shirt to his back, or a cross in his pocket; may at a minute’s warning be sent away from the college by reason of his great distress—having no home to go to, nor any way to live, but to starve and die in nakedness, bringing everlasting disgrace on your royal house, and more misery to her who subscribes herself in every humility and contrite submission, your Royal Highness’s most dutiful, devoted, and till death release her from sorrows, ever attached servant, Mary Fitzgerald.”
‘I didn’t put any address,’ said the Fra, ‘for, you see, this isn’t one of the genteelest quarters of the town. Here they are, Mrs. Mary—here they are!’ cried he suddenly, and while he spoke, the hasty tramp of many feet and the discordant voices of many people talking noisily was heard from without.
‘Sangue dei Santi!’ shouted a rude voice, ‘is this a fortress we have here, or a public tavern?’ and at the same instant a strong hand seized the table in the doorway and flung it on the floor.
The fellow who thus made good his entrance was tall and muscular, his stature seeming even greater from the uncouth covering of goat-skins, which in every conceivable fashion he wore around him, while in his hand he carried a long lance, terminating with a goad, such as are used by the cattle-drivers of the Campagna.
‘A hearty reception, truly, Signora Maria, you give your customers.’ cried he, as he strode into the middle of the chamber.
‘It was a barrier against the storm, not against our friends———’
‘Ha! you there, Fra Luke!’ shouted the other, interrupting him, while he burst out into a fit of coarse laughter.
‘Who could doubt it, though?—wherever there’s a brazier, a wine-shop, and a pretty woman, there you will find a Frate! But come in, lads,’ added he, turning once more toward the doorway; ‘here are only friends—neither spies nor Swiss among them.’
A ragged group of half-starved wretches now came forward, from one of whom the first speaker took a small leathern portmanteau that he carried, and threw it on the table.
‘A poor night’s work, lads,’ said he, unstrapping the leather fastenings around it; ‘but these travellers have grown so wary nowadays, it’s rare to pick up anything on the Campagna; and what with chains, bolts, and padlocks around their luggage, you might as well strive to burst open the door of the old Mamertine Prison yonder. There’s no money here, boys—not a baiocco—nor even clothes, nothing but papers. Cursed be those who ever taught the art of writing!—it serves for nothing but to send brave men to the galleys.’
‘I knew he was a courier,’ said a small decrepit-looking man, with a long stiletto stuck in his garter, ‘and that he could have nothing of any use to us.’
‘Away with the trunk, then! throw it over the parapet into the ditch, and make a jolly blaze with the papers. Ah, Signora Maria, time was when a guidatore of the Campagna seldom came back at night without his purse filled with sequins. Many a gay silk kerchief have I given a sweetheart, ay, and many a gold trinket too, in those days. Cattle-driving would be but a poor trade if the Appian Way didn’t traverse the plain.’ While he spoke he continued to feed the flame with the papers, which he tore and threw on the burning charcoal. ‘Heap them on the fire, Fra, and don’t lose time spelling out their meaning. You get such a taste for learning people’s secrets at the confessional, you can’t restrain the passion.’
‘If I mistake not,’ said Fra Luke, ‘these papers are worth more than double their weight in gold. They treat of very great matters, and are in the writing of great people.’
‘Per Bacco! they shall never bring me to the galleys, that I’ll swear,’ cried the herdsman. ‘Popes and princes would fret little about me when they gained their ends. There, on with them, Fra. If I see you steal one of them inside those loose robes of yours, by the blood of the martyrs, I ‘ll pin it to your side with my poniard.’
‘You mangy, starved hound of a goatherd!’ cried Fra Luke, seizing the massive iron tongs beside him; ‘do you think it’s one of yourselves I am, or that I have the same cowardly heart that can be frightened because you wear a knife in your sleeve? May I never see glory, if I wouldn’t clear the place of you all with these ould tongs, ay, and hunt every mother’s son of you down the alley.’ The sudden spring forward as he said this, seeming to denote an intention of action, so appalled his hearers that they rushed simultaneously to the door, and, in all the confusion of terror, fled into the street, the herdsman making use of all his strength to cleave his way through the rest.
‘Think of the Vendetta, Fra Luke! They never forgive!’ tried the woman, in a voice of anguish.
‘Faix, it’s more of the police I ‘m thinking, Mrs. Mary,’ said the friar. ‘You’ll see, them fellows will be off now to bring the Swiss guard. Burn the papers as fast as you can; God knows what mischief we ‘re doing, but we can’t help it. Oh dear! isn’t it a sin and a shame? Here’s a letter, signed Alberoni, the great Cardinal in Spain. Here’s two in English, and what’s the name—Watson, is it? No; Wharton, the Duke of Wharton, as I live! There, fan the coals; quick, there’s no time to lose. Oh dear, what’s this about Ireland! I must read this, Mrs. Mary, come what may. “Cromarty says that the P———regrets he didn’t try Ireland in the place of Scotland. Kelly persuades him that the Irish would never have abandoned his cause for any consideration for themselves or their estates.” That’s true, anyhow,’ cried the Fra. ‘“And that as long as he only wanted rebellion, and did not care to make them loyal subjects, the Irish would stand to him to the last.” Faix, Kelly’s right!’ murmured the Fra. ‘“The Scotch, besides, grow weary of civil war, and desire to have peace and order; while the others think fighting a government the best diversion of all, and would ask for nothing better than its continuance. For these reasons, and another that is more of a secret, the Prince is sorry for the choice he made. As to the secret one: there was a certain lady of good family, one of the best in the Island, they say, called Grace Fitzgerald———‘”
A shriek from the woman arrested the Fra at this instant, and with a spring forward she tore the paper from his hand to read the name.
‘What of her—what of Grace?’ cried she, in a voice of heartrending anxiety.
‘Be calm, and I ‘ll read it all, Mrs. Mary. It was God’s will, may be, put this into our hands to-night. There, now, don’t sob and agitate yourself, but listen. “She followed him to France,”’ continued he, reading.
‘’She did—she did!’ burst out the other, in a passion of tears.
—‘”To France, where they lived in retirement at the Château de Marne, in Brittany. Kelly says they were married, and that the priest who solemnised the marriage was a nephew of Cardinal Tencin, called Danneton, or Banneton, but well known as Father Ignatius, at the Seminary of Soissons. To his own dishonour and disgrace, and perhaps to his ruin also, this happy union did not long continue. He was jealous at first; at last he neglected her. Be this as it may, Godfrey Moore and O’Sullivan broke with him for ever on her account; and Ruttledge tore his patent of Baron to pieces, and swore, to his face, that one who could be so false to his love could be little relied on in his friendship.”’
‘Who writes this, Fra Luke? Who knew these things so well?’ cried the woman.
‘It is signed “E. W.,” and dated from Ancona, something more than ten years back. The remainder treats of money matters, and of names that are new to us. Here is the postscript: “You are right in your estimate of him—too right; still I am inclined to think that Kelly’s influence has worked more ill than all his misfortunes. They drink together all day, and even his brother cannot see him without permission; and if you but saw the man—coarse, low-minded, and ill-educated as he is—so unlikely in every way to have gained this ascendency over one of cultivated taste and refinement; but Kinloch said truly, ‘What have your Royal Highness’s ancestors done, that God should have cursed you with such companionship!’ To what end, then, this new plan—this last attempt to avert failure? I ‘ll go, if I must, but it will be only to expose myself to the same impertinences as before.”
‘I wish I could make out his name, or even to whom it was addressed; but it is only inscribed “G. H., care of Thomas Foster.” Is that any one coming, Mrs. Mary?’’
‘No, it’s only the wind; it often sounds like voices moaning through those old corridors,’ said the woman sorrowfully. ‘You’ll keep that letter safe, Fra Luke:’
‘That I will, Mrs. Mary. I ‘ll put it now with the rest, in that old iron box in the wall behind the chimney.’
‘But if we should have to leave this?’
‘Never fear, I ‘ll take care to have it where we can come at it.’ He paused for a second or so, and then said, ‘Yes, you can’t stay here any longer; you must go at once too.’
‘Let it be, then, to some spot where I can see him,’ cried she eagerly. ‘I ‘ve borne the misery of this gloomy spot for years back, just because that each day he passes near my door. Down the Capitoline, to the old Forum, is their walk; and how my heart beats as I see the dark procession winding slowly down the hill, till my eyes rest on him—my own dear Gerald. How proudly he steps in all his poverty!—how sorrowful in his youth! What would I not suffer to speak to him—to tell him that I am the sister of his mother—that he is not all forgotten or forsaken, but that through long days and nights I sit to think on him!’
‘But you know this cannot be, as yet.’
‘I know it—I know it I’ cried she bitterly. ‘It is not to a home of crime and infamy—to such pollution as this—I would bring him. Nor need this any longer be endured. The slavery is now unrecompensed. I can earn nothing. It is four months since I last sent him a few pauls.’
‘Come, come, do not give way thus; to-morrow may be the turn to better fortune. Ask of the Virgin to aid us—pray fervently to those who see our need, and hope—ay, hope, Mrs. Mary, for hope is faith.’
‘My heart grows too cold for hope,’ said she with a faint shudder; and then, with a low ‘good-night,’ she lighted the little lamp that stood beside her, and ascended the narrow stairs to her room, while the Fra proceeded to gather up the papers that lay scattered about: having accomplished this task, he listened for a while, to ascertain that all was quiet without, and then, drawing his cowl over his head, set out for his humble home—a small convent behind the Quirinal.
Categories: English Literature