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There are, high among the Tuscan Apennines, two other monastie establishments—"sanctuaries” they used to be called in the old days, before all such matters were changed in Italy—which, if they have had no vates sacer to celebrate them, are not less worthy of a visit from the lover of nature. These are, Camaldoli, perched on the very ridge of the main chain of the Apennine, between the Tuscan valley of the Casentino and the Adriatic seaboard; and Lavernia, a Frazciscan monastery, celebrated for the sojourn here of St. Francis himself, on the hills between the Valdarno and the valley of the infant Tiber, a little farther to the southward. The nearest townlet to the first of these is Prato Vecchio, in the Casentino, which is between seven and eight miles from the convent; and Bibbiena, equally in the Casentino, but at the other end of the long Arno valley, so called, is the nearest place to the second, and at the same distance from it. Travellers, therefore, wishing to visit Camaldoli might have (as would have seemed more natural) found horses and guides for the excursion at Prato Vecchio; and those who wished to see Lavernia and the sites of all the miracles St. Francis is recorded to have performed there, might have similarly made Bibbiena their starting. point. But nobody ever dreamed of doing so. Antonio da Pelago had effectually succeeded in making himself the proprietor, or at least the master of ceremonies, of these two establishments also. Whether merely a two days' excursion to Vallombrosa was in contemplation, or the longer affair of a visit to Camaldoli, or the yet more ambitions and more rarely executed scheme of an expedition which should embrace all the three Tuscan sanctuaries, still in every case the first thing to be done was to seek an interview with Antonio.
And this, for the most part, was to be attained only on Tuesdays or Thursdays ; for Antonio was the proprietor of an omnibus which ran from Pelago to Florence on those days. No doubt Antonio found the omnibus, like most other things in this world, by no means the pleasantly prosperous thing it used to be in the good old days when Tuscany had her own grand duke to herself. Our friend was a laudator temporis acti, and, truth to tell, a bit of a Codino (i.e. old-fashioned Tory); as how should the owner of an omnibus on a road where a railway had come to compete with him be aught else ?—more especially an omnibus proprietor, with a son in an ecclesiastical seminary preparing for the priesthood, as was the case with our Antonio.
However, the Pelago omnibus still kept up the unequal struggle pluckily; did so as long as Antonio lived, and, no doubt, would not have given in while he was able to crack a whip. It continued to bring in the old-fashioned farmers and their wives from the hill farms around Pelago-people who had all their lives considered horses to be providentially intended for the purposes of locomotion, and who looked upon a railway with no less terror than aversion. Above all, the
omnibus did almost as large a stroke of business in the way of packets and commissions as ever.
“Ah! yes !” a Pelago matron would say. “Go and tell that screeching brute of an engine, or even one of them stuck-up guards with their livery coats, to carry a bit of fresh cheese or a pound or two of grapes, may be, to a friend in the city, or to bring you word how your child is going on in her place, or the like. Much good may it do you ! Don't tell me! I like to have to do with a Christian that can understand what you say to him, and can bring you back an answer.”
And wonderful indeed was the assortment of commissions of all kinds intrusted to Antonio by the Pelago public; and still more wonderful the way in which he would punctually and unfailingly fulfil them all. Messages were intrusted to him perhaps more frequently than letters :-messages upon all sorts of subjects ; some of them often such as to illustrate that utter absence of all desire for privacy in matters that among ourselves would be deemed to require it which is so noticeable a trait of Italian life and manners. One would have said that Antonio must have been deep in the secrets and the confidence of all Pelago, bad it not been for the discovery that such matters were not deemed by the simple Pelagoites any secrets at all.
Well, then, the intending visitor to the "sanctuaries” seeks Antonio on a propitious day at his recapito (anglicè, house of call,) in Florence. He discovers, with some little difficulty, a large courtyard, lying back among tall but now poorly-inhabited houses in the most central and oldest part of Florence, the entrance to it by an arched doorway, barely wide enough to allow the omnibus to pass out. But inside the place is spacious enough, and all around it are many stables, and heavy above it an atmosphere of stable smell such as one would have thought no stables, save the Augean, could have emitted. In the courtyard stand some half-dozen omnibuses, belonging to various small towns in the neighbourhood of Florence. A few intending passengers are lounging about, mostly women, with huge bundles and huger umbrellas in their hands, and the pavement is strewed around each vehicle with a most heterogeneous collection of consignments for their respective destinations —for it is near the hour of departure—that being the best time for finding Antonio, inasmuch as his day has been spent in doing commissions all over the town.
We are in luck. There is Antonio, standing whip in one hand, while the other is scratching his head underneath his broad lowcrowned hat, which hangs on one side of his head, in the midst of all the lumber that has to be arranged on the omnibus, like Marius among the ruins of Carthage. Suppose the applicant to be an old customer, who has in past days arranged with Antonio for the conduct of many a party to the " sanctuaries,” Antonio, whip in hand,
comes forward, and stretches out to him, in token of old acquaintanceship, a hand about as horny as a horse's hoof and of a somewhat darker colour. He is perfectly aware that his visitor is a signore, and himself by no means a signore; that, as a Tuscan phrases it, the one is “coat” while the other is “jacket"; but he sees no reason why that should stand in the way of a shake of the hand. A dweller in Florence would not so accost a person in a different grade of life. But honest Antonio, from the slopes of the Apennine, has not altogether lost that feeling of independence and equality in some sort of man to man, traces of which-remnants of the old republican social usages of three centuries ago—may still be observed as distinguishing the Tuscans from the people of the other provinces of Italy.
Then the business in hand is propounded. Can Antonio undertake to have (say) seven nags, with three side-saddles and four men's ditto, ready for starting to Vallombrosa at 9 A.M. on the following morning ?
Antonio casts his whip from his hand to the ground, that it may not interfere with the due theatrical presentment of his emotions and meditations on the subject, and throws himself into an attitude. He is a tall, bony, angular man of some five and
fifty years, which have gnarled and twisted and knotted him more than fourscore do many a
His face looks as hard, as angular, and as scarce of flesh as his body. He has no ruddy colour, but his whole visage is of a uniform bistre tint. He has a strong, square, wilful-looking jaw, and his whole face is lighted up by two fire-bright, shrewd, and twinkling but honest-looking eyes, the look of which tells no falsehood as to the nature of the man. His costume is composed of a pair of brown drugget trousers, a red waistcoat, and a striped linen jacket of some thick and strong woof. The large falling collars of his hempen shirt, though rumpled, are clean, and a wisp of blue cotton handkerchief is tied round his brawny throat.
Not a promising figure, one would say, for the eloquent theatrical exposition of sentiment by word and gesture! But such a conclusion, like many another too hastily formed, would be an egregiously erroneous one. Having disembarrassed himself of his whip, as has been said, be clasps his hands in front of him with the palms turned outwards, his head is thrown forwards, with an expression of intense questioning in his eyes, which ask whether he can have heard aright the monstrous demand made upon his resources. One foot is advanced a little in front of his person, and a sort of vibratory movement up and down, from the knees upwards, which no man save an Italian ever executed, and which no one ever saw executed by an Italian without at once comprehending the full significance of it, expresses the intensity of doubt and difficulty into which the proposal made bas plunged him.
“Oh, Si’or Antonio,” says a girl coming into the yard at this juncture, “ you must carry this quarter of a pound of snuff to la madre, and tell her that she must tell me the exact width of the tape she wants me to get for her, and bring me back word next journey; and you'd better put the snuff into another paper, because that's torn, and it's all running out.”
“Va bene, figliuola mia! All right, my girl," says Antonio, breaking short off in his theatricals without the smallest embarrassment. “Lascia far a me. Leave it to me-I'll make it all right." And so saying he stuffs the snuff into the breast pocket of his jacket, and re-casting himself exactly into the attitude and action in the midst of which he was interrupted he resumes his impersonation of inextricable perplexity, as before.
“Seven horses ! Four men's, and three women's saddles! Come si fa! How is it possible !"
He knows very well that the horses are in the stable at Pelago, and the saddles and the side-saddles hanging up in one of the empty bedrooms of the little inn there. And he knows that we know the same facts. And he knows that we know that he knows them. But all this does not in any degree interfere with the performance of his little comedy. None of the various people in the large yard-hostlers, proprietors of other omnibuses, waiting passengers, &c.-suspend their attention to their own affairs, or pay any attention to Antonio's acting, good as it is. But he tries, by a side glance directed now and then to the bystanders around his own omnibus, to call their attention, and to enlist them as part of his audience. They assume a bearing and attitude, and occasionally throw in a word or two, in a style and manner that remind one of the chorus in a Greek play, and forcibly suggests the idea—which a hundred similar little traits have often suggested before—that these races of the south of Europe are essentially the same people, and are differentiated in the same manner from the people of Teutonic stock that they were a couple of thousand years ago. No man, who watched with observant eyes that picture of Antonio gesticulating in the centre of his little chorus of surrounding loafers, could suppose that the irruption of the northern barbarians into Italy was of such a sort as to change at all fundamentally the body and blood of the native masses of the people.
Eventually, as we both knew very well from the beginning, the order for eight nags—one for a baggage carrier—was taken ; & bargain was made for one francescone-(those were the days when the grand-ducal francesconi had not disappeared=four shillings)—per horse per diem; and it was agreed that the horses should be ready, and the party expected at Pelago at 9 A.m. the following morning.
“That is for the horses, signore mio! Diamine !* You know * It is very difficult to translate, or even fully to explain the meaning of this often-used expression. In this place the sense would be something like "Well! naturally! I should think so indeed !"
that as well as I do better than I do! Horses are no use without men! But we don't talk of that. All that is left to your good pleasure—alla sua buona grazia.”
“All right, Antonio! Take care to be ready. We shall be punctual !” And so the matter is settled.
The next morning, a most lovely one, in the early October, we arrive, a laughing chattering party “all agog to dash through thick and thin,” and all perfectly new to the business except the present writer, at Pelago, punctually at nine in the morning.
Clattering up the little street, we perceive at once that Antonio is a man of his word, so far as punctuality is concerned. There staud the eight steeds in front of the little inn, duly caparisoned. There is nobody in particular in attendance on them; but they don't look at all likely to run away. Their appearance however produces a chorus of depreciatory exclamations from the un-Italianized members of our party, whose notions of hiring a saddle-horse had been formed from the experiences of London livery stables. And, in truth, the Pelago cavalry must be admitted to be unattractive to the outward eye. Shaggy as though they had just been caught on the South American pampas, dusty as though their hides had never known a currycomb in the course of their lives, they were of all sizes shapes, and ages. Their appurtenances were evidently older than any of them, and yet more uncared for. Three of them certainly " what seemed the likeness” of a side-saddle had on, and four others had somewhat better ordinary saddles. It was necessary at once to quell all difficulties and recalcitrations among our party with a “Sint ut sunt, aut non sint !" It was, as the present writer well knew, to be either those horses and those saddles and bridles, or no horses and no saddles or bridles.
Antonio, who came out from the house cheerily, and rubbing his hands in high glee, at the sound of our approach, utterly ignored and scouted all objections to his horses, his gear, or his arrangements. The members of our party, in their inexperience, began settling among themselves which horses they would ride. But they soon discovered that they were to have no voice in the matter.
“Now, signori miei, the coffee is ready upstairs. When you have taken a cup I'll mount every gentleman on the right horse, and also every lady. Santa Maria ! one must adapt oneself in these matters. One nag is fitter for one gentleman, and another for another; ladies the same."
So saying, Antonio set to work to pack bags and bundles on the baggage-horse; and the writer explained that the party had better take their coffee, and mount each the beast assigned to him, without any attempt at resistance.
So upstairs we went; and found the coffee and milk and bread excellent, and the table-cloth white as snow. The butter was ...