A Passage in the Life of Perugino Potts


Wilkie Collins

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First published in Bentley’s Miscellany February 1852.

This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

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A Passage in the Life of Perugino Potts

December 7th, 18 — I have just been one week in Rome, and have determined to keep a journal. Most men in my situation would proceed to execute such a resolution as this, by writing about the antiquities of the ‘Eternal City’: I shall do nothing of the sort; I shall write about a much more interesting subject — myself.

I may be wrong, but my impression is that, as an Historical Painter, my biography will be written some of these days: personal particulars of me will then be wanted. I have great faith in the affectionate remembrance of any surviving friends I may leave behind me; but, upon the whole, I would rather provide these particulars myself. My future biographer shall have P.P. sketched by P.P. I paint my own pictures; why should I not paint my own character? The commencement of a new journal offers the opportunity of doing this — let me take it!

I was destined to be an artist from my cradle; my father was a great connoisseur, and a great collector of pictures; he christened me ‘Perugino,’ after the name of his favourite master, left me five hundred a-year, and told me with his last breath to be Potts, R.A., or perish in the attempt. I determined to obey him; but, though I have hitherto signally failed in becoming an R.A., I have not the slightest intention even of so much as beginning to perish, in compliance with the alternative suggested to me by my late lamented parent. Let the Royal Academy perish first! I mean to exist for the express purpose of testifying against that miserably managed institution as long as I possibly can.

This may be thought strong language: I will justify it by facts. For seven years I have vainly sought a place in the annual exhibition — for seven years has modest genius knocked for admission at the door of the Royal Academy, and invariably the answer of the Royal Academicians has been, ‘not at home!’ The first year I painted, ‘the Smothering of the Princes in the Tower,’ muscular murderers, flabby children, florid colouring; quite in the Rubens’ style — turned out! The second year I tried the devotional and severe, ‘the Wise and Foolish Virgins’; ten angular women, in impossible attitudes, with a landscape background, painted from the anti-perspective point of view — turned out! The third year I changed to the sentimental and pathetic; it was Sterne’s ‘Maria,’ this time, with her goat; Maria was crying, the goat was crying, Sterne himself (in the background) was crying, with his face buried in a white cambric pocket-handkerchief, wet through with tears — turned out! The fourth year I fell back on the domestic and familiar; a young Housemaid in the kitchen, plighting her troth, at midnight, to a private in the Grenadier Guards, while the policeman of the neighbourhood, a prey to jealousy and despair, flashed his ‘bull’s -eye’ on them through the window, from the area railings above — turned out! The fifth year I gave up figures, and threw my whole soul into landscape, — classical landscape. I sent in a picture of three ruined columns, five pine-trees, a lake, a temple, distant mountains, and a gorgeous sun-set, the whole enlivened by a dance of nymphs in Roman togas, in front of the ruined columns to be sold for the ludicrously small price of fifty guineas — turned out! The sixth year, I resolved to turn mercenary in self-defence; and, abandoning high art, to take to portraiture. I produced a ‘portrait of a lady’ (she was a professional model, who sat at a shilling an hour — but no matter); I depicted her captivatingly clothed in white satin, and grinning serenely; in the background appeared a red curtain, gorgeously bound books on a round table, and thunder-storm clouds — turned out! The seventh year I humbly resigned myself to circumstances, and sank at once to ‘still life,’ represented on the smallest possible scale. A modest canvas, six inches long by four inches broad, containing striking likenesses of a pot of porter, a pipe, and a plate of bread and cheese, and touchingly entitled, ‘the Labourer’s best Friends,’ was my last modest offering; and this — even this! the poor artist’s one little ewe-lamb of a picture, was — turned out! The eighth year was the year when I started in disgust to seek nobler fields for pictorial ambition in the regions of Italian Art! The eighth year has brought me to Rome — here I am! — I, Perugino Potts! vowed to grapple with Raphael and Michaelnbsp;Angelo on their own ground! Grand idea!

Personally (when I have my high-heeled boots on) I stand five feet, three inches high. Let me at once acknowledge — for I have no concealments from posterity — that I am, outwardly, what is termed a little man. I have nothing great about me but my mustachios and my intellect; I am of the light-complexioned order of handsome fellows, and have hitherto discovered nothing that I can conscientiously blame in my temper and general disposition. The fire of artistic ambition that burns within me, shoots upward with a lambent glow — in a word, I am a good-humoured man of genius. This is much to say, but I could add yet more; were I not unhappily writing with an Italian pen on Italian paper: the pen splutters inveterately; the paper absorbs my watery ink like a blotting-book — human patience can stand it no longer: I give up for the day, in despair!

 

8th — Intended to proceed with my interesting autobiographical particulars, but was suddenly stopped at the very outset by an idea for a new picture. Subject: The primitive Father Polycarp, writing his Epistles; to be treated in the sublime style of Michael Angelo’s Prophets, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Polycarp to be several sizes larger than life, and well developed about the beard and muscles.

 

9th — Made inquiries for a good model, and found the very man I wanted. When I entered his humble abode, he was preparing his breakfast; the meal was characterised by a primitive simplicity and a strong smell. He first pulled out his stiletto knife, and cut off a large crust of bread: the outside of this crust he rubbed with garlic till it shone like a walnut-wood table in an English farm-house; the inside he saturated with oil and vinegar. By the time he had done that, the whole crust looked like a cold poultice in a polished calf-leather saucer. He ate this remarkable compound with voracious enjoyment, while I looked at him. I found him a rather difficult man to estimate in a physiognomical point of view; nothing was to be seen of his face but two goggle eyes and a hook nose, peering out of a forest of hair — such hair! just the iron-grey sort of thing I wanted. Such a beard! the most devotional I ever saw. I engaged him on the spot, and jocosely christened him Polycarp the Second, in allusion to the character he was to represent on my canvas.

 

10th — Polycarp the Second came to sit; he was polite, talkative, and apparently somewhat infested by fleas. I had an explanation with him on the last-mentioned of his personal characteristics. He asserted consolingly, that the fleas were not likely to leave him to go to me — they patriotically preferred Italian to English pasturage. Trusting he was right, I changed the subject and asked about his history. His answer tended to show that he had been ill-used and misunderstood by everybody from his cradle. His father, his mother, his relations, the priests, the police, the high populace and the low populace, throughout every degree — they had all maltreated, persecuted, falsely accused, and unrelentingly pursued Polycarp the Second. He attributed this miserable state of things partly to the invincible piety and honesty of his character, which, of course, exposed him to the malice of the world; and partly to his strong and disinterested attachment to the English nation, which lowered him in the eyes of his prejudiced countrymen. He wept as he said this — his beard became a disconsolate beard with the tears that trickled down it. Excellent-hearted Polycarp! I sympathise with him already in spite of the fleas.

 

11th — Another sitting from my worthy model. The colossal figure is, by this time (so rapid a workman am I) entirely sketched in. My physical exertions are tremendous. My canvas is fourteen feet high; and Polycarp reaches from top to bottom. I can only pursue my labour by incessantly getting up and down a pair of steps; by condemning myself heroically to a sort of pictorial treadmill. Already, however, I have tasted the compensating sweets of triumph. My model is in raptures with my design — he was so profoundly affected that he cried over it, just as he cried over his own history. What taste these Italians naturally possess! What impressibility! What untaught sympathies with genius! How delightfully different their disposition from the matter-of-fact English character! How stolid is a British Royal Academician, compared to Polycarp the Second!

 

12th — Model again. Crying again. Previous history again. Raptures again. I wish he would not smell quite so strong of garlic. At present he repels my nose as powerfully as he attracts my heart. Sent him on an errand, to buy me lamp-black and flake-white: I mean to lay it on rather thick when I come to Polycarp’s beard. Gave him the money to pay for the paint — about fourpence English. The honest creature showed himself worthy of my confidence, by bringing me back one halfpenny of change with the colours. Poor Polycarp! Poor persecuted, lost sheep! the malicious world has singed the wool off your innocent back: be it mine to see it grow again under the British artist’s fostering care!

 

13th, 14th, 15th, 16th — Too much occupied to make regular entries in my journal. I must have been up and down several miles of steps, during my four days’ labour on my fourteen feet of canvas. The quantity of paint I am obliged to use is so enormous that it quite overpowers all Polycarp’s garlic, and will, I imagine, in process of time poison all Polycarp’s fleas. I feel fatigued, especially in the calves of my legs; but with such a design as I am producing, to cheer me on; and with such a model as I have got, to appreciate my genius and run my errands, fatigue itself becomes an enjoyment. Physically as well as intellectually, I feel the Samson of High Art!

 

17th — Horror! humiliation! disenchantment! despair! — Polycarp the Second is off with my watch, chain, and purse containing Roman money to the amount of five pounds English. I feel the most forlorn, deluded, miserable ass under the canopy of Heaven! I have been the dupe of a hypocritical, whimpering scoundrel! The scent of his garlic still floats aggravatingly on the atmosphere of my studio, outraging my nose and my feelings both together. But I can write no more on this disastrous day: I must either go mad, or go to dinner immediately. Let me embrace the latter alternative, while it is still within my power. Away! away to forget myself in the national Roman dish of kid’s flesh and pistachio nuts!

 

18th — The national Roman dish has disagreed with me: I sit bilious before my fourteen canvas feet of thickly-painted but still unfinished Polycarp. This is an opportunity for relating in a proper spirit of lamentation the history of my discomfiture. It happened thus: Powerfully as my legs are made, they gave way under me on the morning of the 17th, after I had been three hours engaged in incessantly getting up the steps to put hairs on Polycarp’s beard, and incessantly getting down again to go to the other end of the room and look at the effect of them. I told my perfidious model that he might take a rest, and set him the example by taking a rest myself. Overpowered by weariness, and the pressure of ideas, I fell asleep — unaccountably and barbarously fell asleep in my chair — before my own picture. The toil-worn British artist innocently reposed; and the whimpering Italian scoundrel took advantage of his slumbers! The bearded villain must have coolly taken my chain off my neck, my watch out of my waistcoat, my purse out of my pocket, while I was asleep. When I awoke it was dusk: I yawned loudly — no notice taken of it: I called out more loudly — no answer: I struck a light — no chain, no watch, no purse, no Polycarp. After a moment of bewilderment and horror, I rushed to the traitor’s dwelling. The people of the house knew nothing about him, except that he was not home. I proclaimed my wrongs furiously to the rest of the lodgers. Another bearded man among them threatened me with assassination if I did not immediately hold my tongue: I held it. The bearded man’s mother recommended me to go home (ominously swinging a saucepan full of dirty water towards me, while she spoke): I took her advice. When I am in a den of thieves I do not find the courageous part of my character quite so fully developed as I could wish.

 

19th — Sought redress and restitution from the Police. They appeared to consider my application first as a joke, and then as an insult. Could they not catch Polycarp the Second? (I asked.) — Yes; they might possibly catch him in the process of time. Then, why not set about his capture at once? — in the sacred name of Justice, why not? Because it was of no use: he must have sold the watch and chain, and spent the money by this time. Besides, suppose him caught, it would be inconvenient to punish him, for the prisons were all full — there was no room for him anywhere. I was an Englishman, therefore rich, and therefore able to put up with my loss. Surely I had better go away, and not make a fuss about the business in bad Italian. Shade of Brutus! can this be Roman justice?

 

20th — A visit from a brother artist — a German who chirps his national songs all day; paints in the severs style; and lives on an income of forty ponds a year. This esteemed fellow-labourer gave me some advice, on hearing of my disaster. He assured me that I should get no assistance from the police without bribing them handsomely to do their work. Supposing they really took decisive steps, after that; it was more than probable that Polycarp, or some of his friends, would put me out of their way in the night, by sticking an inch or two of stiletto into my ribs. I had better not move in the matter, if I valued either my pocket or my life. ‘This,’ said the German student, lighting his pipe, ‘this, O Anglo-Saxon brother, is not thy fatherland. At Rome, the mind-and-body-comforting virtues they practise not — they grant no justice, and they quaff no beer.’

 

21st — After mature consideration, arrived at the conclusion that I had better leave Rome. To go on with my picture, after what has happened, is impossible. The train of thought in which it originated, is broken up for ever. Moreover, envious fellow-students are already beginning to make a joke of my disaster; and, for aught I know to the contrary, Polycarp the Second may be lying in wait for my life, every night, at the corner of the street. Pursued by ridicule, and threatened by assassination, no course is left me but dignified retreat. Rome farewell! Romans! one more master spirit that dwelt among ye has now been outraged and proscribed! CORIOLANUS— POTTS.

 

22nd — Early in the morning, took my canvas off the stretcher; rolled it up, and deposited it in the studio of my friend, the German artist. He promises to complete my design, as soon as he can afford paint enough to cover so colossal a canvas. I wrung his hand in silence, and left him my lamp-black, as a stock-in-trade of colours to begin with. Half an hour afterwards I was on the road to Florence, hastening to seek intellectual consolation at the feet of the Venus de Medici.

 

24th — Arrived at the Tuscan capital in the late evening. Rain, hail, snow, wind rising to a hurricane. People who praise the climate of Italy must be the paid agents of Italian innkeepers. I have never suffered such cold as this in England in my life.

 

25th — Called on an Italian gentleman, to whom I had a letter of introduction, for the purpose of inquiring about lodgings. Told him I only wanted a bedroom and a studio. He informed me that I could get both (the studio fifty feet long, if I liked it), at the palace of the Marchesa —. ‘Lodgings at a palace!’ cried I. ‘Yes, and very cheap, too,’ answered my new friend. Cheap! Can a Marchioness drive bargains? Readily. The Marchioness has not fifty pounds of your money for her whole yearly income. ‘Has she any children?’ ‘One unmarried daughter, the Marchesina.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘A diminutive term of endearment; it means, the little Marchioness, my dear sir, in your language.’ This last reply decided me. Serene visions re Marchesina Potts swam benignant before my eyes. In an evil hour, and little thinking into what fatal embarrassments I was plunging myself, I asked for the address of the palace, and determined to lodge with the Marchioness. (Christmas-day; and no roast-beef or plum-pudding. I wish I was back in England, in spite of my brilliant prospects with the Italian aristocracy.)

 

26th — Went to my noble landlady’s, having dreamt all night of Polycarp the Second. (Is this a warning that I am to see that miscreant again?) Found the palace situated in a back street; an enormous building in a very deficient state of repair. The flag-stones of the courtyard grass-grown; the fountain in the middle throwing up no water, and entirely surrounded by weeds and puddles; the staircase rugged with hard dirt — but for thinking of the Marchesina, I should have run away at my first external view of my future lodgings. Saw the Marchesa. Where does all the flesh of all the old women in Italy go to? What substance absorbs, what grave receives it? Why is there no such thing as a fat lady of sixty in the whole Peninsula? Oh, what a thoroughly Italian old woman was this Marchesa! She was little, crooked, fleshless; her yellow skin had shrivelled up tight over her bones; her nose looked preternaturally aquiline, without an atom of cheek to relieve it; her hair was white; her eyes were blazing black; and to crown all, she was as stealthily civil as any watering-place landlady in England that I ever met with. She must have exercised some hideous fascination over me, for I fell into her toils, and chartered a bedroom and studio before I had been in her presence ten minutes. The bedroom was comparatively small for a palace, only about thirty feet long by twenty broad. The studio was a vasty mausoleum of a drawing-room: sixty feet by forty of marble floor, without a fire-place or a single article of furniture on any part of it, do not look comfortable in the month of February, when the snow is falling out of doors. I shall have to sit and paint in a sentry-box!

 

27th — Removed to my dungeon — I can call it nothing else. . . . I have just seen the Marchesina, and feel faint and giddy after the sight. ‘The little Marchioness’ — to use my friend’s translation of her name — stands five feet eleven in her slippers; her hair and eyes are as black as ink; her arm is as thick as my leg; her complexion is sallow. She is as fleshy a subject as I ever remember to have met with. I know where all the old woman’s fat has gone now; it has gone to the Marchesina. My first intuitive resolve, on being introduced to this magnificent aristocrat, was as follows: ‘I must make friends with you, madam, for I see that you can thrash me!’

 

28th — The domestic life of the two noble ladies exhibits some peculiarities. I have observed that neither of them appears to possess such a thing as a gown; they are both swaddled in quantities of shapeless, dark-coloured robes, wrapped about them in a very mysterious manner. They appear to live exclusively on salad. They make salads not only of every kind of vegetable, but of bread, nuts and sponge-cakes. If the Marchesina by any accident ever set herself on fire, I feel assured that she would blaze like a beacon, from the quantity of oil she imbibes. Both the ladies keep me company in my studio, because I have got a chafing-dish of charcoal in it to preserve me from freezing, and they like to be economical in point of fire. But, besides my fire, they have their own, which they carry in their laps. An earthenware pipkin a-piece, with an arched handle, and with a small provision of burning charcoal in it, is the extraordinary portable fire that they hold on their knees all day long. I suspect the Marchesina of having a second pipkin full of live charcoal, under her robes, for the purpose of warming her feet and so forth. But of this I am not yet certain.

 

29th — The mighty Marchesina has proposed a subject to me to paint — a life-size portrait of herself in the character of a Sibyl. Ah, merciful Heaven! I must have another huge canvas for this! It will be another ‘Polycarp,’ in female form! More getting up and down steps! More gallons of black paint! But I must submit. The Marchesina has been hitherto very kind, sometimes even alarmingly affectionate. Nevertheless, if I oppose, or neglect her, I feel perfectly certain that she is capable of knocking me down! — Why! why did I ever come to Italy?

 

January 1st — I mark this day’s entry with red ink. The new year has begun for me with one of the most outstanding adventures that ever happened to anybody — Baron Munchausen included. Let me note it down in these pages.

I had just begun this morning to make a sketch for the future Sibyl picture, when the Sibyl herself burst into my studio in a great hurry. She had her bonnet on; and was dressed for the first time, since I had seen her, in something which really looked like a petticoat.

‘Industrious little man,’ said the Marchesina, with an air of jocular authority, ‘put on your hat, and come out with me.’

Of course I obeyed directly. We were going to the nunnery church of Santa So-and-so (I am afraid of being prosecuted for libel if I write the real name), to see the live object of the last new miracle, which had set all Florence in an uproar of astonishment and admiration. This object was a poor man who had been miraculously restored from blindness, by praying to a certain statue of the Madonna. He had only pursued his devotions for two days, when he was ‘cured in an instant,’ like the man with the toothache, on the outside cover of a certain quack medicine bottle, that I remember in England. Besides gaining his sight, he gained a great deal of money, subscribed for him by the devout rich. He was exhibited every day in the church; and it was the great sight of Florence to go and see him.

Well! we got to the church. Such a scene inside! Crowds of people; soldiers in full uniform to keep order; the organ thundering sublimely; the choir singing hosannas; clouds of incense floating through the church; devotees, some kneeling, some prostrate on their faces, wherever they could find room, — all the magnificence of the magnificent Roman Catholic worship, was displayed before us in its grandest festival garb. My companion was right, this was a sight worth seeing indeed.

The Marchesina being a person of some weight, both in respect of physical formation and social standing, made her way victoriously through the crowd, dragging me after her in triumph. At the inner extremity of the church we saw the wonder-working statue of the Madonna, raised on high, and profusely decorated with the jewels presented to it by the faithful. To get a view of the man on whom the miracle had been wrought was, however, by no means easy. He was closely surrounded by a circle of gazers five deep. ere, long, however, the indomitable Marchesina contrived to force her way and mine through every obstacle. We reached the front row, I looked eagerly under a tall man’s elbow; and saw —

Portentous powers of scoundrelism and hypocrisy! It was — yes! there was no mistaking him — it was POLYCARP THE SECOND!!!

I never really knew what it was to doubt my own eyes before; and yet there was no doubt here. There, kneeling beneath the statue of the Madonna, in an elegant pose of adoration, was my wide-awake miscreant of a model, changed to the hero of the most fashionable miracle of the day. The tears were trickling over his villainous beard, exactly as they trickled in my studio; I just detected the smell of garlic faintly predominant over the smell of incense, as I used to detect it at Rome. My sham model had turned sham blind man to all Florence, sham miracle-subject to a convent of illustrious nuns. The fellow had reached the sublime acme of rascality at a single stride.

The shock of my first recognition of him deprived me of my presence of mind. I forgot where I was, forgot all the people present, and unconsciously uttered aloud our national English ejaculation of astonishment, ‘Hullo!’ The spectators in my neighbourhood all turned round upon me immediately. A priest among the number beckoned to a soldier standing near, and said, ‘Remove the British heretic.’ This was rather too violent a proceeding to be patiently borne. I was determined to serve the cause of truth, and avenge myself on Polycarp the Second at the same time.

‘Sir,’ said I to the priest, ‘before I am taken away, I should like to speak in private to the lady abbess of this convent.’

‘Remove the heretic!’ reiterated the furious bigot.

‘Remove the heretic!’ echoed the indignant congregation.

‘If you do remove me,’ I continued resolutely, ‘without first granting what I ask, I will publicly proclaim, before you can get me out at the door of the church, a certain fact which you would give the best jewel on that statue up there to keep concealed. Will you let me see the abbess, or will you not?’

My naturally limpid and benevolent eye must have flashed lightnings of wrath as I spoke, my usually calm and mellow voice must have sounded like a clarion of defiance; for the priest suddenly changed his tactics. He signed to the soldier to let me go.

‘The Englishman is mad; and must be managed by persuasion, not force,’ said the wily churchman to the congregation.

‘He is not mad, — he is only a genius,’ exclaimed my gigantic and generous Marchesina, taking my part.

‘Leave him to me, and hold your peace, all of you,’ said the priest, taking my arm, and leading me quickly out of the crowd.

He showed me into a little room behind the body of the church: shut the door carefully, and turning quickly and fiercely on me, said:

‘Now, you fanatic of an Englishman, what do you want?’

‘Bigot of an Italian!’ I answered in rage, ‘I want to prove your miracle man there, to be a thief and impostor. I know him. He was no more blind, when he came to Florence, than I am.’

The priest turned ghastly with rage, and opened his mouth to speak again, when, by a second door at the other end of the room, in came the abbess herself.

She tried at first the same plan as the priest. I never saw a fiercer, leaner, sharper old woman in my life. But bullying me would not do. I knew I was right: and stuck manfully to my point. After stating the whole of the great Polycarp robbery case, I wound up brilliantly by announcing my intention of sending to Rome for witnesses who could prove the identity of my thief of a model, and their sham of a miracle man, beyond the possibility of refutation. This threat conquered; the abbess got frightened in real earnest, and came to terms; or, in other words, began to humbug me on the spot.

In the course of my life I have known a great many wily old women. The tart-seller at school was a wily old woman; a maternal aunt of mine, who wheedled my father out of a special legacy, was a wily old woman; the laundress I employed in London was a wily old woman; the Marchioness I now lodge with is a wily old woman; but the abbess was wilier than all four put together. She flattered and cringed, lamented and shed tears, prayed for me and to me, all in a breath. Even the magnificent depths of humbug displayed by Polycarp the Second, looked shallow and transparent by contrast with the unfathomable profundities of artifice exhibited by the lady abbess!

Of course, the petitions that the abbess now poured on me in torrents were all directed towards the one object of getting me to hold my tongue for ever on the subject of Signor Polycarp’s assumed blindness. Of course, her defence of the miracle-exhibition going on in her church was, that she and the whole nunnery (officiating priests included) had been imposed on by the vagabond stranger who had come to them from Rome. Whether this was true or not I really cannot say. I had a faint consciousness all the time the abbess was speaking that she was making a fool of me; and yet, for the life of me, I could not help believing some of the things she said; I could not refrain from helplessly granting her all that she asked. In return for this docility on my part, she gratefully promised that Polycarp should be ignominiously turned out of the church, without receiving a single farthing of the sums collected for him; which happened to be still remaining in the convent cash-box. Thus avenged on my pickpocket model, I felt perfectly satisfied, and politely assured the abbess (who undertook to account satisfactorily to the public for the disappearance of the miracle-man) that whatever her story was, I would not contradict it. This done, the pious old lady gave me her blessing; the priest ‘followed on the same side,’ and I left them writing down my name, to be prayed for among the convent list of personages of high rank, who were all benefited by the abbess’s interest with Heaven! Rather different this from being removed as a heretic in the custody of a soldier!

 

2nd — A quiet day at home, after yesterday’s excitement. The behaviour of the Marchesina begins to give me serious uneasiness. Gracious powers! — does she mean to fall in love with me? It seems awfully like it. On returning to the palace yesterday she actually embraced me! I was half suffocated by her congratulatory hug. The hug over, she playfully pinned me into a corner, till she made me tell her the whole of my adventure in the church. And, worse than all! not half an hour since, she coolly desired me to pull the foot-warming pipkin from under her robes — I was right about her having one there), to poke the embers, and then to put it back again; speaking just as composedly as if she were only asking me to help her on with her shawl! This looks very bad. What had I better do? — run away?

 

3rd — Another adventure! A fearful, life-and-death adventure this time. This evening somebody gave the Marchesina a box at the opera. She took me with her. Confound the woman, she will take me with her everywhere! Being a beautiful moonlight night, we walked home. As we were crossing the ‘Piazza’ I became aware that a man was following us, and proposed to the Marchesina that we should mend our pace. ‘Never!’ exclaimed that redoubtable woman. ‘None of my family have ever known what fear was a worthy daughter of the house, and I don’t know! Courage, Signor Potts, and keep step with me!’

This was all very well, but my house was the house of Potts, and every member had, at one time or other, known fear quite intimately. My position was dreadful. The resolute Marchesina kept tight hold of my arm, and positively slackened her pace rather than otherwise! The man still followed us, always at the same distance, evidently bent on robbery or assassination, or perhaps both. I would gladly have given the Marchesina five pounds to forget her family dignity and run.

On looking over my shoulder for about the five hundredth time, just as we entered the back street where the palace stood, I missed the mysterious stranger, to my infinite relief. The next moment, to my unutterable horror, I beheld him before us, evidently waiting to intercept our progress. We came up with him in the moonshine. Death and destruction! Polycarp the Second again!

‘I know you!’ growled the ruffian, grinding his teeth at me. ‘You got me turned out of the church! Body of Bacchus! I’ll be revenged on you for that!’

He thrust his hand into his waistcoat. Before I could utter even the faintest cry for help, the heroic Marchesina had caught him fast by the beard and wrist, and had pinned him helpless against the wall. ‘Pass on, Signor Potts!’ said this lioness of a woman, quite complacently. ‘Pass on; there’s plenty of room now.’ Just as I passed on I heard the sound of a kick behind me, and, turning round, saw Polycarp the Second prostrate in the kennel. ‘La, la, la-la-la-la-la — la!’ sang the Marchesina from ‘Suoni la Tromba’ (which we had just heard at the Opera), as she took my arm once more, and led me safely up the palace stairs — ‘La, la, la-la — la! We’ll have a salad for supper to-night, Signor Potts!’ Majestic, Roman matron-minded woman! She could kick an assassin and talk of a salad both at the same moment!

 

4th — A very bad night’s rest: dreams of gleaming stilettos and midnight assassination. The fact is, my life is no longer safe in Florence. I can’t take the Marchesina about with me everywhere as a body-guard (she is a great deal too affectionate already); and yet, without my Amazonian protectress what potent interposition is to preserve my life from the blood-thirsty Polycarp, when he next attempts it? I begin to be afraid that I am not quite so brave a man as I have been accustomed to think myself. Why have I not the courage Marchesina and her mother warning, and so leave Florence? Oh, Lord! here comes the tall woman to sit for the Sibyl picture! She will embrace me again, I know she will! She’s got into the habit of doing it; she takes an unfair advantage of her size and strength. Why can’t she practise fair play, and embrace a man of her own weight and inches?

 

5th — Another mess! I shall be dead soon; killed by getting into perpetual scrapes; if I am not killed by a stiletto! I’ve been stabbing an innocent man now; and have had to pay something like three pounds of compensation-money. This was how the thing happened: Yesterday I got away from the Marchesina (she hugged me, just as I foretold she would) about dusk, and immediately went and bought a sword-stick, as a defence against Polycarp. I don’t mind confessing that I was afraid to return to the palace at night without a weapon of some sort. They never shut the court-yard door till everybody is ready to go to bed; the great staircase is perfectly dark all the way up, and affords some capital positions for assassination on every landing-place. Knowing this, I drew my new sword (a murderous-looking steel skewer, about three feet long) out of the stick, as I advanced towards home, and began or Polycarp in the darkness, the moment I mounted the first stair. Up I went, stabbing every inch of my way before me, in the most scientific and complete manner; spitting invisible assassins like larks for supper. I was just exploring the corners of the second landing-place on this peculiar defensive system of my own, when my sword-point encountered a soft substance, and my ears were instantly greeted by a yell of human agony. In the fright of the moment, I echoed the yell, and fell down flat on my back. The Marchesina rushed out on the stairs at the noise, with a lamp in her hand. I sat up and looked round in desperation. There was the miserable old porter of the palace, bleeding and blubbering in a corner, and there was my deadly skewer of a sword stuck in a piece of tough Italian beef by his side! The meat must have attracted the skewer, like a magnet; and it saved the porter’s life. He was not much hurt; the beef (stolen property with which he was escaping to his lodge, when my avenging sword-point met him) acted like a shield, and was much the worse wounded of the two. The Marchesina found this out directly; and began to upbraid the porter for thieving. The porter upbraided me for stabbing, and I, having nobody else to upbraid, upbraided Destiny for leading me into a fresh scrape. The uproar we made was something quite indescribable; we three outscreamed all Billingsgate-market in the olden time. At last I calmed the storm by giving the porter every farthing I had about me, and asking the Marchesina to accept the sword part of my sword stick as a new spit to adorn the kitchen department of the palace. She called me ‘an angel;’ and hugged me furiously on the spot. If this hugging is not stopped by to-morrow I shall put myself under the protection of the British ambassador — I will, or my name isn’t Potts!

 

6th — No protection is henceforth available! No British ambassador can now defend my rights! No threats of assassination from Polycarp the Second can terrify me more! — All my other calamities are now merged in one enormous misfortune that will last for the rest of my life: the Marchesina has declared her intention of marrying me!

It was done at supper last night, after I had pinked the porter. We sat round the inevitable, invariable salad, on which we were condemned to graze — the Nebuchadnezzars of modern life — in this accursed gazebo of a palace. My stomach began to ache beforehand as I saw the Marchesina pouring in the vinegar, and heard her, at the same time, dropping certain hints in my direction — frightfully broad hints, with which she has terrified and bewildered me for the last three or four days. I sat silent. In England I should have rushed to the window and screamed for the police; but I was in Florence, defenceless and a stranger, before an Amazon who was fast ogling me into terrified submission to my fate. She soon got beyond even the ogling. When we were all three helped to salad, just at the pause before eating, the Marchesina looked round at her fleshless, yellow old parent.

‘Mother,’ says she, ‘shall I have him?’

‘Beloved angel,’ was the answer, ‘you are of age, I leave your choice to yourself; pick where you like?’

‘Very well then,’ pursued the Amazonian daughter, ‘very well! Potts! here is my hand.’ She held out her mighty fist towards me, with a diabolical grin. I felt I must either take it or have my head broken. I now sincerely wish I had preferred the latter alternative; but an unlucky emotion of terror misled me into accepting the former. I received an amorous squeeze that made the bones of my fingers crack again.

‘You are a little man, and not noble,’ observed the Marchesina, critically looking me over, as if I had been a piece of meat that she was purchasing in the market, ‘but you get both size and rank in getting me. Let us therefore be perfectly happy, and proceed with our salad.’

‘I beg your pardon,’ said I, faintly shivering all over in a sort of cold horror, ‘I beg your pardon; but really —’

‘Come, come!’ interrupted the Marchesina, crushing my hand with another squeeze; ‘too much diffidence is a fault; you have genius and wealth to offer in exchange for all I confer on you, you have, you modest little cherub of a man! As for the day, my venerated mother!’ she continued, turning towards the old woman; ‘shall we say this day week?’

‘Certainly, this day week,’ said mamma, looking yellower than ever, as she mopped up all the oil and vinegar in her plate with a large spoon. The next minute I received the old woman’s blessing; I was ordered to kiss the Marchesina’s hand; I was wished good night, — and then found myself alone with three empty salad plates; ‘left for execution’ that very day week; left without the slightest chance of a reprieve!

I write these lines at the dead of night, — myself, more dead than alive. I am in my bed-room; the door is locked and barricaded against the possible entrance of the Marchesina and her mamma. I am covered from head to foot with a cold perspiration, but am nevertheless firm in my resolution to run away to-morrow. I must leave all my luggage behind me, and resort to stratagem or I shall not get off. Tomorrow, the moment the palace gate is opened, I shall take to my heels, carrying with me nothing but my purse, my passport, and my nightcap. Hush! a stealthy breathing sounds outside the door — an eye is at the key-hole — it is the old woman watching me! Hark! a footstep in the street outside — Polycarp the Second, with his stiletto lying in wait before the house! I shall be followed, I know I shall, however cunningly and secretly I get away to-morrow! Marriage and murder — murder and marriage, will alternately threaten me for the remainder of my life! Art, farewell! henceforth the rest of my existence is dedicated to perpetual flight!

Note by the Editor of the foregoing fragments

With the ominous word ‘flight,’ the journal of Mr Potts abruptly ends. I became possessed of the manuscript in this manner: The other day, while I was quietly sitting in my study in London, the door of the room was flung violently open, and the ill-fated Potts himself rushed in, his eyes glaring, his hair dishevelled.

‘Print that!’ cried my gifted, but unhappy friend; ‘enlist for me the sympathies, procure for me the protection, of the British public! The Marchesina is after me — she has followed me to England — she is at the bottom of the street! Farewell, farewell, for ever!’

‘Who is the Marchesina? Where are you going to?’ I exclaimed, aghast.

‘To Scotland! To hide myself in the inaccessible caverns of the most desolate island I can find among the Hebrides!’ cried Potts, dashing out of the room like a madman. I ran to my window, which opens on the street, just in time to see my friend fly past, at the top of his speed. The next passenger proceeding in the same direction was a woman of gigantic stature, striding over the pavement in a manner awful to behold. Could that be the Marchesina? For my friend’s sake I devoutly hope not.

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