Besides Il Duro, we found another Italian who could speak English, this time quite well. We had walked about four or five miles up the lake, getting higher and higher. Then quite suddenly, on the shoulder of a bluff far up, we came on a village, icy cold, and as if forgotten.
We went into the inn to drink something hot. The fire of olive sticks was burning in the open chimney, one or two men were talking at a table, a young woman with a baby stood by the fire watching something boil in a large pot. Another woman was seen in the house-place beyond.
In the chimney-seats sat a young mule-driver, who had left his two mules at the door of the inn, and opposite him an elderly stout man. They got down and offered us the seats of honour, which we accepted with due courtesy.
The chimneys are like the wide, open chimney-places of old English cottages, but the hearth is raised about a foot and a half or two feet from the floor, so that the fire is almost level with the hands; and those who sit in the chimney-seats are raised above the audience in the room, something like two gods flanking the fire, looking out of the cave of ruddy darkness into the open, lower world of the room.
We asked for coffee with milk and rum. The stout landlord took a seat near us below. The comely young woman with the baby took the tin coffee-pot that stood among the grey ashes, put in fresh coffee among the old bottoms, filled it with water, then pushed it more into the fire.
The landlord turned to us with the usual naïve, curious deference, and the usual question:
‘You are Germans?’
‘Ah — Inglesi.’
Then there is a new note of cordiality — or so I always imagine — and the rather rough, cattle-like men who are sitting with their wine round the table look up more amicably. They do not like being intruded upon. Only the landlord is always affable.
‘I have a son who speaks English,’ he says: he is a handsome, courtly old man, of the Falstaff sort.
‘He has been in America.’
‘And where is he now?’
‘He is at home. O— Nicoletta, where is the Giovann’?’
The comely young woman with the baby came in.
‘He is with the band,’ she said.
The old landlord looked at her with pride.
‘This is my daughter-in-law,’ he said.
She smiled readily to the Signora.
‘And the baby?’ we asked.
‘Mio figlio,’ cried the young woman, in the strong, penetrating voice of these women. And she came forward to show the child to the Signora.
It was a bonny baby: the whole company was united in adoration and service of the bambino. There was a moment of suspension, when religious submission seemed to come over the inn-room.
Then the Signora began to talk, and it broke upon the Italian child-reverence.
‘What is he called?’
‘Oscare,’ came the ringing note of pride. And the mother talked to the baby in dialect. All, men and women alike, felt themselves glorified by the presence of the child.
At last the coffee in the tin coffee-pot was boiling and frothing out of spout and lid. The milk in the little copper pan was also hot, among the ashes. So we had our drink at last.
The landlord was anxious for us to see Giovanni, his son. There was a village band performing up the street, in front of the house of a colonel who had come home wounded from Tripoli. Everybody in the village was wildly proud about the colonel and about the brass band, the music of which was execrable.
We just looked into the street. The band of uncouth fellows was playing the same tune over and over again before a desolate, newish house. A crowd of desolate, forgotten villagers stood round in the cold upper air. It seemed altogether that the place was forgotten by God and man.
But the landlord, burly, courteous, handsome, pointed out with a flourish the Giovanni, standing in the band playing a cornet. The band itself consisted only of five men, rather like beggars in the street. But Giovanni was the strangest! He was tall and thin and somewhat German-looking, wearing shabby American clothes and a very high double collar and a small American crush hat. He looked entirely like a ne’er-do-well who plays a violin in the street, dressed in the most down-at-heel, sordid respectability.
‘That is he — you see, Signore — the young one under the balcony.’
The father spoke with love and pride, and the father was a gentleman, like Falstaff, a pure gentleman. The daughter-in-law also peered out to look at Il Giovann’, who was evidently a figure of repute, in his sordid, degenerate American respectability. Meanwhile, this figure of repute blew himself red in the face, producing staccato strains on his cornet. And the crowd stood desolate and forsaken in the cold, upper afternoon.
Then there was a sudden rugged ‘Evviva, Evviva!’ from the people, the band stopped playing, somebody valiantly broke into a line of the song:
Tripoli, sarà italiana,
Sarà italiana al rombo del cannon’.
The colonel had appeared on the balcony, a smallish man, very yellow in the face, with grizzled black hair and very shabby legs. They all seemed so sordidly, hopelessly shabby.
He suddenly began to speak, leaning forward, hot and feverish and yellow, upon the iron rail of the balcony. There was something hot and marshy and sick about him, slightly repulsive, less than human. He told his fellow-villagers how he loved them, how, when he lay uncovered on the sands of Tripoli, week after week, he had known they were watching him from the Alpine height of the village, he could feel that where he was they were all looking. When the Arabs came rushing like things gone mad, and he had received his wound, he had known that in his own village, among his own dear ones, there was recovery. Love would heal the wounds, the home country was a lover who would heal all her sons’ wounds with love.
Among the grey desolate crowd were sharp, rending ‘Bravos!’— the people were in tears — the landlord at my side was repeating softly, abstractedly: ‘Caro — caro — Ettore, caro colonello —’ and when it was finished, and the little colonel with shabby, humiliated legs was gone in, he turned to me and said, with challenge that almost frightened me:
‘Un brav’ uomo.’
‘Bravissimo,’ I said.
Then we, too, went indoors.
It was all, somehow, grey and hopeless and acrid, unendurable.
The colonel, poor devil — we knew him afterwards — is now dead. It is strange that he is dead. There is something repulsive to me in the thought of his lying dead: such a humiliating, somehow degraded corpse. Death has no beauty in Italy, unless it be violent. The death of man or woman through sickness is an occasion of horror, repulsive. They belong entirely to life, they are so limited to life, these people.
Soon the Giovanni came home, and took his cornet upstairs. Then he came to see us. He was an ingenuous youth, sordidly shabby and dirty. His fair hair was long and uneven, his very high starched collar made one aware that his neck and his ears were not clean, his American crimson tie was ugly, his clothes looked as if they had been kicking about on the floor for a year.
Yet his blue eyes were warm and his manner and speech very gentle.
‘You will speak English with us,’ I said.
‘Oh,’ he said, smiling and shaking his head, ‘I could speak English very well. But it is two years that I don’t speak it now, over two years now, so I don’t speak it.’
‘But you speak it very well.’
‘No. It is two years that I have not spoke, not a word — so, you see, I have —’
‘You have forgotten it? No, you haven’t. It will quickly come back.’
‘If I hear it — when I go to America — then I shall — I shall —’
‘You will soon pick it up.’
‘Yes — I shall pick it up.’
The landlord, who had been watching with pride, now went away. The wife also went away, and we were left with the shy, gentle, dirty, and frowsily-dressed Giovanni.
He laughed in his sensitive, quick fashion.
‘The women in America, when they came into the store, they said, “Where is John, where is John?” Yes, they liked me.’
And he laughed again, glancing with vague, warm blue eyes, very shy, very coiled upon himself with sensitiveness.
He had managed a store in America, in a smallish town. I glanced at his reddish, smooth, rather knuckly hands, and thin wrists in the frayed cuff. They were real shopman’s hands.
The landlord brought some special feast-day cake, so overjoyed he was to have his Giovanni speaking English with the Signoria.
When we went away, we asked ‘John’ to come down to our villa to see us. We scarcely expected him to turn up.
Yet one morning he appeared, at about half past nine, just as we were finishing breakfast. It was sunny and warm and beautiful, so we asked him please to come with us picnicking.
He was a queer shoot, again, in his unkempt longish hair and slovenly clothes, a sort of very vulgar down-at-heel American in appearance. And he was transported with shyness. Yet ours was the world he had chosen as his own, so he took his place bravely and simply, a hanger-on.
We climbed up the water-course in the mountain-side, up to a smooth little lawn under the olive trees, where daisies were flowering and gladioli were in bud. It was a tiny little lawn of grass in a level crevice, and sitting there we had the world below us — the lake, the distant island, the far-off low Verona shore.
Then ‘John’ began to talk, and he talked continuously, like a foreigner, not saying the things he would have said in Italian, but following the suggestion and scope of his limited English.
In the first place, he loved his father — it was ‘my father, my father’ always. His father had a little shop as well as the inn in the village above. So John had had some education. He had been sent to Brescia and then to Verona to school, and there had taken his examinations to become a civil engineer. He was clever, and could pass his examinations. But he never finished his course. His mother died, and his father, disconsolate, had wanted him at home. Then he had gone back, when he was sixteen or seventeen, to the village beyond the lake, to be with his father and to look after the shop.
‘But didn’t you mind giving up all your work?’ I said.
He did not quite understand.
‘My father wanted me to come back,’ he said.
It was evident that Giovanni had had no definite conception of what he was doing or what he wanted to do. His father, wishing to make a gentleman of him, had sent him to school in Verona. By accident he had been moved on into the engineering course. When it all fizzled to an end, and he returned half-baked to the remote, desolate village of the mountain-side, he was not disappointed or chagrined. He had never conceived of a coherent purposive life. Either one stayed in the village, like a lodged stone, or one made random excursions into the world, across the world. It was all aimless and purposeless.
So he had stayed a while with his father, then he had gone, just as aimlessly, with a party of men who were emigrating to America. He had taken some money, had drifted about, living in the most comfortless, wretched fashion, then he had found a place somewhere in Pennsylvania, in a dry goods store. This was when he was seventeen or eighteen years old.
All this seemed to have happened to him without his being very much affected, at least consciously. His nature was simple and self-complete. Yet not so self-complete as that of Il Duro or Paolo. They had passed through the foreign world and been quite untouched. Their souls were static, it was the world that had flowed unstable by.
But John was more sensitive, he had come more into contact with his new surroundings. He had attended night classes almost every evening, and had been taught English like a child. He had loved the American free school, the teachers, the work.
But he had suffered very much in America. With his curious, over-sensitive, wincing laugh, he told us how the boys had followed him and jeered at him, calling after him, ‘You damn Dago, you damn Dago.’ They had stopped him and his friend in the street and taken away their hats, and spat into them. So that at last he had gone mad. They were youths and men who always tortured him, using bad language which startled us very much as he repeated it, there on the little lawn under the olive trees, above the perfect lake: English obscenities and abuse so coarse and startling that we bit our lips, shocked almost into laughter, whilst John, simple and natural, and somehow, for all his long hair and dirty appearance, flower-like in soul, repeated to us these things which may never be repeated in decent company.
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘at last, I get mad. When they come one day, shouting, “You damn Dago, dirty dog,” and will take my hat again, oh, I get mad, and I would kill them, I would kill them, I am so mad. I run to them, and throw one to the floor, and I tread on him while I go upon another, the biggest. Though they hit me and kick me all over, I feel nothing, I am mad. I throw the biggest to the floor, a man; he is older than I am, and I hit him so hard I would kill him. When the others see it they are afraid, they throw stones and hit me on the face. But I don’t feel it — I don’t know nothing. I hit the man on the floor, I almost kill him. I forget everything except I will kill him —’
‘But you didn’t?’
‘No — I don’t know —’ and he laughed his queer, shaken laugh. ‘The other man that was with me, my friend, he came to me and we went away. Oh, I was mad. I was completely mad. I would have killed them.’
He was trembling slightly, and his eyes were dilated with a strange greyish-blue fire that was very painful and elemental. He looked beside himself. But he was by no means mad.
We were shaken by the vivid, lambent excitement of the youth, we wished him to forget. We were shocked, too, in our souls to see the pure elemental flame shaken out of his gentle, sensitive nature. By his slight, crinkled laugh we could see how much he had suffered. He had gone out and faced the world, and he had kept his place, stranger and Dago though he was.
‘They never came after me no more, not all the while I was there.’
Then he said he became the foreman in the store — at first he was only assistant. It was the best store in the town, and many English ladies came, and some Germans. He liked the English ladies very much: they always wanted him to be in the store. He wore white clothes there, and they would say:
‘You look very nice in the white coat, John’; or else:
‘Let John come, he can find it’; or else they said:
‘John speaks like a born American.’
This pleased him very much.
In the end, he said, he earned a hundred dollars a month. He lived with the extraordinary frugality of the Italians, and had quite a lot of money.
He was not like Il Duro. Faustino had lived in a state of miserliness almost in America, but then he had had his debauches of shows and wine and carousals. John went chiefly to the schools, in one of which he was even asked to teach Italian. His knowledge of his own language was remarkable and most unusual!
‘But what,’ I asked, ‘brought you back?’
‘It was my father. You see, if I did not come to have my military service, I must stay till I am forty. So I think perhaps my father will be dead, I shall never see him. So I came.’
He had come home when he was twenty to fulfil his military duties. At home he had married. He was very fond of his wife, but he had no conception of love in the old sense. His wife was like the past, to which he was wedded. Out of her he begot his child, as out of the past. But the future was all beyond her, apart from her. He was going away again, now, to America. He had been some nine months at home after his military service was over. He had no more to do. Now he was leaving his wife and child and his father to go to America.
‘But why,’ I said, ‘why? You are not poor, you can manage the shop in your village.’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But I will go to America. Perhaps I shall go into the store again, the same.’
‘But is it not just the same as managing the shop at home?’
‘No — no — it is quite different.’
Then he told us how he bought goods in Brescia and in Said for the shop at home, how he had rigged up a funicular with the assistance of the village, an overhead wire by which you could haul the goods up the face of the cliffs right high up, to within a mile of the village. He was very proud of this. And sometimes he himself went down the funicular to the water’s edge, to the boat, when he was in a hurry. This also pleased him.
But he was going to Brescia this day to see about going again to America. Perhaps in another month he would be gone.
It was a great puzzle to me why he would go. He could not say himself. He would stay four or five years, then he would come home again to see his father — and his wife and child.
There was a strange, almost frightening destiny upon him, which seemed to take him away, always away from home, from the past, to that great, raw America. He seemed scarcely like a person with individual choice, more like a creature under the influence of fate which was disintegrating the old life and precipitating him, a fragment inconclusive, into the new chaos.
He submitted to it all with a perfect unquestioning simplicity, never even knowing that he suffered, that he must suffer disintegration from the old life. He was moved entirely from within, he never questioned his inevitable impulse.
‘They say to me, “Don’t go — don’t go”—’ he shook his head. ‘But I say I will go.’
And at that it was finished.
So we saw him off at the little quay, going down the lake. He would return at evening, and be pulled up in his funicular basket. And in a month’s time he would be standing on the same lake steamer going to America.
Nothing was more painful than to see him standing there in his degraded, sordid American clothes, on the deck of the steamer, waving us good-bye, belonging in his final desire to our world, the world of consciousness and deliberate action. With his candid, open, unquestioning face, he seemed like a prisoner being conveyed from one form of life to another, or like a soul in trajectory, that has not yet found a resting-place.
What were wife and child to him? — they were the last steps of the past. His father was the continent behind him; his wife and child the foreshore of the past; but his face was set outwards, away from it all — whither, neither he nor anybody knew, but he called it America.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52