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COUNTRY LIFE IN ITALY.
BY L. MARIOTTI, AUTHOR OF "ITALY PAST And Present."
Lass ruhn die Todten.-LENORE.
THERE are one hundred and fifty stalls in the great cow-house at Gainago, and not one is untenanted. Stable-boys, milk-maids, and dairymen are in constant attendance; men and beasts equally engaged in the manufacture of Parmesan cheese.
The stable itself is a master-piece of architecture. It has a central nave and two aisles, like any Gothic minster. Its lofty roof rests on fiveand-seventy massive pillars, on either side. Between every two pillars one cow has her home. All along the stalls, from behind, there are minor alleys for the passage of the cattle. The middle avenue, never trodden by quadrupeds, is paved with bricks, and so carefully swept, that the Lombard boor declares himself ready, at any time, to eat his Indian porridge off the floor. During the winter months that central nave, or by whatever name the main walk may be designated, is converted into a magnificent saloon, and answers the manifold purposes of a common workshop, a lounge, and assembly-room for the villagers.
The establishment at Gainago belongs to an order of things which is daily becoming obsolete in Italy, since the abolition of the law of primogeniture has given rise to an indefinite division of property. The lands of this extensive estate are in possession of a wealthy Benedictine monastery; but they were given out to a farmer on a long lease of five-andtwenty years, renewable at pleasure, and transferable to his family and heirs. Farmer Campanini had, in fact, died years since, and the management of his vast enterprise devolved on his widow, a tall, commanding person, to whose qualification for empire the "good memory" of her husband might bear ample witness.
For the rest, the agricultural system at Gainago was sufficiently simple and uniform. Scarcely one-tenth of the whole estate was tilled, and this merely as a home field, intended to supply the labourer with bread and polenta. The rest was one wide-stretching meadow. Those prodigious Lombard flats, aided by a well-contrived system of irrigation, yield three and even four crops of hay yearly. Manuring in winter, mowing in summer, constitute the whole extent of field labour. The great business of the farm is in-doors. The cow-house and dairy absorb all attention, besides the scanty produce of the mulberry trees, long rows of which, miserably gnarled and stunted, and utterly stripped in early spring, hem the borders of the prairies, in dull, monotonous nakedness.
Altogether, this district is far, indeed, from answering the glowing picture the mere name of Italy never fails to conjure up in the reader's imagination. The manners of the peasantry, however, are not far removed from patriarchal simplicity, and, on a fine October morning, when the cattle wind leisurely along the foot-path, every blade of grass glittering with dew, every leaf of the poplar branches blushing with its autumn tints, and the tinkling bell of "The Lady of the Herd," keeping time with the rustic strains of cowherds and milk-maids, even the landscape around is not without its peculiar charms. Its very tameness and evenness give it ⚫ La donna della Torma."-Dante.
Sept.-VOL. LXXXIV. NO. CCCXXXIII.
an air of ineffable repose. "For man's neglect we love it more." There is no villa in sight with its tawdry verandah, its trumpery arbour or summer-house-no tampering with Nature-no painting and patching, none of the pitiable toilette tricks to set off her homely attire.
But it is not in their summer avocations that we purposed to study the manners of the humble inhabitants of Gainago. We will see them at home-their common home, the cow-house. Their private huts, kitchens, and dormitories are mean and squalid enough. They care not for that, nine months out of the twelve the open air is their element. During the short, but sharp winter season they gather together in the stables. These are a kind of club-house, the conveniences and luxuries of which reconcile them to the meanness and wretchedness of their lodgings.
The winter is cold in North Italy, whatever poets may say to the contrary, and fuel is scarce. The genial warmth of his cattle make up to the Lombard boor for the want of fire-side comfort. The household merges into the community; domestic affection expands into social cordiality.
Here they are all of them. The whole of Gainago, above two hundred souls, one happy family; from the Casaro, or head-dairyman, well to do in the world, who attends mass of a Sunday in all the consequence of a long-tailed coat and double watch-guard and seals, down to the cowboy, whose home is a hole in the hay-loft.
The parish-priest, the surgeon, and other dignitaries of the place, nay, the dowager queen of the farm herself, with her strapping boy, fresh from college, will occasionally grace the Veglia, or village-wake, with their presence. The country people, however, thankful as they profess themselves to be for the honour intended, are only at ease by themselves. It is only when released from the crushing condescension of the "great folk," that the spindles twirl lustily and the peals of laughter ring merrily.
The peasant of Lombardy, whatever may be said of his southern brethren, is never idle himself, never countenances idleness in his family circle. Confined to his stables by three feet of snow, he is busy at his tools or at basket-work; and as to his females, the sun in all its round path sees no more inveterate spinners. A stray fiddler or piper may for once or twice in a year make its way into the cow-house and create a passing sensation by a few notes out of his crazy instrument. One of the light-heeled couples may be enticed into a step or two of the stately Monferrina. The spectators, however, need not "look on with their hands" (their own phrase), and even the performers are soon reminded that life is "all work and no play."
Eyes do not spin, however, nor do tongues knit, nor do the mysteries of basket-weaving call forth the faculties of the mind and heart to any considerable extent. Talking goes on briskly, therefore, all the while, and talkers are in great demand; grave talk and small talk, with a considerable amount of bantering and jeering, ogling and flirting.
A spindle will also fall to the ground now and then (not but that is voted a very naughty trick by the matrons), a spindle will fall from a careless spinster just as naturally, as accidentally, as a cambric handkerchief, or ivory fan is dropped at Almack's. There will be a scuffle among the rustic swains, striving to pick it up, and a pretty compliment paid in the act of handing it to the artful coquette. A spindle thrice dropped to the same individual is a mark of preference very remarkable indeed. For the rest, the absence of mystery renders love and courtship tolerably
* A graceful dance, originally from the vine-clad hills of Monferrato.
insipid among these primitive people. "Love, smoke and-" (I beg the reader's pardon) "and itch admit of no concealment" is the proverb amongst them. Declared lovers are incontinently left to themselves. The dullest of companions to any body else.
Young people licensed to "speak" (that is the Italian for love-making) to each other, play any thing but a conspicuous part at a village wake. Professional talkers, story-tellers, and crackers of good round jokes, alone command a respectful attention: travelled people above all, pedlars, itinerant musicians, jobbing mechanics.
Gainago is only eight miles from Parma, and yet not one out of a hundred among its simple indwellers have stretched their observations so far. The vast majority hardly ever ventured beyond the limits of the parish. It is not so much poverty, perhaps, not so much hard assiduous work, as apathetic, unenterprising stolidity that roots them, like trees, to the spot where they grow. It is the Bifolco, or drover's business, to take the cattle to market. The casaro has to go to town twice a month to settle scores with his mistress. The fagging journeyman has no holiday, and if ever unemployed, he is too happy to stretch himself on the grass in the shade, and give the world and its toils and cares to oblivion.
The mountaineer in the Apennines is a wide-awake and stirring being. He undertakes his pilgrimages to the shrine of Fontanellato where he manages to combine trade with devotion, or he hires himself out in the maremma or in Corsica, and acquires information even as he turns an honest penny, by his yearly rounds. But the bumpkin of the plain is dead to curiosity; and the talk at the veglia ministers quite enough to such thirst for knowledge and love of adventure as may harbour in his dull brain. There is a guardia campestre, or rural constable, here at Gainago, a weather-beaten, awfully scarred veteran, who has, as he expressed it, "been at the fire" under Napoleon in Germany and Russia, though for what reason, or in whose pay, he never was at the trouble to ascertain. He is an oracle, however, with his warlike exploits; his prodigious recitals are stored up in an awful jumble in the noddles of the gaping rustics, and their southern imagination works at those incongruous materials, till it rears a fabric that would put the most gorgeous castles of chivalrous minstrelsy to the blush.
It was this worthy who acted now as an orator. It was on a brisk, frosty night, in the Christmas season, and the peasants had all drawn up in one speechless group around him. All the hemp in the distaffs was used up; the stock of osier waxed low; the four wicks in the brass lamps burnt dim. Midnight was almost striking, and no one gave the signal to break up. The guardia was at the climax of his story.
"It was as light as noon, I tell you," quoth the narrator, with his fist clenched, and eyes glistening; "the moon shone in its full, and I was never so wide awake in my days. It stood by the side of Micco's grave, and looked the very image of my poor comrade as he used to lay by my side
at the bivouac fire!"
Old Micco, the fowler, as his towns-folk by courtesy called him, an arrant poacher, an irreclaimable character, ever since he had come back from the wars, had met with an untimely end in a nocturnal affray with the gamekeepers in the ducal park or "woods" at Colorno. Out of charity, his native parish of Gainago had dug him a grave and raised a red cross to his memory; an act of kindness which the spectre of the
departed did not fail to acknowledge by sundry antics and gambols on the green sward of the cemetery. It was an encounter with this troublesome neighbour that the guardia was now treating his village friends with.
"He seemed to melt away in thin mist, as I gazed,” he continued, "and he became white all over, whiter than the sheet in the rector's yard hard by, and it grew taller and taller as he withdrew, and I saw the moonbeams pass through the hollow sockets of his eyes."
Here the ghost-seer's narrative was interrupted by a merry ringing laugh.
"Mercy on us!" ejaculated a young contadina, a tidy-looking lass with a smart cap and smooth apron, "and it was the rector's gray mare after all, I dare say."
This sceptic explanation of the terrific vision was received with no favourable murmur.
"The rector's old mare has been dead these three months!" "Mortal mare's eyes give no passage to the "The Campo of the moon !" rays Santo is haunted-notorious fact-has been so from time immemorial!" "The monk with two heads!" "The lady with gory locks!" "Old Micco, the fowler!" "No man's bones, it is proved, find rest in a bloody grave!"
Old Micco's ghost was one of the religions of the place; it was a phantom of recent date. The good rustics would put up with no joke on the subject. The two-headed monk himself was hardly a safer theme for merriment, and the profane damsel could hear some half-muttered observations about "town-bred impudence," and "forward minxes wiser than their elders," with which some of the venerable cronies of the community visited her anti-demonological presumption.
The town-bred giri shook her head with impatience. She was a nutbrown beauty, with bushy ringlets, and eyes "as large as a sixpence." She had been brought up at Parma, as an humble attendant on the farmer's widow, and had won the good will of that lady's "strapping boy fresh from college," who had imparted to her not a little of his scholastic lore. She was now at home for the holidays. She had been "smoothed and varnished," the villagers remarked, petted and flattered in town. She could read and write, gave herself airs, and did not scruple to laugh their old fashioned notions to scorn.
She had her abettor and partisans, nevertheless; none so ardent as the casaro himself, a widower aged fifty, who was very sweet upon her during his periodical visit in town, and at whose expense the truant girl had many a hearty laugh, when tête-à-tête in her studies with her mistress's "strapping boy fresh from college."
The poor casaro had lost his sleep. That saucy cut of her cap, her ribbons and flounces, bewildered-the scent on her bushy ringlets inebriated him. Every month, on the recurrence of his visits, Marcella's piquant large eyes, sent a fresh arrow through the good widower's fustian waistcoat, so that had men been able to see under that particular part of his garment, his heart would have been discovered bored through and through, and in as sad a plight as that of "The Virgin of the seven Sorrows," with her seven villanous knives stuck up in her boddice.
"You are a big man, watchman," the girl argued, " and a tough one. If it was old Micco's ghost that you met, wherefore did not walk up to him with a hearty halloo? Was it not your old crony? And were you afraid he would bite you?"
The guardia campestre drew himself up to his full grenadier height, and looked down upon her with an air of conscious dignity.
"You mind your flounces and furbelows, you pretty gay doll, will you? Wait until your ill luck brings you face to face with a soul (the Italian for ghost), and I promise you, your tongue, sharp and nimble as it is, will stick to your throat till you can't say boh! to a goose. Hoity, toity!" he continued, in a tone of contemptuous indignation, "what shall we have next? Shall there be no more souls in the world? Are we men, or are we heathens ?"
"A heathen, I must be for one," retorted the town-spoiled beauty, "since assuredly I am no man. But if it be manly to take a midnight walk to the churchyard, and speak out one's mind to the scarecrow that frightened a big fellow like you out of his poor wits, by Heaven! I am the one to do it."
"The Lord bless us !" resounded on every side. "The girl is mad!” "Less mad than wicked!" and the whole parish group crossed themselves as fast as if the ghost itself had suddenly stood up amongst them. "Hark'ee, my pretty wench!" again interposed the veteran. "Hark'ee -I am an old soldier, and have seen fire, and have been all but hacked to pieces by those incarnate fiends, the Cossacks. I am an old stager myself, and think little of a night stroll by moonlight, in discharge of my duty. I keep to the main road, nevertheless, and as for grave-yards," he said, lowering his tone, and his face grew dark as he was speaking, "as for grave-yards, I make it a point to keep as wide aloof from them as old Nick from the christened belis on the church steeple. Only you see last night I came out of the 'Bettolino,' at Colorno-and-"
"Now is the cat out of the bag," said Marcella, with her loud laugh, "and the flasks at the 'Bettolino' had been too many for you, and you saw double as you made your way home."
"Well, well, my valiant lass," said the watchman, with an eloquent shrug of the shoulders, "that is as it may be. But yonder is the door, and yonder across the threshing floor, lies your way. We are on the stroke of midnight, and old Micco is beginning to rub his eyes, and take a turn in his bed. You make the trial, that's all, and if you do not hurry back much faster than you set out, ere you are a hundred rods on your way, I am content never to see the inside of the 'Bettolino,' never to skim off the oil from a wine flask again.”
"Done!" shouted the maid. "Martin, mark my words; I'll make you a sober man for all the rest of your life."
"You'll set out, I dare say," retorted the old soldier, testily. "You'll go as far as the hay-stack, and there crouch down for half an-hour, and then come back and have it all your own way."
"Ha! say you so?" said the girl. "Well, then, here is my spindle: whoever will go to the grave-yard to-morrow, at daybreak, will find it stuck up on the sods over old Micco's grave."
There was an awful pause. The rustics looked at each other in sore dismay. The old watchman put on a grin of incredulity and defiance. The enamoured dairyman was the first to recover from his stupor.
"I'll be there at daybreak, and look for it," quoth he. "I will pluck the girl's spindle from the old fowler's grave; I'll bring it back from the churchyard; and by all the ghosts that roam by night! the brave wench that can do such a feat, shall not go unrewarded; I will go before the priest, and claim the fair owner of the spindle for my own."