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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsSaunterings - The Story Of Fiammetta
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Saunterings - The Story Of Fiammetta Post by :why97 Category :Nonfictions Author :Charles Dudley Warner Date :May 2012 Read :1829

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Saunterings - The Story Of Fiammetta

At vespers on the fete of St. Antonino, and in his church, I saw the Signorina Fiammetta. I stood leaning against a marble pillar near the altar-steps, during the service, when I saw the young girl kneeling on the pavement in act of prayer. Her black lace veil had fallen a little back from her head; and there was something in her modest attitude and graceful figure that made her conspicuous among all her kneeling companions, with their gay kerchiefs and bright gowns. When she rose and sat down, with folded hands and eyes downcast, there was something so pensive in her subdued mien that I could not take my eyes from her. To say that she had the rich olive complexion, with the gold struggling through, large, lustrous black eyes, and harmonious features, is only to make a weak photograph, when I should paint a picture in colors and infuse it with the sweet loveliness of a maiden on the way to sainthood. I was sure that I had seen her before, looking down from the balcony of a villa just beyond the Roman wall, for the face was not one that even the most unimpressible idler would forget. I was sure that, young as she was, she had already a history; had lived her life, and now walked amid these groves and old streets in a dream. The story which I heard is not long.

In the drawing-room of the Villa Nardi was shown, and offered for sale, an enormous counterpane, crocheted in white cotton. Loop by loop, it must have been an immense labor to knit it; for it was fashioned in pretty devices, and when spread out was rich and showy enough for the royal bed of a princess. It had been crocheted by Fiammetta for her marriage, the only portion the poor child could bring to that sacrament. Alas! the wedding was never to be; and the rich work, into which her delicate fingers had knit so many maiden dreams and hopes and fears, was offered for sale in the resort of strangers. It could not have been want only that induced her to put this piece of work in the market, but the feeling, also, that the time never again could return when she would have need of it. I had no desire to purchase such a melancholy coverlet, but I could well enough fancy why she would wish to part with what must be rather a pall than a decoration in her little chamber.

Fiammetta lived with her mother in a little villa, the roof of which is in sight from my sunny terrace in the Villa Nardi, just to the left of the square old convent tower, rising there out of the silver olive-boughs,--a tumble-down sort of villa, with a flat roof and odd angles and parapets, in the midst of a thrifty but small grove of lemons and oranges. They were poor enough, or would be in any country where physical wants are greater than here, and yet did not belong to that lowest class, the young girls of which are little more than beasts of burden, accustomed to act as porters, bearing about on their heads great loads of stone, wood, water, and baskets of oranges in the shipping season. She could not have been forced to such labor, or she never would have had the time to work that wonderful coverlet.

Giuseppe was an honest and rather handsome young fellow of Sorrento, industrious and good-natured, who did not bother his head much about learning. He was, however, a skillful workman in the celebrated inlaid and mosaic woodwork of the place, and, it is said, had even invented some new figures for the inlaid pictures in colored woods. He had a little fancy for the sea as well, and liked to pull an oar over to Capri on occasion, by which he could earn a few francs easier than he could saw them out of the orangewood. For the stupid fellow, who could not read a word in his prayer-book, had an idea of thrift in his head, and already, I suspect, was laying up liras with an object. There are one or two dandies in Sorrento who attempt to dress as they do in Naples. Giuseppe was not one of these; but there was not a gayer or handsomer gallant than he on Sunday, or one more looked at by the Sorrento girls, when he had on his clean suit and his fresh red Phrygian cap. At least the good Fiammetta thought so, when she met him at church, though I feel sure she did not allow even his handsome figure to come between her and the Virgin. At any rate, there can be no doubt of her sentiments after church, when she and her mother used to walk with him along the winding Massa road above the sea, and stroll down to the shore to sit on the greensward over the Temple of Hercules, or the Roman Baths, or the remains of the villa of C. Fulvius Cunctatus Cocles, or whatever those ruins subterranean are, there on the Capo di Sorrento. Of course, this is mere conjecture of mine. They may have gone on the hills behind the town instead, or they may have stood leaning over the garden-wall of her mother's little villa, looking at the passers-by in the deep lane, thinking about nothing in the world, and talking about it all the sunny afternoon, until Ischia was purple with the last light, and the olive terraces behind them began to lose their gray bloom. All I do know is, that they were in love, blossoming out in it as the almond-trees do here in February; and that all the town knew it, and saw a wedding in the future, just as plain as you can see Capri from the heights above the town.

It was at this time that the wonderful counterpane began to grow, to the continual astonishment of Giuseppe, to whom it seemed a marvel of skill and patience, and who saw what love and sweet hope Fiammetta was knitting into it with her deft fingers. I declare, as I think of it, the white cotton spread out on her knees, in such contrast to the rich olive of her complexion and her black shiny hair, while she knits away so merrily, glancing up occasionally with those liquid, laughing eyes to Giuseppe, who is watching her as if she were an angel right out of the blue sky, I am tempted not to tell this story further, but to leave the happy two there at the open gate of life, and to believe that they entered in.

This was about the time of the change of government, after this region had come to be a part of the Kingdom of Italy. After the first excitement was over, and the simple people found they were not all made rich, nor raised to a condition in which they could live without work, there began to be some dissatisfaction. Why the convents need have been suppressed, and especially the poor nuns packed off, they couldn't see; and then the taxes were heavier than ever before; instead of being supported by the government, they had to support it; and, worst of all, the able young fellows must still go for soldiers. Just as one was learning his trade, or perhaps had acquired it, and was ready to earn his living and begin to make a home for his wife, he must pass the three best years of his life in the army. The conscription was relentless.

The time came to Giuseppe, as it did to the others. I never heard but he was brave enough; there was no storm on the Mediterranean that he dare not face in his little boat; and he would not have objected to a campaign with the red shirts of Garibaldi. But to be torn away from his occupations by which he was daily laying aside a little for himself and Fiammetta, and to leave her for three years,--that seemed dreadful to him. Three years is a longtime; and though he had no doubt of the pretty Fiammetta, yet women are women, said the shrewd fellow to himself, and who knows what might happen, if a gallant came along who could read and write, as Fiammetta could, and, besides, could play the guitar?

The result was, that Giuseppe did not appear at the mustering-office on the day set; and, when the file of soldiers came for him, he was nowhere to be found. He had fled to the mountains. I scarcely know what his plan was, but he probably trusted to some good luck to escape the conscription altogether, if he could shun it now; and, at least, I know that he had many comrades who did the same, so that at times the mountains were full of young fellows who were lurking in them to escape the soldiers. And they fared very roughly usually, and sometimes nearly perished from hunger; for though the sympathies of the peasants were undoubtedly with the quasi-outlaws rather than with the carbineers, yet the latter were at every hamlet in the hills, and liable to visit every hut, so that any relief extended to the fugitives was attended with great danger; and, besides, the hunted men did not dare to venture from their retreats. Thus outlawed and driven to desperation by hunger, these fugitives, whom nobody can defend for running away from their duties as citizens, became brigands. A cynical German, who was taken by them some years ago on the road to Castellamare, a few miles above here, and held for ransom, declared that they were the most honest fellows he had seen in Italy; but I never could see that he intended the remark as any compliment to them. It is certain that the inhabitants of all these towns held very loose ideas on the subject of brigandage: the poor fellows, they used to say, only robbed because they were hungry, and they must live somehow.

What Fiammetta thought, down in her heart, is not told: but I presume she shared the feelings of those about her concerning the brigands, and, when she heard that Giuseppe had joined them, was more anxious for the safety of his body than of his soul; though I warrant she did not forget either, in her prayers to the Virgin and St. Antonino. And yet those must have been days, weeks, months, of terrible anxiety to the poor child; and if she worked away at the counterpane, netting in that elaborate border, as I have no doubt she did, it must have been with a sad heart and doubtful fingers. I think that one of the psychological sensitives could distinguish the parts of the bedspread that were knit in the sunny days from those knit in the long hours of care and deepening anxiety.

It was rarely that she received any message from him and it was then only verbal and of the briefest; he was in the mountains above Amalfi; one day he had come so far round as the top of the Great St. Angelo, from which he could look down upon the piano of Sorrento, where the little Fiammetta was; or he had been on the hills near Salerno, hunted and hungry; or his company had descended upon some travelers going to Paestum, made a successful haul, and escaped into the steep mountains beyond. He didn't intend to become a regular bandit, not at all. He hoped that something might happen so that he could steal back into Sorrento, unmarked by the government; or, at least, that he could escape away to some other country or island, where Fiammetta could join him. Did she love him yet, as in the old happy days? As for him, she was now everything to him; and he would willingly serve three or thirty years in the army, if the government could forget he had been a brigand, and permit him to have a little home with Fiammetta at the end of the probation. There was not much comfort in all this, but the simple fellow could not send anything more cheerful; and I think it used to feed the little maiden's heart to hear from him, even in this downcast mood, for his love for her was a dear certainty, and his absence and wild life did not dim it.

My informant does not know how long this painful life went on, nor does it matter much. There came a day when the government was shamed into new vigor against the brigands. Some English people of consequence (the German of whom I have spoken was with them) had been captured, and it had cost them a heavy ransom. The number of the carbineers was quadrupled in the infested districts, soldiers penetrated the fastnesses of the hills, there were daily fights with the banditti; and, to show that this was no sham, some of them were actually shot, and others were taken and thrown into prison. Among those who were not afraid to stand and fight, and who would not be captured, was our Giuseppe. One day the Italia newspaper of Naples had an account of a fight with brigands; and in the list of those who fell was the name of Giuseppe---, of Sorrento, shot through the head, as he ought to have been, and buried without funeral among the rocks.

This was all. But when the news was read in the little post office in Sorrento, it seemed a great deal more than it does as I write it; for, if Giuseppe had an enemy in the village, it was not among the people; and not one who heard the news did not think at once of the poor girl to whom it would be more than a bullet through the heart. And so it was. The slender hope of her life then went out. I am told that there was little change outwardly, and that she was as lovely as before; but a great cloud of sadness came over her, in which she was always enveloped, whether she sat at home, or walked abroad in the places where she and Giuseppe used to wander. The simple people respected her grief, and always made a tender-hearted stillness when the bereft little maiden went through the streets,--a stillness which she never noticed, for she never noticed anything apparently. The bishop himself when he walked abroad could not be treated with more respect.

This was all the story of the sweet Fiammetta that was confided to me. And afterwards, as I recalled her pensive face that evening as she kneeled at vespers, I could not say whether, after all, she was altogether to be pitied, in the holy isolation of her grief, which I am sure sanctified her, and, in some sort, made her life complete. For I take it that life, even in this sunny Sorrento, is not alone a matter of time.

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