The curtain rose in a little square down in old Rome not a great way from the Tiber. There Was a fountain playing there in the centre of the piazza. A great bright fountain it was, spouting up and spilling down in a great granite sarcophagus big enough to make a bed room.
The pretty girls, like pictures, were coming and going here with their pitchers of water; and gay young men were leaning about over the iron rails around the fountain, and bantering the pretty brown girls, who, as they laughed, showed the whitest teeth to be found anywhere in the world.
Here a merchant trundled a barrow, and there an old woman bore a basket of fruits or nuts upon her head. Two men were gambling over yonder in a corner of the stage with its great palace for a background, and throwing out their hands and guessing the number of fingers that would be opened in the outstretched hand. They were just a little noisy, and as drunk as ever you see a Roman.
The peasants from the mountains, whom we have seen in the Coliseum, enter in a long line, bending under their heavy loads and the fatigue of their long journey.
An old peasant leads the party. He has been here before; and, with a dagger but half concealed in his belt and another in the thongs of his sandal, feels that by the divine interposition of the Holy Virgin, and the help of these two weapons, he will be able to get through his marketing and get out of Rome alive.
They are again grouped together here, and do not look unlike the time they knelt before the cross. It is growing late; yet in these beautiful autumn nights business as well as pleasure holds long reaches towards the tomorrow.
Other actors come around this group, and they begin to nibble, to bite a little, to run back, come again, dart off, throw up their hands, make speeches, shout, thunder, curse, run away swearing to never come back or buy a single thing of these brigands from the mountains, and then the same moment turn on the heel, come back, throw down the money, take up the article and so disappear.
"How much for these poor little lean fowl?"
"These fat, plump young spring chickens are worth two francs a-piece."
"Maria! Maria! Holy Mother! Rome is full of chickens. Rome is eaten up with chickens. Rome is ruined with chickens at half that price. In fact, signor, in confidence I will tell you, the Syndicate is about to pass a law forbidding chickens to be brought into Rome at all. They breed the cholera — the cholera, signor! And when they pass that law, what then will you do with your poor, lean, little, half-sick, hungry little chickens? tell me that!"
"Then since you are so kind as to tell me all this, take them for one franc and a half."
"One franc and a half!" Again the hands go up. This excellent actor stands on one leg, he turns round like a top, he looks right and left, sighs pathetically at the old man from the mountains, and bids him good-night.
"But what will you give, signor merchant?"
"Give? Give? What will I give? Signor, I do not want your chickens. I should be ruined if I bought a single chicken. I should starve. I could not eat your chickens — your chickens would eat me! Ha, ha! Your chickens would eat me! But listen — " and here the splendid actor bows low, looks sharp around him as if to be sure that no one hears — "I will give you half a franc, since it is you, and become a bankrupt!"
"They are yours."
And now that the business is done the men part. The two actors have played earnestly and well; and now they give way to others on the boards.
"The mutton, I tell you, is spoilt. I will have you arrested — I will have you thrown in prison — the prison of the Capitoline where St. Paul was kept and where Jugurtha perished — for bringing spoilt meat into the city."
"Spoilt, signor? Spoilt! I killed this mutton at noon."
"At noon yesterday?"
"Five soldi!" And five fingers go straight up, and the man tiptoes with excitement.
"Ten!" And the other actor springs to his feet, and throws both hands in the air.
"Seven and a half!"
"It is yours; take it and be satisfied."
The merchant shoulders his leg of mutton and leaves the stage, looking back, walking sideways, stepping high, bowing as if in acknowledgment of the applause. "And what will the little old woman take for her little old pig?"
"This plump little pig which I have brought to market to-day is my heart's blood! It is a late spring pig, three months old, and fat as a chestnut."
The merchant took the pig in his hands, inspected it, and shook his head.
"Very sorry — but that is a valley pig! You mountain people steal from the valley people. You stole that pig, mother? You stole that pig, and I have a mind to turn you over to that captain of the police!"
"Stole that pig? The Holy Mother! Stole my dear little, darling, darling pig! Ah, signor, signor! how could you say so? Why, I have had that pig in my house, signor, in my house! in my house for years and years!"
This accomplished actor failed in fighting the old woman, and strange as it may seem, paid her her price; and the peasants having sold their wares and fruits and meats, gather up their things in their baskets, load up as they pass down the stage with such things as they need in their wild and simple homes, and prepare to pass out of the gates of Rome by midnight; for they will not consent to sleep within the walls of the sinful city.
There a man has strung a dozen loaves of bread on a string and swung this around him, and stands in the most graceful pose, throwing back his black hair, as he stands there waiting for his companions.
There a woman has taken a great bar of iron on her head. It is enough to load a mule. It is from the mines of England, and will be borne on this woman's head to the tops of the Apennines, and there made by some cunning hands into knives and scissors and shears, and all things that these simple people want, for they will not buy such things of the Romans.
Looking-glasses, beads, gay coloured shawls, scarfs, handkerchiefs — all these are flowing, folding, falling about the heads, shoulders, waists, of the happy mountain peasants as they stand there in line, waiting till their full force is ready to move, so that not one of their number may be left behind, to fall into the hands of the terrible Romans.
There is an organ-grinder with a piano on a wheelbarrow, playing over yonder, and down in that crowd some man in white clothes and in a Panama hat, with an instrument under his arm, is picking the strings and singing the most villainous Spanish song you ever heard.
The line moves on; the orchestra plays; the curtain falls; and the play in Rome is over for to-night.Start reading Chapter 12 ofThe One Fair Lady