MURIETTA mused at his window, which took in a corner of the Palatine Hill There was a gentle lap at the half open door, and the eldest of the four sisters entered. She came in softly, silently, sweetly, as if she had been a ray of the Italian sun.
"You are very welcome. It is lonesome here. Sunday is a busy day in Rome, and I know no one, and have nothing to do."
He handed a chair to the pretty woman under the great tent of black and abundant hair, and she sat down by the half open door. Then one of the other pretty women in another tent of black and abundant hair came, and he handed her a chair, and also told her she too was welcome.
Murietta was just about to open conversation, when another sister entered, and taking a proffered chair, sat down in a line just like the others. And then the other came. The same languid, dreamy expression, the same quiet refinement, the same action in all. You could not tell them apart any more than you could separate them. If one sister made her appearance, you had as well set out the four chairs all in a line first as last.
"And you are Romans?"
The ladies looked at each other and smiled. They had evidently come in on this Sunday afternoon to see what manner of man this stranger was.
"And has your family been long in Rome?"
"About two thousand years. Perhaps a great deal more, but that is as far back as we can trace our family with certainty."
Murietta was a little disgusted. He had heard something very much like this before in France.
"But you don't mean to say that you find your name so far back as that? "
"It is simply a fact which we have but little interest in, and with which we have nothing to do," answered the elder gently. "When you come to know that there are beggars in Rome, and plenty of them too, whose fathers are named in history as the friends or foes of Caesar, you may understand how little interest we take in the fact that our family has been known in Rome for twenty centuries."
"Then you are of the titled people — of the old patrician families?"
"Our family," gently sighed the elder, "was always one of rank. Revolutions, invasions, persecutions, confiscations, and so on, left it poor. Not being fortunate enough to ever have a pope in the family, we find that when it has come our turn to represent our house, it is poor indeed, and even its name is covered up and obscured by newer names that now have the ear of the world and of Rome."
"Then you ladies are people of rank?"
"Countesses in our own right." There was a touch of tenderness in the words of these beautiful women, and their quiet dignity had much to say in their favour.
"And your father?"
"yes, our dear good father. You have not seen him yet. He is at church still, for he is very religious. And then you will not see him in the week, for he works very hard, and comes home late, and rises and goes down to his work very early."
"And do tell me, please, what he finds to do in Rome?"
"Oh, he makes antiquities."
The black eyes looked at each other, looked across at Murietta, danced a cotillion about the room, and the elder beauty went on. "He has a little shop in the Theatre of Marcellus, down across the Via Montenare. It is only a stone's throw distant; and I go with him, and I work with him too, and I return with him. The good, good father! how kind and patient he is!"
The black eyes danced and glistened again, but this time with tears.
"Oh yes! shall I tell you? "
"Will you tell me?"
"Certainly; why not? Well, we make ancient coins. We have also some Etruscan vessels on hand which were made last year; but the best things to sell are coins."
"Yes, old copper coins, as far back even as the Etruscans. But the best ones to sell are those of the Roman Emperors. And the best emperor to sell is Vespasian."
"And the worst?"
"The worst is Nero. I can't at all make it out, but nobody buys Nero. A handsome man, too, he is; at least we make him so; but somehow the English have a prejudice against Nero, and he will not sell at all. We lost a great deal of money on Nero, and shall probably have to melt him over again and make him into Vespasian."
"And how in Heaven's name do you make them look so old? "
Murietta put his hand in his pocket and held up a coin which he had bought that very morning from a wretched old man who professed to have found it in a field.
The ladies looked at each other and laughed.
"Ah, I see Pietro has been busy selling his wares on Sunday. It is wrong. That is too bad. But I will tell you. This coin you see is one we made last week. You will observe that it is very light. Well, it is not copper, but composition, a kind of bronze. It is made very porous, is still malleable, and will take the impression of the ugly misshapen stamp designed for it. Now it is thrown into boiling oil, then it is cast a moment into acids, then it is boiled in a kettle of copperas and other composition till it takes on this ancient coat of green, and is ready for the market."
"And you will make a fortune at this?"
"A fortune? We barely make our bread. There is too much competition. Every man may embark in the business who chooses. There is no secret among the trade about making these coins that is not known to all, and no one gets any more than barely pays for his labour."
"And is it not dishonest?"
"Dishonest? Can it be possible that the thousands and hundreds of thousands who buy these coins can really suspect that they are real? Why, they must know that there are more copper coins carried out of Rome every year than could have been found at any time within the walls of all old Rome! The traveller wants them; we produce them. I do not see the difference between this and any other kind of manufacture. If we thought it wrong or thought any one defrauded, we certainly should not follow it. Yet I do not see what else we could find to do in Rome. It is a hard, hard place for the poor."
"You make only coins?"
"No, we make tear bottles, also."
"Yes, and also a few Egyptian antiquities. But these do not sell so well. We made an Egyptian sphinx, and then an Egyptian cat; but we had to melt them both up again, and so turned them into bronze and sold them for Vespasians."
"And so you make these pretty little tear bottles too?"
"Tear bottles! oh yes!" laughed the pretty countesses in their own right in a chorus, and the great black eyes danced another cotillion around the room; "Yes, we make tear bottles thousands and thousands of years old. We sometimes see old Pietro selling our newest and best pattern of old tear bottles, and we stand by, and hear the English purchaser tell just how old it is, the age in which it was cast, the kind of foreign workman who came to Rome on purpose to make it, and all about it from beginning to end — while old Pietro bows his head before such wisdom and such knowledge about his country, and says never a word."
"But this peculiar glint, this shade, this rose and vermilion hue?" Here Murietta fished out of his vest pocket a little bottle which he had bought that very day, and handed it to the elder sister. The ladies laughed again, and again the eight bright black eyes danced a cotillion around the hand of the artist. — "This rose hue, I say, cannot be counterfeited? Glass, I am told, only takes that shade after it is buried for ages from the light."
Again the pretty ladies laughed, and they all rose up and stood in a row, and then stood around the artist, who also rose up; and they all made little speeches and all got quite eloquent, and on the very best possible terms with the simple artist who had been buying their wares, which old Pietro had been selling that morning while he should have been at church.
A sabre rattled on the narrow stone step, and a door was heard to open on the left side of the stairway.
Murietta listened, and looked inquiringly at the little array of countesses.
"That is the Prince Trawaska," repeated the eldest countess, while the younger sister blushed and modestly looked out of the window toward the Palatine Hill.
"Yes, the prince has taken a room with us along with Count Paolini. You see the prince has only the pay of a captain in the Italian army, and it is not enough to keep a gentleman who has been gently reared, so he is always embarrassed, and has come to live with us."
"And then I have countesses for companions and landladies and a prince for my next room neighbour?"
"True. But the prince is very proud, and might not prove so friendly after all. He goes to Court, and fights duels, and drinks wine till he is drunk, and in fact is a perfect prince and high class gentleman."
And the Count Paolini?" queried the artist, as he swung his cloak over his arm preparatory to going out.
There were only six black eyes in the cotillion this time, for the two eyes of one of the pretty countesses fell down and began to number the stripes on the carpet as soon as the name of the count was mentioned.
"Well, Paolini is a lieutenant, a fine, handsome fellow, and — ask sister if he is not!" and here three ladies laughed, and one looked down in silence, the soul of love and of truth.
The artist threw his cloak over his shoulder, and the four ladies disappeared, laughing, looking back, lifting their hands, turning their heads as only Italians can. just as if they had been playing a great piece, and had been encored to the echo, and were now modestly trying to escape applause and admiration.
Down the narrow stone stairs that only the wind had swept for centuries, and fold- ing his cloak about him, the artist passed on under the little lamp that burned in a niche in the wall at the feet of the blue Madonna, and then down the rough steps, and under the ugly arch he stood in the Via Montenare.
"A prince and a count for next room neighbours. A count and a prince, and two of my pretty countesses in love with them, and the fortune of all four tied up in a little bag of brass Vespasian pennies. Well, that is pretty enough!" mused the artist, as he walked on under the shadow of the Tarpeian Rock. "A pretty story it would make — and it means either romance or mischief."
Murietta rattled his ancient Vespasian copper against the little tear bottle in his pocket, and laughed. "Ha, ha; I am learning the lives and the ways in Rome!" The peasants were melting away, and flowing like a flood down the Tiber and out through the gate of St. Paul.
There was an old woman sitting up against the ancient and battle beaten wall of the Theatre of Marcellus. She had a pair of scales in her right hand, held up and out as if she was a sort of wrinkled ghost of the ancient figure of Justice. Before her, on the ground, sat a long willow basket divided into three compartments. In the left-hand compartment were stumps of cigars in a very £air state of preservation. In the middle compartment were stumps that had been trodden on and flattened out and soaked for a night or two in rain and sewerage. The other end held a third, and if possible a still worse quality of tobacco.
"Ah," grumbled a man who was driving a hard bargain with this old woman, "I do not mind it so much if you sell me cabbage leaves for tobacco if they are only nice cabbage leaves. But when you sell me cabbage leaves for tobacco and the leaves are rotten, then I do not like it."
These stumps are gathered from the streets of Rome by boys and girls who seem to make it their only business. At evening, midnight, or morning, you will see men gliding along, bowed over, looking down, pushing a lamp before them, groping under carriages, squeezing themselves in between walls and in the filthiest places you can think of. They have a leather bag by their side and they look like devils. They are homeless degraded sons of the Caesars picking up cigar stumps which the barbarous Briton throws away in the street. Take a walk or drive some day on the Pincian Hill or in the Borghese with a half-finished cigar in your teeth. Pretty soon you will see the black eyes of some one watching you from behind a bust of Columbus or Archimedes. You move on, and the black eyes follow you from tree to tree, from bust to bust. Your carriage is followed as a shark follows a ship when a man is dying. Your cigar is finished, thrown aside; the black eyes follow it, a man darts forward, and it is scarcely allowed to touch the ground.
Sometimes you may see an Italian count or a Polish prince watching that cigar with a very hungry interest. This count or this prince, as the case may be, is not a merchant, not he! he would scorn to do a thing so degrading. Still he often lifts his eyes to the unfinished cigar, and wonders when the Western barbarian will have done with it. This count or prince is well dressed. His clothes may be a bit threadbare. His hat may have come into fashion and gone out of fashion for half-a-dozen seasons; yet, for all, he is fairly dressed, and walks with all the air of a gentleman, a prince, or a count.
He follows that burning cigar as if it were a beacon light. He takes cuts across the drive, and seems to be looking at this bed of flowers, or admiring that work of art in the gardens of the capital of Italy. Yet his eyes are lifted patiently to his beacon light, and he watches always and waits his time.
At last you lean back, take out your cigar case, bite off the end of a new cigar like an indolent man as you are to ride in a carriage in Rome, and lighting it by the old stump twirl it about in your fingers, and toss the stump to the side of the road.
The prince and the beggar are face to face. But the prince strides right ahead as if he would tread upon the base-bom gatherer of cigar stumps, and the poor plebeian is driven from his rightful prey by the Italian count or the Polish prince.
The Polish prince or the Italian count walks straight on, and looks high up as if he was reading the mystical signs on the Egyptian obelisk, and had never seen a cigar stump in all his life.
He is stepping across the spot where the smoke of a cigar stump comes stealing up through the grass by the side of the drive. His eyes are still on the obelisk; he has quite frightened the beggar away; but the beggar has turned from behind a statue of Silence, and seeing the lofty gaze and kingly step of his rival for that cigar stump begins to hope that it is his, and that the prince had never thought of it at all.
Suddenly the prince stops. He has dropped his handkerchief. He tears himself from the contemplation of the mystical obelisk, and stoops to recover his handkerchief. He rises, looks furtively about, walks on, takes a turn behind a statue with an enormous nose and a wreath of bay about its brow, and then he reappears. He looks the happiest of men; for lo! he is smoking a cigar.
Leaving this wrinkled old tobacco merchant and her customer, Murietta sauntered up the Via Montenare toward the blue tiger on the lower end of the balustrade, leading up the steps to the top of the Capitoline Hill.
About half-way up this walk you come to a little square to the right. For a wonder, this square has neither fountain, obelisk, tower, nor figure of any kind. It is a square piazza paved with cobble-stones, and between these stones in places the grass sometimes grows up as long as your hand.
All around, or at least on three sides of this square, you see rows of tables. Around these tables, beneath the broad umbrella that is always kept hoisted against either rain or sun, you often see whole families of peasants. They are talking earnestly to an old man with a pen in his hand, and paper spread before him.
Sometimes you see a modest servant girl come up the street from out the poor quarter of Rome. She has a piece of paper and an envelope in her hand, and you see her hesitate at the edge of the square, look all around, and from the mass of old men under the umbrellas, she picks out her scribe.
This is the only place of this kind in Rome. In Naples you will find at least fifty. This shows pretty clearly the difference between the education of the two cities.
Leave the street by which you enter, the only way, in fact, by which you can enter, and cross the piazza, and enter the narrow bit of a street that leads up there boldly against that high bluff but half a pistol shot distant.
Upon the wall to the left as you enter you will see written "Via Tarpeia."
This is the real Tarpeian Rock. There is another place in the city called the Tarpeian Rock, nearly half a mile from this. They charge you a franc, and show you a garden, and tell you a history which the enterprising Yankee proprietor learned from an American school-book.
Here is a perfect spiderweb of clothes lines under this gloomy precipice where the sun never shines, and, odd as it seems, you always see the pretty black-eyed women hanging out clothes in this shade. The houses are low, and do not reach half-way up the sand-stone rock, which is topped with pretty gardens, in which are set palaces and sumimer-houses and beautiful villas.
At the base of this rock, besides the pretty women here, you see cats. Here they sit, humped up, their tails curled about their toes, and their eyes shut as if asleep. You attempt to take hold of them, and they somehow are all the time just out of your reach. They sit on the mouldy walls, the mouldy window-sills, on the mossy tiles; black cats, gray cats, tortoise and cinnamon, sitting there and sitting there and sitting there for ever with their eyes shut, and their tails curled about their toes.
The German goes down to France and back again; the king of Italy comes to Rome and goes; the Pope retreats to his prison with its nine thousand rooms, and yet these cats sit there for ever in the shadow, for ever in the damp of the Tarpeian Rock, with their eyes shut, and their tails curled around their toes - black, and gray, and tortoise, and cinnamon - cats; nothing but cats!
CHAPTER XVI.Start reading Chapter 16 ofThe One Fair Lady