From Tales from the Italian and Spanish, Vol. III, Stories of Humor and Adventure, The Review of Reviews Co.; New York; 1920; pp. 213-223.213
THE little troupe was making its way beside the shore of the sea.
Already, along the pale slopes of the coast, there were the beginnings of the return of spring; the low-lying chain of hills was green, and the green of the various verdures was distinct; and each separate summit bore a coronet of trees In flower. At each northerly breath of wind, these trees were set in motion; and, as they moved, the probably denuded themselves of many blossoms, because from a brief distance the heights seemed to be overspread with a tint intermediate between rose color and pale violet, and all the view for an instant would grow tremulous and vague, like an image seen across a veil of water, or like a picture that is washed out and disappears.
The sea stretched away in a serenity almost virginal, along a coast slightly crescented towards the south, resembling in its splendor the vividness of a Persian turquoise. Here and there, revealing the passage of currents, certain zones of a deeper tint left serpentine undulations.
Turlendana, in whom acquaintance with the neighborhood had become, through many years of absence, almost entirely effaced, and in whom also, through long peregrinations, the sentiment of patriotism was well-nigh wholly effaced, continued onward, not turning to look around him, with his habitual weary and limping gait. As the camel lingered to raze upon every clump of wild growth by 214 the wayside, he would hurl at it a brief, hoarse cry of incitement. And then the big, dun-colored quadruped would leisurely raise its head once more, grinding the herbage between its laborious jaws.
The she-ass, the little snow-white Susanna, under the persistent torments of the monkey, resorted from time to time to braying in lamentable tones, beseeching to be liberated from her rider. But Zavali, the indefatigable, with brief, rapid gestures of alternate anger and mischief, kept running up and down the length of Susanna’s back, without respite, leaping on her head and clinging to her long ears, seizing and raising her tail between two paws, while he plucked and scratched at the tuft of coarse hair upon the end, his face-muscles meanwhile working with a thousand varying expressions. Then suddenly he would once more seat himself, with a foot thrust under one arm, like the twisted root of a tree, grave, motionless, fixing upon the sea his round, orange-colored eyes, that slowly filled with wonder, while his forehead wrinkled and his thin, rose-tinted ears trembled, as if from apprehensions. Then suddenly, with a gesture of malice, he would recommence his sport.
The camel heeded and again set itself in motion.
When the troupe had reached the grove of willows near the mouth of the Pescara, above its left bank (whence it was possible already to discern the sailors out on the yardarms of sailing vessels anchored at the quay of the Bandiera), Turlendana came to a halt, because he wished to slake his thirst at the river.
The ancestral river was bearing to the sea the perennial wavy of its tranquillity. The two banks, carpeted with aquatic growth, lay in silence, as if reposing from the exhaustion of their recent labor of fertilization. A profound hush seemed to rest upon everything. The estuaries gleamed resplendent in the sun, tranquil as mirrors set in frames of saline crystals. According to the shifting of the 215 wind, the willows turned from white to green, from green to white again.
“Pescara!” said Turlendana, checking his steps, with an accent of curiosity and instinctive recognition. And he paused to look around him.
Then he descended to the river’s brink, where the gravel was worn smooth; and he knelt upon one knee in order to reach the water with the hollow of his hand. The camel bent its neck and drank with leisurely regularity. The she-ass also drank. And the monkey mimicked the attitude of his master, making a hollow of his slender paws, which were as purple s the unripe fruit of the prickly pear.
The camel heeded and ceased to drink. From its flabby lips the water trickled copiously, dripping upon its callous chest, and revealing its pallid gums and large, discolored, yellow teeth.
Along the path through the grove, worn by seafaring folk, the troupe resumed its march. The sun was setting s they arrived at the Arsenal of Rampigna.
From a sailor who was passing along the high brick parapet, Turlendana inquired:
“Is this Pescara?”
The mariner, gazing in amazement at the menagerie, replied:
“Yes, it is,” and, heedless of his own concerns, turned and followed the stranger.
Other sailors joined themselves to the first. Before long, a crowd of curious idlers had gathered in the wake of Turlendana, who tranquilly proceeded on his way, not in the least perturbed by the divers popular comments. At the bridge of boats the camel refused to cross.
“Hoo! Barbara! Hoo, hoo!”
Turlendana sought to urge it forward patiently with his voice, shaking meanwhile the cord of the halter by which he was leading it. But the obstinate animal had couched itself upon the ground and laid its outstretched muzzle in 216 the dust, as if expressing its intention of remaining there for a long time. The surrounding crowd had by this time recovered from its first stupefaction, and began to mimic Turlendana, shouting in chorus:
And since they were somewhat accustomed to monkeys, — because occasionally sailors, returning from long voyages, brought them back with them, as they did parrots and cockatoos, — they teased Zavali in a thousand ways, and gave him big, green almonds, which the little beast tore open for the sake of the fresh, sweet kernel that he devoured gluttonously.
After long persistence in shouts and blows, Turlendana at last succeeded in vanquishing the obstinacy of the camel. And then that monstrous architecture of skin and bones arose, staggering to its feet in the midst of the mob that urged it forward.
From all directions soldiers and citizens hurried forward to look down upon the sight from above the bridge of boats. The setting sun, disappearing behind the Gran Sasso, diffused throughout the early vernal sky a vivid, rosy light; and since, from the moist fields and from the waters of the river and from the sea and from the standing pools, there had all day long been rising many vapors, the houses and the sails and the yard-arms and the foliage and all other things took on this rosy hue; and their forms, acquiring a sort of transparency, lost something of their definite outline, and seemed almost to undulate in the enveloping flood of light.
Beneath its burden the bridge creaked upon its thickly tarred floats, like some vast and buoyant raft. The populace broke into a joyous tumult; while through the midst of the throng, Turlendana and his beasts bravely held the middle of the crossing. And the camel, enormous, overtopping all surrounding heads, drank in the wind in deep breaths, slowly swaying its neck from side to side, like some fabulous, fur-bearing serpent.
Because the curiosity of the gathering crowd had already 217 spread abroad the name of the animal, they all of them, from a native love of mockery, as well as from a mutual contentment born of the charm of the sunset and the season, unanimously shouted:
Turlendana, who had stoutly held his ground, leaning heavily against the chest of his camel, felt himself, at this approving shout invaded by an almost paternal satisfaction.
“But suddenly the she-ass started in to bray with such high-pitched and ungracious variations of voice and with such lugubrious passion that unanimous hilarity spread throughout the crowd. And this frank laughter of the people passed from lip to lip, from one end of the bridge to the other, like the scattering spray of a mountain stream as it leaps the rocks into the gorge below.
Hereupon Turlendana began once more to make his way through the crowd, unrecognized by anyone.
When he was before the city gate, where the women were selling freshly caught fish from out their big rush baskets, Binchi-Banche, a little runt of a man, with a face as jaundiced and wrinkled as a juiceless lemon, intercepted him, and, according to his wont with all strangers who found their way into this region, made offer of his aid in finding lodgings.
But first he asked, indicating Barbara:
“Is it dangerous?”
Turlendana replied, with a smile, that it was not.
“All right,” resumed Binchi-Banche, reassured, “This way, to the house f Rosa Schiavona.”
Together they turned across the Fish Market, and thence along the street of Sant’ Agostino, still followed by the crowd. At windows and balconies women and young girls crowded closely together to watch in wonder the slow passing of the camel, while they admired the little graces of the small white ass and laughed aloud at the antics of Zavali.
At a certain point, Barbara, seeing a half-dead wisp of grass dangling from a balcony, raised its long neck, 218 stretched out its lips to reach it, and tore it down. A cry of terror broke from the women who were leaning over the balcony railing, and the cry was taken up and passed along on all the neighboring balconies. The people in the street laughed loudly, shouting as they do at carnival time behind the backs of the masqueraders:
They were all intoxicated with the novelty of the spectacle and the spirit of early spring. Before the house of Rosa Schiavona, in the neighborhood of Portasale, Binchi-Banche gave the sigh to halt.
“Here we are,” he said.
It was a low-roofed house, with but one tier of windows, and the lower part of its alls was all defaced with scribblings and with vulgar drawings. A long frieze f bats, nailed up to dry, adorned he architrave, and a lantern, covered with red paper, hung beneath the middle window.
Here was a lodging for all sorts of vagabond and adventurous folk; here slept a motley crowd of carters from Letto Manopello, stout and big of paunch; gypsies from Sulmona, horse-dealers and tinkers of broken pots; spindle-makers from Buccianico; women from Città Sant’ Angelo, brazenly coming to visit the garrison; rustic pipers from Atina; trainers of performing bears from the mountain districts; charlatans, feigned beggars, thieves, and fortune-tellers. The grand factotum of this kennel was Binchi-Banche; it most revered patroness was Rosa Schiavona.
Hearing the commotion, the woman came out upon the threshold. She had, to speak frankly, the appearance of a creature sprung from a male dwarf and a female pig. She began by asking, with an air of distrust:
“What’s the row?”
“Only a Christian soul in want of a lodging for himself and his beasts, Donna Rosa.”
“How many beasts?”
“Three, as you see, Donna Rosa; a monkey, a she-ass, and a camel.”
The populace paid no heed to this dialogue. Some were 219 still plaguing Zavali; others were stroking Barbara’s flanks and examining the hard, callous disks on knees and chest. Two guards from the salt works, whose travels had taken them as far as the portals of Asia Minor, narrated in loud tones the various virtues of the camel, and gave a confused account of having seen some of these beasts execute the figures of a dance while bearing on their long necks a number of musicians and half-clad women.
Their hearers, eager to learn more of such marvels, kept repeating:
“Tell on! Tell on!”
They all stood around in silence, their eyes slightly dilated, envious of such delights.
Then one of the guards, an elderly man whose eyelids showed the corrosion of ocean winds, began to spin strange yarns of Asiatic lands; and by degrees, his won words caught and swept him along in their current, intoxicating him.
A species of exotic languor seemed to be diffused abroad by the sunset. There arose, in the fancy of the populace, the shores of fable-land in a glow of light. Beyond the arch of the city gate, already lying in shadow, could be seen the reservoirs coated with salt, shimmering beside the river; and since the mineral absorbed all the faint rays of twilight, the reservoirs seemed as if fashioned out of precious crystals. In the sky, turned faintly greenish, shone the first quarter of the moon.
“Tell on! Tell on!” still besought the youngest of the listeners.
Turlendana meanwhile had stabled his beasts ad had provided them with food; and now he had come out again in company with Binchi-Banche, while the crowd still lingered before the entrance to the stalls, where the camel’s head kept appearing and disappearing behind the high grating of cords.
As he walked along the street, Turlendana inquired:
“Are there any taverns in town?”
“Yes, sir, indeed there are.” Then, raising huge, discolored hands, and with the thumb and finger of the right seizing successively the tip of each finger of the left, he checked them off:
“There is the tavern of Speranza, the tavern of Buon, the tavern of Assau, the tavern of Matteo Puriello, the tavern of Turlendana’s Blind Woman ——”
“We’ll go there,” the other answered tranquilly.
Binchi-Banche raised his small, sharp, pale-green eyes: “Perhaps, sir, you have already been there before?” and then, not waiting for an answer, with the native loquacity of the Pescara folk, the talked straight on:
“The Tavern of the Blind Woman is a big one, and you can buy the best sort of wine there. The Blind Woman is the wife of four men!” Here he bursts out laughing, with a laugh that puckered up his whole jaundiced face till it looked like the wrinkled hide of a ruminant.
The first husband was Turlendana, who was a sailor and went away on board the ships of the King of Naples to the Dutch Indies and France and Spain, and even to America. That one was lost at sea, — and who knows where? — with all on board; and he was never found. That was thirty years ago. He had the strength of Samson; he could pull up anchor with one finger. Poor young man! Well, who goes down the sea, there his end shall be!”
Turlendana listened tranquilly.
“The second husband, after five years of widowhood, who was an Ortonese, the son of Ferrante, an accursed soul, who joined a band of smugglers at the time when Napoleon was making war on the English. They carried on a contraband trade with the English ships in sugar and coffee, from Francavilla all the way to Silvi and Montesilvano. Not far from Silvi there was a Saracen tower behind a grove, from which they used to make their signals. After the patrol had passed, we used to slip out from among the trees” — hereupon the speaker grew heated at the recollection, and forgetting himself, described at great length the whole clandestine operation, aiding his account with gestures 221 and vehement interjections. His whole small leathery personage seemed alternately to shrink and expand in the course of narration. The upshot of it was that the son of Ferrante died from a gunshot in the loins, at the hands of Joachim Murat’s soldiers, one night, down by the shore.
“The third husband was Titino Passacantando, who died in his bed of an evil sickness. The fourth is still living. His name is Verdura, an honest soul, who doesn’t water his wines. But you shall see for yourself.
Upon reaching the much-praised tavern, they took leave of each other.
“Pleasant evening to you, sir.”
“The same to you.”
Turlendana entered tranquilly under the curious gaze of the crowd that sat over their wine around several long tables.
Having requested something to eat, he was conducted by Verdura to the floor above, where the tables were already laid for supper.
As yet there were no other guests in this upper room. Turlendana took his seat, and began to eat in huge mouthfuls, with his head in his plate, without a pause, like a man half starved. He was almost wholly bald; a profound scar, of a vivid red, furrowed his brow across its entire breadth, and descended halfway down his cheek; his thick, gray beard grew high on his face, well-nigh covering his prominent cheek bones; his skin, brown and dry and full of roughness, weather-beaten, sun-burnt, hollowed by privations, seemed as though it no longer retained a single human sensation; his eyes and all his features looked as though they had long since been petrified into insensibility.
Verdura, full of curiosity, seated himself opposite and fell to studying the stranger. He was a man inclining to stoutness, with a face of ruddy hue, subtly veined with scarlet like the spleen of an ox. At last, he inquired:
“From what country have you come?”
Turlendana, without raising his face, answered quite simply:222
“I have come from a long distance.”
“And where are you going?” again demanded Verdura.
“I stay here.”
Verdura, stupefied, lapsed into silence. Turlendana removed the heads and tails from his fish; and he ate them that way, one after another, chewing them bones and all. To every two or three fish, he took a draught of wine.
“Is there anyone here that you know?” resumed Verdura, burning with curiosity.
“Perhaps,” replied the other simply.
Discomfited by the brevity of his guest’s replies, the tavern-keeper for a second time became mute. Turlendana’s slow and elaborate mastication was audible above the noise of the men drinking in the room below.
A little later, Verdura again opened his lips:
“What country did your camel come form? Are those two humps of his natural? Can such a big, strong beast ever be entirely tamed?”
Turlendana let him talk on, without paying the slightest attention.
“May I ask your name, Signor Stranger?”
In response to the question he raised his head from out his plate and said quite simply:
“My name is Turlendana.”
The stupefaction of the host passed beyond all limits, and at the same time a sort of vague alarm began to flow in waves down to the lowest depths of his soul.
“Turlendana? — From here?”
Verdura’s big blue eyes dilated as he stared at the other man.
“Then you are not dead?”
“No, I am not dead.”
“Then, you are the husband of Rosalba Catena?”
“I am the husband of Rosalba Catena.”223
“Well, then!” exclaimed Verdura, with a gesture of perplexity, “there are two of us!”
“There are two of us.”
For an instant they remained in silence. Turlendana masticated his last crust of bread tranquilly; and the slight crunching sound could be heard in the stillness. From a natural and generous recklessness of spirit, and from a glorious fatuity, Verdura had grasped nothing of the meaning of the event, beyond its singularity. A sudden access of gayety seized him, spring spontaneously from his very heart.
“Come and find Rosalba! Come along! Come along! Come along!”
He dragged the prodigal by one arm down through the lower saloon, where the men were drinking, gesticulating, and crying out.
“Here is Turlendana, Turlendana the sailor, the husband of my wife! Turlendana who was dead! Here is Turlendana, I tell you! Here is Turlendana!”