From Tales from the Italian and Spanish, Vol. III, Stories of Humor and Adventure, The Review of Reviews Co.; New York; 1920; pp. 305-312.305
I RECOGNIZED him from a distance. I recognized him by his small, white horse, trotting so faithfully and willingly, and by the lumber-pile of poles and levels and other implements of his craft, which he, as official engineer of the commune, always crowded, somehow or other, into his small cart every time that professional duties sent him beating about the country.
As he drew closer, I signaled with my hand, and he pulled up his horse and came to a halt for that word of salutation and gossip which is indispensable when two acquaintances meet up among the mountains in the midst of woods and solitude.
“You have been finishing up the new road to Acquaviva!”
“No, I have just come from Pietrarsa, where they kept me two whole days, all on account of that confounded fountain!”
“Oh, to be sure! Are they never going to do anything about it?”
“Why, yes, it’s all settled at last: the measurements, the appropriations, the permit from the province, — everything is ready. I have staked out the foundations, and given orders to the contractor, and on Monday, unless the weather interferes, we shall begin work.”306
“Do you really think so, engineer? Do you really thing that fountain is ever going to be built?”
“Unquestionably! What hitch do you think can come up now, at the point we have reached?”
“It is evident, my dear engineer, — forgive me for saying so! — it is quite evident that you don’t even know the cut of the clothes of the good folk who inhabit these remote crags!”
“Hold on, hold on! You are too pessimistic!”
“Oh, all right! Today is the eighth of March. I will lay you a wager that one year from today not a single stone of that fountain will have been laid!”
“It is sheer robbery; but I’ll take you up.”
“What shall the stake be?”
“A fine briar-wood pipe.”
“All right; a briar pipe suite me.”
The eighth of March.”
“The eighth of March. That’s understood. But it’s like robbing you of a pipe!”
“That’s as it may be! The eighth of March.”
“A briar-wood pipe.”
We sealed the bargain with a laugh and a hand-clasp.
“Do you stay long up here?”
“No, perhaps a couple of days. I shall be home again by Thursday evening. By the way, engineer, you could do me quite a favor. If you see my brother tonight, will you be good enough to tell him that the receipt I hunted for so long this morning, he can surely find underneath the yellow book, in the little drawer on the right-hand side of the desk?”
“Your message shall be delivered promptly. Well, I’m off!”
“The eighth of March!”
“The eighth of March! Good-by and a safe journey to you!”
“Same to you, engineer. And don’t forget about the receipt!”
“And the briar-wood pipe!”307
He burst into a hearty laugh, and resumed his course, with brake close set, down the tortuous descent.
As the rattle of wheels and grinding of the brake died away in the distance, I became aware of the steady downpour of a distant cascade. It was the famous waterfall produced by a number of abundant springs that, coming from high up among the hills, and forcing their way beneath the surface of the ground until they had passed the town of Pietrarsa. all gathered together at one point a few meters below the roadway, disgorged themselves in one mighty jet, to fall sonorously into the torrent far below.
This waterfall was inaccessible; and the town suffered from thirst. The commune had lately been considering plans for tapping the springs higher up on the mountain and constructing a public fountain.
The proposition had been received with the sound of bells and of music, and the waving of banners throughout the day, and a grand display of torches and bonfires at night.
“There’s no doubt about it,” I told myself, “there is nothing left to do but set to work. All the same, my dear engineer, at the end of the year you will have to pay, and I shall be smoking your fine briar-wood pipe.”
The town of Pietrarsa, a little settlement of about four hundred inhabitants, extends throughout the whole length along the highway without a single cross street. Above it is the steep mountain-side, below it the ravine, into the depths of which the cascade dashes to joining the roaring stream below. The little town has three points which it is permissible to call central; at one end, the church; at the other, a small open square, containing the one hotel and post-office; midway between them, the small Palace of the Commune, a café, and the most important shops.
Naturally it was the middle of the town that was chosen as most convenient for everyone; and there an alcove in the wall alongside of the Palace of the Commune simplified the task and lent itself as a suitable setting for the assemblage of fearsome lions’ heads and atrocious decorations 308 which my friend of the pipe, the engineer, had chosen to offer them for a fountain.
After an hour’s walk I reached Pietrarsa almost at dusk and at once became aware that matters were going considerably worse than I had had reason to suppose. The house doors and windows, and all the shops near the center of the town were shut; a great gathering of people armed with the very stakes, laths, and poles which the engineer had laid out that morning after no one knows how much toil and repining, were howling beneath the mayor’s windows.
They were the inhabitants of the two extremities of the town, who had formed a temporary alliance and were protesting that hey did not wish to have the fountain erected in the center. The more violent of them, brandishing their stakes and poles on high, threatened blows, death, and destruction to anyone who ventured to lay so much as single stone in the alcove beside the Palace of the Commune. The women and the children were among the fiercest.
The mayor made three separate attempts from his window to win them over; but his voice was drowned beneath a hurricane of howls, until at last he promised to suspend all attempts to begin the work and to lay the matter before the prefecture.
The following morning, everything had returned to its wonted calm, everyone had resumed his accustomed task, with the exception of the contractor for the fountain, who roamed wildly up and down the town with a huge bruise over one eye in consequence of one of the stakes landing there; and he himself did not know whom he had to thank for it, when in the midst of the turmoil the night before he had tried to hold his ground.
After all, everything fairly considered, those who made the protest were not in the wrong. It was always the ruling class who got everything! The fountain was to be in the middle was it? Of course, because in the middle were the mayor, three assessors, and that big hog of a Sor Girolamo! Fine, wasn’t it they had had to take the street lamps from their places above and below him, and plant 309 them there, directly in front of his grocery! They had to pave the road right there and nowhere else if they were going to do the right thing! He wasn’t satisfied with wine, he wanted all the water besides! The fountain there, the telegraph office there, the apothecary there, even the courthouse they had insisted on having there, and the next thing they would bring a serpent there to eat out the hearts of everyone in town! Blows! Gun-shots! Poison! And we poor folk may go to the wall. And does the church count for nothing? And poor Gambacciani, who has to wash down the stage-coaches every day, and who has three teams of mules in his stalls, must he go way down there to get water? But the mayor is an honest gentleman and you will see that he will set everything all right! Just wait and see!”
This or something very much like it was the talk that went on in the café and the tobacco shop; but at the end of a couple of days everything was serene again, and when I started for home no one could have guessed that just hours earlier the town had been swept by that fierce little tempest.
Meanwhile the waters of the cascade, plunging impetuously downward into the profundity of the gorge, gurgled and rumbled so noisily as finally to reach the nerves even of Signor Girolamo’s daughter, who for two solid months, God forgive her, had been practicing ceaselessly upon the piano the waltz from Traviata for a concert for the benefit of the seamen’s hospitals.
When I was halfway on my homeward road, I met the engineer. He was on his way p to Pietrarsa, splitting his horse’s sides upon those break-neck hills. There was a lurking devil in his eye. I undertook to remind him of the eighth of March and the briar pipe; but he did not seem to appreciate the joke. He threw me a word of greeting, forced a laugh, and, excusing himself, pushed forward again up the hill.
The months slipped away. During that period I caught frequent brief glimpses of the engineer, who, whenever he 310 could do so with any sort of decency, dodged around a corner and evaded me as he might an over-persistent creditor.
Meanwhile, matters at Pietrarsa were going from bad to worse. The communal council voted, and the prefecture concurred, that the fountain should be built upon the post-office square, recognizing that that was the place best adapted to the convenience of the whole population. Thereupon, those from the center and those form the church repeated the accustomed scenes, and everything was in a turmoil again, and subsided only after a thorough beating had been administered to the contractor. This time he had to take to his bed, and left it a month later, to appear, swathed in bandages, before the judges.
I went out of curiosity to attend the first session of the court. There I found the engineer, who had been summoned as a witness. This time he could not turn a corner and evade me.
He acted like a man possessed: “Twenty changes of plans, those assassins! A hundred trips they made me take, the malefactors! And no one to pay me for extra expenses! they have ruined all my instruments, I had to sell my poor old horse, and it is a miracle that even I am alive! But today I get my revenge! Even if I have to lose my pay, my reputation, and my skin! Today I get my revenge!”
I tried to calm him, but it was of no use. Beating and thrashing his hat against his knees, he took leave of me to enter the room reserved for witnesses, calling back from the doorway:
“You shall have your pipe, but today I get my revenge on all these swine!”
How the case progressed I do not know because affairs of my own prevented me from keeping track of it: but I do know that three were found guilty and sentenced: Sor Girolamo to fifteen days in jail for reviling the public from his window; the contractor to four weeks for excess of zeal in self-defense, and the engineer to a fine of three hundred francs for infringement of the stamp law.311
“But why, by all that’s holy<‘ observed a strolling umbrella vender, chatting one evening in the café, “why do you not all get together and agree to build, instead of one single expensive fountain, three modest little fountains at the three separate central points of the town?”
That was really too much! To squander the public money in that fashion when one fountain would be enough! Besides, why should they dishonor Pietrarsa with three shabby little piles of stone, when they had the means to build one of marble with dolphins and lions and everything else? He was evidently not a native of that vicinity and they felt very sorry for him.
At that very moment the cascade, caught by a sudden gust of wind, sent forth a merry gurgle like a burst of laughter from a far-off multitude.
In such manner the second deliberation of the commune went up in the air; and after many, many months, there finally came a third. There came, that is to say, the right, and ture, and definite choice that was to conciliate the different interests of the whole town; it was a just decision, well weighed and set forth with admirable clearness of argument and elegance of form by Councilor Balestri; a decision which after scrupulously reciting the history of the case ended by singing the praise of public concord and the sacred religion of our fathers. It was decided to construct the fountain in front of the church.
Before this decision was returned to the commune with the signature of the prefecture, the inhabitants of the center and those of the post-office square had found themselves in agreement:
“If they lay a single brick in front of the church a massacre will follow!”
The decision was sent back stamped with approval; but not a soul bestirred himself about it. The mayor handed in his resignation in order to have the satisfaction of being reëlected, and the secretary made what haste he could to get all those papers tucked away into one pigeon-hole to sleep there indefinitely.312
Of the contractor nothing more has been heard. The engineer has had to think of his family, after paying the fine imposed upon him, and has had to subject himself to all sorts of privations in order to wipe out a debt of several hundred francs contracted for repairs and for the purchase of new instruments.
Two years have passed and nothing more had been said about the pipe. He has not breathed a word; and I have not the heart to remind him of it.
Meanwhile the town of Pietrarsa continues to suffer from thirst. But during he August evenings, when the leaves hang limp and motionless upon the branches and even the locusts are silent from exhaustion, it is a great comfort in that torrid heat to hear the rush of the cascade which, bounteous and perennial, vanishes noisily into the profundity of the gorge.