From Tales from the Italian and Spanish, Vol. III, Stories of Humor and Adventure, The Review of Reviews Co.; New York; 1920; pp. 55-59.55
IN the art of thieving three very accomplished geniuses in their way were Carlo Foschino, Girolamo Petrani, and Menico Cedola, belonging to the city of ——. And perhaps, as the scene of action did not lie in a church, and the spoils were but of inconsiderable value, Heaven permitted the rogues to make their escape, otherwise they would have been placed in an awkward predicament, and might have found the grapes they plucked uncommonly sour, and such as would effectually have disgusted them with the fingering art in future.
It happened to be a year of great scarcity, and more especially in the province of O——, insomuch that the villagers died of hunger, while the grain and vines of every kind looked as if they had been ridden over by troops of horse, affording such a prospect as nearly drove the farmers and their landlords distracted. A fine time indeed for those who had nothing to do but eat the fruits of others! So that the owners were compelled to keep watch day and night, though the harvest was hardly worth the pains. More for whim than want, Carlo Foschino agreed with his companions to make an attack on one of the vineyards, celebrated for the sweetness of its grapes, at Santo Martino di ——, which is situated at a short distance from the city, intending not only to eat as much as they liked, but to fill a good basket or two for future use. With this view each of them 56 took his pannier under his arm, and sallying forth about midnight, they arrived at the land of promise, into which they cautiously entered. When once fairly in possession, they proceeded to clear the ground before them in great style, whispering toone another at intervals:
“How good they are!”
“Yes, so sweet! what a flavor! quite exquisite! It is a real paradise for us hapless mortals.”
Thus feasting and applauding, they did great execution, sweeping everything before them in order to get at fresh bunches, until they were fairly weary and in danger of suffocation. Then drawing their well-sharpened knives, they began afresh the work of destruction, filling their panniers with all the expedition in their power. They were proceeding merrily through a fine plantation, having finished the better half of their task, but could not avoid making a rustling noise with the branches and scattering a few leaves; and the night being so still that a nest of ants at work would have been heard, this was enough to rouse the jealousy of three armed myrmidons on watch, who, like men-of-war, were scouring those coasts, to give all freebooters a warm reception with their great rusty blunderbusses and enormous slugs, in any shape but round. Hearing a noise of the crashing of branches, one of the watchmen discharged his piece in that direction, while a sudden rush was made, and a cry set up enough to shake the soul of a hero:
“Thieves! thieves! that way! leap the ditch! shoot, kill them! oh, that is good, by San Bellino!”
Yet Heaven willed that the shot should miss its aim; and the wily robbers, not forgetting their panniers, started off at the sounds of vengeance they heard, using their utmost efforts to escape along a narrow path. The night was dark, and they often stumbled over the stalks of the vine or of the Indian corn growing in the field, though without paying attention to the circumstance, the entangling and tearing and trampling of leaves giving them little chance of escape from their fierce pursuers, whose threatening cries sounded nearer and nearer, till they imagined they felt 57 themselves run through the body. In this extremity Petrani whispered in a soft voice as he continued running:
“My friends, let us throw our panniers away and have a chance for our lives!”
To this Cedola replied, hardly able to draw his breath, “You say well, let them go.”
“No, no,” cried Foschino; “take heart, brothers, and leave the matter to me!
So forthwith he began to bellow as loud as he could: “Mercy upon me! that last shot has pierced me through; I am dying, though I did not feel it before; my blood is spouting out like new wine from the barrel! — Confirm what I say, you blockheads, and make your escape.”
Then Cedola began to cry: “Mercy, mercy upon us! try to get a little farther; the wound is perhaps not mortal, and we will fetch you to a surgeon.”
“No,” replied the wily Foschino, in a dying voice, the better to keep up the cheat, “it is all over with me. Those cruel rascals have murdered a poor Christian for eating a bunch of grapes; yet, by the Holy Virgin, they will have to swing for it, that is some consolation!”
And thus saying, they proceeded with flying colors, their panniers heaped up with grapes. For the stupid watchmen, imagining all they heard to be true, began to consider the matter and take more time.
“Do you hear what he says?” cried one.
“That I do,” cried the second.
“And you, do you hear?” they added to the third, one of the oldest cutthroats in all Italy.
“Let them take it, by all the saints, it is very well; they will obey the seventh commandment in future. I will go nearer, for I dare say they must have left loads of grapes behind them, the wretches!” and they proceeded more cautiously in pursuit.
Foschino hearing footsteps stealing along, afraid of discovery, and at the same time of losing the grapes and receiving a good bastinado from the watchmen, resolved, as he felt himself quite wearied out, to go no further:58
“Leave me here to die, dear friends. I am only grieved that there is no priest at hand to confess me, but Heaven’s will be done! Fly, save yourselves! Remember me to my poor wife and children, and perform my last wish!” During this time the foolish watchmen were listening, as he continued to add: “Be witness that I leave my wife all I have, in trust for the benefit of our children after her, in equal portions; be kind to her and to them, and assist them to bring my body away tomorrow, that I may receive Christian burial, and persuade my friends to offer up a few alms and masses for my poor soul. I feel that I am going now, and do you go too!”
The rustics hearing these sad words, stopped, and now began to hold a colloquy upon this unlucky case; while Cedola and Petrani set up the most horrid lamentations, wringing their hands and sobbing as if their hearts would break:
“Nay, do not give way to despair. A plague upon the watchmen! they will hang for it; and upon the grapes; we may indeed call them sour. Well, we have the comfort to think that the watchmen will be hanged if you die; they were only to take us into custody, not to take our lives. There never was such a piece of barbarity, such a wilful murder, since the world began. See how he bleeds, poor fellow! he will not live long. Come, let them even kill us all, since they have killed our best friend, a gentleman who only joined us for a frolic, Let the wretches dip their hands in the blood of us all; but we are men of quality, and they shall smart for it.”
Upon hearing these words and cries so boldly uttered, the guards concluded it to be a serious affair, and being really afraid that they had killed the gentleman, began to think of running in their turn. But when they next heard him say, in a feeble and lamentable voice, “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum,” they could no longer control their fright, but took to their heels, just as they heard the others utter, “He is dead, he is gone forever; cold, cold, my friend!” and a fresh ululation was set up, 59 which added wings to the flight of the watchmen. This done, they departed at their leisure, the “dead” man leading the way with the panniers. When the watch ventured to stop, one of them said:
“Who shot him, think you? It was not I, I am sure.”
“Well, but,” said another, “you agreed that I should fire.”
“True, but you should have shot over his head and not through his body.”
“Well,” replied the man, “I thought I did shoot high up into the air. I wonder how it could have killed him.”
Thus, each speaking in his own defense, full of fear and trembling, they returned home, but were unable to sleep a wink that night; while the three knaves, having recovered from their terror, were enjoying themselves comfortably over their panniers of grapes. In the morning the thieves gave an account of their adventure, which threw their auditors into such fits of laughter that some have not ceased even to this day. As for the poor rustics, although they never found the corpse, or had any charge brought against them, they yet continued uneasy and suspicious, having the fear of the gallows perpetually before their eyes, and not having courage to make any inquiries into the affair, lest they should betray themselves, and raise suspicions that they had been guilty of so wicked a homicide.
* Elf.Ed. — Thomas Roscoe is not credited as the translator, but this story is included in his book, The Italian Novelists, also here on Elfinspell. In this series, the spelling is Americanized and there are minor changes in punctuation and format, mostly more paragraphs than in Roscoe’s translation. To see the original version go [here].