From Tales from the Italian and Spanish, Vol. III, Stories of Humor and Adventure, The Review of Reviews Co.; New York; 1920; pp. 36-46.36
SIGNOR LASAGUI, whose sponsors in baptism had given him the noble name of Vitruvio, made no pretensions to being a rare genius. He had written neither verse nor prose; he had not invented machines, nor conceived any project for cutting a canal through any isthmus. And if America had not been discovered, he would never have played the part of Christopher Columbus.
It is true that in his young days they had tried to inoculate him with Latin and Greek, but Vitruvio, like every healthy boy, proved refractory. However, if Signor Lasagui was not a man of genius, he was a ventriloquist; so much of a ventriloquist as to make one think that what nature had denied to his brain she had lavished upon his interior economy. He owed his place as a government clerk, at one thousand eight hundred lire the year, to the amusement which he had afforded the wife of a potent superior.
So the young fellow had arranged his affairs; by means of his salary and the six lire which he earned every evening, playing the oboe, he dressed well and led a comfortable life, free from care.
But happiness is not of this vale of tears; and besides, thorns had sprung up in the roadway of Vitruvio’s life. I say thorns, by way of an expression; really there was only one, the young Baroness Alice Tordinflassen, and she resembled a rose, not a thorn.37
Vitruvio had met her at a ball at the Artists’ Club, of which he was a member. He had seen and loved her. He had danced with her almost the entire evening; for, be it said with due deference to the modesty of the young fellow, Alice had not remained unmoved by his sudden passion.
And Vitruvio was a handsome young man; a large aquiline nose, pink at the tip; small, deep eyes, blond hair and mustache, a martial countenance — in short, he had one of those heads which, if the possessor kept silent, might make him pass for an emperor in disguise.
The girl had told him, of course, that a cruel disenchantment had taken away her faith in love; that she no longer believed in life; and many other things which girls begin to say in their latter twenties.
From her confidence Vitruvio had learned that the young lady was born in Italy, of German parents; that it was an aunt who was her chaperon at the ball, her mother not coming on account of grief for the irreparable loss of an aged parrot.
Her kind reception of his attentions made Vitruvio grow bolder; he had, in fact, in this case of a charming and rich young lady, abandoned his long-time prejudices against matrimony.
The ball was near its end; already three o’clock had struck, and many people began to go away. Lasagui took courage, and while with Alice he waited for other couples to finish a long figure of a quadrille, he began in a tremulous and impassioned voice:
“Signorina, pardon me if I ask your permission to ——” The girl, who was not unprepared for something of the sort, managed to blush.
“According to what it may be ——” she replied.
“Oh, you know that I could not ask of you anything which you could not grant — I — I mean to say ——”
The impassioned player of the oboe lacked breath and ideas. Alice helped him:
“Tell me what it is.”
“Do you promise not to be disturbed?”38
Vitruvio cast a glance around; nobody was observing them.
“When and how could I address a long letter to you?”
“Second couple forward,” thundered the voice of the prompter of the ball.
Lasagui, between his teeth, sent a wish concerning that official which, had it been fulfilled, would have put an end to the quadrille. However, in a few moments the pair of turtledoves were again in their place.
“Do not be surprised at my frankness, signorina. What would you have! Such fortunate meetings are indeed rare. If I did not open my heart to you — you understand — perhaps never again — never ——”
Vitruvio spoke in warm and penetrating accents of love, but as ill luck would have it, a gentleman, one of a couple waltzing, just as Vitruvio repeated “never, never,” trod on his pet corn with such precision that the miserable lover hardly kept from howling.
Alice, who had perceived nothing, seeing Vitruvio turn pale, feared an access of desperation and wished to be kind.
“Be tranquil,” she said, in an undertone, looking in another direction. “Write to Signorina Anna Koizer, poste restante. She is my maid.”
Vitruvio, elated, forgot his bruised foot.
So the tender idyl began. But the old Signora Eulalia, the mother of Alice, on account of the loss of her parrot and for other reasons, had to be kept in the dark with regard to this exchange of affections.
Signora Eulalia, long and stout as a walrus, with a red, unctuous face, with two small green eyes buried in adipose tissue, provided with gold eyeglasses and an enormous tow wig, was a formidable type. Her husband, a provision-dealer of Hamburg, had made millions by a new process of salting herrings. Having retired from business, he had bought a baronial castle with the annexed landholdings, furniture, library, and title, and had set up himself and his family in princely style. The old merchant became Baron 39 Agilulfo, took to reading codes of chivalry, family history, precepts of heraldry, and wished everything around him to have the tone of nobility. Signora Eulalia, too, was infatuated with the grand ideas of her illustrious spouse; and when the poor old baron died, his desolate widow vowed beside his coffin that Alice should wed only his peer in rank.
Alice, however, who up to twenty-two years of age had been of the same opinion, changed it little by little; and every year she had become more democratic, to that point that she swore to herself and to her Vitruvio that only death should prevent her from being his wife.
But how to instill such ideas into the mind of Signora Eulalia, who had become still more intractable since the irreparable loss of the parrot? She was capable of packing her trunks to return to Germany and shut up the degenerate Alice in the ancestral castle. Therefore, there was need to play a clever game.
The girl had thought even of an elopement. “A cottage and thy heart,” she had written in an incendiary letter to Vitruvio; but he, who had lived in a cottage before he had the clerkship, was not of her opinion. And then there would have been needed a cottage near the Department of Finance, or how could he have attended to his business?
Almost two months had passed on this way, when Alice received from Vitruvio the following billet:
MY ADORED ALICE: — I think that I have found a sure way to accomplish our hopes. You must help me carefully, or nothing can be done. I shall come tomorrow morning to offer to your mother a wonderful parrot, with which she will be charmed. You and the maid must pretend not to know me at all, and advise her to take the parrot. You shall learn the rest. Many ardent kisses from your
The next morning at ten o’clock Vitruvio entered the parlor of Signora Eulalia, gracefully holding a large parrot in his hand.40
“I have heard, baroness, that you have had the misfortune to lose your fine parrot.”
“Oh yes,” she said, with a strong German accent, “my poor parrot, such a grief, poor Jaco ——”
“Console yourself, baroness, for this one which I propose to give you is certainly more accomplished.”
“What do you say? You did not know my Jaco? Impossible! For instance, when I went out, he would say, ‘Where are you going?’ Then he would say, ‘Good evening’ and ‘Good morning’ in German. And he even said ‘Amen.’”
Lasagui looked contemptuous:
“All that is nothing, baroness. This one begins in the morning to cry. ‘Get up; give me bread and milk!’ When I come into the house, ‘Welcome.’ He asks me, ‘Do you love me?’ He sings an air from La Traviata. But the most extraordinary thing is that this parrot makes the responses of the litany. Because, you see, I am a very religious man.”
“What, what! You amaze me. The parrot responds to the litany, Ora pro nobis?”
“Oh, I can’t believe it possible.”
“Would you like to hear something?”
“Make him talk, pray.”
“At once. Lolo, good-by, I’m going away,” and Lasagui made as if to depart.
And the parrot, “Give me a kiss.”
“Give me bread and milk, Lolo.”
“Good evening, Lolo, Lolo.”
The baroness stared at the bird.
“What, this parrot never opens his beak to talk?” she suddenly inquired.
“Of course not,” replied the young man. “Parrots that are badly trained make so many grimaces in speaking, but well-trained ones never open the beak; the voice comes from the throat.”41
“Would you like to hear the air from La Traviata? It is the moment in which the forsaken father, addressing his youngest son, exclaims, ‘Ah! thou knowest not,’ etc.”
“Oh, I remember the opera!”
“Then, attention, Lolo,” resumed Vitruvio, tapping the beak of the bird. “ ‘Ah, thou knowest not —’ Go on.”
“And the parrot: “Ah, thou knowest not the pain of thy father, old and gray, gray, gray,” it repeated, the last word with screams and croaks.
The woman marveled. The baroness was downright enthusiastic.
“Well, well; I will buy your parrot. Hw much do you ask for it?”
Lasagui had thought about this point beforehand:
“Eh, I hardly know just how much. Meanwhile, you will keep him, because I must come here often in order to accustom him to staying with you.”
“Very well, come when you like. I am willing to pay you two, three, four thousand francs for the parrot, you see.”
The young man had a air of indifference: “Ah, well! I don’t sell him from necessity. I have offered him to you because I hard how fond you are of these clever birds. And then, attached as I am to Lolo, and not being able to give him a good home (I’m a bachelor, you see), I thought how much better off he would be with you.”
“It was a very kind thought of yours, and I am much obliged to you.”
Lasagui went away, amid the screaming farewells of the parrot.
That evening Vitruvio gave as usual two taps at the little door of the garden. Annina, Alice’s maid, took him into the parlor on the ground floor, where the lovers often met when Signora Eulalia was sound asleep in her bedroom directly over the parlor.
Alice awaited anxiously her adored Vitruvio; and when he appeared, walking on tiptoe, she saluted him tenderly. 42 But after the first manifestations were over, Alice inquired:
“But do you know that your wonderful parrot has not spoken once since you went away?”
“But, my darling, that parrot does not speak.”
“What?” asked the girl, in amazement. “It doesn’t speak?”
“I do the talking for it.”
“Are you joking?”
“No, no, it really is so. I alter my voice so that it seems as if it were the parrot. However, that is no matter: the interesting thing is that our plan is a success, and the plan is this: The parrot will speak only in my presence; we will make your mother believe that the bird is so fond of me that if I am not here it does not talk. So your mother will become fond of me as well as of the parrot; and I, little by little, shall know how to capture her good-will, so that she will no longer oppose our happiness.”
“But if mamma perceives that really the parrot ——”
“She will not perceive, you will see. Then, after we have had her consent, some morning the parrot will be found dead, and that will be the end of the affair.”
“Let me hear the way that you talk for Lolo.”
“I should have to scream, and your mother might hear.”
“No, no, you needn’t scream very loud. Mamma is asleep, and when she is asleep it take a cannonade to awaken her.”
“Will no one hear?”
“No, no, everyone is asleep.”
Lasagui prided himself as much upon being an able ventriloquist as upon being a handsome young man; his vanity was tickled by the curiosity of Alice, who entreated him persistently. He consented, and the voice of the parrot resounded, shrilled as Lasagui meant that it should.
“Good morning, give me bread and milk, Lolo. Ah, thou knowest not the pain of thy father, old and gray, Lolo!”
Signora Eulalia, who was as yet only dozing and dreaming of the joy of the possession of such a parrot, on hearing 43 his voice, sprang out of bed, wild with happiness, and crying:
“Alice, Annina, come! The parrot has spoken, the parrot has spoken!”
At her cries Lasagui took to flight. Alice hastened to her mother, who was anxious to go to kiss the parrot.
The old lady, followed by Alice, took a light and went to the bird, who was tranquilly asleep:
“This is curious. The parrot is asleep. Very strange.”
And the old lady stared at the bird. “It must be a somnambulist parrot,” observed Alice.
The next morning Vitruvio Lasagui presented himself at the house of his Alice to assist at the recitation of the rosary, in which the parrot was to take a prominent part. The baroness received the young man courteously; they talked awhile; then the women knelt down and began to repeat the third part of the rosary.
Signora Eulalia hurried through the prayers until the litany was reached. Then she gave a glance at Vitruvio, who was on his knees in a corner near the parrot’s perch.
“Ora pro nobis,” ejected the ladies. “Lolo, go on,” said Vitruvio, striking the parrot. “Courage, Ora pro nobis.”
The ladies were astounded, and Vitruvio turned upon them a look of triumph.
But his next response was mal à propos: the air from La Traviata.
“Silence: that’s enough, hush!” cried the prompter of the unlucky bird. “It is not the moment for that; you must say, Ora pro nobis.”
And Lolo, to the edification of Signora Eulalia, kept to the text during the remainder of the litany.
So, with the excuse of training the parrot, Vitruvio appeared daily at the house of Alice, and very soon that pair of parrots — the real and the false — made a conquest of the affections of the old lady.
Moreover, the worthy Vitruvio neglected nothing which could insure the good-will of Signora Eulalia. He accompanied her and her daughter through all the museums and 44 galleries and antiquities of Rome. He visited with them all the ancient ruins, making them enjoy monuments, cascades, white wines and red, lunches, donkey rides — and he was always so lively and agreeable that the old lady came to love him like a son.
“A pity,” she exclaimed one day, “that you are not of the nobility.”
Vitruvio was prepared for this attack: “How, signora, you don’t know about my family. It originated in Castile. My paternal great-great-grandfather came to Italy with Frederic Barbarossa, took part in the first crusade, and before going there gave all his lands and his castles to the church. That is why my family was not wealthy.”
The old baroness had listened with visible complacency to the recital, but a cloud shadowed her wrinkled forehead.
“But you have no title.”
“A title is nothing; indeed, it is less than real nobility. Because a title can be purchased, but not nobility — that is in the blood.”
After this final attack Vitruvio had a complete triumph. He became a household institution; the old lady intrusted to him her business and her correspondence, and was well content with him.
But, although the fierce mamma appeared no longer formidable, still Alice, who knew the nature of the animal (be it said without offense to the respectable baroness), declared that they must wait a little longer; a hasty step might destroy the entire patient labor of ingenuity and of ventriloquism.
Chance exploded the bomb. One afternoon they were in the parlor, Vitruvio near Alice, who was playing the pianoforte. Signora Eulalia went away for a moment to take off some uncomfortably tight boots, and returned in noiseless toilet slippers.
Saints of Heaven! She found Lasagui and Alice with their arms around each other, their mouths united in a kiss!
Signora Eulalia remained as if paralyzed.
“Shameless, bold creatures! Such things ——”45
The young people fell on their knees. Alice was in a torrent of tears.
“Mamma, bless our love,” sobbed the girl.
“Yes, oh mother, bless us,” entreated Lasagui.
Signora Eulalia hesitated.
Suddenly was heard the voice of the parrot:
“Bless us, mamma, bless us. Lolo, bless us, mamma.”
“Be quiet, you bird,” scolded the baroness. But the voice of the parrot, who had dared to interfere in so delicate an affair, appeared to her like the voice of destiny.
“Rise, you rogues,” she said to the lovers. “I will not oppose your marriage. Only I wish, Vitruvio, that you had a title.”
“Give me the proud title of your son-in-law.”
“Son-in-law,” repeated the parrot.”
“Oh, come to my heart, my children!”
The marriage soon took place; and for a wedding tour the happy pair went to Germany so that Vitruvio might see the ancestral castle.
Signora Eulalia remained in Rome with the parrot, which had become taciturn and melancholy, despite the kisses and the dainties given to it by its mistress.
After two months a telegram from Vitruvio announced the return of the pair.
Signora Eulalia had their rooms elegantly prepared. In the parlor the parrot stood silent on his perch.
The bridal couple arrived. Signora Eulalia went in a carriage to the station to meet them. In the joy of seeing each other again, nobody asked after the parrot. As they entered the pretty little parlor, all at once was heard the hoarse voice of the parrot:
But the greeting of the faithful bird was followed by a cry of wonder from Signora Eulalia, who turned pale as if about to faint.
“The parrot — spoke!” she stammered, falling into an armchair.46
“Well, why not?” asked Lasagui, looking at the motionless bird.
“It couldn’t speak!”
“Because,” she responded, “while you were away, the parrot died and I had him stuffed!”