A Trumpet Call
WHEN the signora went to the house of comare Sarina, on the mountain road above Cosenza, to speak about a web of cloth that was to be woven in arabesques, she saw in the opposite dooryard a very stout and florid woman, who sat on the steps of her house with half a dozen children playing around her.
“ I see that vossignoria is looking at that great piece of a woman like a purple cabbage, — speaking with respect! ” observed comare Sarina. " When I see hat Rosa there, content as an Easter Day, there conies to me the wish to close the shutters of my window. Many years ago, when we were all girls together, I and the others had to work in order to eat. But Donna Rosina, — no, sirs ! Anything but work. For her father was Don Ciccu, the apothecary, and they kept her in cotton wool, so that at most she helped him make barley sugar, or would roll two pills in case of illness at the house of the baron.
“ And we others had to toil at home and in the fields, and to bring down the ice and the snow, in the summer, from the ravines up there toward the forest of La Sila. We would plait mats of willow withes, and lay sheepskins over, and heap the ice on these, and cover it with another skin and many green boughs, all bound down with other withes. This we carried on our heads, one getting help from another to place it there, on a folded cloth, — your excellency from the city cannot know these things ; and we went down the mountain path for miles, with the icy drops that trickled on one’s nose or down the back of the neck making one shiver, however heated.
When we came to the bit of tableland, we would set down our loads to rest, and one would sing the tarantella while others danced. Girls have quicksilver about them.
“Just here was where Donna Rosina came in, — she had herself called donna because of the leeches and the pills and the four words of Latin of her father, Don Ciccu. She could not work, — no, she was too delicate; but she could dance like a grasshopper! And compare Tonio, that kept the sheep of Don Zeno, the parish priest, as soon as he heard us sing would come around the great boulder that was there, and play on his pipe enough to call the birds from the bushes. And Donna Rosina all jumping for joy, and certain glances ! “Also her mother, Donna Santuzza, made Tonio so many compliments of tobacco and woolen stockings. A-ah! they knew how to bind him round with their coaxings, — they knew ! And the others of us girls were not so much uglier than Rosa. Even I, that they call Zi’ Melacotta, — I had not always the face of a baked apple, but was in my time red and white like another. But the fact was, they would absolutely have Tonio; and the girls might burst with spite, —they would have him. It was comare Barbara who was thought to have put an envy upon them, so that their chickens died and the young ducks could not swim upstream. Zia Petronilla, the white witch, said as much, and she spoke the verses and signed them with water and salt to take away the evil eye.
“ We should have eaten the wedding sugarplums that June, but there was made the draft for the army, and Tonio drew a bad number; and we all went to the piazzetta to see the brave boys go away with fife and drum, and the mammas and the sweethearts that wept with their faces in their aprons. Pompom ! — one felt upon the stomach the thumps of the bass drum, so that it made one melancholy, as the recruits went away down the road.
“ Soldiers must go here and there, according as the king wills ; they toil hard, with little leisure, and Tonio sent few letters. In our town they did not know how to write; then there were not the public schools, and it was enough for one to make his cross on stamped paper in order to take land on mezzadria. Now and then came a letter from Tonio to say that he was well, and wished as much to Rosa, to his family, and all friendly persons ; that he had begun to learn to read, attending the corporal’s lessons; and that, because he had so good lungs and a just ear, the bandmaster had taught him to be one of the trumpeters of his regiment.
” Of these letters Rosa read certain parts — her father had instructed her a little — to the girls at the fountain in the piazzetta ; other passages, not; and at these she became red as burning embers, for the scrivano had known so well how to say all the fine things that Tonio had in his heart.
“ But it did not last so. Perhaps Tonio was not content with her letters, for she had them written by her father ; and he, good soul, was not a poet, little or at all. And out of sight, out of mind,— men are that way. Rosina had no more letters for many weeks. And I, at the fountain, would say to her : —
“‘Patience, Rosina, he may be ill or even dead. And then, young men play tricks of all colors ; he may easily find himself tired of you; and in the great cities there are so many beautiful girls with silk gowns, finer than the Madonna del Carmine on a feast day. I counsel you, comare Rosa,’ — for I would not give her the ‘ donna,’the little toad,
‘ to give yourself peace about it, and look out for another lover.’
“ And one day she let fall her copper jar upon the stones, so that it took a great bruise, and she wept like the fountain itself. ‘ Savina,’ she said, ‘ what have I done to you that you tell me these things ? My Tonio is an honest lad.’
“ Eli, these girls that are kept in cotton wool! I or another, to have been left so by the lover, would have made a wry face, shed perhaps two big tears in secret, and then — good-evening to the music, and found a new lover. For we had to work, vossignoria, and the rattling of the loom is good company; and in the fields, the warm earth and the green stalks of the young grain, and the tomtits that wag their little tails between the furrows, and the locusts that sing keep us cheerful; and to go to bed at evening with bones broken from weariness, one sleeps soundly.
“ But she sat in the doorway of the drug shop, looking down the street as if to see far away. And only to speak a word to her she would cry or laugh like one possessed. The doctor did what he could, but, according to me, it was rather a case for the priest to drive out the demon ; or else an envy, a witchcraft. And certainly I believe that La Barbara, and I may say also Luciola and Sabedda and Sidora, would willingly have married compare Tonio if he had asked them. Bold and spiteful, those girls ! For me, I would not have looked at compare Tonio, not even if he had been made of gold!
“ Little by little Donna Rosina wasted like a lighted candle. She took off from her neck the heart of filigree silver that Tonio had brought her from the fair at Cosenza, when he went there to sell some sheep ; and she hung it, red ribbon and all, on the altar, beside the little silver leg of mastro Cola, the cripple, for whom there had been made the grace of a rheumatism that tormented him for thirty years, and the corals of comare Veronica, whose son came back from sea after four years that he was believed to be drowned, and so many other fine things to the praise of the blessed Madonna del Carmine, that, as every one knows, can make any ten other Madonnas run away with lifted legs.
“ But in vain Rosa made the act of faith of that silver heart. Tonio did not write nor come. Heaven preserve me from speaking ill of the saints, but sometimes, to trust all to them, one loses by it. As for me, if I had been in the clothes of Rosa and cared for Tonio, instead of consuming myself in that manner, I should have gone straight to the king himself and said, ‘ Do me the favor, majesty ; send home my lad, for I don’t see the wedding-day, so that it appears to me like a thousand years.”
“ However, each one according to his own character. Rosa turned everything upside down : one day she would break dishes, and another stay in bed ; and again it would be a great outburst of tears that reduced her like a washed rag ; and the next thing she would curse Tonio that an apoplexy might take him, and then tear her hair because she was losing her baptism by committing in her heart the mortal sin of murder. For Donna Rosina was one who gave herself the airs of a little saint fit to be put under a glass bell, with one hand in the other, that did neither good nor harm. Then a little fever ; or she would glow stiff as a stake and seem ready to suffocate, so that various times Don Zeno was called in all haste, in the heart of the night, and came accompanied by the sacristan with the aspersorium in one hand and the great lantern in the other, so that he was obliged to tinkle the little bell with only two fingers. And so, many times Rosa had the blessed oil under false pretenses. For die to-day and die to-morrow, she still lived and lamented, and would at all costs have her Tonio come back and marry her.
“And she grew whiter and thinner day by day, so that indeed she resembled a wax taper.
“The thing ended in this way : One morning, at the fountain, it was known that at last poor Rosa was really dead. All through the night she had screamed for Tonio, with curses and with blessings, according as the caprice came to her. By fortune, she had died with holy words in her mouth, so that it might be hoped that her soul was not lost. And we all were ready to give a hand to take her, if possible, the sooner out of purgatory; for indeed it would be less trouble to say the rosary now and then for her than to hear her always talking like a windmill about Tonio that had forsaken her.
“ Sometimes she had called him a traitor, a pig; this last was an injustice to the education he had from comare Nunzia, his mother, a Christian who kept her house clean ; so particular she was that the hens might eat from her dish only after she herself had eaten. At other times Rosina called Tonio her handsome soldier, her golden little orange, who knew how to blow the trumpet so that she seemed to hear it far a way in Turin, like the voice of his heart. Her talk was too honeyed ; and a little of such is a surfeit.
“At the house of Don Ciccu, then, there was great mourning. All the girls went there together ; we tore our hair, and beat on our breasts with our hands, and screamed until we lost breath. In a corner stood the table, with certain mercies of heaven upon it, — dried figs, and cakes made with honey and fine flour, and wine, and toasted beans, and some of the barley sugar from the drug shop. And Rosina was dressed as if for a holiday, with a dark green skirt of wool, and an apron of Cosenza stamped leather tied with red ribbons, and a red waist with ever so many gilt buttons, and a black jacket with gold embroidery and fringes, and on her head a yellow silk kerchief. She had heavy gold hoops in her ears, with little hanging balls that did not tinkle any longer, for she lay there white and motionless as a plaster image of a saint before they put a wash of color on it.
“ The father, Don Ciccu, stayed in the shop and pounded drugs, from force of habit and because he was confused by grief. It is true that Rosa was but a poor thing, with the heart of a hare, but she was his only daughter, and he loved her from his soul. The mother crouched in the corner near the hearth, and would eat nothing, not even a raisin ; but spoke now and then of her daughter that was like a carnation flower at her window, and a turtle-dove, and many other fine things. And then the other women and the girls would begin to shriek again, as was suitable. And Donna Rosina there in the middle of the room, on a bier held up by carpenter’s trestles, and candles lighted at her head and feet, — it did not seem real that the others should lament and she be silent. For while she lived she had been of the first force at screaming, for cause or not.
“ Then in the street the little bell was heard to ring, and there came in Don Zeno with the sacristan and the sacristan’s boy that carried the yellow silk umbrella over the head of the priest. Don Zeno raised his hands and began to mutter Latin that put us all in awe.
“ In the fine midst of this, tra-tiritra ! tra-tiri-tra! at the door, which was flung open without compliments, and Tonio enters, with the trumpet at his mouth ; for he was come home on leave of absence, without the shadow of an idea that he was incommoding a funeral.
“ But the one who spoiled that funeral was Rosin a herself. Puffete! She straightened up suddenly, made a leap from the bier, and stood on her feet, astounded.
“ ‘ It is the angel Gabriel! ’ she exclaimed. ‘ The last trump! I am in paradise ! ’
“ For she was firmly persuaded that she was dead. First, she had heard Tonio blow the trumpet, — a fine holy Gabriel, indeed, he was! Then she had caught sight of him, and began to comprehend that, according to her way of looking at the thing, it was better than an angel of paradise, for it was her Tonio in flesh and bones. They ran into each other’s arms.
“ Don Ciccu came in from the shop, all powdered with the rhubarb he was pounding, and embraced Tonio like a son. And the mamma, Donna Santuzza, arose and came out of her hole behind the oven, whimpering this time for joy, while the other women cried, ‘ Miracle, miracle ! ’
“ It appeared that Rosina was not at all dead, if one is to believe what the doctors say, who like to discredit sacred things. Don Ciccu explained it to be a crisis that took a good turn from the fear of that trumpet call. At all events, the girl was cured from that moment; there’s no denying it.
“ They made a great wedding ; people were invited to it even from neighboring towns. The young men serenaded the pair, and Rosa scattered sugarplums from the balcony, and we danced until midnight to the organette, in the piazzetta hung with paper lanterns, and rockets went up as if to give a slap to the face of the moon, and squibs were fired so that it appeared like a battle, all in honor of those two. Never has been seen in our town a festival like that. And all because of that turniphead of a compare Tonio, who would marry a girl that another would not have looked at twice, a puny thing that could do no more than make barley sugar and roll a couple of pills. So it is; in this world one sees certain injustices.
“ And look at Donna Rosa now, vossignoria ! From a reed of the river that she was she is become a great cabbage of the vegetable garden. And so many troubles of children under her feet! It is a confusion unspeakable in her house ; she has no judgment, so that it appears like a pigsty. And her hens always in the middle of the road; and the few rags that she washes hung from the balcony to flap in the face of people. And who knows how compare Tonio’s soup is made or his trousers patched ? He, poor fellow, carries her, so to say, in the palms of his hands ; it is really a pity to see how fond he is of that woman. Never scolds him, says he. Better if she did. Rubbish they are and will be, that family. And that is why I say that, to see her sit there idle, looking at the sky like a hen before the rain, I would like to clap together the shutters of my window and take her away from before my eyes. My man, on the contrary, can boast that he always finds a dish of hot broth before the embers when he comes home from work, and his clothes are mended to appear new. You can ask him if it is not true, vossignoria, and he will willingly tell you that he has a wife that lets him lack nothing. It not, I ‘ll make him hear reason with the broomstick ! ”
The signora took advantage of a moment of silence on the part of comare Sarina to explain her wishes in regard to the web of cloth characteristic of that part of the country, and then departed. “Alas!” she thought, while returning in the carriage that had brought her from Cosenza, “ even in these remote villages of Calabria, among these honest and simple peasants, are sometimes to be found envy and evil tongues.”