— It is said that one is most patriotic in a foreign land ; and to the inhabitant of the Abruzzi, for whom Florence lies in the same unknown and nebulous region as San Francisco, Rome is a remote country. Possibly for this reason, the Abruzzesi, who come down to the capital for work during the winter, herd together like a flock of sheep, and stand by one another through thick and thin, deeming the name “ compatriot ” a bond binding in every need. They cherish a profound contempt for the manners and morals of the Romans, and are perhaps themselves a sturdier stock. The women are superior to the men in ability, and often of a better physique. In fact, the wife is usually the managing partner, and often considers her husband as good for little but keeping sheep. Among them a woman who can knit is the exception, as most of the stockings are made by the men while tending their flocks. A father knits his daughter’s hose until she marries, and then they are undertaken by her spouse. In Rome, one of their rallying-points is by the fountain of the Pantheon square, which is used by them as a kind of intelligence office. All day they gather there, rain or sunshine, in groups of short, sunburned men wearing gold earrings and faded homespun, and women in full, coarse dresses reaching barely to the tops of their hobnailed shoes. The latter centre all their vanity in their hips, endeavoring by gathers, rolls of goods, and circular bolsters to make them as large as possible.
My first introduction to the world of compatriots was a few years ago, when we needed a servant, and, after several weeks of family martyrdom, were informed by the smiling youth who delivers the daily milk flask at our door that he knew of one.
“ Is she honest ? ” queried I, grown wary by one experience.
“ She is a pearl,” asserted my friend.
“ But do you know her ? ” persisted I dubiously.
“ Do I know her ? The devil ! I should say so. We are compatriots ! ”
Little knowing how thenceforth that word was to be interwoven with my daily life, I told him to send his woman, and he departed in high feather. She came, and, with courage born of desperation, I engaged her on the spot, and have never had reason to regret it.
Agnes is forty, tall, dark, and awkward, with the saddest of faces, which, however, breaks into most luminous smiles. No power could transform her into a stylish maid, — pride of hips and gaunt countenance forbid it; but when her olive skin is flushed with excitement, her dark eyes shine, and the friendly face lights up, some might prefer her to the proper, becapped English nonentity.
Our household is run on patriotism. Wine, formerly purchased at the shop before our door, is now bought of a compatriot a mile off ; a compatriot supplies us with eggs ; compatriots escort Agnes while she does the marketing ; and compatriots present my family with creamy sheep’smilk cheeses, which, eaten with powdered coffee and fine sugar, are considered a bonne bouche by them. When Agnes sprained her ankle and was laid up for three months, a venerable compatriot filled her place ; but she became so attached to the situation that it took influenza and all her patriotic loyalty to make her yield it up again. For this old woman petroleum lamps were what the heel was to Achilles; so that during her reign lights flickered or blazed, and stains on carpets and dresses still testify to drippings from ill-screwed lamps. This incumbent opened up another ramification of compatriots. Her daughter, married to a wandering packman, was her pride and delight, and, being red-headed and rather blonde of complexion, the mother considered her a refined, superior being, often exclaiming to my pretty sister Susy : “ Eh ! my daughter is really a signorina. She seems thee!”
Unlike Agnes, whom a long experience of Rome has civilized into the use of the respectful third person, she still clung to the thou for every one, as is customary in the mountains ; and it was comical to hear her address my dignified father, whose deliberate ways make him the awe of servants, with this familiar form. Susy was her guide and comforter in all culinary difficulties ; and no matter who was calling or dining at the house, Costanza would come to the door and beckon imperiously, saying, “ Thou come here and show me; ” but, on the other hand, she considered her the personage of the family, and the rest of us were contemptuously spoken of as “ those others.” Setting a table in our symmetrical fashion was to Costanza an intricate puzzle, and the drinking of raw milk and that decoction, tea, a mystery and a scandal.
The week before Christmas Agnes asks for an afternoon, and sallies out to purchase presents for the compatriots up at her village. These gifts are for the big supper on Christmas Eve (which corresponds to our dinner on the day itself), and consist of cheese, oil, lemons, cod, and a section of pan giallo, Rome’s equivalent for our plum pudding and mince pie. The Abruzzesi speak of Christmas as the ceppo, which recalls a kinship of custom with that of the Saxon Yule log ; for ceppo means “trunk” or “ block of a tree,” and in the Abruzzi, where the people stay up all night Christmas Eve, it is customary to save their most glorious log to have a jolly fire for the “ big supper ; ” and consequently ceppo has acquired the generic meaning of Christmas and Christmas gift. The priest, too, sends round his mountain parish to collect wood and brush ; and a colossal fire is lighted, so that the peasants, flocking through the frosty darkness over the snowy paths to the midnight mass, find a hospitable blaze awaiting them before the church.
All the other compatriots in Rome purchase presents, too, and they are sent home together by carriers, who travel the mountain ways at night to avoid the police. Scores of letters are entrusted to these men, who charge only a trifle, and cheat the government of the heavy postage. Agnes and her friends tell with glee of the narrow escapes they often have from the carbineers, and how the letters are frequently smuggled in the boots or trousers lining of the contraband postman.
Agnes, of course, can neither read nor write, and the neat account she brings me each morning proves to have been cast up “ at the caffè by a compatriot, — a brave youth, the nephew of our curate, who is studying medicine at the hospital here.” This same caffè, in our family, goes by the name of “ the Hôtel de Rambouillet ; ” for art, religion, and politics are nightly discussed by the Abruzzesi who gather within its hospitable doors. Naturally it is kept by a smiling compatriot, and our Agnes, who washes up the cups and saucers for her in the evening, reports the next day many a juicy comment on “those that command.” A heated discussion, lately, at the Hôtel de Rambouillet, as to whether, when it is day here, it is night somewhere else, was closed by Agnes with a decisive “ My signorina said so ! ”
Agnes loves her husband, but has an affectionate contempt for his powers of self-preservation, and takes care, on the 1st of May and such perilous days, to keep him out on the campagna weaving osier baskets. We had him for a time to do chores, and addressed him constantly as “ Battista,” rather dwelling on the name to make him feel at home. After about ten days of this he came to me, and said meekly, “ Signorina, Battista is not my name ; but if you like to call me so, please do it.”
“ Why, what is your name ? I thought that was it,”
“ Oh, it is no matter. My name is Domenico ; but it makes no difference, — no difference at all. Call me whatever you prefer. I just thought I would tell you.” Whereupon he retired quite sheepishly, leaving me to remember that Battista was the matchless spouse of a former servant.
There is nothing Agnes so much disapproves of as that either of us should go out to dine or lunch, leaving the other alone. The one at home generally has the meal quite spoilt by her restless patrol and ejaculations of “ He ! of course you can’t eat, alone like that. You can’t do without your sister. You seem to me a little lost sheep, —exactly a little lost sheep ! ”
Towards the end of May Agnes grows restless, and speaks of cleaning this or that for the last time this season ; and though we do not go to our several summer resorts until the middle of July, she keeps us in a perpetual ferment about leaving. The truth is, the Abruzzesi do not like to travel the lonely mountain roads without company, and to be in a party lessens the expense ; so Agnes wishes to join one of the companies of compatriots which, from early in the spring until the beginning of July, start every few days for home, writing on before to have “ beasts ” sent down to meet them at Terni or Antrodoco, to which places they are conveyed by the railway.
It was once my good fortune to have for traveling companions two compatriots, returning home after their first visit to Rome, two women in much-worn Abruzzese dress, who made the journey animated by half-delighted, half-awed interest in the motion of the train.
“ It takes diabolic art to make one travel so,” was the grave opening remark of the younger one. This being answered by a sympathizing smile, she continued : “ They say that he who invented it made a great fortune, and that he was from Africa. It took somebody from another world to do such a thing ! ”
Every start was greeted with childish screams of excitement, and the question, as they pointed to the stationary cars, “ Are they going, or are we going ? ”
It was easy to beguile them into telling of their visit, for they were full of gracious confidence and devoid of prying curiosity. The elder, whose face was really sweet and strong, had a daughter in service in a Roman family, and their husbands had sent them down for a pleasure trip to see the daughter and the wonderful city.
“ It is said, ‘ Naples for beauty, and Rome for holiness,’ ” ejaculated one, “ but how anything can be more beautiful than Rome I don’t know ! ”
They had been wondering how they should find their way about ; but one compatriot had met them at the station, and had taken them home to dine, and another compatriot’s little girl had been their constant guide during the three days of their stay. This wonderful child responded to all their admiring compliments to her power of finding her way about the great town, “ Eh ! I don’t lose myself, I don’t confound myself.”
Everything had been charming. The daughter’s mistress had presented the mother with four pauls ; the little maid herself was looking as “ fresh and beautiful as a sweet strawberry;” and they had a basket of rolls to carry to the little ones in the mountains.
“ How pleased they will be with little breads, they who have never seen any but big ones ! ”
Here they drew out their own lunch, a hunk of dry bread and a piece of oily hoecake, and offered us a share with the pretty, hospitable word “favorite.”
We were told the legend of Santa Filippa, and all about their own village, with its big convent, kindly nuns, and splendid waxen image of the Madonna borne in procession on feast days, which in their minds seemed to rival many Roman glories. Their talk was often interrupted by exclamations of delight in the boundless campagna. To these denizens of the heights its flatness was rare beauty, and they were constantly exclaiming : “ What beautiful plains ! How flat and lovely it is ! ”
By the time we took our leave at Cino Romano they were growing quite nervous as to how they should know their own station ; but a man in the next compartment of the third-class car, overhearing their distress, called out : “ Don’t take pain to yourselves. I am a compatriot of yours. I will tell you when to get off.” Whereupon they relapsed into beatific content.