The Cheerful Feast of San Michele

As I came into the portineria of our house in the Via Lorenzo Mascheroni, I found Isabella talking with the portinaio. I heard her tell him that the padrone of our new house in the neighboring Via Venti Settembre was a delightful gentleman, who was going to let us move into the larger apartment we had taken with him, a full month before the beginning of our term. Hence, we must transport to the new place at once.

“But it is impossible to make a sanmichele for the signora,” he answered, “ until San Michele comes, on the twenty-ninth of the month of September.”

“ Nothing is impossible! ” exclaimed Isabella, in her decisive way.

Davvero, of a truth! ” he responded grimly, — so grimly that, on the way up in the elevator a few minutes later, Isabella told me she thought I had tipped the man more liberally than his worth.

“But what is a san-michele ? ” I asked, partly to change the subject and partly to fortify my knowledge of the matter.

“ A san-michele,” said Isabella, “ is moving your things from one house to another. They call it that, because the official moving day is September twentyninth, which is the saint day of San Michele himself. After dinner you can take me over to see if the new house is in readiness. It was to be finished to-night by six o’clock.”

“ Also by luck, perhaps,” said I.

“ I should think,” retorted Isabella with severity, “ that you had learned something from the portinaio.”

“ Appreciation, possibly,” I replied. I do not think she liked it.

After dinner we went around into the Via Venti Settembre. The August evenings in Italy do not darken before nine o’clock, and there was plenty of light for us to find our way into the confusion of the littered court, and up the boarded staircase to our own floor. The workmen had gone, and left the rather greasy caretaker in charge of the place. I did not call Isabella’s attention to the fact that our front door was not yet hung. We entered our apartment. The floors had not been scraped. The walls had not been papered. The electric-lighting fixtures had not been put in. Only a little of the woodwork had been painted. None of the glass had been set into the window panes. The faucets were not in the bathroom. The kitchen was entirely glutted with the odds and ends of the rubbish which had been swept daily for several months from the other end of the house in that convenient direction. The diningroom door had not yet arrived, but in its place there was a rough board barrier, half-nailed and half-locked into place, through the wide crevices in which we were able to see that behind it had been stored everything and all the things which should have been in their proper places, but were not.

“The steam-radiators were in, though,” I remarked, as Isabella led me indignantly down the dusky staircase.

“ I noticed it,” she responded. I do not remember that we referred to the matter again.

During the following three weeks our time was fully occupied with avoiding the eyes of our portinaio and visiting the new apartment. Each evening after dinner we went there in hope, and returned in an anger which, as the month of August drew toward a close, took on the sombre aspect of despair. The window panes were put in, and some of the doors were hung. But the floors were not scraped, and when, on the twenty-eighth of September, we surveyed our prospective living, where a solitary paper-hanger was singing lonesomely to himself and making occasional dabs at the expectant walls, our gorge did rise. It rose in the person of Isabella, who is the custodian of our family gorge. I might even say she was its originator. Some of the workmen, with an hour and a half of good light yet left them, were hanging about the courtyard, sucking their last pipes dreamily.

“ Listen! ” said Isabella, going up to them like a muslin storm-cloud. “Tomorrow is San Michele.”

Davvero,” responded the head man calmly. He was a slender, clean-shaven Venetian, — a handsome fellow with an insolent smile beyond which nothing seemed able to pass.

“ Our appartamento is not yet ready,” continued Isabella.

Davvero ! ” he agreed.

“ How are you going to manage it? ” she demanded.

Chi sa, signora! ” said he, and gave a graceful jump of the shoulders. “ Who knows? I do not know.”

“ But you could paper three rooms before dark this evening,” she protested.

He took out his pipe, and bestowed on Isabella a slow and indulgent glance of superior toleration.

Che Americana ! ” he exclaimed, and chuckled gently.

Isabella drew one of her ominous deep breaths, — I believe she learned them from a correspondence course with a university in a city in the northern part of New York, — and let fly at the Venetian. Her Italian when aroused was what a certain congressman of our acquaintance would have described as torrential in volume and terrible in execution. She discoursed directly upon the target. She circled above her prey with a hawk-like choice of expletive, not to say explosive, and pounced down on him with a strong and poignant use of the subjunctive which made me writhe in pity and in admiration. She swore by Bacchus with the easy familiarity of an old and tried acquaintance. If she breathed between, I did not note it. There was no end to her vocabulary. When she ceased, it was as if by preference and not necessity.

Ecco ! ” That was her last word. The Venetian paper-hanger once more removed his pipe, and this time bowed quite politely.

“ Very well, signora,” he said. “ We will see to-morrow.”

“ No! ” fairly shouted Isabella. “ We will not see to-morrow. To-morrow morning will be San Michele. You must finish to-night.”

I saw he was tiring of her, but before he could so express himself she wheeled on me with her most fearful air of determination.

“ Go back to the house with me at once,” she said. We went. She offered no explanations and I asked none. When we arrived she sent the cook into the cantina in the basement and asked her to bring up all the bottled wine we had, excepting only champagne. When this had been done, — seven bottles of fine old Falernian, red and white, brought to me from Naples, — she ordered the cook out to buy several flasks of common red wine, and back we went again to the undone apartment in the Via Venti Settembre. With her arms full of bottles Isabella returned to the attack.

“Now then!” said Isabella, to the Venetian. He knocked the ashes from his pipe, and glanced critically at the sun, still well up.

“Hi, ragazzo! ” he called to a shambling boy who lay in a heap of sand across the court. “Go around to the farmacia and bring a corkscrew.” Then he turned to his men with a magnificent air. “Avanti, signori! ” he said. Five minutes later they were hanging paper like fiends, if fiends do that sort of thing. The rolls fairly faded from sight and flowed upon the walls. Down from the remaining unglazed windows there came to us, seated in the court, the clink of bottles and the aroma of my old Falernian. Candle-light flickered up and down.

“It is a wondrous rich wine, Isabella,” I said, a little ruefully. “ You remember it was the liquor best loved by Petronius.”

“ Yes,” answered Isabella. “ Petronius also was a diplomat! ”

At ten o’clock that night we tipped the caretaker who had kept the doors open for us, and went out into the street. The house was papered from end to end! It was with difficulty that we induced the Venetian head-man to leave us at our door. His remarks were eloquently fulsome.

“ Now to-morrow morning early,” remarked the triumphant queen of my heart and home, as we picked our way into an already dismantled chamber and prepared for the rest she had earned, “tomorrow morning early we will make our san-michele. The portinaio has promised to be ready for us at seven, with five good men to help him.”

At seven o’clock next morning the portinaio was not in evidence, nor were his five good men. His wife in the portineria had a vague and irritating air when questioned upon his whereabouts.

“It is San Michele, and he is very busy,” she said.

“ But he has to move our things into the Via Venti Settembre! ” cried Isabella.

“ But the other signora is a siqnora contessa,” explained the woman.

“ Ah, — then there is another signora! ” exclaimed Isabella.

Naturalmente ! ” declared the portinaio’s wife with clear philosophy. “ There always is.”

We began preparing our goods, to be ready for the men when they did come. At eight they had not appeared. At nine we agreed that they might be along at any moment. This expectation was still in force at eleven, at which hour, having sat uneasily on our various bundles and trunks and boxes and barrels in turn, Isabella began showing signs of a deep and absorbing indignation. I admit I shared it to some extent. I went out into the street with the idea of picking up the first half-dozen men I came across and impressing them into service for the remainder of the day.

“ You can tell them about your old Falernian,” suggested Isabella humorously as I departed.

I did tell them.

The streets in our quarter of the town were crowded with humanity in all sorts, and with attendant vehicles and animals of every shape and size. Handcarts went by with household goods piled as high as three or four times the length of the conveyance. Upright pianos were wedged in with mattresses, and kitchen stoves with sets of books. Sweating men and straining horses were tugging this mass through all the neighboring squares. Nearly everybody was yelling at everybody else. In two or three places insecure loads were toppling over toward the crash of destruction, saved only by the hoarse shouts of groups of men dancing around them in the way in which I suppose the more depraved of the cannibal tribes habitually caper about their frying victims. Imported roustabouts from the docks at Genoa, and mercenaries from Como and the Lakes, were chattering in their several dialects in a vain effort to make their curses intelligible to the abounding Milanese. At one corner I found a young fellow standing stock-still, and gazing down unhappily at the ruins of a large Japanese vase which had got the better of him. Farther on, a melancholy housemaid, with her muddy yellowish hair streaking her wooden Swiss face, was struggling with a great cage in which a profane parrot of gigantic proportions was making a determined effort to commit suicide. Here and there along the asphalt lay old shoes, scraps of newspapers, bits of cloth, revolver cartridges, leaves from books, sheet-music, old periodicals, receipted bills, kitchen litter, and countless other signs of the times. Along the stolid rows of stone apartment houses there was a general look of open windows and reckless unreserve. And I got no men to come and move our things. The two or three I asked to do so answered me with special violence. I returned to the Via Mascheroni.

On my way the city clocks struck noon. On the instant of the first stroke the mad procession streaming past me stopped. I suddenly found myself the only animate thing in the whole Magenta quarter. Men flung themselves into the nearest shady place and dropped into an amazing slumber. Even the horses on the carts hung their heads and lost themselves. Looking back from the last square before I reached our door, I could see the streets in all directions clogged with household gods, tilted at all angles and exposed with utter shame to the public view, with a narrow lane down the centre for the passage of the trams.

A certain terrible suspicion which came to me in that moment was confirmed in fact, as I turned into the broad entrance to our house. There, his five stalwarts prone about him like Roman soldiers on the tented field, lay our portinaio. A violent attack of sleep had come upon him. No one moved as I passed by, and I went on to report to Isabella.

“As to the portinaio,” I said, “an attack — ”

“I am aware of it! ” she interrupted. “ I have had an interview with him. He is to come to us at two o’clock.”

“I hope he will,” said I.

“He will!” declared Isabella, with conviction.

We ate a cold lunch, the gas-stove having been disconnected the night before.

I have never known what Isabella said to the portinaio. She seldom allows me to enter into these things. My reputation is that of an easy-going dreamer, with no disposition for encounter. No one respects me, because I make it a rule never to scold. Everybody likes Isabella, because she will tolerate no retort. People try to please her to avoid certain results. It is like what you do when you have to take a house next to an oil-tank or a powder factory. Without the slightest expectation of inheriting the earth, Isabella gets full value from the portion of the other heirs.

Toward half-past two our piano went downstairs like an ebony centipede. Staggering legs stuck out from all around it. Isabella gave a few explicit directions to the portinaio, and led me away to the new house to aid her in superintending the arrival of our furniture. We passed under our old windows just in time to see the men lowering the best wardrobe through one of them, with a piece of clothes-line. Isabella gasped but said nothing, and I did not raise any of the several obvious questions that occurred to me. I had in mind a situation that might arise if the lowering shades of night found us half moved out and half moved in!

At the new apartment the workmen, who had suddenly put in a most unexpected appearance and in surprising numbers, grumbled vigorously at us for interfering with their plans for a long day’s work. I have never seen men so eager for their chosen labor. The least interruption irritated them. Some of them I recognized, though with difficulty, as among those who previous to the eleventh hour had striven with the most leisurely regard for themselves and the clock. The men scraping the floors announced that they would stop immediately and leave the premises if we put a stick of furniture in their way. We compromised on two glasses of chianti for all hands, and putting the heavier pieces in the outer hall and along the stairs. Our methods of arbitration must have been communicated to others, for within the next hour I was called on to serve chianti, and meekly did serve it, to not less than fourteen workmen of various trades who came down from upper floors and tried to call our men out on some pretext, the exact terms of which I did not learn.

About five o’clock I heard excited words below, and found Isabella in earnest argument with a man.

“He is from the landlord,” she said. “ The landlord sends notice that we must not leave our furniture on the stairs. Is that in our lease ? ”

“ Probably,” I replied. “ Everything else is in it. Leave me alone with him for a moment. You might go up and see how things are going.”

I think I paid him fifteen francs. At all events, we had just concluded a peace, when a nervous little man, in whose aspect I thought I detected a distinct bristle, quite sprang through the entrance into the courtyard.

“ O signore,” he spluttered, “ I am Signor Raghetti, the new tenant in your old apartment in the Via Mascheroni, and since the rising of the sun this morning my family — my gentilissima famiglia — has been waiting for you to get out in order that we might get in. Why is this ? Perchè è questo ! Perchè, perchè, per-r-r-r-chè ! Why is this! ”

“ I do not know, signore,” I said. “I will have to ask my wife.”

Ma che ! ” he cried, in a sort of explosion. “ Why do you not ask me what I am going to do with my gentilissima famiglia this night! Is it that we are going to sleep in the streets? Or perhaps,” — what he really said was “ Forse ! ” with a remarkable emphasis of utter scorn, — “ perhaps you think that I am going to answer you that we can sleep in the Park. Perhaps in the Albergo Popolare! Ma no! Ma no! My gentilissima famiglia is not to sleep in the Nuovo Parco, neither in the Albergo Popolare. My gentilissima famiglia will throw your furniture out of the windows in another hour, and be rid of you. Ma che ! It is truly a porcheria !

Now in Italy you cannot with dignity take “ porcheria ” from any one less than a real nobleman, the number of whom is dying out. I do not know exactly what the word means; but its general direction is such that I immediately called Isabella and requested her to deal with our excitable successor of the Via Mascheroni. All that I saw from the rear window through which I watched the battle was that our bristling successor lowered his mane the instant Isabella’s gaze fell on him, that he bowed profoundly, protested effusively, smiled affably, pressed his heart eloquently, held his hat deferentially, and backed out of the courtyard like a débutante at a drawing-room. Going to the front of the house I saw him standing in the street to look back at our doorway, and rubbing his forehead in evident disturbance of mind.

Meantime our things were streaming in. By seven o’clock we were fairly well moved. Yet much remained, the men showed signs of quitting work, and neither Isabella nor I dared go over to investigate the state of things in our rear and run the risk of meeting the new tenant on his own ground and supported by his own wife. I promised the crew an extra tip and a glass of wine apiece, and got them to turn to in the early twilight for a final attack on what was left. Isabella and I sat in the new kitchen and listened while one load after another came laboriously up the darkening stairs.

“ We shan’t get settled to-night,” she said. “There are no electric lights ready yet, and we must go to the Hotel Cavour and do the rest of the work to-morrow.”

Still the work went on. The men heartened under the wine and the prospect of higher pay. Now and then there came a crash as something fragile was cast ruthlessly into a corner.

“ Never mind,” said Isabella wearily. “I have passed the line of spoken protest.”

At nine o’clock the procession was not yet at its end. More loads kept coming over from the Via Mascheroni, and were debarked and hauled and worried up the now shadowy staircase and into our apartment, the rooms of which seemed to have contracted since we made the lease.

“ It may be the light, or the lack of it,” I said to Isabella out of a lurking and perplexed uneasiness of spirit, “ but the house seems very much smaller now we have begun getting furniture into it. I don’t see where we can put it all.”

“Order will come out of it to-morrow,” she responded. “ I did n’t realize, though, that we had collected so many things.”

By half-past nine there was no light left. The portinaio groped his way out to us and asked for a candle.

“ Thanks be to Heaven, signora,” he said, as Isabella found the light for him, “ we are now totalmente finito excepting the second piano.”

“T-h-e WHAT! ” cried Isabella shrilly.

“ The second piano, signora,” he said, and added with an ingratiating smile, “ Perhaps the gentilissima signora would permit us to bring that over at a good hour to-morrow morning. The other piano is already in the drawing-room, supposing the signora and the signore should care for a little music this evening.”

Isabella stood straight up. She stood farther up than usual, holding the candle in her hands. For an instant she gave me a fearful look.

“ Come with me, please,” she said, “ and prepare yourself for the worst thing that has ever happened to you, — in all your life! ”

She led the way out of the kitchen and into the fore part of the house. It was difficult to follow her rapid course, and the candle held before her left no real light whatever. The portinaio and I made the best way we could. I felt that the rooms were crowded.

Presently Isabella, having traversed the entire house, halted in the antechamber.

“ I am afraid we made a mistake,” I said as I came up to her. “ The rooms seem filled to suffocation.”

“ Robert,” she replied, “ you are right about the mistake. And the rooms are filled to suffocation. One of the main reasons why they are filled to suffocation is that this unspeakable portinaio and his partners in crime have moved, not only all our furniture, but as much as they could find of the furniture of that other tenant! ”

“ Signor Raghetti ? ” I asked. “Signor Raghetti!” said Isabella. “ He must have put his furniture into the house before ours was gone, and this is the result of his enterprise.”

“ The result is full of possibilities,” I remarked. I could feel myself getting hot in a slow, irresistible wave from my heels to my head. “ When Signor Raghetti gets up in the morning from wherever he has gone to sleep, he will experience the surprise of his life.”

Portinaio,” said Isabella, very quietly, — almost tragically, — in the tone most frequently assumed by very great stage personages in the last act, “ you may go away. We do not need the second piano, and we do not need you. To-morrow we shall send you what we have to pay you and the gentlemen who have assisted you. You need not call for it. We shall be glad not to give you further trouble. Buona sera!

Buona sera, signora e signore,” he answered, clearly bewildered at the situation, at Isabella’s manner, and at the sense of some mysterious untoward thing which he had done. Isabella went speechless out to the kitchen, leaving me alone with him in the dark.

Scusi, signore,” he whispered, rather terrified, “ but the signora does not seem to be appassionata of my labor. I do not think she is fond of my work to-day. What is it has happened ? ”

“ Nothing,” I said weakly. I did not see how any one man could tell him in any one short sitting. “ Buona sera.”

He stumbled down the staircase, muttering thunderously to himself. From the front window out of which I leaned for air while waiting for Isabella, I heard him discoursing to his mates.

Il signore,” he declared, “he is much polite. He is sempre allegro. Whatever happens, it is always ‘niente’ with him, and a couple of lire in your hand at the door next morning. But the signora, — um-m-m! For me, I do not find her — sympathetic. ‘ What is it has happened ? ’ I have said to them, up there in their accursed appartamento. And the signora, she has looked at me with a look that was a terrible thing. But the signore, when I asked him, said, ‘ Niente,' like a true gentleman. I tell you it is the signore who is much polite in that house! ”

“Much!” said the crew, like a chorus.

I did not repeat this to Isabella. She put out her candle, and together we went down the black hole of the stairs and so on to the Hotel Cavour. At every corner I expected to meet the bristling aspect of Signor Raghetti, hunting us down with the troops at his back, or at least the civil guard.

We had supper at the hotel, and felt a little more cheerful. The morning seemed less like a thing to flee away from. I heard Isabella laughing nervously. She was sitting on the floor and struggling inertly with her shoes.

“ I was thinking,” she said, “ that it was only yesterday at about this time that I was giving you a most sage explanation of why they call a thing like this a sanmichele! ”

“ You might bestow a thought, just for remembrance, on Signor Raghetti,” I remarked. “ You know I shall have to meet him to-morrow.”

“ On the contrary,” replied Isabella smartly, “he has already been met. I had the hotel porter arrange to move back his goods for us early in the morning. We will go over and see him as soon as we are out of bed.”

We were out of bed early, and proceeded to Signor Raghetti when we had had our breakfast. We went straight to the house in the Via Mascheroni, determined to be noble about the business, and hoping that his sentiments, if he had any left, would rise in a reasonable degree of majesty to meet our own.

“ He probably took his family to a hotel as we did,” said Isabella. “ All the better people do that at this season, no doubt.”

There are few things so desolating as to walk up to a door that once opened to your touch, and find it barred by the hands of strangers. Even the semi-barbarous fiat-dweller has that much soul in him. We had had good times in that place. I rang, — not my usual loud and peculiar signal, but coldly and with great reserve.

“ Now, I will do the talking,” cautioned Isabella. “Leave him to me. You take these things too seriously.”

We entered. The entrance hall seemed furnished — even full. Beyond, in my old position at the head of the diningroom table, we found Signor Raghetti over his coffee, with the Corriere della Sera before him. Fragments of talk from the other parts of the house seemed to indicate that the gentilissima famiglia had not suffered great disaster at our hands. The apartment, or as much of it as we could see, was completely and handsomely fitted out. Signor Raghetti was what I should consider quite properly termed “ affability itself.”

“Why, what lovely furniture!” exclaimed Isabella, driven half out of her wits by the situation. “Is — is it yours ?”

Pardon, signora !” said he, with a distinct rising inflection.

Isabella began explaining. Signor Raghetti forgot his coffee. Even had he not forgotten it, he could not have drunk a drop. He laughed himself twice around the dining-room and in and out of three different chairs. He called in his gentilissima famiglia one after another, and made Isabella repeat the whole story for each of them. Suddenly he grew quite solemn.

“I know what you are going to ask me,” declared Isabella desperately.

“Yes, yes,” he said. “It will be molto interessante to know that. Who does own the furniture that was moved into your new appartamento by mistake last night ? Only this we know, — that we came in here while you were going out, and we saw many loads of other goods in the courtyard as evening arrived. It is possible — ” Signor Raghetti choked alarmingly.

“Anything is possible!” declared Isabella, in the tone of intense feminine disgust.

“ Davvero,” gasped Signor Raghetti. “ Anything is possible at San Michele.”

I led Isabella out. As the door closed us into the corridor which before we had trod as inquilini under lease, instead of visitors on sufferance, subject to the scrutiny of the portineria and the signs which tell you to leave your bicycle outside the iron gate, — as we went away from there we could hear Signor Raghetti roaring gleefully behind us. Silently we went around into the Via Venti Settembre, dodging belated cargoes of goods that still wheeled through the city. From the doorway of the house we heard the sound of a terrific argument going on above. The low-pitched growls of several porters formed the background for a shrill and soaring tenor, inquiring pointedly who had misdelivered his furniture. Isabella signaled me with her eyes, and I nodded assent to anything. She tiptoed into the portineria and left our keys with the custodian, whose mouth opened in awestruck explanations of the neighboring row, but closed down into an intelligent smile upon the swift production of a silver five-franc piece.

We went out into the street. For a moment Isabella listened shudderingly to the mighty clamor in our flat, then led the way on into the city.

“Robert,” she said, “September is the very nicest month on the Lake of Como. I think we might go up this afternoon and try a week at Cadenabbia.”

“ There is an express at half-past ten,” said I. “We can catch that if we hurry.”

“Then hurry! ” she responded, — and we caught the express.

That afternoon we had tea in the little garden of the Hotel Brittania, sitting underneath the shade of the rose trees, and looking out across the brownish purple of the lake to where the creamy houses of Bellagio shimmered in the strong fall sun. The wavelets lapped softly on the gray walls of the road before us, and from off the water there came the muffled, hollow ring of the boatmen’s oars, straining rhythmically in their locks. The city and its troubles seemed very far away.

“ There is only one thing,” said I. “ Whose was that furniture the portinaio moved in with ours? ”

Chi sa, who knows! ” said Isabella flippantly, while she pried the chocolate from the top of a pasty cake. “ Who knows but San Michele! ”