Asino Italiano

IF you have ever been in Rome and done as Romans do, you have visited Frascati in the spring. If you have done as only misguided Americans do, you have explored the hills of Frascati on donkey-back.

‘You must see the countryside on donkey-back, ‘ said the concierge, who spoke perfect English and was not to be set aside. He had his way with us, and one fine morning three donkeys were demurely waiting when we had finished our breakfast and wiped away the last vestige of our panicciuolo.

Fragella, being lithe and airy, mounted the sleek and slender black beast and went floating off like a piquant equestrian monkey. Mrs. Schose the solid brown one with no show of nonsense about him, and was boosted to her saddle by the perspiring muleteer after a panting moment or two.

I had been eying my beast with interest while the others mounted. There was an elusive something about him that suggested Deacon R— of the church back home. He was gray, and the mournful rings about his eyes and his bowed head gave me a feeling that he was going merely from a sense of duty. I was rather offended. I mounted, however, and the Deacon bore me along sedately enough, in the rear of the train, for a quarter of a mile or so.

I was too much enchanted by his harness to relish the countryside through which we were passing. He was equipped, after the graceful and informal manner of the Italian, in whatever of strength and flexibility had been left lying about in his stableyard by the inevitable law of change and decay. Given a corset lace, a scrap of chain, a bit of lead pipe, and a thong or two of leather, and lo! the ingenious Italian will produce a harness.

The Deacon was as oblivious of my feeble attempts at guidance as his counterpart is of the voice of the Devil. He clung, with what I could not but consider uncalled-for persistence, to the extreme left of the road, and refused to deviate one inch in spite of my passionate pullings.

I tried by the method of disregard to ease myself of the uncanny consciousness of a twenty-foot drop at one side of the road. I even found myself repeating, ‘Sure-footed-as a-mule — sure-footed-as a-mule,’ to the rhythm of the donkey’s gait.

Presently we approached a little incidental side-path slipping away from the main road. Then it was that the Deacon became himself and threw aside his mantle of piety. He threw up his head with a magnificent gesture of selfrespect and went leaping down, down, down, in quick syncopated time, with me clinging firmly to his ears, trying to maintain an air of balanced nonchalance. He stopped suddenly, sending me sliding up about his collar of garden hose, and, ducking his head without humility, began a placid grazing in the green, green grass of the Roman Campagna.

The muleteer came flying after and tried to recall my friend to a sense of duty, but he had done with pretense and went back to the road only because he had to, switching his tail with a terrible sincerity.

Then Mrs. S-’s donkey developed a touch of the play spirit. He began to amble, with an air of well-assumed indifference, toward a stout wall. Mrs. S-, though, was a woman of perspicacity and, not fancying herself wiped off like a barnacle against the wall side, she began an energetic pulling of the impromptu harness. It broke. Mrs. Sdismounted. So did I. At that instant both of our donkeys opened their mouths and sent up to the astonished heavens a sound like a croupy foghorn practising a duet with a sea lion. I broke out in a cold perspiration, but Mrs. S— turned upon the muleteer and, with an imperious gesture, said, ‘Take us home, sir. This is too much. Your beasts have insulted us!’

But the muleteer disconnected his English ear and threw his hands up and out to indicate a complete lack of comprehension.

‘Molto bene, signora, ‘ said he; ‘nice-a mule-a’ — and to prove it he mounted the Deacon himself.

But the latter had had enough of it and wished the episode closed, for no sooner was the muleteer securely mounted than he committed his final blasphemy. He let go of all fours and rolled over on his back. I flew to the nearest tree and got behind it, and peeping out cautiously to one side, — and you may believe me or not as you like, — I saw that donkey’s ears quietly change to horns!

The next morning the muleteer approached us pleasantly and, with a graceful gesture meant to call our attention to the beauties of spring on the Campagna, said: —

‘Will the ladies have donkeys today?’

‘Oh yes,’ said Mrs. S-. ‘Fried on toast, please!’