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2019 год

George Meredith
Vittoria – Volume 6


Anna von Lenkenstein was one who could wait for vengeance. Lena punished on the spot, and punished herself most. She broke off her engagement with Wilfrid, while at the same time she caused a secret message to be conveyed to him, telling him that the prolongation of his residence in Meran would restore him to his position in the army.

Wilfrid remained at Meran till the last days of December.

It was winter in Milan, turning to the new year—the year of flames for continental Europe. A young man with a military stride, but out of uniform, had stepped from a travelling carriage and entered a cigar-shop. Upon calling for cigars, he was surprised to observe the woman who was serving there keep her arms under her apron. She cast a look into the street, where a crowd of boys and one or two lean men had gathered about the door. After some delay, she entreated her customer to let her pluck his cloak halfway over the counter; at the same time she thrust a cigar- box under that concealment, together with a printed song in the Milanese dialect. He lifted the paper to read it, and found it tough as Russ. She translated some of the more salient couplets. Tobacco had become a dead business, she said, now that the popular edict had gone forth against 'smoking gold into the pockets of the Tedeschi.' None smoked except officers and Englishmen.

"I am an Englishman," he said.

"And not an officer?" she asked; but he gave no answer. "Englishmen are rare in winter, and don't like being mobbed," said the woman.

Nodding to her urgent petition, he deferred the lighting of his cigar. The vetturino requested him to jump up quickly, and a howl of "No smoking in Milan—fuori!—down with tobacco-smokers!" beset the carriage. He tossed half-a-dozen cigars on the pavement derisively. They were scrambled for, as when a pack of wolves are diverted by a garment dropped from the flying sledge, but the unluckier hands came after his heels in fuller howl. He noticed the singular appearance of the streets. Bands of the scum of the population hung at various points: from time to time a shout was raised at a distance, "Abasso il zigarro! "and "Away with the cigar!" went an organized file-firing of cries along the open place. Several gentlemen were mobbed, and compelled to fling the cigars from their teeth. He saw the polizta in twos and threes taking counsel and shrugging, evidently too anxious to avoid a collision. Austrian soldiers and subalterns alone smoked freely; they puffed the harder when the yells and hootings and whistlings thickened at their heels. Sometimes they walked on at their own pace; or, when the noise swelled to a crisis, turned and stood fast, making an exhibition of curling smoke, as a mute form of contempt. Then commenced hustlings and a tremendous uproar; sabres were drawn, the whitecoats planted themselves back to back. Milan was clearly in a condition of raging disease. The soldiery not only accepted the challenge of the mob, but assumed the offensive. Here and there they were seen crossing the street to puff obnoxiously in the faces of people. Numerous subalterns were abroad, lively for strife, and bright with the signal of their readiness. An icy wind blew down from the Alps, whitening the housetops and the ways, but every street, torso, and piazza was dense with loungers, as on a summer evening; the clamour of a skirmish anywhere attracted streams of disciplined rioters on all sides; it was the holiday of rascals.

Our traveller had ordered his vetturino to drive slowly to his hotel, that he might take the features of this novel scene. He soon showed his view of the case by putting an unlighted cigar in his mouth. The vetturino noted that his conveyance acted as a kindling-match to awaken cries in quiet quarters, looked round, and grinned savagely at the sight of the cigar.

"Drop it, or I drop you," he said; and hearing the command to drive on, pulled up short.

They were in a narrow way leading to the Piazza de' Mercanti. While the altercation was going on between them, a great push of men emerged from one of the close courts some dozen paces ahead of the horse, bearing forth a single young officer in their midst.

"Signore, would you like to be the froth of a boiling of that sort?" The vetturino seized the image at once to strike home his instance of the danger of outraging the will of the people.

Our traveller immediately unlocked a case that lay on the seat in front of him, and drew out a steel scabbard, from which he plucked the sword, and straightway leaped to the ground. The officer's cigar had been dashed from his mouth: he stood at bay, sword in hand, meeting a rush with a desperate stroke. The assistance of a second sword got him clear of the fray. Both hastened forward as the crush melted with the hiss of a withdrawing wave. They interchanged exclamations: "Is it you, Jenna!"

"In the devil's name, Pierson, have you come to keep your appointment in mid-winter?"

"Come on: I'll stick beside you."

"On, then!"

They glanced behind them, heeding little the tail of ruffians whom they had silenced.

"We shall have plenty of fighting soon, so we'll smoke a cordial cigar together," said Lieutenant Jenna, and at once struck a light and blazed defiance to Milan afresh—an example that was necessarily followed by his comrade. "What has happened to you, Pierson? Of course, I knew you were ready for our bit of play—though you'll hear what I said of you. How the deuce could you think of running off with that opera girl, and getting a fellow in the mountains to stab our merry old Weisspriess, just because you fancied he was going to slip a word or so over the back of his hand in Countess Lena's ear? No wonder she's shy of you now."

"So, that's the tale afloat," said Wilfrid. "Come to my hotel and dine with me. I suppose that cur has driven my luggage there."

Jenna informed him that officers had to muster in barracks every evening.

"Come and see your old comrades; they'll like you better in bad luck— there's the comfort of it: hang the human nature! She's a good old brute, if you don't drive her hard. Our regiment left Verona in November. There we had tolerable cookery; come and take the best we can give you."

But this invitation Wilfrid had to decline.

"Why?" said Jenna.

He replied: "I've stuck at Meran three months. I did it, in obedience to what I understood from Colonel Zofel to be the General's orders. When I was as perfectly dry as a baked Egyptian, I determined to believe that I was not only in disgrace, but dismissed the service. I posted to Botzen and Riva, on to Milan; and here I am. The least I can do is to show myself here."

"Very well, then, come and show yourself at our table," said Jenna. "Listen: we'll make a furious row after supper, and get hauled in by the collar before the General. You can swear you have never been absent from duty: swear the General never gave you forcible furlough. I'll swear it; all our fellows will swear it. The General will say, 'Oh! a very big lie's equal to a truth; big brother to a fact, or something; as he always does, you know. Face it out. We can't spare a good stout sword in these times. On with me, my Pierson."

"I would," said Wilfrid, doubtfully.

A douse of water from a window extinguished their cigars.

Lieutenant Jenna wiped his face deliberately, and lighting another cigar, remarked—"This is the fifth poor devil who has come to an untimely end within an hour. It is brisk work. Now, I'll swear I'll smoke this one out."

The cigar was scattered in sparks from his lips by a hat skilfully flung. He picked it up miry and cleaned it, observing that his honour was pledged to this fellow. The hat he trampled into a muddy lump. Wilfrid found it impossible to ape his coolness. He swung about for an adversary. Jenna pulled him on.

"A salute from a window," he said. "We can't storm the houses. The time'll come for it—and then, you cats!"

Wilfrid inquired how long this state of things had been going on. Jenna replied that they appeared to be in the middle of it;—nearly a week. Another week, and their, day would arrive; and then!

"Have you heard anything of a Count Ammiani here?" said Wilfrid.

"Oh! he's one of the lot, I believe. We have him fast, as we'll have the bundle of them. Keep eye on those dogs behind us, and manoeuvre your cigar. The plan is, to give half-a-dozen bright puffs, and then keep it in your fist; and when you see an Italian head, volcano him like fury. Yes, I've heard of that Ammiani. The scoundrels, made an attempt to get him out of prison—I fancy he's in the city prison—last Friday night. I don't know exactly where he is; but it's pretty fair reckoning to say that he'll enjoy a large slice of the next year in the charming solitude of Spielberg, if Milan is restless. Is he a friend of yours?"

"Not by any means," said Wilfrid.

"Mio prigione!" Jenna mouthed with ineffable contemptuousness; "he'll have time to write his memoirs, as, one of the dogs did. I remember my mother crying over, the book. I read it? Not I! I never read books. My father said—the stout old colonel—'Prison seems to make these Italians take an interest in themselves.' 'Oh!' says my mother, 'why can't they be at peace with us?' 'That's exactly the question,' says my father, 'we're always putting to them.' And so I say. Why can't they let us smoke our cigars in peace?"

Jenna finished by assaulting a herd of faces with smoke.

"Pig of a German!" was shouted; and "Porco, porco," was sung in a scale of voices. Jenna received a blinding slap across the eyes. He staggered back; Wilfrid slashed his sword in defence of him. He struck a man down. "Blood! blood!" cried the gathering mob, and gave space, but hedged the couple thickly. Windows were thrown up; forth came a rain of household projectiles. The cry of "Blood! blood!" was repeated by numbers pouring on them from the issues to right and left. It is a terrible cry in a city. In a city of the South it rouses the wild beast in men to madness. Jenna smoked triumphantly and blew great clouds, with an eye aloft for the stools, basins, chairs, and water descending. They were in the middle of one of the close streets of old Milan. The man felled by Wilfrid was raised on strong arms, that his bleeding head might be seen of all, and a dreadful hum went round. A fire of missiles, stones, balls of wax, lumps of dirt, sticks of broken chairs, began to play. Wilfrid had a sudden gleam of the face of his Verona assailant. He and Jenna called "Follow me," in one breath, and drove forward with sword-points, which they dashed at the foremost; by dint of swift semicirclings of the edges they got through, but a mighty voice of command thundered; the rearward portion of the mob swung rapidly to the front, presenting a scattered second barrier; Jenna tripped on a fallen body, lost his cigar, and swore that he must find it. A dagger struck his sword-arm. He staggered and flourished his blade in the air, calling "On!" without stirring. "This infernal cigar!" he said; and to the mob, "What mongrel of you took my cigar?" Stones thumped on his breast; the barrier-line ahead grew denser. "I'll go at them first; you're bleeding," said Wilfrid. They were refreshed by the sound of German cheering, as in approach. Jenna uplifted a crow of the regimental hurrah of the charge; it was answered; on they went and got through the second fence, saw their comrades, and were running to meet them, when a weighted ball hit Wilfrid on the back of the head. He fell, as he believed, on a cushion of down, and saw thousands of saints dancing with lamps along cathedral aisles.

The next time he opened his eyes he fancied he had dropped into the vaults of the cathedral. His sensation of sinking was so vivid that he feared lest he should be going still further below. There was a lamp in the chamber, and a young man sat reading by the light of the lamp. Vision danced fantastically on Wilfrid's brain. He saw that he rocked as in a ship, yet there was no noise of the sea; nothing save the remote thunder haunting empty ears at strain for sound. He looked again; the young man was gone, the lamp was flickering. Then he became conscious of a strong ray on his eyelids; he beheld his enemy gazing down on him and swooned. It was with joy, that when his wits returned, he found himself looking on the young man by the lamp.

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