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First Home in Florence 23/01/2011

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c. 1910

We made our first home in Florence with our good friend Signora V. and her daughter. Our rooms were on the second piano, which meant three flights of uncompromising stone stairs, but once at the top our windows overlooked the piazza on one side, a pretty garden on the other, and gave us plenty of sunshine; moreover, we had a loggia, a very different matter from a balcony or gallery both in name and character, and from which we got charming views of the distant hills. Within was every creature comfort – not luxury, perhaps, but cleanliness, order, refinement, and an excellent table with two servants, merry-faced Dina and kindly Annunziatina, to serve and pet us, to identify our wants and interests as their most pleasurable duty, and teach us to say that Tuscan cookery and Tuscan servants, at their best, cannot be equaled the world over. The relation between the Italian family and servants is in many cases almost ideal: there is complete understanding and freedom of speech; the mistress talks and consults with the maid, and she, in turn, depends on her mistress as on a mother, and yet neither forgets her place or dignity.

As for food, where will one find such sweet, tender vegetables, such crisp salads, and macaroni served in a dozen different ways, each better than the other? For the first month every dish brought to the table was a mystery and delightful surprise. How could one have lived half a century and never known fritto misto, or the changes that may be rung on rice or corn meal? What a far different object the pomidoro is in Tuscany from the tomato of commerce in Boston! Then, who ever can measure the capacities of chestnuts? As for meats, if variety is limited, certainly the methods of cooking are legion, and one never seems cloyed with the Tuscan chicken; oil and cheese are delicious. For tea Italians care nothing, and their coffee leaves much to be desired; but who would drink either, or even the questionable water of Val d’Arno, when pure wine may be had for the asking? Tuscan wine certainly ‘needs no bush’, but there are so many degrees, even of the boasted Chianti, that only the wise may be sure of the best. At our signora’s we had the most delicious wine, both white and red, and, mark you, without extra charge. ‘

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Luigi and Italian Servants 16/01/2011

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c. 1910

Luigi is a cheery soul, and, having been apprenticed to a cobbler in early youth, follows naturally in his master’s steps, and does his work to the accompaniment of ‘Laudi’ and Ave Marias. He possesses all the virtues of Italian men-servants, who are generally far less high-and-mighty, more ready to adapt themselves to circumstances, and to help in emergencies than English; and there is little which Luigi cannot or will not do. He excels in domestic service, and waits at table with cheerful alacrity; he is prompt and entirely trustworthy in the execution of commissions; his management of a garden or of poultry is masterly, and he can ably supply, at need, the place of cook. I fear he thinks my list of acquaintances woefully limited, and fancies my life must have been a retired one, as, though several of his relations have been in service in English families, few of these have been known to me, even by name. In response to the question whether I know the ‘Signor Clar-r-rk-e who stays at London,’ or the ‘Signora Adam who has a house in Wales’, it grieves me to reply in the negative, and, seeing Luigi’s rising eyebrows, I hasten to explain that, England being a large place, there still remain a considerable number of people whom it has not been my privilege to meet’. ‘Well, did the Signorina know the Signor Georgio Augusto Sala, a gentleman much distinguished, to whom his cousin Torquato had been butler?’ Ah, at last fate was kind ! I had heard of him, though, being still in my nursery at the time of his death, I had been denied his acquaintance. Still, even so, it united us with the pleasant sensation of a ‘mutual friend’, and Luigi often seizes the occasion for exchanging a few words on the subject of this eminent man.

Luigi, with all his virtues, is by no means an exception, Italian servants being for the most part a cheery, bright-mannered race, as well the women as the men. The demure English maid, in her black dress, capped and aproned, is unknown in Italy except in those houses where foreign mistresses have introduced foreign customs. The Italian maid dresses in whatever colours please her taste – and her taste is usually gay. She wears an apron, but would scorn the innovation of a cap. She chats pleasantly with her mistress, is not blameless of hearty laughter as she waits at meals if the conversation happens to amuse her, and carols cheerily at her work about the house. But it is all done in sheer good spirits and lightness of heart, and the Italian possesses an innate courtesy which never degenerates into familiarity, and, talk as much as one will to a contadino or servant, there is little fear of being taken liberties with or treated with less respect. Adelina or Domenica will, as a matter of course, comment admiringly upon your clothes, and probably ask where you got them and other details, wishing thereby to show a friendly interest; in reply to your remark that the weather is beautiful, will come, not unlikely, the charming rejoinder, ‘Anche lei, Signorina’ (You, too, Signorina) – little amenities which are assuredly productive of good-temper and oil the wheels of life, and no servant, unless in a very ceremonious family, would think of passing through a room while a meal was in progress without a ‘buon appetito’ (good appetite), to the company, or see you leave the house without wishing you ‘good diversion’ or a ‘pleasant walk!’ The lower-class Italian, especially of peasant birth, is, in fact, a fascinating person, and although in these modern days his costume as a rule is painfully prosaic, his name is usually sonorous and high-sounding, more befitting a hero of romance than a domestic servant in a work-a-day world. A burly ox-driver will, for instance, answer to the charming title of ‘Angiolino’ (the little angel); the cook, a cunning old soul, who robs his mistress on the marketing, but serves dishes fit for the gods, will probably inform you that his name is ‘Innocente’, while it is most likely ‘Paradise’ or ‘Narciso’ who waits at table and cleans your boots.

Ciali 02/01/2011

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c. 1900

He was the first acquaintance I made in Tuscany. I was leaning over the steamer’s side looking down at the swarm of boats that surrounded her. I knew no word of the Tuscan tongue, and was dimly wondering how I should get myself and my luggage ashore, and to what extent I should be fleeced in the process, when a brown, clear eye from a boat below caught mine full. It belonged to a gaunt creature in blue serge suit and boating cap, with the face of a Mephistopheles and the bearing and manners of an Archangel. And from his mouth there issued (O dulcet sound!) English – as she is spoke, it is true – but English intelligible with an effort. ‘Inglis gen’lman?’ he queried with a polite grin. I nodded, distrustfully perhaps. ‘You come my boat, sair – ver good boat.’ I reflected a moment. The Mephistophelean face in repose I distrusted profoundly; animated, it seemed to glow with an extra dose of the milk of human kindness. For better or for worse I would go in his boat. ‘All right!’ I shouted down. ‘Au’ri! Au’ri!’, he shouted back with great contentment; and in two minutes more he was beside me on the deck possessing himself of my hand-bags and excitedly bawling directions about my big trunks.

We landed without misadventure; a cab of my guide’s approving sprung, as if by magic, from the quay-side. He openly prevented me giving a silver five-franc piece to the boatman, and made that angry, baffled worthy content himself with two. Then came the difficult question of tipping him. I fingered a variety of coins diffidently, and finally got ready the five-franc piece he had saved me. ‘What hotel you go to, gen’lman?’ I told him, and tried surreptitiously to pass the five-franc piece upon him. He pushed my arm politely away, gently forced me into the cab, and in a trice was on the box beside the driver. At the hotel he came up to my room, and patiently and gleefully unstrapped all my boxes. ‘No spend silver moneys here,’ he said confidentially; ‘sell silver moneys and spend paper moneys. Me show Mister t’morr’ mawnin’. Again I fumbled for the five-franc piece, but he was already at the door bowing me a stately ‘goo-bye, sair!’

I never managed to pass that particular tip; it was the first of a series of defeats which I sustained in attempts to reward loyal and valuable services. This happened six years ago. I know my friend very well now, and prize him highly. His name is Carlo Bianchi; he is keeper of a boarding-house for English seamen. His dominant trait – if we put aside great natural goodnature  –  is an absorbing, awe-stricken admiration for everything and everybody English. You can only pain him in one way  – if you call him either ‘Carlo’ or ‘Bianchi’. He calls himself ‘Charlie White’, and spells Charlie ‘Ciali’ on the card which announces that he has a ‘home’ offering every comfort to members of the Mercantile Marine. It is this passionate admiration of everything British that prompts him, when he has nothing better to do, to go off in a boat to the steamers in the hope of being able to assist some helpless English traveller.

He often meets with scant courtesy and withering scepticism at their hands, but remains undauntedly revering. We must indeed be a great and proud nation to have aroused all this admiration in the bosom of a Tuscan man of the world like ‘Ciali’, for as a rule he sees but degenerate specimens of the Britisher. The members of the English Mercantile Marine who come under his fatherly care are too often the worst of the class, men who have deserted from their ships, or lost their ships through drunken orgies, or who have been politely lodged in the tempered seclusion of a Tuscan gaol, or the still milder fastnesses of the strong room of the Town Hospital consequent upon a Bacchanalian night-brawl. If he encouraged their vices he would get more men into his house, and put more money in his pocket. But he routs them out of unsavoury places, reclaims the wages of which they have been fleeced, packs them into boats, and sends them off to their ships to save them from desertion; and all this because he reveres the mighty British nation even in its dregs. Nearly every morning ‘Ciali’ presents himself at my house with the respectful offer of his services. I have to invent commissions to save him from lapsing into despondency. I do not pay him. He borrows freely, but always pays back. He will accept an old suit of clothes gladly, and wears it with swagger and distinction.

I visit his fat ‘Signora’ at the boarding-house sometimes, and contrive to slip trifles into the children’s money-boxes. Filthy lucre I can only pass off on him by resorting to ruse. A firm of solicitors in England is paying for this, I say, or an English shipowner wants such and such a thing done; then all ‘Ciali’s’ scruples vanish. But I have to use this species of finesse sparingly, for he is wily and observant, well versed in every branch of honest deception, and a past-master in the gentle art of giving without seeming to give. Certainly his faith in human nature would receive a rude shock if he were ever to detect me in anything so perfidious as an attempt to reward devoted services which were meant to be given out of pure loyalty and affection. Poor ‘Ciali’! He managed to wind himself very closely about my heart-strings. Most keenly did I realise this one terrible night last December. I saw – a familiar enough sight – a company of the masked Misericordia Brothers running full tilt down the main street with their easy-springed hand ambulance cart, foot-passengers and traffic willingly making an avenue for them, as when a fire-engine tears along the London streets. The light of a fitful gas-lamp revealed the form of a prostrate human being in the cart, and then lit up with momentary horror the ghastly features of poor ‘Ciali’ contorted with the anguish of mortal pain. I saw, with a pang at my heart, a sign which showed me it was a very serious case.

These Misericordia Brothers, for all they are a religious confraternity, are a very practical set of people. One of the Brothers was running alongside, holding the dying man’s wrist, and keeping his fingers upon the flickering pulse; in his left hand he held a large stop-watch, so that if the sufferer died upon the road the police could be informed of the exact moment of death. I followed swiftly towards the hospital; but before many moments were over the pace of the runners slackened, for the poor pulse had ceased to beat for ever. It seems that two pot-valiant Welsh firemen had got into an altercation with a sober Tuscan seaman. A real or fancied insult to the girl on the man’s arm was the cause of it. The blood which gets into a Tuscan’s head upon the venom motions of mad jealousy is more deadly than any drink: out came the inevitable knife. But ‘Ciali’, the peacemaker, was near at hand. He rushed up – too late alas! – to quench the flames, for the insensate Tuscan no longer knew what he did, and poor ‘Ciali’ received, just above the heart, the terrible blade that was meant for a far unworthier breast. And so he died, a martyr to his love of Great Britain, and in heroic devotion to her offscourings. ‘Ciali’s’ funeral was a great affair. All the waterside population turned out. Many British seamen were present; most of them took a turn at carrying the coffin the five long miles to the Campo Santo. Best of all, an English captain who had known him for years, and like everybody else used him as ‘unpaid factotum’, brought a Red Ensign, and covered the coffin with it. Borne to his grave by British seamen and covered with the Union Jack! The tingling sensations of an honest, simple pride must surely have caused him to turn in his coffin. If the poor fellow could but have known of the honours that awaited him in death, how exultantly he would have marched into the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns. May his soul rest in peace!

The Duomo Completed! 23/12/2010

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1887

I write to you on the great festa day. The bells have just been ringing, all over the city, in token that the Duomo is unveiled; and the work begun six hundred years ago is finished. I am writing to you alone, here in my little room. Edwige has gone off for a first sight of her beloved church; she is entirely wild, and, after the many troubles of her life, behaves as if she were not more than sixteen. I had meant to stay at home until the excitement was over, having little heart for any sort of gaiety after all that I have lost the past winter; but she, after trying every sort of argument yesterday to induce me to go and look at the decorations in the Piazza, finally said in a grieved tone, ‘If the Signorina did not go to look at the Duomo, shewould not be a true Florentine’, which terrible threat finally sent me down there, though the streets swarming with people like a hive of bees. But it was a grand sight!

It seemed as if all the towns in the neighbourhood had emptied themselves into Florence, and everybody so proud and happy, it was a pleasure to see. Even the poorest tried to dress a little better than usual, just because they were Florentines, and this was their festa (and Edwige put on her new silk handkerchief, that she never wore before, ‘for love of the Duomo’). Banners on all the houses, gay draperies from windows and balconies; the palaces hung out their rich silks and brocades, and the poor always managed to find a bright coloured table-cloth, or something to look gay. I went into the church; it was hung with thousands of candles, prepared for today’s illumination. People were passing in and out, but there was no service going on. Many were on their knees, giving thanks, I suppose. But I will not lose time in writing what you will see in all the papers. There was much that was touching, and solemn, even a little sad. Especially so to me, the revival of the old times, never dead in Florence shown by many of the shopkeepers placing over their doors the banners once belonging to their particular arts. It brought more tears than smiles, to see the grand old banner of the wool trade hanging over a pile of blankets and coarse flannel, at a shop door in Borgo S. Lorenzo because it was not done in a masquerading spirit, but one knew the dealer in woollens wanted to believe, and make others believe, in his relationship to the great people of the old time. And other things were altogether gay, among the rest to see the visitors from the country (some of them in the most extraordinary dresses; I saw two young girls in dresses, evidently home-made, of the red Turkey cotton generally used for linings to quilts) enjoying their very light meals in the open air, at the doors of cafes and restaurants, decorated with plants in full blossom.

Bonciani borrowed all the best of the plants on the terrace, to make what he called a ‘prospettiva’ at the door of the hotel. A young girl yesterday in my room made the rather singular remark, ‘How hard it must be for people to die while the festas are going on!’ To which Edwige replied, ‘It does not make any difference; people have to die just the same. But there will never be such another festa for a hundred years. I suppose then there will be a centennial because now people have centennials for everything; but we shall not be here to see it.’ She sighed at the idea that we should not see the centennial of the Duomo, then her face suddenly brightened and she said, ‘But perhaps they have centennials in the other world. And perhaps we shall see it if we have a good place there.’

An American family at the Bagni di Lucca 10/12/2010

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c. 1930 (remembering a period some twenty years before)

Even from the days of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Bagni di Lucca had been the summer headquarters of English people living in Florence and Rome, many of them coming even from the latter city by diligence or in their own carriages. The medicinal waters and baths, an English church, a resident English physician, a small but well-selected English circulating library not to speak of the charm and beauty of the Tuscan mountains, with their good roads and picturesque scenery easily explained the attractiveness of the Bagni di Lucca for English-speaking people who resided in Italy. Relaxation along with work was the program in the Taylor home in vacation days. Everyone was to have some study or writing or serious reading during the morning hours, the afternoons being long enough for walks and drives out into the mountains and along the valley of the Lima. The eldest son had regular lessons in Italian, sharing the attractive Italian lady teacher with an even more attractive American girl about his own age. This trio read together so faithfully that Italian classic Promessi Sposi, by Manzoni, that his generous father, at the end of the summer, in token of George’s diligence and progress, presented to him a handsomely illustrated copy of the great novel he had learned to love…  

During the summer, and again other summers, Dr. Taylor took ‘sittings’ at the church of England, whose edifice, built in the days of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, was not allowed to have on the outside the appearance of a church, and so seemed to passers-by a large family residence. The morning and afternoon services on Sunday were attended regularly by the family. As for the circulating library (mainly English books), which was delightfully situated in the edge of a villa, it was the joy and blessing of the whole family through all their years at the Bagni di Lucca. The Casino was not much used by the Taylors, but the Sunday afternoon concerts in the village square they had to hear nolens volens, as their house was only a stone’s throw away. Since their landlady was a Catholic, and also their cook Ottavia, Mrs. Taylor did not like to leave the baby too long alone without any member of the family, for she had read a story about an English mother who years before had lived at the Bagni di Lucca. It was to this effect: she went away once to be gone all day, leaving the baby with the Catholic nurse. Returning for some reason sooner than she had planned, as she entered the room, she heard the servant say: ‘Another cursed Protestant out of the way’. She had poisoned the baby.

If anything, Bagni di Lucca was more delightful as the early autumn days came on than in the summer. Then the chestnuts began to open and fall. As the people used the chestnuts for flour, the trees were closely watched as the fruit came to maturity. Up the mountain-sides there were bridle-paths, not roads, and any chestnuts found on these paths might be picked up freely by anyone, but to step out of the path and pick up chestnuts was to trespass, and there were those on watch to prevent such infringement of the law. When the chestnuts have been gathered and dried, they are ground at the mill and the flour made into cakes and baked between heated stones, covered by leaves. More than once the family lingered at the Bagni in the fall, after Dr. Taylor had gone on to Rome. It was safer in Rome after the equinoctial fall rains. By that time it would get too cool without fires, and the Casa Morgana at the Bagni had no fireplaces nor stoves. Then Mrs. Taylor would gather her little ‘brood’ and, with Ottavia and her daughter Libera, cook and nurse respectively, hasten on to Rome. One year, upon their arrival at Pisa, it was learned that the rains had broken the line by Civita Vecchia, and that a detour by way of Florence would have to be made. But this route was much more expensive, and there was not enough money for the tickets! What was to be done? Fortunately, the Episcopal pastor at Pisa was the summer pastor at Bagni, and he kindly loaned Mrs. Taylor the necessary money.

Looking for a Cook 05/12/2010

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c. 1900

After a year’s residence in Tuscany, with growing love of the place and people, and a modest acquisition of the Tuscan tongue, I decided upon a bold step – I decided to abandon the artificial comfort of hotel existence and set up house. Many difficult questions presented themselves, but all seemed simplicity itself in comparison with the great servant question. How to find a serving-man, and an elderly housemaid, and a tolerable cook, who would not ill-treat a lonely foreign bachelor? I secured a grey-haired treasure of a housemaid – Concetta – (through no merits of my own, it is true), but cooks – they came pouring in upon me for three days, animated, loud-voiced, well-mannered women of all ages, dressed in their flaming best for the occasion, all endowed seemingly with every perfection, their one desire in life to serve me unto death. One and all got fearfully on my nerves, and nearly caused me to abandon my temerarious project. But on the morrow of the fourth day there  presented herself a small, neat, carefully-appareled woman, animated like the others, for she was a Tuscan, but quiet of voice, and with better manners and a more restrained bearing than most duchesses. Of a melancholy cast, too, which was rather an advantage, for the hilarious happiness of the Tuscan servant is a little detrimental to the tranquillity desirable in a student home.

Yet since the Tuscans regard melancholy as a species of rudeness, so her good manners seemed to have taught her to assume a gladness that she did not feel.

‘What is your name?’ I queried magisterially.

‘Elvirina Pezzi, signore.’

‘And your age?’

A pause. By a delicately-shaded change of manner she managed to convey that I had asked an indelicate and unmasculine question. Perhaps I betrayed a sign of irritation. ‘Thirty-one or two, signore,’ she answered hastily, ‘or perhaps thirty-three. I do not very well remember.’ (She was forty-two, I found out afterwards.)

‘Why did you leave your last place?’

‘Because my padroni go every year to their country house and take all the servants. I do not like leaving the town.’ ‘Are you married?’

‘No, signore.’

‘Have you any family or relations here?’

‘No, signore. At least none except a little nephew.’

‘A nephew?’

‘Si signore. The little son of my only sister, Elettra. My poor dear sister and Ezio, her husband, were carried off in the last epidemic of cholera, and there is none to care for the dear little angel but me. Ah! you should see him, signore. What a sweet angiolino it is?’

All her assumed cheerfulness vanished, a look of trouble and solicitude and great tenderness came into her eyes. I was moved myself, and admired such devotion to a sisters child. It jarred upon the situation, but I was obliged to ask: ‘What wages have you been in the habit of receiving?’

‘Forty francs a month, signore’.

‘I cannot give you more than thirty.’ She would have bargained with me but for the strong emotion under which she was labouring.

‘For the sake of serving so good a padrone, I will come for thirty,’ she said. ‘If I content him he will give more in time. It is hard to maintain my little nephew on thirty.’

‘What is the name of your late master? Will he let me call on him for your character?’

‘Eh! I should think so! The General Magliani. A most worthy gentleman, but that he would go into the country, and I do not like that. He lives at 39 Via Cavour. He will give the best of informations about me, for I have ever known how to content his palate. He is utterly displeased that I should go. ‘Elvirina,’ he would say to me many a time, ‘thy risotto and thy spaghetti a sugo di came…’’

‘Very good,’ I said, interrupting the flow, ‘come back to-morrow morning, and if I receive a good character I will engage you’. ‘Then I feel that the signore has already engaged me.’ She smiled an apology for the little familiarity, and retired with a polite curtsey.

In the afternoon I called upon the general. He was out, but his signora was in. I sent in word what my mission was. She would be delighted to see me; would I pass this way? I passed into a tiny, cheerless reception-room, overloaded with an immense quantity of florid, tasteless knick-knacks. A fat, rubicund, goodnatured-looking lady of forty-five or so – comfortable contrast to her garish surroundings – greeted me cordially, and motioned me to be seated.

‘I have taken the liberty of calling for the character of Elvirina Pezzi,’ I began.

‘You may engage her with your eyes shut,’ the good-natured lady replied decisively. ‘An excellent cook, and a sober, steady, hard-working, and very honest woman.’

There seemed really nothing else to say after this graphic summary of her perfections. Diffidently I added, ‘May I ask what wages you paid her?’

‘Twenty-five francs a month, with wine.’

‘Twenty-five!’ with a little surprise in my voice. ‘She told me she had been in the habit of receiving forty!’

 ‘Ha! ha! ha! the little witch!’ laughed the good-natured lady with great good-humour. ‘She received forty francs from an ignorant American gentleman ten years ago, and it was the joke of the whole market-place. Since then I don’t suppose she has ever received more than twentyfive!’ I didn’t like this trifling with truth.

‘But I’ve promised to give her thirty!’ I said plaintively.

‘Ah, well! they take advantage of you foreigners. It is a real shame. But she will serve you well. She is worth thirty francs. I would give her thirty francs myself if I could keep her.’ ‘She left you, I believe, because…’

‘Because she does not like coming to the country with us. She does not care to go away and leave that little rascal of a son of hers.’

‘Son!’ I leapt from my chair in agitation. ‘But it is a nephew!’ I cried, scarce knowing what I said in my trepidation.

The fat lady was convulsed with good-natured merriment. ‘You may call him a nephew if you like,’ she said, amid her chuckles, ‘but he’s her own son!’

‘But she said she wasn’t married!’ I cried, outspoken in my bewilderment. This fairly set the fat lady off in uncontrollable laughter. These Tuscan ladies are disconcertingly plain-spoken on such subjects.

‘Why, caro signore, marriage is not an indispensable preliminary to the birth of a son,’ she said. It required time for her to recover from her merriment.

‘But,’ I persisted, ‘it is her sister’s son – Elettra. She and her husband – Ezio, I think – died within twenty-four hours of one another in the last outbreak of cholera!’

This was too much for the fat lady, who began to irritate and annoy me by her want of restraint and reserve. She was holding her handkerchief before her mouth, and the tears were streaming down her cheeks. ‘She has no sister!’ she cried convulsively. And then with difficulty, ‘And Heaven be praised, we haven’t had the cholera here for thirty years!’

I thanked her stiffly. ‘Signora,’ I said, ‘I’m much obliged to you for your outspoken frankness. You have saved me the unpleasantness of taking a bad character into my house. I thank you. Good afternoon.’

She glanced at me with good-natured surprise. ‘Come, come, caro signore, you take too serious a view of the matter. It is nothing. It happens perpetually.’ (I winced at her terrible outspokenness.) ‘M Elvirina is none the worse cook in consequence. I tell you she is an excellent servant. She is an excellent mother, too, devoted to the boy. And she is quite steady, and has no lover now.’ (Again I winced.) ‘You will not repent having engaged her. Good afternoon, signore,’ she added a trifle stiffly as she glanced into my face, which, I suppose, was hard and conventionally set; ‘if I had known the effect of my frank avowal, I should have supported Elvirina’s statement and said it was a nephew.’ A shade of the good-natured twinkle returned into her eyes.

All this was very surprising, but I was mightily disgusted with Elvirina and her barefaced lies. I couldn’t help liking the woman, I saw she was a good servant; but I was fully resolved not to have her in my house at any price. Still, I did not at all relish the task of meeting her next day. I could not hope to attain Tuscan free-andeasiness of speech on the subject of ‘nephews’. It is a difficult subject for an untutored Saxon to handle delicately face to face with a woman. I resolved that I would not touch upon it but put her off with a diplomatic shuffle. But the situation was awkward and unpleasant; I worked myself into a state of nervous helplessness, and by the time she came was wholly without a plan of action.

‘The signore will have received good informations about me?’ she asked eagerly. Her question nonplussed me. To answer ‘No’ would have compromised the Signora Magliani, and would not have been quite true. I was therefore whirled into answering ‘Yes’.

‘Then the signore will engage me as he said?’ Her directness bereft me of all diplomatic suavity of language.

‘No,’ I answered curtly.

‘Then he has received bad informations about me?’

‘No.’ It was really too foolish this helplessness of mine. I must imitate her own directness. ‘You told me you had received forty francs a month,’ I said severely.

‘But not from the Signora Magliani. I have received forty francs a month though.’ (That was quite true.) ‘If it is a question of wages, I will come to so good a signore for twenty-five francs. It is little. I have to pay fifteen francs a month for my nephew’s board and lodging, and five francs for his schooling; that leaves me but five francs a month for myself.’

This further reference to the ‘nephew’ roused me to the full. ‘You say he is your nephew, but he is your son!’ I cried, with Anglo-Saxon brutality. The woman pursed her lips and controlled herself.

‘Did the Signora Magliani tell you that? It is no business of hers. It surprises me that so well-conducted a lady – she herself, too, a mother – could be so indelicate.’ (How delicious!) ‘It is true he is my son! And what then?’

‘But you said he was your nephew. I like truthful people!’ I answered sternly.

Elvirina looked a little perplexed. She seemed to regard me as a species of barbarian unaccustomed to the usages and phraseology of civilised society. ‘That is a form of expression among us,’ she said quietly. (And has been for centuries, I reflected, as I thought of the historical nepotism of her country.) ‘It is no lie. If the signore objects to such a trifle it is evident that I shall not content him. But I am a good cook, and work hard. What more can he wish from me?’

Tears stood full in her eyes as she curtsied to depart. Whatever her past levities might have been, it was evident that she was sobered now; work and the ‘nephew’ were the two concerns of her life. It would have needed a woman to reject her at that moment; I was only a helpless bachelor, launched upon the devious paths of housekeeping, and I engaged her there and then. My cook has proved a great success. She is unassuming, uncomplaining, very hard-working, and a bit of a cordon bleu. She cannot read or write, for all her splendour out of doors. Sometimes she tries to cheat herself out of a soldo in doing accounts; I don’t think she tries to cheat me. The ‘nephew’ I have never seen. He might not exist, and need never have been mentioned. But we refer to him without shamefacedness, and call him a ‘son’. I have sent him useless toys, and this Christmas that is coming I mean to raise Elvirina to the pitch of earthly happiness by telling her to have him to dinner in the kitchen.