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Asabri by Gouverneur Morris

 

Asabri, head of the great banking house of Asabri Brothers in Rome, had been a great sportsman in his youth. But by middle-age he had grown a little tired, you may say; so that whereas formerly he had depended upon his own exertions for pleasure and exhilaration, he looked now with favor upon automobiles, motor-boats, and saddle-horses.

Almost every afternoon he rode alone in the Campagna, covering great distances on his stanch Irish mare, Biddy. She was the handsomest horse in Rome; her master was the handsomest man. He looked like some old Roman consul going out to govern and civilize. Peasants whom he passed touched their hats to him automatically. His face in repose was a sort of command.

One day as he rode out of Rome he saw that fog was gathering; and he resolved, for there was an inexhaustible well of boyishness within him, to get lost in it. He had no engagement for that night; his family had already left Rome for their villa on Lake Como. Nobody would worry about him except Luigi, his valet. And as for this one, Asabri said to himself: “He is a spoiled child of fortune; let him worry for once.”

He did not believe in fever; he believed in a good digestion and good habits. He knew every inch of the Campagna, or thought he did; and he knew that under the magic of fog the most familiar parts of it became unfamiliar and strange. He had lost himself upon it once or twice before, to his great pleasure and exhilaration. He had felt like some daring explorer in an unknown country. He thought that perhaps he might be forced to spend the night in some peasant's home smelling of cheese and goats. He would reward his hosts in the morning beyond the dreams of their undoubted avarice. There would be a beautiful daughter with a golden voice: he would see to it that she became a famous singer. He would give the father a piece of fertile land with an ample house upon it. Every day the happy family would go down on their knees and pray for his soul. He knew of nothing more delicious than to surprise unexpecting and deserving people with stable benefactions. And besides, if only for the sake of his boyhood, he loved dearly the smell of cheese and goats.

A goat had been his foster-mother; it was to her that he attributed his splendid constitution and activity, which had filled in the spaces between his financial successes with pleasure. As he trotted on into the fog he tried to recall having knowingly done harm to somebody or other; and because he could not, his face of a Roman emperor took on a great look of peace.

“Biddy,” he said after a time, in English (she was an Irish horse, and English was the nearest he could get to her native language), “this is no common Roman mist; it's a genuine fog that has been sucked up Tiber from the salt sea. You can smell salt and fish. We shall be lost, possibly for a long time. There will be no hot mash for you to-night. You will eat what goats eat and be very grateful. Perhaps you will meet some rural donkey during our adventures, and I must ask you to use the poor little beast's rustic ignorance with the greatest tact and forbearance. You will tell her tales of cities and travels; but do not lie to excess, or appear condescending, lest you find her rude wits a match for your own and are ashamed.”

Asabri did not spend the night in a peasant's hut. Biddy did not meet any country donkey to swap yarns with. But inasmuch as the pair lost themselves thoroughly, it must be admitted that some of the banker's wishes came true.

He had not counted on two things. At dinner-time he was hungry; at supper-time he was ravenous. And he no longer thought of losing himself on purpose, but made all the efforts in his power to get back to Rome.

“Good Heavens,” he muttered, “we ought to have stumbled on something by this time.”

Biddy might have answered: “I've done some stumbling, thank you, and thanks to you.” But she didn't. Instead, she lifted her head and ears, looked to the left, snorted, and shied. She shied very carefully, however, because she did not know what she might shy into; and Asabri laughed.

There was a glimmering point of light off to the left, and he urged Biddy toward it. He saw presently that it was a fire built against a ruined and unfamiliar tomb.

The fire was cooking something in a kettle. There was a smell of garlic. Three young men sat cross-legged, watching the fire and the kettle. Against the tomb leaned three long guns, very old and dangerous.

“Brigands!” smiled Asabri, and he hailed them:

“Ho there! Wake up! I am a squadron of police attacking you from the rear.”

He rode unarmed into their midst and slid unconcernedly from his saddle to the ground.

“Put up your weapons, brothers,” he said; “I was joking. It seems that I am in danger, not you.”

The young men, upon whom “brigand” was written in no uncertain signs, were very much embarrassed. One of them smiled nervously and showed a great many very white teeth.

“Lucky for us,” he said, “that you weren't what you said you were.”

“Yes,” said Asabri; “I should have potted the lot of you with one volley and reported at head-quarters that it had been necessary, owing to the stubborn resistance which you offered.”

The three young men smiled sheepishly.

“I see that you are familiar with the ways of the police,” said one of them.

“May I sit with you?” Asabri asked. “Thanks.”

He sat in silence for a moment; and the three young men examined with great respect the man's splendid round head, and his face of a Roman emperor.

“Whose tomb is this?” he asked them.

“It is ours,” said the one who had first smiled. “It used to hallow the remains of Attulius Cimber.”

“Oho!” said Asabri. “Attulius Cimber, a direct ancestor of my friend and associate Sullandenti. And tell me how far is it to Rome?”

“A long way. You could not find the half of it to-night.”

“Brothers,” said Asabri, “has business been good? I ask for a reason.”

“The reason, sir?”

“Why,” said he, “I thought, if I should not be considered grasping, to ask you for a mouthful of soup.”

Confusion seized the brigands. They protested that they were ungrateful dogs to keep the noble guest upon the tenterhooks of hunger. They called upon God to smite them down for inhospitable ne'er-do-weels. They plied him with soup, with black bread; they roasted strips of goat's flesh for him; and from the hollow of the tomb they fetched bottles of red wine in straw jackets.

Presently Asabri sighed, and offered them cigarettes from a gold case.

“For what I have received,” said he, “may a courteous and thoughtful God make me truly thankful.... I wish that I could offer you, in return for your hospitality, something more substantial than cigarettes. The case? If it were any case but that one! A present from my wife.”

He drew from its pocket a gold repeater upon which his initials were traced in brilliants.

“Midnight. Listen!”

He pressed a spring, and the exquisite chimes of the watch spoke in the stillness like the bells of a fairy church.

“And this,” he said, “was a present from my mother, who is dead.”

The three brigands crossed themselves, and expressed the regrets which good-breeding required of them. The one that had been the last to help himself to a cigarette now returned the case to Asabri, with a bow and a mumbling of thanks.

“What a jolly life you lead,” exclaimed the banker. “Tell me, you have had some good hauls lately? What?”

The oldest of the three, a dark, taciturn youth, answered, “The gentleman is a great joker.”

“Believe me,” said Asabri, “it is from habit—not from the heart. When I rode out from Rome to-day, it was with the intention never to return. When I came upon you and saw your long guns and suspected your profession in life, I said: 'Good! Perhaps these young men will murder me for my watch and cigarette case and the loose silver in my breeches pocket, and save me a world of trouble——'”

The three brigands protested that nothing had ever been farther from their thoughts.

“Instead of which,” he went on, “you have fed me and put heart in me. I shall return to Rome in the morning and face whatever music my own infatuated foolishness has set going. Do you understand anything of finance?”

The taciturn brigand grinned sheepishly.

He said that he had had one once; but that the priest had touched it with a holy relic and it had gone away. “It was on the back of my neck,” he said.

Asabri laughed.

“I should have said banking,” said he, “stocks and bonds.”

The brigands admitted that they knew nothing of these things. Asabri sighed.

“Two months ago,” he said, “I was a rich man. To-day I have nothing. In a few days it will be known that I have nothing; and then, my friends—the deluge. Such is finance. From great beginnings, lame endings. And yet the converse may be true. I have seen great endings come of small beginnings. Even now there is a chance for a man with a little capital....”

He raised his eyes and hands to heaven.

“Oh,” he cried, “if I could touch even five thousand lire I could retrieve my own fortunes and make the fortunes of whomsoever advanced me the money.”

The sullen brigand had been doing a sum on his fingers.

“How so, excellency?” he asked.

“Oh,” said Asabri, “it is very simple! I should buy certain stocks, which owing to certain conditions are very cheap, and I should sell them very dear. You have heard of America?”

They smiled and nodded eagerly.

“Of Wall Street?”

They looked blank.

“Doubtless,” said the banker, “you have been taught by your priests to believe that the great church of St. Peter, in Rome, is the actual centre of the universe. Is it not so?”

They assented, not without wonder, since the fact was well known.

“Recent geographers,” said Asabri, “unwilling to take any statement for granted, have, after prolonged and scientific investigation, discovered that this idea is hocus pocus. The centre of the universe is in the United States, in the city of New York, in Wall Street. The number in the street, to be precise, is fifty-nine. From fifty-nine Wall Street, the word goes out to the extremities of the world: 'Let prices be low.' Or: 'Let them be high.' And so they become, according to the word. But unless I can find five thousand lire with which to take advantage of this fact, why to-morrow——”

“To-morrow?” asked the brigand who had been first to smile.

“Two months ago,” said Asabri, “I was perhaps the most envied man in Italy. To-morrow I shall be laughed at.” He shrugged his powerful shoulders.

“But if five thousand lire could be found?”

It was the sullen brigand who spoke, and his companions eyed him with some misgiving.

“In that case,” said Asabri, “I should rehabilitate my fortune and that of the man, or men, who came to my assistance.”

“Suppose,” said the sullen one, “that I were in a position to offer you the loan of five thousand lire, or four thousand eight hundred and ninety-two, to be exact, what surety should I receive that my fortunes and those of my associates would be mended thereby?”

“My word,” said Asabri simply, and he turned his face of a Roman emperor and looked the sullen brigand directly in the eye.

“Words,” said this one, although his eyes fell before the steadiness of the banker's, “are of all kinds and conditions, according to whoso gives them.”

Asabri smiled, and sure of his notoriety: “I am Asabri,” said he.

They examined him anew with a great awe. The youngest said:

“And you have fallen upon evil days! I should have been less astonished if some one were to tell me that the late pope had received employment in hell.”

“Beppo,” said the sullen brigand, “whatever the state of his fortunes, the word of Asabri is sufficient. Go into the tomb of Attulius and fetch out the money.”

The money—silver, copper, and notes of small denominations—was in a dirty leather bag.

“Will you count it, sir?”

With the palms of his hands Asabri answered that he would not. Inwardly, it was as if he had been made of smiles; but he showed them a stern countenance when he said:

“One thing! Before I touch this money, is there blood on it?”

“High hands only,” said the sullen brigand; but the youngest protested.

“Indeed, yes,” he said, “there is blood upon it. Look, see, and behold!”

He bared a breast on which the skin was fine and satiny like a woman's, and they saw in the firelight the cicatrice of a newly healed wound.

“A few drops of mine,” he said proudly. “May they bring the money luck.”

“One thing more,” said Asabri; “I have said that I will mend your fortunes. What sum apiece would make you comfortable for the rest of your days and teach you to see the evil in your present manner of life?”

“If the money were to be doubled,” said the sullen brigand, “then each of us could have what he most desires.”

“And what is that?” asked the banker.

“For me,” said the sullen brigand, “there is a certain piece of land upon which are grapes, figs, and olives.”

The second brigand said: “I am a waterman by birth and by longing. If I could purchase a certain barge upon which I have long had an eye, I should do well and honestly in the world, and happily.”

“And you? What do you want?” Asabri smiled paternally in the face of the youngest brigand.

This one showed his beautiful teeth a moment, and drew the rags together over his scarred breast.

“I am nineteen years of age,” he said, and his eyes glistened. “There is a girl, sir, in my village. Her eyes are like velvet; her skin is smooth as custard. She is very beautiful. If I could go to her father with a certain sum of money, he would not ask where I had gotten it—that is why I have robbed on the highway. He would merely stretch forth his hands and roll his fat eyes heavenward, and say: 'Bless you, my children.'”

“But the girl,” said Asabri.

“It is wonderful,” said the youngest brigand, “how she loves me. And when I told her that I was going upon the road to earn the moneys necessary for our happiness, she said that she would climb down from her window at night and come with me. But,” he concluded unctuously, “I pointed out to her that from sin springs nothing but unhappiness.”

“We formed a fellowship, we three,” said the second brigand, “and swore an oath: to take from the world so much as would make us happy, and no more.”

“My friends,” said Asabri, “there are worse brigands than yourselves living in palaces.”

The fog had lifted, and it was beginning to grow light. Asabri gathered up the heavy bag of money and prepared to depart.

“How long,” said the sullen brigand, “with all respect, before your own fortunes will be mended, sir, and ours?”

“You are quite sure you know nothing of stocks?”

“Nothing, excellency.”

“Then listen. They shall be mended to-day. To-morrow come to my bank——”

“Oh, sir, we dare not show our faces in Rome.”

“Very well, then; to-morrow at ten sharp I shall leave Rome in a motor-car. Watch for me along the Appian Way.”

He shook them by their brown, grimy hands, mounted the impatient Biddy, and was gone—blissfully smiling.

Upon reaching Rome he rode to his palace and assured Luigi the valet that all was well. Then he bathed, changed, breakfasted, napped, and drove to the hospital of Our Lady in Emergencies. He saw the superior and gave her the leather bag containing the brigands' savings.

“For my sins,” he said. “I have told lies half the night.”

Then he drove to his great banking house and sent for the cashier.

“Make me up,” said he, “three portable parcels of fifty thousand lire each.”

The next day at ten he left Rome in a black and beauteous motor-car, and drove slowly along the Appian Way. He had left his mechanic behind, and was prepared to renew his tires and his youth. Packed away, he had luncheon and champagne enough for four; and he had not forgotten to bring along the three parcels of money.

The three brigands stepped into the Appian Way from behind a mass of fallen masonry. They had found the means to shave cleanly, and perhaps to wash. They were adorned with what were evidently their very best clothes. The youngest, whose ambition was the girl he loved, even wore a necktie.

Asabri brought the motor to a swift, oily, and polished halt.

“Well met,” he said, “since all is well. If you,” he smiled into the face of the sullen brigand, “will be so good as to sit beside me!... The others shall sit in behind.... We shall go first,” he continued, when all were comfortably seated, “to have a look at that little piece of land on which grow figs, olives, and grapes. We shall buy it, and break our fast in the shade of the oldest fig tree. It is going to be a hot day.”

“It is below Rome, and far,” said the sullen brigand; “but since the barge upon which my friend has set his heart belongs to a near neighbor, we shall be killing two birds with one stone. But with all deference, excellency, have you really retrieved your fortunes?”

“And yours,” said Asabri. “Indeed, I am to-day as rich as ever I was, with the exception”—his eyes twinkled behind his goggles—“of about a hundred and fifty thousand lire.”

The sullen brigand whistled; and although the roads were rough, they proceeded, thanks to the shock-absorbers on Asabri's car, in complete comfort, at a great pace.

In the village nearest to the property upon which the sullen brigand had cast his eye, they picked up a notary through whom to effect the purchase.

The little farm was rather stony, but sweet to the eye as a bouquet of flowers, with the deep greens of the figs and grapes and the silvery greens of the olives. Furthermore, there were roses in the door-yard, and the young and childless widow to whom the homestead belonged stood among the roses. She was brown and scarlet, and her eyes were black and merry.

Yes, yes, she agreed, she would sell! There was a mortgage on the place. She intended to pay that off and have a little over. True, the place paid. But, Good Lord, she lived all alone, and she didn't enjoy that!

They invited the pretty widow to luncheon, and she helped them spread the cloth under a fig tree that had thrown shade for five hundred years. Asabri passed the champagne, and they all became very merry together. Indeed, the sullen brigand became so merry and happy that he no longer addressed Asabri respectfully as “excellency,” but gratefully and affectionately as “my father.”

This one became more and more delighted with the term, until finally he said:

“It is true, that in a sense I am this young man's father, since I believe that if I were to advise him to do a certain thing he would do it.”

“That is God's truth,” cried the sullen brigand; “if he advised me to advance single-handed against the hosts of hell, I should do so.”

“My son,” said Asabri, “our fair guest affirms that upon this beautiful little farm she has had everything that she could wish except companionship. Are you not afraid that you, in your turn, will here suffer from loneliness?” He turned to the pretty widow. “I wish,” said he, “to address myself to you in behalf of this young man.”

The others became very silent. The notary lifted his glass to his lips. The widow blushed. Said she:

“I like his looks well enough; but I know nothing about him.”

“I can tell you this,” said Asabri, “that he has been a man of exemplary honesty since—yesterday, and that under the seat of my automobile he has, in a leather bag, a fortune of fifty thousand lire.”

The three brigands gasped.

“He is determined, in any case,” the banker continued, “to purchase your little farm; but it seems to me that it would be a beautiful end to a story that has not been without a certain aroma of romance if you, my fair guest, were, so to speak, to throw yourself into the bargain. Think it over. The mortgage lifted, a handsome husband, and plenty of money in the bank.... Think it over. And in any case—the pleasure of a glass of wine with you!”

They touched glasses. Across the golden bubbling, smiles leapt.

“Let us,” said the second brigand, “leave the pair in question to talk the matter over, while the rest of us go and attend to the purchase of my barge.”

“Well thought,” said Asabri. “My children, we shall be gone about an hour. See if, in that time, you cannot grow fond of each other. Perhaps, if you took the bag of money into the house and pretended that it already belonged to both of you, and counted it over, something might be accomplished.”

The youngest brigand caught the sullen one by the sleeve and whispered in his ear.

“If you want her, let her count the money. If you don't, count it yourself.”

The second brigand turned to Asabri. “Excellency,” he whispered, “you are as much my father as his.”

“True,” said Asabri, “what of it?”

“Nothing! Only, the man who owns the barge which I desire to purchase has a very beautiful daughter.”

Asabri laughed so that for a moment he could not bend over to crank his car. And he cried aloud:

“France, France, I thank thee for thy champagne! And I thank thee, O Italy, for thy merry hearts and thy suggestive climate!... My son, if the bargeman's daughter is to be had for the asking, she is yours. But we must tell the father that until recently you have been a very naughty fellow.”

They remained with the second brigand long enough to see him exchange a kiss of betrothal with the bargeman's daughter, while the bargeman busied himself counting the money; and then they returned to see how the sullen brigand and the pretty widow were getting on.

The sullen brigand was cutting dead-wood out of a fig tree with a saw. His face was supremely happy. The widow stood beneath and directed him.

“Closer to the tree, stupid,” she said, “else the wound will not heal properly.”

The youngest brigand laid a hand that trembled upon Asabri's arm.

“Oh, my father,” he said, “these doves are already cooing! And it is very far to the place where I would be.”

But Asabri went first to the fig tree, and he said to the widow:

“Is all well?”

“Yes,” she said, “we have agreed to differ for the rest of our lives. It seems that this stupid fellow needs somebody to look after him. And it seems to be God's will that that somebody should be I.”

“Bless you then, my children,” said Asabri; “and farewell! I shall come to the wedding.”

They returned the notary to his little home in the village; and the fees which he was to receive for the documents which he was to draw up made him so happy that he flung his arms about his wife, who was rather a prim person, and fell to kissing her with the most boisterous good will.

It was dusk when they reached the village in which the sweetheart of the youngest brigand lived. Asabri thought that he had never seen a girl more exquisite.

“And we have loved each other,” said the youngest brigand, his arm about her firm, round waist, “since we were children.... I think I am dying, I am so happy.”

“Shall you buy a farm, a barge, a business?” asked the banker.

“Whatever is decided,” said the girl, “it will be a paradise.”

Her old father came out of the house.

“I have counted the money. It is correct.”

Then he rolled his fat eyes heavenward, just as the youngest brigand had prophesied, and said: “Bless you, my children!”

“I must be going,” said Asabri; “but there is one thing.”

Four dark luminous eyes looked into his.

“You have not kissed,” said Asabri; “let it be now, so that I may remember.”

Without embarrassment, the young brigand and his sweetheart folded their arms closely about each other, and kissed each other, once, slowly, with infinite tenderness.

“I am nineteen,” said the youngest brigand; then, and he looked heavenward: “God help us to forget the years that have been wasted!”

Asabri drove toward Rome, his headlights piercing the darkness. The champagne was no longer in his blood. He was in a calm, judicial mood.

“To think,” he said to himself, “that for a mere matter of a hundred and fifty thousand lire, a rich old man can be young again for a day or two!”

It was nearly one o'clock when he reached his palace in Rome. Luigi, the valet, was sitting up for him, as usual.

“This is the second time in three days,” said Luigi, “that you have been out all night.... A telegram,” he threatened, “would bring the mistress back to Rome.”

“Forgive me, old friend,” said Asabri, and he leaned on Luigi's shoulder; “but I have fallen in love....”

“What!” screamed the valet. “At your age?”

“It is quite true,” said Asabri, a little sadly, “that at my age a man most easily falls in love—with life.”

“You shall go to bed at once,” said Luigi sternly. “I shall prepare a hot lemonade, and you shall take five grains of quinine.... You are damp.... The mist from the Campagna....”

Asabri yawned in the ancient servitor's face.

“Luigi,” he said, “I think I shall buy you a farm and a wife; or a barge and a wife....”

“You do, do you?” said Luigi. “And I think you'll take your quinine like a Trojan, or I'll know the reason why.”

“Everybody regards me as rather an important person,” complained Asabri, “except you.”

“You were seven years old,” said Luigi, “when I came to serve you. I have aged. But you haven't. You didn't know enough then to come in when it rained, as the Americans say. You don't now. I would not speak of this to others. But to you—yes—for your own good.”

Asabri smiled blissfully.

“In all the world,” he said, “there is only one thing for a man to fear, that he will learn to take the world seriously; in other words, that he will grow up.... You may bring the hot lemonade and the quinine when they are ready.”

And then he blew his nose of a Roman emperor; for he had indeed contracted a slight cold.

 
 
 

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