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An Adventure in Italy by J. Kinchin Smith

A Fourth-form Boy's Holiday Yarn

Last winter I had a stroke of real good luck. As a rule I'm not one of the lucky ones; but this time, for once, Fortune smiled on me—as old Crabtree says, when he twigs some slip in my exercise, but can't be quite sure that I had borrowed another fellow's, just to see how much better mine was than his!

It was this way. It was a beastly wet afternoon, and the Head wouldn't give me leave to go to the village. But I was bound to go, for I wanted some wire to finish a cage I was making for my dormouse, who was running loose in my play-box and making everything in an awful mess. So I slipped out, and, of course, got soaked.

I couldn't go and change when I came back with the wire, as Crabtree would then have twigged that I'd been out in the rain. So the end of it was that I caught a chill and had to go into the infirmary. I was awfully bad for a bit, and went off my head, I suppose—for the mater came and I didn't know her till I got better, and then she told me that the doctor had said I must go to Italy for the winter, as my lungs were very weak, and she was going with me, and we should be there till April or May.

The Head told me he hoped I would take some books with me, and do a little reading when I was better. You bet I did! The mater packed them, but they weren't much, the worse for wear when I brought them back to St. Margaret's again.

The Head also hoped I would use the opportunity to study Italian antiquities. I did take a look at some, but didn't think much of them. They took me at Rome to the Tarpeian Rock, but it wouldn't hurt a kid to be chucked down there, let alone a traitor; and the Coliseum wanted livening up with Buffalo Bill. The only antiquities I really cared for were the old corpses and bones of the Capucini, which everybody knows about, but has not had the luck to see as I did.

But I had a walk round so as to be able to say I'd seen the other things, and brag about them when they turned up in Virgil or Livy, and set old Crabtree right when he came a cropper over them, presuming on our knowing less than he did. There was too much for a fellow to do for him to waste time over such rot as antiquities. You can always find as many antiquities as you want in Smith's Dictionary.

Before I went I swapped my dormouse with Jones ma. for his revolver. I couldn't take the dormouse with me, and I knew you were bound to have a revolver when you risked your life among foreigners and brigands, which Italy is full of, as everybody knows. Where should I be if I fell in with a crew of them and hadn't a revolver? Besides, I was responsible for the mater.

Jones ma.'s revolver wouldn't shoot, but it looked all right, and no brigand will wait to see if your revolver will go off when you present it at his head. All you have to do is to shout "Hands up!" and he either lets you take all the diamonds and things he has stolen from fools who hadn't revolvers, or runs away. I cut a slit in my trousers behind, and sewed in a pocket, and practised lugging the revolver out in a jiffy, and getting a bead on an imaginary brigand. I was pretty spry at it, and knew I should be all right. And it was just that revolver which saved me, as you will see.

We travelled through Paris and a lot of other places, stopping at most of them, for I was still rather weak, and the mater was fussy about my overdoing it till we settled down at Sorrento. That's a place on the Bay of Naples, and just the loveliest bit of it—oranges everywhere. It's ten miles from Castellamare, the nearest railway-station, but the drive along the edge of the bay, on a road cut into the cliffs hundreds of feet up, makes you feel like heaven.

Vesuvius is quite near too, only that was no good, for the mater wouldn't let me go there, which was a most aggravating shame, and a terrible waste of opportunity, which I told her she would regret ever after. The crater was as jolly as could be, making no end of a smoke, and pouring out lava like a regular old smelting-furnace; but she said she wasn't going to bring me out to Italy to cure a cold, only to have me burnt up like one of those Johnnies they show you at Pompeii who were caught years and years ago. As if I should have been such an ass as to get caught myself.

What I was going to tell you about, however, was this. We had been at Sorrento six or seven weeks, and I'd got to know the places round that were worth seeing, and a lot of the people too, who jabbered at you thirteen to the dozen, and only laughed when you couldn't make out what they were saying. I'd picked up some of their words—enough to get what I wanted with, and that's the best way to learn a language; a jolly sight better than fagging along with a grammar and stupid exercises, which are only full of things no fellow wants.

So the mater had got used to letting me go about alone, and one morning she found she wanted some things from Naples, and wasn't feeling up to the journey. She wondered at breakfast if she could dare to let me go for her. I didn't seem eager, for if they think you particularly want to do a thing, they are sure to try to stop you. So I sat quiet, though I could hardly swallow my coffee—I was so keen to go.

However, she wanted the things badly, and at last she had to ask me if I would go for her. It's always so: it doesn't matter how badly you want a thing, but when the mater or sister or aunt think they want some idiotic trash that everybody in his senses would rather be without, you've simply got to fetch it for them, or they'll die.

She rather spoilt it by giving me half an hour's jawing as to what I was to do, to take care of this or that, and not to get lost or miss the train—you know how they go on and spoil a fellow's pleasure—as if I couldn't go to Naples and back without a woman having to tell me how to do it. I stood it all patiently though, for the sake of what was coming, and a high old time I had in Naples that day, I can tell you.

I nearly missed my train back, catching it only by the skin of my teeth, and when I reached Castellamare I bargained with a driver-fellow to take me to Sorrento for seven francs. He could speak English a bit. The mater had told me the fare for a carriage and two mules would be eight or ten francs; but I soon let him see that I wasn't going to be put on like that, and as I was firm he had to come down to seven, and a pourboire, which is what we call a tip. So, ordering him to wake his mules up and drive quick, for the January afternoon was getting on, I settled down thoroughly to enjoy the ride home.

I have already told you how the road follows the coast-line, high up the cliffs, so that you look down hundreds of feet, almost sheer on to the waves dashing against the rocks below. There's nothing but a low wall to prevent you pitching bang over and dashing yourself to bits, if you had an accident. There are two or three villages between Castellamare and Sorrento, and generally a lot of traffic; but, as it happened, we didn't pass or meet much that afternoon; I suppose because it was getting late.

The driver was chattering like a magpie about the swell villas and places we could see here and there white against the dark trees, but I wasn't paying much attention, and at last he shut up.

There's one bit of the road which always gave me the creeps, for it's where a man cut his son's throat and threw him over the cliff, two or three years ago, for the sake of his insurance money. I was thinking about this, and almost wishing some one was with me after all—for there wasn't a soul in sight—when my heart gave a jump as the driver suddenly, at this very bit, pulled up, and, turning round, said with a fiendish grin—

"You pay me 'leven francs for ze drive, signor."

"Eleven? No, seven. You said seven."

"Signor meestakes. 'Leven francs, signor," and he opened the dirty fingers of his left hand twice, and held up a thumb that looked as if it hadn't been washed since he was born.

"Seven," I firmly replied. "Not a centime more. Drive on!"

"Ze signor will pay 'leven francs," he fiercely persisted, "seven for ze driver and four for ze cicerone, ze guide."

"What guide? I've had no guide."

"Me, signor. I am ze guide. 'Ave I not been telling of ze beautiful villas and ze countrie?"

"You weren't asked to," I retorted. "Nobody wanted it."

"Zat does not mattaire. Ze signor will pay for ze cicerone."

"I'll see you hanged first."

"Zen we shall see."

He turned his mules to the side of the road next the precipice. I caught a glimpse of an ugly knife in the handkerchief round his waist. In a moment I had whipped out my revolver, and levelled it straight for his head. My word, how startled he was!

"Now drive on," I said.

He did, without a word, but turning as white as a sheet,—and made his old mules fly as if they'd got Vesuvius a foot behind them all the way. I kept my revolver ready till we came to Meta, after which there are plenty of houses.

When we drew up at the hotel I gave him his seven francs, and told him to think himself lucky that I didn't hand him over to the police. He had partly recovered by then, and had the cheek to grin and say—

"Ah, ze signor ees a genteelman,—he will give a poor Italiano a pourboire."

But I didn't.

I've often wondered since if he really meant to do for me. Anyhow, my revolver saved me, and was worth a dormouse.