My Gardener In Tuscany

He  is no real gardener, for my garden is scarcely a garden. At the back of my little house, which because it is a separate house and not a flat is dignified with the name of palazzetta at the back, then, of this miniature palazzetta, jutting out into my neighbour’s noble spreading gardens, is a narrow, high-walled strip of ground. One quarter of it is paved with backyard flags, and down the middle and on either side run brick-paved paths, flanked, at justly chosen intervals, by stucco pillars surmounted by squatting —talbots or alants I would call them, but that these dogs are too grotesque even for the fantastic science of heraldry. Large blue and white pots of commonest terra-cotta, tottering insecure on stucco pedestals, drop ivy, periwinkles, stone-crop, and other hardy creeping plants. A fig tree, a medlar tree, three orange and two lemon trees, a bush or two of monthly roses, a plant or two of pansies, begonias and nasturtiums, thyme and mint for kitchen use, and sweet lavender for the linen-press, a myriad of busy lizards by day, a multitude of dancing fire-flies by night, owls, too, and the shrill screeching cicale.—all this is evidence that the little plot does occasionally need the fostering care of the hand of man.

And Benedetto found me just the right man to care for it—Paolo, a brother acquaintance in affliction. But Paolo is no gardener now. Time was when for five years he was gardener to the General of the Division, earning the handsome wage of forty-five livres a month, and having free lodging in a mouldy, tumble-down outhouse at the bottom of the General’s garden. But the General went away to command another Division elsewhere, and from that day Paolo went down, down, and has never been able to recover himself since. First he tried to keep up his proud position, and, for fear of losing caste, rightly would not work unless he could be permanent gardener to one master only; he spent all his savings in the effort. Then he tried to work for masters with small gardens that only required looking to once or twice a week. Nothing prospered with him; he could get neither the one kind of employment nor the other, and was obliged to abandon gardens and become a day labourer in the fields near the city walls. It made him sad, but being in a dumb way rather a righteous man, he bowed his head and did not complain.

To do a hind’s work for the contadini owners and tenants of the fields is a hard task. In the summer, when the day’s labour is fifteen hours, Paolo’s monthly wage is twenty-six livres; in the winter there is either no work, or but a short day’s work, and the monthly incomings sink to eighteen livres—and less! In the long days he has two hours’ interval, and of this he gives me half-an-hour or more, bringing me drinking water in barrels from the public founts, tending and skilfully beautifying the little plot of ground, and generally doing any and whatsoever unusual and obnoxious house job may arise. For these services I pay him—to my shame be it said!—five livres, or three shillings and fourpence a month. But stern economists threateningly tell me that I am ruining the market in not giving him only four livres, or two and eightpence a month, and I dare trifle no further with their sacred canons. I add, unknown to them, beef bones, broken bits, and the foul nicotined ends of cast-away Tuscan and Torinese cigars, which he chops up and smokes with relish in his unclean terra-cotta pipe.

Paolo is a much afflicted creature, barefoot, ill-clothed, begrimed, and seemingly always wetted through sad and subdued when not under observation, so hilariously cheerful when spoken to, you would suppose him to be rioting in this world’s goods, instead of earning a wage that does not help to ward off the diseases produced by hunger unsatisfied. Short and sturdily built, though the flesh hangs skinnily about him now, he is lithe and active, and can go up the tall stem of the medlar tree like a monkey. He has a thick shock of greyish hair, a thick greyish moustache, soft eyes expressing strong desire to serve and oblige, and a se’nnight’s stubble that never grows to beard, but is yet ever innocent of the razor. His age you could not guess, nor could you imagine him ever to have been different to what he is, and even after two years’ service I do not know his surname. He is simply Paolo, and there is but one such. Patient, skilful, willing, very soft-hearted, very useful, and with a certain care-worn, stately courtesy of manner shining out of all his grime, his life is hard, and underpaid, and unappreciated, and has but one sweet memory—the proud lustrum of slavery as gentle-man’s gardener to one master only.

Heaven in its mercy has denied to Paolo any offspring of his loins. But he has a wife, Caterina, older than himself, I should say, and ugly, very fat, though she fares chiefly on the chameleon’s dish—a sort of swaddled bundle of a woman, in fact, of uniform girth from the shoulders downwards. With her I have entered into a fell and secret conspiracy against the first principles of political economy—she supplies me with eggs which she buys, and I pay her, for every dozen, one penny above the market price. I dare not breathe this politico-economical offence abroad, but I hope it may cause many a drear spook of the economical schools, fidgety, wandering, unquiet nights. The quantity of eggs consumed in my little household is enormous. Custard is a standing dish, and omelette a daily piatto. Caterina speaks of me as a benefactor, believes it too in a confused, reasonless fashion, and I have given up attempting to undeceive her. She never speaks without weeping, and can, I verily believe, weep with one eye at a time. Her tears are wonderful. Each is such a marvellous clear dewdrop. I watch them, with a fascinated stare, ooze out and run down her fat face, and disappear and dry up utterly by some strange quality, before half their piteous journey’s done. She has but one long tooth left in the front of her old mouth, and round it, as the pearly drops course down, she whiffles strange incantations charged with blessings for my sick soul’s weal.

It was this old serving-wench of Ceres who was the first woman that ever gave me a bunch of flowers. In some foolish, unguarded moment of expansion I had told Benedetto that the morrow was my birthday. The news spread abroad. In the morning Caterina and Paolo, dressed in their poor best for the occasion, the old dame bearing a mighty pyramidal bouquet of flowers (stolen, I rather suspect, by a gardener friend, from some rich garden that would never miss them), stood bashful and happy in the little hall. Tied by a blue silk riband to the solid stem of the bouquet was a card bearing the inscription: ” Al nostro amatissimo padrone con mille fella augurj da Paolo e Caterina.” I was poor in my thanks. Anglo-Saxon awkwardness took possession of me, and something like a Tuscan lump rose up in my throat. Poor dear souls! so much love and kindly courtesy in return for a miserly pittance of pay and the brokenest refuse of bits. Assuredly there is some finer quality in the grossest Tuscan clay which is wanting even in the better sorts of human clay in other countries.

Paolo’s whole life is from my point of view heroic, for he belongs to the elect who have their purgatory here instead of hereafter. But there was a day in his life when, under my roof, he became the popular hero of the hour. Jack Curtis, his wife, and small boy from England were staying with me at the time. Dick, the small boy, is at the fascinating age of seven, and the most charming of companions. I was delighted when he was once or twice trusted alone in the house with me. On one of those days I sat smoking a contemplative pipe at the open garden door, regarding the heraldic dogs, while Master Dick was in and out of the house romping, exploring, and enjoying himself vastly. Presently I heard a crash and a loud child’s cry, followed by a terrible stillness. I flew into the garden. At the kitchen window was the blanched, terror-stricken face of the cook, staring in paralysed horror at the well beneath the window too, gave a cry. The well is boarded over, and in the middle there is a trap-door, which I saw had disappeared. I realised what had happened, and rushed forward. Gazing in an agony of fear down the narrow aperture, I saw little Dick thirty feet below me in the dank darkness, his little white face turned pathetically up to the sun-light, his hands clutched tightly round a metal pipe that ran down the side of the well. The boy’s extraordinary self-possession gave me nerve at a moment when I felt panic coming down upon me. “Get me out!” shouted the plucky little beggar up to me. But how to do it? I contemplated jumping, but saw that I should jump on the top of him, so narrow was the well. ” It’s cold! ” he shouted again. ” Get me out! ”

At that moment I heard behind me the hasty patter of bare feet on the brick path. Paolo, whose existence I had forgotten, was up the fig tree and had seen everything. He flew up, armed already with a rope—the clothes line it proved to be. Benedetto, attracted by the noise, had come out. He and I held one end of the line, and Paolo went down—how I saw not. He tied up little Dick securely, and Benedetto and I hauled him up, while Paolo took his turn of hanging on to the metal pipe. Then we let down the rope again, and Paolo came up in his monkey fashion. I poured half a glass of Marsala down Master Dick’s throat, had him put in a hot bath, and by the time his father and mother came back, the young rascal was romping in the hall, absolutely without bruise or scath. Small wonder that the good townsfolk thought him saved by a miracle, and gave the glory of it to Our Lady of Succour, whose miraculous image they venerate on the hills close by.

But Benedetto had rushed off to recount the marvellous event at the office of the local paper, and next morning there appeared a flaming article headed ” Heartrending incident; an English child saved from drowning by a heroic gardener.” It was thus that popular admiration pierced the mantle of Paolo’s humility, and made him for the moment the hero of the hour.

It is since this event that I have seriously thought of withdrawing from the town to the country, where houses with large gardens are cheap, and where I shall be able to attach to myself for ever the loyal services and honest loving hearts of Paolo and his wife Caterina.