My Serving Man In Tuscany
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
I WOULD to Heaven that I had never set eyes upon my serving-man, Benedetto, and yet I would not for all the world throw away a pearl of so great price. Still, it is an unkind trick of the Fates to have sent so puzzling and eerie a creature to black the boots and brush the clothes of an exiled Anglo-Saxon. He is a pattern of diligence and honesty certainly, but his perfections are too disquieting: they are the perfections of the saint, while his imperfections, product of some clownish admixture in the man's clay, are irritating in the extreme. No serving-man is entitled to have so much character—to have, in fact, self-abnegation that is tragic, virtue that is heroic, religious aspirations that are saintly, and at the same time manners that are boorish, and physical deficiencies that are provoking and repellent. What if this does not interfere with the housework? It interferes—a much more import-ant thing—with the master's peace of mind, and leads him to lengthy ruminative digressions when he should be trying to fathom quite other philosophy. Why indeed am I always studying him and speculating about him, instead of grumbling at his hard and willing and conventionally-imperfect service, or ordering him to the devil for his stupid inability to understand my bad Tuscan? There is something in this more than natural if philosophy could find it out.
Benedetto is fifty-six years of age, very bowed at the shoulders and bent at the knees. The crumpled, withered skin of his face, yellow and blistered as ancient vellum, is drawn tight across high cheek-bones. Two narrow slits reveal eyes, mild and meek and upturned,., as in the rough prints of seicento Saints of the Clerks Regular. His grizzled hair is sparse and unkempt, and the semi-bald crown of his pate has a great dent in the centre of it. He wears a small black moustache and Pizzo that on any other face would be rakish, and serve at least to hide his sanctity from the unobservant. He has a singular knack of besmearing new clothes, and imparting to them an instant semblance of old-world shabbiness. He looks anything on earth but a serving-man; and as he shuffles along to market to do some of the cook's forgotten errands, rapt in far-distant meditations, he seems like nothing so much as a beggar who has momentarily forgotten to beg. Such in his outer seeming is Benedetto Bonanima, the serving-man whom the gods have sent to plague me with his service and to bless me with his loving-kindness and exceeding honesty.
The Tuscans are very quick at finding out heroic virtue be it never so secretive, and when they have discovered a saint, they lift the bushel which had hid his virtues and blazon him in the market-place. Hence it comes that there were plenty of homely hagiographers to tell me scraps of the life of San Benedetto. He had served his previous and only master, a rich bachelor of studious habits and very irregular life, some thirty-five years. This same master, the Cavaliere Ugo della Chiala, was one of the characters of the town. A distinguished numismatologist and archaeologist, a fellow and member of numerous antiquarian and historical societies, his opinion sought by all the learned of the Continent, he yet led within the precincts of his gloomy old palazzo a life that set at defiance all the conventionalities, and rivalled in its dissoluteness the hare-brained extravagances of a raw patrician boy. When Benedetto had done with the army at twenty-one he was a smart enough young fellow, very innocent and good-hearted it is true, but famed rather among waiting-women and the popolane for the brilliance of his amatory badinage. Service with Signor Ugo della Chiala sobered him completely, and changed all the current of his life. The scholarly vaurien was a man of charming presence and manners; he played havoc in the heart of poor Benedetto, and subdued him to an infinite and most tender affection. But here came the mischief: he could not be blind to his master's vaunting delinquencies; he could not approve nor abet them; and so, torn between love and duty, he cried to Heaven for help and began to go much to church, to thumb big books of prayer, and spell out the maxims of odd little books and leaflets of piety. His master loved him too, and understood him, and seeing that he had no trusted friend in the world save Benedetto, he accorded him all the immunities of a privileged being. The serving-man worked and slaved at the most menial tasks, anticipated in a thousand ways the master's wants, but in no single thing did he minister unto evil, and he would not wait at table when, as was often the case, the company was doubtful beyond a doubt.
The strain of such a life was terrible. It bowed poor Benedetto's back and crooked his knees, but he remained undauntedly loving, unweariedly slaving, incessantly praying and wrest-ling for his beloved padrone's soul. Had the master been unqualifiedly wicked the thing would have been less perplexing, but that he should have been so fond of books and cloistered quiet and yet so full of the tempestuous joy of life, so open-handed and adored of the poor, and yet so given up to riotous living—it was more than the much wrought serving-man could ever rightly comprehend. And so more and more he betook himself to church, to beating his breast in nightly supplications, to thumbing his bulky prayer-book, and spelling out the hard sentences of his books of piety. Thus gradually, and all unconsciously, he developed into a much afflicted, anxious, and very humble saint.
But Benedetto had his happy hours—nay, his happy weeks and months. There were times when the love and excitement of his studies completely overmastered the gay numismatologist. Then all bad company was rigorously excluded from the house; quiet and a great tranquillity reigned supreme, and the happy Benedetto seemed to himself like a lay-brother serving in the calm seclusion of a peaceful convent. This was especially the case when the master saw that his now famous work, De Monetis Etruria, was at length taking shape under his hand, and forgot himself in the love of it. Ah! those were long happy months, in which the master was encompassed by a loving care and solicitude that surely touched his heart, and certainly helped him to complete his labours. Poor Benedetto began timorously to think him wholly changed and reclaimed, but the day that the last corrected proof went back to the publishers there was a terrible and prolonged outbreak.
Ruin came upon this singular prodigal, a complete ruin of his estate and a paralytical ruin of his body. The three months that the broken-down scholar still lingered on in a modest quarter on the third floor of a poor-class tenement, he is said to have been supported out of the thrifty hire of his serving-man. And Benedetto brought him an old Capuchin priest, saw him anointed with the holy oils, knew that he made his confession, was present when he received the Viaticum, and followed with a certain confused happiness to his last resting-place in the family vault of the della Chiala.
Then on the top of such a life and such an affection as this, his substance gone, his heart's core sore and bruised, his poor mind dazed and reeling, he is suddenly pitchforked into the service of a prosaic Anglo-Saxon, who but half understands his beautiful tongue, and is wholly innocent of any violent contrasts of character. I have watched the poor fellow with a pathetic interest trying cheerfully and with unostentatious resignation to adapt himself to his new and strange environment, and in the process I have come to love him. I have tried hard, too, for the sake of his virtues to like him as a servant. I cannot. He is grotesque in his anxious slavishness, uncouth in the manner of pressing his attentions,. irritating in his too palpable assumptions of cheerfulness, dense in taking in the difference between a Tuscan's and a Saxon's wants.
But how he works! Slovenly in his own person, his dearest delight is the cleanliness of the house, and I can see my face every morning reflected in my bright and shining boots. He is familiar, of course; every good Tuscan servant is. If they do not literally sit below the salt, as in the days when class distinctions were more apparent than real, they occupy a position in the house which implies quite as much intimacy and contact. You will get no good work out of them unless you have engaged their hearts, unless they can come to the master as a sure and infallible and sympathetic counsellor in all the many matters of palpitating human interest with which their lives are filled.
There is a certain perverse cleverness about poor stupid Benedetto: when most of all you are sure that he will do wrong, he does right. In very difficult matters he is especially successful, and you cannot help feeling sometimes that all his prayers are not said in vain, and that a little angelic aid does come to his rescue in a crisis. He delivers a verbal message wonderfully well, though it takes a world of anxious understanding before it can be safely conveyed into his head. It is just here that the flow of his talk and his panic-stricken gesticulations are particularly irritating. He is quick in returning from an errand if there is an answer; very slow if there is not. But I have ceased to chide him, for I know the reason. These churches — he cannot pass an open church without turning in and commending himself to Almighty God and the Blessed Virgin, unless there be some weighty house-affairs on hand.
Dear Benedetto, with all his faults, which I verily believe are, in a measure, of mine own creation, I would not' part with him for the cleanest, best trained, most punctilious, clean-shaven automaton of a valet in the world. The atmosphere in Tuscany is so charged with tragedy and the potentialities of old romance, ruin and calamity take such giant shape here: in the storm and stress of such a moment, in the hour, perhaps, of shame and disgrace, who else would stand by me save this old man, so well-schooled in the vagaries of human perversity? Until need drive me to serve myself, he shall serve me; if need leave me but a crust, he shall share that too, for, certes, two mouths do sweeten adversity. And when he dies, though his life has been one long purgatory, many masses shall be said for the repose of his already resting soul. Stay with me then, Benedetto, and give me all the benefit of thy constant antique service. Wrestle a little in prayer. The mystery why God made Anglo-Saxons will become transparent to thee, and thou shalt plenteously find, deep-hidden beneath our rough tough hides, the bowels of compassion and of clemency. " In the battle, in the darkness, in the need," do thou cling to me as I will cling to thee, and together, content and confident, we may confront even those direst ills that plagued the primal chosen favourites of the Lord.