My Vetturino In Tuscany
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
CABMEN play a very important part in Tuscan life, and they are perhaps the most genial class of this genial clime. Even in a city of a hundred thousand inhabitants, if you are a settler there, you attach to yourself a particular vetturino and employ no other. He calls for orders every morning if you are a great cab-rider, or you send to the rank and leave orders for him with his bitterest rival should he himself be absent, and they are always safely delivered. He be-comes almost a member of your household; with such fervour does he serve you, and, by an art-fully suggested exclusiveness, you and you only, that it really seems as if you were keeping a horse and carriage free of bother and expense. Carriages I should have said, for every Tuscan cabman keeps two cabs, a closed and comfort-able growler, for use when the bitter tramontana blows, and a natty, smart, open calash screened with canvas curtains, for use in the fierce heat of the Tuscan dog-days. Cabs in Tuscany are under the jurisdiction of the municipality, who fix the tariff, a Iivre for a journey of any length in this city, which is three miles across, and a livre and a half if you take a cab by the hour. But no one save a stranger thinks of paying the tariff rate; most cabmen gladly take sixty or seventy centimes for a corso, and do but stand by the tram-rails and seem to be waiting for the hated tram, and there are few cabmen who will not dash up and offer to take you for half a livre.
They are skilful drivers, these Tuscan vetturini, for they have attained the art of an alarming dash and recklessness of career which is showy, and yet never results in mishap. They use the whip freely in their mad career, but only to crack it in mid-air as a warning to vehicles and pedestrians who may be coming down the side streets, and as an expression of their joy in life and of pride in the distinguished burden—yourself—they are bearing. They believe in but one evil maxim—and that is sometimes open to defence—that it is lawful to fleece the foreigner if he is foolish enough to let them do it. Of all classes, they are the most ready at chaff and repartee, the best conversationalists, and the happiest story-tellers. You could scarcely have brighter company than a Tuscan vetturino, nor need you ever fear over-familiarity or presumption if you encourage him to talk. All the lower classes in Tuscany are ladies and gentlemen, full of discretion, tact, and good manners—a circumstance which adds much to the delight of life in a Tuscan town.
Beniamino is my cabman's name, but as every popular cabman is sopranominato or nicknamed, so Beniamino is more usually called " Grillo," or the grasshopper, perhaps because he always vaults on and off his box without touching the wheel. He is a cheery, good-for-nothing rascal, with no end of virtues, the bright blue eye and ruddy countenance of a popular naughty boy, and a grown-up and still increasing family.
This is how I came to attach him. At first, through ignorance or a British love of independence, I employed no one vetturino, but was in-differently served by all and sundry, by Beniamino amongst others. One day I met the rascal on foot. He stopped me respectfully; with melancholy downcast look and tears in his blue eyes he produced a dirty schedule with many names and trifling sums inscribed upon it. His poor horse had dropped down dead, he said, and all the noble gentlemen of the city, all the Conti and Commendatori and Cavalieri, were subscribing to buy him another. Would not my lordship, too, whose goodness of heart was in every mouth, con-tribute a trifle? I believed the knave to be lying, but he was irresistible. I gave him two livres.
About three weeks after this he passed me from behind in a lonely road, once more on the box of his cab. With his whip he pointed in pride to a new cream-coloured mare, an absurd animal with thick arched neck and hollow back, that seemed to have walked out of one of Pinturrichio's frescoes. Was I going home? Would I not try his new horse? I preferred to walk, I answered surlily. He hopped from his box and opened the cab door. I must, he said, really try his new horse, which was the best and swiftest in the city. Again he was irresistible, and I let him drive me home a mile or more. But at my house door as I produced a livre, he surprised me by making ready to drive off. I was a signore of heart, he said, and had helped him in the hour of need. I had only honoured him too much by trying his new horse. It was grace-fully done, and with all the delicacy of fine, old-fashioned, high-bred courtesy.
" Beniamino," I said, calling him back sternly. "Signore?"
" I have no regular cabman and want one. Will you be my man? "
" 0 signore! " His heart was too full for speech, the ready tears stood in his eyes, but quickly recovering himself, he leapt on his box with a polite bow and drove off at a galloping pace, cracking his whip unceasingly as a vent to his delight and contentment in the great good news.
Beniamino had served me for a year or more, fairly well: there are better cabmen in the town, I know, but none altogether so engaging. I knew nothing of cab tariffs in these early green-horn days (minchione, they call a greenhorn in Tuscany), and though I never paid more than a livre for a ride, in all things else, as I now know, I grossly overpaid him. It was after about a year of this fleecing, that he stood one day in my hall waiting to see me. He had come on foot without his cab. Never have I seen Merry Andrew so transformed to gloom and sheer despondency. He was twiddling his soft hat rapidly in his fingers. His blue eyes wandered nervously round the hall, and rested anxiously on my right hand as if he expected to find a horse-whip there.
" Signore?" he began. His hat was going round at a great rate.
" Well, Beniamino, what is it?" I queried; " I do not want you today."
" It's not that, signore " He looked at the marble floor in the hope that it might gape and swallow him, and round and round went the hat in ever swifter circles. I began to divine what it was. The Pinturrichian horse had in his turn dropped down dead, or Beniamino's father had died, or his bread-winning son had gone to hospital. He had come to beg I was sure. I liked the rogue, and was quite ready to help him; I admired his seeming modesty and confusion, and answered kindly.
" Come, what is it, Beniamino? Are you in trouble? We are old friends now, and I will willingly help you if I can."
It was when I called him " friend " that he groaned aloud, and looked more and more miserably ashamed and contrite; looked, too, all round about to see if Heaven and the Ma-donna would not deliver him from his present horrible position.
" It is not that, caro signore," he answered ruefully. " The fact is, signoria,—you have become such a good citizen—one of us, in fact, if your lordship will allow me to say so—I can bear it no longer—I confess it—I have charged you too much all this year—I have treated you like a forestiere, and made you pay the tariff and more. But do not abandon me for that, kind signore—I will serve you as no other signore is served, and never again will I take a penny more from you than a good citizen would give me."
He was literally kneeling before me with clasped hands and sad remorseful mien, while I was doing what I could to keep a stern countenance in the presence of this curious display of honesty, knavery, penitence, and affection. I dismissed him with a severe lecture, under which he writhed terribly, and I threatened for the future to put him on half-pay, a prospect which seemed to fill him with the greatest delight. I could not for the life of me be seriously angry with the transparent knave: he is altogether irresistible.
Things balance and adjust themselves wonder-fully in Tuscany, but always seemingly with a handsome figure to your credit. A man irritates you with some little vice, and, before you have time to feel the full effects of the smart, salves the sore with the balsam of some unexpected virtue. Beniamino overcharged me the first year; I underpaid him the second. Then we were quits. But in the third year and the fourth, I have continued to underpay him. Who, then, is the greater sinner? But I must do as other good citizens do: custom is very potent in old Etruria.
When a Tuscan is in your service, be it never so informally, he becomes a pattern of honour and honesty if you use him well. I would trust Beniamino alone in my study if the floor were strewn with broad gold pieces. Indeed, I often put him in a position to rob my house at his leisure. The Tuscan latch-key is something of the size of a Caribbean club, useful enough in braining a highwayman, but too cumbersome for any known pocket. When I go to a dance on a hot summer's night without any overcoat, it would be necessary to carry the key in my hand, and leave it with the flunkey in exchange for a number. Instead, I hand it to Beniamino, who might easily lose it to an accomplice, and, with the servants in bed, my house might be leisurely rifled. It is laughable at 3 A.M. to see him produce the key from under his box seat and softly undo my door for me with a broad grin and a cheery whispered, " Felicissima notte, signoria! "
Beniamino is a great popular favourite. Mightily beloved of children is this big boy of forty-eight, and being, in his manner at least, somewhat of a gay Lothario, it is easy to see that cooks and waiting-women are made very mirthful by a word from him. The least virtuous Tuscan in my service, I yet confess that the mere thought of losing him causes me a pang, and whatsoever his present and future shortcomings may be, he is likely to remain my vetturino for ever, since I should not know how to shake off this cheery, happy, affectionate creature. He has given me too many proofs of it already: the rascal is entirely irresistible.