A JAY OF ITALY
A JAY OF ITALY
Whose mother was her painting, hath betrayed him.'
METHUEN AND CO.
36 ESSEX STREET W.C.
First Published . . July 1905
Second Edition . . August 1905
Third Edition . . September 1905
Fourth Edition . . October 1905
A JAY OF ITALY
On a hot morning, in the year 1476 of poignant memory, there drew up before an osteria on the Milan road a fair cavalcade of travellers. These were Messer Carlo Lanti and his inamorata, together with a suite of tentmen, pages, falconers, bed-carriers, and other personnel of a migratory lord on his way from the cooling hills to the Indian summer of the plains. The chief of the little party, halting in advance of his fellows, lifted his plumed scarlet biretta with one strong young hand, and with the other, his reins hanging loose, ran a cluster of swarthy fingers through his black hair.
'O little host!' he boomed, blaspheming—for all good Catholics, conscious of their exclusive caste, swore by God prescriptively—'O little host, by the thirst of Christ's passion, wine!'
'He will bring you hyssop—by the token, he will,' murmured the lady, who sat her white palfrey languidly beside him. She was a slumberous, ivory-faced creature warm and insolent and lazy; and the little bells of her bridle tinkled sleepily, as her horse pawed, gently rocking her.
The cavalier grunted ferociously. 'Let me see him!' and, bonneting himself again, sat with right arm akimbo, glaring for a response to his cry. He looked on first acquaintance a bully and profligate—which he was; but, for his times, with some redeeming features. His thigh, in its close violet hose, and the long blade which hung at it seemed somehow in a common accord of steel and muscle. His jaw was underhung, his brows were very thick and black, but the eyes beneath were good-humored, and he had a great dimple in his cheek.
A murmur of voices came from the inn, but no answer whatever to the demand. The building, glaring white as a rock rolled into the plains from the great mountains to the north, had a little bush of juniper thrust out on a staff above its door. It looked like a dry tongue protruded in derision, and awoke the demon in Messer Lanti. He turned to a Page:—'Ercole!' he roared, pointing; 'set a light there, and give these hinds a lesson!'
The lady laughed, and, stirring a little, watched the page curiously. But the boy had scarcely reached the ground when the landlord appeared bowing at the door. The cavalier fumed.
'Ciacco—hog!' he thundered: 'did you not hear us call?'
'Where were your ears? Nailed to the pillory?'
'Nay, Magnificent, but to the utterances of the little Parablist of San Zeno.'
'O hog! now by the Mass, I say, they had been better pricked to thy business. O ciacco, I tell thee thy Parablist was like, in another moment, to have addressed thee out of a burning bush. What! I would drink, swine! And, harkee, somewhere from those deep vats of thine the perfume of an old wine of Cana rises to my nostrils. I say no more. Despatch!'
The landlord, abasing himself outwardly, took solace of a private curse as he turned into the shadow of his porch—
'These skipjacks of the Sforzas! limbs of a country churl!'
Something lithe and gripping sprang upon his back as he muttered, making him roar out; and the chirrup of a great cricket shrilled in his ear—
'Biting limbs! clawing, hooking, scoring limbs! ha-ha, hee-hee, ho-bir-r-r-r!'
Boniface, sweating with panic, wriggled to shake off his incubus. It clung to him toe and claw. Slewing his gross head, he saw, squatted upon his shoulders, a manikin in green livery, a monstrous grasshopper in seeming.
'Messer Fool,' he gurgled—'dear my lord's most honoured jester!' (he was essaying all the time to stagger with his burden out of earshot)—'prithee spare to damn a poor fellow for a hasty word under provocation! Prithee, sweet Messer Fool!'
The little creature, sitting him as a frog a pike, hooked its small talons into the corners of his eyes.
'Provocation!' it laughed, rocking—'provocation by his grandness to a guts! If I fail to baste thee on a spit for it, call me not Cicada!'
'Mercy!' implored the landlord, staggering and groping.
'Nothing for nothing. At what price, tunbelly?'
The landlord clutched in his blindness at the post of a descending stair.
'The best in my house.'
'What best, paunch?'
'Milan cheese—boiled bacon. Ah, dear Messer Cicada, there is a fat cold capon, for which I will go fasting to thee.'
'And what wine, beast?'
'What thou wilt, indeed.'
The jester spurred him with a vicious heel.
'Away, then! Sink, submerge, titubate, and evanish into thy crystal vaults!'
'Alas, I cannot see!'
The rider shifted his clutch to the fat jowls of his victim, who thereupon, with a groan, descended a rude flight of steps at a run, and brought up with his burden in a cool grotto. Here were casks and stoppered jars innumerable; shelves of deep blue flasks; lolling amphoræ, and festoons of cobwebs drunk with must. Cicada leapt with one spring to a barrel, on which he squatted, rather now like a green frog than a grasshopper. His face, lean and leathery, looked as if dipped in a tan-pit; his eyes were as aspish as his tongue; he was a stunted, grotesque little creature, all vice and whipcord.
'Despatch!' he shrilled. 'Thy wit is less a desert than my throat.'
'Anon!' mumbled the landlord, and hurried for a flask. 'Let thy tongue roll on that,' he said, 'and call me grateful. As to the capon, prithee, for my bones'