Between Friends by Adriana Spadoni

A Story of the Italian Quarter

Vincenza looked from the three crisp dollar bills to her husband, and back again, wonderingly and with fear in her eyes.

"I understand nothing, Gino, and I am afraid. Perhaps it will bring the sickness, the money—it is of the devil, maybe——"

Luigi laughed, but a little uneasily. "It is time, then, that the devil went to paradise; he makes better for us than the saints, to whom you pray so——"

"S-sh!" Vincenza crossed herself quickly. "That is a great wickedness."

Luigi picked up the bills, examining them closely. Apparently they were good. Nevertheless he put them down again, and went on carving a wooden cow for the little Carolina, with a puzzled look in his black eyes.

"Gino," Vincenza stopped undressing the baby suddenly when the thought came to her. "Go thou and ask Biaggio. He has been many years in this country, and, besides, he is also a Genovese. He will tell thee."

Luigi's eyes cleared, but he condescended to make no reply. It is not for a man to take the advice of a woman. But when it was dark, and Vincenza had gone to lie down with the Little One, Luigi took his hat and went over to the shop of Biaggio Franchini.

Biaggio listened attentively; his pudgy hands, crossed on his stomach, rose and fell with the undulations of the rolls of flesh beneath. From time to time he ceased for a moment the contemplation of the strings of garlic and sausage that hung from the fly-specked ceiling of his diminutive shop, and turned his little black eyes sharply on Luigi.

"So," he said at last, "to-day a lady came to thy house, and after to ask many questions left these three dollars. It was in this way?"

"Just so," replied Luigi, "and questions the most marvelous I have ever heard. And in this country, where everyone asks the questions. How long that I do not work, and if we have to eat?" Luigi laughed; "of a surety, Biaggio, she asked that. She sees that we live—and she asks if we eat—ma! chè! And then, if we have every day the meat? When I said once, sometimes twice in the week—thou knowest it is not possible to have more often, when one waits to buy the house—then it was she put on the table the three dollars, and gave me a paper to sign——"

"Thou didst sign nothing?" Biaggio spoke eagerly.

"No. Once I signed the paper in English and it cost me two dollars; not again. I said I could not write, and she wrote for me."

"Bene," Biaggio nodded approval. "It is not thy writing. It can do nothing."

"Perhaps it is because I voted twice at the election last week? But already I have taken the money for that. It was one only dollar. I——"

"Non, non, it is not that. Listen!" Slowly Biaggio shut both eyes, as if to keep out the tremendous light that had dawned upon him, and nodded his head knowingly. Then he opened them, shifted his huge bulk upright, and clapped Luigi on the knee.

"Thou art in great luck friend," he cried, "and it is well that thou hast asked me. If thou hadst gone to another, to a man not honest, who knows? Listen. In our country when a rich man dies, he leaves always something for the poor, but he leaves it to the church and it is the fathers who give away the money. Corpo di Bacco! what that means thou knowest well. Sometimes a little gets to the poor. Sometimes—— But in this country it is not so. He leaves to a society. There are many. And they pay the women, and sometimes the men, to give away the money——"

"Santo Cristo," gasped Luigi, "they pay to give away the money?"

"For them it is a job like any other. Didst think it was for love of thee or the red curls of thy Vincenza?"

"Marvelous, most marvelous," murmured Luigi, "and it is possible then for all people to get——"

"Ma, that no one can explain," and Biaggio shrugged his shoulders; in a gesture of absolute inability to solve the problem.

"She will come then again, this lady?" Luigi leaned forward eagerly. He was beginning to grasp it.

"It is for thee to say stop, my son, if thou hast in thy head anything but fat. But thou art a Genovese. Only I say," Biaggio laid a grimy thumb across his lips and winked knowingly—"Tell to none."

"Thanks, many thanks friend," Luigi's voice was deeply grateful, "perhaps some day I can do for thee——?"

"It is nothing—nothing," insisted Biaggio, patting the air with his pudgy hands in a gesture of denial, "a little kindness between friends."

At great inconvenience to himself, Biaggio held the door open to give Luigi more light in crossing the street. As he closed it and turned out the gas, he smiled to himself. "And each bottle of oil will cost thee ten cents more, friend. Business is business, and yesterday thy Vincenza returned the carrots because they were not fresh. Ecco!"

Back in his own room, Luigi folded the three notes neatly, while Vincenza watched him, her gray eyes wide with wonder.

"Marvelous, marvelous," she whispered just as Luigi had done, "to-night I thank the Virgin."

As Biaggio had foretold, the Lady in Fur came every day. Luigi did not understand all that she said, but he always listened politely and smiled, with his dark eyes and his lips and his glistening white teeth. It made her feel very old to see Luigi smile like that, when he had to live in one room with a leaking water pipe and a garbage can outside the door. Sometimes she was almost ashamed to offer the three dollars, and she was grateful for the gentle, sweet way Luigi accepted it.

Then one day when the air was thick with snow, and the air in the tenement halls cut like needles of ice and the lamps had to be lit at two o'clock, the Lady in Brown Fur came unexpectedly. She had found work for Luigi. She kissed the Little One, patted Vincenza's shoulder and shook hands with Luigi. Again and again she made him repeat the name and address to make sure he had it quite right. The Lady in Brown Fur was very happy. When she went Vincenza leaned far over the banisters with the lamp while Luigi called out in his soft, broken English, directions for avoiding the lines of washing below and the refuse piled in dark turns of the stairs. When the Lady in Brown Fur had disappeared Vincenza turned to Luigi.

"Of a surety, cara, the saints are good. Never before didst thou work before April. In the new house we will keep for ourselves two rooms.

"These people have the 'pull' even more than the alderman, Biaggio says," replied Luigi with a dreamy look in his eyes. "It may be that from this work I shall take three dollars each day."

"Madonna mia," gasped Vincenza, "it is beyond belief."

For five days Luigi stood four hours each afternoon, bent forward, to the lifting of a cardboard block, while Hugh Keswick painted, as he had not painted for months, the tense muscles under the olive skin, the strong neck and shoulders. The Building of the Temple advanced rapidly. And Luigi's arms and back ached so that each night Vincenza had to rub them with the oil which now cost ten cents more in the shop of Biaggio.

On the Sixth day Luigi refused to go.

"I tell thee it is a stupidness—to stand all day with the pain in the back. For what? Fifty cents. It is a work for old men and children——"

"But thou canst not make the money, sitting in thy chair, with thy feet on the stove, like now——"

"Dost thou wish then that I have every night the knives in my back? If so——"

"Not so, caro, but——"

"Listen. You understand nothing and talk as a woman. A lady comes to my house. She says—you have no work, here is money. Then she comes and says—here is work. But at this work I make not so much as before she gave; and in addition, I have the pain in the back. Ecco, when she comes again, I no longer have the work. It is her job to give away the money. She is not a fool, that Lady in Brown Fur. It is that I make her a kindness. Not so?"

"As thou sayest," and Vincenza went on with her endless washing.

But when the week passed and the Lady in Brown Fur did not come, Luigi's forehead wrinkled with the effort to understand. When the second had gone, Luigi was openly troubled. When the third was half over, he again took his hat and went over to the shop of Biaggio.

As before Biaggio listened attentively, his eyes closed, until Luigi had finished. Then he opened them, made a clicking noise with his tongue, and laid one finger along the side of his nose.

"Holy Body of Christ," he said softly, "in business thou hast the head like a rock. In one curl of thy Vincenza there is more sense than in all thy great body. Did I not tell thee to be careful, and it would stop only when thou didst wish. And now, without to ask my advice, you make the stupidness, bah——"

"Ma, Dio mio," Luigi's hands made angry protest against the invective of Biaggio, "I said only like a man of sense. It is her job, it make no difference——"

"Blood of the Lamb! Thou hast been in America eight months, and thou dost not know that they are mad, all quite mad, to work? Never do they stop. Even after to have fifty years, think, fifty years, still they work. They work even with the children old enough to keep them. For many months The Skinny One, she who gives milk to the baby of Giacomo, had the habit to find him such work, like the foolishness of your painter. And Giacomo has already three children more than fifteen. Ma——" Biaggio snorted his contempt. Then suddenly his manner changed. He leaned back in his chair, and apparently dismissed the subject with a wave of his fat hand.

"And the little Carolina she is well in this weather of the devil?" But Luigi did not answer. He was thinking with a pucker between his black eyes. Biaggio watched him narrowly. At last he spoke, looking fixedly at the sausages above his head.

"Of course—it—is—possible—you have made a—mistake—but——"

Luigi leaned forward eagerly. "It is possible then to——"

"All things are possible," Biaggio nodded his head at the sausages, blinking like a large, fat owl. Then he stopped.

"Perhaps, you will tell—to me," Luigi was forced to it at last.

Biaggio gave a little grunt as if he were being brought back from a deep meditation. "There is a way," he said slowly. "If thou write to her of the Brown Fur that thou art sick and cannot do the work——"

"But never in my life was I better. Only last week Giacomo said I have grown fat. How the——"

"It is possible," replied Biaggio wearily, "to be sick of a sickness that makes one neither thin nor white. With a sickness—of the legs like the rheumatism, for example, one eats, one sleeps, only one cannot walk or stand for many hours."

In spite of his efforts to the contrary, the wonder and admiration grew deeper in Luigi's eyes. "Thou thinkest the——?"

"I am sure," now that Luigi was reduced to the proper state of humility Biaggio gave up his attitude of distant oracle, and leaned close. "Thou hast made a mistake, but it is not too late. If thou dost wish I will write it for thee."

"If thou sayest," replied Luigi and now it was his turn to gaze at the strings of garlic, "if you will do this favor."

"With pleasure," Biaggio's fat hands made little gestures of willingness to oblige. "Of a truth it is not much, but when one wishes to buy the house, and already the family is begun, two dollars and a half each week——"

Luigi glanced at him sharply. "Two and——"

Biaggio drew the ink to him and dipped his pen. "Two and a half for thee, and for me——"

"Bene, bene," Luigi interrupted quickly, "it is only just."

"Between friends," explained Biaggio as he began to write.

"Between friends," echoed Luigi, and added to himself, "closer than the skin of a snake art thou—friend."

The Lady in the Brown Fur came next day. She had been very angry and disappointed in Luigi, too angry and disappointed to go near him. Now she felt very sorry and uncomfortable when she saw his right leg stretched out before, so stiff that he could not bend it. He smiled and made the motion of getting up, but could not do it, and sank back again with a gesture of helplessness more eloquent than words. When the Lady in Brown Fur had gone, Vincenza found an extra bill, brand new, tucked into the pocket of the little Carolina.

Luigi waited until he was quite sure that Biaggio would be alone. There was a look of real sorrow in his dark eyes as he slipped a shiny quarter across the counter. "She left only two," he explained, "the reason I do not know. Perhaps next time——"

"It is nothing, nothing between friends." Biaggio slipped the quarter into the cigar box under the counter and smiled a fat smile at Luigi. But he did not hold the door open when Luigi went, and his little eyes were hard like gimlet points. "So," he whispered softly. "So. One learns quickly, very quickly in this new country. Only two dollars this time. Bene, Gino mio, the price of sausage, as that of oil, goes up—between friends."