Adventure of the Little Antiquary
by Washington Irving
Tales of a
My friend the doctor was a thorough antiquary: a little, rusty, musty
Old fellow, always groping among ruins. He relished a building as you
Englishmen relish a cheese, the more mouldy and crumbling it was, the
more it was to his taste. A shell of an old nameless temple, or the
cracked walls of a broken-down amphitheatre, would throw him into
raptures; and he took more delight in these crusts and cheese parings
of antiquity than in the best-conditioned, modern edifice.
He had taken a maggot into his brain at one time to hunt after the
Ancient cities of the Pelasgi which are said to exist to this day among
the mountains of the Abruzzi; but the condition of which is strangely
unknown to the antiquaries. It is said that he had made a great many
valuable notes and memorandums on the subject, which he always carried
about with him, either for the purpose of frequent reference, or
because he feared the precious documents might fall into the hands of
brother antiquaries. He had therefore a large pocket behind, in which
he carried them, banging against his rear as he walked.
Be this as it may; happening to pass a few days at Terracina, in the
course of his researches, he one day mounted the rocky cliffs which
overhang the town, to visit the castle of Theodoric. He was groping
about these ruins, towards the hour of sunset, buried in his
reflections,—his wits no doubt wool-gathering among the Goths and
Romans, when he heard footsteps behind him.
He turned and beheld five or six young fellows, of rough, saucy
demeanor, clad in a singular manner, half peasant, half huntsman, with
fusils in their hands. Their whole appearance and carriage left him in
no doubt into what company he had fallen.
The doctor was a feeble little man poor, in look and poorer in purse.
He had but little money in his pocket; but he had certain valuables,
such as an old silver watch, thick as a turnip, with figures on it
large enough for a clock, and a set of seals at the end of a steel
chain, that dangled half down to his knees; all which were of precious
esteem, being family reliques. He had also a seal ring, a veritable
antique intaglio, that covered half his knuckles; but what he most
valued was, the precious treatise on the Pelasgian cities, which, he
would gladly have given all the money in his pocket to have had safe at
the bottom of his trunk in Terracina.
However, he plucked up a stout heart; at least as stout a heart as he
could, seeing that he was but a puny little man at the hest of times.
So he wished the hunters a "buon giorno." They returned his salutation,
giving the old gentleman a sociable slap on the back that made his
heart leap into his throat.
They fell into conversation, and walked for some time together among
The heights, the doctor wishing them all the while at the bottom of the
crater of Vesuvius. At length they came to a small osteria on the
mountain, where they proposed to enter and have a cup of wine together.
The doctor consented; though he would as soon have been invited to
One of the gang remained sentinel at the door; the others swaggered
into the house; stood their fusils in a corner of the room; and each
drawing a pistol or stiletto out of his belt, laid it, with some
emphasis, on the table. They now called lustily for wine; drew benches
round the table, and hailing the doctor as though he had been a boon
companion of long standing, insisted upon his sitting down and making
merry. He complied with forced grimace, but with fear and trembling;
sitting on the edge of his bench; supping down heartburn with every
drop of liquor; eyeing ruefully the black muzzled pistols, and cold,
naked stilettos. They pushed the bottle bravely, and plied him
vigorously; sang, laughed, told excellent stories of robberies and
combats, and the little doctor was fain to laugh at these cut-throat
pleasantries, though his heart was dying away at the very bottom of his
By their own account they were young men from the villages, who had
Recently taken up this line of life in the mere wild caprice of youth.
They talked of their exploits as a sportsman talks of his amusements.
To shoot down a traveller seemed of little more consequence to them
than to shoot a hare. They spoke with rapture of the glorious roving
life they led; free as birds; here to-day, gone to-morrow; ranging the
forests, climbing the rocks, scouring the valleys; the world their own
wherever they could lay hold of it; full purses, merry companions;
pretty women.—The little antiquary got fuddled with their talk and
their wine, for they did not spare bumpers. He half forgot his fears,
his seal ring, and his family watch; even the treatise on the Pelasgian
cities which was warming under him, for a time faded from his memory,
in the glowing picture which they drew. He declares that he no longer
wonders at the prevalence of this robber mania among the mountains; for
he felt at the time, that had he been a young man and a strong man, and
had there been no danger of the galleys in the background, he should
have been half tempted himself to turn bandit.
At length the fearful hour of separating arrived. The doctor was
suddenly called to himself and his fears, by seeing the robbers resume
their weapons. He now quaked for his valuables, and above all for his
antiquarian treatise. He endeavored, however, to look cool and
unconcerned; and drew from out of his deep pocket a long, lank,
leathern purse, far gone in consumption, at the bottom of which a few
coin chinked with the trembling of his hand.
The chief of the party observed this movement; and laying his hand upon
the antiquary's shoulder—"Harkee! Signor Dottore!" said he, "we have
drank together as friends and comrades, let us part as such. We
understand you; we know who and what you are; for we know who every
body is that sleeps at Terracina, or that puts foot upon the road. You
are a rich man, but you carry all your wealth in your head. We can't
get at it, and we should not know what to do with it, if we could. I
see you are uneasy about your ring; but don't worry your mind; it is
not worth taking; you think it an antique, but it's a counterfeit—a
Here the doctor would have put in a word, for his antiquarian pride was
"Nay, nay," continued the other, "we've no time to dispute about it.
Value it as you please. Come, you are a brave little old signor—one
more cup of wine and we'll pay the reckoning. No compliments—I insist
on it. So—now make the best of your way back to Terracina; it's
growing late—buono viaggio!—and harkee, take care how you wander
among these mountains."
They shouldered their fusils, sprang gaily up the rocks, and the little
doctor hobbled back to Terracina, rejoicing that the robbers had let
his seal ring, his watch, and his treatise escape unmolested, though
rather nettled that they should have pronounced his veritable intaglio
The improvvisatore had shown many symptoms of impatience during this
recital. He saw his theme in danger of being taken out of his hands by
a rival story-teller, which to an able talker is always a serious
grievance; it was also in danger of being taken away by a Neapolitan,
and that was still more vexatious; as the members of the different
Italian states have an incessant jealousy of each other in all things,
great and small. He took advantage of the first pause of the Neapolitan
to catch hold again of the thread of the conversation.
"As I was saying," resumed he, "the prevalence of these banditti is so
extensive; their power so combined and interwoven with other ranks of
"For that matter," said the Neapolitan, "I have heard that your
government has had some understanding with these gentry, or at least
winked at them."
"My government?" said the Roman, impatiently.
"Aye—they say that Cardinal Gonsalvi—"
"Hush!" said the Roman, holding up his finger, and rolling his large
eyes about the room.
"Nay-I only repeat what I heard commonly rumored in Rome," replied the
other, sturdily. "It was whispered that the Cardinal had been up to the
mountain, and had an interview with some of the chiefs. And I have been
told that when honest people have been kicking their heels in the
Cardinal's anti-chamber, waiting by the hour for admittance, one of
these stiletto-looking fellows has elbowed his way through the crowd,
and entered without ceremony into the Cardinal's presence.
"I know," replied the Roman, "that there have been such reports; and it
is not impossible that government may have made use of these men at
particular periods, such as at the time of your abortive revolution,
when your carbonari were so busy with their machinations all over the
country. The information that men like these could collect, who were
familiar, not merely with all the recesses and secret places of the
mountains, but also with all the dark and dangerous recesses of
society, and knew all that was plotting in the world of mischief; the
utility of such instruments in the hands of government was too obvious
to be overlooked, and Cardinal Gonsalvi as a politic statesman, may,
perhaps, have made use of them; for it is well known the robbers, with
all their atrocities, are respectful towards the church, and devout in
"Religion!—religion?" echoed the Englishman.
"Yes—religion!" repeated the improvvisatore. "Scarce one of them but
will cross himself and say his prayers when he hears in his mountain
fastness the matin or the ave maria bells sounding from the valleys.
They will often confess themselves to the village priests, to obtain
absolution; and occasionally visit the village churches to pray at some
favorite shrine. I recollect an instance in point: I was one evening in
the village of Frescati, which lies below the mountains of Abruzzi. The
people, as usual in fine evenings in our Italian towns and villages,
were standing about in groups in the public square, conversing and
amusing themselves. I observed a tall, muscular fellow, wrapped in a
great mantle, passing across the square, but skulking along in the
dark, as if avoiding notice. The people, too, seemed to draw back as he
passed. It was whispered to me that he was a notorious bandit."
"But why was he not immediately seized?" said the Englishman.
"Because it was nobody's business; because nobody wished to incur the
vengeance of his comrades; because there were not sufficient gens
d'armes near to insure security against the numbers of desperadoes he
might have at hand; because the gens d'armes might not have received
particular instructions with respect to him, and might not feel
disposed to engage in the hazardous conflict without compulsion. In
short, I might give you a thousand reasons, rising out of the state of
our government and manners, not one of which after all might appear
The Englishman shrugged his shoulders with an air of contempt.
"I have been told," added the Roman, rather quickly, "that even in your
metropolis of London, notorious thieves, well known to the police as
such, walk the streets at noon-day, in search of their prey, and are
not molested unless caught in the very act of robbery."
The Englishman gave another shrug, but with a different expression.
"Well, sir, I fixed my eye on this daring wolf thus prowling through
the fold, and saw him enter a church. I was curious to witness his
devotions. You know our spacious, magnificent churches. The one in
which he entered was vast and shrouded in the dusk of evening. At the
extremity of the long aisles a couple of tapers feebly glimmered on the
grand altar. In one of the side chapels was a votive candle placed
before the image of a saint. Before this image the robber had
prostrated himself. His mantle partly falling off from his shoulders as
he knelt, revealed a form of Herculean strength; a stiletto and pistol
glittered in his belt, and the light falling on his countenance showed
features not unhandsome, but strongly and fiercely charactered. As he
prayed he became vehemently agitated; his lips quivered; sighs and
murmurs, almost groans burst from him; he beat his breast with
violence, then clasped his hands and wrung them convulsively as he
extended them towards the image. Never had I seen such a terrific
picture of remorse. I felt fearful of being discovered by him, and
withdrew. Shortly after I saw him issue from the church wrapped in his
mantle; he recrossed the square, and no doubt returned to his mountain
with disburthened conscience, ready to incur a fresh arrear of crime."
The conversation was here taken up by two other travellers, recently
arrived, Mr. Hobbs and Mr. Dobbs, a linen-draper and a green-grocer,
just returning from a tour in Greece and the Holy Land: and who were
full of the story of Alderman Popkins. They were astonished that the
robbers should dare to molest a man of his importance on 'change; he
being an eminent dry-salter of Throgmorton street, and a magistrate to
In fact, the story of the Popkins family was but too true; it was
attested by too many present to be for a moment doubted; and from the
contradictory and concordant testimony of half a score, all eager to
relate it, the company were enabled to make out all the particulars.