Adventure of the Little Antiquary

by Washington Irving

Tales of a Traveller

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 drink hemlock.

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 bosom.

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 mere sham."

Here the doctor would have put in a word, for his antiquarian pride was touched.

"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 a counterfeit.

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 society—"

"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 their religion."

"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 satisfactory."

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 boot.

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.