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- The Cardinal's Snuff-Box - 5/39 -


"You mean of Lisbon," corrected Peter.

"No," insisted the old woman, with energy. "St. Anthony of Padua."

It But he was born in Lisbon;" insisted Peter.

"No," said Marietta.

"Yes," said he, "parola d' onore. And, what's more to the purpose, he died in Lisbon. You clearly mean St. Anthony of Lisbon."

"No!" Marietta raised her voice, for his speedier conviction. "There is no St. Anthony of Lisbon. St. Anthony of Padua."

"What's the use of sticking to your guns in that obstinate fashion?" Peter complained. "It's mere pride of opinion. Don't you know that the ready concession of minor points is a part of the grace of life?"

"When you lose an object, you put up a candle to St. Anthony of Padua," said Marietta, weary but resolved.

"Not unless you wish to recover the object," contended Peter.

Marietta stared at him, blinking.

"I have no wish to recover the object I have lost," he continued blandly. "The loss of it is a new, thrilling, humanising experience. It will make a man of me--and, let us hope, a better man. Besides, in a sense, I lost it long ago --'when first my smitten eyes beat full on her,' one evening at the Francais, three, four years ago. But it's essential to my happiness that I should see the person into whose possession it has fallen. That is why I am not angry with you for being a witch. It suits my convenience. Please arrange with the powers of darkness to the end that I may meet the person in question tomorrow at the latest. No!" He raised a forbidding hand. "I will listen to no protestations. And, for the rest, you may count upon my absolute discretion.

'She is the darling of my heart And she lives in our valley,'"

he carolled softly.

"E del mio cuore la carina, E dimor' nella nostra vallettina,"

he obligingly translated. "But for all the good I get of her, she might as well live on the top of the Cornobastone," he added dismally. "Yes, now you may bring me my coffee--only, let it be tea. When your coffee is coffee it keeps me awake at night."

Marietta trudged back to her kitchen, nodding at the sky.

The next afternoon, however, the Duchessa di Santangiolo appeared on the opposite bank of the tumultuous Aco.

IX

Peter happened to be engaged in the amiable pastime of tossing bread-crumbs to his goldfinches.

But a score or so of sparrows, vulture-like, lurked under cover of the neighbouring foliage, to dash in viciously, at the critical moment, and snatch the food from the finches' very mouths.

The Duchessa watched this little drama for a minute, smiling, in silent meditation: while Peter--who, for a wonder, had his back turned to the park of Ventirose, and, for a greater wonder still perhaps, felt no pricking in his thumbs--remained unconscious of her presence.

At last, sorrowfully, (but there was always a smile at the back of her eyes), she shook her head.

"Oh, the pirates, the daredevils," she sighed.

Peter started; faced about; saluted.

"The brigands," said she, with a glance towards the sparrows' outposts.

"Yes, poor things," said he.

"Poor things?" cried she, indignant. "The unprincipled little monsters!"

"They can't help it," he pleaded for them. "'It is their nature to.' They were born so. They had no choice."

"You actually defend them!" she marvelled, rebukefully.

"Oh, dear, no," he disclaimed. "I don't defend them. I defend nothing. I merely recognise and accept. Sparrows--finches. It's the way of the world--the established division of the world."

She frowned incomprehension.

"The established division of the world--?"

"Exactly," said he. "Sparrows--finches the snatchers and the snatched-from. Everything that breathes is either a sparrow or a finch. 'T is the universal war--the struggle for existence --the survival of the most unscrupulous. 'T is a miniature presentment of what's going on everywhere in earth and sky."

She shook her head again.

"YOU see the earth and sky through black spectacles, I 'm afraid," she remarked, with a long face. But there was still an underglow of amusement in her eyes.

"No," he answered, "because there's a compensation. As you rise in the scale of moral development, it is true, you pass from the category of the snatchers to the category of the snatched-from, and your ultimate extinction is assured. But, on the other hand, you gain talents and sensibilities. You do not live by bread alone. These goldfinches, for a case in point, can sing--and they have your sympathy. The sparrows can only make a horrid noise--and you contemn them. That is the compensation. The snatchers can never know the joy of singing --or of being pitied by ladies."

"N . . . o, perhaps not," she consented doubtfully. The underglow of amusement in her eyes shone nearer to the surface. "But--but they can never know, either, the despair of the singer when his songs won't come."

"Or when the ladies are pitiless. That is true," consented Peter.

"And meanwhile they get the bread, crumbs," she said.

"They certainly get the bread-crumbs," he admitted.

"I 'm afraid "--she smiled, as one who has conducted a syllogism safely to its conclusion--"I 'm afraid I do not think your compensation compensates."

"To be quite honest, I daresay it does n't," he confessed.

"And anyhow"--she followed her victory up--"I should not wish my garden to represent the universal war. I should not wish my garden to be a battle-field. I should wish it to be a retreat from the battle--an abode of peace--a happy valley--a sanctuary for the snatched-from."

"But why distress one's soul with wishes that are vain?" asked he. "What could one do?"

"One could keep a dragon," she answered promptly. "If I were you, I should keep a sparrow-devouring, finch-respecting dragon."

"It would do no good," said he. "You'd get rid of one species of snatcher, but some other species of snatcher would instantly pop UP."

She gazed at him with those amused eyes of hers, and still again, slowly, sorrowfully, shook her head.

"Oh, your spectacles are black--black," she murmured.

"I hope not," said he; "but such as they are, they show me the inevitable conditions of our planet. The snatcher, here below, is ubiquitous and eternal--as ubiquitous, as eternal, as the force of gravitation. He is likewise protean. Banish him--he takes half a minute to change his visible form, and returns au galop. Sometimes he's an ugly little cacophonous brown sparrow; sometimes he's a splendid florid money-lender, or an aproned and obsequious greengrocer, or a trusted friend, hearty and familiar. But he 's always there; and he's always--if you don't mind the vernacular--'on the snatch.'"

The Duchessa arched her eyebrows.

"If things are really at such a sorry pass," she said, "I will commend my former proposal to you with increased confidence. You should keep a dragon. After all, you only wish to protect your garden; and that"--she embraced it with her glance--"is not so very big. You could teach your dragon, if you procured one of an intelligent breed, to devour greengrocers, trusted friends, and even moneylenders too (tough though no doubt they are), as well as sparrows."

"Your proposal is a surrender to my contention," said Peter. "You would set a snatcher to catch the snatchers. Other heights in other lives, perhaps. But in the dark backward and abysm of space to which our lives are confined, the snatcher is indigenous and inexpugnable."


The Cardinal's Snuff-Box - 5/39

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