If the joke of the door-keeper at the Farnesina was not so delicate in any sense as some other jokes, it had, at least, the merit of being voluntary. In fact, it is the only voluntary joke which I remember hearing in the Tuscan tongue from the Roman mouth during a stay of three months in the Eternal City. This was very disappointing, for I had always thought of the Italians as gay and as liking to laugh and to make laugh. In Venice, where I used to live, the gondoliers were full of jokes, good, bad, and indifferent, and an infection of humor seemed to spread from them to all the lower classes, who were as ready to joke as the lower classes of Irish, and who otherwise often reminded one of them. The joking hahit extended as far down as Florence, even as Siena, and at Naples I had found cabmen who tempered their predacity with bonhomie. But the Romans were preferably serious, at least with the average American, though, if I had tried them in their English instead of my Italian, it might have been different. At times I thought, they felt the weight of being Romans, as it had descended to them from antiquity, and that the strain of supporting it had sobered them. In any case, though there was shouting by night, and some singing of not at all the Neapolitan quality and still less the Neapolitan quantity, there was no laughing, or, as far as I could see, smiling by day.
Yet one day there was a tragedy in front of the hotel next ours which would have made a dog laugh, as the saying is, unless it was a Roman dog. It was a quarrel, more or less murderous, between a fat, elderly man and an agile stripling of not half his age or girth, of whom the tumult about them permitted only fleeting glimpses. By these the elder seemed to be laboriously laying about him with a five-foot club and the younger to be making wild dashes at him and then escaping to the skirts of the cabmen, mounted and dismounted, who surrounded them. Now and then a cabman drove out of the mellay very excitedly, and then turned and drove excitedly back into the thick of it. All the while the dismounted cabmen pressed about the combatants with their hands on one another's backs and their heads peering carefully over one another's shoulders. On the very outermost rim of these, more careful than any, was one of those strange images whom you see about Italian towns in couples, with red- braided swallowtail coats and cocked hats, those carabinieres - namely, who are soldiers in war and policemen in times of peace. Any spectator from a foreign land would have thought it the business of such an officer of the law to press in and stop the fighting; but he did not so interpret his duty. He gingerly touched the shoulders next him with the tips of his fingers, and now and then lifted himself on the tips of his toes to look if the fight had stopped of itself or not.
At last the fat, elderly man, whom his friends - and all the throng except that one wicked youth seemed his friends - were caressing in untimely embraces and coaxing in tones of tender entreaty, burst from them, and, aiming at the head of his enemy, flung his club, to the imminent peril of all the bystanders, and missed him. Then he frankly put himself in the hands of his friends, who lifted him into a cab, where one of them mounted with him and stayed him on the seat, while the cabman drove rapidly away. The wicked youth had vanished in unknown space; but the cara-biniere, attended by a group of admirers, marched boldly up the middle of the street, and the crowd, with whatever reluctance, persuaded itself to disperse, though the cabmen, to the number of ten or twenty, continued to drive around in concentric circles and irregular ellipses. In five minutes not an eye-witness of the fray remained, such being the fear of the law, not so much in those who break it as in those who see it broken, and who dread incurring the vengeance of the culprit, if he is acquitted, or of his family if he is convicted on their testimony. The quarrel had gone on a full quarter of an hour, but the concierge of the hotel in front of which it had raged professed to have known nothing of it, having, he said, been in-doors all the time. A cabman whom we eliminated from the hysterical company of his fellows and persuaded to drive us away to see a church attempted to ignore the whole affair when asked about it. With difficulty he could be made to recollect it, and then he dismissed it as a trifle. "Oh," he said, "chiacchiere di donnic-ciuole," which is something like "Clatter of little old women," a thing not worth noticing. He had, if we could believe him, not cared to know how it began or ended, and he would not talk about it.
Later, still interested by the action of the carabiniere in guarding the public security in his own person, I asked an Italian gentleman, who owned to have seen the affair, why the officer did not break through the crowd and arrest the fighters. "They had knives," he explained, and it seemed a good reason for the cara-biniere's forbearance, as far as it went; but I thought of the short work the brute locust of an Irish policeman at home would have made of the knives. My friend said he had himself gone to one of the municipal police who was looking on at a pleasant remove and said, "Those fellows have knives; they will kill each other," and the municipal policeman had answered, with the calm of an antique Roman sentinel on duty in time of earthquake, "Let them kill."