DRAMATIC INCIDENTS

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."

I could not approve of so much impartiality, but afterward it seemed to me I had little to be proud of in the shorter and easier method of our own police, as contrasted with the caution of that Roman carabiniere who left the combatants to the mild might of their friends' moral suasion. It was better that the youth should escape, if he did, without a vexatious criminal trial; he may have been no more to blame than the other, who, I learned, had been carried off, in the honorable manner I saw, to a doctor and had his stab looked to. It was not dangerous, and the whole affair ended so. Besides, as I learned, still longer afterward, when it was quite safe for a cabman from the same stand to speak, the combatants were not Romans, but peasants from the Campagna, who had come in with their market-carts and had become heated with the bad spirits which the peasants have the habit of drinking five or six glasses of when they visit Rome. "What we call benzine," my cabman explained. "We Romans," he added from a moral height, "drink only a glass or two of wine, and we never carry knives."

He may have been right concerning the peacefulness of the Romans and their sobriety, and I am bound to say that I never saw any other violent scene during my stay. Sometimes I heard loud quarrelling among our cabmen, and sometimes I was the subject of it, when one driver snatched me, an impartial prey, from another. But the bad feeling, if there was really any, quickly passed, and some other day I fell to the cabman who had been wronged of me. I had not always the fine sense of being booty which I had one day on coming out of a church and blundering toward the wrong cab. Then the driver whom I had left waiting at the door seized me from the very cab of an unjust rival with the indignant cry, "E roba mia!" (He's my stuff!). It was not quite the phrase I would have chosen, but I had no quarrel, generally speaking, with the cabmen of Rome. To be sure, they have not a rubber tire among them, and their dress leaves much to be desired in professional uniformity. Not one of them looks like a cabman, but many of them in pict-uresqueness of hats and coats look like brigands. I think they would each prefer to have a fur-lined overcoat, which the Roman of any class likes to wear well into the spring; but they mostly content themselves with an Astrakhan collar, more or less mangy. For the rest, some of them will point out the objects of interest as you pass, and they are proud to do so; they are not extortionate, and, if you overpay them ever so little (which is quite worth while), they will not stand upon a matter of lawful fare. A two-cent tip contents them, one of four cents makes them your friends for life; as for a five-cent tip, I do not know what it does, but I advise the reader when he goes to Rome to try it and see.

One fine thing is that the cabmen are in great superabundance in Rome, and the number of barrel-ribbed, ewe-necked, and broken-kneed horses is in no greater proportion than in Paris. Still, the average is large, though, if you will go to the stand, you may select any horse you please without offence. It was a cheerful sight, verging upon gayety, to see every morning the crowd of cabs at our stand and to hear the drivers' talk, sometimes rising into protest and mutual upbraiding. But one Thursday morning, the brightest of the spring, a Sunday silence had fallen on the place, and a Sabbath solitude deepened to the eye the mystery that had first addressed itself to the ear. Then, suddenly, we knew that we were in the presence of that Italian conception of a general strike which interprets itself as a sciopero. It is saying very little of that two days' strike to say that it was far the most impressive experience of our Roman winter; in some sort it was the most impressive experience of my life, for I beheld in it a reduced and imperfect image of what labor could do if it universally chose to do nothing. The dream of William Morris was that a world which we know is pretty much wrong could be put right by this simple process. The trouble has always been to get all sorts of labor to join in the universal strike, but in the Italian sciopero of four years ago the miracle was wrought from one end of the peninsula to the other.

In the Roman strike of last April a partial miracle of the same nature was illustratively wrought, with the same alarming effect on the imagination.

As with the national strike, the inspiration of the Roman strike came from the government's violent dealing with a popular manifestation which only threatened to be mischievous. A stone-mason was killed by falling from a scaffolding, and his funeral was attended by so many hundreds, amounting to thousands, of workmen that the police conceived, not quite unjustifiably, that it was to be made the occasion of a demonstration, especially as the proposed route of the procession lay through the Piazza di Venezia, under the windows of the Austrian Embassy, Austria being always a red rag to the Italian bull and peculiarly irritating through the reservation of the Palazzo Venezia to the ancient enemy at the cession of Venice to Italy. The mourners were therefore forbidden to pass that way, and the police forces were drawn up in the Piazza Gesu, before the Jesuit church, with a strong detachment of troops to support them. Their wisdom in all this was very questionable after what followed, for the mourners insisted on their rights and would go no way but through the Piazza di Venezia. When the dispute was at its height two wagons laden with bricks appeared on the scene. The mourners swarmed upon them, broke the bricks into bats, and hurled them at the police. They had apparently the simple-hearted expectation that the police would stand this indefinitely, but the brickbats hurt, and in their paroxysms of pain the sufferers began firing their revolvers at the mourners. Four persons were killed, with the usual proportion of innocent spectators. At night the labor unions met, and the sciopero was proclaimed as an expression of the popular indignation; but the police had been left with the victory. Whether it was not in some sort a defeat I do not know, but a retired English officer, whom I had no reason to think a radical, said to me that he thought it a great mistake to have let the police oppose the people with firearms. Soldiers should alone be used for such work; they alone knew when to fire and when to stop, and they never acted without orders. In fact, the troops supporting the police took no part in the fray, as the workmen's press recognized with patriotic rejoicing.

The next morning a signal silence prevailed throughout the city, where not a wheel stirred or the sound of a hoof broke the hush of the streets. We had noted already that there were seven Sundays every week in Rome, as was fit in the capital of the Christian religion, but this Thursday was of an intenser Sabbath stillness than any first day of the week that we had yet known. There was the clack of passing feet in the street under our windows, but we looked out upon a yawning void where the busy cabs had clustered, and the cabmen had socially chaffed and quarrelled, and entreated the stranger in the cabman's superstition that a stranger never knows when he wants a cab. Now he could have walked all over Rome without being once invited to drive. Except for here and there a private carriage, or the coupe evidently of a doctor, the streets were empty, and the tourists had to join the citizens in their pedestrian exercise.

The shopkeepers had been notified to close their places of business on the tacit condition of having their windows broken for non-compliance, but in the early forenoon they were still slowly and partially putting up their shutters. You could get in through the darkened doors up till noon; after that it was more and more difficult. But it would be hard to say how far and how deep the sciopero went. In our hotel we knew of it only the second day through the failure of the morning rolls, for there had been no baking overnight. Most of the in-door service was of Swiss or other foreign extraction, and the mechanism of our comfort, our luxury, was operated as usual. Our floor facchino, or porter, went to the meeting of the unions in the evening, being an Italian. Otherwise the strike fell especially on the helpless and guiltless foreigner, who might be, and very often was, in sympathy with the strikers. He had to walk to the ruins, the galleries, the gardens, the churches, if he wanted anything of them; he could not get a carriage even from a stable.

Between the hotels and the station the omnibus traffic was suspended. The railroads being national, push-carts manned by the government employes carried the baggage to and fro, but if one wanted to arrive or depart one had to do it on foot. Tragical scenes presented themselves in relation to this fact. In the afternoon, as I walked up the street toward the great railroad station, I saw coming down the middle of it a strange procession of ladies and gentlemen of every age, gray-haired elders and children of tender years, mixed with porters and push-carts, footing it into the region of the fashionable hotels. They were all laden according to their strength, and people who had never done a stroke of work in their lives were actually carrying their own hand-bags, rugs, and umbrella-cases. It was terrible.

It was terrible for what it was, and terrible for what it suggested, if ever that poor dull beast of labor took the bit permanently into its teeth, or, worse yet, hung back in the breeching and inexorably balked. What would then become of us others, us ladies and gentlemen who had never done a stroke of work and never wished to do one? Should we be forced to the hard necessity of beginning? Could we remain in the comfortable belief that we gave work, or must we be made to own distastefully that it had always been given to us? Should we be able to flatter ourselves with the notion that we had once had dependents because we had money, or should we realize that we had always been dependents because of our having money?

These were the hateful doubts which the Roman strike suggested to the witness, or, at least, one of the witnesses, who has here the pleasure of unburdening himself upon the reader. Yet there was something amusing in the situation; there was a joke - that rarest of all things in Rome - latent in it, which one suspected only from the amiable, the all-but-smiling behavior of the strikers. There was not the slightest disorder during the two days that the strike lasted. When it was called off at a meeting of the unions on Saturday night, one of the seven Sundays of the Roman week dawned upon an activity at the neighboring cab-stand no peacefuller and not much gayer than the silence and solitude of the mornings previous. As for the general effect in the city, you would hardly have known that particular Sunday from those which had gone by the names of Friday and Saturday. Throughout Italy there is now a Sunday-closing law whose effect in a land once of joyous Sabbaths strikes some such chill to the heart as pierces it in Boston on that day, or in the farther eastern or western avenues of New York, when the Family Entrances are religiously locked.

The Italian state has, in fact, so far taken the matter in charge as to have established a secular holiday, coming once a week, which has almost disestablished the holidays of the Church, formerly of much more frequent occurrence. This secular holiday, which every workman has a right to, he may neither give nor sell to his master. He may not even loaf it away in the place where he works, lest he should be clandestinely employed. He must go out of the shop or house or factory or foundry, and spend his ten hours where he cannot be suspected of employing them in productive industry for hire. This law has been enacted in accordance with the will of the unions and no doubt in correction of great abuses. Neither masters nor men now recognize the old-fashioned festa as they once did. Whether the men like the new holiday so well, I did not get any of them explicitly to say. Of course, they cannot all take it at once; they must take it turn about, and they may not find their enforced leisure so lively as the old voluntary saints' days, when their comrades were resting, too. As for the masters, one of the employers of labor, whom I found filling his man's place, would merely say: "It is the new law. No doubt we shall adjust ourselves to it." He did not complain.