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An essay by Charles Lever

Italian Law And Justice

Title:     Italian Law And Justice
Author: Charles Lever [More Titles by Lever]

My Garibaldian friend has returned, but only to bid me good-bye and be off again. The Government, it would seem, are rather uneasy as to the movements of the "Beds," and quietly intimated to my friend that they were sure he had something particular to do--some urgent private affairs--at Geneva; and, like the well-bred dog in the story, he does not wait for any further suggestions, but goes at once.

He revenged himself, however, all the time at breakfast, by talking very truculently before the waiters of what would happen when Garibaldi took the field again, and how miserably small Messrs Batazzi & Co. would look under the circumstances. Indeed, as he warmed with his subject, he went the length of declaring that, without a very ample apology for the events of Aspromonte, he did not believe Garibaldi would consent to take Venice, or drive the French out of Rome.

With a spirit of tantalising he prolonged this same breakfast for upwards of two hours, during which the officer of the gendarmerie came and went, and came again, very eager to see him depart, but evidently with instructions neither to molest nor interfere with him.

"Just look at that beggar," cried the Garibaldian; "if he has come in here once during the last hour, he has come a dozen times, and all on my account! And I mean to smoke three 'cavours' over my anisetto before I leave. Waiter, tell the vetturino he'll have plenty of time to throw a feed to his cattle before I start. You know," added he, "if I was disposed to be troublesome, I'd not budge: I'd write up to Turin to the Legation and claim British protection; and I'd have these fellows on the hip, for they stupidly gave me a reason for my expulsion. They said I was conspiring. Now I could say, Prove it; and if we only went to law, it would take ten or twelve years to decide it."

My companion now went on to show that, by a small expenditure of money and a very ordinary exercise of ingenuity, a lawsuit need never end in Italy. "First of all, you could ask the opposite party, Who was his advocate? and on his naming him, you could immediately set to work to show that this man was a creature so vile and degraded, no man with the commonest pretension to honesty would dream of employing him. The history of his father could be adduced, and any private little anecdotes of his mother would find a favourable opportunity for mention. Though a mere skirmish, if judiciously managed, this will occupy a week or two, and at the same time serve to indicate that you mean to show fight; for by this time the 'Legale's' blood will be up, and he is certain to make reprisals on _your_ man, so that for a month or so you and the other principal are in the position of men who, having come out to fight a duel, are first gratified with the spectacle of a row between the seconds. However, at last it is arranged that the lawyers are worthy of each other; and the next step is to demand the names of all the witnesses. This opens a campaign of unlimited duration, for, as nobody is rash enough to trust himself or his cause to real and _bona-fide_ testimony, witnesses are usually selected amongst the most astute and ready-witted persons of your acquaintance." "Oh," cried I, "this is a little too strong, isn't it?" "Let me give you an instance," said he, good-humouredly, and not in the least disposed to be displeased with my expression of distrust. "Some time back an American gentleman took up his abode for some weeks on the Chiaja at Naples, and in the same house there lived an Italian, with whom, from frequently meeting on the stairs and corridors, a sort of hat-touching acquaintance had grown up. At length one day, as the American was passing hastily out, the Italian accosted him with a courteous bow and smile, and said, 'When will it be your perfect convenience, signor, to repay me that little loan of two hundred ducats it was my happy privilege to have lent you last month?'

"The American, astounded as he was, had yet patience to inquire whether he had not mistaken him for another.

"The other smiled somewhat reproachfully, as he said, 'I trust, signor, you are not disposed to ignore the obligation. You are the gentleman who lives, I believe, on the second floor left?'

"'Very true; I do live there, and I owe you nothing. I never borrowed a carlino from you--I never spoke to you before; and if you ever take the liberty to speak to me again, I'll knock you down.'

"The Italian smiled again, not so blandly, perhaps, but as significantly, and saying, 'We shall see,' bowed and retired.

"The American thought little more of the matter till, going to the Prefecture to obtain his vise for Borne, he discovered that his passport had been stopped, and a detainer put upon him for this debt. He hastened at once to his Minister, who referred him to the law-adviser of the Legation for counsel. The man of law looked grave; he neither heeded the angry denunciations of the enraged Yankee, nor his reiterated assurances that the whole was an infamous fraud. He simply said, 'The case is difficult, but I will do my best.' After the lapse of about a week, a message came from the Prefect to say that the stranger's passport was at his service whenever he desired to have it.

"'I knew it would be so!' cried the American, as he came suddenly upon his lawyer in the street. 'I was certain that you were only exaggerating the difficulty of a matter that must have been so simple; for, as I never owed the money, there was no reason why I should pay it.'

"'It was a case for some address, notwithstanding,' said the other, shaking his head.

"'Address! fiddle-stick! It was a plain matter of fact, and needed neither skill nor cunning. You of course showed that this fellow was a stranger to me--that we had never interchanged a word till the day he made this rascally demand?'

"'I did nothing of the kind, sir. If I had put in so contemptible a plea, you would have lost your cause. What I did was this: I asked what testimony he could adduce as to the original loan, and he gave me the name of one witness, a certain Count well known in this city, who was at breakfast with him when you called to borrow this money, and who saw the pieces counted out and placed in your hand.'

"'You denounced this fellow as a perjurer?'

"'Far from it, sir. I respect the testimony of a man of station and family, and I would not insult the feelings of the Count by daring to impugn it; but as the plaintiff had called only one witness to the loan, I produced two just as respectable, just as distinguished, who saw you repay the debt! You are now free; and remember, sir, that wherever your wanderings lead you, never cease to remember that, whatever be our demerits at Naples, at least we can say with pride, The laws are administered with equal justice to all men!'"

The entrance of the gendarme at this moment cut short the question I was about to ask, whether I was to accept this story as a fact or as a parable.

"Here he comes again. Only look at the misery in the fellow's face! and you see he has his orders evidently enough; and he dare not hurry me. I think I'll have a bath before I start."

"It is scarcely fair, after all," said I. "I suppose he wants to get back to his one o'clock dinner."

"I could no more feel for a gendarme than I could compassionate a scorpion. Take the best-natured fellow in Europe--the most generous, the most trustful, the most unsuspecting--make a brigadier of Gendarmerie of him for three months, and he'll come out scarcely a shade brighter than the veriest rascal he has handcuffed! Do you know what our friend yonder is at now?"

"No. He appears to be trying to take a stain out of one of his yellow gauntlets."

"No such thing. He is noting down your features--taking a written portrait of you, as the man who sat at breakfast with me on a certain morning of a certain month. Take my word for it, some day or other when you purchase a hat too tall in the crown, or you are seen to wear your whiskers a trifle too long or bushy, an intimation will reach you at your hotel, that the Prefect would like to talk with you; the end of which will be the question, 'Whether there is not a friend you are most anxious to meet in Switzerland, or if you have not an uncle impatient to see you at Trieste?' And yet," added he, after a pause, "the Piedmontese are models of liberality and legality in comparison with the officials in the south. In Sicily, for instance, the laws are more corruptly administered than in Turkey. I'll tell you a case, which was, however, more absurd than anything else. An English official, well known at Messina, and on the most intimate terms with the Prefect, came back from a short shooting-excursion he had made into the interior, half frantic with the insolence of the servants at a certain inn. The proprietor was absent, and the waiter and the cook--not caring, perhaps, to be disturbed for a single traveller--had first refused flatly to admit him; and afterwards, when he had obtained entrance, treated him to the worst of food, intimating at the same time it was better than he was used to, and plainly giving him to understand that on the very slightest provocation they were prepared to give him a sound thrashing. Boiling over with passion, he got back to Messina, and hastened to recount his misfortunes to his friend in power.

"'Where did it happen?' asked the hard-worked Prefect, with folly enough on his hands without having to deal with the sorrows of Great Britons.

"'At Spalla deMonte.'


"'On Wednesday last, the 23d.'

"'What do you want me to do with them?'

"'To punish them, of course.'

"'How--in what way?'

"'How do I know? Send them to jail.'

"'For how long?'

"'A month if you can--a fortnight at least.'

"'What are the names?' asked the Prefect, who all this time continued to write, filling up certain blanks in some printed formula before him.

"'How should I know their names? I can only say that one was the cook, the other the waiter.'

"'There!' said the Prefect, tossing two sheets of printed and written-over paper towards him--'there! tell the landlord to fill in the fellows' names and surnames, and send that document to the Podesta. They shall have four weeks, and with hard labour.'

"The Englishman went his way rejoicing. He despatched the missive, and felt his injuries were avenged.

"Two days after, however, a friend dropped in, and in the course of conversation mentioned that he had just come from Spalla de Monte, where he had dined so well and met such an intelligent waiter; 'which, I own,' said he, 'surprised me, for I had heard of their having insulted some traveller last week very grossly.'

"The Englishman hurried off to the Prefecture. 'We are outraged, insulted, laughed at!' cried he: 'those fellows you ordered to prison are at large. They mock your authority and despise it.'

"A mounted messenger was sent off at speed to bring up the landlord to Messina, and he appeared the next morning, pale with fear and trembling. He owned that the Prefect's order had duly reached him, that he had understood it thoroughly; 'but, Eccellenza,' said he, crying, 'it was the shooting season; people were dropping in every day. Where was I to find a cook or a waiter? I must have closed the house if I parted with them; so, not to throw contempt on your worship's order, I sent two of the stablemen to jail in their place, and a deal of good it will do them.'"

While I was laughing heartily at this story, my companion turned towards the gendarme and said, "Have you made a note of his teeth? you see they are tolerably regular, but one slightly overlaps the other in front."

"Signor Generale," said the other, reddening, "I'll make a note of _your_ tongue, which will do quite as well."

"Bravo!" said the Garibaldian; "better said than I could have given you credit for. I'll not keep you any longer from your dinner. Will you bear me company," asked he of me, "as far as Chiavari? It's a fine day, and we shall have a pleasant drive."

I agreed, and we started.

The road was interesting, the post-horses which we took at Borghetto went well, and the cigars were good, and somehow we said very little to each other as we went.

"This is the real way to travel," said my companion; "a man to smoke with and no bother of talking; there's Chiavari in the hollow."

I nodded, and never spoke.

"Are you inclined to come on to Genoa?"


And soon after we parted--whether ever to meet again or not is not so easy to say, nor of very much consequence to speculate on.

[The end]
Charles Lever's essay: Italian Law And Justice