Written by William Dean Howells and originally published in 1866
Wishing to tell the story of our Mouse, because I think it illustrates some amusing traits of character in a certain class of Italians, I explain at once that he was not a mouse, but a man so called from his wretched, trembling little manner, his fugitive expression, and peaked visage.
He first appeared to us on the driver’s seat of that carriage in which we posted so splendidly one spring-time from Padua to Ponte Lagoscuro. But though he mounted to his place just outside the city gate, we did not regard him much, nor, indeed, observe what a mouse he was, until the driver stopped to water his horses near Battaglia, and the Mouse got down to stretch his forlorn little legs. Then I got down too, and bade him good-day, and told him it was a very hot day—for he was a mouse apparently so plunged in wretchedness that I doubted if he knew what kind of day it was.
When I had spoken, he began to praise (in the wary manner of the Venetians when they find themselves in the company of a foreigner who does not look like an Englishman) the Castle of the Obiza near by, which is now the country-seat of the ex-Duke of Modena; and he presently said something to imply that he thought me a German.
“But I am not a German,” said I.
“As many excuses,” said the Mouse sadly, but with evident relief; and then began to talk more freely, and of the evil times.
“Are you going all the way with us to Florence?” I asked.
“No, signor, to Bologna; from there to Ancona.”
“Have you ever been in Venice? We are just coming from there.”
“It is a beautiful place. Do you like it?”
“Sufficiently. But one does not enjoy himself very well there.”
“But I thought Venice interesting.”
“Sufficiently, signor. Ma!” said the Mouse, shrugging his shoulders, and putting on the air of being luxuriously fastidious in his choice of cities, “the water is so bad in Venice.”
The Mouse is dressed in a heavy winter overcoat, and has no garment to form a compromise with his shirt-sleeves, if he should wish to render the weather more endurable by throwing off the surtout. In spite of his momentary assumption of consequence, I suspect that his coat is in the Monte di Pietà. It comes out directly that he is a ship-carpenter who has worked in the Arsenal of Venice, and at the ship-yards in Trieste.
But there is no work any more. He went to Trieste lately to get a job on the three frigates which the Sultan had ordered to be built there. Ma! After all, the frigates are to be built in Marseilles instead. There is nothing. And every thing is so dear. In Venetia you spend much and gain little. Perhaps there is work at Ancona.
By this time the horses are watered; the Mouse regains his seat, and we almost forget him, till he jumps from his place, just before we reach the hotel in Rovigo, and disappears—down the first hole in the side of a house, perhaps. He might have done much worse, and spent the night at the hotel, as we did.
The next morning at four o’clock, when we start, he is on the box again, nibbling bread and cheese, and glancing furtively back at us to say good morning. He has little twinkling black eyes, just like a mouse, and a sharp moustache, and sharp tuft on his chin—as like Victor Emanuel’s as a mouse’s tuft can be.
The cold morning air seems to shrivel him, and he crouches into a little gelid ball on the seat beside the driver, while we wind along the Po on the smooth gray road; while the twilight lifts slowly from the distances of field and vineyard; while the black boats of the Po, with their gaunt white sails, show spectrally through the mists; while the trees and the bushes break into innumerable voice, and the birds are glad of another day in Italy; while the peasant drives his mellow-eyed, dun oxen afield; while his wife comes in her scarlet bodice to the door, and the children’s faces peer out from behind her skirts; while the air freshens, the east flushes, and the great miracle is wrought anew.
Once again, before we reach the ferry of the Po, the Mouse leaps down and disappears as mysteriously as at Rovigo. We see him no more till we meet in the station on the other side of the river, where we hear him bargaining long and earnestly with the ticket-seller for a third-class passage to Bologna. He fails to get it, I think, at less than the usual rate, for he retires from the contest more shrunken and forlorn than ever, and walks up and down the station, startled at a word, shocked at any sudden noise.
For curiosity, I ask how much he paid for crossing the river, mentioning the fabulous sum it had cost us.
It appears that he paid sixteen soldi only. “What could they do when a man was in misery? I had nothing else.”
Even while thus betraying his poverty, the Mouse did not beg, and we began to respect his poverty. In a little while we pitied it, witnessing the manner in which he sat down on the edge of a chair, with a smile of meek desperation.
It is a more serious case when an artisan is out of work in the Old World than one can understand in the New. There the struggle for bread is so fierce and the competition so great; and, then, a man bred to one trade cannot turn his hand to another as in America. Even the rudest and least skilled labor has more to do it than are wanted. The Italians are very good to the poor, but the tradesman out of work must become a beggar before charity can help him.
We, who are poor enough to be wise, consult foolishly together concerning the Mouse. It blesses him that gives, and him that takes—this business of charity. And then, there is something irresistibly relishing and splendid in the consciousness of being the instrument of a special providence! Have I all my life admired those beneficent characters in novels and comedies who rescue innocence, succor distress, and go about pressing gold into the palm of poverty, and telling it to take it and be happy; and now shall I reject an occasion, made to my hand, for emulating them in real life?
“I think I will give the Mouse five francs,” I say.
“But I will be prudent,” I continue. “I will not give him this money. I will tell him it is a loan which he may pay me back again whenever he can. In this way I shall relieve him now, and furnish him an incentive to economy.”
I call to the Mouse, and he runs tremulously toward me.
“Have you friends in Ancona?”
“How much money have you left?”
He shows me three soldi. “Enough for a coffee.”
So I give him the five francs, and explain my little scheme of making it a loan, and not a gift; and then I give him my address.
He does not appear to understand the scheme of the loan; but he takes the money, and is quite stunned by his good fortune. He thanks me absently, and goes and shows the piece to the guards, with a smile that illumines and transfigures his whole person. At Bologna, he has come to his senses; he loads me with blessings, he is ready to weep; he reverences me, he wishes me a good voyage, endless prosperity, and innumerable days; and takes the train for Ancona.
“Ah, ah!” I congratulate myself,—“is it not a fine thing to be the instrument of a special providence?”
It is pleasant to think of the Mouse during all that journey, and if we are never so tired, it rests us to say, “I wonder where the Mouse is by this time?” When we get home, and coldly count up our expenses, we rejoice in the five francs lent to the Mouse. “And I know he will pay it back if ever he can,” I say. “That was a Mouse of integrity.”
Two weeks later comes a comely young woman, with a young child—a child strong on its legs, a child which tries to open every thing in the room, which wants to pull the cloth off the table, to throw itself out of the open window—a child of which I have never seen the peer for restlessness and curiosity. This young woman has been directed to call on me as a person likely to pay her way to Ferrara. “But who sent you? But, in fine, why should I pay your way to Ferrara? I have never seen you before.”
“My husband, whom you benefited on his way to Ancona, sent me. Here is his letter and the card you gave him.”
I call out to my fellow-victim,—“My dear, here is news of the Mouse!”
“Don’t tell me he’s sent you that money already!”
“Not at all. He has sent me his wife and child, that I may forward them to him at Ferrara, out of my goodness, and the boundless prosperity which has followed his good wishes—I, who am a great signor in his eyes, and an insatiable giver of five-franc pieces—the instrument of a perpetual special providence. The Mouse has found work at Ferrara, and his wife comes here from Trieste. As for the rest, I am to send her to him, as I said.”
“You are deceived,” I say solemnly to the Mouse’s wife. “I am not a rich man. I lent your husband five francs because he had nothing. I am sorry but I cannot spare twenty florins to send you to Ferrara. If one will help you?”
“Thanks the same,” said the young woman, who was well dressed enough; and blessed me, and gathered up her child, and went her way.
But her blessing did not lighten my heart, depressed and troubled by so strange an end to my little scheme of a beneficent loan. After all, perhaps the Mouse may have been as keenly disappointed as myself. With the ineradicable idea of the Italians, that persons who speak English are wealthy by nature, and tutti originali, it was not such an absurd conception of the case to suppose that if I had lent him five francs once, I should like to do it continually. Perhaps he may yet pay back the loan with usury. But I doubt it. In the mean time, I am far from blaming the Mouse. I merely feel that there is a misunderstanding, which I can pardon if he can.