OUTPACE Uncategorized SALVATORE BY William Somerset Maugham- ISC ENGLISH STORIES


I WONDER if I can do it.
I knew Salvatore first when he was
a boy of fifteen with a pleasant, ugly face, a laughing mouth and care-free
eyes. He used to spend the morning lying about the beach with next to nothing
on and his brown body was as thin as a rail. He was full of grace. He was in
and out of the sea all the time, swimming with the clumsy, effortless stroke
common to the fisher boys. Scrambling up the jagged rocks on his hard feet, for
except on Sundays he never wore shoes, he would throw himself into the deep
water with a cry of delight. His father was a fisherman who owned his own
little vineyard and Salvatore acted as nursemaid to his two younger brothers.
He shouted to them to come inshore when they ventured out too far and made them
dress when it was time to climb the hot, vineclad hill for the frugal midday
But boys in those Southern parts
grow apace and in a little while he was madly in love with a pretty girl who
lived on the Grande Marina. She had eyes like forest pools and held herself like
a daughter of the Caesars. They were affianced, but they could not marry till
Salvatore had done his military service, and when he left the island which he
had never left in his life before, to become a sailor in the navy of King
Victor Emmanuel, he wept like a child. It was hard for one who had never been
less free than the birds to be at the beck and call of others; it was harder
still to live in a battleship with strangers instead of in a little white
cottage among the vines; and when he was ashore, to walk in noisy, friendless
cities with streets so crowded that he was frightened to cross them, when he
had been used to silent paths and the mountains and the sea. I suppose it had
never struck him that Ischia, which he looked at every evening (it was like a
fairy island in the sunset) to see what the weather would be like next day, or
Vesuvius, pearly in the dawn, had anything to do with him at all; but when he
ceased to have them before his eyes he realised in some dim fashion that they were
as much part of him as his hands and his feet. He was dreadfully homesick. But
it was hardest of all to be parted from the girl he loved with all his passionate
young heart. He wrote to her (in his childlike handwriting) long, ill-spelt
letters in which he told her how constantly he thought of her and how much he
longed to be back. He was sent here and there, to Spezzia, to Venice, to Bari
and finally to China. Here he fell ill of some mysterious ailment that kept him
in hospital for months. He bore it with the mute and uncomprehending patience of
a dog. When he learnt that it was a form of rheumatism that made him unfit for
further service his heart exulted, for he could go home; and he did not bother,
in fact he scarcely listened, when the doctors told him that he would never
again be quite well. What did he care when he was going back to the little
island he loved so well and the girl who was waiting for him?
When he got into the rowing-boat
that met the steamer from Naples and was rowed ashore he saw his father and
mother standing on the jetty and his two brothers, big boys now, and he waved
to them. His eyes searched among the crowd that waited there, for the girl. He
could not see her. There was a great deal of kissing when he jumped up the
steps and they all, emotional creatures, cried a little as they exchanged their
greetings. He asked where the girl was. His mother told him that she did not know;
they had not seen her for two or three weeks; so in the evening when the moon
was shining over the placid sea and the lights of Naples twinkled in the
distance he walked down to the Grande Marina to her house. She was sitting on
the doorstep with her mother. He was a little shy because he had not seen her for
so long. He asked her if she had not received the letter that he had written to
her to say that he was coming home. Yes, they had received a letter, and they had
been told by another of the island boys that he was ill. Yes, that was why he
was back; was it not a piece of luck? Oh, but they had heard that he would never
be quite well again. The doctors talked a lot of nonsense, but he knew very
well that now he was home again he would recover. They were silent for a
little, and then the mothernudged the girl. She did not try to soften the blow.
She told him straight out, with the blunt directness of her race, that she
could not marry a man who would never be strong enough to work like a man. They
had made up their minds, her mother and father and she, and her father would
never give his consent.
When Salvatore went home he found
that they all knew. The girl’s father had been to tell them what they had
decided, but they had lacked the courage to tell him themselves. He wept on his
mother’s bosom. He was terribly unhappy, but he did not blame the girl. A
fisherman’s life is hard and it needs strength and endurance. He knew very well
that a girl could not afford to marry a man who might not be able to support
her. His smile was very sad and his eyes had the look of a dog that has been beaten,
but he did not complain, and he never said a hard word of the girl he had loved
so well. Then, a few months later, when he had settled down to the common
round, working in his father’s vineyard and fishing, his mother told him that
there was a young woman in the village who was willing to marry him. Her name
was Assunta.
“She’s as ugly as the
devil,” he said.
She was older than he, twenty-four
or twenty-five, and she had been engaged to a man who, while doing his military
service, had been killed in Africa. She had a little money of her own and if
Salvatore married her she could buy him a boat of his own and they could take a
vineyard that by a happy chance happened at that moment to be without a tenant.
His mother told him that Assunta had seen him at the jesta and had
fallen in love with him. Salvatore smiled his sweet smile and said he would
think about it. On the following Sunday, dressed in the stiff black clothes in
which he looked so much less well than in the ragged shirt and trousers of
every day, he went up to HighMass at the parish church and placed himself so
that he could have a good look at the young woman. When he came down again he
told his mother that he was willing.
Well, they were married and they
settled down in a tiny whitewashed house in the middle of a handsome vineyard. Salvatore
was now a great big husky fellow, tall and broad, but still with that ingenuous
smile and those trusting, kindly eyes that he had had as a boy. He had the most
beautiful manners I have ever seen in my life. Assunta was a grim-visaged
female, with decided features, and she looked old for her years. But she had a
good heart and she was no fool. I used to be amused by the little smile of
devotion that she gave her husband when he was being very masculine and masterful;
she never ceased to be touched by his gentle sweetness. But she could not bear
the girl who had thrown him over, and notwithstanding Salvatore’s smiling
expostulations she had nothing but harsh words for her.
Presently children were born to
It was a hard enough life. All
through the fishing season towards evening he set out in his boat with one of
his brothers for the fishing grounds. It was a long pull of six or seven miles,
and he spent the night catching the profitable cuttlefish. Then there was the
long row back again in order to sell the catch in time for it to go on the
early boat to Naples. At other times he was working in his vineyard from dawn
till the heat drove him to rest and then again, when it was a trifle cooler,
till dusk. Often his rheumatism prevented him from doing anything at all and then
he would lie about the beach, smoking cigarettes, with a pleasant word for
everyone notwithstanding the pain that racked his limbs. The foreigners who
came down to bathe and saw him there said that these Italian fishermen were
lazy devils.
Sometimes he used to bring his
children down to give them a bath. They were both boys and at this time the
elder was three and the younger less than two. They sprawled about at the water’s
edge stark naked and Salvatore standing on a rock would dip them in the water.
The elder one bore it with stoicism, but the baby screamed lustily. Salvatore
had enormous hands, like legs of mutton, coarse and hard from constant toil,
but when he bathed his children, holding them so tenderly, drying them with
delicate care, upon my word they were like flowers. He would seat the naked
baby on the palm of his hand and hold him up, laughing a little at his smallness,
and his laugh was like the laughter of an angel. His eyes then were as candid
as his child’s.

I started by saying that I wondered
if I could do it and now I must tell you what it is that I have tried to do. I
wanted to see whether I could hold your attention for a few pages while I drew for
you the portrait of a man, just an ordinary fisherman who possessed nothing in
the world except a quality which is the rarest, the most precious and the
loveliest that anyone can have. Heaven only knows why he should so strangely
and unexpectedly have possessed it. All I know is that it shone in him with a
radiance that, if it had not been so unconscious and so humble, would have been
to the common run of men hardly bearable. And in case you have not guessed what
the quality was, I will tell you. Goodness, just goodness.

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