Chapter XV. – A Traveller’s Mistake, pp.63-66.

[Book of Blunders Contents]

PAUL LOUIS COURIER relates the following story:- I was once travelling in Calabria [south-west Italy] – a land of wicked people who, I believe, hate every one, and particularly the French; the reason why would take long to tell you; suffice it to say, that they mortally hate us, and that one gets on very badly when he falls into their hands. 

I had for a companion a young man. 

In these mountains the roads are precipices; our horses got on with much difficulty; my companion went first; a path which appeared to him shorter and more practicable led us astray. 

It was my fault. Ought I to have trusted to a head only twenty years old? 

Whilst daylight lasted, we tried to find our way through the wood, but the more we tried, the more bewildered we became, and it was pitch dark when we arrived at a very black-looking house. We entered, not without fear, but what could we do? We found a whole family of colliers at table; they immediately invited us to join them; my young man did not wait to be pressed; there we were eating and drinking, – he at least, for I was examining the place, and the appearance of our hosts. They had quite the look of colliers, but the house you would have taken for an arsenal; there was nothing but guns, pistols, swords, knives and cutlasses. Everything displeased me, and I saw very well that I displeased them. My companion, on the contrary, was quite one of the family – he laughed and talked with them, and with an imprudence that I ought to have foreseen (but to what purpose if it was decreed), he told at once where we came from, where we were going, and that we were Frenchmen. 

Just imagine! amongst our most mortal enemies, alone, out of our road, so far from all human succour. 

And then, to omit nothing that might ruin us, he played the rich man, promised to give, the next morning, as a remuneration to these people, and to our guides, whatever they wished. Then he spoke of his portmanteau, begging of them to take care of it, and to put it at the head of his bed; he did not wish, he said, for any other pillow. Ah, youth, youth! you are to be pitied! One would have thought he carried the crown diamonds. 

What caused him so much solicitude about this portmanteau was his sweetheart’s letters. 

Supper over, they left us. Our hosts slept below; we in the upper room, where we had supped. A lost, raised some seven or eight feet, which was reached by a ladder, was the resting place that awaited us; a sort of nest, into which we were to introduce ourselves by creeping under joists loaded with provisions for the year. My companion climbed up alone, and already nearly asleep, laid himself down with his head upon the precious portmanteau. 

Having determined to sit up, I made a good fire and seated myself by the side of it. The night, which had been undisturbed, was nearly over, and I began to reassure myself. About the time when I thought the break of day could not be far off, I heard our host and his wife talking and disputing below; an, putting my ear to the chimney which communicated with the one in the lower room, I perfectly distinguished these words spoken by the husband – 

   “Well, let us see, must they both be killed?” 

To which the wife replied, 

   “Yes,”  

and I heard no more. 

How shall I go on? I stood, scarcely breathing, my body cold as marble. When I think of it now! we, almost without weapons, against twelve or fifteen who had so many! and my companion dead with sleep and fatigue! To call him or make a noise, I dared not; to escape alone was impossible; the window was not high, but below were two large dogs howling like wolves. In what an agony I was, imagine if you can. 

At the end of a long quarter of an hour, I heard some one on the stair, and through the crack of the door, I saw the man, his lamp in one hand, and in the other one of his large knives. He came up, his wife after him. I was behind the door; he opened it, but before he came in, he put down the lamp, which his wife took. He then entered, barefoot, and from outside, the woman said to him, in a low voice, shading the light of the lamp with her hand, 

   “Softly, go softly.” 

When he got to the ladder he mounted it, his knife between his teeth, and getting up as high as the bed – the poor young man lying with his throat bare -with one hand he took his knife and with the other he seized a ham which hung from the ceiling, cut a slice from it, and retired as he had come! 

The door was closed again, the lamp disappeared, and I was left alone with my reflections. 

As soon as day appeared, all the family, making a great noise, came to awaken us as we had requested. They brought us something to eat, and gave us a very clean and a very good breakfast, I assure you. Two capons formed part of it, of which we must, said our hostess, take away one, and eat the other. When I saw them I understood the meaning of those terrible words, 

   “Must they both be killed?” 

and you also will guess now what they signified.

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