In her tragically short, dramatic, and artistically prolific life, Eva Cattermole (1849-1896), who wrote under the name Countess Lara, was known primarily for her poetry. But as the following piece shows, she was also a gifted short-story writer.
The Coral Necklace
(Il vezzo di corallo, 1883)
by Countess Lara (Eva Cattermole)
Translated from the Italian by Steve Eaton © 2022
Of course, Caròla paid no attention to Tonino. In the evenings, as the wind from Africa picked up, he’d pull his fishing boat onto the beach and come over to sweet-talk her. She was usually in the doorway of her home, patching up the striped shirts worn by her men—her father and two brothers. So Tonino would sit there on the ground a little ways off, resting his back against the wall, with a corner of the net he was mending stretched across his bare, muscular legs, reddish-brown as molten bronze. Everyone in town had known for a while that sooner or later those two would get married. In contrast to most unions, where it seemed necessary to please everyone, even those who had nothing to do with the couple, there wasn’t the shadow of an objection to the match. Caròla’s father, who considered Tonino the greatest gentleman in all of Marciana Marina, had offered him the girl on his own, urging him, “Look here, you should take my daughter!” and the young man, with a smile and a scratch of the forehead under his hair, had said, “Well, I’m ready.” And so the matter was agreed. But the one who wasn’t in such a hurry was Caròla. Of course she’d have to put aside a few pennies for an outfit, plus a coral necklace and pendants, which were her obsession. The red looked so good on her! Her little bedroom mirror even said so, even if it was broken, grayish and all scratched up in back, when she looked at herself, placing a rose or carnation from the garden in her black curls. The old man could imagine how Tonino must be suffering, hanging around such a fine bit of a girl without being able to enjoy her except with his eyes, cooked to a turn in love as he was. Sometimes the old man would press the girl, “But when I married your mother, may she rest in peace, all she had was three shirts and two dresses, including the one for holidays, and for jewelry just her wedding ring. Do you need to have everything ready, right away? You can acquire your things little by little.” But Caròla would shrug her shoulders and answer in a hard, determined tone. She would not take a husband while she was practically naked and broke, and certainly not without her vezzo rosso—her red necklace. Why couldn’t Tonino just wait? And he was free to marry someone else, she wasn’t one to chain a man down. That made the old man shut up, shaking his head. There’s not much you can do with a woman, especially with that she-devil Caròla who chewed up everyone like a piece of bread, no one could do anything with her. Maybe it came from being left motherless at a young age, with her father and brothers always away at sea. She’d been left alone as mistress of the house, to do or undo as she pleased. But it came from her temperament as well, clearly revealed by her physique. Just one look at that pretty twenty-two-year-old body would convince you of that. Tall, dark, strapping, with a bosom firm as granite, her hairline low across her forehead, two wide eyebrows that almost met, framing large, gorgeous eyes. Her broad mouth was adorned with compact, even rows of sharp little teeth, like those of a young she-wolf, gleaming through thick, blood-red lips. Altogether a haughty, wicked portrait, calling to mind the typical sort of woman who shares the romances, adventures, and misdeeds of our southern Italian ruffians. Tonino adored her, but without ever telling her so, barely even hinting at it, because at the first tender word, the first intimate touch, he could feel those big eyes boring into him—two big eyes that incited fear and desire in equal measure—colder and deeper than a knife blade. The only thing that could draw something like a warm smile out of that strange girl was to hear herself called pretty. Confronted with this notion, the woman was really a woman. On Sundays she would cross the piazza on her way to Mass, towering over her companions by a hand, boosted by her wooden sandals. She wore a bandanna of yellow flowers on a red background, tied on her neck, underneath her curls, and the men would turn around to look at her. The sergeant of the customs police used to stand around in front of the church at that time of day, smoking and spitting, and if Caròla passed by, he always made a remark. The reverend father had preached more than once: “a little more modesty, dear child.” But all the poor man accomplished was to stop Caròla from going to confession except on Easter, when you really had to. So Tonino took no particular notice of his beloved’s somber expression, that morning of August 15th when, coming back from the trip to the Madonna of the Mountain, he held the rope she used as a bridle, while the girl’s aged father came down with his head bowed, staring at the rocks on the trail. All three heads were swimming from the commotion of the festival they had just attended. A grand festival! You could say that practically the entire population of Elba betook themselves to the island’s highest point on Assumption Day, to see this Madonna of the Mountain! That’s what the women of Elba call her, like the women of the Marche exclaim, “Madonna of Loreto!” As soon as day breaks, people swarm up the flanks of the mountain to hear mass; the men mostly on foot, the women, on wooden saddles atop asses, their legs dangling next to the baskets of provisions. Together they formed oddly picturesque group portraits, with their bright colors against that background, framed by wild nature. Up, up they go, at the animal’s pace, now disappearing among the enormous masses of rock that dangle over them bizarrely on one side, as if on the whim of a titan, and on the other side tumble down a precipice, forming a cascade of broken granite, at the base of which runs a foaming torrent. Above them, the opal blue of the sky; behind them the gauzy, vaporous blue of the sea, stretching away like the foreshortened painting on a backdrop. Up they go, now stopping to dry their sweat in the shade of a stand of chestnuts, where the donkeys, fed on beatings, immediately stretch their necks to nibble on any plant within reach of their yellowish teeth. Up they go, past huts with unpainted walls, scattered, dark, hardly bigger than a dove’s nest, and on this day deserted by their friendly occupants, who usually call out to passersby, offering them the refreshment of their yellow-green wine, salted anchovies, and cookies flavored with fennel. Up, up they go, struggling harder and harder, the path getting steeper. Up they go, until they reach the peak with the little church that overlooks the whole island, fertile here and barren there, abundant in oriental plants, in marvelous colors and enchantment. A bit of Sicily tossed onto the sea like a flower, by the Tuscan shore. But the clearing in front of the Madonna of the Mountain isn’t broad enough to hold many people. Until those who weren’t among the first to arrive give up and spread out around the summit, a crowd forms with everyone on top of each other, pushing, shoving, shouting. I remember seeing once, amid that fracas, a quite grotesque figure—a farm overseer’s wife in her fifties, a mastodon of a woman riding an ass, dressed in starched red muslin over a petticoat with big flounces that hardly covered her enormous calves, stuffed into rough knitted stockings. She wore a round, white straw hat decorated with blue ribbons, and jewelry around her neck and hanging from her ears, and around her waist a gold watch chain. In her right hand she held a whip and the reins of her ass, which almost disappeared beneath that big pink balloon; in her left hand was an immense open waxed green umbrella, which completed the caricature. Having reached the top of the ascent, right at the edge of the clearing, the good woman, who’d traveled from who knows how far away to witness the event in person, meant to push through immediately. Too bad! Christ Himself couldn’t have made those firmly planted peasants step aside. Nor were they moved by the determination of the overseer’s wife who, dripping with sweat, choking with rage, began to beat the daylight out of the ass’ hindquarters, while the crowd rained fists on the poor beast’s flanks and forelegs. Shouts, curses, an indescribable mess, until the donkey had had enough. Delivering a couple of hearty kicks and bucking wickedly, it sent the overseer’s wife and rest of the structure, enormous waxed green umbrella included, tumbling God knows where… Meanwhile, the church was so crowded inside that a grain of wheat couldn’t have squeezed through it, and with everyone’s breath, the lamps, the decorations, the incense, it was enough to make you faint—especially after the Elevation, when the church bells rang, the organ played, the priests sang, the people sang, and firecrackers went off, all at full blast. Lucky were those left outside! The sea air was refreshing in spite of the hot sun. When mass was over, everybody wanted to rest in the shade and have a bite, stretched out on the ground, where the baskets were emptied of their homemade treats, putting them all in a good mood. Then, around eleven…the beasts are mounted again and down they go, happily, drunk from strong wine, from the commotion, from the sun, from those steep turns which, seen from above, look so scary. Down they go, happily! All the saints assist you on the way down. “Did you see that red necklace on the Madonna?” Caròla asked Tonino as they stopped to drink, with cupped hands, from a cool spring that burbled over some mossy rocks. “A necklace with beads the size of walnuts,” she added under her breath, as yellow flames of envy passed over her half-closed eyes. Then, along the road, they talked about the legend of the Madonna of the Mountain’s coral necklace—a legend that was on everyone’s lips and which, to its credit, played no small part in drawing people to the sanctuary. In Elba it’s believed—and no one knows how the superstition got started—that it’s a sin to leave the island on mezzo Agosto—mid-August—a day devoted to the Virgin Mary. That’s why there’s not a fishing boat to be seen, spreading the wings of its sails on local waters, on the fifteenth. Only the little mail packet La Pianosa makes its usual run like any other day, and it departs Portoferraio, blasting the harbor with the strident farewell of its horn. But the Pianosa, big or tiny, is a steamship; steamships represent progress; and progress has no religion. Anyway they say that the year before the events I’m describing, a young foreigner came to visit the island, in particular the iron mines near Rio—the little town that looks like it sprang out of A Thousand and One Nights, because the sand glistens like crushed diamonds and the waves there are red. He stopped at Marciana Marina, and laughing at the beliefs of the place and the advice of some old islanders, he took out a boat to go fishing, right at the time for celebrating mass up in the Sanctuary. The blue plain of the sea was without a wrinkle; the sun was on fire; not a breath of wind, not a patch of cloud; and the foreigner rowed, rowed under a mercilessly bright sky across a sea like oil. All of a sudden, as if a mysterious, mighty hand were knocking it over like a child’s toy, the boat overturned and was quickly swallowed up by a whirlpool, leaving the castaway bobbing on the water, half stunned, half terrified. Meanwhile the perfect calm persisted, and gathering his courage, he swam doggedly for shore, a couple of miles away. And so he swam, for as long as the strength in his limbs permitted. Now he would float on his back to rest; now he would dip his forehead to cool off; but after he’d been in the water a good while he felt his body invaded by a strange torpor. His heart pounded, his breath grew shorter; his arms were getting weak, refusing to drag him forward. His mouth burned with thirst under that tropic sun beating down on his head. More and more frequently he had to turn onto his back to catch his breath, and he realized with growing terror that he wasn’t getting any closer to shore. Every so often, as he waved an arm, a weak cry issued from his gasping throat. But no human voice responded to that call for help. He struggled valiantly against death, while the land smiled at him, so close, but he sensed that he was losing the strength to reach it. He fought with a desperate will; and then in single instant he was finished, and gave up. When he reopened his eyes he was on the beach, supported, amid a group of people, by two sailors, one of whom was soaking wet. He understood, and thanked his savior with a dying glance before fainting away once more. But the Madonna of the Mountain performed a miracle—they all said so—and a month later, the Sacred Image wore a coral necklace around its throat, a votive offered from afar by the mother of the hero of that strange adventure. And the necklace truly was a stupendous piece of jewelry. For as long as Caròla was in the church, she couldn’t tear her eyes away from it. Yes, she would start to mutter an Ave Maria or two, but she couldn’t keep it up, her mind was so oppressed by that flame-colored necklace, which stood out against the Virgin’s white dress, embroidered with gold, under a canopy of stars, in the magical light of all those candles. That object, the focus of all her womanly ambitions, was right there in front of her, more beautiful than she’d ever dreamed. Thus, as the tendrils of incense coiled around her, amid the deafening noise of those strange festive harmonies, she fantasized that by some impossible circumstance that necklace was hers. It would look so marvelous on her, on her firm, high bosom which felt like it was about to burst out of her bodice, beneath those black curls which pulled her head back, they were so thick… Oh, then the people would turn around when she crossed the piazza! And that slut Ameriga, who acted so stuck-up since having that ugly old necklace made for her, with money from two married men… She would die of rage! And little by little Caròla, absorbed by her greed to acquire that necklace, got to the point of hating that Madonna, that narrow-waisted plaster mannequin with exorbitantly long legs under a brocade dress, with thick curls blond as hemp, exposed to the adoration of the crowd, between those walls covered with fragments of wood and strips of sail—the pitiful remains of a hundred shipwrecks. Going home, the same insidious thoughts tormented the girl, like a nail stuck in her brain. She let her body sway and jerk to the ass’ gait, nervously stripping the leaves off the branch that served as her riding crop one by one. The two men continued discussing the great procession of people to the Feast of the Madonna. Suddenly Caròla, with a vague little smile, put her hand on her beloved’s shoulder. “You know, if I had that necklace, I’d marry you tomorrow!” she said, looking him in the face to see what effect those words had on the young man. He turned towards her with an innocent smile, astonished at her remark, exclaiming, “You? And how would you go about getting it?” But when his eyes met hers, the smile froze on his face, as if he felt hurt. She fell silent, gnawing the end of her denuded stick. Tonino continued, upset, “When my ship comes in, I promise I’ll bring you gold earrings, believe me, the kind with medallions… even if I have to steal them!” But Caròla made a scornful gesture and coldly interrupted him. “I wouldn’t know what to do with them! They aren’t the Madonna’s necklace!” And she swatted the donkey just to vent her bile. They’d just reached the part of the road that’s almost level, and the animal used this incitement as a pretext to break into its proverbial trot. It left the two men behind, though the younger one caught up with it quickly enough and again stationed himself at its head. “Ohe, be careful! This road is bad,” Tonino told the girl fearfully. She fell silent again, knitting her brows. Was it bad, or maybe good for someone like her, afraid of nothing? Then she retorted, still fixated, “Falling off the ass isn’t bad. What’s bad is being unable to lift that necklace off the Madonna. Who will take it from her?” Upon hearing these words, a terrible idea must have struck the young man for the first time, because a pallor suddenly spread beneath his sun-darkened skin. He was tormented. “Holy Mother! We’ll go to hell!” he blurted, gritting his teeth as a kind of shiver passed over him. But that irresistible demoness Caròla, feeling that the sailor had finally grasped her strange desire, changed her manner and leaned over towards the young man. With a feline affection, she said to him in a voluptuous tone, “Then, then I’ll marry you right away, see? I’ll stop telling you no!” The path turned sharply into a narrow curve between the rocks, so that when the rider passed it, the old man, worn out by the long walk and steadily slowing down, was left behind, hidden among the boulders. The two youths stopped for a moment, unseen. Her eyes glittered with a splendid and sinister light under the brightly colored headscarf she’d pulled down to shield herself from the sun, the sort of eyes guaranteed to damn a soul to hell. He was paler than ever, with an icy sweat pearling on his forehead, that blazing mid-August day. They were both smiling, looking at each other… The next day, in a Marciana Marina turned upside down, two carabinieri boarded a cart, dragging a manacled boy between them, paler than a corpse, his teeth chattering as though in winter. He kept smiling like a drunkard. It was Caròla’s young man. The day before towards dusk he’d returned alone to the Madonna of the Mountain and climbed up on the altar from behind, believing the sanctuary to be deserted. He was caught right in the act of extending a sacrilegious arm to grab the Virgin’s necklace. An old woman, who was praying crouched down on her knees behind a bench, noticed the thief, and shrieking like a lunatic, instantly drew the few people who hadn’t yet descended the mountain. No one in town wanted to believe the news, starting with the parish priest and the mayor, who had nothing but respect for the wretched Tonino; even Caròla’s own father would have bet his soul against it. But the girl, when she first got the incredible news of the arrest, looked whoever told her in the face, dark and haughty, standing taller than ever on the heights of her wooden sandals. She had only one word to say: “Idiot!” Tonino is no longer to be found at Portoferraio doing forced labor, but in a sanitarium near Livorno. He’s a madman constantly crossing himself in order, he believes, to free himself from those big, beautiful, evil eyes that stare, stare at him, sending him to hell. Two eyes that make him smile at the same time, forever in love. Back on the island, Caròla doesn’t want to hear about any husband, least of all that sergeant of the customs police, who’s due for a leave and is as cooked as a clay tile by that pretty piece of a brunette. She’s fully occupied by her home and her men. Once in a while she thinks about that poor boy far away, alone, crazy, who in order to save his soul gave as an offering to the Madonna of the Mountain the only jewel he possessed: his mother’s wedding ring. This is as true as true love. They also tell a story about… but they tell a lot of stories down there, in the evening, as the moon looks on white as snow, and the sea murmurs black as ink.
This story (Italian title: “Il vezzo di corallo”) originally appeared in 1883 in Cronaca Bizantina and posthumously in book form in Novelli (Naples:F. Bideri, 1914). This translation is based on the version appearing in the anthology Novelle italiane, L’ottocento vol. 2, (Milan:Garzanti, 1985), edited by Gilberto Finzi, whose notes were helpful to the translator. The translator wishes to thank Jonathan Eaton for publishing this story in Corylus Press, and for creating the artwork to accompany it, and for first bringing the writer Eva Cattermole to his attention. Steve Eaton is a literary translator living in Austin, Texas. His translation of Gaetano Savatteri’s novel A Conspiracy of Talkers/La congiura dei loquaci was published in 2021 by Italica Press. His co-translation with Cinzia Russi of Emilio De Marchi’s crime thriller The Priest’s Hat/Il cappello del prete is scheduled for publication in 2023. He authors the blog Garden of Eaton.