A donkey is being led up a long, winding and dusty track towards a large building at the very top of a sun baked rise. The animal, which is making slow progress, is laden with two barrels strapped to a frame that sits like a saddle across its back . The building is surrounded by large trees which cast a cooling shade over the courtyard.
Dante Gabriele pulls impatiently at the bridle rope in an effort to speed up the small beast, but his efforts produce no response. The donkey neither speeds up nor slows down. A smile plays across Dante’s face. He knows this animal well and knows that it will continue at its own pace or not at all.
Dante, at eighteen, is tall, lightly muscled and deeply tanned; his face is topped by a shock of dark curly hair and his almost handsome face is noticeable mainly for his bright blue eyes, an uncommon feature in this part of Southern Italy.
He pulls gently at the donkey’s ears.
“Alright, Tessy. Take your time. Nobody wants to get out of this sun and into that shade.”
He leans closer and whispers in an ear, “And nobody wants to plunge its furry old face into that water trough! So, don’t hurry.”
The animal grunts, almost to itself, and slightly increases its pace. Dante laughs out loud.
“You are a very perverse creature, Tessy. You would make a good woman.”
The pair continue on their slow hot journey and eventually reach their destination, entering the courtyard of a large country inn and way station. The yard is cobbled and Tessy’s hooves make a clattering noise as she smells the water trough and resolutely heads for it.
Their arrival is noted by a large man whose stomach is covered by a stained apron. He pulls aside a beaded curtain over a door in the corner of the yard, above which is a sign proclaiming it to be the entrance to the kitchen. He watches as Dante begins to unstrap the two barrels from the donkey’s back.
Angelo Nadalini, owner and chief cook at the inn, pulls aside the curtain and quietly steps out into the courtyard. He watches for a moment or two as Dante struggles to lower the barrels to the ground. When he is certain that no more effort will be needed, he speaks.
“Dante, you should have called for me. I could have helped you.”
Taking a cotton handkerchief from his pocket, Dante wipes the sweat from his brow before answering.
“Signor Nadalini, how kind of you.”
There is a slight hint of sarcasm as he continues, “I didn’t want to disturb you. I know you are busy man.”
He waves his hand to indicate the empty stable stalls.
“Running this large busy inn, horses to groom, travellers to feed.”
Signor Nadalini deliberately misses the sarcasm as he wipes a hand across his bald head and smiles at Dante.
“And taking delivery of your mother’s fine olive oil, best in the region.”
He waves towards the kitchen door.
“Bring them in when you have recovered.”
He turns to go then stops and looks back.
“By the way….”
He hesitates and mumbles, “…your room.”
Dante looks at him.
“You can’t have it. It’s taken.”
Dante slowly takes this in as he looks at the empty stables. He turns back to Angelo who has swiftly disappeared back into kitchen and sprints after him.
The kitchen is large and surprisingly busy with several cooks preparing various dishes. Angelo is now at the far end and is seemingly engrossed tasting a sauce with two white hatted assistants. Dante bounds through the door and immediately spots him. Angrily pushing his way between the cooks and Angelo, he thrusts his face close to the innkeeper’s.
“There is not a horse or carriage in the yard. Why can’t I have my room. It is in the price for the oil.”
Angelo tries to move past him but Dante blocks his way.
“We are full. There is a large group arriving tonight. Musicians, on their way to Rome. I need every room.”
Dante raises his voice indignantly.
“I always stay here. I cannot get back home tonight.”
Angelo is becoming annoyed at having to deal with this irritating young man.
“You can stay in the barn. This group is very important and they pay more than you do.”
He turns away but Dante tugs at his shirt sleeve.
“You mean you have raised the prices for them?”
Angelo lowers his voice when he sees the kitchen staff beginning to take notice.
“Good business, that’s all. You can stay in the barn for free.”
He brusquely pulls Dante’s hand from his shirt and returns to tasting the sauce.
Now quietly angry, Dante begins to talk in a very loud voice to Angelo’s back. The man completely ignores him.
“Thank you very much, Signor Nadalini. My companion, my donkey, and I are overwhelmed by your generosity. A nice vermin infested barn to sleep in. How gracious of you.”
As he says this he begins to bow from the waist and moves backwards towards the kitchen door, much to the amusement of the kitchen staff.