Dun Gwann (Fr.Jwon) sat at his desk in his cosy old-fashioned study simply furnished with a large mahogany desk, an armchair and 3 bookcases laden with a vast assortment of books. It was early afternoon and a ray of sunlight coming from the window broke the otherwise gloomy interior of the room. Beside the priest, Gienju (Gene-you) a handsome 18-year old lad sat absorbed, his hands in his lap paying attention to every word that his tutor was saying.
They were doing an English lesson and following months of instruction Gienju was making good progress. He loved the priest who was so kind and like a father to him. The priest was his role model and Gienju wanted to be like him, not a priest maybe, but a gentleman who cared for others. The lad was ambitious to learn about everything from religion to astronomy, science and foreign languages too. Likewise Dun Gwann enjoyed teaching him because he saw in him a promising lad who had an insatiable thirst for knowledge They talked about God the creator, His love for humanity, about being good and helping others, about good behaviour and a hundred other topics.
They were disturbed by a knock on the door and Cetta (Ch-etta) the housekeeper hurried past the study door mumbling to herself. She opened the front door and let in a beautiful 16-year-old girl who requested to speak to Dun Gwann.
"Come in, Matilde". The priest recognized her as soon as he heard her asking for him. "I see that you have brought me the book. Thank you and please give my thanks to your daddy. This is my friend Gienju, we are doing an English lesson", the priest told her as he introduced the lad.
"Pleased to meet you, sir", Matilde uttered in her soft sweet voice as she looked for an instant into his dark eyes.
Gienju stood up to shake her hand. When he extended his right hand he was shaking all over. He had seen her before at her father's clinic when he was having treatment for his sprained ankle. Matilde, what a gorgeous name. She was so beautiful, her oval face, her light brown eyes and her raven black hair which contrasted so well with her milky-white complexion. If he was not careful he could easily fall in love with her.
When he took her hand he was aware of how dainty it was. Its softness made him squeeze it a little too tightly and to hold it maybe a split-second too long. His heart was thumping wildly as if about to burst out of his chest.
He could hardly pronounce his salutation because of the emotion and a kind of mild panic that was blocking his brain.. "Pleased to m - meet you, miss", he stammered. The priest noticed his shyness and to ease his predicament Dun. Gwann quickly intervened and began asking her about the University degree that she was reading. She replied that she was studying to be a doctor and that she was in the second year of the course.
Gienju thought - she is far too beautiful, and she comes from a rich family, she is highly educated and himself with hardly any schooling - so he'd better shelf the crazy idea of the possibility of her ever consenting to be his girlfriend.
However as she turned to leave she looked briefly in his direction and smiled. As soon as she left his romantic nature quickly started to analyse that smile: it was a real smile not just a brief twitch of the lips and the smile was also reflected in her beautiful eyes, a heartfelt smile. A new ray of hope sprouted in the lad's heart, a colourful rainbow following the turbulence of his morose thoughts. .
Dun Gwann could read the boy's thoughts like a book and he did not want to see the boy deeply disappointd or worse broken-hearted. So after the lesson, the priest, having carefully thought out the best way to tackle Gienju, he kindly patted him on the shoulder and began giving him the bare facts of the situation:-
"Matilde is very beautiful and I know that you like her, but you are treading on very dangerous waters, I mean I do not want you to get hurt. She is still very young and she has at least 3 more years of study, she is preparing for her exams and finally she will graduate as a doctor. When she is ready to marry, her father would want her to have a husband from their own social circle or he could even wish to choose a husband for her himself. So I implore you as your father would, do not fill your heart with false hopes or you might get hurt".
Gienju was not surprised by the priest knowing exactly how he felt about Matilde but he was so embarrassed that he hid his face in his hands for a minute. He was mortified but knew very well that Dun Gwann wished him well. Without another word he stood up ready to leave..
Before he reached the door, the priest called him, "Hey Gienju, you have forgotten your things". Gienju walked towards the desk, collected the copybooks, looked at Dun Gwann and "thank you for the lesson", he uttered in a barely audible voice. After that he left, his head bowed the copybooks under his arm with an air of someone who had just lost someone very dear to him.
Dun Gwann was right of course. How could he ever have imagined that Matilde could love him, a penniless orphan like himself. Her father, Dr. Xiberras (She- ber - rahs) would go mad with fury if he knew that she even dared to look at him. "Oh, how unlucky I am", he thought. .Nevertheless he could not erase her lovely face from his mind, he would be ready to do anything to win her love.
The following Thursday, Gienju went to Dun Gwann's house for another English lesson. Gienju had not seen Matilde for some days and he was himself again, calm and resigned to his fate. He was smiling when he entered the study to meet the priest. They practised some reading and translated a few simple sentences from Maltese to English. The lesson took them about 90 minutes but to Gienju it seemed like only 10; he felt so at ease in the priest's company and was so happy learning the language.
These last few days an idea had germinated in his fertile imagination. He wanted to become somebody. A sea-captain maybe. He loved boats, sailing and the sea. He seemed to have salt in his veins. When he shyly mentioned this to Dun Gwann, the priest was all in favour and patting him on his back he promptly endorsed his decision and smilingly encouraged him to go on with it.
"Yes, that's a position that would become you. You would need to study a lot, you know, but I believe that you will succeed in the end. Now, speaking of the sea, I have a rather difficult task for you", the priest told Gienju when they had finished the lesson. Gienju could feel that the priest was serious and what's more he seemed sad and worried too.
"It is also very dangerous and if it were not a matter of life and death I would not have asked you to do it. I have faith in your stamina and agility and if you cannot do it nobody could. It is risky and perilous because you will have to climb a height of about 200 feet, in the middle of the night, and you have to fetch something which is against the law, to steal so to speak and if you get caught doing it you would face a sentence of 3 years rowing on the galleys".
Gienju was open-mouthed hearing the priest asking him to steal something precious in the middle of the night. This was wrong and he would not do it even for his dear friend Dun Gwann. The priest then continued to explain himself;
"Do not be alarmed, Gienju. I already told you that this a matter of life and death, so you would be doing a good and kind deed and God will reward you a thousand-fold. You remember Matilde, the doctor's daughter; well she is very sick, she is down with high fever and dysentery and her father is afraid for her life. The doctor tells me that she urgently needs a special medicine which is known to cure the malady. We need to get some of the healing root that grows on the Fungus Rock at Dwejra (D way rah). We need it as soon as can be, possibly by tomorrow night. The root is easily recognizable, it is reddish and grows about 6 inches tall and looks like a fat cigar. Get as many as you can so that the doctor would be able to treat other patients as well".
(to be continued in Part 2)