Fungus Rock - Loving Matilde: Part 2

When he heard that Matilde was sick Gienju couldn’t believe his ears; she looked so strong and full of life the last time he saw her! But Dun Gwann was certainly not joking as he continued to explain to the lad,

”Gienju, this is urgent and you must try to go tonight. I warn you that this is very dangerous. The Knights have stationed a platoon of Dejma soldiers in the tower at Dwejra with the express purpose of guarding the Fungus Rock. You know that the Rock is out of bounds and no one may touch the healing plant without written permission from the GrandMaster’s palace. If you are spotted they may open fire and you could get killed; and if you are arrested you will be sentenced to three years rowing on the galleys”.

By this time Gienju had already made up his mind. He did not care about the danger; for Matilda he would fight a fire-breathing dragon.

”I will do it. My friend Bertu (Ber-to) will come with me. He likes adventures and has never shunned a challenge. I need his help because we will have to use a boat to arrive at the Fungus Rock”.

"You will be doing a very brave deed and Dr. Xiberras will never forget it and neither will God in heaven", Dun Gwann replied pointing his index finger at the ceiling. "So be very careful and use your brains. Good luck and God be with you in your errand of mercy", the priest finished saying while shaking the lad's hand.

Gienju left Dun Gwann's house in a frenzy and went to seek his friend Bertu. He found him at home sitting quietly in their back-yard mending a fishing net. As soon as he saw his friend, Bertu knew that something was up. Gienju was kind of dishevelled, his eyes shining bright with excitement and a film of perspiration glistening on his brow.

"What's up, something's the matter?", asked Bertu.

Without any preamble, Gienju broke the news to his friend. "Everything's the matter; we have a job to do tonight, a matter of life and death", replied Gienju imitating the priest's words and without taking into account the effect that his blunt words would have on his friend. "We have to do it in the middle of the night under the very noses of the Dejma patrol.

Bertu was listening open-mouthed to Gienju's words; astounded because he had no idea what his friend was going on about.

Gienju then started to explain more calmly and in more detail,"we have to steal some of the healing herb from the Fungus Rock. Matilde, the doctor's daughter is down with fever and dysentry and she needs the medicine to cure her and to save her life even".

"So it's Matilde, is it? You are in love again", said Bertu laughing..

"What do you mean 'again'? I've never been in love like this before, all my other loves were but childish, fleeting fancies", replied Gienju hotly. "But seriously, are you in this with me?"

"Of course, you can count on me, We have not been on an adventure for quite a long while now". Bertu was all for it seeing the determination etched on his friend's features. "How do we do it?"

Gienju assured his friend that he had everything planned out to the smallest detail, though in reality he had had no time to think things over.

They were to start out at 11 o'clock. The long walk to Dwejra would take them at least one hour. They will skirt around the Tower to avoid being detected by the soldiers. They will proceed to the small harbour behind the Rock and launch Wenzu's boat to row towards their target.

Bertu said, "Wenzu will not mind and we will tell him in the morning. It is not the first time that he has lent us his boat.and he knows that we can handle it quite well".

"To climb the rock face we need a long rope and half a dozen iron pegs each of about 9 inches. We will also need a hammer. Will you ask Gorgi (Geor-gee) the blacksmith to fashion them for us, Bertu please? I will prepare some bread and cheese, the dark lantern and procure a small bag to hold the fungus roots", Gienju continued. "I will do the climb while you hold the boat ready for our return. We should do the job in about three hours and finish before dawn. We will not haul the boat back on shore but will leave it moored to save us time".

"I agree, the sea is calm enough and there is no moon tonight, so it should be ok. You have it all well planned, Gienju. We do it for Matilde, we love you Matilde, especially my friend Gienju", Bertu joked as was his custom.

"We would do it for anyone, since Dun Gwann asked us to. Regarding Matilde, I do not know if she loves me at all", Gienju said with a sad look on his face.

"I think that we will have to ask Dun Gwann to get us a rope from the church. They have all kinds of ropes and ladders which they use to decorate the church facade for the festa; and he will have to pay Gorgi for the iron rods as well", Bertu said, remembering that neither he nor Gienju had any money to spare.

It was all set. After procuring the necessary equipment the two friends were to stay put and wait for the hour when Gienju would call for Bertu.

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A few minutes before the hour Gienju let himself in Bertu's house. Bertu had left the door unlocked as agreed because he did not wish to wake his mother who would be worried to death and ask a thousand questions. They checked and double-checked that they had everything that they needed and quietly left the house.

The streets were deserted. Eleven o'clock at night was an unearthly hour in those days. All the community had to work hard and the people were accustomed to sleep with the hens and rise with the roosters.

They put all their equipment in two sacks and set out on their adventure at a quick pace and keeping to the shadow of the walls. In about 15 minutes they were on their way to the tiny village of Santa Lucija. Leaving the little church square they proceeded towards Ghar Ilma (Cave of the Water), passed below the hill from Ghajn Abdul (Abdul's Spring) and took the narrow road towards the village of San Lawrenz (St. Lawrence) which overlooks Dwejra, their destination.

"This rope weighs a ton", grumbled Bertu as he shifted the sack from one shoulder to the other.

"Come on, Bert, you are a strong chap, we'll soon be there. Don't fret. Here, take my sack, maybe it is a bit lighter", offered Gienju.

They were nearing the Dwejra Tower and both lads knew that perfect silence was of the essence. They skirted the tower, stealthily treading the pathway behind and a good distance away from it and half crouching as they passed opposite.. The Fungus Rock now loomed below them, a formidable solid rock face 200 feet above the level of the water. The slipway at the back of the little harbour where Wenzu kept his boat was quite near and they only had to walk the little distance downhill taking care not to lose their footing on the loose stones in the almost total darkness.

"We made it in just over an hour, quite a record eh, from Rabat to Dwejra", Bertu said a trifle breathless, as soon as they reached the boat..

"Yes, so far so good. Let's put everything in the boat and launch it", Gienju added in a whisper.

The boys removed the supports from under the boat's bottom, made sure that the bung was in its hole and gave the craft a good push. As it moved down the short slip-way, Gienju held the mooring rope in his fist so that the boat would not float away when it touched the water.

They jumped in and Bertu took the oars while Gienju lighted the dark lantern and emptied the sack that contained the rope, the iron pegs and the hammer.

"That's right, Bert, pull so that they find you in good shape when the Knights put us rowing on the galleys", Gienju said laughing silently.

Bertu responded by singing in a barely audible voice,

"I love you Matilde, I do, honest I do; and I sincerely hope that you're loving me too".

"Cut the nonsense and make for the west side. There is a little ledge there if I remember correctly, where I can stand. On that side the soldiers cannot see us and the breeze is in our favour as well. It's blowing from the NorthEast so when I ram the rods in, the hammering would not be heard by the sentries. I hope that our Luck holds", Gienju augured well to himself, "I am going up".

Bertu brought the craft alongside the rocks and they could just make out the ledge about fifteen inches above the surface of the water. Gienju put the coil of rope over his head and rested it on his left shoulder. He then distributed the iron pegs three in each pocket of his homespun breeches and placing his left foot on the gunwale he carefully stepped onto the ledge.

"How are you going to use the rope?" Bertu asked.

For answer, Gienju tied one end of it securely round his waist and inserted the handle of the hammer in his belt. "Every few feet I will tie a knot to a peg so that if I lose my footing the rope will perhaps break my fall and save me. I cannot take the lantern, better keep it in the boat".

Gienju then made the sign of the cross, found a foothold and started his ascent. In his heart he prayed incessantly, "Madonna ta' Pinu, please come with me".

Bertu wished him 'good luck' and shortly after he could hear the faint distant hammering as Gienju climbed higher inserting the pegs at intervals in the rock cracks and crevices.

"Someone from above must be helping me", thought Gienju. It was a very hard climb but after an hour of strenuous effort and a lot of bruises on his hands and feet he could see the top edge of the plateau.

Meanwhile Bertu sat in the boat anxiously waiting for his friend with nothing to do except plying the oars to keep the boat close to the ledge. His mind having nothing better to do busied itself by going back to his past adventures together with Gienju. He remembered that about some months before they went fishing in a small rowing boat. They were a good distance from Xlendi (Sh-lend-ee) when Gienju broke one of the oars. They had were adrift with no means to get back to shore. Then it dawned on them to hoist a make-shift sail using a piece of sacking and the other oar for a mast. Luckily the wind was aft and they succeeded in reaching land safely though it took them more than four hours. And he also remember another morning when they were exploring the ruins at .........

Suddenly, Bertu was awakened from his reverie when he heard a soft whistle and on looking up he saw a small bag being lowered from above. He stood up in the boat and using the boat hook caught hold of the bag and placed it safely on the thwart in the stern of the boat. Gienju had been gone for more than ninety minutes and Bertu was overjoyed to see him clambering down safely.

Gienju stepped into the boat and proceeded in stuffing the coiled rope in a sack together with the hammer and a couple of the iron pegs. "Well done, mate", Bertu said smiling while patting Gienju on the back. Gienju was exhaused and he lay prone on the floor deck breathing heavily,

"I couldn't remove all the pegs. I had to leave them there" he said sleepily, "I'm dead tired; do we have any water?".

"We didn't bring any", Bertu replied," my father always tells me, never go on a boat without water cause you never know what may happen; but don't worry, we'll drink our fill when we get to Ghajn Abdul".

Bertu rowed the short distance to the slipway, plying the oars expertly so that they sliced the surface without any sound or splash and yet sent the boat flying at speed through the water.

"Wake up, Gienju, we are here", Bertu whispered while prodding his friend gently with his bare foot.

Gienju rose with some difficulty and sat down on the thwart while Bertu shipped one of the oars and with his hand held the boat alongside the quay. Gienju stepped down and Bertu unloaded their equipment and the all-important bag half-full of the healing plant.

Gienju watched sleepily as Bertu moored Wenzu's boat stern-to quay using its own buoy and warp. "The sea is calm, so there's no danger of leaving it on its mooring till Wenzu comes in the morning", Bertu opined as he gently tugged on the warp, placed his left foot on the transom and jumped lightly on to the quay.

"I will carry the sacks, Gienju, while you take the small bag only. You look dead beat, my friend", Bertu observed.

"My feet are killing me, I don't know how I'm going to walk all the way to Rabat", Gienju said as they started walking up the sloping pathway.

"You smell very nice, though", Bertu commented.

"It must be the wild thyme that I trampled up there", Gieju replied, "there's lots".

It was nearing three o'clock when the two lads again skirted the Dwejra tower and started trudging up the steep stony road that led to St. Lawrence village.

The success of their mission and the prospect of their getting home and drinking some good strong coffee put sprightness in their step and they were making good time.

"It is like a fat reddish cigar", Gienju opened up, his voice seemingly freed from the tiredness of before.

"What is", Bertu laughed, "what are you talking about?"

"I mean the healing herb although it does not look like a herb to me. When we arrive I will go straight to Dun Gwann and hand over the sack to him. I presume that he will deliver it immediately to the doctor, since he told me that it is urgently needed".

They drank some water from the cool spring at Ghajn Abdul, passed under the Mixta (Mish-tah) and Ghar Ilma hills and hurried through Santa Lucija towards Rabat.

"It is a little past four, I should think. By four thirty I'll be asleep and I won't wake up till eleven", Gienju said.

"Me too", replied Bertu, "I wish that mother has not missed me. It would save me a good scolding and a pretty long sermon".

As planned they were home before dawn, they had not met a single soul, the booty was delivered and the two friends slept soundly till late in the morning.

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Gienju was awakened by a series of raps on the door. He rubbed his eyes and strode drunkenly to the door. He was a trifle uneasy wondering who it was. He removed the thick wooden bar, stood it in the corner and opened the door a few inches. He was relieved to find only a small boy who told him that Dun Gwann wanted to speak to him. He tousled the boy's hair, thanked him and gave him a small goat's cheeselet to eat.

He washed his face put on a clean vest made of crude home-spun and his only pair of sandals. It was close to noon according to the sunlight penetrating through the window and a gloriously beautiful day.

Although Gienju was used to talk to the priest almost everyday, he felt somewhat embarassed and shy that morning because he presumed that the priest was going to make a big deal of the fungus root thing and would be thanking him profusely and singing his praises. Nevertheless he walked fast because he did not want to keep him waiting. As was his custom, on arriving, he turned the key, opened the door and called,"Dun Gwann, I am here".

"Come in, my boy", the priest welcomed him. Dun Gwann was sitting at table with a bowl of deliicious vegetable soup in front of him still steaming and smoking. He stood up and shook the lad's hand heartily while expressing his thanks.

"Congratulations Gienju, you have done a great favour to the whole community, not only to Dr. Xiberras but to all of us. Cetta, bring my friend Gienju a bowl of your delicious soup and some fresh bread, please".

Within seconds, Cetta appeared and placed the food in front of Gienju. Sensing how the priest held the lad in high esteem, she even went out of her way and smiled warmly at him.

As soon as the house-keeper was out of earshot, the priest said,"Eat, Gienju, because you certainly deserve it. Tell me all about it, I'd like to hear how you and Bertu managed to do the job without getting caught. You are truely a formidable pair, heh, heh".

As Gienju dipped the bread in the hot soup and swallowed big mouthfuls of the stuff he recounted in detail the events of the previous night; how they arrived at Dwejra in record time, the unauthorised use of Wenzu's boat, how he used the rope as a safety measure, about Bertu's help and his dexterity in rowing and boat-handling, and every other detail that came to mind..

"By the way, I will bring you the rope next time I come for the English lesson", Gienju said at the end of his narrative.

"Yes please. I do not want anybody to miss it. Now I have something important to tell you", the priest said smilingly. "Dr. Xiberras would like to thank you in person and invites you to call at his residence next Saturday anytime between eleven and one o'clock".

"Oh no", Gienju blurted out dismally. A hot flush had come to his face and he looked absolutely flustered.

"What do you mean,'Oh no', you should be proud and happy that such an important person would like to make your acquaintance and thank you face to face. Gienju, you are important too, you know. You are a hero, my friend. You have proved it Gienju; you have risked your freedom and your life even. Never let the stupid notion of class distinction destroy your chances in life. I know how you feel and it is not at all easy to break out of your inferiority complex, but you will, I am sure of that..

We are made to grow up with the cursed concept of the difference between the haves and the haves-not. But in reality there is no such thing as a have-not. God has created all men equal, some have one thing and some have another. The doctor has education, respect and money. And you? What do you have? Nothing? No, you have other talents: you have intelligence, survival skills, courage, determination and above all you have a good character. Respect and money will come automatically in due time, with strife, good judgement and kindness.

So next Saturday put on your best clothes and come to church to hear mass first thing in the morning. Then you'll have enough time to relax and prepare yourself before going to the doctor's house. Well actually there is no real need to prepare yourself at all because you are only making a casual call on a friend. Just be yourself. The doctor is already one of your best friends. He is so happy that you saved his daughter's life.

Morever, it has come to my knowledge that Matilde is feeling better and it is all thanks to you, so it is probable that she will be present to thank you in person", Dun Gwann finished with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

On hearing this last piece of news, Gienju;s heart began beating wildly in his chest and he was torn between two trains of thought, two opposing feelings: whether in the presence of Matilde he was going to feel more timorous and shy or whether he would be brimming with happiness. He took a deep breath and decided that going to the doctor's house was going to be a very pleasing experience, since he was going to meet Matilde face to face.

"Yes father, you're right. I am looking forward to meeting the good doctor and his daughter. After all, he will only thank me and be done with it. Though I don't see why he needs to thank me; I would have done the same for anyone", Gienju said with a smile.

"You see, how kind and helpful you are; that's one of your virtues and this is exactly why the doctor wants to see you", Dun Gwann assured him.

Some time later, Gienju took his leave, thanked the priest and went straight home thinking of Matilde. Wow, next Saturday he was meeting with Matilde and she would be thanking him personally, maybe she would also give him a long, loving kiss. He was sure that she would. Saturday was too far away, it seemed to him,, three more days to go.

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It was about half-past eleven when Gienju pulled the brass ring and heard a bell ringing inside. It was an imposing house, a clear status of its owner's position and affluence, two storeys high and with a large wooden balcony overlooking the street. The door was huge made of dark mahogany with two polished brass knobs and louvered windows of the same colour one on each side of the facade.

Within seconds the doctor himself came to open the door for Gienju. "Come in Gienju, welcome", the doctor greeted him with a genuine smile while they shook hands. "We are so pleased to make your acquaintance, Matilde and me".

Dr. Xiberras led Gienju inside and offered him a seat on a three-seater sofa in a large living-room with a wide french window opening into a magnificent garden.

"Matilde, Gienju is here, come darling", Matilde appeared instantly from behind the rich red velvet curtains of the adjoining room. It seemed to Gienju as though she was behind the curtains waiting for her cue. She approached the lad smiling radiantly with outstretched arms ready to embrace him.

Gienju stood up and offered his hand with a happy smile on his face. "So pleased to meet you, Gienju and thank you ever so much", the girl said in a pleasant voice, while she shook his hand and placed her left hand on his shoulder and gave him a kiss on each cheek. "I will never forget what you have done for me, you have risked your life and imprisonment for my sake and saved my life. My dad and me, we will be forever grateful".

Gienju was in heaven, feeling the girl's warm lips on his cheeks and her sweet-smelling hair rubbing against his face and neck. Instinctively he placed both his hands on her waist and felt a huge urge to kiss her back, but managed to control himself..

With some difficulty he blurted out, "Oh, without the help of my friend Bertu I would not have been able to do it", Gienju said modestly. Then he found the courage to add,"I am very happy to see that you are in good health, Matilde".

"It is all thanks to you, Gienju and your friend, of course", the doctor added, "May I offer you some wine? Matilde, would you please bring some wine for our dear friend".

Gienju could not take his eyes off the girl as she turned to reach the cabinet on the other side of the room. She was so beautiful, so elegant in her ankle-length dress and white blouse. She wore black leather shoes with low heels and he could not fail to observe how dainty her feet looked in them. He was in love with all of her. Her shoes were so different from the flat sandals that other girls wore; they made her look taller and enhanced her posture and slim figure. He decided there and then that he was not worrying about class distinction anymore; he was definitely madly in love with Matilde and he was prepared to face all odds to win her love.

The young lady soon joined them again holding a shiny silver tray with three glasses of red wine. "Sit near Gienju, Matilde" and to Gienju who found himself sitting between the doctor and Matilde, the doctor, as if to put him more at ease, asked, "Will you tell us a little about your adventure at Dwejra (D way rah), we are both curious to know how you did it."

The three of them clinked the glasses and wished genuine 'Good Health' to one another and after taking a sip of the excellent wine Gienju began his narrative focussing on the main highlights of his adventure. He was frequently interrupted by questions mainly from the girl, "were you not afraid of being shot by the soldiers?" and "how did you manage without the lantern?" and a continuous string of "how daring" and a lot of "oh dear" and "wows".

The girl was very much impressed and Gienju so liked the effect that his anecdote was having on Matilde that he added a little bit of drama when he was describing his climb. He lied that at one point he lost his footing in the darkness and was saved by the rope that was made fast to an iron peg and securely tied to his waist. At this stage of the narrative Matilde was so moved that she covered her face with her hands and cried, "oh you poor darling".

The doctor chuckled and exclaimed, "you had a narrow escape there, my boy" From the tone of his words tinted with sarcasm Gienju understood that the doctor had got wise about his making this part up, but the doctor was still smiling and looked happy watching Matilde so enthralled listening to Gienju's story. The lad however felt sorry that he had used the white lie to impress Matilde.and decided against repeating such 'clever' tactics in future.

"Well Gienju that was quite a hard task that we made you go through", Dr. Xiberras commented smilingly as he patted Gienju on the knee, so you deserve a little present to commemorate the occasion. "Matilde, would you please bring the presents".

Gienju followed Matilde with his eyes as she walked gracefully towards the opposite door unaware that the doctor was watching him with a contented smile printed on his face..

"Presents, oh no doctor, you shouldn't; it was just another adventure for me. Bertu and I, we almost enjoyed it", Gienju exclaimed wholeheartedly. Nevertheless, he was all smiles when the girl returned bearing a small box in her hands.

She handed the box to her father who passed it on to Gienju, saying, "this is for you my son a small present from Matilde and myself to show our gratitude". He lifted the lid of the cardboard box and showed the presents to Gienju. "Open them Gienju, they are yours", the doctor told him with a smile.

The lad first picked a round and longish package. When he unwrapped it, to his great joy, he held a brand new brass telescope in his slightly trembling hands. Dr. Xiberras showed him how to extend it to its full length and explained that it was of great use at sea.

"Go on Gienju, try it", the doctori suggested. Genju stood up, turned his face towards the window, put the telescope to his left eye and looked towards the orange trees in the garden.

"Amazing", Gienju commented. He had never had the chance to look through a telescope, "it works great".

"Of course it does. I got it for you from my good friend Karlu Bajada (Kar loo, By ya dah) who works as a boatswain on one of the galleys of the Knights. And he got me the other present as well. I am sure that you have never seen anything like it before".

Matilda was as happy as Gienju seeing him enjoying himself trying out the gifts. She was smiling all the time her eyes fixed on the lad's face. Gienju picked up the package and opened it looking at Matilda and thanking her with his eyes.

"What is it?, Gienju asked the doctor while holding the strange object gingerly in both hands.

"That is a sextant, an instrument that seamen use to check their position at sea. It is very useful when plotting a course on the open sea when no land is in sight", the doctor explained, "but do not ask me how to use it. I will leave that to Karlu Bajada".

Gienju did not quite understand the doctor's words, so he looked questioningly at him. The doctor turned to his daughter and as she came closer he took her hand to show that both of them were addressing Gienju together, "My lad, Matilde and I know that you would like to be a sea-captain eventually. Dun Gwann likes the idea and so do Matilde and myself. It is a good job that carries respect and a good salary and I am going to help you financially and in every other way that I can".

"I talked to Dun Gwann about it some days ago and yes he liked the idea as well", Gienju told them with a shy smile.

"So we are all agreed. I have already talked to Karlu and he is willing to give you a course of instructions and to teach you all that he knows about navigation and seamanship in general. He will train you to become the best sea-captain that the Order of St. John has ever had", the doctor finished laughingly.

"Why, thank you ever so much, doctor", Gienju said his voice almost breaking with deep emotion. "That is exactly what I need, teaching and instructions, because I love the sea and have a natural inclination towards a maritime career. So that is why you presented me with the telescope and the sextant, the most important tools of the trade", Gienju told them with a happy smile.

"Yes. And you need to learn to speak Italian and French too if you are to succeed in your career. Dun Gwann is already teaching you English and Matilde here is willing to give you Italian and French lessons. I will pay for the books that you would need and will also settle with Karlu who is doing us a great favour", the doctor emphasised.

Gienju was especially impressed by the news that Matilde was going to teach him Italian and French. He would be sitting next to her for hours on end almost every day. What bliss! Many happy days were ahead like the white sails of a galley reflecting the sun on the horizon, thought Gienju.

"One last thing", said the doctor as he stood up and walked towards the small table by the window. "I have here some money, one small bag of scudi (skoo dee) for you and another for your friend Bertu, and please do not forget to thank him for me", the doctor finished as he placed the money in Gienju's hand.

"Oh Dr. Xiberras, you are so kind to me, my mother in heaven will bless you seeing how you are treating me like your own son", Gienju said with an unwanted tear in his eye.

"Goodbye Gienju and see you again soon", the doctor said while shaking the lad's hand. "I will now leave you two young people to discuss the matter of the lessons", the doctor finished while leaving the room.

The doctor left them alone on purpose. Gienju was astute enough to sense that the doctor was treating him like his own son. Yes, he liked Gienju as much as Matilde did. This was clearly evident. Gienju was of low birth, it was true but the doctor did not care about such ridiculous deep-rooted ideas; Gienju had character and and charm, was honest, kind and hard-working and a perfect match for his daughter.

If she wanted him, she can have him and God in heaven bless them both.

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