Cuore (Chapter 16)
Edmondo De Acimis
THE LITTLE VIDETTE OF LOMBARDY
In 1859, during the war for the liberation of Lombardy, a few days after the battle of Solfarino and San Martino, won by the French and Italians over the Austrians, on a beautiful morning in the month of June, a little band of cavalry of Saluzzo was proceeding at a slow pace along a retired path, in the direction of the enemy, and exploring the country attentively. The troop was commanded by an officer and a sergeant, and all were gazing into the distance ahead of them, with eyes fixed, silent, and prepared at any moment to see the uniforms of the enemy’s advance-posts gleam white before them through the trees. In this order they arrived at a rustic cabin, surrounded by ash-trees, in front of which stood a solitary boy, about twelve years old, who was removing the bark from a small branch with a knife, in order to make himself a stick of it. From one window of the little house floated a large tricolored flag; there was no one inside: the peasants had fled, after hanging out the flag, for fear of the Austrians. As soon as the lad saw the cavalry, he flung aside his stick and raised his cap. He was a handsome boy, with a bold face and large blue eyes and long golden hair: he was in his shirt-sleeves and his breast was bare.
“What are you doing here?” the officer asked him, reining in his horse. “Why did you not flee with your family?”
“I have no family,” replied the boy. “I am a foundling. I do a little work for everybody. I remained here to see the war.”
“Have you seen any Austrians pass?”
“No; not for these three days.”
The officer paused a while in thought; then he leaped from his horse, and leaving his soldiers there, with their faces turned towards the foe, he entered the house and mounted to the roof. The house was low; from the roof only a small tract of country was visible. “It will be necessary to climb the trees,” said the officer, and descended. Just in front of the garden plot rose a very lofty and slender ash-tree, which was rocking its crest in the azure. The officer stood a brief space in thought, gazing now at the tree, and again at the soldiers; then, all of a sudden, he asked the lad:—
“Is your sight good, you monkey?”
“Mine?” replied the boy. “I can spy a young sparrow a mile away.”
“Are you good for a climb to the top of this tree?”
“To the top of this tree? I? I’ll be up there in half a minute.”
“And will you be able to tell me what you see up there—if there are Austrian soldiers in that direction, clouds of dust, gleaming guns, horses?”
“Certainly I shall.”
“What do you demand for this service?”
“What do I demand?” said the lad, smiling. “Nothing. A fine thing, indeed! And then—if it were for the Germans, I wouldn’t do it on any terms; but for our men! I am a Lombard!”
“Good! Then up with you.”
“Wait a moment, until I take off my shoes.”
He pulled off his shoes, tightened the girth of his trousers, flung his cap on the grass, and clasped the trunk of the ash.
“Take care, now!” exclaimed the officer, making a movement to hold him back, as though seized with a sudden terror.
The boy turned to look at him, with his handsome blue eyes, as though interrogating him.
“No matter,” said the officer; “up with you.”
Up went the lad like a cat.
“Keep watch ahead!” shouted the officer to the soldiers.
In a few moments the boy was at the top of the tree, twined around the trunk, with his legs among the leaves, but his body displayed to view, and the sun beating down on his blond head, which seemed to be of gold. The officer could hardly see him, so small did he seem up there.
“Look straight ahead and far away!” shouted the officer.
The lad, in order to see better, removed his right hand from the tree, and shaded his eyes with it.
“What do you see?” asked the officer.
The boy inclined his head towards him, and making a speaking-trumpet of his hand, replied, “Two men on horseback, on the white road.”
“At what distance from here?”
“Half a mile.”
“Are they moving?”
“They are standing still.”
“What else do you see?” asked the officer, after a momentary silence. “Look to the right.” The boy looked to the right.
Then he said: “Near the cemetery, among the trees, there is something glittering. It seems to be bayonets.”
“Do you see men?”
“No. They must be concealed in the grain.”
At that moment a sharp whiz of a bullet passed high up in the air, and died away in the distance, behind the house.
“Come down, my lad!” shouted the officer. “They have seen you. I don’t want anything more. Come down.”
“I’m not afraid,” replied the boy.
“Come down!” repeated the officer. “What else do you see to the left?”
“To the left?”
“Yes, to the left.”
The lad turned his head to the left: at that moment, another whistle, more acute and lower than the first, cut the air. The boy was thoroughly aroused. “Deuce take them!” he exclaimed. “They actually are aiming at me!” The bullet had passed at a short distance from him.
“Down!” shouted the officer, imperious and irritated.
“I’ll come down presently,” replied the boy. “But the tree shelters me. Don’t fear. You want to know what there is on the left?”
“Yes, on the left,” answered the officer; “but come down.”
“On the left,” shouted the lad, thrusting his body out in that direction, “yonder, where there is a chapel, I think I see—”
A third fierce whistle passed through the air, and almost instantaneously the boy was seen to descend, catching for a moment at the trunk and branches, and then falling headlong with arms outspread.
“Curse it!” exclaimed the officer, running up.
The boy landed on the ground, upon his back, and remained stretched out there, with arms outspread and supine; a stream of blood flowed from his breast, on the left. The sergeant and two soldiers leaped from their horses; the officer bent over and opened his shirt: the ball had entered his left lung. “He is dead!” exclaimed the officer.
“No, he still lives!” replied the sergeant.—“Ah, poor boy! brave boy!” cried the officer. “Courage, courage!” But while he was saying “courage,” he was pressing his handkerchief on the wound. The boy rolled his eyes wildly and dropped his head back. He was dead. The officer turned pale and stood for a moment gazing at him; then he laid him down carefully on his cloak upon the grass; then rose and stood looking at him; the sergeant and two soldiers also stood motionless, gazing upon him: the rest were facing in the direction of the enemy.
“Poor boy!” repeated the officer. “Poor, brave boy!”
Then he approached the house, removed the tricolor from the window, and spread it in guise of a funeral pall over the little dead boy, leaving his face uncovered. The sergeant collected the dead boy’s shoes, cap, his little stick, and his knife, and placed them beside him.
They stood for a few moments longer in silence; then the officer turned to the sergeant and said to him, “We will send the ambulance for him: he died as a soldier; the soldiers shall bury him.” Having said this, he wafted a kiss with his hand to the dead boy, and shouted “To horse!” All sprang into the saddle, the troop drew together and resumed its road.
And a few hours later the little dead boy received the honors of war.
At sunset the whole line of the Italian advance-posts marched forward towards the foe, and along the same road which had been traversed in the morning by the detachment of cavalry, there proceeded, in two files, a heavy battalion of sharpshooters, who, a few days before, had valiantly watered the hill of San Martino with blood. The news of the boy’s death had already spread among the soldiers before they left the encampment. The path, flanked by a rivulet, ran a few paces distant from the house. When the first officers of the battalion caught sight of the little body stretched at the foot of the ash-tree and covered with the tricolored banner, they made the salute to it with their swords, and one of them bent over the bank of the streamlet, which was covered with flowers at that spot, plucked a couple of blossoms and threw them on it. Then all the sharpshooters, as they passed, plucked flowers and threw them on the body. In a few minutes the boy was covered with flowers, and officers and soldiers all saluted him as they passed by: “Bravo, little Lombard!” “Farewell, my lad!” “I salute thee, gold locks!” “Hurrah!” “Glory!” “Farewell!” One officer tossed him his medal for valor; another went and kissed his brow. And flowers continued to rain down on his bare feet, on his blood-stained breast, on his golden head. And there he lay asleep on the grass, enveloped in his flag, with a white and almost smiling face, poor boy! as though he heard these salutes and was glad that he had given his life for his Lombardy.