Cuore (Chapter 23)
Edmondo De Acimis
THE LITTLE FLORENTINE SCRIBE
He was in the fourth elementary class. He was a graceful Florentine lad of twelve, with black hair and a white face, the eldest son of an employee on the railway, who, having a large family and but small pay, lived in straitened circumstances. His father loved him and was tolerably kind and indulgent to him—indulgent in everything except in that which referred to school: on this point he required a great deal, and showed himself severe, because his son was obliged to attain such a rank as would enable him to soon obtain a place and help his family; and in order to accomplish anything quickly, it was necessary that he should work a great deal in a very short time. And although the lad studied, his father was always exhorting him to study more.
His father was advanced in years, and too much toil had aged him before his time. Nevertheless, in order to provide for the necessities of his family, in addition to the toil which his occupation imposed upon him, he obtained special work here and there as a copyist, and passed a good part of the night at his writing-table. Lately, he had undertaken, in behalf of a house which published journals and books in parts, to write upon the parcels the names and addresses of their subscribers, and he earned three lire for every five hundred of these paper wrappers, written in large and regular characters. But this work wearied him, and he often complained of it to his family at dinner.
“My eyes are giving out,” he said; “this night work is killing me.” One day his son said to him, “Let me work instead of you, papa; you know that I can write like you, and fairly well.” But the father answered:—
“No, my son, you must study; your school is a much more important thing than my wrappers; I feel remorse at robbing you of a single hour; I thank you, but I will not have it; do not mention it to me again.”
The son knew that it was useless to insist on such a matter with his father, and he did not persist; but this is what he did. He knew that exactly at midnight his father stopped writing, and quitted his workroom to go to his bedroom; he had heard him several times: as soon as the twelve strokes of the clock had sounded, he had heard the sound of a chair drawn back, and the slow step of his father. One night he waited until the latter was in bed, then dressed himself very, very softly, and felt his way to the little workroom, lighted the petroleum lamp again, seated himself at the writing-table, where lay a pile of white wrappers and the list of addresses, and began to write, imitating exactly his father’s handwriting. And he wrote with a will, gladly, a little in fear, and the wrappers piled up, and from time to time he dropped the pen to rub his hands, and then began again with increased alacrity, listening and smiling. He wrote a hundred and sixty—one lira! Then he stopped, placed the pen where he had found it, extinguished the light, and went back to bed on tiptoe.
At noon that day his father sat down to the table in a good humor. He had perceived nothing. He performed the work mechanically, measuring it by the hour, and thinking of something else, and only counted the wrappers he had written on the following day. He seated himself at the table in a fine humor, and slapping his son on one shoulder, he said to him:—
“Eh, Giulio! Your father is even a better workman than you thought. In two hours I did a good third more work than usual last night. My hand is still nimble, and my eyes still do their duty.” And Giulio, silent but content, said to himself, “Poor daddy, besides the money, I am giving him some satisfaction in the thought that he has grown young again. Well, courage!”
Encouraged by these good results, when night came and twelve o’clock struck, he rose once more, and set to work. And this he did for several nights. And his father noticed nothing; only once, at supper, he uttered this exclamation, “It is strange how much oil has been used in this house lately!” This was a shock to Giulio; but the conversation ceased there, and the nocturnal labor proceeded.
However, by dint of thus breaking his sleep every night, Giulio did not get sufficient rest: he rose in the morning fatigued, and when he was doing his school work in the evening, he had difficulty in keeping his eyes open. One evening, for the first time in his life, he fell asleep over his copy-book.
“Courage! courage!” cried his father, clapping his hands; “to work!”
He shook himself and set to work again. But the next evening, and on the days following, the same thing occurred, and worse: he dozed over his books, he rose later than usual, he studied his lessons in a languid way, he seemed disgusted with study. His father began to observe him, then to reflect seriously, and at last to reprove him. He should never have done it!
“Giulio,” he said to him one morning, “you put me quite beside myself; you are no longer as you used to be. I don’t like it. Take care; all the hopes of your family rest on you. I am dissatisfied; do you understand?”
At this reproof, the first severe one, in truth, which he had ever received, the boy grew troubled.
“Yes,” he said to himself, “it is true; it cannot go on so; this deceit must come to an end.”
But at dinner, on the evening of that very same day, his father said with much cheerfulness, “Do you know that this month I have earned thirty-two lire more at addressing those wrappers than last month!” and so saying, he drew from under the table a paper package of sweets which he had bought, that he might celebrate with his children this extraordinary profit, and they all hailed it with clapping of hands. Then Giulio took heart again, courage again, and said in his heart, “No, poor papa, I will not cease to deceive you; I will make greater efforts to work during the day, but I shall continue to work at night for you and for the rest.” And his father added, “Thirty-two lire more! I am satisfied. But that boy there,” pointing at Giulio, “is the one who displeases me.” And Giulio received the reprimand in silence, forcing back two tears which tried to flow; but at the same time he felt a great pleasure in his heart.
And he continued to work by main force; but fatigue added to fatigue rendered it ever more difficult for him to resist. Thus things went on for two months. The father continued to reproach his son, and to gaze at him with eyes which grew constantly more wrathful. One day he went to make inquiries of the teacher, and the teacher said to him: “Yes, he gets along, he gets along, because he is intelligent; but he no longer has the good will which he had at first. He is drowsy, he yawns, his mind is distracted. He writes short compositions, scribbled down in all haste, in bad chirography. Oh, he could do a great deal, a great deal more.”
That evening the father took the son aside, and spoke to him words which were graver than any the latter had ever heard. “Giulio, you see how I toil, how I am wearing out my life, for the family. You do not second my efforts. You have no heart for me, nor for your brothers, nor for your mother!”
“Ah no! don’t say that, father!” cried the son, bursting into tears, and opening his mouth to confess all. But his father interrupted him, saying:—
“You are aware of the condition of the family; you know that good will and sacrifices on the part of all are necessary. I myself, as you see, have had to double my work. I counted on a gift of a hundred lire from the railway company this month, and this morning I have learned that I shall receive nothing!”
At this information, Giulio repressed the confession which was on the point of escaping from his soul, and repeated resolutely to himself: “No, papa, I shall tell you nothing; I shall guard my secret for the sake of being able to work for you; I will recompense you in another way for the sorrow which I occasion you; I will study enough at school to win promotion; the im portant point is to help you to earn our living, and to relieve you of the fatigue which is killing you.”
And so he went on, and two months more passed, of labor by night and weakness by day, of desperate efforts on the part of the son, and of bitter reproaches on the part of the father. But the worst of it was, that the latter grew gradually colder towards the boy, only addressed him rarely, as though he had been a recreant son, of whom there was nothing any longer to be expected, and almost avoided meeting his glance. And Giulio perceived this and suffered from it, and when his father’s back was turned, he threw him a furtive kiss, stretching forth his face with a sentiment of sad and dutiful tenderness; and between sorrow and fatigue, he grew thin and pale, and he was constrained to still further neglect his studies. And he understood well that there must be an end to it some day, and every evening he said to himself, “I will not get up to-night”; but when the clock struck twelve, at the moment when he should have vigorously reaffirmed his resolution, he felt remorse: it seemed to him, that by remaining in bed he should be failing in a duty, and robbing his father and the family of a lira. And he rose, thinking that some night his father would wake up and discover him, or that he would discover the deception by accident, by counting the wrappers twice; and then all would come to a natural end, without any act of his will, which he did not feel the courage to exert. And thus he went on.
But one evening at dinner his father spoke a word which was decisive so far as he was concerned. His mother looked at him, and as it seemed to her that he was more ill and weak than usual, she said to him, “Giulio, you are ill.” And then, turning to his father with anxiety: “Giulio is ill. See how pale he is Giulio, my dear, how do you feel?”
His father gave a hasty glance, and said: “It is his bad conscience that produces his bad health. He was not thus when he was a studious scholar and a loving son.”
“But he is ill!” exclaimed the mother.
“I don’t care anything about him any longer!” replied the father.
This remark was like a stab in the heart to the poor boy. Ah! he cared nothing any more. His father, who once trembled at the mere sound of a cough from him! He no longer loved him; there was no longer any doubt; he was dead in his father’s heart. “Ah, no! my father,” said the boy to himself, his heart oppressed with anguish, “now all is over indeed; I cannot live without your affection; I must have it all back. I will tell you all; I will deceive you no longer. I will study as of old, come what will, if you will only love me once more, my poor father! Oh, this time I am quite sure of my resolution!”
Nevertheless he rose that night again, by force of habit more than anything else; and when he was once up, he wanted to go and salute and see once more, for the last time, in the quiet of the night, that little chamber where he toiled so much in secret with his heart full of satisfaction and tenderness. And when he beheld again that little table with the lamp lighted and those white wrappers on which he was never more to write those names of towns and persons, which he had come to know by heart, he was seized with a great sadness, and with an impetuous movement he grasped the pen to recommence his accustomed toil. But in reaching out his hand he struck a book, and the book fell. The blood rushed to his heart. What if his father had waked! Certainly he would not have discovered him in the commission of a bad deed: he had himself decided to tell him all, and yet—the sound of that step approaching in the darkness,—the discovery at that hour, in that silence,—his mother, who would be awakened and alarmed,—and the thought, which had occurred to him for the first time, that his father might feel humiliated in his presence on thus discovering all;—all this terrified him almost. He bent his ear, with suspended breath. He heard no sound. He laid his ear to the lock of the door behind him—nothing. The whole house was asleep. His father had not heard. He recovered his composure, and he set himself again to his writing, and wrapper was piled on wrapper. He heard the regular tread of the policeman below in the deserted street; then the rumble of a carriage which gradually died away; then, after an interval, the rattle of a file of carts, which passed slowly by; then a profound silence, broken from time to time by the distant barking of a dog. And he wrote on and on: and meanwhile his father was behind him. He had risen on hearing the fall of the book, and had remained waiting for a long time: the rattle of the carts had drowned the noise of his footsteps and the creaking of the door-casing; and he was there, with his white head bent over Giulio’s little black head, and he had seen the pen flying over the wrappers, and in an instant he had divined all, remembered all, understood all, and a despairing penitence, but at the same time an immense tenderness, had taken possession of his mind and had held him nailed to the spot suffocating behind his child. Suddenly Giulio uttered a piercing shriek: two arms had pressed his head convulsively.
“Oh, papa, papa! forgive me, forgive me!” he cried, recognizing his parent by his weeping.
“Do you forgive me!” replied his father, sobbing, and covering his brow with kisses. “I have understood all, I know all; it is I, it is I who ask your pardon, my blessed little creature; come, come with me!” and he pushed or rather carried him to the bedside of his mother, who was awake, and throwing him into her arms, he said:—
“Kiss this little angel of a son, who has not slept for three months, but has been toiling for me, while I was saddening his heart, and he was earning our bread!” The mother pressed him to her breast and held him there, without the power to speak; at last she said: “Go to sleep at once, my baby, go to sleep and rest.—Carry him to bed.”
The father took him from her arms, carried him to his room, and laid him in his bed, still breathing hard and caressing him, and arranged his pillows and coverlets for him.
“Thanks, papa,” the child kept repeating; “thanks; but go to bed yourself now; I am content; go to bed, papa.”
But his father wanted to see him fall asleep; so he sat down beside the bed, took his hand, and said to him, “Sleep, sleep, my little son!” and Giulio, being weak, fell asleep at last, and slumbered many hours, enjoying, for the first time in many months, a tranquil sleep, enlivened by pleasant dreams; and as he opened his eyes, when the sun had already been shining for a tolerably long time, he first felt, and then saw, close to his breast, and resting upon the edge of the little bed, the white head of his father, who had passed the night thus, and who was still asleep, with his brow against his son’s heart.