Cuore (Chapter 28)
Edmondo De Acimis
THE SARDINIAN DRUMMER-BOY
On the first day of the battle of Custoza, on the 24th of July, 1848, about sixty soldiers, belonging to an infantry regiment of our army, who had been sent to an elevation to occupy an isolated house, suddenly found themselves assaulted by two companies of Austrian soldiers, who, showering them with bullets from various quarters, hardly gave them time to take refuge in the house and to barricade the doors, after leaving several dead and wounded on the field. Having barred the doors, our men ran in haste to the windows of the ground floor and the first story, and began to fire brisk discharges at their assailants, who, approaching gradually, ranged in a semicircle, made vigorous reply. The sixty Italian soldiers were commanded by two non-commissioned officers and a captain, a tall, dry, austere old man, with white hair and mustache; and with them there was a Sardinian drummer-boy, a lad of a little over fourteen, who did not look twelve, small, with an olive-brown complexion, and two small, deep, sparkling eyes. The captain directed the defence from a room on the first floor, launching commands that seemed like pistol-shots, and no sign of emotion was visible on his iron countenance. The drummer-boy, a little pale, but firm on his legs, had jumped upon a table, and was holding fast to the wall and stretching out his neck in order to gaze out of the windows, and athwart the smoke on the fields he saw the white uniforms of the Austrians, who were slowly advancing. The house was situated at the summit of a steep declivity, and on the side of the slope it had but one high window, corresponding to a chamber in the roof: therefore the Austrians did not threaten the house from that quarter, and the slope was free; the fire beat only upon the front and the two ends.
But it was an infernal fire, a hailstorm of leaden bullets, which split the walls on the outside, ground the tiles to powder, and in the interior cracked ceilings, furniture, window-frames, and door-frames, sending splinters of wood flying through the air, and clouds of plaster, and fragments of kitchen utensils and glass, whizzing, and rebounding, and breaking everything with a noise like the crushing of a skull. From time to time one of the soldiers who were firing from the windows fell crashing back to the floor, and was dragged to one side. Some staggered from room to room, pressing their hands on their wounds. There was already one dead body in the kitchen, with its forehead cleft. The semicircle of the enemy was drawing together.
At a certain point the captain, hitherto impassive, was seen to make a gesture of uneasiness, and to leave the room with huge strides, followed by a sergeant. Three minutes later the sergeant returned on a run, and summoned the drummer-boy, making him a sign to follow. The lad followed him at a quick pace up the wooden staircase, and entered with him into a bare garret, where he saw the captain writing with a pencil on a sheet of paper, as he leaned against the little window; and on the floor at his feet lay the well-rope.
The captain folded the sheet of paper, and said sharply, as he fixed his cold gray eyes, before which all the soldiers trembled, on the boy:—
The drummer-boy put his hand to his visor.
The captain said, “You have courage.”
The boy’s eyes flashed.
“Yes, captain,” he replied.
“Look down there,” said the captain, pushing him to the window; “on the plain, near the houses of Villafranca, where there is a gleam of bayonets. There stand our troops, motionless. You are to take this billet, tie yourself to the rope, descend from the window, get down that slope in an instant, make your way across the fields, arrive at our men, and give the note to the first officer you see. Throw off your belt and knapsack.”
The drummer took off his belt and knapsack and thrust the note into his breast pocket; the sergeant flung the rope out of the window, and held one end of it clutched fast in his hands; the captain helped the lad to clamber out of the small window, with his back turned to the landscape.
“Now look out,” he said; “the salvation of this detachment lies in your courage and in your legs.”
“Trust to me, Signor Captain,” replied the drummer-boy, as he let himself down.
“Bend over on the slope,” said the captain, grasping the rope, with the sergeant.
“God aid you!”
In a few moments the drummer-boy was on the ground; the sergeant drew in the rope and disappeared; the captain stepped impetuously in front of the window and saw the boy flying down the slope.
He was already hoping that he had succeeded in escaping unobserved, when five or six little puffs of powder, which rose from the earth in front of and behind the lad, warned him that he had been espied by the Austrians, who were firing down upon him from the top of the elevation: these little clouds were thrown into the air by the bullets. But the drummer continued to run at a headlong speed. All at once he fell to the earth. “He is killed!” roared the captain, biting his fist. But before he had uttered the word he saw the drummer spring up again. “Ah, only a fall,” he said to himself, and drew a long breath. The drummer, in fact, set out again at full speed; but he limped. “He has turned his ankle,” thought the captain. Again several cloudlets of powder smoke rose here and there about the lad, but ever more distant. He was safe. The captain uttered an exclamation of triumph. But he continued to follow him with his eyes, trembling because it was an affair of minutes: if he did not arrive yonder in the shortest possible time with that billet, which called for instant succor, either all his soldiers would be killed or he should be obliged to surrender himself a prisoner with them.
The boy ran rapidly for a space, then relaxed his pace and limped, then resumed his course, but grew constantly more fatigued, and every little while he stumbled and paused.
“Perhaps a bullet has grazed him,” thought the captain, and he noted all his movements, quivering with excitement; and he encouraged him, he spoke to him, as though he could hear him; he measured incessantly, with a flashing eye, the space intervening between the fleeing boy and that gleam of arms which he could see in the distance on the plain amid the fields of grain gilded by the sun. And meanwhile he heard the whistle and the crash of the bullets in the rooms beneath, the imperious and angry shouts of the sergeants and the officers, the piercing laments of the wounded, the ruin of furniture, and the fall of rubbish.
“On! courage!” he shouted, following the far-off drummer with his glance. “Forward! run! He halts, that cursed boy! Ah, he resumes his course!”
An officer came panting to tell him that the enemy, without slackening their fire, were flinging out a white flag to hint at a surrender. “Don’t reply to them!” he cried, without detaching his eyes from the boy, who was already on the plain, but who was no longer running, and who seemed to be dragging himself along with difficulty.
“Go! run!” said the captain, clenching his teeth and his fists; “let them kill you; die, you rascal, but go!” Then he uttered a horrible oath. “Ah, the infamous poltroon! he has sat down!” In fact, the boy, whose head he had hitherto been able to see projecting above a field of grain, had disappeared, as though he had fallen; but, after the lapse of a minute, his head came into sight again; finally, it was lost behind the hedges, and the captain saw it no more.
Then he descended impetuously; the bullets were coming in a tempest; the rooms were encumbered with the wounded, some of whom were whirling round like drunken men, and clutching at the furniture; the walls and floor were bespattered with blood; corpses lay across the doorways; the lieutenant had had his arm shattered by a ball; smoke and clouds of dust enveloped everything.
“Courage!” shouted the captain. “Stand firm at your post! Succor is on the way! Courage for a little while longer!”
The Austrians had approached still nearer: their contorted faces were already visible through the smoke, and amid the crash of the firing their savage and offensive shouts were audible, as they uttered insults, suggested a surrender, and threatened slaughter. Some soldiers were terrified, and withdrew from the windows; the sergeants drove them forward again. But the fire of the defence weakened; discouragement made its appearance on all faces. It was not possible to protract the resistance longer. At a given moment the fire of the Austrians slackened, and a thundering voice shouted, first in German and then in Italian, “Surrender!”
“No!” howled the captain from a window.
And the firing recommenced more fast and furious on both sides. More soldiers fell. Already more than one window was without defenders. The fatal moment was near at hand. The captain shouted through his teeth, in a strangled voice, “They are not coming! they are not coming!” and rushed wildly about, twisting his sword about in his convulsively clenched hand, and resolved to die; when a sergeant descending from the garret, uttered a piercing shout, “They are coming!” “They are coming!” repeated the captain, with a cry of joy.
At that cry all, well and wounded, sergeants and officers, rushed to the windows, and the resistance became fierce once more. A few moments later a sort of uncertainty was noticeable, and a beginning of disorder among the foe. Suddenly the captain hastily collected a little troop in the room on the ground floor, in order to make a sortie with fixed bayonets. Then he flew up stairs. Scarcely had he arrived there when they heard a hasty trampling of feet, accompanied by a formidable hurrah, and saw from the windows the two-pointed hats of the Italian carabineers advancing through the smoke, a squadron rushing forward at great speed, and a lightning flash of blades whirling in the air, as they fell on heads, on shoulders, and on backs. Then the troop darted out of the door, with bayonets lowered; the enemy wavered, were thrown into disorder, and turned their backs; the field was left unincumbered, the house was free, and a little later two battalions of Italian infantry and two cannons occupied the eminence.
The captain, with the soldiers that remained to him, rejoined his regiment, went on fighting, and was slightly wounded in the left hand by a bullet on the rebound, in the final assault with bayonets.
The day ended with the victory on our side.
But on the following day, the conflict having begun again, the Italians were overpowered by the overwhelming numbers of the Austrians, in spite of a valorous resistance, and on the morning of the 27th they sadly retreated towards the Mincio.
The captain, although wounded, made the march on foot with his soldiers, weary and silent, and, arrived at the close of the day at Goito, on the Mincio, he immediately sought out his lieutenant, who had been picked up with his arm shattered, by our ambulance corps, and who must have arrived before him. He was directed to a church, where the field hospital had been installed in haste. Thither he betook himself. The church was full of wounded men, ranged in two lines of beds, and on mattresses spread on the floor; two doctors and numerous assistants were going and coming, busily occupied; and suppressed cries and groans were audible.
No sooner had the captain entered than he halted and cast a glance around, in search of his officer.
At that moment he heard himself called in a weak voice,—“Signor Captain!” He turned round. It was his drummer-boy. He was lying on a cot bed, covered to the breast with a coarse window curtain, in red and white squares, with his arms on the outside, pale and thin, but with eyes which still sparkled like black gems.
“Are you here?” asked the captain, amazed, but still sharply. “Bravo! You did your duty.”
“I did all that I could,” replied the drummer-boy.
“Were you wounded?” said the captain, seeking with his eyes for his officer in the neighboring beds.
“What could one expect?” said the lad, who gained courage by speaking, expressing the lofty satisfaction of having been wounded for the first time, without which he would not have dared to open his mouth in the presence of this captain; “I had a fine run, all bent over, but suddenly they caught sight of me. I should have arrived twenty minutes earlier if they had not hit me. Luckily, I soon came across a captain of the staff, to whom I gave the note. But it was hard work to get down after that caress! I was dying of thirst. I was afraid that I should not get there at all. I wept with rage at the thought that at every moment of delay another man was setting out yonder for the other world. But enough! I did what I could. I am content. But, with your permission, captain, you should look to yourself: you are losing blood.”
Several drops of blood had in fact trickled down on the captain’s fingers from his imperfectly bandaged palm.
“Would you like to have me give the bandage a turn, captain? Hold it here a minute.”
The captain held out his left hand, and stretched out his right to help the lad to loosen the knot and to tie it again; but no sooner had the boy raised himself from his pillow than he turned pale and was obliged to support his head once more.
“That will do, that will do,” said the captain, looking at him and withdrawing his bandaged hand, which the other tried to retain. “Attend to your own affairs, instead of thinking of others, for things that are not severe may become serious if they are neglected.”
The drummer-boy shook his head.
“But you,” said the captain, observing him attentively, “must have lost a great deal of blood to be as weak as this.”
“Must have lost a great deal of blood!” replied the boy, with a smile. “Something else besides blood: look here.” And with one movement he drew aside the coverlet.
The captain started back a pace in horror.
The lad had but one leg. His left leg had been amputated above the knee; the stump was swathed in blood-stained cloths.
At that moment a small, plump, military surgeon passed, in his shirt-sleeves. “Ah, captain,” he said, rapidly, nodding towards the drummer, “this is an unfortunate case; there is a leg that might have been saved if he had not exerted himself in such a crazy manner—that cursed inflammation! It had to be cut off away up here. Oh, but he’s a brave lad. I can assure you! He never shed a tear, nor uttered a cry! He was proud of being an Italian boy, while I was performing the operation, upon my word of honor. He comes of a good race, by Heavens!” And away he went, on a run.
The captain wrinkled his heavy white brows, gazed fixedly at the drummer-boy, and spread the coverlet over him again, and slowly, then as though unconsciously, and still gazing intently at him, he raised his hand to his head, and lifted his cap.
“Signor Captain!” exclaimed the boy in amazement. “What are you doing, captain? To me!”
And then that rough soldier, who had never said a gentle word to an inferior, replied in an indescribably sweet and affectionate voice, “I am only a captain; you are a hero.”
Then he threw himself with wide-spread arms upon the drummer-boy, and kissed him three times upon the heart.