Cuore (Chapter 33)
Edmondo De Acimis
One morning, on a rainy day in March, a lad dressed like a country boy, all muddy and saturated with water, with a bundle of clothes under his arm, presented himself to the porter of the great hospital at Naples, and, presenting a letter, asked for his father. He had a fine oval face, of a pale brown hue, thoughtful eyes, and two thick lips, always half open, which displayed extremely white teeth. He came from a village in the neighborhood of Naples. His father, who had left home a year previously to seek work in France, had returned to Italy, and had landed a few days before at Naples, where, having fallen suddenly ill, he had hardly time to write a line to announce his arrival to his family, and to say that he was going to the hospital. His wife, in despair at this news, and unable to leave home because she had a sick child, and a baby at the breast, had sent her eldest son to Naples, with a few soldi, to help his father—his daddy, as they called him: the boy had walked ten miles.
“THE BOY HAD WALKED TEN MILES.”
The porter, after glancing at the letter, called a nurse and told him to conduct the lad to his father.
“What father?” inquired the nurse.
The boy, trembling with terror, lest he should hear bad news, gave the name.
The nurse did not recall such a name.
“An old laborer, arrived from abroad?” he asked.
“Yes, a laborer,” replied the lad, still more uneasy; “not so very old. Yes, arrived from abroad.”
“When did he enter the hospital?” asked the nurse.
The lad glanced at his letter; “Five days ago, I think.”
The nurse stood a while in thought; then, as though suddenly recalling him; “Ah!” he said, “the furthest bed in the fourth ward.”
“Is he very ill? How is he?” inquired the boy, anxiously.
The nurse looked at him, without replying. Then he said, “Come with me.”
They ascended two flights of stairs, walked to the end of a long corridor, and found themselves facing the open door of a large hall, wherein two rows of beds were arranged. “Come,” repeated the nurse, entering. The boy plucked up his courage, and followed him, casting terrified glances to right and left, on the pale, emaciated faces of the sick people, some of whom had their eyes closed, and seemed to be dead, while others were staring into the air, with their eyes wide open and fixed, as though frightened. Some were moaning like children. The big room was dark, the air was impregnated with an acute odor of medicines. Two sisters of charity were going about with phials in their hands.
Arrived at the extremity of the great room, the nurse halted at the head of a bed, drew aside the curtains, and said, “Here is your father.”
The boy burst into tears, and letting fall his bundle, he dropped his head on the sick man’s shoulder, clasping with one hand the arm which was lying motionless on the coverlet. The sick man did not move.
The boy rose to his feet, and looked at his father, and broke into a fresh fit of weeping. Then the sick man gave a long look at him, and seemed to recognize him; but his lips did not move. Poor daddy, how he was changed! The son would never have recognized him. His hair had turned white, his beard had grown, his face was swollen, of a dull red hue, with the skin tightly drawn and shining; his eyes were diminished in size, his lips very thick, his whole countenance altered. There was no longer anything natural about him but his forehead and the arch of his eyebrows. He breathed with difficulty.
“Daddy! daddy!” said the boy, “it is I; don’t you know me? I am Cicillo, your own Cicillo, who has come from the country: mamma has sent me. Take a good look at me; don’t you know me? Say one word to me.”
But the sick man, after having looked attentively at him, closed his eyes.
“Daddy! daddy! What is the matter with you? I am your little son—your own Cicillo.”
The sick man made no movement, and continued to breathe painfully.
Then the lad, still weeping, took a chair, seated himself and waited, without taking his eyes from his father’s face. “A doctor will surely come to pay him a visit,” he thought; “he will tell me something.” And he became immersed in sad thoughts, recalling many things about his kind father, the day of parting, when he said the last good by to him on board the ship, the hopes which his family had founded on his journey, the desolation of his mother on the arrival of the letter; and he thought of death: he beheld his father dead, his mother dressed in black, the family in misery. And he remained a long time thus. A light hand touched him on the shoulder, and he started up: it was a nun.
“What is the matter with my father?” he asked her quickly.
“Is he your father?” said the sister gently.
“Yes, he is my father; I have come. What ails him?”
“Courage, my boy,” replied the sister; “the doctor will be here soon now.” And she went away without saying anything more.
Half an hour later he heard the sound of a bell, and he saw the doctor enter at the further end of the hall, accompanied by an assistant; the sister and a nurse followed him. They began the visit, pausing at every bed. This time of waiting seemed an eternity to the lad, and his anxiety increased at every step of the doctor. At length they arrived at the next bed. The doctor was an old man, tall and stooping, with a grave face. Before he left the next bed the boy rose to his feet, and when he approached he began to cry.
The doctor looked at him.
“He is the sick man’s son,” said the sister; “he arrived this morning from the country.”
The doctor placed one hand on his shoulder; then bent over the sick man, felt his pulse, touched his forehead, and asked a few questions of the sister, who replied, “There is nothing new.” Then he thought for a while and said, “Continue the present treatment.”
Then the boy plucked up courage, and asked in a tearful voice, “What is the matter with my father?”
“Take courage, my boy,” replied the doctor, laying his hand on his shoulder once more; “he has erysipelas in his face. It is a serious case, but there is still hope. Help him. Your presence may do him a great deal of good.”
“But he does not know me!” exclaimed the boy in a tone of affliction.
“He will recognize you—to-morrow perhaps. Let us hope for the best and keep up our courage.”
The boy would have liked to ask some more questions, but he did not dare. The doctor passed on. And then he began his life of nurse. As he could do nothing else, he arranged the coverlets of the sick man, touched his hand every now and then, drove away the flies, bent over him at every groan, and when the sister brought him something to drink, he took the glass or the spoon from her hand, and administered it in her stead. The sick man looked at him occasionally, but he gave no sign of recognition. However, his glance rested longer on the lad each time, especially when the latter put his handkerchief to his eyes.
Thus passed the first day. At night the boy slept on two chairs, in a corner of the ward, and in the morning he resumed his work of mercy. That day it seemed as though the eyes of the sick man revealed a dawning of consciousness. At the sound of the boy’s caressing voice a vague expression of gratitude seemed to gleam for an instant in his pupils, and once he moved his lips a little, as though he wanted to say something. After each brief nap he seemed, on opening his eyes, to seek his little nurse. The doctor, who had passed twice, thought he noted a slight improvement. Towards evening, on putting the cup to his lips, the lad fancied that he perceived a very faint smile glide across the swollen lips. Then he began to take comfort and to hope; and with the hope of being understood, confusedly at least, he talked to him—talked to him at great length—of his mother, of his little sisters, of his own return home, and he exhorted him to courage with warm and loving words. And although he often doubted whether he was heard, he still talked; for it seemed to him that even if he did not understand him, the sick man listened with a certain pleasure to his voice,—to that unaccustomed intonation of affection and sorrow. And in this manner passed the second day, and the third, and the fourth, with vicissitudes of slight improvements and unexpected changes for the worse; and the boy was so absorbed in all his cares, that he hardly nibbled a bit of bread and cheese twice a day, when the sister brought it to him, and hardly saw what was going on around him,—the dying patients, the sudden running up of the sisters at night, the moans and despairing gestures of visitors,—all those doleful and lugubrious scenes of hospital life, which on any other occasion would have disconcerted and alarmed him. Hours, days, passed, and still he was there with his daddy; watchful, wistful, trembling at every sigh and at every look, agitated incessantly between a hope which relieved his mind and a discouragement which froze his heart.
On the fifth day the sick man suddenly grew worse. The doctor, on being interrogated, shook his head, as much as to say that all was over, and the boy flung himself on a chair and burst out sobbing. But one thing comforted him. In spite of the fact that he was worse, the sick man seemed to be slowly regaining a little intelligence. He stared at the lad with increasing intentness, and, with an expression which grew in sweetness, would take his drink and medicine from no one but him, and made strenuous efforts with his lips with greater frequency, as though he were trying to pronounce some word; and he did it so plainly sometimes that his son grasped his arm violently, inspired by a sudden hope, and said to him in a tone which was almost that of joy, “Courage, courage, daddy; you will get well, we will go away from here, we will return home with mamma; courage, for a little while longer!”
It was four o’clock in the afternoon, and just when the boy had abandoned himself to one of these outbursts of tenderness and hope, when a sound of footsteps became audible outside the nearest door in the ward, and then a strong voice uttering two words only,—“Farewell, sister!”—which made him spring to his feet, with a cry repressed in his throat.
At that moment there entered the ward a man with a thick bandage on his hand, followed by a sister.
The boy uttered a sharp cry, and stood rooted to the spot.
The man turned round, looked at him for a moment, and uttered a cry in his turn,—“Cicillo!”—and darted towards him.
The boy fell into his father’s arms, choking with emotion.
The sister, the nurse, and the assistant ran up, and stood there in amazement.
The boy could not recover his voice.
“Oh, my Cicillo!” exclaimed the father, after bestowing an attentive look on the sick man, as he kissed the boy repeatedly. “Cicillo, my son, how is this? They took you to the bedside of another man. And there was I, in despair at not seeing you after mamma had written, ‘I have sent him.’ Poor Cicillo! How many days have you been here? How did this mistake occur? I have come out of it easily! I have a good constitution, you know! And how is mamma? And Concettella? And the little baby—how are they all? I am leaving the hospital now. Come, then. Oh, Lord God! Who would have thought it!”
The boy tried to interpolate a few words, to tell the news of the family. “Oh how happy I am!” he stammered. “How happy I am! What terrible days I have passed!” And he could not finish kissing his father.
But he did not stir.
“Come,” said his father; “we can get home this evening.” And he drew the lad towards him. The boy turned to look at his patient.
“Well, are you coming or not?” his father demanded, in amazement.
The boy cast yet another glance at the sick man, who opened his eyes at that moment and gazed intently at him.
Then a flood of words poured from his very soul. “No, daddy; wait—here—I can’t. Here is this old man. I have been here for five days. He gazes at me incessantly. I thought he was you. I love him dearly. He looks at me; I give him his drink; he wants me always beside him; he is very ill now. Have patience; I have not the courage—I don’t know—it pains me too much; I will return home to-morrow; let me stay here a little longer; I don’t at all like to leave him. See how he looks at me! I don’t know who he is, but he wants me; he will die alone: let me stay here, dear daddy!”
“Bravo, little fellow!” exclaimed the attendant.
The father stood in perplexity, staring at the boy; then he looked at the sick man. “Who is he?” he inquired.
“A countryman, like yourself,” replied the attendant, “just arrived from abroad, and who entered the hospital on the very day that you entered it. He was out of his senses when they brought him here, and could not speak. Perhaps he has a family far away, and sons. He probably thinks that your son is one of his.”
The sick man was still looking at the boy.
The father said to Cicillo, “Stay.”
“He will not have to stay much longer,” murmured the attendant.
“Stay,” repeated his father: “you have heart. I will go home immediately, to relieve mamma’s distress. Here is a scudo for your expenses. Good by, my brave little son, until we meet!”
He embraced him, looked at him intently, kissed him again on the brow, and went away.
The boy returned to his post at the bedside, and the sick man appeared consoled. And Cicillo began again to play the nurse, no longer weeping, but with the same eagerness, the same patience, as before; he again began to give the man his drink, to arrange his bedclothes, to caress his hand, to speak softly to him, to exhort him to courage. He attended him all that day, all that night; he remained beside him all the following day. But the sick man continued to grow constantly worse; his face turned a purple color, his breathing grew heavier, his agitation increased, inarticulate cries escaped his lips, the inflammation became excessive. On his evening visit, the doctor said that he would not live through the night. And then Cicillo redoubled his cares, and never took his eyes from him for a minute. The sick man gazed and gazed at him, and kept moving his lips from time to time, with great effort, as though he wanted to say something, and an expression of extraordinary tenderness passed over his eyes now and then, as they continued to grow smaller and more dim. And that night the boy watched with him until he saw the first rays of dawn gleam white through the windows, and the sister appeared. The sister approached the bed, cast a glance at the patient, and then went away with rapid steps. A few moments later she reappeared with the assistant doctor, and with a nurse, who carried a lantern.
“He is at his last gasp,” said the doctor.
The boy clasped the sick man’s hand. The latter opened his eyes, gazed at him, and closed them once more.
At that moment the lad fancied that he felt his hand pressed. “He pressed my hand!” he exclaimed.
The doctor bent over the patient for an instant, then straightened himself up.
The sister detached a crucifix from the wall.
“He is dead!” cried the boy.
“Go, my son,” said the doctor: “your work of mercy is finished. Go, and may fortune attend you! for you deserve it. God will protect you. Farewell!”
The sister, who had stepped aside for a moment, returned with a little bunch of violets which she had taken from a glass on the window-sill, and handed them to the boy, saying:—
“I have nothing else to give you. Take these in memory of the hospital.”
“Thanks,” returned the boy, taking the bunch of flowers with one hand and drying his eyes with the other; “but I have such a long distance to go on foot—I shall spoil them.” And separating the violets, he scattered them over the bed, saying: “I leave them as a memento for my poor dead man. Thanks, sister! thanks, doctor!” Then, turning to the dead man, “Farewell—” And while he sought a name to give him, the sweet name which he had applied to him for five days recurred to his lips,—“Farewell, poor daddy!”
So saying, he took his little bundle of clothes under his arm, and, exhausted with fatigue, he walked slowly away. The day was dawning.