Cuore (Chapter 41)


Edmondo De Acimis

March 14th.

Towards two o’clock the vast theatre was crowded,—pit, gallery, boxes, stage, all were thronged; thousands of faces,—boys, gentlemen, teachers, workingmen, women of the people, babies. There was a moving of heads and hands, a flutter of feathers, ribbons, and curls, and loud and merry murmur which inspired cheerfulness. The theatre was all decorated with festoons of white, red, and green cloth. In the pit two little stairways had been erected: one on the right, which the winners of prizes were to ascend in order to reach the stage; the other, on the left, which they were to descend after receiving their prizes. On the front of the platform there was a row of red chairs; and from the back of the one in the centre hung two laurel crowns. At the back of the stage was a trophy of flags; on one side stood a small green table, and upon it lay all the certificates of premiums, tied with tricolored ribbons. The band of music was stationed in the pit, under the stage; the schoolmasters and mistresses filled all one side of the first balcony, which had been reserved for them; the benches and passages of the pit were crammed with hundreds of boys, who were to sing, and who had written music in their hands. At the back and all about, masters and mistresses could be seen going to and fro, arranging the prize scholars in lines; and it was full of parents who were giving a last touch to their hair and the last pull to their neckties.
No sooner had I entered my box with my family than I perceived in the opposite box the young mistress with the red feather, who was smiling and showing all the pretty dimples in her cheeks, and with her my brother’s teacher and “the little nun,” dressed wholly in black, and my kind mistress of the upper first; but she was so pale, poor thing! and coughed so hard, that she could be heard all over the theatre. In the pit I instantly espied Garrone’s dear, big face and the little blond head of Nelli, who was clinging close to the other’s shoulder. A little further on I saw Garoffi, with his owl’s-beak nose, who was making great efforts to collect the printed catalogues of the prize-winners; and he already had a large bundle of them which he could put to some use in his bartering—we shall find out what it is to-morrow. Near the door was the wood-seller with his wife,—both dressed in festive attire,—together with their boy, who has a third prize in the second grade. I was amazed at no longer beholding the catskin cap and the chocolate-colored tights: on this occasion he was dressed like a little gentleman. In one balcony I caught a momentary glimpse of Votini, with a large lace collar; then he disappeared. In a proscenium box, filled with people, was the artillery captain, the father of Robetti, the boy with the crutches who saved the child from the omnibus.
On the stroke of two the band struck up, and at the same moment the mayor, the prefect, the judge, the provveditore, and many other gentlemen, all dressed in black, mounted the stairs on the right, and seated themselves on the red chairs at the front of the platform. The band ceased playing. The director of singing in the schools advanced with a baton in his hand. At a signal from him all the boys in the pit rose to their feet; at another sign they began to sing. There were seven hundred singing a very beautiful song,—seven hundred boys’ voices singing together; how beautiful! All listened motionless: it was a slow, sweet, limpid song which seemed like a church chant. When they ceased, every one applauded; then they all became very still. The distribution of the prizes was about to begin. My little master of the second grade, with his red head and his quick eyes, who was to read the names of the prize-winners, had already advanced to the front of the stage. The entrance of the twelve boys who were to present the certificates was what they were waiting for. The newspapers had already stated that there would be boys from all the provinces of Italy. Everyone knew it, and was watching for them and gazing curiously towards the spot where they were to enter, and the mayor and the other gentlemen gazed also, and the whole theatre was silent.
All at once the whole twelve arrived on the stage at a run, and remained standing there in line, with a smile. The whole theatre, three thousand persons, sprang up simultaneously, breaking into applause which sounded like a clap of thunder. The boys stood for a moment as though disconcerted. “Behold Italy!” said a voice on the stage. All at once I recognized Coraci, the Calabrian, dressed in black as usual. A gentleman belonging to the municipal government, who was with us and who knew them all, pointed them out to my mother. “That little blond is the representative of Venice. The Roman is that tall, curly-haired lad, yonder.” Two or three of them were dressed like gentlemen; the others were sons of workingmen, but all were neatly clad and clean. The Florentine, who was the smallest, had a blue scarf round his body. They all passed in front of the mayor, who kissed them, one after the other, on the brow, while a gentleman seated next to him smilingly told him the names of their cities: “Florence, Naples, Bologna, Palermo.” And as each passed by, the whole theatre clapped. Then they all ran to the green table, to take the certificates. The master began to read the list, mentioning the schoolhouses, the classes, the names; and the prize-winners began to mount the stage and to file past.
The foremost ones had hardly reached the stage, when behind the scenes there became audible a very, very faint music of violins, which did not cease during the whole time that they were filing past—a soft and always even air, like the murmur of many subdued voices, the voices of all the mothers, and all the masters and mistresses, giving counsel in concert, and beseeching and administering loving reproofs. And meanwhile, the prize-winners passed one by one in front of the seated gentlemen, who handed them their certificates, and said a word or bestowed a caress on each.
The boys in the pit and the balconies applauded loudly every time that there passed a very small lad, or one who seemed, from his garments, to be poor; and also for those who had abundant curly hair, or who were clad in red or white. Some of those who filed past belonged to the upper primary, and once arrived there, they became confused and did not know where to turn, and the whole theatre laughed. One passed, three spans high, with a big knot of pink ribbon on his back, so that he could hardly walk, and he got entangled in the carpet and tumbled down; and the prefect set him on his feet again, and all laughed and clapped. Another rolled headlong down the stairs, when descending again to the pit: cries arose, but he had not hurt himself. Boys of all sorts passed,—boys with roguish faces, with frightened faces, with faces as red as cherries; comical little fellows, who laughed in every one’s face: and no sooner had they got back into the pit, than they were seized upon by their fathers and mothers, who carried them away.
When our schoolhouse’s turn came, how amused I was! Many whom I knew passed. Coretti filed by, dressed in new clothes from head to foot, with his fine, merry smile, which displayed all his white teeth; but who knows how many myriagrammes of wood he had already carried that morning! The mayor, on presenting him with his certificate, inquired the meaning of a red mark on his forehead, and as he did so, laid one hand on his shoulder. I looked in the pit for his father and mother, and saw them laughing, while they covered their mouths with one hand. Then Derossi passed, all dressed in bright blue, with shining buttons, with all those golden curls, slender, easy, with his head held high, so handsome, so sympathetic, that I could have blown him a kiss; and all the gentlemen wanted to speak to him and to shake his hand.
Then the master cried, “Giulio Robetti!” and we saw the captain’s son come forward on his crutches. Hundreds of boys knew the occurrence; a rumor ran round in an instant; a salvo of applause broke forth, and of shouts, which made the theatre tremble: men sprang to their feet, the ladies began to wave their handkerchiefs, and the poor boy halted in the middle of the stage, amazed and trembling. The mayor drew him to him, gave him his prize and a kiss, and removing the two laurel crowns which were hanging from the back of the chair, he strung them on the cross-bars of his crutches. Then he accompanied him to the proscenium box, where his father, the captain, was seated; and the latter lifted him bodily and set him down inside, amid an indescribable tumult of bravos and hurrahs.
Meanwhile, the soft and gentle music of the violins continued, and the boys continued to file by,—those from the Schoolhouse della Consolata, nearly all the sons of petty merchants; those from the Vanchiglia School, the sons of workingmen; those from the Boncompagni School, many of whom were the sons of peasants; those of the Rayneri, which was the last. As soon as it was over, the seven hundred boys in the pit sang another very beautiful song; then the mayor spoke, and after him the judge, who terminated his discourse by saying to the boys:—
“But do not leave this place without sending a salute to those who toil so hard for you; who have consecrated to you all the strength of their intelligence and of their hearts; who live and die for you. There they are; behold them!” And he pointed to the balcony of teachers. Then, from the balconies, from the pit, from the boxes, the boys rose, and extended their arms towards the masters and mistresses, with a shout, and the latter responded by waving their hands, their hats, and handkerchiefs, as they all stood up, in their emotion. After this, the band played once more, and the audience sent a last noisy salute to the twelve lads of all the provinces of Italy, who presented themselves at the front of the stage, all drawn up in line, with their hands interlaced, beneath a shower of flowers

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