Cuore (Chapter 50)
Edmondo De Acimis
This morning I had finished copying my share of the story, From the Apennines to the Andes, and was seeking for a theme for the independent composition which the teacher had assigned us to write, when I heard an unusual talking on the stairs, and shortly after two firemen entered the house, and asked permission of my father to inspect the stoves and chimneys, because a smoke-pipe was on fire on the roof, and they could not tell to whom it belonged.
My father said, “Pray do so.” And although we had no fire burning anywhere, they began to make the round of our apartments, and to lay their ears to the walls, to hear if the fire was roaring in the flues which run up to the other floors of the house.
And while they were going through the rooms, my father said to me, “Here is a theme for your composition, Enrico,—the firemen. Try to write down what I am about to tell you.
“I saw them at work two years ago, one evening, when I was coming out of the Balbo Theatre late at night. On entering the Via Roma, I saw an unusual light, and a crowd of people collecting. A house was on fire. Tongues of flame and clouds of smoke were bursting from the windows and the roof; men and women appeared at the windows and then disappeared, uttering shrieks of despair. There was a dense throng in front of the door: the crowd was shouting: ‘They will be burned alive! Help! The firemen!’ At that moment a carriage arrived, four firemen sprang out of it—the first who had reached the town-hall—and rushed into the house. They had hardly gone in when a horrible thing happened: a woman ran to a window of the third story, with a yell, clutched the balcony, climbed down it, and remained suspended, thus clinging, almost suspended in space, with her back outwards, bending beneath the flames, which flashed out from the room and almost licked her head. The crowd uttered a cry of horror. The firemen, who had been stopped on the second floor by mistake by the terrified lodgers, had already broken through a wall and precipitated themselves into a room, when a hundred shouts gave them warning:—
“‘On the third floor! On the third floor!’
“They flew to the third floor. There there was an infernal uproar,—beams from the roof crashing in, corridors filled with a suffocating smoke. In order to reach the rooms where the lodgers were imprisoned, there was no other way left but to pass over the roof. They instantly sprang upon it, and a moment later something which resembled a black phantom appeared on the tiles, in the midst of the smoke. It was the corporal, who had been the first to arrive. But in order to get from the roof to the small set of rooms cut off by the fire, he was forced to pass over an extremely narrow space comprised between a dormer window and the eavestrough: all the rest was in flames, and that tiny space was covered with snow and ice, and there was no place to hold on to.
“‘It is impossible for him to pass!’ shouted the crowd below.
“The corporal advanced along the edge of the roof. All shuddered, and began to observe him with bated breath. He passed. A tremendous hurrah rose towards heaven. The corporal resumed his way, and on arriving at the point which was threatened, he began to break away, with furious blows of his axe, beams, tiles, and rafters, in order to open a hole through which he might descend within.
“In the meanwhile, the woman was still suspended outside the window. The fire raged with increased violence over her head; another moment, and she would have fallen into the street.
“The hole was opened. We saw the corporal pull off his shoulder-belt and lower himself inside: the other firemen, who had arrived, followed.
“At that instant a very lofty Porta ladder, which had just arrived, was placed against the entablature of the house, in front of the windows whence issued flames, and howls, as of maniacs. But it seemed as though they were too late.
“‘No one can be saved now!’ they shouted. ‘The firemen are burning! The end has come! They are dead!’
“All at once the black form of the corporal made its appearance at the window with the balcony, lighted up by the flames overhead. The woman clasped him round the neck; he caught her round the body with both arms, drew her up, and laid her down inside the room.
“The crowd set up a shout a thousand voices strong, which rose above the roar of the conflagration.
“But the others? And how were they to get down? The ladder which leaned against the roof on the front of another window was at a good distance from them. How could they get hold of it?
“While the people were saying this to themselves, one of the firemen stepped out of the window, set his right foot on the window-sill and his left on the ladder, and standing thus upright in the air, he grasped the lodgers, one after the other, as the other men handed them to him from within, passed them on to a comrade, who had climbed up from the street, and who, after securing a firm grasp for them on the rungs, sent them down, one after the other, with the assistance of more firemen.
“First came the woman of the balcony, then a baby, then another woman, then an old man. All were saved. After the old man, the fireman who had remained inside descended. The last to come down was the corporal who had been the first to hasten up. The crowd received them all with a burst of applause; but when the last made his appearance, the vanguard of the rescuers, the one who had faced the abyss in advance of the rest, the one who would have perished had it been fated that one should perish, the crowd saluted him like a conqueror, shouting and stretching out their arms, with an affectionate impulse of admiration and of gratitude, and in a few minutes his obscure name—Giuseppe Robbino—rang from a thousand throats.
“Have you understood? That is courage—the courage of the heart, which does not reason, which does not waver, which dashes blindly on, like a lightning flash, wherever it hears the cry of a dying man. One of these days I will take you to the exercises of the firemen, and I will point out to you Corporal Robbino; for you would be very glad to know him, would you not?”
I replied that I should.
“Here he is,” said my father.
I turned round with a start. The two firemen, having completed their inspection, were traversing the room in order to reach the door.
My father pointed to the smaller of the men, who had straps of gold braid, and said, “Shake hands with Corporal Robbino.”
The corporal halted, and offered me his hand; I pressed it; he made a salute and withdrew.
“And bear this well in mind,” said my father; “for out of the thousands of hands which you will shake in the course of your life there will probably not be ten which possess the worth of his.”