Cuore (Chapter 59)
Edmondo De Acimis
(Last Monthly Story.)
One morning in the month of December, several years ago, there sailed from the port of Liverpool a huge steamer, which had on board two hundred persons, including a crew of sixty. The captain and nearly all the sailors were English. Among the passengers there were several Italians,—three gentlemen, a priest, and a company of musicians. The steamer was bound for the island of Malta. The weather was threatening.
Among the third-class passengers forward, was an Italian lad of a dozen years, small for his age, but robust; a bold, handsome, austere face, of Sicilian type. He was alone near the fore-mast, seated on a coil of cordage, beside a well-worn valise, which contained his effects, and upon which he kept a hand. His face was brown, and his black and wavy hair descended to his shoulders. He was meanly clad, and had a tattered mantle thrown over his shoulders, and an old leather pouch on a cross-belt. He gazed thoughtfully about him at the passengers, the ship, the sailors who were running past, and at the restless sea. He had the appearance of a boy who has recently issued from a great family sorrow,—the face of a child, the expression of a man.
A little after their departure, one of the steamer’s crew, an Italian with gray hair, made his appearance on the bow, holding by the hand a little girl; and coming to a halt in front of the little Sicilian, he said to him:—
“Here’s a travelling companion for you, Mario.” Then he went away.
The girl seated herself on the pile of cordage beside the boy.
They surveyed each other.
“Where are you going?” asked the Sicilian.
The girl replied: “To Malta on the way of Naples.” Then she added: “I am going to see my father and mother, who are expecting me. My name is Giulietta Faggiani.”
The boy said nothing.
After the lapse of a few minutes, he drew some bread from his pouch, and some dried fruit; the girl had some biscuits: they began to eat.
“Look sharp there!” shouted the Italian sailor, as he passed rapidly; “a lively time is at hand!”
The wind continued to increase, the steamer pitched heavily; but the two children, who did not suffer from seasickness, paid no heed to it. The little girl smiled. She was about the same age as her companion, but was considerably taller, brown of complexion, slender, somewhat sickly, and dressed more than modestly. Her hair was short and curling, she wore a red kerchief over her head, and two hoops of silver in her ears.
As they ate, they talked about themselves and their affairs. The boy had no longer either father or mother. The father, an artisan, had died a few days previously in Liverpool, leaving him alone; and the Italian consul had sent him back to his country, to Palermo, where he had still some distant relatives left. The little girl had been taken to London, the year before, by a widowed aunt, who was very fond of her, and to whom her parents—poor people—had given her for a time, trusting in a promise of an inheritance; but the aunt had died a few months later, run over by an omnibus, without leaving a centesimo; and then she too had had recourse to the consul, who had shipped her to Italy. Both had been recommended to the care of the Italian sailor.—“So,” concluded the little maid, “my father and mother thought that I would return rich, and instead I am returning poor. But they will love me all the same. And so will my brothers. I have four, all small. I am the oldest at home. I dress them. They will be greatly delighted to see me. They will come in on tiptoe—The sea is ugly!”
Then she asked the boy: “And are you going to stay with your relatives?”
“Yes—if they want me.”
“Do not they love you?”
“I don’t know.”
“I shall be thirteen at Christmas,” said the girl.
Then they began to talk about the sea, and the people on board around them. They remained near each other all day, exchanging a few words now and then. The passengers thought them brother and sister. The girl knitted at a stocking, the boy meditated, the sea continued to grow rougher. At night, as they parted to go to bed, the girl said to Mario, “Sleep well.”
“No one will sleep well, my poor children!” exclaimed the Italian sailor as he ran past, in answer to a call from the captain. The boy was on the point of replying with a “good night” to his little friend, when an unexpected dash of water dealt him a violent blow, and flung him against a seat.
“My dear, you are bleeding!” cried the girl, flinging herself upon him. The passengers who were making their escape below, paid no heed to them. The child knelt down beside Mario, who had been stunned by the blow, wiped the blood from his brow, and pulling the red kerchief from her hair, she bound it about his head, then pressed his head to her breast in order to knot the ends, and thus received a spot of blood on her yellow bodice just above the girdle. Mario shook himself and rose:
“Are you better?” asked the girl.
“I no longer feel it,” he replied.
“Sleep well,” said Giulietta.
“Good night,” responded Mario. And they descended two neighboring sets of steps to their dormitories.
The sailor’s prediction proved correct. Before they could get to sleep, a frightful tempest had broken loose. It was like the sudden onslaught of furious great horses, which in the course of a few minutes split one mast, and carried away three boats which were suspended to the falls, and four cows on the bow, like leaves. On board the steamer there arose a confusion, a terror, an uproar, a tempest of shrieks, wails, and prayers, sufficient to make the hair stand on end. The tempest continued to increase in fury all night. At daybreak it was still increasing. The formidable waves dashing the craft transversely, broke over the deck, and smashed, split, and hurled everything into the sea. The platform which screened the engine was destroyed, and the water dashed in with a terrible roar; the fires were extinguished; the engineers fled; huge and impetuous streams forced their way everywhere. A voice of thunder shouted:
“To the pumps!” It was the captain’s voice. The sailors rushed to the pumps. But a sudden burst of the sea, striking the vessel on the stern, demolished bulwarks and hatchways, and sent a flood within.
All the passengers, more dead than alive, had taken refuge in the grand saloon. At last the captain made his appearance.
“Captain! Captain!” they all shrieked in concert. “What is taking place? Where are we? Is there any hope! Save us!”
The captain waited until they were silent, then said coolly; “Let us be resigned.”
One woman uttered a cry of “Mercy!” No one else could give vent to a sound. Terror had frozen them all. A long time passed thus, in a silence like that of the grave. All gazed at each other with blanched faces. The sea continued to rage and roar. The vessel pitched heavily. At one moment the captain attempted to launch one life-boat; five sailors entered it; the boat sank; the waves turned it over, and two of the sailors were drowned, among them the Italian: the others contrived with difficulty to catch hold of the ropes and draw themselves up again.
After this, the sailors themselves lost all courage. Two hours later, the vessel was sunk in the water to the height of the port-holes.
A terrible spectacle was presented meanwhile on the deck. Mothers pressed their children to their breasts in despair; friends exchanged embraces and bade each other farewell; some went down into the cabins that they might die without seeing the sea. One passenger shot himself in the head with a pistol, and fell headlong down the stairs to the cabin, where he expired. Many clung frantically to each other; women writhed in horrible convulsions. There was audible a chorus of sobs, of infantile laments, of strange and piercing voices; and here and there persons were visible motionless as statues, in stupor, with eyes dilated and sightless,—faces of corpses and madmen. The two children, Giulietta and Mario, clung to a mast and gazed at the sea with staring eyes, as though senseless.
The sea had subsided a little; but the vessel continued to sink slowly. Only a few minutes remained to them.
“Launch the long-boat!” shouted the captain.
A boat, the last that remained, was thrown into the water, and fourteen sailors and three passengers descended into it.
The captain remained on board.
“Come down with us!” they shouted to him from below.
“I must die at my post,” replied the captain.
“We shall meet a vessel,” the sailors cried to him; “we shall be saved! Come down! you are lost!”
“I shall remain.”
“There is room for one more!” shouted the sailors, turning to the other passengers. “A woman!”
A woman advanced, aided by the captain; but on seeing the distance at which the boat lay, she did not feel sufficient courage to leap down, and fell back upon the deck. The other women had nearly all fainted, and were as dead.
“A boy!” shouted the sailors.
At that shout, the Sicilian lad and his companion, who had remained up to that moment petrified as by a supernatural stupor, were suddenly aroused again by a violent instinct to save their lives. They detached themselves simultaneously from the mast, and rushed to the side of the vessel, shrieking in concert: “Take me!” and endeavoring in turn, to drive the other back, like furious beasts.
“The smallest!” shouted the sailors. “The boat is overloaded! The smallest!”
On hearing these words, the girl dropped her arms, as though struck by lightning, and stood motionless, staring at Mario with lustreless eyes.
Mario looked at her for a moment,—saw the spot of blood on her bodice,—remembered—The gleam of a divine thought flashed across his face.
“The smallest!” shouted the sailors in chorus, with imperious impatience. “We are going!”
And then Mario, with a voice which no longer seemed his own, cried: “She is the lighter! It is for you, Giulietta! You have a father and mother! I am alone! I give you my place! Go down!”
“Throw her into the sea!” shouted the sailors.
Mario seized Giulietta by the body, and threw her into the sea.
The girl uttered a cry and made a splash; a sailor seized her by the arm, and dragged her into the boat.
The boy remained at the vessel’s side, with his head held high, his hair streaming in the wind,—motionless, tranquil, sublime.
The boat moved off just in time to escape the whirlpool which the vessel produced as it sank, and which threatened to overturn it.
Then the girl, who had remained senseless until that moment, raised her eyes to the boy, and burst into a storm of tears.
“Good by, Mario!” she cried, amid her sobs, with her arms outstretched towards him. “Good by! Good by! Good by!”
“Good by!” replied the boy, raising his hand on high.
The boat went swiftly away across the troubled sea, beneath the dark sky. No one on board the vessel shouted any longer. The water was already lapping the edge of the deck.
Suddenly the boy fell on his knees, with his hands folded and his eyes raised to heaven.
The girl covered her face.
When she raised her head again, she cast a glance over the sea: the vessel was no longer there.