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with us, and return the ball well; and as the pluckiest, liveliest, and
most active boys were best fitted to meet these requirements, it was
upon them that our choice usually fell. But did we feel kindly towards
the weaklings? Did it ever occur to us, when a comrade looked sad, to
ask: What ails you? or, if he answered that somebody lay dead at home,
did we have any tears for his sorrow? Ah, we were not real friends!

It has probably happened to many of you to come across a companion of
your primary-school days, after the lapse of fifteen years or so. You
receive a letter in an unfamiliar hand, you glance at the signature,
and you shout out: "What? Is HE alive?" On with your hat and off you
rush to the hotel. Your heart thumps as you run, and you race upstairs
to his door in hot haste, laughing, rejoicing, and thinking to yourself
that you wouldn't have missed those few minutes for any amount of
money. Well, those few minutes are the best. You bounce into the room,
and find yourself embracing a strange man in whom, as you look at him
more closely, you can just discern some faint resemblance to the lad
you used to know; one of you exclaims, "How are you, old man?" the
other plunges breathlessly into some old school reminiscence; and
then... that's all.

You begin to say to yourself: "Who IS this strange man? what has he
been doing all these years? what has been going on in his soul? is he
good or bad, a believer or a sceptic? I have nothing in common with
him, I don't know the man! He must be observed and studied first - how
can I call him a friend?"

What you think of him, he thinks of you, and conversation languishes.
With your first words you may have discovered that you and he have
followed opposite paths in life; he betrays his democratic tendencies,
you, your monarchical leanings; you try him on literature, he
retaliates with the culture of silk-worms. Before telling him that you
are married, you take the precaution to ask if he has a wife; he
answers, "What do you take me for?" and you take leave with a touch of
the finger-tips and a smile that has died at its birth.

The friends of infancy! Dear indeed above all others when the years of
boyhood have been spent with them; mere phantoms otherwise! And
childhood itself! I have never been able to understand why people long
to return to it. Why mourn for years without toil, without suffering,
without intelligent belief, without those outbursts of fierce and
bitter sorrow that purify the soul and uplift the brow in a splendid
renewal of hope and courage? Better a thousand times to suffer, to
toil, to fight and weep, than to let life exhale itself in a ceaseless
irresponsible gayety, causeless, objectless, and imperturbable! Better
to stand bleeding on the breach than to lie dreaming among the flowers.


I was seventeen years old when I made the acquaintance of my dearest
friends, in a splendid palace which I see before me as clearly as
though I had left it only yesterday. I see the great courtyard, the
stately porticos, the saloons adorned with columns, statues and
bas-reliefs; and, amidst these beautiful and magnificent objects,
vestiges of the bygone splendors of the ducal residence, the long lines
of bedsteads and school-benches, the hanging rows of uniforms, dirks
and rifles. Five hundred youths are scattered about those courts and
corridors and staircases; a dull murmur of voices, broken by loud
shouts and sonorous laughter, reverberates through the most distant
recesses of the huge edifice. What animation! What life! What varieties
of type, of speech and gesture! Youths of athletic build, with great
moustaches and stentorian voices; youths as slim and sweet as girls;
the dusky skin and coal-black eyes of Sicily; the fair-haired,
blue-eyed faces of the north; the excited gesticulation of Naples, the
silvery Tuscan intonation, the rattling Venetian chatter, a hundred
groups, a hundred dialects; on this side, songs and noisy talk, on that
side running, jumping, and hand-clapping; men of every class, sons of
dukes, senators, generals, shopkeepers, government employees; a strange
assemblage, suggesting the university, the monastery, and the barracks:
with talk of women, war, novels, the orders of the day; a life teeming
with feminine meannesses and virile ambitions; a life of mortal ennui
and frantic gayety, a medley of sentiments, actions, and incidents,
absurd, tragic, or delightful, from which the pen of a great humorist
could extract the materials for a masterpiece.

Such was the military college of Modena in the year 1865.


I cannot recall the two years that I spent there without being beset by
a throng of memories from which I can free myself only by passing them
all in review, one after another, like pictures in a magic-lantern; now
laughing, now sighing, now shaking my head, but feeling all the while
that each episode is dear to me and will never be forgotten while I

How well I remember the first grief of my military life, a blow that
befell me a few days after I had entered college all aglow with the
poetry of war. It was the morning on which caps were distributed. Each
new recruit of the company found one that fitted him, but all were too
small for me, and the captain turned upon me furiously.

"Are you aware that the commissary stores will have to be reopened just
for you?" And I heard him mutter after a pause, "What are you going to
do with a head like that?"

Great God, what I underwent at that moment! What - be a soldier? I
thought. Never! Better beg my bread in the streets - better die and have
done with it!

Then I remember an officer, an old soldier, gruff but kindly, who had a
way of smiling whenever he looked at me. How that smile used to
exasperate me! I had made up my mind to demand an explanation, to let
him know that I didn't propose to be any man's butt, when one evening
he called me to him, and having given me to understand that he had
heard something about me and that he wanted to know if it were really
true (I was to speak frankly, for it would do me no harm), he finally,
with many coughs and smiles and furtive glances, whispered in my ear:
"Is it true that you write poetry?"

I recall, too, the insuperable difficulty of accomplishing the manual
tasks imposed upon me, especially that of sewing on my buttons - how
every few seconds the needle would slip through my fingers, till the
thread was tangled up in a veritable spider's web, while the button
hung as loose as ever, to the derision of my companions and the disgust
of the drill-sergeant, whose contemptuous - "You may be a great hand at
rhyming, but when it comes to sewing on buttons you're a hundred years
behind the times," seemed to exile me to the depths of the eighteenth

I see the great refectory, where a battalion might have drilled; I see
the long tables, the five hundred heads bent above the plates, the
rapid motion of five hundred forks, of a thousand hands and sixteen
thousand teeth; the swarm of servants running here and there, called
to, scolded, hurried, on every side at once; I hear the clatter of
dishes, the deafening noise, the voices choked with food crying out:
"Bread - bread!" and I feel once more the formidable appetite, the
herculean strength of jaw, the exuberant life and spirits of those
far-off days.

The scene changes, and I see myself locked in a narrow cell on the
fifth floor, a jug of water at my side, a piece of black bread in my
hand, with unkempt hair and unshorn chin, and the image of Silvio
Pellico before me; condemned to ten days' imprisonment for having made
an address of thanks to the professor of chemistry on the occasion of
his closing lecture, thereby committing an infraction of article number
so-and-so of the regulation forbidding any cadet to speak in public in
the name of his companions. And to this day I can hear the Major
saying: "Take my advice and never let your imagination run away with
you;" citing the example of his old school-fellow, the poet Regaldi,
who had got into just such a scrape, and concluding with the warning
that "poetry always made men make asses of themselves."

Yes, I see it all as vividly as though I were reliving the very same
life again - the silent march of the companies at night down the long,
faintly-lit corridors; the professors behind their desks, deafening us
with their Gustavus-Adolphuses, their Fredericks the Great, and their
Napoleons; the great lecture-rooms full of motionless faces; the huge,
dim dormitories, resounding with the respirations of a hundred pairs of
lungs; the garden, the piazza, the ramparts, the winding Modenese
sheets, the cafis full of graduates devouring pastry, the picnics in
the country, the excursions to neighboring villages, the intrigues, the
studies, the rivalries, the sadnesses, the enmities, the friendships.


A few days before the graduating examinations we were given leave to
study wherever we pleased. There were two hundred of us in the second
class, and we dispersed ourselves all over the palace, in groups of
five or six friends, each group in a separate room, and began the long,
desperate grind, cramming away day and night, with only an occasional
interruption to discuss the coming examination and our future prospects.

How cheerily we talked, and how bright our anticipations were! After
two years of imprisonment, home, freedom, and epaulets were suddenly
within our reach. Aside from the common satisfaction of being promoted
to be an officer, each one of us had his own special reasons for
rejoicing. With one of us it was the satisfaction of being able to say
to the family that had pinched and denied itself to pay for his
schooling, "Here I am, good people, nineteen years old and able to
shift for myself;" with another, the fun of swaggering in full uniform,
with clanking heels and rattling sword, into the quiet house where the
old uncle who had been so generous sat waiting to welcome him home;
with a third, the joy of mounting a familiar staircase, brevet in
pocket, and knocking at a certain door, behind which a girlish voice
would be heard exclaiming, "There he is!" - the voice of the little
cousin to whom he had said good-bye, two years before, in her parents'
presence, reassured only by the non-committal phrase: "Well, well, go
to college first and make a man of yourself; then we'll see."

Already we saw ourselves surrounded by children eager to finger our
sabres, by girls who signed to us as we passed, by old men who clapped
us on the shoulder, by mothers crying, "How splendidly he looks!" So
that it was with the greatest difficulty that we shook off this
importunate folk, saying to ourselves: "Presently, presently, all in
good time; but just now, really, you must let us be!"

Then, each following the bent of his disposition, his habits, and his
plans, we confided to one another the regiment, province, and city to
which we hoped to be assigned. Some of us longed for the noise and
merriment of the Milanese carnivals, and dreamed of theatres, balls and
convivial suppers. One sighed for a sweet Tuscan village, perched on a
hilltop, where, in command of his thirty men, he might spend the
peaceful spring days in collecting songs and proverbs among the
country-folk. Another longed to carry on his studies in the unbroken
solitude of a lonely Alpine fortress, hemmed in by ravines and
precipices. One of us craved a life of adventure in the Calabrian
forests; another, the activities of some great seaboard city; a third,
an island of the Tyrrhenian Sea. We divided up Italy among ourselves a
hundred times a day, as though we had been staking off plots in a
garden; and each of us detailed to the others the beauties of his
chosen home, and all agreed that every one of the places selected would
be beautiful and delightful to live in.

And then - war! It was sure to come sooner or later. Hardly was the word
mentioned when our books were hurled into a corner and we were all
talking at once, our faces flushed, our voices loud and excited. War,
to us, was a superhuman vision in which the spirit lost itself as in
some strange intoxication; a far-off, rose-colored horizon, etched with
the black profiles of gigantic mountains; legion after legion, with
flying banners and the sound of music, endlessly ascending the
mountain-side; and high up, on the topmost ridges, surrounded by the
enemy, our own figures far in advance of the others, dashing forward
with brandished swords; while down the farther slope a torrent of foot,
horse, and artillery plunged wildly through darkness to an unknown

A medal for gallantry? Which one of us would not have won it? Lose the
battle? But could Italians be defeated? Death - but who feared to die?
And did anybody ever die at nineteen? Who could tell what strange and
marvellous adventures awaited us, what sights we should see! Perhaps
some foreign expedition; a war in the East; was not the Eastern
question still stirring? We wandered in imagination over seas and
mountains, we saw the marshalling of fleets and armies, we glowed with
impatience, we cried out within ourselves, "Only give us time to pass
our examinations, and we'll be there too!"

And then the examinations took place, and on a beautiful July morning
the doors of the ducal palace were thrown open and we were told to go
forth and seek our destiny. And with a great cry we dashed out, and
scattered ourselves like a flight of birds over the length and breadth
of Italy.


And now?

Six years have gone by, only six years, and what a long and strange and
varied romance might be woven out of the lives of those two hundred
college comrades! I have seen many of them since we graduated, and have
had news of many others, and I have a way of passing them in review one
after another, and questioning them mentally; and what I see and hear
fills me with a wonder not unmixed with sadness. And here they all are.

The first that I see are a group of brown, broad-shouldered, bearded
men, whom I do not recall just at first; but when they smile at me I
recognize the slender fair boys who used to look so girlish.

"Is it really you?" I exclaim, and they answer, "Yes," with a deep
sonorous note so different from the boyish voices I had expected to
hear, that I start back involuntarily.

And these others? Their features are not changed, to be sure, their
figures are as robust and well set-up as ever, but the smile has
vanished, there is no brightness in the eye.

"What has happened to you?" I ask; and they answer, "Nothing."

Ah, how much better that some misfortune should have befallen them than
that the years alone, and only six short years, should have had the
power so sadly to transform them!

Here are others. Good God! One, two, three, five of them; let me look
again; yes - gray-headed! What - at twenty-seven! Tell me - what happened?
They shrug their shoulders and pass on.

Then I see a long file of my own friends, some of them the wildest of
the class, one with a baby in his arms, one with a child by the hand,
another leading two. What? So-and-so married? So-and-so a pere de
famille? Who would have thought it?

Here come others; some, with bowed heads and reddened eyes, sign to me
sadly in passing. There is crape upon their sleeves.

Others, with heads high and flashing eyes, point exultantly to their
breasts. Our college dream, the military medal - ah, lucky fellows!

And here are some, moving slowly, and so pale, so emaciated, that I
hardly know them. Ah me! The surgeon's knife has probed those splendid
statuesque limbs, once bared with such boyish pride on the banks of the
Panaro; the surgeon's knife, seeking for German bullets, while the
blood streamed and the amputated limbs dropped from the poor maimed
trunks. Alas, poor friends! But at least they have remained with us,
rewarded for their sacrifice by the love and gratitude of all.

But what's become of so-and-so?

He died on the march through Lombardy.

And so-and-so?

Killed by a mitrailleuse at Monte Croce.

And my friend so-and-so?

He died of a rifle-bullet, in the hospital at Verona.

And the fellow who sat next to me in class?

HE died of cholera in Sicily.

Enough - enough!

So they all pass by, fading into the distance, while my fancy hastens
back over the road they have travelled, seeking traces of their passage
- how many and what diverse traces!

Here, books and papers scattered on the floor, half-finished projects
of battles, an overturned table, a smoking candle-end, tokens of a
studious vigil. There, broken chairs, fragments of glasses, the remains
of a carouse. Farther on, an expanse of waste ground, two bloody
swords, deep footprints, the impress of a fallen body. Here, a table
covered with a torn green cloth and strewn with cards and dice; yonder,
in the grass, a scented love-letter and a knot of faded violets. Over
there a graveyard cross, with the inscription: To my Mother. And
farther on more cards, cast-off uniforms, women's portraits, tailors'
bills, bills of exchange, swords, flowers, blood. What a vast tapestry
one can weave with those few broken and tangled threads! What loves,
what griefs, what struggles, follies, and disasters one divines and
comprehends! Many a high and generous impulse too; but how much more of
squandered opportunity and effort!

And even if nothing had been squandered, if, in those six years, not a
day, not an hour, had been stolen from our work, if we had not opened
our hearts to any affections but those that exalt the mind and give
serenity to life, a great and dear illusion must still have been lost
to us; an illusion that in vanishing has taken with it much of our
strength and hope; the illusion of that distant rose-colored horizon,
edged with the black profiles of gigantic mountains, legion after
legion hurling itself upon the enemy with flying banners and the sound
of martial music!

A lost war.

And if we had not lost that illusion, would not some other have
vanished in its place?


I think of myself and say: "How far it is from nineteen to twenty-five!"

Wherever I went, then, I was the youngest, since boys under nineteen
don't mix on equal terms with men; and I knew that whoever I met envied
me three things: my youth, my hopes, and my light-heartedness. And now,
wherever I go, I meet young fellows who look at me and speak to me with
the deference shown to an elder brother; and, as I talk to them, I am
conscious of making an effort to appear as cheery as they, and even
find myself wondering what stuff they are made of.

The other day, looking at a friend's child, a little girl of six, I
said to him, half laughing, "Who knows?"

"Isn't there rather too much disparity of age?" he answered.

I was silent, half-startled; then, counting up the years on my fingers,
I murmured sadly, "Yes."

At nineteen I could say of any little maid I met, that one day she
might become my wife; the rising generation belonged to me; but now
there is a part of humanity for which I am already too old!

And the future - once an undefined bright background, on which fancy
sketched all that was fairest and most desirable, without one warning
from the voice of reason: now, clearly outlined and distinctly colored,
it takes such precise shape that I can almost guess what it is to be,
can see my path traced out for me, and the goal to which it leads. And
so, marvels and glories, farewell!

And mankind? Well - I never was mistrustful, nor inclined to see the bad
rather than the good in human nature; indeed, I have a friend who is so
exasperated by my persistent optimism that, when I enlarge upon my
affection for my kind, he invariably answers, "Wait till your turn

And yet, how much is gone already of the naif abandonment of those
boyish friendships, of that candid and ready admiration that, like a
well-adjusted spring, leapt forth at a touch, even when I heard a
stranger praised! Two or three disillusionments have sufficed to weaken
that spring. Already I begin to question my own enthusiasm, and a
rising doubt silences the warm, frank words of affection that once
leapt involuntarily to my lips. I read with dry eyes many a book that I
used to cry over; when I read poetry my voice trembles less often than
it did; my laugh is no longer the sonorous irresistible peal that once
echoed through every corner of the house. When I look in the glass - is
it fancy or reality? - I perceive in my face something that was not
there six years ago, an indescribable look about the eyes, the brow,
the mouth, that is imperceptible to others, but that I see and am
troubled by. And I remember Leopardi's words, AT TWENTY-FIVE THE FLOWER
OF YOUTH BEGINS TO FADE. What? Am I beginning to fade? Am I on the
downward slope? Have I travelled so far already? Why, thousands younger
than I have graduated since my day from the college of Modena; I feel
them pressing upon me, treading me down, urging me forward. The thought
terrifies me. Stop a moment - let me draw breath; why must one devour
life at this rate? I mean to take my stand here, motionless, firm as a
rock; back with you! But the ground is sloping and slippery, my feet
slide, there is nothing to catch hold of. Comrades, friends of my
youth, come, let us hold fast to each other; let us clasp each other
tight; don't let them overthrow us; let us stand fast! Ah, curse it, I
feel the earth slipping away under me!


Well, well-those are the mournful imaginings of rainy days. When the
sun reappears, the soul grows clear like the sky, and there succeeds to
my brief discouragement a state of mind in which it appears to me so
foolish and so cowardly to fret because I see a change in my face, to
mourn the careless light-heartedness of my youth, to rebel against the
laws of nature in a burst of angry regret, that I am overcome with
shame. I rouse myself, I scramble to my feet, I seize hold of my faith,
my hopes, my intentions, I set to work again with a resolution full of
joyful pride. At such moments I feel strong enough to face the approach
of my thirtieth year, to await with serenity disillusionments, white
hairs, sorrows, infirmities, and old age, my mind's eye fixed upon a
far-off point of light that seems to grow larger as I advance. I march
on with renewed courage; and to the noisy and drunken crew calling out
to me to join them, I answer, No! - and to the knights of the doleful
countenance, who shake their heads and say, "What if it were not true?"
- I answer, without turning my eyes from that distant light, No! - and
to the grave, proud men who point to their books and writings, and say
with a smile of pity and derision, "It is all a dream!" - I answer, with
my eyes still upon that far-off light, and the great cry of a man who
sees a ghost in his path, No! Ah, at such moments, what matters it that
I must grow old and die? I toil, I wait, I believe!


Most of my classmates have undergone the same change. Their faces have
grown older, or sadder, as Leopardi would have us say; but with the
faces the souls have grown graver also. I have spoken of certain
changes in my friends that saddened me; but there are others which make
me glad. Now and then it has happened to me to come across some of the
most careless, happy-go-lucky of my classmates, and to be filled with
wonder when I hear them speak of their country, of their work, of the
duties to be performed, of the future to be prepared for. Owing,
perhaps, to the many and great events of these last years, their
characters have been suddenly and completely transformed. Some ruling
motive - ambition, family cares, or the mere instinctive love of
study - has gathered together and focused their vague thoughts and
scattered powers; has brought about the habit of reflection, and turned
their thoughts towards the great problem of life; has given to all a
purpose, and a path to travel, and left them no time to mourn the
vanished past. We have all entered upon our second youth, with some
disillusionments, with a little experience, and with the conviction
that happiness - what little of it is given to us on earth - is not
obtained by struggling, storming, and clamoring to heaven and earth WE
MUST HAVE IT! - but is slowly distilled from the inmost depths of the
soul by the long persistence of quiet toil. Humble hopes have succeeded
to our splendid visions; steady resolves, to our grand designs; and the
dazzling vision of war, the goddess promising glory and delirium, has
been replaced by the image of Italy, our mother, who promises only - and
it is enough - the lofty consolation of having loved and served her.

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Online LibraryVariousStories by Foreign Authors: Italian → online text (page 7 of 8)