From Tales from the Italian and Spanish, Vol. III, Stories of Humor and Adventure, The Review of Reviews Co.; New York; 1920; pp. 92-102.92
THE lad could hardly have been more than twelve years old, the day his daddy said to him: “Do you see this pipe, Barattino? I found it in the knapsack of a Croatian, who had tried to run me through with his bayonet, as if I had been a frog! It is a fine pipe, with a porcelain bowl, such as they smoke in Croatia. Smell how good the Brown One I, Barattino!”
Barattino puckered his lips, savored a whiff of the bitterish smoke, wept with joy, and from that time forward often came again to warm his fingers at the selfsame fire. He would sit on the knee of the big sergeant, Baratta, who looked just like a huge apple dried in the sun — puff, puff, — the daddy took in the smoke through his mouth, and the lad through his nose.
Years passed. Barattino also became a soldier; and when the day arrived that it fell to him to set out for the Crimea, his daddy placed the Brown One in his knapsack, saying; “She has always brought me good luck. She is more of a comfort than any tavern or any confessor. Go, my boy, and have a care that you bring her back to me, safe and sound, for I shall have a word to say to her, yet, before I die.”
Barattino set forth for the Crimea. He met the Russians 93 at Cernaja, and he came back with a broken head, — but the pipe was still all of one piece.
He found his daddy unable any longer to move from his narrow bed. And when his daddy saw him come in, after all those months of anguished waiting, the first thing he asked was, “Well, the pipe?” The doctors, more expert than that Croatian of whom we made mention above, would not have given a copper for the big sergeant’s life; and, as it happened, three nights had not passed when the end came.
The old man stretched out his hand, took the Brown One from his son’s grasp, where the latter sat at the foot of the bed; and, when the pipe had ceased to give forth smoke, the life of the big sergeant had also burned out.
Barattino became, in his turn, Baratta, and was promoted to the sergeantship. He crossed the Ticino with Victor Emmanuel (the king was at that time only a corporal), met the Germans at Palestro, captured a standard from the enemy, and on a fine day entered Milan, — with his head broken on the other side, but with his pipe as sound as a bit of coral. The day when the Brown One should be shattered, something bid was bound to happen: because, although there is no need to believe in omens, yet there is no need to despise them, either!
Not much time had passed, when Victor Emmanuel came back, to set the drums beating again. Lieutenant Baratta (for by that time they had put a lieutenant’s uniform upon him) went to Custozza and had an arm shattered by a fine burst of shrapnel. But an arm can always be readjusted: — but if a pipe rings false, good-by! It is like breaking all four legs of a yearling colt!
Towards evening, while the soldiers were finishing their task of pitching the tents, Lieutenant Baratta went and seated himself on a bit of rising ground, with his eyes turned towards the red streak of sunset. Mists were rising from the low-lying marshes; the poplars seemed to lengthen out against the blood-stained background of the horizon. From out the shadow came groans and sighs; far, far 94 away faint lights were seen one moment, and gone the next; and here and there the first stars glimmered. Baratta tapped with his penknife on the porcelain bowl, and hearing that it still rang sound, — puff, puff!
The clouds of smoke ascended and dispersed through the serene and pacific regions of the sky; and the acrid perfume of the Brown One, thanks to that great virtue of memory which resides in the nose, brought back to him at that moment many a change of fortune during the life of the past twelve years. It was a very different smoke from that of powder; yet, between the two, he could not have told which of them he preferred.
If both the one and the other spoke to him of battles, of camps, of barracks, and hard knocks given and taken, it was the smoke of the Brown One, &8212; the smoke that belonged to the quiet hours of each day and that arose and spread out calmly in the air, — which brought back the tenderest, most home-like memories, as, for instance, his old father’s chair outside the door in the sunshine, the little pigs rooting in droves across the village square, the carts laden with hay ascending the hill, — and then that narrow bed on which the old sergeant’s life had burned out forever, — puff, puff! — and sometimes, following the invisible thread of a thought as tenuous as the smoke itself, Baratta’s mind went as far back as that Croatian, the first master of the Brown One, who had died at Pastrengo; and from him to his birthplace in far-off Croatia, with its roofs of straw, — puff, puff. Poor fellow, his breath, too, had passed through the throat of the Brown One; and even if the Brown One — puff — had lost something of her freshness, even if the color of her flowers and garlands had disappeared beneath the blackened stain, in comparison with her what were the four bones of a Croatian worth, — puff — buried in a sandy ditch? And how much was left now of big Sergeant Baratta? Only Barattino. Well, and of Barattino? Before long, nothing of him either, any more than pipe-smoke leaves traces of itself as it vanishes into the air. Life is 95 only a smoke — puff, puff, — and it lacks neither the bitter taste at the bottom nor the burning sting in the eyes.
From such reflections the lieutenant always awoke with a gloomy visage and a cold pipe; and when the troubles of Italy had subsided, — if that is a thing that one may ever venture to say, — Baratta was among those sent off to a provincial town to take the rest-cure for three or four years. What a life! For a man born with the use of his hands and feet it was the worst sort of punishment to fritter away twelve hours of the day at the cafés on the public square, to sleep the other twelve, to read the same newspaper three times over, to guess the answers to the puzzle column! Besides, Baratta never could get a puzzle through his head, for his father had neglected to instruct him in the art of divination, while as to writing, outside his regular report, he would sooner have suffered his head to cut off than to indite a letter! So he saw himself laid aside like a worn-out harness, a useless bundle, like a drowned man’s clothing.
Not knowing how else to make way with those cursed hours of the day, and still less with those of evening, he attached himself with all his soul to the Brown One, and to a sister pipe of cherry wood that he bought to keep the other company. He ended by saving the Brown One for state occasions only, the anniversaries of Cernaja and of Palestro, and of the death of the big sergeant; and — puff, puff — few furnaces could make more smoke. He went to sleep at night with his pipe between his teeth; and if his guardian angel had not come to keep the lid of the pipe tight shut, who knows how many times Barattino might have been found roasted in his straw mattress! In the morning, when the orderly saw smoke issuing from between the cracks, he brought the lieutenant’s boots. And that puff, puff came at last to be Barattino’s natural respiration, — just as they tell us that there is a sort of dragon that sends forth flames from its nostrils. Inside his lungs, —’; according to Sora Cecchina at the Café di Commercio, — that man must be a steam engine!96
Baratta was not yet old, because at the age of forty one’s legs still give good service so long as they have a good stomach for a master; but however sturdy his health might be, he could not throw off his burden of depression, his lack of ambition, his longing to butt against a stone wall, to hang himself up by his heels, to grind himself up into his own pipe, and then to say to his orderly, “here, take this, send your lieutenant up in smoke!” He was not yet old, but he was beginning to realize that he was like the middle link of a chain hanging to a crumbling wall and destined to turn to rust if it did not take some bold resolution.
They offered him promotion if he was willing to be transferred to the offices of a military dépôt at Rome. For Baratta, who knew no more of military science than his pipe knew of theology, there was no other road to advancement; the post was an easy one, the city large and gay, and what was there to prevent him from taking also — a bold resolution?
One day he entered the café, and said to Sora Erminia, the fair proprietress, “Will you give me a cigar, Sora Erminia?”
“Do you want me to choose it for you?”
“With your own fair hands.” They were, without exaggeration, two very fair hands, indeed. In front of him was a mirror, and Baratta observed that when shaved and groomed he need not call himself a scarecrow by any means, in spite of his sun-dyed skin. Bur there are some kinds of pastry that are all the better for being a bit burnt on the outside. Accordingly, he plucked up courage and said:
“I had a dream last night: I dreamed that you were going to marry me!”
“Nothing strange about that; you are not quite a devil to look at!”
“And I am as good as promoted captain, already.”
“That is a fine position.”
“But I have one vice, — my pipe.”
“A pipe is not a vice.”97
“But I don’t mean to give it up. Is a pipe unpleasant to you?”
“I can breathe freely even in a café!”
“I am in earnest, you know.”
“Will you marry me?”
“What, I?” The girl looked at him with roguish eyes.
“Oh, well, all right, — will you please give me a light?”
You know how such things almost always go. Three months later Captain Baratta was walking on the Pincian arm in arm with Sora Erminia. The old chain had begun to jingle again, with here and there a link of gold and silver. As for the pipe, they had come to a clear agreement in advance, nor did Sora Erminia give any sign of regretting it. For the first few months, what with coming and going and the confusion of their things, there was no time left them for regrets. Btu when the little apartment was put in order, with its new carpets, and its white hangings, such as women delight in, that eternal smoke began not only to poison the air, but seemed to cling to the walls, turned the muslins yellow, and stained the ceilings; and it was not without some disheartenment that Sora Erminia saw all her possession taking on the color of scorched paper, the smoke penetrating her bureaus and wardrobes, the tables and shelves litter over with pipes, cigar-stumps, burnt matches, mouthpieces, empty boxes, pipe-cleaners, and all the rest of the arsenal that collects in the pockets of a good smoker. But the captain gave no sign that he noticed anything amiss. And indeed it is not easy, at the age of forty, for an old wolf to lose his vices. He had warned her beforehand, and the compact was clear. He threw the blame on the modern style of apartments, which are so many holes in a wall; on the high rents, which cost the very eyes out of your head; on the habit that people have of going to live all in one place, in layers like so many sardines; on anything and everything, excepting the Brown One, the first and last great passion of his life.
I have not told you that Sora Erminia ever complained 98 or pulled a long face; if the poor man, in order to live, must really draw his breath through the bowl of a pipe, why should she be the one to make him die? Lucky enough that of all the bad habits of a soldiers life, he had acquired none but this, which could be cured merely by opening a window! Accordingly, when she could bear no more, she merely coughed, without protest, until it seemed even to Baratta himself that she exhibited an indifference that was in excess of the resignation she actually felt.
Baratta, who could not have borne a woman’s querulousness, was not, on the other hand, any too well pleased with this blind submission, this air of an innocent and unprotesting victim; and one morning when he heard her coughing beneath the blankets, he turned upon her with an unwonted gruffness and said:
“There is no need of your stifling yourself under the blankets. You would do better to tell me to my face that you don’t want me to smoke any more in the bedroom!”
“What an idea! It isn’t the smoke that makes me cough!”
“It isn’t the smoke! It isn’t the smoke!” grumbled Baratta, shrugging his shoulders.
“You are the one that said it was!”
“You are the one, I am the one, is all nonsense! Just tell me squarely, ‘I don’t want you to smoke any more in the bedroom,’ and I won’t smoke there. Deuce take it, I am not quite so much of a Turk that I can’t understand!”
“Excuse me, ——”
“Excuse! excuse!” And he went out, grumbling.
But he smoked no more in their bedroom; and even in the hallway he always looked to see if the portières were closely drawn. But the smoke was now concentrated in the three other rooms, and poisoned still more the little air that there was to breathe; the floating clouds hung so think that one could cut it; and especially in the evening, around the globe of the big lamp, it was like the shimmering halo of paradise. Erminia swallowed the bitterness of it, but she held her peace; from time to time she drank 99 a drop of water, or left the room on some pretext, to lay in a supply of breathable air, in the fresh, cool bedroom, well ventilated, white and dainty, leaving the captain for a moment absorbed in his thoughts. He understood well enough that the poor woman had made an excuse to go out, but it would be a queer state of things, Body of a Bronze Pipe! it would be a queer state of things if, at the age of forty, an old soldier must needs take his pipe out of his mouth, and make up his mind to do nothing but stare at the ceiling, or beat the drum-calls on the table with his fingers!
And the temptation came to him to smoke two pipes at a time, not for the pleasure of annoying his wife, but in order to sanction in some tangible way a habit that might be reprehensible but nevertheless immutable. Sora Erminia must really have a deep-seated grudge (oh, the hearts of these women!), because when the Christmas holidays came around, she gave her husband a very fine trophy of bronze, made in the form of many guns and cannon bound together, to hold cigars, and hanging form a trigger a dainty little pouch, embroidered by her own fair hands, and inscribed with the words, “For my Brown One.”
It was just as they were sitting down to dinner, and the captain had not yet noticed it; but as he raised his eyes, they rested by chance on the trophy, the cigars within it, the pendant pouch, and the inscription; and he remained for a moment confused, with a mist before him:
“This is the first present; later on, we shall see; it may happen that next year it will be something better. The doctor was here today, — and you know the doctors are very far-sighted.
Captain Baratta was by no means a bear; on the other hand, I do not mean to say that he would shed tears over an onion; he was rather, so to speak, a man of cordage, whom education and habits had tangled into so many knots that the more one tugged tat them the tighter they tied themselves. But it has been said that Sora Erminia had light and nimble fingers, and when once the knots are untied, one does what one will with cordage.100
“So I am your Brown One, am I?” he said, with his eyes fixed on his soup-plate, — “and you don’t want me to stop smoking? And yet you are coughing all the time ——”
“I have sworn not to cough any more.”
“And what are you going to tell me about the doctor?”
“Baratta and Barattino,” said Sora Erminia, reddening.
“Ah!” Baratta reeled n his chair and said, “Pass me the cheese.” He poured himself a big glass of wine, and gazed at it for an instant in front of the light. It looked like blood, it looked like rubies. He drained it, then set the glass upon the table. “So, I am your Brown One?”
“Well, haven’t you a Brown One of your own?”
The dinner was a very silent one. Baratta apparently was deeply vexed. He did not wait till it was ended before leaving the room; but first he let his hand fall into hers and kept his face turned away, so that the smoke should not blow in her eyes. It all went into his, however, and into his throat as well, and set him coughing.
From that day on, every time that Baratta wished to smoke, he used to go and sit in front of the chimney in the kitchen, — and in this way the sitting-room also became bright and neat. I do not say that the captain smoked less than formerly, or that he let this sacrifice be imposed upon him by his wife’s caprices. No, no! Nobody could prevent him from bringing into his own house a whole company of soldiers, every one of them smoking pipes six yards long! If nowadays he went into the kitchen to smoke, why it was because he liked to do so, and if tomorrow it should be his whim to go into the cellar, who had a better right than he, Baratta?
One night, — several months later than the events already related, — Baratta still sat in the kitchen, in front of a few lingering embers, with a flickering lamp sending out its last faint rays, his elbows on his knees, his hands clasping the bowl of the Brown One, his head almost disappearing into the flue of the chimney, in his effort to expel all the smoke and all the smell of the tobacco.
In the adjacent bedroom there had been for several hours 101 considerable agitation and big events; and occasionally a cry, such as one hears at night on a field of battle, broke the silence of that hour which poets speak of as profound. Baratta felt himself stirred as deeply as though he had been run through the body by a bayonet. With his gaze fixed upon the embers, which seemed to look back at him like so many red eyes, Baratta, in order to distract his thoughts, found himself evoking the most disastrous memories of his whole life: the heaps of the dead, over whom the cavalry passed at a gallop, the bursting of a bomb in the midst of a company of conscripts, hedges of corpses, arms of headless victims sticking forth out of the shadows; — but however much his memories wandered backward, his heart kept returning to that other room, and his pipe languished little by little.
He tried to see whether he could make up his accounts. The regiment had bought six thousand pairs of shoes, ——
Once more sounds came from the adjoining room. The captain shut his eyes.
Presently he began to a different sort of reckoning. Supposing that he smoked six soldi of tobacco per day; that was a mere nothing; that came to something over a hundred francs a year, and in thirty years he had smoked up three thousand francs and more; and in another thirty years he would smoke up as much again: sum total, six thousand francs, to swell a good, big cloud! Then if one stopped to think that on certain rainy days Baratta had a habit of chewing up a franc’s worth of cigars, and if one takes account of the matches, and the friends accustomed to help themselves, and the orderly, accustomed to steal, and the meerschaum mouthpieces, and the fancy pipes bought and given away, and the pouches and boxes of tobacco, and so forth and so on, it was no exaggeration to double the sum and write a round twelve thousand francs. Twelve thousand francs, gone up in so much smoke! As much as it cost to pay for the tobacco of many a big statesman! A neat little dowry for some poor young girl!102
Sor Captain,” said the orderly, thrusting his head within the door, “Sir Captain, it is ——”
“Barattina, — a girl!”
The captain arose, gave one last look at the Brown One, balanced it for an instant in his hand, while his eyes brimmed with tears, and he felt the whole earth trembling beneath his feet. He raised his hands, took aim at the hearthstone, and — crash!
The Russians had not shattered her, nor the Croatians either; but this time the bomb had been fired from within the walls.
The enemy was borne into the kitchen upon a dainty pillow of lace!