From Tales from the Italian and Spanish, Vol. III, Stories of Humor and Adventure, The Review of Reviews Co.; New York; 1920; pp. 374-385.374
THREE years had already passed since the colonel came to settle at Pietracava, a large suburban town and seat of government of the commune, and nothing had yet occurred to disturb the tranquillity and peace which he had promised himself when he selected this spot in which to pass his declining years and close his eyes, as he expressed it, at the very latest possible hour.
Placed on the retired list after thirty-five years of honorable service, and having come to an agreement with his sister Eufrasia, who was unmarried and in the early fifties, he had decided to retire to the country. Taking advantage of a rare bargain, he had acquired this modest but commodious little villa, which was situated in an attractive position upon a hill, only a short walking distance from Pietracava. It offered him the double advantage of being able to live in seclusion when he wished, or of having visitors, or of descending into town to exchange a couple of words of gossip whenever he felt the need.
All the sympathy and esteem that he had won was, on the one hand, due to his fine open and jovial nature, and on the other to the kind-hearted people he had come among, who had understood him and, without being intrusive, loaded him with their affectionate attention and showed themselves proud of having him as a guest.
When it was known that the contract for the purchase of the villa had been signed, there was general rejoicing; and they did nothing else than talk of this event in every house, in every ship, and even at the residence of the parish priest, where the latter, striding excitedly up and down the room, could do nothing else than repeat to the mayor 375 and the doctor, who had come to pass the evening with him:
“But you are joking with me! A colonel!”
On the morning of their arrival, when the colonel, the Signora Eufrasia, and the old spaniel Ragu descended from their carriage, they found themselves in the midst of a circle of worshipful natives who at a signal given by a fine fellow who, it turne dout, was the druggist’s father, began to clap their hands and to cry:
“Welcome to the Signor Colonnello! Long live the Signor Colonnello!”
Towards nightfall they kindled bonfires in the public square and on the hills round about; and three days later, barely giving him time to become settled in his new abode, the mayor and the council in official dress, and all the notables of the neighborhood, came eagerly to pay him homage.
Behold him on his way down to the village! those living on the outskirts already catch sight of him as he closes his garden gate and hear the barking of Ragu, who leaps around him and runs ahead, delighted because they are going to take a walk. Slender, correct, holding himself with military stiffness, with a long Virginia cigar in his mouth and a heavy bamboo stick beneath his arm, he descends the long roadway which leads from his villa to the main highway. The words, “The Signor Colonnello! The Signor Colonnello!” have already spread from shop to shop, from one extremity of the town to the other. Everyone is ready for the military salute, and he is already prepared to pass down the street in zigzag fashion to reply to compliments, to hand-clasps, to questions, requests, and greetings that rain upon him from all sides.
“A pleasant walk to you, Signor Colonnello!”
“How are you, Caterina? And is the little commander well again?”
“Yes indeed, sir, thank you kindly. See, there he comes, — come here, Garibaldi.”
And a small child all bundled up in a man’s overcoat appears 376 in the doorway of the green-grocery, making a military salute with his right hand and violently rubbing his nose with the other. And the colonel continues on his way.
“Pleasant walk to you, Signor Colonnello.”
“How are you, Poldo? have you heard from that brave lad of yours in the Twelfth Infantry?”
“No, Signor Colonnello. But tell me, will they let my son take leave of absence for the big festival of his name-day?”
“Don’t worry about that. I have written to the commanding officer of his division; and when I write to him, — enough said, isn’t it? Oh, Poldo, will those boots be ready by tomorrow?”
“Look, I am polishing them now. When you get home, you will find them already there.”
“Ah, my good Poldo, that’s fine! Tell me, Poldo, have you heard? At the big maneuvers, it was the party of the white that won! Ah, he’s a marvel, that general!”
“Ah yes, sir; yes, indeed; of course he must be if he won!”
The colonel continued on his way, and Poldo remained petrified in the doorway of his shop, saluting in military fashion with the colonel’s boot, because in his haste to do the proper thing he had not had time to lay it down upon the bench or to transfer it to his other hand.
In the other shops they were waiting for him to show their latest consignments of wards.
“See what herrings these are, Signor Colonnello! They arrived only this morning from Leghorn. May I send a sample of them to your house?”
A military salute with the herring, and forward again.
And further along a group of young men belonging to the Workmen’s Association, of which he is the honorary president, stop him and assail him with greetings and questions concerning the matter of the society’s standard. Still further on he is stopped again, this time by several members of the Philharmonic Society, of which he is the acting 377 president, who were waiting for him in order to find out what reply has been received from the maker of uniforms. Further along he met the mayor in person and two of the assessors, with whom had had to stop and talk for a quarter of an hour about no one knows what, but surely matters of great importance if one is to judge from the energetic gestures of the group. The mayor thumped his chest heavily with his open hand; the two assessors imitated hi, pausing from time to time to wipe the moisture from their brows; and the colonel, brandishing the bamboo cane, seized now one and now another of his interlocutors by the arm, oblivious of the fact that the rector and the chaplain were passing by, bowing and giving the military salute. It seems that what they were talking of was the theft of some chickens that occurred four nights before and to which the chief of police had not yet succeeded in finding a clew.
A little further on an old man accosted him humbly, inquiring:
“No reply today either, Signor Colonnello?”
Whereupon the colonel drew a letter from his breast pocket:
“Come, come, Gervasio! Courage, what the deuce! An old soldier should always be an old soldier! The answer came this morning, — here it is. Your brave lad is in the hospital at Pinerolo. A simple dislocation during maneuvers; he is getting better and they will send him home to you as soon as they can get him into a railway carriage. Courage, Gervasio, — an old soldier, what the deuce! Give me your hand. Good-bye, Gervasio.”
To help him out through all this pressure of business, it taxed even the energy of the irrepressible Ragu, who seemed to feel himself under contract to leave traces of the interviews had with his master upon trousers or skirts, with dust or mud, according to the season of the year, jumping joyously upon all who stopped him by the way and nibbling their shoes, without a single person daring to chase him off, out of consideration for the Signor Colonnello.
The entire district, through imitating him, had become 378 militarized. We have seen this from the military salute which they all gave him and which they gave each other without distinction, not excepting the rector and the chaplain and the small boys, who in all their amusements brought in without fail swords, guns, forward-by-fours, fire-in-volleys, and about-face.
They all were devoted to him and he was devoted to them all. Between this gallant, big-hearted gentleman and the populace of Pietracava there had been established such a mutual sympathy and good-will that, if any man had ventured to speak ill of the colonel in the presence of these people, he would have run a risk very nearly equal to that which another man might run should he venture to speak ill of these people in the presence of the colonel.
Finding himself surrounded by such universal affection, the colonel had during the past three years seldom been absent from home and never for his own pleasure. Twice he had been called away by urgent necessity. On the other occasions (and to tell the truth, there had been a number of them), he had gone because he had felt compelled by the obligations of friendship or of his rank to be present at the funerals of friends or of distinguished public characters, — and it would really have been something very exceptional for him to fail in such duty, even if he had had to travel miles and miles away.
“It is my duty!” he used to say ever time that an invitation to a funeral reached him. He would put on his full uniform, cover his breast with medals, give his gray mustache a fiercer twist than usual, and then off to the railway station. The populace of Pietracava had learned all this, and every time that they saw him go by in full uniform they would ask him, without fear of making a mistake:
“Who is dead, Signor Colonnello?”
At the beginning of November a party of friends took him with them for a day’s shooting. He got wet, caught cold, and that same evening went to bed with a racking 379 cough and a high fever. There was general consternation. The shops were not closed in sign of mourning, but they came near being; and there began a dolorous pilgrimage of everyone in town to the door of his villa, a breath of relief whenever the doctor announced an improvement, a wave of heart-broken despair at every turn for the worse.
For a few days the malady showed no special symptoms; but at last one morning he dreaded announcement came. The doctor, stopping at the apothecary’s to order them to keep a supply of oxygen on hand, declared plainly and bluntly that it was a case of double pneumonia with alarming symptoms. In less than two hours the streets were deserted and the entire population had retired within doors in great agitation. The mayor called a special meeting of the council, and simultaneously all the societies held meetings in order to be prepared in case the worst should happen. The doctor gave orders that a bulletin of the colonel’s condition should be posted at the apothecary’s three times a day. Meanwhile, the first letters and the first telegrams announcing the same news were despatched. The mayor notified four counselors, who happened to be away form home, of the imminent bereavement. The rector had the one good pall taken form the chest where it was kept and sent to be repaired; the societies got everything in readiness for whatever emergency might arise from moment to moment, and the vice-president of the bank telegraphed to the leader at Florence to come immediately to Pietracava because it was essential to begin at once to practice for a funeral march.
The following day the colonel grew worse, and the agitation of all those good people was such as called for sympathy. In every quarter one met only faces full of consternation and groups of people coming and going in hushed silence to and from the villa, and carriages setting forth empty at breakneck speed and others coming back crowded with passengers. From one of these carriages the sacristan descended, bringing with him the organ tuner and a heavy box of wax candles; from another stepped the apothecary’s 380 assistant with four cylinders of oxygen; and by the eleven o’clock stage, the leader of the band at last arrived and after gulping down in great haste a huge cup of coffee at Teofilo’s grocery, he went at once, surrounded by the members of his band, like a hen with her chickens after her, to the big hall of the Philharmonic Society, where without losing any time they set to work to practice the splendid march composed by the leader himself, which begins with that delicious lament on the cornets and which ends with those three outbursts of the ophicleides that sound like three cannonades.
After four days of constant rehearsing, from early morning until late at night, the band was almost ready to make its appearance in public: the good pall had been returned to the rectory, its worn spots all repaired and made as good as new; the various societies were in readiness to respond promptly at the first call; and lamps and mourning banners were on hand to place in the windows of all the houses, and black coats and gloves, and newly brushed silk hats, and even a fine portrait of the colonel, an enlargement from a photograph done in charcoal by Teofilo’s son, which was to be displayed outside the shop during the passage of the funeral, surrounded by a fine garland of cypress.
On the evening of the fourth day the doctor came out from the colonel’s house all smiles and replied to the people who crowded around him, rubbing his hands together:
“Tonight he is better, really better. Not a great deal; but an improvement at the point that the malady has reached gives room for some little hope.”
The news spread abroad with the speed of a lightning-flash and a frank and serene joy glowed in the faces of all the inhabitants of Pietracava. The final preparations were at once suspended, and the leader of the bank, weary, hoarse, and with a very bad cold, had just time to return in haste to Florence by the nine-forty train, leaving greetings for the signor Colonnello and apologies to the mayor for not having taken leave of him in person.
The improvement continued all the next day and throughout the following night; but on the morning of the second 381 day a new point of congestion, appearing at the base of the right lung, aroused new apprehension on the part of the doctor and in consequence of all the rest of the inhabitants. A telegram was immediately despatched to the leader of the band to come back again; but later on, a slight improvement having occurred in the meantime, another was sent telling him to stay where he was. Notwithstanding the pains they took to send this counter order, the leader, who had started before he received the second telegram, arrive at Pietracava at eleven o’clock at night, all bundled up in a shawl, with a great woolen scarf around his neck and a temperature, so the doctor said, of a hundred and three and eight-tenths.
The rattling of the right lung disappeared during the night, and a new and more definite improvement manifested itself on the morning of the third day. The leader of the band, who did not wish to be ill away from home, had no sooner heard the good news than he bundled himself up in the accustomed shawl and with the accustomed woolen scarf around his neck, insisted upon being carried to the railway station. The funeral pall, the draped banners, and the enlargement of the photograph, all of which had executed a right-about-face at the notice of the new congestion, once more went back to their places.
Eight more days went by without any definite change for better or worse and hardly anyone took any special interest now in the colonel because, for one thing, everybody thought that the danger had passed and because a large part of the inhabitants of Pietracava were beginning to grow weary of these continual ups and downs; and a good many, if the truth must be told, were rather annoyed at the time they had lost from business and the expense they had gone to needlessly.
On the evening of the eighth day the doctor came out from the colonel’s house in such a state of perturbation that h e fairly staggered as he hurried to the apothecary’s; and he was hardly inside the door when he ordered, in an agitated voice:
“Quick, quick, send the oxygen to the colonel’s house,” 382 and he went away without stopping, leaving word that he was on his way to see the mayor, and that within quarter of an hour he should be back again.
It was no longer a question of pneumonia, which might now be said to have been completely vanquished, but it was a question of the heart, and in the sick man’s exhausted condition the symptoms were of exceptional gravity. The oxygen produced some effect, but very little; a ceaseless gasping for air convulsed the robust chest of the poor sufferer, who writhed upon his bed and with starting eyes clasped the hand first of the doctor, then of the mayor, then of his sister, opening his mouth widely and making signs as if to say: “It is all over! It is all over!”
At a moment of comparative calm, the mayor called the doctor aside and asked him:
“What is happening, doctor?”
“We have reached the end!”
The mayor made a gesture of desolation and insisted, “Do you really think so?”
“If he lasts until morning, all I can say is that he has a strength of constitution capable of performing miracles. But it is impossible, it is impossible!”
And he turned gloomily to the sick man’s bedside.
The secretary, who was already downstairs waiting for news and orders, hurried to the office of the commune, where he locked himself into his won room to prepare the letters and telegrams that must be sent off instantly as soon as the right moment had come.
The poor colonel passed a terrible night; but at dawn he had not yet ceased to suffer. the superintendent of schools, who was constantly hurrying back and forth from the office of the commune to the colonel’s house and from the colonel’s house to the office f the commune, breathlessly brought announcements, each one worse than the one before it; and finally, at nine, he burst wearily in upon the mayor and secretary, who tremblingly awaited him, to convey them the doctor’s message that the Signor Colonnello had entered upon his last agony.383
A cloudburst of telegrams immediately took flight to the four winds.
During the first hours of the day that followed there began the arrival of those who had been invited to the funeral; barouches and coaches loaded with people, with banners and garlands, arrived from every side of the surrounding country; and by every train came a crowd of representatives, journalists, and notables, both in civilian and military garb. From a ramshackle trap, the leader of the band also descended, wrapt up in his usual shawl and with the self-same woolen scarf around his neck, and begged to be carried immediately into some house, because he could not stand up from weakness and had besides a galloping fever.
The new arrivals, not knowing whether the colonel was still alive, answered with sad looks the consternation depicted upon the faces of those who had come to receive them; and there were hand-clasps and sighs and eyes upturned toward heaven, before a word was spoken. Then a major of the infantry in full uniform greeted the mayor and with a hearty grasp of the hand, exclaimed, gruffly:
“Ah, better, far better a fine volley of muskets, a ‘long live Italy!’ and lower him down! That is the true death of a soldier, eh, mayor? — And at what hour did the brave colonel breathe his last?”
The mayor replied in a very weak voice:
“He is better, Signor Maggiore, he is better ——”
“Well said! Worthy mayor, by heaven! Well said! He is at rest, well said! and he is better off than we, poor devils, who still have so many troubles before us ——”
“No, Signor Maggiore,” the mayor interrupted him, “I meant to say, he is still alive, and he is getting better.”
“Well, now, my dear mayor, that is a good one!” exclaimed the major with a loud laugh. And turning to two other officers, who had been talking together quietly and far from him, he called out in that deep, parade-ground voice of his:384
“Captain! lieutenant! the colonel is still alive! — Oh, but really, that really Is good enough to be officially reported! Sacred Name!”
He looked at his watch, lit a cigar, and took his departure, chuckling and grumbling:
“Ah, but really, that is a good one! That’s a story to tell when we’re making a night of it! Ah, ha, ha, ha!”
They all took their departure by the twelve o’clock train: some of them muttering between their teeth, some swearing openly, others laughing as if to burst, and returning ironical thanks for the jolly day in the country that they had u8nintentionally enjoyed.
The colonel slowly and quietly returned to health; but his prestige was irrevocably lost, and the esteem and kindly good-will of the inhabitants of Pietracava had been transformed into a cold indifference, a contemptuous and open aversion. Aside from five or six people of good sense, everybody else, smarting from the scene that took place in the public square a few days earlier, and from the publicity given it by the newspapers that poured forth ridicule with a lavish hand, and the mockery of the entire neighborhood, brushing aside all sober second thought as useless trouble, laid upon him the whole blame of what had happened.
The first day the poor colonel was able to drag himself down into town, he was forced to recognize how grievously conditions had changed in his regard. A few cold, hurried greetings from the people whom he met along the way; a few responses to his own greetings, grumbled in low tones from the depths of the shops. Ragu received volleys of stones from the children and a solemn kick from the butcher, who had always been in the habit of finding some scrap of meat to throw to him every time he stopped to gaze in and to wag his tail in front of the shop.
But the serious illness of the colonel had left deep traces behind it. He dragged himself around as best he could for 385 a few months, thanks to careful doctoring, and careful nursing. But in the first warm days of springtime he had to take to his bed again and in a few days he was found dead.
His funeral was a public disgrace. Excepting, for the five or six people of good sense whom we mentioned above, nobody followed the bier excepting half a dozen priests and a few boys and peasants. The rain was falling in a deluge, and the desolate cortège, under open umbrellas, quickened their pace, slipping and stumbling through the sodden road to the cemetery. The brass band which had learned to play that fine march that begins with that delicious lamentation from the cornets and which ends with those three outbursts from the ophicleides that sound like three cannonade, was replaced by the voice of Ragu, who, running desperately back and forth the whole length of the garden fence, biting at the iron because he could not find an outlet, sent from a distance spasmodic and feeble ululations in pursuit of his master’s bier.