From "The Italian Novelists" translated from the originals with Critical and Biographical Notices by Thomas Roscoe; Frederick Warne and Co.; London; [undated edition, c. 1900; first published, c. 1824]; pp. 587-593.
Of a truth, the baron was a kind, good-hearted man, and, much in the manner of the vulgar, apt to judge of a soldier’s qualifications from his outside, and from a boasting and rough manner, equal to bustle and fight its way; and already in his mind’s eye he beheld his son Borso figuring as a field-marshal, especially when he reflected upon his hot-headed fury and rash temper.
Soon after this conversation, the young Cavalier del l’Aquila arrived 590 from Germany on a visit to the baron. He had received his education at one of those military schools in that country which are the great supply of young officers for the imperial army. He was just in the flower of his days, of a handsome person, accomplished manners, and with good qualities, superior even to his address. To say nothing of his acquaintance with the fine arts, his knowledge and acquirements were surpassed by his modesty, which threw a charm around his character, and placed his virtues in the fairest light. He betrayed nothing of youth except in his countenance; he had nothing of the bold stare affected by military fops; his open brow appeared the seat of candour and modesty, which, united to his elegant conversation and manners, exhibited a pleasing and lively portrait of modest virtue, drawn upon a rich and solid ground, which added strength and beauty to his character.
He was courted in all private and public assemblies. His respectful demeanour towards persons of greater age and experience than himself, never arguing with them as if one of their equals, without being purposely drawn out by them, rendered him a favourite with all. His language was flowing, exact, and free from any kind of affected or dogmatical tone, while his sentiments were advanced with an air of caution and reserve, a conciliatory manner that invites the attention of the audience before they apprehend our meaning. Invariably delicate and discreet, he always evinced a due respect for the opinion of others, though without sacrificing his own sincerity. He replied to downright assertions or contradictions only by a smile, and received applause with the modesty of true merit, which, ambitious of esteem, is fearful only of not meriting it. In short, he united many of those opposite qualities which please in others, win the heart, and command the esteem of all parties. All these were new and delightful to the society at Modena, whose young men, more especially those from the country, were too apt to study a false courage and vaunting language as their rule of manners.
The baron was enchanted with his young friend, admiring his singular delicacy and propriety of conduct, which gave a pleasing relief to his more solid qualities. He soon pronounced the young Cavalier Aquila to be the most perfect model of youth he had ever seen, though there was one thing that perplexed him extremely. He could not conceive how such characters could be turned out of a military academy, or how they could possibly succeed in a military career. As for his son Borso, he pronounced the young gentleman a mere milksop, destitute of true spirit and common courage, without strength or capacity, though he still felt something that prevented him telling him so to his face.
In the meanwhile, the baron sought the best means of promoting Borso’s views. There was an old Italian officer, a very respectable man, who joined young Aquila soon after his arrival. He had served several campaigns against the French under the imperial banners, where he distinguished himself by his skill and bravery. The baron having applied to him, and expressed his desire that his son should return with him into Germany, the other declared he should be happy 591 to take him under his charge. “He is a boy,” said the baron, “who has given me some trouble; but I trust he will do credit to me at last. He has a decided taste for the profession; he will be a soldier; is not that, think you, a good sign?”
The officer congratulated the baron, and wished to be introduced to the youth in order to acquaint himself with his qualifications. In a few days our young Achilles was introduced to him, and the officer entered upon an examination of his merits. But he had little satisfaction in the task with one who seemed to have confounded all distinctions between right and wrong, and who made a boast of some of his worst qualities. In a short time, therefore, Borso was thoroughly analysed, and the inference drawn was that he appeared incapable of anything, and more especially of succeeding in the military line. “Well,” exclaimed the good old baron, on his friend’s return, “what think you of our young warrior? Will he not cut a figure in the field? That hope is my great comfort.” “I have seen him,” replied the other; “he seems hardly sensible of the difficulties of the profession.” “So much the better, perhaps,” returned his father; “he will experience them soon enough.” “True, but when the time comes, I feel he will scarcely persist in his resolutions.” “How so?” said the baron, impatiently interrupting the officer; “can he be likely to fail in the sole object of all his wishes?” “Assuredly I think so,” replied his friend. “My dear brigadier,” exclaimed the poor father, somewhat affected, “do not say so.” “Hear me, my dear baron,” added the officer; “it is not that I am so much afraid of the young man’s ignorance and unwillingness to engage in study, such as they appear to be now. United to talent, his duties would speedily correct all this.” “Then if he be only ignorant,” interrupted his father, “he will do like so many others — he will learn; let it pass.” “Yes, my good baron, but what makes me afraid of engaging with him is that very military air that seems to strike you so much; it is one of the most equivocal virtues a soldier can have. Pardon me, I see it afflicts you, baron, but what can I say? My regard for you compels me to be thus open with you; for, to say the truth, becoming modesty is one of the most desirable qualities in military society. Honour and reputation, the great objects in the field, are to be pursued with caution and delicacy, the best foundation even for military qualities. But were such characters as your son Borso to mingle in our messroom, with their bold and blustering manners, to decide, contradict, and laugh in peoples’ faces, they would infallibly have their throats cut in less than a month. This assumption, these false pretensions to merit, united to expressions of arrogance and contempt, will not be tolerated with impunity by gentlemen of our profession.” “Yet recollect, brigadier, he is still very young: can you make no allowances? Is there not yet time?” “No, I fear not, baron; you may take it for a maxim, too late for your boy, that he who is not educated when he ought will never be educated. I daresay you found it impossible to succeed!” “True,” said the poor baron, as he turned away, and terminated the conversation. Many were the doubts, many the plans that passed through his mind, but after all he knew not what line of conduct to 592 adopt. He could not but admit the justice of his friend’s remarks, yet he was quite at a loss how to act upon them, and in short, went on lamenting day after day, without being able to fix upon any plan. In the meanwhile, this hopeful youth, like an ill weed, continued to thrive apace, becoming stronger and more formidable to those about him. But the same qualities predominated; the boy’s boldness became impudence in the youth and headstrong temerity in the man.
His native state finally appearing too narrow a stage for his exploits, and little sensible of his merit, he resolved to enter upon a wider sphere, in which his genius and good fortune might render him a hero. He obtained a commission in a German regiment, and set out for Vienna. The old baron felt greatly relieved by his absence, but he was not long at peace. Borso appeared to have assumed the uniform only to verify the predictions of the brigadier; he bore it during six months! At first he felt a little restraint; his youth and the little experience he possessed in the profession were in his favour; but he soon became so notorious and overbearing, as these wore off, that his mess would no longer tolerate him, and he received three challenges. The first of these was prevented by the police; the second he himself contrived to avoid by giving information of the time and place. But in the third he was not so fortunate, for his commander, weary of his absurdities and of his barefaced impudence, availed himself of it to get rid of one who did him so little credit. He let the duel take its course, and when the hour approached, his adversary was found waiting our hero’s arrival on the spot, but he never came. From that period, his fellow-officers refused to associate with him or receive him into their parties, so that he was compelled to solicit his discharge and retire to Modena.
The city soon rang with the fame of his exploits in Germany; the took care to trumpet them forth in all the societies in which he appeared. He adorned his narrations astonishingly, despising all reason and probability with true military sang froid. In about six months, however, his reign was at an end; the real facts became known; letters from Vienna, and the tragic glory of the scene was turned into complete farce. He played his new character about a year, when, becoming weary of it, he resolved to employ his talents once more, conceiving it wrong to deprive the world of his services — a resolution to which his circumstances (his father no longer honouring his bills) added no little force; and the baron soon after dying, he was treated with less ceremony than before. Without loss of time, then, he applied for admission into the troops of one of the petty sovereigns of Italy. “There are not great laurels to be reaped there, to be sure,” he cried, “but then the danger is proportionably less.”
Setting out from Modena, he went instantly to court, where he contrived to be presented, and to make an offer of his services to the prince. He fondly imagined that tidings of his German campaign had not reached the capital, and that he had free scope to display his heroic qualities, which could not fail to prove his merit. The reverse of this, nevertheless, happened. The prince took care to make inquiries, which convinced him that the apparent valour and intrepidity 593 of our hero did not extend beyond his words and looks; that his sole object in applying for admission into his regiments was to earn a quiet livelihood, and for this reason he resolved to reject him. Borso, however, had secured his presentation and doubted not of success.
The quality of modesty, serving for a recommendation to all other virtues, was one to which our hero had a decided antipathy, and he showed not the slightest traces of it in his interview with the prince. On the contrary, he summoned all his confidence, the better to display his warlike qualities to advantage, and to appear even greater than he was. So gross were the lies and extravagances that he uttered as completely to upset the prince’s gravity, while Borso, who interpreted this into a mark of approbation, proceeded with fresh ardour in his career. At length he proposed to be immediately enrolled in the royal bodyguard, upon which the prince inquired if he knew how to perform his exercise. “Oh, excuse me,” returned the hero; “let us say no more of that!” “But I should like to see you,” continued the prince. “There! take your sword; it will do as well as a musket, for aught I know, and I will review you.” The exercise commenced, and after a variety of manœuvres, the prince gave the word of command, “Quick march!” Away Borso marched, and by chance the door lying before him, he reached the entrance, expecting the command, “Right about wheel!” But this never came, and he was constrained to march on. The moment he had got into the gallery, the prince ordered his chamberlain to close the doors, while Borso continued to march along. In this way, with his sword drawn, he traversed the great hall and galleries before a crowd of nobility and courtiers, all eagerly pushing forward to get a view of the Prince’s Hero, by which name he was ever afterwards known. At length he reached the great staircase, still anxiously awaiting his recall, till, having sense enough to sheath his sword, he marched off home, and thence to the city of Modena, where, as the adventure appeared to him to be very creditable to himself, he related it in all companies.