AT the end of the courtyard a conscript was sitting alone on the door-steps, with his elbows resting on his knees and his chin sunk in his fists. He surveyed his comrades as they went out one by one, and when they were all gone fixed his gaze steadfastly on the ground. He looked like one of the worthy fellows who leave home and family with an aching heart, yet who come to their soldier’s duty with a sense of necessity and willingness. But there was something more in his face than the half-bewildered, half-vacant look usually to be observed in conscripts during their first few days of service. The man showed a positively doleful countenance. Perhaps he was sorry he had not gone out with the others. It is a melancholy thing enough to spend a fine Sunday moping at home.
A corporal in undress uniform crossing the court observes the conscript, and confronts him sharply with:
“What are you sitting there for, with your hands doubled up like that?”
“I?” inquires the private.
“I?” mimics the corporal, with a grimace. “Really, how remarkable! Whom do you imagine you are speaking to — the moon? Yes, you! Get up when you address a superior.”
The conscript rises.
“Who are you, and what company do you belong to?”
“Company?” again mocks the other. “Are you aware 132 that you are a regular idiot?” He comes up to the soldier, takes him by the jacket, and, giving him a terrifying tug, exclaims, “Look how you have messed your uniform by sitting on the ground like a beggar!”
The conscript begins to brush off his jacket with his hand.
“Look at the state of your boots!” shouts his superior, bestowing a kick on one of his feet.
The private bends down to dust his boots with his pocket-handkerchief.
“Straighten your necktie; it’s all over your ears!” And, seizing him by the necktie, he swings his subordinate round so that he all but falls down.
No sooner does the conscript attempt to arrange the disordered cravat, when he hears the command:
“Put that cap on properly.”
Up goes the hand to the cap.
“And hoist up those breeches, if you don’t want them to be ruined in a week; smooth the front of your jacket; take out those ridiculous earrings; and don’t stand there with your chin buried in your stomach, like a monk! Drop that idiotic stare!”
The unfortunate youth fumbles with trembling fingers now at his cravat, now at his trousers, now at his cap, and now at his jacket, but the more he fumbles the less does he improve things.
Just then the pretty young canteen woman passes by, and stops to look at him — the heartless creature! To appear ridiculous before the eyes of beauty — ah, that is the worst disaster of all! So the poor wretch loses his head altogether, pulls about his necktie and buttons worse than ever, then drops his arms, his chin, and his eyes in succession, until he stands a mute picture of despair. The canteen woman 133 laughs and moves on. The corporal, looking at him in utter contempt, shakes his head, repeating, “You jackass! You jackass!” Then, in a higher-pitched voce:
“Wake up, my good man, and do it quickly, too, or else you will have to be shown how! Bread and water and the lockup first, and then the lockup and bread and water, and so on, change and change about, by way of variety, so that you won’t get tired of it. You’d better remember that. Now, then, off to your bedroom and brush your uniform! Forward, march!”
He reenforces the command by pointing with his finger at the dormitory window.
“But I ——”
“I have not ——”
“Hold your tongue, will you, when you address a superior! There’s the lockup for you, if you don’t. Do you see?”
Upon which the corporal swaggers off, mumbling, “Lord, such people! Army’s going to the dogs! Italy’s going to the dogs!”
“Mister Corporal,” timidly remarks the conscript.
The departing one halts, turns, and points menacingly in the direction of the guard-room.”
“I wanted to know something, if you please, sir.”
The request was made in a tone so respectful and submissive that it was scarcely possible to prohibit him from speaking.
“What is it you want?”
“I just wanted to ask if you knew whether there was an officer from my home here in this regiment. I think there must be, only I don’t know if ——”134
“From your home? If all the people are like you, it’s to be hoped you are the only one in the regiment.” And, with a shrug of the shoulders, the corporal strode away.
AN English merchant of Mogador was returning to the city on the evening of a market-day, at the moment when the gate by which he was entering was barred by a crowd of country people driving camels and asses. Although the Englishman called out as loud as he could, “Make way!” an old woman was struck by his horse and knocked down, falling with her face upon a stone. Ill fortune would have it that in the fall she broke her last two front teeth. She was stunned for an instant, and then rose convulsed with rage, and broke out into insults and ferocious maledictions, following the Englishman to his door. She then went before the governor, and demanded that in virtue of the law of talion he should order the English merchant’s two front teeth to be broken. The governor tried to pacify her, and advised her to pardon the injury; but she would listen to nothing, and he sent her away with a promise that she should have justice, hoping that when her anger should be exhausted she would herself desist from her pursuit. But, three days having passed, the old woman came back more furious than ever, demanded justice, and insisted that a formal sentence should be pronounced against the Christian.
“Remember,” said she to the governor, “thou didst promise me!”135
“What!” responded the governor; “dost thou take me for a Christian, that I should be the slave of my word?”
Every day for a month the old woman, athirst for vengeance, presented herself at the door of the citadel, and yelled and cursed and made such a noise, that the governor, to be rid of her, was obliged to yield. He sent for the merchant, explained the case, the right which the law gave the woman, the duty imposed upon himself, and begged him to put an end to the matter by allowing two of his teeth to be removed — any two, although in strict justice they should be two incisors. The Englishman refused absolutely to part with incisors, or eye-teeth, or molars; and the governor was obliged to send the old woman packing, ordering the guard not to let her put her foot in the palace again.
“Very well,” said she, “since there are none but degenerate Mussulmans here, since justice is refused to a Mussulman woman against an infidel dog, I will go to the sultan, and we shall see whether the prince of the faithful will deny the law of the Prophet.”
True to her determination, she started on her journey alone, with an amulet in her bosom, a stick in her hand, and a bag round her neck, and made on foot the hundred miles which separate Mogador from the sacred city of the empire. Arrived at Fez, she sought and obtained audience of the sultan, laid her case before him, and demanded the right accorded by the Koran, the application of the law of retaliation. The sultan exhorted her to forgive. She insisted. All the serious difficulties which opposed themselves to the satisfaction of her petition were laid before her. She remained inexorable. A sum of money was offered her, with which she could live in comfort for the rest of her days. She refused it.136
“What do I want with your money?” said she; “I am old, and accustomed to live in poverty. What I want is the two teeth of the Christian. I want them; I demand them in the name of the Koran. The sultan, prince of the faithful, head of our religion, father of his subjects, cannot refuse justice to a true believer.”
Her obstinacy put the sultan in a most embarrassing position. The law was formal, and her right incontestable; and the ferment of the populace, stirred up by the woman’s fanatical declamations, rendered refusal perilous. The sultan, who was Abd-er-Rahman, wrote to the English consul, asking as a favor that he would induce his countryman to allow two of his teeth to be broken. The merchant answered the consul that he would never consent. Then the sultan wrote again, saying that if he would consent he would grant him, in compensation, any commercial privilege that he chose to ask. This time, touched in his purse, the merchant yielded. The old woman left Fez, blessing the name of the pious Abd-er-Rahman, and went back to Mogador, where, in the presence of many people, the two teeth of the Nazarene were broken. When she saw them fall to the ground she gave a yell of triumph, and picked them up with a fierce joy. The merchant, thanks to the privileges accorded him, made in the two following years so handsome a fortune that he went back to England toothless, but happy.
FANCY that Carlo Nobis dusting off his coat-sleeve so disdainfully after Derossi has brushed by him! His infernal pride is simply due to the fact of his father’s being a rich man. But Derossi’s father is rich too. He thinks he ought to have a whole bench to himself, as if the others would make it unfit for him to sit upon. He gives himself airs, and looks down on everybody. And what a fuss he makes if one of the boys happens to stumble over his foot when we file out of the room! He calls you bad names because of the least thing, or else he threatens to make his father come to the school and complain against you. He deserved the lecture his father gave him for calling the coal-merchant’s son a rascally beggar. No one ever saw such a cad. No one cares to speak to him in school, or say good-by when he goes home; there is not even one of us who will whisper an answer to him when he has not learned his lesson. Nobis hates us all, and shows most contempt for Derossi because he is at the head of the class. Garrone he particularly dislikes for the reason that he is so popular. However, Derossi pays no attention to him, and when Garrone hears that Nobis has been blackguarding him behind his back, he says:
“He is so absurdly stuck up that I take no notice of him.”
One day Coretti said to him, when he was sneering at his catskin cap:
“Go to Derossi, and ask him to teach you manners.”
One day he complained to the master about the Calabrian, who had kicked him on the leg. The master asked the Calabrian 137 if he had done it on purpose. The reply being a frank “No, sir,” the teacher said to Nobis:
“You are too quick-tempered.”
To which Nobis answered, in his haughty fashion:
“I shall tell my father about this.”
Now it was for the teacher to get angry:
“If you do, your father will merely point out to you that you are in the wrong, as he has done before. Besides, it is for no one but the master to judge and punish in school.” And he added, speaking less severely, “Come, Nobis, try to behave better. Be more civil to your school-fellows. We have working-men’s sons and gentlemen’s sons here, sons of rich parents and sons of poor parents, and they all love one another and treat each other properly, as they should. Why don’t you behave like the rest? It would be so easy for you to make the other boys care for you, and you would be all the happier for it yourself. Well, have you nothing to answer?”
Nobis, who had been listening with his usual haughty expression, replied coldly:
“Sit down,” said the master. “I am sorry for you. You seem to have very little heart.”
And when Nobis sat down, the little mason on the front bench turned round and made such an absurd rabbit’s face at him that the whole class burst out laughing. The teacher saw it, and scolded the boy, but he was obliged to put his hand up to his mouth to hide a smile. Nobis laughed, too, but in a very disagreeable way.