From Tales from the Italian and Spanish, Vol. III, Stories of Humor and Adventure, The Review of Reviews Co.; New York; 1920; pp. 169-179.169
“A JUST distributor is death of glory,” says the poet: and that this comes pretty near the truth is demonstrated by the following incident which happened in Milan during the course of the past winter, which may be accepted as trustworthy by all who have the eyes to read a printed book.
And it would be hard indeed if we did not have the hope that at least upon our tombs the world would do us justice! How could a decent man endure the titles and honors and riches that are lavished upon post-graduate knaves and professional rascals, while proud honesty is left in a corner among the cobwebs, if it does not actually suffer from hunger and neglect? How could self-respecting artists and authors sacrifice their lives to an ideal, the chaste and lean ideal of art that refuses to sell itself, when just one piece of showy vulgarity would turn you into a man of genius and render your name famous through out the four cardinal points? But be comforted, oh, ye ignorant! for lo and behold, death descends upon you, just distributor of electric light! If you are not to leave behind you glory and wealth, imposing monuments and reverberating panegyrics, there will rest above your grave, immortal and invisible, the satisfaction of having fulfilled your duty; above your heads will spring symbolic nettles, and humble lizards with soft greenish eyes will glide hither and thither. This having been said, here is the incident:
During the past winter, while the influenza was at its height, and people were dying in Milan as flies die at the first cold wave, among the illustrious dead which it was the duty of the city to lament, while it bore them to their 170 graves in haste, was the Commendatore Ugolino Cerbatti, a chemist of great distinction, active member of the Royal Institute of Lombardy, one of the Forty of Modena, foreign member of the K. K. Ph. Ps. W. G. of Berlin, and if I am not mistaken, chevalier of the Black Eagle, of the Sun of Persia, and many other orders. He was, in short, one of those illustrious and widely connected men who usurp for themselves alone an entire page in the Annual Report of Public Instruction, and go hence to the world beyond, smallpoxed all over with asterisks and honorary titles. The daily press, taken at a moment of political crises and an epidemic of colds, said next to nothing about the man. They simply recorded in four lines the news of the sad loss, between a paragraph of chronicle and a one-word rebus, adding at most a jumbled list of the books that Cerbatti had written, as well as some that he had not written at all. Mention also was made on the same day of another man who had passed away, a semi-political character, a certain Palamede Bottigella, formerly cook at the Hôtel Rebecchino, an old soldier of Garibaldi’s, vice-president of the United Restaurant Employees, a veteran of the glorious Five Days, who ran a spirited competition with the other dead man of the Lombard Institute. The radical papers, especially, which said not a word about the illustrious chemist, lavished a barrel of ink to celebrate the virtues, the disinterestedness, the truly liberal view of the valorous Bottigella, who as a matter of fact had not so much as got himself killed for his country’s sake.
I do not push my aristocratic prejudices to the point of always and under all circumstances giving preference to a member of the Royal Institute of Lombardy over an honest cook who is well skilled in his craft, and similarly, just as I pay homage to the merits of science, so I also pay homage to the merits of patriotism. But beneath the shadow of the tomb, I should like to see the public press a little less avaricious of long-primer type, even towards those men who, by advancing science, arts, and letters, and 171 thus bringing honor on themselves, have at the same time brought honor to their country and to humanity.
If Chevreul had not discovered stearin, would we now have stearic candles? If Hoffmann had not found out how to extract aniline colors from fossil carbon, would we now have the beautiful aniline dyes? Without the genius of a Liebig, would Bottigella himself have been able to prepare a good cup of bouillon and serve it hot in five minutes?
This will suffice to prove to you that in all fields of human activity genius and zeal are of equal importance, because there are many different points at which humanity is uniting in oiling the wheels of human progress. But to return to the poor Commendatore Cerbatti, foreign member of the K. K., etc., it was no sooner known that he was really dead than the president of the institute, who had a slight attack of influenza himself, with some little fever, being unable to take part personally, wrote to the corresponding member, Professor Falci, to beg him to have the kindness to represent the society at the funeral of their lamented colleague.
Whoever has any acquaintance with spectrum analysis knows that Federico Falci is today one of the most esteemed investigators of that science. But there are few who know what a strange man he is in the ordinary affairs of life, and that any event which departs a finger’s breadth from his usual pursuits is enough to make him lose his bearings, and to plunge him into a tremendous mental confusion.
Son of a porter of the Casa Cambarana, and having worked his way up, thanks to talents and industry and charitable aid, after being constrained to live for many years under conditions bordering upon poverty, he had formed the habit of living within his own shell among his books, under the guidance and protection of his sister, a large stout woman, uneducated but of wide experience, who clothed him like an abbot and ruled him like a schoolboy. Falci know little or nothing of what went on in 172 the world of politics or the world of fashion; he read little or nothing of what was printed outside of his books and periodicals all bristling with mathematical formulas. It was Serafina who saw to his clothes and his food, who remembered when he should shave and have his hair cut, who talked for him and represented him every time that any little family business arose; and the ingenuous woman was convinced that books were made on purpose to turn men into blockheads. In her own soul Serafina believed that if there were no uneducated people left to safeguard common sense the world would very soon turn into a great big cage of madmen.
It would have gone hard if the good Serafina had not remembered each month to set aside a few pennies of her Taddeo’s salary! The poor man, if left to himself, absorbed in reading and scribbling those wretched books of his that were half Greek and half Turkish, would have let his very shirt rot upon his back. It was she who discovered for him that homely name of Taddeo, because it seemed to her to indicate and to sum up better than any other name the stupid kindliness and learning of her brother, the scientist.
Of human passions outside of books Falci knew but one, his passionate love of black coffee, that good black coffee which Serafina made rather strong and which he drank from a large majolica bowl, as if it were a broth, and which kept him wide awake all night over his books, until the sparrows came hopping and chirping on his window-dill and the sacristan began to ring the bells in the neighboring church.
Given a man of this nature, it is easy to imagine how the request of the president must have disturbed him dreadfully. Aside from the loss of time, the chance of catching cold, and getting his feet soaked in all the snow that lay upon the ground, it would be necessary to dress himself in black, to make himself conspicuous, to read a discourse. — It was enough to throw a man like him into a hot and cold perspiration! Nevertheless, in accordance with his gentle habit of obedience, which reduced itself in last analysis 173 to a great incapacity to disobey through not knowing what excuses to offer, through fear of failing in a sacred duty, and out of respect for the dead, he consented to be the society’s representative.
Serafina brought forth from the very bottom of the big chest his black trousers, which exhaled an acrid odor of camphor and pepper, and hung them out in the open air. Then from the wardrobe she produced his broadcloth frock coat, prepared his gloves, his white linen, his tall silk hat, fine, glossy, and newly brushed, and even suggested to him a few ideas for his funeral discourse. Poor Taddeo, deeply learned as you know, and so wonderfully well versed in the spectroscope, was a fish out of water when he had to deal with questions demanding a touch of sentiment and literary style.
He had come in contact with Cerbatti only a few times in the somewhat gloomy rooms of the institute and had probably not exchanged a dozen words with him in his whole life. He knew little or nothing of the virtues which the deceased had had or ought to have had prior to his death; and in his childish ignorance, it never occurred to him, what everyone else knows, namely, that the dead have all the possible virtues, and especially those which they have not had. But Serafina, who was always her brother’s right arm in every emergency, seeing him more helpless than a chicken entangled in drying flax, thought that she herself would go out in search of news. So she went and hunted up the beadle of the institute, a former neighbor of hers, who presented her to the secretary; and a few hours later she came back with a sheet of paper covered over with biographical and bibliographical data which she handed over to her brother, saying:
“Here is your dead man for you. Gianella says that your great scientist was a confounded miser who never gave away a penny in charity to anybody; but there is no need for you to say that in your eulogy. You can say, on the contrary, that he was open-handed and that he aided the poor. They tell so many lies about people while they 174 are alive that you may well tell one or two about the dead. And that reminds me that I kept the eulogy which they printed at Lecco, when our poor uncle died, the one who was a priest and a great devourer of books, and because of his appetite for books he died as poor as Job. I think that there must be some paragraphs in that eulogy that would fit in very well for this old miser. Any pair of stockings and any shirt are a good enough fit for a dead man. Besides this, Gianella told me that your scientist was as deaf as a church bell, so that you might even have sung The Epistle and it would have been all the same to him.”
With this encouragement and with the aid of the memorial volume printed in honor of the uncle priest, and after much jabbing of pens into the ink bottle, even Taddeo succeeded in putting together thirty-eight lines of fine sounding words that were not lacking in a certain amount of style and including the customary quotation from Foscolo, “Alone who leaves no legacy of love —— ” He began as follows: Before this bier, which hold the mortal remains of our lamented colleague and our friend, the voice falters, and there remains nothing to do but to pronounce a mournful farewell in the name of this society, of which he was the glory and the ornament. — And it ended with the peroration: Hail, elect spirit! You have ceased to suffer in this dolorous battle of life, — (this phrase was taken bodily from the eulogy upon the uncle priest who had died after a long illness from cancer of the stomach) — let the example of your noble virtues serve as an inspiration to us all, who have learned in your school how to unite science with idealism, modesty with virtue, constancy of purpose with indulgent goodness of the mind. (All of this stolen property of the uncle priest.)
Serafina found the discourse, if anything, too fine for a wretched miser who had never given a penny of charity to anyone. She dressed her Taddeo, she brushed him off once more than usual, she tied his cravat, she drew his black gloves over his fingers as big as so many sausages, 175 and thrust him out of the front door just as it was striking half-past nine, the hour appointed for the funeral procession.
Taddeo descended the steps in hot haste, and in the state of mental perturbation in which he found himself, instead of turning to the right, in the direction of San Giorgio, he followed his every-day habit of turning to the left towards the Brera and the Institute. He did not perceive that he had blundered until he was actually in the doorway of the Palazzo. This awkward error helped to bewilder him still more. He turned back hurriedly to retrace his steps, and with his usual rapid and uneven gait, which gave him the appearance of a rolling barrel, he passed through the midst of all the turmoil of the streets, with his thoughts at haphazard, mechanically masticating the first phrase of his discourse — Before this bier which hold the mortal remains — with much the anguish that one suffers from an aching tooth as one mounts the staircase to the dentist’s door.
Why couldn’t that confounded president have laid this task on someone else’s shoulders? There are people who delight in going to funerals and who seem born expressly for the purpose of accompanying the illustrious deceased to offer addresses and make themselves as conspicuous as street lamps! There are some who are never missing from the funeral train when a man of talent dies, and who have the knack of letting it be known and of getting their names into the papers. These little festivals of grief are never missed by those who feel the need of working ff a residuum of unsatisfied vanity. Well then, why isn’t there a society of mutual accompaniment formed by these human lamps who light themselves at the flame of the illustrious deceased, and why can they not leave in peace the poor devils who prefer to stay and work within their own shells?
Absorbed in these ideas, which he was mentally muttering, mixed in with a hash of phrases from his funeral eulogy, Falci arrived at the house of the deceased, in the 176 Via dei Piatti; but he learned that the funeral procession had already started.
He hurried off again, more disconcerted than ever, towards the church of San Giorgio and seeing a man dressed in red, the beadle, standing in the doorway, he asked him:
“The deceased? That is to say, the commendatore?”
“Dear, dear!” rejoined the beadle, cleaving the air with his hands, as if to say, by this time he is already in paradise, — “Why, if you turn up San Sisto and then keep on through Santa Marta, in ten minutes you will overtake them. It is a big funeral, you can’t make a mistake.” The beadle had not finished speaking before our Taddeo had turned up San Sisto and was continuing on his way through Santa Marta; from there he turned down across the Piazza del Castello; and at last, reaching the vicinity of the little church known as the Madonnina, he thought that he had come in sight of the deceased, that is to say, a great black crowd gathering thicker and thicker behind a large hearse covered with flowers, beneath the clouds of that gray February morning.
He had not yet overtaken the procession when there sounded in the far distance a melancholy funeral march which not only slowed down our Taddeo to the measured step suited to the sad occasion, but stirred his feelings to no small degree. Those clarionets seemed as though they were bemoaning the vanity of human glories. Ah, well! Taddeo wiped his brow (it had been a hot chase!), added himself to the tail of the procession in the midst of the poor and humble, and slowly down the whole length of that everlasting street he followed his deceased, with a careful eye to the slush and the puddles.
Amid the cemetery’s monuments, the coffin was placed beneath a canopy erected to ward off drafts of air and dangers of rheumatic pains, and was straightway surrounded by members of committees and many waving banners. Professor Falci, waving his manuscript, strove to force his way through the midst of the mourners, and at last found a kindly relative, less grief-stricken than the 177 rest, who steered him through, but not until another discourse was already being read. Partly on account of the distance, partly on account of the whispering, but to some extent also because of his own confusion and preoccupation, our friend caught nothing of the first discourse excepting a few of the more sonorous phrases, such as: battling for his country, — sentiments of liberty, — immortal principles of democracy.
These words and the pomp of many banners and many breasts glittering with medals ought to have told him that this was no concern of chemistry and the institute. But his heart was so immersed in those thirty-eight lines that he was obliged to recite before the assembled public, that even had they opened his veins, they could not have drawn from him a drop of blood. Besides, he was not the man to distinguish between the grief of the learned and that of the valiant patriots; or, even if he had been able to distinguish, such a confounded wind drove in beneath the canvas as to leave him in no mood for subtle philosophical analyses.
At last he felt himself first pulled, then pushed, by that same kindly relative who had gained him admission; he saw before him the coffin of the deceased; he felt the heavy silence that surrounded him, and, with that courage which comes to the aid of the most desperate in their extreme hour of danger, he too began in clarion tones: Before this bier, — and went ahead finely, and when he neared he end, animated by a sincere emotion, he gathered force, raised his voice, and flung forth his final words with real oratorical effect: Let the example of your noble virtues serves as an inspiration to us all, who have learned in your school how to unite science with idealism, modesty with virtue, constancy of purpose with indulgent goodness of mind.
These were the four lines copied literally from the eulogy of the uncle priest, who, long since dead and buried, could not rise again to protest and lay claim to his property.
His hearers murmured: “Good! Bravo!” Many patriotic hands were extended to clasp the hand of the orator, 178 who, perspiring and exhausted, saw nothing but one vast blotch, as black as ink, and felt nothing but a breath of freezing air blowing directly in his ear. The kindly relative, with gentle violence, took his manuscript from his hands, in order to include it with the other memorial papers which the Society of the United Restaurant Employees intended to publish in honor of their well-deserving vice-president.
The very thing had happened which the cleverest of you must have discovered, some way back.
Taddeo, wholly absorbed in his dread of delivering a speech, had mistaken one dead man for another. Having stumbled upon the funeral of the ex-cook and ex-Garibaldian, he had suffered himself to be taken in tow by the crown and the banners, without once thinking that in Milan they die at a faster rate than one at a time. He had followed the cortège and had delivered his fine discourse without once perceiving that the dead man was not surrounded by that odor of sanctity befitting a commendatore. And no one among his hearers had perceived it, either. Who is the dead who does not join modesty with virtue, constancy of purpose with indulgent goodness of mind? And as for the matter of juggling a bit with science above the coffin of a cook, who is there who has ever succeeded in defining science so accurately but that it might readily be confused with something else?
For all these reasons, the discourse by Professor Falci, written for a chemist, a member of the Royal Institute, one of the Forty of Modena, foreign member of the K. K. Ph. Ps. W. G., etc., etc., was able to serve excellently for a democratic, Garibaldian cook; and whoever reads it today among the obituaries printed in honor of Palamede Bottigella says that it is quite beautiful. Even the Secolo found occasion to praise it, with these words:
“Professor Falci, an old friend of the deceased, delivered a moving discourse inspired by liberal sentiments and generous ideas ——”
Taddeo returned at once to his studies of spectrum 179 analysis with the serene and tranquil mind of one who has fulfilled a pious duty towards a lamented colleague. But in the world beyond, the Commendatore Cerbatti and Palamede Bottigella must really have had a hearty laugh, when they met together with the uncle priest, — unless it happens that the dead are a more serious-minded folk than we are.