Great Day by
The Translation by Edith Wharton.
The G—s were living in the country, near Florence, when the
Italian army began preparations to advance upon Rome. In the family
the enterprise was regarded with disapproval. The father, the mother,
and the two grown daughters, all ardent Catholics and temperate
patriots, talked of moral measures.
"We don't profess to understand anything about politics," Signora
G—- would say to her friends; "I am especially ignorant; in fact, I
am afraid I should find it rather difficult to explain WHY I think as
I do. But I can't help it; I have a presentiment. There is something
inside me that keeps saying: 'This is not the right way for them to go
to Rome; they ought not to go, they must not go!' I remember how
things were in forty-eight, and in fifty-nine and sixty; well, in
those days I never was frightened, I never had the feeling of anxiety
that I have now; I always thought that things would come right in the
end. But now, you may say what you please, I see nothing but darkness
ahead. You may laugh as much as you like... pray heaven we don't have
to cry one of these days! I don't believe that day is so far off."
The only one of the household who thought differently was the son,
a lad of twenty, just re-reading his Roman history, and boiling over
with excitement. To mention Rome before him was to declare battle, and
in one of these conflicts feeling had run so high that it had been
unanimously decided not to touch upon the subject in future.
One evening, early in September, one of the official newspapers
announced that the Italian troops had actually entered the Papal
States. The son was bursting with joy. The father read the article,
sat thinking awhile, and then, shaking his head, muttered: "No!" and
again: "No!" and a third time: "No!"
"But I beg your pardon, father!" shouted the boy, all aflame.
"Don't let us begin again," the mother gently interposed; and that
evening nothing more was said. But the next night something serious
happened. The lad, just before going to bed, announced, without
preamble, as though he were saying the most natural thing in the
world, that he meant to go to Rome with the army.
There was a general outcry of surprise and indignation, followed by
a storm of reproaches and threats. No decent person would willingly be
present at such scenes as were about to be enacted; it was enough
that, as Italians, they were all in a measure to blame for what had
happened, without deliberately assuming the shame of being an
eye-witness; there was nothing one could not forgive in a lad of good
family, except (it was his mother who spoke) this craze to go and see
A POOR OLD MAN BOMBARDED. A fine war! A glorious triumph, indeed!
When they had ended the lad set his teeth, tore in bits the paper
clutched between his fingers, and, lighting a candle, flung out of the
room, stamping his feet like an Italian actor representing an angry
Half an hour later he stole gently back to the dining-room. His
father and mother sat there alone, sad and silent. He asked pardon of
his father, who grumblingly shook hands; then he returned to his room,
followed by his mother.
"Then we shall hear no more of these ideas?" she tenderly
suggested, laying her hands on his shoulders.
He answered her with a kiss.
The next day he crossed the borders of the Papal States.
The discovery of his flight was received with tears, rage, and
invectives. They would never consent to see him again; if he came
back, they would not even rise from their seats to welcome him; they
would not speak to him for a month; they would cut off his allowance;
they had a hundred other plans for his discomfiture. With the mother
it was only talk; but the father meant what he said. He was a good but
hard man, averse to compromises, and violent in his anger; his son
knew it and feared him. It was incomprehensible that the lad should
have ventured upon such a step.
The news of the 20th of September only increased the resentment of
"He will see," they muttered. "Only let him try to come back!"
Their words, their gestures, the manner in which they were to
receive him, were all thought out and agreed upon: he was to receive a
On the morning of the 22d they were all seated in the dining-room,
reading, when there was a great knock at the door, and the boy,
flushed, panting, sunburnt, stood erect and motionless on the
No one moved.
"What!" cried the boy, extending his arms in amazement, "you
haven't heard the news?"
No one answered.
"Hasn't any one told you? Has no one been out from Florence? Are
you all in the dark still?"
No one breathed.
"We have heard," one of the girls at length faltered, after
exchanging glances with her father, "that Rome was taken—"
"What! Is THAT all?"
"That is all."
"But what a victory! What a victory!" cried the son, with a shout
that set them trembling. "So I am the one to tell you of it!"
They sprang up and surrounded him.
"But how is it possible?" he went on, with excited gestures—"how
is it possible that you haven't heard anything? Have there been no
rumors about the neighborhood? Haven't the peasants held a meeting?
What is the municipality about? Why, it's inconceivable! Just
listen—here, come close to me, so—I'll tell you the whole story; my
heart's going at such a rate that I can hardly speak..."
"But what has happened?"
"Wait! You shan't know yet. You must hear the whole story first,
from beginning to end. I want to tell you the thing bit by bit, just
as I saw it."
"But WHAT is it?—the Roman festival?"
"The King's arrival?"
"No, no, no! Something much more tremendous!"
"But tell us, tell us!"
"Sit down, lad!"
"But how is it that we haven't heard anything about it?"
"How can I tell? All I know is that bringing you the first news of
it is the most glorious thing that's ever happened to me. I reached
Florence this morning—they knew all about it there, so I rushed
straight out here. I fancied that perhaps you mightn't have heard
yet—I ... I'm all out of breath ..."
"But tell us, tell us quickly!" the mother and daughters cried,
drawing their chairs around him. The father remained at a distance.
"You shall hear, mother—SUCH things!" the boy began. "Here, come
closer to me. Well, you know what happened on the morning of the
twenty-first? The rest of the regiments entered; there were the same
crowds, the same shouting and music as on the day before. But
suddenly, about midday, the noise stopped as if by common consent,
first in the Corso, then in the other principal streets, and so,
little by little, all over the city. The troops of people began to
break up into groups, talking to each other in low voices; then they
scattered in all directions, taking leave of each other in a way that
made one think they meant to meet again. It seemed as though the
signal had been given to prepare for something tremendous. Men said a
hasty word to each other in passing and then hurried on, each going
his own way. The whole Corso was in movement; people were rushing in
and out of the houses, calling out from the street and being answered
from the windows; soldiers dashed about as though in answer to a
summons; cavalry officers trotted by; men and boys passed with bundles
of flags on their shoulders and in their arms, all breathless and
hurried, as if the devil were after them. Not knowing a soul, and
having no way of finding out what it all meant, I tried to guess what
was up from the expression of their faces. They all looked cheerful
enough, but not as frantically glad as they had been; there was a
shade of doubt, of anxiety. One could see they were planning
something. From the Corso I wandered on through some of the narrower
streets, stopping now and then to watch one of the groups. Everywhere
I saw the same thing—crowds of people, all in a hurry, all coming and
going, with the same air that I had already noticed in the Corso, of
concealing from somebody what they were doing, although it was all
being done in the open. Knots, bands, hundreds of men and women passed
me in silence; they were all going in the same direction, as though to
some appointed meeting-place."
"Where were they going?" the father and mother interrupted.
"Wait a minute. I went back to the Corso. As I approached it I
heard a deep, continuous murmur of voices, growing louder and louder,
like the noise of a great crowd. The Corso was full of people, all
standing still and facing toward the Capitol, as though they expected
something to come from that direction. From the Piazza del Popolo to
the Piazza di Venezia they were jammed so tight that nobody could
budge. I heard whispers flying about: 'Now they're coming!'—'They're
coming from over there!'— 'Who's coming?'—'The main column—here's
the main column!'—'Here it is!'—'No, it isn't!'—'Yes, it is!' All
at once there was a stir in the crowd, and a big shout, 'Here they
are!' and down the middle of the street a wide passageway seemed to
open of itself, as though to make room for a procession. Every head
was uncovered. I fought my way through from the outer edge of the
crowd, to get a look at what was coming. I can feel the shiver down my
back now! First, a lot of generals in full uniform, and gentlemen in
civilian's dress, with the tri-colored scarf; in the midst of them,
girls, women, and ragged, tattered men; workmen, peasants, women with
babies, soldiers of all arms; smartly dressed ladies, students, whole
families clutching hold of each other's hands, for fear of getting
lost in the crowd; all jammed together, trampled upon, so that they
could barely move; and with it all not a sound but a buzzing,
monotonous murmur; silence on both sides of the street; silence in the
windows. It was awfully solemn; half strange and half fearful. I felt
as if I were in a trance."
"But where were they going to?" his parents and sisters interposed
with growing impatience.
"Wait a bit!" he returned. "I fought my way into the thick of it,
with the crowds on both sides of the street piling in on top of me.
Lord, what a crush! They spread out like a torrent, pouring into every
cranny, sweeping people on ahead of them, into shop-doors, into the
court-yards of houses, wherever there was a yard of vacant space. As
we went on, other streams of people kept surging into the Corso from
all the side streets, which were just as closely packed; on we swept
from the Capitol; and they said that there were thousands more in the
Forum. Hordes kept pouring in from the Piazza di Spagna, from the Via
del Babbuino, from the Piazza del Popolo. Every one had something in
his hand: a wreath of flowers, a branch of olive or laurel, a banner,
a rag tied to a stick. Some carried holy images uplifted above their
heads; inscriptions, emblems, pictures of the Pope, of the King, of
the Princes, of Garibaldi; never under the sun was there such a medley
and confusion of people and things! And all the while only that low
murmur, and the great multitude moving on with a calmness, a dignity
that seemed miraculous. I felt as though I were dreaming!"
They gathered close round him without a word. "Suddenly I noticed
that the crowd had turned to the left. Round we all went; very slowly,
with the greatest difficulty, shoved, trampled on, knocked about; with
our arms pinned to our sides, and hardly able to breathe, we fought
our way, street by street, to the little square by the bridge of St.
Angelo. The bridge itself was crammed with people; beyond it, there
were more crowds, which seemed to stretch all the way to St. Peter's.
The right bank of the Tiber swarmed like an ant-hill. Crossing the
bridge was a hard job; it took us over a quarter of an hour. The poor
devils on each side, in their fear of being pushed over the edge,
clutched the parapet madly, and shouted with terror; I believe there
were several accidents.
"Well, at last we got across. All the streets leading to the Piazza
of St. Peter were choked with human beings. When we reached the foot
of one of the two streets that run straight to St. Peter's we heard a
great roar, like the noise of the sea in a gale; it seemed to come to
us in gusts, now near by, now a long way off. It was the noise of the
crowd in the square before St. Peter's. We rushed ahead more madly
than ever; climbing over each other, carried along, pushed, swept, and
dragged, till at last we reached the square. God, if you could have
seen it!— What a spectacle!—The whole huge square was jammed, black,
swarming; no longer a square, but an ocean. All around the outer edge,
between the four lines of columns, on the steps of the church, in the
portico, on the great terraced roof, in the outer galleries of the
dome, on the capitals of the columns, on the very pilasters; in the
windows of the houses to the right of the square, on the balconies, on
the leads, above, below, to the right and to the left, wherever a
human being could find foothold, wherever there was some projection to
cling to or to dangle from, everywhere there were heads, arms, legs,
banners, shouts, gesticulations. The whole of Rome was there."
"Heavens! ... And the Vatican?" the women cried, in a tremble.
"All shut up. You know that a wing of the Vatican overlooks the
square, and that the Pope's apartments are in that wing. Every window
was closed; it looked like an abandoned palace; like a cold, rigid,
impassive face, staring straight ahead with wide-open motionless eyes.
The crowd looked up at it with a murmur.
"Over by the church steps I noticed a lot of officers and gentlemen
moving about and giving orders, which seemed to be handed on through
the crowd. The excitement was increasing. Every head in the square was
uncovered; white heads of old men, brown heads of soldiers, fair heads
of little children. The sun blazed down on it all. Thousands of
shapes, colors, sounds, seemed to undulate and blend; banners, green
boughs, fluttering rags, were tossed back and forth as though upon a
dancing sea. The crowd seethed and quivered as if the ground underfoot
were on fire.
"Suddenly there was a shout that swept over the whole square: 'The
boys! The children! Let's have the children!'"
"Then, as if every one were following some concerted plan of
action, all the children in the square were lifted up above the crowd,
and the men and women who carried them fought a way through to the
front of the Vatican. The bigger boys made their own way. Bands of ten
and twenty of them, holding each other by the hand, wriggled between
people's legs; hundreds of children, some on their own feet, some
carried, some pushed, a whole world of little folk, hidden till then
in the crowd, suddenly swarmed in one corner of the square; and how
the women screamed! 'Take care!—Make room!—Look out for my child!'"
"Presently there was another shout: 'The women now! The women!' and
another shuffling up and settling down of the crowd. Then a third
shout, louder than any of the others: 'The army! The troops!' this
time. Then came the most indescribable agitation, but underneath it
all a sense of order and rapidity; none of the ordinary confusion and
delay; every one helped, made way, co-operated; the whole immense
multitude seemed to be under orders. Gradually the disturbance ceased,
the noise diminished, the gesticulation subsided; and looking about
one saw that all the soldiers, women, and children in the crowd had
disappeared as if by magic.
"There they all stood, on the right side of the square, divided
into three great battalions that extended from the door of St. Peter's
to the centre of the colonnade, all facing the Vatican, packed
together and motionless. The crowd burst into frantic applause."
"But the Vatican?" the whole family cried out for the third time.
"Shut up and silent as a convent; but wait. Suddenly the applause
ceased, and every head turned backward, whispering: 'Silence!' The
whisper travelled across the square and down the length of the two
streets leading to it; gradually the sound died out, and the crowd
became absolutely, incredibly silent: it was supernatural. All at
once, in the midst of this silence, we heard a faint mysterious
chirping; a vague, diffused sound of voices, that seemed to come from
overhead. Gradually it grew louder, and there was an uncertain
gathering of shrill, discordant tones, now close by, now far off, but
growing steadier and more harmonious, until at length it was blent in
a single tremulous silvery chant that soared above us like the singing
of a choir of angels. Thousands of children were singing the hymn to
Pius IX.—the hymn of forty-seven."
"Oh, God—oh, God!" cried the mother and daughters, with clasped
"That song re-echoed in every heart; it touched something deep down
and tender in every one of us. A thrill ran through the crowd; there
was a wild waving of arms and hands, as though to take the place of
speech; but the only sound was a confused murmur.
"'Holy Father,' that murmur seemed to say, 'look at them, listen to
them! They are our children, they are your little ones, who are
looking for you, who are praying to you, who implore your blessing.
Yield to their entreaty; give them your blessing; grant that our
religion and our country may dwell together as one faith in our
hearts. One word from you, Holy Father, one sign from you, one glance
even, promising pardon and peace, and every man of us shall be with
you and for you, now and for ever! Look—these our children and your
"Thousands of banners fluttered in the air, the song ceased, and a
deep silence followed."
"Well?" they cried breathlessly.
"Still shut up," the lad answered. "Then the women began to sing.
There was a deep thrill in the immense voice that rose; a something
that throbs only in the breast of mothers; it seemed a cry rather than
a hymn; it was sweet and solemn.
"At first the crowd was motionless; then a wave of excitement
passed over it, and the hymn was drowned in a great clamor: 'These are
our mothers, these are our wives and sisters; Holy Father, listen to
them. They have never known hatred or anger; they have always loved
and hoped; all they ask is that you should give them leave to couple
your name with that of Italy on their children's lips. Holy Father,
one word from you will spare them many cruel doubts and many bitter
tears. Give them your blessing, Holy Father!"
The boy's listeners questioned him with look and gesture.
"Still closed," he answered; "still closed. But then a tremendous
chant burst out, followed by a wild surging of the crowd: the soldiers
were singing.—'These are our soldiers,' the people cried; 'they shall
be yours, Holy Father. They come from the fields and the workshops;
they will keep watch at your door, Holy Father, they will attend upon
your steps. They were born under your rule, as children they heard
your glorious cry for liberty, they fought the stranger in your name
and in that of their king; in the hour of danger, you will find them
close about your throne, ready to die for you. One word, Holy Father,
and these swords, these breasts, this flesh and blood is yours! They
ask your blessing on their country, Holy Father, they ask you to
repeat your own glorious words!'...
"A window in the Vatican opened. The song ceased, the shouts died
out— silence. There was not a soul in the window. For a few seconds
the immense multitude seemed to stop breathing. It seemed as though
something moved behind the window—as though at the back of the room a
shadow appeared and then vanished. Then we fancied that we caught a
glimpse of people moving to and fro, and heard a vague sound. Every
face was turned towards the window, every eye was fixed upon it.
Suddenly, as if by inspiration, every arm in the multitude was
stretched out towards the palace; mothers lifted their children above
their heads, soldiers swung their caps on the points of their
bayonets, every banner was shaken out, and a hundred thousand voices
burst into one tremendous shout, 'Viva! Viva! Viva!' At the window of
the Vatican something light- colored appeared, wavered, fluttered in
the air. God in heaven!" cried the boy, with his arms about his
mother's neck, "it was the flag of Italy!"
The delight, the joy, the enthusiasm which greeted his words are
indescribable. The lad had spoken with so much warmth, had been so
carried away by his imagination, that he had not perceived that,
gradually, as the story proceeded, he had passed from fact to fiction;
and his eyes were wet, his voice shook, with the spell of his
hallucination. His words carried conviction, and not a doubt clouded
the happiness of his listeners. They laughed and cried and kissed each
other, feeling themselves suddenly released from all their doubts and
scruples, from all the miserable conflicts of conscience that had
tortured them as Italians and as Catholics! The reconciliation between
Church and State! The dream of so many years! What peace it promised,
what a future of love and harmony! What a sense of freedom and
"Thank God, thank God!" the mother cried, sinking into a chair,
worn out by her emotions. And then, in a moment or two, they were all
at the lad again, clamoring for fresh details.
"Is it really true?"
"Haven't you dreamed it?"
"Go on, tell us everything. Tell us about the Pope, about the
crowd, about what happened next"...
"What happened next?" the boy began again, in a tired voice. "I
hardly know. There was such an uproar, such confusion, such an
outburst of frenzy, that the mere recollection of it makes my brain
reel. All I saw was a vortex of arms and flags, and the breath was
almost knocked out of me by a thundering blow on the chest. After a
while, I got out of the thick of it, and plunged into one of the
streets leading to the bridge of St. Angelo. People were still pouring
into the piazza from Borgo Pio with frantic shouts. I heard afterwards
that the crowd tried to break into the Vatican; the soldiers had to
keep them back, first breast to breast, then with blows, and then with
their bayonets. They say that some people were suffocated in the
press. No one knows yet what happened inside the Vatican; there was a
rumor that the Pope had given his blessing from the window—but I
didn't see him. I was almost dead when I got to the bridge. The news
of what had taken place had already spread over the whole city, and
from every direction crowds were still pouring towards the Vatican.
Detachments of cavalry went by me at a trot; orderlies and
aides-de-camps carrying orders dashed along the streets. Hearing their
shouts, the people in the windows shouted back at them. Decrepit old
men, sick people, women with babies in their arms, swarmed on the
terraces, poured out of the houses, questioning, wondering, embracing
one another... At last I got to the Corso. At that minute there was a
tremendous report from the direction of the Pincio, another from Porta
Pia, a third from San Pancrazio: all the batteries of the Italian army
were saluting the Pope. Soon afterwards the bells of the Capitol began
to ring; then, one after another, a hundred churches chimed in. The
crowds of Borgo Pio surged frantically back towards the left bank of
the Tiber, invading the streets, the squares, the houses, stripping
the coverings from the papal escutcheons, carrying in triumph busts of
Pius IX., portraits and banners. Thousands assembled with frantic
cheers before the palaces of the Roman nobles who are known for their
devotion to the Holy See. In answer to the cheers, the owners of the
houses appeared on their balconies and unfurled the Italian flag.
"Wait a minute, I'm out of breath"...
As soon as he had recovered his breath he was assailed with fresh
"Well, and what then? And the Vatican—? The Pope—?"
"I don't know.—But Rome that night... how can I ever tell you how
beautiful, how great, how marvellous it was! The night was perfectly
clear, and I don't believe such an illumination was ever seen since
the world began. The Corso was on fire; the churches were jammed with
people, and there was preaching in every one of them. The streets were
full of music, dancing, and singing; people harangued the crowds in
the cafes and the theatres.
"I wanted to see St. Peter's again. There had been a rumor that His
Holiness needed rest, and Borgo Pio was as still as it is on the
stillest night. The piazza was full of moonlight. A silent throng was
gathered about the two fountains and on the steps of the church. Many
were sitting down, many stretched at full length on the ground; the
greater number had fallen asleep, worn out by the fatigue and
excitement of the day; women, soldiers, children, lay huddled together
in a confused heap. Hundreds of others were on their knees, and
sentinels of all the different corps moved about here and there, with
little flags and crosses fastened to the barrels of their guns. The
ground was strewn with flags, foliage, flowers, and hats lost in the
crush; the windows of the Vatican were lit up; there was not a sound
to be heard, the crowd seemed to be holding its breath.
"I turned away, beside myself with the thought of all that I had
seen, of the effect that it would produce in Italy, and all over the
world; of what you would all say to it, and you most of all, father! I
found myself at the station without knowing how I had got there. It
was full of noise and confusion. I jumped on to the train, we started,
and here I am. The news reached Florence last night; they say the
excitement was indescribable; the King has left for Rome; the news is
all over the world by this time!"
He sank into a chair and sat silent, as though his breath had
failed him. Then he sprang up and rushed out to intercept the papers,
which usually reached the villa at eleven o'clock in the morning.
In this way he succeeded in maintaining the blissful delusion until
evening. The dinner was full of gayety, the lad continued to pour out
detail after detail, and his listeners to heap benediction upon
Suddenly a hurried step was heard on the stairs, and the bell rang
violently. The door opened, and a tall, pale priest, with a drawn
mouth, appeared on the threshold. He was a recent acquaintance of the
family, who felt no great sympathy for him, but who received him
courteously more out of respect for his cloth than out of regard for
As he entered, all but the son sprang up and surrounded him with
"Well, have you heard the news? Thank God, it's all ended! The hand
of God is in it! What do you think of it all? Tell us, let us hear
"But what news?" asked the priest, looking from one to the other
with astonished eyes.
In wild haste, and all speaking at once, they poured out the story
of the festival, the forgiveness, the reconciliation.
The priest stared at them, with the look of a man who finds himself
unexpectedly surrounded by lunatics; then, with a withering glance at
the boy, and a smile of malignant triumph—
"Luckily," he said, "there is not a word of truth in it!"
"Not a word of truth in it?" they clamored, turning upon their
The boy, unmoved by their agitation, returned the priest's look
half- scornfully, half-sadly.
"Your reverence, don't say fortunately. Since you are an Italian,
say rather, 'Alas, that it is not so!'"
For a moment the others stood aghast; then, angered, as people will
be, rather against those who undeceive them than against those who
delude them, they turned towards the priest, involuntarily echoing the
boy's words: "He's right, your reverence! Say rather, 'Alas, that it
is not so!'"
The priest pointed to his own breast with a long knotty finger.
"I?" he exclaimed bitterly, "never!"
At these words, the boy's father, rudely roused from his mood of
tender exaltation, and bursting, after his wont, into sudden fury,
stretched his arm towards the priest, with a cry that rang through the
room like a pistol-shot: "Out of my house this instant!"
The priest stalked out, slamming the door. The lad's arms were
about his father's neck; and the old man, laying his hands on his
son's head, said gently: "I forgive you."