College Friends by Edmondo de
[Footnote: Although "College Friends" is rather a reverie than
in any strict sense a story (something in the spirit of "The Reveries of a
Bachelor," if an analogy may be sought in another literature), it has been
thought best to include it here as one of the best-known of De Amicis' shorter
writings. Indeed it is the leading piece in his chief volume of "Novelle," so
that he has himself included it with his tales.]
There are many who write down every evening what they have done
during the day; some who keep a record of the plays they have seen, the books
they have read, the cigars they have smoked—but is there one man in a hundred,
nay, in a thousand, who, at the end of the year, or even once in a lifetime,
draws up a list of the people he has known? I don't mean his intimate friends,
of course—the few whom he sees, or with whom he corresponds; but the multitude
of people met in the past, and perhaps never to be encountered again, of whom
the recollection returns from time to time at longer and longer intervals as the
years go by, until at length it wholly fades away. Which of us has not forgotten
a hundred once familiar names, lost all trace of a hundred once familiar lives?
And yet to my mind this forgetfulness implies such a loss in the way of
experience, that if I could live my life over again I should devote at least
half an hour a day to the tedious task of recording the names and histories of
the people I met, however uninteresting they might appear.
What strange and complex annals I should possess had I kept such
a list of my earliest school-friends, supplementing it as time went on by any
news of them that I could continue to obtain, and keeping track, as best I
might, of the principal changes in their lives! As it is, of the two or three
hundred lads that I knew there are but twenty or thirty whom I can recall, or
with whose occupations and whereabouts I am acquainted—of the others I know
absolutely nothing. For a few years I kept them all vividly in mind; three
hundred rosy faces smiled at me, three hundred schoolboy jackets testified more
or less distinctly to the paternal standing, from the velvet coat of the mayor's
son to the floury roundabout of the baker's offspring; I still heard all their
different voices; I saw where each one sat in school; I recalled their words,
their attitudes, their gestures. Gradually all the faces melted into a rosy
blur, the jackets into a uniform neutral tint; the gestures were blent in a
vague ripple of movement, and at last a thick mist enveloped all and the vision
It grieves me that it should be so, and many a time I long to
burst through the mist and evoke the hidden vision. But, alas! my comrades are
all scattered; and were I to try to seek them out, one by one, how many devious
twists and turns I should have to make, and to what strange places my search
would lead me! From a sacristy I should pass to barracks, from barracks to a
laboratory, thence to a lawyer's office; from the lawyer's office to a prison,
from the prison to a theatre, from the theatre, alas! to a cemetery, and thence,
perhaps, to a merchant vessel lying in some American or Eastern port. Who knows
what adventures, what misfortunes, what domestic tragedies, what transformations
in appearance, in habits, in life, would be found to have befallen that mere
handful of humanity, within that short space of time!
And yet those are not the friends that I most long to see again.
Indeed, if we analyze that sense of mournful yearning which makes us turn back
to childhood, we shall be surprised to find how faint is the longing for our old
comrades, nay, we may even discover that no such sentiment exists in us. And why
should it, after all? We were often together, we were merry, we sought each
other out, we desired each other's companionship; but there was no interchange
between us of anything that draws together, that binds closer, that leaves its
mark upon the soul. Our friendships were unmade as lightly as they were made.
What we wanted was somebody to echo our laughter, to climb trees with us, and
return the ball well; and as the pluckiest, liveliest, and most active boys were
best fitted to meet these requirements, it was upon them that our choice usually
fell. But did we feel kindly towards the weaklings? Did it ever occur to us,
when a comrade looked sad, to ask: What ails you? or, if he answered that
somebody lay dead at home, did we have any tears for his sorrow? Ah, we were not
It has probably happened to many of you to come across a
companion of your primary-school days, after the lapse of fifteen years or so.
You receive a letter in an unfamiliar hand, you glance at the signature, and you
shout out: "What? Is HE alive?" On with your hat and off you rush to the hotel.
Your heart thumps as you run, and you race upstairs to his door in hot haste,
laughing, rejoicing, and thinking to yourself that you wouldn't have missed
those few minutes for any amount of money. Well, those few minutes are the best.
You bounce into the room, and find yourself embracing a strange man in whom, as
you look at him more closely, you can just discern some faint resemblance to the
lad you used to know; one of you exclaims, "How are you, old man?" the other
plunges breathlessly into some old school reminiscence; and then… that's all.
You begin to say to yourself: "Who IS this strange man? what has
he been doing all these years? what has been going on in his soul? is he good or
bad, a believer or a sceptic? I have nothing in common with him, I don't know
the man! He must be observed and studied first—how can I call him a friend?"
What you think of him, he thinks of you, and conversation
languishes. With your first words you may have discovered that you and he have
followed opposite paths in life; he betrays his democratic tendencies, you, your
monarchical leanings; you try him on literature, he retaliates with the culture
of silk-worms. Before telling him that you are married, you take the precaution
to ask if he has a wife; he answers, "What do you take me for?" and you take
leave with a touch of the finger-tips and a smile that has died at its birth.
The friends of infancy! Dear indeed above all others when the
years of boyhood have been spent with them; mere phantoms otherwise! And
childhood itself! I have never been able to understand why people long to return
to it. Why mourn for years without toil, without suffering, without intelligent
belief, without those outbursts of fierce and bitter sorrow that purify the soul
and uplift the brow in a splendid renewal of hope and courage? Better a thousand
times to suffer, to toil, to fight and weep, than to let life exhale itself in a
ceaseless irresponsible gayety, causeless, objectless, and imperturbable! Better
to stand bleeding on the breach than to lie dreaming among the flowers.
I was seventeen years old when I made the acquaintance of my
dearest friends, in a splendid palace which I see before me as clearly as though
I had left it only yesterday. I see the great courtyard, the stately porticos,
the saloons adorned with columns, statues and bas-reliefs; and, amidst these
beautiful and magnificent objects, vestiges of the bygone splendors of the ducal
residence, the long lines of bedsteads and school-benches, the hanging rows of
uniforms, dirks and rifles. Five hundred youths are scattered about those courts
and corridors and staircases; a dull murmur of voices, broken by loud shouts and
sonorous laughter, reverberates through the most distant recesses of the huge
edifice. What animation! What life! What varieties of type, of speech and
gesture! Youths of athletic build, with great moustaches and stentorian voices;
youths as slim and sweet as girls; the dusky skin and coal-black eyes of Sicily;
the fair-haired, blue-eyed faces of the north; the excited gesticulation of
Naples, the silvery Tuscan intonation, the rattling Venetian chatter, a hundred
groups, a hundred dialects; on this side, songs and noisy talk, on that side
running, jumping, and hand-clapping; men of every class, sons of dukes,
senators, generals, shopkeepers, government employees; a strange assemblage,
suggesting the university, the monastery, and the barracks: with talk of women,
war, novels, the orders of the day; a life teeming with feminine meannesses and
virile ambitions; a life of mortal ennui and frantic gayety, a medley of
sentiments, actions, and incidents, absurd, tragic, or delightful, from which
the pen of a great humorist could extract the materials for a masterpiece.
Such was the military college of Modena in the year 1865.
I cannot recall the two years that I spent there without being
beset by a throng of memories from which I can free myself only by passing them
all in review, one after another, like pictures in a magic-lantern; now
laughing, now sighing, now shaking my head, but feeling all the while that each
episode is dear to me and will never be forgotten while I live.
How well I remember the first grief of my military life, a blow
that befell me a few days after I had entered college all aglow with the poetry
of war. It was the morning on which caps were distributed. Each new recruit of
the company found one that fitted him, but all were too small for me, and the
captain turned upon me furiously.
"Are you aware that the commissary stores will have to be
reopened just for you?" And I heard him mutter after a pause, "What are you
going to do with a head like that?"
Great God, what I underwent at that moment! What—be a soldier? I
thought. Never! Better beg my bread in the streets—better die and have done with
Then I remember an officer, an old soldier, gruff but kindly,
who had a way of smiling whenever he looked at me. How that smile used to
exasperate me! I had made up my mind to demand an explanation, to let him know
that I didn't propose to be any man's butt, when one evening he called me to
him, and having given me to understand that he had heard something about me and
that he wanted to know if it were really true (I was to speak frankly, for it
would do me no harm), he finally, with many coughs and smiles and furtive
glances, whispered in my ear: "Is it true that you write poetry?"
I recall, too, the insuperable difficulty of accomplishing the
manual tasks imposed upon me, especially that of sewing on my buttons—how every
few seconds the needle would slip through my fingers, till the thread was
tangled up in a veritable spider's web, while the button hung as loose as ever,
to the derision of my companions and the disgust of the drill-sergeant, whose
contemptuous—"You may be a great hand at rhyming, but when it comes to sewing on
buttons you're a hundred years behind the times," seemed to exile me to the
depths of the eighteenth century.
I see the great refectory, where a battalion might have drilled;
I see the long tables, the five hundred heads bent above the plates, the rapid
motion of five hundred forks, of a thousand hands and sixteen thousand teeth;
the swarm of servants running here and there, called to, scolded, hurried, on
every side at once; I hear the clatter of dishes, the deafening noise, the
voices choked with food crying out: "Bread—bread!" and I feel once more the
formidable appetite, the herculean strength of jaw, the exuberant life and
spirits of those far-off days.
The scene changes, and I see myself locked in a narrow cell on
the fifth floor, a jug of water at my side, a piece of black bread in my hand,
with unkempt hair and unshorn chin, and the image of Silvio Pellico before me;
condemned to ten days' imprisonment for having made an address of thanks to the
professor of chemistry on the occasion of his closing lecture, thereby
committing an infraction of article number so-and-so of the regulation
forbidding any cadet to speak in public in the name of his companions. And to
this day I can hear the Major saying: "Take my advice and never let your
imagination run away with you;" citing the example of his old school-fellow, the
poet Regaldi, who had got into just such a scrape, and concluding with the
warning that "poetry always made men make asses of themselves."
Yes, I see it all as vividly as though I were reliving the very
same life again—the silent march of the companies at night down the long,
faintly-lit corridors; the professors behind their desks, deafening us with
their Gustavus-Adolphuses, their Fredericks the Great, and their Napoleons; the
great lecture-rooms full of motionless faces; the huge, dim dormitories,
resounding with the respirations of a hundred pairs of lungs; the garden, the
piazza, the ramparts, the winding Modenese sheets, the cafis full of graduates
devouring pastry, the picnics in the country, the excursions to neighboring
villages, the intrigues, the studies, the rivalries, the sadnesses, the
enmities, the friendships.
A few days before the graduating examinations we were given
leave to study wherever we pleased. There were two hundred of us in the second
class, and we dispersed ourselves all over the palace, in groups of five or six
friends, each group in a separate room, and began the long, desperate grind,
cramming away day and night, with only an occasional interruption to discuss the
coming examination and our future prospects.
How cheerily we talked, and how bright our anticipations were!
After two years of imprisonment, home, freedom, and epaulets were suddenly
within our reach. Aside from the common satisfaction of being promoted to be an
officer, each one of us had his own special reasons for rejoicing. With one of
us it was the satisfaction of being able to say to the family that had pinched
and denied itself to pay for his schooling, "Here I am, good people, nineteen
years old and able to shift for myself;" with another, the fun of swaggering in
full uniform, with clanking heels and rattling sword, into the quiet house where
the old uncle who had been so generous sat waiting to welcome him home; with a
third, the joy of mounting a familiar staircase, brevet in pocket, and knocking
at a certain door, behind which a girlish voice would be heard exclaiming,
"There he is!"—the voice of the little cousin to whom he had said good-bye, two
years before, in her parents' presence, reassured only by the non-committal
phrase: "Well, well, go to college first and make a man of yourself; then we'll
Already we saw ourselves surrounded by children eager to finger
our sabres, by girls who signed to us as we passed, by old men who clapped us on
the shoulder, by mothers crying, "How splendidly he looks!" So that it was with
the greatest difficulty that we shook off this importunate folk, saying to
ourselves: "Presently, presently, all in good time; but just now, really, you
must let us be!"
Then, each following the bent of his disposition, his habits,
and his plans, we confided to one another the regiment, province, and city to
which we hoped to be assigned. Some of us longed for the noise and merriment of
the Milanese carnivals, and dreamed of theatres, balls and convivial suppers.
One sighed for a sweet Tuscan village, perched on a hilltop, where, in command
of his thirty men, he might spend the peaceful spring days in collecting songs
and proverbs among the country-folk. Another longed to carry on his studies in
the unbroken solitude of a lonely Alpine fortress, hemmed in by ravines and
precipices. One of us craved a life of adventure in the Calabrian forests;
another, the activities of some great seaboard city; a third, an island of the
Tyrrhenian Sea. We divided up Italy among ourselves a hundred times a day, as
though we had been staking off plots in a garden; and each of us detailed to the
others the beauties of his chosen home, and all agreed that every one of the
places selected would be beautiful and delightful to live in.
And then—war! It was sure to come sooner or later. Hardly was
the word mentioned when our books were hurled into a corner and we were all
talking at once, our faces flushed, our voices loud and excited. War, to us, was
a superhuman vision in which the spirit lost itself as in some strange
intoxication; a far-off, rose-colored horizon, etched with the black profiles of
gigantic mountains; legion after legion, with flying banners and the sound of
music, endlessly ascending the mountain-side; and high up, on the topmost
ridges, surrounded by the enemy, our own figures far in advance of the others,
dashing forward with brandished swords; while down the farther slope a torrent
of foot, horse, and artillery plunged wildly through darkness to an unknown
A medal for gallantry? Which one of us would not have won it?
Lose the battle? But could Italians be defeated? Death—but who feared to die?
And did anybody ever die at nineteen? Who could tell what strange and marvellous
adventures awaited us, what sights we should see! Perhaps some foreign
expedition; a war in the East; was not the Eastern question still stirring? We
wandered in imagination over seas and mountains, we saw the marshalling of
fleets and armies, we glowed with impatience, we cried out within ourselves,
"Only give us time to pass our examinations, and we'll be there too!"
And then the examinations took place, and on a beautiful July
morning the doors of the ducal palace were thrown open and we were told to go
forth and seek our destiny. And with a great cry we dashed out, and scattered
ourselves like a flight of birds over the length and breadth of Italy.
Six years have gone by, only six years, and what a long and
strange and varied romance might be woven out of the lives of those two hundred
college comrades! I have seen many of them since we graduated, and have had news
of many others, and I have a way of passing them in review one after another,
and questioning them mentally; and what I see and hear fills me with a wonder
not unmixed with sadness. And here they all are.
The first that I see are a group of brown, broad-shouldered,
bearded men, whom I do not recall just at first; but when they smile at me I
recognize the slender fair boys who used to look so girlish.
"Is it really you?" I exclaim, and they answer, "Yes," with a
deep sonorous note so different from the boyish voices I had expected to hear,
that I start back involuntarily.
And these others? Their features are not changed, to be sure,
their figures are as robust and well set-up as ever, but the smile has vanished,
there is no brightness in the eye.
"What has happened to you?" I ask; and they answer, "Nothing."
Ah, how much better that some misfortune should have befallen
them than that the years alone, and only six short years, should have had the
power so sadly to transform them!
Here are others. Good God! One, two, three, five of them; let me
look again; yes—gray-headed! What—at twenty-seven! Tell me—what happened? They
shrug their shoulders and pass on.
Then I see a long file of my own friends, some of them the
wildest of the class, one with a baby in his arms, one with a child by the hand,
another leading two. What? So-and-so married? So-and-so a pere de famille? Who
would have thought it?
Here come others; some, with bowed heads and reddened eyes, sign
to me sadly in passing. There is crape upon their sleeves.
Others, with heads high and flashing eyes, point exultantly to
their breasts. Our college dream, the military medal—ah, lucky fellows!
And here are some, moving slowly, and so pale, so emaciated,
that I hardly know them. Ah me! The surgeon's knife has probed those splendid
statuesque limbs, once bared with such boyish pride on the banks of the Panaro;
the surgeon's knife, seeking for German bullets, while the blood streamed and
the amputated limbs dropped from the poor maimed trunks. Alas, poor friends! But
at least they have remained with us, rewarded for their sacrifice by the love
and gratitude of all.
But what's become of so-and-so?
He died on the march through Lombardy.
Killed by a mitrailleuse at Monte Croce.
And my friend so-and-so?
He died of a rifle-bullet, in the hospital at Verona.
And the fellow who sat next to me in class?
HE died of cholera in Sicily.
So they all pass by, fading into the distance, while my fancy
hastens back over the road they have travelled, seeking traces of their passage
—how many and what diverse traces!
Here, books and papers scattered on the floor, half-finished
projects of battles, an overturned table, a smoking candle-end, tokens of a
studious vigil. There, broken chairs, fragments of glasses, the remains of a
carouse. Farther on, an expanse of waste ground, two bloody swords, deep
footprints, the impress of a fallen body. Here, a table covered with a torn
green cloth and strewn with cards and dice; yonder, in the grass, a scented
love-letter and a knot of faded violets. Over there a graveyard cross, with the
inscription: To my Mother. And farther on more cards, cast-off uniforms, women's
portraits, tailors' bills, bills of exchange, swords, flowers, blood. What a
vast tapestry one can weave with those few broken and tangled threads! What
loves, what griefs, what struggles, follies, and disasters one divines and
comprehends! Many a high and generous impulse too; but how much more of
squandered opportunity and effort!
And even if nothing had been squandered, if, in those six years,
not a day, not an hour, had been stolen from our work, if we had not opened our
hearts to any affections but those that exalt the mind and give serenity to
life, a great and dear illusion must still have been lost to us; an illusion
that in vanishing has taken with it much of our strength and hope; the illusion
of that distant rose-colored horizon, edged with the black profiles of gigantic
mountains, legion after legion hurling itself upon the enemy with flying banners
and the sound of martial music!
A lost war.
And if we had not lost that illusion, would not some other have
vanished in its place?
I think of myself and say: "How far it is from nineteen to
Wherever I went, then, I was the youngest, since boys under
nineteen don't mix on equal terms with men; and I knew that whoever I met envied
me three things: my youth, my hopes, and my light-heartedness. And now, wherever
I go, I meet young fellows who look at me and speak to me with the deference
shown to an elder brother; and, as I talk to them, I am conscious of making an
effort to appear as cheery as they, and even find myself wondering what stuff
they are made of.
The other day, looking at a friend's child, a little girl of
six, I said to him, half laughing, "Who knows?"
"Isn't there rather too much disparity of age?" he answered.
I was silent, half-startled; then, counting up the years on my
I murmured sadly, "Yes."
At nineteen I could say of any little maid I met, that one day
she might become my wife; the rising generation belonged to me; but now there is
a part of humanity for which I am already too old!
And the future—once an undefined bright background, on which
fancy sketched all that was fairest and most desirable, without one warning from
the voice of reason: now, clearly outlined and distinctly colored, it takes such
precise shape that I can almost guess what it is to be, can see my path traced
out for me, and the goal to which it leads. And so, marvels and glories,
And mankind? Well—I never was mistrustful, nor inclined to see
the bad rather than the good in human nature; indeed, I have a friend who is so
exasperated by my persistent optimism that, when I enlarge upon my affection for
my kind, he invariably answers, "Wait till your turn comes!"
And yet, how much is gone already of the naif abandonment of
those boyish friendships, of that candid and ready admiration that, like a
well-adjusted spring, leapt forth at a touch, even when I heard a stranger
praised! Two or three disillusionments have sufficed to weaken that spring.
Already I begin to question my own enthusiasm, and a rising doubt silences the
warm, frank words of affection that once leapt involuntarily to my lips. I read
with dry eyes many a book that I used to cry over; when I read poetry my voice
trembles less often than it did; my laugh is no longer the sonorous irresistible
peal that once echoed through every corner of the house. When I look in the
glass—is it fancy or reality?—I perceive in my face something that was not there
six years ago, an indescribable look about the eyes, the brow, the mouth, that
is imperceptible to others, but that I see and am troubled by. And I remember
Leopardi's words, AT TWENTY-FIVE THE FLOWER OF YOUTH BEGINS TO FADE. What? Am I
beginning to fade? Am I on the downward slope? Have I travelled so far already?
Why, thousands younger than I have graduated since my day from the college of
Modena; I feel them pressing upon me, treading me down, urging me forward. The
thought terrifies me. Stop a moment—let me draw breath; why must one devour life
at this rate? I mean to take my stand here, motionless, firm as a rock; back
with you! But the ground is sloping and slippery, my feet slide, there is
nothing to catch hold of. Comrades, friends of my youth, come, let us hold fast
to each other; let us clasp each other tight; don't let them overthrow us; let
us stand fast! Ah, curse it, I feel the earth slipping away under me!
Well, well-those are the mournful imaginings of rainy days. When
the sun reappears, the soul grows clear like the sky, and there succeeds to my
brief discouragement a state of mind in which it appears to me so foolish and so
cowardly to fret because I see a change in my face, to mourn the careless
light-heartedness of my youth, to rebel against the laws of nature in a burst of
angry regret, that I am overcome with shame. I rouse myself, I scramble to my
feet, I seize hold of my faith, my hopes, my intentions, I set to work again
with a resolution full of joyful pride. At such moments I feel strong enough to
face the approach of my thirtieth year, to await with serenity disillusionments,
white hairs, sorrows, infirmities, and old age, my mind's eye fixed upon a
far-off point of light that seems to grow larger as I advance. I march on with
renewed courage; and to the noisy and drunken crew calling out to me to join
them, I answer, No!—and to the knights of the doleful countenance, who shake
their heads and say, "What if it were not true?" —I answer, without turning my
eyes from that distant light, No!—and to the grave, proud men who point to their
books and writings, and say with a smile of pity and derision, "It is all a
dream!"—I answer, with my eyes still upon that far-off light, and the great cry
of a man who sees a ghost in his path, No! Ah, at such moments, what matters it
that I must grow old and die? I toil, I wait, I believe!
Most of my classmates have undergone the same change. Their
faces have grown older, or sadder, as Leopardi would have us say; but with the
faces the souls have grown graver also. I have spoken of certain changes in my
friends that saddened me; but there are others which make me glad. Now and then
it has happened to me to come across some of the most careless, happy-go-lucky
of my classmates, and to be filled with wonder when I hear them speak of their
country, of their work, of the duties to be performed, of the future to be
prepared for. Owing, perhaps, to the many and great events of these last years,
their characters have been suddenly and completely transformed. Some ruling
motive—ambition, family cares, or the mere instinctive love of study—has
gathered together and focused their vague thoughts and scattered powers; has
brought about the habit of reflection, and turned their thoughts towards the
great problem of life; has given to all a purpose, and a path to travel, and
left them no time to mourn the vanished past. We have all entered upon our
second youth, with some disillusionments, with a little experience, and with the
conviction that happiness—what little of it is given to us on earth—is not
obtained by struggling, storming, and clamoring to heaven and earth WE MUST HAVE
IT!—but is slowly distilled from the inmost depths of the soul by the long
persistence of quiet toil. Humble hopes have succeeded to our splendid visions;
steady resolves, to our grand designs; and the dazzling vision of war, the
goddess promising glory and delirium, has been replaced by the image of Italy,
our mother, who promises only—and it is enough—the lofty consolation of having
loved and served her.
Our souls have emerged fortified from the sorrow of the lost
One day, surely, Italy will re-echo from end to end with the
great cry, "Come!"—and we shall spring to our feet, pale and proud, with the
answering shout, "We are ready!"
Then, in the streets of our cities, thronged with people, with
soldiers, horses, and wagons, amidst the clashing of arms and the blare of
trumpets, we classmates shall meet again. I shall see them once more, many of
them, perhaps, only for that short hour, some only for a moment. At night, in
the torchlit glare of a railway-station, we shall meet again, and greet each
other in silence, hand in hand and eye to eye. No shouting, no songs, no joyous
clamor, no vision of triumphal marches, no veiling of death's image in the light
hopefulness of reunion; we shall say but one word to each other—good-bye—and
that good-bye will be a promise, a vow; that good-bye will mean, "This time,
there will be no descending from the mountains; you and I, lad, will be left
lying on the summit."
And often, traversing a long expanse of time, I evoke the vision
of distant battle-fields on which the lot of Italy is decided. My fancy hastens
from valley to valley, from hill to hill; and at all the most difficult
passages, at all the posts of danger, I see one of my old classmates, a
gray-haired colonel or general, at the head of his regiment or of his brigade;
and I love to picture him at the moment when, attacked by a heavy force of the
enemy, he directs the defence.
The two sides have joined battle, and from a neighboring height,
he observes the fighting below. Poor friend! At that moment, perhaps, life and
honor hang in the balance; thirty years of study, of hopes, of sacrifices, are
about to be crowned with glory or scattered like a handful of dust down that
green slope at his feet—it all hangs on a thread. Pale and motionless he stands
there watching, the sabre trembling in his convulsive grasp. I am near him, my
eye is upon his face, I feel and see and tremble with him, I live his life.
Courage, friend! Your spirit has passed into your men, the fight
is theirs, never fear! That uncertain movement over there towards the right wing
is but the momentary confusion caused by some inequality of the ground; they are
not falling back, man. Listen, the shouts are louder, the firing grows heavier,
the last battalion has been thrown into action, all your men are fighting. Ah!
how his gaze hurries from one end of the line to the other, how pale he has
grown; life seems suspended. What are those distant voices? What flame rushes to
his face? What is this smile, this upward glance? Victory!—but, by God, man,
rein in your horse, look at me—here I am, your old classmate who holds out his
arms to you—and now off, down to the battlefield among your soldiers—and God be
He has put his charger to the gallop and disappeared.
And who knows how many of my friends may find themselves some
day, at some hour of their lives, face to face with such an ordeal? Who knows
how many an act of patriotism will make their names illustrious, how dear to the
people some of these names may become? What if some day I were to see the youth
who sat next to me in the class-room or at table, or slept beside me in the
dormitory, riding through the streets on a white horse, in a general's uniform,
covered with flowers and surrounded by rejoicing crowds? And who knows—may I not
knock at the door of some other, and throw my arms about the pale, sad figure,
grown ten years older in a few months; telling him that the popular verdict is
unjust, that there are many who know that he is not to blame for the disaster,
that sooner or later the excitement will subside, and the victims of the first
rash judgment be restored to honor; that his name is still dear and respected,
that he must not despond, that he must take heart and keep on hoping?
Ah, when I think of the fierce trials that life has in store for
many of my classmates, of all that they may do to benefit their country, of all
that their glory will cost them; when I, who have left the army, think of all
this, I feel that, not to be outdone by my old school-fellows in paying the debt
of gratitude that I owe my country, I ought to toil without ceasing, to spend my
nights in study, to treasure my youth and strength as a means of sustaining my
intellectual effort; that, in order to preach the beauty of goodness, I ought to
lead a blameless life; that I ought to keep alive that glowing affection, a
spark of which I may sometimes communicate to others; to study children, the
people, and the poor, and to write for their benefit; to let no ignoble word
fall from my pen, to sacrifice all my inclinations to the common welfare, never
to lose heart, never to strive for approval, to hope for nothing and long for
nothing but the day on which I may at last say to myself: I have done what I
could, my life has not been useless, I am satisfied.
And this is the thought that comes to me in closing: I should
like to have before me a lad of seventeen, well-bred and kindly, but ignorant of
the human heart, as we all are at that age; and putting a friendly hand on his
shoulder, I should like to say to him:
"Do you want to make sure of a peaceful and untroubled future?
Treat your friends as considerately as you would a woman, for, believe me, every
harsh word or ill-mannered act (however excusable, however long-forgotten) will
return some day to pain and trouble you. Recalling my friends after all these
years, I remember a quarrel that I had with one of them, a sharp word exchanged
with another, the resolve, maintained for many months, not to speak to a third.
Puerilities, if you like, and yet how glad I should be not to have to reproach
myself with them! And, though I feel sure that they have made no more impression
upon others than upon myself, how much I wish for an opportunity of convincing
myself of the fact, of dissipating any slight shadow that may have lingered in
the minds of my friends!
"When one's youth is almost past, and one thinks of the years
that have flown so quickly and of those that will fly faster yet, of the little
good one has done and the little there is still time to accomplish, the pride
that set one against one's friends seems so petty, ridiculous and contemptible a
sentiment, that one longs for the power of returning to the past, of renewing
the old discussions in a friendly tone, of extending a conciliatory hand in
place of every angry shrug, of seeking out the friends one has offended, looking
them in the face and saying, 'Shall bygones be bygones, old man?'"
Dear friends! If only because it was in your company that I
first wandered over my country, how could my thoughts cease to seek you out, my
heart to desire you?
When, from the ship's deck, I saw the gulf of Naples whiten in
the distance, and clasping my hands, laughing and thinking of my mother, I cried
out, It is a dream!—when, from the summit of the Noviziate pass my gaze for the
first time embraced Messina, the straits, the Appennines and the cape of
Spartivento, and I said to myself, half-sadly, Here Italy ends;—when, from the
top of Monte Croce, beyond the vast plain swarming with German regiments, I
first beheld the towers of Verona, and stretching out my arms, as though fearful
of their vanishing, cried out to them, Wait!—when, from the dike of Fusina, I
saw Venice, far-off, azure, fantastic, and cried with wet eyes, Heavenly!—when
Rome, surrounded by the smoke of our batteries, first burst upon me from the
height of Monterondo, and I shouted, She is ours!—always, everywhere, one of you
was beside me, to seize my arm and cry out: How beautiful is Italy!—always one
of you to mingle your tears, your laughter and your poetry with mine!
There is not a spot of Italy, not a joyful occurrence, nor
profound emotion, which is not associated in my mind with the clank of a sword
saying, 'I am here!'—and the hand-clasp of one of you, making me pause and
wonder what has become of such an one, what he is doing and thinking, and
whether he too remembers the good days we spent together.
It may fall to my lot to meet, in the future, many faithful,
dear and generous friends, whose smiling images I already picture to myself; but
beyond their throng I shall always see your plumes waving and the numbers
glittering on your caps; I shall always hurry towards you, crying out: Let us
talk of our college days, of our travels, of war, of soldiers, and of Italy!
We old classmates will many of us doubtless live to see the
twentieth century. Strange thought! I know, of course, that the transition from
nineteen hundred to nineteen hundred and one will seem as natural as that from
ninety-nine to a hundred, or from this year to next. And yet it seems to me that
to see the first dawn of the new century will be like reaching the summit of
some high mountain, and looking out over new countries and new horizons. I feel
as though, that morning, something unexpected and marvellous would be revealed
to us; as though there would be a sense almost of terror in finding one's self
face to face with it; a sense of having been hurled, by some unseen power, from
brink to brink of a measureless abyss.
Idle fancies! I know well enough what we shall be like when that
time comes. I see a sitting-room with a fireplace in the corner, or rather many
sitting-rooms with many fireplaces, and many old men seated, chin in hand, in
arm-chairs near the hearth. Near by stands a table with a lamp on it, surrounded
by a circle of children, or of nephews and nieces, who nudge each other and
point to their father or uncle, whispering, "Hush—he's asleep;"—and laughing at
the grotesque expression that sleep has given to our wrinkled faces.
And then perhaps we shall wake, and the children will surround
us, begging, as usual, for stories of "a long time ago," and asking with eager
curiosity, "Uncle, did you ever see General Garibaldi?"—"Father, were you ever
close to King Victor Emmanuel?"—"Grandpapa, did you ever hear Count Cavour
"Why, yes, child, many and many a time!"
"Oh, do tell us, what were they like? Did they look like their
portraits? How did they talk?"
And we shall tell them everything, and gradually, as we talk,
our voices will regain their old vigor, our cheeks will glow, and we shall watch
with delight the brightening of those eager eyes, the proud uplifting of those
innocent brows, and the impatient movement of the little hands, signing to us,
at each pause, to go on with the story.
And what will have befallen the world by that time? Will a
Victor Emmanuel III. rule over Italy? Will the Bersaglieri be at Trent? Will one
of our old friends, attached to the Ministry of the Interior, have been made
Governor of Tunis? Will France have passed through another series of empires,
republics, communes, and monarchies? Will the threatened invasion of northern
barbarians have taken place? Will England also have received her coup-de-grace?
Shall we have experimented with a Commune? Will our great poet have been born?
The Church have been reformed? Rome rebuilt? Will there be any armies in those
days? And we—what standing shall we have in our village or town? What shall we
have done? How shall we have lived?
Ah, whatever has happened, whatever fate awaits us, if we have
worked, and loved, and believed—then, when we sit at sunset in the big arm-chair
on the terrace, and think of our families, of our friends, of the mountains, of
the carnivals, of the Tyrrhenian islands that we dreamed of in our college days,
we shall be sad, indeed, at the thought of parting before long from such dear
souls and from so beautiful a country; but our faces will brighten with a smile
serene and quiet as the dawn of a new youth, and tempering the bitterness of
farewell with the tacit pledge of reunion.