The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Conscript Mother, by Robert Herrick

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Title: The Conscript Mother

Author: Robert Herrick

Release Date: January 21, 2022 [eBook #67218]

Language: English

Produced by: D A Alexander and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at (This file was produced from images generously made available by University of California libraries)




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Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews

The Perfect Tribute
The Lifted Bandage
The Courage of the Commonplace
The Counsel Assigned

Maltbie Davenport Babcock

The Success of Defeat

Katherine Holland Brown

The Messenger

Richard Harding Davis

The Consul
The Boy Scout

Marion Harland

Looking Westward

Robert Herrick

The Master of the Inn
The Conscript Mother

Frederick Landis

The Angel of Lonesome Hill

Francis E. Leupp

A Day with Father

Alice Duer Miller


Thomas Nelson Page

The Stranger’s Pew

Robert Louis Stevenson

A Christmas Sermon
Prayers Written at Vailima
Æs Triplex
Father Damien

Isobel Strong

Robert Louis Stevenson

Henry van Dyke

School of Life
The Spirit of Christmas
The Sad Shepherd
The First Christmas Tree

“Five minutes at the most I had with him there by the side
of the highroad....”

“Five minutes at the most I had with him there by the side
of the highroad....” [Page 95



Robert Herrick

Author of “The Master of the Inn”


Charles Scribner’s Sons


Copyright, 1916, by Charles Scribner’s Sons

Published April, 1916


[Pg 1]



WHEN I met the signora at the tram station that May morning she was evidently troubled about something which was only partly explained by her murmured excuse, “a sleepless night.” We were to cross the Campagna to one of the little towns in the Albanian hills, where young Maironi was temporarily stationed with his regiment. If we had good luck and happened upon an indulgent officer, the mother might get sight of her boy for a few minutes. All the way over [Pg 2]the flowering Campagna, with the blue hills swimming on the horizon before us, the signora was unusually taciturn, seemingly indifferent to the beauty of the day, and the wonderful charm of the Italian spring, to which she was always so lyrically responsive on our excursions. When a great dirigible rose into the blue air above our heads, like a huge silver fish, my companion gave a slight start, and I divined what was in her mind—the imminence of war, which had been threatening to engulf Italy for many months. It was that fear which had destroyed her customary gayety, the indomitable cheerfulness of the true Latin mother that she was.

“It is coming,” she sighed, glancing up at the dirigible. “It will not [Pg 3]be long now before we shall know—only a few days.”

And to the ignorant optimism of my protest she smiled sadly, with the fatalism that women acquire in countries of conscription. It was futile to combat with mere theory and logic this conviction of a mother’s heart. Probably the signora had overheard some significant word which to her sensitive intelligence was more real, more positive than all the subtle reasonings at the Consulta. The sphinx-like silence of ministers and diplomats had not been broken: there was nothing new in the “situation.” The newspapers were as wordily empty of fact as ever. And yet this morning for the first time Signora Maironi seemed convinced against her will that war was inevitable.

[Pg 4]

These last days there had been a similar change in the mood of the Italian public, not to be fully explained by any of the rumors flying about Rome, by the sudden exodus of Germans and Austrians, by anything other than that mysterious sixth sense which enables humanity, like wild animals, to apprehend unknown dangers. Those whose lives and happiness are at stake seem to divine before the blow falls what is about to happen.... For the first time I began to believe that Italy might really plunge into the deep gulf at which her people had so long gazed in fascinated suspense. There are secret signs in a country like Italy, where much is hidden from the stranger. Signora Maironi knew. She pointed to some soldiers waiting [Pg 5]at a station and observed: “They have their marching-kit, and they are going north!”

We talked of other things while the tram crept far up above the Campagna and slowly circled the green hillsides, until we got down at the dirty little gray town of Genzano, where Enrico Maironi’s regiment had been sent. There were no barracks. The soldiers were quartered here and there in old stone buildings. We could see their boyish faces at the windows and the gray uniform of the granatieri in the courtyards. It seemed a hopeless task to find the signora’s boy, until a young lieutenant to whom the mother appealed offered to accompany us in our search. He explained that the [Pg 6]soldiers had to be kept shut up in their quarters because they were stoned by the inhabitants when they appeared on the streets. They were a tough lot up here in the hills, he said, and they were against the war. That was why, I gathered, the grenadiers had been sent thither from Rome, to suppress all “demonstrations” that might embarrass the government at this moment.

The citizens of Genzano certainly looked ugly. They were dirty and poor, and scowled at the young officer. The little town, for all its heavenly situation, seemed dreary and sad. The word “socialismo” scrawled on the stone walls had been half erased by the hand of authority. War meant to these people more taxes and fewer men to work the fields.... The [Pg 7]young lieutenant liked to air his French; smoking one of the few good cigars I had left, he talked freely while we waited for Enrico to emerge from the monastery where we finally located him. It would be war, of course, he said. There was no other way. Before it might have been doubtful, but now that the Germans had been found over in Tripoli and German guns, too, what could one do? Evidently the lieutenant welcomed almost anything that would take the grenadiers from Genzano!

Then Enrico came running out of the great gate, as nice a looking lad of nineteen as one could find anywhere, even in his soiled and mussed uniform, and Enrico had no false shame about embracing his mother in the presence of his officer and of [Pg 8]the comrades who were looking down on us enviously from the windows of the old monastery. The lieutenant gave the boy three hours’ liberty to spend with us and, saluting politely, went back to the post.

With Enrico between us we wandered up the hill toward the green lake in the bowl of the ancient crater. Signora Maironi kept tight hold of her lad, purring over him in French and Italian—the more intimate things in Italian—turning as mothers will from endearment to gentle scolding. Why did he not keep himself tidier? Surely he had the needles and thread his sister Bianca had given him the last time he was at home. And how was the ear? Had he carried out the doctor’s directions? Which it is needless [Pg 9]to say Enrico had not. The signora explained to me that the boy was in danger of losing the hearing of one ear because of the careless treatment the regimental doctor had given him when he had a cold. She did not like to complain of the military authorities: of course they could not bother with every little trouble a soldier had in a time like this, but the loss of his hearing would be a serious handicap to the boy in earning his living....

It seemed that Enrico had not yet breakfasted, and, although it was only eleven, I insisted on putting forward the movable feast of continental breakfast, and we ordered our colazione served in the empty garden of the little inn above the lake. While Enrico ate and discussed [Pg 10]with me the prospects of war, the signora looked the boy all over again, feeling his shoulders beneath the loose uniform to see whether he had lost flesh after the thirty-mile march from Rome under a hot sun. It was much as an American mother might examine her offspring after his first week at boarding-school, only more intense. And Enrico was very much like a clean, hearty, lovable schoolboy, delighted to be let out from authority and to talk like a man with another man. He was confident Italy would be in the war—oh, very sure! And he nodded his head at me importantly. His captain was a capital fellow, really like a father to the men, and the captain had told them—but he pulled himself up suddenly. After all, I [Pg 11]was a foreigner, and must not hear what the captain had said. But he let me know proudly that his regiment the granatieri of Sardinia, had received the promise that they would be among the first to go to the front. The mother’s fond eyes contracted slightly with pain.

After our breakfast Enrico took me into the garden of the old monastery where other youthful grenadiers were loafing on the grass under the trees or writing letters on the rough table among the remains of food. Some of the squad had gone to the lake for a swim; I could hear their shouts and laughter far below. Presently the signora, who had been barred at the gate by the old Franciscan, hurried down the shady path.

[Pg 12]

“I told him,” she explained, “that he could just look the other way and avoid sin. Then I slipped through the door!”

So with her hand on her recaptured boy we strolled through the old gardens as far as the stable where the soldiers slept. The floor was littered with straw, which, with an overcoat, Enrico assured me, made a capital bed. The food was good enough. They got four cents a day, which did not go far to buy cigarettes and postage-stamps, but they would be paid ten cents a day when they were at war!...

At last we turned into the highroad arched with old trees that led down to the tramway. Enrico’s leave was nearly over. All the glory of the spring day poured forth from the [Pg 13]flowering hedges, where bees hummed and birds sang. Enrico gathered a great bunch of yellow heather, which his mother wanted to take home. “Little Bianca will like it so much when she hears her brother picked it,” she explained. “Bianca thinks he is a hero already, the dear!”

When we reached the car-tracks we sat on a mossy wall and chatted. In a field across the road an old gray mare stood looking steadfastly at her small foal, which was asleep in the high grass at her feet. The old mare stood patiently for many minutes without once cropping a bit of grass, lowering her head occasionally to sniff at the little colt. Her attitude of absorbed contemplation, of perfect satisfaction in her ungainly offspring made me laugh—it was so [Pg 14]exactly like the signora’s. At last the little fellow woke, got somehow on his long legs, and shaking a scrubby tail went gambolling off down the pasture, enjoying his coltish world. The old mare followed close behind with eyes only for him.

“Look at him!” the signora exclaimed pointing to the ridiculous foal. “How nice he is! Oh, how beautiful youth always is!”

She looked up admiringly at her tall, handsome Enrico, who had just brought her another bunch of heather. The birds were singing like mad in the fields; some peasants passed with their laden donkeys; I smoked contemplatively, while mother and son talked family gossip and the signora went all over her boy again for the fourth time.... [Pg 15]Yes, youth is beautiful, surely, but there seemed something horribly pathetic about it all in spite of the loveliness of the May morning.

The three hours came to an end. Enrico rose and saluted me formally. He was so glad to have seen me; I was very good to bring his mother all the way from Rome; and he and the comrades would much enjoy my excellent cigarettes. “A riverderci!” Then he turned to his mother and without any self-consciousness bent to her open arms....

When the signora joined me farther down the road she was clear-eyed but sombre.

“Can you understand,” she said softly, “how when I have him in my arms and think of all I have [Pg 16]done for him, his education, his long sickness, all, all—and what he means to me and his father and little Bianca—and then I think how in one moment it may all be over for always, all that precious life—O God what are women made for!... We shall have to hurry, my friend, to get to the station.”

I glanced back once more at the slim figure just going around the bend of the road at a run, so as not to exceed his leave—a mere boy and such a nice boy, with his brilliant, eager eyes, so healthy and clean and joyous, so affectionate, so completely what any mother would adore. And he might be going “up north” any day now to fight the Austrians.

“Signora,” I asked, “do you believe in war?”

[Pg 17]

“They all say this war has to be,” she said dully. “Oh, I don’t know!... It is a hard world to understand!... I try to remember that I am only one of hundreds of thousands of Italian women.... I hope I shall see him once more before they take him away. My God!”

That afternoon the expert who had been sent to Rome by a foreign newspaper to watch the critical situation carefully put down his empty teacup and pronounced his verdict:

“Yes, this time it looks to me really like war. They have gone too far to draw back. Some of them think they are likely to get a good deal out of the war with a small sacrifice—everybody likes a bargain, you know!... Then General Cadorna, they [Pg 18]say, is a very ambitious man, and this is his chance. A successful campaign would make him.... But I don’t know. It would be quite a risk, quite a risk.”

Yes, I thought, quite a risk for the conscript mothers!


The politician came to Rome and delivered his prudent advice, and the quiescent people began to growl. The ministers resigned: the public growled more loudly.... During the turbulent week that followed, while Italy still hesitated, I saw Enrico Maironi a number of times. Indeed, his frank young face with the sparkling black eyes is mingled with all my memories of those tense [Pg 19]days when the streets of Rome were vocal with passionate crowds, when soldiers barred the thoroughfares, and no one knew whether there would be war with Austria or revolution.

One night, having been turned out of the Café Nazionale when the troops cleared the Corso of the mob that threatened the Austrian embassy, I wandered through the agitated city until I found myself in the quarter where the Maironis lived, and called at their little home to hear if they had had news of the boy. There was light in the dining-room, though it was long past the hour when even the irresponsible Maironis took their irregular dinner. As I entered I could see in the light of the single candle three faces intently [Pg 20]focused on a fourth—Enrico’s, with a preoccupation that my arrival scarcely disturbed. They made me sit down and hospitably opened a fresh bottle of wine. The boy had just arrived unexpectedly, his regiment having been recalled to Rome that afternoon. He was travel-stained, with a button off his military coat which his sister was sewing on while he ate. He looked tired but excited, and his brilliant eyes lighted with welcome as he accepted one of my Turkish cigarettes with the air of a young worldling and observed:

“You see, it is coming—sooner than we expected!”

There was a note of boyish triumph in his voice as he went on to explain again for my benefit how his captain—a really good fellow [Pg 21]though a bit severe in little things—had let him off for the evening to see his family. He spoke of his officer exactly as my own boy might speak of some approved schoolmaster. Signor Maironi, who in his post at the war office heard things before they got into the street, looked very grave and said little.

“You are glad to have him back in Rome, at any rate!” I said to the signora.

She shrugged her shoulders expressively.

“Rome is the first step on a long journey,” she replied sombrely.

The silent tensity of the father’s gaze, fastened on his boy, became unbearable. I followed the signora, who had strolled through the open door to the little terrace and stood [Pg 22]looking blankly into the night. Far away, somewhere in the city, rose a clamor of shouting people, and swift footsteps hurried past in the street.

“It will kill his father, if anything happens to him!” she said slowly, as if she knew herself to be the stronger. “You see he chose the grenadiers for Enrico because that regiment almost never leaves Rome: it stays with the King. And now the King is going to the front, they say—it will be the first of all!”

“I see!”

“To-night may be his last time at home.”

“Perhaps,” I said, seeking for the futile crumb of comfort, “they will take Giolitti’s advice, and there will be no war.”

Enrico, who had followed us from [Pg 23]the dining-room, caught the remark and cried with youthful conviction: “That Giolitti is a traitor—he has been bought by the Germans!”

“Giolitti!” little Bianca echoed scornfully, arching her black brows. Evidently the politician had lost his popularity among the youth of Italy. Within the dining-room I could see the father sitting alone beside the candle, his face buried in his hands. Bianca caressed her brother’s shoulder with her cheeks.

“I am going, too!” she said to me with a little smile. “I shall join the Red Cross—I begin my training to-morrow, eh, mamma mia?” And she threw a glance of childish defiance at the signora.

“Little Bianca is growing up fast!” I laughed.

[Pg 24]

“They take them all except the cripples,” the signora commented bitterly, “even the girls!”

“But I am a woman,” Bianca protested, drawing away from Enrico and raising her pretty head. “I shall get the hospital training and go up north, too—to be near ’Rico.”

Something surely had come to the youth of this country when girls like Bianca Maironi spoke with such assurance of going forth from the home into the unknown.

Sicuro!” She nodded her head to emphasize what I suspected had been a moot point between mother and daughter. The signora looked inscrutably at the girl for a little while, then said quietly: “It’s ’most ten, Enrico.”

The boy unclasped Bianca’s tight [Pg 25]little hands, kissed his mother and father, gave me the military salute ... and we could hear him running fast down the street. The signora blew out the sputtering candle and closed the door.

“I am going, too!” Bianca exclaimed.

The poet was coming to Rome. After the politician, close on his heels, the poet, fresh from his triumph at the celebration of Quarto, where with his flaming allegory he had stirred the youth of Italy to their depths! A few henchmen, waiting for the leader’s word, had met Giolitti; all Rome, it seemed to me, was turning out to greet the poet. They had poured into the great square before the terminus [Pg 26]station from every quarter. The packed throng reached from the dark walls of the ancient baths around the splashing fountain, into the radiating avenues, and up to the portico of the station itself, which was black with human figures. It was a quiet, orderly, well-dressed crowd that swayed back and forth, waiting patiently hour after hour—the train was very late—to see the poet’s face, to hear, perhaps, his word of courage for which it thirsted.

There were soldiers everywhere, as usual. I looked in vain for the familiar uniform of the granatieri, but the gray-coated boyish figures seemed all alike. In the midst of the press I saw the signora and Bianca, whose eyes were also wandering after the soldiers.

[Pg 27]

“You came to welcome D’Annunzio?” I queried, knowing the good woman’s prejudices.

“Him!” the signora retorted with curling lip. “Bianca brought me.”

“Yes, we have been to the Red Cross,” the girl flashed.

“Rome welcomes the poet as though he were royalty,” I remarked, standing on tiptoe to sweep with a glance the immense crowd.

He will not go to the front—he will just talk!”

“Enrico is here somewhere,” Bianca explained. “They told us so at the barracks. We have looked all about and mamma has asked so many officers. We haven’t seen him since that first night. He has been on duty all day in the streets, doing pichett ’armato, ... I wish Giolitti [Pg 28]would go back home. If he doesn’t go soon, he’ll find out!”

Her white teeth came together grimly, and she made a significant little gesture with her hand.

“Where’s mamma?”

The signora had caught sight of another promising uniform and was talking with the kindly officer who wore it.

“His company is inside the station,” she explained when she rejoined us, “and we can never get in there!”

She would have left if Bianca had not restrained her. The girl wanted to see the poet. Presently the night began to fall, the still odorous May night of Rome. The big arc-lamps shone down upon the crowded faces. Suddenly there was a forward swaying, [Pg 29]shouts and cheers from the station. A little man’s figure was being carried above the eager crowd. Then a motor bellowed for free passage through the human mass. A wave of song burst from thousands of throats, Mameli’s “L’Inno.” A little gray face passed swiftly. The poet had come and gone.

“Come!” Bianca exclaimed, taking my hand firmly and pulling the signora on the other side. And she hurried us on with the streaming crowd through lighted streets toward the Pincian hill, in the wake of the poet’s car. The crowd had melted from about the station and was pouring into the Via Veneto. About the little fountain of the Tritone it had massed again, but persistent Bianca squirmed through the yielding figures, [Pg 30]dragging us with her until we were wedged tight in the mass nearly opposite the Queen Mother’s palace.

The vast multitude that reached into the shadow of the night were cheering and singing. Their shouts and songs must have reached even the ears of the German ambassador at the Villa Malta a few blocks away. The signora had forgotten her grenadier, her dislike of the poet, and for the moment was caught up in the emotion of the crowd. Bianca was singing the familiar hymn.... Suddenly there was a hush; light fell upon the upturned faces from an opened window on a balcony in the Hotel Regina. The poet stood forth in the band of yellow light and looked down upon the dense throng [Pg 31]beneath. In the stillness his words began to fall, very slowly, very clearly, as if each was a graven message for his people. And the Roman youth all about me swayed and sighed, seizing each colored word, divining its heroic symbol, drinking thirstily the ardor of the poet.

“The light has not wholly gone from the Aurelian wall ... fifty years ago at this hour the leader of the Thousand and his heroic company.... We will not be a museum, an inn, a water-color in Prussian blue!...”

The double line of soldiers behind us had forgotten their formation and were pressing forward to catch each word. The signora was gazing at the man with fascinated eyes. Bianca’s little hand tightened unconsciously [Pg 32]on mine, and her lips parted in a smile. The poet’s words were falling into her eager heart. He was speaking for her, for all the ardent youth of Italy:

Viva! Viva Roma senza onta! Viva la grande é pura Italia!...

The voice ceased: for one moment there was complete silence; then a cheer that was half a sigh broke from the crowd. But the blade of light faded, the poet was gone. When at last I got the Maironis into a cab there were bright tears in Bianca’s eyes and the mother’s face was troubled.

“Perhaps it has to be,” the signora murmured.

“Of course!” Bianca echoed sharply, raising her little head defiantly. “What else could Italy do?”

[Pg 33]

The streets were rapidly emptying. Some companies of infantry that had been policing the city all day marched wearily past. Bianca jumped up quickly.

“They’re granatieri! And there’s ’Rico’s captain!”

The sympathetic cab-driver pulled up his horse while the soldiers tramped by.

“’Rico, ’Rico!” the girl called softly to the soldiers.

A hand went up, and the boy gave us a luminous smile as his file swung past.

“I have seen him again!” the mother said hungrily.

The poet spoke the next day, and the next, to the restless people who waited hour after hour in the street [Pg 34]before his hotel. Having found its voice—a voice that revealed its inner heart—young Italy clamored for action. The fret of Rome grew louder hourly; soldiers cordoned the main streets, while Giolitti waited, the ambassadors flitted back and forth to the Consulta, the King took counsel with his advisers. I looked for young Maironi’s face among the lines of troops barring passage through the streets. It seemed as if he might be called at any moment to do his soldier’s duty here in Rome!

All day long and half the night the cavalry stood motionless before the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, ready to clear away the mobs that prowled about the corner of Via Cavour, where Giolitti lived. Once [Pg 35]they charged. It was the night the poet appeared at the Costanzi Theatre. The narrow street was full of shouting people as I drove to the theatre with the Maironis. Suddenly there was the ugly sound of horses’ feet on concrete walks, shrieks and wild rushes for safety in doorways and alleys. As our cab whisked safely around a corner the cavalry came dashing past, their hairy plumes streaming out from the metal helmets, their ugly swords high in the air. The signora’s face paled. Perhaps she was thinking, as I was, that there might be one thing worse than war with Austria, and that would be revolution. Bianca exclaimed scornfully:

“They had better be fighting Italy’s enemies!”

[Pg 36]

“They are not yet enemies,” I ventured.

She gave a little shrug of her shoulders.

“They will be to-morrow!”

The fever within the vast auditorium seemed to bear out the girl’s words. Here was no “rabble of the piazza,” to repeat the German ambassador’s sneer, but well-to-do Roman citizens. For three hours they shouted their hatred of Teuton, sang patriotic hymns, cried defiance of the politician Giolitti, who would keep the nation safely bound in its old alliance. “Fuori i barbari!... Giolitti traditore!” One grizzled Roman hurled in my ears: “I’ll drink his blood, the traitor!”

When the little poet entered his flower-wreathed box every one [Pg 37]cheered and waved to him. He stood looking down on the passionate human sea beneath him, then slowly plucked the red flowers from a great bunch of carnations that some one handed him and threw them one by one far out into the cheering throng. One floated downward straight into Bianca’s eager hand. She snatched it, kissed the flower, and looked upward into the poet’s smiling face....

He recited the suppressed stanzas of a war-poem, the slow, rhythmic lines falling like the red flowers into eager hearts. The signora was standing on her seat beside Bianca, clasping her arm, and tears gathered slowly in her large, wistful eyes, tears of pride and sadness.... Out in the still night once more from that storm of passion we walked on [Pg 38]silently through empty streets. “He believes it—he is right,” the signora sighed. “Italy also must do her part!”

“Of course,” Bianca said quickly, “and she will!... See there!”

The girl pointed to a heap of stones freshly upturned in the street. It was the first barricade.

“Our soldiers must not fight each other,” she said gravely, and glanced again over her shoulder at the barricade....

In front of Santa Maria the tired cavalry sat their horses, and a double line of infantry was drawn across the Via Cavour before the Giolitti home. The boys were slouching over their rifles; evidently, whatever play there had been in this picket duty had gone out of it. Suddenly Bianca and [Pg 39]her mother ran down the line. “Maironi, Maironi!” I heard some of the soldiers calling softly, and there was a shuffle in the ranks. Enrico was shoved forward to the front in comradely fashion. Mother and sister chatted with the boy, and presently Bianca came dashing back.

“They haven’t had anything to eat all day!”

We found a café still open and loaded ourselves with rolls, chocolate, and cigarettes, which Bianca distributed to the weary soldiers while the young lieutenant tactfully strolled to the other end of the line.

“To think of keeping them here all day without food!” the signora grumbled as we turned away. The boys, shoving their gifts into pockets and mouths, straightened up as their [Pg 40]officer came back down the line. “They might as well be at war,” the signora continued.

When I returned to my hotel through the silent streets the granatieri had gone from their post, but the horsemen were still sitting their sleeping mounts before the old church. Their vigil would be all night.

The nation’s crisis had come and passed. We did not know it, but it was marked by those little piles of stones in the Via Viminale. The disturber Giolitti had fled overnight at the invitation of the government, which now knew itself to be strong enough to do what it would. And thereafter events moved more swiftly. Rome was once more calm. The [Pg 41]people gathered again by the hundreds of thousands, but peacefully, in the spirit of concord, in the Piazza del Popolo and in the Campidoglio. Their will had prevailed, they had found themselves. A great need of reconciliation, of union of all spirits, was expressed in these meetings, under the soft spring sky, in spots consecrated by ancient memories of greatness.

In the crowd that filled the little piazza of the Campidoglio to the brim and ran down into the old lanes that led to the Forum and the city I met Signora Maironi once more. She had not come thither to find her boy—soldiers were no longer needed to keep the Romans from violence. She came in the hungry need to fill her heart with belief and [Pg 42]confidence, to strengthen herself for sacrifice.

“We haven’t seen Enrico since that night on the streets. He is kept ready in the barracks unless he has been sent away already.... But he said he would let us know!”

A procession with the flags of Italy and of the desired provinces mounted the long flight of steps above us, and the syndic of Rome, the Prince Colonna, came out from the open door and fronted the mass of citizens.

“He is going, and his sons!” the signora whispered. “He is a fine man!” The prince looked gravely over the upturned faces as if he would speak; then refrained, as though the moment were too solemn for further words. He stood there [Pg 43]looking singularly like the grave portraits of Roman fathers in the museum near by, strong, stern, resolved. The evening breeze lifted the cluster of flags and waved them vigorously. Little fleecy clouds floated in the blue sky above the Aracœli Church. There were no shouts, no songs. These were men and women from the working classes of the neighboring quarter of old Rome who were giving their sons and husbands to the nation, and felt the solemnity of the occasion.

“Let us go,” the Prince Colonna said solemnly, “to the Quirinal to meet our King.”

As we turned down the hill we could see the long black stream already flowing through the narrow passages out into the square before [Pg 44]the great marble monument. It was a silent, spontaneous march of the people to their leader. The blooming roses in the windows and on the terraces above gayly flamed against the dark walls of the old houses along the route. But the hurrying crowd did not look up. Its mood was sternly serious. It did not turn aside as we neared the palace of the enemy’s ambassador. The time was past for such childish demonstrations.

“If only we might go instead, we older ones,” the signora said sadly, “not the children.... Life means so much more to them!”

We reached the Quirinal hill as the setting sun flooded all Rome from the ridge of the Janiculum. The piazza was already crowded and at the [Pg 45]Consulta opposite the royal palace, where, even at this eleventh hour, the ambassadors were vainly offering last inducements, favored spectators filled the windows. It was a peculiarly quiet, solemn scene. No speeches, no cheers, no songs. It seemed as if the signora’s last words were in every mind. “They say,” she remarked sadly, “that it will take a great many lives to carry those strong mountain positions, many thousands each month, thousands and thousands of boys.... All those mothers!”

At that moment the window on the balcony above the entrance to the palace was flung open, and two lackeys brought out a red cloth which they hung over the stone balustrade. Then the King and Queen, [Pg 46]followed by the little prince and his sister, stepped forth and stood above us, looking down into the crowded faces. The King bowed his head to the cheers that greeted him from his people, but his serious face did not relax. He looked worn, old. Perhaps he, too, was thinking of those thousands of lives that must be spent each month to unlock the Alpine passes which for forty years Austria had been fortifying!... He bowed again in response to the hearty cries of Viva il Re! The Queen bowed. The little black-haired prince by his father’s side looked steadily down into the faces. He, too, seemed to understand what it meant—that these days his father’s throne had been put into the stake for which Italy was to fight, that his people [Pg 47]had cast all on the throw of this war. No smile, no boyish elation, relieved the serious little face.

“Why does he not speak?” the signora murmured, as if her aching heart demanded a word of courage from her King.

“It is not yet the time,” I suggested, nodding to the Consulta.

The King cried, “Viva Italia!” then withdrew from the balcony with his family.

Viva Italia!” It was a prayer, a hope, spoken from the heart, and it was received silently by the throng. Yes, might the God of battles preserve Italy, all the beauty and the glory that the dying sun was bathing in its golden flood!...

Signora Maironi hurried through the crowded street at a nervous pace.

[Pg 48]

“I do not like to be long away from home,” she explained. “’Rico may come and go for the last time while I am out.”

We had no sooner entered the door of the house than the mother said: “Yes, he’s here!”

The boy was sitting in the little dining-room, drinking a glass of wine, his father on one side, his sister on the other. He seemed much excited.

“We leave in the morning!” he said.

There was an exultant ring in his voice, a flash in his black eyes.

“Where for?” I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders.

“They never tell—to the front somewhere!... See my stripes. They have made me bicyclist for [Pg 49]the battalion. I’ve got a machine to ride now. I shall carry orders, you know!”

His laugh was broken by a cough.

“Ugh, this nasty cold—that comes from Messer Giolitti—too much night-work—no more of that! The rat!”

I glanced at the signora.

“Have you all his things ready, Bianca?” she asked calmly. “The cheese and the cake and his clothes?”

“Everything,” the little girl replied quickly. “’Rico says we can’t come to see him off.”

The mother looked inquiringly at the boy.

“It’s no use trying. Nobody knows where or when,” he explained. “They don’t want a lot of mothers and sisters [Pg 50]fussing over the men,” he added teasingly.

Little Bianca told me how she and her mother slipped past all the sentinels at the station the next morning and ran along the embankment outside the railroad yards where the long line of cattle-cars packed with soldiers was waiting.

“They know us pretty well in the regiment by this time,” she laughed. “I heard them say as we ran along the cars looking for ’Rico, ‘See! There’s Maironi’s mother and the little Maironi! Of course, they would come somehow!’... We gave them the roses you brought yesterday—you don’t mind? They loved them so—and said such nice things.” Bianca paused to laugh and blush at [Pg 51]the pretty speeches which the soldiers had made, then ran on: “Poor boys, they’ll soon be where they can’t get flowers and cakes.... Then we found ’Rico at last and gave him the things just as the train started. He was so glad to see us! Poor ’Rico had such a cough, and he looked quite badly; he doesn’t know how to take care of himself. Mother is always scolding him for being so careless—boys are all like that, you know!... There was such a noise! We ran along beside the train, oh, a long way, until we came to a deep ditch—we couldn’t jump that! And they cheered us, all the soldiers in the cars; they looked so queer, jammed in the cattle-cars with the straw, just like the horses. Enrico’s captain gave us a salute, too. I wonder where [Pg 52]they are now.” She paused in her rapid talk for a sombre moment, then began excitedly: “Don’t you want to see my Red Cross dress? It’s so pretty! I have just got it.”

She ran up-stairs to put on her nurse’s uniform; presently the signora came into the room. She was dressed all in black and her face was very pale. She nodded and spoke in a dull, lifeless voice.

“Bianca told you? He wanted me to thank you for the cigarettes. He was not very well—he was suffering, I could see that.”

“Nothing worse than a cold,” I suggested.

“I must see him again!” she cried suddenly, passionately, “just once, once more—before—” Her voice died out in a whisper. Bianca, who had [Pg 53]come back in her little white dress, took up the signora’s unfinished sentence with a frown:

“Of course, we shall see him again, mamma! Didn’t he promise to write us where they sent him?” She turned to me, impetuous, demanding, true little woman of her race. “You know, I shall go up north, too, to one of the hospitals, and mamma will go with me. Then we’ll find Enrico. Won’t we, mother?”

But the signora’s miserable eyes seemed far away, as if they were following that slowly moving train of cattle-cars packed with boyish faces. She fingered unseeingly the arm of Bianca’s dress with its cross of blood-red. At last, with a long sigh, she brought herself back to the present. Was I ready for an [Pg 54]Italian lesson? We might as well lose no more time. She patted Bianca and pushed her gently away. “Run along and take off that terrible dress!” she said irritably. Bianca, with a little, discontented gesture and appreciative pat to the folds of her neat costume, left us alone. “She thinks of nothing but this war!” the signora exclaimed. “The girls are as bad as the men!”

“Is it not quite natural?”

We began on the verbs, but the signora’s mind, usually so vivacious, was not on the lesson. It was still with that slow troop-train on its way to the frontier.

“You are too tired,” I suggested.

“No, but I can’t stay in here—let us go into the city.”

Rome seemed curiously lifeless and [Pg 55]dead after all the passionate movement of the past week. It was empty, too. All the troops that had filled the seething streets had departed overnight, and the turbulent citizens had vanished. The city, like the heart of Italy, was in suspense, waiting for the final word which meant war.

“You will not stay here much longer, I suppose?” the signora questioned.

“I suppose not.” Life seemed to have flowed out of this imperial Rome, with all its loveliness, in the wake of the troop-trains.

“If I could only go, too!... If we knew where he was to be!”

“You will know—and you will follow with Bianca.”

“I would go into battle itself to [Pg 56]see ’Rico once more!” the poor woman moaned.

“There will be lots of time yet before the battles begin,” I replied with lying comfort.

“You think so!... War is very terrible for those who have to stay behind.”


In obedience to Signora Maironi’s mysterious telegram, I waited outside the railroad station in Venice for the arrival of the night express from Rome, which was very late. The previous day I had taken the precaution to attach to me old Giuseppe, one of the two boatmen now left at the traghetto near my hotel, all the younger men having been called out. There were few forestieri, [Pg 57]and Giuseppe was thankful to have a real signore, whom he faithfully protected from the suspicious and hostile glances of the Venetians. Every stranger, I found, had become an Austrian spy! Giuseppe was now busily tidying up his ancient gondola, exchanging jokes with the soldiers in the laden barks which passed along the canal. Occasionally a fast motor-boat threw up a long wave as it dashed by on an errand with some officer in the stern. All Venice, relieved of tourists, was bustling with soldiers and sailors. Gray torpedo-boats lay about the piazzetta, and Red Cross flags waved from empty palaces. Yet there was no war.

“Giuseppe,” I asked, “do you think there will be any war?”

[Pg 58]

Sicuro!” the old man replied, straightening himself and pointing significantly with his thumb to a passing bargeful of soldiers. “They are on the way.”


“Who knows?... The mountains,” and he indicated the north with his head. “I have two sons—they have gone.”

“And Italy will win?” I continued idly.

Sicuro!” came the reply reassuringly, “ma!

And in that expressive “ma” I might read all the anxiety, the fears of Italy.

At last the signora came, dressed in the same black she had worn the day Enrico had left Rome. In her hand she carried a little bag. She [Pg 59]gave me a timid smile as Giuseppe settled her under the felza.

“You were surprised at the telegram?”

“A little,” I confessed.

“I had to come,” she sighed as the gondola pushed into the narrow, tortuous canal that led back to the piazza.

“What news from Enrico?”

“Nothing! Not a word!... That’s why I came.”

“It’s only been a week—the mails are slow,” I suggested.

“I could stand it no longer. You will think me mad. I mean to find him!”

“But how—-where?” I demanded in bewilderment.

“That’s what I must discover here.”

“In Venice!”

“Somebody must know! Oh, I see [Pg 60]what you think—I am out of my head.... Perhaps I am! Sitting there in the house day after day thinking, thinking—and the poor boy was so miserable that last morning—he was too sick.”

“Surely you must have some plan?”

“An officer on the train last night—a major going up there to join his regiment—he was very kind to me, lent me his coat to keep me warm, it was so cold. He is a well-known doctor in Rome. Here, I have his card in my sack somewhere.... He says it’s a matter of hours now before they begin.”

“Well,” I said, in a pause, hoping to bring the signora’s mind back to the starting-point. “What has the major to do with your finding Enrico?”

[Pg 61]

“He told me to inquire at Mestre or here where Enrico’s train had been sent.... They wouldn’t tell me anything at the railroad station in Mestre. So I must find out here,” she ended inconsequentially.

“Here in Venice? But they won’t tell you a thing even if they know. You had a better chance in Rome.”

She shook her head.

“No, they wouldn’t tell his father—he tried to find out.”

“And you couldn’t get north of Mestre. It’s all military zone now, you know.”

“Is it?” she answered vacantly. “I had to come,” she repeated like a child, “and I feel better already—I’m so much nearer him.... Don’t you really think I can get to see him for a few minutes?”

[Pg 62]

I spent a futile hour, while Giuseppe pushed us languidly through the gray lagoons, trying to convince Signora Maironi that her search for the boy was worse than useless, might easily land her in prison should she attempt to penetrate the lines. At the end she merely remarked:

“’Rico expects me—he said that last night,—‘You will come up north to see me, mother, before war is declared.’”

Thereat I began again at the beginning and tried more urgently to distract the signora from her purpose.

“You might be locked up as a spy!” I concluded.

“But I am an Italian woman—an Italian mother!” she cried indignantly.

[Pg 63]

Giuseppe nodded sympathetically over his long sweep and murmured something like “Évero!” It ended by my asking the old fellow if he knew where the office of the Venetian commandant was.

Sicuro!” the old man laughed, waving a hand negligently toward the Zattere. So we headed there. I thought that an hour or two spent in vainly trying to see the busy gentleman in command of Venice would probably do more than anything else to convince Signora Maironi of the futility of her quest. As I helped her to the quay from the gondola in front of the old convent which was now the military headquarters, she said gently, apologetically: “Don’t be so cross with me, signor! Think merely that I am an [Pg 64]old woman and a mother with a son about to fight for his country.”

I saw her disappear within the gate after being questioned by the sentinel; then Giuseppe and I waited in the shadow of an interned German steamship—one, two, almost three hours, until the sun had set the marble front of the Ducal Palace aflame with a flood of gold. Then I heard Giuseppe murmuring triumphantly, “Ecco! la signora!” The little black figure was waiting for us by the steps, a contented smile on her lips.

“Have I been long?” she asked.

“It makes no difference, if you have found out something. Did you see the commandant?”

She nodded her head in a pleased manner.

[Pg 65]

“I thought I should never get to him—there were so many officers and sentinels, and they all tried to turn me off. But I wouldn’t go! It takes a great deal to discourage a mother who wants to see her son.”

“And he told you?” I asked impatiently.

“Heavens, how lovely the day is!” the signora remarked with her provoking inconsequentiality. “Let us go out to the Lido! Maybe we can find a fisherman’s osteria at San Nicolo where we can get supper under the trees.”

The gondola headed seaward in the golden light.

“It will be a terrible war,” the signora began presently. “They know it.... The commandant talked with me a long time after I got to him, [Pg 66]while others waited.... There are many spies here in Venice, he told me—Austrians who are hidden in the city.... He was such a gentleman, so patient with me and kind.... Do you know, I wept—yes, cried like a great fool! When he told me I must return and wait for news in Rome, and I thought of that long ride back without seeing my sick boy—I just couldn’t help it—I cried.... He was very kind.”

In the end the facts came out, as they always did with the signora, in her own casual fashion. The military commander of Venice, evidently, was a kind, fatherly sort of officer, with sons of his own in the army, as he had told the signora. After giving the distracted mother the only sound advice he could give her—to resign [Pg 67]herself to waiting for news of her son by the uncertain mails—he had let fall significantly, “But if you should persist in your mad idea, signora, I should take the train to ——,” and he mentioned a little town near the Austrian frontier not three hours’ ride from Venice.

“What will you do?” I asked as we approached the shore of the Lido.

“I don’t know,” the signora sighed. “But I must see Enrico once more!”

The Buon’ Pesche, a little osteria near the waterside, was thronged with sailors from the gray torpedo-boats that kept up a restless activity, dashing back and forth in the harbor entrance. We found a table under a plane-tree, a little apart from the noisy sailors who were drinking to the success of Italian arms in the [Pg 68]purple wine of Padua, and, while the dusk fell over distant Venice, watched the antics of the swift destroyers.

“Don’t they seem possessed!” the signora exclaimed. “Like angry bees, as if they knew the enemy was near.”

We were speaking English, and I noticed that the country girl who served us looked at me sharply. When we rose to leave it was already dark, the stars were shining in the velvet sky, and Venice was mysteriously blank. As we strolled across the grass toward the boat-landing, a man stepped up and laid his hand on my shoulder, indicating firmly that I should accompany him. He took us to the military post at the end of the island, the signora expostulating and explaining all the [Pg 69]way. There we had to wait in a bare room faintly lighted by one flaring candle while men came and went outside, looked at us, talked in low tones, and left us wondering. After an hour of this a young officer appeared, and with a smiling, nervous air began a lengthy examination. Who was I? Who was the signora—my wife, my mother? Why were we there on the Lido after dark, etc.? It was easy enough to convince him that I was what I was—an amicable, idle American. My pocketful of papers and, above all, my Italian, rendered him quickly more smiling and apologetic than ever. But the signora, who, it seems, had not registered on her arrival in Venice, as they had ascertained while we were waiting, was not so easily explained, [Pg 70]although she told her tale truthfully, tearfully, in evident trepidation. To the young officer it was not credible that an Italian mother should be seeking her soldier son on the Lido at this hour. Another officer was summoned, and while the first young man entertained me with appreciations of English and American authors with whose works he was acquainted, the signora was put through a gruelling examination which included her ancestry, family affairs, and political opinions. She was alternately angry, haughty, and tearful, repeating frequently, “I am an Italian mother!” which did not answer for a passport as well as my broken Italian. In the end she had to appeal to the kindly commandant who had listened to her story earlier [Pg 71]in the day. After hearing the signora’s tearful voice over the telephone, he instructed the youthful captain of artillery to let us go. The young officers, whose responsibilities had weighed heavily on them, apologized profusely, ending with the remark: “You know we are expecting something to happen—very soon!... We have to be careful.”

We hurried to the landing, where we found Giuseppe fast asleep in the gondola, but before we could rouse him had some further difficulty with suspicious carabinieri, who were inclined to lock us up on the Lido until morning. A few lire induced them to consider our adventure more leniently, and well past midnight the sleepy Giuseppe swept us toward the darkened city.

[Pg 72]

“You might think they were already at war!” I grumbled.

“Perhaps they are,” the signora replied sadly.

“Well, you see what trouble you will get into if you attempt to enter the war zone,” I warned.

“Yes,” the subdued woman said dully, “I understand!”

“That story of yours doesn’t sound probable—and you have no papers.”

She sighed heavily without reply, but I thought it well to drive home the point.

“So you had better take the train home to-morrow and not get arrested as a spy.”

“Very well.”

Several hours later I woke from a dream with the song of a nightingale in my ears mingled with a confused [Pg 73]reverberation. It was not yet day; in the pale light before dawn the birds were wheeling and crying in the little garden outside my room. I stumbled to the balcony from which I could see the round dome of the Salute against the cloudless sky and a streak of sunrise beyond the Giudecca. What had cut short the song of the nightingale? Suddenly the answer came in the roar of an explosion from somewhere within the huddle of Venetian alleys, followed by the prolonged shrieks of sirens from the arsenal and the sputter and crackle of countless guns. I did not have to be told that this was war! This was what those young officers on the Lido were expecting to happen before morning. Austria had taken this way of acknowledging [Pg 74]Italy’s temerity in challenging her might: she had sworn to destroy the jewelled beauty of Venice, and these bombs falling on the sleeping city were the Austrian answer to Italy’s declaration of war!

Another and another explosion followed in rapid succession, while the sirens shrieked and the antiaircraft guns from palace roofs rattled and spluttered up and down the Grand Canal. Then in a momentary lull I could detect the low hum of a motor, and looking upward I saw far aloft in the gray heavens the enemy aeroplane winging its way like some malevolent beetle in a straight line across the city. The little balconies all about were crowded with people who, unmindful of the warnings to keep within doors, and as near the [Pg 75]cellar as Venetian dwellings permitted, were gazing like myself into the clear heavens after the buzzing machine. Their voices began to rise in eager comment as soon as the noise of bombs and guns died out. I caught sight of Signora Maironi in a group on a neighboring balcony, looking fixedly at the vanishing enemy.

Presently, as I was thinking that the attack had passed, there came again the peculiar hum of another aeroplane from behind the hotel. It grew louder and louder, and soon came the roar of exploding bombs followed by the crackle of answering guns. One deafening roar went up from the canal near by, echoing back and forth between the palace walls. That was very close, I judged! But [Pg 76]the signora, as if fascinated, stood there, gazing into space, waiting for the evil machine to show itself. Gradually the noise died down as the aeroplane swung into view and headed eastward like its mate for the open Adriatic. A last, lingering explosion came from the direction of the arsenal, then all was silence except for the twittering of the disturbed birds in the garden and the excited staccato voices of Venetians telling one another what had happened.

Yes, this was war! And as I hurriedly dressed myself I thought that Signora Maironi would be lucky if she got safely out of Venice back to her home. We met over an early cup of coffee. The signora, to my surprise, did not seem in the least frightened—rather [Pg 77]she had been stirred to a renewed determination by this first touch of war.

“Return now without seeing my boy!” she said scornfully in reply to my suggestion that we go at once to the railroad station. “Never!”

“This is the first attack,” I protested, “you can’t tell when they will be at it again, perhaps in a few hours.... It is very dangerous, signora!”

“I have no fear,” she said simply, conclusively.

So Giuseppe took her over to Mestre in the gondola. I judged that it would be safer for her to start on her quest alone, depending solely on her mother appeal to make her way through the confusion at the front. [Pg 78]She waved me a smiling farewell on the steps of the old palace, her little bag in one hand, looking like a comfortable middle-aged matron on a shopping expedition, not in the least like a timid mother starting for the battle line in search of her child.

And that was the last I saw of Signora Maironi for four days. Ordinarily, it would not take that many hours to make the journey to X——. But these first days of war there was no telling how long it might take, nor whether one could get there by any route. Had her resolution failed her and had she already returned to Rome? But in that case she would surely have telegraphed. Or was she detained in some frontier village as a spy?...

The morning of the fifth day after [Pg 79]the signora’s departure I was dawdling over my coffee in the deserted salone, enjoying the scented June breeze that came from the canal, when I heard a light step and a knock at the door. Signora Maironi entered and dropped on a lounge, very white and breathless, as if she had run a long way from somewhere.

“Give me coffee, please! I have had nothing to eat since yesterday morning.” And after she had swallowed some of the coffee I poured for her she began to speak, to tell her story, not pausing to eat her roll.

“When I left you that morning—when was it, a week or a year ago?—I seemed very courageous, didn’t I? The firing, the danger, somehow woke my spirit, made me brave. But [Pg 80]before I started I really wanted to run back to Rome. Yes, if it hadn’t been for the idea of poor ’Rico up there in that same danger, only worse, I should never have had the courage to do what I did.... Well, we got to Mestre, as Giuseppe no doubt told you. While I was waiting in the station for the train to that place the commandant told me, I saw a young lieutenant in the grenadier uniform. He was not of ’Rico’s company or I should have known him, but he had the uniform. Of course I asked him where he was going. He said he didn’t know, he was trying to find out where the regiment was. He had been given leave to go to his home in Sardinia to bury his father, poor boy, and was hurrying back to join the grenadiers. ‘If you [Pg 81]will stay with me, signora,’ he said, ‘you will find where your boy is, for you see I must join my regiment at once.’ Wasn’t that lucky for me? So I got into the same compartment with the lieutenant when the train came along. It was full of officers. But no one seemed to know where the grenadiers had been sent. The officers were very polite and kind to me. They gave me something to eat or I should have starved, for there was nothing to be bought at the stations, everything had been eaten clean up as if the locusts had passed that way!... There was one old gentleman—here, I have his card somewhere—well, no matter—we talked a long time. He told me how many difficulties the army had to meet, especially with spies. It seems [Pg 82]that the spies are terrible. The Austrians have them everywhere, and many are Italians, alas! the ones who live up there in the mountains! They are arresting them all the time. They took a woman and a man in a woman’s dress off the train. Well, that didn’t make me any easier in my mind, but I stayed close to my little lieutenant, who looked after me as he would his own mother, and no one bothered me with questions....

“Such heat and such slowness! You cannot imagine how weary I became before the day was done. Trains and trains of troops passed. Poor fellows! And cannon and horses and food, just one long train after another. We could scarcely crawl.... So we reached X—— as it was [Pg 83]getting dark, but the granatieri were not there. They had been the day before, but had gone on forward during the night. To think, if I had started the night before I should have found ’Rico and had him a whole day perhaps.”

“Perhaps not,” I remarked, as the signora paused to swallow another cup of coffee. “It was all a matter of chance, and if you had started the day before you would have missed your lieutenant.”

“Well, there was nothing for it but to spend the night at X——. For no trains went on to Palma Nova, where the lieutenant was going in the morning. So I walked into the town to look for a place to sleep, but every bed was taken by the officers, not a place to sleep in the [Pg 84]whole town. It was then after nine o’clock; I returned to the station, thinking I could stay there until the train started for Palma Nova. But they won’t even let you stay in railroad stations any longer! So I walked out to the garden in the square and sat down on a bench to spend the night there. Luckily it was still warm. Who should come by with an old lady on his arm but the gentleman I had talked with on the train, Count—yes, he was a count—and his mother. They had a villa near the town, it seems. ‘Why, signora!’ he said, when he saw me sitting there all alone, ‘why are you out here at this time?’ And I told him about there not being a bed free in the town. Then he said: ‘You must stay with us. We have made [Pg 85]our villa ready for the wounded, but, thank God, they have not begun to come in yet, so there are many empty rooms at your disposal.’ That was how I escaped spending the night on a bench in the public garden! It was a beautiful villa, with grounds all about it—quite large. They gave me a comfortable room with a bath, and that was the last I saw of the count and his mother—whatever were their names. Early the next morning a maid came with my coffee and woke me so that I might get the train for Palma Nova.

“That day was too long to tell about. I found my young lieutenant, and as soon as we reached Palma Nova he went off to hunt for the granatieri. But the regiment had been sent on ahead! Again I was just too [Pg 86]late. It had left for the frontier, which is only a few miles east of the town. I could hear the big cannon from there. (Oh, yes, they had begun! I can tell you that made me all the more anxious to hold my boy once more in my arms.) Palma Nova was jammed with everything, soldiers, motor-trucks, cannon—such confusion as you never saw. Everything had to pass through an old gate—you know, it was once a Roman town and there are walls and gates still standing. About that gate toward the Austrian frontier there was such a crush to get through as I never saw anywhere!

“They let no one through that gate without a special pass. You see, it was close to the lines, and they were afraid of spies. I tried and tried [Pg 87]to slip through, but it was no use. And the time was going by, and Enrico marching away from me always toward battle. I just prayed to the Virgin to get me through that gate—yes, I tell you, I prayed hard as I never prayed before in my life.... The young lieutenant came to tell me he had to go on to reach his regiment and offered to take anything I had for Enrico. So I gave him almost all the money I had with me, and the little watch you gave me for him, and told him to say I should get to him somehow if it could be done. The young man promised he would find ’Rico and give him the things at the first opportunity. How I hated to see him disappear through that gate into the crowd beyond! But there was no [Pg 88]use trying: there were soldiers with drawn bayonets all about it. My prayers to the Virgin seemed to do no good at all....

“So at the end, after trying everywhere to get that special pass, I was sitting before a café drinking some milk—everything is so frightfully dear, you have no idea!—and was thinking that after coming so far I was not to see my boy. For the first time I felt discouraged, and I must have shown it, too, with my eyes always on that gate. An officer who was waiting in front of the café, walking to and fro, presently came up to me and said: ‘Signora, I see that sorrow in your eyes which compels me to address you. Is there anything a stranger might do to comfort you?’ So I told him the whole story, and [Pg 89]he said very gently: ‘I do not know whether I can obtain the permission for you, but I know the officer who is in command here. Come with me and we will tell him your desire to see your son before the battle, which cannot be far off, and perhaps he will grant your request.’

“Think of such fortune! The Virgin had listened. I shall always pray with better faith after this! Just when I was at the end, too! The kind officer was also a count, Count Foscari, from here in Venice. He has a brother in the garrison here, and there’s a lady to whom he wishes me to give some letters.... I wonder if I still have them!”

The signora stopped to investigate the recesses of her little bag.

“First, let me know what the [Pg 90]Count Foscari did for you,” I exclaimed, tantalized by the signora’s discursive narrative. “Then we can look after his correspondence at our leisure.”

“There they are!... He took me with him to the office of the military commander of the town—a very busy place it was. But the count just walked past all the sentinels, and I followed him without being stopped. But when he asked for the pass the commander was very cross and answered, ‘Impossible!’—short like that. Even while we were there, another, stronger order came over the telegraph from the staff forbidding any civilian to pass through the town. I thought again it was all over—I should never see ’Rico. But Count Foscari did not give up. He [Pg 91]just waited until the commander had said everything, then spoke very gently to him in a low tone (but I could hear). ‘The signora is an Italian mother. I will give my word for that! She wants to see her son, who was sick when he left Rome.’ Then he stopped, but the other officer just frowned, and the count tried again. ‘It is not much good that any of us can do now in this life. We are all so near death that it seems we should do whatever kindness we can to one another.’ He looked at me more gently, but said nothing. The commandant’s secretary was there with the pass already made out in his hand—he had been preparing it while the others were talking—and he put it down on the table before the officer for his signature. [Pg 92]That one turned his head, then the count gave a nod to the secretary, and the kind young man took the seal and stamped it and handed it to me with a little smile. And the commandant just shrugged his shoulders and pretended not to see. The count said to him: ‘Thanks! For a mother.’

“So there I was with my pass. I thanked Count Foscari and hurried through that gate as fast as my legs would carry me, afraid that some one might take the paper away from me. What an awful jam there was! I thought my legs would not hold out long on that hard road, but I was determined to walk until I fell before giving up now.... I must have passed forty sentinels; some of them stopped me. They said I would [Pg 93]be shot, but what did I care for that! I could hear the roaring of the guns ahead, louder all the time, and the smoke. It was really battle. I began to run. I was so anxious lest I might not have time.”

“Were you not afraid?”

“Of what? Of a shell hitting my poor old body? I never thought of it. I just felt—little ’Rico is on there ahead in the middle of all that. But it was beautiful all the same—yes,” she repeated softly, with a strange gleam on her tired face, “it was beau and horrible at the same time.... I passed the frontier stones. Yes! I have been on Austrian territory, though it’s no longer Austrian now, God be praised! I was very nearly in Gradesca, where the battle was. I should never have gotten [Pg 94]that far had it not been for a kind officer in a motor-car who took me off the road with him. How we drove in all that muddle! He stopped when we passed any troops to let me ask where the granatieri were. It was always ‘just ahead.’ The sound of the guns got louder.... I was terribly excited and so afraid I was too late, when suddenly I saw a soldier bent over a bicycle riding back down the road like mad. It was my ’Rico coming to find me!... I jumped out of the motor and took him in my arms, there beside the road.... God, how he had changed already, how thin and old his face was! And he was so excited he could hardly speak, just like ’Rico always, when anything is going on. ‘Mother,’ he said, ‘I wanted so [Pg 95]to see you. You told me you might come up here, and I looked for you all along where the train stopped, at Bologna and Mestre and Palma Nova. But I couldn’t find you. This morning I knew you would come—I knew it when I woke.’ (Don’t you see I was right in keeping on?)... The young lieutenant had told ’Rico I was looking for him, and they let him come back on his bicycle to find me. Poor boy, he was so excited and kept glancing over his shoulder after his regiment! ‘You see, mamma,’ he said, ‘this is a real battle! We are at the front! And our regiment has the honor to make the first attack!’ He was so proud, the poor boy!... Of course I could not keep him long—five minutes at the most I had with him there by the side of the [Pg 96]highroad, with all the noise of the guns and the passing wagons. Five minutes, but I would rather have died than lost those minutes.... I put your watch on his wrist. He was so pleased to have it, with the illuminated hands which will give him the time at night when he is on duty. He wrote you a few words on this scrap of paper, all I had with me, leaning on my knee. I took his old watch—the father will want it. It had been next his heart and was still warm.... Then he kissed me and rode back up the road as fast as he could go. The last I saw was when he rode into a cloud of dust....

“Well,” the signora concluded, after a long pause, “that is all! I found my way back here somehow. I have been through the lines, on Austrian [Pg 97]territory, almost in battle itself—and I have seen my boy again, the Virgin be praised! And I am content. Now let God do with him what he will.”

Later we went in search of Count Foscari’s brother and the lady to whom he had sent his letters. Then Giuseppe and I took the signora to the train for Rome. As I stood beside the compartment, the signora, who seemed calmer, more like herself than for the past fortnight, repeated dreamily: “My friend, I have seen ’Rico again, and I am content. Perhaps it is the last time I shall have him in my arms, unless the dear God spares him. And I know now what it is he is doing for his country, what battle is! He is fighting for me, for all of us. I am content!”

[Pg 98]

With a gentle smile the signora waved me farewell.

Enrico came out of that first battle safely, and many others, as little Bianca wrote me. She and the signora were making bandages and feeding their thirsty hearts on the reports of the brave deeds that the Italian troops were doing along the Isonzo. “They are all heroes!” the girl wrote. “But it is very hard for them to pierce those mountains which the Austrians have been fortifying all these years. There is perpetual fighting, but Enrico is well and happy, fighting for Italy. Yesterday we had a postal from him: he sent his respects to you....”

Thereafter, there was no news from the Maironis for many weeks; then [Pg 99]in the autumn came the dreaded black-bordered letter in the signora’s childish hand. It was dated from some little town in the north of Italy and written in pencil.

“I have been in bed for a long time, or I should have written before. Our dear Enrico fell the 3d of August on the Col di Lana. He died fighting for Italy like a brave man, his captain wrote.... Bianca is here nursing me, but soon she will go back to Padua into the hospital, and I shall go with her if there is anything that a poor old woman can do for our wounded soldiers.... Dear friend, I am so glad that I saw him once more—now I must wait until paradise....”

Transcriber’s Notes:

No attempt has been made to change the typesetting of the phrases and words in Italian, due to differences in dialects.

Railroad-station(s) have been changed on pages 77 and 84 to conform to other occurrences in the book.

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