Italy – A Tuscan Episode

THE two sat looking at me with that wistful, pleading expression in their eyes that most of us have seen in the eyes of a suffering animal which knows its pain, but would seek also to know from us the reason why that pain should have come to it. It is a look which we hate to see in the eyes of any stricken creature ; in those of a stricken human being it is well-nigh intolerable, because it brings home to us our own impotence to answer the greatest question of all. We know that if we could answer this question satisfactorily, or even plausibly, whether to man or beast, we should be the wisest of all mortals, sharing our knowledge with the angels alone.

It was difficult to believe, as I walked through the vineyards and campi that morning in late summer, that the world lay groaning under the scourge of war. Peace and tranquillity seemed to be writ large on the face of the smiling Tuscan landscape. The dew still lingered on the grapes, and on the banks of the vineyards gay with wild geranium and starred here and there with the autumn crocus. There was no sound in the still air save the shrilling of grasshoppers, the occasional lowing of great, white oxen, and, every now and then, a snatch of song from some concealed contadino working on the fields down in the valley.

The contrast between the world as God intended it to be, and the world as man was making it, seemed to be brought into a sharper relief than ever by a sermon which was being preached by Nature her-self, the greatest of all teachers. The incredible, unutterable folly and wickedness of man, deliberately planning and seeking his own misery and destruction, needed no deeper or more ironical condemnation than that conveyed by Nature speaking in her own clear language that summer morning. And the pity of it was that she was speaking the same language and teaching the same divine doctrine not only here in these peaceful Tuscan hills and valleys, but also within a stone’s throw of trenches and battle-fields where twenty centuries of vaunted Christian civilisation were being undone, and the doctrines of Christ denied and trampled under foot speaking, alas ! to those who, having ears, hear not, and whose understanding is blunted by the lust for power and blood.

Perhaps it was the sudden snatches of stornelli, which ceased almost as soon as begun, which made me realise that the sorrows of war lay much closer to the tranquil, pastoral scene around me than might be suspected. To one unacquainted with the Tuscan country, these snatches of song at once dying away into silence would have conveyed little or no significance a peasant singing to himself, and too lazy to sing nothing more. But to one knowing Tuscany, these spiritless snatches of stornelli spoke of a shadow brooding over the usual Tuscan light-heartedness, the shadow of war ever creeping closer and closer, and stealthily enveloping the land. In ordinary times the stornello would have been taken up by other young peasant voices. It would not have dropped into silence as though the singer’s mind were occupied by other thoughts than love or a malicious desire to prendere in giro his neighbour thoughts too grave to find their utterance in song. Indeed, the singer on this occasion must have known very well that there were none to take up his refrain or to challenge his sentiments ; those who would have been prompt to do so at other times were now far away, fighting the hated Austrians. Half-way on the rough track leading down into one of the innumerable little valleys in the Pisan hills, a peasant’s house and out-buildings nestled beneath a group of plane-trees. It was here that I was bent, for I had heard the evening before that to this cottage one of those fatal letters had come, announcing to the contadino and his wife the fall of the elder of their two sons in an assault on one of the mountain positions occupied by the Austrian troops. The second boy, luckily for the parents, was still a child. But with the fallen lad had gone, as I well knew, the main support of the family, for the father had for long been in ill-health, and could do but little work on the poderi. What comfort could one bring to such a home as this ? To others, stricken in a similar way, it would, no doubt, have been customary to dwell upon the honour and glory of having given a son to the cause of la Patria; to have pointed out that the sacrifice had not been made in vain ; to have attempted consolation by suggesting that this was a grief which was daily visiting thousands of other parents and families ; to have offered, in short, any one of those stock platitudes which are usually deemed to be consolatory and also fitting in similar circumstances, with occasional allusions to resignation to the will of God thrown in. I had scarcely entered the dwelling before it became evident to me that, even had I any desire to offer consolatory platitudes, this was neither the time nor the company in which to utter them. Something, I know not what, made me realise that silence was the best sympathy I could offer to the contadino and his wife, who, for several minutes after my entrance, stood and looked at me with that unuttered question in their weary but patient eyes ; and in silence I held their brown hands, knowing that neither I nor any man living had the knowledge, or the right, to answer their dumb appeal.

” I know that Italo was everything to you,” I said presently, for the silence grew intolerable, ” but you must remember that you have Sandro left. They will not take him, you know, for he will be a figlio unico, and by the time he is eligible for military service he will be able to show that he is the sole support of his parents.”

” Italo was everything to us everything, you understand, signoria a good lad, one can say no more than that. But, signoria, you are standing,” and the father drew a chair towards me. ” Yes,” he continued, ” the letter came yesterday, to the sindaco, and they sent it down here. They say Italo has died for la Patria, and that we should be proud of him. Ma, veda, signoria, we were always proud of him. It did not need la Patria to make us that, and what can the dead do to make us proud of them any more ? And now the land will suffer, and the beasts, for Italo was no vagabondo ; he worked, signoria, and he had learned from books, too not like me, who am ignorant. Sometimes, when the winter came, he would go away and work at other things, but always he sent us his earnings, for he was a good son.”

For a moment I felt an unpleasing sense of a certain sordidness betraying itself. I wished that the father of the fallen lad had not alluded to material matters. I turned to the mother. ” You must try to have courage,” I said, compelled to descend to platitudes ; ” Italo did his duty to you both in his life, and in his death he did his duty to his country so even though he is no longer here, you should continue always to be proud of him.” Without answering, Italo’s mother went to a table and, unlocking a drawer, produced a card, which she handed to me.

” A money order ! ” I said, as I took it from her.

” Signoria, yes a vaglia. It came yesterday morning only a few hours before they sent us the letter from the municipio. You see ? he sends us nearly two months of his pay you can read what he has written on the side of the card. Sixty lire, he can have kept very little for himself. But our Italo is always like that ! ” Unconsciously, probably, she used the present tense, and the fact that she did so seemed to bring the dead lad strangely near to us.

” It is the last vaglia he will send us,” said the contadino ; ” and he has sent many, signoria yes, many. When he was away at Livorno, or at Florence, nearly every fortnight he would send us the most of what he earned ; but this vaglia well, it is the last he will send, sicuro ! ”

” The money will be useful,” I replied, perhaps a little dryly.

” The money ? ” repeated the contadino ” what money ? ”

” Why, the money of the vaglia !—you will change it, of course, at the post-office ? ”

The father and mother both looked at me. ” No, signoria,” they exclaimed in the same breath. ” No ; the post-office would take the vaglia away from us, and, capisce, this bit of paper was the last he wrote upon to us. No the post-office may keep the money.”

And soon afterwards I left them. It seemed to me that they were better alone with their dead. But as I left them, I saw that the question in their eyes remained unanswered, and that it would remain so until God should see fit to answer it. Also, I was bitterly ashamed of myself for having made the observation regarding the utility of sixty lire, and for having suspected sordidness where there was nothing but love.