That evening the house of Ferruccio was more silent than was its wont. The father, who kept a little haberdasher’s shop, had gone to Forli to make some purchases, and his wife had accompanied him, with Luigina, a baby, whom she was taking to a doctor, that he might operate on a diseased eye; and they were not to return until the following morning. It was almost midnight. The woman who came to do the work by day had gone away at nightfall. In the house there was only the grandmother with the paralyzed legs, and Ferruccio, a lad of thirteen. It was a small house of but one story, situated on the highway, at a gunshot’s distance from a village not far from Forli, a town of Romagna; and there was near it only an uninhabited house, ruined two months previously by fire, on which the sign of an inn was still to be seen. Behind the tiny house was a small garden surrounded by a hedge, upon which a rustic gate opened; the door of the shop, which also served as the house door, opened on the highway. All around spread the solitary campagna, vast cultivated fields, planted with mulberry-trees.
It was nearly midnight; it was raining and blowing. Ferruccio and his grandmother, who was still up, were in the dining-room, between which and the garden there was a small, closet-like room, encumbered with old furniture. Ferruccio had only returned home at eleven o’clock, after an absence of many hours, and his grandmother had watched for him with eyes wide open, filled with anxiety, nailed to the large arm-chair, upon which she was accustomed to pass the entire day, and often the whole night as well, since a difficulty of breathing did not allow her to lie down in bed.
It was raining, and the wind beat the rain against the window-panes: the night was very dark. Ferruccio had returned weary, muddy, with his jacket torn, and the livid mark of a stone on his forehead. He had engaged in a stone fight with his comrades; they had come to blows, as usual; and in addition he had gambled, and lost all his soldi, and left his cap in a ditch.
Although the kitchen was illuminated only by a small oil lamp, placed on the corner of the table, near the arm-chair, his poor grandmother had instantly perceived the wretched condition of her grandson, and had partly divined, partly brought him to confess, his misdeeds.
She loved this boy with all her soul. When she had learned all, she began to cry.
“Ah, no!” she said, after a long silence, “you have no heart for your poor grandmother. You have no feeling, to take advantage in this manner of the absence of your father and mother, to cause me sorrow. You have left me alone the whole day long. You had not the slightest compassion. Take care, Ferruccio! You are entering on an evil path which will lead you to a sad end. I have seen others begin like you, and come to a bad end. If you begin by running away from home, by getting into brawls with the other boys, by losing soldi, then, gradually, from stone fights you will come to knives, from gambling to other vices, and from other vices to—theft.”
Ferruccio stood listening three paces away, leaning against a cupboard, with his chin on his breast and his brows knit, being still hot with wrath from the brawl. A lock of fine chestnut hair fell across his forehead, and his blue eyes were motionless.
“From gambling to theft!” repeated his grandmother, continuing to weep. “Think of it, Ferruccio! Think of that scourge of the country about here, of that Vito Mozzoni, who is now playing the vagabond in the town; who, at the age of twenty-four, has been twice in prison, and has made that poor woman, his mother, die of a broken heart—I knew her; and his father has fled to Switzerland in despair. Think of that bad fellow, whose salute your father is ashamed to return: he is always roaming with miscreants worse than himself, and some day he will go to the galleys. Well, I knew him as a boy, and he began as you are doing. Reflect that you will reduce your father and mother to the same end as his.”
Ferruccio held his peace. He was not at all remorseful at heart; quite the reverse: his misdemeanors arose rather from superabundance of life and audacity than from an evil mind; and his father had managed him badly in precisely this particular, that, holding him capable, at bottom, of the finest sentiments, and also, when put to the proof, of a vigorous and generous action, he left the bridle loose upon his neck, and waited for him to acquire judgment for himself. The lad was good rather than perverse, but stubborn; and it was hard for him, even when his heart was oppressed with repentance, to allow those good words which win pardon to escape his lips, “If I have done wrong, I will do so no more; I promise it; forgive me.” His soul was full of tenderness at times; but pride would not permit it to manifest itself.
“Ah, Ferruccio,” continued his grandmother, perceiving that he was thus dumb, “not a word of penitence do you utter to me! You see to what a condition I am reduced, so that I am as good as actually buried. You ought not to have the heart to make me suffer so, to make the mother of your mother, who is so old and so near her last day, weep; the poor grandmother who has always loved you so, who rocked you all night long, night after night, when you were a baby a few months old, and who did not eat for amusing you,—you do not know that! I always said, ‘This boy will be my consolation!’ And now you are killing me! I would willingly give the little life that remains to me if I could see you become a good boy, and an obedient one, as you were in those days when I used to lead you to the sanctuary—do you remember, Ferruccio? You used to fill my pockets with pebbles and weeds, and I carried you home in my arms, fast asleep. You used to love your poor grandma then. And now I am a paralytic, and in need of your affection as of the air to breathe, since I have no one else in the world, poor, half-dead woman that I am: my God!”
Ferruccio was on the point of throwing himself on his grandmother, overcome with emotion, when he fancied that he heard a slight noise, a creaking in the small adjoining room, the one which opened on the garden. But he could not make out whether it was the window-shutters rattling in the wind, or something else.
He bent his head and listened.
The rain beat down noisily.
The sound was repeated. His grandmother heard it also.
“What is it?” asked the grandmother, in perturbation, after a momentary pause.
“The rain,” murmured the boy.
“Then, Ferruccio,” said the old woman, drying her eyes, “you promise me that you will be good, that you will not make your poor grandmother weep again—”
Another faint sound interrupted her.
“But it seems to me that it is not the rain!” she exclaimed, turning pale. “Go and see!”
But she instantly added, “No; remain here!” and seized Ferruccio by the hand.
Both remained as they were, and held their breath. All they heard was the sound of the water.
Then both were seized with a shivering fit.
It seemed to both that they heard footsteps in the next room.
“Who’s there?” demanded the lad, recovering his breath with an effort.
No one replied.
“Who is it?” asked Ferruccio again, chilled with terror.
But hardly had he pronounced these words when both uttered a shriek of terror. Two men sprang into the room. One of them grasped the boy and placed one hand over his mouth; the other clutched the old woman by the throat. The first said:—
“Silence, unless you want to die!”
“Be quiet!” and raised aloft a knife.
Both had dark cloths over their faces, with two holes for the eyes.
For a moment nothing was audible but the gasping breath of all four, the patter of the rain; the old woman emitted frequent rattles from her throat, and her eyes were starting from her head.
The man who held the boy said in his ear, “Where does your father keep his money?”
The lad replied in a thread of a voice, with chattering teeth, “Yonder—in the cupboard.”
“Come with me,” said the man.
And he dragged him into the closet room, holding him securely by the throat. There was a dark lantern standing on the floor.
“Where is the cupboard?” he demanded.
The suffocating boy pointed to the cupboard.
Then, in order to make sure of the boy, the man flung him on his knees in front of the cupboard, and, pressing his neck closely between his own legs, in such a way that he could throttle him if he shouted, and holding his knife in his teeth and his lantern in one hand, with the other he pulled from his pocket a pointed iron, drove it into the lock, fumbled about, broke it, threw the doors wide open, tumbled everything over in a perfect fury of haste, filled his pockets, shut the cupboard again, opened it again, made another search; then he seized the boy by the windpipe again, and pushed him to where the other man was still grasping the old woman, who was convulsed, with her head thrown back and her mouth open.
The latter asked in a low voice, “Did you find it?”
His companion replied, “I found it.”
And he added, “See to the door.”
The one that was holding the old woman ran to the door of the garden to see if there were any one there, and called in from the little room, in a voice that resembled a hiss, “Come!”
The one who remained behind, and who was still holding Ferruccio fast, showed his knife to the boy and the old woman, who had opened her eyes again, and said, “Not a sound, or I’ll come back and cut your throat.”
And he glared at the two for a moment.
At this juncture, a song sung by many voices became audible far off on the highway.
The robber turned his head hastily toward the door, and the violence of the movement caused the cloth to fall from his face.
The old woman gave vent to a shriek; “Mozzoni!”
“Accursed woman,” roared the robber, on finding himself recognized, “you shall die!”
And he hurled himself, with his knife raised, against the old woman, who swooned on the spot.
The assassin dealt the blow.
But Ferruccio, with an exceedingly rapid movement, and uttering a cry of desperation, had rushed to his grandmother, and covered her body with his own. The assassin fled, stumbling against the table and overturning the light, which was extinguished.
The boy slipped slowly from above his grandmother, fell on his knees, and remained in that attitude, with his arms around her body and his head upon her breast.
Several moments passed; it was very dark; the song of the peasants gradually died away in the campagna. The old woman recovered her senses.
“Ferruccio!” she cried, in a voice that was barely intelligible, with chattering teeth.
“Grandmamma!” replied the lad.
The old woman made an effort to speak; but terror had paralyzed her tongue.
She remained silent for a while, trembling violently.
Then she succeeded in asking:—
“They are not here now?”
“They did not kill me,” murmured the old woman in a stifled voice.
“No; you are safe,” said Ferruccio, in a weak voice. “You are safe, dear grandmother. They carried off the money. But daddy had taken nearly all of it with him.”
His grandmother drew a deep breath.
“Grandmother,” said Ferruccio, still kneeling, and pressing her close to him, “dear grandmother, you love me, don’t you?”
“O Ferruccio! my poor little son!” she replied, placing her hands on his head; “what a fright you must have had!—O Lord God of mercy!—Light the lamp. No; let us still remain in the dark! I am still afraid.”
“Grandmother,” resumed the boy, “I have always caused you grief.”
“No, Ferruccio, you must not say such things; I shall never think of that again; I have forgotten everything, I love you so dearly!”
“I have always caused you grief,” pursued Ferruccio, with difficulty, and his voice quivered; “but I have always loved you. Do you forgive me?—Forgive me, grandmother.”
“Yes, my son, I forgive you with all my heart. Think, how could I help forgiving you! Rise from your knees, my child. I will never scold you again. You are so good, so good! Let us light the lamp. Let us take courage a little. Rise, Ferruccio.”
“Thanks, grandmother,” said the boy, and his voice was still weaker. “Now—I am content. You will remember me, grandmother—will you not? You will always remember me—your Ferruccio?”
“My Ferruccio!” exclaimed his grandmother, amazed and alarmed, as she laid her hands on his shoulders and bent her head, as though to look him in his face.
“Remember me,” murmured the boy once more, in a voice that seemed like a breath. “Give a kiss to my mother—to my father—to Luigina.—Good by, grandmother.”
“In the name of Heaven, what is the matter with you?” shrieked the old woman, feeling the boy’s head anxiously, as it lay upon her knees; and then with all the power of voice of which her throat was capable, and in desperation: “Ferruccio! Ferruccio! Ferruccio! My child! My love! Angels of Paradise, come to my aid!”
But Ferruccio made no reply. The little hero, the saviour of the mother of his mother, stabbed by a blow from a knife in the back, had rendered up his beautiful and daring soul to God.