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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesCaptain Mansana - Chapter 1
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Captain Mansana - Chapter 1 Post by :ben.g Category :Long Stories Author :Bjornstjerne Bjornson Date :May 2012 Read :1221

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Captain Mansana - Chapter 1


I was on my way to Rome, and as I entered the train at Bologna, I bought some newspapers to read on my journey. An item of news from the capital, published in one of the Florence journals, immediately arrested my attention. It carried me back thirteen years, and brought to mind a former visit I had paid to Rome, and certain friends with whom I had lived in a little town in the vicinity, at the time when Rome was still under the Papal rule.

The newspaper stated that the remains of the patriot Mansana had been exhumed from the Cemetery of the Malefactors in Rome, at the petition of the inhabitants of his native town, and that in the course of the next few days, they were to be received by the town council and escorted by deputations from various patriotic associations in Rome and the neighbouring cities to A----, Mansana's birthplace. A monument had been prepared there, and a ceremonial reception awaited the remains: the deeds of the martyred hero were at length to receive tardy acknowledgment.

It was in the house of this Mansana that I had lodged thirteen years before; his wife and his younger brother's wife had been my hostesses. Of the two brothers themselves, one was at that time in prison in Rome, the other in exile in Genoa. The newspaper recapitulated the story of the elder Mansana's career. With all, except the latter portion, I was already pretty well acquainted, and for that reason I felt a special desire to accompany the procession, which was to start from the Barberini Palace in Rome the following Sunday, and finish its journey at A----.

On the Sunday, at seven o'clock in the morning of a grey October day, I was at the place of assembly. There was collected a large number of banners, escorted by the delegates, who had been selected by the various associations: six men, as a rule, from each. I took up my position near a banner that bore the legend: "The Fight for the Fatherland," and amongst the group which surrounded it. They were men in red shirts, with a scarf round the body, a cloak over the shoulders, trousers thrust into high boots, and broad-leaved plumed hats. But what faces these were! How instinct with purpose and determination! Look at the well-known portrait of Orsini, the man who threw bombs at Napoleon III.; in him you have the typical Italian cast of countenance often seen in the men who had risen against the tyranny in Church and State, braving the dungeon and the scaffold, and had leagued themselves together in those formidable organisations from which sprang the army that liberated Italy. Louis Napoleon had himself been a member of one of these associations, and he had sworn, like all his comrades, that whatsoever position he might gain, he would use it to further Italy's unity and happiness, or in default that he would forfeit his own life. It was Orsini, his former comrade in the Carbonari, who reminded Napoleon of his oath, after he had become Emperor of the French. And Orsini did it in the manner best calculated to make the Emperor realise the fate which awaited him if he failed to keep his pledge.

The first time I saw Orsini's portrait the idea flashed across my mind that ten thousand such men might conquer the world. And now, as I stood here, I had before me those whom the same feeling for their country's wrongs had animated with the same intense passion. Over that passion a kind of repose had fallen now, but the gloomy and lowering brows showed that it was not the tranquillity of content. The medals on their breasts proved that they had been present at Porta San Pancrazio in 1849 (when Garibaldi, though outnumbered by the French troops, twice forced them to retreat), in 1858, at the Lake of Garda, in 1859 in Sicily and Naples. And it was probable enough, though there were no medals to testify to _that fact, that the history of their lives would have revealed their share in the day of Mentana. This is one of those battlefields which is not recognised by the Government, but which has burnt itself most deeply into the hearts of the people, as Louis Napoleon learnt to his cost. He had formally secured the help of Italy against the Germans in 1870; the remembrance of Mentana made it impossible for King and Government to carry out the agreement. It would have been as much as Victor Emmanuel's throne was worth to have done that.

The contrast between this dark and formidable determination of the Italians, and their mocking gaiety and reckless levity, is just as marked as that, between the resolute countenances of the Orsini type, such as I noticed here, and the frivolous faces, which express nothing but a contemptuous superiority or mere indifference. Faces of this type were also to be seen among the spectators, or among the delegates who accompanied the banners inscribed "The Press," "Freethought," "Freedom for Labour," and so on. Involuntarily I thought, it is this element of frivolity among one half of the population that brings out a sterner element of resolution in the other half. The greater, the more general, this frivolity, the stronger and fiercer must be the passionate energy of those who would prevail against it. And through my brain there coursed reminiscences of the past history of Italy, with its contrasts of strange levity and dark purpose. Backward and forward my thoughts swayed, from Brutus to Orsini, from Catiline to Caesar Borgia, from Lucullus to Leo X., from Savonarola to Garibaldi. Meanwhile the company got itself in motion, the banners streamed out, loud-voiced street-vendors offered for sale leaflets and pamphlets containing accounts of Mansana's career, and the procession passed into the Via Felice. Silence greeted it as it moved on. The lofty houses showed few spectators at this early hour, fewer still as the procession turned into the Via Venti-Settembre, past the Quirinal; but the onlookers were somewhat more numerous as the party came down into the Forum and passed out of the city by the Colosseum to the Porta Giovanni. Outside the gate the hearse, which had been provided by the Municipality and driven by its servants, was in waiting. This hearse was immediately set in motion. Close behind it walked two young men, one in civil costume, the other in the uniform of an officer of the Bersaglieri. Both were tall, spare, muscular, with small heads and low foreheads; resembling one another in build and features, and yet infinitely different. They were the sons of the dead Mansana.

I could recall them as boys of thirteen or fourteen, and the episode round which my recollection of them gathered was curious enough: I remembered their old grandmother throwing stones at these boys as they stood laughing, beyond her reach. I had a sudden distinct vision of the old woman's keen, angry eyes, of her sinewy, wrinkled hands, her grey bristling hair round her coffee-coloured face; and now, as I looked at the boys, I could almost have said that the stones she threw had not missed their mark, and were deep in their hearts still.

How the grandmother had hated them! Had they given her no special cause for this hatred? Assuredly they had, for hate breeds hate, and strife strife. But how did it begin? I was not with them at the time, but it was not difficult to understand the origin of it all.

She had been left a widow early in life, this old lady; and all the interest and sympathy she gained by her comeliness and charm she tried to turn into a source of profit for herself and her two sons, the elder of whom was now lying here in his coffin. They were the only beings on earth she loved, and love them she did with a passionate frenzy of which the lads themselves eventually grew weary. Then, too, when they understood the species of cunning that lay in the use she made of her opportunities as a fascinating young widow, to gain material advantages for her sons, they began to feel a certain contempt for her. And so they turned from her, and threw all their energies into the ideas of Italian freedom and Italian unity which they had acquired from young and ardent companions. Their mother's narrow and frantic absorption in her own personal interests and affections made them only the more anxious to sacrifice everything for the common welfare.

In force of character, these boys not merely equalled their mother, but excelled her. Thus there arose a bitter struggle, in which in the end she succumbed; but not until the young men's connections with the secret associations had procured for them a circle of acquaintance that extended far beyond the town and the society to which her family belonged. Each of them brought home a bride from a household of a higher social standing than their mother's, with a trousseau better than hers had been, and a dowry which, as she was bound to acknowledge, was respectable. This silenced her for awhile; it was clear that the business of playing the patriot had its advantages.

But the time came when both sons were forced to flee; when the elder was taken and imprisoned; when the most atrocious public extortion was practised; and when ruffianly officials regarded the defenceless widows as their prey. Their house had to be mortgaged, and then first one and then the other of their two vineyards; and finally one of their fields was seized by the mortgagees. And thus it came about that these ladies of gentle birth, friends from childhood, had to work like servants in the fields, the vineyard, and the house; they had to take lodgers, and wait on them; and worse than all this, to listen to words of insult and contumely, and that from others besides the clergy, who, under the Papal rule, were absolute masters in the town. For at that time few paid any tribute of respect to the wives of the men who had made sacrifices for their country, or, like them, looked forward to the triumph of freedom, enlightenment, and justice. Now, indeed, in the end the old woman had won! But what did victory mean? Tears for her slighted affection, her rejected counsels, her ruined property; and she would rise and curse the sons who had deceived and plundered her, till a single glance from her elder daughter-in-law drove her back to the chimney corner, where she used to sit and pass her time in silent torpor, while this mood was upon her. Then she would sally out, and if she met her grandsons, in whom she sorrowfully noticed the same keen glance under the low brows, which she had first loved and afterwards learned to fear in her own sons, she would draw them to her with a torrent of angry words. She would warn them against their father's example, and inveigh against the people, as a mere rabble, not worth the sacrifice of a farthing, to say nothing of the loss of fortune, family, and freedom; and she would rail at her sons, the fathers of these boys, as the handsomest, but most ungrateful and impracticable children whom any mother in the town had brought to manhood. And pushing them angrily from her, the unhappy woman would address the boys in accents of half-distracted appeal: "Do try and have more sense, you good-for-nothing scoundrels, you, instead of standing there and grinning at me. Don't be like those silly mothers of yours in there, who are bewitched by my sons' madness. But, God knows, there are mad folks on all sides of me." Then she would thrust the lads from her, weeping, and bury herself in her retreat. As time went on, neither she nor the boys stood on ceremony with one another. They laughed at her, when she was in one of her fits of despondency, and she threw stones at them; and at last it came to this, that if they merely saw her sitting alone, they would call out, "Grandmamma, haven't you gone mad again?" and then the expected volley of stones would follow.

But why did the old woman hardly dare to utter a syllable in the presence of her daughter-in-law? For the same reason as that which had impelled her to keep silence before her sons in former times. Her own husband had been a man of delicate health, quite unequal to the strain of managing his worldly affairs; he had married her in order that she might supply his deficiencies. She had undoubtedly increased the value of his property; but in the process she wore him down. This man with his gentle smile, his varied intellectual interests, and his lofty ideals, suffered in her society. She could not destroy his nobler nature, but his peace of mind and content she did contrive to ruin. And yet the beauty of his character, which she had ignored while he lived, exercised its influence over her after he was dead; and when she saw it reanimated in the sons, or looking, as if in reproachful reminiscence of the past, through the pure eyes of her daughter-in-law, she felt herself subdued and overawed.

I have said the stones thrown by the grandmother seemed to have struck home in the grandsons and to have lodged deep in their hearts. Look at the two men as they walk in the procession! The younger--the one in civilian dress--had a smile round his somewhat thin lips, a smile in his small eyes; but it seemed to me that it would hardly be safe to presume on this. He had owed his advancement to his father's political friends, and had learnt, early in life, to show himself subservient and grateful, even when there was little enough gratitude in his heart.

But now turn to the elder of the two young men. The same small head, the same low brow, but with more breadth in both. No smile _there on mouth or eyes; I could not conceive the wish to see him smile. Tall and lean like his brother, he had more bone and muscle; and while both young men had an appearance of athletic power, as if they could have leaped over the hearse, the elder gave you the further impression that he was actually longing to perform some such feat. The younger brother's half languid gait, that told of bodily strength impaired by disuse, had become in the elder an impatient elasticity as if he moved on springs. His thoughts were clearly elsewhere; his eyes wandered absently to and fro, and his pre-occupation was obvious enough to me later on, when I offered him my card and reminded him of our previous acquaintance.

Subsequently I got into conversation with several of the townsfolk, and I inquired what had become of the old lady. The question was received with a laugh, and the reply, volunteered eagerly by several voices at once, that she had survived till the previous year, and had died at the age of ninety-five. I could see that her character was pretty well understood. With no less eagerness these gossips also informed me that she had lived to see the house freed from the mortgage, one vineyard bought back, and the whole property cleared of encumbrance. All this was the result of the gratitude felt towards the martyred patriot whose praises were now on every tongue, since he had become the great glory of his native town; for his life and his brother's constituted practically its only sacrifice to the cause of Italian liberation.

And the old woman had lived long enough to see all this!

I inquired after the wives of the two heroes. I was told that the younger had succumbed to her troubles--in particular to the crowning stroke of misfortune which had deprived her of her only child, a daughter. But the elder, the mother of the two young Mansanas, was still living. When the townsfolk spoke of her, their faces became graver, their voices more solemn; the story was told by one of the bystanders with occasional interpolations by the others, all however with a kind of seriousness which testified to the influence this noble, high-souled woman had obtained over them. I heard that she had found means to communicate with her husband while still in prison. She had been able to inform him that the Garibaldians had arranged for a rising in the town and an attack upon it from without, and that they were waiting for Mansana to escape in order that he might carry forward the movement in Rome itself. Escape he did, thanks to his own strength of will, and his wife's acuteness and devotion. By her advice he feigned insanity; he screamed till his voice gave way, and indeed, till his strength was exhausted, for he had refused to touch food or drink. At the imminent risk of death he persevered in this pretence, till they sent him to an asylum for lunatics. Here his wife was able to visit him, and to arrange his flight. But when he had escaped from captivity, he would not leave the town; the important preparations on foot required his presence. His wife first nursed him back to health and then took part in his hazardous enterprise. What other man in his place, after this long imprisonment, would have resisted the temptation to secure his freedom by crossing the frontier, which was scarcely more than two or three miles distant? But one of those for whom he had risked life, and all that made life worth living, betrayed him. He was seized and imprisoned again; and with his loss the greater part of the scheme, in which he had been concerned, came to nothing, or resulted only in defeat on the frontier, and in the condemnation of thousands of the patriots to captivity or the scaffold in the capital or the provincial towns. Before the hour of deliverance came, Mansana was beheaded and committed to his grave among the dead companions of his imprisonment, the thieves and murderers, who lay buried in the great Cemetery of the Malefactors, whence his bones had been removed this day.

And now his widow was there to await all that was left of him. Shrouded in her long dark mantle, she stood in front of the crowd that filled the flag-bedecked churchyard of Mansana's native town. The monumental tomb was finished, and that day, after the funeral ceremony was over, it was to be unveiled amid the thunder of cannon, answered by the blaze of bonfires from the mountains when darkness had set in.

Up towards the hill country, across the dusty yellow of the Campagna, our procession threaded its way. We passed from one mountain town to another; and everywhere, far as the eye could travel, it lighted on bareheaded crowds of spectators. The populace from all the neighbouring villages had gathered on the line of route. Bands of music filled the narrow streets with sound, bunting and coloured cloths hung from the windows, wreaths were thrown as the procession passed, flowers were strewn before it, handkerchiefs waved, and not a few eyes gleamed bright through tears. So we came at last to Mansana's native place, where the enthusiasm with which we were received mounted to the highest pitch, and where our numbers were now augmented by large crowds of persons who had joined us on the march and accompanied us for a considerable distance.

The throng was densest in and about the churchyard. But as a foreigner I was courteously allowed to make my way through, and was enabled to take up my position not far from the widowed lady. Many of the bystanders were moved to tears to see her, standing there with that still gaze of hers upon the coffin, the funeral wreaths, the silent crowds. But she did not weep; for all this pomp and ceremony could not give her back what she had lost, nor could it add one jot to the honours her own heart had long since rendered to the dead. She looked upon it all as upon something she had seen and known years ago. How beautiful she still was, I thought; and that not merely because of the noble curves that time had not yet wholly swept from brow and cheek, nor because of the eyes, which once had been the loveliest in the town, and indeed were so even when I knew her thirteen years before, in spite of the many tears they had shed. But more than all this, was the halo of truth and purity that surrounded her form, her movements, her face, her expression. This was as visible to the beholder as light itself, and like the light it transfigured what it touched. Treachery and deceit felt its influence the moment they came beneath her glance, and before she had had occasion to utter a syllable.

Never shall I forget the meeting between her and her sons. Both young men embraced and kissed her. She held each of them clasped in her arms for some moments as if she were praying over them. A deep hush fell on the spectators, and several men mechanically bared their heads. The younger Mansana, whom his mother had embraced first, drew back with his handkerchief at his eyes. The elder brother stood rooted to the spot when she had released him from her clasp. She looked long and intently upon him. Following her eyes, the gaze of the whole multitude was riveted upon him, while his cheek crimsoned under the ordeal. Her expression was full of an unfathomable insight, a sorrow beyond the reach of words. How often have I recalled it since! But the son, even while he reddened, relaxed no whit the stern directness of his gaze at her, and it was clear enough that she felt obliged to avert her own eyes lest they should rouse him to defiant anger. Here, in sharp antithesis to one another, the two divergent tendencies and contrasted characteristics of their family stood revealed.

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Captain Mansana - Chapter 2 Captain Mansana - Chapter 2

Captain Mansana - Chapter 2
CHAPTER IIBy the scene which I had witnessed my memory was long haunted; but not so much by a recollection of the impressive part which the mother had played, as by the defiant countenance, the tall, muscular figure, and the athletic bearing, of the young officer of the Bersaglieri. I was curious to learn something of his history, and discovered, to my surprise, that it was the daring exploits of this son, which, by recalling attention to the father, were responsible for the tardy honours now accorded to the latter's memory. I felt I had struck upon something characteristically Italian. The

Captain Mansana - Author's Preface Captain Mansana - Author's Preface

Captain Mansana - Author's Preface
The following note was prefixed by the author to the first edition of "Captain Mansana: an Italian Tale":This story was originally published, several years ago, in a Danish Christmas Annual, "From Hill and Dale," which was edited by Mr. H. J. Greensteen. "Captain Mansana" has already run through two editions in German, and many friends have urged the author to republish it, in a separate form, and in his own tongue.The following remarks seem necessary in consequence of some criticisms which have appeared in the Danish and Swedish press. The narrative, in all essential particulars, is based on facts, and those