TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA
A silent epic of youthful devotion
One doesn’t have to be rich to be a true gentleman.
As we drove through the foothills of the Alps, two small boys stopped us on the outskirts of Verona. They were selling wild strawberries, scarlet berries that looked delicious against the green leaves lining the wicker baskets.
“Don’t buy,” warned Luigi, our cautious driver. “You will get fruit much better in Verona. Besides, these boys…” He shrugged his shoulders to convey his disapproval of their shabby appearance.
One boy wore a worn jersey and cut-off khaki pants, the other a shortened army tunic gathered in loose folds about his skinny frame. Yet, gazing at the two little figures, with their brown skin, tangled hair and dark earnest eyes, we felt ourselves strangely attracted. My companion spoke to the boys and discovered that they were brothers. Nicola, the elder, was 13; Jacopo, who barely came up to the door handle of the car, was nearly 12. We bought their biggest basket, then set off towards town.
Verona is a lovely city, rich in history, with quiet medieval streets and splendid buildings of an exquisite pale honey colour. Romeo and Juliet are reputed to have lived there. Bombed in the recent war, it has lost its bridges, but not its gaiety or charm.
Next morning, coming out of our hotel, we drew up short. There, bent over shoeshine boxes beside the fountain in the public square, doing a brisk business, were our two young friends of the previous afternoon.
We watched for a while, then, as trade slackened, we went over. They greeted us with friendly faces. “I thought you picked fruit,” I said. “We do many things, sir,” Nicola answered seriously. He glanced at us hopefully. “Often we show visitors through the town… to Juliet’s tomb and other places of interest.”
“All right,” I smiled. “You take us along.” As we made the rounds, my interest was again provoked by their remarkable demeanour. They were childish enough, and in many ways quite artless. Jacopo, although his lips were paler than they should have been, was lively as a squirrel. Nicola’s smile was steady and engaging. Yet in both these boyish faces there was a seriousness which one respected, an air of purpose far beyond their years.
In the week which followed we saw them frequently, for they proved extremely useful to us. If we wanted a pack of American cigarettes, or seats for the opera, or the name of a restaurant that could provide good ravioli, Nicola and Jacopo could be relied upon to satisfy our needs, with their usual cheerful competence.
What struck us most was their unremitting willingness to work. During these summer days, under the hot sun, and in the long evenings when the air blew chill from the mountains, they shined shoes, sold
fruit, hawked newspapers, conducted tourists round the town, ran errands – they exploited every avenue which the troubled economy of the town left open to them.
One night, we came upon them in the windy and deserted square, resting on the stone pavement beneath the pale arc lights. Nicola sat upright, his face drawn by fatigue. A bundle of unsold newspapers lay at his feet, while Jacopo, his head pillowed upon his brother’s shoulder, was asleep. It was nearly midnight.
“Why are you out so late, Nicola?”
He had sta r ted sharply as I spoke but now he gave me his quiet, independent glance.
“Wait ing for the last bus from Padua. We shall sell all our papers when it comes in.”
“Must you keep at it so hard? You both look rather tired.” “We are not complaining, sir.” His tone, while perfectly polite, discouraged further inquiry. But next morning, when I went over to the fountain to have my shoes shined, I said, “Nicola, the way you and Jacopo work, you must earn quite a bit. You spend nothing on clothes. You eat little enough – when I see you having a meal it’s usually black bread and figs. Tell me, what do you do with your money?”
He coloured deeply under his sunburn, then grew pale. His gaze fell to the ground. “You must be saving up to emigrate to America,” I suggested.
He looked at me sideways, spoke with an effort. “We should greatly like to go to the US. But here, at present, we have other plans.” “What plans?” He smiled uncomfortably, with that remote air which never failed to baffle me. “Just plans, sir.” “Well,” I said, “we’re leaving on Monday. Is there anything I can do for you before we go?”
Nicola shook his head, but suddenly Jacopo’s nostrils quivered like a puppy’s and he piped up eagerly.
“Sir,” he burst out, “on Sundays we visit the country, to Poleta, 30 kilometres from here. Usually we hire bicycles. But tomorrow, since you are so kind, you might send us in your car.”
I had already told Luigi he might have the Sunday off. However, I answered, “I’ll drive you out myself.” There was a pause. Nicola was glaring at his young brother. “We could not think of troubling you, sir.” “It won’t be any trouble.” He bit his lip, then, in a rather putout tone, he said, “Very well.”
Next morning, we found our two young friends bent over shoeshine boxes in the public square
The following afternoon we drove to the tiny picturesque village set high upon the hillside amidst sheltering chestnut groves, with a few pines on the upper slopes and a deep blue lake beneath. I imagined that our destination would be some humble dwelling. But, directed by Jacopo’s shrill treble, we drew up at a large red-roofed villa, surrounded by a high stone wall. I could scarcely believe my eyes and before I could recover breath my two passengers had leapt nimbly from the car. “We shall not be long, sir. Perhaps only an hour. Maybe you’d like to go to the café in the village for a drink?” They disappeared beyond the corner of the wall.
When a few minutes had elapsed I followed. I found a side-entrance and, determinedly, rang the bell.
A pleasant-looking woman with a ruddy complexion and steel-rimmed spectacles appeared. I blinked as I saw that she was dressed in the white uniform of a trained nurse. “I just brought two small boys here.” “Ah, yes.” Her face lit up; she opened the door to admit me. “Nicola and Jacopo. I will take you up.”
She led me through a cool tiled vestibule into the hospital – for hospital the villa had become. We traversed a waxed and polished corridor between well-equipped wards. We went upstairs to a southern balcony which opened to a vista of the gardens and the lake. On the threshold of a little cubicle the nurse paused, put her finger to her lips and, with a smile, bade me look through the glass partition. The two boys were seated at the bedside of a girl of about 20 who, propped up on pillows, wearing a pretty lace jacket, was listening to their chatter, her eyes soft and tender. Despite the faint flush high upon her cheekbones and the queer inertness of her posture, one could discern at a glance her resemblance to her brothers. A vase of wild flowers stood on her table, beside a dish of fruit and several books.
“Won’t you go in?” the nurse murmured. “Lucia will be pleased to see you.” I shook my head. I felt I could not bear to intrude upon this happy family party. But at the foot of the staircase I drew up and begged her to tell me all she knew about these boys.
She was eager to do so. They were, she explained, quite alone in the world, except for this sister, Lucia. Their father, a widower, a wellknown singer at La Scala, had been killed in the early part of the war.
The nurse paused, put her finger to her lips and, with a smile, bade me look through the glass partition
Shortly afterward a bomb had destroyed their home and thrown the three children onto the streets. They had always known a comfortable and cultured life – Lucia had herself been training as a singer – and they had suffered horribly from near starvation and exposure to the cold Veronese winter.
For months they had barely kept themselves alive in a sort of shelter they built with their own hands amidst the rubble. Then the German Elite Guard established headquarters in Verona and for three dreadful years ruled the city with ruthless severity. The boys grew to hate those harsh, unwanted masters and when the resistance movement began secretly to form they were among the first to join. It was not a matter of ‘playing war’. Their extreme youth and insignificant size, added to an intimate knowledge of the neighbouring hills, made them immensely valuable. They were used to carry messages to the forces of liberation and, more dangerous still, to ferret out information on the movements of the German troops.
The good nurse broke off, her eyes moist, then with even deeper feeling she went on. “I need not tell you how fine they were, these infants. How they went in the darkness, through the mountain passes, with letters in their shoes which might cause them to be shot. And when it was all over, and we had peace at last, they came back to their beloved sister. And they found her suffering from tuberculosis of the spine, contracted during the miseries of the war.” She paused, took a quick breath. “Did they give up? I do not have to answer that question. They brought her here, persuaded us to take her into the hospital. In the 12 months she has been our patient she has made good progress. There is every hope that one day she will walk – and sing – again.
“Of course, everything is so difficult now, food so scarce and dear, we could not keep going unless we charged a fee. But every week, Lucia’s brothers have made their payment.” She added, simply, “I don’t know what they do, I do not ask. Work is scarce in Verona. But whatever it is, I know they do it well.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “They couldn’t do it better.”
I waited outside until the boys rejoined me, then drove them back to the city. They sat beside me, not speaking, in a mood of quiet contentment. For my part, I did not say a word – I knew they would prefer to feel that they had safely kept their secret. Yet this silent epic of youthful devotion had touched me deeply. War had not broken their spirit. And, if an untimely maturity had been forced upon them, at least they had accepted it with dignity and courage. Their selfless action brought a new nobility to human life, gave promise of a greater hope for human society.