TWO GEN­TLE­MEN OF VERONA

A silent epic of youth­ful de­vo­tion

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - A. J. CRONIN

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.

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