THE morning was cool. It hit with the steel-like edge of a foil, the fine mountain air streaking down the mountainside in pursuit of the dew. The sun crept along the level of neatly dressed vineyards and swept across their sloping flanks, ever pressing toward the valley. The empurpled hills stood out sharp and solemn in the green-gold air, while a sunny silence brooded over the stone cottages and the cross of the church at the far side of the piazza.
Antonio Yon stood motionless at the door of his shop. He was short, stocky, and sturdy, and his light complexion against his dark hair and brown eyes blended well with his Franz Josef whiskers, which he wore as a symbol of power and authority in his household.
Usually, each morning, he would stroll out of his store to the center of the piazza of this town, to gaze with satisfaction at the tall, graceful, yet powerful chestnut trees that followed the line of the cobbled road entering the Italian village. He would breathe deep of the fresh glacier-cooled air, aromatic with the scent of pine, and ponder with pride the beauty of nature and depth of history in a combined effort in this, his home.
Settimo, he would think—Settimo Vittone! The seventh Vittonius had been a Roman lord, guardian of the entrance to these Italian plains. For hundreds of years this fort and village had stood. Countless hordes had passed its gates. Innumerable battles had been waged around it. The ever-swirling D’Ore Baltea, raged down from its glacier home through this majestic valley, in its everlasting hurry to reach the Po, much as the warriors had raced in frenzy toward their deaths. This town was steeped in history, as it was the gates to the valley of Aosta.
Antonio enjoyed these few moments each morning before beginning the long hours of work at his bench. He reveled in reviewing the town’s history, his history, as he stood on the mountain slope.
He would gaze in wonder at the Corinthian pillars and the wide steps of the main church to his right, the tall tower of which was silhouetted against the mountain backdrop, thickly surfaced by vineyards and chestnut trees. Those vineyards! What memories he had of them! The Yons, his ancestors, even down to his father, had owned most of them; but there had been many brothers and cousins to divide them among. Now each plot of land was not fruitful enough to feed the Yons who lived on it.
“That’s why I must be a Jack-of-all-trades,” he would muse. “A bit of a farmer on what is left of our land, a bit of a trader, a tailor, a watchmaker—yes, even an inventor.” At this point he would generally quiz his brain. “There must be some way to make indelible ink.” Then his thoughts would plunge into gloomy depths, like an elevator dropping to the ground floor of a building, and he would say to himself: “The village jackass! A university graduate, my father once a general in the army, and I’m the village jackass!” He would sneer as his eyes turned resentfully to the neat shop window that displayed rows of watches, clocks, and small handicrafts.
When the sun caressed the cross on the bell tower, Antonio knew it was time to open up. Margherita would be upstairs getting the children ready for school. Little Pietro already would have been in at least two scraps with his ever-yielding sister Lina. As the bells chimed, he would throw the latch on the front door of his shop, his mind on the lovely, fragile Margherita. A wry smile would form on his lips as he thought of his wife. “Margherita, poor soul. I should be more tender to her. Ten of them and me in the bargain.” Then, as he moved behind the bench full of test tubes and ink, he would think, “From lord to lard in two generations. Maybe some son of mine may yet change the trend.”
Still, on this cool morning in 1898, with the chestnuts filtering shadows upon the green carpet of the piazza, the quiet peace of the sunlit valley was not in him. Instead, rage blazed in his heart, while his thoughts came growling at him like a pack of curs. He turned into his shop and gave the door a savage kick, which sent the tin bell into a clatter. Once at his bench he tried feverishly to apply himself to the task before him, but his mind began to heat along with the water in the test tube. The water had just about reached the bubbling point when his oldest son, Constantino, walked in.
Constantino looked like his father, but he was taller by an inch and darker by a shade. But he had the same rugged physique of the older man, and some of his sternness.
Antonio did not wait for Constantino to approach him before his voice exploded like a steam whistle.
“That brother of yours is no good! Just full of the diavolo.” His speech seemed to gather momentum as he spoke, spilling expletives, and he gesticulated as he dashed headlong into his subject.
“Accidenti! And I once thought I had something different.” His whiskers twitched nervously. “All I got was a cavolo, a cabbage. Dio mio!”
Constantino folded his arms and looked sternly at his father, that is, as sternly as his twenty-three years and his fear for the older man's temper allowed him.
“Papà!” The appellation came out in staccato syllables. Then its tones dropped to an even register and he became calmer in manner. Only his eyes betrayed the emotion he felt.
“Papà!” he repeated. “I’ve got to talk to you.” He waited for a burst of verbal interruption from the old man, and when none came he took courage. “You’ve seen much of life. Me? All I’ve seen is twenty-three years. The last two I’ve spent in America. The rest I’ve lived right here in this Italian village. I know how you and Mother have worked for the family. I know how you’ve tried to knock honor and high ideals into the heads of all of us children. Pietro— —“
“Pietro bestia!” Antonio spat out his youngest son’s name in disgust.
Constantino swung a chair around and straddled it, resting his arms upon the back. He eyed his father and seemed to be weighing his words carefully, as if striving for perfect control.
“I’ll come to Pietro in a moment,” he said. “I’m going back to America soon, to try to make my way in the world. I’ve always felt that you had one belief—that some day one of us Yons would return the family to a position of glory and achievement. I’ve felt this ever since I was a child. Now I can tell you something you do not know.” He paused for breath.
Antonio stood by his bench, feet apart, eyes furrowed, watching his son and drinking in his every word.
“Papà!” the young man continued. “You were amazed when I left my studies and sailed off to America, the first chance I got. You accepted the money I sent home as a great sacrifice. It was, in part.” He looked out the window at the chestnut trees for a moment, as if searching their tops for words. “I washed dishes for a dollar oftener than I played the piano for a dollar.”
His father’s head dropped a bit as if this disclosure was more than he could bear. Constantino noticed this as he continued: “I had an important reason for making this sacrifice, Papà. That reason was and is Pietro, the youngster you’ve just been cursing.”
He let his words sink in for a second, then rose and walked closer to his father. He leaned back against the workbench and, with one hand upon the sleeve of the older man’s coat, pleaded for his younger brother. “Pietro is no diavolo, Papà. Pietro is the seed of a great man. You said yourself you thought you had something in him. Well, you have. When I hear that twelve-year-old play, I can’t close my eyes, for if I should I would take him for twenty-four. I know I gave him his first lessons, Papà, but he has it. He has more than I will ever have. He’s gifted. He’s different from any of us.”
He walked toward the front of the little shop to hide his emotions before he went on: “That boy must be given his chance. He must. I didn’t get my degree, but he’s got to get his. He’s your big chance and mine. That’s why I walked out and went to America to wash dishes, to play the piano—anything to give that boy his chance.”
Antonio gazed at the broad back of his son, deeply touched by his loyalty and sacrifice. “You think he’s worth it?” he queried.
“I just know it, Papà. I’m sure of it.”
Suddenly Antonio’s eyes blazed like coals in a furnace. His anger returned and his voice popped like a cork withdrawn from a bottle. “For a second you almost convinced me with your fine talk, Pietro!” He spat out the name in short staccato. “You believe in Pietro! Salame! Do you know what he did last month?” He began to shake one fist as he spoke.
Constantino turned abruptly. “I don't give a good trout from the ‘Dora’ what he did. He is a boy who bursts with imagination. You don’t want to kill that in him, do you?” He stopped, amazed at his own aggression toward his arrogant father.
“Senti! Senti!” Antonio brought his waving fist down upon his workbench like a presiding officer bringing a gavel into play to call attention. “Senti!” His voice reached a high pitch. “That boy is possessed. You can talk your fancy talk, but I’ll tell you what he did. He played the piano in the town band on a Saturday night at Bollos. Mio Dio! That hole of a place!”
For a passing second he noted the surprise on his oldest son’s face. Then his voice climbed to a crescendo again. “He sneaked out of the house—he did. He lied too. Said he was going to sleep up at Sparavera vineyards to catch that prowler. Did he go there? No! No! I tell you he went to the dance hall, and half the village told me the next morning that he played the piano for the puttanas of the town until dawn.” He paused, then began shaking the table again. “I beat him, I did. I gave it to him good. He must learn to obey me.” He drew himself to his full height to emphasize his importance.
“Papà—Papà.” Constantino started to defend his brother again.
“Don’t Papà me,” Antonio’s whiskers bristled along with his voice. “Senti, I’m not through. That boy never cried during the flogging. He just stuck out that stubborn jaw of his. Santa Maria! Next night he went back—the very next night!” His fists began rattling the test tubes upon the table once more. “The same thing over again. I’d locked him in his room. Did that stop him? He has a will, that boy.”
Constantino broke in. “But, Papà, that’s what I’m talking about, that will, that energy, that imagination—let’s direct all this. Did Pietro explain? Or didn’t you let him have his say?”
“His say?” Antonio was taken back at any hint of unfairness on his part. “Si—I gave him his say. Would I court-martial a soldier without a hearing?”
“But what did he say?” urged Constantino, the hint of a smile playing at the corners of his handsome mouth as he thought of the incongruous picture of his twelve-year-old brother beating out a quick tempo in a local dance hall.
“He said they offered him ten lire for the two nights. Porco Mondo! Ten lire for his reputation! Only because it would buy him two lessons from old Berotti, down in Ivrea. That cavolo can’t even see the keyboard. How can he teach piano?”
Constantino swung around, determined to take his brother’s part. “That proves what I’ve been saying. Can’t you see? Do you think Pietro liked the stink in that place any better than you or I would? I know him inside out, and I know he loves beautiful things far too much to do a thing like that, except to get something he wants with all his heart and soul. Papà, Pietro has the kind of will that can climb any wall. Together we can build a great man out of this crazy, talented boy.”
Father and son stood facing each other and, as their eyes met, slowly the father weakened. “Tantin.” He hadn’t called his son by this nickname in years. “Tantin, I hope some day Pietro will appreciate what you are doing.”
“I don’t much care whether he does or not, so long as he gets his chance.” Constantino’s voice was full of devotion. “I have plans for Pietro. I just know he’s gifted. I believe in him. That’s all.” He pulled out of his pocket a slip of yellow paper covered with figures, assured at last that he had won his father’s interest.
The two of them sat down at the workbench with the paper before them. The younger man spoke. “I’ve talked with Burbatti at the conservatory in Turino. I told him Pietro could already teach all the teachers we have around here.” Pride beamed in his face as he went on. “He says that, though Pietro is two years too young, he will be accepted if he passes the examinations with a high mark. If he makes it, he can start in September.”
Antonio interrupted. “I can’t afford it, my son. Even if the boy is worth it, where would I get the money?” He choked and bowed his head. “I hope you’ll never know what it does to a man to be forced to deny his own flesh and blood the very use of his brains.”
“I’m not through, Papà. I have it all figured out. I can help. Together we can do it. Next year he can earn a scholarship. I know he can.”
The older man fingered his beard, in contemplation. “Do you really think he can?”
“He has a gift, Papà, and a will to learn. Da vera, he’ll even win a scholarship to Sainte Cecilia’s in Rome some day. You wait and see.”
"But how would Pietro live in Turino? I haven’t much to give him.”
“He’d have to live poorly, but if I know my brother, that would not worry him.”
Antonio rose from the bench and stretched his legs. Through the window his eyes saw the cross on the little church, now bright in the sunlight, just as the chimes struck nine. Once more he was the proud father, as he reached and touched his oldest son’s shoulder in warm appreciation.
“Pietro will have his chance,” he said simply. “We’ll tell him tonight.”