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CHAPTER 4



Fortification Display’d

why does roberto evoke Casale when describing his first days on the ship? His taste for parallels is one reason, of course: besieged then, besieged now. But from a man of his century we demand something better. If anything, what should have fascinated him in the similarity are the differences, fertile in elaborate antitheses: Casale he had entered of his own choice, to prevent others from entering; he had been cast up on the Daphne, and yearned only to leave it. But I would say, rather, that while he lived a life of shadows, he recalled a story of violent deeds performed in broad daylight, so that the sun-filled days of the siege, which his memory restored to him, would compensate for this dim roaming. And perhaps there was something more to it. In the first part of Roberto’s life, there had been only two periods in which he learned some­thing of the world and of the ways of inhabiting it; I refer to the few months of the siege and to the later years in Paris. Now he was going through his third formative period, perhaps the last, at the end of which maturity might coincide with dissolution, and he was trying to decipher its secret message, seeing the past as a figure of the present.

Casale, at the beginning, was a story of sorties. Roberto tells this story to the Lady, transfiguring it, as if to say that, unable as he had been to storm the castle of her intact snow, shaken but not undone by the flame of his two suns, in the flame of that earlier sun he had still been able to pit himself against those who laid siege to his Monferrato citadel.

The morning after the men from La Griva arrived, Toiras sent some single officers, carbines on their shoulder, to observe what the Neapolitans were installing on the hill conquered the previous day. The officers approached too closely, and shots were exchanged: a young lieutenant of the Pompadour regi­ment was killed. His comrades carried him back inside the walls, and Roberto saw the first slain man in his life. Toiras decided to have his men occupy the hovels he had mentioned the day before.

From the bastions it was easy to observe the advance of the ten musketeers, who at a certain point separated in an attempt to seize the first house, as if with pincers. Cannon fire from the walls passed above their heads and tore the roof off the house: like a swarm of insects, Spaniards dashed out and fled. The musketeers let them escape, took the house, barri­caded themselves inside, and began laying down a harassing fire towards the hill.

It seemed advisable to repeat the operation against the other houses: even from the bastions it was clear that the Neapolitans had begun digging trenches, edging them with fagots and gabions. But these did not circumscribe the hill, they ran towards the plain. Roberto learned that this was how the enemy started constructing mine tunnels. Once these reached the walls, they would be packed, along their final stretch, with kegs of powder. It was thus necessary to prevent the initial digging from reaching a depth sufficient to allow further digging underground, otherwise the enemy from that point on could work under cover. This was the whole game: to anticipate from outside, in the open, the construction of the tunnels, and to dig countermine-tunnels of one’s own from the other direction, until the relief army arrived and while provisions and ammunition lasted. In a siege there is nothing else to do: harry the other side, and wait.

The following morning, as promised, it was the turn of the outwork. Roberto found himself grasping his caliver in the midst of an unruly bunch of men who back in Lu or Cuccaro or Odalengo had never wanted to work. With some surly Cor-sicans, they were all crammed into boats to cross the Po, after two French companies had already touched the other shore. Toiras and his staff observed from the right bank, and old Pozzo saluted his son before waving him on with one hand, then put his forefinger to his cheekbone and pulled the skin down, as if to say, “Keep your eyes open!”

The three companies made camp in the outwork. Con­struction had not been completed, and part of the finished walls had already collapsed. The men spent the day barricading the gaps. The position was well protected by a ditch, beyond which some sentries were posted. When night fell, the sky was so bright that the sentries dozed off, and not even the officers considered an attack possible. But suddenly they heard the charge sounded, and they saw the Spanish light cavalry appear.

Roberto had been set by Captain Bassiani behind some bales of straw that patched a fallen part of the outer wall: he had no time to realize what was happening. Each cavalryman had a musketeer behind him and, as they arrived at the ditch, the horses began to follow it, surrounding the post while the mus­keteers fired, eliminating the few sentries. Then each muske­teer jumped from his horse’s back, rolling into the ditch. As the horsemen formed a semicircle before the entrance, opening heavy fire and forcing the defenders to seek cover, the musketeers, unharmed, reached the gate and the more vulnerable breaches.

The Italian company, which was on guard, had emptied its weapons and then scattered, seized with panic, and they would long be reviled for this; but the French companies could do no better. Between the first attack and the scaling of the walls only a few minutes had passed, and the rest of the men were surprised by the attackers, who were inside the walls before the defenders could even grab their weapons.

The enemy, exploiting this surprise, were slaughtering the garrison, and they were so numerous that while some contin­ued felling the defenders still on their feet, others had already begun despoiling the fallen. Roberto, after firing on the mus­keteers, was reloading painfully, his shoulder sore from the recoil; he was unprepared for the charge of the cavalry. As the charge passed over his head through the breach, a horse’s hoofs buried him under the collapsing barricade. It was a stroke of luck: protected by the fallen bales, he survived the first, murderous impact, and now, glancing from beneath his rick, he saw with horror the enemies finishing off the wounded, hacking at a finger in order to steal a ring, or a whole hand for a bracelet.

Captain Bassiani, to compensate for the shame of his men’s rout, fought on bravely; but he was surrounded and had to surrender. From the riverbank they saw that the situation was critical, and Colonel La Grange, who had left the outwork after an inspection and was regaining Casale, wanted to rush to the assistance of the defenders, but he was restrained by his officers, who advised him rather to ask the city for reinforce­ments. From the right bank more boats set out, while Toiras, having been wakened abruptly, now arrived at full tilt. It quickly became clear that the French were routed, and the

only thing to do was to lay down some covering fire to help the survivors reach the river.

In this confusion old Po/zo could be seen impatiently gal­loping back and forth between the staff and the jetty, seeking Roberto among those who had escaped. When it was almost certain that no more boats were coming, he was heard to utter “Oh cripes!” Then, as a man who knew the whims of the river, making a fool of those who had till then heaved and rowed, he chose a spot opposite one of the sandbars and spurred his horse into the water. Crossing a bar, he was on the other shore without even having made the animal swim, and he dashed like a madman, sword upraised, towards the outwork.

As the sky was already growing light, a group of enemy musketeers surrounded him, having no idea who this solitary rider was. The solitary rider rode through them, eliminating at least five with unerring downward blows; he encountered two cavalrymen, made his horse rear, bent to one side, avoid­ing a thrust, and suddenly sat erect, swinging his blade in a circle: the first adversary slumped over his saddle with his guts slipping down into his boots as the horse ran off; the second remained with his eyes wide, his fingers seeking one ear which, while still attached to his cheek, was hanging below his chin.

Pozzo arrived at the outwork. The invaders, busy stripping the last to fall—fugitives shot in the back—had no idea where this man had come from. He entered the compound, calling his son in a loud voice; he swept away another four people as he described a circle, jabbing his sword at all the cardinal points. Emerging from the straw, Roberto saw him at a dis­tance and, before recognizing his father, he recognized Pa-gnufli, his father’s mount and his own playmate for years. He stuck two fingers into his mouth and let out a whistle the animal knew well, and in fact Pagnufli reared, pricked up his ears, and began carrying the father towards the breach. Pozzo saw Roberto and shouted, “What are you doing in a place like that? Mount, you lunatic!” And as Roberto sprang onto the horse’s back and clung to his father’s waist, Pozzo said, “God’s truth, you’re never where you should be.” Then, spurring Pagnufli again, he galloped off towards the river.

Now some of the looters realized that this man in this place was out of place, and they pointed at him, shouting. An officer wearing a dented cuirass and with three soldiers follow­ing him tried to block Pozzo’s path. The old man saw him, started to swerve, then pulled on the reins and cried, “Talk about fate!” Roberto looked ahead and realized that this was the Spaniard who had let them pass three days before. The officer, too, had recognized his prey, and he advanced, eyes gleaming, sword upraised.

Old Pozzo rapidly shifted his sword to his left hand, drew his pistol from his belt, and held out his arm, all so quickly that the Spaniard was surprised; in his impetuosity he was now almost facing Pozzo, who however did not fire at once. He allowed himself the time to say, “Sorry about the pistol. But you’re wearing a breastplate, so I have every right—” He pressed the trigger and felled the man with a bullet in his mouth. The soldiers, seeing their leader fall, took flight, and Pozzo replaced the pistol, saying, “We’d better go on before they lose their temper.... Move, Pagnufli!”

In a great cloud of dust they crossed the ground and, amid violent spray, the river, while in the distance some men were still emptying their weapons after them.

They reached the right bank, to applause. Toiras said: “Tres bien fait, mon cher ami,” then added, to Roberto, “La Grive, today all of them ran off, and only you remained. What’s bred in the bone... You’re wasted in that company of cowards. You will join my staff.”

Roberto thanked him and then, climbing down from the saddle, held out a hand to his father, to thank him. Pozzo clasped it absently, saying, “I’m sorry for that Spaniard, such a fine gentleman. Well, war’s an ugly animal, that’s sure. Any­way, my son, never forget: always be good, but if somebody comes at you and means to kill you, then he’s in the wrong. Am I right?”

They re-entered the city, and Roberto heard his father still muttering to himself, “I didn’t go looking for him....”



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