The Strand Magazine/Volume 3/Issue 13/The Cornet-Player

The Cornet-Player.

From the Spanish of Pedro A. de Alarcon.

[Pedro Antonio de Alarcon was born in 1833, at Guadix, in the province of Granada. Having studied philosophy in Granada, he returned to Guadix to follow an ecclesiastical calling, but soon abandoned it for a literary career, which was more to his taste. He went to Madrid, and contributed to several papers, his attractive style making a decided impression. When the Revolution broke out in 1854, Alarcon started a Republican paper; but his enthusiasm for Republican ideas appears to have been of short duration. The war in Africa afforded him an opportunity to satisfy his desire for adventure; rifle and pen alternately in hand, he followed the military operations; and wrote his very successful "Diary of an Eye-Witness." He took part in politics, becoming in turn deputy and senator; but finally abandoned everything in favour of literary work. His stories and poems enjoy considerable popularity. When he published the following story he declared that it would be his last; and, to the grief of his admirers, so it proved. He died in July last, after years of suffering.]

"OH! Don Basilio, do play us a tune upon the cornet, so that we can have a dance!"

"Yes, yes, Don Basilio! Do play the cornet!"

"Bring Don Basilio the cornet which Joaquin had when he was learning."

"It is not a very good one, but you will play it, will you not, Don Basilio?"


"Why not?"

"Because I cannot!"

"Oh!" (derisively). "Why, you used to be a bandmaster in an infantry regiment!"

"Well, yes; it is quite true. I used to play the cornet. I was a crack player, as you say. But it is also a fact that about twelve years ago I gave my cornet to a beggar, and have never blown a note since."

"Bravo! Here's the cornet! Now you must play."

"I am very sorry, dear children, but I really cannot play."

"Oh, yes, you will! You are so good-natured!"

"Won't you play to please me, grandfather?"

"And me, uncle?"

"Good gracious, children, do not tease me so! I have told you that I do not play."

"But why?"

"Because I made a vow that I would not play. I made a vow to myself, to one who is now dead, and to your poor mother, my daughter!"

At these words all faces became sorrowful.

"Ah!" sighed the old man, "if you knew what it cost me to learn the cornet!"

"Tell us the story!" cried the younger ones in chorus.

"Well, there is a story attached to it," said Don Basilio, "so I will tell it."

And, seating himself under a tree, the old man related, to the swarm of young people who surrounded him, how he had learned to play the cornet:—

"It is some years now since the Civil War broke out in Spain. I had friend, a lieutenant in the same battalion as I, the most accomplished man I ever knew. We had been educated together, left college together, and fought side by side in many a fight. We were both willing to die in the cause of freedom—he was, if possible, more enthusiastic than I!

"But what happened? A superior officer was guilty of an act of injustice towards my friend Ramon—one of those cases of abuse of authority which spoil the most honourable careers—in short, an arbitrary act so offended the lieutenant as to cause him to leave the army, to separate from me, his friend, and go over to the opposite party. He said he would kill the officer, for he was very high-spirited, and would not take an insult from anybody. Nothing that I could say was of use. We were at that time in Asturia, about three leagues from the enemy. Ramon was to desert that night. It was cold and rainy, dark and dismal, that night before the battle.

"It was about midnight when Ramon entered my tent and aroused me. 'Basilio!' he whispered in my ear.

"'Who is that?"

"'It is I. Good bye!'

"'What! are you going already?'

"'Yes. Good-bye!' And he grasped my hand. 'Listen,' he continued. Should we have a battle to-morrow, which seems probable, and meet on the field———'

"'I know; we are friends.'

"'Good; we salute each other and go on fighting. It is probable that I shall die to-morrow, for I am resolved not to leave the field until I have killed the Colonel. As for yourself, do not be too rash; fame is only a shadow.'

"'So is life.'

"'You are right. Well, may you become a general!' exclaimed Ramon; the pay is certainly not shadowy. Alas! all that is finished for me!'

"'Good gracious, what an idea!' I cried, with assumed confidence. 'You see if we do not both survive the battle to-morrow.'

"'Suppose we make an appointment?'

"'Where, and at what time?'

"'At the San Nicholas Asylum, at one o'clock at night. If either of us does not appear, he has fallen. Is that agreed?'

"'Right! Now, farewell!'


"We embraced one another tenderly, and Ramon vanished in the shadows of night.

"As we feared—or, rather, as we hoped—the insurgents attacked us on the following day. The fight was a fierce one, and lasted from three o'clock in the afternoon till nightfall. I saw Ramon once; he was wearing the Carlist cap. He had already become commandant, and had killed our colonel. I was not so fortunate; the insurgents took me prisoner.

One o'clock at night—the hour of my appointment with Ramon! I was confined in a cell in the prison of a small town occupied by the Carlists.

"I asked after Ramon and the reply was: 'Ah! he is a brave fellow. He killed a colonel. But he is dead, no doubt.'

"'What! dead?'

"'Yes; he has not been seen since the battle.'

"I leave you to guess what I went through that night. One gleam of hope remained that Ramon was waiting for me in the Asylum of San Nicolas, and this was the reason he had not returned to the insurgent camp. 'How great will be his grief,' I thought, "when he finds that I do not arrive; he will think I am dead. And is my last hour really far off? The insurgents always shoot their prisoners! To-morrow I must die; but Ramon will return before then. But suppose he has fallen? Good Heaven! relieve me from this uncertainty! And thus I waited for the morrow.

"An army chaplain entered the cell in the morning; my companions in misfortune were still sleeping


"'Death?' I exclaimed when I saw the chaplain.

"'Yes,' he answered, in a gentle voice.

"'Are we to die at once?'

"'No; in three hours' time.'

"A minute later my companions were all awake, and the prison resounded with cries, sobs, and curses.

"They allowed me to wear my officer's uniform; a Carlist cap was placed on my head, and a soldier's cloak thrown round me. In this way I walked to the place of execution with my twenty companions. One prisoner—and only one—escaped death; he was a musician, and they spared the lives of musicians because they did not fight, and because they, the Carlists, were in need of bands for their battalions."

"And were you a musician, Don Basilio? Were you saved by being a musician?" interrupted all the young people at the same time.

"No, my children," answered the veteran; "I was not a musician, I scarcely understood a note of music."

"The square was formed" (continued Don Basilio), "and we were placed in the middle. My number was ten: that is, I was to be the tenth to die. Then I thought of my wife and my daughter—your mother, child.

"The firing began; I was blindfolded, so could not see my companions. I tried to count the volleys, so that I might know when my turn came; but I lost count at about the third volley. Oh! those volleys! At one time they seemed a thousand miles off, the next time so close that they seemed to be fired at me.

"'This time!' I thought. The reports rang out and still I was untouched.

"'Now it is my turn,' I said to myself for the last time. I felt something clutch me by the shoulders and shake me, and there was a roar in my ears. I fell unconscious; I imagined that I was shot dead.

"The next thing I remembered was that I seemed to be lying on my bed in the prison. I could see nothing. I raised my hand to my eyes to take off the bandage, but I touched my eyes instead; they were wide open.

"The prison cell was quite dark; I heard the noise of bells and trembled. It was the evening bells. 'Nine o'clock,' I thought; 'but what day is it?'

"A shadow, blacker than the darkness of the cell, bent over me. It appeared to be a man; and where were all the others? All shot dead? And I? I lived; or else I was in my grave, dreaming all kinds of nonsense. My lips mechanically whispered a name, the name which filled my mind:

"A shadow bent over me."


"'What do you want?’ answered the shadow at my side.

"'Great Heaven!' I cried, shuddering with horror; "am I in the other world?'

"'No,' said the same voice.

"'And I, am I alive too?'


"'Ramon! Are you alive?'


"'Where am I? Is this the Asylum of San Nicolas! Then I am not a prisoner, and T have dreamt it all.'

"'No, Basilio, you have not dreamt it. Listen.' And this is what he told me:

"'Yesterday I killed the Colonel on the field of battle; I am avenged! I continued to fight and deal out death, for I was blind and mad with rage; and I fought till the night fell, and the battle was over.

"'I was much fatigued; and, as I saw the moon rising, I thought of you, and bent my steps towards the San Nicolas Asylum to await your coming. It was ten o'clock, and the appointed time was one o'clock. On the previous night I had not had a wink of sleep, so I fell into a sound slumber.

"'I awoke with a cry of fright as the clock struck one. I had dreamt that you were dead. I looked around, and found myself alone. Where were you? The clock struck two—then three—then four: still you did not come. Of a certainty you were dead.

"'The thought drove me to despair. The day was breaking, and I left the Asylum, and made my way hither to rejoin my troop. I reached here at sunrise. They all thought that I had fallen in the battle, and when they saw me they overwhelmed me with congratulations, embraced me, and told me that I was just in time to see twenty-one prisoners shot,

"'Suddenly a thought sprang up in my mind—was Basilio among them? I hurried to the place of execution; the square had already been formed, and I heard shots. The firing had begun.

"'I strained my eyes to distinguish the prisoners, but I saw nothing. Pain made me blind; my brain reeled with anxiety and excitement. At last I distinguished you—you were to be shot, you!

"'Two more victims, then it would be your turn. What was to be done? My senses threatened to leave me; I uttered a cry; I threw my arms around you; and in a choking, yet clear tone, I cried out: "Not this one! Not this one, General!"

"'The General who commanded this division, and who knew me, and also knew how I behaved yesterday, asked me: "Why not? Is he a musician?"

"'This question was to me what a sudden glimpse of a springtide sun would be to a man born blind. A ray of hope gleamed in front of me, so unexpectedly, so strong, that it confused me. "A musician?" I cried, "yes, yes, General; he is a musician, a great musician!" You, Basilio, were then lying unconscious.

"Yes, yes, general; he is a musician!"

"'"What instrument does he play?" asked the General.

"'"Why—er, the—er, that is, the—why, of course, he plays the cornet-à-piston,' I stammered.

"'"Do we want a cornet-player?" asked the General, turning to the band.

"'Five seconds, which seemed like five centuries, passed before the answer came. "Yes, General, we do want one," answered the bandmaster.

"'"Take this man away, then, and let the execution go on," said the General. So I took you in my arms, and brought you to this prison.'

"Ramon had scarcely finished when I jumped up, and, forgetting where we were, embraced him: trembling all over, and laughing and crying at the same time.

"'I owe you my life!' I said.

"'Not quite,' answered Ramon.

"'What do you mean?' I cried.

"'Can you play the cornet?' he asked.

"'No,' I replied.

"'Then we have a bad look-out.' And indeed, children, a cold shudder went through me.

"'And music?' asked Ramon. 'Do you understand music?'

"'A little, very little; just what we learnt at college—you know how much that was.'

"'Yes, that is a little—we might as well say nothing. You are doomed, without doubt, and I also for having deceived them, for the band to which you are to belong must be ready in two weeks.'

"'In two weeks!'

"'Neither more nor less. And if you cannot play the cornet—well, unless Providence works a miracle on our behalf, they will shoot us both without mercy.'

"'Shoot you!' I exclaimed. You! and through me; me, whose life you saved! No, Heaven will not permit it! In fourteen days I will play the cornet!' And Ramon laughed.

"Well, children, in a fortnight—such is the power of the will—in fourteen days, with fourteen nights (I did not sleep or rest the whole time), I learnt to play the cornet. Yes, you may well stare.

"Oh! what days those were! Ramon and I went out from the camp into the fields, and spent the whole day with a musician, who came from a neighbouring town to give me lessons.

"I neither spoke nor thought; I scarcely ate. I was suffering from a kind of madness. My one idea was music—the cornet. I made up my mind to learn, and I learnt. And it seems to me that had I been dumb I should have learnt to speak; lame—to walk; blind—I should have recovered my sight!—because I had the will! Where there's a will there's a way! I had the will, and I succeeded. Children, mark that!

"I learnt to play the cornet."
"So I saved our lives; but the experience affected my brain; I was mad about music. For three years the cornet was scarcely ever out of my hands. C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C: that was my world, and my life was spent in blowing the cornet.

"Ramon would not leave me. I went to France with him, and played the cornet there. The cornet and I were one. My madness was like that of Donizetti's. Everybody came to hear me, including the leading musicians; I was a prodigy. In my hands the cornet became a living thing; it sighed, it groaned, laughed, scolded; it mimicked the bird and the beast of prey, as well as the sobs of a human being. My lungs were of iron.

"Thus I lived for two years longer, and at the end of that time Ramon died. The sight of my friend's lifeless body had such an effect upon me that it broke the spell and restored my reason. I took up the cornet—but my skill was gone, and I could not play it.

"Now do you wish me to play you a dance?"