Romance, Loyalty, Patriotism Sweep Through Francis O’Neill’s Italian Saga

Francis O'Neill


The following is an excerpt from The Poet’s War by Francis O’Neill (Ingram Spark). Printed with permission.


Synopsis: It is Europe’s darkest time in near memory. American warrior poet Alistair Stears, thrown into Italian WWI through his mother’s love for an Italian colonel, experienced a convoy of the dying through burning provinces of Italy in the terrible retreat of 1917. It brought from him the great English poem of the Italian war.


When they were well clear of Florence, he lay down. They went slowly through the mountains, and the swaying of the car was not much. He on the whole resisted sleep but was aware of rising through its surface in the first light through the hatch.


He thought vaguely of the very pleasant Miss Schrauler he would certainly see again in Venice and her beautiful silks. The liquefaction of her clothes. He drove himself to his feet, went to the door, and slipped it open a little way. They were crawling through the Apennine valleys—there were sheep in the fields and the skeletons of beans—not very far from Sabbioni, almost through the hills and putting on speed.



The air was chill but not bitter. He splashed some water from a bucket on his face and let the cold peel through a tiredness he did not admit, but he was already dull. He got the horses’ morning hay, arranging it befittingly, for it was inconceivable to him that the most beautiful beings in the world could lack a sense of the comely. They had been far too long in their stalls already. He ran his arms firmly down each neck, under their blankets, and along their bellies. Vipero found his belt and tugged at it, causing Alistair to reprove him, chastising his muzzle with a finger. They were warm. Their blankets were dry. They were in a cocoon of bran and hay and humans they knew. They were fine. Roberto slept, snoring just over the noise of the train.


They crept into Bologna, the first of the cities of the north. There were recruits here too. Very far from the dove-grey university, down a long stark warehouse avenue, they were being marched by military police. There was no band here, no gold and blue officer, no priest. There were women, girls to ancient, a ragged pack of shawls and dirty aprons, shrieking and throwing what came handy, from cabbage stalks to bricks, at the police. Pretty often, the recruits got hit as well. The women pressed against the walls along the street and rushed out sometimes, and sometimes the police rushed out, found a woman to club, and then jumped back again. Up the avenue, a squad of mounted police was getting ready join in. Though structures sometimes swam into the way, the train was about fifty yards from this. The women’s voices had less of battle than despair. It was a picture that smelled of ashes and stale soup. Alistair stood in the door and watched. His heart covered its face.


They were still in Bologna at night. The train was broken up and reformed, Milan, Turin, and France, or Venice and the war. Things were not well here. After dark found them in a string of cars and no locomotive far out on the web of track. There was not much around. Daniele had left, at a place that did not look promising to Alistair. He walked off down the track, carrying two blankets and so like a peddler. Should I send the boy for water? Alistair had said. Not here. Wait until they are making up the train. Then it will be close. There were no farewells.



He heard voices in the dark, a group, men’s, closer and farther, moving about. Eventually they appeared, in and out of the patches of light around the cars. They were about a dozen men, just short of ragged, a pack not quite formed. He stood in the door, nothing coy about the sabre now. They tried the doors of cars, broke into one, broke things up in it, and some came out carrying boots. They were not quiet. He had no idea what they were, nor even how unusual. Deserters, he guessed. He considered closing the door, disliked the thought of listening to them try it, and stood in it instead. They came to the track below him. They were older than he, all of military age, so deserters might be right. They were less vicious than they might have liked, but tough they were.

One said, “There’s horses in there.”

Another said, “Give us the horses, boy, and we’ll leave you alone.”

He looked back. He was not in much trouble. There was only one way into the car. He was vastly more dangerous than they knew. They could not expect to walk out of a railroad yard with two horses. And, though this would be too late to help, if they somehow untied Vipero and put a hand on him, their troubles, whatever they might be now, would just have begun.



He heard, “No use in f**king horses.”

A rangy man, something black, oil, smeared on his brow, said, ”He’ll have money, that one.” He shoved others aside and pushed to the car. One sleeve was ragged, and the shoulder, strong. He said, straight to Alistair, “Give us the money and you and your horsies can go.” His face was at the level of Alistair’s shin. His eyes were not calculating, but they were off their balance.


Alistair looked down at his throat and drew a line in his eye between just below the Adam’s apple and the sabre point. He did not move the point but knew that if the man grabbed or tried to rise up, he would hurt him badly enough to shock them all.


“No,” he said. For a moment the man’s shoulders flexed, and for a moment, Alistair’s hand tightened on the hilt. But the wild eyes did not resolve. The group did not tighten but wavered.


Then they heard something they did not like. They broke apart. They drifted from the car. Alistair, too, heard distant hoof falls of ridden horses. They ran, boots bouncing in their hands. He did not move. The man at the car, his enemy, stayed, as though tied to him. His eyes now flicked from side to side, washed in need and panic.



Alistair raised the sabre now. “Go,” he said.


The man went. Ran fast enough to join his friends.


Alistair looked out at the blighted wilderness he had come to, where people would hurt him if they could and a sword stopped them, and dissolution felt cold on his brow. When they were at a distant platform and the train was making up, he pointed to the buckets and said to Roberto, “Ask where the water is and fill them.” Roberto backed away. “The soldiers might take me,” he said. 


“They may,” said Alistair. “But if you do not take the buckets, you will not stay in this car, and if you come back with them empty, you are not getting back on.” He touched the sabre’s hilt. “Then you will have to beg your way to Rome, the police will pick you up, and the army will quite certainly take you. Do you doubt me?”

“So take them.”

Roberto did. And came back.


Author Bio:

Francis O’Neill is the author of the Historical Thrillers Agents of Sympathy, The Secret Country, and Roman Circus. His previous work has been published by Simon and Schuster, Crown, and Putnam. Born in South Carolina and educated in Europe, he received his BA in Modern History at Oxford’s Exeter College. He currently resides in Salzburg, Austria.


This is an excerpt from The Poet’s War by Francis O’Neill (Ingram Spark). Printed with permission.


Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

--Ingram Spark (Creative Commons)

--Pxfuel (Creative Commons)

--Alessio Vallero (Flickr, Creative Commons)

--Jacob Jordaens painting (Wikipedia, Creative Commons)


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