The atmosphere of Torre di Venere remains unpleasant in the memory. From the first moment the airof the place made us uneasy, we felt irritable, on edge; then at the end came the shocking businessof Cipolla, that dreadful being who seemed to incorporate, in so fateful and so humanly impressivea way, all the peculiar evilness of the situation as a whole. Looking back, we had the feeling thatthe horrible end of the affair had been preordained and lay in the nature of things; that thechildren had to be present at it was an added impropriety, due to the false colours in which theweird creature presented himself. Luckily for them, they did not know where the comedy left off andthe tragedy began; and we let them remain in their happy belief that the whole thing had been aplay up till the end.
Torre di Venere lies some fifteen kilometres from Portoclemente, one of the most popular summerresorts on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Portoclemente is urban and elegant and full to overflowing formonths on end. Its gay and busy main street of shops and hotels runs down to a wide sandy beachcovered with tents and pennanted sand-castles and sunburnt humanity, where at all times a livelysocial bustle reigns, and much noise. But this same spacious and inviting fine-sanded beach, thissame border of pine grove and near, presiding mountains, continues all the way along the coast. Nowonder then that some competition of a quiet kind should have sprung up further on. Torre diVenerethe tower that gave the town its name is gone long since, one looks for it in vain-is anoffshoot of the larger resort, and for some years remained an idyll for the few, a refuge for moreunworldly spirits. But the usual history of such places repeated itself: peace has had to retirefurther along the coast, to Marina Petriera and dear knows where else. We all know how the world atonce seeks peace and puts her to flight-rushing upon her in the fond idea that they two will wed,and where she is, there it can be at home. It will even set up its Vanity Fair in a spot and becapable of thinking that peace is still by its side. Thus Torrethough its atmosphere so far is more modest and contemplative than that ofPortoclemente-has been quite taken up, by both Italians and foreigners. It is no longer the thingto go to Portoclemente-though still so much the thing that it is as noisy and crowded as ever. Onegoes next door, so to speak: to Torre. So much more refined, even, and cheaper to boot. And theattractiveness of these qualities persists, though the qualities themselves long ago ceased to beevident. Torre has got a Grand Hotel. Numerous pensions have sprung up, some modest, somepretentious. The people who own or rent the villas and pinetas overlooking the sea no longer haveit all their own way on the beach. In July and August it looks just like the beach atPortoclemente: it swarms with a screaming, squabbling, merrymaking crowd, and the sun, blazing downlike mad, peels the skin off their necks. Garish little flat-bottomed boats rock on the glitteringblue, manned by children, whose mothers hover afar and fil1 the air with anxious cries of Nino! andSandro! and Bice! and Maria! Pedlars step across the legs of recumbent sun-bathers, selling flowersand corals, oysters, lemonade, and cornetti al burro, and crying theirwares in the breathy, full-throated southern voice.
Such was the scene that greeted our arrival in Torre: pleasant enough, but after all, we thought,we had come too soon. It was the middle of August, the Italian season was still at its height, scarcely the moment for strangers to learn to love the special charms of theplace. What an afternoon crowd in the cafés on the front! For instance, in the Esquisito, where wesometimes sat and were served by Mario, that very Mario of whom I shall have presently to tell. Itis well-nigh impossible to find a table; and the various orchestras contend together in the midstof one’s conversation with bewildering effect. Of course, it is in the afternoon that people comeover from Portoclemente. The excursion is a favourite one for the restless denizens of thatpleasure resort, and a Fiat motor-bus plies to and fro, coating inch-thick with dust the oleanderand laurel hedges along thehighroad-a notable if repulsive sight.
Yes, decidedly one should go to Torre in September, when the great public has left. Or else in May,before the water is warm enough to tempt the Southerner to bathe. Even in the before and afterseasons Torre is not empty, but life is less national and more subdued. English, French, and Germanprevail under the tent-awnings and in the pension dining-rooms; whereas in August-in the GrandHotel, at least, where, in default of private addresses, we had engaged rooms-the stranger findsthe field so occupied by Florentine and Roman society that he feels quite isolated and eventemporarily déclassé.
We had, rather to our annoyance, this experience on the evening we arrived, when we went in todinner and were shown to our table by the waiter in charge. As a table, it had nothing against it,save that we had already fixed our eyes upon those on the veranda beyond, built out over the water,where little red-shaded lamps glowed-and there were still some tables empty, though it was as fullas the dining-room within. The children went into raptures at the festive sight, and without moreado we announced our intention to take our meals by preference in the veranda. Our words, itappeared, were prompted by ignorance; for we were informed, with somewhat embarrassed politeness,that the cosy nook outside was reserved for the clients of the hotel: ai nostri clienti. Theirclients? But we were their clients. We were not tourists or trippers, but boarders for a stay ofsome three or four weeks. However, we forbore to press for an explanation of the differencebetween the likes of us and that clientele to whom it was vouchsafed to eat out there in the glowof the red lamps, and took our dinner by the prosaic common light of the dining- room chandelier-athoroughly ordinary and monotonous hotel bill of fare, be it said. In Pensione Eleonora, a fewsteps landward, the table, as we were to discover, was much better.
And thither it was that we moved, three or four days later, before we had had time to settle inproperly at the Grand Hotel. Not on account of the veranda and the lamps. The children, straightwayon the best of terms with waiters and pages, absorbed in the joys of life on the beach, promptlyforgot those colourful seductions. But now there arose, between ourselves and the verandaclientele-or perhaps more correctly with the compliant management-one of those littleunpleasantnesses which can quite spoil the pleasure of a holiday. Among the guests were some highRoman aristocracy, a Principe X and his family. These grand folk occupied rooms close to our own,and the Principessa, a great and a passionately maternal lady, was thrown into a panic by thevestiges of a whooping- cough which our little ones had lately got over, but which now and thenstill faintly troubled the unshatterable slumbers of our youngest-born. The nature of this illnessis not clear, leaving some play for the imagination. So we took no offence at our elegant neighbourfor clinging to the widely held view that whooping-cough is acoustically contagious and quitesimply fearing lest her children yield to the bad example set by ours.
In the fullness of her feminine self-confidence she protested to the management, which then, inthe person of the proverbial frock-coated manager, hastened to represent to us, with manyexpressions of regret, that under the circumstances they were obliged to transfer us to theannexe. We did our best to assure him that the disease was in its very last stages, that it wasactually over, and presented no danger of infection to anybody. All that we gained was permissionto bring the case before the hotel physician-not one chosen by us-by whose verdict we must thenabide. We agreed, convinced that thus we should at once pacify the Princess and escape the troubleof moving. The doctor appeared, and behaved like a faithful and honest servant of science. Heexamined the child and gave his opinion: the disease was quite over, no danger of contagion waspresent. We drew a long breath and considered the incident closed-until the manager announced thatdespite the doctor’s verdict it would still be necessary for us to give up our rooms and retire tothe dépendance. Byzantinism like this outraged us. It is not likely that the Principessa wasresponsible for the wilful breach of faith. Very likely the fawning management had not even daredto tell her what the physician said. Anyhow, we made it clear to his understanding that wepreferred to leave the hotel altogether and at once-and packed our trunks. We could do so with alight heart, having already set up casual friendly relations with Casa Eleonora. We had noticed itspleasant exterior and formed the acquaintance of its proprietor, Signora Angiolieri, and herhusband: she slender and black-haired, Tuscan in type, probably at the beginning of the thirties,with the dead ivory complexion of the southern woman, he quiet and bald and carefully dressed.They owned a larger establishment in Florence and presided only in summer and early autumn over thebranch in Torre di Venere. But earlier, before her marriage, our new landlady had been companion,fellow-traveller, wardrobe mistress, yes, friend, of Eleonora Duse and manifestly regarded thatperiod as the ckwn of her career. Even at our first visit she spoke of it with animation. Numerousphotographs of the great actress, with affectionate inscriptions, were displayed about thedrawing-room, and other souvenirs of their life together adorned the little tables and étagere.This cult of a so interesting past was calculated, of course, to heighten the advantages of thesignora’s present business.Nevertheless our pleasure and interest were quite genuine as we were conducted through the house byits owner and listened to her sonorous and staccato Tuscan voice relating anecdotes of thatimmortal mistress, depicting her suffering saintliness, her genius, her profound delicacy offeeling.
Thither, then, we moved our effects, to the dismay of the staff of the Grand Hotel, who, like allItalians, were very good to children. Our new quarters were retired and pleasant, we were withineasy reach of the sea through the avenue of young plane trees that ran down to the esplanade. Inthe clean, cool diningroom Signora Angiolieri daily served the soup with her own hands, the servicewas attentive and good, the table capital. We even discovered some Viennese acquaintances, andenjoyed chatting with them after luncheon, in front of the house. They, in their turn, were themeans of our finding others- in short, all seemed for the best, and we were heartily glad of thechange we had made. Nothing was now wanting to a holiday of the most gratifying kind.
And yet no proper gratification ensued. Perhaps the stupid occasion of our change of quarterspursued us to the new ones we had found. Personally, I admit that I do not easily forget thesecollisions with ordinary humanity, the naive misuse of power, the injustice, the sycophanticcomiption. I dwelt upon the incident too much, it irritated me in retrospect-quite futilely, of course, since such phenomena are only all too natural and all toomuch the rule. And we had not broken off relations with the Grand Hotel. The children were asfriendly as ever there, the porter mended their toys, and we sometimes took tea in the garden. Weeven saw the Principessa. She would come out, with her firm and delicate tread, her lipsemphatically corallined, to look after her children, playing under the supervision of their Englishgoverness. She did not dream that we were anywhere near, for so soon as she appeared in the offingwe sternly forbade our little one even to clear his throat.
The heat-if I may bring it in evidence-was extreme. It was African. The power of the sun, directlyone left the border of the indigo-blue wave, was so frightful, so relentless, that the mere thoughtof the few steps between the beach and luncheon was a burden, clad though one might be only inpyjamas. Do you care for that sort of thing?Weeks on end? Yes, of course, it is proper to the south, it is classic weather, the sun of Homer,the climate wherein human culture came to flower-and all the rest of it. But after a while it istoo much for me, I reach a point where I begin to find it dull. The burning void of the sky, dayafter day, weighs one down; the high coloration, the enormous naiveté of the unrefracted light-theydo, I dare say, induce light-heartedness, a carefree mood born 9f immunity from downpours and othermeteorological caprices. But slowly, slowly, there makes itself felt a lack: the deeper, morecomplex needs of the northern soul remain unsatisfied. You are left barren-even it may be, in time,a little contemptuous.True without that stupid business of the whooping-cough I might not have been feeling these things.I was annoyed, very likely I wanted to feel them and so half-unconsciously seized upon an idealying ready to hand to induce, or if not to induce, at least to justify and strengthen, myattitude. Up to this point, then, if you like, let us grant some ill will on our part. But the sea;and the mornings spent extended upon the fine sand in face of its eternal splendours-no, the seacould not conceivably induce such feelings. Yet it was none the less true that, despite allprevious experience, we were not at home on the beach, we were not happy.
It was too soon, too soon. The beach, as I have said, was still in the hands of the middle-classnative. It is a pleasing breed to look at, and among the young we saw much shapeliness and charm.Still, we were necessarily surrounded by a great deal of very average humanity-a middle-class mob,which, you will admit, is not more charming under this sun than under one’s own native sky. Thevoices these women have! It was sometimes hard to believe that we were in the land which is thewestern cradle of the art of song. “Fuggiero!” I can still hear that cry, as for twenty morningslong I heard it close behind me, breathy, full-throated, hideously stressed, with a harsh open e,uttered in accents of mechanical despair. “Fuggiero! Rispondi almeno!” Answer when I call you! Thespin rispondi was pronounced like shp, as Germans pronounce it; and this, on top of what I feltalready, vexed my sensitive soul. The cry was addressed to a repulsive youngster whose sunburn hadmade disgusting raw sores on his shoulders. He outdid anything I have ever seen for illbreeding,refractoriness, and temper and was a great coward to boot, putting the whole beach in an uproar,one day, because of his outrageous sensitiveness to the slightest pain. A sand-crab had pinchedhis toe in the water, and the minute injury made him set up a cry of heroic proportions-the shoutof an antique hero in his agony-that pierced one to the marrow and called up visions of somefrightful tragedy. Evidently he considered himself not only wounded, but poisoned as well; hecrawled out on the sand and lay in apparently intolerable anguish, groaning “Obi!” and “Ohime!” and threshingabout with arms and legs to ward off his mother’s tragic appeals and the questions of thebystanders. An audience gathered round. A doctor was fetchedthe same who had pronounced objectivejudgment on our whooping-cough-and here again acquitted himself like a man of science.Good-naturedly he reassured the boy, telling him that he was not hurt at all, he should simply gointo the water again to relieve the smart. Instead of which, Fuggiero was borne off the beach,followed by a concourse of people. But he did not fail to appear next morning, nor did he leave offspoiling our children’s sand-castles. Of course, always by accident. In short, a perfect terror.
And this twelve-year-old lad was prominent among the influences that, imperceptibly at first,combined to spoil our holiday and render it unwholesome. Somehow or other, there was a stiffness, alack of innocent enjoyment. These people stood on their dignity-just why, and in what spirit, itwas not easy at first to tell. They displayed much self-respectingness; towards each other andtowards the foreigner their bearing was that of a person newly conscious of a sense of honour. Andwherefore? Gradually we realized the political implications and understood that we were in the presence of anational ideal. The beach, in fact, was alive with patriotic children-a phenomenon as unnatural asit was depressing. Children are a human species and a society apart, a nation of their own, so tospeak. On the basis of their common form of life, they find each other out with the greatest ease,no matter how different their small vocabularies. Ours soon played with natives and foreignersalike. Yet they were plainly both puzzled and disappointed at times. There were woundedsensibilities, displays of assertiveness-or rather hardly assertiveness, for it was tooself-conscious and too didactic to deserve the name. There were quarrels over flags, disputes aboutauthority and precedence. Grownups joined in, not so much to pacify as to render judgment andenunciate principles. Phrases were dropped about the greatness and dignity of Italy, solemn phrasesthat spoilt the fun. We saw our two little ones retreat, puzzled and hurt, and were put to it toexplain the situation. These people, we told them, were just passing through a certain stage,something rather like an illness, perhaps; not very pleasant, but probably unavoidable.
We had only our own carelessness to thank that we came to blows in the end withthis “stage”-which, after all, we had seen and sized up long before now. Yes, it came to another”crosspurposes,” so evidently the earlier ones had not been sheer accident. In a word, we became anoffence to the public morals. Our small daughter-eight years old, but in physical development agood year younger and thin as a chicken-had had a good long bathe and gone playing in the warm sunin her wet costume. We told her that she might take off her bathing-suit, which was stiff withsand, rinse it in the sea, and put it on again, after which she must take care to keep it cleaner.Off goes the costume and she runs down naked to the sea, rinses her little jersey, and comes back.Ought we to have foreseen the outburst of anger and resentment which her conduct, and thus ourconduct, called forth? Without delivering a homily on the subject, I may say that in the lastdecade our attitude towards the nude body and our feelings regarding it have undergone, all overthe world, a fundamental change. There are things we “never think about” any more, and among themis the freedom we had permitted to this by no means provocative little childish body. But in theseparts it was taken as a challenge. The patriotic children hooted. Fuggierowhistled on his fingers. The sudden buzz of conversation among the grown people in our neighbourhood boded no good. A gentleman in city togs, with a not very apropos bowler hat on theback of his head, was assuring his outraged womenfolk that he proposed to take punitive measures;he stepped up to us, and a philippic descended on our unworthy heads, in which all the emotionalismof the sense-loving south spoke in the service of morality and discipline. The offence againstdecency of which we had been guilty was, he said, the more to be condemned because it was also agross ingratitude and an insulting breach of his country’s hospitality. We had criminally injurednot only the letter and spirit of the public bathing regulations, but also the honour of Italy; he,the gentleman in the city togs, knew how to defend that honour and proposed to see to it that ouroffence against the national dignity should not go unpunished.
We did our best, bowing respectfully, to give ear to this eloquence. To contradict the man,overheated as he was, would probably be to fall from one error into another. On the tips of ourtongues we had various answers: as, that the word “hospitality,” in its strictest sense, was notquite the right one, taking all the circumstances into consideration. We were not literally theguests of Italy, but of Signora Angiolieri, who had assumed the role of dispenser of hospitalitysome years ago on laying down that of familiar friend to Eleonora Duse. We longed to say thatsurely this beautiful country had not sunk so low as to be reduced to a state of hypersensitiveprudishness. But we confined ourselves to assuring the gentleman that any lack of respect, anyprovocation on our parts, had been the furthest from our thoughts. And as a mitigating circumstancewe pointed out the tender age and physical slightness of the little culprit. In vain. Our protestswere waved away, he did not believe in them; our defence would not hold water. We must be made anexample of. The authorities were notified, by telephone, I believe, and their representativesappeared on the beach. He said the case was “mo/to grave.” We had to go with him to the Municipioup in the Piazza, where a higher official confirmed the previous verdict of”molto grave,” launchedinto a stream of the usual didactic phrases- the selfsame tune and words as the man in the bowlerhat-and levied a fine and ransom of fifty lire. We felt that the adventure must willy-nilly beworth to us this much of a contribution to the economy of the Italian government; paid, and left.Ought we not at this point to have left Torre as well?
If we only had! We should thus have escaped that fatal Cipolla. But circumstances combined toprevent us from making up our minds to a change. A certain poet says that it is indolence thatmakes us endure uncomfortable situations. The aperpu may serve as an explanation for our inaction.Anyhow, one dislikes voiding the field immediately upon such an event. Especially if sympathy fromother quarters encourages one to defy it. And in the Villa Eleonora they pronounced as with onevoice upon the injustice of our punishment. Some Italian after-dinner acquaintances found that theepisode put their country in a very bad light, and proposed taking the man in the bowler hat totask, as one fellow-citizen to another. But the next day he and his party had vanished from thebeach. Not on our account, of course. Though it might be that the consciousness of his impendingdeparture had added energy to his rebuke; in any case his going was a relief. And, furthermore, westayed because our stay had by now become remarkable in our own eyes, which is worth something initself, quite apart from the comfort or discomfort involved. Shall we strike sail, avoid a certainexperience so soon as it seems not expressly calculated to increase our enjoyment or ourselfesteem? Shall we go away whenever life looks like turning in the slightest uncanny, or notquite normal, or even rather painful and mortifying? No, surely not. Rather stay and look matters in the face, brave them out; perhapsprecisely in so doing lies a lesson for us to learn. We stayed on and reaped as the awful reward ofour constancy the unholy and staggering experience with Cipolla.
I have not mentioned that the after season had begun, almost on the very day we were disciplined bythe city authorities. The worshipful gentleman in the bowler hat, our denouncer, was not the onlyperson to leave the resort. There was a regular exodus, on every hand you saw luggage-carts ontheir way to the station. The beach ’denationalized itself. Life in Torre, in the cafés and thepinetas, became more homelike and more European. Very likely we might even have eaten at a table inthe glass veranda, but we refrained, being content at Signora Angiolieri’s-as content, that is, asour evil star would let us be. But at the same time with this turn for the better came a change inthe weather: almost to an hour it showed itself in harmony with the holiday calendar of the generalpublic. The sky was overcast; not that it grew any cooler, but the unclouded heat of the entireeighteen days since our arrival, and probably long before that, gave place to a stifling siroccoair, while from time to time a little ineffectual rain sprinkled the velvety surface of the beach.Add to which, that two-thirds of our intended stay at Torre had passed. The colourless, lazy sea,with sluggish jellyfish floating in its shallows, was at least a change. And it would have beensilly to feel retrospective longings after a sun that had caused us so many sighs when it burneddown in all its arrogant power.
At this juncture, then, it was that Cipolla announced himself. Cavaliere Cipolla hewas called on the posters that appeared one day stuck up everywhere, even in the dining- room ofPensione Eleonora. A travelling virtuoso, an entertainer, “forzatore, illusionista,prestidigatore,” as he called himself, who proposed to wait upon the highly respectable populationof Torre di Venere with a display of extraordinary phenomena of a mysterious and staggering kind.A conjuror! The bare announcement was enough to turn our children’s heads. They had never seenanything of the sort, and now our present holiday was to afford them this new excitement. From thatmoment on they besieged us with prayers to take tickets for the performance. We had doubts, fromthe first, on the score of the lateness of the hour, nine o’clock; but gave way, in the idea thatwe might see a little of what Cipolla had to offer, probably no great matter, and then go home.Besides, of course, the children could sleep late next day. We bought four tickets of SignoraAngiolieri herself, she having taken a number of the stalls on commission to sell them to herguests. She could not vouch for the man’s performance, and we had no great expectations. But wewere conscious of a need for diversion, and the children’s violent curiosity proved catching.
The Cavaliere’s performance was to take place in a hall where during the season there had been acinema with a weekly programme. We had never been there. You reached it by following the mainstreet under the wall of the “palazzo,” a ruin with a “For sale” sign, that suggested a castle andhad obviously been built in lordlier days. In the same street were the chemist, the hairdresser,and all the better shops; it led, so to speak, from the feudal past the bourgeois into theproletarian, for it ended off between two rows of poor fishing-huts, where old women sat mendingnets before the doors. And here, among the proletariat, was the hall, not much more, actually thana wooden shed, though a large one, with a turreted entrance, plastered on either side with layersof gay placards. Some while after dinner, then, on the appointed evening, we wended our way thitherin the dark, the children dressed in their best and blissful with the sense of so much irregularity. It was sultry, as it had been for days; there was heat lightning now and then, and alittle rain; we proceeded under umbrellas. It took us a quarter of an hour.
Our tickets were collected at the entrance, our places we had to find ourselves.They were in the third row left, and as we sat down we saw that, late though the hour was for theperformance, it was to be interpreted with even more laxity. Only very slowly did an audience-whoseemed to be relied upon to come late-begin to fill the stalls. These comprised the wholeauditorium; there were no boxes. This tardiness gave us some concern. The children’s cheeks werealready flushed as much with fatigue as with excitement. But even when we entered, the standingroomat the back and in the side aisles was already well occupied. There, stood the manhood of Torre diVenere, all and sundry, fisherfolk, rough-and-ready youths with bare forearms crossed over theirstriped jerseys. We were well pleased with the presence of this native assemblage, which alwaysadds colour and animation to occasions like the present; and the children were frankly delighted.For they had friends among these people-acquaintances picked up on afternoon strolls to the furtherends of the beach. We would be turning homeward, at the hour when the sun dropped into the sea,spent with the huge effort it had made and gilding with reddish gold the oncoming surf; and wewould come upon bare-legged fisherfolk standing in rows, bracing and hauling with long-drawncries as they drew in the nets and harvested in dripping baskets their catch, often so scanty, offrutto di mare. The children looked on, helped to pull, brought out their little stock of Italianwords, made friends. So now they exchanged nods with the “standing-room” clientele; there wasGuiscardo, there Antonio, they knew them by name and waved and called across in half-whispers,getting answering nods and smiles that displayed rows of healthy white teeth. Look, there is evenMario, Mario from the Esquisito, who brings us the chocolate. He wants to see the conjuror, too,and he must have come early, for he is almost in front; but he does not see us, he is not payingattention; that is a way he has, even though he is a waiter. So we wave instead to the man who letsout the little boats on the beach; he is there too, standing at the back.
It had got to a quarter past nine, it got to almost half past. It was natural that we should benervous. When would the children get to bed? It had been a mistake to bring them, for now it wouldbe very hard to suggest breaking off their enjoyment before it had got well under way. The stallshad filled in time; all Torre, apparently was there: the guests of the Grand Hotel, the guests ofthe Villa Eleonora, familiar faces from the beach. We heard English and German and the sort ofFrench that Rumanians speak with Italians. Madame Angiolieri herself sat two rows behind us, withher quiet, bald-headed spouse, who kept stroking his moustache with the two middle fingers of hisright hand.
Everybody had come late, but nobody too late. Cipolla made us wait for him.
He made us wait. That is probably the way to put it. He heightened the suspense by his delay inappearing. And we could see the point of this, too-only not when it was carried to extremes.Towards half past nine the audience began to clap-an amiable way of expressing justifiableimpatience, evincing as it does an eagerness to applaud. For the little ones, this was a joy initself-all children love to clap. From the popular sphere came loud cries of “Pronti!” Cominciamo!”And lo, it seemed now as easy to begin as before it had been hard. A gong sounded, greeted by thestanding rows with a many voiced “Ah- h!” and the curtains parted. They revealed a platformfurnished more like a schoolroom than like the theatre of a conjuring performancelargely because ofthe blackboard in the left foreground. There was a common yellow hat-stand, a few ordinary straw-bottomed chairs, andfurther back a little round table holding a water carafe and glass, also a tray with a liqueurglass and a flask of pale yellow liquid. We had still a few seconds of time to let these thingssink in. Then, with no darkening of the house, Cavaliere Cipolla made his entry.
He came forward with a rapid step that expressed his eagerness to appear before his public and gaverise to the illusion that he had already come a long way to put himself at their servicewhereas, ofcourse, he had only been standing in the wings. His costume supported the fiction. A man of an agehard to determine, but by no means young; with a sharp, ravaged face, piercing eyes, compressedlips, small black waxed moustache, and a so-called imperial in the curve between mouth and chin. Hewas dressed for the street with a sort of complicated evening elegance, in a wide black pelerinewith velvet collar and satin lining; which, in the hampered state of his arms, he held together infront with his white-gloved hands. He had a white scarf round his neck; a top hat with a curvingbrim sat far back on his head. Perhaps more than anywhere else the eighteenth century is stillalive in Italy, and with it the charlatan and mountebank type so characteristic of the period.Only there, at any rate, does one still encounter really well-preserved specimens. Cipolla had inhis whole appearance much of the historic type; his very clothes helped to conjure up thetraditional figure with its blatantly, fantastically foppish air. His pretentious costume sat uponhim, or rather hung upon him, most curiously, being in one place drawn too tight, in another a massof awkward folds. There was something not quite in order about his figure, both front andback-that was plain later on. But I must emphasize the fact that there was not a trace of personaljocularity or clownishness in his pose, manner, or behaviour. On the contrary, there was completeseriousness, an absence of any humorous appeal; occasionally even a cross-grained pride, alongwith that curious, self-satisfied air so characteristic of the deformed. None of all this, however,prevented his appearance from being greeted with laughter from more than one quarter of the hall.
All the eagerness had left his manner. The swift entry had been merely an expression of energy, notof zeal. Standing at the footlights he negligently drew off his gloves, to display long yellowhands, one of them adorned with a seal ring with a lapis- lazuli in a high setting. As he stoodthere, his small hard eyes, with flabby pouches beneath them, roved appraisingly about the hall,not quickly, rather in a considered examination, pausing here and there upon a face with his lipsclipped together, not speaking a word. Then with a display of skill as surprising as it was casual,he rolled his gloves into a ball and tossed them across a considerable distance into the glass onthe table. Next from an inner pocket he drew forth a packet of cigarettes; you could see by thewrapper that they were the cheapest sort the government sells. With his fingertips he pulled out acigarette and lighted it, without looking, from a quick-firing benzine lighter. He drew the smokedeep into his lungs and let it out again, tapping his foot, with both lips drawn in an arrogantgrimace and the grey smoke streaming out between broken and sawedged teeth.
With a keenness equal to his own his audience eyed him. The youths at the rear scowled as theypeered at this cocksure creature to search out his secret weaknesses. He betrayed none. Infetching out and putting back the cigarettes his clothes got in his way. He had to turn back hispelerine, and in so doing revealed a riding-whip with a silver claw-handle that hung by a leatherthong from his left forearm and looked decidedly out of place. You could see that he had on not evening clothes but a frockcoat, and under this, as helifted it to get at his pocket, could be seen a striped sash worn about the body.Somebody behind me whispered that this sash went with his title of Cavaliere. I give theinformation for what it may be worth-personally, I never heard that the title carried such insigniawith it. Perhaps the sash was sheer pose, like the way he stood there, without a word, casually andarrogantly puffing smoke into his audience’s face.
People laughed, as I said. The merriment had become almost general when somebody in the “standingseats,” in a loud, dry voice, remarked: “Buona sera.”
Cipolla cocked his head. “Who was that?” asked he, as though he had been dared. “Who was that justspoke? Well? First so bold and now so modest? Paura, eh?” He spoke with a rather high, asthmaticvoice, which yet had a metallic quality. He waited.
“That was me,” a youth at the rear broke into the stillness, seeing himself thus challenged. He wasnot far from us, a handsome fellow in a woollen shirt, with his coat hanging over one shoulder. Hewore his surly, wiry hair in a high, dishevelled mop, the style affected by the youth of theawakened Fatherland; it gave him an African appearance that rather spoiled his looks. “Be! That wasme. It was your business to say it first, but I was trying to be friendly.”
More laughter. The chap had a tongue in his head. “Ha sciolto la scilingu$gnolo,” I heard near me.After all, the retort was deserved.
“Ah, bravo!” answered Cipolla. “I like you, giovanotto. Trust me, I’ve had my eye on you for sometime. People like you are just in my line. I can use them. And you are the pick of the lot, that’splain to see. You do what you like. Or is it possible you have ever not done what you liked-oreven, maybe, what you didn’t like? What somebody else liked, in short? Hark ye, my friend, thatmight be a pleasant change for you, to divide up the willing and the doing and stop tackling bothjobs at once. Division of labour, sistema americano, sa! For instance, suppose you were to showyour tongue to this select and honourable audience here-your whole tongue, right down to theroots?”
“No, I won’t,” said the youth, hostilely. “Sticking out your tongue shows a bad bringing-up.”
“Nothing of the sort,” retorted Cipolla. “You would only be doing it. With all due respect to yourbringing-up, I suggest that before I count ten, you will perform a right turn and stick out yourtongue at the company here further than you knew yourself that you could stick it out.”
He gazed at the youth, and his piercing eyes seemed to sink deeper into their sockets. “Uno!” saidhe. He had let his ridingwhip slide down his arm and made it whistle once through the air. The boyfaced about and put out his tongue, so long, so extendedly, that you could see it was the veryuttermost in tongue which he had to offer. Then turned back, stony-faced, to his former position.
“That was me,” mocked Cipolla, with a jerk of his head towards the youth. “Be! That was me.”Leaving the audience to enjoy its sensations, he turned towards the little round table, lifted thebottle, poured out a small glass of what was obviously cognac, and tipped it up with a practisedhand.
The children laughed with all their hearts. They had understood practically nothing of what hadbeen said, but it pleased them hugely that something so funny should happen, straightaway, betweenthat queer man up there and somebody out of the audience. They had no preconception of what an”evening” would be like and were quite ready to find this a priceless beginning. As for us, we exchanged a glance and I remember thatinvoluntarily I made with my lips the sound that Cipolla’s whip had made when it cut the air. Forthe rest, it was plain that people did not know what to make of a preposterous beginning like thisto a sleight-of-hand performance. They could not see why the giovanotto, who after all in a way hadbeen their spokesman, should suddenly have turned on them to vent his incivility. They felt thathe had behaved like a silly ass and withdrew their countenances from him in favour of the artist,who now came back from his refreshment table and addressed them as follows: “Ladies and gentlemen,”said he, in his wheezing, metallic voice, “you saw just now that I was rather sensitive on thescore of the rebuke this hopeful young linguist saw fit to give me”
“questo linguista di belle speranze” was what he said, and we all laughed at the pun. “I am a manwho sets some store by himself, you may take it from me. And I see no point in being wished agood-evening unless it is done courteously and in all seriousness. For anything else there is nooccasion. When a man wishes me a good-evening he wishes himself one, for the audience will haveone only if I do. So this lady-killer of Torre di Venere” (another thrust) “did well to testifythat I have one tonight and that I can dispense with any wishes of his in the matter. I can boastof having good evenings almost without exception. One not so good does come my way now and again,but very seldom. My calling is hard and my health not of the best. I have a little physical defectwhich prevented me from doing my bit in the war for the greater glory of the Fatherland. It isperforce with my mental and spiritual parts that I conquer life-which after all only meansconquering oneself. And I flatter myself that my achievements have aroused interest and respectamong the educated public. The leading newspapers have lauded me, the Corriere della Sera did methe courtesy of calling me a phenomenon, and in Rome the brother of the Duce honoured me by hispresence at one of my evenings. I should not have thought that in a relatively less importantplace” (laughter here, at the expense of poor little Torre) “I should have to give up the smallpersonal habits which brilliant and elevated audiences had been ready to overlook. Nor did I thinkI had to stand being heckled by a person who seems to have been rather spoilt by the favours of thefair sex.” All this of course at the expense of the youth whom Cipolla never tired of presenting inthe guise of donnaiuolo and rustic Don Juan. His persistent thin-skinnedness and animosity were instriking contrast to the self-confidence and the worldly success he boasted of. One might haveassumed that the giovanotto was merely the chosen butt of Cipolla’s customary professional sallies,had not the very pointed witticisms betrayed a genuine antagonism.No one looking at the physical parts of the two men need have been at a loss for the explanation,even if the deformed man had not constantly played on the other’s supposed success with the fairsex. “Well,” Cipolla went on, “before beginning our entertainment this evening, perhaps you willpermit me to make myself comfortable.”
And he went towards the hat-stand to take off his things.
“Parla benissimo,” asserted somebody in our neighbourhood. So far, the man had done nothing; butwhat he had said was accepted as an achievement, by means of that he had made an impression. Amongsouthern peoples speech is a constituent part of the pleasure of living, it enjoys far liveliersocial esteem than in the north. That national cement, the mother tongue, is paid symbolic honoursdown here, and there is something blithely symbolical in the pleasure people take in their respectfor its forms and phonetics. They enjoy speaking, they enjoy listening; and they listen withdiscrimination.
For the way a man speaks serves as a measure of his personal rank; carelessness and clumsiness aregreeted with scorn, elegance and mastery are rewarded with social éclat. Wherefore the small mantoo, where it is a question of getting his effect, chooses his phrase nicely and turns it withcare. On this count, then, at least, Cipolla had won his audience; though he by no means belongedto the class of men which the Italian, in a singular mixture of moral and aesthetic judgments,labels “simpatico.”
After removing his hat, scarf, and mantle he came to the front of the stage, settling his coat,pulling down his cuffs with their large cuff-buttons, adjusting his absurd sash.He had very ugly hair; the top of his head, that is, was almost bald, while a narrow, black-varnished frizz of curls ran from front to back as though stuck on; the side hair, likewiseblackened, was brushed forward to the corners of the eyes-it was, in short, the hairdressing of anold-fashioned circus-director, fantastic, but entirely suited to his outmoded personal type andworn with so much assurance as to take the edge off the public’s sense of humour. The littlephysical defect of which he had warned us was now all too visible, though the nature of it was evennow not very clear; the chest was too high, as is usual in such cases, but the correspondingmalformation of the back did not sit between the shoulders, it took the form of a sort of hips orbuttocks hump, which did not indeed hinder his movements but gave him a grotesque and dippingstride at every stephe took. However, by mentioning his deformity beforehand he had broken the shock of it, and adelicate propriety of feeling appeared to reign throughout the hall.
“At your service,” said Cipolla. “With your kind permission, we will begin the evening with some arithmetical tests.”
Arithmetic? That did not sound much like sleight-of-hand. We began to have our suspicions that theman was sailing under a false flag, only we did not yet know which was the right one. I felt sorryon the children’s account; but for the moment they were content simply to be there.
The numerical test which Cipolla now introduced was as simple as it was baffling. He began byfastening a piece of paper to the upper right-hand corner of the blackboard; then lifting it up, hewrote something underneath. He talked all the while, relieving the dryness of his offering by aconstant flow of words, and showed himself a practised speaker, never at a loss for conversationalturns of phrase. It was in keeping with the nature of his performance, and at the same time vastlyentertained the children, that he went on to eliminate the gap between stage and audience, whichhad already beenbridged over by the curious skirmish with the fisher lad; he had representatives from the audiencemount the stage, and himself descended the wooden steps to seek personal contact with his public.And again, with individuals, he fell into his former taunting tone. I do not know how far that wasa deliberate feature of his system; he preserved a serious, even a peevish air, but his audience,at least the more popular section, seemed convinced that that was all part of the game. So then,after he had written something and covered the writing by the paper, he desired that two personsshould come up on the platform and help to perform the calculations. They would not be difficult,even for people not clever at figures. As usual, nobody volunteered, and Cipolla took care not tomolest the more select portion of his audience. He kept to the populace. Turning to two sturdyyoung louts standing behind us, he beckoned them to the front, encouraging and scolding by turns.They should not stand there gaping, he said, unwilling to oblige the company. Actually he got themin motion; with clumsy tread they came down the middle aisle, climbed the steps, and stood in front of the blackboard, grinning sheepishly at their comrades’ shouts andapplause. Cipolla joked with them for a few minutes, praised their heroic firmness of limb and thesize of their hands, so well calculated to do this service for the public. Then he handed one ofthem the chalk and told him to write down the numbers as they were called out. But now the creaturedeclared that he could not write! “Non so scrivere,” said he in his gruff voice, and his companionadded that neither did he.
God knows whether they told the truth or whether they wanted to make game of Cipolla. Anyhow, thelatter was far from sharing the general merriment which their confession aroused. He was insultedand disgusted. He sat there on a strawbottomed chair in the centre of the stage with his legscrossed, smoking a fresh cigarette out of his cheap packet; obviously it tasted the better for thecognac he had indulged in while the yokels were stumping up the steps. Again he inhaled the smokeand let it stream out between curling lips. Swinging his leg, with his gaze sternly averted fromthe two shamelessly chuckling creatures and from the audience as well, he stared into space as onewho withdraws himself and his dignity from the contemplation of an utterly despicable phenomenon.
“Scandalous,” said he, in a sort of icy snarl. “Go back to your places! In Italy everybody canwrite-in all her greatness there is no room for ignorance and unenlightenment. To accuse her ofthem, in the hearing of this international company, is a cheap joke, in which you yourselves cut avery poor figure and humiliate the government and the whole country as well. If it is true thatTorre di Venere is indeed the last refuge of such ignorance, then I must blush to have visited theplace-being, as I already was, aware of its inferiority to Rome in more than one respect-“
Here Cipolla was interrupted by the youth with the Nubian coiffure and his jacket across hisshoulder. His fighting spirit, as we now saw, had only abdicated temporarily, and he now flunghimself into the breach in defence of his native heath. “That will do,” said he loudly. “That’senough jokes about Torre. We all come from the place and we won’t stand strangers making fun of it.These two chaps are our friends. Maybe they are no scholars, but even so they may be straighterthan some folks in the room who are so free with their boasts about Rome, though they did not buildit either.”
That was capital. The young man had certainly cut his eyeteeth. And this sort of spectacle was goodfun, even though it still further delayed the regular performance. It is always fascinating tolisten to an altercation. Some people it simply amuses, they take a sort of kill-joy pleasure innot being principals. Others feel upset and uneasy, and my sympathies are with these latter,although on the present occasion I was under the impression that all this was part of the show-theanalphabetic yokels no less than the giovanotto with the jacket. The children listened wellpleased. They understood not at all, but the sound of the voices made them hold their breath. Sothis was a “magic evening”- at least it was the kind they have in Italy. They expressly found it”lovely.” Cipolla had stood up and with two of his scooping strides was at the footlights.
“Well, well, see who’s here!” said he with grim cordiality. “An old acquaintance! A young man withhis heart at the end of his tongue” (he used the word linguaccia, which means a coated tongue, andgave rise to much hilarity). “That will do, my friends,” he turned to the yokels. “I do not needyou now, I have business with this deserving young man here, con questo torregiano di Vent-re, thistower of Venus, who no doubt expects the gratitude of the fair as a reward for his prowess-“
“Ah, non scherziamo! We’re talking earnest,” cried out the youth. His eyes flashed, and he actuallymade as though to pull off his jacket and proceed to direct methods of settlement.
Cipolla did not take him too seriously. We had exchanged apprehensive glances; but he was dealingwith a fellow-countryman and had his native soil beneath his feet. He kept quite cool and showedcomplete mastery of the situation. He looked at his audience, smiled, and made a sideways motion ofthe head towards the young cockerel as though calling the public to witness how the man’sbumptiousness only served to betray the simplicity of his mind. And then, for the second time,something strange happened, which set Cipolla’s calm superiority in an uncanny light, and in somemysterious and irritating way turned all the explosiveness latent in the air into matter forlaughter.
Cipolla drew still nearer to the fellow, looking him in the eye with a peculiar gaze. He even camehalf-way down the steps that led into the auditorium on our left, so that he stood directly infront of the trouble-maker, on slightly higher ground. The riding- whip hung from his arm.
“My son, you do not feel much like joking,” he said. “It is only too natural, for anyone can seethat you are not feeling too well. Even your tongue, which leaves something to be desired on thescore of cleanliness, indicates acute disorder of the gastric system. An evening entertainment isno place for people in your state; you yourself, I can tell, were of several minds whether youwould not do better to put on a flannel bandage and go to bed. It was not good judgment to drink somuch of that very sour white wine this afternoon. Now you have such a colic you would like todouble up with the pain. Go ahead, don’t be embarrassed. There is a distinct relief that comes frombending over, in cases of intestinal cramp.”
He spoke thus, word for word, with quiet impressiveness and a kind of stern sympathy, and his eyes,plunged the while deep in the young man’s, seemed to grow very tired and at the same time burningabove their enlarged tear-ducts-they were the strangest eyes, you could tell that not manly pridealone was preventing the young adversary from withdrawing his gaze. And presently, indeed, alltrace of its former arrogance was gone from the bronzed young face. He looked open-mouthed at theCavahere and the open mouth was drawn in a rueful smile.
“Double over,” repeated Cipolla. “What else can you do? With a colic like that you must bend.Surely you will not struggle against the performance of a perfectly natural action just becausesomebody suggests it to you?”
Slowly the youth lifted his forearms, folded and squeezed them across his body; it turned a littlesideways, then bent, lower and lower, the feet shifted, the knees turned inward, until he hadbecome a picture of writhing pain, until he all but grovelled upon the ground. Cipolla let himstand for some seconds thus, then made a short cut through the air with his whip and went with hisscooping stride back to the little table, where he poured himself out a cognac.
“II boit beaucoup,” asserted a lady behind us. Was that the only thing that struck her? We couldnot tell how far the audi- ence grasped the situation. The fellow was standing upright again, witha sheepish grin-he looked as though he scarcely knew how it had all happened. The scene had beenfollowed with tense interest and applauded at the end; there were shouts of”Bravo, Cipolla!” and”Bravo, giovanotto!” Apparently the issue of the duel was not looked upon as a personal defeat forthe young man. Rather the audience encouraged him as one does an actor who succeeds in an unsympathetic role. Certainly hisway of screwing himself up with cramp had been highly picturesque, its appeal was directlycalculated to impress the galleryin short, a fine dramatic performance. But I am not sure how farthe audience were moved by that natural tactfulness in which the south excels, or how far itpenetrated into the nature of what was going on.
The Cavaliere, refreshed, had lighted another cigarette. The numerical tests might now proceed. Ayoung man was easily found in the back row who was willing to write down on the blackboard thenumbers as they were dictated to him. Him too we knew; the whole entertainment had taken on anintimate character through our acquaintance with so many of the actors. This was the man whoworked at the greengrocer’s in the main street; he had served us several times, with neatness anddispatch. He wielded the chalk with clerkly confidence, while Cipolla descended to our level andwalked with his deformed gait through the audience, collecting numbers as they were given, in two,three, and four places, and calling them out to the grocer’s assistant, who wrote them down in acolumn. In all this, everything on both sides was calculated to amuse, with its jokes and itsoratorical asides. The artist could not fail to hit on foreigners, who were not ready with theirfigures, and with them he was elaborately patient and chivalrous, to the great amusement of thenatives, whom he reduced to confusion in their turn, by making them translate numbers that weregiven in English or French. Some people gave dates concerned with great events in Italian history.Cipolla took them up at once and made patriotic comments. Somebody shouted “Number one!” TheCavaliere, incensed at this as at every attempt to make game of him, re- torted over his shoulderthat he could not take less than twoplace figures. Whereupon another joker cried out “Number two!”and was greeted with the applause and laughter which every reference to natural functions is sureto win among southerners.
When fifteen numbers stood in a long straggling row on the board, Cipolla called for a generaladding-match. Ready reckoners might add in their heads, but pencil and paper were not forbidden.Cipolla, while the work went on, sat on his chair near the blackboard, smoked and grimaced, withthe complacent, pompous air cripples so often have. The five-place addition was soon done. Somebodyannounced the answer, somebody else confirmed it, a third had arrived at a slightly differentresult, but the fourth agreed with the first and second. Cipolla got up, tapped some ash from hiscoat, and lifted the paper at the upper right-hand corner of the board to display the writing. Thecorrect answer, a sum close on a million, stood there; he had written it down beforehand.
Astonishment, and loud applause. The children were overwhelmed. How had he done that, they wantedto know. We told them it was a trick, not easily explainable offhand. In short, the man was aconjuror. This was what a sleight-of-hand evening was like, so now they knew. First the fishermanhad cramp, and then the right answer was written down beforehand-it was all simply glorious, andwe saw with dismay that despite the hot eyes and the hand of the clock at almost half past ten, itwould be very hard to get them away. There would be tears. And yet it was plain that this magiciandid not “magick”-at least not in the accepted sense, of manual dexterity-and that theentertainment was not at all suitable for children. Again, I do not know, either, what theaudience really thought. Obviously there was grave doubt whether its answers had been given of”freechoice”; here and there an individual might have answered of his own motion, but on the wholeCipolla certainly selected his people and thus kept the whole procedure in his own hands and directed it towards the given result. Even so, one had to admire thequickness of his calculations, however much one felt disinclined to admire anything else about theperformance. Then his patriotism, his irritable sense of dignity- the Cavaliere’s own countrymenmight feel in their element with all that and continue in a laughing mood; but the combinationcertainly gave us outsiders food for thought.
Cipolla himself saw to it-though without giving them a name-that the nature of his powers should beclear beyond a doubt to even the least-instructed person. He alluded to them, of course, in histalk-and he talked without stopping-but only in vague, boastful, self-advertising phrases. He wenton awhile with experiments on the same lines as the first, merely making them more complicated byintroducing operations in multiplying, subtracting, and dividing; then he simplified them to thelast degree in order to bring out the method. He simply had numbers “guessed” which were previouslywritten under the paper; and the guess was nearly always right. One guesser admitted that he hadhad in mind to give a certain number, when Cipolla’s whip went whistling through the air, and aquite different one slipped out, which proved to be the “right” one. Cipolla’s shoulders shook. Hepretended admiration for the powers of the people questioned. But in all his compliments there wassomething fleering and derogatory; the victims could scarcely have relished them much, althoughthey smiled, and although they might easily have set down some part of the applause to their owncredit. Moreover, I had not the impression that the artist was popular with his public. A certainill will and reluctance were in the air, but courtesy kept such feelings in check, as did Cipolla’scompetency and his stern self- confidence. Even the riding-whip, I think, did much to keeprebellion from becoming overt.
From tricks with numbers he passed to tricks with cards. There were two packs,which he drew out of his pockets, and so much I still remember, that the basis of the tricks heplayed with them was as follows: from the first pack he drew three cards and thrust them withoutlooking at them inside his coat. Another person then drew three out of the second pack, and theseturned out to be the same as the first three-not invariably all the three, for it did happen thatonly two were the same. But in the majority of cases Cipolla triumphed, showing his three cardswith a little bow in acknowledgment of the applause with which his audience conceded his possessionof strange powers-strange whether for good or evil. A young man in the front row, to our right, anItalian, with proud, finely chiselled features, rose up and said that he intended to assert his ownwill in his choice and consciously to resist any influence, of whatever sort. Under thesecircumstances, what did Cipolla think would be the result? “You will,” answered the Cavaliere,”make my task somewhat more difficult thereby. As for the result, your resistance will not alter itin the least. Freedom exists, and also the will exists; but freedom of the will does not exist, fora will that aims at its own freedom aims at the unknown. You are free to draw or not to draw. Butif you draw, you will draw the right cards-the more certainly, the more wilfully obstinate yourbehaviour.”
One must admit that he could not have chosen his words better, to trouble the waters and confusethe mind. The refractory youth hesitated before drawing. Then he pulled out a card and at oncedemanded to see if it was among the chosen three. “But why?” queried Cipolla. “Why do things byhalves?” Then, as the other defiantly insisted, “E servito,” said the juggler, with a gesture ofexaggerated servility; and held out the three cards fanwise, without looking at them himself. The left-hand card was the one drawn.
Amid general applause, the apostle of freedom sat down. How far Cipolla employed small tricks andmanual dexterity to help out his natural talents, the deuce only knew. But even without them theresult would have been the same: the curiosity of the entire audience was unbounded and universal,everybody both enjoyed the amazing character of the entertainment and unanimously conceded theprofessional skill of the performer. “Lavora bene,” we heard, here and there in our neighbourhood;it signified the triumph of objective judgment over antipathy and repressed resentment.
After his last, incomplete, yet so much the more telling success, Cipolla had at once fortifiedhimself with another cognac. Truly he did “drink a lot,” and the fact made a bad impression. Butobviously he needed the liquor and the cigarettes for the replenishment of his energy, upon which,as he himself said, heavy demands were made in all directions. Certainly in the intervals he lookedvery ill, exhausted and hollow-eyed. Then the little glassful would redress the balance, and theflow of lively, self-confident chatter run on, while the smoke he inhaled gushed out grey from hislungs. I clearly recall that he passed from the card-tricks to parlour games-the kind based oncertain powers which in human nature are higher or else lower than human reason: on intuition and”magnetic” transmission; in short, upon a low type of manifestation. What I do not remember is theprecise order things came in. And I will not bore you with a description of these experiments;everybody knows them, everybody has at one time or another taken part in this finding of hiddenarticles, this blind carrying out of a series of acts, directed by a force that proceeds fromorganism to organism by unexplored paths. Everybody has had his little glimpse into the equivocal,impure, inexplicable nature of the occult, has been conscious of both curiosity and contempt, hasshaken his head over the human tendency of those who deal in it to help themselves out withhumbuggery, though, after all, the humbuggery is no disproof whatever of the genuineness of theother elements in the dubious amalgam. I can only say here that each single circumstance gains inweight and the whole greatly in impressiveness when it is a man like Cipolla who is the chief actorand guiding spirit in the sinister business. He sat smoking at the rear of the stage, his back tothe audience while they conferred. The object passed from hand to hand which it was his task tofind, with which he was to perform some action agreed upon beforehand. Then he would start to movezigzag through the hall, with his head thrown back and one hand outstretched, the other clasped inthat of a guide who was in the secret but enjoined to keep himself perfectly passive, with histhoughts directed upon the agreed goal. Cipolla moved with the bearing typical in theseexperiments: now groping upon a false start, now with a quick forward thrust, now pausing asthough to listen and by sudden inspiration correcting his course. The roles seemed reversed, thestream of influence was moving in the contrary direction, as the artist himself pointed out, in hisceaseless flow of discourse. The suffering, receptive, performing part was now his, the will he hadbefore imposed on others was shut out, he acted in obedience to a voiceless common will which wasin the air. But he made it perfectly clear that it all came to the same thing. The capacity forself-surrender, he said, for becoming a tool, for the most unconditional and utterself-abnegation, was but the reverse side of that other power to will and to command. Commandingand obeying formed together one single principle, one indissoluble unity; he who knew how to obeyknew also how to command, and conversely; the one idea was comprehended in the other, as people and leader were comprehended inone another. But that which was done, the highly exacting and exhausting performance, was in everycase his, the leader’s and mover’s, in whom the will became obedience, the obedience will, whoseperson was the cradle and womb of both, and who thus suffered enormous hardship. Repeatedly heemphasized the fact that his lot was a hard one-presumably to account for his need of stimulant andhis frequent recourse to the little glass.
Thus he groped his way forward, like a blind seer, led and sustained by the mysterious common will.He drew a pin set with a stone out of its hiding-place in an English-woman’s shoe, carried it,halting and pressing on by turns, to another ladysignora Angiolieri-and handed it to her on bendedknee, with the words it had been agreed he was to utter. “I present you with this in token of myrespect,” was the sentence. Their sense was obvious, but the words themselves not easy to hit upon,for the reason that they had been agreed on in French; the language complication seemed to us alittle malicious, implying as it did a conflict between the audience’s natural interest in thesuccess of the miracle, and their desire to witness the humiliation of this presumptuous man. Itwas a strange sight: Cipolla on his knees before the signora, wrestling, amid efforts at speech,after knowledge of the preordained words. “I must say something,” he said, “and I feel clearlywhat it is I must say. But I also feel that if it passed my lips it would be wrong. Be careful notto help me unintentionally!” he cried out, though very likely that was precisely what he washoping for. “Pensez tres fort,” he cried all at once, in bad French, and then burst out with therequired words-in Italian, indeed, but with the final substantive pronounced in the sister tongue,in which he was probably far from fluent: he said vénération instead of venerazione, with animpossible nasal. And this partial success, after the complete success before it, the finding ofthe pin, the presentation of it on his knees to the right person-was almost more impressive than ifhe had got the sentence exactly right, and evoked bursts of admiring applause.
Cipolla got up from his knees and wiped the perspiration from his brow. You understand that thisexperiment with the pin was a single case, which I describe because it sticks in my memory. But hechanged his method several times and improvised a number of variations suggested by his contactwith his audience; a good deal of time thus went by. He seemed to get particular inspiration fromthe person of our landlady; she drew him on to the most extraordinary displays of clairvoyance.”It does not escape me, madame,” he said to her, “that there is something unusual about you, somespecial and honourable distinction. He who has eyes to see descries about your lovely brow anaureola-if I mistake not, it once was stronger than now-a slowly paling radiance… hush, not aword! Don’t help me. Beside you sits your husband-yes?” He turned towards the silent SignorAngiolieri. “You are the husband of this lady, and your happiness is complete. But in the midst ofthis happiness memories rise… the past, signora, so it seems to me, plays an important part inyour present. You knew a king… has not a king crossed your path in bygone days?”
“No,” breathed the dispenser of our midday soup, her goldenbrown eyes gleaming in the noble pallorof her face.
“No? No, not a king; I meant that generally, I did not mean literally a king. Not a king, not aprince, and a prince after all, a king of a loftier realm; it was a great artist, at whose side youonce-you would contradict me, and yet I am not wholly wrong. Well, then! It was a woman, a great, a world-renowned woman artist, whose friendship you enjoyed in your tender years, whose sacred memory overshadows and transfigures your whole existence. Her name?Need I utter it, whose fame has long been bound up with the Fatherland’s, immortal as its own?Eleonora Duse,” he finished, softly and with much solemnity.
The little woman bowed her head, overcome. The applause was like a patriotic demonstration. Nearlyeveryone there knew about Signora Angiolieri’s wonderful past; they were all able to confirm theCavaliere’s intuition-not least the present guests of Casa Eleonora. But we wondered how much ofthe truth he had learned as the result of professional inquiries made on his arrival. Yet I see noreason at all to cast doubt, on rational grounds, upon powers which, before our very eyes, becamefatal to their possessor.
At this point there was an intermission. Our lord and master withdrew. Now I confess that almostever since the beginning of my tale I have looked forward with dread to this moment in it. Thethoughts of men are mostly not hard to read; in this case they are very easy. You are sure to askwhy we did not choose this moment to go away-and I must continue to owe you an answer. I do notknow why. I cannot defend myself. By this time it was certainly eleven, probably later. Thechildren were asleep. The last series of tests had been too long, nature had had her way. They weresleeping in our laps, the little one on mine, the boy on his mother’s. That was, in a way, aconsolation; but at the same time it was also ground for compassion and a clear leading to takethem home to bed. And I give you my word that we wanted to obey this touching admonition, we seriously wanted to. Weroused the poor things and told them it was now high time to go. But they were no sooner consciousthan they began to resist and implore-you know how horrified children are at the thought of leavingbefore the end of a thing. No cajoling has any effect, you have to use force. It was so lovely,they wailed. How did we know what was coming next? Surely we could not leave until after theintermission; they liked a little nap now and again-only not go home, only not go to bed, while thebeautiful evening was still going on!
We yielded, but only for the moment, of course-so far as we I knew-only for a little while, just afew minutes longer. I cannot excuse our staying, scarcely can I even understand it. Did we think,having once said A, we had to say B-having once brought the children hither we had to let themstay? No, it is not good enough. Were we ourselves so highly entertained? Yes, and no. Our feelingsfor Cavaliere Cipolla were of a very mixed kind, but so were the feelings of the whole audience, ifI mistake not, and nobody left. Were we under the sway of a fascination which emanated from thisman who took so strange a way to earn his bread; a fascination which he gave out independently oftheprogramme and even between the tricks and which paralysed our resolve? Again, sheer curiosity mayaccount for something. One was curious to know how such an evening turned out; Cipolla in hisremarks having all along hinted that he had tricks in his bag stranger than any he had yetproduced.
But all that is not it-or at least it is not all of it. More correct it would be to answer thefirst question with another. Why had we not left Torre di Venere itself before now?To me the two questions are one and the same, and in order to get out of the impasse I might simplysay that I had answered it already. For, as things had been in Torre in general: queer,uncomfortable, troublesome, tense, oppressive, so precisely they were here in this hail tonight. Yes, more than precisely. For it seemed to be the fountainhead of allthe uncanniness and all the strained feelings which had oppressed the atmosphere of our holiday.This man whose return to the stage we were awaiting was the personification of all that; and, as wehad not gone away in general, so to speak, it would have been inconsistent to do it in theparticular case. You may call this an explanation, you may call it inertia, as you see fit. Anyargument more to the purpose I simply do not know how to adduce.
Well, there was an interval of ten minutes, which grew into nearly twenty. The children remainedawake. They were enchanted by our compliance, and filled the break to their own satisfaction byrenewing relations with the popular sphere, with Antonio, Guiscardo, and the canoe man. They puttheir hands to their mouths and called messages across, appealing to us for the Italian words.”Hope you have a good catch tomorrow, a whole netful!” They called to Mario, Esquisito Mario:”Mario, una cioccolata e biscotti!” And this time he heeded and answered with a smile: “Subito,signorini!” Later we had reason to recall this kindly, if rather absent and pensive smile.
Thus the interval passed, the gong sounded. The audience, which had scattered in conversation, tooktheir places again, the children sat up straight in their chairs with their hands in their laps.The curtain had not been dropped. Cipolla came forward again, with his dipping stride, and began tointroduce the second half of the programme with a lecture.
Let me state once for all that this self-confident cripple was the most powerful hypnotist I haveever seen in my life. It was pretty plain now that he threw dust in the public eye and advertisedhimself as a prestidigitator on account of police regulations which would have prevented him frommaking his living by the exercise of his powers. Perhaps this eye-wash is the usual thing in Italy;it may be permitted or even connived at by the authorities. Certainly the man had from thebeginning made little concealment of the actual nature of his operations; and this second half ofthe programme was quite frankly and exclusively devoted to one sort of experiment. While he stillpractised some rhetorical circumlocutions, the tests themselves were one long series of attacksupon the will-power, the loss or compulsion of volition. Comic, exciting, amazing by turns, bymidnight they were still in full swing; we ran the gamut of all the phenomena this natural-unnatural field has to show, from the unimpressive at one end of the scale to the monstrous at theother. The audience laughed and applauded as they followed the grotesque details; shook theirheads, clapped their knees, fell very frankly under the spell of this stern, self-assuredpersonality. At the same time I saw signs that they were not quite complacent, not quiteunconscious of the peculiar ignominy which lay, for the individual and for the general, inCipolla’s triumphs.
Two main features were constant in all the experiments: the liquor glass and the claw-handledriding-whip. The first was always invoked to add fuel to his demoniac fires; without it, ap-parently, they might have burned out. On this score we might even have felt pity for the man; butthe whistle of his scourge, the insulting symbol of his domination, before which we all cowered,drowned out every sensation save a dazed and outbraved submission to his powei. Did he then layclaim to our sympathy to boot? I was struck by a remark he made-it suggested no less. At the climaxof his experiments, by stroking and breathing upon a certain young man who had offered himself as asubject and already proved himself a particularly susceptible one, he had not only put him into
the condition known as deep trance and extended his insensible body by neck and feet across thebacks of two chairs, but had actually sat down on the rigid form as on a bench, without making ityield. The sight of this unholy figure in a frock-coat squatted on the stiff body was horrible andincredible; the audience, convinced that the victim of this scientific diversion must be suffering,expressed its sympathy: “Ah, poveretto!” Poor soul, poor soul! “Poor soul!” Cipolla mocked them,with some bitterness. “Ladies and gentlemen, you are barking up the wrong tree. Sono io iipoveretto. I am the person who is suffering, I am the one to be pitied.” We pocketed theinformation. Very good. Maybe the experiment was at his expense, maybe it was he who had sufferedthe cramp when the giovanotto over there had made the faces. But appearances were all against it;and one does not feel like saying poveretto to a man who is suffering to bring about thehumiliation of others.
I have got ahead of my story and lost sight of the sequence of events. To this day my mind is fullof the Cavaliere’s feats of endurance; only I do not recall them in their order-which does notmatter. So much I do know: that the longer and more circumstantial tests, which got the mostapplause, impressed me less than some of the small ones which passed quickly over. I remember theyoung man whose body Cipolla converted into a board, only because of the accompanying remarkswhich I have quoted. An elderly lady in a cane-seated chair was lulled by Cipolla in the delusionthat she was on a voyage to India and gave a voluble account of her adventures by land and sea. ButI found this phenomenon less impressive than one which followed inn- mediately after theintermission. A tall, well-built, soldierly man was unable to lift his arm, after the hunchbackhad told him that he could not and given a cut through the air with his whip. I can still see theface of that stately, mustachioed colonel smiling and clenching his teeth as he struggled to regainhis lost freedom of action. A staggering performance! He seemed to be exerting his will, and invain; the trouble, however, was probably simply that he could not will. There was involved herethat recoil of the will upon itself which paralyses choice-as our tyrant had previously explainedto the Roman gentleman.
Still less can I forget the touching scene, at once comic and horrible, with Signora Angiolieri.The Cavaliere, probably in his first bold survey of the room, had spied out her ethereal lack ofresistance to his power. For actually he bewitched her, literally drew her out of her seat, out ofher row, and away with him whither he willed. And in order to enhance his effect, he bade SignorAngiolieri call upon his wife by her name, to throw, as it were, all the weight of his existenceand his rights in her into the scale, to rouse by the voice of her husband everything in hisspouse’s soul which could shield her virtue against the evil assaults of magic. And how vain it allwas! Cipolla was standing at some distance from the couple, when he made a single cut with his whipthrough the air. It caused our landlady to shudder violently and turn her face towards him.”Sofronia!” cried Signor Angiolieri-we had not known that Signora Angiolieri’s name was Sofronia.And he did well to call, everybody saw that there was no time to lose. His wife kept her faceturned in the direction of the diabolical Cavaliere, who with his ten long yellow fingers wasmaking passes at his victim, moving backwards as he did so, step by step. Then Signora Angiolieri,her pale face gleaming, rose up from her seat, turned right round, and began to glide after him.Fatal and forbidding sight! Her face as though moonstruck, stiff- armed, her lovely hands lifted alittle at the wrists, the feet as it were together, she seemed to float slowly out of her row andafter the tempter. “Call her, sir, keep on calling,” prompted the redoubtable man. And Signor Angiolieri, in a weak voice, called: “Sofronia!” Ah,again and again he called; as his wife went further off he even curved one hand round his lips andbeckoned with the other as he called. But the poor voice of love and duty echoed unheard, in vain,behind the lost one’s back; the Signora swayed along, moonstruck, deaf, enslaved; she glided intothe middle aisle and down it towards the fingering hunchback, towards the door. We were driven tothe conviction, that she would have followed her master, had he so willed it, to the ends of theearth.
“Accidente!” cried out Signor Angiolieri, in genuine affright, springing up as the exit wasreached. But at the same moment the Cavaliere put aside, as it were, the triumphal crown and brokeoff. “Enough, signora, I thank you,” he said, and offered his arm to lead her back to her husband.”Signor,” he greeted the latter, “here is your wife. Unharmed, with my compliments, I give her intoyour hands. Cherish with all the strength of your manhood a treasure which is so wholly yours, andlet your zeal be quickened by knowing that there are powers stronger than reason or virtue, and notalways so magnanimously ready to relinquish their prey!”
Poor Signor Angiolieri, so quiet, so bald! He did not look as though he would know how to defendhis happiness, even against powers much less demoniac than these which were now adding mockery tofrightfulness. Solemnly and pompously the Cavaliere retired to the stage, amid applause to whichhis eloquence gave double strength. It was this particular episode, I feel sure, that set the sealupon his ascendancy. For now he made them dance, yes, literally; and the dancing lent a dissolute,abandoned, topsyturvy air to the scene, a drunken abdication of the critical spirit which had solong resisted the spell of this man. Yes, he had had to fight to get the upper hand-for instanceagainst the animosity of the young Roman gentleman, whose rebellious spirit threatened to serveothers as a rallying-point. But it was precisely upon the importance of example that the Cavalierewas so strong. He had the wit to make his attack at the weakest point and to choose as his firstvictim that feeble, ecstatic youth whom he had previously made into a board. The master had but tolook at him, when this young man would fling himself back as though struck by lightning, place hishands rigidly at his sides, and fall into a state of military somnambulism, in which it was plainto any eye that he was open to the most absurd suggestion that might be made to him. He seemedquite content in his abject state, quite pleased to be relieved of the burden of voluntary choice.Again and again he offered himself as a subject and gloried in the model facility he had in losingconsciousness. So now he mounted the platform, and a single cut of the whip was enough to make himdance to the Cavaliere’s orders, in a kind of complacent ecstasy, eyes closed, head nodding, lanklimbs flying in all directions.
It looked unmistakably like enjoyment, and other recruits were not long in coming forward: twoother young men, one humbly and one well dressed, were soon jigging alongside the first. But nowthe gentleman from Rome bobbed up again, asking defiantly if the Cavaliere would engage to make himdance too, even against his will.
“Even against your will,” answered Cipolla, in unforgettable accents. That frightful “anche se nonvuole” still rings in my ears. The struggle began. After Cipolla had taken another little glassand lighted a fresh cigarette he stationed the Roman at a point in the middle aisle and himselftook up a position some distance behind, making his whip whistle through the air as he gave theorder: “Ba/1a!” His opponent did not stir. “Balla!” repeated the Cavaliere incisively, and snappedhis whip. You saw the young manmove his neck round in his collar; at the same time one hand lifted slightly at the wrist, oneankle turned outward. But that was all, for the time at least; merely a tendency to twitch, nowsternly repressed, now seeming about to get the upper hand. It escaped nobody that here a heroicobstinacy, a fixed resolve to resist, must needs be conquered; we were beholding a gallant effortto strike out and save the honour of the human race. He twitched but danced not; and the strugglewas so prolonged that the Cavaliere had to divide his attention between it and the stage, turningnow and then to make his ridingwhip whistle in the direction of the dancers, as it were to keepthem in leash. At the same time he advised the audience that no fatigue was involved in suchactivities, however long they went on, since it was not the automatons up there who danced, buthimself. Then once more his eye would bore itself into the back of the Roman’s neck and lay siegeto the strength of purpose which defied him.
One saw it waver, that strength of purpose, beneath the repeated summons and whip-crackings. Sawwith an objective interest which yet was not quite free from traces of sympathetic emotion-frompity, even from a cruel kind of pleasure. If I understand what was going on, it was the negativecharacter of the young man’s fighting position which was his undoing. It is likely that not willingis not a practicable state of mind; not to want to do something may be in the long run a mentalcontent impossible to subsist on. Between not willing a certain thing and not willing at all-inother words, yielding to another person’s will-there may lie too small a space for the idea offreedom to squeeze into. Again, there-were the Cavaliere’s persuasive words, woven in among thewhip- crackings and commands, as he mingled effects that were his own secret with others of abewilderingly psychological kind. “Balla!” said he. “Who wants to torture himself like that? Isforcing yourself your idea of freedom? Una ballatina! Why, your arms and legs are aching for it.What a relief to give way to them-there, you are dancing already! That is no struggle any more, itis pleasure!” And so it was. The jerking and twitching of the refractory youth’s limbs had at lastgot the upper hand; he lifted his arms, then his knees, his joints quite suddenly relaxed, he flunghis legs and danced, and amid bursts of applause the Cavaliere led him to join the row of puppetson the stage. Up there we could see his face as he “enjoyed” himself; it was clothed in a broadgrin and the eyes were halfshut. In a way, it was consoling to see that he was having a better timethan he had had in the hour of his pride.
His “fall” was, I may say, an epoch. The ice was completely broken, Cipolla’s triumph had reachedits height. The Circe’s wand, that whistling leather whip with the claw handle, held absolute sway.At one time-it must have been well after midnight-not only were there eight or ten persons dancingon the little stage, but in the hall below a varied animation reigned, and a long-toothedAnglo-Saxoness in a pince-nez left her seat of her own motion to perform a tarantella in the centreaisle. Cipolla was lounging in a cane-seated chair at the left of the stage, gulping down the smokeof a cigarette and breathing it impudently out through his bad teeth. He tapped his foot andshrugged his shoulders, looking down upon the abandoned scene in the hall; now and then he snappedhis whip backwards at a laggard upon the stage. The children were awake at the moment. With shame Ispeak of them. For it was not good to be here, least of all for them; that we had not taken themaway can only be explained by saying that we had caught the general devil-may-careness of the hour.By that time it was all one. Anyhow, thank goodness, they lacked understanding for thedisreputable side of the entertainment, and in their innocence were perpetually charmed, by the unheard-of indulgence which permitted them to be presentat such a thing as a magician’s “evening.” Whole quarter-hours at a time they drowsed on ourlaps, waking refreshed and rosycheeked, with sleep-drunken eyes, to laugh to bursting at the leapsand jumps the magician made those people up there make. They had not thought it would be so jolly;they joined with their clumsy little hands in every round of applause. And jumped for joy upontheir chairs, as was their wont, when Cipolla beckoned to their friend Mario from the Esquisito,beckoned to him just like a picture in a book, holding his hand in front of his nose and bendingand straightening the forefinger by turns.
Mario obeyed. I can see him now going up the stairs to Cipolla, who continued to beckon him, inthat droll, picture-book sort of way. He hesitated for a moment at first; that, too, I recallquite clearly. During the whole evening he had lounged against a wooden pillar at the sideentrance, with his arms folded, or else with his hands thrust into his jacket pockets. He was onour left, near the youth with the militant hair, and had followed the performance attentively, sofar as we had seen, if with no particular animation and God knows how much comprehension. He couldnot much relish being summoned thus, at the end of the evening. But it was only too easy to see whyhe obeyed. After all, obedience was his calling in life; and then, how should a simple lad like himfind it within his human capacity to refuse compliance to a man so throned and crowned as Cipollaat that I hour? Willy-nilly he left his column and with a word of thanks to those making way forhim he mounted the steps with a doubtful smile on his full lips.
Picture a thickset youth of twenty years, with clipt hair, a low forehead, and heavy-lidded eyes ofan indefinite grey, shot with green and yellow. These things I knew from having spoken with him, aswe often had. There was a saddle of freckles on the flat nose, the whole upper half of the faceretreated behind the lower, and that again was dominated by thick lips that parted to show thesalivated teeth. These thick lips and the veiled look of the eyes lent the whole face a primitivemelancholy-it was that which had drawn us to him from the first. In it was not the faintest traceof brutality-indeed, his hands would have given the lie to such an idea, being unusually slenderand delicate even for a southerner. They were hands by which one liked being served.
We knew him humanly without knowing him personally, if I may make that distinction. We saw himnearly every day, and felt a certain kindness for his dreamy ways, which might at times be actualinattentiveness, suddenly transformed into a redeeming zeal to serve. His mien was serious, onlythe children could bring a smile to his face. It was not sulky, but uningratiating, withoutintentional effort to please-or, rather, it seemed to give up being pleasant in the conviction thatit could not succeed. We should have remembered Mario in any case, as one of those homelyrecollections of travel which often stick in the mind better than more important ones. But of hiscircumstances we knew no more than that his father was a petty clerk in the Municipio and hismother took in washing.
His white waiter’s-coat became him better than the faded striped suit he wore, with a gay colouredscarf instead of a collar, the ends tucked into his jacket. He neared Cipolla, who however did notleave off that motion of his finger before his nose, so that Mario had to come still closer, rightup to the chair-seat and the master’s legs. Whereupon the latter spread out his elbows and seizedthe lad, turning him so that we had a view of his face. Then gazed him briskly up and down, with acareless, commanding eye.
“Well, ragazzo mio, how comes it we make acquaintance so late in the day? But believe me, I madeyours long ago. Yes, yes, I’ve had you in my eye this long while and known what good stuff you weremade of. How could I go and forget you again? Well, I’ve had a good deal to think about. Nowtell me, what is your name? The first name,that’s all I want.”
“My name is Mario,” the young man answered, in a low voice.
“Ah, Mario. Very good. Yes, yes, there is such a name, quite a common name, a classic name too, oneof those which preserve the heroic traditions of the Fatherland. Bravo! Salve!” And he flung up his arm slantingly above his crooked shoulder, palm outward, in the Roman salute. He may have been slightly tipsy by now, and no wonder; but he spoke as before,clearly, fluently, and with emphasis. Though about this time there had crept into his voice agross, autocratic note, and a kind of arrogance was in his sprawl.
“Well, now, Mario mio,” he went on, “it’s a good thing you came this evening, and that’s a prettyscarf you’ve got on; it is becoming to your style of beauty. It must stand you in good stead withthe girls, the pretty pretty girls of Torre-“
From the row of youths, close by the place where Mario had been standing, sounded a laugh. It camefrom the youth with the militant hair. He stood there, his jacket over his shoulder, and laughedoutright, rudely and scornfully.
Mario gave a start. I think it was a shrug, but he may have started and then hastened to cover themovement by shrugging his shoulders, as much as to say that the neckerchief and the fair sex werematters of equal indifference to him.
The Cavaliere gave a downward glance.
“We needn’t trouble about him,” he said. “He is jealous, because your scarf is so popular with thegirls, maybe partly because you and I are so friendly up here. Perhaps he’d like me to put him inmind of his colic-I could do it free of charge. Tell me, Mario. You’ve come here this evening for abit of fun-and in the daytime you work in an ironmonger’s shop?”
“In a cafe,” corrected the youth.
“Oh, in a cafe. That’s where Cipolla nearly came a cropper! What you are is a cup-bearer, aGanymede-1 like that, it is another classical allusion-Salvietta!” Again the Cavaliere saluted, tothe huge gratification of his audience.
Mario smiled too. “But before that,” he interpolated, in the interest of accuracy, “I worked for awhile in a shop in Portoclemente.” He seemed visited by a natural desire to assist the prophecy bydredging out its essential features.
“There, didn’t I say so? In an ironmonger’s shop?” “They kept combs and brushes,” Mario got roundit.
“Didn’t I say that you were not always a Ganymede? Not always at the sign of the serviette? Evenwhen Cipolla makes a mistake, it is a kind that makes you believe in him. Now tell me: Do youbelieve in me?”
An indefinite gesture.
“A half-way answer,” commented the Cavaliere. “Probably it is not easy to win your confidence. Evenfor me, I can see, it is not so easy. I see in your features a reserve, a sadness, un tratto dimalinconia… tell me” (he seized Mario’s hand persuasively) “have you troubles?”
“Nossignore,” answered Mario, promptly and decidedly.
“You have troubles,” insisted the, Cavaliere, bearing down the denial by the weight of hisauthority. “Can’t I see? Trying to pull the wool over Cipolla’s eyes, are you? Of course, about thegirls-it is a girl, isn’t it? You have love troubles?”
Mario gave a vigorous head-shake. And again the giovanotto’s brutal laugh rang out. The Cavalieregave heed. His eyes were roving about somewhere in the air: but he cocked an ear to the sound, thenswung his whip backwards, as he had once or twice before in his conversation with Mario, that noneof his puppets might flag in their zeal. The gesture had nearly cost him his new prey: Mario gave asudden start in the direction of the steps. But Cipolla had him in his clutch.
“Not so fast,” said he. “That would be fine, wouldn’t it? So you want to skip, do you, Ganymede,right in the middle of the fun, or, rather, when it is just beginning? Stay with me, I’ll show yousomething nice. I’ll convince you. You have no reason to worry, I promise you. This girl-you knowher and others know her too-what’s her name? Wait! I read the name in your eyes, it is on the tipof my tongue and yours too-“
“Silvestra!” shouted the giovanotto from below.
The Cavaliere’s face did not change.
“Aren’t there the forward people?” he asked, not looking down, more as in undisturbed converse withMario. “Aren’t there the young fighting-cocks that crow in season and out? Takes the word out ofyour mouth, the conceited fool, and seems to think he has some special right to it. Let him be. ButSilvestra, your Silvestra-ah, what a girl that is! What a prize! Brings your heart into your mouthto see her walk or laugh or breathe, she is so lovely. And her round arms when she washes, andtosses her head back to get the hair out of her eyes! An angel from paradise!”
Mario started at him, his head thrust forward. He seemed to have forgotten the audience, forgottenwhere he was. The red rings round his eyes had got larger, they looked as though they were paintedon. His thick lips parted.
“And she makes you suffer, this angel,” went on Cipolla, “or, rather, you make yourself suffer forher-there is a difference, my lad, a most important difference, let me tell you. There aremisunderstandings in love, maybe nowhere else in the world are there so many. I know what you arethinking: what does this Cipolla, with his little physical defect, know about love? Wrong, allwrong, he knows a lot. He has a wide and powerful understanding of its workings, and it pays tolisten to his advice. But let’s leave Cipolla out, cut him out altogether and think only ofSilvestra, your peerless Silvestra! What! Is she to give any young gamecock the preference, so thathe can laugh while you cry? To prefer him to a chap like you, so full of feeling and sosympathetic? Not very likely, is it? It is impossible-we know better, Cipolla and she. If I wereto put myself in her place and choose between the two of you, a tarry lout like that-a codfish, asea- 4 urchin-and a Mario, a knight of the serviette, who moves among gentlefolk and hands roundrefreshments with an airmy word, but my heart would speak in no uncertain tones-it knows to whom Igave it long ago. It is time that he should see and understand, my chosen one! It is time that yousee me and recognize me, Mario, my beloved! Tell me, who am I?”
It was grisly, the way the betrayer made himself irresistible, wreathed and coquetted with hiscrooked shoulder, languished with the puffy eyes, and showed his splintered teeth in a sicklysmile. And alas, at his beguiling words, what was come of our Mario? It is hard for me to tell,hard as it was for me to see; for here was nothing less than an utter abandonment of the inmost soul, a public exposure of timid and deluded passion andrapture. He put his hands across his mouth, his shoulders rose and fell with his pantings. He couldnot, it was plain, trust his eyes and ears for joy, and the one thing he forgot was precisely thathe could not trust them. “Silvestra!” he breathed, from the very depths of his vanquished heart.
“Kiss me!” said the hunchback. “Trust me, I love thee. Kiss me here.” And with the tip of his indexfinger, hand, arm, and little finger outspread, he pointed to his cheek, near the mouth. And Mariobent and kissed him.
It had grown very still in the room. That was a monstrous moment, grotesque and thrilling, themoment of Mario’s bliss. In that evil span of time, crowded with a sense of the illusiveness of alljoy, one sound became audible, and that not quite at once, but on the instant of the melancholy andribald meeting between Mario’s lips and the repulsive flesh which thrust itself forward for hiscaress. It was the sound of a laugh, from the giovanotto on our left. It broke into the dramaticsuspense of the moment, coarse, mocking, and yet-or I must have been grossly mistaken-with anundertone of compassion for the poor bewildered, victimized creature. It had a faint ring of that”Poveretto” which Cipolla had declared was wasted on the wrong person, when he claimed the pity forhis own.
The laugh still rang in the air when the recipient of the caress gave his whip a little swish, lowdown, close to his chair-leg, and Mario started up and flung himself back. He stood in thatposture staring, his hands one over the other on those desecrated lips. Then he beat his templeswith his clenched fists, over and over; turned and staggered down the steps, while the audienceapplauded, and Cipolla sat there with his hands in his lap, his shoulders shaking. Once below, andeven while in full retreat, Mario hurled himself round with legs flung wide apart; one arm flew up,and two flat shattering detonations crashed through applause and laughter.
There was instant silence. Even the dancers came to a full stop and stared about, struck dumb.Cipolla bounded from his seat. He stood with his arms spread out, slanting as though to wardeverybody off, as though next moment he would cry out: “Stop! Keep back! Silence! What was that?”Then, in that instant, he sank back in his seat, his head rolling on his chest; in the next he hadfallen sideways to the floor, where he lay motionless, a huddled heap of clothing, with limbs awry.
The commotion was indescribable. Ladies hid their faces, shuddering, on the breasts of theirescorts. There were shouts for a doctor, for the police. People flung themselves on Mario in a mob,to disarm him, to take away the weapon that hung from his fingers-that small, dull-metal, scarcelypistol-shaped tool with hardly any barrel-in how strange and unexpected a direction had fatelevelled it!
And now-now finally, at last-we took the children and led them towards the exit, past the pair ofcarabinier just entering. Was that the end, they wanted to know, that they might go in peace? Yes,we assured them, that was the end. An end of horror, a fatal end. And yet a liberation-for I couldnot, and I cannot, but find it so!