Translated from the Italian by Arthur Livingston
“MY NAME IS MATTIA PASCAL”
One of the few things, in fact about the only thing I was sure of was
my name: Mattia Pascal. Of this I took full advantage also. Whenever
one of my friends or acquaintances so far lost his head as to come and
ask me for a bit of advice on some matter of importance, I would shrug
my shoulders, squint my eyes, and answer:
“My name is Mattia Pascal!”
“That’s very enlightening, old man! I knew that much already!”
“And you don’t feel lucky to know that much?”
There was no reason why he should that I could see. But at the time I
had not realized what it meant not to be sure of even that much–not
to be able to answer on occasion, as I had formerly answered:
“My name is Mattia Pascal!”
Some people surely will sympathize with me (sympathy comes cheap) when
they try to imagine the immense anguish a poor man must feel on
suddenly discovering … well, yes… just a blank; that he knows
neither who his father was, nor who his mother was, nor how, nor when,
nor where, he was born–if ever he was born at all…. Just as others
will be ready to criticize (criticism comes cheaper still) the
immorality and viciousness of a society where an innocent child can be
treated that way.
Very well! Thanks for the sympathy and the holy horror! But it is my
duty to give notice in advance that it’s not quite that way. Indeed,
if need should arise, I could give my family tree with the origin and
descent of all my house. I could prove that I know my father and my
mother, and their fathers and mothers unto several generations, and
the doings, through the years, of all those forebears of mine (doings
not always to their untarnished credit, I must confess).
Well then! It’s this way. My case, not the ordinary one, by any means,
is so far out of the ordinary in fact, that I have decided to recount
For some two years I held a position–mouse-catcher and custodian in
one–in the so-called Boccamazza library. Away back in the year 1803,
a certain Monsignor Boccamazza, on departing from this life, left his
books as a legacy to our village. It was always clear to me that this
venerable man of the cloth knew nothing whatever about the
dispositions of his fellow-citizens. I suppose he hoped that his
benefaction, as time and opportunity favored, would kindle a passion
for study in their souls. So far not a spark has ever glowed therein,
as I may state with some authority, and with the idea of paying a
compliment, rather than not, to my fellow-townsmen. Indeed, our
village so little appreciated the gift of the reverend Boccamazza that
it has, to this day, refused money even for putting his head, neck,
and shoulders into marble; and for years and years the books he left
were never removed from the damp and musty store house where they had
been piled after his funeral. Eventually, however, they were
transported (and imagine in what condition!) to the unused Church of
Santa Maria Liberale, a building which, for some reason or other, had
been secularized. There the town government entrusted them to any one
of its favorites who was looking for a sinecure and who, for two lire
a day, was willing to care for them (or to neglect them if he chose),
and to stand the noxious odor of all that mildewed paper.
This plum, in the course of human events, fell to me, and I must add
that the first day of my incumbency gave me such a distaste for books
and manuscripts in general (some of those under my charge were very
precious, I am told) that I should never, never, of my own accord,
have thought of increasing the number of them in the world by one.
But, as I said, my case is a very strange one; and I now agree that it
may prove of interest to some chance reader, who, in fulfillment of
Monsignor Boccamazza’s pious hope, shall some day wander into the
library and stumble upon this manuscript of mine. For I am leaving it
to the foundation, with the understanding that no one shall open it
till fifty years after my third, last, and final death.
There you have it, exactly! So far I have died twice (and the Lord
knows the extent of my regret, I can assure you): the first time I
died by mistake; and the second time I died… but that’s-my story, as
you will see….
“GO TO IT,” SAYS DON ELIGIO
The idea, or rather the suggestion, that I write such a book came to
me from my reverend friend, Don Eligio Pellegrinotto, the present
custodian of the Boccamazza gift; and to his care (or neglect) I shall
entrust the script when it is finished (if ever I reach the end).
I am writing it here in this little deconsecrated church, under the
pale light shed from the windows of the cupola, here in the
librarian’s “office” (one of the old shrines in the apse, fenced off
by a wooden railing), where Don Eligio sits, panting at the task he
has heroically assumed of bringing a little order into this chaos of
I doubt whether he gets very far with it.
Beyond a cursory glance over the ensemble of the bindings, no one
before his time ever took the trouble to find out just what kind of
books the old Monsignore’s legacy contained (we took it for granted
that they bore mostly on religion). Well, Don Eligio has discovered
(“Just my luck!” says he) that their subject-matter is extremely
varied on the contrary; and since they were gathered up haphazard,
just as they lay in the store house, and set on the shelves wherever
they would fit, the confusion they are in is, to say the least,
appalling. Odd marriages have resulted between some of these old
volumes. Don Eligio tells me, that it took him a whole forenoon to
divorce one pair of books that had embraced each other by their
bindings: “The Art of Courting Fair Ladies,” by Anton Muzio Porro
(Perugia, 1571); and (Mantua, 1625), “The Life and Death of the
Beatified Faustino Materucci”! (One section of Muzio’s treatise is
devoted to the debaucheries of the Benedictine order to which the holy
Climbing up and down a ladder he borrowed from the village
lamp-lighter, Don Eligio has unearthed many interesting and curious
tomes on those dust-laden shelves. Every time he finds one such, he
takes careful aim from the rung where he is standing, and drops it,
broadside down, on the big table in the center of the nave. The old
church booms the echo from wall to wall. A cloud of dust fills the
room. Here and there a spider can be seen scampering to safety on the
table top. I saunter along from my writing desk, straddle the railing,
and approach the table. I pick up the book, use it to crush the vermin
that have been shaken out, open it at random, and glance it through.
Little by little I have acquired a liking for such browsing. Besides,
Don Eligio tells me I should model my style on some of the mouldy
texts he is exhuming here–give it a “classic flavor” as he says. I
shrug my shoulders and remark that such things are beyond me. Then my
eye falls on something curious, and I read on.
When at last, grimy with dust and sweat, Don Eligio comes down from
his ladder, I join him for a breath of clean air in the garden which
he has somehow coaxed into luxuriance on a patch of gravel in the
corner of apse and nave.
I sit down on a projection of the underpinning, and rest my chin on
the handle of my cane. Don Eligio is softening the ground about a head
“Dear me, dear me,” say I. “These are not the times to be writing
books, Don Eligio, even fool books like mine. Of literature I must
begin to say what I have said of everything else: ‘Curses on
“Oh, wait now,” exclaims Don Eligio, the blood rushing to his face as
he straightens up from his cramped position. (It is hot at noon time,
and he has put on a broad-brimmed straw, for a bit of artificial
shade.) “What has Copernicus got to do with it?”
“More than you realize, perhaps; for, in the days before the earth
began to go round the sun….”
“There you go again! It always went round the sun, man alive….”
“Not at all, not at all! No one knew it did; so, to all intents and
purposes, it might as well have been sitting still. Plenty of people
don’t admit even now that the earth goes round the sun. I mentioned
the point to an old peasant the other day, and do you know what he
said to me? He said: ‘That’s a good excuse when someone swears you’re
drunk!’ Even you, a good priest, dare not doubt that in Joshua’s time
the sun did the moving. But that’s neither here nor there. I was
saying that in days when the earth stood still, and Man, dressed as
Greek or Roman, had a reason for thinking himself about the most
important thing in all creation, there was some justification for a
fellow’s putting his own paltry story into writing.”
“The fact remains,” says Don Eligio, “that more trashy books have been
written since the earth, as you insist, began going round the sun,
than there were before that time.”
“I agree,” say I. “‘At half past eight, to the minute, the count got
out of bed and entered his bathroom….’ ‘The millionaire’s wife was
wearing a low-necked gown with frills….’ ‘They were sitting opposite
each other at a breakfast table in the Ritz….’ ‘Lucretia was sewing
at the window in the front room….’ So they write nowadays. Trash, I
grant you! But that’s not the question either. Are we, or are we not,
stuck here on a sort of top which some God is spinning for his
amusement–a sunbeam maybe for a string; or, if you wish, on a mudball
that’s gone crazy, and whirls round and round in space, without
knowing or caring why it whirls–just for the fun of the thing? At one
point| in the turning we feel a little warmer; at the next a little
cooler; but after fifty or sixty rounds we die, with the satisfaction
of having made fools of ourselves at least once every turn.
Copernicus, I tell you, Don Eligio, Copernicus has ruined mankind
beyond repair. Since his day we have all come gradually to realize how
unutterably insignificant we are in the whole scheme of things–less
than nothing at all, despite the pride we! take in our science and
the inventiveness of the human mind. Well, why get excited over our
little individual trials and troubles, if a catastrophe involving
thousands of us is as important, relatively, as the destruction of an
Don Eligio observes, however, that no matter how hard we try to
disparage or destroy the many illusions Nature has planted in us for
our good, we never quite succeed. Fortunately man’s attention is very
easily diverted from his low estate.
And he is right. I have noticed that in our village, on certain nights
marked in the calendar, the street lamps are not lighted; and on such
occasions, if the weather happens to be cloudy, we are left in the
dark.–Proof, I take it, that even in this day and age, we fancy that
the moon is put there to give us light by night, just as the sun is
put there to give us light by day (with the stars thrown in for
decorative purposes). And we are only too glad to forget what
ridiculously small mites we are, provided now and then we can enjoy a
little flattery of and from each other. Men are capable of fighting
over such trifles as land or money, experiencing the greatest joy and
the greatest sorrow over things, which, were we really awake to our
nothingness, would surely be deemed the most miserable trivialities.
To come to the point: Don Eligio seems to me so nearly right, that I
have decided to avail myself of this faculty I share with other men
for thinking myself worth talking about; and, in view of the
strangeness of my experience, as I said, I am going to write it down.
I shall be brief, on the whole, sticking closely to essentials; and I
shall be frank. Many of the things I shall narrate will not help my
reputation much. But I find myself in a quite exceptional position: as
a person beyond this life. There is no reason, therefore, for
concealing or mitigating anything.
So I proceed.
A MOLE SAPS OUR HOUSE
I was a bit hasty in stating, a moment ago, that I knew my father. I
can hardly claim as much. He died when I was four years old. He went
on a trip to Corsica in the coaster of which he was captain and owner,
and never came back–a matter of typhus, I believe, which carried him
off in three days at the untimely age of thirty-eight. Nevertheless he
left his family well provided for–his wife, that is, and two boys:
Mattia (I that was in my first life), and Roberto, my elder by a
couple of years.
The old people of our village enjoy telling a story to the effect that
my father’s wealth had a rather dubious origin (though I don’t see why
they continue to hold that up against him, since the property has long
since passed from our hands). As they will have it, he got his money
at a game of cards with the captain of an English tramp-steamer
visiting Marseilles. The Englishman had taken on a cargo at some port
in Sicily, a load of sulphur, it is specified, consigned to a merchant
in Liverpool. (They know all the details, you see: Liverpool! Give
them time to think and they’ll tell you the name of the merchant and
the street he lived on!) After losing to my father the large amount of
cash he had on hand, the captain staked the sulphur–and again lost.
The steamer arrived in Liverpool still further lightened by the weight
of its master, who had jumped overboard at sea in despair. (Had it not
been so well ballasted with the lies of my father’s defamers, I dare
say the ship would never have reached port at all!)
Our fortune was mostly in landed property. An adventurer of a roving
disposition, my father was utterly unable to tie himself down to a
business in one place. With his boat we went around from harbor to
harbor buying here and selling there, dealing in goods of every sort.
But to avoid the temptation of too hazardous speculations, he always
invested his profits in fields and houses about our native town;
intending, I suppose, to settle down there in his old age, and enjoy,
with his wife and children about him, the fruits of his imagination
and hard work.
He bought–oh, he bought a place called Le Due Riviere–“Shoreacres,” as it were, for its olives and its mulberry
trees; he bought a farm we called “The Coops,” with a pond on it,
which ran a mill; he bought the whole hillside of “The Spur”–the best
vineyard in our district; he bought the San Rocchino estate, where he
built a delightful summer-house; in town he bought the mansion where
we lived, two tenement houses, and the building that has now been
fixed over for the armory.
His sudden death was the ruin of us. Utterly ignorant of business
matters, my mother was obliged to entrust our fortune to someone. She
chose as her steward a man who had been enriched by my father and who,
as anyone would have thought, would be loyal out of sheer gratitude,
if for nothing else; all the more since a high salary for his services
would make honesty a good policy also. A saintly soul, my mother was!
Naturally timid and retiring, as trustful as a child, she knew nothing
at all about this world and the people who live in it. After my
father’s death her health was never good; but she did not complain of
her troubles to other people; and I doubt whether she lamented them
much in her secret heart. She seemed to take them as a natural
consequence of her great sorrow. The shock of that should have killed
her–so she reasoned. Ought she not be thankful therefore to the good
Lord who had vouchsafed her a few years more of life–be it indeed in
pain and suffering–to devote to her children?
For us she had an almost morbid tenderness, full of worries and
fancied terrors. She would scarcely let us out of her sight, for fear
of losing us. Let her look up from her work to find one of us absent,
and the servants would be sent calling through the great mansion where
we lived (the monument to my father’s ambition) to bring us back to
Merging her whole existence in that of her husband, she felt lost in
the world when he was gone. She never left the house except on
Sundays–and then only to attend early mass in a church near by, in
company with two maids of long service with us whom she treated as
members of the family. Indeed, to simplify her life still further, she
lived in three rooms of our big house, abandoning the others to the
haphazard care of the maids and to the pranks of us two boys.
I can still feel the impressiveness of those mysterious halls and
chambers, all pretentiously furnished with massive antiques. The faded
tapestries and upholstering gave off that peculiar odor of mustiness
which is the breath, as it were, of ages that have died. More than
once, I remember, I would look around, in strange consternation, upon
those weirdly silent objects which had been sitting there for years
and years motionless and unused!
Among my mother’s more frequent visitors was an aunt of mine on my
father’s side–Scolastica by name, a bilious, irritable old maid,
tall, dark-skinned, stern of bearing, and with eyes like a ferret.
Scolastica never stayed long at any one time. Invariably her visits
ended in a quarrel which she would settle by stalking out of the
house, without saying goodbye to anyone, and slamming the doors behind
her. I was terribly afraid of this redoubtable woman. I would sit in
my chair without daring to stir, gazing at her with wide-opened eyes;
especially when she would fly into a temper, turn furiously upon my
mother, and stamping angrily on the floor, exclaim:
“Do you hear that? Hollow, hollow, underneath! Ah, that mole! That
“That mole,” was Battista Malagna, the man in charge of our property,
who, according to Scolastica, was boring the ground away beneath our
feet. My aunt, as I learned years later, wanted mother to marry again
at all costs. Ordinarily, the relatives of a dead husband do not give
advice like this. But Scolastica had a severe and spiteful sense of
the fitness of things. Her desire to thwart a thief, rather than any
real affection for us, moved her to protest against Malagna’s robbing
us with impunity. Since mother was blind to faults in anybody,
Scolastica saw no possible remedy except bringing a new man into the
house. And she had even picked her man–a poor devil, though a rich
one, named Gerolamo Pomino.
Pomino was a widower with one boy. (The boy, also a Gerolamo, is still
living; in fact he is a friend,–I can hardly say a relative–of mine,
as my story will show in due season. In those days Gerolamino, or
“Mino” as we called him, would come to our house along with his
father, to be the torment of brother Berto and me.)
Years before, Gerolamo Pomino the elder had long aspired to the hand
of my aunt Scolastica; but she had spurned him as, for that matter,
she had spurned every other offer in marriage. It was not so much her
lack of an impulse to love. As she put it, the faintest suspicion on
her part that a husband might betray her even in his thoughts would
drive her to murder, yes, to murder downright! And who ever heard of a
faithful husband? All males were hypocrites, deceivers, scalawags!
“Well, Pomino, no!”
One exception that proved the rule! But she had found that out too
late. Carefully watching all the men who had proposed to her and then
married someone else, she had found them, in every case, playing
tricks on their wives–discoveries that afforded her a certain
ferocious satisfaction. But Pomino had always been “straight.” In his
case, the woman, rather, had been to blame.
“So why don’t you marry him, now, Cymanthia? Oh dear me! Just because
he’s a widower? Just because there has been a woman in his life, and
he may give her a thought now and then that might otherwise have been
for you? That’s splitting things pretty fine! Besides, just look at
him. You can see a mile away that he’s in love; and there’s no secret
about who it is he wants, poor man!”
As though mother would ever have dreamed of a second marriage! A
sacrilege that would have seemed in her eyes! I imagine that mother
doubted, besides, whether Scolastica really meant everything she said;
so when my aunt would start one of her long orations on the virtures
of Pomino, mother would just laugh in her peculiar way. The widower
was often present at such arguments. And I can remember him hitching
about uncomfortably on his chair as Scolastica would overwhelm him in
words of extravagant praise, and trying to relieve his torture by the
most wicked of his oaths: “The dear Lord save us!” (Pomino was a
dapper little old man with soft blue eyes. Berto and I thought there
was just a suggestion of rouge on his cheeks. Certainly he was proud
of keeping his hair so late in life; and he took the greatest pains in
parting and brushing it. As he talked, he was continually smoothing it
with his two hands.)
I don’t know how things would have turned out, had mother–not for her
own sake, surely, but as a safeguard for the future of her
children–taken Aunt Scolastica’s advice and married Pomino. Surely
nothing could have been worse than continuing with our affairs in the
clutches of Malagna, “the mole.” By the time Berto and I were in long
trousers, most of our inheritance had dwindled away; though something
was still left–enough to keep us, if not in luxury, at least free
from actual need. But we were careless youngsters, with not one
serious thought in our heads. Instead of coming to the rescue of the
remnants of our fortune, we persisted in the kind of life to which our
mother had accustomed us as boys.
Never, for example, were we sent to school. We had a private tutor
come to the house, a man called “Pinzone,” from the little pointed
beard he wore. (His real name was Del Cinque; but everybody called him
“Pinzone,” and I believe he grew so used to it that he ended by
signing his name that way himself.) He was an absurdly tall and an
absurdly lean fellow; and there is no telling how much taller he might
have grown, had, his head and neck not toppled forward from his
shoul-ders in a stoop that became a real deformity. Another feature
was an enormous Adam’s apple that went up and down as he swallowed.
Pinzone was always biting at his lips as though chastising a sarcastic
little smile peculiar to him; a smile which, banished from his lips,
managed to escape through two sharp eyes that ever showed a glittering
That pair of eyes must have seen many things in our house to which
mother and we two boys were blind. But Pinzone said nothing, perhaps
because it was not his place to interfere; or, as I believe more
probable, because he took a vindictive pleasure in the thought of us
boys being as poor as he some day. For Berto and I ragged him
unmercifully. As a rule he would let us do anything we chose; but then
again, as though to ease his conscience, he would tell on us at tunes
when we least expected.
Once, I remember, mother had asked him to take us to Church. It was
Easter time, and we were to prepare for Confession. Thence we were to
call at Malagna’s house, and express our sympathy to Signora Malagna
who was ill. Not a very exciting program for two boys our age and in
such fine weather! We were hardly out of mother’s hearing when we
proposed a revision of the day’s work. We offered Pinzone a fine lunch
with wine, provided he would forget Church and Mrs. Malagna and go
birdsnesting with us in the woods. There was a gleam in his eye as he
accepted. He ate our lunch and did not stint his appetite; making
serious inroads on our allowance for the month. Then he joined us on
our escapade, hunting with us for fully three hours, helping us to
climb the trees and even going up himself. On our return home, mother
asked after Mrs. Malagna, and questioned us about Confession. We were
thinking up something to say, when Pinzone, with the most brazen face
in the world, told the whole story of our day without omitting one
The punishments we inflicted for this and similar treachery never won
us a decisive armistice; though the tricks we played on him were not
wanting in a certain devilish ingenuity. Just before supper time, for
instance, Pinzone would wait for the bell by taking a little nap on
the couch in our front hall. One evening, of a wash day, when we had
been put to bed early for some prank or other, we got up, filled a
squirtgun with water from the wash, stealthily crept up to him, and
let him have it full in the nostrils. The jump he gave took him nearly
to the ceiling!
What we learned with such a teacher can readily be imagined; though it
was not all his fault. Pinzone had a certain erudition, among the
classic poets; and I, who was much more impressionable than Berto,
managed to memorize a goodly number of verses–especially charades and
the baroque poetry of old. I could recite so many of these that mother
was convinced we were both progressing very well. Aunt Scolastiea, for
her part, was not deceived; and she made up for the failure of her
plans for Pomino, by trying to set Berto and me in order. We knew we
had mother on our side, however, and paid no attention to her. So
angry was she at this scorn of her interest in us that I am sure she
would have given us both the thrashings of our lives had she been able
ever to do so without mother’s knowing. One day, when she was leaving
the house in rage as usual, she happened to encounter me in one of the
deserted rooms. I remember that she seized me by the chin and
tightening her fingers till it hurt, she said: “Mamma’s little
darling! Mamma’s little darling!”; then she lowered her face till her
eyes were looking straight into mine; and a sort of stifled bellow
escaped her: “If you were mine…. Oh, if you were mine….!”
I can’t yet understand why she had it in for me especially. I was a
model pupil for Pinzone, as compared with Berto. It may have been the
rather innocent face for which I have always been noted; an innocence
accentuated rather than not by the pair of big round glasses they had
fitted to my nose to discipline one of my eyes which preferred to
choose, independently of the other, the objects it would look at.
Those glasses were the plague of my life; and the moment I escaped
from the authority of my elders, I threw them away, restoring a
longed-for autonomy to the oppressed member. As I viewed the matter, I
was never destined to be a wonder for good looks, even with both eyes
straight. Why go to all that trouble then? I was in good health!
Never mind painting the lily! By the time I was eighteen, a red curly
beard had come to monopolize most of my face, to the particular
disadvantage of a mere dot of a nose which tended to lose its bearings
somewhere between that fullsome thicket and the spacious clearing of a
rather impressive brow. How comforting it would be if we could only
choose noses to match our faces! Imagine a man with an enormous
proboscis quite out of keeping with lean wizened features. To such a
man I would have said: “Look here, friend, you have a nose that just
suits me. Let’s exchange! It will be to the advantage of both of us.”
For that matter I could have improved in the selection of many other
parts of my physique; but I soon understood that any radical
betterment was out of the question. I grew reconciled to the face the
Lord gave me, and dismissed the matter from my mind.
Brother Roberto, on the contrary, was not so easily distracted. As
compared with me, he was a handsome well-built lad; and unfortunately
he knew it. He would spend hours in front of a mirror combing his hair
and dandying up in every way. He invested a mint of money in neckties,
linen and other articles of dress. On one occasion he angered me with
the fuss he made over a new evening suit for which he had bought a
white velvet waistcoat. To spite him, I put the thing on one morning
and went hunting in it.
“The Mole” meantime was not idle. Every season Malagna would come
around complaining of the bad crops and getting mother’s consent to a
new mortgage he was forced to take out. Now it would be repairs on a
building; now additional drainage for a field; now the “extravagance
of the boys.” A visit from him meant the certain announcement of
One year a frost (as he said) ruined our olive groves on the
“Shoreacres”; then the philloxera destroyed our vineyards on “The
Spur.” To import American roots (immune from this plague of the vines)
we were obliged to sell one farm, and then a second, and then a third.
Mother was sure that some day Malagna would find our pond at “The
Coops” dried up! As for Berto and me, I suppose we did spend more
money than was wise or necessary; but that does not alter the fact
that Battista Malagna was the meanest swindler that ever disgraced the
surface of this planet. Words more severe than these I could not
charitably use toward a man who eventually became a relative of mine
So long as mother was alive, Malagna allowed us to feel no
discomforts. Indeed he put no limit to our caprices and expenditures.
But that was just a blind to conceal the abyss into which, on my
mother’s death, I alone was to be plunged.
I alone… because Berto was shrewd enough to make a profitable
marriage in good season. Whereas my marriage….
“I ought to say something about my marriage, oughtn’t I, Don Eligio?”
Don Eligio is up on his ladder again, continuing his inventory. He
looks around and calls back:
“Your marriage? Why of course! The idea! Avoiding everything improper,
to be sure….”
“Improper! That’s a good one! You know very well that….”
Don Eligio laughs, and all this little deconsecrated church laughs
with him…. Then he continues:
“If I were you, Signer Pascal, I’d take a peep at Boccaccio or
Bandello, in passing…. That would sort of get you into the spirit of
Don Eligio is always talking about the “spirit of the thing,” the
tone, the flavor, the style…. Who does he think I am? D’Annunzio?
Not if I can help it! I am putting the thing down just as it was; and
it’s all I can do, at that. I was never cut out to be a literary
fellow…. But having once begun my story, I may as well continue, I
JUST AS IT WAS
I was out hunting one day, when I came upon a scarecrow in an open
field. A short pudgy figure it was, stuffed with straw, and with an
iron pot inverted on the upright for a hat. I stopped, as a whimsical
notion suddenly flitted through my head.
“I have met you before,” said I. “An old acquaintance!”
After a moment I burst out:
“Try the feel of this, Batty Malagna!”
A rusty pitchfork was lying on the ground nearby. I picked it up and
ran it into the belly of the “man”; with so much zest, moreover, that
the pot was almost shaken from its perch!
Yes, Batty Malagna himself; the way he looked when sweating and
puffing in a long coat and a stiff hat he went walking of an
afternoon! Everything was loose, baggy, slouching about Batty Malagna.
His eyebrows seemed to ooze down his big fat face, just as his nose
seemed to sag over an insipid mustache and goatee. His shoulders were
a sort of drip from his neck, his abdomen a sort of downflow from his
chest. This belly of his was balanced–precariously–on a pair of
short stubby legs; and to make trousers that would fit these along
with the paunch above, the tailor had to devise something extremely
slack at the waist. From a distance Batty looked as though he were
wearing skirts, or at least as though he were belly all the way down.
How Batty Malagna, with a face and a body like that, could be so much
of a thief, I cannot imagine. I always supposed thieves had a
distinctive something about their appearance or demeanor, which Batty
seemed to lack. He walked with a waddle, his belly all a-shake, and
his hands folded behind his back. When he talked, his voice was a kind
of muffled bleat blubbering up with difficulty from the fat around his
lungs. I should like really to know how he reconciled his conscience
with the depredations he made upon our property! He must have had very
deep and devious reasons, for it was not from lack of money that he
stole. Perhaps he just had to be doing something out of the ordinary
to make life interesting, poor devil.
Of one thing I am convinced: he must have suffered grievously, inside,
from the lifelong affliction of a wife whose principal occupation was
keeping him in his place. Batty made the mistake of choosing a woman
from a social station just above his own (this was a very low one
indeed.) Signora Guendolina, married to a man of her own sphere, would
probably have made a passable helpmeet; but her sole service to Batty
was to remind him on every possible pretext and occasion that she was
of a good family and that in her circles people did so and so. So and
so, accordingly, Batty tried his best to do. No bumpkin ever set out
to become a “gentleman” with more studious application. But what a job
it was! How it made him sweat–in summer weather!
To make matters worse, my lady Guendolina, shortly after her marriage
to Malagna, developed a stomach trouble which was destined to prove
incurable; since entirely to master it required a sacrifice greater
than her strength of will: abstinence, namely, from certain croquettes
she knew how to make with truffles; from a number of peculiarly
ingenious desserts; and, above all else, from wines. Not that she ever
abused the latter! I should say not! Guendolina was a lady, and self
control is a test of breeding! But a cure of the ailment in question
demanded total avoidance of strong drink.
As youngsters, Berto and I were sometimes asked to stay to dinner at
Malagna’s house. Batty would sit down at table and pitch in, meanwhile
lecturing his wife (with due regard for reprisals, of course) on the
virtues of abstemiousness.
“I for my part,” he would say (balancing a mouthful on his knife),
“fail to see how the pleasure of tickling your palate with something
you like to eat” (transferring the morsel to his mouth) “is worth
buying at the price of a day in bed. There’s no sense in it! I am sure
that if I” (wiping his plate with a piece of bread) “gave way to my
appetite like that, I should feel myself less of a man. Damn good,
this sauce today, Guendolina. Think I’ll try just a little more of
it–just a spoonful, mind!”
“No, you shall not have another bit,” his wife would snap back
angrily. “The idea! I wish the Lord would give you one good cramp like
those I have! That might teach you to have some regard for the woman
“Why, what in the world, Guendolina…? Some regard for you?”
(meanwhile pouring himself a glass of wine).
Guendolina would answer by rising from her place, snatching the glass
from his hands and emptying it… out of the window.
“Why… what’s the matter? Why did you do that?”
“Because!” says Guendolina. “You know very well that wine is poison to
me, poison! If you ever see me with a glass of wine–well–you just do
what I did. You take it and throw it out of the window too!”
Sheepish, mortified, but making the best of it, Malagna would look
first at me, then at Berto, then at the glass, then at the window.
“But, dearest, dearest, are you a child? You expect me to force you to
be good? Oh, I say! You ought to be strongminded enough to control
your little weaknesses.”
“While you sit there enjoying yourself! While you sit there smacking
your lips, holding your glass up to the light, clinking it with your
spoon–just to torment me? Well, I won’t stand it! That’s what I get
for marrying a man of your antecedents!…”
Well, Malagna went so far as to give up wine, to please his wife and
set her a good example! I leave it to you: a man who would do that is
likely to steal, just to convince himself that he amounts to
However, it was not long before Batty discovered that his wife was
drinking behind his back; as though wine consumed in that way would
not do her any harm. Whereupon Batty took to wine again himself; but
at the tavern, so as not to humiliate his Guendolina by showing that
he had caught her cheating. And a man who would do that…!
Eventual compensation for this perennial affliction Batty Malagna
hoped to find in the advent of a male heir to his family. That would
be an excuse, in his own eyes and in the eyes of anybody, for all his
thievery from us. What may a man not do to provide a future for his
children? But his wife, instead of getting better and better, got
worse and worse. Perhaps he never mentioned this burning subject to
her. There were so many reasons why he should not add that worry to
her troubles. Ailing, almost an invalid in the first place! Then she
might die if she tried to have a child! No: God forbid! Batty would
be resigned! Each of us has a cross to bear in this world!
Was Malagna quite sincere in this considerateness? If so, his conduct
did not show it when Guendolina died. To be sure, he mourned her
loss! Oh yes, he wept till it seemed his heart would break! And he was
so thoughtful of her memory that he refused to put another “lady” in
the place which she had occupied. No, no, I should say not! And he
might have, you know, he might have–man in his position in town, and
with plenty of money by this time! No, he married–a peasant girl, the
daughter of the farmer who worked one of our estates–strong healthy
thing, good-natured, good housekeeper–so that everyone could see that
what he wanted was children, and the right woman to bring them up. If
he waited hardly till Guendolina was cold in her grave, that was
reasonable, too. Batty was getting on in years, and had no time to
I had known Oliva Salvoni well since I was a little boy and she a
little girl. Daughter of Pietro Salvoni (the land he worked was the
farm of ours which we called “The Coops”), she had been responsible
for the many hopes I had aroused in poor mother in my time–hopes that
I was about to settle down and take an interest in our property, even
turn to farming which I had suddenly begun to like so well. Dear
innocent mamma! It was, of course, my terrible Aunt Scolastica who
shortly disabused her:
“But don’t you see, stupid, that he’s always hanging around
“Yes, why not? He’s helping get the olives in!”
“Helping take an Olive in! One Olive, do you hear, cabbage-head!”
Mother gave me a scolding that she thought would last me a long long
time: the mortal sin of leading a poor girl into temptation, of
ruining an innocent creature I could never marry… that kind of talk,
you understand. …
I listened respectfully. Really there was not the slightest danger in
the world. Oliva was quite able to take care of herself: and one of
her charms lay precisely in the ease and independence born of this
assurance, which enabled her to avoid insipid reticences and affected
modesty. How she could laugh! Such lips as hers I have never seen
before nor since. And what teeth! From the lips I got not the
suggestion of a kiss; from the teeth–a bite once, when I had seized
her by the wrists and refused to let her go short of a caress upon her
hair! That was the sum total of our intimacy.
So this was the beauty (and such a youthful, fresh and thoroughly
charming beauty!) that Malagna took to wife. Oh yes, I know… but a
girl can’t turn her back on certain opportunities! She knew very well
where that rascal got his money. One day, indeed, she told me exactly
what she thought of him for doing it. Then later on, because of that
very money, she married him…. However, one year, two years, went
by–and Malag-na’s heir was still wanting.
During the period of his first marriage Malagna had put all the blame
on Guendolina and her stomach trouble; but not even now did he
remotely suspect that the fault might be his own. He began to scowl
and sulk at Oliva.
From the end of the third year his reproaches became quite
undisguised. Soon he was actually abusing her, shouting and making
scenes about the house, and claiming that she had made a show of her
good health and good looks, to swindle him–a plain downright swindle,
yes sir! What had he married her for! A woman of her class! Putting
her in the place a lady–a real lady, sir–had held!–And if it hadn’t
been for that one thing, do you suppose he would ever have thought of
doing such a slight to the memory of the distinguished “lady” who had
been his first wife?
Poor Oliva said nothing, not knowing what there was to say, in fact.
She just came to our house to tell my mother all about it; and mother
would comfort her as best she could, assuring her there was still some
hope, since Oliva was a mere slip of a girl….
Oh, why so downhearted then? Children came sometimes, ten, fifteen,
twenty years after a woman’s marriage! And her husband? Malagna was
getting on in years, that was true; but….
Oliva, from the very first, had had her doubts, wondering whether…
well, how should she put it?… whether… it might not be his
fault… there! But how prove a thing like that? Oliva was a woman of
scruples. On marrying Malagna for his money and for nothing else she
had determined to play absolutely fair with him… and she would not
deceive him even for the sake of restoring peace to her household….
“How do you know all that?” asks Don Eligio.
“Huh! How do I know! I have just said that she came to our house to
discuss the matter with my mother. Before that I said I had known her
all her life. Then, now, I could see her with my own eyes crying her
heart out, all on account of that disgusting old thief! Finally. …
Shall I say it right out, Don Eligio!” “Say it just as it was!”
“Well, she said no! That’s putting it just as it was!”
Oh, I didn’t mind being turned down so sharply. In those days I had,
or thought I had–which amounts to the same thing–a great deal to
occupy my mind and afford distractions. Money, in the first place; and
money gives you, along with all the rest, certain ideas you would
never have in the world except for money. The problem of spending I
partly solved with the help of Gerolamo Pomino Second, who was a
genius in that line and whom wise paternal restrictions always kept
with pockets insufficiently lined.
“Mino” stuck to Berto and me like our shadows–now my shadow and now
Berto’s, that is. It was wonderful how Mino could change makeup
according as it were I or Berto. When he hobnobbed with my brother, he
became a regular dandy, and his father would loosen up a little on the
purse-strings (for Gerolamo the elder had a weakness for “gentlemen”).
But Berto did not find Mino so very congenial on the whole. As soon as
he began to notice that Mino, his young worshipper, was imitating not
only his clothes and his neckties but even the gait with which he
walked, he would lose patience and finally say something that would
drive the fellow away. Mino then would take up with me (and his father
would duly draw the purse-strings tight again).
I was more tractable with people than brother Berto. I could swallow
Mino’s adulation for the fun I got out of him. Then, after a time, I
would be sorry; for, in my eagerness to a show off in front of him, I
would almost always go a bit too far in getting Mino into scrapes of
which I would be bound to share the consequences.
Well, one day, while Mino and I were out hunting, I began to gossip
about how Malagna was carrying on with his wife. In the course of our
conversation it developed that Mino had long had his eye on a girl,
whox happened to be the daughter of one of Malagna’s cousins! The
miss herself seemed not to be disinclined toward him; but for all of
that he had never yet been able to exchange two words with her.
“I bet you never had the pluck to try,” I offered jestingly. Mino
averred he had; but I thought he blushed too much in saying so. “I did
have a talk with their maid,” he added. “And what I learned from her
would make you laugh! Why, according to the maid, old Malagna is down
there all the time, these days, and he seems to be trying to cook up
something, with the connivance of the mother. She is an own cousin of
his, and a pretty poor sort, I take it….”
“What is he trying to pull off?”
“Why, it seems that when Malagna’s first wife died, this old
witch–she’s a widow named Pescatore!–got the idea of saddling her
daughter off on him. Batty married Oliva of course. Well, the
Pescatore woman called him everything she could put her tongue
to–fool, thief, traitor to his own blood, and so on; and she even
gave her daughter a thrashing because the girl had not exerted herself
enough to catch the old fool’s eye. Now recently Batty has been going
down there crying calamity because he has had no son to leave his
money to. ‘Serves you right!’ says the old lady–for not having taken
her daughter of course. Who knows what scheme she may now be working
To tell the truth, I was sincere in the horror with which I put my
hands to my ears and bade Mino say no more. In those days I liked to
pose as a rounder of experience: but at bottom I was as innocent as a
child. Nevertheless, from my knowledge of the quarrels that had raged
and were still raging between the Malagnas, man and wife, I thought
there might be some fire behind the smoke that maid was raising. I
made up my mind to try and discover the exact truth–to help Oliva out
a little, if for nothing else. I asked Mino for the address of this
cousin of Malagna. He gave it to me willingly, begging me, besides, to
put in a good word for him if I ever met the girl. He also asked me to
remember that she was his.
“Don’t worry!” I replied to this latter caution. “I won’t cut you
It so happened that the very next morning, as mother told me, a note
we had given was falling due, and I used that occasion for rooting
Malagna out in the Pescatore cottage. “With a purpose in view, I
covered the whole distance on the run, and broke, panting and
perspiring, into the house:
“Malagna, the note… the note…!”
If I had not known already that this rascal’s conscience was not so
very clean I would have suspected as much that day from the utter
consternation in which he rose, pale, stammering, aghast, to his feet:
“Why, the money we owe to So-and-So…. Mother is worried to
Batty Malagna sank into his chair again with an “ah” of relief that
gave the measure of the terror that had seized on him:
“All arranged! All arranged! My, how you scared me!… I renewed it,
of course… for three months … paying the interest–a lot of
money…. You mean to say you ran all the way down here just for
He was good-humored now, and he laughed and laughed, his great belly
shaking up and down. He offered me a chair and introduced me to the
“Mattia Pascal. My cousin, Marianna Dondi-Pescatore. Romilda, her
daughter,–I call her my ‘niece.'”
Then he insisted that I take a drink of something to cool off after my
long and ridiculous run….
“Romilda, would you mind… just a little something?”
“Evidently feels himself at home!” I commented to myself.
Romilda rose, looked with a quick glance of inquiry at her mother,
left the room, and presently returned with a glass and a bottle of
vermouth on a tray. Whereupon the widow snapped impatiently:
“No, no! Not that! Here, I’d better do it myself!” She took the tray
away from Romilda and hurried into the pantry. When she came back, it
was a different tray, a brand new red enameled one, with a magnificent
cordial set–a silver-plated elephant, with a bottle of rosolio on
the crupper, and a dozen little glasses hanging loosely in a rack and
tinkling as she walked.
I should have preferred the vermouth; but I accepted the rosolio.
Malagna and the widow took some too. Romilda declined.
I did not stay long, that first time, in order to have a pretext for
coming back again. I excused myself by saying that mother would be
uneasy about the note; so I had better return another day to enjoy a
longer chat with the two ladies.
From her manner of offering me her cold, bony, withered hand, I judged
that Signora Marianna Dondi-Pescatore was not particular about having
me call again. She bowed very stiffly and said nothing. But I was
more than repaid by the smile of cordial interest Romilda gave me,
with a glance, soft and at the same time sorrowful, which drew my
attention to her eyes again. I had noticed them when I first came in:
quite unusual eyes, a strange dark green shaded by wonderfully long
lashes–eyes of night, set like jewels between two waves of ebony
black hair that made their way down over her temples and forehead as
though to set off the luminous whiteness of her skin.
The house was quite plainly furnished; but already among the original
pieces a few new-comers were conspicuous from their pretentious and
over-ornamented elegance. Two large lamps of expensive
earthenware–still unused apparently–with globes of ground glass in
fantastic design, sat on a very ramshackle dresser which had a
discolored marble top and a round mirror rising from the back. In
front of a sofa that had seen better days long since was a tea table,
with gilded legs and a top painted in lurid colors. A cabinet against
the wall was a valuable antique in Japanese lacquer. I noticed a
glitter of satisfaction in Malagna’s eyes as they rested on these
gaudy objects, a look I had observed also when the cordial set came
into the room.
On the walls was a profusion of old and not intolerable prints, some
of which Malagna insisted that I admire. They were the work, he said,
of Francesco Antonio Pescatore, his cousin, an engraver of great
talent who died (as he added, in a whisper) in a lunatic asylum at
“Here is a picture of him,” Batty continued. “He drew it himself in
front of a mirror!”
I had been studying Romilda all the while, and on comparing her with
her mother, I had concluded: “No, she must take after her father
instead.” With the picture of the man before me now, I did not know
what to say. It is not fair, I suppose, to venture libelous guesses as
to the integrity of Marianna Dondi; though I know she was a woman
capable of anything. But that picture showed her husband as a very
handsome man. How could he ever have fallen in love with such an ugly
harpy as she was? To do a thing like that he must have been a very
loony lunatic indeed!
My impressions of that first visit I faithfully reported to Mino,
speaking of Romilda with such warmth of admiration that his distant
interest in the girl flared up at once into a passion. He was
delighted that I had found her so charming and that his choice had my
“So what are your intentions?” I asked. The widow, I agreed with him,
was not a person to inspire confidence; but I was ready to stake my
oath on the virtue of the daughter. There could be no doubt, either,
as to the miserable designs of Malagna. The girl should be rescued
therefore at any cost and without loss of time.
“But how?” asked Gerolamino, hanging breathless upon my every word.
“That’s the question!” said I. “First of all we must be sure about a
number of things, keep our eyes open, study the terrain. I can’t say
how right off, in so many words, but we’ll see. Give me a free hand,
meantime; and I’ll pull you through. I’m getting interested in this
affair! It’s exciting!”
Pomino noticed a certain undertone in my voice that worried him.
“Well, but… why… you say I ought to marry her?”
“I’m not saying anything, just yet. But would you be afraid to?”
“No, I’m not afraid… why do you ask?”
“Why, you seem to be going a bit too fast. Slow up a little now, and
use your head. Supposing we discover beyond reasonable doubt that she
is quite all she ought to be–a good girl, virtuous, well-mannered,
pure (no need to mention her looks: she’s a queen–and you love her,
don’t you?);–well, supposing also we find that, through the
viciousness of her mother and that other scoundrel, she is exposed to
a very grave danger–to a vulgar criminal bargain that will leave her
disgraced forever: would you shrink from facing the situation like a
man? Would you refuse to do an act as meritorious as it is holy?”
“No-o-o! No-o!” stammered Pomino. “I wouldn’t! But how about father?”
“Think he would object? I doubt it! Why should he? On account of the
dowry, perhaps? Surely on no other ground! She’s the daughter of an
artist, you see, an engraver of great talent, who died in a… well,
anyhow… who died in Turin. But your father is rich, and he has only
you to provide for: you will be satisfied, so why should he care? And
then besides, in case you can’t bring him around by persuasion,
there’s nothing to be afraid of…. You disappear with the girl some
day; and everything is arranged! Land’s sake, Pomino, you wouldn’t let
a little thing like a father stop you?”
Pomino laughed; and I proceeded to show him, two times two are four,
that he had been born a husband much as some men are born poets. I
painted the joys and consolations of married life with a jolly little
girl like Romilda–the tenderness and adoration she would have for a
brave man like Mino… her saviour.
“For the moment,” I concluded, “you must find a way to attract her
attention, get a word to her somehow, perhaps drop her a line. Imagine
the state of mind the poor thing must be in now… a fly caught in a
spider’s web. A letter from you might be the chip that would save her
from drowning. My job will be to stand watch. I’ll hang around the
house and see what I can do. At the first good chance, I’ll introduce
you. That’s good sense, isn’t it?”
“Very good!” said Pomino.
Now just why was I so anxious to get Romilda married? There was no
reason whatever that I should be. As I said, I always liked to show
off before Pomino. Once I started talking, I kept on, all the
difficulties vanishing. I was inclined, in general, to do things
impulsively and thoughtlessly. Perhaps that was one of the things for
which the girls liked me in spite of my cock-eye and my rather
ungainly physique. But in this ease there was something else besides.
My little intrigue gathered zest for me from the prospect of
checkmating that ridiculous old satyr in one of his infamous
designs–of beating him at his own game and making a fool of him.
Finally came a sincere pity for Oliva; and the hope of doing just a
little something for that other girl who had really made a deep
impression on me.
Now I must appeal to you again. Was it my fault if Pomino proved to be
a rabbit when it came to executing schemes of mine that required
courage and decision? Was it my fault if Romilda fell in love with me
instead of falling in love with him (I always praised him to the very
skies!)? Was it my fault, finally, if that devilish widow Pescatore
was shrewd enough to make me believe that I had skillfully exorcized
the diffidence in her, and even, by my jokes, performed the miracle of
bringing a laugh to hard thin lips which had never before been known
to smile? I saw her gradually change toward me. I saw that my visits
were at last welcome. I concluded that with a young man frequenting
her house, a young man who was rich (I still thought I was rich, you
see) and who gave every indication of being in love with her daughter,
she had finally abandoned her iniquitous idea–if such an idea had
ever entered her head (I was so far taken in that I actually began to
doubt this latter).
Of course, I should have paid more attention to two facts–surprising
when you think of them: first, that I never again found Malagna at her
house: and second that she would receive me only during the forenoon.^
But how could I tell at just that time that those particular facts
were significant? Natural enough, wasn’t it, to ask me to come early
in the day (I was always proposing walks in the woods and fields,
which are more agreeable when the sun is not too high)? Then again I
had fallen in love with Romilda myself–though I was always pleading:
the cause of. Pomino. I loved her with a wild impetuous passion–her
dark green eyes under the long lashes, her nose, her lips, her cheeks,
her everything–even a mole she had on the back of her neck and an
almost invisible scar on one of her hands–hands that I kissed and
kissed and kissed with the abandonment of a lost soul–all in the name
of Pomino, to be sure.
And yet, probably nothing serious would ever have come of it, had not
Romilda, one day (we were picnicing at “The Coops” and her mother was
inspecting the old mill-wheel a safe distance away), suddenly lost the
laughter with which she greeted my standing jokes about Pomino, burst
into tears, and thrown her arms about my neck, begging me in the
utmost distress to have pity on her.
“Oh take me away with you somewhere, Mattia,” she cried, “take me
away… away way off where I shall never see mother, or the house, or
Malagna, or anybody else again! Take me away, today, this afternoon!”
Take her away? How could I take her away? And why?
It is true that for some days thereafter, still under the spell of her
mad abandonment, I was thinking, with my usual determination also, of
doing the right thing by her. I began preparing mother gradually for
the news of my approaching marriage–a marriage I could no longer in
any decency avoid. When, lo and behold, like a thunderbolt from a
clear sky, I get a short and polite note from Romilda, requesting me
to cease my attentions to her, to refrain from any further visits at
her house, and to regard our friendship as ended for good and all.
“So that’s that! What can have happened, I wonder?”
When, lo and behold again, who should come running over to our house
but Oliva, sobbing and taking on, as though the world were coming to
an end. The most unhappy woman the Lord ever made! House and home
destroyed beyond repair! Nothing more for her to live for…. Her
“man” had secured the proof at last–proof that it was not his fault
but hers! He had just come in and made the announcement triumphantly!
I was present while Oliva told her story. How I held my tongue I do
not know–regard for mother’s feelings, more than anything else,
perhaps. But I do know that I left the room with my hands to my head,
shut myself up in my study, and, sick at heart, began to ask myself
how Romilda, after what had occurred between her and me, could lend
herself to such a despicable ruse. A true daughter of her mother, that
she was! Look! Not only had they tricked that old idiot Malagna–a
trick too mean to play even on a thief; but they had made a fool of
me, of me, of me! And not only the mother! Romilda, too, had used me
for her own vile ends… to get money from another man who was robbing
me! And poor Oliva, meantime… publicly disgraced, her happiness and
reputation gone forever!
I raged in my room there the greater part of the day; but toward
evening I could stand it no longer. I went out and, with Romilda ‘a
letter in my pocket, made for Oliva’s house.
I found the poor girl packing her things and about to go back to her
father’s. She had never as yet breathed a word to old Salvoni of all
she had had to put up with from Malagna.
“How can I think of living with him any longer,” she moaned. “No, it’s
all over! If only he had taken up with a different girl… then
“So you know who it is then?” I interrupted.
In answer she covered her face with her hands and sobbed and sobbed
“What a girl!” she finally exclaimed raising her arms above her head.
“What a girl! And her mother! Her own mother! Together, understand?”
“You are not telling me anything I don’t know,” I now burst out.
“Here! Just have a look at this!”
I handed her the letter. Oliva stared at it blankly for a moment; then
she took it from me and asked:
“A letter? What about?”
Oliva had never been to school, and she read with difficulty. Her eyes
seemed to beg me to spare her the effort of deciphering all those
words at that moment of her supreme anguish.
“Read!” I insisted.
She wiped her eyes, unfolded the letter, and spelled the words out one
by one, whispering them to me syllable by syllable. After a line or
two, she turned the page and looked at the signature. Then she looked
at me, her eyes bulging from their sockets:
“You?” she gasped.
“Here,” I answered, “let me read it aloud to you! I’ll begin at the
But she clasped the letter to her breast, to keep it from me:
“No,” she screamed, “this is mine, mine! I can use this letter!”
I smiled bitterly:
“How can you use it? You might show it to him? But, my poor girl,
there isn’t a word in the whole letter that would lead your husband to
disbelieve something that he is only too anxious to believe? They’ve
made him swallow it, bait, hook, and line!”
“Ah yes, that’s so! That’s so!” Oliva groaned. “And do you know what
he did? He came and told me never to dare, for the life of me, to
breathe one word against the good name of that niece of his!”
“Why, exactly! So you see!” I answered. “You would gain nothing by
telling him the truth. That is the very last thing you should try to
do. Your game rather is to reassure him, keep Mm thinking it is as he
thinks it is…. Don’t you agree?”
What in the world could have happened (a month later, more or less)
that Malagna should one day give his wife a terrible beating, and
then, his mouth still frothing, come storming into our front room
demanding that I “make good” for the dishonor I had brought upon an
innocent girl–his niece? His niece, if you please, the niece of my
father’s best friend, and a poor orphan, a poor orphan with no one to
protect her. When he cooled off enough to talk a little more
intelligibly he added that, for his part, he would have preferred to
keep the matter quiet–he had no children of his own, you see; and he
had made up his mind to take the baby, when it came, and bring it up
as his own. But now, since the good Lord had been so merciful as to give him a legitimate child by ‘his own wife, he couldn’t–he really
couldn’t in justice to his future heir–adopt another’s offspring to
take the rightful place of his firstborn.
“It’s Mattia’s work!” he began storming again, “Mattia must provide!
And he must see to it at once–at once, do you hear! I am not going to
waste any words. I’m going to be obeyed, or something will happen here
that this town won’t forget in a hurry!”
Now supposing we stop to consider a moment, at this point in my story.
I’ve been through a good deal in the course of my checkered career. To
have my reader think me a fool, or even worse than that, would not
hurt my feelings so very much. As I said, I am a person quite beyond
this life, and nothing matters to me now. I suggest that we stop and
think a moment, not out of vanity, therefore, but just to keep things
It must be fairly evident that Romilda could have done nothing really
wrong so far as tricking her “uncle” is concerned. Otherwise, why
should Malagna have beaten his wife for her infidelity, and denounced
me to my mother for ruining his niece? Romilda claims, in fact, that
shortly after our visit to “The Coops,” she made known to her mother
the situation that bound her to me inseparably. But the old lady flew
into a passion and averred that, under no conditions whatsoever would
she allow her daughter, Romilda, to marry a good-for-nothing who would
soon be losing the last cent to his name and be a beggar sleeping in
the gutter. Now, since Romilda, quite of her own accord, had brought
upon herself the greatest misfortune that can happen to a girl, there
was nothing left for Signora Pescatore–as a prudent mother–to do,
except to find the best possible solution to such a difficulty. What
this solution was I need not say. When Malagna came at his usual hour,
the mother found an excuse to withdraw, leaving Romilda alone with her
uncle. Then Romilda, weeping “hot tears” as she says, threw herself at
his feet, told him the plight she was in and hinted at what her mother
was asking her to do. She begged him to use his in-fluence to bring
her mother to a more reasonable and honorable frame of mind; since she
belonged already to another man to whom she was determined to remain
Malagna was touched by her story–touched the way a man like him could
be touched. He reminded her that she was not yet of age and
accordingly was still under her mother’s control–the mother having
the power to take legal action against me if she felt so inclined.
He, for his part, so he said, could not, in all conscience recommend a
man like me to any girl for a husband–libertine, waster, loafer that
I was. She, Romilda, therefore should hold herself ready to make some
sacrifice of her emotions to her mother’s very just displeasure; and
such conduct might in the end be to her very great advantage. He, for
instance, might find a way–well yes–if everything were kept
absolutely quiet–to provide for the child that was to come, become
its father—exactly, yes, its father–since he had no children of his
own–and for years and years he had so longed to have an heir!…
Tell me now in all seriousness: could anybody be more square, more
honest, more upright than that? Here’s the point: all he had stolen
from the real father (from me, that is) he would pass back by settling
it on the future child: Was he to blame if I, ungrateful scamp,
thereafter went and broke the eggs in his other basket? One, ail
right! But two? No sir! Two was too much!
Too much, I suppose, because, as Malagna probably figured it out, my
brother Roberto had contracted a very advantageous marriage, and there
was no need to bother about the money that had been stolen from
So you see: having once fallen into the hands of these square,
upright, and honest people, I was responsible for all the wrong that
had been done. What more natural, therefore, than that I should take
At first I stood my ground, refusing angrily. But my mother already
could foresee the ruin that was shortly to overtake us. She saw in my
marriage to Romilda–a relative of the man who had our money–a
possible avenue of escape for me. So I gave in. The wedding took
But over my future with my young–and beautiful–wife, lowered the
menacing, wrathful, vindictive shadow of Signora Marianna
Dondi-Pescatore, unwillingly the mother-in-law of a beggar like me!
HOW I WAS RIPENED
The old witch simply could not swallow it.
“What have you gained, what have you gained?” she would ask., “You
weren’t satisfied to sneak into my house like a thief, seduce my
daughter, and cover her with shame? That wasn’t enough for you, was
“No, mother dear,” I would answer, “for if I had stopped there, I
would have been guilty of doing something likely to please you!”
“Do you hear?” she would then shout at her daughter. “Do you hear? He
is proud of it, actually proud of it! He dares to brag about what he
went and did with that…”–and at this point a torrent of abuse upon
Oliva. Then with the backs of her hands clamped upon her hips and her
elbows thrown far forward, she would end: “But, I say, what have you
gained by it? You’ve ruined your own son, that’s what you’ve
gained…. He won’t get a cent of the money…. Oh yes… of
course…” (turning to Romilda again) “of course… what does he
care?… That other one is his too….”
She never failed to use this final thrust in any of her attacks upon
me, knowing well the effect it had upon my wife. Romilda surely had a
reason to be jealous of the child who would be born to Oliva–in ease,
and luxury, a silver spoon in its mouth; while hers would come into
the world in poverty, its future ill-secured, the passions of domestic
hatred seething around it. And this bleeding soreness in her heart was
not relieved by the talk that well-intentioned gossips brought her of
how happy “Aunt Malagna” was at the blessing the Lord had finally
bestowed upon her…. Yes, Oliva was getting to be as pretty as a
picture… fresh, rosy, blossoming, never so well, never so
prosperous…. Whereas Romilda … well, there she was, huddled on a
miserable sofa, pale, wasted, underfed, without one bright prospect to
comfort her, without a single cheerful thought, without the energy to
speak or the strength to open her eyes….
This too my fault? So it seemed!–She could no longer bear the sight
of me nor the sound of my voice. And it was worse still when, to save
from foreclosure the last piece of rented property we owned–“The
Coops” and the old mill–we had to sell the Pascal mansion itself.
That obliged my mother to come and live with us.
Letting our house go, for that matter, did not help at all. The
approaching birth of an heir put Malagna in a position to break every
leash of scruple that had hitherto restrained him. He came to an
understanding with our creditors and, through a dummy purchaser,
bought in our property for a song. What the auction realized in cash
was not enough to cover the mortgage on “The Coops” alone. Our
creditors brought insolvency upon us and the court appointed a
receiver to manage our affairs.
What was I now to do? Hopelessly I began looking around for work, any
sort of work that would provide for the most elementary needs of my
family. Untrained, uneducated, with the reputation my recent escapades
and my longstanding shiftlessness had fastened upon me, I found it
difficult to interest anyone in giving me a job. Then the scenes I
was compelled to endure at home deprived me of a peace of mind
essential for calm consideration of the possible chances that lay open
Words cannot describe my feelings at seeing my own mother there in
forced contact with the Pescatora woman. The dear old lady, too good
for this world, aware at last–too crushingly aware–of the mistakes
she had been making through her unwillingness to believe in the evil
men can do (for these mistakes I never held her to account in my own
heart), kept quite to herself, sitting day in day out in a corner of
our living room, her hands in her lap, her head lowered, as though she
were never sure she had a right to be there, as though, at almost any
moment, she might be called upon to leave (and, for that matter, would
be glad to leave). How could her presence have been a nuisance to
anyone? Every now and then she would look up at Romilda and smile
pitifully: but she dared make no advances beyond that. Once during her
first days with us she had run to do some little thing for the poor
girl; but my mother-in-law had shoved her rudely aside:
“Don’t you bother! This child is mine! I know what she wants!”
Romilda was very ill at the moment; and, in view of that, I said
nothing. But thereafter I was on the watch to see that no disrespect
was offered my wretched mamma. Soon I observed that this surveillance
was a source of galling irritation to the widow and even to Romilda;
and I was alarmed lest my absence from the house at any time furnish
occasion for them to vent their spite upon her. In such a case, I knew
my mother would never say a word to me. Imagine my uneasiness, then,
whenever I was away! And on returning I could never refrain from
studying her face to see if she had wept. She would answer my gaze
with a tender smile:
“Why do you look at me like that, Mattia?”
“Are you all right, mamma?”
She would lift a hand slightly:
“Don’t you see I am all right? Go to Romilda now I The poor thing is
lonely and in pain!”
I decided finally to write to brother Berto, who was living at
Oneglia. In asking him to take mamma to live with him, I made him
understand that it was not to ease myself of a burden I was only too
glad to carry even in the squalor in which I was then living, but just
to make life bearable for her. Berto answered that he could not
possibly. Our financial disaster had left him in a very painful
position toward his wife’s family and toward that lady herself. He was
living on her dowry now, and could not think of asking her to assume
the support of another person. But that was not the only difficulty.
Mother would be in the same fix with him as she was with me; for he
too was staying with his mother-in-law–good enough woman, to be sure;
but there would soon be trouble if our mother came. Who ever heard of
two mothers-in-law getting along together in the same house? There
were positive advantages also in keeping mamma with me. She would thus
be spending her last years in the town where she had always lived; and
not be called upon to adapt herself to new people and new ways. What
pained him most was his inability to send me even a little
money–since every penny he spent he had to beg from his wife.
I was careful not to show this letter to my mother; though I dare say
that had my desperate circumstances at the moment not blinded my
calmer judgment, I should not have found it so utterly despicable as
it seemed to me then. I have always had the happy–or unhappy–faculty
of seeing both sides of every question. I would normally have
reasoned that if, let us say, you steal the tail-feathers of a
nightingale, the poor bird can still sing; but strip them from a
peacock, and what can the peacock do? Eoberto had, with careful
thought I do not doubt, worked out a balanced scheme of life whereby
he could live comfortably and even with a certain dignity on his
wife’s income. To disturb that balance would have meant for him an
untold, an irreparable, sacrifice. An agreeable address, good manners,
a not inelegant pose as a gentleman of breeding–all these Eoberto
had–they were all he had–to give his wife. To be able
conscientiously to lay the burden of our mother upon her, he would
have had to offer just a bit of real affection, too. In making brother
Berto, God had endowed him with many things; but heart was not one of
them. With this important member lacking, poor Berto was a hopeless
So things went from bad to worse with us; and I could find no help for
it. A few odds and ends, among our personal belongings, had survived
the wreck of our fortune; and these kept us going for a time. But when
my mother sold the last trinkets my father had given her (sacred
memories they bore!), the Pescatore woman saw the time approaching
when we would fall back upon the miserable income of forty lire a
month that belonged to her. She became more hateful and ferocious from
day to day. I could see that the storm I had forestalled so long was
now about to break–and all the more violently from its long
repression, as well as from the very humility with which mamma was
accepting it all. I would pace nervously up and down the room, with
the widow’s flaming eyes upon me. When I felt the atmosphere growing
too tense, I would go out of doors, to avoid all pretext for an
outburst. Then I would begin to fear for mamma, and hurry back again.
One day I stayed away a second too long. The cyclone came at last, and
on the most trivial of provocations–a visit from the two old servants
who had worked for years in our former home. One of them had put
nothing aside in her long service with us, so she had accepted work
with another family. But our old Margherita, alone in the world, and
of a saving disposition, had stored away a quite respectable sum
against her declining days. It seems that mamma ventured to express
some of her real feelings to these two companions of her whole married
life; but, quite apart from that, Margherita had perceived at a glance
the strained situation in our new home.
“Oh do come and live with me!” she had proffered In the goodness of
her heart. “I have two nice bright rooms, with a porch looking toward
the water…. And you ought to see the flowers in my window box!”
Yes, there the two of them could finish their days together in the
affection and devotion that had united them for years!
Mother, of course–what else could she say?–declined; and this
refusal was enough to throw the widow Pescatore into spasms. “When I
walked into the house I found her shaking her fists in Margherita’s
face, while our old servant was standing her ground and holding her
assailant off as best she could. Mamma, weeping, moaning, trembling
like a leaf, was clinging to the other maid as though begging for
protection. I lost control of myself completely. Dashing upon my
mother-in-law, I seized her by her two wrists and threw her back with
all my might. She slipped on the floor and fell. Up again in a flash,
she came back at me like a tigress; stopping, however, before her
fangs quite reached my face.
“Out of my house!” she shouted, gasping for breath in her rage.
“You–and that mother of yours! Out of my house with you! Out of my
“Listen!” I said, calmly, though my voice may have trembled from the
effort I was making to restrain myself; “Listen! Mamma and I are not
going to stir! You are the one who had better be going. In fact, I
should go right now if I were you. Don’t you dare get me any madder
than I am! There’s the door! And you know the road!”
Romilda meantime had been lying on the sofa, too ill to sit up. But
now, screaming and weeping hysterically, she leapt to her feet and
threw herself into her mother’s arms.
“Oh no, mamma! Don’t leave me here! Don’t leave me here all alone with
“You wanted him! You wanted him! And now you’ve got him, the worthless
beggar! I shall not stay under the same roof with him another second!”
She did not go, of course. But two days later another hurricane blew
into the house. My Aunt Scolastica, having heard the story from
Margherita, I suppose, swept in upon us in her usual breezy style. The
scene that followed would be a success on any stage.
That morning, my wife’s mother was making bread in our kitchen-living
room, her sleeves rolled up to her elbows and her skirt caught up
around her waist to keep it clean. Barely turning her head as Aunt
Scolastica came in, she went on sifting her flour and kneading her
dough as coolly as could be. Auntie did not notice the slight. She had
opened the door without a knock or a good-day and gone straight to
mamma, as though my mother were the only person present in the room.
“Here,” she began, “get into your things. I’m going to take you home
with me. You could hear the noise ten miles away! So here I am. Come,
step lively! Wrap up your duds, and we’re off!”
These phrases came out in short sharp explosions. The end of her long
nose, hooked like a beak to her dark bilious face, kept going up and
down from the excitement suppressed within her. There was a wicked
glare in her beady ferret-like eyes.
Not a word meantime from the bread-board! The widow Pescatore had wet
her dough and moulded it into a heavy round mass which she kept
picking up and thumping down on the board, each thump giving an answer
to an ejaculation from my aunt. Scolastica noticed the rhythm, and
said a few more things. Thump: “Yes, indeed!” Thump: “I should say
so!” Thump: “Oh really!” Thump: “You don’t say!” Finally my
mother-in-law reached for the rolling-pin and laid it down on the edge
of the board, with a thump that meant: “And I’ve got this too, you
This was the spark that touched off the magazine. Aunt Scolastiea
jumped to her feet, tore a shawl from her shoulders, and tossed it
spitefully at my mother:
“Put that on–never mind your other rags–and start yourself out of
Then she marched over to the bread-board and confronted the widow
Pescatore. The latter drew back a step, picking up the rolling-pin.
Scolastiea turned to the bread-board, gathered up the heavy, sticky
mess of dough in her two hands and brought it down upon the woman’s
head. My mother-in-law was no match for this super-harpy. Pushing her
into a corner, Aunt Scolastiea plastered the dough down over the poor
woman’s face, working it into her eyes, her nose, her mouth, her
hair–and wherever the paste touched, it caught for good. Then she
seized mamma by the arm and dragged her out through the door.
What followed was for my exclusive benefit. Handful by handful the
Pescatore woman loosened the dough from her face and threw it at me as
I sat there doubled up with laughter in a corner. Then she rushed upon
me, pulled my beard, scratched my face, kicked my shins, and finally,
in a paroxysm of rage, threw herself to the floor, where she lay
rolling round and round kicking in all directions. Poor Romilda, in
the next room was–sit venia verbo–vomiting with loud gags of pain.
“Why mother, shame on you!” I called to the heap of humanity squirming
on the floor. “You are showing your legs! You are showing your legs!
I have been able since that morning to laugh at every misfortune, big
or little, that has ever overtaken me. At that moment I saw myself a
villain in the most comic tragedy ever enacted on this earth: my
mother in flight with that crazy aunt of mine; my wife in the next
room in the condition I described; Marianna Pescatore there on the
floor gesturing with her legs… while I, I sat there doubled up in my
corner, I, a down-and-out, a man with no visible resources for his
next day of life, with my beard and clothing sticky with dough, my
face scratched, bruised, and dripping I could not say whether with
blood, or with tears from too much laughing.
To decide this latter point I went over to the mirror. It was tears!
But I had been well clawed up too. And my eye, my famous crooked eye!
That unruly member was more than ever bent on looking where it chose.
“Good for you!” I apostrophized; “you at least are without a boss!” I
reached for my hat and ran out of the house, determined not to set
foot in it again till I had found the means for supporting, in a poor
way at_ least, my wife, myself, and my future child.
The spiteful contempt I now felt for myself over my reckless
squandering of so many years made me understand that my present plight
would bring me ridicule rather than pity from any one I might appeal
to. Certainly I deserved every bit of my misfortune. Only one person
in the world had any reason to feel the slightest sympathy for me–the
man who had pillaged my inheritance. But how eager Batty Malagna would
be to rush to my assistance after what had taken place between him and
No! Succor came, when it came, from a quarter where I should never
have dreamed of looking for it.
I wandered aimlessly about town all that day; and it was getting dark
when by the merest chance I came upon Gerolamo Pomino, Second. Mino
saw me first; and, with the idea of avoiding me, turned about and
hurried off in the other direction.
“Pomino,” I called after him. “Pomino!”
“What do you want?” he said, turning sullenly in his tracks. He did
not raise his eyes, as I came up to him.
“Why, Pomino, old man,” I said, slapping him on the back and laughing
in real amusement at his long face; “You aren’t angry at
Oh the ingratitude of men! Pomino was angry at me, in fact very angry
at me–for double-crossing him, as he claimed, in the matter of the
girl. And I could not at once convince him that if there had been any
treason, I was the one who had most right to complain; that he ought,
in fact, to lie down on the ground right there and kiss my boots in
I was still bubbling with the bitter over-exhilarated gaiety which had
come upon me at the sight of my face in the mirror:
“See these scratches?” I said to him at a certain point. “I got them
“From Ro… from your wife, I mean?”
“Well–from her mother, at least!” And I told him why and how. He
smiled but without much fervor. I suppose he was saying to himself
that the widow Pescatore would not have treated him that way–he was
not in quite my fix, financially; besides his general disposition was
much better than mine. I was almost tempted to ask him why, if he felt
so strongly about the whole affair, he had not married Romilda in the
first place as I had encouraged him to do, running away with the girl
before I had been so unlucky as to fall in love with her myself. In
the end all that had happened had happened because he was such an
absurd ninny in a case where courage and decision were absolute
essentials. However, I did not press that point. Instead I asked him
“What are you doing to amuse yourself, these days?”
“Nothing!” he sighed dejectedly. “I’m bored to death! Nobody around to
have any fun with!”
There was such a peevish dejection in the tone with which he
pronounced these words, that I suddenly divined what was really the
matter with him. To be sure Mino had been more or less worked up over
Romilda; but it had not been that so much as the loss of his
companionship with Berto and me. Berto had moved away; and Romilda had
spoiled everything in my direction. With these two props of his
existence gone, what was left for poor Pomino?
“No one to have any fun with? Why don’t you get married, man? That’s
exciting enough! Look at me!”
Tragi-comically, he shook his head, closed his eyes, and raised his
right hand for an oath:
“Never! Never! Never!”
“You’re a wise man, Pomino! Stick to that, and you’ll come out all
right!… Meantime, you’re looking for company, and I am at your
service–for an all-night spree, if you say so!”
I told him of the resolution I had made on leaving my house, coming
eventually to the desperate situation in which I found myself as
“My dear old fellow…” said Pomino, offering me all he had.
But I refused. It was not that kind of help I needed. A few lire more
or less, and the next day I would be as badly off as ever. No, what I
wanted was a position, and a permanent one, if possible.
“Wait a moment,” exclaimed Pomino, his face brightening with an
inspiration. “I have it!… You know about my father, don’t you? He’s
working with this Administration….”
“I had not heard about that; but I can well imagine him in a good
“He is. They’ve made him District Inspector of Education.”
“That, to tell the truth, does surprise me!”
“Well, I remember that last night at dinner…. Say, you know an old
fellow by the name of Romitelli?”
“Nonsense, of course you do! That old codger down at the Boccamazza
Library! Deaf, and almost blind, to begin with. But now he’s broken
down completely and they’ve retired him on a pension. My old man says
the place is a wreck, and that unless something is done about it
pretty soon, the books will all be ruined. Why isn’t that just the
thing for you?”
“I? A librarian?” I exclaimed. “But that takes a man of education….”
“And why not you?” Pomino answered. “You know as much as Romitelli
That was a sound argument in truth. Mino suggested that it might be
better to approach his father through Aunt Scolastica, “who had always
been on the right side of his old man.”
I spent the night with Mino and the next morning I hurried to Aunt
Scolastica’s. That relentless grenadier, true to form as usual,
refused to see me; but I talked the matter over with mamma at length.
Four days later, I became Custodian of the Boccamazza Foundation under
the Department of Education. My salary would be sixty lire a month.
Sixty lire a month! I would be richer than the widow Pescatore! What
I almost enjoyed my new place during the first few months–largely on
account of Romitelli, whom I could never bring to understand that he
had been pensioned by the Town and therefore was under no obligation
to continue “working” at the Library. Every morning, at nine o’clock
sharp, neither one minute earlier noi one minute later, I would see
him coming in on his foui legs. (So I called them–for the two canes
he carried, one in each hand, were much more useful than the two
rickety stilts with which old age had left him.) Once through the
door, he would extract from the pocket of his overcoat a huge
old-fashioned watch in a brass case, which he would hang, with its
yard or more of chain, on a nail in the wall. Then he would take his
seat in the “office,” put the two canes between his legs, produce from
his inside pocket a skull-cap, a snuff-box, and a red and black
checkered handkerchief, take a pinch of snuff, blow his nose, and
finally, with these preliminaries laboriously, punctually and
scrupulously completed, open a drawer in his desk and get out an old
volume belonging to the library: “An Historical Dictionary of
Musicians, Artists and Connoisseurs, living and dead,” published at
Venice in 1758.
“Signer Romitelli!” I would call, watching him go through his
methodical routine in perfect self-possession, apparently not in the
least aware of my humble presence. “Signer Romitelli!”
But the old man was stone deaf. He would not have heard a cannon had
it gone off under his nose. At last I would go up and shake him by the
arm. He would turn around and squint at me, his whole face cooperating
in the effort necessary for focussing his eyes; next he would show his
yellow teeth in something intended for a smile; then he would slowly
lower his head over the ancient volume–one would have thought for a
nap to last the rest of the day. But no! On the contrary! He would
bring his one serviceable eye to the fraction of an inch from the page
and begin pronouncing aloud in a shrill cracked voice: “Birnbaum …
Johann Birnbaum…. Johann Abram Birnbaum printed… printed at
Leipzic in 1738… at Leipzic in 1738… a pamphlet in octavo… in
octavo… on a passage of the Musical… Musical Critic…. Mitzler
reprinted this… Mitzler… in the first volume of his Musical
Library… in 1739… 1739.”
Why was he always repeating such phrases and dates sometimes three or
four times? Perhaps to remember them better? And why aloud, if he
could not hear a sound? I would stand there and look at him in
amazement. That poor old man was about ready for the grave (he died,
in fact, four months after my own appointment)! What could he possibly
care about a pamphlet that Johann Abram Birnbaum, or any one else,
published at Leipzic in 1738? And he had to dig the information out
with such a horribly painful effort! Lots of good it would do him in
the next world! But I imagine it was a matter of principle with him.
Libraries were made to read in. Since not a soul ever entered this
one, he must have thought the task devolved on him. He happened on
that book as he might have on any other!
On the big table in the “reading-room”–the nave of the old
deconsecrated church–not less than an inch of dust had gathered with
the years; and one day, to make up for the thanklessness of my village
toward a public benefactor, I used the tip of my finger to trace the
following inscription in big letters: “To Monsignor Boccamazza,
philanthropist, in token of perennial gratitude, this tablet was
dedicated by his fellow-citizens.”
From time to time two or three books would come tumbling down from one
of the higher shelves, followed by a rat as big as a goodsized kitten.
On the first such occurrence, I uttered a cry of triumph. Those
falling books were to me what Newton’s falling apple was to him:
“Eureka!” I cried. “Here is something to do at last! I will catch rats
and mice, while Romitelli reads about Birnbaum!”
Little as I had learned about my profession as archivist, I knew
instinctively what to do in those circumstances. On official paper I
drew up a very elaborate memorial to His Excellency, Gerolamo Pomino,
Chevalier of the Crown, District Inspector of Education, respectfully
petitioning that the Boccamazza Library in the Church of Santa Maria
Liberale be provided at the earliest convenience of the Department
with at least two (2) cats, the maintenance whereof would result in no
addition to the Budget, since the said animals would be abundantly
supplied with food from the proceeds of their hunting in said Library.
I further respectfully petitioned that the Foundation be authorized to
purchase one extra-large trap, with the bait appertaining thereto (I
regarded the word ‘cheese’ as far too common to submit to the scrutiny
of a newly appointed Inspector of Education).
Gerolamo Pomino, Senior, sent me two tiny kittens which had barely
been weaned, and were in deadly fear of rats quite as big as they
were. To escape starvation they went after the cheese in the trap; and
every morning I would find them shut up in the wire cage, lean,
scraggly, sorrowful, and too depressed even to mew. I at once
addressed a complaint to my superior, and this time I was allowed two
honest full-grown cats which set about their business without needing
encouragement. The trap, too, no longer stuffed with kittens every
night, began to work satisfactorily; and the rats I caught here came
into my hands alive. One evening I was a bit put out because Romitelli
seemed to pay no attention to all my victories in this field (as
though it were his duty to read the books in the Library while that of
the rats was to eat their bindings off); so I decided to take two of
my recent captures and put them into the drawer where Romitelli kept
the “Historical Dictionary of Dead and Living Painters.” “That will
get you!” I said to myself.
But I was wrong. When Romitelli opened the drawer and the two rats
whizzed past his elbow on their way to freedom, he turned to me and
“What was that?”
“Two rats, Signor Romitelli, two!”
“Ah, rats!” said he quietly. They were as much a part of the Library
as he was himself. He opened his book as though nothing at all had
happened and began, as usual, to read aloud.
In a “Treatise on Trees” by Giovan Vittorio Soderini there is a
passage which says that “fruit ripeneth in part from heat and in part
from, cold, forasmuch as heat manifestly containeth the principle of
warming, the which is the efficient cause of maturation.” I take it
that this venerable pomologist could not have been acquainted with
another efficient cause of maturation which is, nevertheless, familiar
to fruit-vendors the world over. They take green apples, green pears,
green peaches, and the like, and by pinching and otherwise maltreating
them reduce them to a soft pulp that has the feel of ripeness.
Thus was my own green soul ripened by the knocks of the world.
In a short time I became a person wholly different from what I had
been before. When Romitelli died I was left here in this church where
I now am writing, bored to distraction, absolutely, tremendously
alone, and yet without a yearning for company.
Regulations required only a few hours of attendance at the Library.
But I shrank from my home as from a torture chamber; and from the
village streets in shame for my changed estate. No, far better this
deserted, this repudiated church with its books, its rats, and its
dusty solitude! Thus I kept arguing to myself. But what could I do to
pass the time? I could hunt rats! But would that amusement last?
The first time I found myself with a book in my hands (I had taken it
up quite casually from one of the shelves), I experienced a chill of
horror. Would I, like Romitelli, finally come to feel it my duty to
read for all those other readers who never came? I hurled the book
angrily across the room. But then I walked over and picked it up
again; I too began to read, and with one eye, also; for my unruly one
would have nothing to do with this.
So I read and read, a little of everything, haphazard, but books of
philosophy especially. Heavy stuff, I grant you; but when you get a
little of it inside you, you grow light as a feather and begin to
touch the clouds. I believe I was always a bit queer in my head. But
these readings quite finished me. When I no longer knew what I was
about, I would shut up the Library, and go off along a little path
that led down a steep incline to a solitary strip of seashore. The
sight of that monotonous expanse of water filled me with a strange awe
that changed little by little into unbearable oppression. As I sat
there slowly straining the fine dry sand through my fingers I would
lower my head so as not to see; but I could hear, all along the beach,
the measured rhythmic wash of the surf.
“So I shall be for always,” I would murmur: “unchanging, till the day
of my death.”
Sudden impulses, strange thoughts that were more like flashes of
madness, would arise in me from the mortal fixity of my existence; and
I would spring to my feet as though to shake myself free from the
stagnation that had gripped me. But there the same sea would come
rippling in, splashing its sleepy waves unendingly on the same
somnolent shore. Clenching my hands in angry desperation I would cry:
“Why should it be so? Why? Why?”
The tide would come in and a higher wave than usual would wet my feet:
“So you see what you get,” it would seem to say “for asking the
reasons for certain things! Wet feet! No, back to your Library, dear
boy! Salt water is not good for shoes, and you have no money left to
throw away. Back to your Library, and give up philosophy, for a
change. You too had better read that Johann Abram Birnbaum published a
pamphlet in octavo at Leipzic in 1738. That information will do you no
great harm, at the very worst.”
And so it went; until one day they came to tell me that my wife was
very ill, and that I was needed at home immediately. I remember that I
ran all the way as fast as my legs could carry me; but rather to
escape from my own feelings at the moment, to avoid at all hazards any
realization of the fact that a man in my condition was about to have a
When I reached the door of the house, my mother-in-law stopped me,
seized me by the shoulders and turned me around in my tracks:
“A doctor, quick! Romilda is dying! Hurry!”
You would feel like sitting down, would you not, on getting a piece of
news like that, full in the face and without warning? But no: “Quick!
At any rate I started running back again, not knowing exactly where I
was headed this time. Every so often I would shout: “A doctor!” “A
doctor!” Various people tried to stop me to ask what I wanted a doctor
for. Others plucked at my sleeve as I ran by. Some of them looked at
me with their faces pale with fright. But I dodged them all and went
on running: “A doctor!” “A doctor!”
And the doctor, all this time, was there at my house! When I reached
home again, after a mad and fruitless round of all the places where a
doctor might be found, the first baby had been born; and it was a
girl. The second, also a girl, was not so anxious to make its entrance
into this world.
So it was twins.
This was all long ago! But I can still see them lying there side by
side in their cradle, scratching at each other with those little hands
that seemed so beautiful but which were animated nevertheless by some
savage instinct that it made one shudder to look upon. The poor
miserable things, worse off in life than the kittens I found every
morning in my trap! Nor did these babies either have the strength to
cry: they could scratch–that’s all!
I moved them apart; and at the first contact of my hands with their
soft warm flesh a curious sensation, a feeling of ineffable
tenderness, came over me: they were mine!
One of them survived long enough to arouse in me such passionate
affection as a father may have, when, with nothing else to live for in
this world, he makes his child the sole purpose of existence. Almost a
year old, she had become such a beautiful little thing, with golden
curls that I would wind about my fingers and kiss with a thirst of
love that never could be satisfied! She had learned to say “papa” and
I would answer “little one”; then she would say “papa” again. We were
like birds calling to one another, from treetop to treetop.
She left us on the day, and almost at the very hour, my mother died. I
could not find a way to share my anguish and my care between, them.
When my little girl would fall asleep I would hurry to mother’s side.
Mamma had no thought for herself, though she knew that she was dying.
She talked only of this grandchild of hers, lamenting that she could
not see her again and kiss her for the last time. Nine days this
torture lasted. I did not close my eyes for a single second. Should I
tell the truth about what followed? Most people, I dare gay, would
shrink from the confession, human in a very deep humanity though it
be. But I must confess that when it was all over, I felt no sorrow
whatever at the moment. Rather I was dazed as though I had been struck
by a heavy blow. But the point is that then I went to sleep. Just
that! I went to sleep. I had to go to sleep; and only when I woke up
again did grief for my mother and my little girl assail me–a wild,
desperate, ferocious grief, that, while it lasted, was literal
madness. One whole night, with I know not what thoughts and intentions
in my brain, I wandered aimlessly about the town and the hills and
fields surrounding it. I remember that at last I came to the mill on
our old “Coops” place. It was early dawn. Filippo, our former miller,
was standing on the edge of the flume. He saw me and called me to him.
We sat down there under a tree, and he told me stories about my mother
and father in the good old days that were no more. I should not take
on that way, he said. If mother had gone just then, it was to make
things ready for the little girl in the world beyond. There they would
find each other, the two of them, and grandma would take baby into her
arms and trot her on her knees, never leaving her uncared for, and
talking to her always of me.
Three days later I received a check for five hundred lire from brother
Berto. I suppose he wanted to compensate me for the nine days torture
I had undergone!
But the money was offered ostensibly to provide a decent funeral for
mamma. Aunt Scolastica, however, had already attended to that. I put
the bank notes away inside an old book in the Library. Later on I took
them out and used them on my own account.
They became, as I shall presently narrate, the occasion of my first
… CLICK, CLICK, CLICK, CLICK…
Of all the things and people in the great salon, the ivory ball,
gracefully circling the roulette in a direction opposite to the whirl
of the quadrant, seemed alone to be at play:
Click, click, click, click….
The ball alone! Surely this could not be play to the people standing
and sitting there with their eyes glued upon that ball, tense in the
torment occasioned them by its caprices. To that same ball, on the
yellow squares of the table just below, many many hands had brought
votive offerings of gold; and, all around, many other hands were
nervously fingering more gold–the gold of the next play; while
suppliant eyes seemed to pursue the ball in its swift but graceful
gyrations: “Where it be thy pleasure, little ball of ivory! Where it
be thy pleasure, delightful, cruel, Divinity of Chance!”
I had wandered to Monte Carlo by merest accident–after one of the
usual scenes between me, my mother-in-law, and my wife. In the
harrowing torture of my recent bereavement, I had no endurance left
for this life of quarreling, of bitter nagging, of physical and moral
squalor absolute. One day in sheer disgust and quite without
premeditation, I went to the old volume where I had put the money from
Roberto, transferred the five hundred lire to my pocket, put on my hat
and coat and took to the road.
I started out, on foot, with not a thought except that of escape from
the hell in which I had been living. Mechanically, my steps turned
toward a neighboring village through which the railroad passed. On the
way thither a plan formed vaguely in my mind. I would go to
Marseilles, and take a steamer thence to one of the Americas. The
money I had with me should suffice–for the steerage at least. Beyond
that, I might trust to luck. What could possibly happen to me anywhere
worse than what I had been through? Perhaps beyond the horizon ahead a
new slavery awaited me–but with heavier chains, I asked myself, than
those I had just snapped from my feet? It would be interesting to see
a bit of the world, at any rate. And I might even hope to shake off
the deadly oppression that had settled on my spirit and was inhibiting
all my impulses of ambition and action. To Marseilles, then!
But before I got to Nice my courage failed. Alas! Where was that old
capacity for decision that had been one of the virtues of my boyhood?
Discouragement must have eaten deeply into the fibre of my being. My
will seemed to have decayed, to have been paralysed, in all my
sufferings. Five hundred lire! Could I launch out into the unknown on
that miserable guarantee? Had I the mental training to win a
successful battle for existence in a new and strange environment?
My train was to make a long stop at Nice. When I alighted there, I had
virtually decided to go no farther, though I was not resolved to go
back home. I compromised by wandering about through the town.
Somewhere on the Avenue de la Gare I stopped in front of a shop with
a large gilded sign: Dépôt de Roulettes de Précision! Wheels of
every description were on show in the windows, with other accessories
of gaming, among these, a number of manuals, their paper covers
ornamented with pictures of the roulette.
It has often been observed that unhappy people fall ready victims to
superstition; however prone they may be thereafter to laugh at the
credulity of others and the hopes which belief in luck aroused
suddenly in themselves (hopes inevitably deceived, of course!). Well,
I remember that when I had read the title of one of those manuals of
gambling: “A Sure Method for Winning at Roulette,” I walked away from
the shop window with a smile of pitying contempt on my lips. Why was
it then, that a few steps further on, I stopped, turned around, went
back to the shop, and smiling with the same pitying contempt for the
stupidity of others, bought a copy of that very manual?
I could make neither head nor tail to what it said. I failed to get a
clear idea of what roulette was like, or even of the exact
construction of the wheel. But I read on.
“Guess my trouble is with French,” I finally concluded. I had never
had a lesson in that language. Back in the Library I had looked a
grammar through and worked out a text here and there. But I had no
notion of French pronunciation, and I had never uttered a word in the
strange tongue for fear of making people laugh. This latter
preoccupation left me undecided for some time as to whether I ought to
enter a gambling house. But then I thought: “Here you were a moment
ago starting off for the Americas with barely a cent to your name and
without a word of Spanish or English inside your head. A man as brave
as that ought to be brave enough to go as far as the Casino: you know
a little French! Besides you have the manual….”
Monte Carlo, I further reflected, was only a short walk from Nice.
“Neither my wife nor my mother-in-law know about this money Roberto
sent me. I think I’ll go and lose it there. That will take away all
temptation to run away for good. Perhaps I can manage to save enough
for a ticket home; but even if I don’t….”
I had heard that the Casino had a beautiful garden with tall–and
strong–trees. In the worst case I could take my belt and hang myself
to one of these. Dying gratis, and with dignity, that would be indeed!
“Who knows how much the poor devil may have lost?” people would say,
on finding me!
To tell the truth, I was disappointed in the Casino. The portal,
perhaps, was not so bad. Those eight marble columns really made you
feel that the architect intended a sort of Temple to the Goddess
Fortune. Here, then, was a big door, with side entrances, one to the
right and one to the left. My French helped me over the TIREZ
inscribed on the latter; and by inference I solved the POUSSEZ on the
one in front of me: if “tirez” meant “pull,” I could risk “push” on
So I pushed, and I was admitted to the building.
All in bad taste! And something, I think, should be done about it!
People, who go to Monte Carlo to leave good money behind, ought at
least to have the satisfaction of being skinned in a place somewhat
less pretentious and a whole lot more beautiful. All wideawake towns
in Europe are putting up the most attractive slaughterhouses these
days–a courtesy wasted, so far as I can see, on the poor unschooled
animals that are killed in them. The fact is, of course, that the
great majority of players at Monte Carlo have something else on their
minds than the decorations of those five great halls; just as the
idlers sitting on the sofas all around are often not in a condition to
notice the questionable taste of the upholstery.
Before trying my own luck (with no great hopes, I may say) I thought
it would be better to look on a while, and familiarize myself with the
manner of the game. And this was by no means so complicated as my
manual had led me to suppose. In a few minutes, indeed, I thought I
had mastered it. I went, accordingly, to the first table on the left
in the first room.
I laid a few francs on a number that came into my head: twenty-five.
Most of the people about me followed the whirling ball with a strained
nervous expectation. I could not conceal my interest in its flight
entirely; but I smiled nonchalantly, despite a curious tickling
sensation that seemed to creep around the inside lining of my chest.
The ball slowed up and finally fell upon the quadrant.
“Vingt-cinq,” the croupier called; “rouge, impair, et passe!”
I had won. I was reaching out to gather up the pile of chips that were
tossed upon my ante, when a tall strapping fellow who had been
standing behind me pushed my hand aside and gathered in my money. In
my faltering French I tried to make him understand that he had made a
mistake–oh, yes, by mistake, not intentionally, of course! The man
was a German, and spoke French even more falteringly than I. But he
had a brazen courage to make up for any deficiencies in his grammar.
He came back at me with vigor, asserting that the mistake was mine and
the money his. I looked around the table helplessly. No one breathed a
word, not even a neighbor who had made some comment when I put my
money on the 25. I looked appealingly at the croupiers in charge of
the table. They sat there as passive as statues. “Ah, I see,” said I
to myself, gathering up the chips I had prepared for another bet.
“Here we have a sure method for winning at roulette! Pity they forgot
to mention it in the manual. I imagine it’s the only sure one, in the
I went to another table, where the game was running high, and stood
for some time examining the people seated around it–gentlemen in
formal dress for the most part, and several women, more than one of
whom seemed of questionable calling. My interest fell, in particular,
upon a short light-haired man with big blue eyes, the balls of which
were streaked with veins of red, while the lashes were long and almost
white. I did not like the looks of him at first; he too was in formal
clothes, but such stylish attire did not seem to be in tone on him
exactly. I thought him worth watching, however. He laid a heavy stake
and lost. He plunged again still more heavily. Again he lost. Not a
trace of emotion was visible on his face. “There!” I reflected
mentally; “he’s not the kind of person to steal the penny or two I
risk!” And a certain shame came over me, besides, despite my
unfortunate experience at the other table. Here people were throwing
money away by the fistfuls, and without a shadow of fear! What a cheap
sort I must be to worry about the few francs in my pocket! And here,
next to this man, with an empty chair between, sat a young fellow, his
face as pale as wax, a huge monocle on his left eye. He was using only
green chips, but he was throwing his money down with an affectation of
bored indifference and showing no interest in the ball. Indeed he sat
half turned away from the table, twirling his mustache. At the end of
a play he would ask a neighbor if he had lost. And he lost every time.
How the money was flying there! Gradually the excitement of the game
seized on me as well. I sat down between the two men and began to
place my chips now on this number and now on that. My first bets all
went against me; but then suddenly I began to feel a very strange
sensation creeping over me–a sort of inspired supernatural
intoxication, that took me out of myself, making me the automatic
agent of unconscious intuitions from within. Why this number rather
than any other? “There, that square at the end–on the right! Yes!” I
was absolutely sure the number was going to win; and win it did. My
bets were small at first; but soon I was throwing out my money without
counting it. The longer I played, the clearer my strange power of
drunken divination seemed to grow, nor did my confidence wane when I
suffered a loss or two; in fact, I imagined I had foreseen such breaks
in my luck, and I had even said to myself more than once: “Yes, this
time I am going to lose–I must lose!” And now I was quite beside
myself: I had a sudden impulse to risk everything I had, my original
bet and all that I had won. My guess came out! It was getting too much
for me: my ears were buzzing and I began to sweat. One of the
croupiers noticed my persistent good fortune. I thought I caught a
challenge in the glance he gave me. Never mind! Let’s try again!
Again I pushed everything I had upon the board. I remember that my
hand stopped on the number 35, the same number that had won before.
That was a bad chance! I started to change; but no, a voice within me
seemed to whisper: “Stay where you are!” I closed my eyes, and I must
have grown as pale as death. A great silence fell over the table as
though everyone were sharing in my terrible anxiety. The ball started
round and round. And round and round it whirled! Would it never stop?
Now it was going a little more slowly, but that seemed only to
exasperate my torture. Click! It had fallen. I did not open my eyes.
But I knew what the croupier was going to say (his voice when it
sounded seemed to come from far far away as from a distant world):
“Trente-cinq, noir, impair, et passe!”
I raked in the pile of money and left the table. I had to go! I was
too weak to continue playing; and when I walked it was with the
stagger of a drunken man. I collapsed on a divan, at the end of my
endurance, my head sinking on the back of a chair. Yes! Sleep! I
needed sleep! A little nap would do me good. And I was almost
yielding, when a sudden sense of heaviness about me restored my
consciousness with a shock. How much had I won? I looked up, but I had
to close my eyes again. The great hall of the Casino seemed to be
whirling dizzily round and round. How hot it was in there! How
stifling! A breath of air! Yes, a breath of air! What, dark already?
The lights were coming on! How long had I been playing?
I rose with difficulty to my feet, and left the room.
Outside, in the atrium, night had not yet fallen; and a breath of the
cool bracing air revived me. A number ef people were about, some of
them walking up and down by themselves, concerned with their own
thoughts; others in groups of two or three, chatting, smoking, joking.
They were all objects of interest to me. I was still a stranger to the
Casino, and conscious of looking the greenhorn too. I began carefully
to watch such as appeared most at their ease. But how could one ever
tell? When I should least have expected such a thing, one of them
would suddenly fall silent, toss his cigarette aside, and pale,
haggard, distraught, start off toward the play rooms again, pursued by
the laughter of his companions. “What was the joke? I could not see;
but instinctively, I would join in the laugh, looking after the
fugitive with a silly smile on my face.
“A toi, mon chéri!” I heard a harsh female voice whisper behind me.
I turned around. It was one of the women who had been sitting near me
at the table. She was holding out a rose toward me, keeping another
for herself. She had just bought them at the buffet there in the outer
hall. A flash of anger came over me! So I did look like an easy mark!
I refused the flower without a “thank you,” and started to walk away.
But she broadened her smile into a frank laugh, and taking me
confidentially by the arm she began to talk to me hurriedly and in a
half whisper. She was proposing, so I understood after a fashion, that
we play together, in view of the luck she had seen me having. I would
choose the numbers and she would divide earnings fifty fifty with me.
I tore my arm loose, with a show of anger, and left her standing
Shortly afterward, I wandered back into the gaming rooms. There I saw
the same woman again, but talking now with a short dark-compiexioned
fellow with a bushy beard–a Spaniard, as I judged–whose appearance I
did not like. She had given him the rose just previously offered to
me. They both winced at my approach, and I was sure they had been
talking about me. I decided to keep on my guard. Sauntering off toward
another room, I approached the first table there, without however
intending to play. Sure enough! I had not been there long when the
Spaniard put in an appearance, but without the woman, taking up a
position near me, though pretending not to be aware of my presence. I
turned and fixed my eyes frankly upon him, to let him blow that I had
noticed his attentions and was not to be trifled with. And yet, as I
now began to think, he might not be the swindler I was taking him for!
He laid three heavy bets in succession, and lost all three, winking
his eyelids furiously at each defeat, perhaps in an effort to conceal
the shock of disappointment. After the third throw, he looked up at
me and smiled. I left him there and went back into the other room to
the table where I had made my heavy winnings.
The croupiers had changed. The woman was again in the seat where I had
observed her first. I kept off some distance from the table so that
she would not see me. Her bets were all small, and she did not play
every round. I stepped forward to the table. She was about to lay down
a chip; but when she noticed me, she withheld her money with the
intention, evidently, of putting it on the number I should choose. But
I did not play. ‘As the croupier called “Le jeu est fait! Rien ne va plus!” I looked at her: she was shaking a finger at me with a smile
of reproach. I kept out of the game for some time; but gradually the
spell caught me again. The animation about the table was too
pervasive. Besides I seemed to feel my strange inspiration coming over
me again. I sat down in the first chair that became empty, forgot all
about the woman, and began to play.
What was the source of that mysterious foresight I had for choosing
the right number and color unfailingly? Was it just luck–the wildest
craziest luck man ever had? Was it a sort of miraculous divination
beyond the control of my consciousness? How explain, at any rate,
certain obstinate obsessions of mine, the very absurdity of which now
makes my hair stand on end, as I reflect that I was risking
everything, perhaps even my life, on some of those bets that were just
mad impudent challenges to Fortune? However you may account for it, I
know how I felt: I felt the presence of a devilish power within me,
which, at that particular time, made Fortune my captive, rendered her
obedient to my every gesture and bent her caprice to my will. I felt
this, I say; but I was not the only one to feel it. Others about the
table soon acquired the same conviction; and shortly everybody was
betting on the numbers that I kept choosing for risks of the most
hazardous kind. Why was it I stuck to red for turn after turn–and why
did red always come out? And why was it I would switch to zero, just
as zero was about to fall? Even the young man with the monocle began
at last to take a direct interest in the game; and a fat man beside
him to pant louder than ever. A fever of excitement ran about our
table–shivers of impatience, moments of nervous gasping suspense,
bursts of anxious expectancy that attained climaxes of veritable fury.
Eventually the croupiers themselves lost their stiff, impassive,
Suddenly, after pushing a pile of chips forward on the table, I felt
myself give way. A sense of tremendous responsibility came over me. I
had eaten practically nothing since morning; and all the emotions of
that violent evening had exhausted my strength. My head began to swim,
and I could not go on. I won the bet, but I drew back from the table.
And now I felt a strong grip fasten itself upon my arm. It was that
short, squatty, bushy-faced Spaniard, beside himself with excitement,
and determined, at all costs, to make me continue playing. “Look,” he
said. “Eleven and fifteen. We come to last three rounds. Play! We
He had decided I was an Italian and was addressing me in my own
language, but with a Spanish brogue that, done for as I was, made me
laugh. I had just enough strength left to persist mechanically,
obstinately, in a refusal: “No, no! I’ve had enough! I’ve had enough!
Let me go, sir! Let me go, sir!”
He let me go; but he followed me, even boarding my train to accompany
me back to Nice. He insisted that I take a midnight meal with him, and
engage a room in the hotel where he was living. At first I was not
loath to accept the almost awe-struck admiration which this fellow had
for me as for a master of divination. I have noticed that human vanity
is inclined to sniff with pleasure even the acrid and stupefying
incense that rises from the most petty and miserable of censers. My
own case was that of a general who by sheer luck, quite beyond any
provision or plan of his own, has stumbled on a decisive victory. And
this reflection began actually to take form in my own mind, as, little
by little, I came out of my bewilderment, recovered a part of my
strength, and grew conscious of the annoyance this man’s company was
really giving me.
However, though I bade him good-night in the station at Nice, he would
have none of it. He took me off to supper with him by main force. And
then it was that he confessed to having sent the woman to me in the
lobby of the Casino. She was one of the habitual idlers about the
place; and for three days he had been providing her with funds for “a
start in life”–giving her, that is, a hundred francs every now and
then, on the chance that eventually she might make a real killing.
Following my numbers that evening, she must have won something at
last; for ihe was not waiting for the Spaniard in the lobby:
“What I can do?” said he resignedly. “She probably find a better
looking man. I too old! Quiza, I thank God, segnore, He send her
away so soon!”
My importunate friend had been at Nice for a week or more; and every
morning he had gone to the Casino. Up to that evening, he had done
nothing but lose. What he wanted now was the secret of my success:
either I must have learned the game to the bottom or have devised an
unfailing system. This made me laugh; and I assured him I had never
seen a roulette wheel before that morning, and that I was as surprised
as any one else at my unheard-of good luck. But he was not convinced.
He decided, I imagine, that he was dealing with a sharper of no
ordinary merits; for he returned to the attack after a skillful
detour; and in his curiously fluent gibberish, half Spanish, half God
knows what, eventually came out with the proposal he had tried to make
to me that evening through the girl.
“But, my dear sir,” I answered, half amused and half angered by his
insistence, and the assumptions it implied. “I have no system: how can
there he any science to a game like that? I had luck, that’s all.
Tomorrow I may lose everything. On the other hand I may win again–as
I hope I shall!”
“But why you not provech today of your good fortune?”
“Yes, provech, profit, how you say?”
“Why, I did, considering the few francs I started with!”
“Good! I pay for you. You, luck, I, money?”
“But I might lose it all for you! Look here, sefior: if you are so
sure I’m going to win, you do tomorrow just as you did today: put your
money on my numbers; then if I lose, you can’t blame me; and if I
He did not let me finish:
“Eh no, segnore; no; today, yes, I do this. But tomorrow, no, I do
not! You bet conmigo strong? Good! I play! If no, I no play
seguramente. Muchas gracias!”
I looked at the man, trying to fathom the meaning of all this chatter.
The one thing certain was that he suspected me of some trick or other.
I flushed and demanded an explanation. He suppressed the shrewd smile
that had been playing about his lips, although the leer in it
continued to dominate his expression:
“I say no–I no play. No digo altro!”
I brought my fist down solidly on the table in front of me.
“No, you don’t get out of this that way!” I answered angrily–“What’s
the meaning of what you said, and of that fool smile of yours? I don’t
see anything to laugh at!”
He grew pale, as I raised my voice, and seemed to cringe before me. I
felt sure an apology was coming. However, I shrugged my shoulders and
rose from the table:
“Anyhow, I don’t care what you meant! But I want nothing more to do
I paid my bill and left the restaurant.
I once knew a man who, from his extraordinary endowments of intellect,
was worthy of the most venerating admiration. He never received any
whit of it, however, and all on account of a pair of checkered
trousers (gray and black if I remember rightly and fitting too tight
to his legs) which he would wear, come what may. Our clothes have
something, it may be about their cut, it may be about their color,
which gives people the strangest impressions of us.
Take my present case. I thought I had a right to be put out. I was not
in a dinner coat, of course; but I was quite decently dressed in a
black suit in keeping with my state of mourning. Well, from the very
same outfit that miserable German thought I was enough of an idiot to
risk his stealing my pot; while now this Spaniard took me for a rascal
so deeply dyed in the wool that he was afraid of me! “Must be these
whiskers,” I concluded as I hurried along, “or the way my hair is cut.
I am clipped pretty close. On the other hand, my beard is a bit too
scraggly!” Meanwhile I was anxious to get to a hotel to see how much I
had really won. It. was two o’clock by this time and the streets were
deserted. Eventually, a cab came rattling by. I hailed it, and got in.
I was a walking cash-box; I had money in the pockets of my coat, in
the pockets of my vest, in the pockets of my trousers,
everywhere–gold, silver, paper. The total must have been an enormous
one. As soon as I reached a room, I spread my earnings out on the bed.
Eleven thousand lire! I had not seen any money for such a long time
that I thought it was a fortune that had thus come to me almost
without effort on my part. But then my mind reverted to the good old
days of the prosperity of my family, and a bitter sense of my
degradation came over me. Indeed! Two years there in that library–.
along with my other misfortunes–had so crushed me that a paltry two
thousand dollars could look like wealth?
My old feeling of discouragement returned.
“Here, you tame spineless virtuous librarian,” I apostrophized,
looking at all my gold contemptuously. “Run along home and pass this
over to the widow Pesca-tore. She will be sure you stole it; and your
stock will go up in her esteem on that account. Or rather, sail on to
America as you had planned, if this windfall does not seem a fitting
reward for your courageous efforts hitherto. You could, now, you see;
you have two thousand dollars to bank on! What a millionaire!”
I swept the money together, tossed it into a drawer of my dresser, and
went to bed. But I could not get to sleep. What was I really to do? Go
back to Monte Carlo and lose the money I had made? Or should I rest
content with this one stroke of fortune, lay it aside somewhere, and
enjoy it modestly as occasion offered? Enjoy it! A pretty thought for
a man stuck with a family like mine! Well, I might buy my wife some
better clothes. Romilda seemed not only to have grown indifferent as
to whether I liked her or not, but even to take particular pains to
prove odious to me–never fixing her hair, going around in ugly mules
all day long, and wearing an old wrapper that left her not a single
charm of figure. Did she feel that it wasn’t worth the trouble to
dress decently for a husband like me? For that matter, she had never
quite recovered from her long illness; and she was growing more
irritable and despondent from day to day–not toward me alone, but
toward everybody. Slovenliness, laziness, were the natural result of
her many disappointments and the lack of any real affection on her
part for me. She had taken no interest in our one little girl who had
survived; because that child was a defeat for her as compared with the
fine boy that had come to Oliva barely a month later–and with none of
the trials and torments that had fallen to Romilda’s lot. All these
things–and that friction, besides, which develops inevitably when
poverty, like a black cat of ill-omen, huddles in the ashes of a
joyless hearth–had made married life unbearable to both of us. Would
eleven thousand lire cure all that? Would eleven thousand lire
resurrect a love that had been traitorously slain in its early days by
the widow Peseatore? Nonsense! To America then! But why America? Why
go seeking Fortune so far away, if, as it seemed, that very Fortune
had halted me, almost by violence, in front of a gambling store in
Nice? No! I must show some appreciation for such a courtesy–play the
game. Everything or nothing! After all, ruin would leave me only
where I was before. Eleven thousand lire! What was that?
So, the next day, I went back to Monte Carlo, as indeed I did for
twelve successive days. In all that time, I had neither leisure nor
opportunity to wonder at the amazing fortune that attended me, so
completely was I absorbed in the game–even to the point of utter
madness. And I have not wondered much since, in view of the turn my
luck finally took after favoring me so absurdly. In nine days of
reckless playing I amassed a sum of money that must truly have been
prodigious. On the tenth, I began to lose, and my ruin was just as
phenomenal. My intuition came to fail me, as though there were not
sufficient energy left in my nerves to sustain it. I was not shrewd
enough–or rather, I lacked the physical strength–to stop in time. I
did stop, as a matter of fact; but not of my own accord. My salvation
came from one of those horrible spectacles that are not infrequent,
they say, at Monte Carlo.
I was entering the Casino on the morning of the twelfth day, when a
gentleman I had often met about the tables came up to me in great
alarm and announced more by his excited gestures than by actual words
that a man had just killed himself outside in the gardens. Somehow I
felt sure it was my Spaniard, and a twinge of remorse ran through me.
After our talk at supper that first evening, he had refused to follow
my game, and had lost consistently. Then seeing me continue my lucky
play, he had finally begun to imitate me. But by this time, my own
good fortune was coming to an end, and I had taken to going about from
one table to another. In this way I had lost sight of him, and he had
lost interest in me.
As I hurried to join the crowd that had gathered about the body, I
tried to imagine how he would look stretched out there on the ground,
dead. However, I found, not him, but the young man with the monocle
who had affected such indifference to the great sums he was losing
that he always sat with his back to the wheel. He was lying in such a
natural posture that it seemed he must have taken that position before
firing the fatal shot. One arm was eased along his body; the other was
raised to one side, the hand closed and the forefinger bent as for the
clutch of the revolver. The weapon was lying a few inches away, and a
little beyond, the boy’s hat. His face was covered with blood, which
had clotted thick in the socket of one of his eyes. Still more blood
had flowed out from his right temple upon the sand of the driveway.
Horseflies were already buzzing about; and one of them alighted on his
face. None of the spectators seemed inclined to interfere. Finally I
stepped forward, drew a handkerchief from my pocket and spread it over
the poor fellow’s head. The crowd was irritated rather than not at
this decent act of mine: I had spoiled the spectacle if anything!
Then I took to my heels and ran. I ran to the station, boarded the
first train for Nice, gathered up my belongings, and started for home
I counted the remnants of my winnings. I still had eighty-two thousand
Could I ever have dreamed that before evening of that day something
similar to the fate of this young man was to come to me?
I CHANGE CARS
“First I’ll get ‘The Coops’ out of Purgatory, and go to live there,
working the mill. Good idea to keep close to the soil–better still if
you can get under it….
“Any trade, when you think of it, has its good points. … Even a
grave digger’s…. A miller has the satisfaction of hearing the stones
go round… and the flour flies all about and covers you white….
Some fun in that….
“Bet they haven’t opened a bag of grain in that mill in a dog’s age…
but the moment I take hold of it….
“Signer Mattia, the belt is off the fly-wheel! Eh, Signer Mattia, need
a new shaft here! This gear is loose, Signor Mattia!… As it was in
the old days, when mamma was still alive and Malagna was running
“While I’m busy at the mill, I’ll have to have somebody look after the
farming… and he’ll skin the eye-teeth out of me!… Or, if I attend
to that myself, my miller will do me at the mill…. A sort of see-saw
… miller up, farm-hand down, farm-hand up, miller down… I sitting
in the middle, to balance and enjoy the performance….
“Ah, I have it… I get into one of those old chests where the widow
keeps the clothes of the late Francesco Antonio Pescatore… in
camphor and moth balls… like holy relics… dress her up in a suit
of them… and let her be miller… and run the other fellow too, for
that matter, while I continue holding down my job at old Boccamazza’s
library…. And life in the country would do Romilda good….”
Such my rambling thoughts as the train ran along. I could not close
my eyes, but the vivid picture of that boy lying there on the driveway
at Monte Carlo… so naturally, so much at ease, under the green
trees, in the cool of the bright morning… would crowd its way to the
forefront of my mind. Or, if I succeeded in expelling that horrible
vision, another, less bloody but not less terrifying, would take its
place: the picture of my mother-in-law and my wife, waiting for me at
I had been gone just two weeks minus one day…. How would they
welcome my return? I amused myself building up the scene in
I walk into the house….
The two of them… just a glance, a glance of supreme indifference, as
much as to say:
“Huh, back again? And without your neck broken, worse luck!”
For a time, everybody mum, they on their side, I on mine….
Then the widow pipes up…. “How about that job you’ve gone and lost?”
That’s so! When I went away, I took the library key off in my
pocket…. I fail to show up, so the constable breaks down the door. I
am nowhere to be found. … Reported missing!… No news from me
anywhere…. Four, five, six days… and they give the place to some
other loafer like me….
So then…. “What is His Royal Highness doing here? Waiting for his
dinner? No sir…. Been off on a toot for a week or so, eh? Well,
you’ve found your level! Stick to it! But there’s no obligation on two
hard-working women to support a vagrant about the house! Off on a
tear… with who knows what gutter-wench. …”
And I… mum as an oyster….
And the old woman growing madder and madder, because she can’t get a
word out of me….
I, in fact, still mum as an oyster….
Until, when she’s really blowing off steam… I take a little bundle
out of my inside pocket… and begin to count it out on the table…
two… six… ten thousand, in that pile… five, seven… ten
thousand, in that pile… forty, fifty, sixty…. (Four eyes and two
mouths wide open: “Who have you been holding up now?”…)
“… seventy thousand, seventy-five thousand… eighty… eighty-one
thousand seven hundred and twenty-five… and forty centimes for good
And I gather up the money, stuff it into my purse, put it into my
pocket, and get up….
“So you’re firing me out? Better than I hoped for! Thanks! Goodbye
and good luck, fair ladies!…”
And I laughed aloud…. The people in my compartment had been watching
me as I sat there gloating over my triumph…. They tried to suppress
their mirth when I looked up….
To conceal my humiliation under a scowl, I applied myself to the
question of my creditors, who would pounce upon me the moment reports
of all that money got around….
“No hiding such a sum…. Besides what’s the use of money if you can’t
use it?… A slim chance of spending any of it on myself…. Well, so
I start in business at the mill, with the income from the farm on the
side… but there’s the overhead and the repairs … money here, money
there… years and years before I could pay them all off… whereas,
for cash, they’d probably settle for little or nothing….”
I went into this latter recourse, dividing my bank notes up between
the lot of them:
“That pig-snout of a Recchioni… ten thousand. … And five more for
Filippo Brisigo… wish to God it was for his funeral… seven to
Lunaro, the old skinflint. Turin was a better place, after he left…
and old woman Lippani…. That’s about all, I guess…. No… there’s
also Delia Piana, and there’s Bossi, and there’s Margottini…
and–Good God, the whole blamed eighty is gone…. So I was working
for those people up at Monte Carlo? Why the devil didn’t I stop after
I won that pile…. But for those last two days, I could pay them all,
and still be a rich man….”
By this time I was swearing under my breath, and my fellow passengers
laughed aloud without restraint. I hitched nervously about in my
seat…. Daylight was fading from the windows of the car…. The air
was dry and dusty. Ugh! What a nuisance, a railroad train! Anything
to kill time….
I thought I might read myself to sleep… so I bought a newspaper at a
station just across the Italian frontier…. The electric lights came
on. I unfolded the paper and started on the front page.
Interesting!… The Castle of Valencay sold at auction! Two million
three hundred thousand francs!
Counting the lands that go with it, the largest single holding in
France! Count de Castellane bought it in….
“Same way I lost ‘The Coops,’ I guess!”
The King of Spain, at one thirty today, entertained a delegation of
Moroccan chiefs at luncheon at the Palace…. The mission then paid
its respects to the Queen….
“Must have been a good feed.”
Paris, the 28th. Envoys from Tibet bringing gifts from the Lama to the
President of France.
“What the deuce is a Lama!… Thought it was a kind of camel….”
I did not settle the point, for I fell asleep.
I was awakened by the bumping of my car,. as the brakes stopped us
short. We were coming into another station. I looked at my watch.
Eight fifteen…. In another hour I would be arriving at my
The newspaper was still open on my knees. I skipped the item about the
Lama and turned the page. My eyes fell on a head-line in extra-heavy
Supposing the story referred to the tragedy of that morning at Monte
Carlo, I straightened up to read it more carefully…. At the first
line, which was printed in very small type, I stopped in surprise.
“Special despatch, by telegraph, from Miragno.”
Miragno? Who’s been killing himself down there in my village?
I read on:
“Yesterday, the 28th, a body, in an advanced state of decomposition,
was discovered in the mill-flume of the farm called….”
At this point my sight seemed suddenly to go blurred, for I thought
the next word was a name familiar to me. The lighting in the
compartment was very dim, and that added to the difficulty I
experienced in reading with my one eye. I stood up to bring the paper
closer to the bulbs…
“… decomposition, was discovered in the mill-flume of the farm
called ‘The Coops,’ located about two miles from this town. The police
were notified and proceeded to the spot. The body was recovered from
the water and, as the law requires, laid out on the bank under guard,
for an inquest by the State’s physician. The corpse was later
identified as that of our…”
My heart leapt to my throat, and in utter bewilderment I looked about
at my companions. They were all asleep.
“body was recovered… laid out on the bank… identified as that of
“… by the State’s physician. The corpse was later identified as that
of our village librarian, Mattia Pascal, who has been missing for some
days. Financial troubles are assigned as the cause of the tragedy.”
“I? Missing? Identified?… Mattia Pascal?”
A ferocious grin upon my face, my heart thumping tumultuously in my
breast, I read and reread the lines, I know not how many times. At a
first impulse, all my being rebelled in bitter protest, as though that
cold, laconic item in the news required a denial from me, to convince
even myself that it was not true. True it was for other people, at any
rate; and the conviction–already a day old–that they had of my death
impressed me as a crushing, overwhelming, intolerable act of vio-lence
unjustly delivered against me, leaving me destroyed for ever. My eyes
turned wildly again upon my fellow passengers. Could they be thinking
so too? There they sat, sleeping, snoring, in various positions of
torture. I felt like shaking them all awake, to scream into their
faces that it was not, that it could not be, true.
“But I must be dreaming!”
I caught up the paper again to read the item once more.
I was in a frenzy of excitement. Should I not pull the emergency brake
and stop the train? No! Well–what was it poking along that way for?
Its monotonous, grinding, bumping, rattling grated on my nerves till I
was in a paroxysm of irritation. I opened and closed my hands
spasmodically, sinking my nails into my palms. Again I unfolded the
paper, holding the two sheets out flat before me, my two arms
extended. … Then I folded it up again, with the article on the
outside. But I knew what it said, by heart.
“Identified! How? How could they have identified me? In an advanced
state of decomposition… a-a-ah!”
I thought of myself for a moment floating there in the green water of
the Flume–my body blackened, swollen, bursting, disgusting to look
upon…. With a shudder of horrified loathing, I crossed my arms over
my breast, pinching my biceps with either hand:
“I? No, not I!…” Who can it have been? Someone like me, certainly…
my beard, perhaps… my build… And they identified me!…
“‘Missing for some days.’… A-ah yes! But one thing I should like to
know: I should like to know who was in such a hurry to get me
identified? That poor devil… as much like me as all that? Just like
me–clothes, everything? Ah, I see! It was she… it was Marianna
Dondi… that Pescatore woman! Hoping it would be I, she made it so!
She identified me, at once, off hand! Too good almost to be true! Just
hear her taking on: ‘Oh my poor, poor boy! Oh my poor, poor Mattia!
Yes, it’s he! It’s he! What will my daughter ever do now…!’ And she
probably found a few tears too–and improvised a scene beside the
corpse! The poor devil was too dead to boot her out of there with a
‘Give us a rest: I don’t know you!'”
I was quite beside myself. The train drew into another station and
came to a stop. I threw open the side door and jumped to the ground,
with the idea of doing something about it immediately–a telegram
perhaps contradicting the report of my death. But I struck so hard
upon the platform of the station, that I was jarred from head to foot;
and to that I owed my salvation. For a sudden realization flashed
through my mind, as though the stupid obsession that had taken hold on
me had been shaken loose:
“Of course! Freedom! Liberty! Why did you not think of it before?
Freedom! Freedom! The chance for a new life!”
Eighty-two thousand lire in my inside pocket, and no obligations to
anyone. I was dead! And a dead man has no debts! A dead man has no
wife! A dead man has no mother-in-law! What more could a fellow ash
for? I was free, free, free!
I must have had a very queer look as I stood there beside my car with
this new inspiration written over my face. In any case, I had left the
compartment door open behind me; and I was suddenly aware of a number
of trainmen calling to me, I did not know why. One of them ran up to
me at last, shook me by the arm, and shouted angrily: “Get aboard,
man! The train is starting!”
“Let her start!” I answered. “Let her start! I’m changing cars!”
But now a terrifying doubt came into my mind. That report–supposing
it had already been denied? Supposing people at Miragno had discovered
the mistake–relatives of the dead man perhaps, making a real
identification…. Before counting my chickens, I had better wait for
them to hatch…. I ought to get confirmation of the whole story. And
I felt for the newspaper in my pockets, but, unfortunately, I had left
it in the train. Instinctively my eyes turned down along the deserted
track that stretched away into the night, its two lines of cold steel
shining bright from the lamps of the station. A pang of utter
loneliness came over me and for a second I quite lost my head again.
What a nightmare! And supposing it were all just a dream! But no… I
had really read the thing: “Special despatch, by telegraph, from
Miragno, yesterday, the 28th….
“You see? You can say it over word for word! No dream then! And yet…
well, you need proof, more proof than that!”
Where was I, anyhow?
I looked for the sign on the front of the station: ALENGA.
Not much of a place! And it was Sunday, too. Poor chance of a fellow’s
finding a newspaper in that hole on a holiday! And yet, Miragno was
not so far away! Well, at Miragno, that morning, there must have been
an edition of the Compendium, the only paper published in the
neighborhood. I must get a copy, somehow. The Compendium would be
sure to have the story, down to the last detail. But Alenga! How
expect anybody in Alenga to have the Compendium? But I could
telegraph. Ah, that was an idea! I could telegraph–assumed name of
course! I could telegraph to the editor–Miro Colzi–everybody knew
Miro Colzi–the “Meadow Lark” as we called him, after he got out a
volume of poems–his first and last–under that title. But the
“Meadow Lark!” Wouldn’t he think it suspicious to be getting an order
for his paper from Alenga? Certainly the leading story for that
issue–the paper was a weekly–would be my suicide.
Wouldn’t there be some risk in telegraphing–telegraphing especially
for that particular number?
“But, no, how could there be?” I then thought. “Colzi will have it in
his head that I am dead! Meantime he has ambitions of his own. He is
attacking this administration on the water and gas question. He’ll
imagine people here have heard about him and want to read his last
I went along into the station.
Luckily the mail carrier had stopped for a chat with the freight
agent; and his wagon was still there. It was some four miles from the
station to the village of Alenga proper, and uphill all the way.
I climbed into the rickety cart; and we drove off into the dark,
without lights on the wagon of any kind.
There were many things for me to think about; and yet, from time to
time, in the black solitude all about me now, I would be overwhelmed
by the same violent emotion I had received in the train from the
reading of that disconcerting piece of news. It was that same sense of
loneliness I had experienced at sight of the rails of the deserted
track, a feeling of fear and uneasiness, as though I were the ghost of
my dead self, astray somewhere, cut off from life, and yet certain to
continue living, beyond my death, without knowing just how.
To shake off my uncanny oppression, I struck up a conversation with my
“Is there a news agency at Alenga?”
“What? Can’t you buy a newspaper in the place?”
“Ah, newspapers! Yes, you can get them from Grot-tanelli, at the drug
“I suppose there’s a hotel?”
“There’s a boarding house–Palmentino’s.”
We had come to a steep incline; and the man got down from his seat to
make a lighter load for his poor winded nag. In the almost total
darkness I could scarcely distinguish his figure as he walked along.
But at one point he stopped to light his pipe, and I could see him
clearly. A shudder ran over me: “If he only knew who it is he has with
But then I turned the same query upon myself!
“Well, who is it he has with him! I couldn’t say! am I? I shall have
to decide. I need a name, at least–and before long! When they send
the telegram, I shall have to give them a name to sign; and I mustn’t
be embarrassed when they ask for one at the boarding house. Yes, a
name–just a name will do, for a starter. Let’s see: what is my name?”
I should never have dreamed it would be so hard to find a name,
especially a last name. I began fitting syllables together just as
they cam into my mind; and I got all sorts of queer things as a
result! “Strozzani,” “Parbetta,” “Martoni,” “Bartusi.” Ugh!
The problem began to grip my nerves. The names I found seemed all so
meaningless, so empty!–“Nonsense! As though names needed to have
meanings! Come, pull yourself together! Anything will do! You had
Martoni! What’s the matter with Martoni? Charles Martoni–there you
are!” But a moment later, I would shrug my shoulders! “Yes,
Charles–Martel!” And so, all over again!
We arrived at the village and still I had failed to make up my mind.
Fortunately there was no occasion for using a name for the druggist,
who proved to be telegraph clerk, postal clerk, pharmacist, stationer,
newsboy, all around donkey, and I don’t know what else.
I bought copies of the newspapers he had in stock, the Carriere and
the Secolo from Milan, the Caffaro, and one or two others, from
“I don’t suppose you have the Compendium of Miragno?”
Grottanelli had a pair of big round owl’s eyes, that looked like balls
of glass. Every so often he would force a pair of stiff, thick eyelids
down over them. “The Compendium? of Miragno?… Never heard of it!”
“It’s a small town sheet, weekly, I believe! I thought I would like to
see it–today’s number, that is!”
“The Compendium? Miragno? Never heard of it!” And he kept repeating
“That doesn’t matter. Few people have! Nevertheless, I’ve got to have
ten or dozen copies of the thing right away. Can you get them for me?
I’ll pay the expenses for telegraphing the order tonight.”
The man made no answer. A blank expression on his face, he persisted
still: “The Compendium? Miragno? Never heard of it!” But he finally
consented to make up the telegram, at my dictation, and to give his
store as the address.
It was a horrible night I passed there in the boarding house of
Palmentino’s, a sleepless night of distracted tossing on a sea of
tumultuous thoughts and worries. But the afternoon mail of the
following day brought me fifteen copies of the Compendium.
The Genoa papers of the day before had said nothing whatever about the
tragedy at Miragno; and now my hands trembled as I opened the bundle
On the first page, nothing. Feverishly I turned to the inner sheets.
Ah! Across two columns of the third page ran lines of mourning in
heavy black. Under them was my name in big broadfaced type:
“He had been missing for some days–days of consternation and
unspeakable anguish for his family, and of concern for the people of
this town who had learned to love Mattia Pascal for that goodness of
heart and joviality of temperament which, with his other gifts of
character, enabled him to meet misfortune with dignity and courage,
and to fall, without loss of public esteem, from the moneyed ease that
once was his to the humble circumstances in which he lived in recent
“After a day of unexplained absence on his part, his family went, in
some alarm, to the Boccamazza Library where Mattia Pascal,
passionately devoted to his work as a public servant, spent most of
his time, enriching with wide and varied readings his native
endowments as a scholar. The door of the Library was closed and
locked, a fact which at first gave rise to very grave suspicions. For
the moment, however, these were shown to be groundless; and it was
hoped that our beloved Librarian had slipped out of town on private
business which he had divulged to no one. But alas, the sorry truth
was soon to be revealed. The death of his mother, whom he adored, and
on the same day, of his only child, together with financial worries
arising from the loss of his ancestral properties, had shaken our poor
friend too deeply!
“It seems that, on a previous occasion, some three months ago, Mattia
Pascal tried to put an end to his unhappy days in the very water where
his body has just been found–the mill-flume of the estate known as
‘The Coops,’ which, in days gone by, had been one of the prides of the
Pascal inheritance. We got the story from a former employee of the
family, Filippo Brina, miller on the farm. Standing there beside the
corpse–it was night, and two policemen, with lanterns, were on guard
about the body–the old man with tears in his eyes, told the reporter
of the Compendium how he had prevented the grieving son and father
from executing his violent intention at that time. But Filippo Brina
could not always be on hand. On his second attempt to end his own
life, Mattia Pascal threw himself into the Flume and there his body
lay for two whole days.
“There was a heartrending scene when, night before last, the desperate
widow was led down to the water’s edge to view the now unrecognizable
remains of her loved companion who had gone to join his daughter and
his mother in the other world.
“In token of sympathy for her bereavement and of esteem for the
departed, the people of the town turned out, en masse, to accompany
the body to its last resting place, over which our Superintendent of
Schools, Mr. Gerolamo Pomino, Chevalier of the Crown, pronounced a
“The Compendium extends to the bereaved family and to Mr. Roberto
Pascal, brother of the deceased and formerly a resident of this town,
expressions of its sincerest sympathy. Vale, dilecte amice, vale!
Though I should have been quite dismayed had I found nothing in the
paper, I must confess that my name, printed there, under that black
line, did not give me the pleasure I had expected. On the contrary, it
filled me with such painful emotions that after a few lines I had to
give up. That touch about the “consternation” and “anguish” of my
“bereaved” family did not amuse me at all; nor did the bosh about the
“esteem” of my fellow townsmen, or my “passionate” devotion to my work
a public servant. Rather I was impressed by the reference to the night
of mourning I had passed at “The Coops” after the death of mother and
my little girl. The fact that that had served as a proof, indeed as
the strongest proof, of my suicide at first surprised me as an
unforeseen and cynical irony of fate. Then it caused me shame and
No, I had no right to the profits of such a cruel misunderstanding. I
had not killed myself in sorrow for my two dearest ones, though the
thought of doing so had indeed occurred to me that night. To be sure,
I had run away, in sheer despair at that great bereavement. But here
I was on my way home again; and from a gambling house where Fortune
had smiled on me in the strangest manner!
Just as she was continuing to smile! For here, now, if you please,
someone else, someone surely whom I did not even know, had killed
himself in my place; and, depriving this benefactor of mine of the
pity and the sorrow of friends and relatives which rightfully belonged
to him, I was also compelling him to submit to the hypocritical
weeping of my wife and my mother-in-law and even to a eulogy from the
painted lips of Mr. Gerolamo Pomino!
Yes, these were my first impressions on reading my obituary in the
Miragno Compendium. But then I reflected that, of course, the poor
fellow had not really died on my account, and that I could not render
him the slightest service by coming to life again. The fact that I
would gain incidentally from his misfortune imposed no sacrifice on
his people. Indeed I would be doing them a favor by keeping still. In
their eyes, the suicide was I, Mattia Pascal. They could still hope
that their man had simply disappeared, that he might return again
almost any day.
As for my wife and my mother-in-law, did I owe them any consideration
in the matter? All that “anguish,” all that “consternation”–was it
really so? Were they not, more probably, phrases, invented by the
“Meadow Lark”? To make sure whether it was I or not, all they had to
do, was lift the eyelid of my left eye! And anyhow–even if there had
been no eyes left–a woman isn’t fooled so easily as that where her
own husband is concerned! Why were they so anxious to have it me?
Doubtless the widow Pescatore hoped that Ma-lagna would feel just a
little bit responsible for my terrible end, and come to the rescue of
his poor “niece” again.
Well, if that was their game, why should I try to spoil it?
“Dead? Buried? That suits me! A cross on the grave, and good-bye, fair
I arose from the table where I had been reading, stretched my arms and
legs deliriously and heaved a deep sigh of relief.
Straightway, not so much to deceive other people–they had deceived
themselves, you understand, and with a haste and readiness which may
not have been without some justification in my case, but which still
was a trifle too precipitous–as to take my cue from Fortune and to
satisfy a real need of my own, I set out to make myself over into
I had scant reason to be proud of the miserable failure whom the
people back home had insisted on drowning–whether he liked it or
not–in the waters of a mill-flume. In view of the life he had led up
to that time, the late Mattia Pascal deserved, surely, no better fate.
So now I was anxious to obliterate, not only in exteriors, but
substantially, intimately also, every trace of him that was left in
Here I was alone, more wholly alone than I could ever hope to be again
on this earth; free from every present bond and obligation, a new man,
my own master absolutely, with no past to drag along behind me, with a
future that could be anything I might choose to make it. Oh for a pair
of wings! How airy, how light I felt!
The attitude toward the world that past experiences impressed upon me
had no longer any basis in rea-lo3 son. I could acquire a new sense of
life, without regard to the unhappy trials of the late Mattia Pascal.
It was for me to decide: I had the opportunity, with every prospect of
success, to work out a new destiny in just such ample measure as
Fortune seemed to be allowing me.
“One thing I’ll be mighty careful of,” I said to myself: “I’ll make
certain to preserve this freedom of mine above all else. I will seek
out paths that are ever level and ever new, and never let my liberty
become sodden with troubles. The moment life begins to look unpleasant
anywhere, I’ll look the other way, and move on. I’ll concentrate on
the things people ordinarily call inanimate, living in quiet
attractive places, where there are beautiful views, perhaps. Little by
little I’ll get a new training, a new education, working hard and
patiently to make my very self new, also. In the end I shall be able
to boast not only of having lived two entirely different lives but of
having been two entirely different people….”
I began, for that matter, right where I was. A few hours before I left
Alenga I went into a barber shop and had my beard trimmed close. I had
first thought of getting a clean shave; but then I decided that such a
radical step might arouse suspicion in such a little town.
The barber was a tailor also, by trade, and the effects of this second
calling were evident in his aged form, almost bent double by his long
sittings in one cramped position, leaning over his work with his
glasses perched on the end of his nose. I concluded, in fact, that lie
was more tailor, probably, than barber. Armed with a pair of cutter’s
shears, with blades so long that he had to hold them up at the end
with his other hand, he fell, like the wrath of God, upon the whiskers
of the late Mattia Pascal. I dared hardly draw a breath. I closed my
eyes and kept them closed till, at last, I felt a tugging at my
sleeve. The old man, streaming with perspiration, was holding a mirror
up in front of me so that I might say whether he had performed the
This was asking too much, it seemed to me; and I parried:
“No, thank you! Never mind! I’m afraid the shock would break it!”
“The mirror! A pretty thing it is, too! Antique, I imagine!”
It was a small round glass with a heavy handle of carved ivory–who
knows from what boudoir of the aristocracy? And through what devious
history, had it ever gotten into that out-of-the-way shop of a rural
barber-tailor? However, in order not to hurt the old artisan’s
feelings–he stood there unable to grasp what I was talking about–I
put the thing in front of my face.
The destruction already wrought on my cheeks, jaws and chin gave me
warning in advance as to the kind of monster that would eventually
come forth from the thicket behind which the late Mattia Pascal had
skulked through his unhappy life. I had another good reason, besides,
for detesting the fellow cordially. A tiny projection of a chin,
pointed and receding! And he had kept the matter quiet for so long!
Henceforth–and it seemed downright treason to me–I should have to
carry that chin around in the full light of day! And my dot of a nose,
above! And that everlasting coek-eye!
“This eye,” I reflected, “straying away off here to one side, will
always be something belonging to Mm, in the new face I am going to
have. The best I can ever do will be to wear a pair of colored
spectacles, which ought to help–help a great deal, indeed, to make me
look reasonably attractive. I’ll let my hair grow long; and what with
this truly imposing brow I have already and the smooth chin and the
glasses I am going to have, I’ll look more or less like a German
philosopher; especially when I fill out the picture with a long
straight coat and a soft broad-brimmed hat!”
There was no way out of it: starting with the raw materials actually
available, a philosopher I had to be! “But, anyhow, we’ll do the best
we can!” I would work out some philosophy or other–a cheerful one,
you may be sure–to serve me in my passage through the humanity about
me–a humanity, which, try as I would, I could regard only as a very
ridiculous, a very small and petty affair!
A name was at last provided–handed to me, one might say–on the
train, a few hours north of Alenga on the line toward Turin.
There were two gentlemen in my compartment, engaged in an animated
discussion on early Christian ikonography, a branch of learning in
which, to an ignoramus like me, they both seemed very well versed
indeed. The younger of the two men–a slight pale-faced fellow with a
curly black beard–seemed to take a malicious satisfaction in
supporting (on the authority of Justin the Martyr, Tertullian, and I
forget who else) an ancient tradition, to the effect that Christ had a
very ugly face. He delivered this opinion in a heavy cavernous voice
that contrasted strangely with his pale ascetic slenderness.
“Yes, sir, just that, just that: ugly, no more, no less! And Kirillos
of Alexandria, you know, goes farther still–yes sir! Kirillos of
Alexandria says, word for word, that Christ was the ugliest of all
His companion, a placid tranquil old scholar, not over-attentive to
his person, but with a smile of subtle irony drawing down the corners
of his mouth (his head toppling forward on a long neck as he sat there
erect) was inclined to think that little reliance could be placed on
such primitive traditions:
“In those early days,” said he, “the Church was all taken up with the
teachings and the spiritual aspects of its Founder. Little, or even,
as one may say, no attention at all, was paid to his corporeal
At a certain point the conversation turned to Saint Veronica and two
statues in the ancient city of Panea which by some were held to be
images of the Christ with the lady of the miracle before him.
“Nothing of the kind,” the younger man declared. “I didn’t know there
was any doubt about it either: those two statues represent the Emperor
Adriano (Hadrian) with the city kneeling in submission at his feet.”
The old scholar placidly stuck to his opinion, which must have been a
contrary one; for his colleague, turning now toward me, insisted
“Beronike in Greek–and from Beronike we get Veronica….”
“Adriano!” (still to me).
“So you see: Veronica, vera icon–a very natural distortion. …”
“Adriano!” (again to me).
“… for the Beronike mentioned in the ‘Acts of Pilate’…”
And he said “Adriano” over and over again, looking at me as though he
expected my support in the matter.
The train came into a station and they got out, still arguing
heatedly. I went to the window and leaned forward, to watch them. They
had taken a few steps when the old man lost his temper and stalked off
by himself in another direction.
“Who’s your authority? Who’s your authority?” the younger fellow
called after him defiantly. The old man turned and shouted back:
“Camillo de Meis!”
I got the impression that he too meant his answer for me. I had been
mechanically repeating the “Adriano” which the other man had so
drilled into my ears. I simply threw the de away and kept the
“Adriano Meis! Yes, that will do. Sounds quite distinguished and
unusual: Adriano Meis!”
And I thought besides that the name went well with the smooth face,
the colored glasses, the straight coat, and broad-brimmed hat I was
eventually to wear.
“Adriano Meis! Fine! Those squabbling Christians have baptized me!”
Deliberately suppressing in myself all thoughts of my life just past,
and concentrating on the purpose of beginning a new existence from
that moment, my whole being seemed to expand with a fresh childlike
glee. It was as though I had been born again, guileless, limpid, pure,
transparent, my senses and my consciousness awake and watchful to take
advantage of everything that might contribute to the upbuilding of my
new personality. My soul meanwhile soared aloft in the joy of this new
freedom. Never had people and things looked to me as they did now. The
air between us seemed suddenly to have lost its cloudiness. How
approachable human beings now appeared! How easy and unstrained the
relations I would henceforth establish with them–all the more since I
would have very little to ask of men to satisfy the requirements of
the placid felicity that would be mine! What a delicious sense of
spiritual lightness! What a gentle, what a serenely ineffable
intoxication! Fortune, quite beyond all my hopes and expectations, had
swept off the complicated coils that had been strangling me; and
drawing me aside from ordinary life, made me an impartial spectator of
the struggle for existence in which others were still entangled: “Just
wait,” a voice whispered in my ear, “and you’ll see how amusing it all
is when you view it from a point of vantage on the outside. That
fellow, for instance! Here he was souring his own stomach, goading a
poor old man to rage, for the mere sake of proving that our good Lord
was the ugliest of all living men!”
I smiled fatuously. And I began to smile that way, at everything: at
the lines of trees that wheeled past me as my express rushed along; at
the farmhouses scattered over the countryside, where I could imagine
peasants puffing and blowing at the chill fog that might come some
night to sear the olive trees; or shaking their fists at the sky which
refused and refused to send them rain; at the birds escaping in terror
to right and left as the locomotive came thundering up; at the
telegraph poles flitting by the car-windows–hot with “news,”
doubtless (like that of my suicide in the mill-flume at Miragno!); at
the poor wives of the flagmen, who stood at the crossings waving their
red warning signals–the regulation caps of their husbands on their
Until at last my eye chanced to fall upon the plain gold ring which
encircled the third finger of my left hand.
I came to myself with a violent start. I winced. I closed my eyes.
Then I clapped my right hand down over my left and tried to work the
ring loose, stealthily, without attracting my own attention, as it
were! The ring came off. I could not help remembering that around the
inside of it two names were engraved: “Mattia–Romilda,” with a date.
What should I do with it?…
I opened my eyes; and for a time I sat there frowning at the ring as
it lay in the palm of my hand.
Everything around me had lost its charm. Here still was one last link
in the chain that held me to my past! What a tiny bit of metal, in
itself! So light, and yet so heavy!
But the chain was broken, broken, thank God! Why so mawkish then over
this, the last of its fragments?
I started to throw the ring out of the window, but then I thought: “So
far Fortune has been with me–exceptionally, miraculously, with me. I
must not abuse her good nature, now.” I had come to a point where I
believed everything possible–even this: that a small ring tossed off
a train on a rarely frequented railroad track might be found by some
one, a laborer, say; and passing from hand to hand, come to reveal in
the end–by virtue of the two names inscribed upon it–the truth: the
truth, that is, that the victim of the mill-flume tragedy at Miragno
was not the librarian of Santa Maria Liberale–was not the late Mattia
“No, no,” I murmured to myself, “No, I must wait for a surer
The train stopped at another station. A workman was standing on the
platform with a box of tools. I bought a file from him. When the train
started again, I cut the ring into small bits and scattered them out
of the window.
Less to control the direction of my thoughts, than to give a certain
substantiality to my new life hitherto floating impalpable in void, I
began to think of Adriano Meis, to create a past for him, giving him a
father and a birth-place, setting about this problem, also, in a
leisurely, methodical manner, trying to establish each detail vividly
and definitely in my own mind.
I would be an only son: that point seemed certain beyond dispute.
“I doubt if there was ever a more only son than I … and yet, when
you think of it… how many; people like me must there be in the
world–my brothers, therefore, in a way! Your hat, your coat, a
letter, on the railing of a bridge… deep water underneath… but
instead of jumping in, you take a steamer… to America, or elsewhere.
A week later, they find a corpse … too far gone to identify. It’s
the man off the bridge, of course–and no one thinks of the matter
twice. To be sure, I didn’t arrange this business myself–no letter,
no coat, no hat, no bridge…. But otherwise my situation is the
same–in fact, there’s one thing to my advantage in it–I can enjoy my
freedom without any remorse whatever. They forced it on me, they
“So then, an only son… born… wonder if I had better say where?
Well, how can you avoid it? A fellow doesn’t come down from the
clouds–the moon, for instance, as midwife! Though I remember reading
in a book in the Library that the ancients used the moon in some such
way–prospective mothers praying to her under the name of Lucina….
“However, I was not born in heaven! How keep off the earth?
“Stupid! Of course! At sea! You were born at sea! On a steamer! My
parents were traveling at the time…. Traveling, with a baby about to
come? Hardly plausible! How get them to sea? They were emigrants…
had to come home from America! Why not? Everybody goes to America.
Even the late Mattia Pascal, poor devil, started for there in his
time. So my father earned these eighty thousand lire in America?
Nonsense! If he had had that much money, his wife would have been
comfortably fixed in a hospital. They would have waited for me to
come, before starting on their journey. Besides, you don’t get rich so
easily in America any more…. My father… by the way, what was his
name?… Paolo! yes, Paolo Meis! My father, Paolo Meis, had a hard
time over there… as so many do. Three or four years of bad luck…
then, discouraged–humble pie!–A letter to his old man… my
grandfather, that is…”
I insisted on having a grandfather…. “He lived long enough for me to
know him well–a nice old man … like that professor who got off the
train some stations back–professor of Christian ikonography, I think
Strange how the mind works! Why was it I came so naturally to think of
my father, Paolo Meis, as a no-account.., who… of course, how
else?… had been the torment of my grandfather, marrying against the
letter’s will and eloping to America?
“I suppose he too believed that Jesus was the ugliest of living men!
And he must have got his full deserts off there in South America, if,
with his wife in a precarious condition, he bought the tickets, the
moment my grandfather’s money came, and sailed for home again….
“Need I have been born at sea, necessarily, though? Why not in South
America, simply–in Argentina… a few months before my father
returned? Yes, much better that way, in fact. Because grandpa was
tickled when he heard about me–forgave his scapegrace son just on my
account! So I crossed the Atlantic; while still a tiny baby! Third
class, probably! And I caught the croup on the way over, and almost
died. That at least is what grandpa always told me….
“Now some people would say I might be sorry I didn’t die on that
occasion, when I was too small to notice much…. I am not of that
opinion! What troubles, what trials, after all, have I been through in
my life-time? Only one, to tell the truth: that was when my
grandfather died–I had grown up with him, you see. For my father,
Paolo Meis, scalawag that he was–never able to stick to any one
thing–went back to South America again–after a few months–leaving
his wife with my grandfather. Paolo Meis died over there–yellow
fever. By the time I was three, I lost my mother too–so I never
really knew them–only the few things I learned later on…. And that
isn’t the worst of it. I never found out exactly where I was born.
Argentina… yes… but that’s a big place… what town in Argentina?
Grandpa didn’t know… couldn’t remember that father ever told him
and he never thought to ask… I, of course, was too young to remember
In short: (a) an only son–of Paolo Meis, (b) born in South America,
in the Argentine Republic, locality unknown; (c) brought to Italy when
a few months old (croup); (d) no memory, and little information, about
my parents; (e) reared and educated by my grandfather.
Where? Here, there, everywhere! First at Nice: rather vague
recollections of Nice; Piazza Massena; the Promenade des Anglais;
the Avenue de la Gare;… After that, Turin.
I was on my way to Turin, at present; and there, I would attend to
many things: I would pick out a street and a house, where my
grandfather boarded me till I was ten years old, in a family which I
would settle just there, being sure it fitted the background well.
There I would live, or rather relive, all the boyhood of Adriano Meis.
This pursuit, this game, of creating out of sheer fancy a life which I
had never really lived, which I pieced together from details observed
in people and in places here and there, and which I made my own and
felt to be my own, amused me mightily in the first days of my
wanderings–though the pleasure had ever an undercurrent of sadness. I
made it my daily work, however. I lived not only in the present but
in a past, the past which Adriano Meis had not as yet lived.
I kept, I may say, very little of what I thought of originally.
Nothing, I believe, is ever imagined, unless it have roots of greater
or lesser depth in actual experience. On the other hand, the
strangest things may be true when this latter is the case. The human
mind could never dream of certain impossible situations that rush out
to meet you from the tumultuous inwards of life as it is lived; though
always, the living, breathing, palpitating reality is different–and
how different!–from the inventions we erect upon it. How many things
we need–and how unutterably minute they are, how entirely
inconceivable!–to reconstitute that reality from which we derive our
fictions! How many lines we must bring together again in the
complicated skein of life–lines which we have cut to make our
situation something individual, something standing by itself!
Now, what was I but a creature of the imagination? I was a walking
fiction which was determined and, for that matter, obliged, to stand
by itself though dependent on, immersed in, reality. Daily witnessing,
daily observing in detail, the life that the world about me was
living, I was conscious at once of its infinitude of inner
concatenations and of the many bonds which I had severed between me
and it. Could I reunite all those broken connections with reality? Who
knows where they would finally drag me? They might prove to be the
reins of wild horses pulling the frail chariot of my necessary
fictioning to destruction in the end. No! I should be careful to do
nothing more than reintegrate the imaginary experience.
On the playgrounds, in the public gardens, about the streets, I would
follow and study children from five to ten years old, noting their
ways, their language, their games, in order gradually to construct an
infancy for Adriano Meis. And I succeeded so well that eventually his
childhood had a relatively substantial existence in my mind. I decided
not to create a new mother for myself. That I should have regarded as
profaning a beautiful and sacred memory. But a grandfather–that was
different! With real gusto I set about fashioning one–the one I had
thought of in my first outline.
How may real grand-daddies–little old men whom I picked out and
followed about, now at Turin, now at Venice, now at Milan–went into
the delightful ancestor of my own dreams. One would give me his ivory
snuffbox; and his checker-board handkerchief with red and black
squares; another would furnish his cane; a third his glasses and his
long two-pointed beard; a fourth his amusing walk and the thunderous
way he sneezed or blew his nose; a fifth his curious high-pitched
voice and laugh. The grandparent I eventually produced, was a shrewd
and canny old fellow, something of a grumpus, a wise connoisseur of
the arts, a man contemptuous of modern things and therefore unwilling
to send me to school, preferring to educate me by conversations with
himself on long walks about the city to the museums and picture
galleries. On my visits to Milan, Padua, and Venice, to Ravenna,
Florence, and Perugia, I had this dear old man always at my
side–talking to me more than once, however, through the mouths of
At the same time, I was keen to live my own life in the present. Every
now and then, the realization of my limitless, my unheard-of freedom
would sweep over me, filling me with such exquisite delight that I
would be caught up into a sort of beatified ecstasy. I would take in
one deep breath after another to feel my whole spirit expand with my
lungs. Alone! Alone! Master of myself! Not an obligation to anyone,
nor a responsibility for anyone! Where shall we go today? To Venice?
To Venice we go! To Florence? Very well, to Florence, then! And
inseparable from me was my exultant felicity!
I remember particularly, one evening at Turin, in the first weeks of
my new life. The sun was setting. I was standing on the boulevard
along the Po, near a mole thrown out into the foaming stream to
shelter a fish pound. The air was marvellously clear, so clear that
everything seemed gilded, enameled in the limpid brightness of the
twilight. The sense of my freedom now came over me with such
intenseness that I really thought I was losing my mind. I tore myself
away, to put an end to my mad enjoyment.
I had long since attended to the remodeling of my exterior semblance.
My beard was gone. I had selected a light blue tint for my spectacles.
Letting my hair grow, I had succeeded in giving it a touch of artistic
unruliness. With these modifications I was quite another person.
Sometimes I would stop in front of a mirror and have a long
conversation with myself, unable meantime to keep from laughing:
“Adriano Meis, you are a lucky dog on the whole! Pity I had to give
you a makeup just like this–but after all, what does it matter? It
gets by! It gets by! If it weren’t for that cock-eye, which belongs
to him really, you would not be half bad looking. In fact, there is
something actually impressive about your features: you have
personality, as they say. It’s true the women laugh at you a little;
but that’s not altogether your fault. If he hadn’t cropped his hair
quite so close, you wouldn’t be obliged to wear it quite so long; and
certainly it’s from no choice of your own that you go around as
sleekly jowled as a priest. Anyhow, cheer up! When the ladies laugh,
just give a snicker or two yourself–and you’ll survive it, you’ll
For the rest, I lived almost exclusively by myself and for myself. If
I exchanged a word occasionally with an inn-keeper, a waiter, a
chamber-maid, a neighbor at table, it was never for the sake of
conversation. My disinclination toward more intimate contacts showed
me, furthermore, that I had an innate distaste for lying and deceit.
Not that other people were so anxious to become better acquainted! On
the contrary, my general appearance tended to keep them away–making
me look like a foreigner, probably. I remember that on one of my
visits to Venice, I proved unable to convince an old gondolier that I
was not a German–an Austriaco; whereas I was actually born, in
Argentina if you wish, but still of Italian parentage. What really
made me an “outsider” was something quite different and known to me
alone: in reality, I was nobody. No public registry bore a record of
me, except the documents in Miragno–and according to them I was dead
and buried, under my other name.
I did not mind all this so very much; and yet I could not reconcile
myself to passing for an Austrian. Never before had I had occasion to
center my mind on the notion of “country.” In the old days there had
been plenty of other things to worry about! But now, in my leisure and
solitude, I became accustomed to meditating on many things I should
never before have regarded as of any possible interest to me. Indeed,
I would often find myself following such trains of thought quite
involuntarily, and be somewhat put out because they seemed to lead
nowhere. Yet I had to do something to pass my time–once I had my fill
of traveling and sight-seeing. To escape my own reflections, when
these began to lie heavy on my mind, I would sometimes turn to
writing, filling sheet after sheet of paper with my new signature,
holding my pen in a new way with the idea of producing a new style of
hand. But sooner or later I would tear my paper up and throw my pen
aside. I might very well be illiterate, for all the writing I should
have to do! To whom would I ever be called upon to write? Henceforth I
could and would receive no letters from anybody.
This particular thought, like many others, unfailingly plunged me into
my past again. My home, the Library, the streets of Miragno, the
sea-shore, would come into my mind. “Wonder if Romilda is still
wearing black! I suppose so–just for appearances. What can she be
doing now?” And I would think of her as I had seen her, in those days,
about the house; and of the widow Pescatore, as well–cursing my
memory every time she thought of me, I could be sure.
“I’ll bet neither one of them has paid a single visit to that poor man
there in the cemetery–a terrible end he came to, at that! Where do
you suppose they put my grave? Probably Aunt Scolastica refused to lay
out as much money on my funeral as she did for mamma’s; and of course,
Berto wouldn’t do anything. I can just hear him: ‘Who obliged Mattia
to go and do that? I didn’t! He had two lire a day from his job at the
library! How much did he need to get along?’ No, they turned the dirt
up and buried me like a dog! In one of the town lots, too, I ‘ll bet
my hat! Well, what of it? What do I care? Just the same, I am sorry
for that poor man. Ten to one he had a few people who were fond of him
and would have treated him to a better send off! And yet, little he
need worry now? He’s over with his troubles!”
I continued traveling about for some time, going beyond the confines
of Italy, down the Rhine, for instance, as far as Cologne, following
the river on an excursion steamer: Mannheim, Worms, Mainz, Bingen,
Coblenz. I had thought of keeping on up into Scandinavia; but then I
considered that I would have to put some limits to my expenditures. My
money had to last me for the rest of my days; and you couldn’t call it
very much for such a purpose: I could bank on living thirty years more
at least. Outside the law in the sense that I could produce no
document to prove, let alone my identity, the fact that I was even
alive, I could not possibly find any lucrative employment. To keep out
of trouble, therefore, I should have to restrict my outlay to the bare
comforts. Taking account of stock, I saw that I must not exceed two
hundred lire a month. Not rank luxury, by any means! And yet, back
home the three of us had gotten along on half of that! Yes, I could
But, away down underneath, I was getting tired of this going about
from place to place, in silence and alone. I was beginning, despite
myself, to feel the need for some companionship–as I discovered one
gloomy evening in Milan shortly after returning from my trip to
It was a cold day, cloudy, and threatening rain. I happened to notice
an old man huddled up against a lamp-post. He was selling matches, and
the box, hanging from his neck by a strap, prevented him from drawing
his ragged overcoat warmly enough about him. He was blowing on the
back of his hands and I observed that a string ran from one of his
fists down between his legs. On looking closer, I saw it was the leash
for a mere speck of a puppy, three or four days old at the most, lying
there between the old beggar’s worn-out shoes, shivering with cold,
and whining piteously.
“Want to sell that pup?” I asked.
“Yes,” the man answered, “and for very little, though he’s worth a lot
of money! A fine dog, he’s going to make some day, this little brute!
You can have him for twenty-five!”
The poor puppy continued whimpering, though that estimate of his worth
might have set him up considerably–I suppose he understood, however,
that in mentioning such a figure, his master was appraising not the
future merits of the dog but the stupidity he thought he could read on
my face. But I, meantime, was thinking hard. If I bought the puppy, I
could be sure of having a faithful friend eventually, one who would
tell no tales, and who would never ask, as the price of his confidence
and affection, who I was, where I came from nor whether my papers were
in order. On the other hand, I would have to take out a license for
him and pay a tax–things obviously a dead man could not, or at least,
should not, do. A first deliberate aggression, a first gratuitous
restriction, however slight, upon my freedom!
“Twenty-five? What do you take me for?” I snapped at the old man.
I crammed my hat down over my eyes, turned up the collar of my coat,
and hurried away. It was beginning to rain in a fine mist-like
drizzle. “A great thing, this liberty of mine,” I muttered as I walked
along; “but a bit of a tyrant, too, if it denies me the privilege even
of buying a poor puppy out of its misery!”
Whether that first winter was a hard one or a mild one I am sure I do
not know: I was too much absorbed in the excitement of traveling and
in gloating over my new-found freedom. But this second one, frankly,
was getting on my nerves. I was tired, I suppose, from being on the
move so much, with the additional concern of keeping within a definite
allowance. So that now if it was cold and damp, I knew that it was
cold and damp; and, despite my struggles to keep my spirits free from
the influence of the weather, a cloudy day would not fail to depress
“But it’s going to clear up, it’s going to clear up!” I would assure
myself. “Fortune is on your side–and the freedom you owe to her will
not be long disturbed!”
To tell the truth I had seen enough of carefree idleness. Adriano
Meis had had his youthful fling; now it was time for him to grow up,
become a man, take hold of himself, find an even tenor of modest
sensible living. Not so much of a problem, either, for a person
entirely free, without a responsibility in the world!
So, at least, I thought; and I applied myself seriously to the
question of selecting a town to fix my residence in–I could not go on
hopping from one place to another, like a bird without a nest, if I
ever intended really to settle down. Well where, then? A big
metropolis, or some small center?
I could not make up my mind. I would shut my eyes and mentally review
all the cities that I had visited, lingering in this square, on that
street, among those scenes, which I could remember with greatest
vividness and pleasure. And in each case, I would say:
“Yes, I was there once. And how much of life I am missing–life that
lives its tense nervous course, here, there, in all its variety? How
many times have I felt: ‘Yes, I should like to spend the rest of my
days, right here?’ And how I have envied the people who did live in
such places, with their habits and occupations adapted to those
beautiful surroundings, free from the sense of transiency which always
keeps the traveler ill at ease!”
This restlessness, this painful feeling of detachment, was my
besetting torment, something that would never allow me really to be at
home among the objects about me, or even to think of the bed on which
I slept as really mine. Things, I believe, have value to us only in
proportion as they have power for evoking and grouping familiar images
about them. Certainly an object may sometimes be pleasing to us in
itself, through its artistic lines, let us say; but more often our
delight in it comes from wholly extraneous considerations. Our fancy
beautifies it with a halo, as it were, of fond remembrances, whereby
we see it, not at all as it really is, but as something alive, as
something animated by the images we habitually associate with it. What
we love is that portion of ourselves which we recognize in it, which
establishes a harmony between it and us, giving it a soul that is
known only to us because that soul is the creation of our own
Needless to say, I could never thus transform the atmosphere of the
various hotel rooms in which I passed my nights. But a house, a home,
a place that was really, wholly mine, could I hope ever to have one?
I had very little money to begin with. So make it a wee little house,
just two or three rooms–but comfortable! Ought to be possible!–But,
wait, not quite so fast! A number of things have to be thought
of–very carefully weighed, indeed. Free, free as the wind that blows!
Yes–but on one condition: your valise in your hand–today here,
tomorrow there! You buy a house–settle down–and right away: deeds,
public records, tax bills.–Your name in the directory? And on the
voting lists? Of course! Well then–what name? An assumed name? And
after that, what? ‘Who is that fellow?’ ‘Where did he come from?’
Secret investigations by the police! Trouble, in a word,
annoyances–one thing leading to another! Out of the question then, a
house, property of my own! Oh well–a furnished room, board in a
private family! Why so wrought up over nothing?
It was winter–beastly weather–that set me thinking along such lines,
the approach of the Christmas season, that always makes one long for a
cozy corner by a hearth with the intimacy and warmth of a home about
Not that I missed the good cheer of my own family circle! The only
home I ever thought of with any real regret was the one I had had
before that, the old home of my father and mother–destroyed long
since, and not by anything connected with my recent change of status.
I could console myself with the reflection that I would probably be no
happier over the holidays, were I to spend them back in Miragno with
my wife and–horrors!–my mother-in-law.
I treated myself to the pleasure of an imaginary return to them–a big
loaf of nut bread under my arm:
“A knock on the door:
“‘Excuse me–do they live here still–Romilda Pescatore, widow Pascal,
and Marianna Dondi, widow Pescatore?’
“‘Yes, and who is calling, may I ask?’
“‘Why, I am the late husband of Signora Pascal–you know, that fellow
they found drowned in the Flume, a year or more ago. Thought I’d just
drop in for a visit over the holidays–on leave from the other world,
with permission, of course, from Higher Up. I’ll be going back soon,
“Do you suppose the old woman would drop dead on seeing me walk in,
like that? She drop dead? I should smile! I’d be the dead one–give
her two days!”
No, the one real blessing, the one thing in my adventure that I could
really be thankful for, was, I had to admit, my escape from my wife,
from my mother-in-law, from my debts, from the humiliating afflictions
of my former life. These, indeed, I had shaken off for good. Well
then, what more could I ask for? And just consider: I had a whole,
whole life before me! For the moment, to be sure–well, but there were
plenty of people as lonely as I was!…
“Yes, but such people”–you see it was cloudy weather, and my spirits
were low–“such people either are travelers abroad and have homes to
go back to; or, if they haven’t, they can have if they choose
(meantime going to see their friends). Whereas I–I will always be
like this, a stranger wherever I am–that’s the difference. A
stranger, a visitor forever in this life, Adriano Meis will be!”
Then I would get angry at myself and storm:
“Why this whimpering? Come, not so much fussing over little things.
You have friends–or at least, you can have!”
In the trattoria where I was taking my meals in those days, a man
who sat at a table near by had shown himself disposed to make my
acquaintance. He must have been something over forty–dark hair, what
there was of it, gold eyeglasses that didn’t like to stay put, perhaps
because their chain (gold also) was so heavy. An amusing little chap,
really! Just imagine: when he stood up and put on his hat, he looked
like some boy dressed up as an old man. The trouble was with his legs,
so short that when he sat down they didn’t reach the floor. He never,
you might say, rose from a chair–it was a case rather of slipping off
it. He tried to mitigate this drawback by wearing high heels. Well,
what of that? They did make a good deal of noise, those heels; but
they gave a certain snap to his way of walking, quick little steps
that made me think of a partridge running.
A solid person, besides, of some ability! A little testy, perhaps, and
better as a talker than as a listener; but with original views on
things, always his own point of view…. And he had a decoration.
He handed me his card one day: “Cavaliere Tito Lenzi.”
I must say that this episode of the visiting card gave me quite a
shock; for I imagined I must have cut a poor figure in not being able
to return the courtesy. I had not as yet had any cards made–a certain
self-consciousness I suppose, about putting my new name into print
deliberately. All nonsense, anyhow, such trifles! Why a visiting-card,
pray? Say your name right out, and have done with it!
And so I did; but, as for telling the truth, my real name… well, you
What a good talker Cavaliere Tito Lenzi was! He even knew Latin and he
could quote Cicero like anything.
“One’s happiness comes from within? That’s not the whole story, my
dear sir. Your own inner self is not sufficient as a guide. It might
be if our spirit were a private castle and not, so to speak, a public
square–if, that is, we could think of our Self as something quite
apart from everything else, and if that Self were not, by its very
nature, visible, perceptible to everybody. In the mind, as I think,
there is, to put it differently, an essential relation—essential,
notice–between me who do the thinking and the other beings whom I
apprehend. Well then, I cannot be sufficient unto myself–do you
follow me? So long as the feelings, the inclinations, the tastes of
these people whom I have thus made a part of myself and you a part of
yourself do not affect me and you, neither you nor I can be contented,
happy, easy in our own minds; and so true is this that we work as hard
as we can so that our own feelings, thoughts, interests, inclinations,
may find some response in other people. And if we fail in this
because–well, how shall we say?–because the atmosphere of the moment
is not right for bringing the seed to fruition, the seed, my dear sir,
of your ideas that you have planted in the minds of others, you cannot
say that you are satisfied with your own inner life. How can you be?
What’s it really amount to? Well yes, you can live all alone in the
world–rot away in the sterile darkness around youi But is that
enough? Listen, my dear sir, I hate fine phrases. To my mind they are
so much pap to feed people unable to think for themselves. And here is
one of them: ‘I am content if I am true unto myself!’ Cicero said
something like that: ‘Mea mihi conscientia pluris est quam hominum sermo. But Cicero–let us be quite frank–Cicero was a great one for
big words with little meaning. The Lord deliver us from such! Worse
than a beginner on the violin…!”
I could have hugged this delightful little old man, who could talk so
charmingly; except that he did not always confine himself to the acute
and often witty disquisitions of which I have given you a sample. He
began to be more personal in his remarks; and just as I was thinking
that our friendship was well and easily under way, I had occasion to
feel some embarras-ment and an obligation to hold off at a safe
distance. So long as he did the talking and the conversation dealt
with general subjects, everything went smoothly; but finally Cavaliere
Lenzi wanted to hear from me.
“You are not from Milan, I gather.”
“Just passing through?”
“Interesting town, Milan!”
I must have sounded like a trained parrot. And the more he pressed me
with his questions, the farther afield my answers took us. Before long
I had landed in America. But the moment the Cavaliere learned that I
was born in Argentina, he leapt from his chair and came over to shake
“Ah, Argentina! My heartiest congratulations, my dear sir! I envy you!
America! America!… I have been there myself.”
“Time for me to be getting out of here,” I reflected uneasily. And
“You have been there? Perhaps I ought to congratulate you, rather;
because, though I was born in Argentina, I can hardly say I was ever
there. I was a few weeks old when they brought me away–so that my
feet, you may say, never trod American soil!”
“What a pity,” exclaimed Cavaliere Lenzi sympathetically. “But I
suppose you have relatives in those parts still?”
“None that I know of!”
“Oh, I see, your family came back to Italy for good. Where did you
I shrugged my shoulders:
“Why–we lived in various places–a short time here, a short time
there, moving about a good deal. I have nobody left, at present. I see
a good deal of the world!”
“How delightful! Lucky man, I must say. You just travel around? And
nobody to look out for!”
“How delightful! Lucky man! I envy you!”
“I suppose you have a family?” I decided to ask, to veer the
conversation back upon him.
“Unfortunately, no!” he sighed, knitting his brow. “I’m quite alone,
as I have always been.”
“Your case then, is the same as mine!”
“And I can’t say that I like it, my dear sir,” he exclaimed. “I find
life very dull. For me, all this loneliness … well, in short, I’m
tired of it. Oh, I have crowds of friends, of course; but, believe me,
when you get to a certain age, you don’t like to go home, every day,
to a house where you know you will find no one waiting for you. Well,
after all–there are people who understand the game and there are
people who don’t, iny dear sir; and those who do come out worse, in
the end, than the others. Saps your energy, your initiative, you see.
It’s this way: when you’re really wise, you say: ‘I mustn’t do this,’
or ‘I mustn’t do that–otherwise … I’ll be putting my foot in it.’
Very well, you discover, sooner or later, that life itself means
putting one foot in after another; and the man who never made a fool
of himself is the man who never really lived; and there you are!”
“But you,” I encouraged comfortingly, “you have time still.”
“To make a mistake? Huh, my dear sir, as though I hadn’t made many of
them!” And he smiled mischievously. “You see, I’ve travelled,
travelled a great deal, as you have, and as for adventures–well, lots
of them and some most amusing. Listen, for example! At Vienna, one
And I was dumbfounded! Love affairs, that little old man? Three, four,
five, Austria, France, Russia, even. Russia? And such affairs–one
more spicy than the other, as he retailed them to me. It was
sufficient to look at his absurd, his utterly insignificant person to
know that he was lying; and at first I was mortified, ashamed, for
him: surely he could not realize the effect that all his boastings
really had on those who heard them. But then I got angry: here was
this little fellow lying to me with the greatest zest and ease, and
quite gratuitously, without needing to do so in the least; while I,
who could not dispense with falsehood, who was, in fact, a living lie,
felt my soul tortured every time I had to deceive someone.
But later I thought it over: if this agreeable little fellow took such
pleasure in feeding me all this talk about imaginary love affairs, it
was precisely because there was no reason for him to lie: he had
almost a right to amuse himself in that way if he chose. Whereas with
me it was a matter of constraint, an irksome, humiliating, debasing
obligation. And what conclusion must I draw from the situation? Only
one, alas: that I would be condemned to falsehood eternally; that,
therefore, I could never have a friend, a true friend; for friendship
presupposes confidence; and how could I ever entrust to anyone the
secret of this second life of mine; a nameless life without a past, a
fungus sprouting from the presumptive suicide of the late Mattia
Pascal? No, the best I could hope for would be casual, superficial
relationships with my fellow humans, short exchanges of indifferent
words on subjects that did not matter.
Well, again what of it? Little inconveniences incident to good
fortune! Should I lose heart on account of them? By no means! I should
go on living, as I had lived, by and for myself! Not a fascinating
prospect, altogether, to be sure! My own company, good as it was,
would still improve from a little variety!
Sometimes, passing my hands over my face and finding it beardless, or
running them through my hair and finding it so long, or adjusting
those strange blue glasses to my little nose, I would experience a
curious bewilderment, as though it were not myself whom I was
touching, as though I were no longer the man I always had been, pacing
issues squarely, the truth was that all this new makeup was for other
people, not for myself. Well then, why wear the mask in my own
presence? And if all I had invented and imagined in connection with
Adriano Meis was not for the benefit of other people, for whose
benefit was it? For mine? But I could take it seriously, if at all,
only providing others should take it seriously. Accordingly, if this
Adriano Meis lacked the courage to lie, avoided people because he
lacked that courage, went off by himself into hiding in his hotel
(when, during those cloudy wintry days, he could no longer bear to see
himself so much alone, on the streets of Milan) just to pass the time
in company with the late Mattia Pascal–it was easy to see that things
would go worse and worse with me, that a gloomy outlook lay ahead,
that my great good fortune–well….
But I suppose the situation was really this: I was so absolutely free
that it was difficult for me to bring myself to any particular kind of
life. I would be on the point of making a decision, only to feel
myself embarrassed, hampered, blocked by the many obstacles and
uncertainties I would seem to perceive before me. So out I would go
again upon the streets, watching everything, observing everything,
pondering deeply on the least details; then, when I was tired, I would
go into a cafe, look over the newspapers, and sit studying the people
who went in and out–going out myself, in the end. Surely life, taken
in this way, from the point of view, that is, of a spectator wholly
disinterested in it, was something meaningless, purposeless, without
rhyme or reason. I felt lost in that swirling throng of human beings.
The noise and the ferment of the city deafened me, drove me to
“Why, oh why,” I would ask myself frantically, “why do men strive to
make the mechanism of life so more and more complicated? Why all these
banging, crashing machines? What will become of people when machines
do everything for them? Will they then see that this so-called
progress has nothing to do with happiness? From all these inventions
with which science sincerely believes it is enriching humanity (really
making us poorer because they cost so much) what satisfaction do we
really get–even if we do admire them?”
In a street-car, the day before, I had met one of those individuals
who cannot help telling their neighbors everything that comes into
their heads; and he said to me:
“What a wonderful thing, these electric cars; for two cents I can go
from one end of Milan to the other, and almost in as many minutes.”
All the poor man could see was the long ride he got for his two
cents–oblivious to the fact that it was more than he could do to earn
a living in that world of noise and uproar, for all its electric cars,
electric lights, and electric everything.
And yet science seems to make life easier and more convenient. Granted
that it really does, I can still ask: “What worse service can you do a
human being than reduce a life that is stupid and not worth while to
the perfection of mechanical ease?”
And I would be back in my hotel again.
In the window casing in one of the corridors a birdcage was hanging
with a canary in it. Since I could not talk with people and had
nothing else to do, I began a conversation with the bird. He
brightened up when I imitated a few notes of his, and seemed really to
understand that someone was talking to him–catching who knows what
references to nests, and green leaves and freedom, in the sounds I
made with my lips. He would hop about in the cage, turn around, stand
on one leg, look at me crosswise, lower and raise his head, finally
chirp an answer, or a question, and then listen again. Poor little
bird! He understood me, though I did not know what I was saying to
Well, isn’t that what happens to men, more or less? Don’t we imagine
that Nature talks to us? Don’t we think we catch some meaning in her
mysterious whispering–an answer, which we interpret in accord with
our yearnings to the many earnest questions we put to her? And
Nature, meantime, in her infinite grandeur, has not the remotest
consciousness even that we exist.
Which illustrates the consequences the most idle diversion may have
for a man condemned to his own society exclusively. I felt like boxing
my own ears: was I so far gone as to be turning really into a
philosopher? No, no, there was no logic in the kind of life I was
trying to lead; and I could not stand it much longer! I would have to
overcome my reticences, make a decision, whatever the cost! My
problem, after all was to live, to live, to live!
A FONT AND AN ASH-TRAY
A few days later I was in Rome, to find a permanent abode there.
Why Rome and not some other city? There was a reason, as I see now;
but I must not go into it. The discussion would break up my story with
reflections which, I believe, would be quite irrelevant just here. At
the moment I selected Rome, because I liked it better than any other
place of my acquaintance; and because, with all the visitors who are
constantly coming and going there, it seemed the environment most
likely to harbor a stranger like me without asking too many questions.
To find a suitable room on a quiet street with a reliable family was
not so simple a matter. I finally chose one on the Via Ripetta, with
a view over the river. The first impression I had of the people who
were to house me was not, I must confess, at all favorable; so little
so, in fact, that on returning to my hotel, I debated for some time as
to whether it would not be advisable to hunt farther still.
Over the door, on the fifth floor, were two name-plates: Paleari, to
the left, Papiano, to the right. Under the latter was a visiting
card fastened to the wall with two thumb-tacks: Silvia Caporale.
“When I knocked, an old man of at least sixty (Paleari? Papiano?) came
to the door. He had, literally, nothing on but his underdrawers and a
pair of worn-out slippers; so that I could not fail to observe the
ruddy smoothness of the skin on his naked torso. His hands were
covered with soap suds, of which also there was a veritable turban on
“Oh, excuse me,” he apologized; “I thought it was the servant…. Beg
your pardon… hardly presentable, as you see…. Adriana! Terenzio!
Well, hurry, won’t you? A gentleman here! Just a moment, if you don’t
mind, sir. Won’t you come in?… What can we do for you?”
“You were advertising a furnished room, if I am not mistaken…”
“Why yes, my daughter will be here in just a moment…. Adriana,
Adriana! The room!”
A young lady, blushing, confused, embarrassed, came hurrying in, a
short frail little thing, with light hair, pale cheeks and two soft
blue eyes, filled with the same sadness which her whole face
suggested. “Adriana!” I commented mentally. “My name! What a
“And where is Terenzio?” asked the old man of the shampoo.
“Why, you know very well, papa! He went to Naples yesterday! But,
papa, go into the other room, please! If you could see yourself!…
There was a note of tenderness in the girl’s scolding that showed the
gentleness of her disposition despite her mortification at the moment.
“Oh yes, I remember, I remember,” said the old man; and he started
away, dragging his mules along after him noisily, and resuming the
massage of his bald head and now his gray beard also before he reached
I could not repress a smile, but I softened it in order not to
increase the confusion of the little young lady, who, for her part,
looked the other way, to conceal her chagrin. I had taken her for a
mere girl at first-but now on closer inspection I observed that she
was a grown woman–why else, in fact, would she be wearing that absurd
wrapper far too large for her tiny form? She was in half mourning,
also, as I noticed.
Speaking in a very low voice and continuing to withhold her eyes from
me (who knows the impression I must have given her?), she led me along
a dark hallway to the room that was for rent. As the door swung open,
my lungs expanded to the flood of light and air that came streaming in
through two large windows. We were on the river side of the building.
In the distance, lay Monte Mario, Ponte Margherita, all the modern
Prati quarter as far as the Castel Sant’ Angelo. Directly below us,
the old Ripetta bridge and the new one in process of construction
alongside it. Over here to the left, the Ponte Umberto and the old
houses of Tordinona following the broad bend of the Tiber; and beyond,
the green summit of the Janiculum, with the great fountain of San
Pietro in Montorio and the equestrian statue of Garibaldi.
I could not resist these exterior attractions, and engaged the room at
once. For that matter it was pleasingly furnished too, with neat
hangings in blue and white.
“This little balcony next door belongs to us too,” the girl in the big
wrapper obligingly added; “at least for the time being. They are going
to tear it down some day, they say, because it infringes.”
“It does what?”
“It infringes! I mean it overhangs the city’s right of way. But it
will be a long time before they get the River Drive along this far!”
I smiled at this very serious talk from such a tiny girl in such a big
dress, and said:
She was embarrassed at my mirth and at my inane remark, lowered her
eyes and pressed her teeth to her lower lip. To relieve her, I said in
a very businesslike way:
“No children in the house, I suppose?”
She shook her head without speaking, perhaps detecting in my question
an ironical note I had not intended. Again I hastened to make amends:
“You let no other rooms than this?”
“This is our best one,” she answered still looking at the floor; “I am
sure that if you don’t like this…”
“No, no, I wanted to know whether…”
“Yes, we do rent another,” she interrupted, raising her eyes with a
forced indifference, “on the other side of the house, facing the
street. A young lady has been taking it for two years past…. She
gives piano lessons … but not at home.”
And her features hinted at a smile but a very faint and sad one.
“There are three of us: father, myself and my brother-in-law…”
“No, Paleari is my father’s name. My brother-in-law is Terenzio
Papiano; but he is soon going away with his brother, who, for the
moment, is staying with us too. My sister died… six months ago.”
To change the subject I asked her what rent I should have to pay.
There was no difficulty on that point.
“The first week in advance?” I asked.
“You decide that; or rather, if you would leare your name…”
With a nervous smile, I began rummaging through my coat pockets:
“I’m sorry… I don’t seem to have a single card with me… but-I
heard your father call you Adri-ana. … My name is Adriano, like
yours. Perhaps you don’t feel nattered…?”
“Why shouldn’t I?” she asked, noticing my strange confusion and
laughing this time like a real child.
I laughed too and added:
“Well then, if you don’t object, you may call me Adriano Meis…
that’s my name. May I move in this afternoon, or would you like
“Just as you wish,” said she; but I went away with the feeling that
she would have been better satisfied if I never came back at all. I
had committed the unpardonable breach of not holding her big grown-up
wrapper in sufficient awe.
Before many days, however, it was perfectly apparent to me that the
ugly costume was a matter of necessity with her, though she probably
would have liked to dress somewhat better. The whole weight of the
household rested on her shoulders, and things would have gone badly
had it not been for her.
The old man, Anselmo Paleari, who had come to the door with a turban
of soap-suds on the outside of his head, had brains of about the same
consistency on the inside. The day I entered the house to live, he
came to my room, not so much, as he said, to apologize for his
unconventional attire at the time of my first call, as for the
pleasure of making the acquaintance of a man who must certainly be
either a scholar or an artist.
“Am I wrong!”
“You are! Nothing of the artist about me; and very little of the
scholar…. I do read a book once in a while…”
“And I see you have good ones,” said he, examining the backs of the
volumes which I had set in line on my writing table. “Well, some day
I’ll show you mine, eh? For I have some good books too. However…”
He shrugged his shoulders and stood there in a sort of abstraction, a
blank expression on his face, evidently quite oblivious to everything,
forgetting where he was and with whom he was talking. He muttered
“however” a couple more times, drawing the corners of his mouth down
after each; then he turned on his heel and went away without another
At the moment I was moderately surprised, to say the least, at his
behaviour; but later on, when he invited me into his room and showed
me his books, as he had promised, I came to understand not only the
man’s distraction but many other things about him. I noticed titles
like this: “Death and the Hereafter”; “Man and His Bodies”; “The Seven
Principles of Life”; “Karma”; “The Astral Plane”; “A Key to
For Mr. Anselmo Paleari was a convert to the theosophical school.
Office manager, formerly, in some department or other of the
government, he had been put on the retired list before his time; and
this had been his ruin, not only from the financial point of view but
because, now, with his whole day free, there was nothing to restrain
his weakness for research in various branches of the occult. Half his
pension, at least, must have gone into those books, of which he owned
a small-sized library. Nor could theosophy have satisfied him
entirely: traces of the blight of scepticism were also much in
evidence on his book-shelves: publications and reviews on philosophy,
ancient and modern; treatises on science; and a whole collection on
psychic research, in which he was now making experiments.
In Signorina Silvia Caporale, the piano teacher, old Mr. Paleari had
discovered unusual psychic aptitudes–not very well developed, to be
sure, but promising much with time and proper exercise. In fact, he
saw in this lady a future rival of the most celebrated mediums.
For my part, I must testify that never in all my life have I seen (in
a coarse, ugly face, more like a mask of Mardi Gras than a human
countenance) a pair of such sorrowful eyes as those of Miss Silvia
Caporale. Staring, bulging, intensely black, they gave the impression
of being fixed in her head with lead weights to open and close them,
like a doll’s. The lady was well over forty; and in addition to the
attractions of maturity, she had a rather handsome mustache under a
nose that was a small bright red ball.
I learned eventually that the poor woman drank, drank heavily, to
forget her age, her repulsiveness, and a hopeless love. More than one
evening she would come home, her hat on askew, her nose red as a
carrot, her eyes half-closed and more sorrowful than ever–in a
deplorable state, in short. She would throw herself on her bed and
then gradually discharge all the wine she had absorbed in the form of
torrential tears. Whereupon the little lady of the wrapper would get
up out of bed, go into the other room, and take care of the woman for
a good part of the night. Sorry for the poor thing, you see, all alone
like that in the world, with the bitterness and jealousy of unrequited
love, likely to commit suicide at any time–as she had tried to do
twice already. Diplomatically the little lady would extract from her
invalid a promise to be good–never, never to do such a thing again;
and, sure enough, you would see the piano-teacher appear next day in
her best finery, tripping gaily, playfully about, with the winsome
ways of a capricious debutante. Once in a while she would earn a day’s
pay by accompanying some nascent cafe star at a rehearsal–and the
result would be a new debauch that evening, and some new article of
finery the following morning. Never a penny for her rent, of course,
nor for the very modest board served her in the family.
However, she could not be sent away. For one thing, how could Mr.
Anselmo Paleari go on with his psychic researches without her? But
there was still another reason. Two years before, Miss Caporale’s
mother had died, leaving furniture which, on being sold, netted some
six thousand lire. Coming to live at the Paleari’s, the piano teacher
had entrusted this money to Terenzio Papiano for an investment which
he had represented to her as a sure thing. The six thousand lire had
not been heard from again.
When I got this story from Miss Caporale herself–she wept copiously
as she told it–I was able to find some excuse for Signor Anselmo,
whom I had secretly been accusing of improper guardianship in bringing
his daughter into contact with such a woman in selfish pursuit of his
own folly in occultism.
It is true that little Adrians was such an instinctively sound and
virtuous little miss that she was really in no danger. In fact she was
on her own guard, resenting her father’s mysterious practices, and all
his talk about the evocation of spirits, with the Caporale woman.
For Adriana was a devout little person, as I had reason to perceive
during my very first days in the house. Fastened to the wall over the
stand at the head of my bed was a small holy-water font of blue glass.
One night I lay smoking in bed trying to read myself to sleep with one
of old Paleari’s crazy volumes. Distractedly I knocked my ashes, and
finally put the stub of my cigarette, into the blue glass receptacle.
The next day the font had disappeared; and on my stand I found an
ash-tray. I thought I would ask Adriana if she was the one who had
made the change. Flushing slightly she replied:
“Yes; I’m sorry, but I thought you needed the ashtray rather!”
“Was there any holy water in the font?”
“There was. The church of San Rocco is just across the street!”
And she went away.
That diminutive mamma must have taken me for a holy man if she brought
extra water for me when she went to get her own at the Church of San
Eocco. I imagine she did not take that trouble for her father. And as
for Miss Silvia Caporale, if she had a font at all, it would have been
for “holy wine,”–vin santo rather!
Suspended in a strange void, as I felt myself to be, I would fall into
long meditations on the slightest provocation. And this matter of the
holy water font reminded me that since my early boyhood, I had been
quite neglecting religious practices. Yes, I had not been to Church
since the last time Pinzone had taken me there with Berto under orders
from mamma. I never thought of asking myself what my beliefs really
were; and the late Mattia Pascal had come to a violent death without
Suddenly now I found myself in a very surprising situation. As far as
all my former acquaintances could know, I had rid myself–for good or
for evil, as the case might be–of the most troublesome and disturbing
worry that a living man can have: the fear of death. Who knows how
many people back in Miragno might be saying:
“Lucky fellow, after all…. He has solved the one great problem!”
Whereas I had not solved anything at all! Here were these books of
Anselmo Paleari, and what did they have to say? They said that the
dead, the really dead that is, found themselves in much the same fix
that I was in–in the “shells,” namely, of the Kamaloka, in which a
certain Dr. Leadbeater, author of the “Astral Plane” (the astral plane
is the first sphere of the invisible world) places suicides
especially, representing them as moved by all the desires and impulses
that living people have, without being ever able to satisfy them
(stripped as they are of their carnal bodies, which, meantime, they do
not know they have lost).
“If that’s so,” I thought, “I may very well have been drowned in the
Flume at ‘The Coops.’ This notion I have of being alive may be just an
illusion.” Certain kinds of insanity are, as is well known,
contagious. Paleari’s brand, though I rebelled against it for some
time, at last attacked me. Not that I believed I was really dead–that
would not have been so bad; for the worst thing about death is dying;
after that, I doubt whether people are so anxious to come back to
life. But the point is that all at once I realized that I should have
to die again. And that was a very painful discovery. After my suicide
back there in the mill-flume, I had naturally taken it for granted
that I had only life in front of me. And here was this Paleari fellow
reminding me of death every other minute!
He could talk of nothing else, curses on him! But he talked of it with
so much enthusiasm, and every now and then he dropped such curious
remarks, with such unusual figures of speech, that I was always
changing my mind about going somewhere else to live in order to be
free of him. Though Paleari’s beliefs seemed to me a bit childish,
they were optimistic, on the whole; and, once I had awakened to the
fact that I should have to die in earnest some day, it was not
unpleasant to hear the thing spoken of in just his way.
“Is it reasonable?” he asked me one afternoon after reading me a
passage from a book by Finot–it was a sentimental and very gruesome
treatise on death with speculations such as a gravedigger addicted to
morphine might make, picturing how the worms grow from the
decomposition of human bodies. “Is it reasonable? Matter, I grant
you, matter! Let us admit that it’s all matter! But there are forms
and forms of matter, kinds and kinds of matter, ways and ways of its
manifesting itself. Here it is a stone; but there it is imponderable,
impalpable ether, if you please. Take this body of mine: finger-nails,
teeth, hair–and notice–this delicate, delicate tissue of my eye. All
matter! Well–who can deny it?–the substance which we call soul may
very well be matter–but not, for heaven’s sake, matter like my finger
nails, or my teeth, or my hair; but matter, rather, like
ether–understand! And you people, you admit that there is ether, but
not that there is soul! I ask you: is it reasonable? Matter–all well
and good! Follow my argument now and see where I come out–granting
everything to the other side. Here is Nature! Now we think of man as
the heir of a limitless series of generations–do we not?—as the
product of a slow natural creation. Oh, I know: you, my dear Mr. Meis
you think man’s a brute beast anyhow, and a cruel, stupid beast, one
of the least respectable of all the animals. Well–I grant you even
that, if you wish. Let us say that man represents a very low grade
indeed in the scale of living beings. Here you have a worm; and here a
man. How many grades shall we put between them? Eight? Seven? Make it
as few as five! But, bless my soul, it took Nature thousands and
thousands and thousands of centuries to make a man five times better
than a worm. It required some evolution, eh? for matter to change
from this beast that crawls on its belly to this beast that steals and
kills and lies, and cheats, but that also writes a Divine Comedy,
Signer Meis, a Divine Comedy, and is capable of the sacrifices your
mother made for you and my mother made for me! And then–zip, it’s all
over, eh? Nothing again, eh? Zero, eh? Is it reasonable? Oh, yes, my
nose, my foot, my leg–they become worm again. But not my soul, my
dear sir! Not my soul! Matter, I grant you, but not matter like my
nose, or my feet, or my leg, Mr. Meis. Is it reasonable?”
“Excuse me, Mr. Paleari,” I interrupted. “Here you have a great man–a
genius–walking along the street. He slips on a banana peel, bumps
the back of his head–and suddenly he loses his mind! Now, where’s his
Signer Anselmo stopped and looked at me, as though someone had just
thrown a mill-stone down in front of him on the floor.
“Where’s his soul?”
“Yes. Take you or me…. Well, take me, though I’m not a great man.
I’ve got–oh, let’s be modest–. some intelligence. However, I go
walking along the street, I fall, I fracture my skull, I become a
half-wit. Where’s my soul?”
Paleari joined his two hands, with a smile of benign compassion. Then
“But why on earth should you fall and break your head, my dear Mr.
“Just for an hypothesis.”
“Not at all! Not at all! You go walking right along about your
business! Why bother to fall I There are plenty of old people who lose
their minds in course of nature without needing to fall and break
their heads. You are trying to prove by that argument, that since the
soul seems to weaken with the infirmity of the body, it must die when
the body dies? But excuse me, just think of the matter the other way
round. Take cases of very bad bodies that have nevertheless held
brilliant souls: Giacomo Leopardi, for instance; or old men, like His
Holiness, Pope Leo XIII. What do you say to that? Now, imagine a piano
and a person playing on it. At a certain point, the instrument gets
out of tune, then one wire breaks; then two; then three jnore. With
his piano in that condition the man is going to play badly, isn’t he,
great artist though he be? Now finally the piano stops working
altogether. Do you mean that the player has ceased to exist?”
“I see: our brain is the piano; and the pianist our soul?”
“Exactly, Mr. Meis, though the illustration is old and trite. If the
brain goes wrong, the soul expresses itself badly: imbecility,
madness, what not. Just as when the pianist, perhaps accidentally,
perhaps carelessly, perhaps deliberately, spoils the piano, he has to
pay. And down to the last cent, too, he has to pay! There is exact
compensation for everything. But that’s another question. Excuse me,
does it mean nothing to you that all humanity, as far back as history
goes, has always had faith in another life? It’s a fact, Mr. Meis, a
“May be the instinct for self-preservation…”
“No sir, no sir! What do I care about this bag of skin and bones I
have to carry around with me? It’s a jolly nuisance. I put up with it,
because I know I have to. But now if you come and demonstrate to me,
that after I’ve lugged it around for five, six, ten years more,
there’s nothing to it anyhow, that it’s all over then and there,
why–I just get rid of it right now, this very minute. So where is
your instinct for self-preservation? I keep going because I feel that
it can’t all end that way. But, you may say, the individual man is one
thing, and the race another; that the individual perishes while the
race continues its evolution. Pine reasoning that, I must say. Just
consider: as though humanity were not I, and I humanity; as though we
were not, all of us together, one whole! And doesn’t every one of us
feel the same way–that it would be the most absurd, the most
atrocious thing conceivable if there were nothing to us but this
miserable breath of air which we call earthly life? Fifty, sixty years
of hardship, of toil, of suffering–all for what? For nothing? For
humanity! But supposing humanity itself comes to an end some day!
Just think of it! In that case all this life of ours, all this
progress, all this evolution–for nothing? And they say, meantime,
that there can be no such thing as “nothing,” non-being pure and
simple! Life is merely the convalescence of a sick planet–eh?–as
you said the other day. Very well, call it that; but we must see what
we mean by it. The trouble with science, Mr. Meis, is that it bothers
too much about life, to the exclusion of other things…”
“Naturally,” I sighed, with a smile, “because we’ve got to live…”
“But we’ve also got to die,” Paleari rejoined.
“I understand; but why worry so much about it all the time?”
“Why? Why, because we can’t understand life, unless we know something
about death. The governing criteria for all our actions, the guiding
line that will lead us from the labyrinth, the light of our eyes in
short, Mr. Meis, must come to us from over there, from beyond the
tomb, from beyond death!”
“Light from so much darkness?”
“Darkness? It may be dark to you; but light a little lamp there, the
lamp of faith, burning with the pure oil of the soul! Without such a
lamp we grope about like so many blind men on this earth–for all of
the electric lights we may have invented. Incandescent bulbs work all
right for this life, Mr. Meis, but we need something that will give us
a glimmer, at least, for death. By the way, Mr. Meis, I’m doing my bit
with a little red lantern which I light on certain evenings–we all
ought to contribute what we can to the common effort for knowledge.
Just now, my son-in-law, Mr. Terenzio Papiano, is away at Naples. But
he’ll be back in a few weeks; and I will invite you to one of our
seances. And who knows–perhaps that poor insignificant red lantern of
mine–well, anyhow–you wait and see…”
I need hardly say that Mr. Anselmo Paleari did not make very agreeable
company; but, as I thought the matter over, could I, without risk,
that is to say without feeling the constant obligation to deceive,
hope for some society more in touch with the world? And my mind went
back to Cavaliere Tito Lenzi. Now this old man, Anselmo Paleari, took
no interest in me whatever. He was satisfied so long as I would listen
while he talked. Almost every morning, after he had taken a long and
careful bath, he would go with me for a stroll, now up the Janiculum,
now to the Aventine, now to Monte Mario and sometimes as far as the
Ponte Nomentano. And all the while we would be talking about death.
“And this,” I would mutter, “is what I have gained by not really dying
in the first place!”
Occasionally I would try to start a conversation on some other
subject, but Paleari seemed blind to all the life about him. He would
walk along with his hat in his hand, every now and then raising it as
though in greeting to some passing ghost. If I called his attention to
anything he would comment:
Once he turned on me suddenly with a personal question:
“Why are you living here in Rome?”
I shrugged my shoulders and answered:
“I rather like the place.”
“And yet it is a gloomy city,” he commented, shaking his head. “Many
people express surprise that nothing ever seems to succeed here, that
no modern idea ever seems able to take root in the soil. That’s
because they don’t understand that Rome is a dead city.”
“Even Rome is dead?” I exclaimed in mock consternation.
“She has been for a long time, Mr. Meis. And, believe me, it’s no use
trying to bring her back to life. Sleeping in the dream of her
glorious past, she will have nothing to do with this miserable petty
life that is swarming around her. When a city has had a life such as
Rome has had, a life with so many definitely individual features, it
cannot become a modern city, a city, that is, like any other city.
Rome lies over there, with her great heart broken to fragments on the
spurs of the Capitol. New buildings go up–but do they belong to Rome?
Look, Mr. Meis. My daughter, Adriana, told me about the holy water
font that was in your room; and she took it out, remember? Well, the
other day she dropped it and it broke on the floor. Only the basin
itself was left. That is now on the writing desk in my room; I am
using it deliberately, as you did, the first time I believe, by
inadvertence. Well, that’s the way it is with Rome, Mr. Meis. The
Popes, in their fashion, made of her a vessel for holy water. We
Italians have turned her into an ash tray. We have flocked here from
all over Italy to knock the ash off the ends of our cigars. What but
cigar ash is the frivolity of this cheap, this worthless life we are
leading and the bitter poisonous pleasure it affords us?”
NIGHT… AND THE RIVER
The more intimate my relations with the family became through the
respect Paleari had for my judgment and the personal good will he was
always evincing toward me, the more uneasy I felt in my own mind, my
secret misgivings often amounting to acute remorse that I should be
making my way into that home under an assumed name, under an actual
disguise, with a wholly fictitious personality (if indeed I were a
person at all). I was ever resolving to hold myself as much aloof as
possible, trying continually to remember that I could have no share in
other people’s lives, that I must shun intimate contacts and do the
best I could with my own solitary existence apart.
“I am free,” I would keep repeating to myself. “I am free!” But I was
already beginning to understand the meaning and the limits of such
At present, for instance, it meant my unquestioned right to sit of an
evening at the window of my room, looking out upon the river, as it
flowed black and silent between its new walls of granite, down under
the bridges which spangled the water with wriggling serpents of flame
from their many lights. And my fancy would run back along the stream
to its distant sources in the hills, whence it came down across fields
and meadows, fields and meadows, to reach the city in front of me,
passing on into fields and meadows again till at last it reached the
dark palpitating sea. What did it do when it got there? Pua-a-h! A
yawn! This freedom! This freedom!
But yet, would I be better off anywhere else?
On the balcony near by I would see, some evenings, the little
house-mother in her big dress, busily watering her potted plants.
“There is living for you,” I would say to myself, watching the child
in her affectionate attentions to the flowers she loved, and hoping
that sooner, or later she would lift her eyes toward my window.
She never did. She knew that I was there, but whenever she was alone,
she pretended not to notice. Why? Shyness, perhaps? Or was she
nursing a secret grudge against me because I so obstinately refused to
see in her anything more than the child she was?
“Ah, now she is setting the watering pot on the floor. Her work is
done! She is standing there, her arms resting on the parapet of the
balcony, looking out over the river as I am doing–perhaps to show me
that she is quite indifferent as to whether I exist or not; because–I
should say so!–because a woman with her responsibilities has very
serious thoughts of her own to ponder, yes indeed! Hence that
meditative pose! Hence a need for solitude for her as well!”
And I smiled at my own idea of her! But afterwards, as I saw her
vanish suddenly from the balcony, I wondered: might my guess not be
wrong–the fruit of the instinctive vexation we feel at seeing
ourselves taken as a matter of course?
“And yet, why not? Why should she notice me? Why should she speak to
me unless she has to? What do I stand for in this house, unless it be
the misfortune that has overtaken her, her father’s incompetence and
folly, her humiliation, personified? When her father still had his
position in the service, she did not need to let her rooms and have
outsiders about the house–especially outsiders like me–an outsider
with a cockeye, and blue glasses!”
The noise of a wagon pounding across the wooden bridge near by would
rouse me from iny reverie. I would rise from my seat at the window,
puffing an exclamation of nausea through my closed lips. Here was my
bed; and here my books! Which? With a shrug of the shoulders, I would
catch up my hat, jam it down on my head, and go out of the house,
hoping to find in the streets some diversion from my galling tedium.
The walk I chose would depend upon the inspiration of the moment: now
I would seek the most crowded thoroughfares, then again some deserted
solitary quarter. One night, I remember, I went to the square of
Saint Peter’s; and I remember also the weird impression of unreality I
got from that aeon-old world enfolded by the two arms of the
Portico–a world illumined by a strange dream light, engulfed in a
majestic silence only emphasized by the crash of water in the two
fountains. In one of these I dipped my hands. Yes, here was something
tangible: the cold, I could feel! All the rest was spectral,
insubstantial, deeply melancholy in a silent motionless solemnity!
Returning along the Borgo Nuovo I happened on a drunken man, whom my
sober thoughtful mood seemed to strike as something funny. He
approached me on tip-toe, squatted down so as to look up into my face,
touched me cautiously on the elbow and finally shouted: “Cheer up,
brother! Let’s see you crack a smile!” I looked at the man from head
to foot, hardly awake as yet to what had happened. And again he said,
but in a confidential whisper:
“Cheer up, brother! To hell with it all! Just forget it. Crack a
Then he moved along, supporting his tottering form against the wall.
There in that solitary place under the very shadow of the great
sanctum, the fortuitous appearance of that drunken man, giving me his
strangely intimate and strangely profound advice, seemed to daze me. I
stood looking after him till he disappeared in the dark: then, I burst
into a loud harsh bitter laugh:
“Cheer up! Yes, brother! But I can’t roll from tavern to tavern as you
are doing, looking for happiness, as you are doing, at the bottom of a
mug of wine! I should never find it there–nor anywhere else. I go to
the cafe, my dear sir, where I find respectable people–smoking and
talking politics! Cheer up, you say! But, my dear sir, people can be
happy only on one condition–I am quoting you a reactionary, who
frequents my respectable cafe: on the condition, namely that we be
governed by a good old-fashioned absolutist! You are only a poor
beggar, my dear sir, you know nothing about such things. But it’s the
fact nevertheless. What’s the trouble with people like me? Why are we
so glum? Democracy, my dear sir, democracy! Government by the
majority! When you have one boss, he knows that it’s his job to
satisfy many people; but when everybody has a say in running things,
everybody thinks of satisfying himself. And what do we get? Tyranny,
my dear sir, in its most stupid form: tyranny masked as liberty! Of
course you do! What do you think is the matter with me? Just what I
say: tyranny disguised as liberty! Pua-a-h! Let’s go home again!”
But that was to be a night of adventures.
I was going through the dimly lighted Tordinona district, when I heard
smothered cries coming from a dark alley off my street; and then there
was a rush of people engaged in a rough-and-tumble, four men, as it
proved, using heavy canes on a woman of the sidewalks.
Now I mention this little episode not to show what a brave man I can
be on occasion, but just to tell how frightened I was at some of its
consequences. “When I interfered they turned on me–four against one
and two with their knives out. I had a good stocky cane myself and I
swung it around, jumping about a good deal to avoid an attack from
behind. At last the metal knob of my cane reached one of my
antagonists full on the head. He staggered away, and finally took to
his heels. Since the woman had been screaming at the top of her lungs,
the other three thought it was time to be going too. I don’t remember
exactly how I got a deep cut in the middle of my forehead. My first
thought was to get the woman quieted down: but when she saw the blood
streaming over my face, she began to shout for help louder than ever,
trying also to wipe my wound with a silk handkerchief she had removed
from her neck:
“No, let me alone, for heaven’s sake!” I protested in disgust. “Get
away from here, at once… I’m all right! They’ll be arresting you!”
I hurried to a fountain on the bridge near by to wash the blood from
my eyes. But by this time, two policemen had come running up, and they
insisted on knowing what all the noise was about. The woman, who was a
Neapolitan and liked to dramatize in the manner of her people, began
to narrate the guaio, the “woe,” she had been through, addressing
the tenderest words of praise in my direction. The gendarmes insisted
on my going to the station with them to give a full account of my
rescue; and it was not an easy matter to dissuade them from this idea.
A pretty scrape that would have been for me! My name and address on
the police roster! And a write-up in the papers, the next day!
Adriano Meis, a hero! I, whose duty it was to keep out of sight, in
the dark, and not attract anyone’s attention!
Not even a hero, could I be, then–unless I wanted to pay for the
pleasure with my scalp….
On the other hand, since I was dead already, when you think of it…
why worry so much about that precious scalp?
“Are you a widower, Mr. Meis… if I do not seem impertinent?”
This question was leveled at me, point blank, one evening by Miss
Silvia Caporale, as I was sitting with her and Adriana on the balcony
where they had invited me to join them.
Caught off my guard, I was embarrassed momentarily for an answer:
“I, a widower? No! Why do you ask?”
“Why I notice that you are always rubbing the third finger of your
left hand round and round, this way, as though you were playing with a
wedding ring that isn’t there. He does, doesn’t he, Adriana!”
Now that will give you some idea of what women can do with their eyes,
or at least some women; for Adriana confessed that she had never
observed the habit in me.
“Well, it’s probably because your attention was never called to it,”
the piano teacher answered.
I thought it best to explain that though I was not myself aware of
such an idiosyncrasy, it might well be as Miss Caporale said:
“Years ago I did wear a ring on that finger for a long time; at last I
had to have it cut by a goldsmith because it got too tight as my
“Poor little ring,” said the forty-year-older, who was in a mood for
sentimentalizing that evening. “It didn’t want to come off? It hugged
you so tight? Must have had some beautiful memory to…”
“Silvia!” little Adriana interrupted, reprovingly.
“What’s the harm?” the Caporale woman rejoined. “I was going to say
that it must have been a question of a first love of yours…. Come,
Mr. Meis, tell us something about yourself…. Are you never really
going to open up?…”
“Well, you see,” said I, “I was thinking of the inference you just
drew from my habit of rubbing my ring finger–a quite arbitrary
inference, if I may say so, signorina. So far as I have observed
widowers do not discontinue their rings, as a rule–on the theory, I
suppose, that it was the wife rather than the ring that caused all the
trouble. Veteran soldiers are proud of the medals they earned in
combat, aren’t they? For the same reason widowers stick to their
“Oh yes,” my inquisitor insisted, “you’re cleverly changing the
“How can you say that? My intention rather was to go into it more
“More deeply, nonsense! I’m not interested in the deeps. I just had
the impression–and stopped there, at the surface!”
“The impression that I was a widower?”
“Yes. And what would you say, Adriana? Don’t you think Mr. Meis looks
Adriana glanced at me furtively, but she at once lowered her eyes, too
bashful long to sustain anybody’s gaze. With her usual faint smile–so
sweet and sorrowful it always seemed to me–she answered:
“How should I know what widowers look like? You’re so funny, Silvia!”
Some unpleasant thought, some unwelcome image, must have flitted
across her mind as she said that; for her face darkened and she turned
away to look down into the river beneath us. And the other woman
doubtless understood what it was: for she also turned and began
looking at the view. I was puzzled for a moment; but at last, as my
attention rested on Adriana’s black-bordered wrapper, I thought I
knew. Yes, a fourth person, an invisible one, had intruded on our
party. Terenzio Papiano, the man who had gone to Naples, was a
widower. I guessed from the exchange which I had just heard that he
probably did not suggest the mourner–an air which Miss Caporale found
it easier to detect in me.
I confess that this unhappy turn to the conversation did not at first
displease me. Tactlessly Miss Caporale had blundered into Adriana’s
bitterness over her dead sister’s troubles, and the little girl’s
suffering was the proper punishment for such an indiscretion. But
then. I considered: looking at the matter from the woman’s point of
view, might not this curiosity of hers, which to me seemed rank
impertinence, be a very natural and justifiable thing? The mystery
that hung about my person must surely impress people! And now since I
could not endure keeping to myself, since I could not resist the
temptation to seek the companionship of others, I must be resigned to
the necessity of answering the questions which possible friends had
every right to ask me as a step to finding out with whom they had to
deal. There would be, moreover, only one way to answer: by making up
as I went along, by telling lies outright. There was no middle ground.
So then the fault was not theirs but mine. Lying would, of course,
make the fault worse; but if I could not accept the situation, I
should go away, take up again my solitary and silent wanderings!
I could not fail to notice that Adriana herself, though she never
pressed me with a question even remotely indiscreet, was all ears
whenever the Caporale woman pushed her inquiries beyond, I must say,
the reasonable limits of natural and excusable curiosity.
One evening, for example, there on the balcony where we now quite
regularly met after I came home from dinner, she started to ask me
something, laughing meanwhile and wrestling playfully with Adriana;
for the little girl was shouting: “No, Silvia, don’t you dare! Don’t
you dare! I shall be cross!”
“Listen, Mr. Meis,” said Silvia; “Adriana wants to know why you don’t
wear at least a mustache…”
“Don’t you believe her, Mr. Meis, don’t you believe her! She was the
one who… I didn’t…”
And the little housemother was so much in earnest that she burst
suddenly into tears.
“There, there, there!” said Miss Caporale, trying to comfort her. “Oh,
don’t cry! I was only fooling! Besides, what’s the harm?”
“The harm is–I didn’t say any such thing. And it isn’t fair! Look,
Mr. Meis… we were talking of actors who are all… well, that way…
and then she said: ‘Yes, like Mr. Meis? Who knows why he doesn’t grow
at least a mustache?’ And I repeated after her: ‘Yes, who knows?'”
“Well,” answered Silvia, “when a person says ‘Who knows,’ it means
that that person wants to know…”
“But you said it first, not I,” said Adriana, boiling.
“May I interrupt?” I asked, with the idea of making peace.
“No, you may not!” snapped Adriana. “Good night, Mr. Meis!” And she
was away into the house.
But Silvia Caporale brought her back by main force:
“Don’t be silly, Adriana… I was only joking. What a little spitfire
you are! Now Mr. Meis is a dear nice man, and he doesn’t mind–do you,
Mr. Meis I You see? He’s now going to tell us why he doesn’t grow at
least a mustache!”
And Adriana laughed this time, though her eyes were still wet with
“Because,” I whispered hoarsely, “because… I belong to a secret
order of conspirators that prohibits hair on the face!”
“We don’t believe it,” whispered Silvia, in the same hoarse tragic
manner; “but we do know that you are a man of mystery. Explain
yourself, sir! What were you doing at the General Delivery window in
the post-office this afternoon?”
“I, at the Post-Office?”
“Yes sir! Do you deny it? About four o’clock! I was at San Silvestro
myself, and I saw you with my own eyes!”
“It must have been my double, signorina. I was not there!”
“Oh, of course, you weren’t! Of course you weren’t!” said Silvia
incredulously. “Secret correspondence, eh? Because, it’s true–isn’t
it, Adriana?–that this gentleman never gets a letter here! The
charwoman told me so, notice!”
Adriana moved uneasily on her chair. She did not like this kind of
“Don’t you mind her,” said she, sweeping me with a rapid, apologetic
and almost caressing glance. “Don’t you mind her!”
“No, I get no mail, either here, or at the Post Office!” I answered.
“That, alas, is the sorry truth! No one writes to me for the simple
reason that there is no ona to do so!”
“Not even a friend? Not even one friend in the whole wide world?”
“Not even one! Just I and my shadow, on the face of the earth! We are
good friends, I and my shadow! I take him with me everyhere I go; but
I never stopped long enough in one place to make any other lasting
“Lucky man,” exclaimed Silvia with a sigh. “It must be wonderful to
travel all one’s life. Well, tell us about your travels. There now!…
Since you refuse to talk about everything else…!”
Once the shoals of these first embarrassing questions passed, keeping
off here with the oar of the big lie, avoiding shipwreck there with
another, veering warily again with still a third, I brought the bark
of my fiction through the waters of danger and finally spread my sails
to the full breeze on the open sea of fancy.
Strange!–But after a year or more of enforced silence, I now indulged
in an orgy of talking. Every evening there on the balcony, I would
talk and talk and talk–of my rambling about in the world, of the
things I had seen, of the impressions I had received, of the incidents
that had happened to me. I was myself astonished at the wealth of
observation I had stored up in my mind during my travels, deep buried
there during my silence but now coming to vigorous eloquent life again
on my lips. And this wonder that I felt must have lent extraordinary
color and enthusiasm to my narratives. From the pleasure the two
ladies evidently took in the things I described, I came little by
little to experience a sort of mournful regret that I had not myself
been able to enjoy them more; and this undertone of nostalgic yearning
added another charm to my story.
After a few evenings, Miss Caporale’s attitude toward me, as well as
the expression on her face, changed radically. The heavy languor now
veiling her great sorrowful bulging eyes made them look more than ever
like doll’s eyes opening and closing with lead weights inside her
head; and this strident sentimentality strengthened the contrast
between them and her blank masklike face.
There was no doubt about it: Silvia Caporale was falling in love with
The naive surprise this discovery gave me was proof certain, to
myself, that I had not at all been talking for her, all that while,
but for the other, the little girl, who sat there by the hour
listening silently and attentively. Adriana, for that matter, seemed
to have understood so, too; for by a sort of tacit agreement we began
smiling to one another at the comic and quite unforeseen effects my
chats were having on the heart-strings of this susceptible old maid of
the piano lessons.
Yet this second discovery, I must hasten to caution, awakened in me
only thoughts of the most tender purity as regards my little
house-mother. How could such innocence, touched with its delicate
suffusion of sadness, inspire any others? What joy it gave me that
first proof of confidence, a proof as overt, yet as diffident, as her
childish bashfulness would allow! Now it would be a fleeting glance,
the flash across her features of a softer beauty; now it would be a
smile of mortified pity for the absurd fatuity of the older woman–or,
indeed, a reproof darted at me from her eyes, or suggested by a toss
of her head, when I, for our secret amusement, would go a little too
far in paying out string to the falcon of that poor woman’s hopes, a
falcon which now soared high and free in the heavens of beatitude or
now flapped and fluttered in distress at some sudden pull toward the
solid earth that I would give.
“You cannot be a man of much heart,” Miss Caporale remarked on one
occasion, “if it is true, as you say–not that I believe you–that you
have gone along immune through all your life!”
“Immune, signorina? Immune from what?” “You know very well from what!
I mean, without falling in love!”
“Oh never, signorina, never, never, never!” “Well, how about that ring
that grew so tight you had to have it filed off? Never, never, never,
never?” “Oh, it began to hurt, you see. I thought I told you! But
anyhow, it was a present from my grandfather!”
“What a whopper!”
“True as preaching! Why, I can even tell you when and where. Kather
amusing, too, at that! It was at Florence, and grandpa and I were
coming out of the Uffizi. You could never guess why I got the ring! It
was because I–I was twelve years old at the time, by the way–I had
mistaken a Perugino for a Raphael. Just so, signorina! I made the
mistake, and as a reward for making it, I got the ring–Grandpa bought
it at one of the booths on the Ponte Vecchio! As I later learned,
grandpa, for reasons best known to himself, had made up his mind that
that particular picture had been falsely attributed to Perugino and
really belonged to Raphael! Hence his delight at my blunder! Well now,
you understand, there’s some difference between the hand of a boy
twelve years old and this paddle I have at present. Notice how big it
is? You can’t just see a baby ring on such a paw, can you? But you say
I have no heart, signorina. That’s probably an exaggeration. I have
one; but I have also a little common sense. You see, I look at myself
in the mirror–through these glasses which, being dark, tend to soften
the shock–and I wilt, signorina, I wilt. ‘Look a-here, Adriano, old
fellow,’ I say to myself, ‘you don’t seriously think a woman is ever
going to fall for that face!'”
“Why the idea!” exclaimed the old maid. “You pretend to be doing
justice to yourself in that kind of talk? Anyway, you are very unjust
toward us women. Because, take my word for it, Mr. Meis, women are
more generous than men; they don’t attach so much importance to good
looks which, after all, are only skin deep!”
“Yes, but I’m afraid they’d have to be more courageous than men, too,
before I would have any chance. It would take a pretty desperate
valor to face a prospect like me!”
“Oh, get out, Mr. Meis; you enjoy depreciating yourself, I am sure.
You say you are uglier than you really are; and I believe you try to
make yourself uglier than you really are!”
“You hit it right, that time. And do you know why I do? To escape
being pitied by people! If I tried to dandy up a bit, do you know what
folks would say? ‘See that poor devil! He thinks a mustache can help
that face of his!’ Whereas, this way, no trouble! A scarecrow–but a
frank honest-to-God one–with no pretensions! Admit that I am right,
The piano teacher sighed expressively:
“I’ll admit you’re all wrong. I don’t say a mustache, perhaps; but if
you tried growing a Vandyke, let us say, you would soon see what a
distinguished and even handsome man you could be!”
“And this eye of mine, if you please?”
“Oh well, if we are going to talk that frankly–do you know, I have
been thinking of making the suggestion for some days past! Why don’t
you have an operation, to set it straight? Perfectly simple matter!
Hardly any inconvenience at all; and in a few days you are rid of this
last slight imperfection!”
“Aha, I’ve caught you!” said I. “Women may be more generous than men,
signorina, but I must point out to you that, a touch here and a touch
there, you have been making me a whole new face!”
Why had I so deliberately prolonged this conversation? Did I, for
Adriana’s benefit, really want the Caporale woman to say in so many
words, that she could love me, indeed that she actually did love me,
in spite of my insignificant chin and my vagrant eye? No, that was
not the reason: I fomented all those questions and answers because I
observed the pleasure that Adriana, perhaps unconsciously, kept
experiencing every time the music teacher refuted me triumphantly!
So I understood that, despite my odd appearance, the girl might be
able to love me. I did not say as much even to myself; but from that
evening the bed I slept on in that house seemed softer to me, the
objects in my room more homelike and familiar, lighter the air I
breathed, bluer the sky, more glorious the sun! Though I still
pretended to myself that the change all came about because the late
Mattia Pascal had died his miserable death back there in the
mill-flume of “The Coops”; and because I, Adriano Meis, after a year
of aimless wandering in the boundless uncharted freedom I had found,
was at last getting to my course, attaining the ideal I had set before
me to become another man, to live another life–a life which I could
now feel gushing vibrant, palpitant, within me!
And the poison of depression with which bitter experience had filled
me was expelled from my soul and body: I became gay again as I had
been in the days of my boyhood. Even Anselmo Paleari ceased to be the
bore I had found him at first, the gloom of his philosophy evaporating
under the sunlight of my new joy.
Poor old Anselmo! Of the two things which, according to him, were
proper matters for concern to people on this earth, he did not realize
that he was thinking by this time of only one! But, come now, be
honest! Hadn’t he thought of living too, in his better days? Just a
More deserving of pity than he, surely, was the maestra Caporale who
failed to find even in wine the gaiety of that unforgettable drunkard
of the Borgo Nuovo! She yearned to live, poor thing; and she thought
it was unkind of men to fix only on the beauty that was skin deep! So
she supposed her soul, away down underneath, was a beautiful thing,
probably! And who knows? Perhaps she might be capable of many, and
even great, sacrifices,–of giving up her wine, for example–once she
found a truly “generous” man.
“If to err is human,” I reflected, “ought we not conclude that justice
is a supreme cruelty?”
I resolved, at any rate, to be cruel no longer toward Miss Silvia
Caporale; resolved, I say; for I was cruel, nevertheless, without
meaning to be, and the more cruel the less I meant to be. My
affability proved to be fresh fuel for the flames of her very unstable
passion; and we were soon at this pass: that everything I said would
bring a pallor to her cheeks, and a blush to the cheeks of Adriana.
There was nothing deliberate in my choice of words or subjects; but I
was sure that nothing I was saying had the effect, whether by its tone
or by its manner of expression, of rousing this girl (to whom I was
really speaking all the while) to such an extent as to break the
harmony which in our good way had been established between us.
Souls have some mysterious device for finding each other out while our
exterior selves are still entangled in the formalities of conventional
discourse. They have needs and aspirations of their own which, in view
of the impossibility of satisfying those needs and of realizing those
aspirations, our bodies refuse to recognize. And that is why two
people, whose souls are talking to each other, experience an
intolerable embarrassment, a violent repulsion against any kind of
material contact, when they are left alone somewhere; though the
atmosphere clears again, the moment a third person intervenes. Then
the uneasiness vanishes, the two souls find instant relief, resume
their intercourse, smiling at each other from a safe distance.
How often was this the case with me and Adrians, her distress,
however, coming from the shyness, the unassuming modesty, native to
her; while mine, as I believed, was due to the remorse I felt at the
lie I was obliged to live, imposing my devious and complicated
fictioning upon the ingenuity and candid innocence of that sweet,
gentle, defenceless creature!
For a month past she had been quite transfigured in my eyes. And was
she not a different girl, in fact? Was there not an inner glow in the
fugitive glances she now gave me? And her smiles–did not their
lighter, wore wholesome joy bear witness that she was finding her life
as a drudge more bearable, that she was wearing more naturally that
demeanor as a responsible grown-up housekeeper which had at first so
much amused me?
Ah yes, perhaps she was instinctively yielding to the need I myself
felt of dreaming of a new life, without trying to think out what that
life must be, nor how it could be made possible. A vague yearning, in
her case as in mine, had opened, for her as for me, a window on the
future, through which a flood of intoxicating joyous light was
streaming–neither of us daring to approach the window, meantime,
whether to draw the shutters or to see just what the prospect beyond
Our pure and exhilarating happiness had its secondary effects on poor
“By the way, signorina,” I said to her one evening; “do you know I
have almost made up my mind to follow your advice?”
“What advice?” she asked.
“To have an operation on my eye.”
She clapped her hands gaily:
“Oh, that’s such good news. Go to Doctor Ambrosini–he’s the best one
in town. He did a cataract for my poor mamma once. What did I tell
you, Adriana? The mirror did settle the question! I was sure it
Adriana smiled, as I did.
“It wasn’t the mirror, though, signorina,” I observed. “It’s a matter
of necessity. My eye has been giving me some trouble recently. It was
never of much use to me; but I shouldn’t care to lose it.”
And I was lying! It was just as Miss Caporale had said it was: the
looking-glass did convince me. The looking-glass told me that if a
relatively simple operation could obliterate the one particularly
odious feature bequeathed to Adriano Meis by the late Mattia Pascal,
the former might then dispense with the blue glasses also, take on a
bit of mustache again, and, in general, bring his unfortunate
physiognomy into reasonably close alignment with the inner
transformation of his outlook on life!
This blissful state of mind was to be rudely disturbed by a scene
which I witnessed, a few nights later, concealed behind the shutters
of one of my windows.
I had been on the balcony with the two ladies until nearly ten o
‘clock. Then I retired to my room and was reading with more or less
interest a favorite book of old Anselmo–“Reincarnation.”
Suddenly I thought I heard voices outside on the balcony; and I
listened to discover whether Adriana’s was among them. No: there were
two people, talking in suppressed tones but with some animation. One
was a man: and his voice was not that of Paleari. Since there were, to
my knowledge, no other males in the house except myself, my curiosity
was aroused. I stepped to the window, and peered out through one of
the openings in the shutters.
Dark as it was, I thought I could recognize Silvia Caporale in the
woman; but who was the man she was talking with? Could Terenzio
Papiano have returned, unexpectedly, from Naples?
Something the piano teacher said in a louder tone than usual gave me
to understand that they were discussing me. I crowded closer to the
shutters and listened anxiously.
The man seemed angry at whatever the woman had been saying about me;
and she was now evidently trying to attenuate the unfavorable
impression her words had given.
“Rich?” I finally heard the man ask.
“That I can’t say!” the woman replied. “It looks as though he were. He
lives on whatever he has, without working…”
“Always about the house?”
“Why no! But anyhow, you will see him tomorrow yourself.”
The “you” was a “tu,” in the intimate Italian form. So she knew him
as well as that! Could Papiano (there was no longer any doubt that it
was he) be the lover of Miss Silvia Caporale? And, in that case, why
had she been so much taken up with me during all this time?
My curiosity was now at fever heat, but as luck would have it, they
talked on in a much lower and quite inaudible tone of voice.
Not being able to hear anything, I tried to do what I could with my
eyes. Suddenly I saw the music teacher lay a hand on Papiano’s
shoulder, an attention which he rudely rebuffed before long. When the
Caporale woman spoke again she raised her voice in evident
“But how could I help it? Who am I? What do I represent in this
“You tell Adriana to start herself out here,” the man ordered sharply.
Hearing the girl’s name pronounced in that manner, I clenched my
fists, my blood running cold in my veins.
“But she’s in bed!” said Silvia.
The man answered angrily, threateningly:
“Well, get her out of bed, and be quick about it, too.”
I don’t know how I kept from throwing the shutters open. The effort I
made to control myself, however, cleared my head for an instant; and
the words which Silvia Caporale had uttered in such irritation about
herself came to my own lips:
“Who am I? What do I represent in this house?”
I drew back from the window. But then a justification for my
eavesdropping occurred to me: those two people had been talking of me.
Whatever they were saying was my legitimate concern, therefore; and
now they were going to talk of the same matter with Adriana. I had a
right to know what that fellow’s attitude was toward me!
The readiness with which I seized on this excuse for my indelicate
conduct in spying on people without their knowing suddenly revealed to
me that greater than my anxiety about myself was my interest at that
moment in some one else.
I went back to my post behind the shutters.
The Caporale woman had disappeared; the man, all alone, was leaning
with his elbows on the railing of the balcony, looking down into the
water, his head sunk nervously between his two hands.
An eye to an opening in the shutters, my hands clutching at my two
knees, I stood there waiting in indescribable anxiety for Adriana to
come out on the balcony. The fact that she was slow in doing so did
not exasperate me at all; on the contrary it gave me the greatest
satisfaction. I guessed, I don’t know why, that Adriana was refusing
to do the bidding of this bully. In fact I could imagine Silvia
Caporale urging her, begging her, beseeching her to obey.
The man, meantime, stood there at the railing, fuming with anger and
impatience. I was hoping that the woman would come back eventually to
say that Adriana was unwilling to get up. But no, here she was,
herself, the teacher appearing in the doorway behind her!
Papiano turned on the two women:
“You go to bed,” he ordered, speaking to Silvia. “I have something to
say to my sister-in-law.”
The woman withdrew.
Papiano now stepped over to close the folding door that opened from
the dining room out on the balcony.
“No you don’t!” said Adriana, backing up against the door.
“But I have something to say to you!” the man uttered vehemently under
his breath, trying to make as little noise as possible.
“Well, say it!” said Adriana. “What do you want? You might have
waited till morning!”
“No, I am going to say it now!” And he seized her violently by one
arm, dragging her forward on the balcony.
“Let me alone,” Adriana screamed, struggling to release his hold.
I slammed the shutters back, and appeared at the window:
“Oh, Mr. Meis,” called Adriana. “Will you please step out here!”
“Very gladly, signorina!” I answered.
My heart leapt with a thrill of grateful joy! In a bound I was out
into the corridor leading to the dining room.
But there, near the entrance to my room, coiled, as it were, on a
trunk that had been just brought in, was a slender, light-haired
youth, with a very long and seemingly transparent face, barely opening
a pair of languid stupefied blue eyes.
I drew up with a start, and looked at him. A thought flashed through
my mind: “The brother of Papiano, Adriana once mentioned!” I hurried
on and came out on the balcony.
“May I introduce my brother-in-law, Mr. Meis? Terenzio Papiano! He
has just come in from Naples.”
“Delighted! Most happy!” the man exclaimed, taking of his hat,
slouching through a reptilian how, and pressing my hand warmly. “I’m
sorry I have been away tfrom Rome all this time; but I trust my little
sister here has looked after you satisfactorily? If you need anything
for your room, I hope you will feel quite free in letting me know….
Is your work table just what you need? I thought perhaps a broader one
might serve your purposes better…. But if there’s anything else….
We like to do our best by the guests who honor us…”
“Thank you, thank you,” I interrupted. “I am quite comfortable! Thank
“Thank you, rather…. Or, if I can be of any service in any other
way…. I have some connections. … But Adriana, dear, I woke you
up. Run along back to bed, if you’re sleepy…!”
“Oh,” said Adriana, smiling her usual sad smile, “now that I’m up
And she stepped to the railing, looking out over the water.
I felt instinctively that she did not want to leave me alone with the
man. What was she afraid of?
She stood there leaning meditatively against the parapet; while the
man, with his hat still in his hand, kept up a stream of chatter. Had
been to Naples–detained there much longer than he had been expecting.
And such a lot of work! Copying documents, you see, bundles of them,
in the private archives of her Excellency the Duchess, Donna Teresa
Ravasehieri Fieschi–“Mamma Duchessa,” as everybody called her, though
“Mamma Big Heart” would have been a better name! Papers of
extraordinary interest, from certain points of view: new light on the
overthrow of the Two Sicilies, and especially on the role in that
episode of Gaetano Pi. langieri, prince of Satriano, whose life the
Marquis Giglio (don Ignazio Giglio d’Auletta, that is–he, Papiano,
was the private secretary of the Marquis) was intending to illuminate
in a very careful and sincere biography! Sincere–let us be
frank!–sincere, so far as the Marquis’s devotion and loyalty to the
old Bourbons would permit….
The man seemed to have been wound up. There was no stopping him. He
liked to hear himself talk, orating, almost, with the mannerisms of an
experienced actor, a dramatic pause here, a subdued chuckle there, an
expressive gesture in some other place.
I could not master my astonishment. I stood there rigid as a block of
stone, nodding every now and then at the lecturer, but with my eyes on
Adriana, who was still leaning against the railing, looking out over
“After all, what can a fellow do!” Papiano intoned, for a peroration.
“The Marquis is a Bourbon and a Clerical; while I, I, you
understand–I am almost afraid to say it out loud in my own house!–I,
well, every morning before I go to work, I step out here and wave my
hand to Garibaldi up there on the Janiculum–ever notice his
statue?–Good view of it from just here! Well, ‘Hooray for the
Twentieth of September,’ say I; but I have to be secretary to the
Marquis just the same. Fine fellow, and all that; but Bourbon,
Clerical, Clerical, Bourbon, as bad as they make ‘em. Well, bread and
butter! You’ve got to live in this world… Really, when I hear him
carrying on, sometimes, I, as a good Italian, I feel like spitting on
the fellow–if you’ll pardon my strong language. Makes me sick, this
reactionary stuff! But it’s a matter of bread and butter. So I stick
it out! Yes, bread and butter talks…”
He shrugged his shoulders, struck his hands to his hips with a broad
sweep suggesting helplessness, and laughed.
“Come, come, sisterchen,” said he, running over to Adriana and putting
his two hands gently on her shoulders, “time to be crawling in, isn’t
it? It’s getting late; and I imagine Mr. Meis is tired too.”
In bidding me good night at the door of my room, Adriana pressed my
hand–something she had never done before; and I remember that, left
alone, I kept my hand closed as though to preserve the sensation of
All night long I lay awake thinking, a prey to indescribable anxiety.
The ceremonious hypocrisy of the man, his insinuating, loquacious
servility, the hostility I had discovered in him by my eavesdropping!
He would certainly compel me to leave that house where, profiting by
the dotage of the old man, he was certainly trying to make himself
master. Just how would he go about getting me out? Some idea of his
tactics I might have from his abrupt change of manner that evening
when I appeared on the balcony. But why should he object to my
presence there? Why was I not a roomer like any other? What could that
Caporale woman have said to him about me? Could he be jealous of her?
Or was he jealous of someone else? His arrogant suspicious manner; his
rude dismissal of the music teacher to get Adriana alone with him; the
violence with which he addressed the girl; her refusal to come out,
and coming out, to let him close the door behind her; the emotion she
had previously shown every time her absent brother-in-law was
mentioned–yes, everything, everything filled me with the hateful
suspicion that he had designs on her.
Well, why should that upset me so? After all, was it not easy for me
to move away, if the fellow gave me the slightest annoyance? What was
there to keep me? Nothing whatever! And yet what a tender thrill I
felt as I remembered how Adriana had called to me from the balcony, as
though asking me to protect her. And in bidding me good night how she
had pressed my hand!
I had not closed the blinds of my room nor drawn the curtains. The
moon rose, and as it sank toward morning, in the west, it appeared at
my window, looked in upon me, to laugh at me, as it seemed, for
finding me still awake:
“Ah, I understand, I understand, my boy. But you don’t, do you! Oh no,
you don’t understand, you rascal!”
PAPIANO GETS MY EYE
“The tragedy of Orestes in a puppet-theatre, Mr. Meis! Automatic
dolls of new invention. At eight-thirty this evening, via dei Prefetti, number 54. Worth going to see, Mr. Meis!”
So the old gentleman, Anselmo Paleari wag enunciating to me from my
“The tragedy of Orestes?” I answered.
“Yes, ‘d’apres Sophocle,’ so this flier reads. ‘Electra,’ I imagine.
But listen, I’ve just thought of something. Supposing that, just at
the climax, when the marionette representing Orestes is about to
avenge his father’s death on Aegisthos and his mother, someone should
suddenly tear a hole in the paper ceiling over the stage–what would
happen, do you think?”
“I give up,” said I, shrugging my shoulders.
“Why, just think it out, Mr. Meis. Orestes, of course, would be quite
flabbergasted by that hole in the sky.”
“Let me finish… Orestes would be in the throes of his vengefulness,
and intent on assuaging his thirst for blood; but lo, a rent in the
sky! His eyes would turn up toward that, wouldn’t they, and all sorts
of evil influences would become apparent on the stage. He would droop
and collapse. Orestes, in other words, would become Hamlet. The whole
difference between the ancient theatre and the modern comes down to
that I assure you, Mr. Meis–to a rent in a paper sky!”
And he went away, pattering along the hall in his slippers.
In just such a way, old Anselmo was wont to launch avalanches of
thoughts from the foggy mountain tops of his moodiness. Their
relevance to anything, their motivation, the connection between them,
stayed up there in the clouds; for the person down below who had to
dodge them it was often difficult to understand just what they meant.
But this notion of Orestes thrown off his pins by a hole suddenly torn
in the sky stayed with me for a long time. “Lucky marionettes,” I
sighed. “The make-believe heaven over their heads is rarely torn
asunder; and if it is, it can be glued together again. They don’t need
to worry: they know neither perplexity, nor inhibition, nor scruple,
nor sorrow, nor–anything. They can just sit still, enjoying their
comedy, loving, respecting, admiring each other, never getting
flustered, never losing their heads; because their characters and
their actions are all proportioned to the blue roof that covers them.
“And the prototype of these marionettes, my dear Mr. Anselmo, you have
right here in your own house, in the person of that precious
son-in-law of yours, Mr. Terenzio Papiano. Could any marionette be
better satisfied than he is with the pasteboard sky snugly stretched
above his head–the comfortable and tranquil dwelling-place of a Deity
who bestows with lavish hand, ready to close his eyes beforehand and
to raise his hand in forgiveness afterwards, sleepily repeating after
every sharp deal: ‘I the Lord thy God help those who help themselves!’
“Your precious son-in-law, Mr. Terenzio Papiano, certainly helps
himself, my dear Anselmo! Life for him is just one sharp turn after
another. He has his finger in every pie–enterprising, jovial,
enthusiastic, full of gumption and go!”
Forty years old was Papiano, tall of stature, sinewy of limb; inclined
toward baldness, with a suggestion of gray in the heavy mustache he
wore under his nose (a fine expressive nose with nostrils all
a-quiver). Gray eyes, also–sharp, restless, as restless as his hands.
He saw everything with those eyes! He touched everything with those
fingers! He would be talking with me, for instance; but, in some way,
I don’t know how, he would see that Adriana, busy with her cleaning
away off behind him, was having difficulty in getting a piece of
furniture into place again.
“Excuse me!…” he would say like a flash, and then run to his
sister-in-law, and take the business out of her hands:
“Look, girl, this is the way we do it, see?”
And he would dust it off himself, shove it into place again himself,
and come hurrying back to me.
Or he would notice that his brother, who suffered from attacks of
epilepsy, was about to “have a spell.” He would run to him, tap him on
the cheeks, tweak the end of his nose, blow on his face and call,
“Scipione, Scipione,” till he brought the boy around again.
There’s no telling what fun I should have gotten out of such a man,
had I not had that blessed skeleton in my closet–a fact, this latter,
of which Papiano became aware, or at least suspicious, in no time at
Mr. Meis this, Mr. Meis that! A veritable bombardment of
adulation–yet always underneath the compliment, a line out to catch
me and get me to say something definite about myself. I came to feel
that every remark, every question of his, however commonplace however
obvious, concealed a trap for me; and I meantime would be anxious not
to show the least reserve in order not to increase his mistrust;
though, I must say, my annoyance at the servile, ceremonious,
harrassing, inquisition he held me subject to prevented me from
concealing my real feelings very well.
My resentment came also from two secret causes within. One was this:
I had never done anything wrong; I had never harmed a living soul; yet
I felt compelled to be ever on my guard, as though I were an outlaw
with no title whatever to being left alone. The other, I refused to
admit even to myself, and my suppression of it made its action more
subtly virulent inside me. I kept cursing in my own mind:
“You ass! But pack up your things and clear out! Why put up with this
It was of no avail. I did not go away. I could not go away–and I knew
that I never would.
The interior struggle I fought to refuse recognition of my love for
Adriana, prevented me, as a logical corollary to this insincerity with
myself, from considering the consequences of my abnormal status in
life in connection with that passion. So I just kept on from day to
day, puzzled, perplexed, restless, irritated, fidgeting, in constant
uneasiness, though preserving a smiling countenance toward other
On all that I had overheard that night while hiding behind my window
shutters, I had secured no further light. It seemed that the bad
impression Papiano had received of me, from whatever the Caporale
woman told him, had vanished with our first introduction. He tormented
me with his devious questioning, it is true; but certainly with no
intention, disguised or otherwise, to get me out of the house. On the
contrary, he was doing everything he could to keep me as a roomer.
Well, what was he up to, then? Since his return Adriana had become
morose and gloomy again, treating me with a cold, distant aloofness as
she had at first. In the presence of others, at least, Silvia Caporale
always addressed Papiano with “lei” the formal word for “you”; but he,
irrepressible rogue, thee’d her and thou’d her blatantly, even calling
her Rhea (rea) Silvia once–for a good pun. I could not grasp the
true significance of his manner toward the woman–a mixture of
raillery and intimacy at the same time. That drunken red-nosed
slattern certainly commanded little respect from the indecorum of the
life she led; but, on the other hand, she should not have been treated
that way by a man wholly unrelated to her.
One evening (there was a full moon and the night was as bright as day)
I perceived her from my window sitting sad and solitary on the
balcony. She, Adriana, and I had met there rarely since Papiano came,
and never with the same pleasure as formerly; for he inevitably joined
us and did the talking for us all. With the idea that I might perhaps
learn something interesting from her by catching her in that mood of
dejected relaxation, I decided to have a talk with her.
As usual in going out of my room I found Papiano’s brother coiled on
the same trunk in the hallway. Did he spend his time there in that
uncomfortable position of his own choice, or had he been stationed
there to watch me?
Signorina Caporale was weeping, when I arrived on the balcony. She
refused to talk at first, on the excuse of a severe headache. But
shortly she seemed to make up her mind all of a sudden, and turning
straight toward me and holding out a hand, she asked:
“Are you a real friend of mine?”
“If you are kind enough to grant me such a privilege,” I answered with
“Oh no, no fine language, please, Mr. Meis! I need a friend, a real
friend, just at this moment…. You ought to understand; for you are
alone in the world as I am…. Of course, you are a man, and it’s
different for a man…. Oh, if you only knew, Mr. Meis, if you only
Wherewith she bit at the handkerchief she was holding in one hand, to
keep from weeping; and that remedy not proving successful she began
tearing it angrily into strips:
“A woman, an ugly woman, and an old woman!” she cried. “That’s what I
am! Three misfortunes that can never be helped. Why do I go on living,
“Is it as bad as all that?” I asked, to say something. “Don’t be so
downhearted, signorina. Why do you talk that way?”
“Because…” she exclaimed, but then she stopped, unable, or at least
unwilling, to finish her sentence.
“Please tell me,” I encouraged. “If a friend can be of any use to
She carried the tattered handkerchief to her eyes:
“It would be much better if I could die!” she groaned with a note of
such complete dejection that I was deeply moved. Never, indeed, will I
forget the lines of anguish that formed around her thin ill-shaped
lips as she said the words, nor the quivering of her chin under its
scattering of ugly black hair.
“But I can’t even die,” she finally resumed. “Oh, no, Mr. Meis, what
could you do for me? Nothing! Neither could anybody else. A few kind
words perhaps, a little pity! But that’s all! I am alone in the world,
and I must stay here, to be treated… well, you probably have noticed
how! And they have no right to, you know! They have no right to! I’m
not living on their charity…”
And at this point Signorina Caporale told me the story of the six
thousand lire, I have already mentioned, and how Papiano got them away
The personal troubles of this woman were interesting enough, in their
way; but still this was not just what I had come to find out. Taking
advantage, I confess, of the abnormal condition she was in–perhaps
from a sip of wine too much at dinner–I ventured a leading question:
“But why did you ever risk giving him. the money signorina?”
“Why?” and she clenched her fists. “Because I wanted to show him!…
Two mean things, one meaner than the other! I wanted him to understand
that I knew what he really wanted from me! And his wife was still
“Ah, I see…”
“And just imagine,” the woman continued, gathering spirit in her
narrative. “Poor Rita…”
“That was his wife’s name?”
“Yes, Rita–Adriana’s sister…. In bed for two whole years, hanging
between life and death…. You can imagine whether I… but anyway,
they all know how I acted; and Adriana knows, too; that’s why she is
so fond of me… really fond of me, poor thing! And what is the fix I
have been left in?… Why, I’ve even had to give up my piano which for
me was… well, everything, you understand…. Oh, not just because
I’m a teacher! My piano was my whole life. I could write music, as a
girl, there at the Conservatory. And I did a number of songs
afterwards, when I had finished my course. Well, as long as I had my
piano, I could still compose… oh, not for publication of
course–just for myself…. I would sit down and improvise … and
sometimes I would get so worked up…. I don’t know what it was… it
was as though something were coming right out of my soul… and I
couldn’t stand it: I would almost faint away…. I became part of my
instrument and it of me, so that I could hardly feel my fingers
touching the keys. It was the weeping and the sorrowing of my own
heart…. Why, judge for yourself…. One evening a crowd gathered
under my windows–I was alone at home with mother there on the second
floor where we lived–and the people clapped and cheered and cheered
and clapped… I was afraid!”
“But, my dear signorina,” I said comfortingly, “if a piano is all you
need, couldn’t we hire one?… I should enjoy hearing you play, ever
so much. and if you will allow me…”
“No!” she interrupted. “What could I do with it now? It’s all over
with me…. I can bang off a popular song in the cabarets, perhaps;
but that’s all…”
“Did Papiano never promise to make good the money you gave him?” I
ventured again, edging back toward the subject that most concerned me.
“That man?” the woman exclaimed scornfully. “Who would ever expect him
to? I never asked it back from him, to begin with. But now he is
talking of doing so. Oh yes, now he’ll give it all back to me
provided… provided I help him…. That’s it! He wants me to help
him–no one will do but me! Do you know, he actually had the face to
make the proposition to me in so many words!…”
“What proposition? How could you help him?”
“With another dirty trick he has in mind. Don’t you understand… I am
sure you can guess…”
“Adri… Miss Paleari…” I gasped.
“Exactly! I am to bring her around to it, you see! I…”
“Around to marrying him?”
“What else? And do you know why? Because the poor girl has, or at
least ought to have, a dowry of some fifteen thousand lire–the money
from her sister’s dowry, that is, which he is legally bound to return
to Anselmo Paleari at once–because Rita died without children, you
see. I don’t know what he’s done with it; but he has asked for a
year’s time to pay it back. So now he is hoping that… sh-h-h–here
Taciturn, distracted, more distant and shy than ever, Adriana came out
to join us, bowing to me with a slight nod of recognition, and putting
her arm around Miss Caporale’s waist. After what I had just learned, I
felt a flash of anger at seeing her so submissive and compliant to the
odious intrigues of the rascal who was plotting her capture; but I had
little time to indulge such a wholesome emotion. Before long Papiano’s
brother, moving more like a ghost than like a real man, Btole out upon
“Here he is!” said Silvia, nudging Adriana.
The little girl half-closed her eyes, and drew up her lips in a bitter
smile. Then with an angry toss of her head, she withdrew into the
“Good night, Mr. Meis,” said she; “I must be going!”
“He’s watching her,” the Caporale woman whispered, with a significant
nod in the boy’s direction.
“But what is Miss Paleari afraid of?” I could not help asking in my
increasing irritation and disgust. “Doesn’t she understand that such
conduct on her part gives him a stronger hold over her? May I be
frank, signorina? I have the greatest envy and admiration for people
who are interested in life and play the game with gusto. If I had to
choose between the bully and the person who lets himself be bullied
without protest,–why, I would side with the bully!”
The Caporale woman noted the feeling with which I spoke, and she
answered with just a trace of irony in her voice:
“Well, why don’t you start a rebellion?”
“Yes, you, you!” she challenged, openly now, looking me sarcastically
in the eye:
“What have I to do with all this?” I replied. “I could protest in only
one way: by giving up my room and clearing out!”
“Well,” the woman rejoined with a shrewd thrust, “that may be the one
thing Adriana doesn’t want!”
“She doesn’t want me to go away?”
The piano teacher twirled her bedraggled handkerchief round and round
in the air, finally winding it up into a ball around her thumb:
“You never can tell!”
I shrugged my shoulders:
“Well, I… I’m going to dinner!” I exclaimed; and I left her standing
there, without another word.
To strike while the iron was hot, I stopped that very evening, on
going along the hallway, in front of the trunk where Scipione Papiano
was coiled in his usual style:
“Excuse me,” I began, “can’t you find some other place to sit? You’re
in my way just here!”
The boy looked blankly up at me out of his sleepy eyes, but did not
seem at all embarrassed;
“Did you hear what I said?” I continued, shaking him by the arm.
He sat there as stolid as a stone. However, a door opened at the end
of the corridor. It was Adriana.
“I wonder, signorina,” I now said; “can’t you get this poor boy to
understand that he might choose some other place to sit?”
“He’s not well,” said Adriana, trying to soften the situation.
“All the more reason for moving,” I countered.
“The air is not so very good here; and besides… sitting on a
trunk…! Shall I speak to your brother about it?”
“No, no,” Adriana protested hurriedly, “I’ll see him about it myself!”
“You understand, I am sure,” I added. “I’m not so much of a king yet
that I need a watchman to guard my door.”
From that moment I lost all control over myself: I began to compromise
Adriana’s timidity overtly, forcing her hand, as it were, but at any
rate, closing my eyes to consequences, recklessly surrendering to the
feelings in possession of me. The poor dear little housemother! At
first she did not know what to make of it, vacillating apparently
between hope and fear. She could not trust me wholly as yet, divining
that anger more than anything else was at the bottom of my changed
behaviour; but at the same time she realized that her fear hitherto
had been based on the secret and almost unconscious hope of not losing
me. And now my sudden self-assertion, strengthening the hope,
prevented her from surrendering quite to the fear. This delicate and
affecting perplexity of hers, this modest reserve on her part, kept me
from clarifying issues entirely in my own mind, and brought me to
persist more tenaciously still in the combat Papiano and I had now
tacitly agreed to wage with one another.
I had expected the fellow to confront me the very next morning after
my brush with his brother and have done with his usual compliments and
ceremony. But no! He gave ground. He at once removed his brother from
the outpost in front of my door, and even went so far as to twit
Adriana about her embarrassment in my presence:
“You mustn’t judge my little sister too harshly, Mr. Meis. She’s as
shy as a little nun when strangers are around!”
This unexpected retreat and the brazen unconcern of the man quite
disconcerted me. What was he driving at, anyway?
One evening I saw him come home in company with an individual who
entered the house striking his cane noisily on the floor, as though he
were walking in felt shoes and were anxious to be sure his feet were
“Where is this dear relative of mine,”-Dôva ca l’è stô me car parent–he began vociferating in a high-pitched Piedmontese
dialect–not bothering to remove from his head the large broad-brimmed
hat that was pressed down over his watery half-opened eyes, nor from
his mouth a short-stemmed pipe over which he seemed bent on broiling a
nose redder than that of Miss Silvia Caporale. “Dôva ca I’ è stô me car parent?”
“Here he is,” said Papiano waving a hand in my direction; then,
turning toward me, he said: “A surprise for you, Signor Adriano! Let
me introduce Mr. Francesco Meis, a relative of yours, from Turin!”
“A relative of mine?” I gasped in bewilderment.
The man, evidently half drunk, closed his eyes entirely now, raised a
paw much as a bear might do and stood there waiting for me to grasp
I did not disturb the pose for some seconds, meantime looking at him
“What’s the joke you are trying on me nowî” I then inquired.
“A joke? Why a joke?” answered Papiano. “Mr. Francesco Meis assured
me you and he…”
“Cousins,” the visitor volunteered, to help out: “Gusin! Tut i Meis i sôma parent! All the Meis’s belong to the same family!”
“I am sorry I have never had the pleasure of setting eyes on you
before!” I protested.
“That’s one on you,” the man exclaimed. “Oh ma côst a ca l’e bela!
That’s the very reason why I came to have a look at you!”
“Meis? From Turin?” I pretended to ponder. “But I am not from Turin!”
“How is that?” Papiano interrupted. “Didn’t I understand you to say
that you lived in Turin till you were ten years old?”
“Why of course,” the stranger interposed, apparently offended that so
much fuss was being made over a point so simple: “Cusin, cusin!
“Yes–Terenziano! Terenziano told me your father went to America!
Well, what’s that mean? It means you are the son of old Uncle Toni,
barba Antoni, yes. sir! He went to America. And so we are cousins!
Nui soma cusin!”
“But my father’s name was Paolo!”
“No, Paolo! Paolo! Paolo! Do you think you know more about that than I
The man shrugged his shoulders and stretched the corners of his mouth
into a broad smile, rubbing meantime a four days’ growth of gray beard
on his chin:
“I thought it was Antonio. But it may be as you say. I shouldn’t dare
contradict you–for I never knew him myself!”
The poor fellow, having the advantage over me that I well knew, might
have stood his ground; but he seemed to be content so long as we were
cousins. His father, he further explained, was a Francesco like
himself, and a brother of the Antonio–or rather of the Paolo–who had
gone off to America from Turin at a time when he, Francesco Meis
Second, was still a boy–ancor masnà,–of seven. Having lived all
his life away from home–a little job in the government service–he
was not very well acquainted with the old folks whether on his
father’s or his mother’s side; but we were cousins–of that there
could be no doubt.
“But you must have known grandpa, surely!” I decided mischievously to
Yes, he had known grandpa, he could not remember whether at Pavia or
“Oh, really? What did he look like?”
“Look like? Why… er… I can’t quite say. That was some thirty
years ago. A sôn passa trant’ ani!”
The fellow did not seem to be acting in bad faith. I took him rather
for a poor devil who was drowning his soul in wine in order to escape
some of the worries of poverty and loneliness. He stood there with
head lowered and eyes closed, approving all the things I said to
corner him. I am sure that I could have told him we had been to school
together and that I had given him a thrashing once; and he would still
have remembered, so long as I admitted that we were cousins. On that
point he refused to compromise. So cousins we remained.
But suddenly, on looking at Papiano and catching an expression of
gloating on his face, I lost my desire for further jesting. I bade the
drunken man good-afternoon with a “Caro parente!” fixing my eyes
upon Papiano’s with the idea of convincing him that I was not to be
trifled with by such as he.
“Will you be so good,” I asked, “as to tell me where you unearthed
that crazy idiot?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the rascal answered (I must admit he was a man of
extraordinary resourcefulness). “I can see that I was not altogether
happy in my…”
“On the contrary you are always most happy in your guesses!” I
“No, I mean… I was mistaken in thinking you might be glad to see
him. But believe me, it was such a strange coincidence. You see, here
is how it happened. I had to go to the tax office this morning, on a
matter of business for the Marquis, my employer. While I was there I
suddenly heard some one calling: ‘Mr. Meis! Mr. Meis!’ I turned
around, of course, thinking it was you, and supposing you were there
on some matter where my influence might be of use to you–it is always
at your disposal, you understand. But no! It was this ‘crazy idiot,’
as you so well call him. And I, out of idle curiosity, went up to him
and asked him if his name were really Meis, and where he came from,
since I had the honor of knowing a Mr. Meis who was a guest in my
home! Well, he said that you were a cousin of his and insisted on
coming home with me to make your acquaintance. There you have the
“All this happened at the Revenue office?”
“Yes. The man works there–assistant collector, or something!”
Could I believe this cock-and-bull yarn? I made up my mind to
And it proved to be true!
But it was equally true that Papiano, with all his suspicions of me,
was meeting my frontal attack upon his secret manosuvres in his home,
by retreating, evading, slipping around me, to delve into my past and
finally assail me from the rear. Knowing the man as I did, I had every
reason to fear that with his keen scent he could not long fail to find
a clue; and that, once on the right track, he would never depart from
it till he stood on the bank of the Miragno mill-flume, with the
bloated body of the late Mattia Pascal in front of him.
Imagine then my terror when, a few days later as I was reading in my
room, there came to my ears from the corridor a voice–a voice from
the other world, but one still vivid in my memory.
“Perhaps I thank God, segnore, that I rid myself of her!”
The Spaniard! My Spaniard! The pudgy little man in the big beard who
had hooked on to me at Monte Carlo and followed me to Nice, where we
had quarrelled because I would not play partners with him as he
wanted. God of Heaven! The trail at last! That devil of a Papiano had
finally found it!
I jumped to my feet, grasping the edge of the table in order not to
collapse in the sudden anguished horror that seized upon my heart.
Stupified, my knees a-tremble, I stood there and listened, determined
to run away the moment Papiano and the Spaniard (it was he–there was
no mistaking his voice and his broken Spanish-Italian) got through the
hallway. But… run away? In the first place, supposing Papiano, on
coming in, had asked the servant whether I were at home? How would he
interpret my flight, in that case? And, in the second place…. “Let’s
think this all the way out now.”… They knew my name was Adriano
Meis. But what else could the Spaniard know about me? He had seen me
at Monte Carlo. Well, had I ever told him there that my name was
Mattia Pascal? Perhaps! I could not remember….
I happened to be standing in front of my mirror, as though some one
had set me just there on purpose. I looked at myself in the glass. Ah
yes, that crooked eye of mine! That blessed cock-eye! By that he would
recognize me! But how on earth had Papiano ever gotten back to my
adventure in Monte Carlo? That was what surprised me more than
anything else. What could I do about it, meantime? Nothing, obviously!
I should have to wait for what was going to happen to happen.
And nothing happened.
Though I did not recover from my fright even after Papiano, on the
evening of that very day, in explaining to me the mystery of that
incomprehensible and terrifying visit, showed me clearly that he was
not really on my track at all, but that Fortune simply, after the many
extraordinary turns with which she had favored me, had now done me
another in suddenly setting across my path again that Spaniard who
very probably had forgotten that I ever existed.
From what Papiano told me of the fellow, I saw that I could hardly
have missed him at Monte Carlo, since he was a gambler by profession.
But how strange that I should be meeting him now in Rome, or rather
that, coming to Rome, I should have hit upon one of the very houses to
which he had entrance! Certainly, if I had had nothing to be afraid
of, the curious coincidence would not have impressed me so strongly;
how often, in fact, do we come unexpectedly upon people whom we have
met elsewhere by merest chance? In any event, he had, or thought he
had, very good reasons for coming to Rome and to Papiano’s house. The
fault was mine, or at least of that chain of circumstances which had
caused me to shave off my beard and change my name!
Some twenty years earlier, the Marquis Giglio d’Auletta–the man whom
Papiano was serving as private secretary–had given his only daughter
in marriage to Don Antonio Pantogada, an attache of the Spanish
embassy to the Holy See. Not long after the wedding, Pantogada, along
with some members of the Roman aristocracy, had been arrested in a
raid made by the police one night upon a gambling house in the city.
This had occasioned his recall to Madrid, where he had committed the
other indiscretions, perhaps worse than this one, which had finally
brought about his dismissal from the diplomatic service of his
country. From that moment, the Marquis d’Auletta had not had a
moment’s rest from constant demands for money made upon him by his
profligate son-in-law. Pantogada’s wife had died four years before,
leaving a daughter about fifteen years old, whom the Marquis had taken
to live with him, knowing only too well the kind of environment her
father would have provided for her. Pantogada had at first refused to
give the girl up, but finally he had yielded under pressure of money
to pay his debts. Now he was continually raising the question again,
and, in fact, had come to Rome for the purpose of taking his
daughter–in other words, a round sum of money–away with him. He
could be sure that the Marquis would make any sacrifice rather than
see his dear grand-child, Pepita, fall into her father’s hands.
Papiano rose to heights of holy wrath in his denunciation of such a
cowardly piece of blackmail. And I am sure he was quite sincere in it
all. He had one of those ingenious contrivances for a conscience which
permitted him to howl, in all honesty, at the evil others do, while
still without the least discomfort allowing him to work an almost
similar game upon his own father-in-law, Paleari.
However, on this occasion, the Marquis Giglio was holding out. It was
evident that Pantogada would be detained in Rome for some time and
hence come frequently to visit Terenzio Papiano (with whom he got on
famously). How could I help meeting him sooner or later? What could I
Again I consulted my looking-glass. And I saw in it the face of the
late Mattia Pascal, peering at me with his crooked eye from the
surface of the Miragno mill-flume, and addressing me as follows:
“What a mess you are in, Adriano Meis! Be honest, now! Tell the truth!
You are afraid of Terenzio Papiano, and you would like to put the
blame on me–on me again–just because when I was in Nice one day I
had a little squabble with a Spaniard. Well, I was right, wasn’t I, as
you very well know. And do you think you can get out of it by
obliterating the last trace of me from your face? Do so, my dear Mr.
Meis! Follow the advice of Miss Silvia Caporale! Call in Doctor
Ambrosini and have your eye put in place again. … Then,,, well,,,
then you’ll see!,,,”
THE RED LANTERN
Forty days in the dark!
Successful, the operation; oh, I should say so: a great success!
Though the eye, perhaps, would be a wee wee bit bigger than the other!
Meantime, forty days in the dark, in my room!
I had occasion to find out for myself now that when a man is in pain
he acquires a very individual notion of good and evil: of the good,
that is, which people ought to do to him, and to which he thinks he
has a right, as though suffering entitled him to compensation; and of
the evil which he can do to others, as though a privilege for doing so
derived from that same suffering. With the result that he accuses them
for the good they fail to do to him as is their duty; and excuses
himself for the wrong he does to them as is his right.
After a week or so of that black confinement, my desire, the need I
felt, for being somehow comforted increased to exasperation. I did
realize, to be sure, that I was in a strange house and that therefore
I should be grateful for the solicitous care my hosts took of me. But
they did not seem to me sufficient, these attentions; rather they
grated on my nerves, as though they were paid me out of spite. Of
course they did! Because I understood from whom they came. Through
them Adriana meant me to know that she was with me there, in her
thoughts, all day long. A jolly consolation that, I must say! What
good were her bally thoughts, if mine, all the meanwhile, were ever
out in anguished search of her, here and there through the house! She
alone could comfort me; and it was her duty to! She must have
understood better than anybody else how dull it all was, how lonesome
I must be feeling, how I longed to see her, or at least be conscious
of her presence near me!
To my nervous irritation, was added a sullen rage on my learning that
Pantogada had left Kome almost immediately. Would I ever have
consented to such torture–forty livelong days in worse than jail!–if
I had known that idiot were going away so soon, bless his soul!
To cheer me up, old Anselmo Paleari tried to show me, by a long
disquisition, that the dark was quite imaginary on my part:
“Imaginary?” I stormed furiously; “Imaginary? Glad you think so!”
“Now wait just a moment; and I’ll make clear just what I mean!”
Perhaps to prepare me for a spiritualistic seance which, to take my
mind off: my troubles, he seemed inclined to hold in my room, he
expounded a very unusual system of metaphysics which he had thought
out–all by himself–a sort of lanternosophy, one might have called
Every now and then, as he talked, the old man would stop to ask me:
“Are you asleep, Mr. Meis!”
More than once I was tempted to answer: “Yes, thank heaven!”
But since I could not fail to recognize that his intentions were of
the best–the idea of helping me pass my time more pleasantly–I would
“No, my dear Paleari, I am listening! Most instructive! Please
And he continued.
“We,” said he, “for our misfortune, are not like trees, let us say,
which live without consciousness and to which the earth, the sunshine,
the air, the rain, the wind, the snow, are nothing which the tree
itself is not–but just something harmful or beneficial merely, if you
understand me. We humans, on coming into the world, find we have one
sorry privilege–the privilege of feeling ourselves live, with all the
fine illusions that follow as a consequence, the illusion, in
particular, that this inner experience we have of a life forever
varied and changing–changing according to time, circumstance, or
fortuity–is a reality outside ourselves.
“Whereas this sense we have of life is a lantern, as it were, which
each of us carries within himself. Now this lantern, with its faint
light, reveals to us that we are lost, astray, on the face of the
earth, showing us the good and the evil on every hand. Why not? Our
lanterns cast about us a greater or a lesser area of light, beyond
which all is blank darkness. Now this fearful gloom would not exist
were our lanterns not there to make us conscious of it; though we must
believe it is a real darkness, so long as our lights are aglow within
us. Well now, imagine that our lamps are blown out; this fictitious
darkness will engulf us entirely, will it not? After our cloudy day of
illusion, perpetual night! But is it really perpetual night? Or is it
simply that we have fallen into the arms of Essence which has broken
down the insubstantial forms of our Reason?–Are you asleep, Mr.
“Please go on, my dear Paleari! I was never more awake! I can almost
see those lanterns you are talking about!”
“Very well then…. But you have one eye out of commission, remember!
We had better not get too deeply involved in philosophy. Supposing we
amuse ourselves just following these wandering fire-flies–our various
lanterns, that is–as they stray this way and that in the darkness of
human destiny. In the first place they are of many different
colors–according to the kind of glass which Illusion–a great dealer
in colored spectacles–supplies us to view things through. It’s an
idea of mine, however, that in certain eras of history, Mr. Meis, as
in certain periods of our individual lives, certain colors tend to
predominate, eh? At a given epoch in history, certain common
prejudices, certain common ways of thinking, seem to prevail among
men, which color the globes of those–I will say–searchlights,
beacons, rather than lanterns, which the great abstractions
constitute–Truth, Virtue, Beauty, Honor, and so on. Don’t you think,
for instance, that the beacon of Pagan Virtue was colored red? Whereas
that of Christian Virtue must have been violet–something gloomy,
depressing, I mean to suggest. The flame of the common idea is fed,
nourished, kept alive, by the oil of collective agreement on certain
fundamental things; but let this unanimity, this consensus, be broken
down–well, the reflector, the globe, the abstract term, remains, I
grant you; but the flame inside, the flame of the idea, begins to
sputter and spit–and this happens in all the so-called periods of
transition. Not infrequently in history there come sudden violent
gusts, certain world-wide brain-storms, that extinguish all the great
beacons of Truth at the same moment! What a time! What a time! In the
darkness everywhere prevailing now, our individual lanterns go
scampering around this way and that in the greatest confusion–this
one forward, this one backward, this one round and round in a
circle;–they collide, they dodge each other, they gather together in
groups of ten, twenty, or a hundred; but there is no guide to the
certain road to verity: they cannot agree; they quarrel, and argue,
and dispute, and finally scatter again in all directions. Panic!
Chaos! Anarchy! Bewilderment!
“Now, it seems to me, Mr. Meis, that we ourselves are now living in
one of those periods of transition. Doubt, confusion, perplexity on
every hand. All the great beacons darkened! All the landmarks gone!
Whom shall we follow? Which way shall we go? Backwards, perhaps? Shall
we gather about the little lamps we find hanging to the gravestones of
our illustrious dead? Do you remember what Niccolo Tommaseo said in
one of his poems–a good poet was Tommaseo, in spite of his
dictionary–that the flame in his lantern was not big enough perhaps
to set the world on fire, but that it still might serve for greater
men than he to light their wicks from? Which is all very well,
provided you’ve got plenty of oil in your own lantern! But many
people haven’t, Mr. Meis! Many people haven’t! So what do they do?
“Well, certain of them go to the churches, don’t they? to get enough
oil to last their time out–poor old men and poor old women, for the
most part, whom life has played false and who grope their way forward
in the gloom of existence, their faith lighting their humble pathway
like a votive candle. How carefully they shield their feeble lantern
from the blasts of final disillusionment, hoping and praying their
wicks will not die out till they reach their journey’s end. Closing
their ears to the blasphemous clamor of the world about them, they
keep their eyes fixed on the light in their hands, reassuring
themselves that it will be bright enough for God to notice them.
“The faint but unfaltering glow of some of these humble lanterns
arouses a certain anguished envy in many of us, Mr. Meis; though
others, who think they are chosen favorites of the Zeus Thunderer of
Science and are sure that the Almighty has equipped their automobiles
with the most modern electric headlights, hava a disdainful pity for
them. For my part, I say nothing positive, Mr. Meis–I just ask a
little question: supposing all this darkness, this great engulfing
mystery in which the philosophers of the ages have speculated in vain
and which Science, though it refuses to investigate it, does not
preclude, were, after all, only a delusion, a fiction of our minds, a
fancy we are somehow unable to brighten with gay colors? Supposing we
could convince ourselves that all this mystery should prove not to
exist at all outside of us but only in us–and as a necessary
compensation for our having that lantern I have been talking about,
that sense of life, I mean, which it is our unhappy privilege to
possess? Supposing, in a word, that there were no such thing as this
death which fills us with such terror, that death should prove to be
not the extinction of life but a gust of wind, merely, which blows out
the light in our lantern, extinguishes this dolorous, painful,
terrifying sense of life we have–terrifying, because it is limited,
narrowed, fenced in by the circle of fictitious darkness that begins
just where the light from our lantern stops. We think of ourselves as
fireflies astray in this darkness, desperately casting about us tiny
circles of radiance which are powerless to dispel the gloom, and which
are, as it were, our prisons cutting us off from the universal, the
eternal life to which we shall some day be allowed to return.
Whereas, in point of fact, we are part of that greater life already,
and always shall be, but henceforth without, let us hope, that feeling
of exile and exclusion which torments us so. No, Mr. Meis, the fence
about us is wholly illusory, something proportionate to the strength
of the light, of the individuality, within us. I don’t know whether
you will like the notion–but the fact is that we have always lived
and always shall live at one with the Universe. Right now, in our
present bodily forms, we participate in all the manifestations of
Universal Life. We are not aware of this–it does not force itself
upon our attention; because, unfortunately, this puny weepy little
lantern of ours reveals to us only the amount that it can actually
illuminate. But worse than that, it does not show things as they
really are; on the contrary, it colors them in its own blessed way; so
that now our hair stands on end at certain prospects which, were our
bodily forms somewhat different, would only amuse us! Amuse us, I
mean, because they would all seem so simple then that we should laugh
at the strange terrors they once had for us!…”
Since Mr. Anselmo Paleari had such scant regard for the little colored
lanterns we each have in us, I could not help wondering just why he
was so anxious to light another–with a red globe–right there in my
sick-room. Weren’t the two we had between us making trouble enough
I decided to put the question to him.
“Similia similibus…” he answered. “One lantern corrects the other.
Besides, the red lantern I am going to light goes out at a certain
point, you know!…”
“But do you really think,” I ventured further, “that this device of
yours is the best means for discovering something?”
“What scientists call ‘light,'” rejoined Anselmo, not in the least
disturbed, “may give us a very inadequate and deceptive notion of the
thing they call ‘life’; but for what is beyond the latter it not only
does not help but, believe me, actually hinders. There are a few
charlatans of science, with intellects as insignificant as their
impulses are perverse, who claim, for their own conveniences, that
such experiments as those I perform with my red lantern are an insult
to Science and to Nature herself. Heaven help us, Mr. Meis! Such
nonsense! No, we are trying simply to discover other laws, other
forces, evidences of another life, in this same Nature–the very same
Nature, mark me!–seeking by methods supplementing those normally
used, to go beyond the very narrow comprehension of things that our
frail senses ordinarily furnish. I ask you–don’t these same
scientists demand the right environment, the proper conditions, for
their experiments? Can a photographer do without his dark chamber?
Well then! … Besides, there are all sorts of ways to test results
and check up on trickery;…”
But Anselmo, as I had occasion to observe some evenings later, did not
see fit to use any of these–probably because his experiments were
just a private family affair. Could he have the least reason to
suspect that Miss Caporale and Papiano were having their fun with him?
Besides, why be so particular anyhow? These seances were not for the
purpose of convincing him–he was sure already! The best-natured
simpleton who ever lived, he never once dreamed that his son-in-law
and the piano teacher had any ulterior motives in attending his
meetings. If results were pitiably meagre and petty, he had his
theosophy, to write into these the most plausible and portentous
significances. Why ask for anything better? Since he had no medium
handy, we had no right to expect that the Beings dwelling on. the
higher, the Mental Plane, could be brought down to communicate with
us. We should be mighty glad to get the halting and imperfect
manifestions of the dead who were still nearest our own lowly
sphere–on the Astral Plane, that is.
Who could refute him in such an argument? [Footnote: Note of Don
Eligio Pelegrinotto: “‘Faith,’ wrote Albertus Florentinus Magister,
‘is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things
I knew that Adriana had always refused to take part in these
“experiments.” Ever since I had been shut up there in my room she had
come in but rarely (and invariably when someone else was present) to
ask me how I was getting along. Such inquiries seemed to be the mere
politeness which in fact they were. She knew very well how I was
getting along! I even thought I could detect a note of mischievous
irony in her voice; since she, of course, could not have the least
idea of my real reasons for suddenly deciding on this operation–an
operation, which, as she must have concluded, was a matter of vanity
on my part, an attempt to look more handsome, or at least less ugly,
by having my face remodeled along the lines suggested by Miss Silvia
“I’m getting along fine, signorina,” I would answer. “I can’t see a
“But you’ll see better, much better, later on,” Papiano would then
In the dark there I would clench a fist and shake it in his direction.
How I should have liked to drive it home! He was surely saying such
things to make me lose the little good humor I still managed to
preserve. He could not possibly help noticing the dislike I had for
his visits–I showed it in every way, yawning, gaping, grunting,
strictly avoiding all amenities. But there he stuck, just the same,
coming in to see me every evening (without Adriana, of course–leave
that to him!), and sitting there for hour after hour, boring me past
endurance with his endless chatter. His voice coming out at me in the
darkness made me twist and turn on my chair and sink my nails into my
palms. I could have strangled him at certain moments. And could he not
sense all this? Could he not feel it? I thought he could; for just at
such times his voice would soften and take on its most caressing and
We always have to hold someone responsible for our trials and
tribulations. Papiano, so I decided, was doing his best to get me out
of the house; and had the voice of common sense been able to make
itself heard in my for that I should have been heartily grateful to
him. But how could I listen to common sense, if common sense was
talking to me through the mouth of such a fellow–who, in my judgment
was wrong, patently wrong, despicably wrong? He wanted to get rid of
me, I concluded in my rage, in order to fleece Paleari at leisure and
encompass Adriana’s ruin. That was all his interminable prattle meant
to me! Was it possible that any decent counsel could come from the
lips of a man like Papiano?
Though perhaps all this was the way I chose to excuse myself for not
mastering emotions which came in reality, neither from my dark
confinement nor even from the weariness I felt at Papiano’s constant
talking and talking!
He talked–oh, he talked of Pepita Pantogada, evening after evening.
Though there could have been nothing in my style of living to suggest
such a thing, he had taken it into his head that I was a very wealthy
man; and now, to get my mind off Adriana, he was perhaps flirting with
the notion of interesting me in the granddaughter of the Marquis
Giglio d’Auletta. He described her to me as a very strict and very
uppish young lady, brimful of intelligence and determination,
energetic in her ways, outspoken and decisive in conversation; a
beautiful girl, besides–oh, as for that, a prize-winner–dark hair,
slender (a jolly armful, nevertheless), bubbling with life, two
dazzling black eyes, and lips–well, let’s say nothing about her lips.
Nor about the dowry, either–nothing to speak of, the dowry, beyond
the whole estate of the Marquis! Who, for his part, would be very glad
to have a husband in sight for the girl, not only to be well rid of
Pantogada, but because he didn’t get along so very well with Pepita
herself! A quiet, easy-going sort of fellow was the Marquis,
interested in the things and the people of the old days; while
Pepita–she was strong, assertive, full of vitality and spirit.
Didn’t Papiano understand that the more he praised Pepita to me, the
greater my dislike for her became, even before I had set eyes upon
her? I would meet her some evening soon, he said, because he would
eventually persuade her to attend one of the seances; and he would
introduce me to the Marquis also; for the Marquis was very keen to
make my acquaintance, after all that he, Papiano, had said of me.
Unfortunately the Marquis never went out anywhere, had renounced
society, in fact; and of spiritualistic meetings in particular he
could not approve because of his religious views.
“How is that?” I asked. “He lets his granddaughter go to places where
he would not go himself?”
“But he knows who it is she’s going with!” Papiano exclaimed proudly.
That was enough for me. Why should Adriana, out of religious scruples,
refuse to do something which Pepita could do with the full consent of
a pious Clerical grandparent? I seized upon the argument and tried to
persuade her to be present at the first sitting.
She had come to see me with her father, the evening before the seance.
“It’s the same old story,” Anselmo sighed, on hearing my proposal.
“Religion, Mr. Meis, behaves just like Science when it comes to this
question–pricking up its donkey ears and rearing on its hind legs.
And yet, as I have explained to my daughter a hundred times, our
experiments conflict with neither the one nor the other; in fact, as
far as religion is concerned, they demonstrate one of the truths
fundamental to religion.”
“But supposing I should be afraid?” Adriana objected.
“Afraid of what?” snapped the father. “Of being convinced?”
“Or of the dark?” I added. “We are all going to be here, signorina.
Will you be the only one to miss the party?”
“But I…” answered Adriana, hard pressed, “I … well, I don’t take
any stock in it, there… I don’t believe in it, I can’t believe in
it; and… well, never mind…!”
She was unable to explain further; but from the tone of her voice and
her hesitation, I was certain that something besides scruples of faith
was keeping Adriana from the seance. The fear she alleged as an excuse
might have causes which Anselmo did not suspect! Or was it simply
humiliation at the miserable spectacle her father offered in letting
himself be so stupidly taken in by Papiano and Silvia Caporale?
I did not have the heart to insist further; but Adriana seemed to
understand intuitively the disappointment which her refusal occasioned
me. She dropped an “However”… which I caught on the wing:
“Ah, splendid! So you’ll come, then!”
“Perhaps just for once–tomorrow,” she yielded, with a laugh.
It was late in the afternoon, on the following day, when Papiano came
to prepare the terrain. He brought in a small square table of rough
unvarnished pine, without drawers; a guitar; a dog collar with bells,
and a few other articles. Removing the furniture from one corner of my
room, he stretched a string from moulding to moulding, and from the
string he hung a sheet of white cloth. This work was done, I need not
say, by the light of the red lantern, and to the accompaniment as also
I need not say, of incessant gabbling.
“This sheet is for… well, it’s the accumulator,_ let’s call it
that–of this mysterious energy. You just watch it, Mr. Meis; and
you’ll see it shake and tremble, swelling out now and then like a
sail, and lighting up with a strange unearthly glow. Oh yes! We never
get any real ‘materializations’; but lights–plenty of lights. You’ll
see for yourself, if Miss Caporale is in her usual form this evening.
She’s in touch with the spirit of an old school-mate of hers at the
Conservatory. He died of consumption–bad business, consumption–at
the age of eighteen…. Came from… I forget just where–Basel, in
Switzerland, I believe it was; but he lived here in Rome a long time
with his family. A man of promise, a real genius–nipped in the bud!
At least, so Silvia says. You know, she was in communication with
Max… the name was Max… wait, what was it?… Max Oliz… yes,
that’s it… Oliz or something of the sort… even before she realized
she had any gifts as a medium. According to her story, she would sit
down at a piano… and his spirit would take possession of her;… and
she would play and play … improvising, understand… till she
fainted dead away. Why, one evening, a crowd of people gathered under
the window, and clapped and cheered and cheered and clapped…”
“And Miss Caporale was afraid…,” I added, placidly.
“Oh, so you know then!” exclaimed Papiano, stopping short.
“Yes, she told me about it. So I am to conclude that the applause was
for Mr. Max’s music played through the young lady?”
“That’s the idea! Pity we haven’t a piano in the house. We have to do
what we can with the guitar–just the suggestion of a movement–a note
or two, you see. It’s pretty hard on Max, I can tell you. Sometimes he
gets all worked up, and the way he pulls at the strings!… But, you
wait till this evening, and you can hear for yourself…. There, I
guess we’re about ready now…”
“But, would you mind, Mr. Papiano,” I decided to ask, before he got
away; “I was wondering… do you take all this seriously? You really
believe in it…”
“Why, it’s this way, Mr. Meis,” said he, as though he had been
expecting the question, “I can’t say I believe exactly…. Fact is, I
just don’t see through it all…”
“Too dark, I suppose!…”
“Oh no, not that…. The phenomena, the manifestations, themselves,
are real, there’s no denying that. … And here in our own house, we
can’t suspect each other’s good faith…”
“What do you mean, ‘why not’?”
“Why, it’s very easy to deceive yourself, especially when you’re
anxious to believe something…”
“Well, I’m not so anxious, you know… on the contrary, if anything!
My father-in-law, who makes a study of such things… yes, he believes
in it… but with me you see… well, I just haven’t the time.. let
alone the interest. What with those blessed Bourbons of the Marquis,
that keep me up to my neck in work…. Oh, I spend an evening this
way, once in a while…. But my honest opinion is that so long as the
Good Lord lets us live, we can know nothing really about death…. So
why bother?… Let’s get the best out of living, is what I say, Mr.
Meis. So there you have how I feel about it. Now I’ll just drop around
to the via dei Pontefici and get Miss Pantogada… and we’re ready,
When he came back, a half hour or more later, he seemed quite annoyed:
along with Pepita and her governess, a certain Spanish painter put in
an appearance, who was introduced to me, without much cordiality, as
Manuel Bernaldez, a friend of the Giglio’s. He spoke Italian
perfectly; but there was no way to make him recognize the “s” on the
end of my name. When he came to that harmless consonant, he seemed to
halt as if it were going to burn his tongue:
“Adriano Mei,” he repeated several times, in a manner that struck me
as too familiar.
“Adriano Tui,” I felt like answering!
The ladies entered the room: Pepita, the governess, Silvia Caporale,
“What, you here too?” asked Papiano, with ill-concealed irritation.
A second slip in his calculations! I could see from the way Papiano
had welcomed Bernaldez that the old Marquis could have known nothing
of the painter’s presence at this meeting, and that some little
intrigue with Pepita was at the bottom of it. But the great Terenzio
was not to be discouraged by so little: in forming the mystic circle
about the table, he put Adri-ana next to himself and the Pantogada
girl next to me.
Did I like that? Not at all! Nor Pepita either. In fact, she voiced
her dissatisfaction instantly in a language exactly like her father
“Gracie, Segnor Terencio! I prefer a place between Segnor Paleari
and my governess!”
In the dim light shed by the red lantern, it was barely possible to
distinguish outlines in the room; so I could not be sure exactly how
far the portrait which Papiano had sketched of Pepita Pantogada
corresponded to the truth. Certainly her manner, the tone of her
voice, her immediate rebellion against anything she didn’t like,
harmonized perfectly with the impression I had formed of her from his
description. Her disdainful refusal to take the place assigned her by
the master of ceremonies was unquestionably disrespectful toward me;
but far from being displeased, I was actually overjoyed.
“Quite right,” exclaimed Papiano. “Very well, let’s have it this way:
Signora Candida next to Mr. Meis; then you, signorina, between Signora
Candida and my father-in-law; then the rest of us as we are. Will that
No, it didn’t do at all: neither for me, nor for Silvia Caporale, nor
for Adriana, nor, as was soon apparent, for Pepita herself; because
she managed eventually to find the place she wanted in a new circle
arranged by the inventive spirit of Max Oliz. For the moment I found
myself next to a mere ghost of a woman who had a kind of steeple on
her head–Was it a hat? Was it a wig? Was it the way she fixed her
hair? If not, what was it? At any rate from underneath that towering
pile, one long sigh came following on another, each ending in a
stifled word of protest. No one had thought of introducing me to
Signora Candida. Now we had to hold hands in keeping the mystic chain
intact! Her sense of propriety was shocked, poor thing! That was the
reason for the sighs and protests! How cold her fingers were!
My right hand was clutching the left of Silvia Caporale, who was
sitting at what might he called the head of the table, with her back
against the white sheet. Papiano held her other hand. Next to him
came Adriana, and then the painter. Anselmo sat at the foot of the
table opposite Miss Caporale.
Papiano was the first to speak:
“We ought to begin by explaining to Mr. Meis and Miss Pantogada the…
what do you call it?”
“The tiptological code!” proffered old Paleari.
“I need to know it too!” said Signora Candida, not to be overlooked,
and squirming on her chair.
“Of course, to Signora Candida also!”
“Well,” old Anselmo began, “it’s this way: two taps mean ‘yes.'”
“Taps?” asked Pepita nervously. “What taps?”
“Why, taps!” replied Anselmo. “Either knocks on the table, the chairs,
and so forth, or touches on the person!”
“Oh, no-o-o-o-o!” shivered the Spanish girl, jumping up from her place
at the table. “I don’t want any touches. Who’s going to touch me?”
“Why Max, the spirit, signorina!” said Papiano. “I told you, on the
way over! They won’t hurt you! Don’t be afraid.”
“Only tictological touches!” added the governess, with a superior
“As I was saying,” Anselmo resumed: “two taps.: ‘yes’; three taps:
‘no’; four: ‘dark’; five: ‘speak’; six: ‘light’…. That will be
enough for the present. So now let us concentrate, ladies and
The room fell silent. We concentrated.
MAX TURNS A TRICK
Uneasiness? No, nothing of the kind; but a keen curiosity, and a
curious dread lest Papiano should be on the verge of a humiliating
failure! I might have gloated over such a prospect; but I didn’t. Who
can escape a chill of mortification on witnessing a comedy badly
played by actors who do not know their parts?
“One thing or the other,” I speculated: “Either he is deeper than I
thought, or he is walking blindly into his own trap. In his anxiety to
keep Adriana for himself, he has made the mistake of leaving Bernaldez
and Pepita, Adriana and me, dissatisfied and therefore in a position
to catch him at his game without any motive for calling it amusing or
worth our time. Most likely Adriana will be the one to find him out;
she is nearest to him, and is suspicious already. She will be on her
guard. She came here only to be with me. I imagine she is already
asking herself why she consents to aid and abet a farce which is not
only stupid in itself but irreverent to religion and discreditable to
all who take part in it. Bernaldez and Pepita must be feeling the same
way about it. How is it a man as shrewd as Papiano can’t understand
that–once he failed to bring me and the Pantogada girl together. Is
he so sure of himself as all that? How is he going to save his face?”
Busied with all these reflections, I had quite forgotten Silvia
Caporale, who now suddenly began to speak as though she were in the
first stages of her trance.
“The chain…” said she. “the chain… it must be altered!”
“Have we got Max already?” asked dear old Anselmo concernedly.
The woman allowed some time to elapse:
“Yes,” she finally answered, in a dreamy, hollow voice. “He says there
are too many of us here, this evening…”
“That’s true,” exclaimed Papiano, “but still I think we ought to be
able to manage…”
“Hush!” whispered Paleari. “Let’s hear what Max says!”
“The chain!” Miss Caporale resumed. “The chain…! He finds it out of
balance. Here, on this side” (and she raised my hand in hers) “there
are two women next to each other. He says that Mr. Paleari should take
the place of Miss Pantogada and vice versa…!”
“Easy to fix,” cried Anselmo, rising from his chair. “Here,
signorina, won’t you have my chair?”
This time Pepita did not protest: she could now hold hands with her
“Next,” added the’medium,’ “Signora Candida might…”
“I have it–in Adriana’s place, eh? The same thing had occurred to me!
Let’s try it that way!”
The moment I found Adriana’s hand in mine, I squeezed it till it hurt.
On the other side I felt a significant pressure from Miss Caporale’s
fingers, as though asking me:
“Is that better?”
I returned her clasp with enthusiasm, shaking her hand to signify more
or less clearly:
“Anything you wish, now!”
“Silence!” suggested Anselmo in a solemn voice.
And who had spoken? One, two, three, four! The table! Four taps!
I was sure I had heard nothing!
But, the moment the lantern was extinguished, something happened which
suddenly upset all my calculations. Miss Caporale uttered a shrill
blood-curdling scream which brought us all up, standing in our places.
What had taken place? As Bernaldez scratched a match, we could see
that Miss Caporale’s nose and mouth were bleeding. She had received a
tremendous blow in the face!
Pepita and Signora Candida shrank back from the table. Papiano too got
up to light the red lantern again. Adriana loosened her hand from
mine. Bernaldez stood at his chair, the burnt match in his fingers,
smiling in astonishment and incredulity. Old Anselmo was muttering in
“So he struck her? As hard as that? What can it mean? What can it
In one way I was as puzzled as he. Why had he given her that blow? So
that change in the mystic circle had not been prearranged between
them? The piano teacher had rebelled against Papiano–with these
results? Well, what next?
Miss Caporale had pushed her chair back from the table, and stood
there pressing her handkerchief to her bleeding lips. She was refusing
to go on with the seance. And Pepita Pantogada was chattering in her
“Gracie, segnori, gracie! Acqui se dano cachetas! Thanks, thanks,
this is too rough for me!”
“But no, please!” exclaimed Paleari. “Why, ladies and gentlemen, this
is the most amazing occurrence in the history of spiritualism! We must
get to the bottom of it. We must ask him to explain!”
“Ask Max?” I queried.
“Max, of course!” said he. “Why Silvia, do you suppose you
misunderstood him in rearranging the chain?”
“I am sure she did, I’m sure she did!” said Bernaldez, laughing.
“What do you think, Mr. Meis?” asked Paleari of me, not liking
Bernaldez’s attitude at all.
“Why, I should think that was a good guess,” I evaded.
But Silvia Caporale kept shaking her head with decision.
“So you say no,” Paleari resumed. “Well, how do you account for it?
Max losing his head! It’s beyond me! What do you say, Terenzio?”
Terenzio, secure there in the faint light from the red lantern, was
not saying anything. He just shrugged his shoulders.
“Please, Miss Caporale.” I now ventured. “Suppose we do as Mr. Paleari
suggests. Let’s ask Max all about it; and then if he proves too frisky
to work with tonight, we’ll call it all off. You agree, Mr. Papiano?”
“Certainly,” he answered. “Ask him anything you want! I’m willing!”
“But I’m not–in this condition!” said the Caporale woman sharply,
turning frankly upon him.
“Why put it up to me?” said Papiano. “If you want to stop…”
“Yes, let’s!” ventured Adriana.
But old Anselmo raised his voice in ridicule:
“‘Yes, let’s! Did you ever see such a stupid! Say, I’m ashamed of you,
Adriana! Well… now, Silvia, look, I leave it to you…. You have
been communicating with Max all these years, and you know very well
that this is the first time he ever…. Oh, I say, it would be a shame
to spoil it… too bad he hurt you so, but the phenomena were
beginning to develop this evening with unusual energy…”
“Even too much energy!” tittered Bernaldez with a laugh that proved
“But please,” I added in the same spirit, “if there are to be any more
punches I hope they’ll miss this eye of mine!…”
“E mio también!” chirped Miss Pepita.
“Back to the table then,” ordered Papiano resolutely. “Let’s follow
Mr. Meis’s suggestion, and ask an explanation. If things get too
exciting, we’ll stop. To your seats, ladies!”
And he blew out the lantern.
This time I found Adriana’s hand cold and trembling. Respectful of
her state of mind, I did not clutch her fingers with the same gay
fervor, but pressed them gently and firmly to express a mood of
earnest tranquillity. It was probable that Papiano had repented of
his burst of temper and would change his tack; in any event we could
rely upon a breathing space before Max became interested in Adriana or
me. “If he tries anything of the kind on this girl,” I said to myself,
“it will be all over before he knows it!”
Anselmo was by this time in conversation with Max whom he addressed as
naturally as though he were talking to a living person present in the
“Are you with us, Max?”
Two barely audible taps on the table: he was.
“And how is this, Max?” the old man asked in a tone of mild reproach.
“You’ve always been so kind and courteous hitherto! Why were you so
rough with poor Miss Caporale? Are you willing to tell us?”
The table moved this way and that, for a second or more; then–three
solid raps in the middle of it! No! Max would not discuss the
“Well, we won’t insist!” Anselmo continued. “I suppose you’re put out
over something, eh? Yes! I can see you’re not in a happy frame of
mind. I know you, Max, understand! I know you! But perhaps you’ll be
willing to say whether you like the chain arranged as it is?”
Paleari had hardly finished the question when I felt two light quick
touches, as though from the tip of a finger, in the center of my
“Yes!” I called, declaring the “manifestation,” and squeezing
I must confess that this “tiptological” touch gave me, at the moment,
an uncanny shiver. I was sure that had I been able to raise my hand at
once I would have caught Papiano’s; but at the same time, I had not
been expecting such a thing, and the lightness and precision of the
taps amazed me. But meantime, why had Papiano picked me out for this
revelation of his tolerance! Was he trying to make me feel easier in
my mind, or was it rather a provocation and a challenge:—“I’ll show
you whether I like it!”?
“That’s nice of you, Max!” Anselmo encouraged; and I, annotating
mentally: “Yes, mighty nice of you… but if you go one step too
“Now,” the old man began again, “you would make us all happy if you
would give some sign of your good will toward us!”
Five taps on the table: talk!
“What does that mean?” asked Signora Candida nervously.
“It means we must talk!” Papiano exclaimed quietly.
“Talk? To whom I talk?”
“To anybody–the person next to you, for example!”
“Out loud!” volunteered Anselmo. “This means, Mr. Meis, that Max is
working up something interesting for us. Perhaps he will show a light
or something. So talk, talk!”
As for talking, I had, through my finger tips, been carrying on a
long, tender and yet impulsive conversation with Adriana and now,
frankly, there was not a thought in my brain. A thrilling intoxication
had come over me as I twined her fingers around mine, noting with mad
delight the anxiety she betrayed to express her own feelings with a
reserve in keeping with the timid gentle candor of her innocence. But
now, while our hands were continuing this intense communion, I
suddenly became aware of something that was rubbing against the rung
between the rear legs of my chair.
A creepy sensation ran over me. Papiano could not possibly reach that
far with his toes, let alone the ob-stacles the front of the chair
would have given him. Had he risen from the table and gone around
behind me? But in such a case, Signora Candida, unless she were a
complete fool, would have announced the breaking of the chain. Before
giving warning of the “manifestation” I wanted to understand it
myself; but then I thought that since I had consented to the seance
only to be near Adriana, it was only fair play to follow the rules.
Without delay, and to avoid irritating Papiano unnecessarily, I
declared what I was hearing.
“Really!” exclaimed Papiano from his place, in an astonishment which I
thought was sincere.
And Miss Caporale evinced just as much surprise.
“A rubbing?” asked old Anselmo, with the deepest concern. “What is it
like? What is it like?”
“Yes, a rubbing!” I answered almost angrily. “And it’s still there!
It’s as though… an animal… a dog… were scratching himself
against my chair.”
A loud burst of laughter greeted this guess of mine.
“Why, it’s Minerva, it’s Minerva!” cried Pepita Panto gada.
“And who is Minerva?” I asked in some mortification.
“Why, my naughty, naughty little doggie!” she continued, almost in
convulsions. “La viechia mia, Segnore, die se grata asi soto tute le sedie! She scratches that way every time she gets near a chair! Con permisso! Con permisso!”
The chain was broken. Bernaldez lighted a match, while Pepita came and
fished Minerva out from under my chair to cuddle her in her arms.
“Now I understand why Max was so out of humor this evening,” old
Anselmo commented with some heat. “There has been a bit too much
frivolity, if I may say so!”
Nor, except possibly for Anselmo, was there much less on succeeding
evenings, so far as spiritualism was concerned, that is.
There is no telling all the tricks that Max performed there in the
dark. The table writhed, twisted, creaked, tapping and tapping, now
lightly, now noisily. There were taps on the seats of our chairs, on
the furniture here and there about the room. You could hear the
rasping of finger nails on wood, and the swish of garments in the air.
Strange phosphorescent lights would flash and go wandering off through
the air, like will ‘o the wisps astray. The curtain would bulge and
swell, brightening at times with a weird supernatural glow. A small
smoking-stand went cavorting around the room, finally leaping over our
heads and coming to rest on the table in front of us. The guitar
seemed to have grown wings; for it took flight from the chest on which
it lay and hung in the air above us, all its strings vibrating. But I
thought that Max showed his musical talents best with the bells on the
dog collar, which at one point jumped and buckled itself around Miss
Caporale’s neck. Old Anselmo interpreted that as a very witty
demonstration of affection on Max’s part; though the lady herself did
not seem to relish the joke at all.
Evidently Scipione, Papiano’s brother, had come on the scene under
cover of the dark and was doing all these things on detailed
instructions from Terenzio. The young fellow was really an epileptic;
but he was not so much of a dunce as his brother and even himself
wanted people to think. I suppose by long practice at the same tricks
he felt quite at home in the dark. To tell the truth, I never went to
the trouble to find out exactly how well he executed the hoaxes he
rehearsed beforehand with Papiano and the Caporale woman. For the four
of us–Bernaldez and Pepita, Adriana and I–were satisfied so long as
he kept Anselmo and the governess interested; and that he seemed to be
doing marvelously, though neither of them, really, was very hard to
please. Old Anselmo just bubbled over with joy, chortling and gurgling
like some child at a puppet show. His comments, indeed, sometimes gave
me a most uncomfortable feeling of mortification, not only because it
was painful to see a man, of his intelligence after all, evince such
extremes of gullibility, but because Adriana made me understand more
than once that it hurt her conscience to be owing her own joy to her
father’s making a fool of himself.
This scruple came to our minds occasionally to interrupt our
blissfulness; and it was the only thing to disturb us. Nevertheless,
knowing Papiano as I did, I should have been on my mettle: I should
have suspected that if he consented to leave Adriana to me, and,
contrary to my guess, never allowed Max to interfere with us but
rather made the “spirit” play our game, he must be having some other
scheme in mind. I was so completely carried away, however, by the
delights of my love-making in the security of that darkened room, that
I am sure the idea that anything might be wrong never once occurred to
“No!” screamed Pepita at a certain point. And Anselmo:
“Speak up, signorina! What was it? What did you feel?”
Bernaldez also urged the girl to speak.
“Why,” she said, “a touch, here, on my cheek!”
“Fingers?” asked Paleari. “A light one, I’ll warrant–cold, furtive,
but light, very light! Oh, I can tell you, Max has a fine way with
women! What do you say, Max? Won’t you just pat the lady again?”
“O-oo-oo-oo,” screamed Pepita, but laughing this time. “Aquí està!
“What do you mean?” asked Anselmo, not understanding the Spanish
“He’s doing it again… he’s tickling me!”
“And now a kiss, eh, Max?” proposed Paleari.
“No, no, no!” screamed Pepita.
But a loud sonorous smack echoed from her cheek.
Almost involuntarily, I raised Adriana’s hand to my lips; and that
caress quite maddened me. I bent over and sought her lips.
Thus it was that the first kiss, a long, a silent, an impassioned kiss
was exchanged between us.
And now, immediately–what was it that took place? For some moments,
in a bewilderment of shame and confusion, I was too much flurried to
grasp the cause of the sudden disorder. Had I been detected spooning?
Every one was shouting and screaming. One match was struck, and then a
second! A candle was lighted–the candle inside the red lantern.
All the people present had jumped to their feet. Why? Why?
And now, there, in the lighted room, in plain view of us all, a blow,
a heavy blow, as from the fist of an invisible giant, landed squarely
in the middle of the table!
We all paled with fright, Papiano and the Caporale woman more
terrified than anyone else.
“Scipione! Scipione!” called Terenzio.
There the boy was! He had fallen to the floor in one of his attacks,
and was gasping strangely for breath.
“Keep your seats!” cried Anselmo. “He’s in the trance, too! Oh, look,
look! The table! The table! It’s moving! A levitation! A real
levitation! Good for you, Max! Good for you!”
And the table, in fact, without anyone’s touching it, rose four inches
or more and fell back, with a thud, heavily, to the floor.
Silvia Caporale, pale as death, trembling, terror-stricken, shrank
against me, hiding her face in my coat. Pepita and the governess ran
shrieking from the room. Paleari was beside himself:
“Sit down, sit down! For heaven’s sake, people! Don’t break the
chain! We’re coming to the best of it. Max! Max!”
“Max, nonsense!” exclaimed Papiano, recovering finally from the
consternation that had frozen him in his tracks to the floor, running
over to his brother to bring him to.
All thought of the kiss I had stolen had been momentarily driven from
my mind by the strange and unexplainable manifestation that I had
witnessed. If, as Paleari contended, the mysterious power, that had
worked there in that lighted room under my very eyes, came from an
invisible spirit, that spirit was surely not Max: the expression of
the faces of Papiano and Silvia Caporale were good proof of that. Max
was a hoax of their invention. Who had acted then? Who had struck that
terrific blow on the table?
All the things that I had read in old Paleari’s books now came
crowding in a tumult into my mind. With a shiver I thought of the poor
unknown man who had drowned himself back there in the Miragno Flume, a
man whom I had robbed of the tears of his people and of the sorrow of
the strangers who found him.
“It might be he,” I said to myself. “Supposing he had come here to
seek me out, and get his revenge by revealing everything!…”
Paleari, meantime, the only one of us neither surprised nor alarmed by
what had occurred, stood there unable to understand how such a
commonplace phenomenon as the levitation of a table had been able to
affect us so deeply after all the other marvels we had seen. The mere
fact that the room was lighted made little difference to him. What
puzzled him rather was the presence in the room of the boy, Scipione,
who he had supposed was in bed.
“I am surprised because ordinarily he takes no interest in our
researches. I imagine our secret gatherings roused his curiosity, so
he crept in to see what we were doing, and then–slam bang! Because it
is well established, Mr. Meis, that the more unusual manifestations of
mediumism derive from epileptic, cataleptic and hysterical neurosis.
Max gets the energy he uses from all of us–and it takes quite a
little to produce the phenomena we have seen. There is no doubt on
this point. Don’t you feel as though you had lost something?”
“Not as yet, to tell the truth!” I answered.
Till dawn almost, I tossed uneasily on my bed, thinking of the
unfortunate man who lay buried in the Miragno cemetery under my name.
Who was he? Where had he come from? Why had he killed himself?
Perhaps he had hoped his unhappy end would become known–as an
expiation, a restitution, in a sense! And I had profited by it all!
More than once, I confess, as I lay there in the dark, a chill of cold
terror ran up and down my body. It had all taken place right there, in
my room–the seance, that blow on the table, the levitation. Others
had seen as I had! Was he responsible? Might he not be standing there,
invisible, at my bedside? I would hold my breath and listen to catch
any sound in the room. Finally I fell into an uneasy slumber made
horrible by frightful dreams.
When morning came, I drew my curtains and opened my windows wide to
the full sunlight,
I AND MY SHADOW
Many a time, on awaking in the heart of the night (can such a cruel
thing as night have a heart?) I have experienced, in the darkness and
in the silence, a curious surprise, a strange perplexity, on suddenly
thinking of something I have done during the daytime without noticing;
and on such occasions I have wondered whether the shapes, the colors,
the sounds of things that surround us in the varied whirl of life may
not somehow determine our actions.
I am sure they do. Are we not, as old Anselmo says, in relation with
the universe? It would be interesting to know how many idiotic things
this blessed universe impels us to do, for which we hold our much
overworked consciences responsible; while these, poor things, are
really the victims of exterior forces, blinded by a light that is not
of themselves. And on the other hand, how many schemes we form during
the night time, how many decisions we make, how many projects we
conceive, only to have their vanity and foolishness become apparent
with the return of day! Day is one thing and night is another! So we
perhaps may be one thing by day and another by night–though little
enough we amount to in either case, I am afraid!
I know that on letting the light into my room after forty days of
confinement, I did not feel the least joy. The memory of what I had
been doing during all those days took the radiance out of the
sunshine. All the reasons, arguments, excuses, which had had their
weight and convincingness in the dark either lost these when the
curtains were drawn aside and the windows opened, or seemed to acquire
wholly different values. Vainly the poor I, which had been shut in so
long behind darkened shutters and had striven in every way to
alleviate the tedium of its imprisonment, trailed along after the
other I that had let in the bright sun and, severe, frowning,
aggressive, was turning its face to the new day. Vainly did it seek
to banish all irksome thoughts, noting, for example, in front of the
mirror, the success of my operation, the attractiveness of the long
beard that had come out again, and a certain fineness, a certain
delicacy in the pallor that had settled on my features.
“You ass! What have you done! What have you done!”
What had I done? Nothing, really, when you come down to it! I had made
love to a girl.
In the dark–was I responsible for the dark?–I had not been aware of
difficulties, and had lost the reserve which I had so rigidly
prescribed for myself. Papiano had tried to keep Adriana away from me.
Silvia Caporale had given her back, assigning her to a seat at my side
(poor Silvia getting a punch in the face for her kindness)! I was a
sick man, in pain; and naturally, I thought–as any other wretch (say
man, if you want to) would have thought under the circumstances–that
I had a right to some compensation; and so, since the said
compensation was sitting in a chair at my eibow, I had accepted it.
While old Anselmo was messing around with ghosts and dead people, I
had preferred the life at my side–a life ready to bloom forth into
joy under a kiss of love. Well, Manuel Bernaldez had kissed his Pepita
in the dark, so I accordingly.. ooph!… I sank into an armchair, my
face in my hands. I could feel my lips quiver at the memory of that
kiss. Adriana! Adriana! What hopes might I have aroused in her heart
by it? Engaged, eh? And now, with the curtains drawn and the windows
opened–mish-mash and good appetite! A pleasant time for all!
I sat there in the chair I don’t know how long, thinking, thinking,
with my eyes wide open into space, drawing myself up now and then in
an angry shudder as though to free myself from the torture within me.
At last I could see in all its rawness the humbug in my illusion, the
cheat that underlay what, in the first intoxication of my freedom, I
had called the greatest of good fortunes.
In the beginning this freedom had seemed to me boundless, without
restriction; then I had discovered that it had a limit–in the modest
funds at my disposal. Next I had perceived that, liberty though it
be, it was a liberty which exacted a fearful price, condemning me to
solitude and lonesomeness, precluding all companionship. So I had
approached people to escape from that, determined, nevertheless, to
avoid any relationships, even the slightest, that might fetter me.
Well, what had that determination amounted to? Life–life that was no
longer for me–had respliced the bonds I had broken with it; life, in
all its irresistible insurgence had, despite my wariness and caution,
sucked me back into its vortex! I could not close my eyes to that fact
now. I could no longer refuse, on one fatuous pretext or another, with
one pitiable excuse or another, to recognize my feelings for Adriana,
nor attenuate the consequence of my intentions, my words, my acts: I
had said too much without saying anything–just by pressing her hand
in mine, by twining her fingers around my fingers; and a kiss, a kiss
at last, had consecrated our love beyond recall. How make my promise
good? Could I marry Adriana? But those two women back home, Romilda
and the widow Pescatore, had thrown me–not themselves–into the
mill-flume at “The Coops.” Romilda was free enough–yes! But I wasn’t.
I had set out to play the part of a dead man, thinking I might live
another life, become an entirely different person. And I could be
indeed another man–but on what condition? On condition that I refrain
from doing anything, that I keep clear of activity of any kind! A fine
sort of man, that! The shadow of a man! That’s it–a ghost in flesh
and blood! And what a life! So long as I had been content to keep shut
up within myself and be a mere spectator of the life others were
living, so long was it possible to maintain, after a fashion, the
illusion that I was really living another life. But let me venture
forth even so little as to snatch a kiss from two pretty lips…!
I was repelled, in horror, as though I had kissed Adriana with the
lips of a corpse, a corpse who could never come to life again for her.
Oh, if Adriana… oh no! no!… if Adriana were to understand my
strange predicament… Adriana? Impossible! Not that pure, innocent
child!… And supposing… supposing love were strong enough in
her–stronger than any social or moral scruple…. Oh, poor Adriana!
Could I take her with me into the empty world to which my lot confined
me, make her the wife of a man who could never dare declare and prove
himself alive? What then? What could I do?
Two knocks on my door brought me from my chair with a bound. It was
Though I tried with a supreme effort to master my emotions, I could
not suppress on my face all traces of the tumult within me. She too
was somewhat constrained, from a natural reserve of modesty which did
not allow her to show all the pleasure she felt at seeing me quite
well again, with light in my room once more, and–happy…. Yet, no,
not happy? Why not? She looked up at me furtively. Then she blushed.
Finally she handed me a sealed envelope.
“Here is something–for you!”
“I don’t think so. It’s probably Doctor Ambrosini’s bill. The
messenger is waiting to see if there’s an answer.”
Her voice trembled. She smiled.
“Right away!” I answered; but a wave of tenderness swept over me as I
divined that she had seized the pretext of the note to come herself
and hear from me one word that would encourage the leaping hope she
had conceived. A deep anguished pity gripped me–pity for her, pity
for myself, a cruel pity that impelled me irresistibly to caress her,
to find some little balm for my own agony which could seek comfort
only in her who was the cause of it. Knowing very well that I would be
still further compromised, I was unable to restrain myself. I held out
both my hands. Trustful, humble, her face aglow, she slowly raised her
own and placed them in mine. I drew her little blond head to my breast
and gently stroked her hair.
“Poor Adriana!” I said.
“Why?” she asked, under my caress. “Are we not happy?”
“Why ‘poor Adriana’ then?”
At that moment I almost lost control of myself. I was tempted to
rebel, to reveal everything, to answer: “Why? Listen, little girl: I
love you, and I cannot, I must not, love you. But if you are
“If you are willing!” What could that tiny defenceless creature decide
for herself in such a matter? I pressed her little head hard against
me, realizing what unspeakable cruelty it would be to hurl her from
the supreme joy in which, unsuspecting, she felt herself at that
moment of exaltation, into the abyss of desperation where I was
writhing in torment.
“Because,” I actually said, releasing her, “because I know of many
things that might make you unhappy …!”
A sharp pain was visible on her face as she looked up. I had abruptly
ended my tender caress–and I had avoided the intimate word for “you.”
Surely she had not been expecting such aloofness. She gazed at me for
a moment. Then, noting my distress, she asked fearfully:
“You know things?… About yourself… or about us… the house here?”
I replied with a gesture that meant “Here! Here!”; but it was really
to escape the violent impulse that was driving me to full confession.
Had I but yielded then! One great shock would have come to her; but
many others would have been spared her; and I should have saved myself
from new and more harassing complications. But my sad discovery was
still too recent for me to have grasped its full significance. Love
and pity outweighed stern resolution in me. I had not the heart to
destroy at one blow her hopes and my own life–at least that illusion
of living, which, so long as I kept silent, I could still preserve.
How odious, how hateful to me the revelation I would have to make: a
wife already! Yes, there was no evading it: the moment I should admit
I was not Adriano Meis, I would become Mattia Pascal again
perforce–Mattia Pascal, dead and buried, but married still! How could
I put such a thing into words? Was this not the extreme of persecution
that a wife may inflict upon a husband: to get rid of him by the false
identification of a corpse, but then to cling to him, to be a
perpetual weight upon him in this way, after his death? I could have
refused to accept the situation, it is true! I could have gone home
and declared myself alive! But who would not have done as I did, in my
place? Any man in the fix I was in at that time would have seized such
an unexpected, such an unhoped for, such an incredible opportunity to
cast off at once a wife, a mother-in-law, a ruinous debt, a sickly,
miserable, meaningless existence! Could I have realized at that time
that, officially pronounced dead, I would not be free from my
wife–that she could marry again, while I could not–that the life
which opened ahead of me, free, free, limitlessly, boundlessly free,
was only a dream which could never attain more than a superficial
realization, was only a vile humiliating slavery to the lies I would
be forced to tell, to the pretences I would be forced to make, to the
fear of detection that would relentlessly pursue me, though I had done
Adriana recognized that there was little in her home surroundings to
make her happy; but now…. A mournful smile gathered about her lips
and eyes as she stood there looking up at me…. Could things that
were a source of sorrow to her really be obstacles between her and me?
“Surely not?” that mournful smile and that appealing gaze seemed to
“But we must give Doctor Ambrosini his money!” I exclaimed gaily,
pretending suddenly to remember that the messenger was waiting in the
I tore open the envelope, and remarked in a light laughing tone:
“Six hundred lire! What do you think of that, Adriana? Signora Nature
is playing me one of her usual tricks. Notice now: for years and years
I had to go around with a–what shall we say–an unruly, a disobedient
eye in my face. Now I have a doctor cut me up and I spend forty days
in a dark cell–just because Madame Nature made a mistake, you see.
Well, after it’s all over, I have to foot the bill! Do you call that
Adriana smiled, with an effort:
“Perhaps Doctor Ambrosini would make a fuss, though, if you told him
to send his bill to Mrs. Nature. I’ll bet he wants a word of thanks
and appreciation into the bargain; because your eye…”
“Do you think it’s an improvement?”
She tried to look up into my face, but soon turned away, replying
“Yes, much better!”
“I or the eye?”
“I was afraid these whiskers…”
“No, why? They are very becoming!”
I could have dug that eye out with my fingers! Lots of good it did me
to have it in place again!
“And yet,” I said, “perhaps the eye itself was better satisfied to
remain as it used to be. It complains a little every now and then!
However… I’ll get over it!”
I stepped toward the cabinet where I kept my money. Adriana turned to
go away but I detained her–stupidly; and yet, how could I have
foreseen? In all the crises big and little in my life, Fortune, as my
story shows, had always stood by me. Well, she did, in this case
too–with a vengeance!
As I started to open the cabinet I noticed that the key would not turn
in the lock. I pulled gently and the doors swung out: it was open!
“What in the world!” I exclaimed. “Could I have left it this way?”
Noting my sudden commotion, Adriana turned deathly pale. I looked at
“Why, signorina,” I said, “someone must have been prying into this!”
Things inside the case were topsy-turvy: my banknotes had been
extracted from the leather purse in which I carried them and lay
strewn about on the bottom of the cabinet.
Adriana buried her face in her hands, aghast.
Feverishly I gathered up the scattered bills and began to count them:
“Is it possible?” I murmured, on finishing the count, passing my
trembling hands over my forehead to wipe the cold sweat away.
Adriana clutched at the edge of my table to keep from falling in a
faint. Then she asked in a hollow voice that was not her own:
“Have they robbed you?”
“Why–how can this be! Wait… wait!”
I began to count the bills over again, digging my nails furiously into
the paper as though violence could bring to light the bank notes that
“How much?” asked Adriana in a tone that betrayed an inner convulsion
of horror and dismay.
“Twelve… twelve thousand…” I faltered. “There were sixty-five…
there are now fifty-three. … You count them!”
Had I not rushed to catch her, Adriana would have collapsed as under a
hammer-blow. However, with a great effort upon herself, she
straightened up and, sobbing, choking, tore herself from my arms as I
tried to let her down into a chair.
“I shall call papa,” she said, pushing toward the door. “I shall call
“No!” I almost shouted, forcing her back into the chair. “No! Please
don’t get excited, signorina! You make it harder for me, this way! I
won’t let you! I won’t let you! What have you to do with it? Please,
stop crying now! I must look around, make sure; because … yes, the
cabinet was open; but I cannot, I must not, believe that such a large
sum of money has been stolen…. Now be good, little girl! Promise?”
Once more, as a last precaution, I counted the money over…. Then,
though I was absolutely certain that I had placed it all there in the
cabinet, I searched my room from floor to ceiling, looking even in
places where I should never have hidden such a sum except in a moment
of dire insanity. To justify the absurd hunt to my own mind, I kept
trying to emphasize the incredible audacity of the thief; until
Adriana, hysterical now, weeping and sobbing, her hands to her face,
“Oh don’t, don’t! A thief! A thief! Even a thief: And it was all
planned in advance! I heard it… in the dark… I suspected
something… but I refused to bslieve he would go that far…”
Papiano! Yes, Papiano! It could be no one but he … using his
half-witted brother… during the “experiments” in the darkened room!
“But I don’t understand…” Adriana wept again. … “I don’t
understand! How could you ever keep so much money with you–in a
cabinet like that–at home?”
I turned toward her and stood silent as in a stupor. How answer that
question? Could I tell her that I was obliged, in my circumstances, to
keep my money with me, that I did not dare deposit it in any bank or
entrust it to any broker–since, in case I should have the least
difficulty in withdrawing it, I could never establish my legal
identity and ownership?
Not to arouse her suspicions by my embarrassment, I was simply cruel:
“How could I ever have supposed…?”
The poor girl was now in a paroxysm of anguish:
“O God! O God! O God!” she wept.
The terror that might properly have assailed the person guilty of the
theft now came over me instead, as I thought of possible consequences.
Papiano would guess that I could not charge the Spanish painter with
the crime, nor old Anselmo, nor Pepita Pantogada, nor Silvia Caporale,
nor the spirit of Max Oliz. He would know mighty well that I would
accuse him–him and his brother. Well, knowing that, he had gone ahead
just the same, defying me.
What could I do, indeed? Have him arrested? How-could I do that?
Never, in the world! I could do nothing, nothing, nothing!
The reflection crushed me utterly.
A second discovery, and all in one day! I knew who the thief was, and
I could not have him punished. What right had I to the law’s
protection? I was outside every law. Who was I, please? Nobody! I did
not exist, in the eyes of the law! Anybody could pick my pocket and
I… hush, hush!
But–come to think of it–how could Papiano be sure of just that?
“How did he manage it?” I said, almost to myself. “Where did he ever
get the courage?”
Adriana raised her head from her hands, and looked at me in
astonishment, as much as to say: “Don’t you understand?”
“Yes, I see!” I answered, catching what she meant.
“But you will have him arrested,” she exclaimed resolutely, rising to
her feet. “I am going to call papa! He will have him arrested!”
Again I was in time to stop her. That would have been the last
straw–Adriana, of all people, compelling me to have recourse to the
law! I had lost twelve thousand lire–but that was nothing! I had also
to fear lest the crime become known. I had also to get down on my
knees and beg Adriana not to talk, not, for Heaven’s sake, to let
But–nonsense! Adriana (I see it all clearly enough now) could not
possibly allow me to be silent and force silence also upon her. She
could not accept what must have looked like a generous act on my part,
could not for a number of reasons: first, on account of her love for
me; then for the good reputation of her house; finally, out of fear
and hatred for her brother-in-law.
But at that painful moment, her well-justified rebellion seemed to me
just one nuisance too much: angrily, I menaced:
“But you will keep this to yourself, do you hear? You won’t say a
word to a living soul, do you hear? Do you want to cause a scandal?”
The poor child began to sob again:
“No, no! I don’t want to make a scandal! But I’m going to rid my home
of that disgraceful rascal!”
“But he’ll say he didn’t do it!” I persisted. “And then you, and all
the rest of us, as suspects, in court! Can’t you see that?”
“Well, what of it?” answered Adriana, quivering now with anger. “Let
him deny it, let him deny it! But we, you know, have plenty of other
things to say against him. Have him arrested, Mr. Meis! Don’t be
afraid for us! You will be doing us a great service, believe me! You
will be paying him back for what he did to my poor sister…. You
ought to see that you will be doing me a wrong not to report him to
the police. If you don’t, I will, so there! How can you expect papa
and me to live under such a disgrace? No! I won’t! I won’t! I
I caught the little girl up in my arms, forgetting all about the money
for the moment in my anguish at seeing her suffer so desperately. I
promised her that I would do as she said, if only she would dry her
tears. How did it reflect on her and her papa? I knew who was to
blame: Papiano had decided my love for her was worth twelve thousand
lire. Well, should I show him he was wrong by having him arrested?
“You want him arrested? Well, I’ll report him, there, there, little
girl! Not on account of the money–but just to get him out of the
house… yes, yes… right away… but on one condition, little
girl… that you wipe away those tears… and stop crying that way,
eh?… Yes, yes…. But you must promise … promise by all you hold
most dear… that you’ll not mention the theft to a living soul…
till I’ve had time to consult a lawyer… there! there!… and see
what all the consequences might be… because now… we’re too
excited… we might make some mistake…. You promise? You promise? By
all you hold most dear?”
Adriana took the oath, and with a look, through her tears, that told
me what she was swearing by, what it was she held most dear in all the
world. Poor, poor Adriana!
When she went out, I stood there in the middle of the room, stunned,
vacant, confounded, as though all the world had vanished from around
me. How long was it before I came to myself again? And how did I
revive? Plain idiocy! Plain idiocy! Only an imbecile could stand
there looking at the cabinet, as I was doing. Had the lock been
jimmied? No, there was not a trace of violence on the varnish. The
door had been opened with a duplicate, while I was keeping my key so
carefully in my pocket.
“Don’t you feel as though you had lost something?” Paleari had asked
me at the end of the last seance. Twelve thousand lire!
Again the thought of my absolute helplessness, of my absolute
nothingness, came over me, flattening me to earth. That I might be
robbed, that I could say nothing in such a case, that, indeed, I
should have to fear the crime might be discovered quite as much as
though I myself were the thief, had not occurred even remotely to my
“Twelve thousand lire! But that’s nothing: they could take every cent
I have, strip the shirt off my back, and still I… hush! hush! What
right have I to speak? Question: ‘Who are you?’ Question: ‘Where did
you get that money?’ Well, never mind the police…. This evening,
say, I go up to him and I seize him by the collar: ‘Here, you
miserable scoundrel, just hand back that money you took out of my
cabinet!’… He raises his voice in holy wrath. He denies. Can you
imagine him saying: ‘Why yes, here you are, old man! I took it by
mistake!’? And that isn’t the worst of it. He might even sue me for
slander! No… hush–the soft pedal! Hah! And I thought I was so
lucky when they declared me dead! Well, now I’m really dead! Dead? I’m
worse than dead: as old Anselmo reminded me–the dead are through with
dying, while I have to die again. Alive as regards the dead, dead as
regards the living! What kind of a life can I live, after all? Again
alone, all by myself–solitude!”
With a shudder of horror, I buried my face in my hands and sank into a
Ah, were I but a criminal outright! I could reconcile myself to a life
like that, getting used to wandering and continual danger, living
indeed in constant suspense, without fixed purposes, without definite
connections. But I? I could do nothing! But something I had to do!
Well, what? Go away, for instance! Yes, but where? And Adriana! What
could I do for her? Nothing! Nothing! Yet, how, after what had
happened, could I just go away without any explanation? She would
attribute my conduct to the theft; but then she would ask: “Why did he
choose to protect the thief and punish me?” Oh no, no! Poor Adriana!
But since I could not act, how could I hope to save appearances with
her? I had to seem illogical and cruel–there was no escape from that!
Cruelty, inconsistency, for that matter, were part and parcel of my
situation in the world; and I was the first to suffer from them. Even
Papiano, the thief, was more coherent and less brutal in committing
the theft, than I would have to show myself in forgiving him.
What better logic, in fact? He wanted Adriana, to avoid repaying the
dowry of his first wife. I had tried to deprive him of Adriana. Was it
not fair, therefore, that I should pay the money to Anselmo?
As logical as Euclid, barring the detail of thievery–a mere detail.
Hardly thievery at all, when you look at it right. For my loss would
be more apparent than real. Adriana being the girl she was, Papiano
understood that I would make her my wife and not my lover. Well, in
that case, I would get my money back in the dowry. My money back, and
the dearest sweetest little woman in the world! What more could I ask
Oh, I was absolutely sure: if we could only wait, if Adriana could
manage to hold her tongue, we would see Papiano paying the money he
owed to Anselmo even before the note fell due. Well, to be sure–I
wouldn’t get the money because I could never marry Adriana; but she
would get it–provided that is, she would follow my advice and keep
quiet; and provided I could stay on for some time in the house. A
tough job–lots of skill, and the patience of Job! But in the end
Adriana could look forward to the return of the dowry.
This conclusion quieted my apprehensions, at least in her regard. As
regards myself, alas, I was still faced by all the horror of my
discovery–the fallacy in my new life, in comparison with which the
loss of twelve thousand lire was nothing–even a blessing, if it
proved in the end to help Adriana a little.
For my part, I was cut off now from life forever; I had no conceivable
chance of reentering it again. With that bitter sorrow in my heart,
with all this terrifying experience of the reality before me, I would
leave that house where I had begun to feel at home, where I had found
a little rest and quiet. Yes, out upon the roads again, roads leading
to nowhere, an aimless, purposeless, unending vagabondage! Fear of
being caught again by the tentacles of life would keep me more than
ever aloof from men. Alone! Alone! Utterly alone!
Morose, diffident, suspicious! The tortures of Tantalus!
I picked up my hat and coat and ran out of the house like mad.
When I came to my senses I found myself on the Via Flaminia near the
Ponte Molle. Why had I come just there? I looked around. The sun was
shining brightly. My eyes chanced to fall upon my shadow, clean cut
on the white pavement. I stood contemplating it for a time. Finally I
raised my foot to stamp on it. But no, no! I could not. I could not
stamp on my own shadow. Which was more of a shadow, I or my shadow
There, there, on the ground! And anybody could walk on it, grind his
heels into my head, into my heart. And I could say nothing, or my
“The shadow of a dead man–that’s what I am!”
A wagon was approaching. I stood just as I was to see if it were not
so: yes, first the horse, one hoof after another; then the two wheels!
“Exactly! Let him have it! Right across the neck! Ah-hah! That’s
good, you too, eh, doggie? That’s right–hut your leg a little higher,
eh? Just a little higher, eh?”
And I burst into a bitter laugh. The dog scampered off, afraid of me.
The teamster turned and looked, wondering what I was laughing at. But
I started away, my shadow moving along the ground in front of me.
With a mad ferocious delight, I amused myself pushing the shadow under
the wheels of carriages, the hoofs of horses, the feet of passersby.
At one moment I failed to find it where I had been expecting, and the
queer idea came to me that I might have kicked it loose. But I turned
around. It was there on the ground behind me, now.
“And if I start running, it will keep up with me to the end!” I mused.
Had I gone crazy? Had I fallen prey to a fixed idea? I pinched my
forehead to be sure I was myself. But yes, I was thinking straight, I
was thinking soundly! That shadow was the symbol, the spectre of my
real life. I was really lying flat on the ground, and everybody could
walk on me with impunity. To such depths the late Mattia Pascal had
fallen! He lay buried back there in the cemetery at Miragno. His
ghost, his shadow, was walking the streets of Rome!
That shadow had a heart, and it could not love! That shadow had money,
and anyone could steal it. That shadow had a head, and the head could
think, could think just enough to understand that it was the head of a
shadow but not the shadow of a head! Just so, ladies and gentlemen!
How it ached, that head! It ached as though all those wheels and hoofs
had really passed over it, pinching, crushing, bruising it. Well, why
not lift it out of the gutter for a while?
A street car came along; and I leapt aboard…. On my way back to my
Quite before the door was opened to my ring, I knew that something
serious had happened inside: I could hear the voices of Papiano and
Paleari away out in the street.
It was the Caporale woman who finally came, pale and in great
agitation, to let me in:
“So it’s true, is it?” she cried. “Twelve thousand?” I stopped in my
tracks, breathless, dismayed. Scipione Papiano, the half-wit, crossed
the entry at just that moment, barefooted, his shoes in his hand, and
his coat off. He too was pale and frightened.
I could hear his brother Terenzio vociferating violently:
“Well, call the police, call them, and be damned!” A flash of bitter
anger at Adriana ran through me. In spite of my prohibition, in spite
of her promise, she had spoken!
“Who told you that?” I almost shouted at Miss Caporale. “Nothing of
the kind! I have found it again!”
The piano teacher looked at me in amazement:
“The money? Found again? Really? Oh, thank God! Thank God!” she
exclaimed, raising her arms devoutly; then she ran on ahead of me into
the dining room where Papiano and old Anselmo were screaming at each
other at the tops of their voices, while Adriana was weeping and
“He’s found it! He’s found it again!” Silvia called exultantly. “Here
is Mr. Meis now! He’s gotten his money back!”
The three of them stood there in utter astonishment. Adriana and her
father with flushed faces, however; while Papiano wild-eyed,
ashen-pale, seemed staggered at the news.
I eyed him fixedly for a second. I must have been paler than he, and I
was quivering from head to toe. He could not meet my gaze. His body
seemed to sag at the knees. His brother’s coat fell from his grasp. I
went close up to him and held out my hand:
“I’m so sorry: excuse me, please–and all the rest of you…”
“No!” cried Adriana indignantly; but she pressed her handkerchief to
Papiano looked at her and dared not offer me his hand. Again I said:
“I beg your pardon!” And I forced my clasp upon him, for the
satisfaction of sensing the tremor that was vibrating through his
whole body. His hand was as limp as a rag. He had the look of a
corpse, especially about his deadened glassy eyes.
“I’m extremely sorry,” I added, “for all the trouble, for the very
serious trouble I have caused you–unintentionally, you may be
“Not at all,” Paleari stammered. “Not at all… or rather… yes…
if I may… you see… it was something that really… yes… it
couldn’t be so… there! Delighted, Mr. Meis, my congratulations …
so glad you got it back… your money… because …”
Papiano passed his two hands over his perspiring brow, ran his fingers
through his hair, took a deep breath and then, turning his back to us,
stood looking through the French doors out upon the balcony.
“I am like the man in the story,” I began again, smiling. “I was
looking for the donkey and I was on its back all the time: I had the
twelve thousand lire in my pocket book! The joke is on me!”
Adriana could not stand this:
“But you looked in your pocket book, and everywhere else, in my
presence; why, there, in the cabinet…”
“Yes, signorina,” I interrupted, severely and firmly; “but I couldn’t
have looked carefully enough, since, now, as you see, I have found the
money… I ask your pardon particularly, signorina; for this oversight
on my part must have cost you more suffering than any of the others. I
hope however that now…”
“No! No! No!” cried Adriana, breaking into sobs and dashing out of the
room with Silvia Caporale pursuing her.
“I don’t understand!” exclaimed Paleari in amazement.
Papiano turned angrily toward us:
“Well, anyhow, I’m going to clear out–today…. It would seem that
now there is no further need of… of…”
He gagged, as if his breath were giving out. Finally he decided to
address me, though he did not have the effrontery to look me in the
“I… I couldn’t… believe me… I couldn’t even say no… when
they… right here…. Why, I went right after my brother who…
irresponsible … sick as he is… who could be sure?… He might
have… I dragged him in here by the collar. … A terrible scene…
I made him take off all his clothes… to search him… even under his
shirt … and in his shoes and stockings…. And he… oh!”
At this point his voice choked again and his eyes filled with tears.
Then he added in a broken, husky tone:
“Well, they were able to see… but, of course…. since you…. But
after what has taken place, I am going away…!”
“No, you’re not!” I said. “By no means! On my account? No, you must
stay here! I’m the one who’s going to move, if anybody is!”
“Why, the idea, Mr. Meis!” said old Anselmo in sincere protest.
Even Papiano, struggling with the tears he was trying to suppress,
made a negative gesture. At last he was able to explain:
“I was… I was going away anyhow! In fact, all this happened because
I… without meaning anything in the world… announced that I was
intending to leave, on account of my brother, who, really, should not
be kept at home any longer… Fact is… the Marquis gave me… see
for yourself–I have it here–a letter for the director of a
sanatorium in Naples…. I have to go to Naples anyway, for some more
documents the Marquis wants…. And my sister-in-law, who holds you…
quite properly… in high, in the very highest, esteem… jumps up and
says no one is to leave the house… that every one of us should
remain indoors … because you… well… because you had
discovered…. That to me! Her own brother, you might say!… Yes sir,
she said it to me…. I suppose because I… poor, I grant you, but
honest after all… I am under obligations to pay to my father-in-law,
Mr. Paleari here….”
“What in the world are you dreaming of now?” exclaimed Paleari,
“No,” said Papiano, drawing up haughtily. “It’s on iny mind! I’m
bearing it in mind, don’t you worry! ‘And if I go away…. Poor, poor
Papiano seemed unable to control his feelings any longer, and burst
into tears outright.
Paleari, deeply moved and very much perplexed, did not know what to
make of it all:
“Well, what’s Scipione got to do with that?”
“My poor little brother!” Papiano continued, with such a ring of
sincerity in his voice that even I felt a choke gathering in my
throat. I concluded that his emotion was due to an access of remorse
on account of his brother, whom he had used in the venture, whom, if I
reported the matter to the police, he would have blamed for the theft,
and whom he had actually humiliated by the insulting search.
No one understood better than Papiano that I had not recovered the
stolen money. My unexpected declaration, coming to save him just when
he was thinking himself lost and was about to accuse Scipione (or,
according to his premeditated plan, to suggest that the half-wit alone
could be responsible for such a thing), had thrown him completely off
his pins. He was weeping now, either from an uncontrollable necessity
for giving some vent to his inner strain, or because he felt that he
could not face me except in tears. These tears, clearly enough, were
an overture of peace to me. He was kneeling in. humble surrender at
my feet; but on one condition: that I stick to what I had said about
finding the money again; for if, profiting by his present abasement, I
were to return to my charge, he would rise against me in a fury. Put
it this way: he did not know, he was never to know, anything at all
about the theft. My generous falsehood was saving only his brother,
who, as I should understand, could not be punished anyhow, in view of
the boy’s mental infirmity. On his side, I should observe, he was
pledging himself indirectly but clearly, to repay the Paleari dowry.
All this I read in his tears. But at last, Anselmo’s exhortations and
my own prevailed upon him to master his agitation. He said he would go
to Naples but return the moment he had found a good hospital for his
brother, cashed certain interests he owned in a business he had recently started with a friend, and copied the papers the Marquis
“By the way,” he concluded, turning now to me; “it had quite gone out
of my mind. The Marquis requested me to invite you for today, if you
are free… along with my father-in-law and Adriana…”
“Oh, that’s a good idea,” exclaimed Anselmo, without letting him
finish: “Yes, we’ll all go! Splendid! We have good excuse for a bit of
diversion now. What do you say, Mr. Meis? Shall we go?”
“So far as I am concerned…” I said, with a gesture of compliance.
“Well, shall we make it four o’clock then?” Papiano proposed, wiping
his eyes for good this time.
I went to my room, my thoughts all on Adriana, who had answered my
story about the money by running away from us in tears. Supposing she
should come now and demand an explanation? Certainly she could not
have believed what I said. What then, could she be thinking? That, in
denying the theft, I had intended to punish her for breaking her
promise? Why had I done so,–come to think of it? Of course–because
the lawyer whom I had gone out to consult before bringing criminal
charges, had assured me that she, and everybody else in the house,
would be brought under suspicion. She, to be sure, had announced her
willingness to face the scandal; but I, obviously, could not allow
that–just for the sake of twelve thousand lire! She, accordingly,
could interpret such generosity on my part as a sacrifice made out of
love for her!
Another humiliating lie forced upon me by my circumstances–a
loathsome lie which credited me with an exquisite and delicate act of
unselfishness all the finer because in no sense had she requested or
desired it! Was this the way I should reason?
Why no! Not at all, not at all! Was I crazy?
Following the logic of my necessary and inevitable falsehood, I could
reach quite different conclusions. Bosh, this notion of generosity, of
sacrifice, of affection! Could I engage the poor child’s emotions any
further? No, I must suppress, I must strangle my own passion, and
neither speak to Adriana again, nor look at her again in any intimate
way. Well, in that case, how could she reconcile my apparent
generosity with the demeanor I should henceforth maintain toward her?
Along this line I would be forced to use her revelation of the
theft–a revelation which I repudiated at the first opportunity–as a
pretext for breaking off relations with her! But was there any sense
to that? No, there were but two possibilities: either I had lost the
money–in which case, why was it I did not have the thief arrested,
but, instead, withdrew my affection from her as though she were the
guilty one? Or else, I had really gotten my money back–in which case,
why should I cease loving her?
A sense of nausea, disgust, loathing for myself seized upon me. At
least I should be able to explain to her that there was no whit of
kindness involved in the matter, that I took no legal steps, because I
couldn’t, because I couldn’t!… Well, I would have to give some
reason…. I couldn’t let it drop like that!… Perhaps I had stolen
the money myself in the first place! Yes, she might easily draw that
conclusion! I could let her think so!…
Or I could explain that I was a fugitive from persecution, a man in
trouble, compelled to drop out of sight and so unable to share his lot
with a wife!
Lies, lies, nothing but lies for that poor innocent creature!
Well, the truth, perhaps? A truth so improbable that even I who had
lived it could hardly believe it so! Could I tell her such an absurd
tale, such a disordered fancy? And in that case, to avoid one more
lie, I should have to confess that I had told nothing but lies
hitherto! That would be all a truthful explanation could possibly
amount to! And it would neither make me less of a scoundrel nor ease
I do believe that in the state of exasperation and disgust in which I
then found myself, I would have made a clean breast of everything to
Adriana, if, instead of sending Silvia Caporale, she had come to my
room herself to tell me why she had gone back on her promise not to
For that matter, I knew already from what Papiano had said. Miss
Caporale added that Adriana was inconsolable.
“Why should she be?” I asked with forced indifference.
“Because,” the piano teacher answered, “she does not believe you have
found the money!”
It occurred to me just then–an impulse quite in harmony, moreover,
with my mood at the time–that one way out of it would be to make
Adriana lose all respect for me, let her think me a hard, selfish,
treacherous trifler whom she could not love. That would serve me right
for the harm I had done her! She would be terribly hurt for a while to
be sure, but in the end she would be the gainer.
“She doesn’t believe it? How is that?” And I smiled shrewdly at the
Caporale woman. “Twelve thousand lire, signorina! That much money
doesn’t grow on every bush! Do you think I would be as cheerful as I
am, if I had really lost it?”
“But Adriana said…” she tried to add.
“Nonsense! Plain nonsense!” I continued, interrupting. “It’s true
that… look… I did suspect for a moment; but I also told Miss
Paleari that I could not believe such a thing possible…. And, in
fact… well, you say it for me… what reason could I have for
claiming I had recovered the money if I hadn’t?”
Miss Caporale shrugged her shoulders:
“Perhaps Adriana thinks you may have some reason…”
“But I told you no! And no it is!” I hurriedly interjected. “Remember
it was a matter of twelve thousand lire…. Now a lire or two would
not have made much difference…. But twelve thousand!… My
generosity is not so great as all that…. She must be thinking I’m a
When Silvia Caporale went away to report to Adriana, I wrung my hands,
and dug my teeth into my knuckles! Was that the way to go about it–as
it were, trying to pay her for her crushed illusions in my regard with
the money they had stolen from me? Could any thing be meaner, cheaper,
more cowardly? I thought of her in the next room there, raging at me
probably, despising me, not being in a position to understand that her
grief was my grief too. Yet, that was the way it had to be! She had to
hate me, despise me, as I hated and despised myself. What was more, to
increase that hatred and contempt, I would now be very courteous
toward Papiano–her enemy–as though to compensate him in her eyes for
the suspicions I and she had had of him. And my thief himself would be
disconcerted, confounded, even to the point of thinking me perhaps a
What was left? Could I do anything worse? Yes … one thing! We were
going to the Giglios’. That very day I would begin paying open court
to Pepita Pantogada!
“That will make you scorn me more than ever, Adriana,” I groaned,
writhing on my bed. “What else, what else, can I do for you?”
Shortly after four o’clock old Anselmo, in formal dress, came and
knocked on my door.
“I’m all ready!” I called, rising and throwing on my coat.
“Are you going that way?” asked Paleari in astonishment.
“Why?” I asked.
But then I noticed that I had on a Scottish cap with a visor, that I
usually wore about the house. I put it into my pocket and reached for
my hat, while Anselmo stood chuckling and chuckling to himself….
“Where are you going, Mr. Paleari?” I asked, as he suddenly turned
“Why, I’m as daft as you are,” he answered, pointing to his feet. “I
was going in my slippers! Just step into the other room, Mr. Meis.
Adriana is there and…”
“What, is she coming too?”
“She didn’t want to,” called Paleari, moving along toward his
quarters. “But I made her change her mind! … She’s in the
dining-room, with her things on…”
With what cold and severe reproachfulness Miss Caporale stared at me
as I entered the room! Caught in a hopeless passion herself, she had
been so often comforted by this simple inexperienced little child! Now
that Adriana understood what the world was like, now that Adriana had
been hurt, Silvia rushed grateful and solicitous to her rescue. What
right had I to make such a good and pretty little child unhappy? As
for herself, Silvia–neither good nor pretty–men might have some
excuse for being mean to her! But not to Adriana! Not to Adriana!
This she seemed to be saying with her eyes as she invited me to survey
the wreckage I had made in the life beside her. And in truth, how
pale, how bravely pale, Adriana was! Her eyes were red with weeping.
What an anguished effort it must have cost to get up and dress to go
out for an afternoon–with me!
Notwithstanding the state of mind in which I went on the party, the
personality and the home of the Marquis Giglio d’Auletta aroused some
curiosity in me. I knew the reason for his residence in Rome: he saw
no possible way to the restoration of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies
except through the victory of the Temporal Power: once the Pope could
recover his capital, the Kingdom of Italy might go to pieces, and in
the upset … who could tell? The Marquis was not strong on
prophesying! One thing at a time! Attend to the job in front of you!
For the moment–war, without asking or giving quarter, and in the
Clerical camp! And his salon, in fact, was the rallying place of the
most intransigent prelates of the Curia, and the most valorous laic
champions of the Blacks.
On that day, however, we found no other callers in the vast and
sumptuous drawing-room. Conspicuous, in the middle of the floor, was a
painter’s easel with a canvas about half finished: it was Minerva,
Pepita’s lap-dog, a black little beast, stretched out on a white sofa,
her pointed snout resting on her two front paws.
“By Bernaldez, the Spanish artist!” announced Papiano gravely, as
though he were making an introduction that required an unusually low
bow from the rest of us.
Pepita Pantogada came in, followed, shortly, by her governess, Signora
On previous occasions, I had seen these two women in the semi-darkness
of my room; now, tinder a full light, Miss Pantogada seemed a
different woman, not as a whole perhaps, but in respect of her nose.
What? Had I ever seen that nose before? I had imagined it as a small
upturned affair, impudent rather than not. But no: it was strong,
A stunning girl, all the same! Dark complexion, flashing black eyes,
coal black hair, wavy and shiny. Thin lips, sharp, keen, sarcastic,
bright red. Painted, almost–rather than fitted–on her slender
shapely form, a dark dress with white lace-work.
The soft placid beauty of the blond Adriana faded under the brilliancy
of this superior glow.
And, bless me, at last I solved the mystery of that steeple on Signora
Candida’s head. It was… it was first of all: a magnificent blondish
wig of waved hair; and pitched, if I may say so, on the wig, a sort of
tent–a broad light-blue kerchief, or mantilla, of silk, that was
drawn down and knotted coyly under her chin. A magnificent frame,
truly for such a plain, lean, angular, washed-out face, which inches
of rouge and powder and–so forth, could not improve.
Meantime Minerva was barking so vociferously that we were hardly able
to exchange formalities. But the poor doggie was not barking at us.
She was barking at the easel, and at the white sofa, which she
remembered as instruments of torture apparently. The protest and
lament of an incensed soul! Yelp! Get out of this room! Yelp! Get out
of this room! But the easel stood there unperturbed on its three legs;
so Minerva retreated slowly on her four, barking, showing her teeth,
returning to the charge, retreating again, in terrible commotion.
A fat chubby body on four over-slender legs, Minerva was not a pretty
dog. Many times grandmother, I imagine: there was no sparkle in her
eyes, and her hair had turned gray in places. On her back, just
forward of her tail, was a bare spot, resulting from the habit she had
of scratching herself furiously on the rungs of chairs, on the corners
of book-cases, on anything hard and sharp that would reach that
This I knew already, however.
Finally Pepita seized Minerva by the nape of the neck and tossed her
at Signora Candida, scolding:
“Cito!” which was Pantogadese for “zitto“–“shut up!”
And Don Ignazio Giglio d’Auletta came hurrying in. He trotted–so
round-shouldered he bent almost double–to an arm-chair he always sat
in next to a window, fell into his seat, brought his cane to rest
between his two legs, and finally sighed a heavy sigh and smiled a wan
smile at his mortal weariness. His face, clean-shaven, shrunken,
furrowed all over with deep vertical wrinkles, was of a corpselike
pallor, in contrast with his gleaming, ardent, almost youthful eyes.
Down over his cheeks, his temples, and the sides of his head, thick
shags of hair trickled like tongues of wet ashes.
Speaking in an obstrusive Neapolitan sing-song, the Marquis welcomed
us with great cordiality, asking his secretary to continue showing me
the mementos of which the room was full–all testimonials of his
fidelity to the Bourbon dynasty. Here was a small framed picture, as I
took it to be, curtained by a green cloth which bore, in letters of
gold, the legend: NON NASCONDO: RIPARO. ALZAMI E LEGGI (I conceal not,
but defend: lift me and read!). The Marquis asked Papiano to take down
the picture and bring it to him. It was not a picture at all, but a
letter (framed under glass) through which Pietro Ulloa, writing in
September, 1860 (among the last gasps of the Two Sicilies, that is)
invited the Marquis Giglio d’Auletta to assume a portfolio in the
Cabinet (which was destined never to take office). In the margins was
a transcript of the Marquis’s acceptance, a ringing document, the
latter, branding with infamy those men of prominence in the realm who,
in the moment of supreme danger and anguish for their Sovereign, with
the filibusterer Garibaldi hammering at the gates of Naples, declined
to shoulder the responsibilities of Power.
As the old Marquis enunciated these documents aloud, he became so
wrought up that I could not help admiring him, though everything he
said offended my sensibilities as an Italian. He too, besides, had
been a hero after his fashion; as I learned from a story he told in
comment on a fleur-de-lis in gilded wood, that was also on show in the
It happened on the fifth of September, 1860. The King was leaving the
Royal Palace in an open carriage attended only by the Queen and a few
gentlemen of the court. On the Via di Ghiaja, the carriage was held
up by a jam in the traffic in front of a pharmacy which bore the sign
of the lilies-of-gold. A ladder running up to the side of the building
from the middle of the street was the cause of the congestion.
Carpenters were at work on top of the ladder, removing the lilies from
the front of the shop. The King called the Queen’s attention to that
act of cowardice on the part of the druggist, who in more peaceful
times had been only too glad to vaunt his royal brevet as an honor to
his store. Well, he, the Marquis d’Auletta, happened to be passing at
the moment; and in a rage of indignant loyalty, he ran into the shop,
collared the offending pharmacist, pointed to the King out in the
street, spat in the man’s face, and went away, brandishing one of the
fallen lilies as a trophy: “Viva il Re!”
The Marquis was as proud of that old shop-sign as he was of this
Golden Fleece, his keys as a Gentleman of the King’s Chamber, his
trappings as a Chevalier of Saint Gennaro, and all the other
decorations on display in the drawing-room under two full length
portraits of their Majesties Ferdinand and Francis Second.
As soon as I could, I broke away from Papiano and Paleari to execute
my base design: I approached Pepita Pantogada.
It did not take me long to see that the young lady was in a very bad
humor with a case of nerves. She first wanted to know what time it
“Quattro e meccio? Four firty? Vary well! Vary well!”
That she was not overjoyed to find it was “four firty” I gathered from
the tone of the “vary well’s,” and from the voluble and–in the
circumstances–bad-mannered tirade, on which she then launched out,
agaipst Italy in general and against Rome in particular–Rome so stuck
up over its blessed “glories of the Past?” The Colosseum? What was the
Colosseum? They had a Colosseum, también, in Spain, just as big and
just as old–“and we don’t swell up and burst every time we walk by
it. Pile of dirty stone, piedra muerta, anyhow!” “If you want to
know what a theatre is, come to Spain and see one of our Plazas de Toros. And your old paintings! Why–I’d rather have this picture of
Minerva here, that Bernaldez is poking along trying to finish in time
for Kingdom Come!”
Yes, that was it! Pepita wanted that picture and she wanted it right
away. It was “four firty” and Bernaldez had not appeared! She fidgeted
around on her chair, rubbed her nose, opened and closed her hands,
with her eyes fastened on the drawing-room door.
At last the butler announced Bernaldez; and the painter came into the
room, panting and perspiring as though he had had the run of his life.
But Pepita’s attitude at once changed. With a flounce she turned her
back on him and stared the other way, affecting an air of cool and
collected indifference. Bernaldez went over and shook hands with the
Marquis, bowed to us each in turn and then approached Pepita, speaking
in Spanish and begging pardon for his tardiness. Pepita now boiled
over, and when she spoke, it was in a torrent of Pantogadese:
“First of all, you speak Italian, since these people do not know
Spanish, and I think it bad manners for you to use Spanish with me. In
the second place, I Care not for you, for your picture, for you come
late, for your excuse, for nothing!”
Bernaldez did the best a fellow could do in such a case: he smiled
nervously, he bowed chivalrously; finally he asked if he might resume
work on the picture since there would be still an hour of light.
“As you say!” she answered in the same manner. “You paint the picture
without me, or you rub it all out–it is one to me!”
Bernaldez bowed again, and turned to Signora Candida who was still
holding the dog Pepita had thrown into her arms.
Poor Minerva’s hour of torture was beginning again; but her suffering
was as nothing compared to that of her executioner. To punish
Bernaldez for being late, Pepita began to flirt with me and with an
ardor that seemed to me excessive even for the purpose I had in view.
A glance in Adriana’s direction warned me of the extent of that poor
girl’s distress–it could not, for that matter have been much greater
than Minerva’s, nor Manuel Bernaldez’s, nor mine. I could feel my face
naming redder and redder, as though I were intoxicated with the anger
I knew I was arousing in that unfortunate young man. I had no pity for
him, but just a fiendish delight in his torment. My thoughts were all
for Adriana. She was being hurt to the quick: why should he not be
also? In fact, I seemed to feel that the more he suffered, the less
her pain might be. Certain it was that the air in the room was
becoming electric with a tension that must soon reach the breaking
It was Minerva who brought on the storm. Since Pepita was sitting with
her back to the easel and the sofa, the little dog was not being cowed
as usual by her mistress’s sharp eyes; so the moment the painter
turned to his canvas, Minerva would cautiously rise from her “pose,”
and first one paw forward and then another, eventually get her nose
and head under the cushions, as though she were trying to hide. At any
rate, when Bernaldez would turn around again, he would find himself
confronted not by his pose, but by the hind legs and the curly
upturned tail of his unwilling subject.
Several times already Signora Candida had put Minerva in place again.
Bernaldez fuming with rage meantime, and commenting under his breath
on a word of endearment that he would catch every now and then from
Pepita’s conversation with me. I say, under his breath. His remarks
were not always inaudible, exactly; and more than once I was tempted
“Did you say something, Mr. Bernaldez?”
Finally his patience gave out and he exploded:
“Miss Pantogada, will you at least be kind enough to keep this little
bitch of yours where she belongs?”
“Vitch? Vitch? Vitch?” cried Pepita, jumping to her feet and turning
upon the poor painter, livid with rage; “you dare call my dog a
“But a dog doesn’t mind coarse language!” I was unhappily prompted to
I didn’t realize, at the moment, that a man in Bernaldez’s state of
excitement might catch an allusion where none in the least was
intended. I was not criticizing his choice of words, nor did I even
think that he might take my “dog” as referring to himself. But he
“My language is no business of yours, monsieur!”
Under his fixed aggressive provoking stare, I felt my temper begin to
rise. I could not help replying:
“I must say, Signor Bernaldez, you may be a great painter…”
“What’s the matter?” piped the Marquis, noticing our hostile mood.
Bernaldez dropped his brush and his palette and strode over till his
face was a few inches from mine:
“… a great painter?… Say what you were going to say, monsieur!”
“… a great painter, yes… but your manners aren’t all they might
be; and besides, you frighten the dog!”
There was a sting of contempt in the tone of every word I uttered.
“Yes,” said he, “but we’ll see whether it’s only four-legged dogs that
are afraid of me!” And he drew back.
Pepita now began to shriek hysterically, and she. had technique enough
to fall fainting into the arms of Pa-piano and Signora Candida.
In the confusion I turned my attention, naturally, to the girl, whom
they were easing on a sofa. But I suddenly felt a clutch on my arm:
Bernaldez was upon me. I was just in time to parry the blow he had
aimed at my face, and to throw him back with a hard push. Again he
rushed, barely missing my cheek with a furious stroke. It was my turn
to attack: but Papiano and Paleari had jumped between us. Bernaldez
was backing out of the room, shaking his fist at me:
“Consider yourself thrashed, monsieur. Consider yourself thrashed! I
am at your service at any time! The people here know my address!”
The Marquis was standing in front of his chair, trembling and
shouting. I was struggling to get free from Paleari and Papiano to
pursue my assailant. The Marquis at last was able to make himself
“You are a gentleman,” said he. “You must send two of your friends to
settle your accounts with this fellow. To me, he must explain how he
dared attack a guest of mine in my house!”
I was quivering with excitement, and barely had breath enough to wish
the Marquis good-day. I left at once, followed by Papiano and old
Anselmo. Adriana remained to assist in reviving Pepita, whom they had
carried to another room.
Now I had the privilege of getting down on my knees to the thief who
had robbed me and asking him, along with Paleari, to be my second. To
whom else could I appeal?
“Me?” asked Anselmo in honest stupor, “Me? Why, my dear Mr. Meis, you
must be joking? Me? Never in the world. Why, I know nothing about such
business. … All nonsense, anyhow! Really now, isn’t it?”
“You must!” I retorted energetically, not choosing to begin an
argument at just that moment. “You and Mr. Papiano will be so good as
to go at once to that gentleman’s house…”
“I? I? Not a single step, my dear boy! Ask me anything else–at your
service! But just this? No sir! Not my line, in the first place! And
anyhow–nonsense! Nothing serious! Little rumpus like that! Why so
“No, you’re wrong there!” interrupted Papiano, noticing my furious
rage. “It is a serious matter! Mr. Meis has a right to demand
satisfaction. In fact, he’s in honor bound to demand satisfaction.
He’s got to fight! He’s got to fight!…”
“So you, then!” I said. “You go, with a friend of yours…”
I had not expected a refusal from Papiano; but he opened his arms in a
gesture of apologetic helplessness.
“You know how I should like to help you out… but…”
“You won’t?” I stormed, stopping in the middle of the street.
“Wait! Let me explain, Mr. Meis!” he answered humbly. “Just see!…
Listen!… Notice the fix I’m in! Remember I’m bound hand and
foot–secretary, servant, slave… of the Marquis…”
“What’s that got to do with it? The Marquis himself … don’t you
“Yes, I know… but tomorrow? A Clerical! And the Party!… His
private secretary mixed up in a duel! The end of me, I can tell you!
And besides–that little wench, there… didn’t you get the point?
Head over heels in love with Bernaldez!… Tomorrow, they kiss and
make up!… And then where do I stand, eh? The end of me! So sorry,
Mr. Meis… but try to understand my position… just as I say…”
“So you’re both going to ditch me!” I answered, at my wits’ end. “I
don’t know another soul here in Rome…”
“But listen, there’s a way, there’s a way!” Papiano hastened to
advise. “I was going to suggest…. You see both my father-in-law
here, and I, would find it difficult … impossible, in fact…. You
are right, no question of that! You’re right! Every reason to see it
through! Can’t overlook a matter like this…. Well, you just apply
to two officers in the army…. They can’t refuse to represent a
gentleman in an affair of honor…. You go to them, explain how it all
happened. … They often do such favors for people not known in
We had reached the door of the house.
“So you won’t! Very well!” I said to Papiano. And I turned on my heel
without another word, walking away aimlessly, my brain reeling from my
Again the thought of my crushing, my annihilating impotence had taken
possession of my whole consciousness. Could a man in my circumstances
fight a duel? Could I never get it through my head that I could no
longer do one single blessed thing? Two army officers! Excellent!
But, just as a starter–two very proper questions: “Who was I?” “Where
did I come from?” No: the plain simple fact: people could spit on me,
slap my face, thrash me with a whip: and I could ask them to lay on a
little harder, please, but, for heaven’s sake, to be quiet about it!
Two army officers! And let me give them just the least wee little
inkling of my real status–well, in the first place, they wouldn’t
believe me, and who knows what they might suspect? In the second
place, I would be as badly off as with Adriana: if they did believe,
they would suggest I come to life again; since a dead man–what’s the
use?–had no standing vis-a-vis of the code of honor!
So I could swallow–a good appetite to you!–the insult of Bernaldez
as I had swallowed the theft of Papiano; slink away with my dignity
wounded, my courage challenged–yes, with my face slapped–slink away
like a coward, out of sight, into the dark again, the dark of an
intolerable future where I would be an object of hateful loathing even
to myself. Future, indeed? Could there be any future? How could I go
on living? How endure the sight of myself? No, enough of this, enough
I stopped, everything whirling dizzily about me, my legs giving way at
the knees. A sinister impulse rose suddenly in my heart, giving me a
cold shiver of horror from head to foot.
“But before that,” I said to myself, my brain rambling, “before
that, why not try? If I should succeed. … But try anyhow… just
to get back a little of my own self-respect! If I should succeed…
not quite such a craven coward in my own eyes… and what’s there to
lose by trying? Why not try?”
I was a few blocks away from the Caffe Aragno.
“There! There! Catch as catch can! The first one I come to!”
In my blind agony, I went in.
In the outside room, around a table, sat five or six artillery
officers; and when one of them noticed me standing there, pale,
wild-eyed, hesitating, I bowed to him slightly, and with faltering
“I’m sorry… excuse me… might I have a word with you?”
He was a beardless young chap, hardly graduated from the Academy, it
seemed to me. He rose, and came over toward me, answering me
“What can I do for you, Signore?”
“Why, it’s this way–may I introduce myself? Adriano Meis! I am a
stranger in town. I have no friends here. I’ve had trouble… a point
of honor … I need a couple of seconds… I don’t know whom I could
ask…. If you and one of your friends…”
Surprised, perplexed, the man stood looking at me for a time; then
turning to his comrades, he called:
Grigliotti was a lieutenant of the upper numbers, with an upcurled
mustache, a monocle crammed willy nilly into an eyesocket, and smooth,
well-massaged cheeks. He got up from his seat, still talking to the
men at the table (I noticed he spoke with “r’s” that were really
“w’s”) and stepped our way, making a slight somewhat constrained bow
to me. The moment I saw which man Grigliotti was, I felt like saying
to my cadet: “Not that man, please! Not that man!” But, as I
afterwards recognized, no one else in the group could have been so
well qualified for the task in hand as he. The articles of the code of
chivalry he knew from A to Z.
Such a line of talk as he gave me about my case, and all that I must
do! I was to telegraph, I forget exactly what–to a certain Colonel,
state my grievance, fix the main points clearly, and then go in person
to see him–ça va sans dire–see the Colonel, that is, precisely as
he, Grigliotti, had done once–he was not yet in the army at the
time–when something similar had happened to him–in Pavia, it was.
Because, in these matters of honor, you see, laws of chivalry… and
so on, and so on, till my head was a whirl of articles, precedents,
courts of honor, and “points well established in practice.”
I had not liked the man from the moment I set eyes on him. Imagine how
I felt now when confronted with this dissertation on chivalry! Finally
I could endure the strain no longer, and I exclaimed impatiently:
“But, my dear sir, that’s all very well. You’re quite right, I dare
say; but how will a telegram help in my present situation? I am all
alone here in a strange city, and I want to fight a duel, understand,
right away, tomorrow if possible; and without so much nonsense.
“What difference does all this stuff make to me? I mentioned the
matter to you gentlemen in the hope–well, excuse me–in the hope that
I could get somewhere without all this–all this fussing,–there!…”
My outburst provoked an answer from Grigliotti in the same tone, and
we were soon engaged in what amounted to a brawl, both talking at the
same time and at the top of our lungs. But at a certain moment loud
guffaws of ridicule from the officers about me brought me up short. I
turned, and hurried away, my face aflame with indignant humiliation,
as though I had been whipped with a lash.
Where could I hide? The laughter of those soldiers seemed to pursue me
as I fled, my hands to my head, my brain in utter confusion. Should I
go home? No, I shuddered at the thought of that. I kept on walking,
walking, straight ahead, frantically. At last I noticed that I had
slackened my pace; and then finally I stopped, to catch my breath, to
rest a little; for I had no strength left to sustain the stinging
smart of that Tidicule which kept pulsing through me in waves of
I say that I stopped. I did stop; and I stood some moments without
moving, my mind gradually becoming a blank. Then I began walking
again; but now I was strangely relieved, all feelings of bitterness
gone from my mind, a curious stupor replacing them.
Here was a shop window bright with its display of wares. I approached
and studied the objects with a meticulous absorbing interest.
The lights went out. The stores all along the street were closing.
Yes, they were closing for me, eternally! People were going home,
leaving me alone, a solitary wanderer on deserted streets, all doors
and windows closed, all lights extinguished–silence and solitude for
I moved along.
As the city went to sleep, life itself seemed to recede from about me,
as though it were something remote, intangible, without meaning or
Had the sinister intention matured spontaneously within me? I do not
know; but at last, involuntarily, guided as it were by that inner
determination, I found myself on the Margherita Bridge, leaning over
the parapet and gazing terror-stricken down into the black swirling
“Down there, in that water?”
But it was not with fear! It was a violent outburst of anger, an
uprising of all my instincts of life in ferocious hatred against those
who were now bringing me here to the end they had assigned me back in
the Flume of “The Coops” at Miragno. Yes, those women: Romilda and the
widow Pescatore! They had brought me to this pass. I would never have
thought of feigning suicide to get rid of them! And yet now, after two
years of living like a ghost in the illusion of a life beyond the
death they had wished upon me, here I was–dragged by the collar to
executing their sentence upon myself! They were right after all! I had
really died like the corpse they found! They were free of me–though I
was not free of them!
And I rebelled. Could I not get even with them somehow, instead of
Suicide? How could a dead man–hah, hah!–a dead man commit suicide? A
nobody commit suicide?
I straightened up, as suddenly everything seemed strangely lucid and
clear to me. Get even with them! But what did that mean? It meant
going back to Miragno, didn’t it? It meant shaking off the lie that
had throttled me! It meant coming to life again to spite them, to
chastise them, with my real name, my real personality, my very very
real misfortunes? Ah yes … but my present fix! Could I cut loose
from the present that easily? Could I throw aside my life in the Via Ripetta as one did a bundle of rubbish for which there is no further
use? No, no! That I could not do! I knew I could not do so! So I stood
there, in anguished bewilderment, uncertain as to a decision.
By chance I put my hand into my pocket and my nervous fingers came in
contact with something which I did not at once recognize. With an
angry twitch I pulled it out. It was the cap that I had always worn on
my trains and about the house, the cap in which, to old Anselmo’s
delight, I had started out to make my call on the Marquis and which I
had thrust into my pocket distractedly.
I was about to toss the thing into the water when, in a flash, an idea
came to me. Something I had thought of long before on my trip from
Alenga to Turin rose clearly to my consciousness.
“Here,” I muttered almost involuntarily to myself, “here on the
railing of this bridge… my hat… my cane…. Yes… just as they
did on the bank of the mill-flume at Miragno…. There, Mattia
Pascal… here, I–Adriano Meis…. Tit for tat!… I come to life
again… to their undoing!…”
The joy that seized on me amounted to an exultant inspiring frenzy. Of
course, of course! To kill myself–the self which they had killed,
would be absurd, absurd! I must kill rather the ridiculous fiction
which had tortured and tormented me for two long years! I must put an
end to that wretch of an Adriano Meis, who, to live at all, had to be
a coward, a liar, a worthless miserable outcast! Adriano Meis! A false
name for a mannikin, with a brain of sawdust, a heart of rags, and
veins perhaps of rubber, with colored water for a weak diluted blood!
Away with such an odious fiction–drown him as they had drowned Mattia
Exactly: tit for tat! First their turn, and now mine! Adriano Meis, a
ghastly life springing from a ghastly lie! Finish him then, with
another falsehood just as gruesome!
And that was a way out of everything! What better reparation could I
make to Adriana for the wrong I had done her? But… could I swallow
the insult from that boor of a Spaniard? The coward–assailing me
there by surprise, under conditions where a fight was impossible!
Could I swallow it? I, the I that was really I, had not a trace of
fear for the man. Of that I was sure. He had not insulted me. He had
insulted Adriano Meis. Well, Adriano Meis could swallow anything. Of
course he could: was he not killing himself?
Yes, that was the way, the only way, out. I was trembling from head to
foot, as though I were really about to kill someone; but my brain was
clear as crystal, my heart light with a sudden buoyancy that was
I looked about me. Over in that direction, on the Lungotevere,
someone must have noticed me standing on the bridge at that hour, a
policeman perhaps, on lookout for just such tragedies. I had to make
sure; so I walked along, first into the Piazza della Liberta, then
along the river boulevard–the Lungotevere dei Mellini.
I retraced my steps; but before going out on the bridge again, I
stopped under a street lamp in the shadow of some trees.
I tore out a page and wrote on it in pencil; “Adriano Meis.” Anything
else? Well, my address, perhaps; yes, and the date! That would do!
That would tell the whole story! Adriano Meis–his hat and his cane!
As for the rest–well, a few clothes, and a few books! I could leave
them back at the house! Nothing much! The money left from the robbery
I had with me.
I stole along the bridge, bending low behind the railing. My legs
were shaking under me and my heart was all athrob. I selected the
darkest spot over the river, took off my hat, slipped the note behind
the ribbon, and set the hat with my cane on the broad stone top of the
parapet. On my head I crammed the cap I so luckily had with me–the
cap that had suggested to me the means of my escape; and keeping to
the shadows, I moved stealthily away, sneaking along like a thief in
the dark, not daring to turn my head.
I reached the station in time for the Pisa express that left shortly
I bought my ticket and found a corner seat in a second-class
compartment. There I took my place at once, sitting with the visor of
my cap pulled down over my eyes, not so much in fear of being seen as
But I could see just the same, in my mind’s eye: I could see the
broad-brimmed hat and the cane lying there on the parapet of the
bridge where I had left them. Already, at that very moment perhaps,
someone was passing and would notice them; or perhaps, a policeman on
patrol had found them and given the alarm at the station-house! And I
was still in Rome! What might be the outcome? I could scarcely breathe
in my anxiety.
But at last the train started, with a jerk. Thank Heaven! I was alone
in the compartment! I sprang to my feet, raised my arms above my head,
and as though a millstone had suddenly been removed from my chest,
drew one long endless breath of relief. Ah! At last I was alive
again–myself: Mattia Pascal. I could shout it out loud to everybody
now: I, I, Mattia Pascal! I am not dead! Look at me: here I am:
Mattia Pascal! Oh, no fear henceforth of self-betrayal! And I was
through with falsehood and deceit! Not just yet, to be sure–not,
really, till I should reach Miragno! There I must first declare
myself, have my status as a living person recognized, regraft my life
to its buried roots.
What a crazy notion! The idea of ever supposing I could live apart
from my original personality! And yet, and yet–see the way it goes:
on my other journey, the trip from Alenga to Turin, I had thought
myself just as happy as I felt now! Lunatic! “Freedom! Freedom!” So I
had said–thinking of it as a liberation from all that had been!
Freedom! Bah! A pretty freedom–with the leaden weight of falsehood on
my shoulders–a leaden mantle for a ghost in Malebolge! Well, now I
would be getting a wife back again, and that mother-in-law…. But
hadn’t I felt their presence just as keenly when a “dead” man? Now, at
least, I was alive, and with some experience in warfare. We’ll see!
As I thought of the matter now, it seemed hardly believable that I
could have cut myself off from society in such a frivolous, haphazard,
nonchalant way, two years before. And I pictured myself as I had been
during those first days, blissfully happy in my carefree world in
Turin (a world of madness, I could see it was now!); and then, as I
gradually became later on in my wanderings from town to town–silent,
solitary, shut up in the enjoyment of what I then thought was
happiness; then Germany, the Rhine, on an excursion steamer…. Was
that a dream? By no means! Gospel truth! I had been there! Ah, had I
been able to live on in that state of mind, traveling forever as a
visitor to this life! But soon afterwards, at Milan… that poor
puppy I had wanted to buy from the old match-seller…. Yes, I was
beginning to understand, even then…. And after that… ah, yes:
In one leap, my mind was back in Rome…. I saw myself stealing like a
ghost into my deserted house. Were they all abed, and sleeping? All
except Adriana, probably! She would be waiting up for me to come home.
Surely they must have told her I had gone off looking for two seconds,
for a duel with Bernaldez. She had not heard me come in yet. She
would be afraid, and in tears….
I pressed my hands to my face as a violent pang clutched at my
heart…. “Oh, my Adriana, my little Adriana!” I groaned. “And yet,
for you I could never really be alive. Better therefore if you know
that I am dead, that those lips are dead which once snatched a kiss
from yours. Poor Adriana! Oh, try to forget me! Try to forget!”
What would happen in the house next morning, when a policeman would
come to investigate my suicide? What reason, in their first
stupefaction, would they give to account for it? The duel I was about
to have? No, that would hardly seem convincing. Strange, to say the
least, that a man who had never shown himself a coward, should kill
himself rather than fight! Well then? Perhaps because I had not found
my seconds? Nonsense! So then… who knows?… there was probably
some mystery at the bottom of the strange life I led….
Yes, yes, that conclusion was inevitable. Here I was, killing myself,
without any apparent reason, without having betrayed the remotest
intention of so doing. Oh, to be sure, I had been acting rather
queerly–that mixup over the money, first claiming it was stolen and
then saying I had found it again…. But… “Do you suppose the money
didn’t really belong to him? Perhaps he had to pay it back to
somebody, and was working up an excuse–saying they had stolen it…
later on, repenting, and finally killing himself? You never can tell!
One thing certain–he was a most mysterious man: never a friend to
call on him, never a letter, at any time, from anybody…”
How much better it would have been, had I written something on that
note–a word or two besides my name, my address, and the date–some
reason or other for my suicide…. But at that time and in that
place!… And what reason, if you come to that?
“Who knows what the newspapers will say,” I thought, my mind jumping
from point to point. “What a fuss they can make over this mysterious
Adriano Meis! One thing I may be sure of: my cousin, Mr. Prancesco
Meis, of Turin, the assistant tax collector, will step forward to tell
all he knows, and more too. They will follow that clue–and who can
guess what will come of it? Yes, but the money–the money I ought to
leave someone? Adriana saw all the bills I had…. Poor Papiano! A
bee-line for the cabinet … only to find it empty! So then–lost? In
the river on his body? What a shame! What a pity! How mad Papiano will
be that he didn’t steal everything at once! The police will take
charge of my clothes and books. … Who will get them in the end! Oh,
some little thing at least, for Adriana–just as a remembrance! What
anguish for her now to look in at my deserted room…!”
So I rambled on from supposition to supposition, from memory to
memory, from fear to fear, as my train sped northward. I could not
sleep from the tumult of emotions within me.
I considered it prudent to stop off for some days in Pisa to avoid any
chance association of the reappearance of Mattia Pascal in Miragno
with the disappearance of Adriano Meis in Rome, a relationship likely
to occur to someone if the newspapers of the capital made any great
feature of my suicide. At Pisa I could see both the morning and
evening editions. If no particular mention was made of Adriano Meis, I
would go on to Oneglia, before turning toward home, to try out on
brother Berto the effect of my resurrection. But even to him I must
avoid making the slightest reference to my residence in Rome, to my
adventures there, and their outcome. The two years and some months of
my absence I could fill in with fantastic stories of distant travels
abroad…. And now alive again, I could take an honest pleasure in
lying, bragging even of prowesses beyond those of Mr. Tito Lenzi,
Chevalier of the Crown!
Fifty-two thousand lire left! Surely my creditors, supposing me to be
dead, had helped themselves to the remaining title I had to “The
Coops” and the mill. The sale of that property had probably realized
enough to satisfy them after a fashion. No, they wouldn’t trouble me
any more. And I would take care to avoid messes in the future you may
be sure! Fifty-two thousand lire! That amount of money in a place like
Miragno…. Couldn’t call it wealth, exactly… but a good comfortable
living, and some to spare!…
On getting out of the train at Pisa, my first move was to buy a hat of
the style and dimensions that the late Mattia Pascal had worn in his
time; and my second was to make for a barber-shop to get the long hair
of that imbecile, Adriano Meis, off my head.
“A nice close clip, eh?” I suggested to the barber.
My beard had already come out a bit; and with my hair short, again, I
was beginning to look natural–natural, with a bit of an improvement,
perhaps: a little more sleek and natty, a shade more genteel…. For
one thing, I had had my eye fixed. In that respect, I had lost one of
the distinctive features of the late Mattia Pascal. Something of
Adriano Meis there would always be in my face; but, for the rest, how
like brother Berto I looked!… I should never have dreamed of such a
In order not to present myself in too evident transiency at a hotel, I
bought a travelling bag, with the further thought that I could use it
for the suit and overcoat I was wearing at the moment. I would have to
get a brand new outfit. Small chance there would be that my wife, at
Miragno, had kept any of my clothes this length of time. I bought a
ready-made suit in a store and kept it on, proceeding to the Hotel
Neptune with my new valise.
I had been at Pisa once as Adriano Meis, and on that occasion I had
stopped at the Hotel London. Now there was nothing in the city to
interest me as a sightseer. Fatigued with my night’s journey and the
nerve-racking experiences of my previous day, when I had quite
forgotten to eat, I took a quick breakfast and went straight to bed.
I slept till late afternoon; and when I awoke it was with a horrible
sense of depression and anguish. I had passed that critical day in
deep unconscious slumber–but how had things been going back there in
the Paleari household? Confusion, dismay, the morbid curiosity of
strangers, suspicions, hypotheses, insinuations, fruitless
investigations; my clothes and my books fingered and stared at with
the consternation which the exhibits in a tragedy always inspire! And
I had been sleeping! And I would have to wait in my present
impatience till the following morning to see what the Roman newspapers
had to say.
Since I dared not go on to Miragno nor even as far as Oneglia I would
have to remain for two, three, who knows how many days, in a fine
condition–dead, in Miragno, as Mattia Pascal; dead in Rome as Adriano
Having nothing else to do, I thought I would take my two corpses to
walk about the streets of Pisa. And it was a pleasant diversion, I can
tell you. Adriano Meis, as I said, knew Pisa like a book and he
insisted on playing guide and barker to Mattia Pascal; but the latter,
with so many troublesome things on his mind, was in a detestable humor
for sight-seeing; and he kept shooing away that annoying ghost in the
blue glasses, the long coat, and the broad-brimmed hat:
“Ugh! Back to your river, sir! Don’t you know you’re drowned?”
But then I remembered that Adriano Meis, on his walks through those
self-same streets two years before, had been just as bored with the
importunities of Mattia Pascal, whom, with the same ill-humor, he had
tried to shove down under the water again in the mill-flume of
Miragno. As for me, I thought it better not to decide between them. O
white and shining Tower of Pisa! You might lean to one side if you
chose! But I? Erect, impartial, between the two impulses tugging at
me! The next morning, when they got plenty good and ready, the papers
from Rome began coming in. I will not aver that on reading what they
said of me my mind was put quite at ease: that was too much to hope
for. But I was glad to note that my suicide was treated everywhere as
one of the routine items in the daily news.
They all said much the same thing: that a hat, a cane and a laconic
note had been found on the Ponte Margherita; that I came from Turin;
that I was an eccentric individual; that no reason for my desperate
action could be established. One notice, indeed, went so far as to
suggest that some “matter of the heart” was probably involved, since
“the man Meis came to blows the day before with a young Spanish
painter in the house of a gentleman well known in Clerical circles.”
Another reported that I had been “recently troubled by financial
worries.” Nothing of consequence, in short.
But an afternoon sheet, that liked an emotional note in all its
articles, more unctuously expatiated on the “surprise and sorrow of
the family of Chevalier Anselmo Paleari, executive-secretary, retired,
under the Department of Education, with whom the man Meis resided, and
who had learned to respect him for his distinguished bearing and his
kindly regard for those about him.” (Thank you!) The same article also
reported the challenge I had received from “the Spanish painter,
signer M. B.” and hinted that my suicide was due to “some secret and
So I had killed myself for Pepita Pantogada!
Well, better that way! Better that way! Adriana’s name had not been
dragged into the affair, nor was there any reference to the theft. The
police of course would pursue their investigations; but on what cluest
I could start for Oneglia without fear.
On calling at Roberto’s town house, I found that he was at his farm in
the country for the vintage. My joy on returning to my old haunts,
which I had thought I would never see again, may well be imagined;
though I was not a little disturbed by my eagerness to hurry; by my
fear of being recognized by some old acquaintance before I had a
chance to surprise my relatives; by my foretaste of the emotion they
would probably feel on suddenly finding me alive again in their
presence. In fact, my excitement soon reached such a pitch that I was
hardly my normal self. Everything seemed to be swimming before my
eyes, and my blood ran cold. Would I never get there?
When I rang at the gate of the pretty villa which Berto had annexed
along with his wife, I had the sensation of being back at last in a
The butler answered the bell.
“Come right in, please!” said he, standing aside to hold the gate
open. “Who shall I say is calling?”
My voice failed me quite; but with a smile that I forced, to conceal
some of my agitation, I managed to stammer:
“Why… er… say… say it’s… it’s a friend … an old friend of
his… from a long way off… yes… that will do…”
At least the butler must have thought I was tongue-tied; but he showed
me to a seat in the parlor, setting my valise on the floor near the
I was now beside myself with impatience and anticipation, laughing,
panting, gazing around at the bright, comfortably furnished room in
which I was sitting. Would Berto never come?
Suddenly I heard a sound in the doorway through which I had entered.
It was a little child, perhaps four years old, with a toy watering-pot
in one hand and a toy rake in the other. He was looking at me with all
the eyes he had. A thrill of indescribable tenderness swept through
me. My little nephew! Berto’s oldest boy! I leaned toward him
affectionately and motioned to him with my hand. But he was scared
and ran away as fast as his legs could carry him.
But then I heard another door open and close. I rose to my feet, my
eyes dim with tears, a convulsive grip, half laughter and half sob,
catching at my throat. Roberto was before me.
“With whom have I the hon…” he began.
“Berto!” I cried, opening my arms. “Berto, don’t you know me?”
At the sound of my voice, Berto turned white as a sheet, rapidly
passed a hand across his eyes and forehead, and tottered as though
about to fall:
I rushed forward to support him, but he drew back in sheer terror.
“But it’s I–Mattia! Don’t be afraid! I’m not dead! See? Touch me!
It’s I, Roberto! I was never more alive! There now, there now, there
“Mattia! Mattia! Mattia!” my poor brother at last was able to cry, not
yet ready quite to believe his eyes. “You? What in the world?… Oh!
My brother! Mattia! Mattia!”
His arms were about me squeezing me till it hurt. I broke down and
stood weeping like a child.
“But… tell me…” Berto at last murmured through his sobs… “Tell
me! Tell me!”
“Well, it’s I, don’t you see? Back again! Not from the other world, oh
no! I never left this disgusting one! Brace up, now! And I ‘ll tell
But Berto would not let go of me. His hands clutching at my arms, he
looked up into my face, in utter bewilderment:
“But… there… at the mill…”
“It wasn’t I!… I’ll tell you. They got it wrong. I was miles from
Miragno at the time; but I heard about it, as you probably did,
through the papers… my suicide in the Flume….”;
“And it wasn’t you?…” Berto asked in a more normal voice. “What have
you been up to?”
“Playing dead! But don’t make too much noise. I’ll give you the whole
story, later on. I can’t, right now. I’ll say this much: that I
knocked about, here and there, thinking myself happy at first, you
know. Then … well… from a number of things, I decided I had made a
mistake, that playing dead was not all it was cracked up to be. So
here I am! I’ve come to life again!”
“Crazy, crazy, crazy… I always said so!” exclaimed Roberto with a
smile. “But this is beyond me! You can’t begin to understand how I
feel, Mattia, my boy! You! My dead brother! You! Mattia!–Why, I can’t
believe it! Let me look at you! What’s wrong? There’s something
different about you!”
“There is!” said I. “I had that peeper of mine attended to!”
“Ah yet, that’s it! That’s what puzzled me! I couldn’t quite make you
out! I don’t know… your voice, all right… but I looked at you and
the longer I looked…. Well! Well! Well!… But… come upstairs and
surprise my wife… Oh… but say … you…”
He stopped suddenly and looked at me, his face filling with dismay:
“You are going back to Miragno?”
“Of course I am… this afternoon!”
“So you don’t know, then?”
He pressed his hands to his face and groaned:
“You rascal! What have you done! What have you done! Don’t you know
that your wife…?”
“Dead?” I exclaimed in a paroxysm of mingled fear and eagerness.
“Worse! Worse!” said he. “She is… she’s married!”
I was dumfounded. “Married?”
“Married! To Pomino! I got the announcement! A year or more ago!”
“Pomino? Pomino? Married to Ro…” I stammered. But a bitter, bitter
laugh seemed to form inside me and gurgle up slowly from about my
middle. At last it reached my throat and my lips. I laughed
Roberto stood looking at me, afraid perhaps that I might really have
lost my mind.
“You are glad?” he asked.
“Glad?” I bellowed. “Glad is no name for it!” And I shook him by the
arm. “This news caps the climax of my good fortune!”
“What are you talking about?” exclaimed Roberto, almost angrily. “What
good fortune? But you say you are going there…”
“Of course I am! This minute!”
“But don’t you understand? You’ve got to take her back!”
“I’ve got to take her back? What do you mean?”
“You bet you have!” Eoberto insisted. “This second marriage will be
annulled and you will be obliged to take her back.”
It was my turn to fall from the clouds; and the bump I received on
landing was not a pleasant one.
“What are you trying to tell me?” I cried fiercely. “My wife gets
married again and I… Oh say, come now! That can’t be so! What crazy
“It’s just as I’m telling you,” Berto affirmed. “Wait! My wife’s
brother is right here. He’s a lawyer, and he’ll explain the situation
better than I can. Come along… or rather, no, you wait here…. My
wife is not very well. Perhaps it would be better not to surprise
her…. I’ll break the news gently…. So you just sit down, eh?”
But he clung to me till he was well outside the door, as though he
were afraid that if he released me for a second I might disappear
Left to myself I began going round and round the room like a caged
“Married again! And to Pomino!… Of course, just like him!… The
same wife, this time!… He, to be sure, fell in love with her
first…. And she… well, why not? Rich, and wife of a Pomino!…
And while she was getting another husband here at home. … I, in
Rome…. And now I take her back!… That’s a good one!”
Shortly Roberto came hurrying in at the head of a procession. I was so
much upset by this time that I hardly acknowledged the welcome his
wife and her family were giving me. Berto noticed my distraction, and
appealed to his brother-in-law on the point I had so much at heart.
“But what kind of a law do you call that?” I interrupted after a time.
“Are we governed by Turks?”
“That’s the law!” the man answered with a smile. “Roberto is right. I
can’t quote the article word for word, but the case is provided for in
the Code. The second marriage becomes null and void on the
reappearance of the first spouse.”
“So then,” I stormed ironically. “I must take back unto myself a
woman, a woman, who, to common knowledge, has been functioning for a
year or more as wife to another man, said man…”
“But through a fault of yours, if I may say so, my dear Mr. Pascal!”
the lawyer rejoined with another smile.
“Why my fault?” said I. “Why my fault? That estimable lady first makes
a false identification of a poor devil who has fallen into a pond.
Then she hurries to take out a license to marry another man! And it’s
my fault? And I must take her back again?”
“You must,” replied the lawyer; “and you are responsible since you,
Mr. Pascal, did not see fit, within the time prescribed by law for
contracting a second marriage, to correct the mistake your wife made,
a mistake, which, I grant you, may well have been in bad faith. You
accepted her false identification, and took advantage of it. Oh, as
for that, notice now–I am not saying you did wrong. On the contrary,
I think you acted quite properly under the circumstances. I am
surprised, rather, that you seem inclined to go home again and get
mixed up with the stupid laws regulating such matters. If I were you,
I would never show up again.”
The coolness of this young graduate of the law schools, the pedantic
cocksureness with which he talked, at last began to anger me.
“That’s because you don’t know what it all means!” I replied with a
shrug of my shoulders.
“Why,” said he, “I can’t imagine a greater piece of good luck than the
one which came to you.”
“You’re welcome to try it for yourself,” I answered, turning to
Roberto without excusing myself.
But trouble was waiting for me with my brother as well.
“By the way,” Berto asked me, “how did you get along all this time?”
And he rubbed his thumb with his forefinger to suggest “money.”
“How did I get along?” I answered. “That’s a long story! I haven’t
time or patience for it now. But I had plenty to live on, and I have
some still. I hope you don’t think I’m coming home because I’m hard
“So you’re really going to Miragno?” Berto persisted. “Even after
what I told you?”
“I certainly am,” I exclaimed. “Do you think that after all I’ve been
through I intend to go on playing dead? Not by a long shot! No sir!
I’m going to get toy papers straightened out, see that the record is
clear, feel myself alive again, alive and kicking–even at the cost of
taking back my wife. By the way, is the old lady still alive–the
“Ah, that I couldn’t say,” answered Roberto. “You understand that
after your wife married again…. But so far as I know she is…”
“You give me cheerful news,” I remarked. “But never mind! I’ll square
accounts with her. I’m not the chap I once was, you know. But I do
hate to do a favor to that fool of a Pomino by taking her off his
A general laugh! The butler came in to announce that dinner was
served. There was no refusing, though. I was so impatient to get on I
scarcely tasted my food. But afterwards I noticed that I must have
eaten well. The animal in me was awakening to the prospect of
Berto was all for keeping me with him at least for that one night,
offering to go on with me the following morning. He was keen to
witness the effect of my sudden swoop down upon the peaceful household
of Pomino. But I could not think of such a thing. I insisted on
proceeding alone that very night and without more delay.
I took the eight o’clock train and in half an hour was at Miragno.
THE LATE MATTIA PASCAL
In my impatience and my rage–I know not which was greater–I ceased
to care whether anybody recognized me or not before or after I got
there. I took just one precaution: a seat in the first class. For that
matter, it was dark, and my experience with Berto reassured me:
convinced as everybody was of my fateful death two years before, no
one would ever dream of taking me for Mattia Pascal.
I leaned out of the car-window, hoping that the siglf of familiar
scenes would divert my thoughts to less violent emotions; but this
served only to intensify both my anger and my impatience. In the
moonlight I made out the hills back of “The Coops.”
“The wretches!” I hissed. “Over there…. But now!…”
In my surprise at the unexpected news from home, I had forgotten to
ask Eoberto ever so many things. The farm and the mill! Had they been
sold? Or were they still in the hands of a receiver? How about Batty
Malagna? And Aunt Scolastica?
Was all that only two years and a half–thirty months–before? It felt
more like a century! So many things had befallen me, it seemed life at
Miragno must have been just as exciting. And yet, nothing much had
happened, probably, except Romilda’s marriage to Pomino, commonplace
enough in itself, though now my sudden return from the dead might make
it appear unusual!
Where would I go, when I got there?
And where were they living?
Certainly not where I used to live. My humble habitation as a
two-lire-a-day man would never do for Pomino, rich as the only son of
a wealthy sire. Besides, Pomino, who was a sensitive fellow, would not
have felt quite at home among so many reminders of me. Doubtless he
had gone to live with his father in the palazzo! And imagine the
widow Pescatore in those surroundings! What airs she would put on! And
that poor old devil, Gerolamo Pomino First–so timid, so gentle, so
retiring! Bet he’s having the time of his life in the claws of that
old harpy! A real run for his money! For neither the old man nor his
gosling of a son would ever have the courage to kick her out! And
now… the goat as usual! I take her off their hands!
Yes, there’s where I would go, to the Pomino mansion; and even if they
weren’t there, I’d find out from the janitress or somebody…
Oh, my quiet sleepy old home sweet home! What a shock you’ll get
tomorrow when you hear I’m alive again!
There was a bright moon that evening; and all the public lights were
off as usual. The streets were quite deserted, since at that hour
almost everybody was ‘at supper.
In my great excitement I was hardly aware that I had legs at all. I
walked as on thin air, my feet scarcely touching the ground. I cannot
describe the emotions I felt. They reduced to something like a great
Homeric laughter, shaking spasmodically about my diaphragm, unable to
find a way out. I am sure that had I turned it loose, it would have
blown the houses over from the force of its explosion.
I was at the Pomino place in no time; but to my surprise I found no
one on hand in the sort of dog kennel on the driveway where the old
janitress used to live.
For some moments no answer came. In the meantime my eye had a chance
to fall on a piece of mourning crepe, now bleached and dusty, which
seemed to have hung exposed to the weather there for several months.
Who had died? The widow Pescatore? Cavalier Pomino? One of the two
undoubtedly! More likely the old man! In which case, I would find my
two doves cooing up on the first floor in the grand suite–already
settled in the “palace.” I was too impatient to wait. I opened the
front door and ran up the stairs, three steps at a time.
On the first landing I met the janitress coming down.
“Cavaliere Pomino?” I asked.
From the astonishment with which the old mud-turtle looked at me, I
understood that the District Inspector of Education must have been
dead a good long time.
“Young Mr. Pomino–Gerolamino!” I corrected, resuming my ascent.
I couldn’t quite understand what the old woman was muttering to
herself; I know simply that at the top of the stairs I had to halt to
catch my breath. The door to the Pomino apartment was in front of me.
“They may be still at dinner!” I reflected philosophically, though in
a flash. “All three eating, without the least suspicion! In a few
seconds, I will have knocked on this door and their lives will be
topsy-turvy! … Look! Here in my hand rests the fate in store for
I took the bell rope in my hand; and as I pulled it, I listened, my
heart leaping with excitement. The house was absolutely still. In the
silence I could barely hear the distant tinkle of the bell.
All the blood rushed to my head and my ears began to ring, as though
that faint tinkling which had been swallowed up in the silence were
clanging furiously inside my brain.
In a few seconds, I started violently. On the other side of the door I
heard a voice, the voice of the widow Pescatore:
I could not, for an instant, utter a sound. I pressed my fists to my
chest to keep my heart from breaking through. Then with a husky hollow
voice I answered, syllable by syllable:
“Who?” called the voice within.
“Mattia Pascal!” I answered, deepening my voice still further.
Certainly the old witch was scared out of her wits: for I heard her
patter off down the hall, as though the Devil were after her.
I could imagine what was taking place in the dining-room. The man in
the house would be sent out, Pomino, the courageous!
However, I had to ring again–gently, gently, as before.
Pomino threw the door wide open, and there I stood, erect, my
shoulders back, my chest thrown forward.
He recoiled in terror. I strode upon him with a cry:
“Mattia Pascal! From the other world!”
Pomino collapsed on the floor, and sat there, his weight resting on
his hands, his eyes staring with fright and bewilderment:
The widow Pescatore came running out with a lamp in her hand. At sight
of me she gave one long piercing scream. I slammed the door to with a
kick, and caught the lamp before it could fall from her hands.
“Shut up!” I hissed into her face. “Do you really take me for a
“Alive!” she gasped, pale as death, her hands clutching wildly at her
“Alive! Alive as they make ‘em!” I answered with ferocious joy. “You
swore I was dead though, didn’t you! Drowned–out there!…”
“Where did you come from? she asked in absolute terror.
“From the Flume, you witch!” I replied between my teeth. “Here’s the
lamp, up close! Look at me! Who am I? Do you recognize me? Or do you
still think I’m the man they found in the Flume?”
“It wasn’t you?”
“Bad ‘cess to you, she-goat! Here I am, alive! And you, Mino, what are
you sprawling there for? Get up! Where’s Romilda?”
“Oh, oh, oh!” groaned Pomino, jumping to his feet. “The baby!… I’m
afraid…. She’s nursing!…”
“What baby?” said I.
“Our little girl!”
“Oh, the murderer! The murderer!” shrieked the Pescatore woman.
I was unable to answer, the effect of this latest piece of news was
still so strong upon me.
“Your little girl? A baby, to boot? Well now that, my dear sir…”
“Mamma, go in to Romilda, please!” begged Pomino.
But it was too late. Romilda was already out in the hallway, her
dressing gown unbuttoned at the top, her baby nursing, her hair awry,
as though she had hurriedly risen from a bed. The moment she saw me
And she fell fainting into the arms of her husband and her mother.
They dragged her away–considerately leaving me standing there with
their baby in my arms! For I had run to the rescue also.
With the lamp now gone, the hallway was almost pitch dark. But there I
stood holding that frail acrid-smelling bundle from which a tiny
little voice came, blubbering through unswallowed milk. Alarmed,
bewildered, not knowing what to do next, I was clearly conscious only
of the shriek from the woman who had once been mine, and who
now–precisely, ladies and gentlemen–was mother to this child who was
not mine, who was not mine–Mine? Ah mine, she had hated in its poor
little time! Mine she had never loved! So I now–no, no, a thousand
times no, I would have no pity on this intruder, nor on them either!
She had looked out for herself, all right! She had married again:
while I… I…
But the faint whimper kept coming from the bundle on my arms… What
could I do to stop it? “Hush, little one! Hush, little one! ‘At’s a
daisy! ‘At’s a daisy!” And I began patting the infant on her tiny
back, and tossing her gently to and fro. The bleating grew fainter and
fainter and at last was still.
Pomino’s voice rang through the hallway:
“Mattia! The baby!”
“Sh-h-h-h, you donkey! Don’t wake her up again!”
“What are you doing with her?”
“Eating her raw! What do you suppose I’m doing with her? They chucked
her at me. Now I’ve got her quiet. God sake, don’t wake her up on me
now! Where’s Romilda?”
Slinking up to me, suspicious and fearful, like a dog watching its
puppy in the hands of its master, Pomino answered:
“Because I want to have a word with her!” I replied gruffly.
“She’s fainted, you know!”
“Fainted? Nonsense! We’ll bring her to!”
Pomino cringed in front of me, blocking my path:
“Oh please, Mattia! Listen… I’m afraid… How in the world!… You,
here, alive! Where have you been, where have you been! Oh!… Listen:
couldn’t you talk with me instead?”
“No!” I thundered. “My business is with her. Who are you, anyway? You
don’t count around here!”
“What do you mean, I don’t count!”
“Very simple! Your marriage is null and void on the return of the
“Void? And how’s that? And the baby?”
“The baby! The baby!” I muttered fiercely. “In less than two years
after my death–married and with a baby! Shame on you! Hush, little
one! Hush, little one! ‘At’s a daisy! Mama’s coming soon! Here, show
me the way, you! Is this the room?”
The moment my nose crossed the threshold of the bedroom, the widow
Pescatore advanced upon me like a ravenous hyena. I had the baby on my
left arm. With my right, I gave the old woman a solid push.
“You just mind your business! Here’s your son-in-law here! If you’ve
any fuss to make, make it with him! I don’t know you!”
Romilda was weeping piteously. I bent over her, holding out the baby:
“Here, Romilda, you take her! Tears? Why do you feel so bad? Because I
am alive? You wanted me dead, didn’t you! Well, look at me! Look!
Alive or dead?”
She tried to raise her eyes through her tears; and her voice breaking
with sobs, she murmured:
“Oh, Mattia! How is this? You! What… what have you been doing?”
“What have I been doing?” I snickered. “You ask me what I have been
doing! It’s clear what you’ve been doing! You’ve married again–that
ninny there! And you’ve had a baby! And now, ‘Oh, Mattia, what have
you been doing?'”
“Well?” groaned Pomino, his face in his hands.
“But you, you, you! Where have you been? You ran away! You played
dead! You deserted your wife! You…” It was the widow Pescatore,
coming at me again with her arms raised.
I seized one of her wrists, and twisted it over till she was in my
“Listen, old lady!” I then lectured. “You just keep out of this; for
if I hear another word from you, I swear I’ll lose all pity for this
dunce of a son-in-law of yours, and for that little baby there, and
I’ll… I’ll invoke the law! The law, understand? You know what the
law says? This marriage is null and void on the return of the first
spouse! I’ve got to take Romilda back to me!…”
“My daughter… back to you? You’re crazy!” the old woman cried in
But Pomino was reduced to zero:
“Mother dear! Mother dear!” he begged. “Please be quiet, please be
quiet, for the love of God!”
And she let loose on him–fool, imbecile, milk-sop, ninny,
coward–good for nothing but just to stand there bleating like a
I could hardly hold my sides from laughing.
“Dry up, now!” I commanded, as soon as I could catch my breath. “He
can have her! He can have her! I wouldn’t be crazy enough to take on a
mother-in-law like you again! Poor, poor Pomino! Mino, old boy!
Forgive me if I called you an ass! But, as you hear, your
mother-in-law agrees with me, and I can assure you Romilda–our
wife–! thought the same of you in the old days. Yes, she used the
very same words for you–fool, donkey, dunce, and I forget what else!
Didn’t you, Romilda! Tell the truth! Oh now, dearie me! Don’t cry any
more! Come, come, smile for us, won’t you? It’s bad for the baby, you
know! I’m alive, that’s all, you see. And I feel like being gay!
‘Cheer up!’ as a drunken man said to me one night! Cheer up, Pomino!
Do you think I’d really have the heart to leave your baby without a
mamma? Not on your life! I already have a son without a papa. Ever
think of it, Romilda? We’re quits! I have a son, who is the son of
Malagna; and you a daughter, who is the daughter of Pomino. Four
square! One of these days we’ll make them man and wife! Anyhow, you’ll
not feel so bad over that boy now…. So let’s change the subject!…
How did you and your mother ever come to see me in that poor devil
they found in the Flume?…”
“Oh, I did too, you know!” said Pomino, with a touch of anger. “And so
did everybody else! Not just Romilda and her mother!”
“You had good eyes, I must say! Was he really so much like me as all
“Your build! Your hair and whiskers! Your clothes–black… and
besides, you had been gone so long!”…
“Deserting house and home, eh? As though they hadn’t driven me to
it… the old lady there! Ah, that woman! And yet, I was coming back,
you know! Loaded with money! And then, as nice as you please–dead,
drowned, in an advanced state of decomposition! Best of
all–identified! Thank heaven for one thing: I’ve been having one good
time these two years! While you people here–engagement, wedding,
honeymoon, house and housekeeping, baby…. The dead are dead, eh?
Long life to the living!”
“And now?” groaned Pomino, on pins and needles. “What about it now?
That’s what’s bothering me.”
Romilda got up to put the baby into its cradle.
“Suppose we step into the other room,” I suggested. “The little
girl’s asleep again. Better not wake her up! We can talk in there!”
On the table in the dining-room the supper dishes were still lying
about. Trembling, wide-eyed, deathly pale, winking two cadaverous
eyelids over two white glassy balls pierced in the middle by two small
round black dots, Pomino sat in a chair rubbing his forehead, and
mumbling as in a dream:
“Alive!… Alive!… How can we fix it? What’s to become of us?”
“Oh, why worry about that?” I shouted impatiently. “We’ll come to
that in due season, I tell you!”
Romilda made herself presentable and eventually came to join us. I sat
looking at her under the bright lamp light. As beautiful as she had
ever been, I thought … even more bewitching than when I first met
“Let me have a look at you!” I said. “You don’t mind, do you, Mino?
What’s the harm? She’s my wife, too, you know–perhaps more mine, than
yours! Oh, I didn’t mean to make you blush, Romilda! See Mino
squirming? But I’m not going to bite him! I’m not a ghost!”
“This is intolerable!” said Mino, livid with anger.
“He’s getting nervous,” I said, winking at Romilda. “Come now, Mino,
old man, don’t worry! I’m not going to cut you out again! And this
time I’ll keep my promise! Except–if you don’t mind–just one…!”
I went over to Romilda and smacked a loud kiss off her cheek.
“Mattia!” shrieked Pomino desperately.
Again I laughed aloud.
“Jealous, eh?” I said. “And of me! Now that’s hardly fair! There’s
something coming to me on grounds of prior right, if for nothing else.
Anyhow, Romilda, just forget it all, forget it all…. You see, in
coming here… forgive me, won’t you, Romilda … in coming here, I
supposed, my dear Mino, that you would be glad to have me take her off
your hands. … And the thought of doing so was not at all to my
liking, I can tell you… for I wanted to get even with you… and I
would like to still… but this time by stealing Romilda away from
you… because I see you are in love with her and she… well, yes …
she’s a dream, a dream… the way she was years ago when we first…
you haven’t forgotten, eh, Romilda? … Oh, poor girl! I didn’t
intend to make you cry…. But they were good days, those old ones,
eh… gone forever now?… But never mind! You have a little girl of
your own… and let’s forget all about such things. Of course, I’m not
going to trouble you… what do you take me for?…”
“But this marriage… it’s null and void?” cried Pomino.
“What do you care?” I answered. “That may be the law of it. But who’s
going to invoke the law? I’m not! I won’t even bother to cancel my
death certificate, unless I’m forced to by money matters. I’m
satisfied if people have a look at me, know I’m alive and well, and
see that I’m through with this playing dead–a death, which was a real
one, I assure you. You were married publicly…. For a year or more
you have been living publicly as man and wife. Such you will continue
to be! Who’s going to ask any questions about the legal status of
Romilda’s first marriage? That water has gone under the bridge.
Romilda was my wife; now she’s yours, and mother of a child of yours!
A few days’ gossip and everybody will drop the subject. Am I not
right, you miserable twice-over mother-in-law?”
The Pescatore woman, frowning, ferocious, nodded in the affirmative.
But Pomino, more and more nervous, asked:
“But you’re going to settle here at Miragno?”
“Of course! And I’ll come once in a while to get a cup of coffee or
sip a glass of wine to your health!”
“That you won’t!” snarled the widow, jumping to her feet.
“But he’s joking! Can’t you see?” said Romilda, keeping her eyes away
I laughed aloud as I had before.
“You see, Romilda!” I jested, “they’re afraid we’ll begin making love
again…. And it would serve them right…. However… let’s not be
too hard on poor Mino…. Since he doesn’t care to have me in the
house, I’ll just walk up and down in the street, under your
windows…. What do you say? A serenade, not too often, of course…”
Pomino was now stamping up and down the room in a veritable frenzy:
“Intolerable!” he cried. “This won’t do! This won’t do!”
All at once he stopped and said:
“You can’t get away from the fact that… with you here… alive…
she won’t ever be my wife!…”
“Just you pretend I’m dead!” I answered quietly.
He began stamping up and down again:
“I can pretend no such thing!”
“Well, don’t then! But do you think I’m going to disturb you–unless
Romilda asks me to? After all, she’s the one to decide…. Say,
Romilda, speak up now! Which is the better looking, he or I?”
“I am thinking of the law!” said Pomino almost in a scream.
Romilda looked at him anxiously.
“Well,” I remarked. “As matters stand, it seems I’m the one who has
more right to find fault than anybody. I’ve got to see my beautiful,
my charming, my quondam better half and helpmeet living with you as
“But Romilda–” exclaimed Pomino, “she isn’t really my wife any
“Bosh!” I replied. “I came here to get even, and I let you off. I give
you my wife! I guarantee not to annoy you…. And still you are not
satisfied! Come, Romilda, get on your things. Let’s be going… the
two of us… on a honeymoon! We’ll have a great time…. Why bother
with this thing here?… He’s not a man, he’s a law-book. Why, he’s
asking me really to go and drown myself in the Flume!”
“No, I’m not asking that!” cried Pomino in utter exasperation. “But go
away, at least! Leave town, live somewhere else, far away! And for
heaven sake, don’t let anybody see you! Because, I, here, with you
I rose and laid my hand gently on his shoulder to quiet him a little.
I told him that I had already called on my brother at Oneglia, that
everyone probably by this time knew, or that certainly by the next
morning would know, that I had come to life again. Then I added:
“But you ask me to drop out of sight again, and live far away from
here–play dead again in short! You must be joking, my dear boy! Come,
brace up–yon play husband the best way you can, and stop worrying.
Your marriage, come what may, is a solemn fact. Everybody will stand
by you, especially since there’s a little one involved. As for me, I
promise, I swear, never to come near you, even for a puny little cup
of coffee, even for the sweet, the exalting, the exhilarating
spectacle of your blissful union, your devoted passion, your exemplary
concord–all built up on my considerateness in dying! Ungrateful
wretches! I’ll wager not a one of you, not even you, Pomino–bosom
friend of my boyhood–ever took the trouble to place a wreath, a bunch
of flowers, on my grave there in the cemetery!… A good guess, eh?
Tell the truth: did you?”
“You are having a good time with us, aren’t you!” exclaimed Pomino,
shrugging his shoulders.
“A good time? Nothing of the kind! I’m in deadly earnest. It’s a
question of a soul in Purgatory–no room for joking. Tell me! Did
“No-o-o, I didn’t…. I didn’t have the courage to,” Pomino murmured.
“But courage enough to run off with my wife behind my back, eh, you
“Well, how about yourself?” Mino retorted with some spirit. “You took
her away from me, didn’t you, in the first place, when you were
“I?” I exclaimed in injured astonishment. “There you go again? Can’t
you get it into your head that she didn’t want you? Will you force me
to repeat that she thought you were a ninny, a fool, a nincompoop?
Here, Romilda, come to my rescue: you see, he’s accusing me of false
friendship!… However, what does it matter, after all? He’s your
husband, so we’ll have to let it go at that. But it’s not my fault…
just admit that! I’ll go myself tomorrow to pay a visit to that poor
man, left there in the graveyard all by himself, without a flower and
without a tear! Tell me, there’s a stone at least on his mound?”
“Yes!” Pomino hastened to reply. “The town put one up…. Poor papa,
“Yes, I know… he delivered the funeral oration, … If that poor man
could have heard…. What’s the epitaph?…”
“I don’t know. Lodoletta made it up…”
“The Lark himself!” I sighed. “The poet laureate of Toadville! Did you
ever…! Anyhow, we can drop that subject too. Now, I should like to
know how you came to marry so soon…. Not long didst thou weep for
me, merry widow mine! Probably not at all, eh? But, for heaven’s sake,
can’t you say a word to me, not one little word? Look, it’s getting
late… as soon as morning comes, I’ll go away and it will be as if
we had never known each other…. Let’s not waste these few hours….
Come, answer me!”…
Romilda shrugged her shoulders, glanced at Pomino and smiled
nervously. Lowering her eyes and staring at her hands, she then said:
“What can I answer? Of course I was sorry… I cried…!”
“And you didn’t deserve it!” the widow Pescatore volunteered.
“Thanks, mother dear!” I replied. “But not so very much, eh? Just a
little! Those pretty eyes of yours–they don’t see very well, to be
sure, when it comes to identifying people–but still, a shame to turn
them red, eh?”
“We were left in a pretty fix,” Romilda continued by way of
extenuation. “If it hadn’t been for him…!”
“It was nice of you, Mino!” I agreed. “But that rat of a Malagna… no
help from him?”
“Not a cent!” the Pescatore woman said, dryly. “He did everything…!”
And she pointed to Pomino.
“Or rather, or rather…” Mino corrected…. “Poor papa… you
remember he was connected with the Administration…. Well, he got
Romilda a bit of a pension in view of the circumstances… and then,
“Later on, he consented to the wedding!”
“Oh, he never objected really! And he wanted us all here, with him….
However, two months ago…”
And Mino launched out on a narrative of his father’s death, of the
love the old man had for Romilda and the little girl, the tribute the
whole town paid him on his passing.
I interrupted with a question about Aunt Scolastica, who had been such
a favorite with old Pomino. The Pescatore woman, still mindful of the
pan of dough plastered on her face by that terrible virago, hitched
uncomfortably on her chair. Pomino explained that he had not seen her
for two years, but that she was still alive, and so far as he knew,
“But what has been happening to you all this time?” he now asked.
“Where have you been? What have you been doing?”
I told him all I could, avoiding people, places and dates, to show
that I had not been idle those two years. And so we whiled away the
hours far into the night, waiting for the morning when I should
publicly declare my resurrection. We were growing weary from lack of
sleep and the strenuous emotions we had been experiencing, and it was
a trifle cold besides. To warm us up a little, Romilda insisted on
preparing coffee for me with her own hands. As she handed the cup to
me, my eyes met hers, and a faint distant smile, touched with a
wistful sadness, flitted across her lips:
“Without sugar, as usual, I suppose?”
What was it she caught in my gaze? At any rate she hastily looked the
other way. In the cold pale glow of the early dawn, I felt a clutch of
unexpected homesickness gather at my throat. I looked at Pomino
But there the coffee was, steaming hot before me. The fragrance of it
filled my nostrils. I took up the cup and slowly began to sip the
“May I leave my bag with you till I know where I’m going to live?” I
asked Pomino finally. “I’ll be back after it before long!”
“Why, of course, of course!” proffered Mino solicitously. “In fact,
don’t bother to come and get it. I’ll have a man take it to you.”
“It’s not so heavy!” said I, with a sly look at Romilda.
“And by the way,” I asked, turning to her, “have you any of my things
left, perchance?–shirts, socks, underwear?”
“No,” she answered sorrowfully, with a gesture of helplessness. “I
gave them all away… You understand .., after such a tragedy…”
“Who could imagine you would ever come back?” exclaimed Pomino.
But I would take my oath, that, at the very moment, Pomino, skinflint
that he was, had one of my old neckties on!
“Well, never mind!” I said, ready to take my leave now. “Good bye, eh?
And good luck!”
I had my eyes on Romilda, but she refused to meet my gaze. I noticed
only that her hand quivered as she responded to my clasp: “Good bye!
Once out in the street, I again felt lost–solitary, homeless, without
a place to go or a purpose to realize–though I was back in my own
native village, the haunts of my boyhood.
I began to walk, however, looking anxiously at the people I kept
meeting. How was that? Would not a soul recognize me? And yet, I was
the very same person! The least anyone might have remarked on
noticing me was my extraordinary resemblance to the late Mattia
Pascal! “If he had one eye a little out of true, you could take him
for Mattia outright!”
But nothing of the kind. No one recognized me, because everybody had
forgotten about me, ceased thinking of me at all! My presence aroused
not the slightest curiosity, let alone surprise.
And I had been thinking of an earthquake, more or less, a sensation, a
stoppage of traffic, the moment I appeared on the streets! In my great
disappointment I felt a humiliation, a bitterness, a spite, that I
could not now express in words, but which I then expressed by cutting,
by refusing to approach, people whom I, for my part, recognized
perfectly well–why not, after a few months’ absence merely? Yes, I
could now see what dying meant. No one, not a living soul, had a
thought for me. I might just as well never have existed at all!…
Twice I walked the length of the main street of Miragno without
attracting a glance from anybody. Hurt to the quick, I thought for a
moment of going back to Pomino’s and informing him that I did not like
the bargain we had made. Why not take out on his hide my irritation at
the insult my home town was offering me! But Romilda would never have
followed me without constraint, nor did I, for the moment, have a
place to take her. I ought to have a house ready at least for the girl
I was eloping with! Next I decided to go to the Town Hall and have my
name scratched off the registry of deaths; but on the way there, I
changed my mind and headed for the Boccamazza Library.
I found in the old place I once had held my reverend friend, Don
Eligio Pellegrinotto, who did not recognize me either, on the spot. To
tell the truth, Don Eligio claims that he did know me from the very
first, but that he wanted to hear my name and be absolutely sure
before throwing his arms around my neck in tearful welcome. “You see,”
says Don Eligio, “it couldn’t possibly be you! Well, you couldn’t
expect me to let myself go with a man who merely looked like you!”
Be that as it may, my first real greeting came from him; and it was a
warm one, I can tell you. He insisted on dragging me back to the
village by main force, to drive from my mind the bad impression the
coldness of my fellow-townsmen had made upon me.
Having expressed myself so clearly on this latter subject, it would
now be surely in bad taste to describe what happened, first in
Brisigo’s drug-store, and later at the Union Cafe when Don Eligio,
prouder than he had ever been in his life, presented me as one
returning from the dead.
The news swept the town like wild-fire, and the whole population
turned out to have a look at me and ply me with millions of questions.
“So it wasn’t you they found in the Flume at ‘The Coops’? Well, who
was it then?”
I don’t know how many times I was asked to answer that fool question!
Yes, everybody, each in turn–as though they could not believe their
“So you’re really you?”
“Where’d you come from?”
“The other world!”
“What have you been doing?”
I made up my mind not to budge from those three answers, and I left
them all on pins with a curiosity that lasted for days and days.
And no better luck fell to my friend “the Lark” who came to interview
me for the Compendium. To make me open up a little, he produced a
copy of his journal dated some two years before–the number containing
my obituary. I told him I knew the thing by heart and that the
Compendium was widely read in the other world.
“Of course not! In the other place! You’ll see for yourself some day!”
Finally he mentioned my epitaph.
“Oh yes! And thanks ever so much! I’ll drop around to the cemetery
some afternoon and have a look at it!”
I will not bother to transcribe his feature of the next Sunday, which
started off with a headline in big letters:
MATTIA PASCAL ALIVE
Among the few–besides my creditors–who did not show up to
congratulate me was Batty Malagna. Nevertheless, as I was told, he had
made a great fuss two years before over my cruel suicide. I quite
believe it. He was as sorry then over my tragic death as he was now
over my resurrection. I understand why, in both cases!
I found a home with my Aunt Scolastica, who insisted absolutely that I
come to live with her. My queer adventure somehow had raised me in her
estimation. I have the very room in which poor mother died, and most
of my day I spend either there or here at the library with Don Eligio.
He is still very far from completing his inventory.
“With his help I have finished my strange story in about six months.
He had reread every word, but will keep the secret, as though I had
revealed it to him under the seal of the Confessional. We have argued
a good deal about the significance of my experiences; and I have often
said to him that I still can’t see what earthly good it is ever going
to do anybody to know about them.
“Well, there’s this, for one thing,” says he. “Your story shows that
outside the law of the land, and apart from those little happenings,
painful or pleasant as they may be, which make us each what we are,
life, my dear Pascal, life is impossible.”
Whereupon I point out to him that I fail to see how that can be; for I
have not regularized my life whether in relation to the law of the
land or in relation to my private affairs. My wife is the wife of
Pomino, and I’m not quite sure who I am myself!
In the cemetery at Miragno, on the grave of the poor chap they found
in the Flume, the stone still stands with Lodoletta’s epitaph:
O’erwhelmed by Evil Fortune
Here lies of his own will
Scholar Book-Lover Librarian A Generous Heart–A Loyal Soul
May he rest in peace
Erected to his Memory by his Sorrowing Fellow Townsmen.
I have placed on the grave the wreath I said I would; and every now
and then I visit the cemetery for the sensation of seeing myself dead
and buried there. People often watch me from a distance, on such
occasions; and sometimes somebody meets me at the gate and, in view of
my situation, asks me:
“But say, who are you really, anyway?”
I shrug my shoulders, wink an eye, and answer:
“Why, what can I say?… I guess I’m the late Mattia Pascal!”