Read Voices In The Evening Online

Authors: Natalia Ginzburg

Voices In The Evening (5 page)

They stayed at the hotel and Vincenzino took them round to see the town.

One evening on coming home Purillo found Vincenzino on his bed, white as a sheet, and being sick into a basin. He was quivering all over and had had a nervous shock.

He had realized that he was sick to death
of Mamita, Papito, Fifito
 and the girl, and could not see how to disentangle himself from them.

Purillo went to get a doctor and Nebbia. They stayed there all night, he and Nebbia, to look after Vincenzino; made him drink some strong coffee and mopped his brow for him.

Next morning they went to see
Papito
and
Matnita
and told them that Vincenzino was ill, very ill, and for the time being could not think of getting married.

Mamita
began to cry. Then they asked for money.

They had had travelling expenses and had bought a costly trousseau for their daughter.

They got all they wanted and left again for Brazil.

‘Purillo,' so Vincenzino told Nebbia, ‘behaved very well.'

But Vincenzino felt no gratitude towards Purillo. On the contrary, because he had been seen by him in such a plight he disliked him more than ever.

Purillo appeared very kind and sad about it when he reported the affair to old Balotta. But there was a trace of irrepressible delight in his voice. He, Purillo, used to run after the girls all right, and went to bed with prostitutes and servants But he had never got into any trouble; it had never fallen to old Balotta to pay up for any of his adventures in love.

Vincenzino was sent to the sea once more, because he was ill again. But this time Gemmina went with him to see that he did not commit any fresh follies

He left the Polytechnic, being too far behind with his examinations, and enrolled himself for Economics and Commerce.

Meanwhile Nebbia had taken his degree some time ago and was working at the factory. Purillo and Mario had also graduated and were working there.

Then Vincenzino's turn came to do his military service. They sent him to Pesaro. He was always being confined to barracks, as he was totally in capable of punctuality and smartness. He had let his beard grow, and his cheeks were covered with a curly rosy sort of hair like some wild plant which grows on a deserted river bank.

Finally, when his time was up, he obtained his degree.

‘The last to get there was Gambastorta,' said old Balotta calling him ‘Crookshank'. He was pleased, however, and sent him to America for a year, to see the world and learn English.

When Vincenzino returned from America he was greatly changed. To begin with, he-no longer had a beard. He had learned to wash himself, and to stand more upright and to speak more loudly.

If one introduced someone new to him, he braced his shoulders and fixed him with a sharp penetrating gaze, brilliant as a flash of cold light.

Sometimes he emitted a quick, sly, secretive laugh which displayed his little white teeth, and died away unexpectedly.

In America he had visited some factories and got new ideas. He wanted to knock their old factory down and rebuild it entirely with large windows, and to add living quarters for the operatives.

He had read books on psychoanalysis, and had discovered that he had a father-complex, and also had experienced a trauma in his infancy on seeing Purillo stone a dog.

He came back to La Casetta and began to work at the factory. He worked late into the night, drawing plans.

His father would say,

‘Formerly he took no interest at all in the factory. Now he wants to involve himself in it too much. The sole gain is that he has not got his flute and does not bleat any more.'

However, Viacenzino still went off by himself for walks in the country. And he still stopped to stare motionless at a wall or a tree, frowning and turning up his nose.

He married a girl from Borgo Martino. She was a friend of Nebbia's sisters and he had known her for years. He married her after a complicated and confused declaration of love, and he married her in haste for fear of changing his mind.

One could not see the most distant resemblance between Mario and Vincenzo.

Mario was a cheerful boy, animated and worldly, and everything came to him easily.

Tall, self-possessed, well turned out, he divided his days well enough between work and amusement. After hours he came back to La Casetta to change, and went off to the Sartorios' to play tennis in flannel trousers and a bluejacket with gilt buttons.

‘Just like Barba Tommaso. Let us hope that he is not a ninny,' old Balotta would say.

Mario spent his evenings playing poker at the Sartorios', the Peregos'and the Bottiglias'.

He was very good at telling amusing stories, ever so seriously without batting an eyelid. He knew a great many of these, culling them from Italian or foreign magazines to which he subscribed, and he was a great success.

Only at times when he was tired he was subject to nervous bouts of rapid babbling loquaciousness. It was unrestrainable and one could not make him keep quiet. He would tell his stories and make plans for the factory. His face became grey and hollow like a bundle of muscles on the stretch, and he had a little twitching just under his left eye above the cheekbone. At such times he was unable to sleep and passed the nights smoking in his room, or went for a walk in the neighbourhood, and would go as far as Le Pietre to wake up Barba Tommaso and Purillo with his babbling.

They sent him for a while to the sea or to the mountains for a rest, and when he came back he was quite calm again and his insomnia and talkativeness had disappeared.

It looked at one moment as if he was going to get engaged to the elder of the little Bottiglia girls, because he was always going about with her. Instead he went to Munich for some months on business and there he married.

Old Balotta was furious when he knew that he was getting married. The girl was a painter and sculptor, a Russian her family having escaped from Moscow during the revolution. She was an orphan and lived at Munich with an uncle and aunt Old Balotta thought that she must be an adventuress or a spy.

He sent Purillo to Munich to see. Purillo gave him to understand that there was nothing to be done; Mario was in love, was getting married and would not listen to reason.

Purillo had picked up some information. The uncle and aunt owned a small shop for records. One understood it was nothing very great.

Mario came to La Casetta with his wife. She was small, thin and harassed-looking. Her face was so powdered that she looked dusty. She wore a black felt hat and black gloves.

When she took her gloves off there appeared two thin, slender hands covered with scars. Mario explained that she had burnt herself with acids while she was preparing her colours, because she always prepared them on her own.

She did not speak a word of Italian. She spoke French imperfectly, mixed with German and Russian, in a subdued voice, rather hoarse. Her name was Xenia.

Old Balotta was very much put out. He thought that Mario should have married one of his old friends, the advocate Bottiglia's daughters. And instead they now had with them this unknown woman emerging from who knew what obscure life, who spoke French, a language which he and his wife did not know at all.

Balotta evinced a violent antipathy for Xenia, blind and unrestrainable, Vincenzino shared this antipathy with him. For the first time in all those years they were allies, Vincenzino and his father.

In the meanwhile Vincenzino, too, had married; and there was his wife, a clean, simple, honest woman of whom one knew everything, since her home was at Borgo Martino.

Mario and Xenia made a tour of the neighbourhood, looking for a house to buy. They went over a great number. Xenia would take a look with her large lack-lustre eyes. They were shadowed with bistre and the eyelids were heavy. She would whisper something in French and one would grasp that those houses were not to her liking.

In the end they bought the Villa Rondine, a large red suburban house, surrounded with shrubberies lying on the top of the hill.

Balotta's children had known for a long time that they were rich, and they could see that with the years they were continually becoming more rich. Yet their habits did not change much. They always dressed in the same style and ate the same things. Signora Cecilia turned last winter's cloak at home herself with her maid Pinuccia's help. If she really wanted a new dress she called in Sestilia, the little village dressmaker.

Good fresh substantial food was always on the table at La Casetta and there was plenty of everything. But the tablecloth was rather worn after much laun-dering and the glasses for every day were Cirio jam jars. The cover of the cheese dish had been broken and mended and Signora Cecilia was always saying— ‘l must buy another cheese dish.'

They kept two motor-cars at La Casetta, one a rather old heavy dark vehicle and the other a little one that could be opened, which Purillo used more than anyone else for going into town. They had many raincoats, many trunks and suitcases, many Scotch plaids and many pairs of skis. They had no hesitations about expenses for travelling, holidays, convalescences and doctors. But when Xenia arrived they realized that not one of them knew how to live expensively, and Xenia, on the other hand, did know.

They found that her clothes, always appearing somewhat crumpled and dusty, were, in fact, very expensive, and came from a famous dressmaking establishment in Paris. She had ordered these dresses, furs and shoes when they went to Paris after the wedding.

She installed herself at the Villa Rondine, furnishing the rooms with heavy and rather funeral pieces in a solemn style. She put up dark curtains on the windows, because she liked a dim light.

She engaged a number of menservants and maids with underlings of both sexes and was at a loss how to give orders to them all, speaking, as she did, only French and that with her wisp of a voice.

She sent to buy the meat at Cignano, where it was better but cost more. She sent the chauffeur to Castello to get the fruit early in the morning. She sent to Castel Piccolo for strawberries, to Soprano for cream cheese and to Torre for
grissini.

She herself, however, ate very little, a lettuce leaf, a spoonful of broth. She had pineapples sent from the town, which she scarcely tasted, just a tiny mouthful on the tip of a fork.

She was, of course, thin, but imagined she was fat. She had installed a special heater in one of the bathrooms for vapour baths. She emerged from those baths more lean and emaciated than ever.

Her studio was in a large room on the ground floor She would be there in black velvet trousers at her painting and sculpture, and moulding terracottas or pottery, which she then fired in a large kiln specially imported from Holland.

She never went down into the village. She went for walks in the garden, taking little steps and accompanied by her two pet dogs. They were curly-haired creatures of a grey tint verging on rose.

She never set foot in La Casetta. But at Christmas or Easter she sent everybody princely gifts.

In the evenings they were alone, she and Mario, in the great drawing-room crowded with dark pictures, valuable china and mirrors. A few candles in silver candelabra were lit, and there was no other light. They held each other's hands and played with the little dogs. Thus at times Purillo found them, the only person who ever went to Vila Rondine for an evening occasionally,

‘With those candles,' said Signora Cecilia, ‘they at any rate save on the electric light.'

That was not true, however; they paid enormous bills for electricity, too, probably because the kiln that had come from Holland was electric.

They bought a big black shiny motor-car which looked like a hearse. With her chauffeur, she went down to the town twice a week, buried in the back of the car, wearing dark glasses, her pale face sunk in the collar of her fur coat. She went there for the Turkish baths, because those vapour ones were no longer enough for her.

She had infected Purillo with the zest for spending. Purillo bought himself an Isotta-Fraschini. He bought himself a bed with a support for the back such as they have in nursing-homes, so as to be more comfortable when he read at night before going to sleep. Next to his room he installed a luxurious bathroom, with the bath set in the floor-level. A poky little hole, where in former days Magna Maria kept the hams hung up, had been converted for this.

When Xenia's first baby was due to arrive, Mario sent for a gynaecologist from Switzerland. The following year they had a baby again. They had a Swiss
nurse
with a blue veil. They had a Venetian nursemaid as well. Xenia fell ill after this and they removed her womb. She recovered and took up once more her sculpture, painting and walks with the pet dogs.

All her hair turned grey very early, and she never dyed it; one cannot say why.

Old Balotta, on the rare occasions on which he saw her, such as the children's birthdays, would say later to his wife,

‘Did you see how old Xenia has become? Did you see how ugly she is? How can Mario bear to go to bed with her?'

Vincenzino explained everything by psychoanalysis. He said that Mario had a mother-complex and felt protected by Xenia, who had an authoritarian temperament and ruled him and ordered him about.

Now and then old Balotta and Vincenzino revived their suspicions that she was a spy. Nothing was known about her, nothing of what she had done before she arrived in the neighbourhood. On the rare occasions when they met her, she spoke very little, and always in French since she had never taken the trouble to leam Italian.

But Nebbia said,

‘No, she is not a spy. She is merely a stupid woman, and so as not to let it be seen how stupid she is, she weaves all those mysteries about her. Like certain grubs which wrap themselves up in saliva so that no one gets at them.'

Mario meanwhile had become rather stout, went to bed early, and had had no more trouble with insomnia or fits of loquaciousness.

Vincenzino and his wife went to live at Casa Mercanti It was a small house, immediately at the end of the village, and had a broad meadow in front of it in which were a few pear trees. Behind, it had a walled kitchen-garden full of cabbages.

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