Niccolo remained in his chair and started chewing a cigar, spitting the morsels under the desk, and stretching out his legs into the middle of the shop. When a gentleman entered whom he knew personally, for they had once gone out shooting together, he did not even move.
– How are you ? – the new-comer asked.
– I am quite well. And you?
– Oh, a slight cold.
Niccolo smiled and remarked with a feigned seriousness which always deceived people at first :
– Take care of yourself!
Signor Riccardo Valentini looked at a few books while Niccolo closed his eyes once more, completely ignoring any presence besides his own in the bookshop. Everyone knew how useless it was to try to buy books from him, and would always turn to Giulio, or wait for his return when he was out.
Valentini said to him :
– Yours is a nice life. Always sitting down.
– I know it is ! Do you envy me too ?
– Oh no, indeed. On the contrary, I am only pleased on your account.
– I am leading the life of a gentleman just to spite those who would like to see me begging. Am I not right? They will all eat their hearts out with rage.
Signor Valentini laughed.
– Thrushes and quails for dinner to-day, – Niccolo went on. – And I’ve sent for some wine from one of the best-known Chianti estates which would astonish you if you only tasted it. Dio mio, how I shall enjoy it ! For me, I find nothing better in life. I am born a gentleman, I am ; more so than you.
– More than me ? Oh ! I believe you. You have not all the worries that I have, and that I don’t seem to be able to get on without. Only this morning I was compelled to come to Siena because my bailiff has suddenly fallen ill. How can I put things off till to-morrow with an estate of thirty farms like mine ? All on my own shoulders. Without mentioning, too, the trade side of it.
These outbursts always amused Niccolo ; he rubbed his hands, remarking :
– Wine and punch. But I’ll make my own punch. Half-a-litre of rum each time. Oh, I treat myself well ! I know how to live.
His voice was joyful, though it was a furious and violent joy. And when he laughed in that peculiar way of his, everyone liked him.
– Now as soon as Giulio, who has gone to keep an appointment with a pretty lady, comes back, we will close this old hole, and we’ll go and dine. And what a feed ! I’d like to have two bellies. One isn’t enough for me. I got our servant to buy a kilo of Parmesan cheese and some pears that weigh over a pound each. I’ll wager that you begin to feel like dining with me.
Valentini laughed and clapped a hand on his shoulder. Then he asked :
– What Madonna is that ? There, in the centre of the wooden chest. The standing one.
Niccolo became serious.
– Don’t you want to tell me ?
– On the contrary. I’ll tell you the truth : it is a Madonna that I found in a peasant’s cottage. At first they wouldn’t sell it to me on any account. And then I only gave one hundred lire for it.
He stood up, and, his voice becoming high, he repeated exultingly :
– One hundred lire ! One hundred lire ! It was given to me. He must have been a fool, that man.
– And how much would you ask for it ?
Niccolo’s voice thundered:
Then, with contempt :
– Yesterday an Englishman would have given me four thousand lire ! Four thousand lire !
– And you didn’t sell it?
His voice seemed to calm itself to become exact :
– I will take six thousand for it.
He had sat down again, but suddenly he sprang up noisily and shouted again :
– One hundred lire, the idiot. It needed an idiot like him to give it to me.
And he pretended to laugh loudly as if he were on the point of choking over it all.
Giulio entered, stern and serious, with his hat over his eyes, where it usually slipped without his being aware of the fact, whenever he returned from the bank.
– What are you so excited about ?
Niccolo ceased instantly and flung himself towards the door as if he preferred to escape rather than waste time in answering.
( Federigo Tozzi, Three crosses – 1920 )