Both the brothers became silent. Only after what seemed like half-an-hour, Giulio, who had sat down at his desk and had been tapping his spectacles on the blotting-paper with little regular knocks, said :
– With to-day’s bill, it means another five thousand lire.
– And you tell me this ?
– Well, who should I tell if not you ?
– I don’t care. I don’t want to hear anything about it.
– Are you afraid of soiling your hands ?
– Giulio, stop it ! You know what I have in my heart. There’s a thorn as large as my thumb.
– I know : it may be equal to mine.
Then Niccolo became affectionate, his voice almost pleading and soft, and he said coaxingly :
– If it were not that we are so fond of one another, I would like to turn into a beast a toad.
Giulio turned to him with tenderness ; but his brother only said :
– Don’t look at me.
– Those little girls need some winter clothes.
– You’ll get them some. At once ! For them, I’d even go without boots. Anything ! I’d die of hunger.
Whenever Niccolo had these intentions, always of very short duration, he would stand up to his full height, swelling his chest and walking up and down the shop, which to him, in these circumstances, seemed too small, much too small. He was satisfied with himself, pleased, and would look round with affectionate pride ; panting, as if he had been called upon suddenly to defend his two nieces from danger. He seemed unlikely ever to stand still again.
– Those two girls must be sacred to us. Mustn’t they?
– I’ve always said so too !
– Only Enrico … do you think Enrico thinks so as well ?
Niccolo hastily changed the subject.
– When on earth will he come back with the fruit?
– It’s only ten minutes since he left.
Giulio glanced at his watch.
– I’ll go home, and wait for you both there. Don’t be long.
Giulio, left alone, began preparing some invoices that had to be paid. While he was writing a young Frenchman entered, an art critic, who called every morning on his way back from the Archivio di Stato ; he had established himself in Siena in order to study certain painters of the Quattrocento. He was invariably well dressed, had a very fair moustache and always carried an ivory-tipped, gold-mounted stick. His eyes were blue, and his moustache seemed to weigh down his smile.
– Good-day, Signor Nisard.
– What news have you for me ?
– I have found out a very important thing about Matteo di Giovanni. An extraordinary thing. A discovery that will cause much comment. I’m very pleased.
– May one inquire what it is ? – asked Giulio.
– It will help me with the book I am preparing.
– Then I don’t wish to be indiscreet : I don’t wish you to tell me.
The bookseller had a kind of admiration for anything done by other people ; and he was happy if he could be told what was being done. He was a good friend, therefore, and one in whom it was a pleasure to confide. It seemed to him that others, who were not compromised as he and his brothers were, belonged to a world which for him had existed only before the forging of signatures. He was feeling now more than ever forced to endure the moral consequences of his offence. He would not even have dared to ask anyone to respect him. He did not wish it, in fact. He never allowed others to show him any sentiment whatever ; he shunned it, and became timid ; he did not wish to deceive anyone who might become fond of him.
Having passed judgment on himself, he shared his intimate thoughts with his own brothers only. Therefore his smile was always embarrassed and reserved ; and his smile meant sadness to him. Niccolo, on the other hand, did not want friendships and would reproach Giulio whenever he was affable to anyone. He would say to him :
– You know that between us and other people there- is something that they would consider absolutely unpardonable. Similarly neither must we feel any tenderness towards others.
Giulio was listening to Nisard, with his hands in his pockets and without lifting his eyes, as an poor man would who feels happier because he I is allowed to spend half-an-hour with a man richer than himself. He would even have preferred Nisard not to shake hands with him! That morning Nisard was thinking how little the people of Siena spent on books, and, feeling conversational, he asked Giulio :
– How is the shop getting on ?
Giulio shook his head in answer:
– I really don’t know how we manage to keep open – he replied.
The pleasure that he had felt in listening to the talk of Nisard had now become pain. It seemed so very unjust to him, and such an acute privation that he also could not devote his life to some object, some work, without difficulties and worries. Often he would think of different projects and make plans. But always he would renounce them again directly ; though sometimes his self-esteem would retain the memory of them gratefully. Nisard said to him :
– You were lucky to have earned your money in the past ; now you have enough to live on.
Giulio was perplexed for a moment, and then answered :
– Oh yes ! it isn’t a fortune, though, by any means ! But I don’t want to think of it. It will be as God wishes.
Nisard laughed, thinking that he was exaggerating through parsimony and meanness. But Giulio half closed his eyes and continued :
– You don’t believe me, do you ?
– But, Signor Giulio, do you wish me to understand…
– I never tell lies ; that is to say, I never want to tell lies !
And he became thoughtfully silent. Nisard looked at him as if he understood the joke, and asked :
– Are you afraid I shall go and tell tales to the tax-collector so that he’ll raise your rates ?
( Federigo Tozzi, Three crosses – 1920 )