The Cavaliere Orazio Nicchioli, an alderman of the borough, and the head of several charity committees, was always certain of finding an invariably deferential welcome. He would assume an air of affectionate benevolence when he entered, trying not to let the others see that he considered himself the owner of the bookshop. In reality he was sincerely fond of all the three brothers. He had a babyish mouth, which he was continually pursing up ; and he would look at people, with lowered head, from above his spectacles.
The day following that on which the two brothers were so overcome, he asked Giulio in an undertone, so that Niccolo should not hear :
– How are things going ?
Giulio flushed, and replied :
– They don’t change.
– But . . . er . . . nothing worse ?
– No, no !
Niccolo, who was always very subdued and humbled with Nicchioli, and who had been waiting for the other to notice him and address him first, said at last :
– Won’t you speak to me ?
– Why should I make any difference between you and Giulio? But you are always tucked away there on your chair. Poor Signor Niccolo.
– I am better here than anywhere else.
Quite involuntarily, he almost felt like joking even with Nicchioli, but he restrained himself, smiled and felt quite happy. Giulio, on the other hand, was perturbed, and felt the necessity of keeping himself strongly under control in order not to lose his head. He would have willingly gone away, disappeared anywhere, rather than go on talking to Nicchioli. At other times and in similar circumstances he had felt compelled to make some excuse, perhaps the need for a postage stamp had gone out apparently to buy it, and had remained away as long as was decently possible. Or he wished he could have acted with Enrico’s rudeness ; he would have declared a veritable pile of work needed his immediate attention, and would calmly have walked out. This behaviour, however, Niccolo could never forgive Enrico, and would certainly not have tolerated it in Giulio.
Nicchioli had a way of being so exceedingly affectionate sometimes that the brothers were at a loss as to what attitude to adopt. Niccolo ventured :
– Giulio, bring up a chair.
– I’ll get one myself, many thanks.
– That would indeed be too much. You must take mine.
All the same, he did not move ; and he continued :
– As you are always giving us the pleasure of calling on us, you must remain as long as you please.
The Cavaliere was moved by their manner ; and they, observing this, tried to think of things to say to please him still further.
– How is your wife ?
– She is very well, thank you.
– And the little boy ?
– He is growing every day.
– Such a beautiful child!
The Cavaliere was so proud of his little boy that he could hardly find suitable words in which to praise him enough.
– He is indeed a marvel. So beautiful and strong … so healthy and well-made, such little feet . . . such small hands. Intelligent! Why, he understands more than we do ! One has only to say – ‘pss, pss,’- and he turns round immediately. And he’s exactly fourteen months old. He was fourteen months old three days ago. He’s my greatest comfort.
Niccolo felt a growing inclination to laugh, but he sneezed instead. The Cavaliere turned to Giulio :
– Come with me. We’ll take a walk together, so that we can talk about him.
Giulio, finding it impossible to refuse, put on his hat and replied :
– He is the only subject that I love to talk about. There’s nothing else in the world so interesting to me.
Niccolo, with a sign of the head, mutely acquiesced.
( Federigo Tozzi, Three crosses – 1920 )