When they returned to the bookshop, Giulio was exhausted. The Cavaliere said to Niccolo :
– We’ve had a beautiful walk. Ask your brother.
– I believe it, when you say so.
– We’ll have another one soon, shall we ? And then you’ll come with me, won’t you, Niccolo?
– I can’t walk much, I’m afraid.
– Why not ? Look at all the walking I do.
Giulio replied :
– We all three suffer from gout, as you know.
– It’s a shame. Honestly. Let me be quite frank with you … it is a shame ! Oh, if I suffered from it.
– What would you do ?
But the Cavaliere didn’t quite know what he would do, and remained pensive for a few minutes, thinking it over, feeling rather foolish.
After a while he resumed :
– If I suffered from it … if I had it … I would want to get better … to get rid of it. Oh, I couldn’t stand it !
And he stared at the two brothers in turn, they for their part hastily assuming expressions of great concern and firmly agreeing with him.
But Giulio had a lurking fear that Nicchioli was trying to get them to talk about themselves, so that he might understand their thoughts, their feelings, and how things stood with them. And since he considered himself the guiltiest of the three, it seemed to him that Nicchioli was suspicious, and knew or guessed the facts. Every time Nicchioli came into the shop, he would feel lost and close his eyes.
Niccolo, too, was afraid, but he tried to think of other matters ; otherwise he too would have become the victim of a kind of paralysis, both of mind and body, when even his replies to the most commonplace questions would be wrong, as though he were deaf, and misunderstood everything that was said to him. His blood would rush to his head, and, if the Cavaliere prolonged his visit, he would feel upset for the rest of the day.
Giulio at last had lost his health through it all, and was losing weight, though his character did not change. He had once possessed distinctive manners and almost lordly habits, so now it cost him some effort to resign himself to wearing always the same old navy blue suit, all shiny and shabby.
Nicchioli admonished them :
– I think it’s useless for me to repeat it to you : if your takings are too small, you must let me know. You know that in return for the favour I did you I only demand that you should be quite sincere and frank with me. . . . You must understand that . . . even though I may be … up to a certain point … a wealthy man … I must know how . . . and where to find my money, and what . . . becomes of it.
Niccolo went over to the book-shelf and altered the position of a row of books, dusting each one with his elbow as he moved it. And Giulio, too, was silent. The Cavaliere was rather surprised, and, fearing that he might have hurt their feelings, he continued :
– Mind, I speak to you like this because I am a friend of yours . . . and I can prove it to you. . . . Don’t think me unkind … or sorry for having given my signatures. … I have told you that … I am in no hurry . . . to have back what belongs to me. … I know that you are as good and loyal … as I am. . . . I would be ashamed of suspecting anything. . . . It never even crosses my mind for an instant.
Giulio wanted to beg him to stop ; and Niccolo was putting the books back upside down in a shelf that was much too small to hold them all.
Outside a regiment of soldiers was passing, and all that was heard was their regular, measured tread. Involuntarily all three turned to the shop window to look through, and gazed mechanically at the passing men, their state of mind intensifying a hundredfold in the silence that fell on them. Suddenly the band, with its different instruments, burst into a military march. The windows trembled, and the three men started. They listened, and their thoughts seemed to deepen in contrast to the bold, lively music outside ; they were astonished.
As the sound of the band died away in the distance they felt themselves coming together again, all three of them, to the same point as before, with their very souls in suspense. Nicchioli waited a little, collected his thoughts, and resumed :
– You see how it is with you. I am different, quite different . . . not that I wish to praise myself … to boast about it.
Niccolo interrupted with his loud voice which carried conviction by its mere strength :
– If you like, we will give you back your money within two months.
This displeased Nicchioli ; he thought he might have wounded their pride.
– You always take things from their worst point of view.
Giulio, with a gentleness that was repugnant even to himself, said :
– The Cavaliere did not mean anything like that. One can never talk to you at all. Please excuse him, Cavaliere, because he hardly knows what he says. He becomes quite irresponsible at times.
Nicchioli was appeased, and once more continued :
– No one knows your honesty . . . better than I do myself … no one esteems you more than I do. And yet you are not satisfied ! . . . Why … we have known each other since boyhood . . . and I would be willing to share my last crust with you … if I hadn’t any family. I only ask you that you should treat me as a friend … for really I don’t see how you can complain of me.
Niccolo managed to laugh and blurt out :
– You know how crazy I am.
But the Cavaliere had not yet given full vent to his feelings, and Giulio was obliged to listen to him for nearly another half-hour. When finally he went, Giulio gasped :
– Oh ! at last we can breathe again.
– Supposing we told him of the forged bill ? – said Niccolo. – I’ll wager that he’d pay it. He is so benevolent. Didn’t you hear how he talks?
– What does it matter if he talks like that ? Either one mustn’t take advantage of it, or one mustn’t believe him.
– You never like to take a risk, do you ?
– Because I know what the result would be.
– Giulio, listen to me. I tell you he’d pay that bill. Take my advice for this once.
– Will you assume the responsibility of telling him ?
– Me ? As long as he doesn’t notice anything and has no suspicions, I’ll take good care not to say a word.
Enrico, limping with his gout, opened the door.
– I’ve come to take twenty lire for the fish. They tell me that in the market-place they’re selling fish as white as snow, and a basket of eels, still alive.
– You did right, then, to come back. But, another time, if you’re going to leave us alone again when the Cavaliere turns up, I’ll have nothing more to do with you.
However, as Giulio was laughing Enrico saw that it was not a quarrelling matter, so he asked :
– What did he say to you ? I can’t understand why that man tumbles in here every day as if our bookshop were his confessional. It’s positively indecent. When people can spend their whole days doing nothing, they try to pass the time by gossiping ! Now, if you’ll give me that money, I’ll go and buy the fish. I’ll go myself, because I want to have my choice. I’ll work like a horse to carry it all the way back !
– Get the fishmonger to bring it home.
– No, no ; I wouldn’t trust him ! D’you remember when he changed those mullets for us, and sent us the bad ones, after I’d gone to the trouble of choosing them myself, one by one, all fresh ? One can’t trust them. Give me that money, otherwise, if I wait much longer, someone else will buy them.
Giulio took twenty lire from his purse, and Enrico snatched them as if he’d won them by cheating, remarking :
– The Cavaliere is always talking about that child of his which he thinks is his own. There’s not a greater fool than he is on this earth.
And all three of them burst out laughing.
( Federigo Tozzi, Three crosses – 1920 )