At noon Niccolo called her into the sittingroom, and sent the two nieces out of hearing into the kitchen with the servant. Then he tackled the subject.
– We are all three very surprised at the way you spoke to us this morning. Aren’t we ? You tell her too.
Modesta suddenly felt totally unable to defend herself. It was only her instinct which insisted that she was right. Personally, she would have preferred ruin in real earnest rather than stand here like this. She wouldn’t have expected her husband to reproach her in this way before his two brothers. If she had been alone with him she would probably have gone down on her knees to beg his pardon ; as it was, she felt her legs failing her, as if they could no longer support her weight. She was dismayed, and at the same time astonished. She was far from divining that, in reality, Giulio would willingly have begged her pardon, and that Enrico, from sheer cowardice, would have been ready more than either of the other two to reveal to her the whole secret. Niccolo felt for her an affection which almost approached adoration. She thought them all three indignant and exceedingly angry with her. If she could but have uttered half a word of justification none of the three would have dared look her in the face. She could not guess this, however, and as soon as she had recovered a little she whispered :
– You mustn’t take any notice of me.
Enrico answered :
– That’s all I wanted to know ; I’m satisfied.
Niccolo added :
– Next time you’ll be more careful.
Giulio said nothing, because he felt ashamed. And so Modesta, overwhelmed with a sudden surprising happiness, went to the kitchen to tell the nieces that they could bring in the soup for dinner. During the meal, by her own example, she kept the others merry and talkative ; she felt a happiness and a sense of relief such as she had never experienced. It seemed to her too good ; she was too happy ; she felt almost as if she was drunk with it ; and yet she had had less wine even than usual. Niccolo was pleased with her, and made fun of Giulio for being so serious. He had presentiments that they would soon not laugh any more, and, with a sudden attack of his boisterous hilarity, he would have liked to insult everyone. His laugh lacked sincerity and depth, but it was light and airy, full of impatience, and, to an observant listener, rather like a shudder. At intervals it was loud and slow and insolently easy. His voice sparkled with laughter, and his eyes shone with it, arousing all Enrico’s rudeness and Giulio’s incurable shyness. The prevalent gaiety became so hysterical that, at moments, even the plates seemed to clatter with merriment. Everything became ridiculous and pleasant. Giulio protested :
– This is too much !
Chiarina and Lola cried in unison :
– No, no ! don’t stop !
Only Enrico succeeded in calming them down, saying :
– I don’t like all this excitement.
Although Niccolo was ready with a coarse reply, they laughed less and in a more subdued manner. Enrico continued :
– I knew you were the most foul-mouthed of the three, but for goodness sake keep your low remarks for the shop, and don’t blurt them out before the girls. Keep your mouth in your plate, and shut up.
– If you don’t want to listen…
Giulio intervened :
– Don’t let’s take all this nonsense too seriously. Let’s drink our healths in a glass of wine, and forget your inclination to squabble. It’s much better to enjoy oneself than to quarrel.
Niccolo feigned repentance, with a comical look that renewed the laughter. His two nieces gazed at him with childish admiration, almost swept away by his cleverness and vivacity. Modesta rose from the table and went to his chair. Standing behind it, she took his head and kissed it. He started and rubbed the spot with his napkin ; then, pushing her away with an energetic hand, he remarked :
– You mustn’t take such liberties. Can’t you behave yourself?
( Federigo Tozzi, Three crosses – 1920 )