Luigi Pirandello (1909)
Translation copyright ©2017 by Steve Eaton.
ON THE STREET or in the homes of acquaintances or at public gatherings, listening to the chitchat of people on the events of the day, Bonaventura Camposoldani had intuited that above the common material needs and the day-to-day occurrences of life and its ordinary concerns, there hung a sort of idealized atmosphere, made up of more or less crude concepts, more or less obvious reflections, of generic considerations, of mottos and proverbs and so on, with which in moments of idleness all those who spent the whole day under the weight of their paltry existence try to relieve themselves by taking a breath of air. Naturally, in this idealized atmosphere they are like so many fish out of water; they easily get lost, dazzled by the flash of some unexpected thought. One had to know how to seize this moment to set the hook.
Bonaventura Camposoldani had trained himself marvelously.
To have a “unifying” idea; to propose it to a dozen friends of some authority and with many connections; to call a meeting to unveil the idea and demonstrate the advantages of mining it, the benefits of acquiring it; then to nominate a commission to compile bylaws: the whole process.
The commission nominated, the bylaws compiled, a further meeting called to discuss and approve the articles; for the nomination of the esteemed members; the unanimous election to the presidency of Bonaventura Camposoldani who had had the idea and found the temporary headquarters without giving himself a moment’s rest; the society was born and would immediately begin to die from all of the members who no longer cared about it; it lived on only for Bonaventura Camposoldani who – president, advisor, administrator, cashier, secretary – on the first of every month sent the collector to politely awaken, just for a moment, the sleepers, whose sleep, light in the first month, gradually became deeper and finally a profound lethargy.
The collector for all the societies founded by Camposoldani was always the same: a little old man who called himself Bencivenni. Squalid, small, frail, trembling, there emanated from his pale sky-blue little eyes, ever full of tears, a seraphic innocence.
Camposoldani had nicknamed him Jeremiah some time ago, and everyone believed that his name was really Jeremiah, last name Bencivenni.
Camposoldani protected him because the poor old man really deserved to be protected: a veteran of the patriotic battles, a survivor of Villa Glori and – out of pride – starving.
On the other hand, he had been a little foolish, to tell the truth. He had taken as wife the widow of a brother in arms killed at Digione; he had raised four children not his own; the wife died on him five years later; the three stepsons, as soon as they were grown, had abandoned him; and he was left alone, so old, in poverty, with the female stepchild, beloved like a true daughter. So if he was always crying, Jeremiah had good reason.
But Jeremiah wasn’t actually crying. He appeared to cry; he wasn’t crying. Anemic by nature, he was highly susceptible to chills. And not only the eyes dripped, but his nose, that poor nose, weak and so pale, skinny, strained every time by the effort of stifling itself to prevent the outbreak of a tempest, that interminable discharge of hilarious sneezes, small, quick, dry, during which it appeared that, terribly upset with himself, he wanted to peck himself in the chest with that nose.
“Mea culpa… mea culpa… mea culpa… “ Camposoldani would say, imitating with each sneeze the old man’s little shake.
This old man, making his rounds all day, would arrive dead tired at the homes of the members. Lost inside old clothes always out of season, gotten from charity or acquired by chance, his poor feet housed in some old shoes tied with string, he would enter talking under his breath, almost to himself, with the ghost of a smile on his lips, a smile that looked rational and yet pained. He would make these ingratiating little motions with his head, and a movement of his eyelids, full of a philosophical forgiveness, on those little pale eyes, innocent and watery, and to look at him, no one knew what to think.
He seemed to be continuing the thread of a conversation which he had followed since morning, leaving his house: a conversation which perhaps wasn’t interrupted even on the street, nor going up and down the stairs. In fact, he entered the homes of the members talking, and talking he went out, without stopping for a moment, not even while his trembling hands scratched out on the registry the receipt of the monthly dues.
But no one managed to understand what he was talking about.
Everyone supposed that the poor old man was complaining about walking too much, of going up and down too many stairs, at his age, reduced to this. Except that, in the middle of that dense muttering, in between those pained and rational-looking smiles, you would catch, now the name of a minister or this or that member of Parliament, now a newspaper headline. And everyone was then left stunned and amazed to look at him, not understanding what those names and newspaper headlines had to do with his complaints.
But in fact they had a lot to do with them. Because Jeremiah Bencivenni wasn’t actually complaining, but intending to converse, even under his breath and as if with himself; maybe he believed he was obliged to do so, approaching such upright people; and he would speak of politics; of the wonderful laws being voted on in Parliament, or he’d comment on a current event, or give news of member A whom he had just visited, or of member B whom he was going to just now.
If someone told him that he didn’t intend to keep paying, because he no longer wanted to take part in the society, Jeremiah would take no notice; he would detach, just the same, the duly signed receipt, and leave it there on the side table; as if this alone were his task and he needn’t bother with anything else, at least so long as there were some members who, whether just to get rid of him or out of pity or gullibility, continued to pay.
So when Jeremiah, worn down more than ever, would come to announce that there was no one left willing to pay and, as proof, turned out all the pockets of his jacket, his vest, his pants, and even displayed the lining of his greasy cap, Bonaventura Camposoldani would be momentarily left perplexed, over whether to disperse that ghost of a club with a puff of air or to revive it with a flash of genius.
In the first case, he would have to set himself to the effort of founding another one immediately. That annoyed him. And too, it’s better not to press things too far. Therefore, a flash … a flash … What flash?
He counted heavily on two things, Camposoldani. That is to say, on that which he called the “moral elasticity” of the Italian people, and on their mental laziness.
Martin Luther would have paid a hundred thousand florins to be spared the sight of Rome?
Martin Luther was a fool.
See here: Temperament by temperature. First of all you have to consider the temperature.
In Germany it’s cold.
Now naturally, the cold, which freezes water, likewise makes the spirit rigid. Precise formulas. Absolute precepts and norms. There’s no elasticity.
In Italy it’s warm.
If, on the one hand, the sun makes the intellect drowsy and numbs your energy, on the other hand it keeps the spirit elastic, aglow, continually molten. When pulled, spirits yield, stretch like soft dough, letting themselves get all twisted and tangled up, as long as it’s done with courtesy, of course, and gradually. Tolerance. What is meant by tolerance? Just this: mental laziness, moral elasticity. To live and let live.
The Italian doesn’t want to burden himself with thinking: it’s left to a few to do the thinking for him.
Now these few, let’s be fair, in order to think big, for everyone, without wearing themselves out, need to be well nourished. Mens sana in corpore sano. And the Italian lets them eat, provided they do it courteously, of course, and maintain a certain kind of appearance. Then he claps his hands, without getting too excited, whenever his appointed thinkers manage by chance to procure for him some little treat.
There you are: he would have to procure some little treat for the members of the club, to awaken them back into solvency.
And Camposoldani would almost always manage to do so.
This latest operation wasn’t really a local society, but rather a national association with an eminently patriotic and civil purpose.
It proposed to gather a working army, in every province and town in Italy, of all those who cared deeply about finally curing the shameful plague of illiteracy and to spread a taste for culture among the Italian people through lectures and conferences.
Deep down in Bonaventura Camposoldani’s soul he valued as a priceless gift the Italian’s constant aversion to any sort of culture and education, because once you achieved those things, you required so much more which, to be truly wise, you’re better off without. But he no longer dared to say this, not even in tacito sinu, now that a good seventy-five chapters against illiteracy had been formed in less than a year, of which forty-two (consoling symptom of reawakening health!) were in the southern provinces. The new National Association for the People’s Culture now counted more than one thousand seven hundred members. Headquarters: Rome. And the Government had wisely granted, in order to constitute the necessary reserve fund, a national telegraph office lottery, from which the beauty of forty-five thousand lire had blossomed, give or take.
He had inaugurated almost all of them, those seventy-five chapters, improvising an hour-long speech for each one, on the benefits of literacy and the advantages of culture. Only four or five, in order not to seem too domineering, he had allowed to be inaugurated by a certain Pascotti, a history professor at a high school in Rome, vice president of the main chapter, a good man, rotund in every way, even in his voice: rotund and pasty. Poor man, one had to pity him; he had the weakness of seriously believing himself to be a strong orator: he really had a great facility with words, and he would portray, in flowery phrases, numerous epochs, he would assert that not even Demosthenes or Cicero…and so on for hours and hours, without ever concluding anything, blissfully abandoning himself to the sonorous tide which flowed from his lips. As though it were a soft dough, with his big ugly hands raised in front of his mouth, he seemed to be kneading that eloquence of his, rolling it around and balling it up, his eyes full of desire. For a moment, everyone would enjoy listening to him; but then, those foreheads that had been furrowed in concentration would begin to raise their eyebrows little by little; their eyes would expand, become wide open, lost, as if searching for an escape route.
Indignant over the reception of those five inaugural lectures of his, Pascotti had resigned as vice-president and had dropped out of sight. The lottery obtained, the initial fervor boiled off, and the headquarters in Rome fell into a deep slumber. The chapters kept on operating with an alacrity that was a little disturbing, especially two or three, though fortunately far away, in Calabria and Sicily.
What laughs Bonaventura Camposoldani got from reading the reports in heroic style from the presidents of those chapters, poor elementary school teachers! Some of them even sent in entire happy little pedagogical treatises. What an effort though, to have to tone them down, to summarize, to adjust a period here, and to fish out the sense there, miserably shipwrecked in a sea of churning, foaming phrases! And he had to have them printed, those reports, in the Bulletin of the Association, which he considered opportune to publish at least once a month, in order to have the forty-five thousand lire from the lottery show some signs of life.
And this time he also had needed to make a permanent home for the Association. He had rented a suite on the first floor of an old house on Via delle Marmorelle, two little rooms and a nice hall for assemblies, in case the members from Rome by some miracle ever dreamed of holding one.
A table covered with green cloth for the President and the Board; pens and inkwells; fifty chairs; three window curtains; five oil portraits of the three kings and two queens on the walls; the indispensable half-bust in bronzed plaster of Dante Alighieri on a column also of plaster, behind the President’s table; a tray with two bottles of water and four glasses; a spittoon… What else? Ah, the Association’s flag: all this, in the assembly hall.
He lodged in one of the two little rooms, Camposoldani: not to sleep there, no: to work from morning to night, since the elected board members and the secretary, as usual, left him alone and made him do everything himself; so that by a certain point, he deemed it useless to keep renting the furnished room on Via Ovidio, at the foot of the Prati, and at night, tired of working all day, he went to sleep in his clothes, there on the sofa, for a few hours.
In the other little room lived Jeremiah with his daughter. Poor Jeremiah! He finally had a fixed stipend, funded by the telegraph lottery, and a free room. Now one could say that Italy, for which he had suffered and fought, had gotten itself together and set things right. As reward for the heroic struggles of his youth, in compensation for the many trials endured into old age, he had been housed in the headquarters of a national Association, and Tudina, his stepdaughter, was finally able to stretch out all of her rags for drying on the fifty chairs of the hall, sometimes even on the half-bust of Dante Alighieri; out of ignorance, we should point out, not for lack of respect for the father of the Italian language.
For Tudina, Dante Alighieri was all in that indignantly arched nose. She called him: “That man who smells something stinky.”
And she did not understand, Tudina, why Camposoldani kept him there, at the head of the hall, behind the President’s table. Stretching out the laundry on the chairs, she could not stand that face of plaster looking down on her from the column with that disdainful eyebrow, and would immediately run to hide it with a rag.
She wasn’t ugly, Tudina, but she wasn’t pretty either. Only her eyes were pretty, really pretty, and also her hair; deep black and shining, the eyes; black and curly, the hair.
She was already twenty-four, but she seemed like fifteen, no more. In her body, in how she held herself, in those shining eyes, in that curly hair, always rumpled, she remained a girl, a half-wild girl, impervious to any inroads of experience or of culture.
She had been to school, as a little girl, in several schools: she had been tossed out of every one. One time she had gone after a schoolmate, and it was by a miracle that she didn’t tear her eyes out; another time she had rebelled with acts of insubordination no less violent towards the teacher. No one wanted to take into account the reason for those violent acts. But she had gone after that schoolmate after getting ridiculed for having said she was afraid of dogs because, as a child, a cat had scratched her. That schoolmate didn’t know that she had been holding that cat lovingly in her arms, a cat which had just had some darling little kittens, when a dog had approached her threateningly, baying, and the cat then stiffened up and, not being able to scratch the dog, had scratched her; whence, logically, her fear of dogs. Later on that teacher had wanted no less than to force her to dip her pen in the inkwell, a pretty little pen, all clean and shiny, in the shape of a hand with the index finger extended, a cherished pen that to her, in addition, seemed almost like a weapon with which, sending her to school, they had armed her and which she had to jealously protect and preserve intact.
Many times, the stepfather, coming home tired in the evening, had tried before dinner or after dinner to teach her, with a lot of patience, a little of the ABC’s out of her syllabary.
The fact that b plus a makes ba, enunciated by the stepfather in his little mosquito voice and his habitual pained and rational little smile, seemed to her neither serious or truthful. She kept looking in his eyes, open mouthed.
Often, even now, she would keep looking at him like that, for a long time, for the silliest reason you could ever imagine.
She was hardly certain, Tudina, that this stepfather of hers was real, a real man, of flesh and bone like all the others, and not rather a ghost of a man, a shadow which a puff of air might carry off. She saw him speak, smile; but even she did not understand what he said, why he was smiling or about what. She didn’t understand why sometimes his pale eyes were shining behind the perennial veil of tears. And she could not believe that the trembling fingers of those bloodless little hands had feeling, could feel the things they touched, or that he noticed the taste of the food he ate, or that thoughts could be turning over in that innocent head. He seemed like air to her, that stepfather, a man who for himself, of his own, had nothing, to whom everything came by chance, not because he had done anything to get it, but because others had given it to him, almost as a joke, for the fun of seeing how he looked dressed up that way, in that shirt, in that hat, in those shoes, in those pants, in that coat: everything, always, too big, so big that he seemed lost inside them.
Those clothes, that hat, those shoes all retained something of their providers; Tudina recognized them as Tizio’s, or Cajo’s; but who was he, what did he consist of, the one who wore them?
Never a shirt of his own; never a pair of shoes made for his feet; never a hat that fit properly on his head!
The poverty, the lack of any stable situation, the sight of him always wandering around almost on the breeze, lost, pursuing useless errands, with that drone of senseless words on his lips between the little smiles and the tears, gave her the idea that he was unreal, and not just him, but also herself, and everything else. Where, with what, could she touch reality, in that perpetual precariousness of existence, if around and inside her everything was unstable and uncertain, if she had nothing and no one she could lean on?
And Tudina sometimes rushed to tear, to break, to smash, a sheaf of paper, a vase, any old object, which oddly, little by little, had come to her attention, apparently on wild impulse. But in reality it came from an instinctive need, unconscious, to go after and destroy certain things which she was unable to find the meaning and value of, or to test her presence, her strength against them, for the disrespect they did to her by showing up there in front of her. Right there in front of her, as if she, if she wanted to, couldn’t tear, break, smash them. That vase there… But oh yes, she was able to move it from here to there, and from there to here, and also to strike it with force, like that, against the window sill, and smash it… all done… Why? Well for nothing, that’s why…because they disrespected her! But for some other objects, delicate, fragile, tiny, worthless, a bit of colored wrapping paper, a glass bead, a fake mother-of-pearl shirt button, she gave protection, care, an infinite delicacy: she smoothed them with a finger and placed them between her lips. And some days she caressed her thick black curls with her fingers endlessly, twisting them around her head, slowly stretching them out and then letting them curl back up, not out of coquettishness, but for the pleasure which that caress gave her; on other days, however, she tore at them furiously with her comb.
Bonaventura Camposoldani had never concerned himself with that stepdaughter of Jeremiah’s.
Women didn’t enter into his life, except briefly and in passing. Quite the opposite, re: The Woman, as such, in the abstract, the woman as social question, the judicial issue of the woman, yes, sooner or later that might interest him. It was an issue, a social question like any other, to study, to attend to; and it might enter into the realm of his activity: not to resolve, God help us!
If all the social issues, as they gradually arise out of life and impose themselves on the attentions and the study of the appointed thinkers, were to be resolved just like that, goodbye profession!
Yes, it’s true, that life abounds with social issues, and if someone by a miracle resolves them, then two or three others will immediately arise; but it’s a struggle, to make yourself start from the beginning by thinking of a new problem, when it’s so comfortable to ease into the old ones; it’s enough for the public that the social issues have been posed and to know there’s someone who is thinking about resolving them. Everyone knows that it’s appropriate for all the social issues to be posed and never resolved. New issues have this downside, which is that they are only noticed by a few at first. They weren’t for him, therefore, who still didn’t have a permanent position, steady recompense and rights to a pension, which would have allowed him the luxury of taking up ever new and difficult studies, through slow and careful preparation. He operated independently, creating societies and institutions alongside those of the State; and so he required issues posed a long time ago, of a gravity widely recognized.
He had gotten a tight hold on one, which would have given him not one lifetime, but time enough for ten of ninety years each to resolve! The trouble was that the money from the telegraph lottery, unfortunately, was draining away day by day…
He took notice of Tudina because of that wet rag placed for drying on the half-bust of Dante Alighieri. The first time he saw it he ran to her room to give her a severe reprimand, but he couldn’t help but smile when Tudina appeared stunned that he deserved such respect, that man there with the arched nose, as if he smelled something stinky.
Tudina interpreted his smile as a concession, and continued to lay out the rag, despite renewed reprimands. Bonaventura Camposoldani interpreted this perverseness by the girl as a ruse to attract his attention, and one morning, when he found himself in a good mood, he entered her little room to give her ear a tug, as you would to an impertinent and naughty little girl, and to tell her she mustn’t do it again, or else, if she wanted to keep doing it… But Tudina rebelled against that tugging of her ear, she forcefully pushed back; Bonaventura Camposoldani felt himself get excited over the fight: he grabbed her; they struggled with each other, a little in fun, a little in seriousness; until Tudina, finding herself taken by him in a way she hadn’t expected that anyone could take her, became furious; she yelled, she bit, she scratched, at first; then, not wanting to yield, she felt forced by her own body to surrender; and finally she appeared as if stunned in the confusion.
That’s it, eh? Closed parenthesis, for Camposoldani, or maybe for reopening once in a while, at his leisure, since the girl lived there, in the little adjoining room. Strange, though, all that rebellion, after she had provoked him…and then, that fear…and now what? Was she crying? My goodness, making such a fuss! Enough, come on! What was there to cry about so much? Jeremiah could show up at any moment, and why cause him displeasure, poor old man, what’s done is done, better to keep it secret, and even keep on in secret…why not? without making a commotion, with prudence…
Aw, good girl! That’s right….
Tudina leapt, like a tigress, she threw herself around his neck, she was frantically embracing him, like she wanted to choke him. She felt so much shame…so, so much…and she wanted her shame to be healed by him with so much love…forever, because otherwise, she would feel that shame forever, and she would die from it, that’s all.
Yes, of course, yes…so why was she trembling so? Why was she crying so? Why this shame? No one would know…it was up to her, that no one find out…
Up to her? Oh, it all depended on her, poor Tudina. She couldn’t speak of it, Tudina, couldn’t say anything about it even to him; but, after three months…
Bonaventura Camposoldani was left scratching his head for more than five minutes. Oh god! Oh god! A child…with that girl…in those circumstances… And what would he do, now, what would he say to that poor Jeremiah?
From one day to the next Camposoldani expected the old man to appear before him and demand an accounting and a reason for that ignominious complication in the free room with his daughter in the headquarters of the National Association for the People’s Culture. Believing now that a scene was inevitable, he would have liked it to happen as soon as possible, to get out of it somehow and rid himself of this worry.
Every morning he would enter the hall nervously, with his heart in his mouth; he would make it to the door of the little room where the father and daughter lived; he would look frowning from one to the other, who greeted him in desolate silence; and stunned, would ask, almost as a provocation:
Jeremiah would close his eyes and open his hands.
Camposoldani could barely keep himself from grabbing him by the chest, giving him a shake, shouting in his face:
“So speak! Get on with it! Tell me what you have to say and let’s get it over with!”
So that, one morning when in answer to the usual question: “Anything new?”, Jeremiah, rather than closing his eyes and opening his hands, nodded his head several times in the affirmative, Camposoldani could only snort:
“Ah, finally! Let’s hear it!”
But Jeremiah, placid as ever, stuck a hand in the inside pocket of his jacket, pulled out a sheet of paper folded into quarters and held it out to him.
“What does it mean?” said Camposoldani, looking at that crumpled sheet of paper, without taking it.
Jeremiah shrugged his shoulders and responded:
“And what is this?”
“I don’t know. A little kid brought it…”
Camposoldani, his eyebrows furrowed, angrily took the paper; opened it; began to read; suddenly raised his eyes and thundered at Jeremiah:
“Ha! You did this?”
It was a petition signed by twenty-five members, calling for an assembly as soon as possible. At the top of the list, professor Agesilao Pascotti.
Jeremiah brought his trembling hands to his chest and opening his squalid lips in the usual little smile, pained and rational:
“Me?” he whispered in a tiny voice. “What’s it got to do with me?”
“Piece of idiocy!” blurted Camposoldani. “And you went right to Pascotti?”
“What do you think you’re going to get out of it now? They want the books? Oh, right away! Meanwhile you’re going to answer for this!”
“You, to start with, my dear! You who for so many years have gone throwing around the receipts for the monthly dues without collecting the amount! Piece of idiocy, they all owe us, these signatories here, every one… Cardilli, Voceri, Spagna, Falletri, Romeggi… Hah! Only one does not! Concetto Sbardi… Oh where did you go to dig him up? Isn’t he the yokel down in the Abruzzo? He’s the one who writes ‘idear’ instead of ‘idea’! He’s in Rome? Ah, he came here? And you went to him?”
Set upon like that, the poor old man tried many times to interrupt him, with his hands outstretched, continuously batting his eyebrows over his watery eyes. He seemed to have fallen from the sky! He didn’t know anything about anything, really… He was upset with him?
Suddenly Tudina, who no longer seemed herself, stepped in between the two of them. Bloated, disheveled, turned ugly, she rose before Camposoldani like a living image of the dirty deed, the shameful crime he had stained himself with. What did her father have to do with that petition? What interest could he have in turning the members against him?
“Well then?” said Camposoldani.
How, where did that petition come about? Whose ear was that little cricket chirping in? For what reason, all of a sudden like this? People who had quit paying, people who hadn’t been seen for so long…
Nervously scratching his handsome beard, parted in the middle of his chin, Camposoldani immersed himself in considering once again that petition which, based on the first signature, you could argue was all written by the hand of Pascotti himself; he read and reread a few more times the list of names; finally he raised his smiling face to Jeremiah.
“Pascotti?” he asked almost to himself.
And again he began to consider the signatures. Only one disturbed him: the one by that Sbardi from the Abruzzo. He had always paid, that one, right on time. How did he find himself there lined up with the others? It gave him the appearance of a wolf among a flock of sheep. Yes, he was the enemy, him, without a doubt… He had come to Rome, he had come to meet Pascotti, ex-vice-president, and the two of them… What did they want from him? The books? Go right ahead. But if Sbardi had come to meet Pascotti in order to elect him supreme battlefield commander, it was a sign that, at the very least, he didn’t know how to speak up. And if he lacked the courage to make the accusation, the most difficult kind of courage, would the rotund Pascotti have it? Come on! Pascotti made him laugh.
Again Camposoldani lifted his smiling face to Jeremiah.
“The books…” he said.
“The… the books?” stammered the old man. “From me?”
Camposoldani glared at him, as if that naïve question of whether the members wanted the books from him, Jeremiah, had struck him with some idea.
“From you… from me… we’ll see,” he said.
And he retired to his room.
Later on Jeremiah was sent around to distribute the invitations to the assembly for the evening of the following day. He seemed to be in shock, as if his legs would collapse beneath him.
Camposoldani remained at the Association all day to prepare the defense. He had given in to the temptation to pay some debts which had been oppressing him; and this subtraction could be masked quite nicely by the trip which he had spoken of making to Germany, to study the organism of the Cultural Societies that were blossoming in that country, as everyone knew. Then there were the expenses for the head office, furniture, rent; the expenses for the publication of the Bulletin; Jeremiah’s stipend… What else? Ah, the expenses for the trips for the inaugurations…expenses which, amounting to hardly less than the entire income from the monthly dues, would have naturally diminished the fund from the telegraph lottery. But altogether, how much was left?
Camposoldani got out the money. Even exaggerating the expenses, even rounding up the numbers more than once, the bottom line was a good long way from agreeing with the actual paltry residue.
To disappear, no: he was not the man to make himself disappear so easily, especially in front of those twenty-five signers with some Pascotti at their head. But the books, no, forget it! He had to find a way not to show the books. Then later, if he was really, really forced… A flash, one of his usual flashes of genius had to save him… What flash?
Camposoldani thought about it all night and the next day. A few hours before the assembly Jeremiah suddenly appeared before him, more than ever like a ghost, held up by a puff of air: he entered talking, as usual, under his breath, with a more prominent shaking of his head and hands, and with the shadow, barely the shadow, of the usual pained and rational smile on his lips.
“It…Italy…that…sss…such sacrifices…such heroics…Italy, that…King Victor….Cavour…who knows what…what they believed in…had to become….here’s what…a streetwalker…shame…sons of bitches…dis…dishonor…you know!…brother against brother…the buh…the bullet at Aspromonte…mark of shame…nation of thieves…of course!…mother of….sluts….of course! It…Italy…Italy…”1
And murmuring these words, he left.
Camposoldani was left stunned; he didn’t find the voice to call him back, to find out what he meant.
What nonsense was Jeremiah spouting, in protest over the seduction and pregnancy of his stepdaughter like that?
At the assembly, beyond the twenty-five signatories, barely a dozen members attended, who had never before set foot in the hall of the Association.
Of the six board members of the main chapter of Rome, no one cared to show up. By letter, this one declared that, according to the bylaws, his term had already expired a while ago; that one, dismissed as a member altogether for having stopped payment; another one even expressed astonishment that the Association was still in existence.
At the table of the Presidency he appeared alone, Bonaventura Camposoldani, his head held high. More than a head higher than him however and with a brow more disdainful than his, there rose behind the table of the Presidency something else: Dante Alighieri on his column of bronzed plaster.
Dante Alighieri seemed to be smelling something that stank worse than ever.
It was quite evident that before attending the assembly, those thirty-seven members had conspired among themselves on a plan of battle. You could clearly read in the eyes of the stupidest ones, some furious, turned towards him, others cocky, with lips stick out and lowered eyebrows through which they looked at the chairs, the drapes, the table of the Presidency and Dante Alighieri himself, as if in compassion.
Pascotti took a seat in the first row, in the middle; Concetto Sbardi, instead, at the back, apart. He was a stocky little man, rumpled, glowering, who kept one hand palm open on his chin and noisily raked his stubbly cheek with curved fingernails. Many turned around to look at him, and, irritated, he would slouch even further into himself. But if it was Pascotti! Why weren’t they looking at Pascotti? What idiots!
Camposoldani, a little pale, with a serious face, but also with a little ironic smile barely perceptible under his moustache, before opening the assembly, nodded his head to summon Jeremiah, who had been sitting, anxiously, by the entrance, and gave him a sheet of paper which the attendees were to sign to affirm their presence.
When he had collected the signed paper, he rang the bell and said calmly,
“Gentlemen, the assembly was called for eight o’clock; it’s already about nine. From this record of attendance it is evident that we do not have a quorum. There are ninety-six enrolled members of the Rome chapter…”
“I demand the floor!” exclaimed Pascotti.
“Pardon, professor,” Camposoldani continued. “I can guess, sir, what you would like to say: of these ninety-six members, many must consider themselves decommissioned, since for some time…”
“I demand the floor!” insisted Pascotti.
“You’ll have it; but first let me speak” replied Camposoldani with a firm voice. “I am also here to pay respect to the bylaws: and I say to all those before me that I could very well have ignored their petition, since all twenty-five of the signatories, except one, and for that matter the majority of the members enrolled in this chapter, must consider themselves as decommissioned, since for some time…”
“No! no! no!” shouted several all together at this.
And Pascotti, for the third time:
“I demand the floor! ‘Decommissioned’ for what, Mr. President? I certainly – we are in a cultural society – excuse me – would never use this word, which has unfortunately come into usage, though not ours! But let’s go ahead and say ‘decommissioned’, since we have a lot to discuss this evening, besides which words are or aren’t apt. I’m asking, decommissioned for what, Mr. President?”
“Exactly!” Camposoldani interrupted him, nodding to Jeremiah at the back of the hall. “Ask our collector back there, my esteemed Pascotti, sir.”
Everyone turned around to look at him: two or three exclaimed:
“We’ve never seen this guy!”
“Don’t say that!” Camposoldani exclaimed then, hitting his fist on the table. “You very well have seen him for two or three months, punctually! And you’ve not only seen him, but he’s left the receipt for the dues in your houses, trusting that, perhaps momentarily prevented, you gentlemen would come to pay the balance here, in the headquarters open all day, at your convenience. No one has ever shown up! I have remained here at work, here to keep alive the flame of the Association, of which you, this evening, without the right to do so, come to demand from me an accounting. Oh yes, gentlemen, without the right. Because, it’s one or the other: either all those who haven’t kept up with their payments don’t have to consider themselves decommissioned, and then – it goes without saying – we lack the minimum number, and I may not open the assembly; or they must consider themselves decommissioned, and then even all of you, gentlemen, except for one, are no longer vested in the society and can go away. But no, no, no, dear gentlemen” – Camposoldani hastened to add – “You see very well that I have welcomed your petition, most happy to see you here, finally! In short, very well; but with the hope that from this evening on, following your example, our Association will reawaken to that fruitful life which as the founder I vowed to give it. But how could you imagine that it could ever cross my mind not to welcome your petition! I am here, I have always been here to work for everyone, to maintain a continuous, active correspondence with our chapters, to attend to the publication of our Bulletin, which is even distributed abroad! You have finally resolved to come, to participate in the life of our Association? Well, see for yourselves, see for yourselves if I, tired as I am, don’t open my arms to you and bless you.”
Camposoldani wasn’t expecting applause after this barrage. But he achieved the desired effect. Everyone appeared momentarily disconcerted; and again many turned around to look at the only one who didn’t have to feel out of order and admitted as an indulgence. Concetto Sbardi, this time, shook himself angrily and got up as if to go away; simultaneously four or five rose and ran to hold him back, while the others shouted:
“Speak, Sbardi! Speak, Sbardi!”
“Let Pascotti speak, for god’s sake” shouted Sbardi, disentangling himself. “Let me go! Either Pascotti speaks, or I’m leaving!”
“Fine, I’ll speak” said Pascotti then, standing up a bit uneasily. “With the permission of the esteemed Mr. President.”
“No! No! Speak, Sbardi! Speak, Sbardi!”
“I will speak…”
Chuckling, Camposoldani rang the bell. “My dear sirs, I beg you… What is it?”
“I will speak,” thundered Pascotti. “I demand the floor!”
“Only to say,” continued professor Agesilao Pascotti, majestically raising an arm, “only to say that under the conditions in which I have been placed and we have been placed by the honorable president, O my friends, however motivated by pure and, I wish to say, dogmatic obedience, with his preliminary ruling, I assert and give notice to our dear colleague Sbardi that my speech would no longer have that efficacy which it should have, that it rightly would have had, according to our intention and our understanding.”
“Wait! For which reason, I beg, I heartily beg, in the name of all of our colleagues here present, and, let me suppose, in the name also of all those members of the Association spread across Italian soil.” (Hear hear!) “Wait! I beg, as I was saying, professor Concetto Sbardi, because I wish to break through his natural reticence, his…rather too irrepressible modesty, for him to speak, for him to present here, with the severe rigor that is his habit, the irreproachable reasons that have impelled us, gentlemen, to demand this solemn assembly!”
Applause and renewed cries broke out: “Speak, Sbardi! Long live Sbardi!”
“Mr. Sbardi,” said Camposoldani with an air of defiance, “Enough! Give your friends satisfaction! I too am curious to hear what it is you have to say, what it is you have been devising to express through the ornate and eloquent words of professor Pascotti.”
Concetto Sbardi waved an arm at those who had gathered around him and got up to speak. He looked like a buffalo preparing to charge, head lowered. With one hand he grabbed the back of the chair in front of him, keeping the other one on his chin to rake his cheek, then began:
“Agesilao…Agesilao Pascotti and all of you, gentlemen, are wrong to force me to speak. I have told you… I have begged you that I am no speaker. I do not possess, like Mr. Camposoldani, like Pascotti, Mr…Mr. what’s his name…yes, anyway, the point…the dressing room, I meant to say, gentlemen, the dressing room of eloquence.”
Some applauded these lines in order to hearten the orator, others broke out in laughter.
“Yes, gentlemen,” retorted Concetto Sbardo. “That is what I call it… The dressing room of eloquence… Do you have a sickly little thought? The sickliness will persist, if you don’t have the dressing room of eloquence. But if you have the dressing room of eloquence, the sickly little thought will come out of your mouth puffed up with such a stuffing of phrases, that it will seem like a giant, a Hercules it will seem, with the club and the lion skin… You have a dirty little idear? Have it enter the dressing room of eloquence, and the speaker, Camposoldani, Pascotti, what will he do? He will make it come out with its face washed, combed, with certain tassels of words, pinned on with commas and semicolons, so the dirty little idear wouldn’t even recognize itself… Gentlemen, I do not possess the dressing room of eloquence; I force myself to speak to you; I have not even a rag, not even a shred with which to dress up my idears; and if I speak, here tonight, I am afraid that out of my mouth will escape…I don’t know what…but something that Mr. Camposoldani, who is pressing me as well, wouldn’t like…in short, I tell you, I am afraid that out of my mouth will escape…out of my mouth…”
“So let it escape!” exclaimed Camposoldani, quite pale, slamming another fist onto the table. “Speak! Say it! We are here to speak and to be heard!”
Concetto Sbardi then raised his head, took his hand from his chin, and cried,
“Signor Camposoldani, the naked thief!”
Pandemonium struck! Everyone jumped to their feet; Camposoldani first of all, with the leap of a tiger; brandishing his chair, he threw himself against Sbardi. Many held him back, others grabbed Sbardi; everyone shouted in great excitement among the overturned chairs. Pascotti mounted the presidential table.
“Gentlemen! Gentlemen! This is deplorable! I beg you, gentlemen! Listen to me! There’s a misunderstanding, for goodness’ sake! Let’s be reasonable! Gentlemen! Gentlemen!”
No one listened to him.
“Gentlemen! How shameful! Dante Alighieri is watching us!”
Camposoldani, disarmed of the chair, disconcerted, panting, restrained by the arms, finally stopped struggling and said to those who were trying to calm him down:
“Enough… enough… I’m calm… Let me go. Gentlemen, take your seats. I am the president.”
He went to the table, everyone remained standing, and standing he spoke:
“This evening I cannot, because truly I had not expected such an attack. Tomorrow! I have a way – simple – dignified – worthy of myself – of making someone swallow the reckless insult they believe they have flung at me. Come tomorrow evening, gentlemen, you and all the others; I will account for everything, in minute detail, with documents in hand. The assembly is closed.”
He rang the bell and everyone left the hall in silence.
After midnight, Bonaventura Camposoldani, having gone out to get a little air, to reconnect his confused and scattered ideas, in calm, to have that flash of genius which should save him, returning to the headquarters of the Association, was left astonished at the entrance to the hall.
Jeremiah, with the lights still on, was seated at the table of the Presidency, with his head resting on its green cloth.
Camposoldani thought the poor old man had perhaps wanted to wait for him, after that stormy session, and had fallen asleep there.
Through the doorway of the little room Camposoldani heard the cadence of Tudina’s snoring.
Bonaventura Camposoldani approached the table to shake the old man and send him to bed; but next to the bare head, of which the light revealed the pink scalp through the sparse gray hairs, he noticed an envelope, and he was shocked.
He, Jeremiah Bencivenni, had had the flash of genius.
“It…Italy…shame…sons of bitches…”
But if the stepdaughter had already understood that Italy was sick, and that for all the honest and humble ones nothing remained but to serve the thieves, what further need was there for him?
In the envelope, two letters. In one he accused himself of having improperly profited from the blind trust that the honorable President of the Association, his benefactor, had had for him for so many years, and of having withdrawn almost all of the funds from the telegraph lottery. He wrote of having thrown away the greater part of them on lottery tickets, and he begged pardon from the President and all the members.
In the other, written for Bonaventura Camposoldani only, he said, in writing, as follows:
“In the dressing room of eloquence, dress up your thievery in the red shirt I wore under Garibaldi, O naked thief! I accuse myself, I kill myself to save you, and I give you the stuffing for a magnificent speech. In return I ask only that you render honor to my poor stepdaughter!”