Philip, in the anteroom, began to treat her with great familiarity:
– Good morning Miss! I apologize for yesterday’s misunderstanding; but I just didn’t know …
– Oh, it doesn’t matter! Now you know; All right?
– Signor Arrigo had never told me about her.
– Where is Arrigo?
– He gets dressed; she took a bath just now. I’ll go immediately to warn him.
– It doesn’t matter, I’ll go there.
With her footstep that made no noise she went quickly to her brother’s room, knocked two light knocks on the door.
– Can I come in? It’s me, Loretta.
– Ah, is that you? Really … but go inside if you want.
– How beautiful you are in a bathrobe! She exclaimed as soon as she entered. – Is this time to take a bath? It’s three in the afternoon, think!
“This morning I woke up too late and didn’t have time,” said Arrigo. – So, how are you doing?
– Not bad; I’ve seen Rafa now now.
– Oh yes?
– Yesterday I had an appointment with him at four; I didn’t go there to come to you. And this morning, at the post office, there was a desperate letter from him. I could not avoid seeing it today. But I got rid of it quickly; here I am.
Arrigo was sitting by the window, facing the mirror, and, with many scissors, irons, sticks and ointments, he was cleaning his nails, which gradually shone. His hair was still all tangled, damp, and he smoked as usual.
– What do you do for your nails? Asked his sister.
– A French ointment called “Roséine”. It is very good.
– Is it expensive?
– Five lire the jar.
– Peuh, not bad!
He went to the dressing table, leaning a little over his brother’s shoulder and looked at himself in the mirror. He hadn’t put on a veil that day; her skin was fresh and rosy, her lips shone and smiled even when they were closed. Lora was pleased and observed:
– This hat fits me right, doesn’t it?
It was made of straw, of a bright blue straw, with an overturned brim and a very high dome. It had a pink rose trim and a large tulle knot. Her hair filled the void of the wing with a beautiful mess of blonde curls. Arrigo looked at her in the mirror, quickly raising his eyes from the delicate care that kept him intent.
“Yes, Lora, it suits you very well,” he said; – or it’s you who looks very good in that hat of yours.
– However, how expensive everything is today! A simple simple hat like this: sixty lire. A ruin!
The brother smiled.
– Of course! To you it seems nothing, because you are used to certain ladies who spend many hundreds of lire on a hat. But I, you see, work miracles!
– I wonder just how you manage to dress so well with the little money that you spend at home?
– How can I do? How can I do? Don’t think it’s easy for me. I know what I have to work for! I have a big bill from the seamstress, one from the milliner, another from the shoemaker, and I have my linen done for half of what it would cost, in a shop where I am a friend of the mistress.
– But how come they give you credit?
– Whenever I can, I’ll give them some down payment. Then my suppliers are smart women; they looked me in the face and understood well that someday I will pay.
– Ah, I see! … – he said, between amazed and ironic.
– Then, for example, I make some blouses myself; I refresh some hats from year to year, renew them with a few lire; sometimes I give the petticoats to dye … In short, it is all an art that you cannot understand.
Arrigo did not stop rubbing his nails, while an indefinable smile wandered over the edge of his mouth.
– And if I paid you these bills, would you be happy, Loretta?
– No, Rigo; I don’t want you to spend on me. You are good, but I don’t want to. After all, don’t worry: there is time, and if someone has to put their hand in their pocket, I prefer it to be Rafa.
So saying she began to laugh.
– So we’ll talk about it again.
She stood in front of the dressing table and adjusted her curls with her hand.
– The wind has ruffled me; give me a brush, Rigo.
He handed her an ivory brush, broad and flat.
– Oh, look! She is full of hair! Woman’s hair. What a rascal you are! Look…
And he drew a shiny black hair from the hair of the brush, which he placed with great respect on the sleeve of his robe.
– That fool Philip always forgets to brush my brushes! – Arrigo observed.
– Give me a comb, I’ll go over them.
– Do you want to do it?
– But yes, what does it matter?
She sat down beside him, on a chair, and began to clean the brush.
– But he loses, you know, that good woman! He exclaimed with a laugh; and he added: – But they are soft. Who is? Always the same?
“The same,” he confessed with a resigned smile.
– The widow?
– Where do you keep your portraits?
– Hidden, because he wants it so.
– Riotti talked about it with his father very often, but I forgot his name.
– And do you love her?
– Why are you asking me?
– Like this; I want to know if you are in love.
– Oh, not in love! I love her, because she is good. Maybe a little boring, a little jealous … But, in short, are you interested in all this?
– Of course. You must know that I’m very curious … about certain things at least. So tell me, tell me: have you been in love with it?
– Yes, once, not quite in love, but almost. It has now passed.
– Why don’t you leave her then?
– Good! Do you think that when you start with a lady, it is so easy to break away from her? Then, sometimes, there are certain reasons that you cannot understand.
– You’re wrong, Rigo; I understand everything.
– Maybe even more than necessary … But in short, it has been going on for a long time, and this woman loves me as few lovers know how to love. Sometimes I make her suffer, because deep down I’m a bad guy, me!
He said these words gravely, but she laughed.
– Here. The brush is clean.
He got up, took another cigarette and lit it.
“Now do me a favor,” he said. – Look out the window for a moment because I have to get dressed.
– Go ahead; I will polish my nails in the meantime.
And retreating into the window, she placed herself carefully smoothing her nails, grouping her tapered little fingers together.
– Say, Rigo, – she said, – have you thought of Rafa?
He was hunched over by the bed, tying his garters.
– Yes, Lora, I’ve thought about you, and a lot. I have also sketched the plot of a small novel, which you will have to tell him after he has seen us together. This will be a big surprise for him, and deep down he may be afraid.
– I imagine it.
– You will explain to him that I am out of the house because of some old disagreements with the father, who is an original, a bit stingy, a bit curmudgeon, who would like his children to live far from that class to which they belong. And you will say to him: «But now that you know who I really am, I can no longer know you, as much as I am sorry …» He shows a great fear of me; she makes sure that he too fears me, and accused of having been a girl whose ideas are too emancipated, who, perhaps out of lightness, perhaps out of weakness, let herself be led by him to this point. But tell him firmly that you don’t intend to take a step further. He is a sentimental: you must know how to play the comedy of love very well for him; he is a fool, usually accustomed to succeeding: you must appear to him as the necessary but impossible lover, you must become for him what another cannot be … Do you understand me? You will make him understand in a low voice that the road to your bed is another … All this may not succeed, but it is worth trying. Above all, make sure of his silence and hide well when you have to talk to him. Let no one see you for heaven’s sake!
He was almost dressed and was now speaking to her closely, bent over her, looking at her. For a few moments the girl remained silent, collected and almost taken refuge against the person of her brother who was giving her these suggestions. She then she said:
– I don’t think she’ll ever marry me. It would be useless to have this illusion.
– Why, Lora? You don’t know men. Sometimes the exasperation of one desire leads to quite others madness. Didn’t you tell me she lost her mind? weren’t you convinced you could get anything out of him?
– Yes, but I wasn’t really thinking about marriage.
– And what did you think then? This would mean that you are also willing to ….
She had a little nervous motion:
– Bah! … listen … sometime …
– Pity! He exclaimed with an accent of profound sincerity, investing her sister with a look that was almost her desire.
– What are you saying, Rigo?
– I say it is a sin, a very sin, although there is no better judge of this than you.
He put a sarcastic irritation into the tone of his voice, almost a vehement rancor. His face too had changed a little.
– You say it’s a sin? She replied after reflection. – But, think: what future do I have in front of me, in which it is legitimate for me to trust honestly? Aside from this marriage, which you talk about but don’t believe in, who else is going to marry me? A gentleman from whom I can expect the life I want, certainly not. Then who? A shopkeeper? Any grocer like the one who married Luisa? Eh, no, go! Do I look like I was made to go and sell cinnamon and sugar loaves? Then no, in short! These, for me, are not men, and rather than lead that life I would put myself under the arm of the first comer and I would go away. I already told you that my tastes are like yours: you weren’t born to be in a shop, and neither am I. You like to dress well, have a nice house, be able to spend money, go to the theater, hang out with elegant people, live in short … . and I like all of this too. You did it as you could … I too am ready to do it as I can.
As she spoke, she had come close to him and familiarly was now helping her to fasten her suspenders, as if there was no hindrance between them. They were in front of the mirrored wardrobe and they could see reflections in the outline of the room.
“Maybe you’re not wrong,” said Arrigo, after thinking about it. – I am of the opinion that everyone should seek his best happiness in life. Above all, I cannot disapprove of you, who have given you an example. Of course, however, as a brother, I should talk to you otherwise.
– Oh, God! … you are so little my brother! She exclaimed with a singular timidity. – You have hardly ever been to our house, and I was a child when you were there. If you came to visit us, it seemed to me that a stranger was coming, of whom I was more curious each time. Everything they said about you gave me a strange feeling … – He paused, then added, lowering his eyes: – Listen … it’s silly maybe what I say, but when I come to you, I certainly don’t think I’m going to my brother … – He hesitated again, then said: – It almost seems to me to go to find a lover …
When he had uttered the somewhat reckless sentence, he turned red and looked his brother in the eyes, though ashamed of his own confusion.
– Ah, yes? … does this seem to you? He murmured, turning his face as if to occupy himself with something else.
A long moment of silence lasted between them, then he interrupted her, saying:
– Well, keep going.
She seemed to have lost the thread of her speech and lingered to find the words.
“So,” she finally resumed, “if it is not foreseeable that I will marry myself, for what or for whom would I keep myself honest?”
He shrugged nervously and said:
– I don’t like hearing you talk like that! Her face became bitterly stern and she added, “Sometimes you can keep yourself honest even to yourself.”
– Are you serious? … No, go! For themselves! Nice merit! Nice advantage! Then it must also be immensely boring! I will tell you, I was lucky that Rafa, as a man, really did not like him; otherwise at this time ….
Then the brother laughed.
– Good! at least you are frank! You say bread to bread ….
– God forbid you could pretend with you! You’re the only one who can understand me and I almost enjoy telling you the truth.
– So you think it must be boring? He repeated, still laughing at it.
– Safe! Because, you see, girls, in general, do not say these things … but in the end we are made like you, and sometimes …
She did not want to explain any further, she threw back her little head, with a quick and nervous act which she often repeated. But that idea came back to her and hammered into her head. Then he laughed out loud and exclaimed:
– Say, Rigo … you are a nice guy!
– Me, because?
– You look at me with such a surprised expression …
– I was thinking about what you said.
– Well, I said that sooner or later, better or worse, I would end up like this. So better use this means to get what I like. You too, after all, as far as I know, must have almost taken the same path …
And to stifle his impertinent laughter, he hid his face against the shoulder of his brother, who was now looking for a slip in the closet.
– What do you know? What do you know? …
– Oh, come on, if I hadn’t understood it for myself, there is Paolo, and there is Riotti, who talk about him almost every evening. What a good smell you have! Give it a drop on the handkerchief.
He took a bottle, plugged the rim with his tiny handkerchief and turned it upside down twice.
– Here too … – said his sister, stroking the top of her breast, on the fine muslin, which let her throat shine through. Her breast blossomed round from her unbuttoned jacket, like the mossy rose that opens in the month of May from her swollen envelope.
– Here … – he said again.
He turned the bottle into the palm of his hand and with a light caress he perfumed her throat.
– Do you like?
– It’s a delicious scent. What’s your name?
– Chevalier d’Orsay. You want?
– And you?
– I’ll get another one.
– Thank you.
His nostrils, smelling it, had the palpitation of certain slight wings of dead bees, glittering like gold leaf, which rain in the air, the summer, when the wind falls.