The other muttered something, which was a half salute, proffered instead of and instead of an insult.

On average, once a month the pharmacist Riotti would come to Arrigo’s house, giving himself the air of a resolute man at some extreme step, all swollen with oratory spirits and full of gruff arrogance, like someone who knows he is vainly advocating a just cause. .

For his anger to subside, Arrigo made him wait a good quarter of an hour, then went to meet him with the ease of a jovial man, held out his hand, resplendent with a large stone, to the pharmacist, telling him:

– Good morning, dearest Riotti; How is it going?

The other muttered something, which was a half salute, proffered instead of and instead of an insult.

– Sit down then! What good wind brings you? Oh, there there … Take care, I see. A prince’s wax! Novelty?

– Mr. Arrigo, less talk! I come, you know well, for the usual business.

– That is? … But sit down, then! Take off your coat, what the heck! How is my father? It’s been a while since I went to find it. How is he? And mum?

– If they are not dead yet, with a child like you, it means they have tough skin!

– So they’re fine. It’s better that way.

But in the meantime Riotti, curious, indiscreet, began by taking a look around. He liked the parlor; he would have loved to have all this belonged to his daughter, that is, to him. He unbuttoned his overcoat, keeping his face as grim as he could. After all, the bravado of that Rigoletto, familiar to him ever since [130]since he was a child, he surpassed his bourgeois common sense, startled him a little, almost gave him a certain awe.

Arrigo put the cigar box at his hand – a hammered silver box with gold figures – and Riotti felt the box in every direction before putting one of those long and pot-bellied Havana between his lips, which with their smoke swollen with flavor, they gave his brain certain delicious exotic sensations. Then Arrigo got up eagerly to pour him a glass of that very old “Curaçao” of his, which tasted of orange blossom, and left the nectar bottle next to him, capping it well so that he would not be vanished.

– So, the wedding? Riotti interrupted abruptly, to cut short the many courtesies.

– Ah … the wedding! By the way, how is Eugenia doing?

– Well, well … that is, how can a girl be in her shoes.

– In short, she is fine too; it’s better that way!

– Listen, Arrigo, let’s stop with the jokes! I know that now you belong to the beautiful world, you are always between counts and marquises, receptions, dinners, lovers, and what the hell do I know; but to me he doesn’t count; the word given does not withdraw, unless I am … unless I am … in short, I saw you as a child, and I can tell you certain things!

Arrigo had always kept him at bay with some vague promise; but once he finally ran out of patience.

“Well, listen,” she replied. – I realized one thing: that, to get married, you need a vocation. I don’t have it. It’s sad, but I don’t. I hadn’t noticed it so far, but I haven’t!

– What’s new now? – had taken on the Riotti.

– Safe; and do you want me to repeat it to you again? I do not have it! Indeed I would like to give you some good advice. Try to cultivate some other party for your daughter, because, if she is waiting for me, I think she will have white hair.

Riotti opened his mouth as if he wanted to throw out the most hideous blasphemy, but he only gave a kind of huge snort as his cheeks turned purple.

– Ah, really?! … Is that so? is that so? after what happened ?!

– That’s right, my dear, that’s right.

And he had urbanly turned his back on him, retreating into the inner rooms of the apartment and ditching him in the middle of that elegant sitting room, where, after a few minutes, the servant came to warn him that he was expecting people, so that he would do the pleasure of go away.

Riotti, yelling, went out. But he ran to throw fire and flames into poor Ferrante’s back room, who was the most patient man in the world.

Various things had happened in that back room since Arrigo no longer lived there.

The optician had grown very old, and by dint of fitting lenses for the eyes of others he had become short-sighted in turn. The one who made the shop prosper was rather his son Paolo, a good boy, modest, thrifty and mediocre. The eldest daughter, Luisa, had married her wealthy grocer; she already had a child and was one second pregnant. She had grown fat beyond predictable; she lived only for the care of her new family.

But instead the younger, Anna Laura, Loretta, was the headache of the two old parents. She had become more beautiful than ever, with a somewhat brazen and provocative beauty; she perfumed herself, became powdered, dressed in frills, flirted, chattered, was lively, smart and graceful as a ferret.

She didn’t want to know about getting married; how many parties happened to her, she sent so many of her up in smoke. She had, for that mediocre plebeian life, the same hatred as her brother Arrigo, and at every scene that her parents did, she threatened to leave like him, to live on her fortune.

Having thus freed himself from Riotti, Arrigo had the curiosity one evening to see his relatives again and know what effect [132]had produced his explicit declaration in the family regarding the engagement.

He went there very rarely, and always in a closed car, so that no one could ever see him hanging out in that suburb. Now, in his house, everyone had in him almost a suspicious and fearful respect.

That evening the little family was having lunch. The electric light, put on a few months ago, illuminated the small back room, and, out of an ancient habit, they dined there, although they had a well furnished room upstairs.

Donna Grazia, in the passing of those slow years, had become a little hard of hearing, she had caught certain rheumatic ailments that bored her. As a housewife she was worth very little; all her merits came down to knowing how to prepare, together with the maid, certain hearty soups which they smelled for the whole neighborhood. He, Stefano, a little more bent, a little bald, was always the same; two front teeth were now missing, which gave his gray face the melancholy expression of a sick old beast. Paolo was a boy rather prone to corpulence, with a round skull like a watermelon, two good, lifeless eyes, the lines of his face as precise as those of his brother, but a little wild.

Among those three coarse types, what formed a singular contrast was the graceful figure of Anna Laura, with her turret of neatly combed hair, with her almost elegant clothes and the exquisite grace of her whole body, which gave the fresh and odorous impression of a rosebud.

– Enjoy your meal! Arrigo had said as he entered.

They had returned the greeting with an exclamation of surprise, without interrupting from lunch; except Loretta, who had risen to her feet and ran to meet him throwing her arms around his neck and laughing with a childish but somewhat coarse glee.

– Oh, Arrigo! Arrigo! finally … – she exclaimed.

– How are you? – said the father, wiping his dripping chin.

“Well, well,” replied Arrigo, stroking his sister’s arm and extending the other hand to his father. – Really good.

Then he leaned over to his mother to kiss her hair.

– He doesn’t even look like our son! She observed good-naturedly, translating the spontaneous impression she felt in looking at him.

“Good evening, Arrigo,” said his brother without much fuss.

– Say: if by chance you wanted a spoonful of soup … – offered the father almost with shame.

– Eh, yes, you think! – exclaimed Loretta, who, instead of going back to the table, floated around him – he really needs our mash!

– You shut up! Reproached Paolo. – For once in a while you might as well deign.

– Why not? – Arrigo said. – I didn’t have lunch; I’m hungry, and the soup smells good. Get up quickly, a chair and give me a holster.

The little family looked at each other in surprise, and there was a little fuss, to make way for the eldest son who sat at the family table. The faces of the two old men lit up.

“Here, next to me then,” said Loretta; and she began to serve him herself, with her nimble, neat little hands, which came out of the lace of a graceful blouse. For her, that alien brother, so full of elegance, so different from all those who hung out in that shop, was almost a suitor, almost a lover.

And the father to say:

– Well, Arrigo, and how’s business going? You haven’t remembered us for a long time.

– I’m fine, replied the son. – I have no trouble at the moment. Indeed, if you need something, go ahead and say it.

– Yes, to me! She jumped on Loretta, flirtatiously, which suited her. Her brother looked at her, looked at her with her expert eye, which involuntarily seemed to almost appreciate her value.

– You’re pretty, you know! – She said suddenly. Then he added: – So what do you want?

– That certain lace collar you promised me once …

Arrigo reached into his pockets and took out a bundle.

“Here it is,” he said. – You see I don’t forget.

The girl gave a little jolt in her chair, unraveled the bundle, and seeing the lace she was longing for, her eyes, for joy, made her shine and she began to embrace her brother amid constant bursts of laughter.

– There, what a good powder you use! – Arrigo said, feeling the fresh smell of his cheeks. – Who gave it to you?

– Eh, that one! … – said Paolo, without removing his face from the round, with an air of implication.

– That one there! that one there! … – retorted Loretta, counterfeiting her voice. – What do you mean?

“That one there,” Paolo went on stubbornly, “goes around the hairdressers and seamstresses all day long.” He presses his nose against the shop windows; he has in mind only the mirror of him.

– Stupid! Anna Laura hissed, angry as a viper. And her face turned bad.

“And for you daddy,” said Arrigo, resolving to stop that bickering, “I brought a foam pipe for you.” See if you like it, if not, I’ll change it.

He handed him a curved case containing the stained pipe with an amber mouthpiece.

– Marvel! marvel! Exclaimed the old man, dropping the spoon. He looked at her in every direction, felt her almost with religion: – Marvel! Then he took it out of the case and showed it to his wife.

– By God! – She exclaimed. – Who knows what you paid for it!

And without wiping his mouth he caught it between his teeth.

– It looks like a gentleman’s pipe with a porter attached! – Loretta said laughingly, trying on her lace neck. Meanwhile Arrigo ate greedily, with full spoonfuls.

– What a soup, mamma mia! What a soup! It had been a century since I had tasted something like this!

– Do you like? Anna Laura asked with a grimace.

– For bacchus! And give me more!

The old mother, all confused by the compliment as if it came from a stranger, took her son’s holster, refilled it, and handed it to him.

“In the restaurants you go to, you have to eat quite different stuff,” he said, as if to excuse himself.

– Eh, no mom! After all, a good family-made soup is still best.

– Bravo, Arrigo! Tell Loretta a little, who always sniffs! – Paolo intervened. – Partridges are needed for her! …

– You mix up your own business, do me a favor! – the girl replied contemptuously. And she poured Arrigo a glass of wine; a good honest wine, which gushed from the flask in small streams with a sparkle of rubies.

“Good,” Arrigo said, tasting it. – But you treat yourselves like princes!

– Are you kidding us, huh? – Said his father indulgently, who was moved by his pipe.

– The? Far from it! How do you want me to make fun of you? Am I not in my house after all?

It was good for his heart that little family rest in the midst of his life full of pretenses and cunning.

“This is always the case,” replied his father. – But you are so short of it, that it must seem like a stranger’s house.

The maid, all red from Signor Arrigo’s visit, brought to the table a large platter, on which was boiled beef and some pork chops which still crunched in the butter in which they were cooked. In the middle of her towered a great heap of potatoes, in bad shape, but tasty. Giovanna, the awkward and timid servant, grumbled that, if they had warned her before that visit, she would have sent a chicken.

To Arrigo they gave the best pieces, they filled his plate three or four times, and he ate, ate with an unusual hunger, until he was obese. The strong plebeian stomach of him refueled on that healthy and honest cuisine, as if to make up for the expensive delicacies, which were sometimes too light for the robustness of his hunger.

And while he ate that boiled meat on the brage of his hearth, something nevertheless stirred within him of the ancient origin, an uncertain feeling between affection and well-being, between good digestion and filial tenderness, between the joy of feeling the full belly and the pleasure of being able to abandon himself badly, like his father, on the sturdy chair, and lean his elbows on the table, if he liked , the too much breath he had in his full body, and to feel placidly that delightful flame that gives good wine and good food rise to his cheeks, in the most beastly and most human hour of all when food is about to turn into blood , distributing to each vein its fertile substance of life.

Then he felt the embarrassment of the too high solino, unbuttoned the petticoat that was harassing his belly, and for a moment he found himself with pleasure to be the son of the eyewear, the brother of that wild Paolo, who now, in his same posture, it resembled him singularly. And he spoke, and he spoke, recounting many cases of his life, which flowed in the elegant salons, among the anemic ladies, with the perfume that gives migraines, among the young cicisbei ​​to whom he felt he could weaken the kidneys; spoke with that salty irony with which the plebeian man tells of the aristocrat, and for a moment he liked being in his family, in the disowned back room, among the smells of the kitchen, and seeing a part of the curtain sparkle glasses in the illuminated exhibition.

But this could last only the time of the first digestion; then he went back to being the stranger, who was basically ashamed of his house. The father, the mother, that dissimilar brother, no longer interested him.

Now, it was Loretta who attracted her stubborn attention; Loretta who had eaten little of her, who was in a silk blouse, with curly hair and clean nails, which she smelled of fine powder and wore pointy, low-cut slippers under an extremely thin ankle.

The stained tablecloth, that tureen and those empty rounds, which had remained there, on a cupboard, that smell of ordinary tobacco that spread around his father’s pipe, ended up giving him nerves, pushing the whole ashamed of being imprinted too by the plebeian mark of those humble people. He looked at the time:

“Half past eight,” he said. – I’m going to put on the black suit because I’m expected at the theater.

– What are you going to hear? Asked the father.

– I’m going to hear Loute , a “pochade”.

– New stuff?

– What a new! I must have heard it twenty times.

– So why do you spend your money on going to the theater?

– And maybe he goes to the armchair … – said the mother.

“No, on the contrary, I’m going to the platform,” he explained with an indulgent laugh. – But I don’t spend anything.

– How do you spend nothing?

– We have a stage in several friends.

– And it doesn’t cost you anything?

– What questions! Loretta exclaimed. – We rent it at the beginning of the season. Don’t you know what a “boat” is, for God’s sake? Always fall from the clouds, you! And instead of standing here and dozing like dormice, you’d better take me to the theater too, or let me go on my own.

– Eh! … that viper! – Paolo hissed with a kind of hatred.

Arrigo greeted the family and Anna Laura handed him the overcoat; then she, lightly, she hung on her arm and together they entered her shop, as if she wanted to confide something to him.

– Come and see me often, Arrigo … – she prayed in a low voice, drawing a sigh. – With these people, it’s an unbearable life! I’m a bit like you, you know … And I just can’t take it anymore!

He stopped to look at her again, with that connoisseur’s gaze, in the full light that gushed from the window. A strange smile creased his mouth.

– So you want to go to the theater, you?

Loretta held him by the arm. Then she, turning in front of him, with a feminine gesture, a gesture of a capricious lover, she adjusted his tie, which was a little askew.

– Eh, yes, I would … – he said.

– Well, I’ll take you there.

– But that’s impossible, dear! She said with an eager and sad accent. – I have no clothes and I can’t go with you, so …

“Yes,” said Arrigo, reflecting. – But it does not matter; come and see me, we will combine.

– Yes, when you want? She exclaimed, full of light.

– Also tomorrow.

And he kissed her on the mouth.