One evening, when the seamstress had made the dress, Arrigo went to get Loretta to take her to the theater.

You give her too many vices! – The father said to Arrigo, then that he knew the purpose of the visit. And he shook his gray head with an act of resigned indulgence.

– Come on, don’t be too strict! – Arrigo said. – Loretta wants to have fun; and you understand it: it is her age.

Loretta was ready, standing in the doorway, and trembling.

– All right; but you must know that this little girl already has a lot of ideas to sell, ‘said her father in his mild voice.

Riotti happened at that point. Although in disagreements with Arrigo after the abrupt dismissal he had received, he did not know how to restrain his cursed tongue.

– Oh, the return of the prodigal son! … – he exclaimed. – What a nice improvised!

Loretta, who could not suffer him, suddenly sent him back:

– What if you mixed up a little of your business, Mr. Riotti?

– Veh, the gossip! He repeated with bile.

Arrigo honored him with a ceremonious greeting.

– Take the keys with you, Loretta; the show will be over late, ‘he suggested to her sister.

– So we go to the theater? Observed the pharmacist. – And you let her go? – He added, turning to the optician.

“It’s the brother who invites you,” he replied apologetically.

“So good evening everyone,” said Arrigo.

And soon they went out together, the brother and the sister, talking softly, laughing.

– You are lucky in children! Riotti exclaimed in a very sardonic voice. But the eyewear, to cut it short:

– Well, let’s do the broom?

– Let’s do it.

Then he breathed with his big chest, and added: – Well … old boy! … if you had had a firmer wrist, you would not find yourself now acting as a puppet in your house!

And he looked up at Paolo, who he knew was of his opinion. In fact the latter did not understand at all, neither with Arrigo nor with Loretta; he hardly ever opened his mouth if the eldest son was present, limiting himself to retorting all the arguments of his younger sister with somewhat coarse ironies. In Stefano’s house family ties had slowed down considerably; her married daughter rarely hung out there, absorbed in the care of her own home; Arrigo, for a long time, no longer counted there except as an adventitious visitor, who sometimes with his presence put a certain embarrassment in everyone; Loretta, with her imperious and rebellious character, was about to follow in her footsteps, poorly tolerating the restraints of her family power; Paolo, on the other hand, was the one who sent the shop ahead: diligent, sober, thrifty, sometimes a bit curmudgeonly, and nothing more. Moreover, like all mediocre people, he did not shy away from asserting his mediocre merits, and since he was not redundant of tenderness or affection, only those two poor old men remained, now disappointed in the dearest hopes, he, tired of a an unnecessarily industrious life, she, who grew fat and insane every day, while remaining that frivolous woman she had been in her youth.

At the same time Riotti went sour, venting against everyone the ungenerous resentment of not having married his daughter. Now the lazy Eugenia had grown more corpulent and resembled her father in a way that was deplorable to her. She was five years younger than Arrigo, that is, twenty-four now, and the hopes of a husband were growing thinner every day. [165]JETTING, nothing more than JETTING! – thought the father, because the girl, in every sense, was a more than attractive party. But she certainly didn’t get bad blood out of it; she was lazy, with the laziness of a marmot; as long as they didn’t make her struggle, everything was fine with her. She had slept so much about her in her life that her twenty-four years seemed surprisingly short to herself. She was skilled in all female jobs, she cooked like an expert cook: in short, she possessed all the virtues of an honest housewife. After her calamitous love for Arrigo, no more storms had broken out in her calm life. But she had seen almost all of her friends marrying one after the other, but without any envy. Who cared about it to the point of indignation was only her father, who had a week of bestial humor at every wedding she heard about.

But Eugenia, no; she had loved Arrigo, she still loved him, she would always love him … and yet this love did not bother her; it had become in her like a chronic disease, one of those diseases that are no longer cured and that give no pain. When she happened to see him, she blushed, she stammered, ran away; then in the evening, as she went to bed, she cried for five minutes, she fell asleep. Riotti had ended up saying to her several times: – My girl, you lack “temperament!”

To this word “temperament”, which he liked very much, the pharmacist gave both a pathological and a literary sense, something more: an erotic sense. And in the meantime he had set his eyes on Paolo, although the boy, despite his virtues, did not cease to please him. He supported him, he praised him, but after all, for his somewhat romantic and very ambitious tastes, that younger son of his neighbor was definitely too much shopkeeper. Having brought up a daughter and adorned her like his Eugenia and then gave her to any Paolo had the effect of putting a rare plant in a terracotta pot.

Arrigo, on the other hand, had been his hidden dream, nor did it cease to be, no matter how great his debauchery was. [166]He would have given it to him with open arms, even after that impudent life of his, and in spite of the gherminelle he had played for them. A little stubborn like all the petty bourgeois, he had made it his business to marry Eugenia with Arrigo, and even certain to do so his misfortune would not perhaps have changed his decision. But all hope was now proving vain, and from that practical man that he was, knowing that time has quick legs, while the old maids grow shitty, he humiliated his immoderate ambition to the point of desiring that simpleton Paul as his son-in-law. , machine-shaved and ignorant as an ox.

Arrigo and Loretta had arrived home, hasty and a little stunned that evening, as if they were going to commit a sin. It was still early, because we dined early in the house of the optician.

The new dress was stretched out on Arrigo’s bed; on a chair was a box containing the hat he had bought himself to make an impromptu one. There were the little shoes at the foot of the bed, very small, of that purple and gold color that he loved; two doll shoes, with exaggeratedly high heels. The long gloves were on the pillow; from the back of a chair hung a veil scarf with glittering specks.

At that hour the servant was out of the house for supper. They entered in the dark, she holding on to her arm so as not to bump against the furniture, in that house she did not know well. When they arrived in the bedroom and Arrigo had turned on the light, all that feminine paradise, which was there to wait for the girl, lit up as if by magic: Loretta, taken by an almost sad emotion, could not refrain from exclaim:

– Oh, Rigo, how good you are! how dear you are! … – and put your arms around his neck, and kiss him, since his tenderness was so great that his eyelashes were moist.

– You are happy? He asked her, running a hand over her cheek with a gesture of protection and love.

– So much! She said, rising a little on her toes to reach her mouth.

And he said: – How can I ever thank you for all these things?

– Oh, come on, silly! Do you think it’s worth it? Get dressed now, it’s late. I’m going over there to leave you freer. If you need something, ask me.

– Are you leaving? She said, almost saddened.

– As you like…

“Yes, of course …” she said, almost reluctantly. – But I’ll call you to tie my blouse. Can you tie clothes?

He smiled.

– I’ll try.

Arrigo retreated into the other room, leaving the door ajar. At first she heard him walk, then sit down, open a newspaper.

– I’ll do it soon, you know …

– All right; but I’m in no hurry.

– Have you had lunch, Rigo?

– Not yet.

– Because?

– This happens to me often. Dinner after the theater.

– Besides, I too ate very little this evening.

“So we’ll have dinner,” he said.

And he listened to the sound of her going around the room, that continuous, light, rustling noise that the woman makes when she takes off her clothes, that noise that speaks and describes and brings to life before her eyes the vivid image of she who undresses.

He listened to her and saw her: he had taken off his hat first; the pins had given a metallic sound as they rested on the crystal of the dressing table. Then she had taken off her blouse, remaining bare arms in a rose-colored bustier. Looking at herself in the mirror she had let her skirt slip off her hips, which had made a high, swollen circle around her feet, from which she had jumped out quickly, remaining in a skirt; a skirt with a graceful flounce down and a ribbon that ran in and out, for the lace eyelets, also pink.

A small dressing room adjoined the bedroom; she had meant to pour the water into the basins; she had imagined seeing the water rushing in fast streams through her delicate arms.

Then she went back to the room, and dried herself, walking up and down, with small steps; the towel knocked her disheveled curls back from her forehead; she had sat down in front of the mirror, and now she was combing her hair.

The lines of his newspaper seemed to him an incomprehensible arabesque. It had never happened to him to feel such a strong disturbance, nor to pay attention to these minimal things. Yet he had so many times been patient in the long dressing of other women.

A stormy idea darkened his brain, twisted his nerves, painfully. She was gripped by a senseless desire to look out the door to look; he had to make a very violent effort to remove the temptation from himself.

– Will you allow me to use your powder? She asked.

– If you want; but there is another finer one, nearby, in the silver box.

– No, I want yours.

And he imagined her powdering her arms, her throat, her face; she thought he smelled the smell of her skin mixed with that smell of powder. He threw the paper away, crossed his legs, began to hammer his knees with his fingers, then he felt a kind of jealous anger, thinking of that Rafa who wanted her.

– Are you bored, Rigo?

– No.

– What are you doing over there?

– Smoke.

She hesitated a moment, then said:

– Come here … it’s the same!

He had a little tremor.

– Yup? can I come?

He appeared behind the door, a little distraught, with his eyes fixed.

– How well you do your hair! – She observed.

She turned to him, to be seen in the face, with an act full of coquetry:

– Do I like you?

He answered yes, with his eyes, without saying anything.

There was already in the whole room that feminine smell that disturbs the senses like a strong kiss.

She was in fact in a skirt, with bare arms, a cover that reached only half the chest and half the back. She had never looked so beautiful to him. Arrigo approached her, a little hesitant, not knowing what to do to seem natural to her. As she accommodated her curls she held her arms up; a dark shadow of her appeared in the hollow of her armpits. In that act she surprised his eyes staring at her, intent and clear. Then, out of her natural modesty, she lowered her arms, pressed them to her chest, and blushed.

– Don’t look at me like that … – he said with a bowed face; – you make me blush …

He rolled over on his heels, tapping the floor with a nervous motion.

– Get dressed, get dressed! – She said sharply. – I don’t look at you.

He went to sit in a corner, and, resting his elbows on his knees, took his flushed forehead in his hands.

– Are you angry? She said.

– No, Lora, why?

– Don’t talk to me …

– Since you don’t want me to look at you …

– But look at me, if you like it! I was ashamed the first moment; now more.

And he laughed as he got up to go and put on his shoes.

– If we could live together, how happy I would be! Loretta said. – I would not bother you, I would leave you all your freedom. What do you think?

– I think nothing, my little one … – he replied slowly.

– Wouldn’t you like to have me with you, Rigo?

– Yes, maybe I would like … but it would also be dangerous …

And he immediately laughed, as if he wanted to conceal the ambiguous meaning of his words.

She looked up from the bed, behind which she was bending over to put on her silk stockings.

– Dangerous, you say? … Well, so much the better!

And immediately she bent down again, hid herself completely.

They were silent for a moment; then she asked:

Don’t you have a shoe horn? I break my fingers.

He went to look for her; he said to her:

– Let me do it; I will help you.

She put one knee on the ground in front of the chair she was sitting in; on her the other knee of her made her place her half-undiscovered leg and with her delicacy she began to put it on.

– Oh, how good you are! She exclaimed. – You sure have to get used to it.

– Yes? … do you think? … And do you think I don’t like doing this for anyone … Do you believe me? And she didn’t move from there, tapping her horn lightly on her silk-shod ankle.

– See that little foot? She said, moving it. – Is mine smaller or that of your mistress?

– Yours.

– Now you will be dusty; get up.

He rose to his feet and stood close to her, like a man who felt dizzy. He saw those two breasts, too strong for his virginity, those two breasts divided by a deep hollow, which broke out of the torso like corn from the foil; he could see them, dark and swollen, across the neckline of the bust cover. And his temptation was so strong that he could not resist: his hand ran involuntarily to caress her bare throat. But he said apologetically:

– Look, there’s some powder …

She did not laugh, did not move; something, like a shiver that took her whole person, spread, multiplied in her. With drunkenness, in that moment, she would have allowed herself to be kissed.

A clock in the other room struck the hour. In that murky silence the chimes seemed almost a warning.

“Half past eight,” said Arrigo, shaking himself. – Hurry up, if you want to get there at the beginning.

– Yes, hand me the dress.

He took it from the bed, with an experience that seemed singular in him, opened it so as not to spoil his beautiful hairstyle and passed it over her head without breaking up a curl.

– Vòlgiti, tie you, Lora.

And they went in front of the mirror. It was a mauve dress, with deep purple, transparent trimmings around the neck. It was only a veil, of that soft and light gauze that the French call “crêpe de Chine”; but it wrapped it tightly, like a sheath, draping itself just around the fullness of the chest and in the sinuosity of the womb, above the knees. When she put it on, Loretta laughed for the joy of feeling so beautiful, and a whole new life unfolded before her, with that new dress.

– I challenge that certain ladies you know seem all beautiful! Knowing how to dress is not difficult!

She seemed admirable, in that purple that softened her blond, in that tight bandage that seemed to undress her whole in its most sculptural beauty. He looked at her mutely, with a steady light in her intense pupils, which seemed to shoot at her all the fire of a desire contained in her.

– You are magnificent! – She told her. – You really are admirable! She will talk about you tomorrow.

– For real? She said with a smiling incredulity, looking at herself on each side. Then she had almost a little modesty:

– But, say, am I not too … naked?

– It’s fashion this year. Women, when dressed, appear more naked than in shirts.

She put on her hat, looked at herself again, got greased again, slipped her tight gloves slowly up her forearm, and wrapped in a great cloak that came down almost to her feet, she exclaimed cheerfully:

– I’m ready!

On the stairs she hung on his arm, and they went out.

The month of March passed, full of good smells. It was a warm, clear evening. The sky, clear of all clouds, made a flicker of stars among the gloomy houses. The city went into the night with a great sigh of relief, while a couple of lovers, close and slow, went off talking about sweet things. Sitting next to her brother, in an open car, Loretta chased with troubled eyes those nameless lovers who went in search of the dark.

– How many people talking about love? … Don’t you see?

“It’s time,” he remarked, “then it’s spring.”

– Well, seeing us, maybe they’ll think that we too …

– It is probable: people think evil very often.

– This amuses me! Lora exclaimed. Then she began to think. – Do you think we look alike? – She asked her brother.

– I do not believe.

She took his arm and they let themselves be carried by the tired trot of the little horse, which occasionally stamped under a whip.

It was the premiere of Carmenthat evening. They arrived that the show had only just begun and entered the semi-dark theater in the first row box. The enormous sense of the crowd oppressed the girl’s heart; for a moment her eyes saw only a marvelous glare. All the tales of the earth, all that the world had of soft as feather, shiny like jewel, fragrant like flower, splendid like beauty, intoxicating like music, tormenting like love. .. everything for her gathered in the hall of that theater. If she in the virgin’s white bed she had daydreamed, this was her dream; if she from the small shop she had wanted to breathe that intense and turbid air where the fairies of vice dissolve some prestigious gold dust … here she breathed it; if she ever wanted to shine, here, and she did shine.

A feeling of unreality blew around her warm cheeks; she felt her own beauty live around her like [173]another rarer garment, interwoven with stars. She felt in her female heart the possibility of pleasure, that possibility that contains every most exquisite joy for woman, that awareness of her that intoxicates her like a vivifying liqueur.

Already in the neighboring boxes a subdued curiosity had arisen; from the armchairs below, amid the rush of a discreet whisper, some telescope pointed the focus of her curious lenses at the beautiful unknown woman.

That evening the theater, like an overflowing basket, blossomed with beautiful women, who, low-cut, bejeweled, talkative, hung from the boxes and filled the audience with a manifest desire to be spotted. He knew almost all of them, he had frequented them, courted them, he had been the lover of some of her.

In front of them, in her second row box, was Donna Claudia del Borgo, still beautiful in that light, with her Roman cousin, little Isabella Ventamura, who had recently obtained the annulment of a four-year marriage. with his pretty, fair-haired consort, the Viscount d’Amboissières. Very Catholic and Guelph, this little lady loved only the great prelates, and, after a Black Vice-Pope, she had chosen as her spiritual director a luxurious Cardinal of the Curia, whom the smoke of an Apostolic Conclave would perhaps have destined for the tiara. In the meantime the viscount consort delighted in certain graceful Alemannic customs, which had made it possible to find in little Isabella that “intacta virgo” so rare, which the good House of St. Peter indulges a lot.

Donna Claudia wore a dark velvet dress that exquisitely shaped her bust; she wore a diadem in her hair, shiny and heavy as a crown. In her box was Antonello Musatti, of whom she, Donna Claudia, had moved on the day she had seen him roll under the horse in a horse show.

In the box of the Duchess of Benevento, one was bored with great elegance: however, Don Antonino Vernazza and Max della Chiesa paid her the necessary visit, so as not to [174]be forgotten at his quarterly lunches. The box of the Altomarini was empty, and this was noticeable by everyone. The Antelmi occupied three in a row, with four daughters-in-law on the façade, two pregnant, two very poorly dressed, a heap of mothers-in-law close by, and the whole parenthesis in the dark.

The Mazzoleni, who by mixing perfumes and selling soap bars had earned the means to buy a feudal marquisate, held a noisy court; men and women still too flaming, with the silks, the diamonds and the shots that glistened beyond measure.

There were all the others, all the others, who were famous in the city for family, beauty and wealth; and there was, in a third row box, with her young daughter, strangely unlike her, the suave Clara Michelis, so white in her very fine black dress, leaning her naked elbow on the velvet parapet and living whole in the shadow that on her forehead, on the nape of her neck, her very sweet hair. This she seemed to be able to untie by a small shock, as if a single knot, even if slight, held her in that great volume. In her wrists, in her joints, in her shoulders, in every single part of her face, there was something extremely tired and fragile about her, almost as if her body had just emerged from a voluptuous bath, that was extremely exhausted. She naked, she would have wrapped herself well in a funeral veil; he was one of those vain figures that are sometimes seen in pictures, bent very sweetly over the agony of a young man; all the beauty of him was in the folds of his body, in her slow movements, in his fine shadows; even when she was silent, she let it be understood that she would have a sweet voice; while standing still and collected, she showed that she would walk without noise.

Sometimes, in the middle of a wood, above the opaque water of a pond, one of those marvelous white flowers is born as if by a miracle, unreachable because they sail with the wind, which contain loneliness, sadness, the disease of surrounding things; the earth does not feed them but still water, full of rays: so she seemed to be, in the shadow of her dais and under the weight of her dark hair.

Arrigo saw it, realized he had seen it, and their glances were quickly avoided. Although he had said to her: “Perhaps I will accompany my sister to the theater one of these evenings,” – yet that look of her disturbed him singularly, as if she could, even from a distance, guess her most hidden thoughts. Since by now that lover no longer quite young she loved him with a voluptuous and sad love, she hopelessly took refuge in him the last of her, the only passion of her life.

And now she no longer loved him as she did at the time when, in the semi-dark drawing room, she delighted in insidiously tormenting his virile anger; no longer as when she sought in her lover an amusement from her long boredom or an almost brutal shock to her spoiled senses; no longer to intrigue her worldly chatter, to contend with a friend of hers, to have around her skirt that furtive and lascivious shrewdness of someone who wants to untie her; but because in her heart as a woman was born the extreme, the strongest need to belong and possess, the instinctive desire to caress, to wrap, to protect, to live in another life, to sacrifice oneself for a another happiness, that inimitably beautiful desire that a woman sometimes radiates from her profound maternal sense, like a great miracle, in love.

Thus it was not possible for him to hide from those attentive eyes; they penetrated without remedy into the most hidden refuges of his soul. On happy days, bold and oblivious, he stayed away; but in the days of sadness, a voice, good for him like no other human voice, called him back to that faithful house, where a sweet soul full of forgiveness always watched at the door. When he was struck by the others, those timid hands of his knew how to be so light in dressing his wounds; when all else seemed lost, there was always a watchful hearth in that house, there was a lover in love as on the first day, whom he saw pale from her coldest caress, there was almost a sister and almost a mother who were waiting for him to tell him: “Give me your pain, let me suffer from it,

Perhaps so he thought and therefore did not dare to look at her. But the act ended in a roar of applause; from all the lamps simultaneously a wave of light poured into the room. Above the ceased singing ran the din of the stalls, the chatter of the boxes, amidst the stirring of fans, the removal of people who got up, changed their places, gathered together.

Each took care to look as beautiful as she could, knowing full well that the eyes of her rivals would be able to notice even the slightest defects. The men, tidying themselves up to the slopes, rose from the comfortable armchairs to look around; gallants made visits, lovers looked at their beauty, gossips poked their noses into other people’s things, the unemployed went off to smoke.

Loretta was in plain sight, like a fruit displayed in a beautiful basket; she had no jewels except her youth, which adorned her better than a hundred necklaces. From above her, some of the Mammagnúccoli had already discovered her, and immediately there was a great deal of talk about her. Who was the “new one” with del Ferrante? Everyone knew about her of her connection with Clara Michelis; she herself was also in the theater; so who was she? Maybe a breakup? Maybe? But she was beautiful, this other one, very beautiful! And hurriedly down the stairs, looking out at the outlets of the stalls to see it better. Someone came as far as their stage, to question Arrigo with a glance and pick up a sign that would explain something. But in vain. From all sides she was now looking at herself; the comments were visible, almost annoying; and Loretta bore that baptism of fire with a great bravado.

A flower girl entered the box, powdered and embellished like a pastel, old but still promising, with her hair in a tower adorned with ribbons and with an exaggeratedly red mouth. She smiled at del Ferrante, then offered Loretta a bouquet of yellow roses.

“You see, Clelia, this is my sister,” said Arrigo affably.

– Oh, miss! … – exclaimed the flower girl, in her falsetto voice, sinking into an old woman’s reverence [177]dance teacher. And she drew back, leaving there a benevolent smile of hers, as slimy as a slug.

– How? Don’t you give her anything? Loretta observed.

– Oh, come on, you pay it once in a while …

– Poor woman! He must earn little.

– Sure, with little flowers. But the flowers are just his business card. See, I told her you’re my sister, so the whole theater will know in ten minutes.

– Ah? … you’re smart! She exclaimed, plunging her face into the bouquet of roses.

In the foyer, in the corridors, in the atrium, up the stairs, in the dressing rooms, everywhere where a Mammagnúccolo could be, there was talk of the beautiful girl who was with del Ferrante in a box in the front row. Nobody imagined who she was, nor did they recognize her, even if some of her had occasionally met her on the street. Clelia, blooming with eyelets, had perhaps forgotten to sow this news.

Towards the middle of the second act Arrigo saw Giuliani appearing from above at the parapet of the stage.

– There’s Rafa! – She exclaimed softly. – But don’t look up there.

He had entered the stage at that moment and greeted his friends.

“I’m curious to see if you recognize me,” said Loretta, amusing herself.

“We’ll see,” whispered his brother, who was spying out of the corner of his eye. – Now it seems to me that they are talking to him about us.

But although in fact they talked to him about them, and although he had looked at her with the telescope, he did not recognize her throughout the act, so far from being able to suppose that it was her. When, at the other interlude, the room became clear again, and Rafa, looking closer, first recognized his rare blond hair, then the shape of the face and the mouth and the smile and the arms and the shoulders, and all of her, whom he loved infinitely … when he no longer had any doubt left, a great wonder, full of impatience and incredulity, was painted on his face.

– That? Do you know her? Friends asked.

– Yes … that is, no … but, here … it’s impossible! – And she got confused.

– Well, do you know her or not? Who is she?

Then he made a resolution and said:

– I have seen it many times on the street.

He loved her and couldn’t betray himself, he loved her and didn’t want to betray her.

– Don’t you know anything else?

– I do not know anything else.

– Then why are you so worried? Totò Rígoli said. – If she were your mistress you wouldn’t be overexcited.

Giuliani, very annoyed, left the stage and appeared in two or three opposite points of the theater, then crossed the stalls, came as far as the Arrigo box, all on his face and so disturbed that he had a ridiculous appearance.

Loretta, impassive as a statue, looked up in the air, while poor Giuliani could not understand it. Above all, he did not understand why Loretta, who had certainly seen him before, remained so calm. She approached their box again and had the audacity to call Arrigo by her name, wishing him good evening.

“Goodbye, Rafa,” Arrigo replied quickly. But he soon pretended he had something to do at the back of the stage and he drew back. Loretta did not flinch; she looked at Giuliani for a moment, with a fleeting smile, then she turned her eyes away.

Puzzled and nervous, Rafa went off to smoke in the lobby. But he could not finish his cigarette and returned to his friends as he began the third act.

“Well, now we know who he is,” said Rígoli.

– Who is? – Rafa said, widening his eyes.

– She is Arrigo’s sister.

– Come on! don’t talk nonsense!

– Look what a nice guy! What have you got tonight? She is her sister, I tell you. Her sister, really. He himself said so to Clelia; it is enough for you?

Rafa shrugged, but shyly.

– I would like to know what you care about and what do you find strange about it?

Rafa, half dazed, did not answer.

An evil one advanced:

– In fact it looks a bit … how can I put it? a little Folies Bergère, for a young lady from a good family?

– But it is Rafa who instead looks gloomy!

– To him, all beautiful women have always given a sense of melancholy.

– This is really beautiful, for goodness sake!

– His eyes are dyed.

– No.

– Yup.

– A vicious mouth …

– And the chest! … look what a splendor!

– It must be an owl.

Each continued happily to have his say. Then they began to joke about Rafa.

– He, you see, is quite capable of having committed a mistake. Maybe he met her on the street and chased her like he always does.

– But no! – Giuliani replied vibrantly.

– Did you have an affair with her? Asked a shameless one.

Rafa shrugged, sulking. Some laughed.

“Just see,” said another, “that she is that new mysterious love of yours!”

– You are crazy to tie everyone up! Giuliani exclaimed, turning it into laughter.

– Look in the mirror: you look like a drunkard. There must be something.

– But nothing! but nothing! – Rafa was annoyed. – I hardly know her by sight and I did not at all assume that she was Arrigo’s sister. Are you sure then?

– So said Clelia; ask her.

Some silenced the chatterers and the conversation stopped.

Rafa, who loved music, would not have been able to tell that evening what opera was being given. Standing at the back of the stage, his eyes were as if fascinated by Loretta’s splendor [180]and he could not detach them from her. But her most fantastic ideas swarmed into her dark brain. He felt at the same time surprised, mocked, threatened, enveloped in a great danger, in a greater temptation. She had therefore amused herself in seeming to him less than she was, she had hidden everything from him, even her real name, to appear before her one evening, unexpectedly, next to a fearful brother, overlooking an audience that he admired her. In fact, he had never seen her so beautiful or so desirable. Why then did she let herself be followed, approached, tempted? Why had she replied to her letters? Why did she, sometimes, even if surly and reluctant, let herself be kissed? What was this emancipated girl, that she walked alone, that she accepted conferences, that sometimes she slipped with him to the brink of her guilt,

She had enjoyed it: that’s all. And perhaps, tomorrow, after that change of scene, she would not have wanted to continue in her game of hers. But this thought bit him, he terrified him, because her whole life was momentarily taken by desire for her.

Rafa didn’t have many vices; although very rich, he did not lead a completely idle life; he took care of his lands, administered the family patrimony, delighted in politics, perhaps out of a distant ambition. Although he loved the company of the Mammagnúccoli, he did not play, he did not drink, he did not waste his nights in vain revelry; only was he of an almost childish weakness with the women he liked, and he ignited them to the point of becoming ridiculous, to the point of losing weight with love. But this whim for Arrigo’s sister had surpassed all other flare-ups.

At a certain point his malaise became so acute that he preferred to leave the theater to write her an excited letter. But when she was in the street, she thought the show was about to end and was tempted to see her again. She went back to the hall and waited.

Soon he saw her; she came down the staircase on her brother’s arm, talking to him, laughing. She was a little turned on inside [181]face; his teeth sparkled between her red lips. That satin cloak, with the hood and the bow, thrown over her like a shawl, gathered, together with the skirt, within her gloved fist, gave her that something voluptuous and impertinent that the Venetian domains, those furtive domains that a black gondola ferried from palace to palace along the silent canals. Out of inexplicable envy she hid her, out of unhealthy jealousy she spied on them.

They got into the car, disappeared.

They wanted to dine without being at the mercy of curious glances, and they chose an out of the way restaurant, where mostly no known people hung out.

Then, in front of the prepared dinner, at the Sciampagna who was freezing in the ice bucket, the brother and sister, like two fearful lovers, felt happy. That happiness that invades the body and the spirit when love begins, that joy that spreads to the smallest things and puts a veil of beauty over the thousand images that ignite the imagination.

She was all drunk, all alive with her little triumph; she had felt beautiful, she had felt the desire of men rise around her like a warm breath, and everyone had talked about her, about her appearing for the first time. That luxurious and joyful life that she had so often dreamed of in her bed of restless virgin, seemed to begin with a good omen, with an easy victory. She was a woman, intimately a woman, and she felt the value of these little things.

If at times, while going to the meetings of her persecutor, she had felt ashamed of a somewhat modest dress, of a hat that was barely bearable … now not anymore; if he had sometimes feared that he would discover nothing in her but a little shopkeeper … now no more; if there had perhaps been, in the tenacity with which she had defended herself from that man, the regret of not being able to show him a linen full of lace and linen, and the thought, in short, that he had been able to compare her stockings, the his bust, his shirt, with those of other very refined lovers … now [182]all this, which often protects the honesty of a girl, could no longer be. She knew she dazzled him, and although she didn’t love him, she was proud of it. She would never again feel humble in front of him, she would never again be considered equal to the dressmakers, behind which the womanizers of good society unleash in droves, in an economic and relentless hunt.

She owed this to her brother, not to anyone but him. But there was more to her gratitude than ambition. Being with him gave her a singular pleasure; that he would find her beautiful about her, that he would say a kind phrase to her, this flattered her more than the adoration of Rafa, more than the homage of anyone.

Then, obscurely, she felt wanted by him, and this desire overcame her too, sometimes it choked her a little, it almost gave her a spasm, almost an unreasonable desire to abandon herself in his arms. She no longer seemed at all like he was her brother, the Arrigo she remembered as a child; but another, who had later disappeared, and now returned, transfigured, after having been to learn love in the alcoves of palaces, to make courtesans cry, to make gentlemen jealous; another, that the beautiful and rich women had covered with kisses, leaving a perfume on his mouth that enveloped him with temptation.

He had a nice house; in that house where other lovers had gone, she too felt invaded by their same disturbance; she would have liked her, instead of Arrigo, to be called her by another name, to be able to say to him as they do: “I love you …” to be able to kiss him without fear and without end.

A great thing was happening in his frail soul. All day she was thinking about him, her words returned to her like an uninterrupted echo, and she saw her strong eyes, a little bright, every night, when she went to bed. He was sometimes as sweet as a child to her, sometimes as short-tempered as if he hated her. Because? Often in a single furtive and quick gesture of her hand she conceived the danger of being grasped, caressed, overwhelmed; but she liked this danger together … Why? Was there a dark, invincible force among them? …

– Are you bored staying with me? Loretta asked in an insidious voice.

“I like to stay with you,” he said. – I like it more than anything else.

She sent him a look as sweet as a kiss. Then, when they had talked and laughed and drunk, they remembered to look at the time. It was a quarter to two.

– Good God! Loretta exclaimed. – And the mother who wanted to stay awake until I returned! …

– You will say that the show ended late.

They got up in a hurry, since it was necessary for her to change her clothes again. They set off.

The night, like a resplendent courtesan, had put on all her star necklaces; at her feet, at her hands, all over her body immersed in spring, glittered jewels of inextinguishable splendor. She rose into the curved sky the breath of the sleeping city.

And that little bit of light that, as you went, you could see here and there shining through closed windows, in the sleeping houses where the hiding places of love shone, and that fantastic appearance of night-owl couples outside the dark alleys, and that scent of invisible gardens that overwhelmed the walls, and the sleepy going of the horses on the sound pavements, and that silence that enchanted the night between the winds of the month of March, all this together, like a subtle evil, like a devious poem, exalted in their sick hearts the hidden ghost.

They went up the stairs, poorly lit by the moon that whitened the steps, holding each other by the arm, having spread through all the veins the sweetness of their guilty love. He almost carried her, and felt her, all drunk, all hot, throbbing against him.

They knew each other alone, they knew that their sin would be buried in a night of oblivion.

He opened the door; they went groping in the dark. And they both loved that darkness, that shadow in which they felt they were close, bound to divine guilt, without recognizing each other anymore. He held her back, leaned his whole person against her person; he felt his soft female body, full of shivers, wrap around him as if to hold him in a single caress.

“Loretta …” he murmured softly. And he could only say her name, several times, in a fearful voice.

They were alone, in the danger of the night; darkness clothed them, the silence of the guarded house enveloped them. And in that darkness, in that silence, they lingered with rapture, as in the warmth of a voluptuous blanket.

She felt tired, deliciously tired; she had drunk Sciampagna a little too much, and now she was buzzing inside her brain with something unusual, like a whirlwind of butterflies, of continuous butterflies, black and white. Her beautiful and strong youth was a whole heartbeat of life that overwhelmed her little heart. She felt a warm flush, a whiff of turbid perfumes, swaying, shuddering around her transparent nostrils; her slender loins almost had the obstinate desire to flex in a painful and pacifying effort against the vigor of a virile breast. It seemed to her that the music of an orchestra mad about her was singing, singing inside her, without respite, a disheveled song; she seemed to her in that darkness to see all the colors, to breathe all the perfumes, to suffer a nameless joy, to enjoy an infinite suffering …

Her virginity was no more than a thrill, an infinitely subtle thing, infinitely close to sin.

At first it had been an obscure, imprecise fact in him, one of those ambiguous sensations that pass through the spirit like flashes, and yet leave a groove in it. In her sensual and strong heart, this furtive idea had slipped, like a little woman wrapped in veils among a host of men bristling with armor.

Guilt had penetrated him in being insidiously, without giving him time to reflect, like the overwhelming of a voluptuous perfume, like the drunkenness of a strong drink. To him, who was consumed and cynical in the cunning of love, he had given certain vague sensations, certain fears, certain thrills, as we sometimes have, when the possibility of a joy greater than our strength flashes. It was the first of his wishes that he had not dared [185]face, the first fraud that had frightened him.

Therefore it was necessary to remove oneself from that darkness, from that soft darkness that enveloped them, to break that silence, to destroy that mortal sweetness.

He staggered away from her, searched the wall, lit.

They were both very pale and did not dare look at each other.

He said in a dull voice:

– Go get dressed, Loretta.

And since she lingered, perplexed:

“ Hurry up, ” he added, “ hurry up …

She was almost afraid of him, so much had her face changed.

– What’s wrong, Rigo? She murmured, reaching out to stroke him.

– Nothing; hurry up.

Then she picked up the cloak, which had slipped off her shoulder, wrapped herself in it as if she were cold, and, bowing her face, took small steps towards the room. When she was on the edge, she turned, smiled at him. He laughed in her, in her feminine heart, the pride of her seduction that he felt he was spreading around him.

With a nervous gesture Arrigo twisted his hands and began to walk. He whistled softly, between his teeth, as if to bite his song. He looked at the tips of his shiny shoes that creaked slightly on the carpet. Then suddenly he stopped at the closed window, opened a shutter, leaned his forehead against the glass and watched.

Outside, the moon whitened the walls with its fantastic glow, casting a few long shadows from one chimney to the other, flashing up the eaves.

– Rigo, – said the sister from the other room – why are you there?

He didn’t answer.

– Rigo! … – repeated the sister in an impatient voice, – come then!

He looked out the door and stood on the edge. [186]She had quickly changed her shoes, her skirt, put on her blouse and was now buttoning it. But she broke off in the middle, ran up to him and threw her arms around her neck.

– What do you have? What have I done to you, Rigo? – She said in a wicked voice, leaning against him, as if to make him feel how soft his body was and full of temptation.

Standing on her feet she tried to reach his mouth, harassing his face with the golden feather of her hair.

– I know what you have … – he said, arching even more, even more.

He looked at her ambiguously, between smile and anger.

– Listen … – she said. And with her hands joined she bent his neck to speak in his ear.

He said, in a whisper, in a breath, in a kiss:

– My love … my love … I too would like … like you …

With warm, greedy lips, he kissed her bare neck. She gave a very small cry, her throat raged, twisted, trembled.

– Yes, kiss me! … all … all …

She offered him her turgid, warm, panting throat, and her neck, chest, shoulders: all her fragrant nakedness, seeking him with her convulsed mouth, veiling her withered eyes like two violets.

She was disheveled, full of flames, beautiful.

– What are you doing? what are you doing? … what are you doing! … – he shouted senselessly.

– Báciami! … – she repeated obstinately, contracting in the fever of her torment. – Kiss me again, all …

And when he had exhausted all strength in twisting against his person, when he had convulsively thrust his hands into his hair, wounded his mouth, drank his breath, suddenly turned white, softened like a rag, laughed, cried , remained in his arms, inert.

“Lora … Loretta …” he murmured several times, as she seemed not to hear. That vehement desire had overwhelmed her, had almost annihilated him. He then took her to a sofa, he began to caress her slowly, to touch her fearfully.

After a few moments she smiled, as if they had awakened her from a deep dream, as if a drunkenness was vanishing from her brain, from her veins, little by little.

– Tell me … – she murmured.

– What do you want?

– Tell me…

And instead he said nothing; he laced his fingers in his; but he had no more strength.

Bent over her mouth, he repeated to her as if to put her to sleep:

– Shut up …

Her virginity was no more than a thrill, an infinitely subtle thing, infinitely close to sin.

And they walked back, for the clear night, to the refuge of the paternal house.