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Authors: Natalia Ginzburg

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BOOK: All Our Yesterdays
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Then all at once Cenzo Rena discovered the
contadino.
He was not a
contadino
of the South, but he liked him all the same. He was not a
contadino
who ate beans, he was a
contadino
who ate chickens and rabbits, and big bowls of soup flavoured with bacon, far better than the thin, pallid soups made by Signora Maria. Anyhow he was a
contadino
and Cenzo Rena liked him, and he gave him cigarettes and the
contadino
gave him bread and sausage. They spent hours sitting together in the courtyard, and the
contadino
began talking about Ippolito being always so suspicious and arrogant. The
contadino
had known him since he was born and had taken him for rides in his cart when he was a little boy, and now it pained him to find himself so unkindly treated. He was never satisfied with the harvest, it always seemed to him too little, he knew nothing about country matters and tried to pretend that he did know. Cenzo Rena listened and looked as though he immensely enjoyed hearing Ippolito spoken ill of, and when Ippolito and Emanuele came back from shooting he rushed to tell them that he found it far more enjoyable to converse with the
contadino
than with them, because the
contadino
had not so much fog in his head as they. And he explained to Ippolito that, seriously, it was not at all clever to put a
contadino
against him in this way. He stole, yes, of course he stole, but why in the world shouldn't he keep a little of the corn after he had spent the whole of his time upon it, while Ippolito stayed in the town thinking of an Italy in which
contadini
did not exist ? Besides, he stole because he knew the world was badly arranged and people lived by stealing, by tearing the shirts off each other's backs, and of course some day or other this thing would have to stop, but it was not at all simple and why should Ippolito's
contadino
have to be the one to begin ? Emanuele muttered that these were commonplaces. Commonplaces, cried Cenzo Rena, of course they were commonplaces, but why not repeat commonplaces if they were true, and this was just what had happened to them, for fear and shame of commonplaces they had lost themselves in vain and complicated fancies, they had lost themselves in fog and smoke. And gradually they had become like a couple of old children, a couple of very old, wise children. They had created around themselves, as children do, a complete dream-world, but it was a dream without joy and without hope, the arid dream of a pedant. And they did not look at women, they never looked at women, they passed numbers of women on their country walks and did not look at them, lost as they were in their pedantic dream-world. Cenzo Rena called Giustino, slapped him on the shoulder and rumpled up his hair, and started praising Giustino for being healthy and sensible. And he begged Giustino to take him to dance on the platform with the daughters of the Humbugs, for he found them very charming.

And so Ippolito had found someone else who took pleasure in tormenting him, and it seemed to be his fate that people should torment him. Cenzo Rena told him he was very handsome, but even this was said in order to provoke him. He said, “A pity, such a handsome young man, look how handsome he is, he might make plenty of women fall in love with him and instead of that he takes no interest in women. He takes an interest in carpets, in corn, in his own foggy, smoky ideas, but as for women, he doesn't wish to look at them and when they go past he turns the other way.” Giustino and Anna looked at ippolito, for the first time they came to know that he was handsome. He was lying back in an armchair under the pergola with his shabby fustian jacket thrown carelessly over his shoulders, his worn shooting-boots on his feet, his long, delicate hands stroking the dog's ears, his hair streaked with gold and curly at the back of his head, his mouth twisted in the bitter smile that he wore when people tormented him. It was thus that Anna and Giustino were to remember him always, as they had seen him that summer at Le Visciole, when he had been discovered to be handsome because Cenzo Rena had said so.

Cenzo Rena made a long stay at Le Visciole because he enjoyed it. He liked the daughters of the Humbugs and took them out for rides in his car. He liked swimming in the river with Anna and Giustino, and then lying in the sun on the bank while they fanned him with a branch. He liked the dog, and used to whistle to it and take it down to the river with him, partly in order to provoke Ippolito who was then unable to go out shooting, and in any case, Cenzo Rena said, the dog suffered when it was taken out shooting, because it had never been a sporting dog and the noise of firing frightened it, and also it was hot and it was good for it to plunge into the river. After bathing he would drag off Anna and Giustino to drink grenadine in the village square, and then they would wander round the shops, and Cenzo Rena would buy everything that could be bought in a small village like that, corkscrews and cheese and straw hats, and many yards of unbleached calico to make himself drawers. And the village seemed transformed since he had been there to wander round it. It no longer seemed a tedious village of flies and dust, but it seemed all at once to have turned into an amusing, strange place where there was something strange and amusing to be bought in every shop. Every now and then Giustino would say feebly that perhaps he ought to go back home and get on with his work. But Cenzo Rena told him not to do any work, that it was useless, that the schools in Italy were badly organized and that they made boys study a lot of things that served no purpose in life. He himself had never had any desire to study, and yet now he was quite satisfied with the way in which he had spent his life. All they had taught him at school he had forgotten, the ablative absolute, if he thought about the ablative absolute he found nothing but a black hole and he was frightened of it. And nobody had ever asked him about the ablative absolute when he went to Constantinople or London to arrange sales of shipping. He had found a job which allowed him to make long journeys, and then he would return to his own home, in a small village in the South, and there he could spend his time with the
contadini
and listen to them, for there was no one who was so well worth listening to as
contadini.
Giustino and Anna would have to come and visit him in his house for a little, it was a house and not a castle, and there were no towers, goodness only knows how those towers had arisen out of the old man's head. In the village they called it the castle because they had called it so for years and years. It was the home of his family, an extremely old house, and all he had done was to rearrange it a little. There were no towers, there was just a kind of terrace on the roof, which from a distance might possibly look like a tower, but it was just a terrace and he had put a telescope up there to look at the stars. For a long time he would be travelling, and then he would go back home and he was always pleased to see his own house again, high up on the hill, with the pine wood behind it and below it a tumbled mass of rocks. It was a house without any carpets, he could not be bothered with carpets, and he liked to hear his footsteps echoing through the big rooms. Certainly he had made money from his job as well, but that was not important. It was not important because he could lose the whole of that money at one stroke without blinking an eyelid. He had no special needs. He needed only a little brandy and a few cigarettes, and he begged Anna and Giustino never to let him want for them, even if he suddenly became very poor and ended up in rags on a bench in a public garden. Perhaps they would then be rich and important and would come to his bench in a motor-car with a few bottles of brandy.

One evening when Cenzo Rena had gone with Giustino to dance on the platform they came home very late and they were both drunk, they both felt ill and Signora Maria had to get up and make coffee and lemonade for them. Next day Cenzo Rena stayed in bed, he was gloomy and green in the face and complaining. The doctor with the chicken-feather hair came to see him, and there was nothing wrong with him, it was just that the wine had made him ill. But the doctor with the chicken-feather hair told Ippolito that there was a scandal in the village, because Cenzo Rena when he was drunk during the dance had started annoying a girl, the daughter of the Superintendent of Police, and the Superintendent had been on the point of striking him and they had been separated only with difficulty, and the women had been frightened. Giustino would not say anything about what had happened, and he too was gloomy and green in the face and did not leave his room. Then Signora Maria, with her parasol and her shoes with bows on them, went and called upon the Superintendent's wife and explained that they must be patient with Cenzo Rena, because he was not quite right in the head, and in any case he would be gone in a short time. And she also found a way of mentioning that he was very rich, for to wealth all things are forgiven.

They had had enough of Cenzo Rena by now, and he too, all of a sudden, had had enough of them, all of a sudden he started to hate the village with its Humbugs and Humbugs' daughters, and he said that it was only in Italy that certain things are still to be met with, idiotic superintendents of police who strike you with their fists and idiotic girls. The middle-class girls in Italy, he said, go mad if they see a man, and at once they get it into their heads to try and get themselves wooed and married, they don't know how to have healthy relations with men. How disgusting they are, the middle-class girls in Italy, he said, and at the same time he started packing his bags to go away, and he thrust shirts and socks into them higgledy-piggledy, together with the straw hats he had bought. The new drawers that he had had made for him by the
contadino's
wife, out of the unbleached calico he had bought in the village, were rough and scratched his behind, and Signora Maria suggested washing them in order to soften them, but he was unwilling to wait for them to be washed and dried. He did not wish to stay even one hour longer in this dreary village, he wanted to breathe free air, without any superintendents and girls.

He left and all was quiet again at Le Visciole and in the village, and nothing remained of him but a pair of worn-out slippers on the rubbish-heap behind the courtyard, and the dog went and fetched them and chewed them, and snarled if anyone took them away. Cenzo Rena sent post-cards from London, to them and to the
contadino,
but to the little chicken-feather-haired doctor, on the other hand, he wrote a long letter, to tell him that when he had gone into the chemist's shop in the village he had discovered that it was entirely lacking in serum against snake-bite, and it was a piece of gross stupidity in a neighbourhood where there were so many snakes, and so he had better give up being a doctor, because he did not even know what there ought to be inside a chemist's shop. The doctor came to Le Visciole and read the letter, half amused and half mortified, and he explained that he had ordered the serum and it was not his fault if they had not yet sent it. Emanuele burst into a great fit of laughter, one of the long, deep fits of laughter that were characteristic of him. These long fits of laughter, like the cooing of a pigeon, were now coming to be heard again, but all the time Cenzo Rena had been there Emanuele had roamed round the house mortified and frowning, and he said he almost wanted to go back to Mammina at Mentone, because it was not very nice of him to leave her alone the whole summer. However, immediately after Cenzo Rena's departure he became cheerful again, and in fact he said that, at bottom, Cenzo Rena was a fine fellow, and he mimicked him when he shook himself because his drawers were scratching him, and when he rose to his feet to shout out about the
contadini.

But one day Emanuele had a letter from Amalia, in which she informed him that she had married Franz. After that his long, deep fits of laughter ceased again, even though he said that, when all was said and done, he did not care in the least.

7

When they went back to the town they found Concettina in tears, because her thesis had been rejected. It was twenty-five pages long, and Danilo's sister had typed it for her and bound it up in a big album tied with red tapes. But the professor had said that it would not do. Concettina had slept in all the rooms, one after another, because, what with her violent exertions and her discouragement, she had never been able to induce herself to make her bed, and in the kitchen there was a great confusion of eggshells and opened tins, and Signora Maria took three days to clean the house and she said the house looked as if it had been lived in not by one single girl but by a regiment of
bersaglieri.
But Concettina was in such a state of despair that even Ippolito did not have the heart to be angry with her, even though black-beetles had appeared in the kitchen through its being left so dirty. Concettina said she had no desire to go to the library again to look for more books on Racine, in any case she had come to hate Racine and wanted to try somebody else, but she did not know who. Emanuele tried to comfort her : surely she would not need to submit a thesis at all, since within a year she would be married. But Signora Maria said that within a year was too soon, because Concettina must first learn how to keep a house clean. Emanuele said, “If you don't find anyone to marry you, Concettina, I'll marry you myself. It doesn't matter to me whether the house is very clean or not, and I don't very much mind blackbeetles. I should be making rather a sacrifice in marrying you because I don't much like women without bosoms. But if you really don't find anyone else I'll take you on. Or perhaps you might marry Cenzo Rena, who is very rich and would take you to see Constantinople and explain to you all about
contadini.”
And in order to cheer up Concettina Emanuele started to tell stories about Cenzo Rena and to imitate him when his drawers were scratching him. But Concettina said she did not want any joking because she had too many troubles. So Emanuele asked, hadn't he his own troubles too? Hadn't his sister got married to that fellow Franz? And Mammina was on the point of coming back from her holiday and still knew nothing about it and he would have to break the news of it to her gradually. And there had been the treaty of agreement between Germany and Russia and now it was impossible to understand anything, it was impossible to understand what might happen, everything was confusion. Cenzo Rena had said that perhaps Germany and Russia were coming to an agreement together, and Emanuele had not believed it, and now it had really happened. Emanuele suggested to Concettina that she should put on a nice dress and a nice hat and come out for a walk with him ; they would have ices at a café in the Corso and then they would go to the cinema without troubling about anything. But Concettina was now going every evening to study shorthand with Danilo's sister. And as soon as she had gone out Emanuele said how ingenuous Concettina was to think that her plans would remain a secret. It was clear that she was studying shorthand with Danilo's sister so that Danilo on his return should think well of her, for being such a brave and simple girl and studying shorthand with his own sister. And he limped about the room, delighted with the idea of Danilo and Concettina married and with a heap of babies. But the recollection of the Russo-German treaty came back to him, who would ever have thought it, and now goodness knows what might not happen. Meanwhile Signora Maria was complaining that Concettina never paid any attention to her, she had begged her so often not to go and see Danilo's sister because she was certainly not a steady character, and as for Danilo, they had put him in prison. Of course the political affair was just a story, they must have put him in prison for swindling or smuggling. For smuggling watches, perhaps. And she herself would never consent to a marriage between Concettina and Danilo, Emanuele's ideas were quite nonsensical. Nor did she like Concettina's studying shorthand, what on earth was the use of shorthand to her, her father hadn't sent her to the university for her to finish up in some little office as a shorthand-typist.

BOOK: All Our Yesterdays
5.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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