From Tales from the Italian and Spanish, Vol. III, Stories of Humor and Adventure, The Review of Reviews Co.; New York; 1920; pp. 342-359.342
A FRIEND of mine, deeply versed in zoölogy, has for a long time been convinced that if the oldest living hippopotamus should upright on its hind legs, it would bear a complete resemblance, at least from the rear view, to Doctor Marcòn , assessor in a small town of Polesine, no matter which, and risen from humble notary to a bloated bond-holder, no matter how; so much so, that it would but pure justice to call him the golden hippopotamus, rather than the golden calf. Two immense feet invading, one the Orient, the other the Occident; two colossal and diverging legs; a robe of wondrous expanse; not a trace of neck, but two enormous, stooping shoulders and a huge head, sunk so low between them that the brim of his hat rests upon his spine; a vast arm projecting from a sleeve that is much too short: — such is Doctor Marcòn, as seen from the rear.
He was wallowing, the other day, through the puddles of the square on which he lives, exhibiting in his whole bearing the ponderous hilarity of a hippopotamus that scents the water.
“Counselor!” a priest called, from behind him, following breathlessly in pursuit. “Counselor, by your leave!” Marcòn continued to splash steadily onward through the 343 puddles without turning. The priest continued to follow him, repeating, “Counselor, Counselor, Counselor Vasco!” until he overtook him and seized him by a fold of his spacious robe. Then, for the first time, the notary turned his head, but without stopping.
“Excuse me,” he said, smiling and touching his hat, “but I don’t happen to be the counselor. Good-day.”
The other remained there, stupidly gazing after that monstrous back placidly departing. Seen from this point of view, Marcòn appeared the image of Vasco; only, Vasco perhaps was a hippopotamus minor that can be distinguished from the other by his herculean legs, and his vast head inclining a little towards the left, in a line of melancholy docility.
The strange thing was that Doctor Marcòn happened then to be muddily plodding his way precisely towards the habitation of Counselor Vasco. Who can tell what perturbation would have seized the docile bulk, the great, smooth, rosy countenance of the hippopotamus minor, had he presaged the approach of the hippopotamus major? But that worthy, mild, and timid man, of gentle birth and breeding, blameless and uncomplaining, who at the age of eight and seventy years found himself slowly sinking into a carefully hidden but alarming poverty, was at this moment apparently oblivious of his creditor, Marcòn, and of all the other miseries of this world. He was in his study, alternately writing upon a huge sheet of bluish paper, and meditating over the frontispiece of a quarto volume, yellowed by the lapse of centuries.
An ardent bibliophile, he possessed a certain classic culture, broad but lacking in thoroughness, eccentrically colored by his fanciful imagination, which delighted in the most unusual prejudices, the most unexpected comparisons, the most poetic deductions, in defiance of grammatical rules. His advanced age had robbed him of the ability to practice his profession. From his family he had nothing to expect but tribulations. Of his former friends, none remained alive and faithful save a few old books.344
That day the housemaid had gone out without latching the door; Doctor Marcòn therefore slipped without ceremony into the dark stairway, and mounted wheezily, dragging himself up by the balustrade, pausing to rest at every third step.
“Hear the big brute!” the harsh voice of the Signora Vasco proclaimed loudly from an upper floor. “You have been to the café already, you old beast!” she continued, protruding her land form and withered, jaundiced visage over the railing. “However much does it take to fill that paunch of yours? Oh, Signor Doctor, excuse me, for mercy’s sake! I thought it was my husband!”
“Don’t mention it, Signora Carlotta,” responded Marcòn, pacifically. “Is he away from home, that other big paunch?”
Signora Carlotta hastened to find out, and returned at once to say that Vasco was in his study, and accompanied the notary thither.
“Zanetto,” she said, flinging wide the door, “don’t you see, it’s the doctor! Yes, I’m going, I’m going!” she added, for the doctor had turned upon her a most expressive glance.
Zanetto, meanwhile, raising one hand to his cap, slowly heaved his bulk out of the big arm-chair, while his two small eyes, timid and troubled as those of a little child, gazed at his enormous visitor, planted in the doorway, with arms and legs apart, hat in the right hand stick in the left.
“My compliments, doctor,” he said, humbly. “Pray be seated.”
The other replied, merely, “At your service.”
And he came forward, his glance searching for a chair. The counselor at last had gained his feet; he waddled with short, hurried steps that shook his paunch, his shoulders, and the tassel of his cap, to find two chairs and move them forward.
They both proceeded to lower themselves very slowly into their seats, each with his eyes upon the other, Marcòn quite grim, his host in great trepidation.345
“By your leave?” said the doctor, replacing his hat.
“God bless me, yes!” rejoined Signor Zanetto, eagerly; and, encouraged by this shadow of civility, he produced his snuff-box, offered a pinch to Marcòn, and indulged in one himself; whereupon these two ample persons, with chins buried in their bosoms, lowered eyes and knitted brows, busied themselves in slapping and brushing their coats and shirt-fronts into a state of neatness.
Finally Doctor Marcòn, having flicked away with all four fingers the last remaining grains of tobacco, raised his face.
“Well, how about it?” he asked.
Poor Vasco let himself sink slowly back into the depths of his chair, and with a widespread gesture of his trembling arms, gazed upward as he answered:
“I can do nothing, honestly, nothing at all.”
Marcòn arched his eyebrows, and began to work his thick, pendulous lips.
“Think it over, “ he said, “think it over. You know our agreement!”
“Oh yes, I know our agreement. But I am helpless. Do what you must. I am only sorry for Carlotta’s sake; she will torture herself, poor soul, through her affection for me, imagining that I am suffering keenly myself. I, on the contrary, — well, what could you expect? —” Vasco lowered his voice and made a solemn gesture: “Of ice, my dear sir, of solid ice! And shall I tell you,” he went on, “the one thing that this solid ice wants? It wants to melt, that is the truth, it wants to melt!” His paunch and shoulders quivered with a brief, bitter laugh.
“Oh, wonderful man!” blurted out Marcòn, “to be able to wash your hands of your debts and your creditors! Why don’t you stir yourself to do something? How about that cousin that you could turn to for help? And that son who was surely going to send you some money?”
“My son? Yes, he meant to, poor fellow, for he has a warm heart; and after all he is my son, even if he does have hard luck. As an officer in the navy it fell to him to be sent 346 to Africa. Think of that! We won’t talk of it, but it’s one of the things our family has to be proud of. My son writes joyously, — and why not? — joyously, — a letter to touch the heart, a hero’s letter! But meanwhile he must have a horse at once, because the naval officers may be assigned to shore duty, and the war office obliges them to furnish their own horses. Don’t you believe it? I will show you the letter!”
“Send him an ass!” roared Marcòn. “It will be more appropriate!”
The poor counselor, doubly wounded through his paternal love and his good faith, writhed all over, muttering beneath his breath a few “God help me’s!” of timid and wondering resentment.
“And how about your cousin?” catechized Marcòn.
“My cousin — my cousin —” stammered Vasco, who had a horrible dread of that ugly-tempered relative. “Why, to tell you the truth, I have not spoken to him yet! I intended to do so this very morning.”
“You intended to? Well, go, go at once! He lives close by, doesn’t he? I will wait here for you.”
Vasco, removing his cap with his left hand, scratched his neck with his right; then, the present terror being more potent than the future, he breathed his accustomed obsequious “by your leave,” and with a lugubrious face dragged himself feebly out.
Signora Vasco, hearing the measured thud of his steps, descending the stairs, called out, “My service to you, cavaliere!” and hurried to her husband’s room.
“He has gone, has he, the dog!” she said, opening the door. Then she saw Marcòn, gave one squeal, and fled in such hast that by the time he had finished revolving his huge bulk and broad smiling face in her direction, there was no trace of her in sight.
Marcòn sat for a while with his eyes upon the door; then he rose to his feet, and quite deliberately made the circuit of the writing desk, curious to discover what the deuce that imbecile of a Vasco had been writing.347
At the head of the big sheet of bluish paper was plainly written:
There followed a few lines scored across by two heavy intersecting strokes of the pen:
“Reduced in my advance age to grievous privations, my weakened spirit being unable to bear the slow torture of a poverty that does not permit of the thinnest sort of outward disguise; and being convinced that I can no longer be anything but a sorrow and burden to my fond wife and dearly beloved son, I ——”
The writer had stopped here. A blank space followed. But further down could be read these additional lines:
“Reduced in my old age to miserable privations, and hoping and praying from the bottom of my heart that the Divine Providence will mercifully release me fro this too solid flesh, burdensome to my family, almost unendurable to me, I thank my faithful wife for all her loving thoughts and deeds, I give my blessing to my dearly beloved son, and I pray everyone to retain kindly memories of me.
“If during seventy-eight years of an honest and laborious life I have in some measure deserved well of my native town, I hope that my last expressed wish will have some weight with my friends and relatives, with the worthy Committee of the Public Library, and with the honorable Municipality. I desire that my precious copy of the Orlando Furioso, edited by Francesco Rosso of Valenza, October 1st, 1532, with the authorization of Clement VII, of Doge Gritt, and of Francesco Sforza, shall pass into our library. It is the third edition of the poem, the last to be issued in the poet’s lifetime, and adjudged superior to all others by the illustrious Apostolo Zeno, who possessed a copy annotated by Aretino. Only five copies of this edition are 348 known to exist, one of which was sold in England by Count Garimberti of Parma, for four thousand francs. Three thousand were offered me for my own copy by the royal librarian at Rome. The frontispiece of the volume was designed and engraved by Tiziano Vecellio. In the middle of the lower margin is represented a phœnix rising with open wings from a funeral pyre, and above the phœnix may be read two mysterious words that many learned men have strived in vain to interpret, EDE NANTO. I believe I have succeeded, after long study and meditation, in penetrating the secret; and it is my prayer that when the volume has been accepted by the library, there shall be inserted in it a written record of my name, together with the wish herewith expressed, and my interpretation of the two mystic words.
“It occurred to me, first of all, that since the said words had no significance either in our own, or any other modern language, nor in that of Latium, we must needs have recourse to some mystic language, of which it would now be vain to search the key; or else to the sacred speech of Hellas, well adapted to the portrayer of Venuses, who herein renders homage to the Homer of Ferrara. Convinced of this, I sought, but for a long time fruitlessly, some way in which those two vocables might be read in Greek; nor did any light dawn upon me until I divided them as follows, EDEN ANTO. . It then became clear to me that their origin was from the Greek words, δα &8056;ω I burn, and ἆνιοσ, flower, thus signifying, he burns (or burned) in a flower, — stupendous significance, whether taken in the literal sense, in reference to the phœnix, or in a figurative sense, in reference to the poet. And to anyone who recalls the πυρὸσ ἆνιοσ of Æschylus, it will seem a marvelous piece of erudition. Perhaps there are some who ——”
Here ended the manuscript; but up to the time when the counselor’s footfall shook the ante-chamber, Marcòn had not read beyond the mention of the three thousand francs offered for the book, and was still contemplating those figures 349 with an affectionate smile. He crossed over to the window and feigned an interest in the court below.
Signor Zanetto entered, wheezing and looking more sepulchral than when he had gone forth.
“Well, how about it?” asked Marcòn.
“Excuse — me — a — moment!” gasped the counselor, seating himself; then, as he recovered his breath, he continued: “Just as I expected, my dear sir, just as I expected! He even insulted me.” Marcòn also resumed his seat, solemnly. They remained looking straight before hem, the one towards the door, the other towards the window.
“Well, what are we going to do about it?” Marcòn said at last. “As you are aware, it amounts to two thousand five hundred francs.”
“Signor Padrone,” said the maid, entering, “I have brought your coffee.”
The counselor paid no heed until the tray was set before him.
“Bring for two,” he said, in a low tone.
The maid said that she had meant to do so, but the mistress had gone out, taking the keys with her, and there was no more coffee. Then the poor man, accustomed for fifty years to his afternoon coffee, offered it with a gesture to Marcòn. The latter thanked him and with a smile stretched out his hand towards the tray, regardless of the maid’s indignant glance.
“Do you want me to get some more from the shop?” she asked her master. “I shall be going out presently, anyway.”
“No, Tonina, no,” sighed Vasco, mildly. “Make up a little more fire in here, instead.”
The maid set to work, but perhaps her thoughts were elsewhere, because Marcòn, after two or three oblique glances, two or three deep, guttural growls, said to her:
“My good girl, can’t you hurry?”
At that moment the fire burst into a blaze, and the maid arose from the hearth, took up the tray disdainfully, and 350 left the room, slamming the door with such force that Marcòn uttered a startled, “Ouch!”
“Listen,” he said, presently, “I look after my own interests, naturally, but I am flesh and blood after all! I have a heart as well as the next man, and it goes against me to take harsh measures against a worthy person like yourself. Let us try to come to some friendly settlement. You may possibly have some object of value, some family jewels, what shall I say, some silver ——”
Vasco contemplated him a few moments, then plunged his hand within his shirt-front, and after some fumbling, drew forth a small silver medal, which he showed to Marcòn, then raised his arms, spreading them widely; all this in complete silence.
“Or paintings?” queried Marcòn.
“O Lord, paintings? The portrait of my wife. A fine work of art, yes, indeed, a fine work of art. But, then, it is Carlotta.”
“Never, never, for the love of heaven!” ejaculated Marcòn, shuddering. “That’s the end of that! But see here,” he resumed, after a pause, “am I mistaken, or have you not some very old books of a certain value?”
“I did have,” replied Vasco, slowly, as if chewing each word, twisting restlessly and looking everywhere excepting in the face of his questioner. “Yes, but — what else would you expect? — all gone, all sold, eaten up ——”
“In that case —” began Marcòn, rising. He glance around, as if searching for the place where he had laid his walking stick; then his eyes came to a rest upon the writing desk.
“What learned treatise are you engaged upon?” he asked, smilingly.
“Oh, it is nothing,” stammered Vasco, painfully embarrassed, “nothing at all. Are you looking for your stick?”
Marcòn made no answer. He approached the desk.
“By the way,” he said, “that, for instance is quite an old book, isn’t it?”
“Oh no, indeed, — that is to say, yes, quite old, — but a 351 book of no value, or at least, of very slight value. We collectors would call it a drug in the market.”
“I see, however, that it is an Ariosto. A great poet, good Lord, yes! It ought to be worth a fine bit of money if it were not so stained. Did you drop it into a pot of chocolate?”
“Badly stained!” replied Vasco, somewhat recovering his serenity. “What did I tell you? Quite ruined!”
Hereupon Marcòn raised his eyes from the book and planted them directly on the face of his unhappy debtor. His eyes were gleaming with malicious amusement.
“How much,” he asked, “should you judge that it was worth in its present condition?”
Counselor Vasco felt both his heart and his legs failing him. He was forced to sit down.
“I couldn’t say,” he answered, “I really couldn’t say. How should I? For me it has a certain personal value, a value of association.”
It seemed to him that was a clever way out of it, really, a very clever way out. The lines on his forehead, the eyes, mild and childlike, staring intently into the fire, appeared and disappeared under his winking eyelids.
“Very well,” said Marcòn. “Did I not tell you that I have a kind heart? I am going now to commit an act of folly. I am taking the Ariosto, I am going straight home, and I will send you a receipt in full.”
“Then you had read —!” exclaimed the counselor in a choked voice, rising to his feet and pointing at Marcòn with the trembling forefinger of his right hand. “You had read! But you shall not take my book away, do you understand? No, sir, you shall not take it away!”
His big heavy head trembled convulsively, and in his eyes there shone two tears, beneath his winking lids.
“T tell you the truth, counselor.” rejoined Marcòn, tranquilly, “I always thought that you were a man of honor!”
“And am I not?” exclaimed Vasco.352
“Well, it’s like this,” replied the notary, “I don’t believe that a man of honor would try, as you have done, to defraud his creditors.”
The counselor looked at his adversary with fear and horror, and fell back into his seat. Two or three sobs shook his entire bulk.
“I had no wish to defraud anyone,” he said in a low tone, and without looking at Marcòn. “I wanted this book to remain here until after my death. I thought that when I was dead and this letter was made known, that partly because of the value of the book, and partly because of the memory of a poor old man, either the municipality, or the citizens, or the citizens and the municipality together would redeem my book from my creditors, and there would remain in my native town a memorial of my name, and of the few studies I have been able to make. But if you think me capable of wanting to defraud my creditors, there is the book, — keep it, take it with you!”
“But don’t you realize, my dear counselor,” exclaimed Marcòn, “that you owe me a debt of gratitude! Think of getting twenty-five hundred francs for a book in such a condition as that!”
So saying, Marcòn took the Ariosto.
“Counselor, your most obedient!” he said.
Vasco found himself unable to rise or utter a word or make a gesture. He sat as if stunned, and made no movement until after the third appeal from the hippopotamus major, blocked with his booty at the very door.
“Whatever is the matter with it?” he rumbled, turning the doorknob first one way and then the other. “How does it work, anyway? I say, counselor, will you kindly look here? Counselor, counselor, I say?”
The hippopotamus minor tottered heavily across and strove fruitlessly to open the door, then approached his nose to the keyhole, and explored. The other hung over him, enormous, palpitating with impatience.
“It is locked on the outside,” murmured Vasco, pulling 353 himself erect. “The maid probably slammed it a little too hard. When that is done, the same thing often happens.”
“Ring,” said Marcòn.
Vasco rang two, — three, — four times. No one answered. Marcòn thereupon gave such a vigorous tug at the bell that he broke the cord.
“There’s the end of that!” said the counselor.
“Call! Shout!” commanded the other. Accordingly the poor man returned to the door, rested his head against it, and attempted to emit some volume of voice, — but he had no breath.
“How do you expect them to hear that?” cried the infuriated Marcòn. “Listen to me!” And, laying down the book, he began to bellow with his great bovine voice, hammering mighty blows with his walking stick upon the door between each shout and the next. But the mistress was at the confessional, speaking ill of her husband, and the maid was at a tobacco shop, speaking ill of the notary, Marcòn.
There were no other doors. The only window overlooked the courtyard. Marcòn opened it, and shouted. The courtyard was deserted. No one answered. The notary turned upon Vasco, snorting.
“Never before,” he said, “has such a thing happened to me. There you stand, gaping at me! But I’ve got to be going, don’t you understand? Simply got to, — a matter of business!”
“Listen,” said the counselor, absorbed in a fixed idea. “Pardon me, but would it not be possible for you to leave the book with me for the present, until I have inscribed my interpretation in it? And would it not also be possible for you to arrange in some way to have it sooner or later placed in our library?”
“Don’t bother me!” cried Marcòn. “I don’t give a fig for your interpretation or for the library either! Keep your interpretation to yourself! I will even sell the book in America, if it comes to that!”
Anger was beginning to boil upwards beneath the adipose tissue of the pacific counselor.354
“That book is worth four thousand lire,” he said, raising his voice. “At least give me five hundred lire to send to Africa for my son!”
“Deuce take your son and the five hundred lire with him!”
And the exasperated Marcòn wedged himself into the window frame, howling, without paying further heed to Vasco, who, trembling with anger, shouted behind his back:
“I may be an idiot, but it was Providence himself who closed that door!”
He took up the Ariosto, and hurrying on the tips of his toes, with one eye on the fireplace, and the other on that monstrous back, he dropped the volume into the blaze. Then he turned round, pale as death, to his big arm-chair, sank into it, and, closing his eyes, let his head fall back, panting painfully. There came a ring at the outside door, several times repeated. Marcòn outdid himself in thunderous shouts from the window, directed at the unknown visitor. The latter, having failed to gain admittance, and hearing such a din, made his way into the court. It was the same priest who had seen Marcòn in the public square and mistaken him for Vasco. He looked up and saw a huge head and two vast shoulders protruding from the window.
“Counselor,” he said, “this time I am sure it is you, because an hour ago ——”
“You simpleton!” cried Marcòn. “Can’t you see that I am the same man I was an hour ago? Don’t you understand that we are locked in? Go and tell the ‘Signora Carlotta, or the maid-servant, and tell them to come quickly! What are you standing there for, with your mouth open? Hurry up, I say!”
The priest seemed paralyzed with astonishment, and stood there, staring upward and saying over and over: “But how in the world? How in the world?” It took him a good long time to understand and get started.
Marcòn remained a while longer at the window, then crossed over to keep a wide-open ear at the door, in case he should hear some hopeful sound. Then he returned to 355 the window again, calling down maledictions upon all the housemaids in the world. Finally he heard voices in the anteroom, the Signora Carlotta and the maid Tonina, who, instead of opening at once, stood there wrangling.
“Well, now, where in the world did I lay that book?” he asked.
Vasco opened his eyes, raised an explanatory hand, and said solemnly:
“I asked,” replied Marcòn, “where the book is!”
Vasco raised the other hand also, and repeated:
“Oh, I am not joking, you know, not a bit of it!” cried Marcòn, and after glancing around the room without discovering any book whatever, he approached the counselor, with his teeth clenched:
“Let us have done with this farce!” he said. “Hand over that Ariosto, and be quick about it!”
“You want,” retorted Vasco, “you want a book of that quality, and you know no Greek? You want the Phœnix of Titian? Eden Anto, my dear sir, it has burned, burned, in a flower!”
He pointed his forefinger at the fire, and proceeded:
“Look there, those are its ashes.”
Marcòn stifled a cry, throwing up his arms, as if his breath was failing him. He went to the fireplace, and then turning suddenly upon Vasco, took two strides towards him with uplifted stick. He checked himself, waved his arms threateningly, emitted a hoarse bellow, and with a rush flung himself sidewise at the door, like a catapult. The lock was shattered under the impact, and he passed out between the Signora Carlotta and Tonina, and hurled himself down the stairs.
The two women sprang into the study.
“What has happened?” asked the Signora Vasco.
“What has happened?” responded her husband, still shaken with emotion. “He tried to rob me, that is what happened, and I made him run for it!”356
“Rob you of what, you rag-bag?”
“Oh, nothing,” said poor Signor Zanetto, without meeting his wife’s eyes, and shaken all over with a forced laugh that was almost a sob. “Nothing but a book.”
“A book? So you have a book that’s worth something, have you?”
“Pooh, pooh!” said Vasco, beginning to breath hard, “of small account, only a few hundred lire, perhaps one hundred, yes, one hundred at the outside, — between fifty and a hundred, to be accurate.”
“Oh, you snuffy old dotard!” exclaimed the signora. “You have a book worth all that, and say nothing about it, and leave your wife and son to suffer! Give me the book!”
The counselor turned white, but made no answer.
“You didn’t give it to him, did you?” cried his wife, with a countenance and a voice that were fear-inspiring.
“No, no, no!” responded Vasco, hastily. “I gave him nothing at all. Still, if I don’t give it to him, I shall have to give it to someone else, since everything I have belongs to my creditors.”
Signora Carlotta would not have believed that human stupidity could reach such a height, and she cast upon her husband an unutterable glance, in silence. Then she burst forth in a torrent of insults and invectives, launching them at everything around her, the stupid old fat-ribs, the conjugal domicile, the housemaid, Tonina, who took her master’s part. She ordered the latter out of the room; and when the maid rebelled, seized her by the arm and dragged her through the door. Thus the two of them departed, blustering and wrangling across the ante-chamber.
Vasco, dazed by the opening attack, had heard nothing further. After a certain time, he became aware that they had left him alone, recognized the manuscript of his Last Desires, lying upon his desk, and wept the slowest, bitterest, most heart-broken tears of his whole life, — tears, as it were, from some deep-lying, untouched vein, to which sorrow had finally pierced its way.357
Meanwhile the day was fading, the study was growing dark. The hour for dinner came, but no one called the counselor, nor did he himself remember it. Pierced by the cold, he dragged himself painfully to the window and closed it; then sat down in front of the small fireplace, where the still-living embers cast a slight warmth over his legs, a fitful glow upon his shirt-front and his forehead. His head had begun to fell heavy and bewildered, but a new calm had entered his breast. He was feeing better; he was slowly accepting a confused idea of peace very near at hand. He saw, with inexplicable satisfaction, his dear Ariosto there in the fireplace, turned to embers and ashes; he saw them, and from time to time, murmured the mystic words, Eden Anto. He was amazed to discover, for the first time, how strangely those words applied to him, to his own personal life, which in his disordered state of mind seemed to him flowery and joyous, filled only with ardent love for his own people, and for truth and justice. This hallucination of memory presently begat a bizarre doubt, a matter for wonder and profound meditation; how in the world could he ever have entertained the idea, even for a single instant, of dying voluntarily? He thought and thought, failed to understand, and smiled to himself. And here in his softened mood, he passed on to consider the goodness and the greatness of God, and little by little reached a glimmer of the further idea that Providence was granting to him, as it had granted to his Ariosto, the grace of a tranquil dissolution in the midst of heat and light.
Someone knocked at the door, and receiving no response, opened it very softly, with a timid, “May I come in?”
“May I come in, counselor?” was repeated once again, as the priest entered who for so many hours had been upon his trail. He thought that Vasco, whose bulk he discerned dimly in the gloom, had fallen asleep.
“I am Don Clemente,” he said in a loud voice.
Then at last the counselor murmured, “At your service,” and began to move, striving from habitual politeness to rise.358
“Don’t disturb yourself, pray don’t,” Don Clemente hastened to say. He took a seat beside him, and uttered a few commonplaces about the cold weather, the dampness, the charm of a fire, and the twilight. Vasco made no answer.
“I allowed myself to intrude upon you,” the priest then said, “because I had some news to give you about your famous frontispiece. You remember that when I had the honor to make your acquaintance, we talked of a very old edition of Ariosto?”
“Eden Anto,” murmured Vasco, “I remember.”
“Precisely, Eden Anto. Or rather, you read it Eden Anto, and the Abbé Bottoni of Ferrara also read it that way. But it was a mistake.”
“Impossible!” whispered Vasco.
“Pardon me, there is no doubt about it. There cannot be any doubt. As you will remember, it seemed to me then to be taking too much liberty with the Greek, altogether too much liberty. Well, now they have written me from Rome. It is a well-established fact. The characters are very faint, you see; they might easily lead one astray. They must be read, “F. DE NANTO,” abbreviation for Franciscus de Nanto de Sabaudia, which is the name of the engraver, because Titian merely designed it. The Roman edition of the Letters of Cardinal Bessarion against the Turks has the same frontispiece.”
Vasco remained silent.
“By lighting the lamp,” the priest suggested, hesitatingly, “if you have a magnifying glass, we might see ——”
“No, signore,” said the counselor, faintly.
The other dared not insist, assuming that the old man was overcome with an invincible sleepiness. He lingered a little longer in silence; then, judging from the counselor’s labored breathing that he had fallen asleep, groped his way out on tiptoe.
Poor Vasco was in face preparing to sleep the sleep that is invincible. A few minutes later a glowing fire without flame spread rapidly here and there, through the blackened 359 remnants of the Ariosto. Its ruddy light revealed the alteration that had taken place upon his bid, mild face, naïve as that of a grieving child. On the threshold of Truth, his last illusion gave him the last warmth and the last light.
He died during the night.