V, p.18

V., page 18

 

V.
 



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  He would see his father. In spite of the heart’s vagrancy, the cerise umbrella, the madcap clothes. Was rebellion in his blood? He’d never been troubled enough to wonder. Certainly the League of the Red Sunrise had been no more than a jolly lark; he couldn’t yet become serious over politics. But he had a mighty impatience with the older generation, which is almost as good as open rebellion. He became more bored with talk of Empire the further he lumbered upward out of the slough of adolescence; shunned every hint of glory like the sound of a leper’s rattle. China, the Sudan, the East Indies, Vheissu had served their purpose: given him a sphere of influence roughly congruent with that of his skull, private colonies of the imagination whose borders were solidly defended against the Establishment’s incursions or depredations. He wanted to be left alone, never to “do well” in his own way, and would defend that oaf’s integrity to the last lazy heartbeat.

  The cab swung left, crossing the tram tracks with two bone-rattling jolts, and then right again into Via dei Vecchietti. Evan shook four fingers in the air and swore at the driver, who smiled absently. A tram came blithering up behind them; drew abreast. Evan turned his head and saw a young girl in dimity blinking huge eyes at him.

  “Signorina,” he cried, “ah, brava fanciulla, sei tu inglesa?”

  She blushed and began to study the embroidery on her parasol. Evan stood up on the cab’s seat, postured, winked, began to sing “Deh, vieni alla finestra,” from Don Giovanni. Whether or not she understood Italian, the song had a negative effect: she withdrew from the window and hid among a mob of Italians standing in the center aisle. Evan’s driver chose this moment to lash the horses into a gallop and swerve across the tracks again, in front of the tram. Evan, still singing, lost his balance and fell halfway over the back of the carriage. He managed to catch hold of the boot’s top with one flailing arm and after a deal of graceless floundering to haul himself back in. By this time they were in Via Pecori. He looked back and saw the girl getting out of the tram. He sighed as his cab bounced on past Giotto’s Campanile, still wondering if she were English.

  II

  In front of a wine shop on the Ponte Vecchio sat Signor Mantissa and his accomplice in crime, a seedy-looking Calabrese named Cesare. Both were drinking Broglio wine and feeling unhappy. It had occurred to Cesare sometime during the rain that he was a steamboat. Now that the rain was only a slight drizzle the English tourists were beginning to emerge once more from the shops lining the bridge, and Cesare was announcing his discovery to those who came within earshot. He would emit short blasts across the mouth of the wine bottle to encourage the illusion. “Toot,” he would go, “toot. Vaporetto, io.”

  Signor Mantissa was not paying attention. His five feet three rested angular on the folding chair, a body small, well-wrought and somehow precious, as if it were the forgotten creation of any goldsmith—even Cellini—shrouded now in dark serge and waiting to be put up for auction. His eyes were streaked and rimmed with the pinkness of what seemed to be years of lamenting. Sunlight, bouncing off the Arno, off the fronts of shops, fractured into spectra by the falling rain, seemed to tangle or lodge in his blond hair, eyebrows, mustache, turning that face to a mask of inaccessible ecstasy; contradicting the sorrowing and weary eyeholes. You would be drawn inevitably again to these eyes, linger as you might have on the rest of the face: any Visitors’ Guide to Signor Mantissa must accord them an asterisk denoting special interest. Though offering no clue to their enigma; for they reflected a free-floating sadness, unfocused, indeterminate: a woman, the casual tourist might think at first, be almost convinced until some more catholic light moving in and out of a web of capillaries would make him not so sure. What then? Politics, perhaps. Thinking of gentle-eyed Mazzini with his lambent dreams, the observer would sense frailness, a poet-liberal. But if he kept watching long enough the plasma behind those eyes would soon run through every fashionable permutation of grief—financial trouble, declining health, destroyed faith, betrayal, impotence, loss—until eventually it would dawn on our tourist that he had been attending no wake after all: rather a street-long festival of sorrow with no booth the same, no exhibit offering anything solid enough to merit lingering at.

  The reason was obvious and disappointing: simply that Signor Mantissa himself had been through them all, each booth was a permanent exhibit in memory of some time in his life when there had been a blond seamstress in Lyons, or an abortive plot to smuggle tobacco over the Pyrenees, or a minor assassination attempt in Belgrade. All his reversals had occurred, had been registered: he had assigned each one equal weight, had learned nothing from any of them except that they would happen again. Like Machiavelli he was in exile, and visited by shadows of rhythm and decay. He mused inviolate by the serene river of Italian pessimism, and all men were corrupt: history would continue to recapitulate the same patterns. There was hardly ever a dossier on him, wherever in the world his tiny, nimble feet should happen to walk. No one in authority seemed to care. He belonged to that inner circle of deracinated seers whose eyesight was clouded over only by occasional tears, whose outer rim was tangent to rims enclosing the Decadents of England and France, the Generation of ’98 in Spain, for whom the continent of Europe was like a gallery one is familiar with but long weary of, useful now only as shelter from the rain, or some obscure pestilence.

  Cesare drank from the wine bottle. He sang:

  Il piove, dolor mia

  Ed anch’io piango . . .

  “No,” said Signor Mantissa, waving away the bottle. “No more for me till he arrives.”

  “There are two English ladies,” Cesare cried. “I will sing to them.”

  “For God’s sake—”

  Vedi, donna vezzosa, questo poveretto,

  Sempre cantante d’amore come—

  “Be quiet, can’t you.”

  “—un vaporetto.” Triumphantly he boomed a hundred-cycle note across the Ponte Vecchio. The English ladies cringed and passed on.

  After a while Signor Mantissa reached under his chair, coming up with a new fiasco of wine.

  “Here is the Gaucho,” he said. A tall, lumbering person in a wideawake hat loomed over them, blinking curiously.

  Biting his thumb irritably at Cesare, Signor Mantissa found a corkscrew; gripped the bottle between his knees, drew the cork. The Gaucho straddled a chair backwards and took a long swallow from the wine bottle.

  “Broglio,” Signor Mantissa said, “the finest.”

  The Gaucho fiddled absently with his hatbrim. Then burst out: “I’m a man of action, signor, I’d rather not waste time. Allora. To business. I have considered your plan. I asked for no details last night. I dislike details. As it was, the few you gave me were superfluous. I’m sorry, I have many objections. It is much too subtle. There are too many things that can go wrong. How many people are in it now? You, myself and this lout.” Cesare beamed. “Two too many. You should have done it all alone. You mentioned wanting to bribe one of the attendants. It would make four. How many more will have to be paid off, consciences set at ease. Chances arise that someone can betray us to the guardie before this wretched business is done?”

  Signor Mantissa drank, wiped his mustaches, smiled painfully. “Cesare is able to make the necessary contacts,” he protested, “he’s below suspicion, no one notices him. The river barge to Pisa, the boat from there to Nice, who should have arranged these if not—”

  “You, my friend,” the Gaucho said menacingly, prodding Signor Mantissa in the ribs with the corkscrew. “You, alone. Is it necessary to bargain with the captains of barges and boats? No: it is necessary only to get on board, to stow away. From there on in, assert yourself. Be a man. If the person in authority objects—” He twisted the corkscrew savagely, furling several square inches of Signor Mantissa’s white linen shirt around it. “Capisci?”

  Signor Mantissa, skewered like a butterfly, flapped his arms, grimaced, tossed his golden head.


  “Certo io,” he finally managed to say, “of course, signor commendatore, to the military mind . . . direct action, of course . . . but in such a delicate matter . . .”

  “Pah!” The Gaucho disengaged the corkscrew, sat glaring at Signor Mantissa. The rain had stopped, the sun was setting. The bridge was thronged with tourists, returning to their hotels on the Lungarno. Cesare gazed benignly at them. The three sat in silence until the Gaucho began to talk, calmly but with an undercurrent of passion.

  “Last year in Venezuela it was not like this. Nowhere in America was it like this. There were no twistings, no elaborate maneuverings. The conflict was simple: we wanted liberty, they didn’t want us to have it. Liberty or slavery, my Jesuit friend, two words only. It needed none of your extra phrases, your tracts, none of your moralizing, no essays on political justice. We knew where we stood, and where one day we would stand. And when it came to the fighting we were equally as direct. You think you are being Machiavellian with all these artful tactics. You once heard him speak of the lion and the fox and now your devious brain can see only the fox. What has happened to the strength, the aggressiveness, the natural nobility of the lion? What sort of an age is this where a man becomes one’s enemy only when his back is turned?”

  Signor Mantissa had regained some of his composure. “It is necessary to have both, of course,” he said placatingly. “Which is why I chose you as a collaborator, commendatore. You are the lion, I—” humbly—“a very small fox.”

  “And he is the pig,” the Gaucho roared, clapping Cesare on the shoulder. “Bravo! A fine cadre.”

  “Pig,” said Cesare happily, making a grab for the wine bottle.

  “No more,” the Gaucho said. “The signor here has taken the trouble to build us all a house of cards. Much as I dislike living in it, I won’t permit your totally drunken breath to blow it over in indiscreet talk.” He turned back to Signor Mantissa. “No,” he continued, “you are not a true Machiavellian. He was an apostle of freedom for all men. Who can read the last chapter of Il Principe and doubt his desire for a republican and united Italy? Right over there—” he gestured toward the left bank, the sunset—“he lived, suffered under the Medici. They were the foxes, and he hated them. His final exhortation is for a lion, an embodiment of power, to arise in Italy and run all foxes to earth forever. His morality was as simple and honest as my own and my comrades’ in South America. And now, under his banner, you wish to perpetuate the detestable cunning of the Medici, who suppressed freedom in this very city for so long. I am dishonored irrevocably, merely having associated with you.”

  “If—” again the pained smile—“if the commendatore has perhaps some alternative plan, we should be happy . . .”

  “Of course there’s another plan,” the Gaucho retorted, “the only plan. Here, you have a map?” Eagerly Signor Mantissa produced from an inside pocket a folded diagram, hand-sketched in pencil. The Gaucho peered at it distastefully. “So that is the Uffizi,” he said. “I’ve never been inside the place. I suppose I shall have to go, to get the feel of the terrain. And where is the objective?”

  Signor Mantissa pointed to the lower left-hand corner. “The Sala di Lorenzo Monaco,” he said. “Here, you see. I have already had a key made for the main entrance. Three main corridors: east, west, and a short one on the south connecting them. From the west corridor, number three, we enter a smaller one here, marked ‘Ritratti diversi.’ At the end, on the right, is a single entrance to the gallery. She hangs on the western wall.”

  “A single entrance which is also the single exit,” the Gaucho said. “Not good. A dead end. And to leave the building itself one must go all the way back up the eastern corridor to the steps leading to Piazza della Signoria.”

  “There is a lift,” said Signor Mantissa, “leading to a passage which lets one out in the Palazzo Vecchio.”

  “A lift,” the Gaucho sneered. “About what I’d expect from you.” He leaned forward, baring his teeth. “You already propose to commit an act of supreme idiocy by walking all the way down one corridor, along another, halfway up a third, down one more into a cul-de-sac and then out again the same way you came in. A distance of—” he measured rapidly—“some six hundred meters, with guards ready to jump out at you every time you pass a gallery or turn a corner. But even this isn’t confining enough for you. You must take a lift.”

  “Besides which,” Cesare put in, “she’s so big.”

  The Gaucho clenched one fist. “How big.”

  “175 by 279 centimeters,” admitted Signor Mantissa.

  “Capo di minghe!” The Gaucho sat back, shaking his head. With an obvious effort at controlling his temper, he addressed Signor Mantissa. “I’m not a small man,” he explained patiently. “In fact I am rather a large man. And broad. I am built like a lion. Perhaps it’s a racial trait. I come from the north, and there may be some tedesco blood in these veins. The tedeschi are taller than the Latin races. Taller and broader. Perhaps someday this body will run to fat, but now it is all muscle. So. I am big, non è vero? Good. Then let me inform you—” his voice rising in violent crescendo—“that there would be room enough under your damnable Botticelli for me and the fattest whore in Florence, with plenty left over for her elephant of a mother to act as chaperone! How in God’s name do you intend to walk three hundred meters with that? Will it be hidden in your pocket?”

  “Calm, commendatore,” Signor Mantissa pleaded. “Anyone might be listening. It is a detail, I assure you. Provided for. The florist Cesare visited last night—”

  “Florist. Florist: you’ve let a florist into your confidence. Wouldn’t it make you happier to publish your intentions in the evening newspapers?”

  “But he is safe. He is only providing the tree.”

  “The tree.”

  “The Judas tree. Small: some four meters, no taller. Cesare has been at work all morning, hollowing out the trunk. So we shall have to execute our plans soon, before the purple flowers die.”

  “Forgive what may be my appalling stupidity,” the Gaucho said, “but as I understand it, you intend to roll up the Birth of Venus, hide it in the hollow trunk of a Judas tree, and carry it some three hundred meters, past an army of guards who will soon be aware of its theft, and out into Piazza della Signoria, where presumably you will then lose yourself in the crowds?”

  “Precisely. Early evening would be the best time—”

  “A rivederci.”

  Signor Mantissa leaped to his feet. “I beg you, commendatore,” he cried. “Aspetti. Cesare and I will be disguised as workmen, you see. The Uffizi is being redecorated, there will be nothing unusual—”

  “Forgive me,” the Gaucho said, “you are both lunatics.”

  “But your cooperation is essential. We need a lion, someone skilled in military tactics, in strategy . . .”

  “Very well.” The Gaucho retraced his steps and stood towering over Signor Mantissa. “I suggest this: the Sala di Lorenzo Monaco has windows, does it not?”

  “Heavily barred.”

  “No matter. A bomb, a small bomb, which I’ll provide. Anyone who tries to interfere will be disposed of by force. The window should let us out next to the Posta Centrale. Your rendezvous with the barge?”

  “Under the Ponte San Trinità.”

  “Some four or five hundred yards up the Lungarno. We can commandeer a carriage. Have your barge waiting at midnight tonight. That’s my proposal. Take it or leave it. I shall be at the Uffizi till supper time, reconnoitering. From then till nine, at home making the bomb. After that, at Scheissvogel’s, the birriere. Let me know by ten.”

  “But the tree, commendatore. It cost close to two hundred lire.”

  “Damn your tree.” With a smart about-face the Gaucho turned and strode away in the direction of the right bank.

  The sun hovered over the Arno. Its declining rays tinged the l
iquid gathering in Signor Mantissa’s eyes to a pale red, as if the wine he’d drunk were overflowing, watered down with tears.

  Cesare let a consoling arm fall round Signor Mantissa’s thin shoulders. “It will go well,” he said. “The Gaucho is a barbarian. He’s been in the jungles too long. He doesn’t understand.”

  “She is so beautiful,” Signor Mantissa whispered.

  “Davvero. And I love her too. We are comrades in love.” Signor Mantissa did not answer. After a little while he reached for the wine.

  III

  Miss Victoria Wren, late of Lardwick-in-the-Fen, Yorks., recently self-proclaimed a citizen of the world, knelt devoutly in the front pew of a church just off Via dello Studio. She was saying an act of contrition. An hour before, in the Via dei Vecchietti, she’d had impure thoughts while watching a fat English boy cavort in a cab; she was now being heartily sorry for them. At nineteen she’d already recorded a serious affair: having the autumn before in Cairo seduced one Goodfellow, an agent of the British Foreign Office. Such is the resilience of the young that his face was already forgotten. Afterward they’d both been quick to blame the violent emotions which arise during any tense international situation (this was at the time of the Fashoda crisis) for her deflowering. Now, six or seven months later, she found it difficult to determine how much she had in fact planned, how much had been out of her control. The liaison had in due course been discovered by her widowed father Sir Alastair, with whom she and her sister Mildred were traveling. There were words, sobbings, threats, insults, late one afternoon under the trees in the Ezbekiyeh Garden, with little Mildred gazing struck and tearful at it all, while God knew what scars were carved into her. At length Victoria had ended it with a glacial good-bye and a vow never to return to England; Sir Alastair had nodded and taken Mildred by the hand. Neither had looked back.

 

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