It was a warm, oppressive summer evening. I was in a hurry, as I feared I would arrive at Maria's too late. The moon was shining through the trees, throwing a vivid lattice of white lights and black shadows on to the pavement. I was in a hurry, as Maria lived far away, almost on the edge of Florence. There, she said, there were fewer people, more flowers. I feared one thing: that I would again encounter that rascally lieutenant who apparently considered himself master in her little house, sitting in state like a king, talking like a Chinese emperor. No wonder. He knew he had exclusive sovereignty of her heart; and was it only her heart? I was at a loss to know how that vulgar ignoramus could have conquered her, a person of such discrimination, but whenever he came to call on her she seemed to have eyes for him alone. I felt that at those moments I turned into an item of furniture, remembered only when someone knocked against it.
Nevertheless, two days earlier, when the lieutenant had not been there, Maria had behaved quite differently towards me.
Out in the suburbs it was less oppressive: more flowers, fewer people. Maria's little house occupied a lonely site; she had only one neighbour. I pushed the gate and entered the densely flowering garden. Her house could be glimpsed only here and there, it was so intertwined with climbing plants. How often in my sketches I had traced on canvas the outline of that happy little nook.
It was as I supposed: the lieutenant was there. Of that there could be no doubt, as from the window there floated to the ear, or rather quite plainly struck it, the barbarous strains of a guitar. I knew that Maria had discriminating taste, so why did she put up with that terrible stuff? I stopped and almost felt like going away again - for indeed, who likes to play the role of a piece of furniture? But at the same time I began to feel so dismal without Maria that I was ready to consent to anything at all, just in order to be near her for a while.
When I entered the room Maria gave me a look of surprise, but said little - "Hello, Fernando," - and at once inclined her head over the table again, where she sat carefully cutting a pie into sections. I knew for whom that pie was intended. Oh, it was the famous apricot pie, which could be seen only at Maria's. Thin, brown on top, with juicy chunks of apricot, not overcooked, but only slightly touched by fire.
It was a wonderful pie, and the scoundrel of a lieutenant knew its value very well. Indeed, he had come here not so much for Maria's sake as for the pie and the half-bottle of Asti that always awaited him.
"Ah!" cried the lieutenant, spreading his fingers and giving the belly of his guitar a smack with his palm. "He shall hear my new song!"
His new song was the last thing I wanted to hear. It did, however, provide some kind of escape from the situation, and so I sat down opposite him, trying to look as interested as I could. The lieutenant struck the guitar again, this time not on the belly but on the strings. A loud chord rang out. In despair I looked at Maria. Without raising her eyes she got up from the table, holding in both hands a long plate containing the pie, which she was preparing to take to the lieutenant. My heart began to beat painfully at the sight of that tender attention, but suddenly a strange sound made me start to my feet: it was as if something had jumped in through the open window. I quickly turned round and on the windowsill saw a large poodle. It had evidently not judged its leap quite correctly and was in a state of unsteady equilibrium, uncertain whether to hold out on the windowsill or to leap back down again. Maria uttered a scream, recoiled backwards and dropped the plate. That was apparently what the poodle had been waiting for. Tensing itself, it jumped down into the room. A moment later it had its mouth and paws in the pie. All this was so unexpected that I found myself rooted to the spot with surprise. Meanwhile the poodle was wagging its tail, joyfully growling as it devoured the pie, section by section.
All of a sudden the guitar went hurtling to the floor with a clatter, the lieutenant leapt up from the sofa like a wild beast, seized the poodle by its hind legs and with a Herculean gesture threw it over his head and out of the window. The dog performed an improbable arc through the air and landed with a grunt in a flowerbed. There resounded a violent burst of canine squealing that passed through every harmony and modulation. From the neighbouring house came the rattle of a lock being turned, a door banged, and the owner began to call his dog. A few moments later the squealing began to grow fainter, then the door could be heard being locked again, and everything grew quiet.
The lieutenant stood over the broken plate, fastidiously holding the remains of the pie between finger and thumb.
"Thank you very much, I must say," he said to Maria angrily. "An excellent pie... you are a mistress of your art, and even better is the skill with which you threw it to the floor..."
"Giovanni," she said reproachfully, "you might at least feel sorry for me, not the pie; I got such a fright."
"No," Giovanni shouted, "instead of yourself, it is me you ought to feel sorry for: do you realize that I have had nothing to eat since this morning? I am hungry and shall go to a café," he added, putting on a hat which had feathers in it.
"Giovanni!" Maria cried beseechingly and, running up to him, seized him with both arms.
This was becoming unendurable. I leapt up from my chair and stepped forward. Of course I knew that when the lieutenant was there I turned into a piece of furniture and was ignored. But with this movement I reminded them of my existence. Maria threw me a glance, blushed and, taking a step backwards, turned away from the lieutenant.
"Goodbye," she said to him. "You are unfair, as ever."
And with these words, lowering her head, she went through into the other room.
The lieutenant put on his sword and, not deigning me worthy of a bow, leapt out of the window into the garden. Evidently he considered leaving by the door insufficiently dashing.
Slowly I entered the room where Maria was hiding. I was certain that I would find her stretched upon her bed, weeping inconsolably.
Instead I found her by the window. She was looking at the house of her neighbour and there was an ominous light in her eyes. (All her indignation had now been transferred to the poodle and its owner.)
"One can get no peace in one's own home for these mad dogs!" she exclaimed, in indescribable anger.
"Maria, for heaven's sake, what kind of a mad dog is that?" I said, remonstrating with her. "Believe me: like the lieutenant, that dog was far more interested in the pie than in you! It is just a poor hungry poodle that your neighbour does not feed."
"He's a gloomy old skinflint and a night-owl," Maria declared. "He doesn't feed his dog, he never receives any guests. He has been ill for a week, and now he spends all his time writing his will."
I looked out of the window. Through the trees one could see his house and through the illuminated window there was indeed visible a figure inclined over a writing table.
"He's always writing and writing, writing and writing," she said. "A fat lot he must have to leave behind him after a life like that..."
"Well, let him write," I said peaceably.
But the peace was soon shattered.
"He makes my life impossible!" she exclaimed. "Yesterday he trod on my foot outside the front gate, and then today his dog attacked me..."
"But Maria, why did you not tell me about this earlier?" I said, beginning to feel an antipathy towards the old man.
"Because you are not the only one; there is also Giovanni. Today he threw out the dog, and tomorrow he will do the same to the old man."
I boiled up.
"Very well. I and not he will talk to the old man and I will do it not tomorrow but right now!"
With these words I put on my hat and leapt out into the garden.
"Where are you going?" Maria called after me, and in her voice I caught a note of uneasiness. From the garden I could see her leaning over the windowsill as she said in a loud whisper: "Fernando! Do not dare do anything silly! Where are you going?"
But I had already climbed over the wall and jumped down into her neighbour's garden. As I jumped I very nearly hurt myself, as the neighbour's garden was in a hollow and the wall was much higher on his side. I swiftly picked myself up and, hobbling slightly, approached the illuminated window in resolute fashion. The window was open, and the old man sat next to it, at his writing table, writing his will or whatever, deep in thought. The rays of an angle poise lamp were reflected on his bald head like the sun on the ocean. The sound of footsteps seemed to alert him to my presence.
"If you do not send your villainous dog to the devil this very evening," I shouted, "then tomorrow I will break its legs and smash all your windows!"
At the first words I uttered the old man stood up jerkily and looked out of the window, but it was plain that in the dark he could not make me out. At the last words I uttered he extended his hand towards the window, banged it shut and lowered the blind.
Somewhat unexpectedly, I found myself in darkness. As a matter of fact this was the best response he could have devised in answer to my reprimand. I turned and walked towards the gate, but it proved locked, and was too high to be climbed. The moon had gone behind a cloud and I could make out objects only with difficulty. Nevertheless, I managed to reach the spot where I had jumped into this garden, only to find the wall was too high for anyone to scale. I tripped over a bucket that exuded a revolting smell of fresh paint and fell on to a ladder that lay beside it. Evidently the old skinflint had loosened his purse-strings and decided to have his garden wall or the walls of his house painted. The ladder served my purpose, and a moment later, having placed it against the fence, I found myself back in Maria's garden again. In excitement I hurried to see her, but the door turned out to be locked. I ran back into the garden and went round to a window. It was closed. I approached another - it was also closed. I returned to the door and cautiously knocked on it. There was no reply. The little house was fast asleep, and so was Maria...
Slowly I trudged off home. (part 2)