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Bright Eyes

(Eugenio Montale — Gli Occhi Limpidi)

Mourning had engulfed ‘Il Arcolaio’, the big villa made out of two old farmhouses renovated a century before in the style of a rural folly and held together by long glazed corridors covered with flowers and creepers; mourning amongst the inhabitants of the villa and the tenant farmers. The rich industrialist Gherardo Laroche, cultivated music-lover and celebrated collector of classical art as well as prudent patron of living artists, had died two days previously, and even though the death announcement had ‘relieved’ his numerous admirers from the ‘obligation of visiting’, quite a few family friends were present that day, surrounding the widow, a tall, gaunt lady, not old, her hair the colour of camomile, but now all in black because of the crape mourning bands which enveloped her. Signora Gabriela received the visitors in the garden, attended by her little blonde daughter Tatiana and her spiritual director, Father Carrega. A female servant, also dressed in black, distributed iced drinks. It was hot. The visitors took their places around a table of ragged slate, in the shade of a great medlar tree. Far away, the bend of the Arno at Rovezzano glistened, and a few cars crossed the river on a pontoon bridge. Bells rang. This feast-day afternoon was likely to be long and sad.

To begin with, everyone present, men and women, had remained silent, uttering only occasional sighs — ‘Mah!’ — of sorrowful condolence; then Father Carrega, responding to a gesture of profound anguish from Signora Gabriela, had taken charge of the situation.

‘We must live, signora; we must make ourselves worthy of that unforgettable man who has given everything for the cause of right. His friends, his disciples, his spiritual children (and who can count them, they are so numerous?) will bring to fruition the seed which he has scattered about him. And his delightful daughter, scarcely thirteen years old, this purest of flowers whom God… this flower whom heaven…’

Father Carrega stopped, quavering and out of breath, wiping his glasses; but someone there had already taken the hint.

‘Tatiana will for ever be a younger sister to me,’ said Franca, she who had chaperoned the little girl for years and had always been one of the family since the death of her own parents, close friends of the Laroches.

Dark-haired, not especially slim — rather the contrary — but elegant in her obvious disregard for the latest tricks of fashion, with brightly shining eyes, her short hair curling a little over her forehead, the older sister calmly withstood the widow’s opaque yet piercing look.

‘I recognise your unfailing loyalty, Franca,’ said Gabriela Laroche, opening a little clutch bag under the table and trying to screen herself with a black mourning band. Her yellowish pupils had sharpened; looking a little up and a little down, while the others’ attention was concentrated on young Tatiana, who had thrown herself into her friend’s arms, Signora Gabriela had taken between the thumb and the index finger of her left hand a scrap of paper folded in four, well creased and flattened, a scrap of paper like those which chemists use for doses of magnesium or Epsom salts, on which the handwritten words ‘F. 7th July’ could be read. The handwriting was that of the deceased Signor Laroche; the widow had found the paper in her husband’s wallet immediately after the fatal car accident.

Then Doctor Billi, the Laroche firm’s lawyer, spoke, describing the dead man’s qualities in the field of industry. When she was sure that all heads were turned in that direction, Gabriela opened the paper with a flick of her finger, and, still keeping her hand half hidden by the table and by the mourning band, examined its contents: a lock of black hair, tinged with blue, a lock cut with scissors. Then (by which time Signora Calapani, an ex-nursemaid of Laroche’s, was speaking), Gabriela, with a swift glance back and forth from the lock of hair to Franca’s tresses, which were black with perhaps just a touch of blue, made the comparison. Perhaps yes, at certain moments, in certain lights; but only to the tiniest, homeopathic extent, such as might be detected in a fine tuft of wool, a little forelock?

At that moment Fedora, Laroche’s personal secretary, announced, ‘I shall carry on with my work as archivist in the library,’ passing a hand over her beautiful shock of black wavy hair. ‘We owe it to him… and to the students.’

‘Three years of truly worthwhile work, Fedora,’ said Signora Gabriela, with one eye on the lock in the scrap of paper and the other on the florid girl’s hair and lively eyes. ‘Three years, or am I mistaken? You came to us in… July ’36. Four years exactly.’

‘I was interviewed by Doctor Billi in September, Signora Gabriela,’ Fedora said, tossing back a lock of hair not completely dissimilar to the specimen contained in the scrap of paper.

‘And I in the August of the previous year,’ precisely remarked Miss Filli Parkinson, the picture restorer who had given new life to some of the ‘dry crusts’ in the Laroche collection. ‘Four full years. Who could have imagined… Mah! What a tragedy.’

Her hair was black too, pulled back over exposed ears. She was clear of gaze, and florid like Franca and Fedora, calm, inscrutable, and quite at ease in her floral-print blouse, against which a young and exuberant bosom was also printed.

‘We owe you great gratitude, Miss Parkinson,’ Gabriela acknowledged, following with a furtive, clouded glance the stray wisp of hair which fell around the nape of the beautiful picture restorer. ‘Indeed, my husband made a point of showing you, on your birthday, early in July, on the 7th, I think…’

‘The 7th of July?’ said Miss Parkinson, enlarging her crystalline pupils. ‘No, the 17th of March; it’s already passed, unfortunately. I’m getting old. It’s true, Signor Laroche always remembered me on that day.’

With a sharp snap, Gabriela closed the bag into which she had let the scrap of paper drop. Then, interrupting a colleague of the dead man, Signor Babbucci, who was speaking, she said, ‘How foolish I am! I don’t know why, but it’s always this month, the month of July, which has such an effect on me. Perhaps it’s because of that terrible July in ’38 which I spent in a nursing home. If it wasn’t for my husband’s help, and for yours, Franca, never absent from my bedside…’

‘…and for Miss Parkinson’s help,’ added Doctor Billi, with the air of a man correcting a gaffe.

The kestrel’s eyes of the woman in mourning settled again on the bright and utterly clear eyes of Signor Laroche’s two assistants, who withstood the test without batting an eyelid. The third muse, Franca, then suddenly said, ‘The month of July was unlucky for him. I remember when I went to Zurich with him because of the collapse of the Zimmermann business…’

‘Of course,’ said Gabriela, studying her yellow, puffy eyes in a little mirror, ‘of course, that happened in July too.’ She raised her head and gazed at Franca the way a hawk gazes at a chick. ‘It was in the first week, wasn’t it?’

‘We left on the 20th,’ came the impassive reply. ‘Until the 10th, we had worked like donkeys, me, Fedora and Miss Parkinson, on the renovation of the gallery. He helped, of course. And you, signora, you were at La Porretta with the little girl, remember?’

‘Ah, La Porretta,’ said Gabriela. And, in a seemingly innocuous move whose aim was to put one of them, at least one, out of consideration, ‘I remember, I remember very well when you arrived in the rain, dripping, happy, windswept, blonde… Goodness me, but weren’t you blonde then?’

‘Blonde, signora?’ said Filli Parkinson, in innocent amazement. ‘No, my hair was dark, darker than now, with a few blue tints, you said…’

‘Ah, of course, a few blue tints,’ Gabriela deliberately replied, letting her gaze run over the heads she had before her: the bald heads, grey heads, Tatiana’s plaited hair, and the black curls, perhaps tinged with blue, of the three girls who were now side by side and who almost formed a single mass of hair, one part of which (but whose? whose?) had ended up one 7th of July in that scrap of chemist’s paper.

Once again, a sharp click sounded. Gabriela, having put the mirror back in her bag, had closed it and placed it on the table, in clear view, and had stood up, putting to flight a goldfinch which was cherishing false hopes at the top of the medlar tree.

‘I thank you all, I say all, including those who don’t have dark hair and bright, calm eyes. My husband was a somewhat strange man, one must agree. If he were alive I would wish to thank… him too; but he is no more, and to me it seems as if he never existed.’

‘Oh, oh,’ said Billi and Babbucci.

‘Oh, oh,’ chorused Signora Catapani, Signora Billi and the three raven-haired girls.

‘You need to rest, signora,’ whispered Father Carrega, giving her his arm and accompanying her to the door which led into the garden, while with a wave of his left hand he advised those present to ‘circulate’, and not to prolong the visit.

They saw her entering the ground-floor room and disappearing, having stopped for a moment in front of a large mirror, into which she seemed to stare almost to the depths of her marsh-coloured eyes.

The others, having overcome a moment of uncertainty, made their way to the garden gate, in single file, without speaking. Franca and Fedora brought up the rear, their arms tenderly linked as they walked.

But they turned round at a call from Miss Parkinson, who was going with Tatiana towards a kitchen door.

‘I’m coming too,’ said Filli, waving her hand. ‘Wait for me for a while at the café at the bottom of the hill. A couple of points of ping-pong with Tatiana and I’ll be right with you. Goodbye.’

‘OK, Filli.’

You could hear the goldfinch’s brief flutter as it landed on the swinging branch of the medlar tree.