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In a Florentine Dive

(Eugenio Montale — In una “Buca” Fiorentina)

Along the narrow corridor leading to the dive, in which, lined up with their backs to the wall, three or four of the poorer or stingier customers and a couple of policemen in civilian clothes were eating, a lady of modest bosom, with sturdy legs, not tall, showily elegant, wearing a feathered bowler hat at a slightly rakish angle over her auburn hair, was seen passing in haste, making her way towards the spiral staircase which led down below, to the world of song, light and fine cuisine; and respectfully following her were a grey-haired, monocled man and a liveried attendant in black uniform, a voluminous overcoat casually thrown over him, and in his hands a bundle of newspapers and a whip.

‘Signora Pinzauti,’ said one of the men in the corridor, pale with admiration, inclining his Basque beret towards a soup of minced offal.

‘Mrs Bedford,’ a fat customer corrected him, in some surprise.

‘Donna Odilia Caponsacchi,’ a young, bald, bespectacled man, recently arrived from Rome, remarked by way of further amendment.

‘Or rather, Berta Chimichi, if you don’t mind,’ suggested a customer wearing a panama hat low over his eyes, above a shallow dish of tripe and trotters.

‘Oh!’ protested the others. ‘What are you saying? Are you joking?’

‘No, really,’ said the spoilsport. ‘She was called Albertina, known as Berta, when I knew her many years ago. Yes, a delightful lady.’

The proprietor’s lad, the ‘minister’, came along the corridor, pouring two fingers of aleatico into the policemen’s glasses. From the door at the end of the corridor there was a glimpse of the dark street beyond the half-lowered shutter. The war had recently begun and the nightlife of the city was happening under curfew.

‘Tell us, tell us,’ said one of the policemen, who had been paying interested attention to the four customers’ contentions.

‘A chic lady,’ insisted the man in the panama. With a temperament like this…’ (and he opened his hands as if he were holding up a large globe). ‘I knew her well; we were at school together. At the age of twenty-eight she married the industrialist Ferralasco, who couldn’t make her happy. He was a man absorbed in his work, who made sure that she wanted for nothing but who didn’t respect her character. On this issue there had been a pact between the two of them (she called it a covenant), but Ferralasco didn’t keep his side of the bargain. She was determined to be like the nymph Melusina who, on marrying, asked to have one day a week, Saturday, reserved for her so she could be changed into a mermaid. On Saturdays the husband must not see her nor be seen.’

‘I get it… I get it…’ said the first speaker approvingly. ‘And the husband wanted to know a bit more about what was going on.’

‘Not to begin with, let’s be quite clear. He was away on business much more than a day a week. But when he was there he demanded to be heard and to control her expenses. There were furious disagreements. They say that finally Ferralasco found her in the arms of some architect who was supposed to be building a pavilion in their garden at Pian dei Giullari.’

‘On a Saturday?’ asked the young, bald man, in some anxiety. ‘Such presumption! A woman of that quality, in those hands. I don’t know the husband, but…’

‘It seems that it occurred on a Friday,’ said the man in the panama. ‘At any rate, with a brute like that there was no peaceful way to settle the disagreement. Fate willed that Ferralasco died a few days later without having made a will.’

‘And so,’ interrupted the man eating minced offal, ‘you think the marriage with Pinzauti took place after that? And she was already more than twenty-eight years old?’

‘I don’t know what might have happened afterwards. I was in Africa for a few years.’

‘Was this Pinzauti the architect?’ suggested the other plain-clothes policeman.

The shutter was noisily raised, and a newsboy and a man bearing a block of ice spattered with sawdust passed by. Then the ‘minister’ returned, and placed on the tables a few little plates of beans, which he dressed from a flask, not over-generously, and poured the policemen another measure of morellino. From the cellar below a raucous voice was singing ‘Funiculí funiculà’.

‘No, not an architect,’ argued the gentleman in the Basque beret. ‘That will have been a one-off event. A woman like that marrying an artist? She would have starved to death! Odilia (I knew her with that name) married Doctor Pinzauti when she was very young. I don’t understand why you’ve made her… start at twenty-eight. He was a fairly rich homeopath; he worked with the English a lot. Then he was sent into internment for political reasons, but naturally she didn’t like being placed in a delicate position. Instead of following him to Lampedusa, she divorced him in Hungary some time later. The husband picked up all the costs, which were considerable, without argument. He was a miser, mind you, a skinflint who spent most of the day locked away in his room.’

‘So, that twerp worked with the English?’ remarked the fat man, stroking the badge in his buttonhole. ‘Then perhaps Mr Bedford will have been a friend of the family, a consoler. It’s a shame he didn’t follow the example of the architect. Not long after marrying her, Mr Bedford took her to Ascona, where he claimed to be writing a work on the Italian corporate state. He greatly admired the progress being made in our country. They had a son whom she didn’t want and who must be in England now. Signor Bedford had divorced a first wife for her, but the new marriage wasn’t happy. Bedford absolutely did not understand why his wife wanted to paint, nor did he wish her to spend too much time in the company of the nudists in that town; the life he imposed on her was too tedious for an artist like her. When the lady asked to take a trip abroad with a Scottish naturist, it seems that the brute ventured to give her a cuff. In short, they annulled the marriage and the costs were divided between Bedford and his successor.’

‘Don Clemente Caponsacchi,’ the young, bald, bespectacled man, who was waiting his turn, now specified. But he was interrupted by the damp passage of an oyster-seller and the appearance of two guitarists who strummed something for this group too and then asked for ‘a consideration’ by holding out a dish. After that the shutter was raised and lowered again, and calm returned to the corridor.

‘Don Clemente,’ resumed the fourth informant, wiping his glasses, ‘was up to his neck in business affairs. He was always on an aeroplane between Rome and Constantinople, and the life he made her lead was too worldly. Donna Odilia would have preferred solitude; she didn’t like the bustle of Rome and she detested artists. She would have liked to have children, lots of children, but he didn’t want to. Strange, you say that she painted? Besides, her husband frequented too many politicians, too many government bosses. Whilst she, in the time when I knew her, I don’t know how to put this... that is to say…’

‘Aha!’ said the two plain-clothes policemen, winking.

‘Oh, nothing reprehensible; I was merely saying... In short, Don Clemente wasn’t the man best suited to such a refined lady. A legal separation followed, but the two of them continued to live under the same roof. Later, the separation was annulled, even though the married couple had separated de facto. Odilia had suffered a severe nervous shock. At the time I think that Doctor Pinzauti, no less, had helped her a lot.’

‘Perhaps to get her back?’ asked the man in the panama hat, dipping the husks of a few beans in the salt cellar.

‘We hope not. I don’t discount the possibility that he wanted to save her from a brute like Caponsacchi, who in the meantime was entertaining himself with a typist, but that would have meant jumping from the frying pan back into the fire.’

‘A formidable girl, that,’ remarked a junior police officer; and he dropped his voice to the other cop who was advancing up the well of the staircase.

‘They’re coming up,’ said the second officer, emerging from the cellar. ‘They’re going to the concert at the Teatro Comunale. They were just talking about it in front of the poster.’

‘Maestro Östenwald is conducting. A stimulating concert,’ whispered the man who had known Mrs Bedford.

‘A worthwhile experience…’

‘For me?’ said the young, bald man. ‘Oh, forgive me, you meant for her, Donna Odilia. But tell me, why do creatures like her always fall into the hands of slobs who don’t appreciate her? Whereas we… I…’

‘Here she comes,’ the man who had dared to call her Berta announced from the end of the room. ‘Who is that grey-haired man with her? Not Don Clemente?’

‘Don Clemente is paddling his own canoe, my dear sir. Besides, I think that the Saturday rule only applied to the first husband. Good night all; I couldn’t bear to see her in the company of another brute.’