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The Guilty Man

(Eugenio Montale — Il Colpevole)

It was about three in the afternoon. Federigo had got back to the office a few minutes earlier. Standing in front of a lectern which came up to his neck, he was answering an unknown correspondent who, from the distant city of Seattle (in Washington state), had asked him if the chiropodist Fruscoli was still alive, as he had been twenty years previously, in Via del Ronco. To tell the truth, Federigo was not the director of an information agency, but rather of a small-scale cultural enterprise which lent to English, American (and Italian) borrowers books of various kinds ranging from theosophy to crime novels. And the enterprise certainly didn’t call itself an enterprise, to be precise; it was an antique city institution, which had existed discreetly for almost a century, disregarded by the authorities. But a few years previously the local ‘officials’ had taken it under their wing, and had turned it into a semi-public, semi-private entity, difficult to define and even more difficult to administer, and Federigo, heedless of the changing times, still continued (noblesse oblige) to answer unknown correspondents from Seattle or from other places, and to keep alive a tradition of courtesy which up to that day had been maintained within the walls of the old undertaking.

So, Federigo worked standing up; in the office (which was an ancient, high, narrow, freezing cold chapel, a tiny little room) there was no furniture but that lectern, the card-index cabinet and a few shelves of documents. Facing Federigo, on the opposite side of the lectern, an old employee in a beret was scribbling. He was an honourable man, with a snub nose: the bursar and disciplinary guard-dog of the dusty enterprise. The main body of the institution was visible through the windows of the side chapel: a church nave, no less, with big stained-glass windows, drapes, and bookcases which extended halfway up the walls. On one side, next to a counter, was another old man in a beret, gesticulating and often drunk, who was in charge of lending, accompanied by a couple of assistants. But in that long ago afternoon almost no one had appeared, apart from Lady Spelton, as usual, in her eighties and blind, who allowed herself to be conducted to the counter, where she spoke a single word, ‘Murder!’, had the latest crime novel slipped into her bag, and disappeared, giving the Roman salute. It was around three, or a bit later, as I’ve said. When — surprise, a rare occurrence — the telephone rang in the damp cellar accessible from the main chamber of the decrepit but recently reconstituted organisation. Federigo hurried down and put his ear to the receiver. He heard a few curt words. Count Penzolini was waiting for him.

Federigo threw a threadbare overcoat across his shoulders, wrapped a scarf around his neck, and a moment later was crossing the huge mediaeval piazza dominated by the palazzo comunale with its great tower. The unusual phone call didn’t trouble him. Insufficiently equipped with gifts of prophecy, he was not one of those who hear the grass growing, who warn of the unforeseen.

He entered the palazzo’s lift, disbursing a copper coin (his position gave him the right to a 75% discount) and shortly afterwards found himself in the count’s antechamber, which was empty and well heated. By a slightly opened window, two valets in white stockings and swallow-tailed livery were throwing breadcrumbs to a few shivering pigeons. When Federigo told them that the count was expecting him, they declared themselves very busy and carried on with their tasks. Then one of the two came away and told Federigo to wait his turn.

No one else was waiting, and no words emerged from the count’s office. Yet the wait in the antechamber was long: about two hours. The attendants continued to scatter crumbs onto the window sill; from time to time various clerks came by with a sheet of paper in their hand and joined forces with the benefactors of the comune’s flighted residents. Occasionally horns sounded from the piazza. Through the windows, a landscape of bell towers and spires blazing in the sunset consoled Federigo’s short-sighted eyes. It must have been five o’clock when a mumbling of words was heard in the adjoining office. Perhaps the count had arrived at his command post. Then a flunkey emerged, more highly decorated than those seen previously. He approached Federigo and said in rapid tones, ‘It’s your turn. Enter.’

Federigo entered, slipping on the wax of the tiles. The count’s office was simple and vast. There were no documents on the table, as was the fashion of the period. But on the walls were portraits of various important men, and beside the window, on a three-legged stool, was displayed an ebony sphere which reproduced, from no matter which angle one observed, the imperial profile of the only Man to whom in those years was assigned, by custom, the dignity of the capital letter. In short, it was Him in historic disguise, according to a trademarked process which had enjoyed wide success. Count Penzolini was standing in front of his desk. He could have been forty; he was tall, clean shaven, with grey fish eyes, and a limited number of badges on his lapel. On one scroll on the wall could be read ‘Short visits’; on another ‘…it is not necessary to live,’ etc.; on a third a longer phrase, probably threatening, which Federigo didn’t have time to decipher. The count raised an arm and the visitor imitated him as best he could.

‘You sent for me, my lord?’ asked Federigo in a faltering voice. He didn’t know why, but he was beginning to feel uneasy.

‘Sit down,’ said the count. He opened a drawer, took from it a paper and immersed himself in reading. Then he raised his eyes, but looked into the distance, out of the windows.

‘I need to speak to you,’ he said coldly, ‘on a matter which concerns the institution which you direct, and over which I have the honour and responsibility to preside, as podestà of X. Some time ago you were informed by registered letter that it was my intention that closer ties should be formed between our organisation and the local branch of Mistica, which has its headquarters in the same building. A few days ago the administrative council considered the matter in depth during one of your… perhaps justified absences.’

‘Certainly justified,’ said Federigo, ‘since I obtained from your lordship five days’ leave because of a family bereavement.’

‘So, let us say justified,’ admitted the count. ‘And useful too, in that it allowed us to dwell more calmly on an anomaly which your situation presents. The thing is crystal clear. Ten years have elapsed, Signor P., during which this comune has invested no small responsibility in you, without asking of you (as would have been appropriate) any guarantee of political loyalty. Perhaps our comrade Marquess G., my predecessor, relied too much on your sensibility, and believed that of your own accord you would have taken measures to place yourself in step with the new times. Now it is too late, even if you have the intention of doing so. Furthermore — and I am sure you will understand this — it would be wholly inappropriate that a man without the most basic… qualification, that of belonging to… ahem, ahem…’ (the count coughed without being more precise) ‘should be in charge of the future of a home of culture which must be fully in harmony with the directives of our branch of Mistica. I won’t discuss the reasons which have led you to your truly noteworthy… recusance. I won’t discuss them but I have to tell you that from next Thursday you will hand over your usual authority to the successor of whom you will be informed in a couple of days. I imagine that your salary payments are perfectly in order. The handover will take a matter of a few hours.’

‘My salary payments are not especially in order,’ Federigo stammered. ‘For eighteen months I have received no stipend. Moreover, I have supported my dependents from my own pocket in the last quarter… while waiting for funds.’

‘Ah,’ said the count, ‘have you not informed us of the situation?’

‘I have sent you about ten memoranda, my lord.’

‘Indeed, indeed,’ the count acknowledged. ‘You shall have the balance as soon as possible. As for the redundancy payment due to you, I think that a spontaneous letter of resignation from you would simplify matters. Your discharge from employment would be voluntary, you understand? — and would not expose you to unfavourable comment. And the comune’s administrative council, freed of any obligation, would not be averse to the idea of awarding you a small gratuity, a tangible sign… I don’t know if I make myself clear.’

‘While making a notable saving on my redundancy payment, ‘ said Federigo with unusual boldness.

Oh, peu de chose,’ said the count, drily, in French. ‘You belong to a semi-public undertaking which has not been recognised as such. We have taken the appropriate measures in good time. So I await your unforced letter of resignation.’

‘And if you don’t receive it?’ asked Federigo, even more surprised at himself.

‘In that case,’ concluded the count, raising his arm in a sign of leave-taking, ‘we shall shoot lower. Be under no illusions.’

Federigo raised an arm in response and did an about-turn. Shortly afterwards he was descending the steps of the palazzo comunale before regaining his almost deserted church-cum-library. The letter from the unknown person in Seattle (Washington) remained half-finished on the tall lectern. Federigo took the pen, cleaned the nib by dipping it into a glass of hunting pellets (an invention of the guard-dog-bursar), and proceeded to write in terrible English, As for Mr. Fruscoli’s shop I beg to inform you… He finished writing, sealed the envelope and stamped it to the value of one lira twenty-five centesimi, paid out of his own pocket, and thought sadly how the tradition of noblesse oblige was ending for ever within those walls, from which no letter from Seattle would in the future receive any reply. Then he closed the front door with a bunch of keys and, head bowed, made his way under the arcades towards the post office.