The first time I saw Il Duro was on a sunny day when there came up a party of pleasure-makers to San Gaudenzio. They were three women and three men. The women were in cotton frocks, one a large, dark, florid woman in pink, the other two rather insignificant. The men I scarcely noticed at first, except that two were young and one elderly.
They were a queer party, even on a feast day, coming up purely for pleasure, in the morning, strange, and slightly uncertain, advancing between the vines. They greeted Maria and Paolo in loud, coarse voices. There was something blowsy and uncertain and hesitating about the women in particular, which made one at once notice them.
Then a picnic was arranged for them out of doors, on the grass. They sat just in front of the house, under the olive tree, beyond the well. It should have been pretty, the women in their cotton frocks, and their friends, sitting with wine and food in the spring sunshine. But somehow it was not: it was hard and slightly ugly.
But since they were picnicking out of doors, we must do so too. We were at once envious. But Maria was a little unwilling, and then she set a table for us.
The strange party did not speak to us, they seemed slightly uneasy and angry at our presence. I asked Maria who they were. She lifted her shoulders, and, after a second’s cold pause, said they were people from down below, and then, in her rather strident, shrill, slightly bitter, slightly derogatory voice, she added:
‘They are not people for you, signore. You don’t know them.’
She spoke slightly angrily and contemptuously of them, rather protectively of me. So that vaguely I gathered that they were not quite ‘respectable’.
Only one man came into the house. He was very handsome, beautiful rather, a man of thirty-two or-three, with a clear golden skin, and perfectly turned face, something godlike. But the expression was strange. His hair was jet black and fine and smooth, glossy as a bird’s wing, his brows were beautifully drawn, calm above his grey eyes, that had long dark lashes.
His eyes, however, had a sinister light in them, a pale, slightly repelling gleam, very much like a god’s pale-gleaming eyes, with the same vivid pallor. And all his face had the slightly malignant, suffering look of a satyr. Yet he was very beautiful.
He walked quickly and surely, with his head rather down, passing from his desire to his object, absorbed, yet curiously indifferent, as if the transit were in a strange world, as if none of what he was doing were worth the while. Yet he did it for his own pleasure, and the light on his face, a pale, strange gleam through his clear skin, remained like a translucent smile, unchanging as time.
He seemed familiar with the household, he came and fetched wine at his will. Maria was angry with him. She railed loudly and violently. He was unchanged. He went out with the wine to the party on the grass. Maria regarded them all with some hostility.
They drank a good deal out there in the sunshine. The women and the older man talked floridly. Il Duro crouched at the feast in his curious fashion — he had strangely flexible loins, upon which he seemed to crouch forward. But he was separate, like an animal that remains quite single, no matter where it is.
The party remained until about two o’clock. Then, slightly flushed, it moved on in a ragged group up to the village beyond. I do not know if they went to one of the inns of the stony village, or to the large strange house which belonged to the rich young grocer of the village below, a house kept only for feasts and riots, uninhabited for the most part. Maria would tell me nothing about them. Only the young well-to-do grocer, who had lived in Vienna, the Bertolotti, came later in the afternoon inquiring for the party.
And towards sunset I saw the elderly man of the group stumbling home very drunk down the path, after the two women, who had gone on in front. Then Paolo sent Giovanni to see the drunken one safely past the landslip, which was dangerous. Altogether it was an unsatisfactory business, very much like any other such party in any other country.
Then in the evening Il Duro came in. His name is Faustino, but everybody in the village has a nickname, which is almost invariably used. He came in and asked for supper. We had all eaten. So he ate a little food alone at the table, whilst we sat round the fire.
Afterwards we played ‘Up, Jenkins’. That was the one game we played with the peasants, except that exciting one of theirs, which consists in shouting in rapid succession your guesses at the number of fingers rapidly spread out and shut into the hands again upon the table.
Il Duro joined in the game. And that was because he had been in America, and now was rich. He felt he could come near to the strange signori. But he was always inscrutable.
It was queer to look at the hands spread on the table: the Englishwomen, having rings on their soft fingers; the large fresh hands of the elder boy, the brown paws of the younger; Paolo’s distorted great hard hands of a peasant; and the big, dark brown, animal, shapely hands of Faustino.
He had been in America first for two years and then for five years — seven years altogether — but he only spoke a very little English. He was always with Italians. He had served chiefly in a flag factory, and had had very little to do save to push a trolley with flags from the dyeing-room to the drying-room I believe it was this.
Then he had come home from America with a fair amount of money, he had taken his uncle’s garden, had inherited his uncle’s little house, and he lived quite alone.
He was rich, Maria said, shouting in her strident voice. He at once disclaimed it, peasant-wise. But before the signori he was glad also to appear rich. He was mean, that was more, Maria cried, half-teasing, half getting at him.
He attended to his garden, grew vegetables all the year round, lived in his little house, and in spring made good money as a vine-grafter: he was an expert vine-grafter.
After the boys had gone to bed he sat and talked to me. He was curiously attractive and curiously beautiful, but somehow like stone in his clear colouring and his clear-cut face. His temples, with the black hair, were distinct and fine as a work of art.
But always his eyes had this strange, half-diabolic, half-tortured pale gleam, like a goat’s, and his mouth was shut almost uglily, his cheeks stern. His moustache was brown, his teeth strong and spaced. The women said it was a pity his moustache was brown.
‘Peccato! — sa, per bellezza, i baffi neri — ah-h!’
Then a long-drawn exclamation of voluptuous appreciation.
‘You live quite alone?’ I said to him.
He did. And even when he had been ill he was alone. He had been ill two years before. His cheeks seemed to harden like marble and to become pale at the thought. He was afraid, like marble with fear.
‘But why,’ I said, ‘why do you live alone? You are sad —è triste.’
He looked at me with his queer, pale eyes. I felt a great static misery in him, something very strange.
‘Triste!‘ he repeated, stiffening up, hostile. I could not understand.
‘Vuol’ dire che hai l’aria dolorosa,’ cried Maria, like a chorus interpreting. And there was always a sort of loud ring of challenge somewhere in her voice.
‘Sad,’ I said in English.
‘Sad I’ he repeated, also in English. And he did not smile or change, only his face seemed to become more stone-like. And he only looked at me, into my eyes, with the long, pale, steady, inscrutable look of a goat, I can only repeat, something stone-like.
‘Why,’ I said, ‘don’t you marry? Man doesn’t live alone.’
‘I don’t marry,’ he said to me, in his emphatic, deliberate, cold fashion, ‘because I’ve seen too much. Ho visto troppo.’
‘I don’t understand,’ I said.
Yet I could feel that Paolo, sitting silent, like a monolith also, in the chimney opening, he understood: Maria also understood.
Il Duro looked again steadily into my eyes.
‘Ho visto troppo,’ he repeated, and the words seemed engraved on stone. ‘I’ve seen too much.’
‘But you can marry,’ I said, ‘however much you have seen, if you have seen all the world.’
He watched me steadily, like a strange creature looking at me.
‘What woman?’ he said to me.
‘You can find a woman — there are plenty of women,’ I said.
‘Not for me,’ he said. ‘I have known too many. I’ve known too much, I can marry nobody.’
‘Do you dislike women?’ I said.
‘No — quite otherwise. I don’t think ill of them.’
‘Then why can’t you marry? Why must you live alone?’
‘Why live with a woman?’ he said to me, and he looked mockingly. ‘Which woman is it to be?’
‘You can find her,’ I said. ‘There are many women.’
Again he shook his head in the stony, final fashion.
‘Not for me. I have known too much.’
‘But does that prevent you from marrying?’
He looked at me steadily, finally. And I could see it was impossible for us to understand each other, or for me to understand him. I could not understand the strange white gleam of his eyes, where it came from.
Also I knew he liked me very much, almost loved me, which again was strange and puzzling. It was as if he were a fairy, a faun, and had no soul. But he gave me a feeling of vivid sadness, a sadness that gleamed like phosphorescence. He himself was not sad. There was a completeness about him, about the pallid otherworld he inhabited, which excluded sadness. It was too complete, too final, too defined. There was no yearning, no vague merging off into mistiness. . . . He was clear and fine as semi-transparent rock, as a substance in moonlight. He seemed like a crystal that has achieved its final shape and has nothing more to achieve.
That night he slept on the floor of the sitting-room. In the morning he was gone. But a week after he came again, to graft the vines.
All the morning and the afternoon he was among the vines, crouching before them, cutting them back with his sharp, bright knife, amazingly swift and sure, like a god. It filled me with a sort of panic to see him crouched flexibly, like some strange animal god, doubled on his haunches, before the young vines, and swiftly, vividly, without thought, cut, cut, cut at the young budding shoots, which fell unheeded on to the earth. Then again he strode with his curious half-goatlike movement across the garden, to prepare the lime.
He mixed the messy stuff, cow-dung and lime and water and earth, carefully with his hands, as if he understood that too. He was not a worker. He was a creature in intimate communion with the sensible world, knowing purely by touch the limey mess he mixed amongst, knowing as if by relation between that soft matter and the matter of himself.
Then again he strode over the earth, a gleaming piece of earth himself, moving to the young vines. Quickly, with a few clean cuts of the knife, he prepared the new shoot, which he had picked out of a handful which lay beside him on the ground; he went finely to the quick of the plant, inserted the graft, then bound it up, fast, hard.
It was like God grafting the life of man upon the body of the earth, intimately conjuring with his own flesh.
All the while Paolo stood by, somehow excluded from the mystery, talking to me, to Faustino. And Il Duro answered easily, as if his mind were disengaged. It was his senses that were absorbed in the sensible life of the plant, and the lime and the cow-dung he handled.
Watching him, watching his absorbed, bestial, and yet godlike crouching before the plant, as if he were the god of lower life, I somehow understood his isolation, why he did not marry. Pan and the ministers of Pan do not marry, the sylvan gods. They are single and isolated in their being.
It is in the spirit that marriage takes place. In the flesh there is connexion, but only in the spirit is there a new thing created out of two different antithetic things. In the body I am conjoined with the woman. But in the spirit my conjunction with her creates a third thing, an absolute, a Word, which is neither me nor her, nor of me nor of her, but which is absolute.
And Faustino had none of this spirit. In him sensation itself was absolute — not spiritual consummation, but physical sensation. So he could not marry, it was not for him. He belonged to the god Pan, to the absolute of the senses.
All the while his beauty, so perfect and so defined, fascinated me, a strange static perfection about him. But his movements, whilst they fascinated, also repelled. I can always see him crouched before the vines on his haunches, his haunches doubled together in a complete animal unconsciousness, his face seeming in its strange golden pallor and its hardness of line, with the gleaming black of the fine hair on the brow and temples, like something reflective, like the reflecting surface of a stone that gleams out of the depths of night. It was like darkness revealed in its steady, unchanging pallor.
Again he stayed through the evening, having quarrelled once more with the Maria about money. He quarrelled violently, yet coldly. There was something terrifying in it. And as soon as the matter of dispute was settled, all trace of interest or feeling vanished from him.
Yet he liked, above all things, to be near the English signori. They seemed to exercise a sort of magnetic attraction over him. It was something of the purely physical world, as a magnetized needle swings towards soft iron. He was quite helpless in the relation. Only by mechanical attraction he gravitated into line with us.
But there was nothing between us except our complete difference. It was like night and day flowing together.
Last updated Saturday, May 23, 2015 at 22:23