The steam packet boat that delivered the post from Palermo, the Re d’Italia – which Sicilians stubbornly continued to call the Franceschiello out of a combination of habit, laziness, and homage to the Bourbon king who had instituted the service – moored, dead on time, at two o’clock in the afternoon of 1 January 1880, in the harbour of Vigàta.
Down a wobbly gangway of planks, promptly laid from dock to ship’s side, the passengers from the hold came hurtling landward in a mayhem of cries, greetings, wails, bushels of fruit, sacks of potatoes, breadbaskets, bundles of chickens, and rocks of salt, while down a more dignified but even wobblier rigid boarding ladder came four cabin passengers duly honoured by Captain Cumella, who, watch in hand, was making it known that, come hell or high water, he and his boat were always punctual. Backtracking from the dock up to the deck, these passengers were: the postmaster of the Vigàta Post Office, Mr Carlo Colajanni, returning from Trapani, where he had gone with unflagging paternal solicitude to assist his only daughter Sarafina in giving birth for the eighth time; Mrs Clelia Tumminello, a woman of full-bodied beauty, afflicted, however, by an unknown ailment that compelled her to go once every two months to Castellammare for the required treatment – though the true benefit of these visits, according to gossips, came from the root extract her strapping young cousin, who hailed from those parts, was always ready to administer to her; and the commander of the garrison of Vigàta, Lieutenant Amedeo Baldovino, a Piedmontese from Cuneo, whose military hands buoyed Signora Clelia’s haunches during her perilous descent down the boarding ladder.
Above these three, the top rungs remained vacant, because the fourth passenger, a young stranger not quite thirty years old in a checked suit and English cap, unremarkable in appearance, with a thin moustache and lean physique, stood with one foot on the deck and the other in midair, as if purposely trying, with that kick-like motion, to put a proper distance between himself and his fellow travellers.
He had, moreover, maintained that distance during the entire journey. Of few but courteous words when required, he became immediately tight-lipped the moment the others, in their curiosity, displayed any desire to know his name, surname, or profession.
Before descending the little rope ladder, the stranger waited for the trio before him to touch solid ground and dutifully exchange bows, handshakes, and tips of the hat. Then he made his move. But without haste, calm and poised, head turning first right, then left, to look at Vigàta’s squat houses painted yellow, white, green, and blue. Suddenly there was not a soul left on the dock. The passengers and those waiting for them had all disappeared, swept away by an icy north wind. Reaching the bottom of the ladder, the stranger, who was holding only a small folding briefcase, turned and looked at Captain Cumella.
‘About my trunk—’ he began.
Captain Cumella interrupted him with a sweeping wave of the hand.
‘Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.’
The stranger needed only to cross two utterly lifeless streets to find himself in Vigàta’s central piazza. Facing it were the church, the Nobles’ Club, the three-storey palazzo of Baron Uccello, the two-storey house of Marquis Peluso, five trading shops for sulphur, almonds, and beans, the Sicilian Bank of Credit and Discount, and the Town Hall. Between the church and the club began the Corso, a narrow street like all the rest, though a bit less tortuous. Nor was there any sign of life in the piazza, except for a spotted dog blithely pissing at the foot of an odd statue without a pedestal next to the half-open door of the Nobles’ Club. Between pale brown and grey in colour, and absurdly placed in a genuine wicker armchair, the monument represented a decrepit old man in a frock coat holding a walking stick in his crossed arms.
As the stranger resumed walking towards the Corso, the dog moved likewise, circling closely around the statue; then it stopped and raised its hind leg again, aiming straight at the frock coat, which touched the ground. Halfway across the square, the stranger froze in bewilderment. He had the troubling feeling that a pair of eyes were staring hard at him, though he couldn’t tell where that menacing gaze was coming from. He took a few more steps, unconvinced that continuing in the open was the right thing to do; at that same moment, with the sort of slowness he had sometimes experienced in nightmares, the statue raised its right arm and waved its fingers weakly at him, clearly inviting him to come closer. Feeling his shirt suddenly stick to the sweat streaming down his back, the stranger stopped in front of the old man and bent down to see a face that looked like baked clay sculpted by long exposure to sunlight and frost, in whose deep wrinkles fly shit and pigeon droppings had formed a rough sort of paste; and under lashes encrusted with sand and sulphur dust, he discovered two knife-sharp, very living pupils. The old man contemplated the stranger for a few seconds in silence, began to shake all over, and opened his mouth as if to cry out in astonishment.
‘Madonna biniditta! ’ he managed to rasp. Then he lowered his eyelids, repeating again to himself, this time almost in a tone of resignation: ‘Madonna biniditta! ’
Polite and patient, with body bent forward, the stranger granted the old man all the time he needed to regain his breath and reopen his eyes.
‘You are . . .’ the old man began, but just as he was about to utter the stranger’s name and surname, his memory suddenly slipped away, let go the rope dredged up with such effort from that black well of leaden recollections, got lost in a labyrinth of births and deaths, forgot events like wars and earthquakes, and seized fast upon something that had happened to the old man when he was barely four years old and his uncle’s hunting dog had bitten him after he had poked it with a stick.
‘You’re a hunting dog,’ the old man managed to conclude, shutting his eyelids tight, to let the other understand that he had no more intention of wasting his breath.
The stranger doffed his cap, bowed deeply to the man, who had turned back into a statue, and continued on his way.
Though not a day went by when he didn’t steal some trifle or other, Sasà Mangione, a stevedore and porter in his free time, could not really be called a thief. And such was the conclusion reached by Portera the police inspector, after he had arrested Sasà some fifteen times.
‘A thief because he pinches things from others?’ the inspector had asked himself. ‘If he had no money and made a little by selling what he stole, fine. But Sasà didn’t need any money, since his wife was the maid of Commander Aguglia, a crazy ex-Garibaldian who said that all men are created almost equal and therefore paid his maid four times the going rate. What’s more, Sasà did not sell what he took from others. Hadn’t the inspector found Don Saverio Piscopo’s magnifying glass, schoolmistress Pancucci’s map of the world, and Dr Smecca’s microscope safe and sound in Sasà’s house? And so? There could only be one explanation: Sasà stole purely for the pleasure of depriving people of things. Sasà was not a thief, but a thieving magpie. And can one keep a bird in jail?’
One day Inspector Portera had summoned Sasà to the police station and told him the following:
‘From now on, whenever somebody hires you to take something from one place to another, I want you to shout out, at the top of your lungs, every ten steps you take, where you picked it up, where you are taking it, and who it belongs to. If I catch you with so much as a blade of grass in your hand and you haven’t cried out what I told you, I will send you to San Vito prison, where you’ll end up feeding the worms.’
This was why, at four o’clock in the afternoon on that
New Year’s Day, Sasà Mangione, staggering under the weight of an enormous trunk covered with shiny copper studs that made him sick to his stomach, knowing he couldn’t unscrew them and take them home, trudged through the streets and piazzas of Vigàta, shouting:
‘I got this trunk here from the Franceschiello when she arrived today . . . An’ I’m takin’ it to Mrs Concettina Adamo’s boardinghouse . . . And it belongs to the stranger who arrived on the mail boat.’
Hearing these words, Mr Fede, the surveyor, who had been squirming in his effort to digest the half a roast kid he had eaten for lunch, leapt out of bed as though bitten by an animal, got dressed, and set off after the sound of Sasà’s voice, which was now far away. The surveyor was known in town as a ‘friend to strangers’ for his extraordinary ability to approach outsiders who had just arrived and, with only a few questions, extract their whole life’s story, which he would then recount to a captive audience at the club. He would have made a superb policeman, but had neither the head nor the heart of a cop. When he arrived at the boardinghouse out of breath, Sasà had just left, counting the money he’d been given.
‘The stranger’s not here; he’s gone out for a walk,’ said Signora Adamo before Mr Fede could open his mouth. ‘I had the trunk taken up to his room. The stranger says it’s not supposed to be opened for now. And he left me the money for Sasà. Satisfied, Mr Fede?’
‘But did he let you know in advance he was coming?’ ‘Of course, last month he sent word with a sailor from the Franceschiello, who also brought four suitcases with him the last time she arrived.’
‘So he’s going to be here in Vigàta for a while?’
‘He paid me in advance for fifteen days’ room and board.’
‘Do you know what his name is?’
‘Of course. I’ve kept two letters that came for him. His name is Santo Alfonso de’ Liguori.’
After combing the streets and alleyways around the harbour, Mr Fede caught up with the man as he was eyeing a palazzo with columns at the front. Although he had never seen him before, he knew him at once to be the stranger and approached him with the satisfaction of a pointer seeing his sense of smell confirmed.
‘Hello. The name’s Fede, surveyor by trade. Could I be of assistance to you in anything?’
‘In nothing at all, thank you,’ replied the stranger, touching his cap with two fingers.
‘Beautiful building, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. It wasn’t here before.’
‘Before when?’ the surveyor quickly replied, hoping to broaden that opening.
‘Before,’ the stranger repeated. And he walked away.
The moment he arrived in the piazza on his way back to the boardinghouse, the stranger felt the same uneasiness as the first time he had passed through. This time, however, he knew the reason and had no need to look for it. And indeed the old man had him in his sights again. So the stranger, too, stared back at him, straight in the eye, and began to draw near, with the measured step of someone approaching something dangerous. When he was in front of the old man, whose name he didn’t know, he touched his cap with two fingers and said: ‘Here I am.’
He was the first to be surprised. Why had those words come out of his mouth? What on earth was he saying or doing? And why?
The old man looked down and, as he had done that afternoon, muttered: ‘Madonna biniditta!’
‘May I, sir?’
For the stranger – who was as taut as a violin string – the sound of another voice right beside him had the effect of a pistol shot. He took three quick steps back, ready to start running. The man who had spoken was tall and husky, dressed in black, completely bald, and looked to be about sixty. In his hand he held a blanket, which he then delicately wrapped around the old man’s body. When he had finished, he turned and eyed the stranger.
‘Goodbye,’ was the stranger’s reply.
An hour later, he couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened. At last, no longer able to stand the torment, the stranger turned to Signora Adamo, who was serving him a dish of fried calamaretti and shrimps.
‘Excuse me, signora, but do you know who that man in front of the Nobles’ Club is?’
‘There are so many idlers around there.’
‘No, I was referring to a very old man who sits in a wicker chair.’
‘Well, Mr Liquori—’
‘—That’s Marquis Peluso, Don Federico Maria u vecchiu, as they call him in town – “the elder”, so as not to confuse him with his grandson, who has the same name.’
‘So he would be the father of Marquis Don Filippo?’ ‘That’s right.’
‘But doesn’t the old man have anyone to help him?’ ‘What do you mean? His manservant, Mimì, a tall man dressed in black without a hair on his head, carries him four times a day, in his chair, from his house to the club and back. He looks after him, brings him blankets if it’s cold, removes his jacket when it’s hot. And he’s always keeping an eye on him from a window in Palazzo Peluso.’ ‘By “helping him” I meant, I dunno, changing his clothes, washing him . . . He looked utterly filthy to me.’ ‘The marquis’s filth is his own business. It’s nobody’s fault. When Mimì tries to wash him even a little, the old man starts screaming so loud you’d think a pig was being slaughtered. One time, when he could still walk, he came here to eat with a friend and got some sauce on his hands. “Would you like to wash your hands, your excellency?” I asked him. “My dear,” he replied, “for me, even rinsing my hands is a calamity.”
That evening, at the Nobles’ Club, there was a general meeting to appoint the new members. The only person missing was Mr Fede.
‘He must still be out hunting for strangers,’ quipped Baron Uccello.
Marquis Peluso requested permission to speak. ‘Before we begin considering names,’ he said, ‘I have a serious proposal to make. And that is, that the Nobles’ Club should no longer be called that.’
‘Why not?’ asked Lieutenant Amedeo Baldovino. ‘Because there are only two nobles left here, me and
Baron Uccello. Everyone else – and far be it from me to offend anyone – hasn’t got the slightest connection to the nobility. Perhaps we should call our club the “Club of Two Nobles and their Relatives”. The whole thing makes me laugh.’
‘The marquis is right!’ enthusiastically replied the ex-Garibaldino Aguglia, the commander who was convinced that all men were almost equal. ‘Let’s call it the Garibaldi Club.’
They began, in silence, to contemplate the proposal. Then Dr Smecca asked to speak.
‘I don’t agree with Marquis Peluso,’ he said. ‘Everyone should know that I speak only for myself, of course. I am not noble but, personally, I rather like being a member of the Nobles’ Club, whereas I couldn’t care less about belonging to some common Garibaldi Club.’
As all present were applauding Dr Smecca, Fede the surveyor came in. The hall suddenly grew silent again.
‘Weren’t you able to talk to him?’ asked Baldovino, who, after just two years in the town, had become more Vigatese than the Vigatese.
‘Oh, I talked to him, all right. And he’s polite, of course, but prickly and standoffish.’
‘Yes, he certainly is standoffish,’ the lieutenant seconded him. ‘During the entire journey here, neither Mr Colajanni nor Signora Clelia could extract a single tidbit of information from him.’
‘Why,’ said Colajanni, slightly piqued, ‘didn’t you try to extract anything yourself ?’
‘I certainly did,’ said Baldovino, smiling.
‘But I did find out one thing,’ the surveyor cut in, pausing slyly after making this statement. ‘His name.’
‘What is it?’ they all asked in chorus. ‘His name is Santo Alfonso de’ Liguori.’
Father Macaluso, who according to his custom was sitting off to the side, sulking and reading the newspaper, suddenly lit up like a match. ‘What the hell did you say?’ ‘The owner of the boardinghouse told me that was his name.’
‘The owner of the boardinghouse was pulling your leg. That’s the name of a saint!’
‘Isn’t that what I said? His name’s Santo!’
‘You nitwit! Alfonso de’ Liguori is a saint, not someone whose first name is Santo!’
‘I beg your pardon, Father Macaluso,’ Baron Uccello calmly intervened, ‘but is it somehow forbidden that someone should have Santo as his first name, Alfonso as his middle name, and de’ Liguori as his surname?’
‘It’s not forbidden, but it sounds like humbug to me.’ ‘And did you find out how long he’ll be staying in Vigàta?’ Colajanni the postmaster asked.
‘A fortnight. Which means I’ll have all the time I need to find out how many hairs he’s got on his arse.’
In the end, however, he proved unable to count these hairs – to continue the metaphor – for it was the stranger himself who decided at a certain point to let everyone know who he was and what he had come to do in Vigàta.
Having hired a horse and cabriolet, the stranger began going back and forth to Montelusa, where the administrative offices were. Here he was seen entering the Royal Prefecture, the Royal Commissariat of Police, the Royal Tax Office, and many other no less royal venues. But the purpose of this grand tour remained unknown. One evening Santo Alfonso was seen walking around the harbour and speaking in a low voice to Bastiano Taormina, a man with whom it was considered unwise to break bread and whom it was better not to meet at night.
Fede the surveyor, who had witnessed the meeting from a distance, was unable to sleep for the rest of the night, so keenly was his curiosity eating him alive. Very early the next morning, shaking inside like a jelly, he paid a visit to Bastiano Taormina’s greengrocer’s shop.
‘And a very good morning to you, Don Bastiano!’ he greeted the greengrocer, leaning against the door jamb in a pose that looked nonchalant but was in fact dictated by the need to lean against something. Taormina, who was unloading a crate of peas, didn’t respond.
‘May I come in?’ ‘Go ahead.’
Now that he had to say something, the surveyor felt his mouth go all dry.
‘I have a question, just one, and then I’ll leave you to your work. Who is Santo Alfonso de’ Liguori?’
The other stared back at him with bovine eyes. ‘A saint. My mother prays to him.’
‘No, I’m sorry, I didn’t make myself clear. Who is the stranger?’
‘A man,’ said Taormina, his eyes darkening.
Fede did not insist, realizing that one question more might prove fatal.
But the surveyor did manage nevertheless to gain satisfaction.
‘I know the whole story!’ he cried triumphantly two days later to his friends and the club. ‘Mr de’ Liguori has bought the house that used to belong to Taormina’s brother, Jano, who died at sea. It’s right on the Corso, near my place, and has a shop downstairs and a flat above. The masons and carpenters start work tomorrow.’
‘Why has he come to Vigàta?’
‘I know that too,’ said the surveyor, puffing up with pride like a peacock. ‘He’s going to open a pharmacy.’
Thus nobody was curious when, the next few times the Franceschiello came into the harbour, Sasà Mangione unloaded huge trunks stuffed so full they risked giving him a hernia with every step he took; and nobody was curious when a box full of glass tubes and bottles and flasks in previously unseen forms arrived at the post office; and nobody was curious when de’ Liguori the pharmacist spent the morning combing the countryside looking for and gathering certain kinds of grasses and flowers. These things were all part of his profession.
‘He’s thought everything out very carefully,’ said Fede the surveyor. ‘On the ground floor there’s the pharmacy, behind which there’s a great big room full of counters with glass instruments on them. There are also two big containers full of water and a little oven for drying plants. There’s also a door in this back room which gives onto the street, so that if the pharmacist wants to come and go when the shop is closed, he doesn’t have to open the front door; and there’s a broad wooden staircase that leads to the flat upstairs, where there’s a living and dining room, the bedroom, the kitchen, and a toilet.’
‘What is the bed like?’ ‘Small.’
‘A sign he doesn’t want to settle down,’ said Mr Colajanni, who had two marriageable daughters.
‘You’re telling us things that anyone can see with his own eyes,’ Baron Uccello interrupted, ‘but you still can’t tell us who Santo Alfonso de’ Liguori is nor why he got it in his head to set up a pharmacy in Vigàta.’
‘That is the question,’ the surveyor said, pensively.
‘Tomorrow afternoon they’re going to open a pharmacy in town,’ Mimì said as he was carrying his master, chair and all, from the palazzo to the club. He often told him of the goings-on about town, such as, ‘Pippineddu the mason fell from a ladder and broke his leg,’ or ‘Mrs Balistreri gave birth to a baby daughter,’ and he would say these things just to amuse him and help the time pass, knowing he would never reply. But as he was covering him with the blanket, since it was late February and frosty, the old man made as if to speak. ‘No,’ he said with such effort that he began to sweat, despite the cold. ‘No, Mimì. Tomorrow the hunting season opens.’
‘What are you saying, sir? It’s a pharmacy that’s opening, and the pharmacist is that stranger gentleman who greets you every time he passes by.’
‘No, Mimì, tomorrow the hunting season opens. And I don’t want to get shot.’
‘But what are you afraid of, sir? What, are you a quail or something?’
Mimì was dumbfounded. The marquis had not spoken so much in years.
The old man bobbed his head forward, as if to say yes. ‘But I am a quail, Mimì; it is just as you say.’
He took a long, deep breath, exhausted from all the words he was saying.
‘And remember one thing, Mimì. I don’t want to get shot. I would sooner kill myself.’
Mimì paid no mind. His master had not been quite right in the head for some time.
‘Shall I go and get a basin, warm some water, and wash your hands?’
By way of reply, the old man’s terrified scream shook the windowpanes on the door of the club.
The bomb went off half an hour after the pharmacy was inaugurated.
‘Something’s not right,’ said Fede the surveyor, arriving out of breath.
‘Not a bloody thing’s right for me,’ said Baron Uccello, who was losing game after game.
‘The pharmacist hired Fillicò, the carriage painter, to make his sign. Fillicò made it picture-perfect and just now hung it over the door. You know what it says?’
‘“Pharmacy”,’ said Lieutenant Baldovino.
‘Right, but just below, instead of the proprietor’s name, Santo Alfonso de’ Liguori, there’s a different name: Alfonso La Matina.’
‘Pharmacy, Alfonso La Matina,’ the lieutenant summarized.
‘But if his name is Alfonso La Matina, why did he say it was Santo Alfonso de’ Liguori?’ asked Baron Uccello, asking the question that was in everybody’s mind.
‘Madonna biniditta! ’ Marquis Peluso exclaimed, lost in thought. ‘Madonna biniditta! ’ he repeated, unaware he was using the same expression his father had used upon seeing the stranger. He shot to his feet, grabbed his coat and hat, and ran out of the club.
He returned half an hour later, appearing at once pleased and unconvinced.
‘I talked to him,’ he said. ‘You know who he is? He’s Fofò, Santo La Matina’s son. Do you remember Santo?’
‘Of course I remember him,’ said Baron Uccello after a moment’s pause. ‘He was that farmhand of your father’s, who had a magical garden in a secret place.’
‘That’s the one,’ said the marquis.
‘A magical garden?’ said Lieutenant Baldovino, sceptically.
‘Oh yes, Lieutenant, and it was magical indeed,’ the marquis explained. ‘I saw it myself. A little patch of earth with all of God’s bounty in it. And, as a matter of fact, those vegetables, herbs, and fruits could cure anything.’
‘Are you pulling my leg?’
‘No. And if you don’t believe me, you can ask anyone who still remembers it, like Baron Uccello, here present. Then, one day some twenty years ago, Santo and his son Fofò disappeared. Or rather, Fofò alone disappeared; he was about ten years old at the time. Santo was found a foot underground with his throat slashed. His killers had burned down his garden and scattered salt over it.’
‘Were the culprits ever found?’
‘Never. And that is precisely why Fofò La Matina, when he came here to open his pharmacy, used a different name. He was afraid that some of his father’s killers might still be in town.’
‘And how does he know now they’re not still around?’ ‘Because, apart from buying a house, he talked to Bastiano Taormina. And Bastiano told him everything he needed to know. But the pharmacist didn’t tell me what Bastiano said. He only told me how that night, four masked men came for them and wanted to kill him, too. But Fofò hid behind a big bush with the bag of money his father had managed to hand him just before the killers entered the house. When the masked men left, Fofò escaped, taking eight days to get to Palermo, where he went to a cousin of his father’s who was a priest and recognized him. You can imagine the rest. But I can tell you one thing: if Fofò has a quarter of his father’s talent, that pharmacy is going to make him rich.’
The latest bit of news concerning the pharmacist was a strictly private matter, which, nevertheless, as always happened in Vigàta, immediately became public. To wit: Signora Clelia had not been able to stomach something that happened on her way home from Palermo on the Franceschiello. At one point during the journey, as everyone was eating, Captain Cumella had come out and said that thirty years earlier, at the exact spot at which they found themselves, a three-masted Austrian ship had sunk for no apparent reason with all her passengers and crew. Upon hearing this, Signora Clelia decided to have an attack. She stiffened and began shaking her head to the left and right, moaning and rolling her eyes backwards. It was a manoeuvre she always pulled off rather well, having practised it whenever something didn’t go her way since the age of eight. The three men with her, Captain Cumella, Mr Colajanni, and Lieutenant Baldovino, rushed to her aid without a moment’s hesitation, with Captain Cumella opening her mouth and making her drink some water, Mr Colajanni fanning her with his napkin, and Lieutenant Baldovino unlacing her bodice with his dextrous hands. The only one who did not budge was the person for whom the entire drama was being performed: the stranger, now identified as Fofò La Matina the pharmacist, who stood the whole time to one side, smoothing his moustache. And now Signora Clelia wished to avenge herself for his indifference. One day, when she learned from her maid, Cicca, that Dr Smecca was ill, she decided she urgently needed to see a doctor.
‘But where are you going to go, if Smecca is unavailable? Would you like me to accompany you to Girgenti?’ asked her husband, unaware that the horns on his head were so tall that they could have been used as lighthouses. ‘There’s no need. I’ll go and see the new pharmacist. I have the impression he’s very good.’
She washed herself from head to toe, using an entire jug of water, doused herself in Coty perfume, bedizened herself in black Brussels-lace knickers and bra (an already tested tool able to turn a bent blade of grass into rockhard pitch-pine), powdered her nose, dolled herself up, and went to the pharmacy.
‘What do you want?’ the pharmacist asked.
You, Signora Clelia wanted to reply, but instead she said: ‘I want you to examine me.’
‘I am not a doctor, signora.’
‘I know. But I am told you are talented. And I need to be examined so badly that you cannot even imagine it.’
‘I take no responsibility,’ said the pharmacist. Then he turned towards a boy he had hired as his assistant. ‘If anyone comes,’ he said, ‘tell them I’ll be back in five minutes.’
‘Do you think five minutes will be enough?’ asked Signora Clelia, batting her eyelashes.
The pharmacist invited her to follow him up the wooden staircase to the living and dining room, sat her down, and enquired as to what was ailing her. As she was speaking, and without Fofò’s having asked, Signora Clelia quickly stripped down to her black Brussels lace, looking from time to time towards the bedroom. The pharmacist listened to her, dead serious.
‘Please get dressed, signora, and go back downstairs,’ he said. ‘In the meantime I’ll prepare something for you.’
Signora Clelia later recounted the whole episode, blow by blow, to her bosom friend and confidante, Mrs Colajanni, a churchgoing woman who spent her life talking and gossiping about others. That same evening, Colajanni the postmaster told the club about it. The opinions and comments varied greatly.
‘The pharmacist doesn’t have a cock,’ was the most categorical.
‘The pharmacist doesn’t like Signora Clelia,’ was the most plausible.
‘The pharmacist is a true gentleman who will not go with other men’s wives,’ was the most amicable.
‘The pharmacist is an idiot,’ was the most drastic.
On the morning of the last day in February, Mimì opened his master’s bedroom door, intending to dress him, carry him out on his chair, and set him down outside the club. The bed was unmade but the marquis was not in it. The old man was capable, in moments of need, of taking two or three steps by himself. But there was no sign of him in the toilet, either. Mimì thought that his master had perhaps needed something during the night and summoned his family for help, and so he went and quietly opened the doors to the bedrooms of Don Filippo and his wife, and of Marchesina ’Ntontò and Marchesino Rico. They were all fast asleep. Worried, he ran down to the kitchen, where Peppinella the maid was already at work. But she, too, knew nothing. Alarmed, Peppinella also began looking for the old marquis. They searched and searched again, from attic to cellar to storehouse and stables, but of Don Federico there wasn’t a trace.
‘I’m going to tell Don Filippo,’ said Mimì.
‘Look here,’ Peppinella called out, stopping him. Leading from the old man’s room was an almost invisible trail, interrupted here and there, of grains of sand, sulphur dust, and dried pigeon droppings. Mimì followed it to the end of the broad stone staircase and noticed that the front door was open. Going out into the courtyard, he saw that the great entrance to the palazzo was also half open. Running frantically, he combed the entire town all the way to the harbour in less than fifteen minutes, asking everyone he ran into if by any chance they had seen an old man fitting such-and-such a description. But nobody was of any help. And so he started running down the beach, along the water’s edge, the sea soaking his shoes and trousers. Then, in the distance, he saw a black object that the waves were turning over and over. He approached, growing weak in the knees. It was his master. He went into the water, dragged the marquis to the shore, and went back into town to look for Dr Smecca. But the doctor, who was running a very high fever, couldn’t get out of bed.
‘Call the pharmacist,’ the doctor suggested.
Fofò La Matina didn’t waste a second. A moment later, he was racing behind Mimì, who was running like a hare. When they reached their destination, they found Inspector Portera, summoned by a passing fisherman.
‘It’s no use,’ said the inspector. ‘He’s been dead for a few hours. Killed himself.’
‘But he hadn’t walked for years!’ said the pharmacist. ‘Well, this time he walked just fine. At some point he fell, dropped his cane, and continued on his hands and knees. Then he couldn’t go any further that way, either, and so he started dragging himself along.’
‘How do you know these things? Who told you?’ said Mimì.
‘The sand told me, Mimì,’ said Portera. ‘Have a look for yourself. It’s all written in the sand. The marquis was determined to kill himself. But I don’t think he drowned.’
Mimì walked away, retracing his master’s last efforts in reverse. The inspector was right.
‘So how did he die then?’ asked the pharmacist.
‘Heart failure. He was too old and too tired, and the water was too cold.’
His son, the marquis, arrived half dressed, having been informed by one of the inspector’s men.
‘Poor Papà! What a terrible way for him to die,’ he said upon seeing the old man’s body, scrubbed utterly clean by the sea. ‘It’s as if he died washing himself.’
Excerpted from Hunting Season by Andrea Camilleri. Copyright © Sellerio Editore 1992. Translation copyright © Stephen Sartarelli 2014. Originally published in Italian 1992 as La stagione della caccia by Sellerio Editore, Palermo.
First published 2014 by Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., New York.
First published in the UK 2014 by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
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