I suppose the whisky had kindled this outburst in me. They sat dead silent. And then our bounder began, in his sugary deprecating voice.
“Why no! Why no! It is not true, signore. No, it is not true. Why, England is the foremost nation in the world—”
“And you want to pay her out for it.”
“But no, signore. But no. What makes you say so? Why, we Italians are so good-natured. Noi Italiani siamo così buoni. Siamo così buoni.”
It was the identical words of the schoolmistress.
“Buoni,” said I. “Yes—perhaps. Buoni when it’s not a question of the exchange and of money. But[Pg 339] since it is always a question of cambio and soldi now, one is always, in a small way, insulted.”
I suppose it must have been the whisky. Anyhow Italians can never bear hard bitterness. The jewellers looked distressed, the bounders looked down their noses, half exulting even now, and half sheepish, being caught. The third of the commis voyageurs, the gentle one, made large eyes and was terrified that he was going to be sick. He represented a certain Italian liqueur, and he modestly asked us to take a glass of it. He went with the waiter to secure the proper brand. So we drank—and it was good. But he, the giver, sat with large and haunted eyes. Then he said he would go to bed. Our bounder gave him various advice regarding seasickness. There was a mild swell on the sea. So he of the liqueur departed.
Our bounder thrummed on the table and hummed something, and asked the q-b if she knew the Rosencavalier. He always appealed to her. She said she did. And ah, he was passionately fond of music, said he. Then he warbled, in a head voice, a bit more. He only knew classical music, said he. And he mewed a bit of Moussorgsky. The q-b said Moussorgsky was her favourite musician, for opera. Ah, cried the bounder, if there were but a piano!—There is a piano,[Pg 340] said his mate.—Yes, he replied, but it is locked up.—Then let us get the key, said his mate, with aplomb. The waiters, being men with the same feelings as our two, would give them anything. So the key was forthcoming. We paid our bills—mine about sixty francs. Then we went along the faintly rolling ship, up the curved staircase to the drawing room. Our bounder unlocked the door of this drawing room, and switched on the lights.
It was quite a pleasant room, with deep divans upholstered in pale colours, and palm-trees standing behind little tables, and a black upright piano. Our bounder sat on the piano-stool and gave us an exhibition. He splashed out noise on the piano in splashes, like water splashing out of a pail. He lifted his head and shook his black mop of hair, and yelled out some fragments of opera. And he wriggled his large, bounder’s back upon the piano stool, wriggling upon his well-filled haunches. Evidently he had a great deal of feeling for music: but very little prowess. He yelped it out, and wriggled, and splashed the piano. His friend the other bounder, a quiet one in a pale suit, with stout limbs, older than the wriggler, stood by the piano whilst the young one exhibited. Across the space of carpet sat the two brother jewellers, deep in a divan, their lean, semi-blond faces quite inscrutable.[Pg 341] The q-b sat next to me, asking for this and that music, none of which the wriggler could supply. He knew four scraps, and a few splashes—not more. The elder bounder stood near him quietly comforting, encouraging, and admiring him, as a lover encouraging and admiring his ingénue betrothed. And the q-b sat bright-eyed and excited, admiring that a man could perform so unself-consciously self-conscious, and give himself away with such generous wriggles. For my part, as you may guess, I did not admire.Share It