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The motif of the “haunted waxwork” smacks so of the nouvelle richesse and intellectual poverty of the exhibition hall, available there because its ostensible manifestations are so gross as to be visible, that I had not considered it a proper part of my investigations into the greater subtleties of the Old World. The waxes at La Specola, that unfashionable museum of Florence’s declining school of medicine, had not changed this view. These were the life’s work of a Baroque adept of dissection, made under the patronage of a minor aristocrat, who, modernizing, attended to his love of flesh under the film of science rather than the cloak of religion. The models ranged from gall bladders to digestive tracks to whole bodies, the most impressive of which is a waxen young lady, from the modest dome of whose belly one can lift layers of skin and muscle to reveal a small waxen life in the making. She is detailed not only in anatomy but also, one suspects, in history, for, unlike the impersonal anatomical models of the present age, this one’s fingertips curl and point in distress, her breast, mid-heave, is strewn with falling golden curls, her lips open, her mouth, in fact, can be described only as a ‘rosebud,’ her pearls are her only clothing – or perhaps I am forgetting a red velvet ribbon. In any case, we have in wax the model not only of childbirth but of the birth of a child from a kept women, the beautiful and innocent creature of a minor aristocrat, an elevated peasant who is tragically, yet conveniently, dying while giving birth to a girl, who will be, of course, far less trouble than a boy. So – suppose that late one evening one were to pass through the crowded corridors of La Specola, through rooms stuffed with molting hides, the remnants of long-ago hunting expeditions of local nobility, generous with their kills but parsimonious with taxidermological expenses. In the very last of these rooms are the wax models. Suppose that there the realistic roses of the waxen cheeks begin to fade and flare, the red lips to gape and close, and moan – in short, were the waxwork to begin to work, what would this be but spectacular and thus rather quotidian? The spirit of a kept peasant girl would be, one would imagine, rather dull. Her world was small and its details have been after all frequently repeated without any deterrent effect on future generations. The sight of her is of interest only to those actual participants in her story – herself, her seducer, and the maker of the wax.

The thought that there must have been such a third person is the only value to be gained from watching this spectacle in company with a hundred pairs of waxen model eyes, also there resident. For one must conclude that there was such a workman – the girl did not have the mental power (as can be seen from her face, which has the kind of beauty dependant on a definite essential vacuity), and her lover was too busied with this and similar pursuits. To suppose that this lover was the minor aristocrat who ordered the anatomical models, including the waxen girl, with her less obvious modeling as well, hardly strains reason. His tastes were not entirely Catholic, although they were mostly the usual eccentricities incident to Baroque minor noblemen – he amassed, for instance, a large collection of tropical snakes, which now writhe in half-hearted tangles of papier-mâché vegetation in the displays of La Specola, and which all seem to be trying to shed for a final time their skins; the acute might also notice that they are all lacking their teeth, though, of course, this too may be the fault of the taxidermists – and thus he might have also been eager to commission the somewhat dubious pleasure of re-witnessing the dying ecstasies (still or moving) of a woman killed by pleasure. Her maker would thus be the wax-worker who made the more pedestrian models in the collection; court records preserve his complaints that he was never paid the money promised to him for his work. His patron, in the end, achieved that apotheosis and perfect book-keeping of the low aristocracy by dying with not a penny to give his heirs, who had to sell his collections to La Specola in order to meet the costs of his funeral.

So, one last heave of the chest, one last loving reproachful sigh and press of pearls against a swelling neck, leave the inquirer with just the knowledge that in the early eighteenth century there was a worker in wax willing, for whatever the promised price might have been, to display even the more unusual of those things that his clients wanted to see. And yet, most Baroque art aims at nothing less, and so, if the inquirer has other more promising avenues of research than these waxworks, he may well walk out of La Specola, into the thin light of a Florentine morning, and forget them almost entirely.

* * *

It was not surprising that I did not think of this speculative worker in wax for quite some time after the first occurrences at the Anthropological Museum. This museum had long attracted me, though I knew that its holdings dated mostly to the century before ours, when the various Captain Cooks of the world were conquering islands with beads and being killed in attempts to acquire beads of slightly different manufacture. I was pleased, though, to be reminded of men who had gone into the unknown to return with scanty and dubious rewards which, even if ranged so neatly for public display as they were in the Museum, usually fail to show the visitor the value of their collection or collation. I myself did not like them, these masks, too thick and too small, these compositions of crumbling feathers and greasy stone, these shawls and wraps and veils made with endless care from flora and fauna soon to be rendered extinct by the actions of those for whom the first explorers showed the way.

The collections of the Museum illustrate, thus, the dangers both of knowledge gotten and given, but the severity of the lesson is decreased by the pleasantness of its setting. The Museum in housed in what is popularly and rather unimaginatively known as the ‘Palazzo Nonfinito,’ the Unfinished Palace, which nickname refers to the fact that the building was finished only to a little above the first floor reception rooms. Work had stopped in the later 16th century, when the rich merchant family whose home it was to be had become suddenly not so very rich. Now the rooms are white walled, free of the woodwork and worries of familial generations, and fill with light from a central courtyard unhindered by the usual upper stories and overhanging cornices which make gloomy the completed buildings of the period. The museum guards, too, who are posted in the usual quantity of one a room, do not maintain the usual limit of convivially shouting to each other door to door, but, unhindered by visitors, they gather together in cheerful corners and provide an example of the triumph of present joys over past puzzles. Thus, for example, should a visitor enter into unexpected communion with a caseful of Peruvian mummies – those leather-skinned, desiccated horrors with their nostrils wide as if snuffing death – why, one can simply follow their gaze out of the case and across the room to realize that they are not intent upon you, but rather on a pair of guards, very poorly concealed behind the drawn curtains of a terraced window, who are sharing a companionable cigarette, leaning out with their elbows on the balcony railing.

“Don’t be afraid,” one of these very guards had said to me, in a situation somewhat similar to that just described. “They’re just harmless skin and bones, these things, and all they’re dreaming of is another puff of smoke!” – and he blew such a puff at the case, where it curled across the glass. This glass, in truth, was quite besmoked and thus none too clean, but perhaps this was for the best, since the complexion of a mummy improves when seen not so clearly. The guard’s name was, upon inquiry, John-Carlo. He had worked of all the guards there the longest, and in the absence of the official curators, who preferred to supervise from afar, he was the expert and ruler of the collection. Of course, not having been trained, he was not interested in using the objects to understand the habits of men, but rather contemplated the things in themselves, unconnected to any other world but that of the museum. He had, moreover, never read the labels, and consequently would say that dart guns were pipes, or loincloths headdresses, and muddled up shoes and gloves to a dreadful extent. Still, however ignorant of their pasts, he was quite aware of the present relations of things to himself, and so lived with them on an intimate and personal basis; for example, he was very fond of a pair of little stone birds (although they look to me more like fish) which he had named Carolina and Paulo and which he had moved to the case nearest to the terraced window, to guard whose balcony was his faithful and self-assigned duty. In this case, though products of the sub-continent, they defiantly fluttered (or swam) among Peruvian skulls – the remnants of broken mummies whose unwrappings had been, in an age assured of the infinity of the resource of the dead, even if specially prepared, rather incautiously removed.

The museum bore several of these impositions of John-Carlo’s, so that where didactic purpose had ranged a wall of battle axes, a mitigating hand had placed a smiling baby doll, woven out of sage grass on quite a different archipelago than that on which the axes had clashed, or where science intended a comparison of height, diet, and disease through a display of various femurs, a compassionate irony had hung an ex voto shaped like a foot – a totally unorthodox introduction which seemed to direct the attention of an alien God to the limbs which He had long ago neglected to heal. I suspected as well that John-Carlo had removed entirely certain other objects, since there were gaps in some cases, outlined in drifts of dust. He would hint at this, too, when sometimes he would speak of the visits of his distant supervisors: “They say, ‘This is missing,’ and ‘That is missing,’ and ‘Put them back!’ But they never want to put them back themselves, so…!”

During my time in Florence, I frequently returned to visit John-Carlo and the Museum. After initial uncertainties, soon allayed by John-Carlo’s transpositions, impositions, and interventions, I began to consider it almost a place of refuge, a resting point on certain difficult roads of passage, with known and unchallenging contents, human and inanimate. And yet, something about the façade of the palazzo always gave me pause as I passed through the gate on the way to sharing with John-Carlo his balcony. Its stones seemed incredibly ancient – they shared that quality of antique temples and tombs of looking not only long ago constructed but also long ago decayed. Still, for a long time I could find nothing inside that required such strength to contain.

It was after the unfortunate disappearance of the Vice-Commissioner that I began to more frequently visit the Anthropological Museum; I had in fact taken a small set of rooms in the vicinity for just this purpose. After so many unfruitful brushes with Spirit attendant upon this affair I wanted to retreat for a time unto the world of Man, which is, after all, what anthropology purports to teach. John-Carlo and I were already well known to one another, and so he left me to wander among the displays or tolerated with equal good humor my company on his balcony. From there, he could see into all the other rooms through their wide courtyard windows. Some time after my move to the neighborhood, I began to notice that he was from this vantage-point carefully observing my movements around the Museum as well. I tended to linger in front of those things that pleased me. There were, of course, Carolina and Paulo (who now seemed more mammalian to me) but also other objects – whistles, fans, soapstone tokens. I had however not neglected the rest of the collections, and had one by one conquered each case, inspecting its contents until they no longer disturbed me. I left till last the case of mummies, and though it took several days, and many recourses to the company of Carolina and Paulo, I at last could number every wrinkle without inner quailing. I turned away from this pursuit to find that John-Carlo had been standing behind me.

“Why, you’ve looked at everything in the Museum. There aren’t many who have the attention to do that,” he said. “In fact, when I first started working here, there were thing even I didn’t want to look at – one glimpse of them out of the corner of my eye and I know that they were such ugly creatures that I wouldn’t want to see them face to face. It was years before I could manage to look at some of them, even when I figured out that really they were nothing at all up close – nothing to be afraid of at all. It only took you a couple of months – but then again you said that you studied this sort of thing, so maybe you’re accustomed to it. But – maybe you already know – I thought that there were some things in the Museum that, well that made some people unhappy, if they didn’t pay enough attention, and so I put them away, upstairs. Maybe you would like to look at them, too, since you’ve seen everything else so many times?”

It was true, then, that he had made removals. If this had been done for the purpose of removing them from sight, it was not likely that he would show them to me merely for the sake of display, no matter how accustomed I had become to the usual items. I suspected rather that he was in a roundabout manner asking for help of some sort, and so I agreed to meet him on his balcony just before the Museum closed. And so I did.

You should not imagine that this hour brought night or even twilight. The sun had begun to decline, true, but not too far, since the Museum closed its doors to the reluctant public at one in the afternoon, just the time to embark upon a late lunch. And so it was in the full light of day that John-Carlo and I ascended to the Museum’s offices and there waited for the other guards to change out of their uniforms and depart with polite ‘good afternoons.’

The exhibition rooms, as I have said, run around the sides of a central courtyard. The floor above, in a finished palazzo, would have continued up to an equally stately height, but here construction had slowed and compromised so that these upper and final rooms were of smaller, merely human proportions. The State, when it had taken over the building, had divided this upper story into a welter of rooms of presumably bureaucratic purpose, but only those on one flank were ever actually used for the small administrative needs of the museum, serving mostly as cloakrooms for the guards, with one rather well-fitted-up private office for John-Carlo. This section of rooms was immediately above the exhibition room with the mummies and the balcony. John-Carlo indicated that we were to walk around to the opposite side, to what promised to be another set of small rooms on whose windows, I now saw, an eye could be kept both from his office and his balcony.

He led me slowly around the intervening rooms, which were sparely filled with dusty filing cabinets. John-Carlo stopped by a cluster of these – an accustomed halting-place, as it appeared from deposits of ashes. He began another cigarette, and decided to make some explanations.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have meddled,” he started. “It was just so unpleasant when I first began to work here – the shutters closed tight all day, and none of the guards talked at all to one another, and since I was new, they put me to watch a room that nobody else wanted to be in, and there were some things there – “ Here he paused for a moment to recollect, or to avoid recollecting. “Of course, they were all harmless – it was just that they made you imagine things, especially if you were shut up with them all day with no one to talk to, and maybe I was just falling asleep without knowing it, but I used to have something like dreams, and I would see….” Another, and longer pause. “Of course, that’s what can happen when you put a young fellow like me in a place like that, with nothing to do but look at cases full of little dark odds and ends all day long. But what I meant to tell you is that I saw that some of these things we had were much more – unpleasant – to look at, and that others were pretty nice, and the rest were just fine, if you got used to them. And so I thought that if maybe I moved some of the nastier looking things out of the way,  that I wouldn’t have to be bothered by them. And when I figured out how to get my hands on the keys to the cases, I took out a couple of things and put them in a room up here –“ and he pointed down the hallway. “And downstairs, then, it was much better in my room, and the other guards would even come in to talk. But – well, I had thought that the things were bad for the eyes, but it began to seem like they were bad smells, because, you have to be right in a room with something to see it, and if you don’t see it then you don’t think about it, if you don’t want to, but the thought of the things that I had put away kept coming to me, like a smell seeping out of the room upstairs, and when I finally scraped up some courage to go back – it seemed that company had made each individual thing –“ He paused again, and looked as if recalling visions. “But really, I’m taking too long to explain. In the end, I found out that I had to put some nice things upstairs along with the nasty, to balance them out. And after that I sealed up the rooms, and everything has been fine, until a week or so ago. And that’s why – although perhaps you can just see for yourself.” And he led me down the hall, past the corner, and to the row of rooms in question.

There were five doors leading from this hallway, each facing a window into the courtyard. The flanking doors had lengths of twine twisted around their handles, fixed to the doorframe by a piece of sealing wax into which had been pressed the stamp of John-Carlo’s thumb. The seal of the central door was broken. We entered this room. It was small, bare-walled, and dusty, furnished only with a table overtopped by a display case. The light from the window across the hall was sufficient to show on the topmost shelf a collection of anthropological objects which bore out John-Carlo’s metaphor of odour, since the sight of them gave rise to a mingled sensation similar to that of a mixture of pleasant and noxious scents. On a lower shelf was a square glass box, mostly covered by draped handkerchief which had two wrinkled impressions on its top, as if from two removed objects.

John-Carlo looked at me expectantly as I completed my tour of the room, and I told him that I thought that I had seen everything.

“Yes, everything,” he replied hesitantly. “But – it may seem silly to you, but you don’t see anyone, do you?”

I gave the room another considering glance and replied that we two seemed, at present, to be its only inhabitants.

“Yes, of course. And of course I don’t see anyone either,” he said. “At present.” He conducted me out of the room and back down along the hallway, then downstairs and through the courtyard to the little door cut out of the wooden gateway to the street. I went out, and as he drew shut the door between us, he spoke again. “Perhaps, though, I shall have to ask you to come again, at night.”

* * *

After this episode it was some days before I returned to the Museum. John-Carlo’s behavior had been somewhat eccentric, and though certain objects in the Museum’s collections did inspire malevolent imaginings, there is something of a difference, I thought, between the imagined and the real. I decided that his problem was, as they say, “all in his mind,” and thus not terribly serious – I was searching, you must remember, for the more physical manifestations of spirit, paradoxical as that might seem, and considered that in the final reckoning one has enough control over one’s own imagination to defeat whatever might try it. As well, from my progress through the Museum as well as my sight of the objects upstairs, I thought that these had as their utmost power an ability to make their viewer dwell and sulk – in general, they darkened the mind – which is unpleasant but no means fatal, and whose effects, moreover, I did not see in John-Carlo, who had lately seemed quicker, excited, and especially more voluble than I had ever seen him before. If I came to any conclusion it was that he was suffering from some merely personal delusion, one which I could neither share nor heal.

I thus avoided his company and indeed made my second visit to the Museum’s upper story only because John-Carlo saw and called down to me as I walked below on the street. This was about a week later, at twilight, and I was coming home from sitting in the Loggia dei Lanzi, which is cool in the heat of the day but in which the chill of the ages unbearably reasserts itself as soon as the sun fades. John-Carlo, who appeared to be wearing a rose in the buttonhole of his uniform jacket and was in general more brushed and trimmed than was his usual habit, said in a jaunty tine that “It would be an honor if you could come up and –“ Here he broke off and began a sort of happy humming, as if the speaking aloud of this honor would be too much for his or my heart to bear. He soon appeared at the door, heralding himself by enthusiastic whistling – something like a wedding march for a galloping bride. His own speed, however, decreased as we went up stairs and along corridors until we paused in the same spot as before, and here, again, John-Carlo offered explanations.

“You see, well – but perhaps I had better start from where I left off last time. You remember Carolina and Paulo?” He produced from his coat-pockets the objects so named. “It used to be that they were locked up in that room, but I always regretted leaving them there, because I was so fond of them, and I thought that maybe they weren’t even needed there – they didn’t even fit on the shelf where I put all the rest of the things, if you remember, and I had to set them down below on that box, which was already there before I came. So, the first time that I saw you looking at those mummies downstairs, I thought that you could do with something a little more cheerful – we guards just blow a little smoke in their faces, you know, and then they don’t bother us, but you wouldn’t do that, and so I brought them downstairs.” Here he returned Carolina and Paulo, who seemed more elongated than I had remembered, back into his pockets and produced in their stead a candle, which he set into a holder standing ready in the cabinets. This holder was covered in drips of former humbly white wax, but its new contents were far grander, this candle being colored and pasted about with pink bows and gold hearts. John-Carlo resumed his story: “Of course I had to break the seal on the door to fetch them, and so I kept an eye on it from my window, afterwards, to see if the balance held, and there was nothing strange until a few weeks ago – when –“ John-Carlo had turned as pink as his candle. “I had stayed until the evening, for no reason, really, when from that room I heard someone singing. And I went up to investigate, with a candle, since there’s no other lights in those rooms – and I opened the door, and saw – a girl.”

John-Carlo’s bows and rose were amply explained by the way in which he said “a girl.” It was rather shocking, though, since John-Carlo was as much of a staid family man as a man without a family could be, and he seemed not to have given a thought to girls in any of their manifestations for several decades. He told me that she behaved entirely modestly, encouraging his presence but never making any advances, and was indeed so shy that she never had even spoken to him. She refused with shakes of her head every offer of assistance except the permission, unofficially, of course, granted by John-Carlo, of continuing her stay at the Museum. He opined that perhaps she had run away from school, or home, or – he had thought of a thousand possible reasons for her presence, but it was clear that he had not quite convinced himself of the impossibility of one reason, namely, that his own imagination had conjured her up and placed her there – which would render her not quite a fit object to whom to want to give a home. He ended by declaring precisely this wish and glanced fondly at his candle; I saw now that one of its bangles was in fact a ring, slipped around the shaft. “And if you would just –” This wish he could not express, but instead turned back towards the hallway and walked to the door of his beloved.

Once there, he knocked and called “My dear, may I come in? I’ve brought someone to meet you, and I have something important to ask you as well…” I heard no reply, but either he did or was satisfied with silence, because he opened the door and went in. “My dear, my sweet one –“ and so on, said John-Carlo in greeting. His gaze was distant and unfocused, as if he were looking into some other room, one which actually contained some third person, for again, as before, I could see only we two. He glanced at me and, if he indeed saw me at all, seemed to take my neutrality as confirmation and thus continued with his cooed compliments.

I must here admit that I began to filter and distort my perceptions just as I believed John-Carlo was doing; that is, since I thought that I saw a man who thought that he saw a woman, I did not pay much attention to any other events and objects. I assumed that John-Carlo was the cause of his own behavior and accordingly resigned myself to waiting until we were in some calmer situation to discuss the durability or reality of his love. In the meantime I attended to his actions with an idle eye.

Upon beginning to speak he had moved across the room to the display case and put the candle on the table. He then lifted the box from the shelf and put it next to the candle, setting aside its covering. There was revealed a glass case with bronze fittings of the kind which had been used to protect and display objects in early museums. John-Carlo opened the lid and lifted out the object it contained, setting this down also on the table. He then, after a respectful step or two back, began to address it as if it were the lady of his story, pouring forth a continued stream of compliments and inquiring after its health and comfort. His face would sometimes attain a deeper blush and he would glance towards the candle and its burden, but he seemed a long way still from any definite declaration. Waiting, I examined the box, which had a much-annotated label pasted to its lid. The original printing was quite old; it had the seal of the Uffizi Galleries and recorded that it contained a “fetish, South Seas Islands” – a designation fit for any unknown object. There was also a note that this object was a gift from the heirs of that same Baroque nobleman mentioned in my preface. A much later hand had added beneath this “gift from the Uffizi to the Anthropological Museum,” and still later had been written “Undoubtedly fake.” This last opinion had consigned the object to the store rooms, but I wondered why it had been expressed so harshly. Not a very deep inspection was necessary to solve this riddle, for when I looked I saw that what John-Carlo had taken from the box and was talking to – indeed, what he was now gently touching on one side, having requested permission from his lady to hold her hand – was, let us say, a model in wax of the area about the hips of a slim young girl. I thus understood why the officiating anthropologist had so indignantly marked it for expulsion, angered, probably, at the ineptitude of any predecessor who could not realize that no other continent but the European was ever wont to make a thing so naturalistic and so – fit for use. John-Carlo, though, seemed intent upon taking it for a whole woman, if in a polite fashion. The thing being of wax and from the family of that Baroque nobleman, I judged it to be a product of the same maker as the wax models in La Specola, commissioned again to fill the erotic tastes of his master.

It was only the thought of its probable maker that kept me from leaving the room and letting John-Carlo take his pleasure, whatever that might have been, from the thing. Thus I watched him while he continued his courtship until, having given a somewhat more forcible caress to it than previous he pulled back his hand and exclaimed “Oh your nails, my darling, be careful! I was just trying to give a squeeze to your hand – my intentions are honorable, and perhaps this will show you…” Still nursing his hand, he moved to the candle and began to extricate his ring. The candle having burned down, the ring was lapped in folds of wax, and John-Carlo had much trouble to get it free without extinguishing the light, and in the end much violence was done to its other bows and trinkets. I took this time to examine the object of his desires.

It was lifelike in shape, but not in color, for though one of the boasts of the wax-maker is his ability to tint his materials to mimic the hues of flesh, the wax here had been left undyed. Its original clarity had decayed through age into a streaked milkiness; through this were drawn lines of powdered black or grainy red, as if some foreign materials had been mixed through the wax before it was molded. Here and there, where these trails broke the surface, the surrounding wax was cracked and pitted, as the powders, exposed to air, seemed to have a corrosive effect even on their inert matrix. More strange were other adulterations sunk deep within the form, elongated, pyramidal forms about the size of the nail of one’s smallest finger, grouped within the wax in jagged indications of internal forms. I had seen all this when a hand reached past me and rested on the wax again – John-Carlo had extricated his ring. I stepped aside but remained close, trying to discover the nature of these submerged forms, for though I could not recognize them, their pointed incongruity with either wax or flesh drew me from my complacent imaginings, and I knew John-Carlo to be in danger, and not one of his own making. He caressed still the flanks of the thing, murmuring endearments, but then once again shook off his hand with a cry. I saw, now, that he had drawn his hand over the point of one of these shapes, strayed from its deeper fellows. It had penetrated the surface with a thin, crooked tip, and I thought of the nobleman’s snakes hanging in La Specola, all long ago deprived of their fangs. He must have employed the same man to stuff them as to make his waxes.

John-Carlo’s eyes were different, as if some scales had been lifted from them but others in replacement dropped. He had again stepped back from the shelf, and began to haltingly but inaudibly address the wax-work; he soon paused and started with fear at something he had seen, and for the first time since the beginning of the affair he turned and looked at me. I directed his attention as best I could to the ring which he held half-forgotten in his hand. He turned back to his vision and advanced towards it, ring in out-stretched hand, mumbling coaxingly – as he neared the thing, there arose a noise as if of a loud hissing, and John-Carlo stumbled forward, knocking both himself and the wax to the floor. From underneath his coat, or perhaps merely from some hiding place in the floor or walls, streaked two dark creatures, like rats, only more long and slim. They ran to the wax-work and set upon it, rending and shaking until they had scattered it in bits about the floor. They then ran back across the room to plunge back into John-Carlo’s pockets – or whatever holes from which they had emerged. At this John-Carlo hastily roused himself and, dropping his ring again over the candle, backed out of the door with it in hand. This closed, he picked up the discarded twine from the floor and, pouring a gout of candle-wax upon his thumb, once again sealed the opening.

Shaking his hand to cool it, he revealed a sickly green and yellow discolor spread around the prick received from the toothed wax. He looked at it a little aghast as we first went around the hallway and down the stairs, but his comment to me at parting was, “Well, my friend, at least it’s only my hand.” He went off to the train station, where there is a doctor on duty all night long, and a bar next door, to which one can subsequently repair to cheerfully console one’s-self for one’s aliment. And this is what John-Carlo did, even if he did have to hold his glass in not his usual hand.

* * *

John-Carlo having recovered his good humor, and I, after a longer interval, having recovered from my embarrassment at having so unconcernedly watched him go so long without it, we used again to meet on his balcony and talk. Reminded perhaps by looking at the upper floors or perhaps by the scar on his hand, he would often tell me the story from his vantage-point. He remembered nothing of the box or its contents aside from having, during his first arrangements, covered it with a handkerchief – since “it wasn’t anything to be left lying around for everyone to see” – and placing Carolina and Paulo on top. After he had removed the figurines and been summoned back by the singing, he had seen there instead of the box a young lady sitting on the table, whose behavior, as before related, had been unfailingly reserved and modest until the night when he had dared to touch, as he thought, her hand. Her conduct had then changed. Her clothing had quite inexplicably disappeared and she “writhed around in what I suppose you could call a seductive manner,” said John-Carlo. His greatest shock had been when she obeyed his pleas to speak by opening her mouth to show, between her rosy lips, a mouthful of snakes’ teeth, with a tongue to match flickering over them. John-Carlo did not remember my intervention, attributing all to himself the thought to hold up the ring, saying that then “she held up her hand – but when the ring went over her finger, the tip of it just melted away, and so did the rest of her, up into smoke, as I pushed forward. And then – but you know what happened then.” And here he would cast a loving look at Carolina and Paulo, who, as was quite clear to me now, were figures of mongooses.

The probable history of the now destroyed wax-work was not difficult to reconstruct, since I doubted that the nobleman, no matter how unusual his tastes, would have ordered up so very poisonous of a dish. John-Carlo was fortunate that he had scratched a point already protruding, whose noxiousness had thus been decreased by long exposure. To have truly been hurt he would have had to further press into the wax, which would have preserved the taint of its admixtures. So unpleasant a consequence to so ostensibly pleasurable a purpose savored of revenge, but as the thing had appeared untampered with, it seemed that the nobleman had been wise or lucky enough to avoid the use of what must have been a final gift from his creditor, the wax-worker. This craftsman had anticipated this hesitation with the creation, by whatever means, of the woman who rose from and concealed this base. For whatever reason she had gone unsummoned until her encounter with John-Carlo. Perhaps he shared some accidental resemblance to its target, or perhaps it was only a decaying idleness that caused it to spring. He had defended himself with his unwillingness to touch and then by his insistence on meeting the false with the true.

He now wore his ring on the first joint of the smallest finger of the hand which pained him faintly still, and would ever afterward when reminded by the sight, declare that “Now I know that it’s for me to stay away from women – whether they’re made of flesh or wax!”