Part 1 out of 4
THE CARDINAL'S SNUFF-BOX
BY HENRY HARLAND
"The Signorino will take coffee?" old Marietta asked, as she
set the fruit before him.
Peter deliberated for a moment; then burned his ships.
"Yes," he answered.
"But in the garden, perhaps?" the little brown old woman
suggested, with a persuasive flourish.
"No," he corrected her, gently smiling, and shaking his head,
Her small, sharp old black Italian eyes twinkled, responsive.
"The Signorino will find a rustic table, under the big
willow-tree, at the water's edge," she informed him, with a good
deal of gesture. "Shall I serve it there?"
"Where you will. I leave myself entirely in your hands," he
So he sat by the rustic table, on a rustic bench, under the
willow, sipped his coffee, smoked his cigarette, and gazed in
contemplation at the view.
Of its kind, it was rather a striking view.
In the immediate foreground--at his feet, indeed--there was the
river, the narrow Aco, peacock-green, a dark file of poplars on
either bank, rushing pell-mell away from the quiet waters of
the lake. Then, just across the river, at his left, stretched
the smooth lawns of the park of Ventirose, with glimpses of
the many-pinnacled castle through the trees; and, beyond,
undulating country, flourishing, friendly, a perspective of
vineyards, cornfields, groves, and gardens, pointed by
numberless white villas. At his right loomed the gaunt mass
of the Gnisi, with its black forests, its bare crags, its
foaming ascade, and the crenelated range of the Cornobastone;
and finally, climax and cynosure, at the valley's end,
Monte Sfiorito, its three snow-covered summits almost
insubstantial-seeming, floating forms of luminous pink vapour,
in the evening sunshine, against the intense blue of the sky.
A familiar verse had come into Peter's mind, and kept running
"Really," he said to himself, "feature for feature, down to the
very 'cataract leaping in glory,' the scene might have been got
up, apres coup, to illustrate it." And he began to repeat the
beautiful hackneyed words, under his breath . . . .
But about midway of the third line he was interrupted.
"It's not altogether a bad sort of view--is it?" some one said,
The voice was a woman's. It was clear and smooth; it was
Peter glanced about him.
On the opposite bank of the Aco, in the grounds of Ventirose,
five or six yards away, a lady was standing, looking at him,
Peter's eyes met hers, took in her face . . . . And suddenly
his heart gave a jump. Then it stopped dead still, tingling,
for a second. Then it flew off, racing perilously.--Oh, for
reasons--for the best reasons in the world: but thereby hangs
She was a young woman, tall, slender, in a white frock, with a
white cloak, an indescribable complexity of soft lace and airy
ruffles, round her shoulders. She wore no hat. Her hair,
brown and warm in shadow, sparkled, where it caught the light,
in a kind of crinkly iridescence, like threads of glass.
Peter's heart (for the best reasons in the world) was racing
perilously. "It's impossible--impossible--impossible"--the
words strummed themselves to its rhythm. Peter's wits (for had
not the impossible come to pass?) were in a perilous confusion.
But he managed to rise from his rustic bench, and to achieve a
She inclined her head graciously.
"You do not think it altogether bad--I hope?" she questioned,
in her crisp-cut voice, raising her eyebrows slightly, with a
droll little assumption of solicitude.
Peter's wits were in confusion; but he must answer her. An
automatic second-self, summoned by the emergency, answered for
"I think one might safely call it altogether good."
"Oh--?" she exclaimed.
Her eyebrows went up again, but now they expressed a certain
whimsical surprise. She threw back her head, and regarded the
"It is not, then, too spectacular, too violent?" she wondered,
returning her gaze to Peter, with an air of polite readiness to
defer to his opinion. "Not too much like a decor de theatre?"
"One should judge it," his automatic second-self submitted,
"with some leniency. It is, after all, only unaided Nature."
A spark flickered in her eyes, while she appeared to ponder.
(But I am not sure whether she was pondering the speech or its
"Really?" she said, in the end. "Did did Nature build the
villas, and plant the cornfields?"
But his automatic second-self was on its mettle.
"Yes," it asserted boldly; "the kind of men who build villas
and plant cornfields must be classified as natural forces."
She gave a light little laugh--and again appeared to ponder for
Then, with another gracious inclination of the head, and an
interrogative brightening of the eyes, "Mr. Marchdale no
doubt?" she hazarded.
"I am very glad if, on the whole, you like our little effect,"
she went on, glancing in the direction of Monte Sfiorito. "I"
--there was the briefest suspension--"I am your landlady."
For a third time Peter bowed, a rather more elaborate bow than
his earlier ones, a bow of respectful enlightenment, of feudal
"You arrived this afternoon?" she conjectured.
"By the five-twenty-five from Bergamo," said he.
"A very convenient train," she remarked; and then, in the
pleasantest manner, whereby the unusual mode of valediction was
carried off, "Good evening."
"Good evening," responded Peter, and accomplished his fourth
She moved away from the river, up the smooth lawns, between the
trees, towards Castel Ventirose, a flitting whiteness amid the
Peter stood still, looking after her.
But when she was out of sight, he sank back upon his rustic
bench, like a man exhausted, and breathed a prodigious sigh.
He was absurdly pale. All the same, clenching his fists, and
softly pounding the table with them, he muttered exultantly,
between his teeth, "What luck! What incredible luck! It's
she--it's she, as I 'm a heathen. Oh, what supernatural luck!"
Old Marietta--the bravest of small figures, in her neat
black-and-white peasant dress, with her silver ornaments,
and her red silk coif and apron--came for the coffee things.
But at sight of Peter, she abruptly halted. She struck an
attitude of alarm. She fixed him with her fiery little black
"The Signorino is not well!" she cried, in the tones of one
launching a denunciation.
Peter roused himself.
"Er--yes--I 'm pretty well, thank you," he reassured her. "I
--I 'm only dying," he added, sweetly, after an instant's
"Dying--!" echoed Marietta, wild, aghast.
"Ah, but you can save my life--you come in the very nick of
time," he said. "I'm dying of curiosity--dying to know
something that you can tell me."
Her stare dissolved, her attitude relaxed. She smiled--relief,
rebuke. She shook her finger at him.
"Ah, the Signorino gave me a fine fright," she said.
"A thousand regrets," said Peter. "Now be a succouring angel,
and make a clean breast of it. Who is my landlady?"
Marietta drew back a little. Her brown old visage wrinkled up,
"Who is the Signorino's landlady?" she repeated.
"Ang," said he, imitating the characteristic nasalised eh of
Italian affirmation, and accompanying it by the characteristic
Italian jerk of the head.
Marietta eyed him, still perplexed--even (one might have
fancied) a bit suspicious.
"But is it not in the Signorino's lease?" she asked, with
"Of course it is," said he. "That's just the point. Who is
"But if it is in your lease!" she expostulated.
"All the more reason why you should make no secret of it," he
argued plausibly. "Come! Out with it! Who is my landlady?"
Marietta exchanged a glance with heaven.
"The Signorino's landlady is the Duchessa di Santangiolo," she
answered, in accents of resignation.
But then the name seemed to stimulate her; and she went on "She
lives there--at Castel Ventirose." Marietta pointed towards
the castle. "She owns all, all this country, all these houses
--all, all." Marietta joined her brown old hands together, and
separated them, like a swimmer, in a gesture that swept the
horizon. Her eyes snapped.
"All Lombardy?" said Peter, without emotion.
Marietta stared again.
"All Lombardy? Mache!" was her scornful remonstrance. "Nobody
owns all Lombardy. All these lands, these houses."
"Who is she?" Peter asked.
Marietta's eyes blinked, in stupefaction before such stupidity.
"But I have just told you," she cried "She is the Duchessa di
"Who is the Duchessa di Santangiolo?" he asked.
Marietta, blinking harder, shrugged her shoulders.
"But"--she raised her voice, screamed almost, as to one deaf
--"but the Duchessa di Santangiolo is the Signorino's landlady
la, proprietaria di tutte queste terre, tutte queste case,
And she twice, with some violence, reacted her comprehensive
gesture, like a swimmer's.
"You evade me by a vicious circle," Peter murmured.
Marietta made a mighty effort-brought all her faculties to a
focus--studied Peter's countenance intently. Her own was
"Ah, I understand," she proclaimed, vigorously nodding. "The
Signorino desires to know who she is personally!"
"I express myself in obscure paraphrases," said he; "but you,
with your unfailing Italian simpatia, have divined the exact
shade of my intention."
"She is the widow of the Duca di Santangiolo," said Marietta.
"Enfin vous entrez dans la voie des aveux," said Peter.
"Scusi?" said Marietta.
"I am glad to hear she's a widow," said he. "She--she might
strike a casual observer as somewhat young, for a widow."
"She is not very old," agreed Marietta; "only twenty-six,
twenty-seven. She was married from the convent. That was
eight, nine years ago. The Duca has been dead five or six."
"And was he also young and lovely?"
"Young and lovely! Mache!" derided Marietta. "He was past
forty. He was fat. But he was a good man."
"So much the better for him now," said Peter.
"Gia," approved Marietta, and solemnly made the Sign of the
"But will you have the kindness to explain to me," the young
man continued, "how it happens that the Duchessa di Santangiolo
speaks English as well as I do?"
The old woman frowned surprise.
"Come? She speaks English?"
"For all the world like an Englishman," asseverated Peter.
"Ah, well," Marietta reflected, "she was English, you know."
"Oho!" exclaimed Peter. "She was English! Was she?" He bore
a little on the tense of the verb. "That lets in a flood of
light. And--and what, by the bye, is she now?" he questioned.
"Ma! Italian, naturally, since she married the Duca," Marietta
"Indeed? Then the leopard can change his spots?" was Peter's
"The leopard?" said Marietta, at a loss.
"If the Devil may quote Scripture for his purpose, why may n't
I?" Peter demanded. "At all events, the Duchessa di
Santangiolo is a very beautiful woman."
The Signorino has seen her?" Marietta asked.
"I have grounds for believing so. An apparition--a phantom of
delight--appeared on the opposite bank of the tumultuous Aco,
and announced herself as my landlady. Of course, she may have
been an impostor--but she made no attempt to get the rent. A
tall woman, in white, with hair, and a figure, and a voice like
cooling streams, and an eye that can speak volumes with a
Marietta nodded recognition.
"That would be the Duchessa."
"She's a very beautiful duchessa," reiterated Peter.
Marietta was Italian. So, Italian--wise, she answered, "We are
all as God makes us."
"For years I have thought her the most beautiful woman in
Europe," Peter averred.
Marietta opened her eyes wide.
"For years? The Signorino knows her? The Signorino has seen
A phrase came back to him from a novel he had been reading that
afternoon in the train. He adapted it to the occasion.
"I rather think she is my long-lost brother."
"Brother--?" faltered Marietta.
"Well, certainly not sister," said Peter, with determination.
"You have my permission to take away the coffee things."
Up at the castle, in her rose-and-white boudoir, Beatrice was
writing a letter to a friend in England.
"Villa Floriano," she wrote, among other words, "has been let
to an Englishman--a youngish, presentable-looking creature, in
a dinner jacket, with a tongue in his head, and an indulgent
eye for Nature--named Peter Marchdale. Do you happen by any
chance to know who he is, or anything about him?"
Peter very likely slept but little, that first night at the
villa; and more than once, I fancy, he repeated to his pillow
his pious ejaculation of the afternoon: "What luck! What
supernatural luck!" He was up, in any case, at an
unconscionable hour next morning, up, and down in his garden.
"It really is a surprisingly jolly garden," he confessed. "The
agent was guiltless of exaggeration, and the photographs were
not the perjuries one feared."
There were some fine old trees, lindens, acacias, chestnuts, a
flat-topped Lombardy pine, a darkling ilex, besides the willow
that overhung the river, and the poplars that stiffly stood
along its border. Then there was the peacock-blue river
itself, dancing and singing as it sped away, with a thousand
diamonds flashing on its surface--floating, sinking, rising
--where the sun caught its ripples. There were some charming
bits of greensward. There was a fountain, plashing melodious
coolness, in a nimbus of spray which the sun touched to rainbow
pinks and yellows. There were vivid parterres of flowers,
begonia and geranium. There were oleanders, with their heady
southern perfume; there were pomegranate-blossoms, like knots
of scarlet crepe; there were white carnations, sweet-peas,
heliotrope, mignonette; there were endless roses. And there
were birds, birds, birds. Everywhere you heard their joyous
piping, the busy flutter of their wings. There were
goldfinches, blackbirds, thrushes, with their young--the
plumpest, clumsiest, ruffle-feathered little blunderers, at the
age ingrat, just beginning to fly, a terrible anxiety to their
parents--and there were also (I regret to own) a good many
rowdy sparrows. There were bees and bumblebees; there were
brilliant, dangerous-looking dragonflies; there were
butterflies, blue ones and white ones, fluttering in couples;
there were also (I am afraid) a good many gadflies--but che
volete? Who minds a gadfly or two in Italy? On the other side
of the house there were fig-trees and peach-trees, and
artichokes holding their heads high in rigid rows; and a vine,
heavy with great clusters of yellow grapes, was festooned upon
the northern wall.
The morning air was ineffably sweet and keen--penetrant, tonic,
with moist, racy smells, the smell of the good brown earth, the
smell of green things and growing things. The dew was spread
over the grass like a veil of silver gossamer, spangled with
crystals. The friendly country westward, vineyards and white
villas, laughed in the sun at the Gnisi, sulking black in
shadow to the east. The lake lay deep and still, a dark
sapphire. And away at the valley's end, Monte Sfiorito, always
insubstantial-seeming, showed pale blue-grey, upon a sky in
which still lingered some of the flush of dawn.
It was a surprisingly jolly garden, true enough. But though
Peter remained in it all day long--though he haunted the
riverside, and cast a million desirous glances, between the
trees, and up the lawns, towards Castel Ventirose--he enjoyed
no briefest vision of the Duchessa di Santangiolo.
Nor the next day; nor the next.
"Why does n't that old dowager ever come down and look after
her river?" he asked Marietta. "For all the attention she
gives it, the water might be undermining her property on both
"That old dowager--?" repeated Marietta, blank.
"That old widow woman--my landlady--the Duchessa Vedova di
"She is not very old--only twenty-six, twenty-seven," said
"Don't try to persuade me that she is n't old enough to know
better," retorted Peter, sternly.
"But she has her guards, her keepers, to look after her
property," said Marietta.
"Guards and keepers are mere mercenaries. If you want a thing
well done, you should do it yourself," said Peter, with gloomy
On Sunday he went to the little grey rococo parish church.
There were two Masses, one at eight o'clock, one at ten--and
the church was quite a mile from Villa Floriano, and up a hill;
and the Italian sun was hot--but the devoted young man went to
The Duchessa was at neither.
"What does she think will become of her immortal soul?" he
On Monday he went to the pink-stuccoed village post-office.
Before the post-office door a smart little victoria, with a
pair of sprightly, fine-limbed French bays, was drawn up, ducal
coronets emblazoned on its panels.
Peter's heart began to beat.
And while he was hesitating on the doorstep, the door opened,
and the Duchessa came forth--tall, sumptuous, in white, with
a wonderful black-plumed hat, and a wonderful white-frilled
sunshade. She was followed by a young girl--a pretty,
dark-complexioned girl, of fourteen, fifteen perhaps, with
pleasant brown eyes (that lucent Italian brown), and in her
cheeks a pleasant hint of red (that covert Italian red, which
seems to glow through the thinnest film of satin).
Peter bowed, standing aside to let them pass.
But when he looked up, the Duchessa had stopped, and was
smiling on him.
His heart beat harder.
"A lovely day," said the Duchessa.
"Delightful," agreed Peter, between two heart-beats.--Yet he
looked, in his grey flannels, with his straw-hat and his
eyeglass, with his lean face, his even colour, his slightly
supercilious moustaches--he looked a very embodiment of
cool-blooded English equanimity.
"A trifle warm, perhaps?" the Duchessa suggested, with her air
of polite (or was it in some part humorous?) readiness to defer
to his opinion.
"But surely," suggested he, "in Italy, in summer, it is its
bounden duty to be a trifle warm?"
The Duchessa smiled.
"You like it? So do I. But what the country really needs is
"Then let us hope," said he, "that the country's real needs may
The Duchessa tittered.
"Think of the poor farmers," she said reproachfully.
"It's vain to think of them," he answered. "'T is an
ascertained fact that no condition of the weather ever contents
The Duchessa laughed.
"Ah, well," she consented, "then I 'll join in your hope that
the fine weather may last. I--I trust," she was so good as to
add, "that you're not entirely uncomfortable at Villa
"I dare n't allow myself to speak of Villa Floriano," he
replied. "I should become dithyrambic. It's too adorable."
"It has a pretty garden, and--I remember--you admired the
view," the Duchessa said. "And that old Marietta? I trust she
does for you fairly well?" Her raised eyebrows expressed
benevolent (or was it in some part humorous?) concern.
"She does for me to perfection. That old Marietta is a
priceless old jewel," Peter vowed.
"A good cook?" questioned the Duchessa.
"A good cook--but also a counsellor and friend. And with a
flow of language!"
The Duchessa laughed again.
"Oh, these Lombard peasant women. They are untiring
"I 'm not sure," Peter felt himself in justice bound to
confess, "that Marietta is n't equally untiring as a listener.
In fact, there's only one respect in which she has disappointed
"Oh--?" said the Duchessa. And her raised eyebrows demanded
"She swears she does n't wear a dagger in her garter--has never
heard of such a practice," Peter explained. "And now," he
whispered to his soul, "we 'll see whether our landlady is up
in modern literature."
Still again the Duchessa laughed. And, apparently, she was up
in modern literature. At any rate--
"Those are Lombard country-girls along the coast," she reminded
him. "We are peaceful inland folk, miles from the sea. But
you had best be on your guard, none the less." She shook her
head, in warning. "Through all this country-side that old
Marietta is reputed to be a witch."
"If she's a witch," said Peter, undismayed, "her usefulness
will be doubled. I shall put her to the test directly I get
"Sprinkle her with holy water?" laughed the Duchessa. "Have a
care. If she should turn into a black cat, and fly away on a
broomstick, you'd never forgive yourself."
Wherewith she swept on to her carriage, followed by her young
The sprightly French bays tossed their heads, making the
harness tinkle. The footman mounted the box. The carriage
But Peter remained for quite a minute motionless on the
door-step, gazing, bemused, down the long, straight, improbable
village street, with its poplars, its bridge, its ancient stone
cross, its irregular pink and yellow houses--as improbable as a
street in opera-bouffe. A thin cloud of dust floated after the
carriage, a thin screen of white dust, which, in the sun,
looked like a fume of silver.
"I think I could put my finger on a witch worth two of
Marietta," he said, in the end." And thus we see," he added,
struck by something perhaps not altogether novel in his own
reflection, "how the primary emotions, being perennial, tend to
express themselves in perennial formulae."
Back at the villa, he enquired of Marietta who the pretty
brown-eyed young girl might have been.
"The Signorina Emilia," Marietta promptly informed him.
"Really and truly?" questioned he.
"Ang," affirmed Marietta, with the national jerk of the head;
"the Signorina Emilia Manfredi--the daughter of the Duca."
"Oh--? Then the Duca was married before?" concluded Peter,
"Che-e-e!" scoffed Marietta, on her highest note. "Married?
He?" Then she winked and nodded--as one man of the world to
another. "Ma molto porn! La mamma fu robaccia di Milano. But
after his death, the Duchessa had her brought to the castle.
She is the same as adopted."
"That looks as if your Duchessa's heart were in the right
place, after all," commented Peter.
"Gia," agreed Marietta.
"Hang the right place!" cried he. "What's the good of telling
me her heart is in the right place, if the right place is
But Marietta only looked bewildered.
He lived in his garden, he haunted the riverside, he made a
daily pilgrimage to the village post, he thoroughly neglected
the work he had come to this quiet spot to do. But a week
passed, during which he never once beheld so much as the shadow
of the Duchessa.
On Sunday he trudged his mile, through the sun, and up the
hill, not only to both Masses, but to Vespers and Benediction.
She was present at none of these offices.
"The Pagan!" he exclaimed.
Up at the castle, on the broad marble terrace, where clematis
and jessamine climbed over the balustrade and twined about its
pilasters, where oleanders grew in tall marble urns and shed
their roseate petals on the pavement, Beatrice, dressed for
dinner, in white, with pearls in her hair, and pearls round her
throat, was walking slowly backwards and forwards, reading a
"There is a Peter Marchdale--I don't know whether he will be
your Peter Marchdale or not, my dear; though the name seems
hardly likely to be common--son of the late Mr. Archibald
Marchdale, Q. C., and nephew of old General Marchdale, of
Whitstoke. A highly respectable and stodgy Norfolk family.
I've never happened to meet the man myself, but I'm told he's a
bit of an eccentric, who amuses himself globe-trotting, and
writing books (novels, I believe) which nobody, so far as I am
aware, ever reads. He writes under a pseudonym, Felix--I 'm
not sure whether it's Mildmay or Wildmay. He began life, by
the bye, in the Diplomatic, and was attache for a while at
Berlin, or Petersburg, or somewhere; but whether (in the
elegant language of Diplomacy) he 'chucked it up,' or failed to
pass his exams, I'm not in a position to say. He will be near
thirty, and ought to have a couple of thousand a year--more or
less. His father, at any rate, was a great man at the bar, and
must have left something decent. And the only other thing in
the world I know about him is that he's a great friend of that
clever gossip Margaret Winchfield--which goes to show that
however obscure he may be as a scribbler of fiction, he must
possess some redeeming virtues as a social being--for Mrs.
Winchfield is by no means the sort that falls in love with
bores. As you 're not, either--well, verbum sap., as my little
brother Freddie says."
Beatrice gazed off, over the sunny lawn, with its trees and
their long shadows, with its shrubberies, its bright
flower-beds, its marble benches, its artificial ruin; over the
lake, with its coloured sails, its incongruous puffing
steamboats; down the valley, away to the rosy peaks of Monte
Sfiorito, and the deep blue sky behind them. She plucked a spray
of jessamine, and brushed the cool white blossoms across her
cheek, and inhaled their fairy fragrance.
"An obscure scribbler of fiction," she mused. "Ah, well, one
is an obscure reader of fiction oneself. We must send to
London for Mr. Felix Mildmay Wildmay's works."
On Monday evening, at the end of dinner, as she set the fruit
before him, "The Signorino will take coffee?" old Marietta
Peter frowned at the fruit, figs and peaches--
"Figs imperial purple, and blushing peaches"--
ranged alternately, with fine precision, in a circle, round a
central heap of translucent yellow grapes.
"Is this the produce of my own vine and fig-tree?" he demanded.
"Yes, Signorino; and also peach-tree," replied Marietta.
"Peaches do not grow on fig-trees?" he enquired.
"No, Signorino," said Marietta.
"Nor figs on thistles. I wonder why not," said he.
"It is n't Nature," was Marietta's confident generalisation.
"Marietta Cignolesi," Peter pronounced severely, looking her
hard in the eyes, "I am told you are a witch."
"No," said Marietta, simply, without surprise, without emotion.
"I quite understand," he genially persisted. "It's a part of
the game to deny it. But I have no intention of sprinkling you
with holy water-so don't be frightened. Besides, if you should
do anything outrageous--if you should turn into a black cat,
and fly away on a broomstick, for example--I could never
forgive myself. But I'll thank you to employ a little of your
witchcraft on my behalf, all the same. I have lost something
--something very precious--more precious than rubies--more
precious than fine gold."
Marietta's brown old wrinkles fell into an expression of alarm.
"In the villa? In the garden?" she exclaimed, anxiously.
"No, you conscientious old thing you," Peter hastened to
relieve her. "Nowhere in your jurisdiction--so don't distress
yourself: Laggiu, laggiu."
And he waved a vague hand, to indicate outer space.
The Signorino should put up a candle to St. Anthony of Padua,"
counselled this Catholic witch.
"St. Anthony of Padua? Why of Padua?" asked Peter.
"St. Anthony of Padua," said Marietta.
"You mean of Lisbon," corrected Peter.
"No," insisted the old woman, with energy. "St. Anthony of
It But he was born in Lisbon;" insisted Peter.
"No," said Marietta.
"Yes," said he, "parola d' onore. And, what's more to the
purpose, he died in Lisbon. You clearly mean St. Anthony of
"No!" Marietta raised her voice, for his speedier conviction.
"There is no St. Anthony of Lisbon. St. Anthony of Padua."
"What's the use of sticking to your guns in that obstinate
fashion?" Peter complained. "It's mere pride of opinion.
Don't you know that the ready concession of minor points is a
part of the grace of life?"
"When you lose an object, you put up a candle to St. Anthony of
Padua," said Marietta, weary but resolved.
"Not unless you wish to recover the object," contended Peter.
Marietta stared at him, blinking.
"I have no wish to recover the object I have lost," he
continued blandly. "The loss of it is a new, thrilling,
humanising experience. It will make a man of me--and, let us
hope, a better man. Besides, in a sense, I lost it long ago
--'when first my smitten eyes beat full on her,' one evening at
the Francais, three, four years ago. But it's essential to my
happiness that I should see the person into whose possession it
has fallen. That is why I am not angry with you for being a
witch. It suits my convenience. Please arrange with the
powers of darkness to the end that I may meet the person in
question tomorrow at the latest. No!" He raised a forbidding
hand. "I will listen to no protestations. And, for the rest,
you may count upon my absolute discretion.
'She is the darling of my heart
And she lives in our valley,'"
he carolled softly.
"E del mio cuore la carina,
E dimor' nella nostra vallettina,"
he obligingly translated. "But for all the good I get of her,
she might as well live on the top of the Cornobastone," he
added dismally. "Yes, now you may bring me my coffee--only,
let it be tea. When your coffee is coffee it keeps me awake at
Marietta trudged back to her kitchen, nodding at the sky.
The next afternoon, however, the Duchessa di Santangiolo
appeared on the opposite bank of the tumultuous Aco.
Peter happened to be engaged in the amiable pastime of tossing
bread-crumbs to his goldfinches.
But a score or so of sparrows, vulture-like, lurked under cover
of the neighbouring foliage, to dash in viciously, at the
critical moment, and snatch the food from the finches' very
The Duchessa watched this little drama for a minute, smiling,
in silent meditation: while Peter--who, for a wonder, had his
back turned to the park of Ventirose, and, for a greater wonder
still perhaps, felt no pricking in his thumbs--remained
unconscious of her presence.
At last, sorrowfully, (but there was always a smile at the back
of her eyes), she shook her head.
"Oh, the pirates, the daredevils," she sighed.
Peter started; faced about; saluted.
"The brigands," said she, with a glance towards the sparrows'
"Yes, poor things," said he.
"Poor things?" cried she, indignant. "The unprincipled little
"They can't help it," he pleaded for them. "'It is their
nature to.' They were born so. They had no choice."
"You actually defend them!" she marvelled, rebukefully.
"Oh, dear, no," he disclaimed. "I don't defend them. I defend
nothing. I merely recognise and accept. Sparrows--finches.
It's the way of the world--the established division of the
She frowned incomprehension.
"The established division of the world--?"
"Exactly," said he. "Sparrows--finches the snatchers and the
snatched-from. Everything that breathes is either a sparrow or
a finch. 'T is the universal war--the struggle for existence
--the survival of the most unscrupulous. 'T is a miniature
presentment of what's going on everywhere in earth and sky."
She shook her head again.
"YOU see the earth and sky through black spectacles, I 'm
afraid," she remarked, with a long face. But there was still
an underglow of amusement in her eyes.
"No," he answered, "because there's a compensation. As you
rise in the scale of moral development, it is true, you pass
from the category of the snatchers to the category of the
snatched-from, and your ultimate extinction is assured. But,
on the other hand, you gain talents and sensibilities. You do
not live by bread alone. These goldfinches, for a case in
point, can sing--and they have your sympathy. The sparrows can
only make a horrid noise--and you contemn them. That is the
compensation. The snatchers can never know the joy of singing
--or of being pitied by ladies."
"N . . . o, perhaps not," she consented doubtfully. The
underglow of amusement in her eyes shone nearer to the surface.
"But--but they can never know, either, the despair of the
singer when his songs won't come."
"Or when the ladies are pitiless. That is true," consented
"And meanwhile they get the bread, crumbs," she said.
"They certainly get the bread-crumbs," he admitted.
"I 'm afraid "--she smiled, as one who has conducted a
syllogism safely to its conclusion--"I 'm afraid I do not think
your compensation compensates."
"To be quite honest, I daresay it does n't," he confessed.
"And anyhow"--she followed her victory up--"I should not wish
my garden to represent the universal war. I should not wish my
garden to be a battle-field. I should wish it to be a retreat
from the battle--an abode of peace--a happy valley--a sanctuary
for the snatched-from."
"But why distress one's soul with wishes that are vain?" asked
he. "What could one do?"
"One could keep a dragon," she answered promptly. "If I were
you, I should keep a sparrow-devouring, finch-respecting
"It would do no good," said he. "You'd get rid of one species
of snatcher, but some other species of snatcher would instantly
She gazed at him with those amused eyes of hers, and still
again, slowly, sorrowfully, shook her head.
"Oh, your spectacles are black--black," she murmured.
"I hope not," said he; "but such as they are, they show me the
inevitable conditions of our planet. The snatcher, here below,
is ubiquitous and eternal--as ubiquitous, as eternal, as the
force of gravitation. He is likewise protean. Banish him--he
takes half a minute to change his visible form, and returns au
galop. Sometimes he's an ugly little cacophonous brown
sparrow; sometimes he's a splendid florid money-lender, or an
aproned and obsequious greengrocer, or a trusted friend, hearty
and familiar. But he 's always there; and he's always--if you
don't mind the vernacular--'on the snatch.'"
The Duchessa arched her eyebrows.
"If things are really at such a sorry pass," she said, "I will
commend my former proposal to you with increased confidence.
You should keep a dragon. After all, you only wish to protect
your garden; and that"--she embraced it with her glance--"is
not so very big. You could teach your dragon, if you procured
one of an intelligent breed, to devour greengrocers, trusted
friends, and even moneylenders too (tough though no doubt they
are), as well as sparrows."
"Your proposal is a surrender to my contention," said Peter.
"You would set a snatcher to catch the snatchers. Other
heights in other lives, perhaps. But in the dark backward and
abysm of space to which our lives are confined, the snatcher is
indigenous and inexpugnable."
The Duchessa looked at the sunny landscape, the bright lawns,
the high bending trees, with the light caught in the network of
their million leaves; she looked at the laughing white villas
westward, the pale-green vineyards, the yellow cornfields; she
looked at the rushing river, with the diamonds sparkling on its
surface, at the far-away gleaming snows of Monte Sfiorito, at
the scintillant blue shy overhead.
Then she looked at Peter, a fine admixture of mirth with
something like gravity in her smile.
"The dark backward and abysm of space?" she repeated. "And you
do not wear black spectacles? Then it must be that your eyes
themselves are just a pair of black-seeing pessimists."
"On the contrary," triumphed Peter, "it is because they are
optimists, that they suspect there must be forwarder and more
luminous regions than the Solar System."
The Duchessa laughed.
"I think you have the prettiest mouth, and the most exquisite
little teeth, and the eyes richest in promise, and the sweetest
laughter, of any woman out of Paradise," said Peter, in the
silence of his soul.
"It is clear I shall never be your match in debate," said she.
Peter made a gesture of deprecating modesty.
"But I wonder," she went on, "whether you would put me down as
'another species of snatcher,' if I should ask you to spare me
just the merest end of a crust of bread?" And she lifted those
eyes rich in promise appealingly to his.
"Oh, I beg of you--take all I have," he responded, with
effusion. "But--but how--?"
"Toss," she commanded tersely.
So he tossed what was left of his bread into the air, above the
river; and the Duchessa, easily, deftly, threw up a hand, and
caught it on the wing.
"Thank you very much," she laughed, with a little bow.
Then she crumbled the bread, and began to sprinkle the ground
with it; and in an instant she was the centre of a cloud of
birds. Peter was at liberty to watch her, to admire the swift
grace of her motions, their suggestion of delicate strength, of
joy in things physical, and the lithe elasticity of her figure,
against the background of satiny lawn, and the further vistas
of lofty sunlit trees. She was dressed in white, as always--a
frock of I know not what supple fabric, that looked as if you
might have passed it through your ring, and fell in multitudes
of small soft creases. Two big red roses drooped from her
bodice. She wore a garden-hat, of white straw, with a big
daring rose-red bow, under which the dense meshes of her hair,
warmly dark, dimly bright, shimmered in a blur of brownish
"What vigour, what verve, what health," thought Peter, watching
her, "what--lean, fresh, fragrant health!" And he had, no
doubt, his emotions.
She bestowed her bread crumbs on the birds; but she was able,
somehow, to discriminate mightily in favour of the goldfinches.
She would make a diversion, the semblance of a fling, with her
empty right hand; and the too-greedy sparrows would dart off,
avid, on that false lead. Whereupon, quickly, stealthily, she
would rain a little shower of crumbs, from her left hand, on
the grass beside her, to a confiding group of finches assembled
there. And if ever a sparrow ventured to intrude his ruffianly
black beak into this sacred quarter, she would manage, with a
kind of restrained ferocity, to "shoo" him away, without
thereby frightening the finches.
And all the while her eyes laughed; and there was colour in her
cheeks; and there was the forceful, graceful action of her
When the bread was finished, she clapped her hands together
gently, to dust the last mites from them, and looked over at
Peter, and smiled significantly.
"Yes," he acknowledged, "you outwitted them very skilfully.
You, at any rate, have no need of a dragon."
"Oh, in default of a dragon, one can do dragon's work oneself,"
she answered lightly. "Or, rather, one can make oneself an
instrument of justice."
"All the same, I should call it uncommonly hard luck to be born
a sparrow--within your jurisdiction," he said.
"It is not an affair of luck," said she. "One is born a
sparrow--within my jurisdiction--for one's sins in a former
state.--No, you little dovelings"--she turned to a pair of
finches on the greensward near her, who were lingering, and
gazing up into her face with hungry, expectant eyes--"I have no
more. I have given you my all." And she stretched out her
open hands, palms downwards, to convince them.
"The sparrows got nothing; and the goldfinches, who got 'your
all,' grumble because you gave so little," said Peter, sadly.
"That is what comes of interfering with the laws of Nature."
And then, as the two birds flew away, "See the dark, doubtful,
reproachful glances with which they cover you."
"You think they are ungrateful?" she said. "No--listen."
She held up a finger.
For, at that moment, on the branch of an acacia, just over her
head, a goldfinch began to sing--his thin, sweet, crystalline
trill of song.
"Do you call that grumbling?" she asked.
"It implies a grumble," said Peter, "like the 'thank you' of a
servant dissatisfied with his tip. It's the very least he can
do. It's perfunctory--I 'm not sure it is n't even ironical."
"Perfunctory! Ironical!" cried the Duchessa. "Look at him!
He's warbling his delicious little soul out."
They both paused to look and listen.
The bird's gold-red bosom palpitated. He marked his
modulations by sudden emphatic movements of the head. His eyes
were fixed intently before him, as if he could actually see and
follow the shining thread of his song, as it wound away through
the air. His performance had all the effect of a spontaneous
rhapsody. When it was terminated, he looked down at his
auditors, eager, inquisitive, as who should say, "I hope you
liked it?"--and then, with a nod clearly meant as a farewell,
flew out of sight.
The Duchessa smiled again at Peter, with intention.
"You must really try to take a cheerier view of things," she
And next instant she too was off, walking slowly, lightly, up
the green lawns, between the trees, towards the castle, her
gown fluttering in the breeze, now dazzling white as she came
into the sun, now pearly grey as she passed into the shade.
"What a woman it is," said Peter to himself, looking after her.
"What vigour, what verve, what sex! What a woman!"
And, indeed, there was nothing of the too-prevalent epicene in
the Duchessa's aspect; she was very certainly a woman.
"Heavens, how she walks!" he cried in a deep whisper.
But then a sudden wave of dejection swept over him. At first
he could not account for it. By and by, however, a malicious
little voice began to repeat and repeat within him, "Oh, the
futile impression you must have made upon her! Oh, the
uttered! Oh, the precious opportunity you have misemployed!"
"You are a witch," he said to Marietta. "You've proved it to
the hilt. I 've seen the person, and the object is more
desperately lost than ever."
That evening, among the letters Peter received from England,
there was one from his friend Mrs. Winchfield, which contained
"Your Duchessa di Santangiolo 'was' indeed, as your funny old
servant told you, English: the only child and heiress of the
last Lord Belfont. The Belfonts of Lancashire (now, save for
your Duchessa, extinct) were the most bigoted sort of Roman
Catholics, and always educated their daughters in foreign
convents, and as often as not married them to foreigners. The
Belfont men, besides, were ever and anon marrying foreign
wives; so there will be a goodish deal of un-English blood in
your Duchessa's own ci-devant English veins.
"She was born, as I learn from an indiscretion of my Peerage,
in 1870, and is, therefore, as near to thirty (the dangerous
age!) as to the six-and-twenty your droll old Marietta gives
her. Her Christian names are Beatrice Antonia Teresa Mary
--faites en votre choix. She was married at nineteen to
Baldassarre Agosto, Principe Udeschini, Duca di Santangiolo,
Marchese di Castellofranco, Count of the Holy Roman Empire,
Knight of the Holy Ghost and of St. Gregory, (does it take your
breath away?), who, according to Frontin, died in '93; and as
there were no children, his brother Felipe Lorenzo succeeded to
the titles. A younger brother still is Bishop of Sardagna.
Cardinal Udeschini is the uncle.
"That, dear child, empties my sack of information. But perhaps
I have a bigger sack, full of good advice, which I have not yet
opened. And perhaps, on the whole, I will not open it at all.
Only, remember that in yonder sentimental Italian lake country,
in this summer weather, a solitary young man's fancy might be
much inclined to turn to thoughts of--folly; and keep an eye on
my friend Peter Marchdale."
Our solitary young man brooded over Mrs. Winchfield's letter
for a long while.
"The daughter of a lord, and the widow of a duke, and the
niece-in-law of a cardinal," he said. "And, as if that were
not enough, a bigoted Roman Catholic into the bargain . . . .
And yet--and yet," he went on, taking heart a little, "as for
her bigotry, to judge by her assiduity in attending the village
church, that factor, at least, thank goodness, would appear to
be static, rather than dynamic."
After another longish interval of brooding, he sauntered down
to the riverside, through his fragrant garden, fragrant and
fresh with the cool odours of the night, and peered into the
darkness, towards Castel Ventirose. Here and there he could
discern a gleam of yellow, where some lighted window was not
entirely hidden by the trees. Thousands and thousands of
insects were threading the silence with their shrill insistent
voices. The repeated wail, harsh, prolonged, eerie, of some
strange wild creature, bird or beast, came down from the forest
of the Gnisi. At his feet, on the troubled surface of the Aco,
the stars, reflected and distorted, shone like broken
He lighted a cigarette, and stood there till he had consumed
"Heigh-ho!" he sighed at last, and turned back towards the
villa. And "Yes," he concluded, "I must certainly keep an eye
on our friend Peter Marchdale."
"But I 'm doubting it's a bit too late--troppo tardo," he
said to Marietta, whom he found bringing hot water to his
"It is not very late," said Marietta. "Only half-past ten."
"She is a woman--therefore to be loved; she is a duchess
--therefore to be lost," he explained, in his native tongue.
"Cosa." questioned Marietta, in hers.
Beatrice and Emilia, strolling together in one of the flowery
lanes up the hillside, between ranks of the omnipresent poplar,
and rose-bush hedges, or crumbling pink-stuccoed walls that
dripped with cyclamen and snapdragon, met old Marietta
descending, with a basket on her arm.
Marietta courtesied to the ground.
"How do you do, Marietta?" Beatrice asked.
"I can't complain, thank your Grandeur. I have the lumbago on
and off pretty constantly, and last week I broke a tooth. But
I can't complain. And your Highness?"
Marietta returned, with brisk aplomb.
Beatrice smiled. "Bene, grazie. Your new master--that young
Englishman," she continued, "I hope you find him kind, and easy
to do for?"
"Kind--yes, Excellency. Also easy to do for. But--!" Marietta
shrugged her shoulders, and gave her head two meaning
"Oh--?" wondered Beatrice, knitting puzzled brows.
"Very amiable, your Greatness; but simple, simple," Marietta
explained, and tapped her brown old forehead with a brown
"Really--?" wondered Beatrice.
"Yes, Nobility," said Marietta. "Gentle as a canarybird, but
"You astonish me," Beatrice avowed. "How does he show it?"
"The questions he asks, Most Illustrious, the things he says."
"For example--?" pursued Beatrice.
"For example, your Serenity--" Marietta paused, to search her
memory.--" Well, for one example, he calls roast veal a fowl.
I give him roast veal for his luncheon, and he says to me,
'Marietta, this fowl has no wings.' But everyone knows, your
Mercy, that veal is not a fowl. How should veal have wings?"
"How indeed?" assented Beatrice, on a note of commiseration.
And if the corners of her mouth betrayed a tendency to curve
upwards, she immediately compelled them down. "But perhaps he
does not speak Italian very well?" she suggested.
"Mache, Potenza! Everyone speaks Italian," cried Marietta.
"Indeed?" said Beatrice.
"Naturally, your Grace--all Christians," Marietta declared.
"Oh, I did n't know," said Beatrice, meekly. "Well," she
acknowledged, "since he speaks Italian, it is certainly
unreasonable of him to call veal a fowl."
"But that, Magnificence," Marietta went on, warming to her
theme, "that is only one of his simplicities. He asks me, 'Who
puts the whitewash on Monte Sfiorito? 'And when I tell him
that it is not whitewash, but snow, he says, 'How do you know?'
But everyone knows that it is snow. Whitewash!"
The sprightly old woman gave her whole body a shake, for the
better exposition of her state of mind. And thereupon, from
the interior of her basket, issued a plaintive little squeal.
"What have you in your basket?" Beatrice asked.
"A little piglet, Nobility--un piccolo porcellino," said
And lifting the cover an inch or two, she displayed the anxious
face of a poor little sucking pig.
"E carino?" she demanded, whilst her eyes beamed with a pride
that almost seemed maternal.
"What on earth are you going to do with him?" Beatrice gasped.
The light of pride gave place to a light of resolution, in
"Kill him, Mightiness," was her grim response; "stuff him with
almonds, raisins, rosemary, and onions; cook him sweet and
sour; and serve him, garnished with rosettes of beet-root, for
my Signorino's Sunday dinner."
"Oh-h-h!" shuddered Beatrice and Emilia, in a breath; and they
resumed their walk.
Francois was dining--with an appearance of great fervour.
Peter sat on his rustic bench, by the riverside, and watched
him, smoking a cigarette the while.
The Duchessa di Santangiolo stood screened by a tree in the
park of Ventirose, and watched them both.
Francois wore a wide blue ribbon round his pink and chubby
neck; and his dinner consisted of a big bowlful of bread and
Presently the Duchessa stepped forth from her ambush, into the
sun, and laughed.
"What a sweetly pretty scene," she said. "Pastoral--idyllic
--it reminds one of Theocritus--it reminds one of Watteau."
Peter threw his cigarette into the river, and made an
"I am very glad you feel the charm of it," he responded. "May
I be permitted to present Master Francois Vllon?"
"We have met before," said the Duchessa, graciously smiling
upon Francois, and inclining her head.
"Oh, I did n't know," said Peter, apologetic.
"Yes," said the Duchessa, "and in rather tragical
circumstances. But at that time he was anonymous. Why--if you
won't think my curiosity impertinent--why Francois Villon?"
"Why not?" said Peter. "He made such a tremendous outcry when
he was condemned to death, for one thing. You should have
heard him. He has a voice! Then, for another, he takes such a
passionate interest in his meat and drink. And then, if you
come to that, I really had n't the heart to call him Pauvre
The Duchessa raised amused eyebrows.
"You felt that Pauvre Lelian was the only alternative?"
"I had in mind a remark of Pauvre Lilian's friend and confrere,
the cryptic Stephane," Peter answered. "You will remember it.
'L'ame d'un poete dans le corps d'un--' I--I forget the last
word," he faltered.
"Shall we say 'little pig'?" suggested the Duchessa.
"Oh, please don't," cried Peter, hastily, with a gesture of
supplication. "Don't say 'pig' in his presence. You'll wound
The Duchessa laughed.
"I knew he was condemned to death," she owned. "Indeed, it was
in his condemned cell that I made his acquaintance. Your
Marietta Cignolesi introduced us. Her air was so inexorable, I
'm a good deal surprised to see him alive to-day. There was
some question of a stuffing of rosemary and onions."
"Ah, I see," said Peter, "I see that you're familiar with the
whole disgraceful story. Yes, Marietta, the unspeakable old
Tartar, was all for stuffing him with rosemary and onions. But
he could not bring himself to share her point of view. He
screamed his protest, like a man, in twenty different octaves.
You really should have heard him. His voice is of a compass,
of a timbre, of an expressiveness! Passive endurance, I fear,
is not his forte. For the sake of peace and silence, I
intervened, interceded. She had her knife at his very throat.
I was not an instant too soon. So, of course, I 've had to
"Of course, poor man," sympathised the Duchessa. "It's a
recognised principle that if you save a fellow's life, you 're
bound to him for the rest of yours. But--but won't you find
him rather a burdensome responsibility when he's grownup?" she
"--Que voulez-vous?" reflected Peter. "Burdensome
responsibilities are the appointed accompaniments of man's
pilgrimage. Why not Francois Villon, as well as another? And
besides, as the world is at present organised, a member of the
class vulgarly styled 'the rich' can generally manage to shift
his responsibilities, when they become too irksome, upon the
backs of the poor. For example--Marietta! Marietta!" he
called, raising his voice a little, and clapping his hands.
Marietta came. When she had made her courtesy to the Duchessa,
and a polite enquiry as to her Excellency's health, Peter said,
with an indicative nod of the head, "Will you be so good as to
remove my responsibility?"
"Il porcellino?" questioned Marietta.
"Ang," said he.
And when Marietta had borne Francois, struggling and squealing
in her arms, from the foreground--
"There--you see how it is done," he remarked.
The Duchessa laughed.
"An object-lesson," she agreed. "An object-lesson in--might
n't one call it the science of Applied Cynicism?"
"Science!" Peter plaintively repudiated the word. "No, no. I
was rather flattering myself it was an art."
"Apropos of art--" said the Duchessa.
She came down two or three steps nearer to the brink of the
river. She produced from behind her back a hand that she had
kept there, and held up for Peter's inspection a grey-and-gold
"Apropos of art, I've been reading a novel. Do you know it?"
Peter glanced at the grey-and-gold binding--and dissembled the
emotion that suddenly swelled big in his heart.
He screwed his eyeglass into his eye, and gave an intent look.
"I can't make out the title," he temporised, shaking his head,
and letting his eyeglass drop.
On the whole, it was very well acted; and I hope the occult
little smile that played about the Duchessa's lips was a smile
"It has a highly appropriate title," she said. "It is called
'A Man of Words,' by an author I've never happened to hear of
before, named Felix Wildmay."
"Oh, yes. How very odd," said Peter. "By a curious chance, I
know it very well. But I 'm surprised to discover that you do.
How on earth did it fall into your hands?"
"Why on earth shouldn't it?" wondered she. "Novels are
intended to fall into people's hands, are they not?"
"I believe so," he assented. "But intentions, in this vale of
tears, are not always realised, are they? Anyhow, 'A Man of
Words' is not like other novels. It's peculiar."
"Peculiar--?" she repeated.
"Of a peculiar, of an unparalleled obscurity," he explained.
"There has been no failure approaching it since What's-his-name
invented printing. I hadn't supposed that seven copies of it
were in circulation."
"Really?" said the Duchessa. "A correspondent of mine in
London recommended it. But--in view of its unparalleled
obscurity is n't it almost equally a matter for surprise that
you should know it?"
"It would be, sure enough," consented Peter, "if it weren't
that I just happen also to know the author."
"Oh--? You know the author?" cried the Duchessa, with
"Comme ma poche," said Peter. "We were boys together."
"Really?" said she. "What a coincidence."
"Yes," said he.
"And--and his book?" Her eyebrows went up, interrogative. "I
expect, as you know the man, you think rather poorly of it?"
"On the contrary, in the teeth of verisimilitude, I think
extremely well of it," he answered firmly. "I admire it
immensely. I think it's an altogether ripping little book. I
think it's one of the nicest little books I've read for ages.
"How funny," said she.
"Why funny?" asked he.
"It's so unlikely that one should seem a genius to one's old
"Did I say he seemed a genius to me? I misled you. He does
n't. In fact, he very frequently seems--but, for Charity's
sake, I 'd best forbear to tell. However, I admire his book.
And--to be entirely frank--it's a constant source of
astonishment to me that he should ever have been able to do
anything one-tenth so good."
The Duchessa smiled pensively.
"Ah, well," she mused, "we must assume that he has happy
moments--or, perhaps, two soul-sides, one to face the world
with, one to show his manuscripts when he's writing. You hint
a fault, and hesitate dislike. That, indeed, is only natural,
on the part of an old friend. But you pique my interest. What
is the trouble with him? Is--is he conceited, for example?"
"The trouble with him?" Peter pondered. "Oh, it would be too
long and too sad a story. Should I anatomise him to you as he
is, I must blush and weep, and you must look pale and wonder.
He has pretty nearly every weakness, not to mention vices, that
flesh is heir to. But as for conceit . . . let me see. He
concurs in my own high opinion of his work, I believe; but I
don't know whether, as literary men go, it would be fair to
call him conceited. He belongs, at any rate, to the
comparatively modest minority who do not secretly fancy that
Shakespeare has come back to life."
"That Shakespeare has come back to life!" marvelled the
Duchessa. "Do you mean to say that most literary men fancy
"I think perhaps I am acquainted with three who don't," Peter
replied; "but one of them merely wears his rue with a
difference. He fancies that it's Goethe."
"How extravagantly--how exquisitely droll!" she laughed.
"I confess, it struck me so, until I got accustomed to it,"
said he, "until I learned that it was one of the commonplaces,
one of the normal attributes of the literary temperament. It's
as much to be taken for granted, when you meet an author, as
the tail is to be taken for granted, when you meet a cat."
"I'm vastly your debtor for the information--it will stand me
in stead with the next author who comes my way. But, in that
case, your friend Mr. Felix Wildmay will be, as it were, a sort
of Manx cat?" was her smiling deduction.
"Yes, if you like, in that particular, a sort of Manx cat,"
acquiesced Peter, with a laugh.
The Duchessa laughed too; and then there was a little pause.
Overhead, never so light a breeze lisped never so faintly in
the tree-tops; here and there bird-notes fell, liquid,
desultory, like drops of rain after a shower; and constantly
one heard the cool music of the river. The sun, filtering
through worlds and worlds of leaves, shed upon everything a
green-gold penumbra. The air, warm and still, was sweet with
garden-scents. The lake, according to its habit at this hour
of the afternoon, had drawn a grey veil over its face, a thin
grey veil, through which its sapphire-blue shone furtively.
Far away, in the summer haze, Monte Sfiorito seemed a mere dim
spectre of itself--a stranger might easily have mistaken it for
a vague mass of cloud floating above the horizon.
"Are you aware that it 's a singularly lovely afternoon?" the
Duchessa asked, by and by.
"I have a hundred reasons for thinking it so," Peter hazarded,
with the least perceptible approach to a meaning bow.
In the Duchessa's face, perhaps, there flickered, for
half-a-second, the least perceptible light, as of a
comprehending and unresentful smile. But she went on,
with fine aloofness.
"I rather envy you your river, you know. We are too far from
it at the castle. Is n't the sound, the murmur, of it
delicious? And its colour--how does it come by such a subtle
colour? Is it green? Is it blue? And the diamonds on its
surface--see how they glitter. You know, of course," she
questioned, "who the owner is of those unequalled gems?"
"Surely," Peter answered, "the lady paramount of this demesne?"
"No, no." She shook her head, smiling. "Undine. They are
Undine's--her necklaces and tiaras. No mortal woman's
jewel-case contains anything half so brilliant. But look at
them--look at the long chains of them--how they float for a
minute--and are then drawn down. They are Undine's--Undine
and her companions are sporting with them just below the
surface. A moment ago I caught a glimpse of a white arm."
"Ah," said Peter, nodding thoughtfully, "that's what it is to
have 'the seeing eye.' But I'm grieved to hear of Undine in
such a wanton mood. I had hoped she would still be weeping her
"What! with that horrid, stolid German--Hildebrandt, was his
name?" cried the Duchessa. "Not she! Long ago, I'm glad to
say, she learned to laugh at that, as a mere caprice of her
immaturity. However, this is a digression. I want to return
to our 'Man of Words.' Tell me--what is the quality you
especially like in it?"
"I like its every quality," Peter affirmed, unblushing. "Its
style, its finish, its concentration; its wit, humour,
sentiment; its texture, tone, atmosphere; its scenes, its
subject; the paper it's printed on, the type, the binding. But
above all, I like its heroine. I think Pauline de Fleuvieres
the pearl of human women--the cleverest, the loveliest, the
most desirable, the most exasperating. And also the most
feminine. I can't think of her at all as a mere fiction, a
mere shadow on paper. I think of her as a living, breathing,
flesh-and-blood woman, whom I have actually known. I can see
her before me now--I can see her eyes, full of mystery and
mischief--I can see her exquisite little teeth, as she smiles
--I can see her hair, her hands--I can almost catch the perfume
of her garments. I 'm utterly infatuated with her--I could
commit a hundred follies for her."
"Mercy!" exclaimed the Duchessa. "You are enthusiastic."
"The book's admirers are so few, they must endeavour to make up
in enthusiasm what they lack in numbers," he submitted.
"But--at that rate--why are they so few?" she puzzled. "If the
book is all you think it, how do you account for its
"It could never conceivably be anything but unpopular," said
he. "It has the fatal gift of beauty."
The Duchessa laughed surprise.
"Is beauty a fatal gift--in works of art?"
"Yes--in England," he declared.
"In England? Why especially in England?"
"In English-speaking--in Anglo-Saxon lands, if you prefer. The
Anglo-Saxon public is beauty-blind. They have fifty religions
--only one sauce--and no sense of beauty whatsoever. They can
see the nose on one's face--the mote in their neighbour's eye;
they can see when a bargain is good, when a war will be
expedient. But the one thing they can never see is beauty.
And when, by some rare chance, you catch them in the act of
admiring a beautiful object, it will never be for its beauty
--it will be in spite of its beauty for some other, some
extra-aesthetic interest it possesses--some topical or historical
interest. Beauty is necessarily detached from all that is
topical or historical, or documentary or actual. It is also
necessarily an effect of fine shades, delicate values,
vanishing distinctions, of evasiveness, inconsequence,
suggestion. It is also absolute, unrelated--it is positive or
negative or superlative--it is never comparative. Well, the
Anglo-Saxon public is totally insensible to such things. They
can no more feel them, than a blind worm can feel the colours
of the rainbow."
She laughed again, and regarded him with an air of humorous
"And that accounts for the unsuccess of 'A Man of Words'?"
"You might as well offer Francois Villon a banquet of Orient
"You are bitterly hard on the Anglo-Saxon public."
"Oh, no," he disclaimed, "not hard--but just. I wish them all
sorts of prosperity, with a little more taste."
"Oh, but surely," she caught him up, "if their taste were
greater, their prosperity would be less?"
"I don't know," said he. "The Greeks were fairly prosperous,
were n't they? And the Venetians? And the French are not yet
Still again she laughed--always with that little air of
"You--you don't exactly overwhelm one with compliments," she
He looked alarm, anxiety.
"Don't I? What have I neglected?" he cried.
"You 've never once evinced the slightest curiosity to learn
what I think of the book in question."
"Oh, I'm sure you like it," he rejoined hardily. "You have
'the seeing eye.'"
"And yet I'm just a humble member of the Anglo-Saxon public."
"No--you're a distinguished member of the Anglo-Saxon
'remnant.' Thank heaven, there's a remnant, a little scattered
remnant. I'm perfectly sure you like 'A Man of Words.'"
"'Like it' is a proposition so general. Perhaps I am burning
to tell someone what I think of it in detail."
She smiled into his eyes, a trifle oddly.
"If you are, then I know someone who is burning to hear you,"
"Well, then, I think--I think . . . " she began, on a note of
deliberation. "But I 'm afraid, just now, it would take too
long to formulate my thought. Perhaps I'll try another day."
She gave him a derisory little nod--and in a minute was well up
the lawn, towards the castle.
Peter glared after her, his fists clenched, teeth set.
"You fiend!" he muttered. Then, turning savagely upon himself,
Nevertheless, that evening, he said to Marietta, "The plot
thickens. We've advanced a step. We've reached what the
vulgar call a psychological moment. She's seen my Portrait of
a Lady. But as yet, if you can believe me, she doesn't dream
who painted it; and she has n't recognised the subject. As if
one were to face one's image in the glass, and take it for
another's! 3--I 'll--I 'll double your wages--if you will
induce events to hurry up."
However, as he spoke English, Marietta was in no position to
profit by his offer.
Peter was walking in the high-road, on the other side of the
river--the great high-road that leads from Bergamo to Milan.
It was late in the afternoon, and already, in the west, the sky
was beginning to put on some of its sunset splendours. In the
east, framed to Peter's vision by parallel lines of poplars, it
hung like a curtain of dark-blue velvet.
Peter sat on the grass, by the roadside, in the shadow of a
hedge--a rose-bush hedge, of course--and lighted a cigarette.
Far down the long white road, against the blue velvet sky,
between the poplars, two little spots of black, two small human
figures, were moving towards him.
Half absently, he let his eyes accompany them.
As they carne nearer, they defined themselves as a boy and a
girl. Nearer still, he saw that they were ragged and dusty and
The boy had three or four gaudy-hued wicker baskets slung over
Vaguely, tacitly, Peter supposed that they would be the
children of some of the peasants of the countryside, on their
way home from the village.
As they arrived abreast of him, they paid him the usual
peasants' salute. The boy lifted a tattered felt hat from his
head, the girl bobbed a courtesy, and "Buona sera, Eccellenza,"
they said in concert, without, however, pausing in their march.
Peter put his hand in his pocket.
"Here, little girl," he called.
The little girl glanced at him, doubting.
"Come here," he said.
Her face a question, she came up to him; and he gave her a few
"To buy sweetmeats," he said.
"A thousand thanks; Excellency," said she, bobbing another
"A thousand thanks, Excellency," said the boy, from his
distance, again lifting his rag of a hat.
And they trudged on.
But Peter looked after them--and his heart smote him. They
were clearly of the poorest of the poor. He thought of Hansel
and Gretel. Why had he given them so little? He called to
them to stop.
The little girl came running back.
Peter rose to meet her.
"You may as well buy some ribbons too," he said, and gave her a
couple of lire.
She looked at the money with surprise--even with an appearance
of hesitation. Plainly, it was a sum, in her eyes.
"It's all right. Now run along," said Peter.
"A thousand thanks, Excellency," said she, with a third
courtesy, and rejoined her brother . . . .
"Where are they going?" asked a voice.
Peter faced about.
There stood the Duchessa, in a bicycling costume, her bicycle
beside her. Her bicycling costume was of blue serge, and she
wore a jaunty sailor-hat with a blue ribbon. Peter (in spite
of the commotion in his breast) was able to remember that this
was the first time he had seen her in anything but white.
Her attention was all upon the children, whom he, perhaps, had
more or less banished to Cracklimbo.
"Where are they going?" she repeated, trouble in her voice and
in her eyes.
Peter collected himself.
"The children? I don't know--I didn't ask. Home, aren't
"Home? Oh, no. They don't live hereabouts," she said. "I
know all the poor of this neighbourhood.--Ohe there! Children!
Children!" she cried.
But they were quite a hundred yards away, and did not hear.
"Do you wish them to come back?" asked Peter.
"Yes--of course," she answered, with a shade of impatience.
He put his fingers to his lips (you know the schoolboy
accomplishment), and gave a long whistle.
That the children did hear.
They halted, and turned round, looking, enquiring.
"Come back--come back!" called the Duchessa, raising her hand,
They came back.
"The pathetic little imps," she murmured while they were on the
The boy was a sturdy, square-built fellow, of twelve, thirteen,
with a shock of brown hair, brown cheeks, and sunny brown eyes;
with a precocious air of doggedness, of responsibility. He
wore an old tail-coat, the tail-coat of a man, ragged,
discoloured, falling to his ankles.
The girl was ten or eleven, pale, pinched; hungry, weary, and
sorry looking. Her hair too had been brown, upon a time; but
now it was faded to something near the tint of ashes, and had
almost the effect of being grey. Her pale little forehead was
crossed by thin wrinkles, lines of pain, of worry, like an old
The Duchessa, pushing her bicycle, and followed by Peter, moved
down the road, to meet them. Peter had never been so near to
her before--at moments her arm all but brushed his sleeve. I
think he blessed the children.
"Where are you going?" the Duchessa asked, softly, smiling into
the girl's sad little face.
The girl had shown no fear of Peter; but apparently she was
somewhat frightened by this grand lady. The toes of her bare
feet worked nervously in the dust. She hung her head shyly,
and eyed her brother.
But the brother, removing his hat, with the bow of an Italian
peasant--and that is to say, the bow of a courtier--spoke up
"To Turin, Nobility."
He said it in a perfectly matter-of-fact way, quite as he might
have said, "To the next farm-house."
The Duchessa, however, had not bargained for an answer of this
measure. Startled, doubting her ears perhaps, "To--Turin--!"
"Yes, Excellency," said the boy.
"But--but Turin--Turin is hundreds of kilometres from here,"
she said, in a kind of gasp.
"Yes, Excellency," said the boy.
"You are going to Turin--you two children--walking--like that!"
"But--but it will take you a month."
"Pardon, noble lady," said the boy. "With your Excellency's
permission, we were told it should take fifteen days."
"Where do you come from?" she asked.
"From Bergamo, Excellency."
"When did you leave Bergamo?"
"Yesterday morning, Excellency."
"The little girl is your sister?"
"Have you a mother and father?"
"A father, Excellency. The mother is dead." Each of the
children made the Sign of the Cross; and Peter was somewhat
surprised, no doubt, to see the Duchessa do likewise. He had
yet to learn the beautiful custom of that pious Lombard land,
whereby, when the Dead are mentioned, you make the Sign of the
Cross, and, pausing reverently for a moment, say in silence the
traditional prayer of the Church:
"May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed,
through the Mercy of God, rest in peace."
"And where is your father?" the Duchessa asked.
"In Turin, Excellency," answered the boy. "He is a glass-blower.
After the strike at Bergamo, he went to Turin to seek work. Now
he has found it. So he has sent for us to come to
"And you two children--alone--are going to walk all the way to
Turin!" She could not get over the pitiful wonder of it.