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, “not perhaps–certainly.”
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 said.
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 there obstinately.
“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, in English.
The voice was a woman’s. It was clear and smooth; it was crisp-cut, distinguished.
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, smiling.
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 my tale.
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 bow.
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 him.
“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 prospect critically.
“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 speaker.)
“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 a moment.
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 homage.
“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 bow.
She moved away from the river, up the smooth lawns, between the trees, towards Castel Ventirose, a flitting whiteness amid the surrounding green.
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 eyes.
“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 hesitation.
“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, perplexed.
“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 caution.
“Of course it is,” said he. “That’s just the point. Who is she?”
“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 Santangiolo.”
“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, tutte, tutte.”
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 suddenly illumined.
“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 Cross.
“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 replied.
“Indeed? Then the leopard can change his spots?” was Peter’s inference.
“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 look.”
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 her before?”
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 sides.”
“That old dowager–?” repeated Marietta, blank.
“That old widow woman–my landlady–the Duchessa Vedova di Santangiolo.”
“She is not very old–only twenty-six, twenty-seven,” said Marietta.
“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 sententiousness.
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 both.
The Duchessa was at neither.
“What does she think will become of her immortal soul?” he asked Marietta.
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 rain.”
“Then let us hope,” said he, “that the country’s real needs may remain unsatisfied.”
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 farmers.”
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 Floriano?”
“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 chatterers.”
“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 me.”
“Oh–?” said the Duchessa. And her raised eyebrows demanded particulars.
“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 home.”
“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 companion.
The sprightly French bays tossed their heads, making the harness tinkle. The footman mounted the box. The carriage rolled away.
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, with simplicity.
“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 inaccessible?”
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 letter.
“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 asked.
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 Padua.”
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 Lisbon.”
“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 night.”
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 mouths.
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’ outposts.
“Yes, poor things,” said he.
“Poor things?” cried she, indignant. “The unprincipled little monsters!”
“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 world.”
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 Peter.
“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 dragon.”
“It would do no good,” said he. “You’d get rid of one species of snatcher, but some other species of snatcher would instantly pop UP.”
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 gold.
“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 body.
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 said.
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 ineptitudes you
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 certain statistics.
“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 spearheads.
He lighted a cigarette, and stood there till he had consumed it.
“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 dressing-room.
“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 oscillations.
“Oh–?” wondered Beatrice, knitting puzzled brows.
“Very amiable, your Greatness; but simple, simple,” Marietta explained, and tapped her brown old forehead with a brown forefinger.
“Really–?” wondered Beatrice.
“Yes, Nobility,” said Marietta. “Gentle as a canarybird, but innocent, innocent.”
“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 Marietta.
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 Marietta’s eyes.
“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 milk.
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 obeisance.
“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 Lelian.”
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 his feelings.”
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 adopt him.”
“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 reflected.
“–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 bound book.
“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 of appreciation.
“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 animation.
“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 familiar friends.”
“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 that?”
“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 unhappy love-affair.”
“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 unpopularity?”
“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 meditation.
“And that accounts for the unsuccess of ‘A Man of Words’?”
“You might as well offer Francois Villon a banquet of Orient pearls.”
“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 quite bankrupt.”
Still again she laughed–always with that little air of humorous meditation.
“You–you don’t exactly overwhelm one with compliments,” she observed.
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,” he avowed.
“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, “You duffer!”
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 barefoot.
The boy had three or four gaudy-hued wicker baskets slung over his shoulder.
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 coppers.
“To buy sweetmeats,” he said.
“A thousand thanks; Excellency,” said she, bobbing another courtesy.
“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 they?”
“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, and beckoning.
They came back.
“The pathetic little imps,” she murmured while they were on the way.
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 woman’s.
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 bravely.
“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–!” she exclaimed.
“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!” she persisted.
“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 him.”
“And you two children–alone–are going to walk all the way to Turin!” She could not get over the pitiful wonder of it.