MY FRIEND PROSPERO
By HENRY HARLAND
THE CARDINAL'S SNUFF-BOX. Illustrated by G.C. Wilmshurst. One Hundred and Fifth Thousand.
THE LADY PARAMOUNT. Fifty-fifth Thousand.
COMEDIES AND ERRORS. Third Edition.
GREY ROSES. Third Edition.
MADEMOISELLE MISS. Second Edition.
JOHN LANE: THE BODLEY HEAD
LONDON & NEW YORK. MDCCCCIV
My Friend Prospero
The coachman drew up his horses before the castle gateway, where their hoofs beat a sort of fanfare on the stone pavement; and the footman, letting himself smartly down, pulled, with a peremptory gesture that was just not quite a swagger, the bronze hand at the end of the dangling bell-cord.
Seated alone in her great high-swung barouche, in the sweet April weather, Lady Blanchemain gave the interval that followed to a consideration of the landscape: first, sleeping in shadowy stillness, the formal Italian garden, its terraced lawns and metrical parterres, its straight dark avenues of ilex, its cypresses, fountains, statues, balustrades; and then, laughing in the breeze and the sun, the wild Italian valley, a forest of blossoming fruit-trees, with the river winding and glinting in its midst, with olive-clad hills blue-grey at either side, and beyond the hills, peering over their shoulders, the snow-peaks of mountains, crisp against the sky, and in the level distance the hazy shimmer of the lake.
"It is lovely," she exclaimed, fervently, in a whisper, "lovely.—And only a generation of blind-worms," was her after-thought, "could discern in it the slightest resemblance to the drop-scene of a theatre."
Big, humorous, emotional, imperious, but, above all, interested and sociable Lady Blanchemain: do you know her, I wonder? Her billowy white hair? Her handsome soft old face, with its smooth skin, and the good strong bony structure underneath? Her beautiful old grey eyes, full of tenderness and shrewdness, of curiosity, irony, indulgence, overarched and emphasized by regular black eyebrows? Her pretty little plump pink-white hands, (like two little elderly Cupids), with their shining panoply of rings? And her luxurious, courageous, high-hearted manner of dressing? The light colours and jaunty fashion of her gowns? Her laces, ruffles, embroideries? Her gay little bonnets? Her gems? Linda Baroness Blanchemain, of Fring Place, Sussex; Belmore Gardens, Kensington; and Villa Antonina, San Remo: big, merry, sociable, sentimental, worldly-wise, impetuous Linda Blanchemain: do you know her? If you do, I am sure you love her and rejoice in her; and enough is said. If you don't, I beg leave to present and to commend her.
I spoke, by the bye, of her "old" face, her "old" eyes. She is, to be sure, in so far as mere numbers of years tell, an old woman. But I once heard her throw out, in the heat of conversation, the phrase, "a young old thing like me;" and I thought she touched a truth.
Well, then, the footman, in his masterful way, pulled the bell-cord; Lady Blanchemain contemplated the landscape, and had her opinion of a generation that could liken it to the drop-scene of a theatre; and in due process of things the bell was answered.
It was answered by a man in a costume that struck my humorous old friend as pleasing: a sallow little man whose otherwise quite featureless suit of tweeds was embellished by scarlet worsted shoulder-knots. With lack-lustre eyes, from behind the plexus of the grille, he rather stolidly regarded the imposing British equipage, and waited to be addressed.
Lady Blanchemain addressed him in the language of Pistoja. Might one, she inquired, with her air of high affability, in her distinguished old voice, might one visit the castle?—a question purely of convention, for she had not come hither without an assurance from her guide-book.
Shoulder-knots, however,—either to flaunt his attainments, or because indeed Pistoiese (what though the polyglot races of Italy have agreed upon it as a lingua franca) offered the greater difficulties to his Lombardian tongue,—replied in French.
"I do not think so, Madame," was his reply, in a French sufficiently heavy and stiff-jointed, enforced by a dubious oscillation of the head.
Lady Blanchemain's black eyebrows shot upwards, marking her surprise; then drew together, marking her determination.
"But of course one can—it's in the guide-book," she insisted, and held up the red-bound volume.
The sceptic gave a shrug, as one who disclaimed responsibility and declined discussion.
"Me, I do not think so. But patience! I will go and ask," he said; and, turning his back, faded from sight in the depths of the dark tunnel-like porte-cochere.
Vexed, perplexed, Lady Blanchemain fidgeted a little. To have taken this long drive for nothing!—sweet though the weather was, fair though the valley: but she was not a person who could let the means excuse the end. She neither liked nor was accustomed to see her enterprises balked,—to see doors remain closed in her face. Doors indeed had a habit of flying open at her approach. Besides, the fellow's manner,—his initial stare and silence, his tone when he spoke, his shrug, his exhortation to patience, and something too in the conduct of his back as he departed,—hadn't it lacked I don't know what of becoming deference? to satisfy her amour-propre, at any rate, that the mistake, if there was a mistake, sprang from no malapprehension of her own, she looked up chapter and verse. Yes, there the assurance stood, circumstantial, in all the convincingness of the sturdy, small black type:—
"From Roccadoro a charming excursion may be made, up the beautiful Val Rampio, to the mediaeval village of Sant' Alessina (7 miles), with its magnificent castle, in fine grounds, formerly a seat of the Sforzas, now belonging to the Prince of Zelt-Neuminster, and containing the celebrated Zelt-Neuminster collection of paintings. Incorporated in the castle buildings, a noticeable peculiarity, are the parish church and presbytery. Accessible daily, except Monday, from 10 to 4; attendant 1 fr."
So then! To-day was Wednesday, the hour between two and three. So—! Her amour-propre triumphed, but I fancy her vexation mounted....
"I beg your pardon. It's disgraceful you should have been made to wait. The porter is an idiot. You wish, of course, to see the house—?"
The English words, on a key of spontaneous apology, with a very zealous inflection of concern—yet, at the same time, with a kind of entirely respectful and amiable abruptness, as of one hailing a familiar friend,—were pronounced in a breath by a brisk, cheerful, unmistakably English voice.
Lady Blanchemain, whose attention had still been on the incriminated page, looked quickly up, and (English voice and spontaneous apology notwithstanding) I won't vouch that the answer at the tip of her impulsive tongue mightn't have proved a hasty one—but the speaker's appearance gave her pause: the appearance of the tall, smiling, unmistakably English young man, by whom Shoulder-knots had returned accompanied, and who now, having pushed the grille ajar and issued forth, stood, placing himself with a tentative obeisance at her service, beside the carriage: he was so clearly, first of all—what, if it hadn't been for her preoccupation, his voice, tone, accent would have warned her to expect—so visibly a gentleman; and then, with the even pink of his complexion, his yellowish hair and beard, his alert, friendly, very blue blue eyes—with his very blue blue flannels too, and his brick-red knitted tie—he was so vivid and so unusual.
His appearance gave her a pause; and in the result she in her turn almost apologized.
"This wretched book," she explained, pathetically bringing forward her piece justificative, "said that it was open to the public."
The vivid young man hastened to put her in the right.
"It is—it is," he eagerly affirmed. "Only," he added, with a vaguely rueful modulation, and always with that amiable abruptness, as a man very much at his ease, while his blue eyes whimsically brightened, "only the blessed public never comes—we're so off the beaten path. And I suppose one mustn't expect a Scioccone"—his voice swelled on the word, and he cast sidelong a scathing glance at his summoner—"to cope with unprecedented situations. Will you allow me to help you out?"
"Ah," thought Lady Blanchemain, "Eton," his tone and accent now nicely appraised by an experienced ear. "Eton—yes; and probably—h'm? Probably Balliol," her experience led her further to surmise. But what—with her insatiable curiosity about people, she had of course immediately begun to wonder—what was an Eton and Balliol man doing, apparently in a position of authority, at this remote Italian castle?
He helped her out, very gracefully, very gallantly; and under his guidance she made the tour of the vast building: its greater court and lesser court; its cloisters, with their faded frescoes, and their marvellous outlook, northwards, upon the Alps; its immense rotunda, springing to the open dome, where the sky was like an inset plaque of turquoise; its "staircase of honour," guarded, in an ascending file, by statues of men in armour; and then, on the piano nobile, its endless chain of big, empty, silent, splendid state apartments, with their pavements of gleaming marble, in many-coloured patterns, their painted and gilded ceilings, tapestried walls, carved wood and moulded stucco, their pictures, pictures, pictures, and their atmosphere of stately desolation, their memories of another age, their reminders of the power and pomp of people who had long been ghosts.
He was tall (with that insatiable curiosity of hers, she was of course continuously studying him), tall and broad-shouldered, but not a bit rigid or inflexible—of a figure indeed conspicuously supple, suave in its quick movements, soft in its energetic lines, a figure that could with equal thoroughness be lazy in repose and vehement in action. His yellow hair was thick and fine, and if it hadn't been cropped so close would have curled a little. His beard, in small crinkly spirals, did actually curl, and toward the edge its yellow burned to red. And his blue eyes were so very very blue, and so very keen, and so very frank and pleasant—"They are like sailors' eyes," thought Lady Blanchemain, who had a sentiment for sailors. He carried his head well thrown back, as a man who was perfectly sure of himself and perfectly unselfconscious; and thus unconsciously he drew attention to the vigorous sweep of his profile, the decisive angles of his brow and nose. His voice was brisk and cheerful and masculine; and that abruptness with which he spoke—which seemed, as it were, to imply a previous acquaintance—was so tempered by manifest good breeding and so coloured by manifest good will, that it became a positive part and parcel of what one liked in him. It was the abruptness of a man very much at his ease, very much a man of the world, yet it was somehow, in its essence, boyish. It expressed freshness, sincerity, conviction, a boyish wholesale surrender of himself to the business of the moment; it expressed, perhaps above all, a boyish thorough good understanding with his interlocutor. "It amounts," thought his present interlocutrice, "to a kind of infinitely sublimated bluffness."
And then she fell to examining his clothes: his loose, soft, very blue blue flannels, with vague stripes of darker blue; his soft shirt, with its rolling collar; his red tie, knitted of soft silk, and tied in a loose sailor's-knot. She liked his clothes, and she liked the way he wore them. They suited him. They were loose and comfortable and unconventional, but they were beautifully fresh and well cared for, and showed him, if indifferent to the fashion-plate of the season, meticulous in a fashion of his own. "It's hard to imagine him dressed otherwise," she said, and instantly had a vision of him dressed for dinner.
But what—what—what was he doing at Castel Sant' Alessina?
Meanwhile he plainly knew a tremendous lot about Italian art. Lady Blanchemain herself knew a good deal, and could recognize a pundit. He illumined their progress by a running fire of exposition and commentary, learned and discerning, to which she encouragingly listened, and, as occasion required, amiably responded. But Boltraffios, Bernardino Luinis, even a putative Giorgione, could not divert her mind from its human problem. What was he doing at Castel Sant' Alessina, the property, according to her guide-book, of an Austrian prince? What was his status here, apparently (bar servants) in solitary occupation? Was he its tenant? He couldn't, surely, this well-dressed, high-bred, cultivated young compatriot, he couldn't be a mere employe, a steward or curator? No: probably a tenant. Antecedently indeed it might seem unlikely that a young Englishman should become the tenant of an establishment so huge and so sequestered; but was it conceivable that this particular young Englishman should be a mere employe? And was there any other alternative? She hearkened for a word, a note, that might throw light; but of such notes, such words, a young man's conversation, in the circumstances, would perhaps naturally yield a meagre crop.
"You mustn't let me tire you," he said presently, as one who had forgotten and suddenly remembered that looking at pictures is exhausting work. "Won't you sit here and rest a little?"
They were in a smaller room than any they had previously traversed, an octagonal room, which a single lofty window filled with sunshine.
"Oh, thank you," said Lady Blanchemain, and seated herself on the circular divan in the centre of the polished terrazza floor. She wasn't really tired in the least, the indefatigable old sight-seer; but a respite from picture-gazing would enable her to turn the talk. She put up her mother-of-pearl lorgnon, and glanced round the walls; then, lowering it, she frankly raised her eyes, full of curiosity and kindness, to her companion's.
"It's a surprise, and a delightful one," she remarked, "having pushed so far afield in a foreign land, to be met by the good offices of a fellow-countryman—it's so nice of you to be English."
And her eyes softly changed, their curiosity being veiled by a kind of humorous content.
The young man's face, from its altitude of six-feet-something, beamed responsively down upon her.
"Oh," he laughed, "you mustn't give me too much credit. To be English nowadays is so ingloriously easy—since foreign lands have become merely the wider suburbs of London."
Lady Blanchemain's eyes lighted approvingly. Afterwards she looked half serious.
"True," she discriminated, "London has spread pretty well over the whole of Europe; but England, thanks be to goodness, still remains mercifully small."
"Yes," agreed the young man, though with a lilt of dubiety, and a frown of excogitation, as if he weren't sure that he had quite caught her drift.
"The mercy of it is," she smilingly pointed out, "that English folk, decent ones, have no need to fight shy of each other when they meet as strangers. We all know more or less about each other by hearsay, or about each other's people; and we're all pretty sure to have some common acquaintances. The smallness of England makes for sociability and confidence."
"It ought to, one would think," the young man admitted. "But does it, in fact? It had somehow got stuck in my head that English folk, meeting as strangers, were rather apt to glare. We're most of us in such a funk, you see, lest, if we treat a stranger with civility, he should turn out not to be a duke."
"Oh," cried Lady Blanchemain, with merriment, "you forget that I said decent. I meant, of course, folk who are dukes. We're all dukes—or bagmen."
The young man chuckled; but in a minute he pulled a long face, and made big, ominous eyes.
"I feel I ought to warn you," he said in a portentous voice, "that some of us are mere marquises—of the house of Carabas."
Lady Blanchemain, her whole expansive person, simmered with enjoyment.
"Bless you," she cried, "those are the ducalest, for marquises—of the house of Carabas—are men of dash and spirit, born to bear everything before them, and to marry the King's daughter."
With that, she had a moment of abstraction. Again, her eyeglass up, she glanced round the walls—hung, in this octagonal room, with dim-coloured portraits of women, all in wonderful toilets, with wonderful hair and head-gear, all wonderfully young and pleased with things, and all four centuries dead. They caused her a little feeling of uneasiness, they were so dead and silent, and yet somehow, in their fixed postures, with their unblinking eyes, their unvarying smiles, so—as it seemed to her—so watchful, so intent; and it was a relief to turn from them to the window, to the picture framed by the window of warm, breathing, heedless nature. But all the while, in her interior mind, she was busy with the man before her. "He looks," she considered, "tall as he is, and with his radiant blondeur—with the gold in his hair and beard, and the sea-blue in his eyes—he looks like a hero out of some old Norse saga. He looks like-what's his name?—like Odin. I must really compel him to explain himself."
It very well may be, meantime, that he was reciprocally busy with her, taking her in, admiring her, this big, jolly, comely, high-mannered old woman, all in soft silks and drooping laces, who had driven into his solitude from Heaven knew where, and was quite unquestionably Someone, Heaven knew who.
She had a moment of abstraction; but now, emerging from it, she used her eyeglass as a pointer, and indicatively swept the circle of painted eavesdroppers.
"They make one feel like their grandmother, their youth is so flagrant," she sighed, "these grandmothers of the Quattrocento. Ah, well, we can only be old once, and we should take advantage of the privileges of age while we have 'em. Old people, I am thankful to say, are allowed, amongst other things, to be inquisitive. I'm brazenly so. Now, if one of our common acquaintances were at hand—for with England still mercifully small, we're sure to possess a dozen, you and I—what do you think is the question I should ask him?—I should ask him," she avowed, with a pretty effect of hesitation, and a smile that went as an advance-guard to disarm resentment, "to tell me who you are, and all about you—and to introduce you to me."
"Oh," cried the young man, laughing. He laughed for a second or two. In the end, pleasantly, with a bow, "My name," he said, "if you can possibly care to know, is Blanchemain."
His visitor caught her breath. She sat up straight, and gazed hard at him.
"Blanchemain?" she gasped.
There were, to be sure, reasons and to spare why the name should make her sit up straight. Her curiosity had turned the key, and lo, with a click, here was an entirely changed, immensely complicated, intensely poignant situation. But our excitable old friend was an Englishwoman: dissimulation would be her second nature; you could trust her to pull the wool over your eyes with a fleet and practised hand. Instinctively, furthermore, she would seek to extract from such a situation all the fun it promised. Taken off her guard, for the span of ten heart-beats she sat up straight and stared; but with the eleventh her attitude relaxed. She had regained her outward nonchalance, and resolved upon her system of fence.
"Ah," she said, on a tone judiciously compounded of feminine artlessness and of forthright British candour, and with a play of the eyebrows that attributed her momentary suscitation to the workings of memory, "of course—Blanchemain. The Sussex Blanchemains. I expect there's only one family of the name?"
"I've never heard of another," assented the young man.
"The Ventmere Blanchemains," she pursued pensively. "Lord Blanchemain of Ventmere is your titled head?"
"Exactly," said he.
"I knew the late Lord Blanchemain—I knew him fairly well," she mentioned, always with a certain pensiveness.
"Oh—?" said he, politely interested.
"Yes," said she. "But I've never met his successor. The two were not, I believe, on speaking terms. Of course,"—and her forthright British candour carried her trippingly over the delicate ground,—"it's common knowledge that the family is divided against itself—hostile branches—a Protestant branch and a Catholic. The present lord, if I've got it right, is a Catholic, and the late lord's distant cousin?"
"You've got it quite right," the young man assured her, with a nod, and a little laugh. "They had the same great-great-grandfather. The last few lords have been Protestants, but in our branch the family have never forsaken the old religion."
"I know," said she. "And wasn't it—I've heard the story, but I'm a bit hazy about it—wasn't it owing to your—is 'recusancy' the word?—that you lost the title? Wasn't there some sort of sharp practice at your expense in the last century?"
The young man had another little laugh.
"Oh, nothing," he answered, "that wasn't very much the fashion. The late lord's great-grandfather denounced his elder brother as a Papist and a Jacobite—nothing more than that. It was after the 'Forty-five. So the cadet took the title and estates. But with the death of the late lord, a dozen years or so ago, the younger line became extinct, and the title reverted."
"I see," said my lady. She knitted her eyebrows, computing. After an instant, "General Blanchemain," she resumed, "as the present lord was called for the best part of his life, is a bachelor. You will be one of his nephews?" She raised her eyes inquiringly.
"The son of his brother Philip," said the young man.
Lady Blanchemain sat up straight again.
"But then," she cried, forgetting to conceal her perturbation, "then you're the heir. Philip Blanchemain had but one son, and was the General's immediate junior. You're John Blanchemain—John Francis Joseph Mary. You're the heir."
The young man smiled—at her eagerness, perhaps.
"The heir-presumptive—I suppose I am," he said.
Lady Blanchemain leaned back and gently tittered.
"See how I know my Peerage!" she exclaimed. Then, looking grave, "You're heir to an uncommonly good old title," she informed him.
"I hope it may be many a long day before I'm anything else," said he.
"Your uncle is an old man," she suggestively threw out.
"Oh, not so very old," he submitted. "Only seventy, or thereabouts, and younger in many respects than I am. I hope he'll live for ever."
"Hum!" said she, and appeared to fall a-musing. Absently, as it seemed, and slowly, she was pulling off her gloves.
"Feuds in families," she said, in a minute, "are bad things. Why don't you make it up?"
The young man waved his hand, a pantomimic non-possumus.
"There's no one left to make it up with—the others are all dead."
"Oh?" she wondered, her eyebrows elevated, whilst automatically her fingers continued to operate upon her gloves. "I thought the last lord left a widow. I seem to have heard of a Lady Blanchemain somewhere."
The young man gave still another of his little laughs.
"Linda Lady Blanchemain?" he said. "Yes, one hears a lot of her. A highly original character, by all accounts. One hears of her everywhere."
Linda Lady Blanchemain's lip began to quiver; but she got it under control.
"Well?" she questioned—eyes fixing his, and brimming with a kind of humorous defiance, as if to say, "Think me an impertinent old meddler if you will, and do your worst,"—"Why don't you make it up with her?"
But he didn't seem to mind the meddling in the least. He stood at ease, and plausibly put his case.
"Why don't I? Or why doesn't my uncle? My uncle is a temperamental conservative, a devotee to his traditions—the sort of man who will never do anything that hasn't been the constant habit of his forebears. He would no more dream of healing a well-established family feud than of selling the family plate. And I—well, surely, it would never be for me to make the advances."
"No, you're right," acknowledged Lady Blanchemain. "The advances should come from her. But people have such a fatal way—even without being temperamental conservatives—of leaving things as they find them. Besides, never having seen you, she couldn't know how nice you are. All the same, I'll confess, if you insist upon it, that she ought to be ashamed of herself. Come—let's make it up."
She rose, a great soft glowing vision of benignancy, and held out her hand, now gloveless, her pretty little smooth plump right hand, with its twinkling rings.
"Oh!" cried the astonished young man, the astonished, amused, moved, wondering, and entirely won young man, his sea-blue eyes wide open, and a hundred lights of pleasure and surprise dancing in them.
The benignant vision floated towards him, and he took the little white hand in his long lean brown one.
When the first stress of their emotion had in some degree spent itself Lady Blanchemain, returning to her place on the ottoman, bade John sit down beside her.
"Now," she said, genially imperative, whilst all manner of kindly and admiring interest shone in her face, "there are exactly nine million and ninety-nine questions that you'll be obliged to answer before I've done with you. But to begin, you must clear up at once a mystery that's been troubling me ever since you dashed to my rescue at the gate. What in the name of Reason is the cause of your residence in this ultramundane stronghold?"
John—convict me of damnable iteration if you must: Heaven has sent me a laughing hero—John laughed.
"Oh," he said, "there are several causes—there are exactly nine million and ninety-eight."
"Name," commanded Lady Blanchemain, "the first and the last."
"Well," obeyed he, pondering, "I should think the first, the last, and perhaps the chief intermediate, would be—the whole blessed thing." And his arm described a circle which comprehended the castle and all within it, and the countryside without.
"It has a pleasant site, I'll not deny," said Lady Blanchemain. "But don't you find it a trifle far away? And a bit up-hill? I'm staying at the Victoria at Roccadoro, and it took me an hour and a half to drive here."
"But since," said John, with a flattering glance, "since you are here, I have no further reason to deplore its farawayness. So few places are far away, in these times and climes," he added, on a note of melancholy, as one to whom all climes and times were known.
"Hum!" said Lady Blanchemain, matter-of-fact. "Have you been here long?"
"Let me see," John answered. "To-day is the 23rd of April. I arrived here—I offer the fact for what it may be worth—on the Feast of All Fools."
"Absit omen," cried she. "And you intend to stay?"
"Oh, I'm at least wise enough not to fetter myself with intentions," answered John.
She looked about, calculating, estimating.
"I suppose it costs you the very eyes of your head?" she asked.
"Guess what it costs—I give it to you in a thousand."
She continued her survey, brought it to a period.
"A billion a week," she said, with finality. John exulted.
"It costs me," he told her, "six francs fifty a day—wine included."
"What!" cried she, mistrusting her ears.
"Yes," said he.
"Fudge!" said she, not to be caught with chaff.
"It sounds like a traveller's tale, I know; but that's so often the bother with the truth," said he. "Truth is under no obligation to be vraisemblable. I'm here en pension."
Lady Blanchemain sniffed.
"Does the Prince of Zelt-Neuminster take in boarders?" she inquired, her nose in the air.
"Not exactly," said John. "But the Parroco of Sant' Alessina does. I board at the presbytery."
"Oh," said Lady Blanchemain, beginning to see light, while her eyebrows went up, went down. "You board at the presbytery?"
"For six francs fifty a day—wine included," chuckled John.
"Wine, and apparently the unhindered enjoyment of—the whole blessed thing," supplemented she, with a reminder of his comprehensive gesture.
"Yes—the run of the house and garden, the freedom of the hills and valley."
"I understand," she said, and was mute for a space, readjusting her impressions. "I had supposed," she went on at last, "from the handsome way in which you snubbed that creature in shoulder-knots, and proceeded to do the honours of the place, that you were little less than its proprietor."
"Well, and so I could almost feel I am," laughed John. "I'm alone here—there's none my sway to dispute. And as for the creature in shoulder-knots, what becomes of the rights of man or the bases of civil society, if you can't snub a creature whom you regularly tip? For five francs a week the creature in shoulder-knots cleans my boots (indifferent well), brushes my clothes, runs my errands (indifferent slow),—and swallows my snubs as if they were polenta."
"And tries to shoo intrusive trippers from your threshold—and gets an extra plateful for his pains," laughed the lady. "Where," she asked, "does the Prince of Zelt-Neuminster keep himself?"
"In Vienna, I believe. Anyhow, at a respectful distance. The parroco, who is also his sort of intendant, tells me he practically never comes to Sant' Alessina."
"Good easy man," quoth she. "Yes, I certainly supposed you were his tenant-in-fee, at the least. You have an air." And her bob of the head complimented him upon it.
"Oh, we Marquises of Carabas!" cried John, with a flourish.
She regarded him doubtfully.
"Wouldn't you find yourself in a slightly difficult position, if the Prince or his family should suddenly turn up?" she suggested.
"I? Why?" asked John, his blue eyes blank.
"A young man boarding with the parroco for six francs a day—" she began.
"Six francs fifty, please," he gently interposed.
"Make it seven if you like," her ladyship largely conceded. "Wouldn't your position be slightly false? Would they quite realize who you were?"
"What could that possibly matter? wondered John, eyes blanker still.
"I could conceive occasions in which it might matter furiously," said she. "Foreigners can't with half an eye distinguish amongst us, as we ourselves can; and Austrians have such oddly exalted notions. You wouldn't like to be mistaken for Mr. Snooks?"
"I don't know," John reflected, vistas opening before him. "It might be rather a lark."
"Whrrr!" said Lady Blanchemain, fanning herself with her pocket-handkerchief. Then she eyed him suspiciously. "You're hiding the nine million other causes up your sleeve. It isn't merely the 'whole blessed thing' that's keeping an eaglet of your feather alone in an improbable nest like this—it's some one particular thing. In my time," she sighed, "it would have been a woman."
"And no wonder," riposted John, with a flowery bow.
"You're very good—but you confuse the issue," said she. "In my time the world was young and romantic. In this age of prose and prudence—is it a woman?"
"The world is still, is always, young and romantic," said John, sententious. "I can't admit that an age of prose and prudence is possible. The poetry of earth is never dead, and no more is its folly. The world is always romantic, if you have the three gifts needful to make it so."
"Is it a woman?" repeated Lady Blanchemain.
"And the three gifts are," said he, "Faith, and the sense of Beauty, and the sense of Humour."
"And I should have thought, an attractive member of the opposite sex," said she. "Is it a woman?"
"Well," he at last replied, appearing to take counsel with himself, "I don't know why I should forbid myself the relief of owning up to you that in a sense it is."
"Hurray!" cried she, moving in her seat, agog, as one who scented her pet diversion. "A love affair! I'll be your confidante. Tell me all about it."
"Yes, in a sense, a love affair," he confessed.
"Good—excellent," she approved. "But—but what do you mean by 'in a sense'?"
"Ah," said he, darkly nodding, "I mean whole worlds by that."
"I don't understand," said she, her face prepared to fall.
"It isn't one woman—it's a score, a century, of the dear things," he announced.
Her face fell. "Oh—?" she faltered.
"It's a love affair with a type," he explained.
She frowned upon him. "A love affair with a type—?"
"Yes," said he.
She shook her head. "I give you up. In one breath you speak like a Mohammedan, in the next like—I don't know what."
"With these," said John, his band stretched towards the wall. "With the type of the Quattrocento."
He got upon his feet, and moved from picture to picture; and a fire, half indeed of mischief; but half it may be of real enthusiasm, glimmered in his eyes.
"With these lost ladies of old years; these soft-coloured shadows, that were once rosy flesh; these proud, humble, innocent, subtle, brave, shy, pious, pleasure-loving women of the long ago. With them; with their hair and eyes and jewels, their tip-tilted, scornful, witty little noses, their 'throats so round and lips so red,' their splendid raiment; with their mirth, pathos, passion, kindness and cruelty, their infinite variety, their undying youth. Ah, the pity of it! Their undying youth—and they so irrevocably dead. Peace be to their souls! See," he suddenly declaimed, laughing, "how the sun, the very sun in heaven, is contending with me, as to which of us shall do them the greater homage, the sun that once looked on their living forms, and remembers—see how he lights memorial lamps about them," for the sun, reflected from the polished floor, threw a sheen upon the ancient canvases, and burned bright in the bosses of the frames. "Give me these," he wound up, "a book or two, and a jug of the parroco's 'included wine'—my wilderness is paradise enow."
Lady Blanchemain's eyes, as she listened, had become deep wells of disappointment, then gushing fountains of reproach.
"Oh, you villain!" she groaned, when he had ended, shaking her pretty fist. "So to have raised my expectations, and so to dash them!—Do you really mean," still clinging to a shred of hope, she pleaded, "really, really mean that there's no—no actual woman?"
"I'm sorry," said John, "but I'm afraid I really, really do."
"And you're not—not really in love with any one?"
"No—not really," he said, with a mien that feigned contrition.
"But at your age—how old are you?" she broke off to demand.
"Somewhere between twenty-nine and thirty, I believe," he laughed.
"And in such a romantic environment, and not on account of a woman! It's downright unnatural," she declared. "It's flat treason against the kingly state of youth."
"I'm awfully sorry," said John. "Yet, after all, what's the good of repining? Nothing could happen even if there were a woman."
Lady Blanchemain looked alarmed.
"Nothing could happen? What do you mean? You're not married? If you are, it must be secretly, for you're put down as single in Burke."
"To the best of my knowledge," John reassured her, laughing, "Burke is right. And I prayerfully trust he may never have occasion to revise his statement."
"For mercy's sake," cried she, "don't tell me you're a woman-hater!"
"That's just the point," said he. "I'm an adorer of the sex."
"Well, then?" questioned she, at a loss. "How can you 'prayerfully' wish to remain a bachelor? Besides, aren't you heir to a peerage? What of the succession?"
"That's just the point," he perversely argued. "And you know there are plenty of cousins."
"Just the point! just the point!" fretted Lady Blanchemain. "What's just the point? Just the point that you aren't a woman-hater?—just the point that you're heir to a peerage? You talk like Tom o' Bedlam."
"Well, you see," expounded John, unruffled, "as an adorer of the sex, and heir to a peerage, I shouldn't want to marry a woman unless I could support her in what they call a manner becoming her rank—and I couldn't."
"Couldn't?" the lady scoffed. "I should like to know why not?"
"I'm too—if you will allow me to clothe my thought in somewhat homely language—too beastly poor."
"You—poor?" ejaculated Lady Blanchemain, falling back.
"Ay—but honest," asseverated John, to calm her fears.
She couldn't help smiling, though she resolutely frowned.
"Be serious," she enjoined him. "Doesn't your uncle make you a suitable allowance?"
"I should deceive you," answered John, "if I said he made me an unsuitable one. He makes me, to put it in round numbers, exactly no allowance whatsoever."
"The—old—curmudgeon!" cried Lady Blanchemain, astounded, and fiercely scanning her words.
"No," returned John, soothingly, "he isn't a curmudgeon. But he's a very peculiar man. He's a Spartan, and he lacks imagination. It has simply never entered his head that I could need an allowance. And, if you come to that, I can't say that I positively do. I have a tiny patrimony—threepence a week, or so—enough for my humble necessities, though scarcely perhaps enough to support the state of a future peeress. No, my uncle isn't a curmudgeon; he's a very fine old boy, of whom I'm immensely proud, and though I've yet to see the colour of his money, we're quite the best of friends. At any rate, you'll agree that it would be the deuce to pay if I were to fall in love.
"Ffff," breathed Lady Blanchemain, fanning. "What did I say of an age of prose and prudence? Yet you don't look cold-blooded. What does money matter? Dominus providebit. Go read Browning. What's 'the true end, sole and single' that we're here for? Besides, have you never heard that there are such things as marriageable heiresses in the world?"
"Oh, yes, I've heard that," John cheerfully assented. "But don't they almost always squint or something? I've heard, too, that there are such things as tufted fortune-hunters, but theirs is a career that requires a special vocation, and I'm afraid I haven't got it."
"Then you're no true Marquis of Carabas," the lady took him smartly up.
"You've found me out—I'm only a faux-marquis," he laughed.
"Thrrr!" breathed Lady Blanchemain, and for a little while appeared lost in thought. By-and-by she got up and went to the window, and stood looking out. "I never saw a lovelier landscape," she said, musingly. "With the grey hills, and the snow-peaks, and the brilliant sky, with the golden light and the purple shadows, and the cypresses and olives, with the river gleaming below there amongst the peach-blossoms, and—isn't that a blackcap singing in the mimosa? It only needs a pair of lovers to be perfect—it cries for a pair of lovers. And instead of them, I find—what? A hermit and celibate. Look here. Make a clean breast of it. Are you cold-blooded?" she asked from over her shoulder.
John merely giggled.
"It would serve you right," said she, truculently, "if some one were to rub your eyes with love-in-idleness, to make you dote upon the next live creature that you see."
John merely chuckled.
"I'll tell you what," she proceeded, "I'm a bit of an old witch, and I'll risk a soothword. As there isn't already a woman, there'll shortly be one—my thumbs prick. The stage is set, the scene is too appropriate, the play's inevitable. It was never in the will of Providence that a youth of your complexion should pass the springtime in a spot all teeming with romance like this, and miss a love adventure. A castle in a garden, a flowering valley, and the Italian sky—the Italian sun and moon! Your portraits of these smiling dead women too, if you like, to keep your imagination working. And blackcaps singing in the mimosa. No, no. The lady of the piece is waiting in the wings—my thumbs prick. Give her but the least excuse, she'll enter, and ... Good Heavens, my prophetic soul!" she suddenly, with a sort of catch in her throat, broke off.
She turned and faced him, cheeks flushed, eyes flashing.
"Oh, you hypocrite! You monstrous fibber!" she cried, on a tone of jubilation, looking daggers.
"Why? What's up? What's the matter?" asked John, at fault.
"How could you have humbugged me so?" she wailed, in delight, reverting to the window. "Anyhow, she's charming. She's made for the part. I couldn't pray for a more promising heroine."
"She? Who?" asked he, crossing to her side.
"Who? Fie, you slyboots!" she crowed with glee.
"Ah, I see," said John.
For, below them, in the garden, just beyond the mimosa (all powdered with fresh gold) where the blackcap was singing, stood a woman.
She stood in the path, beside a sun-dial, from which she appeared to be taking the time of day, a crumbling ancient thing of grey stone, green and brown with mosses; and she was smiling pleasantly to herself the while, all unaware of the couple who watched her from above. She wore a light-coloured garden-frock, and was bare-headed, as one belonging to the place. She was young—two or three and twenty, by her aspect: young, slender, of an excellent height, and, I hope you would have agreed, a beautiful countenance. She studied the sun-dial, and smiled; and what with her dark eyes and softly chiselled features, the pale rose in her cheeks and the deeper rose of her mouth, with her hair too, almost black in shadow, but where the sun touched it turning to sombre red,—yes, I think you would have agreed that she was beautiful. Lady Blanchemain, at any rate, found her so.
"She's quite lovely," she declared. "Her face is exquisite—so sensitive, so spiritual; so distinguished, so aristocratic. And so clever," she added, after a suspension.
"Mm!" said John, his forehead wrinkled, as if something were puzzling him.
"She has a figure—she holds herself well," said Lady Blanchemain.
"Mm!" said John.
"I suppose," said she, "you're too much a mere man to be able to appreciate her frock? It's the work of a dressmaker who knows her business. And that lilac muslin (that's so fashionable now) really does, in the open air, with the country for background, show to immense advantage. Come—out with it. Tell me all about her. Who is she?"
"That's just what I'm up a tree to think," said John. "I can't imagine. How long has she been there? From what direction did she come?"
"Don't try to hoodwink me any longer," remonstrated the lady, unbelieving.
"I've never in my life set eyes on her before," he solemnly averred.
She scrutinized him sharply.
"Hand on heart?" she doubted.
And he, supporting her scrutiny without flinching, answered, "Hand on heart."
"Well, then," concluded she, with a laugh, "it looks as if I were even more of an old witch than I boasted—and my thumbs pricked to some purpose. Here's the lady of the piece already arrived. There, she's going away. How well she walks! Have after her—have after her quick, and begin your courtship."
The smiling young woman, her lilac dress softly bright in the sun, was moving slowly down the garden path, towards the cloisters; and now she entered them, and disappeared. But John, instead of "having after her," remained at his counsellor's side, and watched.
"She came from that low doorway, beyond there at the right, where the two cypresses are; and she came at the very climax of my vaticination," said her ladyship. "Without a hat, you'll hardly dispute it's probable she's staying in the house."
"No—it certainly would seem so," said John. "I'm all up a tree."
"The garden looks rather dreary and empty, now that she has left, doesn't it?" she asked. "Yet it looked jolly enough before her advent. And see—the lizards (there are four of them, aren't there?) that whisked away from the dial at her approach, have come back. Well, your work's cut out. I suppose it wouldn't be possible for you to give a poor woman a dish of tea?"
"I was on the very point of proposing it," said John. "May I conduct you to my quarters?"
Rather early next morning John was walking among the olives. He had gone (straight from his bed, and in perhaps the least considered of toilets: an old frieze ulster, ornamented with big buttons of mother-of-pearl, a pair of Turkish slippers, a bathing-towel over his shoulder, and for head-covering just his uncombed native thatch) he had gone for a swim, some half a mile upstream, to a place he knew where the Rampio—the madcap Rampio, all shallows and rapids—rests for a moment in a pool, wide and deep, translucent, inviting, and, as you perceive when you have made your plunge, of a most assertive chill. Now he was on his leisurely way home, to the presbytery and what passed there for breakfast.
The hill-side rose from the river's bank in a series of irregular terraces, upheld by rough stone walls. The gnarled old trees bent towards each other and away like dwarfs and crook-backs dancing a fantastic minuet; and in the grass beneath them, where the sun shot his fiery darts and cast his net of shadows, Chloris had scattered innumerable wildflowers: hyacinths, the colour of the sky; violets, that threaded the air for yards about with their sentiment-provoking fragrance; tulips, red and yellow; sometimes a tall, imperial iris; here and there little white nodding companies of jonquils. Here and there, too, the dusty-green reaches were pointed by the dark spire of a cypress, alone, in a kind of glooming isolation; here and there a blossoming peach or almond, gaily pink, sent an inexpressible little thrill of gladness to one's heart. The air was sweetened by many incense-breathing things besides the violets,—by moss and bark, the dew-laden grass, the moist brown earth; and it was quick with music: bees droned, leaves whispered, birds called, sang, gossiped, disputed, and the Rampio played a crystal accompaniment.
John swung onwards at ease, while lizards, with tails that seemed extravagantly long, fled from before his feet, terrible to them, no doubt, as an army with banners, for his Turkish slippers, though not in their pristine youth, were of scarlet leather embroidered in a rich device with gold. And presently (an experience unusual at that hour in the olive wood) he became aware of a human voice.
"Ohe! My good men, there! Will you be so kind as to gather me some of those anemones? Here is a lira for your pains."
It was a feminine voice; it was youthful and melodious; it was finished, polished, delicately modulated. And its inflection was at once confident and gracious,—clearly the speaker took it for granted that she would receive attention, and she implied her thanks abundantly beforehand. It was a voice that evoked in the imagination a charming picture of fresh, young, confident, and gracious womanhood.
"Hello!" said John to himself. "Who is there in this part of the world with a voice like that?"
And he felt it would not be surprising if on glancing round he should behold—as, in fact, he did—the stranger of yesterday, the Unknown of the garden.
She stood on one of the higher terraces, (a very charming picture indeed, bright and erect, in the warm shadow of the olives), and was calling down to a couple of peasants at work on the other side of the stream. Between the thumb and forefinger of an ungloved fair right hand, she held up a silver lira.
Anemones, said she! Near to where the men were working, by the river's brink, there was a space of level ground, perhaps a hundred feet long, and tapering from half that breadth to a point. And this was simply crimson and purple with a countless host of anemones.
She called to the men, and one seeing and hearing her would have thought they must abandon everything, and spring to do her bidding. But they didn't. Pausing only long enough to give her a phlegmatic stare, as if in doubt whether conceivably she could have the impertinence to be addressing them, and vouchsafing not a word, each went calmly on with his employment;—very, very calmly, piano, piano, gently, languidly, filling small baskets with fallen olives, and emptying them upon outspread canvas sheets. There are, and more's the pity, two types of Italian peasant. There's the old type, which we knew in our youth, and happily it still survives in some numbers,—the peasant who, for all his rags and tatters, has manners that will often put one's own to shame, and, with a simpatia like second-sight, is before one's wishes, in his eagerness to serve and please. And there is the new type, which we know to our disgust, and unhappily it multiplies like vermin,—the peasant who has lent his ear to the social democrat, and, his heart envenomed by class hatred, meets your civility with black glances and the behaviour of a churl in the sulks.
So, though her voice was sweet to hear, and though, standing there in the warm penumbra of the olive orchard, tall and erect and graceful, in her bright frock, she made a charming picture, and though she offered a silver lira as a prize, the men merely stared at her churlishly, and went on with their work—languidly, sluggishly, as men who deemed the necessity to work an outrage, and weren't going to condone it by working with anything like a will.
Now, John Blanchemain, as I have previously mentioned, was an unselfconscious sort of fellow. In his unselfconsciousness, forgetting several trifles that might properly have weighed with him, (forgetting the tarnished gorgeousness of his Turkish slippers for example, and his towzled head, and the bathing-towel that flowed like a piece of classic drapery from his shoulder), obeying impulse and instinct, he flung himself into the breach.
"Brutes," he muttered between his teeth. Then, in his easiest man-of-the-worldy accents, "If you can wait two minutes," he called aloud to her. And therewith he went scrambling down the terraces and picked his way from stone to stone across the shallows, to the field of anemones, where their satiny petals, like crisping wavelets, all a-ripple in the moving air, shimmered with constantly changing lights. And in a twinkling he had gathered a great armful, and was clambering back.
"I beg of you," he said, in his abrupt fashion, holding them out to her, and slightly bowing, with that nothing-doubting assurance of his, while his blue eyes (to put her entirely at her ease) smiled, frank and friendly and serene, into her dark ones.
But hers seemed troubled. She looked at the flowers, she looked at John, I think she even looked at her lira. Her eyes seemed undecided.
"Do pray take them," said he, still smiling, still frank and assured, but as if a little puzzled, a little amused, by her hesitation, and more airily a man-of-the-world than ever, his tone one of high detachment, to spare her any possible feeling of personal obligation, and to place his performance in the light of a matter of course,—as if indeed he had done nothing more than pick up and return, say, a handkerchief she might have dropped. "You were right," he owned to his thought of Lady Blanchemain; "she is beautiful." Here, at close quarters with her, one's perception of her beauty became acute,—here, under the grey old trees, in the leafy dimness, alone with her, at two paces from her, where the birds sang and the violets gave forth their fragrant breath. He saw that her eyes were beautiful (soft and deep and luminous, despite their trouble), and her low white brow, and the dark masses of her hair, under her garden-hat, and the rose in her cheeks, and the red-rose of her mouth. And he saw and felt the beauty and the vitality of her strong young body.
But meanwhile she had stretched forth, rather timidly, that ungloved fair hand of hers, and taken the flowers.
"You are very good, I am sure. Thank you very much," she said, rather faintly, with a grave little inclination of the head.
John, always with magnificent assurance, put up his hand, to doff a man-of-the-worldy hat, and bow himself away;—and it encountered his bare locks, bare, and still wet from recent ducking. Whereupon, suddenly, the trifles he had forgotten were remembered, and at last (in the formula of the criminologist) "he realized his position:" hatless and uncombed, with the bathing-towel slung from his shoulder, in that weather-beaten old frieze coat with its ridiculous buttons, in those awful Turkish slippers,—offering, with his grand manner, flowers to a woman he didn't know, and smiling, to put her at her ease! His pink face burned to a livelier pink, his ears went hot, his heart went cold. The bow he finally accomplished was the blighted bud of the bow he had projected; and, as the earth didn't, of its charity, open and engulf him, he hastened as best he could, and with a painful sense of slinking, to remove his crestfallen person from her range of view.
When these unselfconscious fellows are startled into selfconsciousness, I fancy they take it hard. I don't know how long it was before John had done heaping silent curses, silent but savage, upon himself; his luck, his "beastly officiousness," upon the whole afflicting incident: curses that he couldn't help diversifying now and then with a catch of splenetic laughter, as a vision of the figure he had cut would recurrently
"—flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude."
"Oh, you ape!" he groaned. "Rigged out like Pudding Jack, and, with your ineffable simagrees, offering a strange woman flowers!"
If she had only laughed, had only smiled, it wouldn't have been so bad, it would have shown that she understood. "But through it all," he writhed to recollect, "she was as solemn as a mourner. I suppose she was shocked—perhaps she was frightened—very likely she took me for a tramp. I wonder she didn't crown my beatitude by giving me her lira. These foreigners do so lack certain discernments."
And with that rather an odd detail came back to him. Was she a foreigner? For it came vaguely back that he, impulsive and unthinking, had spoken to her throughout in English. "And anyhow,"—this came distinctly back,—"it was certainly in English that she thanked me."
What passed for breakfast at the presbytery was the usual Continental evasion of that repast,—bread and coffee, despatched in your apartment. But at noon the household met to dine.
The dining-room, on the ground floor, long and low, with a vaulted ceiling, whitewashed, and a pavement of worn red tiles, was a clean, bare room, that (pervaded by a curious, dry, not unpleasant odour) seemed actually to smell of bareness, as well as of cleanliness. There was a table, there was a dresser, there were a few unpainted deal chairs, rush-bottomed (exactly like the chairs in the church, in all Italian churches), and there was absolutely nothing else, save a great black and white Crucifix attached to the wall. But, by way of compensation, its windows opened southwards, flooding it with sunshine, and commanding the wonderful perspective of the valley,—the blue-grey hills, the snow-peaks, the blossoming low-lands, and the far-away opalescence that you knew to be the lake.
At noon the parroco, his niece Annunziata, and his boarder met to dine.
The parroco was a short, stout, florid, black-haired, hawk-nosed, fierce-looking, still youngish man, if five-and-forty may be reckoned youngish, with a pair of thin lips and powerful jaws which, for purposes of speech, he never opened if he could help it. Never,—till Sunday came: when, mounting the pulpit, he opened them indeed, and his pent-up utterance burst forth in a perfect torrent of a sermon, a wild gush of words, shouted at the topmost stress of a remarkably lusty voice, arresting for a minute or two by reason of the sheer physical energy it represented, and then for a long half hour exquisitely tiresome. But on week-days he maintained a prodigious silence, and this (as, though fierce-looking, he wasn't in the least really fierce) it would often be John's malicious study to tempt him to break. Besides, to-day, John was honestly concerned with the pursuit of knowledge.
Accordingly, grace being said, "You never told me," he began, assuming a mien of intelligent interest, "that the castle was haunted." He looked at the Napoleonic profile of Don Ambrogio, but from the tail of his eye he kept a watch as well upon Annunziata, and he saw that that wise little maiden became attentive.
"No," said Don Ambrogio, between two spoonfuls of soup.
"You will conceive my astonishment, then," continued John, urbanely, "when I discovered that it was."
"It isn't," said Don Ambrogio. He gave himself diligently to the business of the hour; his spoon flew backwards and forwards like a shuttle. His napkin, tucked into his Roman collar, protected his bosom, an effective white cuirass.
"Oh? Not the castle?" questioned John. "Only the garden? And the olive wood? True, on reflection, I've never seen it in the house."
"Nothing here is haunted," said the parroco. He made a signal to Annunziata, who rose to change the plates. Her big eyes were alight, her serious little face was alert; but she would never dream of speaking in the presence of her uncle. Marcella, the cook, brought in the inevitable veal.
"Oh, for that," insisted John, courteous but firm, "I beg your pardon. I myself have seen it on two occasions; and, lest you should fancy it a subjective illusion, I may tell you that it was yesterday seen simultaneously by another."
"It? It? What is it?" asked the parroco, his beaked and ensanguined visage fiercer-looking than ever, as he fell upon the inevitable veal with a somewhat dull carving-knife.
"Ah," said John, "now you make me regret that I haven't a talent for word-painting. It's the form of a woman, a young woman, tall, slender, in some pale diaphanous garment, that appears here, appears there, remaining distinctly visible for some minutes, and then disappears. No, it isn't a subjective illusion. And it isn't, either," the unscrupulous creature added, after a pause, raising his voice, and speaking with emphasis, as if to repel the insinuation, while the darkness of disenchantment swept the face of Annunziata, "it isn't, either, as some imaginative people might too hastily conclude, a wraith, a phantom, an insubstantial vapour. It's a real material form, that lives and breathes, and even, if driven to it, speaks. There's nothing supernatural about it,—unless, indeed, we take the transcendental view that Nature herself is supernatural. I was wondering, Don Ambrogio, whether, without violating a confidence, you could tell me whose form it is?"
"Nossignore," said Don Ambrogio, economizing his breath.
"Ah," sighed John, nodding resignedly, "I feared as much. Divining that I would institute inquiries, she has stolen a march upon me, and pledged you to secrecy."
"Nossignore," disavowed Don Ambrogio, raising eyes the sincerity of which there could be no suspecting.
John's face took on an expression of aggrieved surprise.
"But then why won't you tell me?"
"I cannot tell you because I do not know," said Don Ambrogio.
"Oh, I see," said John. "And yet," he argued meditatively, "that's hard to conceive. I don't for a moment mean that I doubt it—but it's hard to conceive, like the atomic theory, and some of the articles of religion. (I hear, by-the-by, that the scientists are throwing the atomic theory over. Oh, fickle scientists! Oh, shifting sands of science!) Surely there can't be many such tall slender forms, in diaphanous garments, appearing and disappearing here and there in your parish? And one would suppose, antecedently, that you'd know them all."
"A peasant, a villager," said Don Ambrogio.
"I put it to you as an observer of life," said John, "do peasants, do villagers, wear diaphanous garments?"
"A visitor, a sight-seer, from some place on the lake," said Don Ambrogio.
"I put it to you as a student of probabilities," said John, "would a visitor, would a sight-seer, from some place on the lake, walk in the garden of the castle without a hat? And would she appear at Sant' Alessina on two days in succession?"
But Don Ambrogio had finished his veal, and when he had finished his veal he always left the table, first twice devoutly making the sign of the Cross, and then with a bow to John, pronouncing the formula, "You will graciously permit? My affairs call me. A thousand regrets." To-day he slightly amplified that formula. "A thousand regrets," he said, "and as many excuses for my inability to afford the information desired."
After his departure, John turned to Annunziata, where, in her grey cotton pinafore, her lips parted, her big eyes two lively points of interrogation, she sat opposite to him, impatient to take up the theme.
"Well, Mistress Wisdom!" he saluted her, smiling, and waving his hand. "It is a good and wholesome thing for the young to witness the discomfiture of the wicked. Your uncle retreats with flying colours. He made, to be sure, a slender dinner, but that's his daily habit. If you have tears to shed, shed them for me. I have made none at all."
From points of interrogation, Annunziata's eyes changed to abysses of wonder, and, big as they were, seemed to grow measurably bigger.
"You have made no dinner?" she protested, in that strangely deep voice of hers, with its effect of immense solemnity.
"No, poor dear," said John, with pathos, "no, I have made no dinner."
"But you have eaten a great deal," exclaimed Annunziata, frowning, nonplussed. "And you are still eating."
"Quite so," responded John, "though I think it's perhaps the merest trifle unhandsome of you to fling it in my face. I have eaten a great deal, and I am still eating. That is what I come to table for. In an orderly life like mine there is a place for everything. I come to table to eat, just as I go to bed to sleep and to church to say my prayers. Would you have me sleep at table, eat in church, and say my prayers in bed? Eating, however, has nothing to do with the case. I spoke of dining—I said I had not dined. Now you shall be the judge. The question is, can a Christian man dine twice on the same day? Answer me that."
"Oh, no," answered Annunziata, her pale face very sober, and she lengthened out her vowels in deprecation of the idea. "At least, it would be gluttony if he did."
"There you are," cried John. "And gluttony is not the undeadliest of the Seven Deadly Sins. So, then, unless you would have me guilty of the deadly sin of gluttony, you must agree that I have not dined. For I am going to dine this evening. I am going to dine at the Hotel Victoria at Roccadoro. I am going to dine with a lady. I am going to dine in all the pomp and circumstance of my dress-suit, with a white tie and pumps. And you yourself have said it, a Christian man may not, without guilt of gluttony, dine twice on the same day. Therefore it is the height of uncharitableness, it's a deliberate imputation of sin, to contend that I have dined already."
Annunziata followed his reasoning thoughtfully, and then gravely set him right.
"No," she said, with a drop of the eyelids and a quick little shake of the head, "you do not understand. I will explain." Her eyes were wide open again, and bright with zeal for his instruction. "You have dined already. That is a certain truth, because this meal is dinner, and you have eaten it. But to-night you are going to a dinner of ceremony—and that is different. A dinner of ceremony does not count. It is the same as a supper. My uncle himself once went to a dinner of ceremony at Bergamo. No, it will not be gluttony for you to go to a dinner of ceremony."
"You speak like a little pope," said John, with enthusiasm. "In matters of Faith and Morals I believe you are infallible. If you could guess the load you have lifted from my conscience!" And he pushed a hearty ouf.
"I am glad," said Annunziata. And then she attempted to hark back. Curiosity again lighting her eyes, "This form that you have seen in the garden—" she began.
"Don't try to change the subject," John interrupted. "Let us cultivate sequence in our ideas. What I am labouring with hammer and tongs to drag from you is the exact date at which, somewhere between the years of our salvation 1387 and 1455, you sat for your portrait to the beatified painter Giovanni of Fiesole. Now, be a duck, and make a clean breast of it."
Annunziata's eyes clouded. A kind of scorn, a kind of pity, and a kind of patient longanimity looked from them.
"That is folly," she said, on the deepest of her deep notes, with a succession of slow, reflective, side-wise nods.
"Folly—?" repeated John, surprised, but bland. "Oh? Really?"
"Sit for my portrait between the years 1387 and 1455,—how could I?" scoffed Annunziata.
"Why? What was to prevent you?" innocently questioned he.
"Ma come! I was not yet alive," said she.
John looked at her with startled eyes, and spoke with animation.
"Weren't you? Word of honour? Are you sure? How do you know? Have you any definite recollection that you weren't? Can you clearly recall the period in question, and then, reviewing it in detail, positively attest that you were dead? For there's no third choice. A person must either be alive or dead. And how, if you weren't alive, how ever did it come to pass that there should be a perfect portrait of you from Giovanni's brush in the Convent of Saint Mark at Florence? Your grave little white face, and your wise little big eyes, and your eager little inquisitive profile, and your curls flowing about your shoulders, and your pinafore that's so like a peplum,—there they all are, precisely as I see them before me now. And how was Giovanni able to do them if you weren't alive? Perhaps you were pre-mortally alive in Heaven? Giovanni's cell, as is well known, had a window that opened straight into Heaven. Perhaps he saw you through that window, and painted you without your knowing it. The name they give your portrait, by-the-by, would rather seem to confirm that theory. What do you think they call it? They call it an un angiolo. I've got a copy of it in England. When you come to London to visit the Queen I'll show it to you."
Annunziata gave her flowing curls a toss.
"The form of the young woman which you have seen in the garden—" she began anew.
"Ah," said John, "observe how differently the big fish and the little fish will be affected by the same bait."
"When you first spoke of it," said she, "I thought you had seen a holy apparition."
"Yes," said he. "That was because I couched my communication in language designedly misleading. I employed the terminology of ghost-lore. I said 'haunted' and 'appear,' and things like that. And you were very properly and naturally deceived. I confidently expected that you would be. No, it is not given to world-stained and world-worn old men like me to see holy apparitions."
"Old men? You are not an old man," said Annunziata.
"Oh? Not? What am I, then?" said John.
"You are a middle-aged man," said she.
"Thank you, Golden Tongue," said he, with a bow.
"And you are sure that it was merely a real person?" she pursued.
"No," said he. "I am too profoundly imbued with the basic principles of metaphysics ever to be sure of the objective reality of phenomena. I can only swear to my impression. My impression was and is that it was merely a real person."
"Then," said Annunziata, with decision, "it must be the person who is visiting the Signora Brandi."
"The Signora Brandi?" repeated John. "What a nice name! Who is the Signora Brandi?"
"She is an Austrian," said Annunziata.
"Oh—?" said John.
"She lives in the pavilion beyond the clock-tower," said Annunziata.
"I wasn't aware," said John, "that the pavilion beyond the clock-tower was inhabited. I wasn't aware that any part of this castle was inhabited, except the porter's lodge and the part that we inhabit. Why have I been left till now in this state of outer darkness?"
"The Signora Brandi has been absent," said Annunziata. "She has been in her own country—in Austria. But the other day she returned. And with her came a person to visit her. That is the person whose form you have seen in the garden."
"How do you know it wasn't the form of the Signora Brandi herself?" John said.
"Oh, no," said Annunziata. "The Signora Brandi is not young. She is old. She is as old as—"
"Methuselah? Sin? The hills?" suggested John, Annunziata having paused to think.
"No," said Annunziata, repudiating the suggestion with force. "No one is so old as Methuselah. She is as old as—well, my uncle."
"I see," said John. "Yes, it's all highly mysterious."
"Mysterious?" said Annunziata.
"I should think so," asseverated he. "Cryptic, enigmatic, esoteric to the last degree. To begin with, how does the Signora Brandi, being an Austrian, come by so characteristically un-Austrian a name? Is that mysterious? And in the next place, why does an Austrian Signora Brandi so far forget what is due to her nationality as to live, not in Austria, but in Lombardy? And—as if that were not enough—at Castel Sant' Alessina? And—as if that were not more than enough—in the pavilion beyond the clock? Come, come! Mysterious!"
"You are living in Lombardy, you are living at Castel Sant' Alessina, yourself," said Annunziata.
"I hardly think so," said John. "You can scarcely with precision call this living—this is rather what purists call sojourning. But even were it otherwise, there's all the difference in the world between my case and the Signora Brandi's. I am middle-aged and foolish, but she is as old as your uncle. Don't you see the mysterious significance of that coincidence? And I haven't a young woman visiting me. Who is the young woman? Is that a mystery? My sweet child, we tread among mysteries. We are at the centre of a coil of mysteries. Who is the young woman? And how—consider well upon this—how does it happen that the young woman speaks English? Mysterious, indeed!"
He rose, and bowed, with ceremony.
"But we burn daylight. I must not detain you longer. Suffer me to imprint upon your hand of velvet a token of my high regard."
And taking Annunziata's frail little white hand, he bent low to kiss it; and though his blue eyes were full of laughter, I think that behind the laughter there was a great deal of real fondness and admiration.
Half-way down the long straight avenue of ilex-trees that led from the castle to the principal entrance of the garden, Annunziata, in her pale-grey pinafore (that was so like a peplum), with her hair waving about her shoulders, was curled up in the corner of a marble bench, gazing with great intentness at a white flower that lay in her lap. It was the warmest and the peacefullest moment of the afternoon. The sun shone steadily; not a leaf stirred, not a shadow wavered; and the intermittent piping of a blackbird, somewhere in the green world overhead, seemed merely to give a kind of joyous rhythm to the silence.
"Mercy upon me! Who ever saw so young a maiden so deeply lost in thought!" exclaimed a voice.
Annunziata, her reverie thus disturbed, raised a pair of questioning eyes.
A lady was standing before her, smiling down upon her, a lady in a frock of lilac-coloured muslin, with a white sunshade.
Annunziata, who, when she liked, could be the very pink of formal politeness, rose, dropped a courtesy, and said: "Buon giorno, Signorina."
"Buon giorno," responded the smiling lady. "Buon giorno—and a penny for your thoughts. But I'm sure you could never, never tell what it was you were thinking so hard about."
"Scusi," said Annunziata. "I was trying to think of the name of this flower." She stooped and picked up the flower, which had slipped from her lap to the ground when she rose. Then she held it at arm's length, for inspection.
"Oh?" asked the lady, smiling at the flower, as she had smiled at its possessor. "Isn't it a narcissus?"
"Yes," said Annunziata. "It is a narcissus. But I was trying to think of its particular name."
The lady looked as if she did not quite understand. "Its particular name?"
"It is a narcissus," explained Annunziata, "just as I am a girl. But it must also have its particular name, just as I have mine. It is a soul doing its Purgatory—a very good soul. If you are very good, then, when you die, you do your Purgatory as a flower. But it is not such an easy Purgatory—oh, no. For look: the flower is beautiful, but it is blind, and cannot see; and it is fragrant, but it cannot smell; and people admire it and praise it, but it is deaf, and cannot hear. It can only wait, wait, wait, and think of God. But it is a short Purgatory. A few days, and the flower will fade, and the soul will be released. I think this flower's name is Cecilia, it is so white."
The smile in the lady's eyes had brightened, as she listened; and now she gave a little laugh, a little, light, musical, pleased and friendly laugh.
"Yes," she said. "I have sometimes wondered myself whether flowers might not be the Purgatory of very good souls. I am glad to learn from you that it is true. And yes, I should think that this flower's name was sure to be Cecilia. Cecilia suits it perfectly. What, if one may ask, is your particular name?"
"Mariannunziata," said its bearer, not to make two bites of a cherry.
The lady's eyes grew round. "Dear me! A little short name like that?" she marvelled.
"No," returned Annunziata, with dignity. "My name in full is longer. My name in full is Giuliana Falconieri Maria Annunziata Casalone. Is that not long enough?"
"Yes," the lady admitted, "that is just long enough." And she laughed again.
"What is your name?" inquired Annunziata.
"My name is Maria Dolores," the lady answered. "You see, we are both named Maria."
"Of course," said Annunziata. "All Christians should be named Maria."
"So they should," agreed the lady. "Do you ever tell people how old you are?"
"Yes," said Annunziata, "if they wish to know. Why not?"
The smile in the lady's eyes shone brighter than ever. "Do you think you could be persuaded to tell me?"
"With pleasure," said Annunziata. "I am eleven years and five months. And you?"
"I am just twice as old. I am twenty-two years and ten months. So, when you are fifty, how old shall I be?"
"No," said Annunziata, shaking her head. "That trick has been tried with me before. My friend Prospero has tried it with me. You hope I will say that you will be a hundred. But it is not so. When I am fifty, you will be sixty-one, going on sixty-two."
Still again the lady laughed, apparently with great amusement.
"What a little bundle of wisdom you are!" she exclaimed.
"Yes. My friend Prospero also says that I am wise," answered Annunziata. "I like to see you laugh," she mentioned, looking critically at the face above her. "You have beautiful teeth, they are so white and shining, and so small, and your lips are so red."
"Oh," said the lady, laughing more merrily than ever. "Then you must be very entertaining, and I will laugh a great deal."
Still looking critically at the lady's face, "Are you not," demanded Annunziata, "the person who has come to visit the Signora Brandi?"
"Signora Brandi?" The lady considered. "Yes, I suppose I must be. At any rate, I am the person who has come to visit Frau Brandt."
"Frao Branta? We call her Signora Brandi here," said Annunziata. "Are you related to her?"
"No," said the lady, who always seemed inclined to laugh, though Annunziata had no consciousness of being very entertaining. "I am not related to her. I am only her friend."
"She is an Austrian," said Annunziata. "This castle belongs to Austrians. Once upon a time, very long ago, before I was born, all this country belonged to Austrians. Are you, too, an Austrian?"
"Yes." The lady nodded. "I, too, am an Austrian."
"And yet," remarked Annunziata, "you speak Italian just as I do."
"It is very good of you to say so," laughed the lady.
"No—it is the truth," said Annunziata.
"But is it not good to tell the truth?" the lady asked.
"No," said Annunziata. "It is only a duty." And again she shook her head, slowly, darkly, with an effect of philosophic melancholy. "That is very strange and very hard," she pointed out. "If you do not do that which is your duty, it is bad, and you are punished. But if you do do it, that is not good,—it is only what you ought to do, and you are not rewarded." And she fetched her breath in the saddest of sad little sighs. Then, briskly covering her cheerfulness, "And you speak English, besides," she said.
"Oh?" wondered the lady. "Are you a clairvoyante? How do you know that I speak English?"
"My friend Prospero told me so," said Annunziata.
"Your friend Prospero?" the lady repeated. "You quote your friend Prospero very often. Who is your friend Prospero?"
"He is a signore," said Annunziata. "He has seen you, he has seen your form, in the garden and in the olive wood."
"Oh," said the lady.
"And I suppose he must have heard you speak English," Annunziata added. "He lives at the presbytery."
"And where, by-the-by, do you live?" asked the lady.
"I live at the presbytery too," said Annunziata. "I am the niece of the parroco. I am the orphan of his only brother. My friend Prospero lives with us as a boarder. He is English."
"Indeed?" said the lady. "Prospero is a very odd name for an Englishman."
"Prospero is not his name," said Annunziata. "His name is Gian. That is English for Giovanni."
"But why, then," the lady puzzled, "do you call him Prospero?"
"Prospero is a name I have given him," explained Annunziata. "One day I told his fortune. I can tell fortunes—with olive-stones, with playing-cards, or from the lines of the hand. I will tell you yours, if you wish. Well, one day, I told Prospero's, and everything came out so prosperously for him, I have called him Prospero ever since. He will be rich, though he is poor; and he will marry a dark woman, who will also be rich; and they will have many, many children, and live in peace to the end of their lives. But there!" Annunziata cried out suddenly, with excitement, waving the hand that held her narcissus. "There is my friend Prospero now, coming in the gig."
Down the avenue, sure enough, a gig was coming, a sufficiently shabby, ancient gig, drawn, however, at a very decent pace by a very decent-looking horse, and driven by John Blanchemain.
"Ciao, Prospero!" called Annunziata, as he passed.
And John took off his hat, a modish Panama, and bowed and smiled to her and to the lady. And one adept in reading the meaning of smiles might have read three or four separate meanings in that smile of his. It seemed to say to Annunziata, "Ah, you rogue! So already you have waylaid her, and made her acquaintance." To the lady: "I congratulate you upon your companion. Isn't she a diverting little monkey?" To himself: "And I congratulate you, my dear, upon being clothed and in your right mind, and upon having a proper hat to make your bow with." And to the universe at large "By Jove, she is good-looking. Standing there before that marble bench, in the cool green light, under the great ilexes, with her lilac frock and her white sunshade, and Annunziata all in grey beside her,—what a subject for a painting, if only there were any painters who knew how to paint!"
"He is going to a dinner at Roccadoro," said Annunziata, while John's back grew small and smaller in the distance. "Did you see, he had a portmanteau under the seat? He is going to a dinner of ceremony, and he will have his costume of ceremony in the portmaneau. I wonder what he will bring back with him for me. When he goes to Roccadoro he always brings something back for me. Last time it was a box of chocolate cigars. I should like to see him in his costume of ceremony. Wouldn't you?"
But the lady merely laughed. And then, taking Annunziata's chin in her hand, she looked down into her big clear eyes, and said, "I must be off now, to join Signora Brandi. But I cannot leave without telling you how glad I am to have met you, and what pleasure I have derived from your conversation. I hope we shall meet often. Good-bye."
"Good-bye, Signorina," said Annunziata, becoming formally polite again. "I shall always be at your service." And she dropped another courtesy. "If you will come to see me at the presbytery," she hospitably added, "I will show you my tame kid."
"You are all that is most kind," responded the lady, and went off smiling towards the castle.
Annunziata curled herself up in her old corner of the marble bench, and appeared to relapse into profound thought.
A curious little intimate inward glow, a sense, somewhere deep down in his consciousness, of elation and well-being, accompanied John all the way to Roccadoro, mingling with and sweetening whatever thoughts or perceptions occupied his immediate attention. This was a "soul-state" that he knew of old, and he had no difficulty in referring it to its cause. It was the glow and the elation which he was fortunate enough always to experience when his eye had been fed with a fresh impression of beauty; and he knew that he owed it to-day to the glimpse he had had, in the cool light under the ilexes, of a slender figure in lilac and a tiny figure in grey, beside a soft-complexioned old marble bench in the midst of a shadowy, sunny, brown and green Italian garden.
The drive to Roccadoro from Sant' Alessina is a pleasant drive. The road follows for the most part the windings of the Rampio, so that you are seldom out of sight of its gleaming waters, and the brawl of it, now louder, now less loud, is perpetually in your ears. To right and left you have the tender pink of blossoming almonds, with sometimes the scarlet flame of a pomegranate; and then the blue-grey hills, mantled in a kind of transparent cloth-of-gold, a gauze of gold, woven of haze and sunshine; and then, rosy white, with pale violet shadows, the snow-peaks, cut like cameos upon the brilliant azure of the sky. And sometimes, of course, you rattle through a village, with its crumbling, stained, and faded yellow-stuccoed houses, its dazzling white canvas awnings, its church and campanile, and its life that seems to pass entirely in the street: men in their shirt sleeves, lounging, smoking, spitting (else the land were not Italy!), or perhaps playing cards at a table under the leafless bush of the wine-shop; women gossiping over their needlework, or, gathered in sociable knots, combing and binding up their sleek black hair; children sprawling in the kindly dirt; the priest, biretta on head, nose in breviary, drifting slowly upon some priestly errand, and "getting through his office;" and the immemorial goatherd, bare-legged, in a tattered sugar-loaf hat, followed by his flock, with their queer anxious faces, blowing upon his Pan's-pipes (shrill strains, in minor mode and plagal scale, a music older than Theocritus), or stopping, jealously watched by the customer's avid Italian eyes, to milk "per due centesimi"—say, a farthing's worth—into an outstretched, close-clutched jug. Sometimes the almond orchards give place to vineyards, or to maize fields, or to dusky groves of walnut, or to plantations of scrubby oak where lean black pigs forage for the delectable acorn. Sometimes the valley narrows to a ravine, and signs of cultivation disappear, and the voice of the Rampio swells to a roar, and you become aware, between the hills that rise gloomy and almost sheer beside you, of a great solitude: a solitude that is intensified rather than diminished by the sight of some lonely—infinitely lonely—grange, perched far aloft, at a height that seems out of reach of the world. What possible manner of human beings, you wonder, can inhabit there, and what possible dreary manner of existence can they lead? But even in the most solitary places you are welcomed and sped on by a chorus of bird-songs. The hillsides resound with bird-songs continuously for the whole seven miles,—and continuously, at this season, for the whole four-and-twenty hours. Blackbirds, thrushes, blackcaps, goldfinches, chaffinches, sing from the first peep of dawn till the last trace of daylight has died out, and then the nightingales begin and keep it up till dawn again. And everywhere the soft air is aromatic with a faint scent of rosemary, for rosemary grows everywhere under the trees. And everywhere you have the purity and brilliancy and yet restraint of colour, and the crisp economy of line, which give the Italian landscape its look of having been designed by a conscious artist.
In and through his enjoyment of all these pleasantnesses, John felt that agreeable glow which he owed to his glimpse of the woman in the garden; and when at last he reached the Hotel Victoria, and, having dressed, found himself alone for a few moments with Lady Blanchemain, in the dim and cool sitting-room where she awaited her guests, he hastened to let her know that he shared her own opinion of the woman's charms.
"Your beauty decidedly is a beauty," he declared. "I wish you could have seen her as I saw her an hour ago, with a white sunshade, against a background of ilexes. It's a thousand pities that painting should be a forgotten art."
But Lady Blanchemain (magnificent in purple velvet, with diamonds round her throat and in her hair) didn't seem interested.
"Do you know," she said, "I made yesterday one of the most ridiculous blunders of my life. It's been preying upon my mind ever since. I generally have pretty trustworthy perceptions, and perhaps this is a symptom of failing powers. I told myself positively that you were an Eton and Balliol man. It never occurred to me till I was halfway home that, as a Papist, you'd be nothing of the sort."
"No," said John; "I'm afraid I'm Edgbaston and Paris. The way her hair grows low about her brow, and swoops upwards and backwards in a sort of tidal wave, and breaks loose in little curling tendrils,—it's absolutely lyrical. And the smile at the bottom of her eyes is exactly like silent music. And her mouth is a couplet in praise of love, with two red lips for rhymes. And her chin is a perfect epithalamium of a chin. And then her figure! And then her lilac frock! Oh, it's a thousand, thousand pities that painting should he a forgotten art."
"What, the same lilac frock?" said Lady Blanchemain, absently. "Yet you certainly have the Eton voice," she mused. "And if I don't pay you the doubtful compliment of saying that you have the Balliol manner, you have at least a kind of subtilized reminiscence of it."