OLIVE ... IN ITALY
BY MORAY DALTON
London T. FISHER UNWIN MCMIX
[All Rights Reserved]
"For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup, and the wine is red; it is full mixed, and He poureth out of the same. As for the dregs thereof: all the ungodly of the earth shall drink them...."
BOOK I. PAGE
OLIVE IN ITALY
"I believe that Olive Agar is going to tell you that she can't pay her bill," said the landlady's daughter as she set the breakfast tray down on the kitchen table.
"Good gracious, Gwen, how you do startle one! Why?"
"She began again about the toast, and I told her straight that you always set yourself against any unnecessary cooking. Meat and vegetables must be done, I said, but those who can't relish bread as it comes from the baker's, and plain boiled potatoes, can go without, I said. Then she says, of course I must do as my mother tells me, and would I ask you to step up and see her presently."
"Perhaps you were a bit too sharp with her."
The girl sniffed resentfully. "Good riddance if she goes," she called after her mother.
Mrs Simons knocked perfunctorily at the dining-room door.
A young voice bade her come in. "I wanted to tell you that I heard from my cousins in Italy this morning. I am going to stay with them for a little, so I shall be leaving you at the end of the week."
The landlady's cold stare was disconcerting. There was a distinct note of disapproval in her voice as she answered, "I do not know much about Italy." She seemed to think it not quite a seemly subject, yet she pursued it. "I should have thought it was better for a young lady without parents or friends to find some occupation in her own country."
Olive smiled. "Ah, but I hate boiled potatoes, and I think I shall love Italy and Italian cooking. You remember the Athenians who were always seeking some new thing? They had a good time, Mrs Simons."
"I hope you may not live to wish those words unsaid, miss," the woman answered primly. "You have as good as sold your birthright, as Esau did, in that speech."
"He was much nicer than Jacob."
"Oh, miss, how can you! But, after all, I suppose you are not altogether one of us since you have foreign cousins. What's bred in the bone comes out in the flesh they say."
"I am quite English, if that is what you mean. My aunt married an Italian."
Mrs Simons's eyes had wandered from the girl's face to the heavy chandelier tied up in yellow muslin, and thence, by way of "Bubbles," framed in tarnished gilt, to the door. "Ah, well, I shall take your notice," she said finally.
She went down again into the kitchen. "I never know where to have her," she complained. "There's something queer and foreign about her for all she says. What's bred in the bone! I said that to her face, and I repeat it to you, Gwendolen."
Mrs Simons might have added that adventures are to the adventurous. Olive's father was Jack Agar, of the Agars of Lyme, and he married his cousin. If Mrs Simons had known all that must be implied in this statement she might have held forth at some length on the subject of heredity, and have traced the girl's dislike of boiled potatoes to her great-great-uncle's friendship with Lord Byron, and her longing for sunshine to a still more remote ancestress, lady-in-waiting to a princess at the court of Le Roi Soleil.
Adventures to the adventurous! The Agars were always aware of the magnificent possibilities of life and love, and inclined to ignore the unpleasant actualities of existence and the married state; hence some remarkable histories, and, in the end, ruin. Olive was the last of the old name. Jack Agar had died at thirty, leaving his wife and child totally unprovided for but for the little annuity that had sufficed for dress in the far-off salad days, and that now must be made to maintain them. Olive was sent to a cheap boarding-school, where she proved herself a fool at arithmetic; history, very good; conduct, fair; according to her reports. She was not happy there. She hated muddy walks and ink-stained desks and plain dumpling, and all these things seemed to be an essential part of life at Miss Blake's.
She left at eighteen, and thereafter she and her mother lived together in lodgings at various seaside resorts within their means, practising a strict economy, improving their minds at the free library, doing their own dressmaking, and keeping body and soul together on potted meats, cocoa and patent cereals. Mary Agar rebelled sometimes in secret, regretting the lack of "opportunities," i.e., of possible husbands. She would have been glad to see her daughter settled. The Agars never used commonsense in affairs of the heart. Her own marriage had been very foolish from a worldly point of view, and her sister Alice had run away with her music-master.
"In those days girls had a governess at home and finished with masters, and young Signor Menotti came twice a week to our house in Russell Square to teach Alice the guitar and mandoline. We shared singing and French lessons, but she had him to herself. He was very good-looking, dark, and rather haggard, and just shabby enough to make one sorry for him. When Alice said she would marry him mamma was furious, but she was just of age, and she had a little money of her own, an annuity as I have, and she went her own way. They were married at a registry office, I think, and soon afterwards they went to his home in Italy. Mamma never forgave, but Alice and I used to write to each other, and her eldest child was called after me. I don't know how it turned out. She never said she was unhappy, but she died after eight years, leaving her three little girls to be brought up by their father's sister."
Olive knew little more than this of her aunt. Further questioning elicited the fact that Signor Menotti's name was Ernesto.
"The girls are your cousins, Olive dear, and you have no other relations. I should like to see them."
"So should I."
Olive knew all about the annuity, but she had not realised until her mother died quite suddenly, of heart failure after influenza, what it means to have no money at all. She was dazed with grief at first, and Mrs Simons was as kind as could be expected and did not thrust the weekly bill upon her on the morning after the funeral, though it was due on that day. But lodgers are not supposed to give much trouble, and though death is not quite so heinous as infectious disease or ink spilt on the carpet it is still distinctly not a thing to be encouraged by too great a display of sympathy, and Olive was soon made to understand that it behoved her to seek some means of livelihood, some way out into the world.
No proverb is too hackneyed to be comforting at times, and the girl reminded herself that blood is thicker than water as she looked among her mother's papers for the Menotti address. They were her cousins, birds of a feather. She wrote them a queer, shy, charming letter in strange Italian, laboriously learnt out of a grammar, and then—since some days must elapse before she could get any answer—she conscientiously studied the advertisement columns of the papers. She might be a nursery governess if only she could be sure of herself at long division, or—horrid alternative—a useful help. Mrs Simons suggested a shop.
"You have a nice appearance, miss. Perhaps you would do as one of the young ladies in the drapery department, beginning with the tapes and thread and ribbon counter, you know, and working your way up to the showroom."
But Olive altogether declined to be a young lady.
She waited anxiously for her cousins' letter, and it meant so much to her that when it came she was half afraid to open it.
It was grotesquely addressed to the
Genteel Miss Agar Olive, Marsden Street, 159, Brighton, Provincia di Sussex, Inghilterra.
The post-mark was Siena. It was stamped on the flap, which was also decorated with a blue bird carrying a rose in its beak, and was rather strongly scented.
"DEAR COUSIN,—We were so pleased and interested to hear from you, though we greatly regret to have the news of our aunt's death. Our father's sister lives with us since we are orphans. She is a widow and has no children of her own. If you can pay us fifteen lire a week we shall be satisfied, and we will try to get you pupils for English. Kindly let us know the date and hour of your arrival.—Believe us, yours devotedly,
"MARIA, GEMMA and CARMELA."
Olive read it carefully twice over, and then sat down at the table and began to scribble on the back of the envelope. She convinced herself that three times fifteen was forty-five, and that so many lire amounted to not quite two pounds. Then there was the fare out to be reckoned. Finally, she decided that she would be able to get out to Italy and to live there for three weeks before she need call herself penniless.
She went to the window and stood for a while looking out. The houses opposite and all down the road were exactly alike, all featureless and grey, roofed with slate, three-storied, with basement kitchens. Nearly every one of them had "Apartments" in gilt letters on the fanlight over the front door. It was raining. The pavements were wet and there was mud on the roadway. The woman who lived in the corner house was spring-cleaning. Olive saw her helping the servant to take down the curtains in the front room. Dust and tea-leaves and last year's cobwebs. It occurred to her that spring would bring a recurrence of these things only if she became a useful help, as she must if she stayed in England and earned her living as best she could—only these and nothing more. The idea was horrible and she shuddered at it. "I shall go," she said aloud. "I shall go."
Olive, advised by a clerk in Cook's office, had taken a through ticket to Siena, third class to Dover, first on the boat, second in France and Italy. She got to Victoria in good time, had her luggage labelled, secured a corner seat, and, having twenty minutes to spare, strolled round the bookstall, eyeing the illustrated weeklies and the cheap reprints. The blue and gold of a shilling edition of Keats lay ready to her hand and she picked it up and opened it.
The girl, true lover of all beauty, flushed with pleasure at the dear, familiar word music, the sound of Arcadian pipes heard faintly for a moment above the harsh roar of London. For her the dead poet's voice rose clearly through the clamour of the living; it was like the silver wailing of a violin in a blaring discord of brass instruments.
She laid down the book reluctantly, and turning, met the eager eyes of the man who stood beside her. He had just bought an armful of current literature, and his business at the bookstall was evidently done, yet he lingered for an appreciable instant. He, too, was a lover of beauty, and in his heart he was saying, "Oh, English rose!"
He did not look English himself. He wore his black hair rather longer than is usual in this country, and there was a curiously vivid look, a suggestion of fire about him, which is conspicuously lacking in the average Briton, whose ambition it is to look as cool as possible. His face was thin and his eyes were deep set, like those of Julius Caesar—in fact, the girl was strongly reminded of the emperor's bust in the British Museum. He looked about thirty-five, but might have been older.
All this Olive saw in the brief instant during which they stood there together and aware of each other. When he turned away she bought some magazines, without any great regard for their interest or suitability, and went to take her place in the third-class compartment she had selected.
He would travel first, of course. She watched his leisurely progress along the platform, and noted that he was taller than any of the other men there, and better-looking. His thin, clean-shaven face compelled attention; she saw some women looking at him, and was pleased to observe that he did not even glance at them. Then people came hurrying up to the door of her compartment to say good-bye to some of her fellow-travellers, and she lost sight of him.
The train started and passed through the arid wilderness of backyards that lies between each one of the London termini and the clean green country.
Olive fluttered the pages of her magazine, but she felt disinclined to read. She was pretty; her brown hair framed a rose-tinted face, her smile was charming, her blue eyes were gay and honest and kind. Men often looked at her, and it cannot be denied that the swift appraisement of masculine eyes, the momentary homage of a glance that said "you are fair," meant something to her. Such tributes to her beauty were minor joys, to be classed with the pleasure to be derived from marrons glaces or the scent of violets, but the remembrance of them did not often make her dream by day or bring a flush to her cheeks.
She roused herself presently and began to look out of the window with the remorseful feeling of one who has been neglecting an old friend for an acquaintance. After all, this was England, where she was born and where her mother had died, and she was leaving it perhaps for ever. She tried to fix the varying aspects of the spring in her mind for future reference; the tender green of the young larches in the plantation, the pale gold of the primroses, and the flowering gorse close to the line, the square grey towers of the village churches, even the cold, pinched faces of the people waiting on the platforms of the little stations. Italy would be otherwise, and she might never see these familiar things again.
When the train rushed out on to the pier at Dover she dared not look back at the white cliffs, but kept her eyes resolutely seaward. The wind was high, and she heard that the crossing would be rough. Caesar was close behind her, and she caught a glimpse of him going aft as she made her way to the ladies' cabin.
She lay down on one of the red velvet divans in the stuffy saloon, and closed her eyes as she had been advised to do, and in ten minutes her misery was complete.
"If you are going to be ill nothing will stop you," observed the sympathetic stewardess. "It is like Monte Carlo. Most people have a system, and sometimes they win, but they are bound to lose in the end. Champagne, munching biscuits, patent medicines, lying down as you are now. It is all vanity and vexation of spirit, my dear."
Olive joined feebly in her laugh. "I feel better now. Are we nearly there?"
"Just coming into harbour."
When Olive crawled up on deck her one idea, after her luggage, was to avoid anyone who had seemed to admire her. She could not bear that the man should see her green face, and she was grateful to him for keeping his distance in the crush to get off the boat, and for disappearing altogether in the station. A porter in a blue linen blouse piloted her to the waiting train, and she climbed into the compartment labelled "Turin," and settled herself in a window seat.
The country between Calais and Paris can only be described as flat, stale and unprofitable by a beauty lover panting for the light and glow and colour of the South, and Olive soon got a book out of her bag and began to read. Her only fellow-passenger, a middle-aged English lady with an indefinite face, spoke to her presently. "You are reading a French novel?"
"No, it is in Italian. La Citta Morta, by Gabriele D'Annunzio. I want to rub up my few words of the language."
"Is he not a very terrible writer?"
Olive was so tired of the disapproving note. "He writes very well, and his descriptions are gorgeous. Of course he is horrid sometimes, but one can skip those parts."
Olive smiled. "No, I do not," she said frankly, "but I don't enjoy them. They make me tired of life."
"Is not that rather a pity?"
"Perhaps; but you have to sift dirt to find diamonds, don't you? And this man says things that are worth tiaras sometimes."
"Surely there must be Italian authors who write books suitable for young people in a pretty style?"
"A pretty style? No doubt. But I don't read them."
The older woman sighed, and then smiled quite pleasantly. "I suppose you are clever. One of my nieces is, and they find her rather a handful. Will you try one of my sandwiches?"
Olive produced her biscuits and bananas, and they munched together in amity. After all, an aunt might be worse than stupid, and this one was quite good-natured, and so kind that her taste in literature might be excused. There were affectionate farewells at the Paris station, where she got out with all her accumulation of bags and bundles.
The train rushed on through the woods of Fontainebleau and across wide plains intersected by poplar-fringed canals. As the evening mists rose lights began to twinkle in cottage windows, and in the villages the church bells were ringing the prayer to the Virgin. Olive had laid aside her book some time since, and now, wearying of the grey twilit world, she fell asleep.
Jean Avenel, too, had watched the waning of the day from his place in a smoking first for a while, before he got up and began to prowl restlessly about the corridors. "She will be so tired if she does not eat," he said to himself. "They ought not to let a child like that travel alone. I wonder—" He walked down the corridor again, but this time he looked into each compartment. He saw three Englishmen and an American playing whist, Germans eating, and French people sleeping, and at last he came upon his rose. A small man, mean-featured and scrubby-haired, was seated opposite to her, and his shining eyes were fixed upon her face. She had taken off her hat and was holding it on her lap, and Jean saw that she was clutching at it nervously, and that she was pale. He understood that it was probably her first experience of the Italian stare, deliberate, merciless, and indefinitely prolonged. She flushed as he came forward, and her eyes were eloquent as they met his. He sat down beside her.
"Please forgive me," he said quietly, "but I can see this man is annoying you. Shall I glare him out of the place? I can."
"Oh, please do," she answered. "He has frightened me so. He was talking before you came."
The culprit already looked disconcerted and rather foolish, and now, as Jean leant forward and seemed about to speak to him, he began to be frightened. He fidgeted, thrusting his hands in his pockets, looking out of the window, humming a tune. His ears grew red. He tried to meet the other man's level gaze and failed. He got up rather hurriedly. The brown eyes watched him slinking out before they allowed themselves a second sight of the rose.
"Thank you so much," said Olive. "I feel as if you had killed a spider for me, or an earwig. He was more like an earwig. He must have come in here while I was asleep."
"A deported waiter going back to his native Naples, I imagine," Jean said. "They ought not to have let you travel alone."
She smiled. "I am a law unto myself."
"That is a pity. Will you think me very impertinent if I confess that I have been watching over you—at a respectful distance—ever since we left Victoria? I do not approve of children wandering—"
She tilted her pretty chin at him. "Children! So you have made yourself into a sort of G.F.S. for me?"
"You know," he said gravely, "we have a mutual friend." He drew a blue and gold volume from an inner pocket.
Olive flushed scarlet, but she only said, "Oh, Keats!"
She looked at his hands as they turned the pages; they were clever and kind, she thought, and she wondered if he was an artist or a doctor. Those fingers might set a butterfly's wing, and yet they seemed very strong. She did not know she had sighed until he said, "Am I boring you?"
"Oh, no," she answered eagerly. "Please don't go yet unless you want to. But tell me why you bought that book?"
"If you could have seen yourself as I saw you, you would understand," he answered. "I once saw a woman on my brother's estate pick up a piece of gold on the road. She had never had so much money without earning it in her life before, I suppose. At any rate she kissed it, and her face was radiant. She was old and ugly and worn by her long days of toil in the fields, and you— Well, in spite of the differences you reminded me of her, and I am curious to know which poem of Keats brought that swift, rapt light of joy."
"It was 'White hawthorn and the pastoral eglantine'—"
Jean found the place and marked the passage before returning the book to his pocket. "Now," he said, "you will come with me and have some dinner."
Many women are shepherded through all life's journeyings by their men—fathers, brothers, husbands—who look out their trains for them, put them in the care of guards, and shield them from all contact with sulky porters and extortionate cabmen. Olive, who had always to take her own ticket and fight her own and her mother's battles, now tasted the joys of irresponsibility with Avenel. He compounded with Customs officials, who bowed low before him, he took part in the midnight scramble for pillows at Modane, emerging from the crowd in triumph with no less than three of the coveted aids to repose under his arm, and he saw Olive comfortably settled in another compartment with two motherly German women, and there left her.
At Turin he secured places in the diretto to Florence, and sent his man to the buffet for coffee and rolls, and the two broke their fast together.
"Italy and the joy of life," Olive said lightly, as she lifted her cup, and he looked at her with melancholy brown eyes that yet held the ghost of a smile.
"The passing hour," he answered; adding prosaically, "This is good coffee."
Referring to the grey silvery trees whose name she bore he assured her that he did not think she resembled them. "They are old and you seem eternally young. You should have been called Primavera."
She laughed. "Ah, if you had been my godfather—"
"I should not have cared to have held you in my arms when you were a bald-headed baby," he answered with perfect gravity.
Apparently he always said what he thought, but his frankness was disconcerting, and Olive changed the subject.
"Is Siena beautiful?"
"It is a gem of the Renaissance, and you will love it as I do, I know, but I wish you could have seen Florence first. My brother has a villa at Settignano and I am going there now. The fruit trees in the orchard will be all white with blossom. You remember Romeo's April oath: 'By yonder moon that tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops—'"
They lunched in the station restaurant at Genoa, and there he bought the girl a basket of fruit. "A poor substitute for the tea you will be wanting presently," he explained. "You have no tea-basket with you? You will want one if you are going to live with Italians."
"I never thought of it."
"May I send you one?" he asked eagerly. "Do let me."
Olive flushed with pleasure. No one had been so kind to her since her mother died. Evidently he liked her—oh! he liked her very much. She suddenly realised how much she would miss him when they parted at Florence and she had to go on alone. It had been so good to be with someone stronger than herself who would take care of her. He had seemed happy too, and she thought he looked younger now than he did when she first saw him standing by the bookstall at Victoria station.
"It is very good of you," she said. "I should like it. Thank you. I—I shall be sorry to say good-bye."
He met her wistful eyes gravely. "I should like you to know that I shall never forget this day," he said. "I shall never cease to be grateful to you for being so—for being what you are. My wife is different."
"I don't live with her."
He took a card from his case presently and scribbled an address on it. "I dare not hope that I shall ever hear from you again, but that is my name, and letters will always be forwarded to me from my brother's place. If ever I could do anything—"
She faltered some word of thanks in an uncertain voice. She felt as if something had come upon her for which she was unprepared, some shadow of the world's pain, some flame of its fires that flickered at her heart for a moment and was gone. She was suddenly afraid, not of the brown eyes that were fixed so hungrily upon her face, but of herself. She could hear the beating of her own heart. The pity of it—the pity of it! He was so nice. Why could not they be friends—
The night had fallen long since and they were nearing Florence.
"Don't forget to change at Empoli," he said. "I will send my man on as far as that to look after you. Will you let me kiss you?"
He came over and sat on the seat by her side. "Don't be afraid. I won't hurt you," he said gently, and then, seeing her pale, he drew back. "No, I won't. It would not be fair. Oh, I beg your pardon! It will be enough for me to remember how good you were."
The train passed into the lighted station, and he stood up and took his hat and coat from the rack before he turned to her once more.
"Has anyone seen our cousin?" asked Gemma as she helped herself to spaghetti.
Her aunt shrugged her fat shoulders. "No! The donna di servizio is mistress here, and she has ordained that the cousin shall not be disturbed. She has even locked the door, and she carries the key in her pocket."
"It is true," old Carolina said placidly. She was accustomed to join in the conversation at table when she chose, and Italian servants are allowed great freedom of speech. "You were all in your beds when Giovanni Scampo drove her here in his cab this morning or you would have seen her then. The poor child is half dead with fatigue. Let her sleep, I say. There are veal cutlets to come, Signorina Maria; will you have more spaghetti?"
"A little more."
The old woman shook her head. "You eat too much."
The Menotti lived in a small stuffy flat on the third floor of 25, Piazza Tolomei. It had the one advantage of being central, but was otherwise extremely inconvenient. The kitchen was hot and airless, and the servant had to sleep in a dark cupboard adjoining, in an atmosphere compounded of the scent of cheese, black beetles and old boots. There were four bedrooms besides, all opening on to the dining-room; and a tiny drawing-room, seldom used and never dusted, was filled to overflowing with gilt furniture and decorative fantasies in wool work.
The Menotti did not entertain. They met their friends at church, or at the theatre, or in the Lizza gardens, where they walked every evening in the summer. No man had ever seen them other than well dressed, but in the house they wore loose white cotton jackets and old skirts. They were en deshabille now, though their heads were elaborately dressed and their faces powdered, and Maria's waist was considerably larger than it appeared to be when she was socially "visible."
"I must breathe sometimes," she said.
The three girls were inclined to stoutness, but Gemma drank vinegar and ate sparingly, and so had succeeded in keeping herself slim hitherto, though she was only three years younger than Maria, who was twenty-nine and looked forty.
Carmela was podgy, but she might lace or not just as she pleased. No one would look at her in any case since her kind, good-humoured, silly face was marked with smallpox.
Gemma was the pride of her aunt and the hope of the family. The girls were poor, and it is hard for such to find husbands, but she had recently become engaged to a young lawyer from Lucca, who had been staying with friends in Siena when he saw and fell in love with the girl whom the students at the University named the "Odalisque."
Hers was the strange, boding loveliness of a pale orchid. She had no colour, but her curved lips were faintly pink, as were the palms of her soft, idle hands. "I shall be glad when she is married," her aunt said often. "It is very well for Maria or Carmela to go through the streets alone, but Gemma is otherwise, and I cannot be always running after her. Then her temper ... Dio mio!"
"Perhaps it is the vinegar," suggested Carolina rather spitefully.
"No. She wants a husband."
When the dinner was over Signora Carosi went to her room to lie down, and her two elder nieces followed her example, but Carmela passed into the kitchen with Carolina.
"You will let me see the cousin," she said, wheedling. "Gemma thinks she will be ugly, with great teeth and a red face like the Englishwomen in the Asino, but I do not believe it."
"If the signorina is hoping for a miracle of plainness she will be unpleasantly surprised," said the old woman, and her shrivelled face was as mischievous as a monkey's as she drew the key of Olive's room from her pocket. "I am going to take her some soup now, and you shall come with me."
It is quite impossible to be retiring, or even modest, in the mid-Victorian sense, in flats. A bedroom cannot remain an inviolate sanctuary when it affords the only means of access to the bathroom or is a short cut to the kitchen. Olive had had some experience of suburban flats during holidays spent with school friends, and had suffered the familiarity that breeds weariness in such close quarters. As she woke now she was unpleasantly aware of strangers in the room.
"Only a lover or a nurse may look at a woman while she sleeps without offence," she said drowsily. "It is an unpardonable liberty in all other classes of the population. Are you swains, or sisters of mercy?" She opened her eyes and met Carmela's puzzled stare with laughter. "I was saying that when one is ill or in love one can endure many things," she explained in halting Italian.
"Ah," Carmela said uncomprehendingly, "I am never ill, grazia a Dio, but when Maria has an indigestion she is cross, and when Gemma is in love her temper is dreadful. Perhaps, being a foreigner, you are different. Are you tired?"
"Yes, I am, rather, but go on talking to me. I am not sleepy."
Carmela, nothing loth, drew a chair to the bedside. "You need not get up yet," she said comfortably. "We always lie down after dinner until five, and later we go for a walk. You will see the Via Cavour full of people in the evening, officers and students, and mothers with daughters to be married, all walking up and down and looking at each other. Orazio Lucis first saw Gemma like that, and he followed us home, and then found out who we were and asked questions about us. Every day we saw him in the Piazza, smoking cigarettes, and waiting for us to go out that he might follow us, and Gemma would give him one look, and then cast down her eyes ... so!" Carmela caricatured her sister's affectation of unconsciousness very successfully, and looked to Olive and Carolina for applause.
The servant grinned appreciation. "Yes, the signorina is very civetta. I, also, have seen her simpering when the avvocato has been here, but she soon gets tired of him, and then her face is as God made it."
Olive dressed herself leisurely when they had left her, and unpacked her clothes and her little store of books. Her cousins, coming to fetch her soon after six o'clock, found her ready to go out, but so absorbed in a guide-book of Siena that she did not hear Maria's knock at the door.
She had resolved that she would apply art and archaeology as plasters to the wound life had given her already. She would stay her heart's hunger with moods and tenses, but not of the verb "amare." Learning and teaching, she might make her mind lord of her emotions.
She came forward rather shyly to meet her cousins. The three together were somewhat overpowering, flounced and frilled alike, and highly scented. Maria and Carmela fat, pleasant and profuse; Gemma silent, with dark resentful eyes and scornful lips that never smiled at other women.
"You will show me the best things?" Olive said eagerly when they had all kissed her. "I want to see the Duomo first, and then the Palazzo Vecchio—but that is only open in the mornings, is it? And this is the Piazza Tolomei, so the house where Pia lived must be quite near."
Gemma stared, but made no attempt to answer, and Maria looked confused.
"I am afraid you will find us all very stupid, cara," said Carmela, apologetically. "We only go to the Duomo to pray, and as to museums and picture-galleries— And perhaps I had better tell you now, at once, that we do not want to learn English. We have got you several lessons through friends, but Maria and Carmela say they will not fatigue themselves over a foreign language, and I—"
"Oh," began Olive, "I thought—"
Gemma interrupted her. "A thousand thanks," she said rudely. "We are not school children; we read about Pia dei Tolomei years ago at the Scuola Normale, but we do not consider her an amusing subject of conversation now."
The rose in Olive's cheeks deepened. "I shall soon learn to know your likes and dislikes," she said, "and to understand your manners."
"I hope so," answered Gemma as she left the room. Maria hurried after her, but the younger sister caught at Olive's hand.
"You must not listen to Gemma. Come, we will walk together. Let her go on; she cannot forgive your nose for being straight."
A large parcel addressed to Miss Agar was brought to the house a few weeks later. Olive was out giving a lesson when it came, and Gemma turned it over, examining the post-mark and the writing.
"Shall I open it and see what is inside? She would never know."
Carmela was horrified. "How can you think of such a thing!"
"Besides, it is sealed," added Maria.
These two liked their cousin well enough, and when they wished to tease the Odalisque they called her "carina" and praised her fresh prettiness. It was always so easy to make Gemma angry, and lately she had been more capricious and difficult than ever. Her sisters were continually trying to excuse her.
"She is so nervous," Maria said loyally, but her paraphrase availed nothing. Olive understood her cousin and disliked her extremely, though she accorded her a reluctant admiration.
She came in now with her books—an English grammar and a volume of translations—under her arm, and seeing that Gemma was watching her, she took her parcel with a carefully expressionless phrase of thanks to Carmela, who was anxious to cut the string, and carried it into her room unopened. It was the tea-basket Jean Avenel had promised her. She read the enclosed note, however, before she looked at it.
"I am going to America and then to Russia. Do not quite forget me. If ever you need anything write to my brother, Hilaire Avenel, Villa Fiorelli, Settignano, near Florence, and he will serve you for my sake as he would for your own if he knew you. I think I have played better since I have known you, my rose. One must suffer much before one can express the divine sorrow of Chopin. I said I would not write, but some promises are made to be broken. Can you forgive me?
America and Russia ... the divine sorrow of Chopin ... I have played better.... He was a pianist then, and surely a great one. Olive remembered the slender brown hands that had seemed to her so supple and so strong. But the name of Avenel was strange to her, and she was sure she had never seen it on posters, or in the papers and magazines that chronicle the doings of musical celebrities.
She took the tea-things out of the basket one by one and looked at them with pleasure. The sugar box and the caddy and the spoon were all of silver, and engraved with her initials, and the cup and saucer were painted with garlands of pale roses.
Tears filled her eyes as she sat down at the little table in the window and began to write.
"You have sent me a tea equipage fit for an empress! It is perfect, and I do not know how to thank you. Yes. I forgive you for writing. Have I really helped you to play? I am so glad. You say Chopin, so I suppose it is the piano? I must tell you that I remember all the stories you told me of Siena, and they add to the interest of my days. I give English lessons, and am making enough money to keep myself, but in the intervals of grammar and 'I Promessi Sposi' (no less than three of my pupils are translating that interminable romance into so-called English) I study the architecture of the early Renaissance in the old narrow streets, and gaze upon Byzantine Madonnas in the churches. The Duomo is an archangel's dream, and I like to go there with my cousins and steep my soul in its beauty while they say their prayers and fan themselves. One of them is pretty and she hates me; the other two are stout and kind and empty-headed, and their aunt is nothing—a large, heavy nothing—"
Olive laid down her pen. "What will he think if I write him eight pages? That I want to begin a correspondence? I do, but he must not know it."
She tore her letter up into small pieces and wrote two lines on a sheet of note-paper.
"Thank you very much for your kind present and for what you say. Of course I forgive you ... and I shall not forget.—Yours sincerely, OLIVE AGAR."
She went to the window and threw the torn scraps of the first letter out into the street, and then she sat down again and began to cry; not for long. Women who know how precious youth is understand that tears are an expensive luxury, and they are sparing of them accordingly. They suffer more in the stern repression of their emotions than do those who yield easily to grief, but they keep their eyelashes and their complexions.
Olive bathed her eyes presently and smoked a cigarette to calm her nerves. She was going out that evening to dine with her favourite pupil and his mother, and she knew they would be distressed if she looked ill or sad.
Aurelia de Sanctis had had troubles enough of her own. She had married a patriot, a man with a beautiful eager face and a body spent with disease, and a fever that never left him since the days when he lurked in the marshes of the Maremma, crouched in a tangle of wet reeds and rushes, and watching for the flash of steel in the sunshine.
Austrian bayonets ... he raved of them in his dreams, and called upon the names of comrades who had rotted in prisons or died in exile. His young wife nursed him devotedly until he died, leaving her a widow at twenty-seven. She had a small pension from the Government, and she worked at dressmaking to eke it out.
Her only child had grown up to be a hopeless invalid. He could not go to school, so he lay all day on the sofa by the window in the tiny sitting-room and helped his mother with her sewing. His poor little bony hands were very quick and dexterous.
In the evenings he read everything he could get hold of, books and newspapers. The professors from the University, who came to see him and were kind to him for his father's sake, told each other that he was a genius and that his soul was eating up his frail body. They wondered, pitifully, what poor Signora Aurelia would do when—
The mother was hopeful, however. "He takes such an interest in everything that I think he must have a strong vitality though he seems delicate," she said.
He had expressed a wish to learn English, and when Signora Aurelia first heard of Olive she wrote asking her to come and see her. The De Sancti lived a little way outside the Porta Romana, on the edge of the hill and outside the town, and Maria advised her cousin not to go there.
"It is so far out on a hot dusty road, and you will grow as thin and dry as an old hen's drumstick if you walk so much. And I know the signora is poor and will not be able to pay well."
Olive went, nevertheless. Signora Aurelia herself opened the door to her and showed evident pleasure at seeing her. The poor woman had been beautiful, and now that she was worn by time and sorrow she still looked like a goddess, exiled to earth, and altogether shabby—a deity in reduced circumstances—but none the less divinely fair and kind. Her great love for her child had so moulded her that she seemed the very incarnation of motherhood. So might Ceres have appeared as she wandered forlornly in search of her lost Persephone, gentle, weary, her fineness a little blunted by her woes.
"Are you the English signorina? Come in! My son will be so pleased," she said as she led the girl into the room where Astorre was working at embroidery.
Olive saw a boy of seventeen sewing as he lay on the sofa. There were some books on the floor within his reach, and a glass of lemonade was set upon the window-sill, but he seemed quite absorbed in making fine stitches. He looked up, however, as they came in and smiled at his mother.
"I have nearly finished," he said. "Presently I shall read the sonnet, 'Pace non trovo, e non ho da far guerra,' to refresh myself."
"This is the signorina who teaches English, nino mio."
His face lit up at once and he held out his hand. "I have already studied the grammar, but the pronunciation ... ah! that will be hard to learn. Will you help me, signorina?"
"Yes, indeed I will. We will read and talk together, and soon you will speak English better than I can Italian."
As she spoke and smiled her heart ached to see the hollowness of his cheeks and the lines of pain about his young mouth. She guessed that his poor body was all twisted and deformed under the rug that covered it. Signora Aurelia took her out on to their little terrace garden before she left. Twenty miles and more of fair Tuscan earth lay at their feet, grey olive groves and green vineyards, and the hills beyond all shimmering in the first heat of spring. Olive exclaimed at the beauty of the world.
"Yes. On summer evenings Astorre can lie here and watch what he calls the pageant of the skies. The poor child is so fond of colour. I know you will be very patient with him, signorina. He is so clever, but some days he is in pain, and then he gets tired and so cannot learn so well. You have kindly promised to come twice a week, but I must tell you that I am not rich—" She looked at Olive wistfully.
The girl dared not offer to teach Astorre for nothing. "I can see your son will be a very good pupil," she said hastily. "Would one lire the lesson suit you?"
"Oh, yes," the signora said with evident relief. "But are you sure that is enough? You must not sacrifice yourself, my dear—"
"It will be a pleasure to come," Olive said very sincerely.
The acquaintance soon ripened into a triangular friendship. The signora grew to love the girl because she amused Astorre and was never obviously sorry for him, or too gentle with him, as were some of the well-meaning people who came to see the boy. "An overflow of pity is like grease exuding," he said once. "I hate it."
He was very old for his years. He had read everything apparently, and he discussed problems of life and death with the air of a man of forty. He had no illusions about himself. "I shall die," he said once to Olive when his mother was not in the room. "My father gave me a spirit that burns like Greek fire and a body like—like a spent shell."
The easy, desultory lessons were often prolonged, and then the girl stayed to dinner and played dominoes afterwards with him or with his mother until ten o'clock, when old Carolina came to fetch her home. The withered little serving-woman was voluble, and always cheerfully ready to lighten the way with descriptions of the last moments of her children. She had had thirteen, and two were still surviving. "One grows accustomed, signorina mia—"
"You have been crying," Astorre said abruptly.
Olive leant against the balustrade of the little terrace. She was watching the fireflies that sparkled in the dusk of the vineyards in the valley below. A breeze had risen from the sea at sunset, and it stirred the leaves of the climbing roses and brought a faint sound of convent bells far away. Some stars shone in the clear pale sky.
Dinner had been cleared away, and Signora Aurelia had gone in to finish a white dress she was making for a bride. Olive had offered to help her. "I would rather you amused yourself with Astorre. I can see you are tired," she had answered as she left them together.
"You have been crying," the boy repeated insistently.
She smiled at him then. "May I not shed tears if I choose?"
"I must know why," he answered.
"Oh, a castle in Spain."
He looked at her searchingly. "And a castellan?"
"Yes. I want a man, and I cannot have him. Ecco!"
She did not expect him to take her seriously, but he was often perversely inclined. "Of course," he said in a matter-of-fact tone, "all women want a man or men. Do you think I have been lying here all these years without finding that out? That need is the mainspring of life, the key to heaven, and the root of all evil. If—if I were different someone would want me—" His voice broke.
Olive looked away from him. "How still the night is," she said. "The nightingales are singing in the woods below, Astorre. Do you hear them?"
"I am not deaf," he answered in a muffled voice, "I hear them. Will you hear me?"
Watching her closely he saw that she shrank from him. "Do not be afraid," he said gruffly. "I am not going to be a fool. No man on earth is worth your tears. That is all I wanted to say."
"Ah, child, you are young for all your wisdom. I was not sorry for him but for myself."
"Liar!" he cried petulantly, and then caught at her hand. "Forgive me! Come now and read me a sonnet of your Keats and then translate it to me."
Obediently she stooped to pick up the book. The flame of the little lamp on the table at his side burned steadily.
He lay with closed eyes and lips that moved, repeating the words after her. "It is very good to listen to your voice while you are here with me alone under the stars," he said presently. "Tell me, does this man love you?"
She was silent.
"Does he love you?"
"I think he did, but perhaps he has forgotten me now."
"I love you," the boy said deliberately.
"I cannot come again if you talk like this, Astorre."
"I shall never say it again," he answered, "but I want you to remember that it is so, because it may comfort you. Such words never come amiss to women. They feed on the hunger of our hearts."
"Don't say that!" she cried. "It is true that I like you to be fond of me, and I love you. In the best way, Astorre—oh, do believe that it is the best way!"
"With your soul, I suppose? Do you think I am an angel because I am a cripple?" he asked bitterly.
"I am sorry—"
"Poor little girl," he said more gently, "I have hurt you instead of comforting you, as I meant to do. But how can I give what is not mine? How can I cry 'Peace,' when there is no peace? You will suffer still when I am at rest."
The boy's mother put down her work presently and came out to them, and the three sat silently watching the moon rise beyond the hills. It was as though a veil had been withdrawn to show the glimmer of distant streams, the white walls of peasant dwellings set among their vines, the belfry tower of an old Carthusian monastery belted in by tall dark cypresses, and the twisted shadows thrown by the gnarled trunks and outstanding roots of the olive trees.
"All blue and silver," cried the girl after a while. "Thank God for Italy!"
"She has cost her children dear," the elder woman answered, sighing. "Beyond that rampart of hills lies the Maremma, and swamps, marshes, forests are to be drained now, they say, and made profitable. You will see some peasants from over there in our streets at the time of the Palio. Poor souls! They are so lean and haggard and yellow that their bones seem to be piercing through their discoloured skins."
"The Palio! I think Signor Lucis is coming to Siena to see it," Olive said.
"Is that the man your cousin Gemma is to marry?" the dressmaker asked curiously. "I had heard that she was engaged, but one hears so many things. Do you like her?"
"Not very much, but really I see very little of her. I am out all day teaching."
The door-bell clanged as the girl rose to go. "That is Carolina come for her stray sheep," she said, smiling. "They will not believe that I can come home by myself at night."
"They are quite right. If your aunt's servant did not come for you I should take you back to the Piazza Tolomei myself."
"You forget that I am English."
Olive never attempted to explain her code; she stated her nationality and went on her way. Her first pupils had all been young girls, but as it became known that she was really English her circle widened. The prior of a Dominican convent near San Giorgio, and two privates from a regiment of Lancers stationed in the Fortezza, came to her to be taught, and some of Astorre's friends, students at the University, were very anxious for lessons, and as the Menotti refused to have them in their house Olive had to hire a room to receive them.
The aunt disapproved. "It is not right," she said, and when Olive assured her that she could not afford to lose good pupils she shook her large head.
"You will go your own way, I suppose, but do not bring your men here. I cannot have soldiers scratching up the carpet with their spurs, or monks dropping snuff on it."
Olive's days were filled, and she, having no time for the self-tormentings of idle women, was content to be not quite unhappy. She needed love and could not rest without it, and she was at least partially satisfied. Astorre and his mother adored her, thought her perfect, held her dear. All her pupils seemed to like her, and some of the students brought her little gifts of flowers, and packets of chocolate and almond-rock that Maria ate for her. The prior gave her a plaster statuette of St Catherine. "She was clever, and so are you," he said.
"Carmela, I am not really antipatica?"
"What foolishness! No."
"Why does Gemma hate me then? No one else does, or if they do they hide it, but she looks daggers at me always."
Carmela had been invited to tea in her cousin's bedroom. The water did not boil yet, but her mouth was already full of cake.
"What happened the other night when Gemma let you in?" she mumbled.
"Did she say anything to you?"
"No, but I am not blind or deaf. You have not spoken to each other since."
Olive lifted the kettle off the spirit lamp. "You like it weak, I know."
"Yes, and three lumps of sugar. Tell me what happened, cara."
"Well, as I came up the stairs that night I noticed a strong scent of tobacco—good tobacco. Sienese boys smoke cheap cigarettes, and the older men get black Tuscan cigars, but this was different. It reminded me of— Oh, well, never mind. When I came to the first landing I felt sure there was someone standing close against the wall waiting for me to go by, and yet when I spoke no one answered. You know how dark it is on the stairs at night. I could not see anything, but I listened, and, Carmela, a watch was ticking quite near me, by my ear. I could not move for a moment, and then I heard Carolina calling—she was with me, you know, but she had gone up first—and I got up somehow. Gemma let us in. She said she had been asleep, and I noticed that her hair was all loose and tumbled. I told her I fancied there was someone lurking on the stairs, and she said it must have been the cat, but I knew from the way she said it that she was angry. She lit her candle and marched off into her own room without saying good-night, and I was sorry because I have always wanted to be friends with her. I thought I would try to say something about it, so I went to her door and knocked. She opened it directly. 'Go away, spy,' she said very distinctly, and then I grew angry too. I laughed. 'So there was a man on the stairs,' I said."
Carmela stirred her tea thoughtfully. "Ah!" she said. "How nice these spoons are. I wish you would tell me who gave them to you."
She helped herself to another cake. "Gemma is difficult, and we shall all be glad when September comes and she is safely married. She is lazy. You have seen us of a morning, cutting out, basting, stitching at her wedding clothes, while she sits with her hands folded. Are you coming out with us this evening?"
The Menotti strolled down to the Lizza nearly every day after the siesta, and Carmela often persuaded her cousin to accompany them. The gardens were set on an outlying spur of the hill on which the wolf's foster son, Remus, built the city that was to be fairer than Rome. The winter winds, coming swiftly from the sea, whipped the laurels into strange shapes, shook the brown seed pods from the bare boughs of the acacias, and froze the water that dripped from the Medicean balls on the old wall of the Fortezza. Even in summer a little breeze would spring up towards sunset, and the leaves that had hung heavy and flaccid on the trees in the blazing heat of noon would be stirred by it to some semblance of life, while the shadows lengthened, and the incessant maddening scream of the locusts died down into silence. The gardens were a favourite resort. As the church bells rang the Ave Maria the people came to them by Camollia and San Domenico, to see each other and to talk over the news of the day.
Smart be-ribboned nurses carrying babies on white silk cushions tied with pink or blue rosettes, young married women with their children, stout mothers chaperoning the elaborate vivacity of their daughters, occupied seats near the bandstand, or lingered about the paths as they chattered and fanned themselves incessantly to the strains of the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana or some march of Verdi's. A great gulf was fixed between the sexes on these occasions. The young men congregated about the base of Garibaldi's statue; more or less gilded youths devoted to "le Sport," wearing black woollen jerseys and perforated cycling shoes, while lady-killers braved strangulation in four-inch collars. There were soldiers too, cavalry lieutenants, slender, erect, and very conscious of their charms, and dark-faced priests, who listened to the music carefully with their eyes fixed on the ground, as being in the crowd but not of it. Olive watched them all with mingled amusement and impatience. If only the boys would talk to their friends' sisters instead of eyeing them furtively from afar; if only the girls would refrain from useless needlework and empty laughter. They talked incessantly and called every mortal—and immortal—thing carina. Queen Margherita was carina, and so was the new cross-stitch, and so was this blue-eyed Olive. Yes, they admitted her alien charm. She was strana, too, but they did not use that word when she was there or she would have rejoiced over such an enlargement of their vocabulary.
"They are amiable," she told Astorre, "but we have not one idea in common."
"Ah," he said, "can one woman ever praise another without that 'but'? Do you think them pretty?" he asked.
"Yes, but one does not notice them when Gemma is there."
"That is the pale one, isn't it? I have heard of her from the students, and also from the professors of the University. One of my friends raves about her Greek profile and her straight black brows. He calls her his silent Sappho, but I fancy Odalisque is a better name for her. There is no brain or heart, is there?"
"I don't know," she answered uncertainly. "She seldom speaks to anyone, never to me."
"She is jealous of you probably."
The heats of July tried the boy. He was not so well as he had been in the spring, and lately he had not been able to help his mother with her needlework. The hours of enforced idleness seemed very long, and he watched for Olive's coming with pathetic eagerness. She never failed to appear on Tuesdays and Saturdays, though the lessons had been given up since his head ached when he tried to learn. Signora Aurelia met her always at the door with protestations of gratitude. "You amuse him and make him laugh, my dear, because you are so fresh, and you do not mind what you say. It is good of you to come so far in the sun."
The girl's heart ached to see the haggard young face so white against the dark velvet of the piled-up cushions. The deep grey eyes lit up with pleasure at the sight of her, but she found it hard to meet their yearning with a smile.
Sometimes she found old men sitting with him, grave and potent signiors, professors from the University, who, on being introduced, beamed paternally and asked her questions about Oxford and Cambridge. There were bashful youths too, who blushed when she entered and rose hurriedly with muttered excuses. If they could be induced to stay, Olive, seeing that it pleased Astorre to see them shuffling their feet and writhing on their chairs in an agony of embarrassment before her, did her best to make them uncomfortable.
"Your friends are all so timid," she said. He looked at her with a kind of triumph, a pride of possession.
"They do not understand you as I do. Fausto admires you, but you frighten him."
"Is he Gemma's adorer?" she asked with a careful display of indifference.
"Yes, he is always amoroso."
"Ah! Does he smoke?"
"Oh, nothing," she said. She did not really believe that the man on the stairs could have been Fausto. Gemma would not look twice at such a harmless infant now. When she was forty-five, perhaps, she might smile on boys, but at twenty-six—
Olive sat in her little bedroom correcting exercises.
It was the drowsy middle of the afternoon and the heat was intense. All the grey-green and golden land of Tuscany lay still and helpless at the mercy of the sun. The birds had long ceased singing, and only the thin shrilling of the locusts broke the August silence. The parched earth was pale, and great cracks that only the autumn rains could fill had opened on the hillsides, but the ripening maize lay snug within its narrow sheaths of green, and the leaves of the vines hid great bunches of purpling grapes. In the fields men rested awhile from their labours, and the patient white oxen stood in the shade of the mulberries, while the sunburnt lads who drove them bathed their tired bodies in the stream, or lay idly in the lush grass at the water's edge.
In the town the walls of houses that had fronted the morning sun were scorching to the touch, and there was no coolness even in the steep northward streets that were always in shadow, or in the grey stone-paved courts of the palaces. There were few people about at this hour, and the little stream of traffic had run dry in the Via Cavour. A vendor of melons drew his barrow close up to the battered old column in the Piazza Tolomei, and squatted down on the ground beside it. "Cocomeri! Fresc' e buoni!" he cried once or twice, and then rolled over and went to sleep. A peasant girl carrying a basket of eggs passed presently, and she looked wistfully at the fruit, but she did not disturb his slumbers.
"Is that the aunt of your friend's mother? No, it is the sister of my niece's governess." Olive laid down her pen. She was only partially dressed and her hair hung loosely about her bare white shoulders. The heat made hairpins seem a burden and outer garments superfluous. "My niece's governess is the last. Thank Heaven for that!" she said, and she sat down on the brick floor to take off her stockings. Gemma's fidanzato, her lawyer from Lucca, was coming to Siena for a week. He would lodge next door and come in to the Menotti for most of his meals, and already poor old Carolina was busy in the hot, airless kitchen, beating up eggs for a zabajone, and Signora Carosi had gone out to buy ice for the wine and sweet cakes to be handed round with little glasses of vin Santo or Marsala.
Carmela came into her cousin's room soon after four o'clock. "I have just taken Gemma a cup of black coffee. Her head aches terribly."
"I heard her moving about her room in the night," Olive answered, and she added, under her breath, "Poor Gemma!"
Carmela lowered her voice too. "Of course Maria and I know that you see what is going on as well as we do. There is some man ... she lets down a basket from her window at nights for letters, and I believe she meets him when my aunt thinks she has gone to Mass. It is dreadful. How glad we shall be when she is safely married and away."
"Who is the man?"
"Hush! I don't know. Do you hear the beating of a drum? One of the Contrade is coming."
The two girls ran to the window, and Olive opened the green shutters a little way that they might see out without being seen. The day of the Palio was close at hand, and the pages and alfieri of the rival parishes, whose horses were to run in the race, were already going about the town. Olive never tired of watching the flash of bright colours as the flags were flung up and deftly caught again, and she cried out now with pleasure as the little procession moved leisurely across the piazza.
"I wonder why they come here," Carmela said, as the first alfiero let the heavy folds of silk ripple about his head, twisted the staff, seemed to drop it, and gathered it to him again easily with his left hand. The page stood aside with a grave assumption of the gilded graces of the thirteenth century. He was handsome in his dress of green and white and scarlet velvet.
"Why does he look up here?"
Olive laughed a little. "He is the son of the cobbler who mends my boots," she whispered. "He is trying to learn English and I have lent him some books, and that is why he has come to do us honour. I think it is charming of him."
She took a white magnolia blossom from a glass dish on her table. "Shall I be mediaeval too?"
The boy raised smiling eyes as the pale flower came fluttering down to him. One of the alfieri laughed aloud.
"O Romeo, sei bello!"
"Son' felice!" he answered, and he kissed the waxen petals ardently.
Olive softly clapped her hands together. "Is he not delicious! What an actor! Oh, Italy!"
Now that the performance was over the alfieri strolled across the piazza to the barrow that was still drawn up by the column. "Cocomeri! Fresc' e buoni!"
"I never know what will please you," Carmela said as she sat down. "But foreigners always like the Palio. You will see many English and Americans and Germans on the stands."
"Yes, I love it all. Yesterday I passed through the Piazza del Campo and saw the workmen putting palings all about the centre, and hammering at the stands, while others strewed sand on the course and fastened mattresses to the side of the house by San Martino."
"Ah, the fantini are often thrown there and flung against the wall. If there were no mattresses ... crack!" Carmela made a sound as of breaking bones and hummed a few bars of Chopin's Marche Funebre.
Olive shuddered. "You are an impressionist, Carmela. Two dabs of scarlet and a smear—half a word and a shrug of the shoulders—and you have expressed a five-act tragedy. I think you could act."
"Oh, I am not clever; I should never be able to remember my part."
"You would improvise," Olive was beginning, when Carmela sprang up and ran to the window again.
"It is Orazio!" she cried. "He has come in a cab."
The vetturino had pulled his horse up with a jerk of the reins after the manner of his kind; the wretched animal had slipped and he was now beating it about the head with the butt end of his whip. His fare had got out and was looking on calmly.
Olive hastily picked up one of her shoes and flung it at them. It struck the vetturino just above the ear. "A nasty crack," she said. "His language is evidently frightful. It is a good thing I can't understand it, Carmela."
She looked down at the angry, bewildered men, and the vetturino, catching a glimpse of the flushed face framed in a soft fluff of brown hair, shook his fist and roared a curse upon it.
"Touch that horse again and I'll throw a jug of boiling water over you," she cried as she drew the green shutters to; and then, in quite another tone, "Oh, Giovanni, be good. What has the poor beast ever done to you?" She turned to Carmela. "I know him. His wife does washing for Signora Aurelia," she explained.
A slow grin overspread the man's heavy face as he rubbed his head.
"Mad English," he said, and then looked closely at the coin the Lucchese had tendered him.
"Your legal fare," Orazio began pompously.
"I am a lawyer."
"Si capisce! Will you give the signorina her shoe?" He handed it to Orazio, who took it awkwardly.
"The incident is closed," Olive said as she came back to her cooling tea. "I hope there is a heaven for horses and a hell for men. Oh, how I hate cruelty! Carmela, if that is Orazio I must say I sympathise with Gemma. How could any woman love a mean, narrow-shouldered, whitey-brown paper thing like that?"
"It is a pity," sighed Carmela as she moved towards the door. "But after all they are all alike in the end. I must go now to help Maria lace. I pull a little, and then wait a few minutes. E un martirio!"
"Why does she do it?"
"Why does an ostrich bury its head in the sand? Why does a camel try to get through the eye of a needle? (But perhaps he does not.) I often tell her fat cannot be hidden, but she will not believe."
When Olive went into the salotto a few minutes before seven she found the family assembled. Signor Lucis rose from his place at Gemma's side as the aunt uttered the introductory formula. He brought his heels together and bowed stiffly from the waist, and when Olive gave him her hand in English fashion he took it limply and held it for a moment before he dropped it. His string-coloured moustache was brushed up from a loose-lipped mouth, and he showed bad teeth when he smiled.
"The signorina speaks Italian?"
"Ah, does she come from London?"
"I had no settled home in England."
"Ah! The sun never shines there?"
She laughed. "Not as it does here," she admitted. "Where is my shoe?"
"It was yours then?" he said with an attempt at playfulness. "Gemma has been quite jealous of the unknown owner, but she says it is much larger than any of hers." The girls' eyes met but neither spoke, and Orazio babbled on, unheeding: "Her feet are carini, and I can span her ankle with my thumb and forefinger; but you are small made too, signorina."
Carolina poked her head in at the door. "Al suo comodo e pronto," she said, referring to the dinner, and hurried away again to dish up the veal cutlets.
The young man contrived to remain behind in the salotto for a moment and to keep Gemma with him. Olive looked at them as they took their places at table, and she understood that the girl had had to submit to some caress. She looked sick and her lips were quite white, and if Lucis had been a man of quick perceptions he would have realised, her face must have shown him, that she loathed him. He was dense, however, and though he commented on her silence later on it was evident that he attributed it to shyness.
Olive, thinking to do well, flung herself into the conversational breach. Her cousins had nothing to say, and the aunt's thoughts were set on the dinner and cumbered with much serving. So she talked to him as in duty bound, and he seemed inclined to banter her.
Her feet, her temper, her relations with vetturini. He was execrable, but she would not take offence.
After dinner they all sat in the little salotto until it was time to go to the theatre, and still Olive talked and laughed with Orazio, teaching him English words and making fun of his pronunciation of them. Gemma watched her sombrely and judged her by her own standards, and Carmela caught at her cousin's arm presently as they passed down the crowded Via Cavour together.
"Why did you make her so angry? She will always hate you now. I did not know you were civetta."
Olive looked startled. "Angry? What do you mean?"
"Why did you speak so much to Orazio? Gemma thought you wanted to take her husband from her and she will not forgive."
"Why, I could see it made her ill to look at him and that she shrank from his touch, and I did as I would be done by. I distracted his attention."
Carmela laughed in spite of herself. "Oh, Olive, and I thought you were so clever. Do you not understand that one can be jealous of a man one does not love? I know that though I am stupid. All Italians are jealous. You must remember that."
"I am sorry," Olive said ruefully after a pause. "I see you are right. She will never believe that I wanted to help her. If only you could persuade her to give up Orazio. Surely the other man would come forward then. You and Maria talk of getting her safely married and away, but I see farther. There can be no safety in union with the wrong man—"
Carmela shook her head. "She wants a husband," she said stolidly, "and Orazio will make a good one. You do not understand us, my dear. You can please yourself with dreams and fancies, but we are different."
Olive was careful to sit down with Carmela on one side of their box on the second tier, leaving two chairs in front for the fidanzati, but the young man made several efforts to include her in the conversation and she understood that she had put herself in a false position. Orazio had misunderstood her because her manners were not the manners of Lucca, and he knew no others. It annoyed her to see that he plumed himself on his conquest, but her sense of humour enabled her to avoid his glances with a good grace, especially as she realised that she had brought them on herself.
She felt nothing but pity for her cousin now. It would be terrible to marry a man like that, she thought, and she wondered that so many women could rush in where angels feared to tread. She believed that there were infinite possibilities of happiness in the holy state of matrimony, but it seemed to her that perhaps the less said of some actualities the better.
Carmela was right. At this time she pastured on dreams and fancies. Her emotions were not starved, but they were kept down and only allowed to nibble. She thought often of the man who had been kind to her, and sometimes she wished that he had kissed her. It would have been something to remember. Often, if she closed her eyes, she could almost cheat herself into believing him there close beside her, his brown gaze upon her, his lips quivering with a strange eagerness that troubled her and yet made her glad. Jean Avenel. It was a good name.
He had gone to America and she assured herself that he must have forgotten her, but she did not try to forget him. She nursed the little wistful sorrow for what might have been, as women will, and would not bind up the scratch he had inflicted. Already she had learned that some pain is pleasant, and that a stinging sweetness may be distilled from tears. Sometimes at night, when it was too hot to sleep and she lay watching the fine silver lines of moonlight passing across the floor, she asked herself if she would see him again, and when, and how, and wove all manner of cobweb fancies about what might be.
She ripened quickly as fruit ripens in the hot sunshine of Italy; her lips were more sweetly curved and coloured, and her blue eyes were shadowed now. They were like sapphires seen through a veil.
Maria gave her the opera-glasses and she raised them to scan the house. It was a gala night and the theatre was hung with flags and brilliantly illuminated. There were candles everywhere, and the great chandelier that hung from the ceiling was lit. The heat was stifling, and the incessant fluttering of fans gave the women in the parterre and in the crowded boxes a look of unrest that was belied by their placid, expressionless faces. Many glanced up at the Menotti in their box. There was some criticism of Gemma's Lucchese.
"He is ugly, but she could not expect to get a husband here where she is so well known. They say—"
"The Capuan Psyche and a rose from the garden of Eden," said a man in the stage box, who had discerned Olive's fresh, eager prettiness beyond the pale beauty of the Odalisque.
He handed the glasses to his neighbour. "Choose."
"The role of Paris is a thankless one; it involved death in the end for the shepherd prince."
"Yes, but you are not a shepherd prince."
The man addressed was handsome as a faun might be and as a tiger is. Not sleek, but lean and brown, with hot, insolent eyes and a fine and cruel mouth. A great emerald sparkled on the little finger of his left hand. He was one of the few in the house who wore evening dress, and he was noticeable on that account, but he had been standing talking with some other men at the back of his box hitherto. He came forward now and Gemma saw him. Her set lips relaxed and seemed to redden as she met his bold, lifted gaze, but as his eyes left hers and he raised his glasses to stare past her at Olive her face contracted so that for the moment she was almost ugly.
The performance was timed to begin at nine, but at twenty minutes past the hour newsvendors were still going to and fro with bundles of evening papers, and the orchestra was represented by a melancholy bald-headed man with a cornet. The other musicians came in leisurely, one by one, and at last the conductor took his place and the audience settled down and was comparatively quiet while the Royal March was being played. The orchestra had begun the overture to Rigoletto when some of the men who stood in the packed arena behind the palchi cried out and their friends in other parts of the house joined in. They howled like wolves, and for a few minutes the uproar was terrific, and Verdi's music was overwhelmed by the clamour of voices until the conductor, turning towards the audience, said something inaudible with a deprecating bow and a quick movement of his hands.
"Ora, zitti!" yelled a voice from the gallery.
Silence was instant, and the whole house rose and stood reverently, listening to a weird and confused jumble of broken chords that yet could stir the pulses and quicken the beating of young hearts.
Olive had risen with the rest. "What is it?" she whispered to Maria.
It seemed a red harmony of rebellious souls, climbing, struggling, clutching at the skirts of Freedom. The patter of spent shot, the heavy breathing of hunted fugitives, the harsh crying of dying men, the rush of feet that stumbled as they came over the graves of the Past; all these sounds of bygone strife rang, as it were, faintly, beyond the strange music, as the sea echoes, sighing, in a shell.
Signora Aurelia had told Olive how in the years before Italy was free and united under the king, when Guiseppe Verdi was a young man, the students would call his name in the theatre until the house rang to the cry of "Viva Verdi! Viva Verdi!" A little because they loved their music-maker, more because V. E. R. D. I. meant Vittor Emanuele, Re D'Italia, and they liked to sing his forbidden praises in the very ears of the white-coat Austrians.
They had their Victor. Had he not sufficed? Olive knew that the authorities scarcely countenanced the playing of the Republican hymn. Was it because it made men long for some greater ruler than a king, or for no ruler at all? Freedom is more elusive even than happiness. Never yet has she yielded herself to men, though she makes large promises and exacts sacrifices as cruel as ever those of Moloch could have been. Her altars stream with blood, but she ... she is talking, or she is pursuing, or she is on a journey, or peradventure she sleepeth ... and her prophets must still call upon her and cut themselves with knives.
As the curtain went up Olive leant forward that she might see the stage. It was her first opera. Music is a necessity in Italy, but in England it is a luxury, and somehow she and her mother had never been able to afford even seats in the gallery at Covent Garden.
Now all her thoughts, all her fancies, were swept away in the flood of charming melody. The story, when she understood it, shocked and repelled her. It seemed strange that crime should be set to music, and that one should have to see abduction, treachery, vice, and a murder brutally committed in full view of the audience, while the tenor sang the lightest of all his lyrics: "La donna e mobile."
Gemma asked for an ice during the second entr'acte, and Orazio hurried out to get one for her at the buffet. The girl looked tired, but she was kind to her lover in her silent, languid way, listening to his whispered inanities, and allowing him to hold her hand, though her flesh shrank from the damp clamminess of his grasp, and she hated his nearness and wished him away.
The man who sat alone now in the stage box could see no flaw in her composure, and she seemed to him as perfectly calm as she was perfectly beautiful, though he had noticed that not once had she looked towards the stage. She kept her eyes down, and they were shadowed by the long black lashes. Ah, she was beautiful! The man's lean brown face was troubled and he sighed under his breath. He went out in the middle of the third act, and he did not come back again.
After a while Gemma moved restlessly. "Orazio, per carita! Your hand is so hot and sticky! I shall change places with Carmela," she said. She released her fingers from the young man's grasp with the air of one crushing a forward insect or removing a bramble from the path, and she actually beckoned to her sister to come.
Orazio flushed red and he seemed about to speak as Carmela rose from her seat, but the aunt interposed hurriedly.
"Sit still, Gemma, you are tired or you would not speak so. The lights hurt your eyes and make your head ache."
"Yes, I am tired," the girl said wearily. "I slept ill last night. Forgive me, Orazio, if I was cross. I am sorry."
Her dull submission touched Olive with a sudden sense of pity and of fear, but Orazio was blind and deaf to all things written between the lines of life, and he could not interpret it.
"I do not always understand you," he said stiffly, and he would not relax until presently she drew nearer to him of her own accord.
The Vicolo dei Moribondi is the narrowest of all the steep stone-paved streets that lead from the upper town to the market-place of Siena, and the great red bulk of the Palazzo Pubblico overshadows it. Olive had come that way once from the Porta Romana, and seeing the legend: "Affitasi una camera" displayed in the doorway of one of the shabby houses, had been moved to climb the many stairs to see the room in question.
It proved to be a veritable eyrie, large, bare, passably clean, and very well lighted. From the window she saw the hillside below the church of San Giuseppe, a huddle of red roofs and grey olive orchards melting into a blue haze of distance beyond the city walls, and the crowning heights of San Quirico. Leaning out over the sill of crumbling stone she looked down into the Vicolo as into a well.
The rent was very low, and the woman who had the room to let seemed a decent though a frowsy old soul, and so the matter was settled there and then, and Olive had left the house with the key of her new domain in her pocket.
She had bought a table and two chairs and a shelf for her books at a second-hand furniture shop near the Duomo, and had given her first lesson there two days later, and soon the quiet place seemed more like home to her than the stuffy flat in the Piazza Tolomei. What matter if she came to it breathless from climbing five flights of stairs? It was good to be high up above the stale odours of the streets. The window was always open. There were no woollen mats to be faded or waxen fruits to be melted by the sun's heat. A little plaster bust of Dante stood on the table, and Olive kept the flowers her pupils gave her, pink oleander blossoms and white roses from the terrace gardens, in a jar of majolica ware, but otherwise the place was unadorned.
"It is like a convent," Carmela said when she came there with Maria and her aunt for an English tea-drinking.
Signora Carosi had sipped a little tea and eaten a good many of the cakes Olive had bought from the pasticceria. "The situation is impossible," she remarked, as she brushed the crumbs off her lap.
"The stairs are a drawback," Olive admitted, not without malice, "but fortunately my pupils are all young and strong."
"You are English. I always say that when I am asked how I can permit such things. 'What would you? She teaches men grammar alone in an attic. I cannot help it. She is English.'"
Gemma had been asked to come too on this occasion, but she had excused herself. She so often had headaches when the others were going out, and they would leave her lying down in her room. When they came back she was always up and better, and yet she seemed feverish and strange. Then sometimes of a morning, when Maria and the aunt had gone out marketing, and Carmela, shapeless and dishevelled in her white cotton jacket, was dusting or ironing, the beautiful idle sister would come out of her room, dressed for the street and carrying a prayer-book. Carmela would remonstrate with her. "You are not going alone?"
"Only to mass."
On the morning of the fifteenth of August she did not go with the others to the parish church at six o'clock, but she was up early, nevertheless. She wrote a letter, and presently, having sealed it, she dropped it out of the window. A boy who had been lingering about the piazza since dawn, and staring up at the close-shuttered fronts of the tall houses, picked it up and ran off with it. When Maria and Carmela came back with their aunt soon after seven they drank their black coffee in the kitchen before going to their rooms to rest. Carolina took Olive's breakfast in to her on a tray when they were gone. The English girl had milk with her coffee and some slices of bread spread with rancid butter. Gemma lay in wait for the old woman and stopped her as she came from the kitchen.
"Find out what she is going to do to-day," she whispered.
Carolina nodded and her shrivelled monkey face was puckered into a smile. She came back presently. "She is going to the Duomo and then to colazione with the De Sancti. She will go with Signora Aurelia to see the Palio and only come back here to supper."
Gemma went back to her room to finish her dressing. She put on a pink muslin frock and a hat of white straw wreathed with roses and leaves. Surely her beauty should avail to give her all she desired, light and warmth always, diamonds and fine laces, and silks to clothe her and give her grace, and the possession of the one man's heart, with his name and a place in the world beside him. Surely she was not destined to live with Orazio and his tiresome mother, penned up in a shabby little house in Lucca, and there growing old and hideous. She sat before her glass thinking these thoughts and waiting until she heard Olive's quick, light step in the passage and then the opening and shutting of the front door. Carolina was in the kitchen and the others had gone to lie down, but she went into the dining-room and listened for a moment there before she ventured into her cousin's room. She had often been in to pry when alone in the flat, and she knew where to look for the key of the attic in the Vicolo. Olive always kept it in a corner of the table drawer and it was there now. Gemma smiled her rare slow smile as she put it in her purse. There was a photograph of her aunt—Olive's mother—on the dressing-table, and a Tauchnitz edition of Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon lay beside it, the embroidered tassel of the marker being one of Astorre's pitiful little gifts. She swept them off on to the floor and poured the contents of the ink-stand over them. She had acted on a spiteful impulse, and she was half afraid when she saw the black stream trickling over the book and blotting out the face of the woman who had been of her kin. It seemed unlucky, a malore, and she was vexed with herself. She looked into the kitchen on her way out. "Carolina, if they ask where I am I have gone to church."