Second Honeymoon

THAT was what it was to be — a second honeymoon. Coming from opposite sides of the world after being apart for months, we were to meet in Naples, the day before Christmas. We were approaching each other as fast as ships could carry us, so letters were impossible, cables expensive. Each planned the honeymoon for the other.

I knew where we were to go. Sorrento, where I had lunched in my youth and heard a white-haired lady exclaim softly, ‘What a place for a honeymoon!’ I had taken innumerable views of Vesuvius framed in olive trees and decided that here really was the place. Sorrento — lovely word, lovely sky, lovely sea. . . .

A honeymoon in India had never supplanted Sorrento as a symbol. So what more fitting than spending our second honeymoon there?

I had sound advice on the best place to stay. My English sister-in-law wrote about oranges in the inn garden ‘falling into the peacock-colored sea.’ I had written for reservations and received assurances in purple ink. Oranges fell into a peacock-colored sea all the way across a gray and heaving Atlantic.

On the pier in Naples, ‘Darling,’ we said simultaneously, ‘we are going to { Sorrento.’ Kitzbühel.‘

We looked surprised. ‘It is all settled,’ we said. There was a moment’s silence before we began again.

The upshot was that while we both wanted to go to Kitzbühel — eventually, I interposed — neither of us had ever contemplated honeymooning there. Whereas, Sorrento . . . ‘And Jean says the place is lovely — oranges fall from the garden into the sea. . . .’

But in the end it was just my husband being nice. We were to have Christmas and, say, a fortnight in Sorrento and then go to Kitzbühel He wired to change his reservations. ‘I did rather think we might have a Christmas in snow!’ he said. ‘After all, you have had a bit of cold weather and I’ve just come from India. . . .’ But he was nice about it. I spoke of acclimatization.

And we had snow anyway. It began to snow softly that afternoon as we were taking the steamer for Sorrento. By sea, we had found, was the simplest way to get there in winter, with so much luggage. I had boxes full of Christmas presents and a small Christmas tree. The botanically-minded customs worried about the tree. Their list, beginning with oranges, never mentioned Christmas trees.

Once we were aboard and well out into the gray and swelling bay, the air became bitterly cold. My husband looked chilled and green. I felt ill, but it was my party by now and mine the hostess’s responsibility. A poodle belonging to a member of the steamer’s little orchestra was sick on the deck. It was too cold and rough for music.

‘Do you know this place we’re going to?’ asked my husband.

‘Sorrento?’ I said with false assurance. ‘Oh, yes!‘

‘No, the hotel.’

‘I have n’t seen it, but Jean —’

‘Do you think there’ll be baths? Proper baths?’

‘Oh, I think so — ’

‘Did Jean say there were baths?’

Oranges fell with little splashes, but I could remember no references to plumbing. I did remember something else, though, something implying recent and extensive alterations.

‘She said it was a converted monastery,’ I said, ‘so —

‘A monastery!‘

The man came for our tickets. ‘Sorrento!’ he said. ‘Ah! La bella Sorrento! This boat not stop there. Weather bad. No good. All cliffs. We go two places past Sorrento, then you row back, see? You be all right. I get you boatmen. Much luggage?’

The poodle was sick again.

The change from the rolling steamer to the lurching rowboat was made under the eyes and little cries of all the passengers and the poodle. It was still snowing and very cold.

The oarsmen were glum and determined. One of them tried to tell us the names of the points on the shore as we struggled past them, but the snow bothered him. They were obviously annoyed by the amount of luggage. We were all cold and a little sick. I wished the Neapolitan boatmen would sing in their gay, carefree fashion to drown the mutterings of my husband. I knew I heard ‘bath.’

On the back of a gigantic wave, assisted by the boatmen, we were thrown up on to a little beach under a high cliff. There was a hole cut in the rock face, nothing else in sight.

‘Is this it?‘ said my husband.

The boatmen said it was. They shouted into the snowy air and in a few minutes a man in a green apron darted from the hole and seized some of our things.

‘La scala, signor. Up — up! And take care — it is dark!’

It was very dark. There was a tortuous shallow-stepped staircase cut inside the cliff and it was very dark indeed.

‘Up,’ said the porter encouragingly, making way for us. ‘Electricity is broke. Careful —

It seemed to me that my husband misjudged every step on purpose. But perhaps his mind was not there. Explosively he said, ‘Of course there won’t, be baths!’

I wish I could say we emerged into warmth and brightness. We did not. We pushed through a glass-paned golden-oak door and found ourselves in a forlorn hotel lobby furnished with bedraggled wicker chairs, thirsty ferns, and a concierge. He ran toward us with glad cries, with reassuring murmurs. The porter banged through the doors behind us. The Christmas tree had sprouted green shoots through the wrappings. We all went upstairs.

Our room was not the converted cell I had begun to fear. It had large red roses all over the walls, a brass bed, and a radiator. Snow fell past the window. We both made for the radiator. It was stone cold.

‘Yes, is it not fine?’ said the concierge. ‘One in every room.’

‘But,’ we said, ‘there is no heat!’

‘Heat, no.’ He shook his head wisely. ‘English people do not like it. We have many English guests here. No — heat is for the cold weather only.’

The porter held the Christmas tree upside down. I took it from him.

And then it came.

‘Is there a bath?’ said my husband.

‘Oh, but yes,’ said the concierge. ‘A fine English bath. It can be brought as soon as the water is hot. To-night, you want?’

’You mean,’ said my husband, unkind to both the concierge and me, ‘you mean there is no proper bathroom?’

‘Oh, but no! The English —‘

‘I see!’ said my husband.

Even the concierge saw. ‘Dinner at eight,’ he said and closed the door.

The dining room was a large enclosure like an aviary with a tiled floor and glass-domed roof. Around the sides sat middle-aged females, each at a table by herself, alternating with drooping ferns on high wicker stands.

We were given a table between two of the most neglected ferns. A waiter handed us the menu and disappeared. There was no choice.

The dinner was a careful copy of what someone had been served in an English seaside boarding house — perfect, from weak yellow soup through lukewarm boiled white fish with pink sauce, and on. . . .

The concierge came rubbing his hands, English guests in his eye. Perhaps he was the one who knew England. . . . He saw my husband’s face and bowed himself by.

And then an old lady began to cry. It was a tiny sound at first, though unmistakable. Then there were sobs and we could identify the victim by her lowered head and shaking shoulders. She bowed over her plate and raised fork and spoon to mouth at intervals, mechanically. Once she blew her nose moistly and looked around to see if she had betrayed herself. It was too much.

‘Darling,’ I said. ‘She is English and this is Christmas Eve. You — ’

Horror. Determination.

’Just ask her if there is anything you can do — ’

Another shivering sob.

‘I can’t!’

A whimper. A final ecstatic sigh. The old lady wiped her eyes and rose with a book she had been hiding in her lap.

‘There! You see?’ said my husband with feeling. ‘Christmas Eve! Do you realize that I am the only man in this place?’

But he was n’t. We went out through the dining-room door into the hall, where in solemn rows against the walls sat more old ladies sipping coffee. And there was another man, a very long-necked clergyman looking as if he were making unnecessary difficulties about jumping through a desperately large collar.

’Good Lord!’ said my husband.

‘Si, signor!‘ said the concierge.

‘Is this the only place to sit?’

‘Oh no, signor. Ha, ha! This is not the proper place to sit. Outside — above the sea, on the terrace! The oranges — ’

‘I should like to send a telegram. At once,’ said my husband.

We reached Naples by car, expensively, dangerously skidding in the new-fallen snow, but neither sick nor cold, and in time to extract Christmas cheer from the day. The hotel’s steam heat and baths were proper and functioning, and the chambermaid and hall porter were ecstatic about the little tree. They took it home with them in the snowstorm that night while we packed for Kitzbühel.