THE final upshot of all the discussions about the Marchesa Nadia’s affairs was a decision to hold a consiglio di famiglia on the matter. So the lawyer was summoned, the date provisionally fixed, the invitations sent out — to the diplomat son, the son who was a cardinal, the playwright son who lived in Paris, and all the rest. And Nadia, meditatively bending her graceful dark head, went back to Bologna till the time came.
Almina’s distress over this business had gone rather deep. She had been charmed by the Marchesa Nadia and her archaic and grave beauty from the first, and the discovery of those depths of unhappiness under the fair-seeming surface of this pleasant Italian family life disturbed her; still more, she was troubled by the airy way in which Elena had spoken of it. She consulted Fräulein Gelsicher about this, telling her what had happened, and blaming herself a little for not having checked the two girls’ conversation sooner.
‘You cannot prevent them, at their ages, either from knowing of these things or from talking about them, my dear Miss Prestwich,’ the Swiss said, with a small sigh; ‘all one can do is oneself to express a just opinion, and so help to form theirs.’
‘But that isn’t easy for me,’ Almina said. ‘You see, I have never heard such things talked about. They are n’t, at home.’
‘No — nor much with us in Switzerland,’ the older woman said. ‘But here, they are. One must take people and places as one finds them, Miss Prestwich. If Marietta speaks of it to you again, I should refer her to her mother.’ She sighed once more, a sigh for which Almina could not quite account. Fraulein Gelsicher was wishing that either girl had a mother who would be of some use in such matters. She was also rather impatient at the English girl’s extraordinary innocence; she liked her, she respected her acquirements and still more her uprightness, but the spectacle of a governess who knew so much less of the world or of life than the pupil seemed to her slightly absurd. How like the Marchesa Suzy to have pitched on this pretty inexperienced creature, out of all the governesses in the world! — when what Marietta most needed was a wise, firm, middle-aged head and hand, to guide her through the distressing complexities of her family circle.
The Marchesa Suzy, however inadequate she might be about governesses, was always at pains to live on pleasant and correct terms with her relations, even those whom she liked least; and in pursuit of this laudable end she set out one day soon after the Marchesa Nadia’s departure to call on Roffredo’s mother, the Countess Livia, at Castellone. She took Almina and Marietta with her for the drive, exhorting them to put on ‘something suitable’ — Almina interpreted this as an indication for more or less her ‘best,’ and wore a frock of pale green silk and the famous green hat. Sitting opposite her in the carriage, Suzy observed her, thinking, ‘If she knew how to do her hair, she would be quite devastatingly pretty’; she smiled with rather malicious amusement to think how acutely the Countess Livia would disapprove when she saw her.
The Countess received them in a high cool room with heavy hangings, smelling faintly of damp and of camphor, where they sat on high-backed carved and brocaded chairs, and were offered petits fours and dark syrupy Marsala in small glasses. The Countess Livia, long, thin, and black, glanced from time to time at Miss Prestwich with precisely that expression of slightly martyred condemnation which Suzy had expected. Then there was an interruption — the Countesses Aspasia and Roma di Castellone were announced. ‘Dio mio, I might have known it! ’ Marietta whispered irrepressibly to her governess — ‘they must have seen the carriage from the window! ’
Their entrance enlivened the atmosphere, all the same. The good sisters had a perfectly sound piece of news. Ernest di Castellone had suddenly reopened the question of selling or otherwise disposing of Castel Vecchio, a small property of the Castellone family lying some miles away to the south, which had been standing empty for years.
There was a difficulty about the title, however — before selling the house, it would be necessary to arrange one owner who could be empowered to treat. ‘But whose is it?’ the Marchesa Suzy asked, surprised.
‘That is the point — it appears that it belongs in equal shares to eighty-one members of the Castellone family,’ Aspasia said, with a sort of measured amusement in her tones. ‘Francesco, Suzy, would be a holder, and I suppose Marietta too. It is very complicated — all the collaterals have a share.’
Marietta, her name being mentioned, was encouraged to open her mouth. ‘Oh, Mama, I have never even seen Castel Vecchio! Could we not go there, for a picnic? I should so love to see it.’
‘You want to survey your property, do you, you mercenary little thing?’ her mother said, laughing at her. ‘I don’t know — it is a long way; thirty kilometres at least.’
While the picnic plan was under discussion, there was a further interruption. Count Roffredo burst in, exclaiming, ‘Dio mio, Mama, where in the universe are all my books?’ — and then stopped short, finding the room full of people. Only for a moment, however — then he went round the circle, with his usual pleasant assurance, kissing hands all the way, except for the two girls. Marietta at once invoked his support for the picnic plan, and he gave it enthusiastically — any jaunt which involved driving his car perilously about the province was sure of Roffredo’s approval. Then, with a further inquiry as to the whereabouts of some engineering books which he wanted, he bowed himself out with skillful ease.
What the Sorellone had really come for, however, was to learn all they could about the Marchesa Nadia and her affairs, a matter on which the Countess Livia herself was not without curiosity. A polite inquiry from Countess Roma as to the Russian’s departure soon produced the desired effect — Livia, with a repressive glance, suggested that Marietta must be tired of sitting indoors, and that she might like to show Miss Prestwich the garden. Marietta dutifully agreed, but just outside the door, far sooner than her governess thought prudent — ‘Now they will set to!’ she exclaimed, ‘and have it all out. Povera Zia Nadia! Why should they discuss her misfortunes?’
Once they were out of doors, however, her attention was quickly distracted. From the lowest of several shady terraces they looked out over a sort of steading or farmyard, surrounded by buildings in the casual Italian manner, where fowls scratched among wagons, and a couple of bullock teams stood, waiting to be unharnessed. In one of the sheds a number of women were gathered, and Marietta cried out, ‘Oh, see, they are taking the silk! Come and look.’
They made their way down to the yard. There, in a long open-fronted shed, a dozen or more women and girls were at work, unwinding the raw silk from the still living cocoons of the silkworms. The two girls watched the process. It’s like drawing out starlight and winding it up,’ Marietta said, her dark eyes alight with pleasure.
At this point Count Roffredo strolled up — he had observed them from above and came down to see, as he said gayly, what they were up to.
‘It is I who teach Miss Prestwich now, about silkworms,’ Marietta said. The young man wandered about, rallying the women in the shed — he slipped a bundle of the loose golden floss off one of the filled distaffs, and gave it to Almina, saying, ‘It is just the shade of your hair.’ Almina colored — the women, overhearing, laughed and echoed the remark. But Roffredo was soon bored with the silkworm shed, and suggested showing Miss Prestwich the garden. Marietta was by this time involved in listening to a long recital by old Ida about the doings of her grandchildren. ‘Yes, go — I follow you in a minute,’ she said hastily.
So the young man and Miss Prestwich went off together, up into the garden again. Almina was rather acutely conscious that this was by no means what Countess Livia had intended, but comforted herself with the reflection that Marietta would join them in a few moments. That, however, was by no means Count Roffredo’s intention. He led his companion off along the terraces, out to a part of the garden which lay beyond the red wing, where the Sorellone lived — this was wilder, with open stretches of rough grass between groups of stone pines, and straggling thickets of privet and arbutus. A curious disquiet, like the thunderous overcharged heat of the day, held them both; they had never been alone together before, and this solitude was heavy with possibilities of which both were aware. Almina was at once nervous and excited, and yet full of a strange physical lassitude — she would have liked, from sheer weakness, to sit on one of the rather tumble-down wooden seats which appeared here and there, but was too timid to suggest it. She was waiting for she did not quite know what — for something vaguely wonderful to happen, in which the young man beside her would play a prominent, perhaps an alarming part.
Roffredo was waiting for something too, but in a much more practical way. He knew perfectly well what he wanted: to take the small delightful figure into his arms, and kiss her a great deal, especially at the delicious place where the fine pale gold of her hair melted into the golden-white skin of her neck — all turned now to an incredible delicate transparency in the green shadow of her hat. But it was more complicated than that, too; he liked her enormously, this little English girl, with her quiet, rather definite manner, her surprising botanical knowledge, — Roffredo loved precise knowledge about anything, — and a sort of dainty firmness that there was about her altogether. Besides kissing her, he wanted to make her like him, and like being kissed by him — and he was not at all sure that she did, or would. Anyhow, these things had to be done nicely, gracefully — had to be led up to; and he found himself slightly at a loss how to lead up to it with this girl of another nationality — which all added to his sense of tension. While he was making conversation, with unwonted awkwardness, he noticed a flower growing in the grass on the slope above them, a flower with small bluish-purple stars at the top of narrow trumpets. In a moment he was after it, and brought it down to her—‘Of course you know what that is?’ he said, smiling.
She examined it carefully. ‘I think it is Gentiana amarella, only it is out rather early,’she said. ‘But then, of course, it is hotter here.’
‘Won’t you wear it? It is pretty,’ he said; and Almina pinned it into the breast of her green dress. The skein of raw silk was in her way, and he took it from her hand. When she had finished, he held it up beside her hair, smiling, and said, ‘They do match exactly. Your hair is like sunshine — did you know?’
‘No,’ Almina said, coloring.
‘But your eyes are grave,’ the young man went on, still studying her face, ‘like the day, before sunrise. That is beautiful too. Cara signorina,‘ — his persistent glance was half gay, half tender, — ‘have you any idea how beautiful you are? I want so much to know.’
The directness of this attack put Almina quite out of countenance. ‘Signor Conte, I wish you would not say these things to me,’ she protested.
‘Why not? Since they are true, and must be pleasant to hear?’
‘It — it is not suitable,’ the girl said, with a rather pathetic attempt to recover her usual self-possessed manner. But it was too hard for her. He was standing so near her, out there in the lonely end of the garden, with nobody about — surveying her so serenely, so freely, as one might a bird in one’s hand; smiling so quietly. His smile reminded her of something — what was it? Yes — she remembered; it was her dream of two or three nights before, when she had seen herself as a bird caught among the limed twigs, and him standing over her. That memory gave the moment an intolerable quality — obeying an impulse that she could neither analyze nor control, she turned away, and walked a step or two forward along the path.
At once he was beside her again. ‘Signorina, what is it? I have n’t offended you, have I?’
‘No — but I would really rather you did not say those things to me,’ she said, recovering herself a little.
‘Because you are the governess? It always seems so ridiculous to me that you should be a governess at all! Why are you?’
‘Because my father died, and now we have so little money,’ she answered.
E vero? I did not know.’ He made some inquiries about her relations, which the girl answered happily enough — it pleased her to talk about them, and she felt that she had safely turned a dangerous corner. But there she was mistaken. Her sudden movement away from him had taken him by surprise; it had roused both his curiosity and his instinct for pursuit — shaken him, in fact, out of his rather calculated methods of dealing with her. To kiss a girl the first time one got the chance was always a mistake, and he had been telling himself so for some minutes past — but now, coming to a seat, ‘Let us sit,’ he said; and then, turning to her, ‘Why did you turn away from me, just now?’ he asked, urgently.
‘Because I did not like you to say those things to me,’ she said.
‘But I was not speaking then. I was only looking at you,’ he protested. ‘May I not even do that?’ — and he bent forward to peer in under the brim of her hat. And as she colored and was silent, unable to think of a reply, suddenly he took her two hands. ‘Ah, cara, you are too lovely — you must let me look at you,’ he said, with a sort of half-mocking tenderness. The startled helplessness of her face, now so close to his, was too much for him — forgetting all calculations, he drew her towards him and kissed her, slowly and gently, but with expert mastery.
The girl was too shaken and too inexperienced in such things to attempt any protest, when at last he let her go. ‘I must go,’ she said tremulously, getting up. ‘The Marchesa may be waiting.’
‘Yes, you must go, cara,’ Count Roffredo said, springing up too. ‘Along there — it is shorter. I shall go straight to the car — I have made my adieux. But I shall see you again — soon! ’ He turned down another path and was gone.
Almina walked quickly back towards the house. In the heaving confusion of her feelings one thought alone stood out clearly — the fear of being late. And where was Marietta? To her great relief, on one of the terraces she came on her pupil, seated on the parapet propped against an urn, one long black leg dangling, gazing out at the mountains — it was obvious that she was making, and had made, not the smallest effort to rejoin her instructress.
’There you are! I thought you were going to follow us,’ Almina said.
The child looked tranquilly at her.
‘I did come up, quite soon,’ she replied, ’but I saw your dress t hrough the trees along there, and I thought Roffredo was probably going to take you for a regular walk, so I stayed here. You’re not cross, are you?’ she said, slipping off the wall and tucking her arm through that of her governess. ‘Roffredo is always amusing, and you see me so much. Where is he?’
‘He has gone to his car. But we had better hurry in — your mother may be waiting,’ Almina said.
‘She will not be. They have plenty to talk about,’ Marietta said easily. To Almina’s relief the child did not appear to notice her failure to take up the question of whether she, Almina, was cross or not. It would have been a difficult one to answer — she did not herself yet know, in her turmoil of emotions, whether she was glad or sorry that this had happened. She must think it all out later. But on the long drive home she did not really think at all — she sat silent and dreamy on the swaying small seat of the victoria, looking back at that tree-strewn slope below the red wing at Castellone, when now and then a turn of the road brought it into view, as at some strange outpost of a magic realm, a place that did not belong in the real world at all.
Rut the day’s emotions were not yet over for Almina. They got in late, and found Giulio hanging about, rather cross — he had brought over an essay to be corrected by Miss Prestwich, and now there was not time. His aunt charitably suggested his staying to dine, if Miss Prestwich did not mind dealing with the essay afterwards; Count Carlo was also coming over to the six-o’clock dinner, and they could drive back together. It was still hot in the schoolroom when Miss Prestwich and her second pupil repaired there after coffee, and Giulio suggested an adjournment to somewhere out of doors. Almina, tired and with a headache, was glad to agree. The terrace was still occupied by the family party, so they went and sat in the torrino, and Almina tried to listen carefully to Giulio’s odd English constructions; but all the time, across his words, her mind heard others, and how different! ‘Ah, cara, you are so lovely,’ and ‘ I wonder if you have any idea how beautiful you are.’ The essay corrected, they sat on for a little while in the torrino — it was cool there, and quiet, and Giulio was a silent and unexacting companion. At last, however, he broke the silence.
‘The day you came, Marietta and I sat and watched for you here,’ he said. ‘Did she tell you?’
‘We were so anxious for you to come, to teach us both,’ he pursued. ‘We talked about what you would be like. Of course we expected you to be just like Gela, only more learned. And when I saw you, just at first, I was horrified! You were so young. I thought, “How can she teach anyone anything?” Did you see how aghast I was?’
Almina laughed. ‘No, I was too flustered, I think — it was all so new.’
He looked at her, gravely now. ‘The reality is no longer a disappointment,’ he said, earnestly.
Almina said, with equal gravity, that she was glad. Oh, that was what was so wonderful about her, the young man thought, watching her quiet face — her seriousness, her simplicity. So young, so lovely — but she could sit with a man in an arbor, on a summer’s evening, without any smiling or beguiling or airs or tricks; without consciousness. For all her youth and beauty she was like Gela, after all — learned and grave and good; the only sort of woman with whom one could be at peace, with whom one’s heart could find a home. A feeling that was close to adoration stirred in him as he watched her sitting there, so unconscious and quiet — adoration and yet comfort. ‘I am so glad you came,’ he said suddenly.
‘So am I,’Almina said, smiling happily back at him. But she was thinking, as she spoke, of the smell of the privet and the pines over at Castellone that afternoon.
On their way back to the house they took the longer path, which dropped down through olives and cypresses to join the one which led along the ridge towards Odredo. As they descended, they saw Count Carlo and the Marchesa Suzy strolling leisurely along this path, talking; they were too far off for their words to be audible, but their gestures made a sort of diagram of their conversation — of a request or affirmation on his side, an amused negation on hers. Something about the intimacy of the whole picture struck sharply on Miss Prestwich’s consciousness; it gave her a slight shock. Then, as the two figures moved slowly out of sight behind a group of arbutus, she pushed the thought from her. Italians were always so expansive in their manner — she must not start imagining things.
Giulio, however, had no such scruples. Coming on top of his meditations about Miss Prestwich, the picture presented by his father had struck him, too, with unusual force.
‘How I dislike my aunt!’ he exclaimed abruptly.
‘You should not do that,’ Almina said, as in duty bound.
‘But I do! It is not only that — I disapprove of her,’ he said vigorously. ‘ She has always been the same — the Enchantress ! — she must have a man dangling after her! At her age, it is ridiculous. She makes a perfect fool of my father. And now it is Roffredo she is after — so Elena says. Certainly it would not surprise me! She was flirting with him enough the other day. It — it is unseemly!’ he said, striking his essay angrily against the trunk of an olive tree as he passed it.
This was more than Almina could let pass. ‘Count Giulio, I cannot allow you to say these things in my hearing,’ she said, with a firmness that he had never seen her use before. ‘ That is unseemly, if you like. The Marchesa is my employer, and I live in her house — I cannot have her so spoken of.’
‘That is just what I hate,’ the young man muttered furiously. ‘You, of all people! I cannot—’ he subsided, obviously struggling to regain his selfcontrol.
‘All this is very foolish — you exaggerate,’ Almina said, with a coldness that she did not quite feel. ‘Elena is very reckless in what she says, and she does not mean half of it. You should not pay any attention to her.’ She was startled and puzzled by Giulio’s outburst, and felt that she must rebuke him for it; but she had come to have a warm, almost a motherly feeling for him — his enthusiasm, his difficulties, his eager desire to learn; the same sort of sympathetic affection that was growing in her for Marietta. They both needed so much help, from someone — help which she was happy to feel that she was beginning to give. But they both had this extraordinary recklessness and openness of speech and thought about their elders, which must be checked. Well, she had checked it now — Giulio walked silent and submissive beside her on their way back to the house. But before she slept that night Miss Prestwich found herself thinking a good deal about his words. Coming on top of her own shock at the sight of the Count and the Marchesa, they made a very uncomfortable impression, which she could not wholly brush aside. She remembered how she too had noticed the Marchesa’s manner with Count Roffredo the evening after their walk to the bird catcher’s house. Ah, but as far as Roffredo was concerned, it was not true; she knew better! She fell asleep with a smile on her lips.
Giulio drove back to Odredo with his father that night in a very angry and dissatisfied frame of mind. Miss Prestwich’s firmness had silenced his words, but it was very far from having suppressed his feelings. Indeed it had increased them. He glanced now and then with aversion at the silhouette of the Count’s head and beard, as he sat beside him, profiled against the warm starlight — smoking a cigar, humming an air, with every appearance of a man very well pleased with himself; and when his father asked him some kindly question about his progress with his English lessons, he actually swallowed before replying, as though it required a physical effort to overcome his distaste.
Now Giulio was filial enough to be distressed by this. Like both Elena and Marietta, and indeed most of the poor man’s immediate relations, Giulio had hitherto slightly, but on the whole tolerantly, despised his parent; but nothing like this acrid anger and disgust had ever moved him before, and it made him very uncomfortable. He spent a wretched night. Waking, next morning, in his sunfilled room at Odredo, he went out on to the balcony, and there, drinking his morning chocolate, he tried as usual to think it all out. Almost unconsciously, shocked by his feelings of the night before, he endeavored to push the whole onus for them on to the Marchesa. He was fair-minded enough to ask himself why he should so much dislike her flirtations, and found, or thought he found, his answer. She was frivolous about Love; even that she could not take seriously. If she had had a despairing grande passion for someone, he could have forgiven or even approved it — but not this laughing lightness.
But these meditations did not console him much, and, as was his habit in any distress, he eventually turned to Fräulein Gelsicher for reassurance and comfort. He found her in her room, her gray hair up, but still arrayed in her petticoat and cambric peignoir. She turned with a pleasant smile and said, ‘Good morning, Giulio. Can I do anything for you?’
The young man fidgeted about the room for some moments before replying, picking up the things on the toilet table and setting them down. At length, coming to a halt in front of Fräulein Gelsicher — ‘Gela, can nothing be done to stop this business between my father and Zia Suzy?’ he burst out. ‘It is so — unpleasant.’
This was completely unexpected. The Swiss looked at him with concern, and then said, in her usual measured tones, ‘They are very old friends, Giulio.’
‘They are not friends at all!’ he replied, explosively. ‘It is a regular flirt! She behaves with him just as she is beginning to do with Roffredo, only more so. Last night we saw them together when they did not know it — it was horrid. It is unseemly, Gela — one’s father and one’s aunt!’
This was so precisely the governess s own view that she found it hard to answer. She wondered exactly how much the boy had seen — without knowing that, she was rather in the dark. Knowing Suzy, it might have been anything! She said very gravely, ‘Giulio, if you wish me to listen to statements like this, you must be more precise. Tell me exactly what happened.’
‘Dunque, Miss Prestwich had been correcting my essay in the torrino, because it was so hot; and afterwards—’ he rehearsed the small episode. ’It was somehow particularly disagreeable, seeing it with her, ’ the boy concluded.
‘Did she speak of it?’ Fräulein Gelsicher asked, relieved that it was no worse.
‘ I did. I said I disliked Zia Suzy and her goings-on. And she shut me up, and said she would not listen if I spoke so —‘
‘Perfectly right,’ Fräulein Gelsicher interjected.
‘But Gela,’ the boy went one, more quietly now, ‘it is horrible. It made me feel horrible towards Papa. I do not think it is his fault — it is hers; but I dislike him for it, and I hate that. And it does no one any good, this flirtatious sort of love; it is a travesty. Love should engage the whole energy of the spirit, and teach the soul to use her wings still more. It aspires, or kneels; it does not flirt and laugh.’ He went on in this strain for some time; Fräulein Gelsicher listened patiently, and now and then she sighed. Giulio treated her to these philosophical discourses occasionally, but she had never heard one on love before, and guessed, shrewdly enough, that Miss Prestwick was at the bottom of it. This was a complication she had early foreseen; and, once again, it was the Marchesa Suzy they had to thank for it — getting a girl like that for governess, with no inquiries! However, when Giulio had done she merely gave him a few quiet words on the unwisdom of attempting to judge others without full knowledge and comprehension. ‘You will find plenty to do to manage your own soul, my dear Giulio,’ she ended up; ‘be a dutiful son and an affectionate brother, and leave your elders alone.’ And since he had been allowed to say his say, this rather flat admonition seemed to pacify the boy, and he took himself off to his work.
Giulio di Castellone was not the only person in the province of Gardone to spend that morning in disturbing thoughts. Miss Prestwich woke early, to see the eastern sun pouring through the olives outside her windows. She lay watching it, running her forefinger round the edges of the large squares of lace let into the coverlet on the bed, and thinking about herself and Roffredo di Castellone. Last night, what with the changing for dinner in a hurry, Giulio’s essay, and then the fuss he had made about the Count and the Marchesa, she had had no time to think the whole thing out — now she must, she must get it all straight.
After all, she was the governess, and a member of the family was making love to her. That being so, she realized that she ought really to go straight to the Marchesa, tell her what had happened, and ask what she wished her to do. But that might involve her leaving, — she had no idea how much or how little fuss such an admission would cause, out here, — and then she would be back on her mother’s hands, and all the fearful expenditure on these clothes wasted, when it was not her fault. Besides, the scene she had witnessed the previous evening, and still more Giulio’s words about the Marchesa and Roffredo, seemed to make it impossible to speak to her, of all people, on the subject. And yet not to tell her was not quite straight. At last a solution occurred to her — when she got the chance, she would consult Fräulein Gelsicher. From her she would certainly get trustworthy advice.
The next few days passed, however, without Almina’s getting any chance to speak privately with the Swiss — Elena or Marietta was always around. And so it came about that the day of the picnic to Castel Vecchio arrived without Almina’s having unburdened herself of her secret to anyone.
Castel Vecchio lies well away to the south, in the flat part of the plain of Gardone; the cavalcade of carriages, widely spaced because of the dust, soon left the little crumpled hills, crowned with tufts of acacia, behind, and drove through flat fields where the maize and granturco were taking on the yellowish tinge of late summer, and a smoky purplish bloom was beginning to overspread the bunches of grapes that hung from the vines bordering the road. The castle itself stands on a high hillock or mound, and for more than an hour before they reached it the picnic party could see, first its high square tower, then the great oblong block of the main building, and finally the curtain wall which runs round the entire circumference of the hill. As they drew nearer, they could see that the whole place was considerably more ruinous than they had expected; there were breaches in the topmost battlements of the tower, and great loops of ivy and wild clematis hung from the broken stonework; hawks wheeled and cried about it. There were gaps in the curtain wall, too; the Marchese Francesco observed to Countess Livia that it would cost more than all the eighty-one heirs together could put down to bring the place into repair.
However, on arrival, lunch was the first consideration. Rugs were spread and baskets opened on a stretch of smooth turf beside a small stream which wound round the foot of the mound, in half-shade from a group of poplars which crowned the bank above; bottles of wine were stuck in the running water to cool, salad was rinsed out to refresh it, Umberto and Valentino, the Vill’ Alta butler, ran about arranging cold pies, cold roast duck, sandwiches, and rolls on tablecloths on the grass.
As far as the lunch went, the picnic was as near perfection as need be. Almina remembered long afterwards some of the details of it: the coffee, steaming hot from squat Chinese teapots in padded wicker cases, the little squares of butter floating in water in screw-top jars, to keep them cool—mixed with the picture of Roffredo lounging on the grass at the Marchesa Suzy’s feet, indulging in rather lazy gallantries with her, while the checkered sunlight played over her white dress and his white flannels, and made broken metallic lights on his red head. Almina sat rather quietly watching the whole party, as was her habit when ‘company’ was present, and thinking out schemes for getting Fräulein Gelsicher to herself later on.
The meal over, there was a general adjournment to the castle. Great beauty the place undoubtedly had. The main building was entered by an outside staircase of stone, with a carved balustrade, which led up to a fine doorway on the first floor; passing in, one entered a chain of great rooms, each the full depth of the building, their high windows looking out over the courtyard on one side and the plain on the other. All the rooms had fine floors of black marble and white stone, and magnificently carved chimney pieces — there were certainly the makings of a splendid mansion here. A stone staircase led on to the upper floors, but only a few of the elders — Suzy, Count Carlo, and Ernest’s wife among them — had the energy to inspect even the floor immediately above. The young people, however, ranged everywhere, and carried Almina along with them; she saw from a window that Fräulein Gelsicher was firmly anchored by the Countess Livia’s side down in the courtyard, and gave herself up to the always exciting pleasure of exploring an empty house. She stuck closely to Marietta’s side, however, determined to avoid an encounter with Roffredo tête à tête. One room at the eastern end had also a small oval window, now unglazed; leaning out of this to see the view, she noticed a fern growing in the stonework below her. It was difficult to reach, and while she lingered, trying to see what it was and wondering whether it was worth while climbing up on to the sill and trying to pick it, she failed to notice that Marietta had left the room. She was recalled by hearing the door, creaking heavily, pushed to behind her — she turned round, and there stood Roffredo.
‘Is it the view or is it a flower?’ he asked, coming over to her.
‘A flower,’ she replied, leaning forward and indicating the fern. He too leaned out to look, slipping his arm gently round her as he did so; then he stepped back into the room, drawing her with him, and said: ‘I will pick it for you in a minute. But there is a flower I want to pick for myself first — if I may.’ And as she glanced up at him, embarrassed and uncertain, he stood back from her, holding her so that he could look at her face. ‘Cara, do you know that ever since we walked together at Castellone, nine whole days ago, I have thought of little else but you,’ he said, ‘and of when I should see you again like this? Have you thought of me at all?’
Now was of course the moment for displaying that prudence and firmness on which Almina had been resolving for those same nine days. But with his arm round her, his eyes on her face, her heart drinking in the sweet flattery of his words, it was not easy to be firm. And her own good breeding in a sense stood in her way — she found it difficult to say anything so abrupt and awkward as ‘Let go of me, please,’ or even brusquely to release herself. She made one small struggle.
‘Yes, I did — but not quite like that,’ she said. ‘Signor Conte, I really don’t —’
‘You did think of me too? Then I shall pick my flower,’ he interrupted, with a sort of triumph, and drew her to him and kissed her again. Held in his arms, under his kisses, a physical disturbance of such violence overtook the girl as she had never known before — thought, scruples, prudence, vanished, blotted out by a sort of anæsthesia that was half bliss, half something terrifying that she did not understand. Presently the young man raised his head and looked at her again; her hat, the childish hat held by the green ribbons under her chin, had fallen back; her closed eyelids, the look of drowned defeat on her face, lying so still there on his arm, moved him curiously. ‘Ah, lovely little one, how I love you!’ he murmured, carried away by an impulse of tenderness which surprised himself; and gently pushing her hat further back, he stroked her sun-silky hair. She opened her eyes then, and with a gesture as if to sweep some veil away she moved gently out of his arm, and made one more effort.
‘Signor Conte, this makes me unhappy,’ she said. ’I — I think we should stop.’
‘You are unhappy with me?’ he said, moving over to her again, and taking her hand, while his eyes searched her face. ‘Does it make you unhappy that I love you?’
Those words again! She could not say it — her eyes went down before his.
‘No — only, like this —’
He would not have it. ‘I do not believe it,’ he interrupted again, drawing her once more into his arms. ‘Little foolish one, it is not true!’ Like the bird snarer’s hand, his face came down on hers again; his kisses silenced her words, that secret anæsthesia engulfed her, sweeping away doubts and prudence on a tidal wave which carried her out of all known depths. When he had gone, slipping prudently away and bidding her not to follow for a moment or two, she leaned again on the stone sill of the oval window, gazing at the view, the fern forgotten, and telling herself in shy secrecy that this must be love.
The Marchesa Suzy di Vill’ Alta was not really very fond of picnics. She had agreed to the Caslel Vecchio expedition mainly out of pure good nature, because Marietta wished it, partly because she had thought it likely that the day would afford further and possibly amusing opportunities for her rather lazy flirtation with Roffredo di Castellone, which was beginning to entertain her a good deal. However, the day had not been a success from this point of view; Carlo had stuck to her side with tiresome persistence, and Roffredo had disappeared into the upper regions of the castle with the children, and been no more seen. By the time the party began to reassemble by the stream for more coffee before the drive back, Suzy was thoroughly bored. She dispatched Carlo to summon the young people, and then sat chatting, with mechanical politeness but without interest, to the Countess Livia and Ernest’s wife, fanning away the mosquitoes which began to assail the party as the sun drew westward and the shadows lengthened, and wishing that the others would come quickly. Odd that Roffredo should have made no move to seek her company the whole afternoon, she thought — if he had, she could easily have detached the Count and arranged it. What could have kept him?
When the younger element at length appeared, all together in a chattering, laughing group, herded by Carlo, she watched Roffredo more attentively than usual. In his manner now she noticed, or thought she noticed, something which she had not seen before — a subtle air of disturbance, almost of triumph, hard to define but to her experienced eye fairly evident. And looking round the group to find some counterpart of this expression, her attention was caught by Miss Prestwich’s face. The girl had a heightened color; her eyes were absent and dreamy; though she was behaving with her usual pretty quiet propriety, there was somehow a bloom, a glow, about her that could hardly be mistaken.
The Marchesa Suzy surveyed the pair with a sort of amused impatience. Really, Roffredo might have better taste than to start a flirtation with the governess! And Postiche, too, with her mousy ways — could she be allowing herself to receive attentions on the sly? That sort of thing would never do; it would have to be put a stop to, if it were really so. Her years of triumphant beauty made it difficult for her to believe seriously in the success of another woman in her own house.
Suzy’s immediate, instinctive method of putting a stop to it was to apply herself to Count Roffredo. By a little ingenious manipulation, a little laughing display of curiosity, she contrived to arrange that she should drive back to Vill’ Alta in his car. Seated beside him, she set to work, and the lively run of her wit, employed on mutual acquaintances in Rome and Milan and on concerns familiar to them both, soon brought him back, as it were, into her orbit — made him show himself, as usual, charmed and amused. When they got back to Vill’ Alta, she extended to the young man an invitation to remain to an informal dinner. He accepted, and stayed. During the meal they were a good deal more discreet than they had been on their drive, but there was enough possession in the Marchesa’s manner to make Almina distinctly uncomfortable; and when coffee was over the girl was glad enough to plead the excuse of fatigue to quit a field where it was impossible for her to go, so to speak, into action.
In the house her room was still hot, and she felt vaguely restless. She shepherded Marietta to bed, and then, throwing a scarf round her shoulders, she slipped downstairs, floated like a shadow through the dusk of the hall, and went out on to the southern terrace; passing round under the eastern wing, she went on to the ridge leading towards Odredo. She left the path presently, and in the shelter of an arbutus dropped on to the dry grass— leaning back against its red trunk, she stared up at the sky overhead. How lovely it was here, she thoughtand how beyond measure lovely it would have been if he could have been with her. But in a sense he was, still — his words still rang in her head, the pressure of his hands and lips came back to her with dizzying force. Oh yes, this was love all right; and she told herself that her love must arise and shine, be faithful and unafraid, and not let small trials like the Marchesa’s manner to Roffredo dim its glow.
That lady, meanwhile, had been making her own use of this summer evening. The terrace emptied gradually of its after-dinner occupants, but even in the gloom under the ilex, where she lay idly in her hammock, rocked by Roffredo, it was rather raked by the windows of the house, and eventually she proposed a stroll. They too took the path along the Odredo ridge. Success with a man always went a little to Suzy’s head, lit up her beauty like a torch; and she was succeeding with Roffredo. As they walked along now, her face pale, her eyes splendid in the dusk, she was infinitely alluring; her scent, her warm low laugh, were intoxicating. He took small freedoms, with her scarf, her fan; she permitted them, laughing at him while she did so. They came presently to one of the many seats with which the ridge was dotted, and sat down. Her hand was stretched along the back, and — ‘How beautiful your hands are,’ the young man observed, looking thoughtfully at it.
‘Well, hands are always something!’ she returned, with the merry irony which was one of her strong suits. ‘ For an engineer, you are getting quite expressive, Roffredo.’
‘There are other and perhaps better ways of expressing oneself than in words,’
the young man answered; he was at once stirred and provoked by her manner and her presence. And, as she merely continued to laugh, with a brusque movement he took her in his arms and kissed her, with a vigor which had an element of temper in it. She neither yielded nor resisted; supple and pliant, she was self-possessed even in his arms. But she was stirred all the same — his youth and strength, his healthy mouth, his offhand ways, woke a deep secret response in her. And when, the long kiss over, she rose and led him back to the house, letting him know amiably that he was a fool and rather uncouth, in her heart she was telling herself that she would let this go on, for a little while at least.
But Almina, crouched under her group of arbutus, had seen everything; and the shock of what she had seen had been very great. It was not only her personal feelings which were wounded at the very moment of their unfolding; all her instincts, all the traditions of her upbringing, were scorched by the sudden picture of this double infidelity. Sheltered as her life had been, with her narrow experience, shades and grades of feeling meant nothing to her; they had kissed, with passion, so they must love. Then what had Roffredo meant that afternoon? Oh, but she could not remember that now! It was profanation. She must bury to-day forever, never think of it again. This was the end. She had been imprudent, foolish — oh, but what did it all mean, her heart cried against these: arguments. Why kiss her, why speak so to her, if he did not love her? Who would not have believed him? Had she been so foolish?
The picnic to Castel Vecchio was the last gayety at Vill’ Alta for some little time. A couple of days later, members of the family began to arrive for the consiglio di famiglia. The diplomat son arrived from Brussels with his wife, a lively Frenchwoman who treated the whole thing as a rather amusing novelty; the playwright son arrived from Paris, and sat scribbling at small sheets of manuscript all the time — even, furtively, during the actual discussion; the cardinal son came from Rome, an austere and rather splendid figure, who amused Suzy by showing at least as much concern for the welfare of his little Pekingese as for that of his brother’s immortal soul; Nadia came, graceful and silent as ever; Anastasia, the sister who had married a Colonna, Came without her husband — he had, she explained to Suzy, no settled convictions on such subjects; the lawyer came, a little withered man with an apologetic manner, which became dogmatic when he felt sure of his ground, as in the mat ter of settlements; finally, at the very last moment, Pipo himself arrived, lively, breezy, and amusing. Before he came, however, Marietta and Miss Prestwich had been dispatched to Odredo, to be out of the way. ‘ You see, it is essential that you avoid contact with the leper,’ Elena observed to them, laughing. Almina winced a little at this levity. Her last picture of the Marchesa Nadia had been sitting in one of the high-backed brocaded chairs of the salone, on the evening before they left, while the tide of family talk flowed about her, the fingers of her right hand — her hands that were usually so still — moving to and fro, to and fro, over the broad carved arm, with a curious uncertain movement, as if she were feeling her way in the dark. The girl had found something strangely distressing in that one movement of the silent, impassive, beautiful figure; even in her own unhappiness she could not get the memory of it out of her head.
Meanwhile at Vill’ Alta, both in the general conferences — sitting round the great table in the big library, with its huge carved and painted beams crossing the ceiling — and in private talks, the alternatives were set so squarely before the Marchese Pipo that not even his cheerful suppleness could evade them. He must give up La Panelli, or face the disagreeableness of a separation. Suzy, with her usual merciful common sense, was all for a separation, thinking that it would be, in the end, the best For Nadia’s peace of mind; and in this she was supported by the cardinal. But Antonio, the diplomat, abetted by his wife, was dead against it; so was Anastasia; Edoardo, the bachelor, unexpectedly and to Suzy’s mind rather absurdly came out with a declaration in the same sense; and, more formidably, La Vecchia Marchesa declared herself unalterably opposed to such a course. The Marchese Francesco stubbornly refused to express an opinion; he merely sat at the head of the table, and asked for, and listened to, the views of others. It was impossible to find out what Pipo really wanted; Nadia, whenever addressed, merely repeated very quietly, ‘I should prefer to separate.’ But in the end family opinion was too strong for her, and for Pipo too, for that matter. He agreed, with his usual insouciance, to give up his liaison with the Countess Panelli; there was to be no separation. He and Nadia were to return to Bologna together and ‘try to make it work.’ Suzy kissed her and wished her well, whispering, ‘Come to me whenever you want to breathe’; the cardinal gave her his blessing, formally, and informally murmured, ‘God be with you, my child,’ when he bade her goodbye; La Vecchia Marchesa kissed her briskly, and adjured both her and Pipo to have another baby as fast as possible. And Nadia, still gracious, still silent, bowed her head and went away beside her husband. Gradually, unhurriedly, the rest followed, for their various destinations. The consiglio di famiglia was over.
Suzy saw them go with mild relief. It had all been a great waste of time, she thought, as she lay in her hammock on the terrace, empty now save for herself and her mother-in-law— it had left everything exactly where it was. Pipo would not change; she knew him too well for that. If it was n’t La Panelli, it would be somebody else. The one satisfaction was that it was safely over without doing Bonne-Mama any harm — she looked better than ever. But how fantastic, really, to suppose that it could change anything, a whole roomful of relations sitting round the table discussing! How could that affect the secret emotions, glad or bitter, of the urgent human heart? The heart took its own way, always. A tiny smile changed the delightful shape of her mouth — thinking of the secret waywardness of the human heart reminded her of Roffredo. In retrospect, that evening with him had somehow gathered weight, become more important. She had set out, half idly, to cure a foolish young man of a foolish infatuation by the surest means she knew; but all through the days of the consiglio, talking, caring for her guests, listening to opinions, putting in a word of advice here and there, she had been aware of a secret sense of having a little private hoard of riches in the background which, presently, she could return to enjoy. She had been surprised at the persistence and vigor of this feeling, and its reviving effects on her; surprised too at the kindling vividness of her memory of Roffredo’s hands on her shoulders, his lips on her face. She had not expected to remember them like that. It was surprising, but it was also pleasant. And now the consiglio was over, and the temporary isolation of Vill’ Alta from the rest of the province — there would be meetings again. She blew out a cloud of smoke, on a long contented breath, and applied herself cheerfully to amusing La Vecchia Marchesa.
To Almina the move to Odredo had been a relief. It had at least removed her from the daily necessity of seeing and being polite to the Marchesa Suzy, whose mere presence, since that evening under the arbutus, aroused in her a sort of nervous horror. She liked the quiet, cheerful informality at Odredo, where the life of the soil, from which the whole great household derived its sustenance, was much more in evidence than it was at Vill’ Alta. And Fräulein Gelsicher was in herself always a solace and a support. She had now become, so to speak, an indirect one; all question of consulting her on the subject of Roffredo was finished with. That problem, and the dreams which it had fed, were set aside—all that was over, but Almina returned now more earnestly than ever to the governess ideal, to becoming for her pupil what Gela was to Elena. She threw herself with fervor into Giulio’s lessons, giving him extra time, making him talk English; with Marietta she made him undertake English readings, all three together, sitting round the marble table under the stone pine.
She took up the pursuit of wild flowers once more, rising early and going for long walks before breakfast — though wild-flower hunting had bitter-sweet associations of its own. Wandering homewards, once, her thoughts far away, she found herself unexpectedly in the little spinney where she had picked the butterfly orchis earlier in the year; she remembered how Roffredo had asked her its name, and begged to be taken there at dusk to smell its evening fragrance — it was the first time that he had shown her marked attention. In a rush of sentimental misery she poked about among the later summer growth till she found one or two of the dead orchises; the frail stalks bad given way, but the withered flower heads lay, dry, papery, and brown, on the dead leaves. She took one home with her and put it between the leaves of her Tennyson, where the gentian which he had given her that day at Castellone already reposed, carefully pressed.
But in spite of this secret weakness, she was steady and consistent in her avoidance of Roffredo. He came over several times to Odredo, but the cousins made a four at tennis without her, and she always contrived some excuse to absent herself when he was coming. If he arrived unexpectedly, she gave him the minimum of civil greeting and then slipped away. She exercised all her small stock of ingenuity to make these evasions look as natural as possible, but the change in her manner with the young Count did not escape the watchful eye of Elena — still less did it escape Roffredo’s own notice. Without any clue to the reason for it, the young man was thoroughly puzzled. Was it coquetry, or an exaggerated prudence, or some real change of feeling?
The uncertainty fretted him, and made him think of her incessantly. This worried him too. He was at a crucial stage with his experiments. The N.S.A. at Milan had seen a demonstration of one of his inventions, had praised it, and suggested one or two modifications — if these could be made satisfactorily, they held out hopes of taking it. As a result he was working feverishly at the villa, often sitting up the night through, with sheets of squared paper scattered round him, drinking cup after cup of black coffee, trying to work out the requisite formulas.
After one such night, when he had worked later than usual, the light was already beginning to filter in through the slats of the Venetian shutters when he lay down — it fretted his eyes, hot and sore after the night’s work, and, though he turned on his other side, he could not sleep; into his tired brain, drowsy and uninhibited, crowded visions of Almina, there with him, in the room, in all her delicate fragility— his weary fancy showed her in maddening perfection. He sprang up, at last, unable to endure the torment of these thoughts which he could not control; he would go out and walk — that would put an end to it, and he would be able to sleep. Regardless of the slumbers of Alba, his old housekeeper, he banged open one of the side doors of the villa, and went out.
He walked a few yards along the road, and then turned off to the right, where a tiny path led across the pastures towards the Monte Sant’ Antonio. Roffredo knew the path well — it had been trodden originally by the feet of smugglers, bringing salt and tobacco in over the mountains from across the Austrian frontier.
Out in the pastures, a light mist lay over the grass; the poplars, just beginning to turn color, rose through it; while he walked their tops were turned to gold by the first rays of the sun. And now, through the mist, he saw a figure moving ahead of him. He quickened his pace, walking noiselessly on the soft turf — now he was near enough to see that it. was a woman; and not a peasant, for she wore a pale dress. A sudden suspicion overtook him — he ran; and as he drew nearer, with one of those sweet pangs with which we salute the impossible joy, he recognized Almina.
All his usual deliberate skill in such encounters forsook Roffredo then. Panting, he came up with her, and took her by the arm. ‘ It is you,’ he said, as she faced round towards him; and nothing else. They stood so, in silence, for a moment or two, while his eyes traveled over her, coming to rest at last on her face, where the delicate color came and went. At last — ‘Good morning,’ the girl said, with the chilly primness she had used to him lately. ‘Surely you are out very early? ’
‘Yes, and why? Because of you — because I could neither work nor sleep last night because of you,’the young man burst out.
‘I am sorry for that — but I cannot help it,’ she said coldly, walking on again. She carried a little spray of some green plant in her hand, and raised it to her face as if to smell it, to emphasize her detachment.
’Almina, what is it? Why have you changed like this?’ he asked urgently, again catching at her arm.
‘In England we think it is insulting to — to tell a person you love her, and to — act it, and then make love to someone else, on the same day,’ the girl said bitterly, her grievance escaping at last.
He stood stock-still and stared at her, retaining his hold of her arm, which this time she had made no move to release.
’Dunque! So that is it!’ he said at last. ‘You saw me and Suzy?’
She nodded, turning away her head, but he saw two bright tears fall.
‘Cara signorina, I owe you an explanation,’ he said very gravely. ‘Dunque, you know Zia Suzy — she is — well, very attractive. Well, that night, I don’t know why—I suppose she felt flirtatious,’ he said, with a rather engaging flat. simplicity; ‘anyhow she teased me, and I did flirt with her. And —it may be less so with women, but you know how it is with men — they are easily aroused. And I am particularly so,’he said, with disarming candor; ‘red-haired people are always the worst for that. And I did kiss her — I do, in such cases! I can’t help it. Besides, it was necessary; one cannot do less than is expected of one! But — oh, dear one, lovely one, do try to understand this! — when I kissed you, it was with my heart also — it meant something; and when I kissed her it meant, nothing, except that I was aroused, as I said. Do you believe that?’
She stood with averted head, as she listened. It was all very strange, and rather disagreeable — but it was all of a piece with so much else that was strange, in Italy; it fitted in with things that she had heard Elena say, often. And there was something compelling about his very frankness and sincerity. ‘ Yes, I suppose I do,’ she said at last.
’Then will you forgive it, and forget it? Almina cara?’ He slipped an arm round her as he spoke, and she let it stay; after her days of misery, the comfort of it was so sweet! ‘Yes, I will forgive it,’ she said He drew her very gently and gradually towards him. ‘And you won’t be cruel to me any more? ’ he whispered; and as she turned her head at last to him, he slipped his mouth on to hers.
’What is the flower, cara?’ he asked her presently, pointing to the little spray in her hand.
‘Oh, that is something rather nice,— I found it in the copse over there, where the spring is, and the little ruin, — enchanter’s nightshade,’ she said, holding it up.
‘Enchanter’s nightshade, did you say? What a curious name! It should be called enchantress’s nightshade,’ he said, giving it back to her.
‘ Because of Zia Suzy.’
But he would n’t explain, when she did not follow — he only laughed, and made her renew a promise to come out next morning into the park and walk with him there.
‘Ecco, Papa, see what our Postiche has brought you!’ Marietta cried, twirling the spray of enchanter’s nightshade before her father’s eyes as he sat at his study table, on their return to Vill’ Alta. ‘Did you ever see that before?’
The Marchese Francesco examined l he small plant, with its dark delicate leaves, heart-shaped at the base and pointed at the tips, with eager care. ‘Yes — I know it; it is Circ7#339;a lutetiana,’ he said; ’I saw it once in England. But where does this come from? Not from the province, surely?‘
‘Yes, it does. She found it herself, the clever thing! At Odredo.’
’In that thicket by the ruined grotto and the Holy Well.’ And, as her father looked blank—‘O Papa, caro, you go nowhere! It is near Trino’s hill. She can take you there one day.’
The Marchese Francesco was delighted with his new treasure. He sent for Miss Prestwich, congratulated her, and examined her minutely as to the location and quantity of the plant. Oh yes, there was plenty, she told him, and she could easily find it again, only the bushes were very thick. ‘But I can go there now and then, and when it is properly out, I can fetch you another piece.’ As she spoke the thought darted into her head that if she could only manage to let Roffredo know, these expeditions would offer an admirable opportunity for meeting him again. They had had two or three morning walks before she and Marietta left Odredo, and the happiness, the heady sweetness of them, had, as it were, fortified her to face the Marchesa Suzy once more. She had no longer any doubts as to the truth of Roffredo’s explanation, or as to his feelings towards her. This gave her that sense of inner justification which lovers know so well — and, paradoxically perhaps, the fact of the Marchesa’s flirtation with Roffredo seemed to her to excuse her own concealment of her meetings with him. It was now not only impossible to reveal them — if had become unnecessary as well.
The only difficulty — over which, in her room upstairs, later, she drew her fine eyebrows together in a puzzled frownwas how to let him know. Except for those early walks, she spent practically the whole day in her pupil’s company, especially at Vill’ Alta; and because that company was pleasant, and there was nowhere in particular to go, she had allowed that one afternoon off a week, stipulated for in her mother’s correspondence with the Marchesa, to lapse. She could, of course, quietly walk out of the great gates beyond the south terrace, cross the white, dusty village square with its squat hollow-trunked elm, under which the loungers congregated in a black patch of shade, and post a letter in the Vill’ Alta post office; but, to begin with, that was unusual, since the Castellone letters were taken daily in a bag to Sant’ Apollonia by a man on a bicycle; and, further, the postmistress took every letter with her own hands, scrutinized the address, and chatted cheerfully with the senders on their reasons for writing — Marietta and Almina, going in to buy stamps, had often watched this proceeding and laughed over it. There was no privacy about village posts in the province.
It was Roffredo himself who found the solution, and a very fantastic and ingenious one, for this difficulty. On the very day after their return to Vill’ Alta he came over to tea and tennis; Giulio and Elena were there too, and afterwards the young people walked back with them towards Odredo. Roffredo had found the moment, fetching himself a glass of lemonade from the table by the court, to murmur to Almina, ‘Sweetheart, when do I see you again? Properly?’
’I don’t know,’she murmured back, putting a lump of ice into his tumbler. ’I could walk sometimes early; if only I could let you know when. But that is difficult— I don’t see how to manage it.’
‘I will think of something, little love. Grazie tante, signorina,‘ he said loudly, as Suzy approached.
Now, walking back along the ridge, Almina branched off down a side path, saying that she was going to look for a flower. She had half hoped that Roffredo would escape and follow her alone, but the whole party came too. Down off the crest of the ridge, the ground was moist and smelt damply of dead leaves; elders and privets grew thickly, their branches stretching across the path.
‘Goodness, what an awful smell!’ Elena exclaimed suddenly. ‘What on earth can it be?’
‘It smells like a dead dog,’ said Giulio. ‘Come on, do.’
But Almina, stepping carefully, began to range about, pushing and peering through the bushes. ‘I thought so!’ she exclaimed after a moment. ‘Here you are, Giulio — here is your dead dog!’
They followed her through the bushes to where she stood pointing triumphantly at some tall narrow toadstools, of an ugly grayish white flecked on the top with dirty brown — the smell here was almost overpowering. ‘They are stinkhorns; we have them at home,’ she said.
‘Not a romantic subject for nostalgia,’ Roffredo said, poking gingerly at the largest of the unpleasing objects with the toe of his shoe— it fell over sideways, revealing thin fleshy gills, of an unhealthy-looking spongy substance, under the domed top. ‘Pew! It is horrible.’
‘Come away, per carità,‘ Marietta said, tugging at Almina’s arm. ‘Postiche, you know some nasty things! Don’t let’s ever come here again.‘
It may have been that last remark which gave Roffredo his idea. He walked back with Marietta and Miss Prestwich to Vill’ Alta, when they had bidden the cousins farewell, and went into the house to fetch his hat and dust coat. He was gone some time, and when Almina went into the schoolroom that evening to tidy up she noticed a tiny slip of folded paper sticking out of Marietta’s exercise book, which lay on the table. She pulled it out, and read her own name on it, in a round firm writing; with a little pang of surprise and suspicion she opened it. Yes, it was from him. ‘Country post offices smell frightful, but some are safer than others,’ she read. ‘Go and fetch your own letters, in the dogs’ cemetery, and be sure to post some!’ Laughing at his nonsense, half frightened at his audacity, — for he must have run up to the schoolroom himself, a scandalous proceeding, — she carried the note off to her own room, and locked it away in the jewel box in her little dressing case. She went down to dinner with a sort of dancing inner confidence, and after coffee ran upstairs, put on thick shoes, and scudded away along the ridge and down the side path to the elder thicket. It was nonsense to come, she told herself — there could be nothing there yet. But all the same she made her way to the illodored spot, and looked about in the dusk. No, not a sign of a note. Then she noticed that the fallen stinkhorn, the largest of all, was no longer there. Yes — there it was, broken at one side by Roffredo’s foot; but it was standing up again, propped on a twig. She stooped and picked it up — stuck into the spongy tissue beneath the domed cap was another little folded note. She carried it up out of the wood on to the ridge, and, leaning against one of the stone pines, read it by the last glow from the west. It was her first love letter, and, though short, it was a satisfying one — ardent, tender, and mischievous, suggesting a rendezvous in the park, early, on the day after to-morrow. She went back to the house, penned an answer to be slipped into the stinkhorn next morning, and went happily to bed, the precious note under her pillow.
This absurd means of communication now secured, and supported by fairly frequent meetings with Roffredo, Almina was able to look on, almost with indifference, at the progress of his flirtation with the Marchesa Suzy.
Others, however, regarded it differently. Elena, whose sharp ironic glance little ever escaped, was by now perfectly well aware of the Marchesa’s goings-on with Roffredo, and registered each manifestation with rather malicious amusement. At the same time she had not failed to notice the young man’s manner to Miss Prestwich, or those minute changes of color and inflections of voice which the latter, for all her careful behavior, could not quite control; in spite of their discretion, she made a pretty shrewd guess at the state of affairs there.
‘Senta, Gela,’ she began one morning as she sat sewing and gossiping in her governess’s room, ‘have you noticed Zia Suzy and Roffredo lately? I think theyare getting on rather too well. Although I think Roffredo does n’t in the least want to be Zia Suzy’s cher ami, because he is much too fond of Postiche. At first I thought it was only a flirt, but now it is more—I am sure of it. Have you noticed nothing?‘
The Swiss did not answer—instead, she asked a question herself. ‘Why do you think so?’ she inquired.
‘Their eyes — their voices! And they meet; I am sure of it. Once or twice he has referred to something which happened when he was not there, and we have not seen him since, so that he could not know of it unless she had told him; he has caught himself up, and covered it, but I have seen her face then. She was afraid.’
‘When could they meet? When she was here, she saw nothing of him — she avoided him rather pointedly,’Fräulein Gelsicher said.
’I know — at first! There was some quarrel, I am sure—and pretty certainly Suzy was at the bottom of it! But the last few days she was quite different to him — and you know she always went for those long walks before breakfast.’
‘ I certainly did not know it, or I should have stopped her! She is far too young and pretty to walk alone. How do you know this?’ the older woman asked.
‘Oh, Annina told me, for one thing and then she brought in that flower that Zio Francesco made such a fuss about, one morning early. But Gela, the thing is this — what are we to do? She is so innocent, she is like a child; I don’t suppose she realizes in the least about Zia Suzy. But really, I do not like the whole thing at all. You know, I think Zia Suzy is capable de tout, if her own way is threatened,’ Elena said, very seriously.
For once Fräulein Gelsicher let the criticism pass unrebuked. Some profound instinct — for she had never seen the young Marchesa other than courteous and charming — made her think the same thing herself. If Elena was right, it was a rather menacing situation. She sighed, and drew out a long thread on her needle, but without speaking.
‘I wondered if one should speak to her,’ Elena said. ‘After all, she is alone here. And you know I don’t altogether trust Roffredo either; he is passionate, and he is rather volage.‘
‘Do you think Marietta knows anything about all this?’ asked Fräulein Gelsicher.
‘It is very difficult to be sure what Marietta knows and what she does n’t,’ the girl replied. ‘But I should think that she must have some idea about Postiche and Roffredo, at least, boxed up as they are together all day.’
‘And about the other— thing?’
‘ No,’ said Elena decidedly. ‘I am sure not. It would never occur to her. She is odd about Zia Suzy; all that is tiresome in her she just closes her mind to. She thinks her nearly perfect, I do believe. Though, you know, I cannot guarantee that she won’t see it, one of these days, if Zia Suzy goes on at this rate,’ the girl said. ‘But really I am more worried about Postiche. What shall we do, Gela?’
‘I shall reflect about it first,’ the governess repeated.
She did both think and watch during the next few days; and what she noticed, once put on the track, entirely confirmed Elena’s impression. The young Marehesa’s preoccupation with Count Roffredo she had already noticed with her usual calm disapproval; but this fresh development disturbed her much more.
She considered the possibility of giving a word of warning to her little colleague; but the girl’s extreme discretion in all her visible behavior gave small handle for it, and Fräulein Gelsicher did not like acting on suspicion, or on the gossip of servants. The proper person to have watched and warned was her employer, the Marchesa Suzy — and she was being far more indiscreet than the governess, Fräulein Gelsicher thought biiterly.
In her concern, she thought, as before, of taking La Vecehia Marchesa into her confidence. But she dreaded upsetting her; the hundredth birthday, to which the whole circle of relations attached an almost superstitious importance, was little more than six weeks off, and the old lady had only recently undergone the strain of the consiglio di famiglia. In the end Fräulein Gelsicher decided to leave it for the moment, and trust to the Marchesa’s tact and savoir-faire not to let matters come to a head. After all, she had always managed such things very well before. It was surprising, the Swiss thought with cold matter-of-factness, that she should be so careless of appearances this time.
The reason for Suzy’s relative disregard of appearances in the matter of Count Roffredo was simple enough, although Fräulein Gelsicher did not hit on it — it was largely animpulseof feminine jealousy. Having once suspected that there was something between him and the governess, and having decided to detach him and annex him, so to speak, herself, it became almost a matter of policy with Suzy to display his flirtation with her, rather than to conceal it. In a way, too, it was a kindness to do it, and stop the silly little thing from getting absurd ideas into her head. That, at least, was how it began. She did not bother about it very much — Suzy had a light touch as a rule. And she was very well content with life. Bonne-Mama was extraordinarily well, and the birthday was now such a little way off, surely she would remain well for those few more weeks.
The little governess was quiet enough; she seemed to have taken the hint, and subsided. And she herself was seeing a very satisfying amount of Roffredo. He always accepted her little notes of invitation, and was constantly at Vill’ Alta.
But presently a gradual change began to come over the gay contentment of her feelings. Once or twice, when Roffredo had been over to Vill’ Alta for tennis, and had stayed on to dinner, they went for a stroll afterwards along the stonepine ridge. Slightly to her surprise, he insisted on taking her down into the shelter of the privet bushes before kissing her. She put this down to the fervor of his feelings, and was not displeased: in fact, he was merely afraid of being seen by Almina. But her seductiveness exercised its usual power, and he did kiss her, with energy and passion. She was strangely moved by this; she actually trembled in his arms, and asked herself, almost incredulously, if she were really falling in love again at last.
Her cousin Elena’s recent observations on Marietta contained a good deal of truth. It was the fact that such of her attention as was given to human beings at all was chiefly concentrated on one or two people, who were really important to her-for the rest, though amiable and affectionate, she slipped about between human relationships like a little fish, skimming easily and gracefully, but making no close or lasting contact. Her relation to her mother, for instance, was rather peculiar-Elena had made by no means a bad shot at it. Her mother stood in the child’s mind like a sort of statue, dressed, as images in Continental churches are sometimes dressed, in all sorts of rich trappings of perfection — her beauty, her social skill, her gayely, her kindness, her warm laughter. But she was, to her own daughter, ultimately an abstraction; they never reached one another; there was between them no real intimacy such as existed, holding fast across their vast disparity of ages, between Marietta and La Vecchia Marchesa. The two people who really occupied the child’s attention at present were her cousin Giulio and Miss Prestwich.
Marietta had become surprisingly devoted to her governess. Almina’s real love of knowledge for its own sake, her scholarly attitude to the glory and value of pure learning (acquired at Oxford, where, thirty years ago, women students had an attitude of discipleship which would be unrecognizable and incredible to-day), answered an untutored but profound instinct of Marietta’s nature. That had been the first link. Then Miss Prestwich’s youth, and the honest simplicity which Elena found so amusing, were curiously appealing and endearing to the young girl. Not yet fully or adequately interested in people as such, when her scanty attention was directed to them she found most grownups baffling and puzzling; but this simplicity offered no puzzles — it was comfortable and restful.
And her instinct—that doglike instinct by which the attachments of a child are formed — recognized and saluted the real goodness and integrity of the English girl’s character; her immature mind, struggling confusedly to shape the values that were to make its world, — which is the supreme task of adolescence,—was supported by Miss Prestwich’s small disciplines and her rigid sense of right and wrong, even when they seemed to her, as to her cousin, so unwonted as to be slightly comic. The bright hot weeks of that summer in the province were an extraordinarily happy time for Marietta: her intelligence, nourished by the fresh knowledge and ideas which Miss Prestwich provided, grew, expanded, flowered; her feelings grew too, stimulated by the constant companionship of the two people she cared most for in the world; fresh possibilities of intercourse, new points of contact with other minds, opened before her eager eyes. Her world began to take shape — and a safe and happy shape.
But during the last week or so she had become aware of some vague element of disturbance in this happy atmosphere — like the sudden harsh cry, on a day still hot and cloudless, of a peacock, presaging rain. With both Giulio and her dear Postiche, she felt that there were things going on which she could not quite fathom.
Her feeling for Giulio was turning imperceptibly into something rather more mature — more watchful, less blindly adoring. She had at first rejoiced in the pleasure he took in Miss Prestwich’s instruction, and indeed in her presence; it had seemed a pupilship like her own, and a further link between the two of them. But just lately she thought she had seen traces of another feeling. She could not be sure— the very young are curiously reluctant to trust the evidence of their eyes, and still more to trust the promptings of that sixth sense which, by glimmers or flashes of intuition, informs the unobservant and indifferent as to what is going on about them. Such glimmers were troubling Marietta now about Giulio, and about Postiche too. She was half aware of something at work in Miss Prestwich, something more profound than could be accounted for by what was obvious in Roffredo’s manner to her, his laughing evident admiration.
Confirmation of one part of her hesitant suspicions followed quickly on her first forebodings. Finding Giulio one day up in the schoolroom, perched on a low settee under the window, a copybook at his side, reading a book, — to her surprise she saw that it was Dante’s La Vita Nuova, — she seated herself beside him, without comment, and looked over his shoulder. Giulio, also without comment, shoved the book in her direction till it rested on her knee, so that she might read too — much of their intercourse was conducted with this wordless ease. He was reading the sonnet in which Dante describes Beatrice’s complexion.
Conviene a donna aver, non fuor’ misura;
Ella è quanto di ben può far’ natura;
Per esempio di lei, beltà si prova.
Is suited to a gentlewoman — not too high;
She is the most that Nature can do;
Beauty itself is measured by her likeness.)
Marietta read it, and her light breathing quickened with a little pang of foreknowledge.
‘I had thought I would make a translation of it for her— she likes me to do translations,’ Giulio said at length — ‘but it is too difficult, I think.’ He tapped his teeth with a pencil, meditatively. ‘It is like her, is n’t it?’ he said, turning round now to his little cousin. ‘She has just that broken-pearl complexion, with hardly any color — and her air of quality! They say Beatrice was fair, too.‘
‘Yes — I suppose she is like,’ the girl said, a little hesitatingly. ‘Only I think Beatrice was more heavenly-minded.’
‘Why do you say that? Do you think she is earthly-minded?’ Giulio asked, in a disturbed voice.
‘No, no — not that. I don’t really know why I said it. Let me think,’ Marietta said, pressing her small thin fingers over her eyes, a gesture Giulio knew well. ‘Yes, this is it — Postiche is good, and her mind turns towards Heaven, but she has — she has somehow a lot of links with earth; and Beatrice — as Dante makes her out, anyhow — had hardly any links with earth at all, except other people’s eyes, holding her there.’
Giulio considered this. ‘That is good and true, what you say about Beatrice,’ he said at length; ‘ but what do you mean about Miss Prestwich?’ (Giulio would never use the name ‘Postiche.’) ‘I think she is very much turned to Heaven. What are her “links with earth”?’
‘I cannot say exactly. But I feel that it is more than just our eyes holding her there!’ Marietta said, with a sparkle of amusement.
‘If you do not know what you mean, I don’t think you ought to say things like that,’ Giulio said, a little discontentedly. ‘I think she is more turned to Heaven than anyone I know. She is so good, and pure, and gentle, and loyal — oh, Marietta, you and I have never known anyone like her, and we never shall again!‘ the young man said, turning dark impassioned eyes on the child.
Marietta sat gazing back at him; in her crumpled white dress, with her long black legs and black plaits, she was a very childish figure, but her face at that moment was not childish — Donatello’s St. John the Baptist had given way to the Medusa, her delicate mouth open in a voiceless circle of despair. And her words, when at last she spoke, were not childish either. ’Dear Giulio, do you love her?‘
The young man ran his hands through his hair, got up, and walked about the room, with its mildly educational litter; he touched one or two things, — the time-table on the wall, Miss Prestwich’s black ruler on the table, the flower press on the bookshelf, — and the gestures of his shapely hands as he did so really gave his answer; they so evidently loved what they touched. He came back and stood before his cousin — she had not moved, and sat where he had left her, her eyes all the time fixed steadily on him.
’I don’t know,’he said slowly. ‘Perhaps not. I don’t know much about love. But she has filled my life, since she came, with — well, with a new meaning; and that meaning is beautiful. I could kneel to her—I want to, sometimes, but it would be silly, and it might vex her. She is so sensible!—and she has no idea, I am sure, how good she is.‘
Marietta took a deep breath, like a swimmer before a plunge. ‘That is love,’ she said, with great finality. ‘One sort —our sort, yours and mine.’
‘ You, have no sort yet!’ he said, smiling—he put out his hand and fondled the dark head. ‘Little Marietta!’
The young girl, quite gently, moved her head aside.
‘It will be my sort, then, when I have a sort,’ she said, getting up.
‘What is the other sort?’ he asked, rather dreamily.
‘Elena’s!’ she answered with decision. ‘And Roffredo’s, too.’ She stopped abruptly, as if she had meant to say something more.
‘You know a lot! And hers?’ Giulio asked.
’I don’t know which sort hers will be,’the child said.
‘But surely hers will be the same as ours?‘ he asked, almost urgently, eatching her arm.
She twisted it away, brusquely, now.
‘I don’t know—nor does she!’ she said.
‘Marietta! What do you mean?’
‘I don’t know! Not even that! Giulio, do leave me alone,’ she cried passionately, and rail out of the room.
Marietta was speaking the truth then. Her instinct had for once outrun her reason, and in the torment of those moments had spoken aloud. Thinking of it, afterwards, she could still find no real grounds for what she had said. But for her distress she had a definite ground. It was all too clear that Giulio’s whole soul went out in worship to Miss Prestwich, and she — little Marietta! — was told so much because she was too young and childish to matter! She clenched her small brown fists at the thought. To be told, to be his sole confidante, was of course something. And the fact of his love for Almina she accepted, as the very young do, in agony and silence. But she could not even rest, unselfishly, in the thought of a happy future for him. With sharpened eyes, she watched her governess on the next day and the newt; of whatever sort Miss Prestwich’s love might be, it was not given to Giulio! And with her Continental realism, Marietta saw nothing but misery in store for him.
In her pain, she withdrew into herself more than ever. Even with Miss Prestwich and the cousins, she became singularly silent — sometimes apparently lost in thought, so that she did not always answer when spoken to, sometimes still and watchful, her eyes traveling from face to face, saying nothing. Almina, for all her absorption in her own affairs, at once noticed this change in her pupil, and redoubled her normal efforts to interest and amuse her. She even went the length, after a couple of days, of asking if she had anything on her mind — an effort for a person of her reticence and shyness. Marietta raised her eyebrows with a cold stare and said, ‘No — why should I have?’ Then, catching sight of the hurt astonishment in her governess’s face, she darted over to her and flung her arms round her neck. ‘Oh, I love you! But what can I do?’ she cried, bursting into tears, and rushed from the room. Almina let her be, and made a brew of senna pods for her that night — so her mother had always treated her own emotional outbursts. When the senna was all imbibed she kissed her pupil warmly, told her to go to sleep, and went out. She did not know that Marietta lay awake for hours, after that, staring with hot wide eyes at the glimmering oblongs of the windows; heard her own light steps on the gravel below, going and then returning — coming upstairs; heard, much later, the little gate down by the road whine on the stone, and other footfalls crossing the terrace; did not know that the child sat up in bed then, straining her ears for sounds in the house to indicate where those last steps went, but hearing nothing — till at last, exhausted, she fell asleep.
Almina took her early walk next morning. There had been a pressing note from Roffredo the night before, saying that he had news for her, and she fled along the ridge, and dipped down through the larch plantation into the park with quick light breath, flying color, and a bounding heart, wondering what the news might be. Roffredo, having engulfed her in a vast embrace, and told her that she was looking like Aurora (‘Whoever she may be, cara!‘) burst out with the tidings that he had at last worked out the modifications for his invention satisfactorily. He could speak and think of nothing else, and nothing would satisfy him but that Almina should come to the villa and see the triumphant arrangement. Very much against her will, she went with him — in those days, to visit a young man’s rooms unescorted, in any circumstances, even at half-past six in the morning, was a dangerously disreputable thing to do, and Almina knew it. From the workshop, constructed roughly on a foundation of greenhouse in the garden, he led her through a covered passage into his sitting room and showed her the plans, set out on the sloping draftman’s desk. ‘See, here! The cylinders are now set so — this makes the whole difference.’ But her anxious eyes strayed constantly from the blueprints and the incomprehensible drawings dotted with figures to the door, fearing at any moment to see it open and old Alba’s head appear round it. She did, however, take in, with thirsty curiosity, all the features of this room where he lived and worked: the divan in the corner; the printing frame set in the south window; the great untidy writing table; the bookshelves full of technical volumes; the signed photographs of racing motorists on the mantelpiece. The top drawer of the writing table was open — glancing in, among the litter of papers, she saw a revolver. ‘What on earth is that for?’ she asked curiously.
‘ Oh, I carry one when I travel — when I went to San Francisco I was quite glad of it, once or twice!’ he answered, laughing carelessly. He took it out, quickly shutting the drawer, — per carità, where had he left those notes of Suzy’s? — and showed it to her, and the neat mechanism for loading and ejecting; any good piece of mechanical craftsmanship had interest and actual beauty for Roffredo. They lingered long, in spite of her anxiety, for when he had shown her everything he remembered to kiss her again, and both were stirred by his doing so there, in his house, in the enclosed privacy of his room— it was past seven when at last she glanced at the watch in her belt. Nervous, unhappy now, she left; he too looked anxiously all round before they slipped out, hurried through the pastures, and so to the edge of the park. Neither saw — neither could have seen — old Alba, just out of bed, peering through the slats of her closed shutters. But she saw the pretty inglese clearly enough, walking away with the young Count.
On the afternoon of that day, Antonio, Roffredo’s chauffeur-groom-factotum, was dispatched by Alba to Odredo to request from Anna the cook a good boiling of black grapes for jam. Antonio being Anna’s nephew, it was not unnatural that he should confide to his aunt Alba’s confidence to him on the subject of Almina’s morning visit to the villa; and no one familiar with Italian country life will be surprised that Anna, in the course of next morning’s household colloquy with Früulein Gelsicher, should have passed this exciting item on to her.
This piece of information upset Früulein Gelsicher very much. Elena’s account of the morning walks, and her own opinion of the girl’s character, preserved her from worrying over any possible implications of the fact that Miss Prestwich had only been seen to leave the villa, which by direct questioning she elicited from Anna; but, if true, it was quite bad enough as it was. It was madly indiscreet; it was impossible. She must be stopped. Sighing, seated at her toilet table, the Swiss poked dejectedly at her gray hair, through which one of the brown pads peered coyly, and thought when she could see Almina. Not to-day — the whole Vill’ Alta party was going to a tennis tournament at Macerbo, which Elena had refused to attend because she said the play would be too bad. And to-morrow would be difficult too, because it was laundry day; and in addition they wanted, she and Anna, to make a last brew of grape jam before they got involved in the preparations for Count Carlo’s picnic to Meden at the end of the week. However, to-morrow it had better be. The children were going to Vill’ Alta for informal tennis, and she could easily go too, without any fuss or ex planations. And she must think to-night, when she was quiet and less busy, exactly how she could most helpfully talk to that poor child. For Früulein Gelsicher was one of those people who always go behind effects to causes, and seek to help there—it was one of the secrets of her influence. And she realized that this was no casual freak, or piece of outrageous daring naughtiness such as some girls went in for. She knew Almina too well for that. The girl must be head over ears, crazy with love, to have done such a thing. And it was that groundwork, that fundamental fact, which had to be tackled; and to tackle it wisely, knowing all that she knew and Almina did not, she must learn all she could about it, from the girl herself. Tomorrow, then.
But before to-morrow came a fresh perturbation overtook Früulein Gelsicher. Anna was again the source. Late in the afternoon they were weighing out grapes together in the huge vaulted kitchen, to get ready, with the loose sugar over them, to disintegrate in vast copper preserving pans against the next day’s boiling, when Anna, having sent her rough-haired kitchen girls flying on various errands, said, finger on lip: ‘Signorina, it is n’t only the little signorina who goes to the young Conte’s villa. There has been also the Marchesa from over there —she jerked a thumb over her shoulder; ’last night Antonio saw her, going away. Nearly midnight! He brought back the basket just now, and told me. E brutta cosa, questa, sa!‘
This confirmation of Elena’s guesses and suspicions — for it is noteworthy that in the Marchesa’s case she had no doubts either as to the accuracy of Antonio’s statement or as to any of its implications — made the whole thing much more difficult for Fräulein Gelsicher.
Miss Prestwich and her indiscretion must of course be dealt with, but it was not much good dealing with her alone — she matter must really be treated as a whole. Like Miss Prestwich, Früulein Gelsicher had noticed Marietta’s curious listlessness and abstraction, these last few days, and it shot across her mind now, with a spasm of real fear, that some inkling as to her mother’s behavior might be the reason for this change in the child’s manner. And that that should go any further, should become a real revelation, was to her strong benevolent goodness simply unbearable. It must be prevented. But to deal with the thing as a whole was, she felt, beyond her powers. This, hundredth birthday or no hundredth birthday, was a matter for La Vecchia Marchesa. Before taking any other step, she would see her. To-morrow.
The conversation between those two women was, in its way, something of a masterpiece. La Signorina had let it be known (by means of Luigi and his bicycle) that she was accompanying the young people to Vill Alta, and that her visit was primarily a call on La Vecchia Marchesa. This announcement was perfectly normal, since the old lady did not receive an unlimited number of guests, and permission had, so to speak, to be obtained; but while creating no suspicions, it was quite enough to make the shrewd old woman glance sharply at the Swiss when they were seated together in her sitting room upstairs, where the sun blinds, lowered against the glare, made the light dim and yellow.
‘The children are well? And Carlo?’ she asked.
‘Very well. But, Marchesa, I am not perfectly at ease about Marietta,’Fräulein Gelsicher said. She had decided that this was both the easiest and probably the most efficacious line of approach.
‘No? What do you find amiss?’ the old lady asked.
‘She is pale, and absent-minded, and unusually silent, even for her,’the Swiss answered. ‘For some reason, I think that she is unhappy.’
‘And have you any idea what the reason may be?‘ the old Marchesa inquired.
‘I know, unfortunately, of something which might be the reason, though I cannot say if it is or not,’ Früulein Gelsicher said, gravely. ‘It is a disagreeable matter, Marchesa, and I make my apologies for the necessity of mentioning it. I do so most unwillingly, but I feel that you alone are capable of dealing with it.’ She sighed, and straightened her hat.
‘Speak out, my good signorina,‘ the old lady said, rather sharply — suspense always made her impatient. ‘We know one another, after all.‘
‘Had it struck you that Count Roffredo was on rather — affectionate terms with the young Marchesa ?‘ Fräulein Gelsicher asked — for all the old lady’s encouragement, she found it hard to say what she had come to say.
‘Everyone flirts with Suzy,’said La Vecchia brusquely. ’Of course he does too— naturally I have seen this. What else? ’
‘If it is a flirtation, it is being carried beyond the bounds of discretion,’ the governess said, firmly. ‘The night before last she was at the villa till nearly midnight. The servants are talking. That in itself is not so much, but Elena has noticed it too. And it is possible that Marietta, also, sees something, and if so it might be this which is distressing to her.‘
The old Marchesa took these matters with admirable calm. The fact was that she had seen a good deal more than she was prepared to admit to the governess — she had noticed Marietta’s pallor and silences, the last few days, and she had observed in her daughter-in-law many minute signs which betrayed, to her experience, something like infatuation. She too had heard the little gate at the foot of the steps whine late at night, and more than once. She feared that Suzy was getting reckless. Women did, at her age — and particularly about younger men! Actually this ventilation of the subject with the good Gelsicher was a relief to her.
’Marchesa, there is another difficulty,’ Fräulein Gelsicher said. ‘I must say that I have seen nothing in Miss Prestwich’s behavior but the most perfect discretion and propriety, and I do not wish to prejudice her position in any way, for I have a great respect for her, but—’
‘Well, what now?‘ La Vecchia interrupted sharply. ‘Is that little creature also conducting a flirtation with Giulio?‘
’No. But Elena thinks that Count Roffredo is in love with her,‘ the Swiss said.
La Vecchia Marchesa’s expression at this announcement of Fräulein Gelsicher’s was the visible counterpart of the whistle of astonishment. Then — Fräulein Gelsicher was nearly as astonished as if she had whistled — she gave her little thin ringing laugh, and went on laughing for some moments. But her face grew sober again, and her minute right hand took a resolved grasp of the ivory knob of her stick.
‘Dunque!‘ she said. ‘Signorina, this is folly! It is all folly. My daughter-in-law is foolish, and Roffredo — if you are right-is foolish, and that little Posticho, as poor Carlo calls her, is no doubt foolish too. Girls always are! But’ — her voice grew stern — ‘we cannot have that child upset through their folly. This must stop. It must all stop. I shall speak to Suzy—and to Roffredo too. That is the major matter; the other thing would hardly upset the child so much.’
‘And Miss Prestwich?’ Fräulein Gelsicher asked.
The old lady looked keenly at her. ‘You say you have seen nothing indiscreet?’ she asked.
‘Nothing,’ the Swiss answered stoutly. ‘Quite the reverse.’
‘So — that is also my impression. Well, if she behaves, probably she can stay. It is not always a girl’s fault if men fall in love with her,’ observed the old Marehesa, ironically. ’I shall warn Roffredo to leave her alone. Though, mind you, a more idiotic arrangement than to have such a creature as governess! And both houses full of young men. But you should speak to her —a light word! She is well brought up; probably she realizes that nothing of the sort can be countenanced.
‘As for Marietta,’the old lady went on, after a pause, — and on the name her voice lost its businesslike brusqueness and became almost wistful, — ‘all we can do, I think, is to watch, and see. If you are right, and if there is no further cause for her—’ she checked, for once, to find a word — ‘ malaise,’ she finally pronounced, ‘she may forget it all. Have you her confidence?‘
‘No. Miss Prestwich has.’
‘Ecco! There you are!’ said the old lady almost angrily. ‘Impossible! In any case,’ she continued, after a moment’s thought, ‘it would be cruel to send Prestwich away now; t he child loves her.’ Again there was that softening of the old voice. ’No — you do your part, signorina, and for the rest, I will deal with it. Will you ring the bell?’
But when Giacinta had summoned Roffredo, and he had escorted Fräulein Gelsicher downstairs, the old lady sat for a long time in the golden-shadowed room, thinking. What an imbroglio! Three quarters of a century of ironic observation of human follies had made her very much awake to the element of comedy in such a situation. At the same time she was sorry for Suzy. She was fond of her, and she knew that these things go hard with women at her age. And Roffredo — she knew it well — was very attractive; the old woman’s experience recognized at once in him a dominant sexual quality, over and above his physical splendor. One could not wonder at Suzy. But — the old face hardened — she had got to behave, now. Suzy had had her day — and a long and agreeable day, too; now it was the child’s turn. ‘ I won’t have her sacrificed,’ the imperious old creature said to herself. ‘My darling, my treasure!’ No — at any cost she must he saved from such a moral shock. She sat on there, quietly resolved; she would tackle Suzy, finally and completely. There was no great hurry. After nearly a hundred years of life, time does not seem so short, nothing is so pressing. She would take a quiet moment, when she herself fell strong; she was a little troubled with her breath, just now. To-morrow Suzy had some party, and the day after there was Carlo’s picnic to Meden — but after that, sometime. Now she was going to rest a little. No suspicion that events might move too fast for her and her arbitrary decisions troubled her mind. The old eyes slowly closed.
The Odredo picnic to Meden was an annual event, much looked forward to in the province, where picnics played a large part in the life of the community; it was one of the most romantic and exciting of these excursions, because it was so far away, and the scenery, in among the steep foothills of the eastern range, was beautiful and thrilling after the plain. But the expedition was a considerable undertaking; the distance and the rough mountain roads made it unsuitable for a good many of the local conveyances, so there was always a general rendezvous at Pisignacco, where a reshuffle of passengers took place; a rough brake, generally used for the conveyance of goods, was sent down from Meden to meet the party and take some of them on. So at this moment the Sorellone’s pony carriage was being trotted homewards by a small boy and the Casertas’ heavy, tumbril-like barouche was majestically leaving the square, to return and fetch their owners in the evening; Roffredo’s car was being shoved into the inn yard among an enthralled crowd of onlookers. The square was full of carriages bright with parasols, glossy horses, and shining harness; baskets were being carried about, greetings exchanged, and people hustled into vehicles with loud cries, only to be hauled out of them again and made to sit somewhere else. Suzy ejected Almina and Marietta, who were to crowd into the Meden brake with tbe other young people; she collected Dino and Carlotta di Caserta for herself, and added Countess Aspasia di Castellone, with a few low lazy words.
Roffredo contrived to sit beside Almina in the brake; this meant knees touching under the striped linen rug, and once or twice he managed to touch Almina’s hand too, stroking the palm with his fingertips, while he joked, with a perfectly blank face, with Giulio opposite. Almina had not so much control—the soft urgent movement of his fingers in the curve of her palm sent little shivers running all through her body; she was afraid of her too ready changes of color, and turned her head over her shoulder to lookout behind her. At last she put both her hands outside the carriage rug; this brought her a reproachful pinch on her knee, but she paid no attention. When they got out, Roffredo contrived to murmur in her ear, ‘Cara, I must do my duty now, but after lunch, will you walk with me?’ She nodded. ‘If it’s possible.’
At this picnic, Suzy had no responsibilities— it was Fräulein Gelsicher’s task to see that lunch was correctly set out on the terrace before the sub-bailiff’s house; she was free to wander round the village with Roffredo, stared at with astonishment by the dark-faced, roundheaded inhabitants, who curtsied with guttural greetings, and to go and look at. the waterfall. The Count was busy fussing about the wine — they were to drink white Meden wine, from the best slopes, at luncheon, and after were formally to inspect the site for his new experimental vineyards, to be planted in the French manner; this, for him, was the raison d’être of the picnic. Walking with Roffredo now, enjoying her temporary freedom, Suzy thought of Carlo. Poor Carlo! — with his vines and hopes and experiments, his futile gallantry. Under the compulsion of her feeling for Roffredo, she had latterly modified her relation with Carlo, on various excuses, and his slightly fatigued acceptance of her denials had shown her, at last, her liaison with him for the poor thing that it was. Looking covertly at the young man beside her, with his youth and vigor, his abrupt hawklike swoops of mirthful comment, his grace and his laughter, she sighed with happiness, thinking how wonderful if was to have this splendor for her own, to hold his devotion. But — her thoughts turned back to Carlo — she could not, would not, withdraw her friendship and interest so abruptly; these were what he really needed from her, and he should keep them. She even took a new subtle pleasure in being what Carlo wanted, as perfectly as possible, for Roffredo’s sake — and when the time came, after lunch, to make the tour of the vineyards, she put up her parasol, and with a gallant gayety walked about on the hot rough earth of the terraces in her thin small shoes, asking questions, showing interest, being what was wanted, with exquisite and easy skill.
But after a time she became aware that Roffredo was no longer there to mark the perfection of her performance. Suzy’s interest began to flag then — she noticed how hot and sore her feet were, and how rough and nubbly the ground; but she held up heroically till the grateful moment when Frälein Gelsicher suggested quietly that they had seen enough — all the proposed new part — and that the gentlemen might go on alone if they wished to examine the high slopes further on. So they retired to the little meadow by the stream, fringed with wild raspberries, where coffee was to be drunk, and sat on rugs in the shade.
Fräulein Gelsicher had her own reasons for this adjournment. She had counted on a chance at this picnic of speaking to Miss Presiwich. But as Almina had sought in vain for an opportunity to speak to Gela at Castel Vecchio, and failed to get it till too late, so now the Swiss sought vainly for her colleague. Even when the party gradually reassembled, tired, hot, and ready for lemonade or coffee, there was no sign of Miss Prestwich, and it was presently observerd that both Giulio and Count Roffredo were missing too. And suddenly—it might have been due to Fräulein Gelsicher’s obvious fussing — Suzy’s suspicions flared up again. Though tired, she had been so happy and serene, waiting there by the musically flowing water, thinking of the drive back and the evening at Vill’ Alta, remembering the pleasure of the morning stroll — now it was all turned again to poison and pain. With unusual energy, she declared gayly that they must be found, those three wanderers — let there be a search! And, no great enthusiasm showing itself, she set an example by rising herself and starting off, — it was cooler now, and pleasant to walk! — escorted by the Count.
‘Misfortune on her!‘ Elena muttered to her governess. ‘Now she may find them!’ And she herself set off too, in the direction where she had last seen Roffredo and Almina, seeking a hilltop whence they would get a view.
But it was Suzy and not Elena who at last found them. Was it blind chance, or some sharpened subconscious faculty which led her to take that high path near the waterfall? Anyhow, there, where the roar of the falling water drowned footsteps and voices alike, walking a little ahead of the Count, she came on them. They were sitting in a hollow far below the path, leaning against a rock — at least Roffredo so leaned; the girl half lay with her head on his shoulder, her face upturned to his, utterly surrendered, while with his free hand he played with her hair, arranging a yellow chestnut leaf in its paler gold, trying it this way and that. The tender absorption of his gestures, the utter rapture of her upturned face, told a tale of mutual passion so clear that it could not be mistaken.
At the sight Suzy stopped dead. She reached out and touched the nearest tree, as if to support herself— her other hand hung limp and inert. She felt cold and slightly sick. She opened her mouth, but no sound came out of it. Count Carlo, coming up behind her, said, ‘Cosa è, cara?’ — and she realized that he had seen nothing. Suddenly she knew that he must not — that no one must see this sight which was her private humiliation. She turned and faced him, manœuvring him back along the path. ‘It is no good going on,’ she said; ‘the path stops at the waterfall. Let us go back — and she pushed him gently ahead of her. She must do this now, what was necessary; try not to think, to feel, till later. ‘ Let us go down,’she said, when they had retraced their steps some distance. They took a downhill path, and when they reached the bottom, safely out of sight of the hollow, she stopped again.
‘Call, Carlo,’she said. ‘They may be somewhere about. Forte! Because of the torrent.‘
The Count shouted — and there was a faint answering cry above the distant roar of the waterfall.
’Bene! That was Roffredo. I wonder where he was, that we did not see him,’he babbled cheerfully — then, as she did not answer, he looked at her. ‘Cara, you look pale,’he said with concern. ’Are you well?‘
‘ I am tired,’she said; ‘it was so hot in the vineyard. Come — let us go back; they will follow.’
They did turn up, eventually, where the rest sat drinking coffee by the stream, but separately — Miss Prestwich first, carrying a bunch of wild flowers, Count Roffredo a few minutes later. Giulio had already reappeared; so had Elena. That young lady noted the separate arrivals and the wild flowers with amused approval — ‘Postiche is coming on!‘ was her inward comment. Früulein Gelsicher was not quite sure what to make of it. But Suzy eyed the flowers in the English girl’s hand with real hatred. Artful little creature! She used every ruse to protect herself and cover her duplicity. And when the girl civilly offered to take away her cup, she refused, saying that she had not finished, though the cup was manifestly empty. The icy tone and obvious rebuff were observed by Elena with a faint lift of the brows — ‘Dio mio, did she see something, I wonder? she thought to herself. ‘Then there will be broken plates! But she was unable to keep her entertained but watchful eye on her aunt much longer — the carriages were ready, and everyone was marshaled into them.
But on the return of the brake to Pisignacco it was at once evident that something had gone wrong. The occupants of the carriages which had already arrived were standing about, looking slightly disconcerted and irritated, as people do when a contretemps occurs at the end of a day’s pleasuring. The Caserta tumbril and Countess Livia’s victoria from Castellone had both failed to arrive, it appeared, and there were now not nearly enough carriages to take the party home to their various destinations.
This muddle gave Suzy her chance. She had resolved during the drive that she must deal with Roffredo at once. Even now she could hardly credit the fact of his defection — she clung to the belief that it was a mere fancy, and that if she applied her full powers she could yet win him back to her; but her stormy resentment and her terrible anxiety alike could bear no delay. It was all quite easy, she said — if Count Carlo would give the Casertas and the Marchese Francesco a lift, sending the former on to Macerbo, the Vill’ Alta carriage could take back the Castellone party. ‘The children can perfectly well wait here a little, if Fräulein Gelsicher will stay with them, till we send something back to pick them up — and Roffredo will give me a lift, will you not?‘
He would, of course — and so it was settled. The carriages rattled away out of the square, and Fräulein Gelsicher, Elena, Giulio, Marietta, and Almina were left to wait, and to amuse themselves as best they could. Elena and Fräulein Gelsicher settled down on the church steps, on cushions which Elena resourcefully borrowed from the sacristan. But Giulio was in a mood of exaltation— he insisted with unwonted firmness on taking Miss Prestwich down to the bridge to look at the church from there. And having once detached her from the others, he was in no mood to part from her again. He talked continuously, as Almina had never heard him talk before, on the meaning of life and the significance of beauty — moral and intellectual beauty as well as the beauty of things seen; some barrier was broken down in him, and his heart poured out. He never spoke of his immediate feeling for her, but, unaware still of that, she realized that his soul was being spread before her, and it moved her. Half drugged with love, — for Roffredo had been more articulate than ever before, that afternoon in the hollow among the chestnut trees, — she was yet reached in her dream by this spiritual emotion, and answered with vital comprehension.
To and fro, up and down, they went, on the white dust in the shadowed streets, under the strengthening shining of the stars — and now and again, oblivious of onlookers, they crossed the square. Marietta had not joined the others on the church steps — seated alone in the shadow of a pillar, under the loggia of the town hall, she watched them pass and repass; she could barely see their faces, but something about their rapt unobservant movement, like that of a sleepwalker, told her quick intuition what was taking place. She watched, and when they were out of sight still brooded on them, in agony and exaltation. ’Oh, for once he has what he wants,’she murmured to herself, as they moved out of sight up a side street.
Elena watched them too. She was amused and a little surprised, but her interest was wholly concentrated on the Suzy-Roffredo aspects of Miss Prestwich’s affairs, and Giulio’s feelings had entirely escaped her observation. Sitting on the steps of the church munching Biscottini Delser, those nasty little oversweet marzipanish affairs of Austrian importation which were the nearest approach to a biscuit then obtainable in the province, ‘Gela,’ she began,‘did you notice how unpleasant Zia Suzy was to her at tea? Do you suppose she saw something? Because, if so, there is going to be troubled.‘
’I cannot tell,’ the governess replied wearily; ‘but if there was anything to see, it was most unwise.’
‘Poor Gela! You are tired. Pazienza! The carriage will be here in no time.’ Then she was off again. ‘Anyhow, I think she is unwise, to seek a tête-à-tête with Roffredo at this moment! She was angry, and Roffredo has a temper too. It would not be a good occasion to lui faire la scene.‘ She chuckled a little. ‘I wonder how they are getting ond
She chattered on, but Fräulein Gelsicher paid little attention. It was true that she was very weary, and her feet hurt terribly, after all that walking about in the heat; she was discouraged by her failure to get in her talk with Miss Prestwich, and more alarmed than she cared to admit at the possible repercussions of this first open indiscretion on the girl’s part. She must see her tomorrow. whatever happened. Meanwhile she was really too tired to think about it any more to-night. Oh, her feet! She sat dejectedly in the starlight, and thought about her corns.
(To be continued)