Enchanter's Nightshade

CONCLUDING INSTALLMENT CHAPTERS 24-29

If You Missed the Earlier Chapters. . .

WHEN Suzy di Vill’ Alta, in a fit of jealous rage, dismissed Almina Prestwich, her daughter Marietta’s English governess, she precipitated a series of catastrophes which were to involve nearly all the members of the great Castellone-Vill Alta clan.

Having been given her congé without more than a few hours’ notice, — barely enough to enable her to pack, — and, furthermore, without being paid either her salary or her fare back to England, Almina not unnaturally turned for aid to Roffredo di Castellone, that hot-blooded young man who had, by his passion for her, unwittingly inspired Suzy’s fury. He in turn, faced with losing her, prolonged their parting until she had missed her train and was forced to spend the night in his house. But Roffredo’s passion for his work was as great as his appetite for love, and when, early the following morning, he received a telegram announcing that his most recent invention had been accepted, he rushed off to Milan before Almina was awake. From the servants (in 1905 and in provincial Italy, at least, all really important news was disseminated from that source) the information that Almina had been compromised promptly reached the three family estates of Vill’ Alta, Castellone, and Odredo.

The Countess Aspasia di Castellone, a spinster cousin and an inveterate gossip, was the first to hear it, and together with her sister, Countess Roma, drove posthaste to Roffredo’s villa to investigate. The upshot of this investigation by the ‘Sorellone’ — as the sisters had been dubbed by their younger and less respectful kin — was to convey Almina to Castellone to await further developments, much to the displeasure of the Countess Livia, Roffredo’s widowed mother, whose apartments were also in that great house.

At Vill’ Alta, meanwhile, La Vecchia Marchesa — Suzy’s ninety-nine-year-old mother-in-law — was deeply distressed by the whole matter and was setting her splendid old wits to remedy the situation. The Marchese Francesco, Suzy’s elderly and ineffectual husband, likewise regretted his wife’s — to him — unwarranted dismissal of the girl, and for once expressed his feelings not without emphasis.

But it was at Odredo, Count Carlo di Castellone’s property, that the betrayal of the little ‘Postiche’ — as Count Carlo had nicknamed Miss Prestwich — created real unhappiness: for Giulio, the twentytwo-year-old son of the house, had himself fallen in love with her, and to his idealistic nature his cousin Roffredo’s action came as a stunning blow. It was, however, fifteen-year-old Marietta di Vill’ Alta — she was at the time staying at Odredo — who was most deeply affected, for she loved both Almina and Giulio. Elena, the latter’s high-spirited and mischievous sister, was torn between pity for Almina and anger against Suzy, while ‘Gela’ — Fräulein Gelsicher, that sensible Swiss who had come into the Count’s household twelve years before as governess to the children and, since his wife’s death, had become a sort of general factotum there — lamented that anyone so pretty and so inexperienced should ever have been engaged at all. The Count, being Suzy’s discarded lover, took the matter relatively calmly.

Suzy herself was concerned only for the successful outcome of her flirtation with Roffredo, forgetting everything else when, a few days after her dismissal of Almina, she received an affectionate note in his handwriting proposing an assignation the following evening. . . .

ENCHANTER’S NIGHTSHADE

BY ANN BRIDGE

XXIV

SUZY DI VILL’ ALTA too had watched the darkening sky with anxious eyes that afternoon. Rain would wreck the rendezvous, to which she attached a passionate importance — mackintoshes and thick shoes were such desperately unromantic and unbecoming things, and one could not sit on cushions in a ruin in any comfort during a thunderstorm. But there was no sign of rain when she set out about a quarter past eight; it was cloudy still, but very warm, and she was able to go, as she had hoped, in the filmy dress of black Spanish lace, very transparent and graceful, with wide floating sleeves, trailing skirts, and loose flowing draperies everywhere; the frail black made her fairness both fragile and wonderful.

She threw a flimsy black chiffon wrap over all this, and went, eager as a girl, down the long flight of steps to the carriage; she generally used Agostino, the young groom, for night work, and did so on this occasion. Leaning back in the corner, as they bowled smoothly along the white road, pale now in the failing light, she closed her eyes, rehearsing in her mind, for the ninth or tenth time that day, the precise tone and shade which her manner to Roffredo was to bear when they met — ah, but, she sighed to herself, finding small tremors running all over her, she must keep herself well in hand; it was dangerous, it put one terribly at the other’s mercy to be so much involved, so moved. She lit a cigarette to steady herself.

At the spinney she got out, and dismissed Agostino; he turned his horses precisely where old Tommaso, earlier in the afternoon, had turned when he brought the Marchese Francesco and the two girls in the brougham. When the carriage had disappeared round a bend of the road, Suzy began to make her way into the wood.

It was very dark in there. Dusk was already fallen, and the overcast sky made the gloom deeper still, even out on the road; in the thick shadow of the trees and bushes it was almost pitchdark. Suzy had a rough idea of where the little ruin was, but it was years since she had been to it. She pushed on.

But what was this? A spray of leaves touched her arm, cold and damp — she drew her arm away, but the spray stuck to it. Startled and disgusted, she put out her left hand to free her right, and touched another bough, which also stuck; stepping sideways to avoid the revolting contact with this invisible nastiness, she found that the whole of the left side of her dress was caught — when she moved she seemed to be pulling half the wood after her.

At that she screamed — not very loud. ‘Roffredo!’ she called — disagreeable as it was to be found in this state, she must get him to help her. Not a sound came but the note of a sleepy bird, which, startled by her cries, went whooping away through the wood. It was n’t possible, — an icy pang of fear and anger went through her at the thought, — it was n’t possible that he had failed to come? And in panic at the idea she called again, her voice strained now with anxiety — ‘Roffredo! Here, quick! It is not a joke! Help! It is I — Suzy.’ This time not even a bird answered; the high notes of her voice were followed by absolute silence.

It was probably the realization that he had really not come, that something had gone fatally wrong with the meeting, which precipitated Suzy’s collapse. With the curious incredulity which always accompanies a disappointment as bitter as that, she felt that she must reach the ruin and see for herself whether he was there or not, so she started wildly forward again. She was actually quite close to the ruin, though in the dark she could not see it, and just on the edge of the gummy area; if she had gone back to the road then she would have escaped with a ruined dress. But she went on, and soon she was hopelessly involved. The loathsome stuff was everywhere. In the darkness this suddenly became a horror that could not be borne — she lost her head completely, and began to run this way and that, screaming, calling for Roffredo, and struggling frantically among the sticky bushes. Having forgotten the very existence of the well, she came on it without warning in the darkness, and pitched in headforemost.

The so-called well was not of any great depth, but there was enough water in it to soak Suzy from head to foot. The shock of the cold plunge brought her to her senses to some extent; when she had struggled to her feet, and stood holding on by the bank, dripping and shivering, for the first time she attempted to think what to do next. She could now see the little ruin close in front of her; she thought she remembered that it was quite near the edge of the wood on that side, and that if she went straight out past it she would come on to the smugglers’ path. After some unsuccessful efforts she managed to struggle out on to the bank. She made her way to the ruin, and felt round it with her hands — it was too dark to sec, but there was no sign of rugs or cushions. With a little choking sob she left the place, and pushed out through the bushes behind it. The slimy stuff was here too, but on her wet dress and hands it no longer stuck. Now she was clear of the wood, and here was the smugglers’ path; she turned right along it, and soon reached the road.

Here she paused, and again considered what to do. From where she stood to Vill’ Alta was nearly five miles, a longer walk than she had attempted for years, even when stoutly shod and prepared for exercise. But she had told Agostino not to come back, as Roffredo had suggested, so that now she was left without any means of return except on foot, unless she applied to Roffredo for a lift — the villa was only a few hundred yards away. But that she could not do. Turn to him now, after he had treated her like this, she thought, with an angry sob — no, never! So she began to walk along the road in the direction of Vill’ Alta — hobbling, rather, in the clinging constriction of her wet clothes, her high-heeled shoes turning over now and then in the rutted dust.

The road seemed endless. The severity of her experience in the wood had left her almost exhausted, the plunge into the pool had made her cold; her teeth began to chatter, and though she tried to hurry, in fact she walked very slowly indeed. Once or twice she stopped to rest for a few minutes, leaning against a roadside tree. After what seemed to her an immense time she reached a crossroads; she realized with a shock that she was only at the diligence stop — there were still nearly four miles between her and home. She began to wonder if she could do it — besides feeling cold, she now felt ill. But there was nothing for it but to persevere, and she struggled on.

They came on her about a mile from Vill’ Alta. Agnese, who had her head out of the carriage window, saw her first, before the carriage lights reached her — the white arms against the shadowy black figure, on the pale road. She was staggering along with the uncertain steps of complete exhaustion; when she saw the lights coming she made a feeble effort to leave the road, but the ditch was too much for her — she fell, and lay where she fell. As the carriage drew up Agnese sprang out, lantern in hand, and ran to her; when she reached her side, she almost recoiled, so shocked was she at what the lantern light revealed. The Marchesa’s face was ghastly: white, scratched, and dirty, and ravaged with those peculiar deep marks which are left by fatigue, exposure, or a violent emotional experience — she looked twenty years older than when she had left the house a few hours before. To the maid’s horror even the thin wrap had vanished, and much of the frail dress itself was torn away, leaving the neck and arms quite bare; what was left of it was damp and clammy, as was the pitiful hair, which hung down loose and wet, with no pads, or puffs, or curls left anywhere.

All this was alarming enough, but when Agnese tried to get her mistress into the carriage her state alarmed the servant still more; she was icy cold to the touch, and shivering violently — when Agnese tried to raise her to her feet she collapsed again, moaning, and asking to be left alone; she seemed to have no strength or wits left. Agnese shrouded her in a cloak, but had to get Tommaso to leave his horses and help her; between them they managed to bundle her into the carriage. There Agnese muffled the chilled woman still further with the rug, and sat chafing her icy hands while Tommaso drove on almost at a gallop.

Anxious to avoid any noise or commotion which might disturb the old lady, Agnese decided to go to the back door, in the cortile sporco, and perhaps for the first time in her life Suzy di Vill’ Alta came into her own house by the servants’ entrance. Valentino was hanging about; he also had at last come to feel a certain anxiety, as two o’clock came and passed.

‘Help me to get her upstairs, and then get some brandy, quick,’ Agnese hissed. ‘These stairs — it is quicker.’ Supporting her on both sides, they took her up the back stairs to her room, and put her on the couch. ‘Now the brandy — and Apollonia must fill some hot bottles,’ Agnese said, going with him to the door to be out of earshot.

‘She is ill?’ Valentino asked.

’I fear it—don’t undress, you, and tell Tommaso to stay up a bit. We may have to send for the doctor.’

‘What has happened?’ Valentino asked.

‘How should I know? But she is wet as a drowned cat, and chilled to the bone! Be quick with that brandy,’ the maid snapped, fairly pushing him out of the door — she closed it, however, very gently after him.

When Valentino came with the brandy she demanded mustard, and while he fetched that she gave the Marchesa a good tot of the spirit, mixed with hot water. She put the mustard in a foot bath, and the stone hot bottles, presently produced by Apollonia, in the bed; she kept the cook to help her, and between them they sponged the Marchesa’s face and hands, and did their best to dry her hair, one or other of them continually plying her with the hot brandy the while. To their astonishment they could not get her face and hands clean, even with soap and water — some darkish sticky substance was all over them, and gummed her damp hair into matted masses here and there. The cook, puzzled, bent and sniffed at the wet head. ‘Santa Vergine, it’s birdlime!’ she whispered. Agnese sniffed too. ‘It’s true!’she said. ‘In the name of all the Saints, what can have happened?’

At last she and Apollonia had done all they could — the Marchesa lay in bed, wrapped in her dressing gown, with the bottles pushed to a suitable distance; her hands and feet were much warmer, and her partly dried hair wrapped in a towel; she seemed sleepy and quiet. Agnese sent a message by Apollonia to say that Valentino and Tommaso need not sit up; she would do so herself, and there was in her opinion no need to send for the doctor — she thought the Marchesa would do, now.

But in the morning it was quite clear that the Marchesa Suzy would not ‘do.’ One glance told Agnese that, when she slipped in at about 8 A.M. to look at her mistress. She was still more or less asleep, but she was shifting restlessly in the bed, and breathing heavily; her face was flushed, and a hand which she flung out above the bedclothes was burning hot when the maid touched it. She called an underling, sent her for the Marchese Francesco, and told him brusquely that the Marchesa was ill. The doctor must be fetched.

The Marchese Francesco was rather fussed, as he always was by any sudden emergency calling for decisive action. He stood fiddling with the tassels of his dressing gown, and then asked what was wrong with the Marchesa.

‘She went for a drive yesterday evening, without a proper wrap, and took a chill,’ the maid returned, blandly.

The Marchese bent and peered at his wife through his spectacles, and then addressed her — ‘Cara, come stai?’

The Marchesa opened her large eyes and stared full at him; then her face took on a look of horror, and she said in a small voice, but with an extraordinary intensity of expression which gave it the piercing quality of a cry — ‘Roffredo! Help! It is not a joke! Come!’

Those brief sentences, obviously spoken in delirium, sent the Marchese Francesco flying. Agostino was dispatched to Gardone for the doctor. And, when breakfast had been taken to La Vecchia Marchesa, Francesco sent to beg an audience of her.

Not even to his mother had Francesco ever spoken his heart about his wife; the old lady had often wondered how far his placidity about her vagaries was due to indifference, how far to sheer obliviousness of them, and how far to a sort of resigned tact. But there could be no mistake about his distress and concern at that moment. Suzy was one of those fortunate women who are never ill, and the old Marchesa had to go back to the hours of her confinement, before Marietta’s birth, to find a parallel for Francesco’s present misery of anxiety. It seemed to her to be of exactly the same quality now as then, eighteen months after his marriage, and with a flash of surprise it occurred to her that perhaps after all Francesco, in some deep corner of his shy and incompetent heart, still loved the beautiful creature who, through all her adventures, had never shown him anything but graceful affection and courteous consideration. It might be, she thought, studying her son’s disturbed face as he sat by her bed, his eyes, behind those masking lenses, fixed on her face in a pathetic appeal for reassurance and support — it might be that he loved Suzy still, and needed and longed for something more than she gave him, even though what she had given had been enough to keep love alive. With unwonted warmth she comforted him, praised the Gardone doctor’s skill and Suzy’s superb constitution, and promised to see her as soon as she was dressed.

The doctor arrived soon after eleven, and took a serious view. It was an acute congestion — it might develop into a pneumonia. There must be expert nursing — and two Moravian Sisters were telegraphed for from Padua; it was further than Venice, but the doctor had a high opinion of the hospital and the nursing there. (Such a thing as a lay trained nurse hardly existed outside Rome in those days.) And then he asked a number of questions as to the origin and onset of the illness. The old Marchesa here intervened. The illness had only manifested itself this morning, the young Marchesa was already too ill to be questioned, she herself had as yet had no time to make inquiries. When the doctor came again in the evening, she would probably be in a position to furnish him with such information as was necessary — she emphasized the word a little — for the conduct of the case. In the meantime his instructions would be followed, and she wished him a very good morning.

But when the dogcart had been dispatched with the prescriptions to Gardone, and the doctor’s more immediate instructions carried out, the old lady sent Giacinta to sit with the young Marchesa, and commanded Agnese’s attendance in her own room. When the maid appeared she dealt with her with something more than her usual unhesitating firmness.

‘Agnese, your mistress is gravely ill,’ she said. ‘It is essential to know exactly what has caused this malady. You must tell me everything, do you understand?’

‘Yes, la Marchesa.’

‘Now tell me, at what hour did the Marchesa return last night?’

‘Something after the two hours, la Marchesa.’

‘Did you see her?’

‘Yes, la Marchesa.’

‘Did she seem well then?’

‘La Marchesa, no. She was wet and cold, very cold.’

‘Wet? It has not rained! How came she to be wet?’

‘I don’t know, la Marchesa. But she was wet all over, and already drying again; her clothes were all torn, and there was something on them, and on her hair and hands — birdlime, credo.‘

The old lady listened with a grave face. ‘Who drove her last night?’

‘Agostino, la Marchesa. But he did not bring the young Marchesa back. She dismissed him, early.’

‘Who did bring her back, then?’

‘Tommaso, la Marchesa, and I. When the Marchesa did not return, I grew anxious, and took the carriage, and we found her and brought her home.’

‘Found her where?’ the old lady asked sharply.

‘On the road, la Marchesa, between here and Odredo. Walking along, stumbling and falling, without cloak or wrap, her hair all down and her face dirty! Oh, my poor mistress!’ — and the maid began to cry.

‘She was alone?’

‘Quite, quite alone! And in such a condition! We had to carry her to the brougham — she could hardly stand,’ the maid sobbed out, fairly letting herself go at last.

‘Stop sniveling, and keep your wits in your head!’ the old Marchesa said sharply. She considered for a moment or two, tapping her old hand, her usual accompaniment to thought, on the arm of her chair. There was something extremely peculiar about the servant’s story. Then she looked hard at the maid, who stood, still sniffing and dabbing rather furtively at her eyes, before her.

‘Agnese, have you any idea where your mistress went last night?’

‘Yes, la Marchesa.’

‘Where then?’

‘To meet the young Signor Conte.’

‘How do you know this? Was there a letter?’ (The old Marchesa had not lived for ninety-nine years among Italian servants for nothing.)

‘La Marchesa, yes,’ the maid said simply.

‘Bring it to me.’

Like all ladies’ maids, Agnese was perfectly familiar with the various hiding places in which her mistress believed her more private correspondence to be securely concealed, and the previous night while Tommaso was sent for she had slipped off, candle in hand, to the boudoir, and ferreted among the receipt files till she came on the latest note from Count Roffredo, which she had read and replaced. So Roffredo’s epistle was fished out once more from its resting place among the receipts, and put into La Vecchia Marchesa’s ancient hands. She dismissed the maid, and read it, sitting alone; when she had finished it she, like Agnese, sniffed, but with a different intonation. Then she took her moroccocornered writing board, and indited a short note, in her fine spidery old writing, and dispatched it, and waited, using her bright old wits on this extraordinary set of facts, but without, it must be confessed, much result.

That note brought Count Roffredo over soon after colazione. She received him in her own sitting room.

‘What time did Suzy leave you last night, and where?’ she asked abruptly.

The young man looked at her in apparent astonishment. ‘I did not see the Marchesa Suzy last night,’ he said. ‘I have not seen her since the Meden picnic.’

Taking the letter from a little bag at her waist, she handed it to him, saying, ‘And you did not write this either, I suppose?’ with fine sarcasm.

The young man took it and read it, from beginning to end, and then looked up at the old lady with a grave and rather bewildered face.

‘No, I did not write it,’ he said firmly. ‘I have never seen it before in my life. And I should perhaps tell you that I was by no means in the mood to write her such a letter as this’— he tapped his fine hand sharply on the outstretched paper. His face had grown surprisingly angry. ‘I am penitent, I am ashamed of what happened the other night — but not towards her! But for her unwarrantable treatment of that unfortunate girl, I should never have been in the position to “lose my head and behave like an idiot”!’ He shook the sheet of paper angrily before the old lady.

His anger, and still more his championship of Miss Prestwich, convinced the old Marchesa as nothing else could have done that he was in fact not the author of the letter which he still held. But his last speech sent her off on another tack.

‘Do you want to marry her?’ she asked.

He looked slightly taken aback, and sat for a moment, obviously thinking.

‘Now, no,’ he said at length. ‘If we had been left alone, if the thing had been allowed to run its course in peace, I think very likely I should have wished to. But this would give us a bad start. I should feel that I had been compromised into it, the province would probably be odious to her, let alone Rome, and she — she is sensitive and proud; she would feel all her life that I had done it out of pity. It would make it too difficult. English, too! That is of itself a difficulty.’ He looked hard at the old face opposite him — it was as if she were somehow drawing out of him secret truths of which he had never before been aware. ‘I shall never be able to be very thorough as a husband,’ he said, with a curious simplicity. ‘I must make an easy marriage, with a wife who knows all the ropes and will do three quarters of the work. An Italian, with her own resources — and a clever one.’

The old Marchesa looked at him for a long time in silence; there was an odd softness in her look. But at length — ‘Roffredo, I had no idea that you had so much common sense,’ she said dryly. Then she reverted to the matter in hand. She took the letter from him, and looked at it again.

‘Very curious,’ she said, examining it. ‘So it was a trick. Hm! Someone has been behaving very badly. Suzy went to this precious rendezvous, and somehow got wet through; and she had to walk home, alone. To-day she is ill. Had you heard this?’

Roffredo had not heard a word. He expressed proper concern, asked all the right questions.

‘The doctor comes again this evening,’ the old lady said. ‘I am afraid it is grave, but we shall know more then.’ She looked at the letter again. ‘But who can have written this?’

‘Who? There is only one person in the province who could have written that,’ the young man said, energetically — ‘and naturally she will have had her knife into Suzy over all this; she was devoted to Miss Prestwich. Of course, it is my cousin Elena.’

XXV

La Vecchia Marchesa was not familiar with Elena’s activities in the matter of forgery: the awe in which even Elena stood of the old Marchesa had been sufficient hitherto to protect the household at Vill’ Alta from any direct attacks.

When Roffredo had gone the old lady read the letter again, carefully. With the curious detachment of the very old, she even paid the document the compliment of giving her little dry chuckle over it. But it was essential to find out what had happened, for Suzy’s sake and Francesco’s, and she dispatched yet another note, this time to Fräulein Gelsicher, demanding that Elena be sent over in the carriage immediately to see her.

La Vecchia Marchesa was inclined to think rather highly of Elena. She did not put her on the same shelf as Marietta, but she liked her trimness of appearance, her liveliness, her uncomplicated fearless sagacity, her rather méchant wit. When the girl had made her curtsy, tendered her rosy blooming cheek for the routine kiss, and seated herself, the old lady regarded her, far from inimically, for a moment before opening fire.

‘My child, I have sent for you to ask you some questions, which you will have the goodness to answer accurately,’ she began. ‘On Saturday my daughter-inlaw, Suzy, received a letter, purporting to come from your cousin Roffredo, inviting her to meet him last night at a certain ruin in the little wood near his villa, by what I believe they call the Holy Well. The letter urged her to dismiss her carriage, as he would bring her home. She went, and sent the man back. What happened there, I do not know — and as she is now gravely ill, indeed in delirium, it is impossible to find out. But Roffredo, whom I have seen, denies all knowledge of the letter, and I am inclined to believe him.’ She paused, and looked steadily at her great-niece. ‘Do you know anything of it?’

‘Yes. I wrote it,’ Elena said at once. ‘You did! And may one ask why you did such a thing?’

The girl looked at the formidable old lady with a level gaze. ‘Yes, BonneMama’ (Elena and Giulio, like Marietta, used the familiar title), ‘I will tell you. I did it because I was not at all pleased with Zia Suzy for the way she treated Postiche. Indeed, I have not been pleased with her for a long time! I hated to see her always having her own way, tormenting people and making them her slaves, and being perfectly successful with it — still praised, still admired! Even Papa! Oh yes — I have seen that quite clearly, just lately; she has had him too! It is not what I like — one’s own father made a fool of in that way! It is not dignified for him — or for us, me and Giulio.’ She paused, as if gathering her forces, and then looked straighter than ever at the old Marchesa, who listened to this outburst in complete silence. ‘And when it came to downright cruelty to that poor little creature, who is as innocent as milk, I would not let it go unpunished! Sending her only to the diligence, and having her left there alone!’ Her always high color had risen, her superb brown eyes blazed, the ring of her words was almost splendid. ‘So I said to myself that she too, Zia Suzy, should know what it was to be left on the road alone, as she had chosen should happen to a girl, almost a child, and a foreigner at that! That is why I wrote that letter.’

The fundamental honesty, accuracy, and justness of the old lady’s mind rose to recognize, and even to salute, not only the sincerity but the justice of the girl’s speech. Yes, she was right — it was undignified for them, and unfair to them. About the rest, at bottom, Elena was right too. The old lady felt a sudden respect for the girl’s instinct for righteousness, violently and even wrongly as she had expressed it.

But for the moment she left all that. She had still to get at all the facts.

‘So — you wrote it. And Roffredo knew nothing of it. And you arranged for her to go home alone, on foot. But how came she to be wet through? It did not rain. Agnese says that on her return she was soaked to the skin and covered with some sticky stuff, like birdlime.’

Elena looked at the old Marchesa with round eyes.

‘How she got wet, I don’t know, unless she fell into the pool,’ she said. ‘There is a pool, just by the ruin. But the birdlime I arranged myself. On Saturday, while Zio Francesco painted the flower, this enchanter’s something, and Marietta read and moped. I ran across to Trino and got a bucket and a brush, and put it all over the bushes.‘

The old woman glanced at the fresh face opposite her with something very close to awe, tinged with comic appreciation. This was something like an intrigante!

‘And do you think that was a pretty trick?’she asked, in a perfectly amicable voice.

Elena continued to blush.

‘No, Bonne-Mama,’ she said, still with her ready frankness. ‘I believe it might have been better if I had not had that idea.’

‘So do I,’ said the old lady. ‘That was rather an ugly joke. I think you have too much intelligence to play such tricks as that.’

Elena said nothing. The old lady looked thoughtfully at her.

‘Well, my child, I am glad you have told me everything plainly. It seems clear what happened — and now poor Suzy has pneumonia,’ the old lady said, as if to herself, with a sudden simplicity of sadness in her voice.

‘Bonne-Mama, for that indeed I am sorry,’Elena said, impulsively, and kissed the old lady. ‘I did not mean to hurt you and cause you this anxiety.‘

The old lady returned her kiss. ‘My child, playing Providence is generally a dangerous game,’she said, with a return of her briskness. ‘Sometimes one must do one’s part, arrange things; but vengeance, at least, is best left to the Lord God. it is said that He has a taste for it!’ she added, with one of her sly looks. Then, abruptly, she changed the subject. ‘How much does Marietta know of all this?’

‘About Zia Suzy’s illness?’

‘No, the rest —Miss Prestwich and her dismissal, and Roffredo; and also about her mother’s part in it all. Does she know anything.?’

‘Yes — she knows most of it; about Roffredo and Zia Suzy certainly; about Papa, I think not,’ Elena said.

The old lady looked vexed. ‘Could this not have been avoided? I thought the Signorina had more sense.‘

’It was not Gela’s fault. It is mine, if anyone’s. I told her,’ Elena said. ‘But she was picking up so much from the servants anyhow that she must have heard it in time. And also Giulio flew to her, mad with despair, after he had seen Roffredo and heard about Postiche from him, and poured out the whole thing.‘

‘Why should he tell her? And why was he mad with despair?‘

‘Oh, he tells Marietta everything — they are thick as thieves,’ Elena replied, with a slight return of her usual airiness.

‘ And Giulio, you know, is head over ears in love with Postiche, so for him this is all awful. He is in a most miserable state.’

‘And Marietta? How does she take it?‘ the old lady asked anxiously.

‘She is very unhappy, I think,’ Elena answered. ’She never says anything, you know — or very seldom. But she loved Miss Prestwich, and believes in her, and I think she has not liked what Zia Suzy did. And that will have hurt her too. For her, really, it is worse than for anyone, for she has two affections spoilt,’ Elena said, with her customary brief assessing of the situation.

The old lady tapped on her chair. Then she asked Elena to give her her writing pad, and indited her third note that day, summoning Fräulein Gelsicher to visit her next morning; and gave it to Elena, and dismissed her. When the girl had gone, she sat again, thinking about the whole thing. The onslaught of youth on maturity made her feel more tender and protective to Suzy than before. But — really that young girl, Elena, was right. Youth had its claims. It was time that this business of Suzy and Carlo should stop. Indeed, for Marietta’s sake, Suzy’s activities of that sort must really all stop. And remembering her interview with her son that morning, she thought that it was perhaps the case that he too, the aging husband, had some claims which now deserved consideration, as well as youth. Poor Francesco, he had not had much out of life!

Fräulein Gelsicher was actually exceedingly glad to receive the old Marchesa’s summons. Ever since that unlucky Wednesday of encounters and revelations she had been longing to take counsel with La Vecchia Marchesa; but her hands had been so full with Giulio, and the general relations of Odredo with Vill’ Alta were become so peculiar, that she had lacked either the time or the courage to seek an interview. About Marietta, too, she would be glad of the old Marchesa’s advice. She saw no easy outlet for her. To return and live with her mother, with some other governess substituted for the one she loved so much, a perpetual reminder of her loss and the reason for it; watching, with eyes sharpened by this bitter experience, the manner of her mother’s life — that was not going to be so easy. Really, the Swiss woman thought, as she drove up the long curve of the hill below the great gray house, the best thing the Marchesa Suzy could do now would be to die!

It seemed, on her arrival, very much as if the Marchesa Suzy were going to gratify her impious wish. The doctor’s brougham was at the door, and upstairs she had to wait for some time in the old lady’s boudoir, since the Marchesa, as Roberto informed her, was with the doctor in the young Marchesa’s room. When the old woman at last appeared, it was with a grave and anxious face.

‘Yes, she is very ill — terribly ill,’ she replied briefly to the governess’s inquiries. ’It is an exceedingly severe pneumonia. She has of course a wonderful constitution, and that gives some hope; and the two Sisters seem excellent. We shall not know much till Sunday or Monday— the crisis, the decision, should be reached then.’ She gave a tiny sigh. ’Meanwhile, I thought that you and I ought to have a little talk,’ she resumed. ‘Elena tells me that Giulio is in a very bad state and that it is because he is so deeply attached to Miss Prestwich. Is that true?‘

’Perfectly true, Marchesa. He eats next to nothing, and hardly sleeps; he has given himself over to this sorrow in the most complete way, and unless we can do something, I cannot foresee what the end of it will be. It is eating into his mind.‘

’He must have distraction,’ the old lady said, decidedly.

’Pardon me, Marchesa, but if you mean social distraction, he will not take it.’

‘No; he must go away,’ the old lady said. ’Is there nowhere that he can be sent?’

’I do not know,’the Swiss said doubtfully. ‘His great wish has always been to go to Oxford to study— that is why he was so anxious to learn English with that poor girl. But I have never been able to persuade his father to agree to it .’

‘Carlo is — and always was, between you and me — a fool,’the old lady said energetically. ‘But now, he must see the necessity. I shall speak with him—it must be arranged.’

‘Marchesa, if you could get this settled, it would do more for Giulio than anything else. I believe it would cure him.’

’It shall be arranged. Now tell me, how is that little thing, Marietta? All this is very hard for her. And Elena tells me that she knows all about it?’

‘Yes, Marchesa. Giulio made her his confidante. That is a most extraordinary child,’ the Swiss said, in a rare burst of enthusiasm. ‘Her patience, her wisdom with him! — and her silence and selfrestraint about her own sorrow. A woman of forty could not show more soul. Her comprehension is astonishing.’

‘She ought not to have to comprehend all these things, at her age,’ the old Marchesa said, rather sadly. ’But she is reasonably well — eats, sleeps?‘

’Fairly well — she is a little listless. But, Marchesa, I am rather concerned about her in the future,’ Fräulein Gelsicher said. ‘I do not think it would be a good plan to introduce a new governess into the household at all soon; it would be a constant reminder of her sorrow, and of its cause. And yet I do not see what else is to be done. She cannot be alone.’

The old lady considered.

‘No — for the present, that would not do. It would be cruel. And Suzy —’ she paused, and sighed. ‘For the moment, no. In any case, she will be delicate, need care, for a long time after this,’ she said, ‘even at the best.’ She thought again. ‘Could you take her?’ she asked suddenly.

‘I? Here?’

‘No, no — at Odredo, and in Rome. Would you have time? Be willing?‘

‘Marchesa, there is nothing I should like better,’ Fräulein Gelsicher said earnestly; ‘but of course, the decision would not rest. with me.‘

‘If you are willing, there should be no difficulty,’the old lady said briskly. ‘Some proper arrangement would of course be made with the Count.’ Then, with one of the quick turns so characteristic of old age, she gave her little sardonic smile. ’I cannot altogether congratulate you on your present pupil, Signorina.’

‘Elena? Is something wrong? I wondered that you sent for her,’the Swiss said anxiously.

The old lady pulled the Roffredo letter out of her little bag, and handed it to the governess without a word. Fräulein Gelsicher read it in silence, and then looked up over the sheet, with eyes in which a distressful conviction lurked, at the old Marchesa.

‘This is not — her?’ she asked.

‘Indeed it is — she sent that, arranged the whole thing, as a Stroke of vengeance.’

‘Oh, Marchesa! But this is terrible. I am unspeakably sorry, ashamed,’the poor woman said. ’She has caused this illness, then?’

’Not intentionally. She meant merely to leave Suzy alone on the road. But unluckily she had also the idea to put birdlime on the bushes all round the ruin, that day when my son went to paint the flower — yes, yes, that was why she arranged this famous picnic; and so we imagine that Suzy, in the dark and in her confusion, fell into the well.’

Fräulein Gelsicher’s rejoinder to this startled the old lady.

‘So that was why she took the mackintosh,’ she said.

‘The mackintosh?’

‘Yes. She took one with her, and left it there. She must have worn it while she was using the birdlime, and made it too dirty to bring home. But, Marchesa, this is terribly wrong of her,’ the Swiss said. ‘I cannot tell you how sorry I am.’

‘Do not distress yourself too much, Signorina. And if I were you I should not scold her about it. I have spoken to her. But she has made her own judgments on this whole affair —on Suzy, and on her father too. They all have; Roffredo also, and no doubt Murietta as well. One cannot say they are wrong. The thing has gone on too long. To you I speak freely,’ the old lady said. ‘I should have seen sooner that it must stop.’

‘Marchesa, I am glad that you feel this,’ the Swiss said. ‘To me, for some time, this has been a matter of great concern. I wished to speak to you about it, but, in effect, it was not an easy subject.’

‘It was not. But I wish you had done so, all the same,’the old Marchesa said. Then she made one of her birdlike hops to a fresh idea. ‘How is that poor little creature, Prestwich, do you know?’

The Signorina did not know, with any accuracy. It was some days since she had seen the two Countesses.

‘Hm. It is almost time someone found out,’said the old lady.

XXVI

It was in fact some considerable time before La Vecchia Marchesa or anyone else took any definite steps to find out how Almina was getting on at Castellone. All that week the Marchesa Suzy’s illness overshadowed both houses, Vill’ Alta and Odredo, and dominated the thoughts of those who lived in them.

Almina, during that same week, spent most of her time sitting in her room at Castellone, a piece of sewing — which she scarcely touched unless someone came in — in her lap, staring in front of her, and thinking.

One of the principal things which occupied her was the whole matter of her feeling for Roffredo. She gathered from the Countesses that he was being blamed on all hands for what he had done, and her own heart could not rise in his defense, could not acquit him of the most reckless selfishness and a cruel lack of self-control. This brought her back to the question which she had asked herself that morning at the Villa Gemignana, when his revolver lay on the table before her — of what was wrong with their love, which at the time had seemed to her so dazzling and perfect. Roffredo’s love, she saw it now, was clearly selfish; it was not the tender and cherishing emotion which she had read of in the works of Miss Charlotte M. Yonge and other Victorian writers, and it was, alas, fatally evident that it was not ‘pure.’ But what about hers? What had she loved him for? In the cold light of her disillusionment and the clear-sightedness of pain, at last she asked herself that; and the answer was disquieting. It had not been for any of the qualities which she had been taught all her life to value — not for any special goodness, or gifts of mind or character. She had simply been carried away by his good looks, his gallant bearing, his imperiousness and wit, and the flattery of his making love to her. Oh yes, and more than the mere flattery of that — there was more. Almina did not know that convenient and graceful modern expression ‘sense-enchantment,’so she did not use it; but she did at last realize and admit to herself that those dizzy raptures when she was in his arms were more of the body than of the soul.

To a person with Almina’s strong moral preoccupations this was a painful and shocking admission. For no one had ever given her any definite guidance in the difficult and delicate matter of discriminating between sense and spirit in loving, or in the still more difficult and delicate art — whose mastery is almost a lifelong task — of learning how to combine the two.

The two Countesses were not the sort of people to be of much help in this situation. Both meant to be kind — in a way both were kind to her; but the difference between the English and Italian mentalities was a great obstacle, besides the girl’s youth and shyness. Neither realized the sort of help she needed, nor would either really have been capable of giving it. For their practical benevolence, for putting a roof over her head and getting her money for her, for their general supervision of her and her affairs, she was deeply and silently grateful, and for Aspasia, with her healthy bluntness, her cheerfulness, and her strong eharacter, she was beginning to feel a certain genuine affection. But as far as her own private problems were concerned, during those days of Suzy’s illness Almina was very miserably alone.

There was one person in the province who was even more alone, just then, than Miss Prestwich, and that was Suzy herself. Who can say where the sick go during the long days and hours of acute illness? What does the spirit do, then? The sick can seldom say, for the brain is the channel through which we communicate the movements of the spirit, either to ourselves or to others—the words, the ideas in which we try to clothe those experiences, are furnished by the brain’s mechanism. So Suzy lay, alone in her own world, with who knows what bitter companionship of thought drawn from her last conscious experiences.

To those beside her — to the old Marchesa and to Francesco — this withdrawnness was peculiarly troubling. The old Marchesa, like most healthy old people, disliked the very sight of illness. But far more distressing was the strange feeling of impotence: seeing Suzy there before her, and yet not there, not within reach of her love and sorrow, utterly unresponsive to speech or touch.

During the final twenty-four hours they would not let the old lady go into the room — the Sister on duty sat, her fingers lightly on the wrist to note the pulse, her head bent low to mark the breathing, watching, waiting, trying to gauge whether the body would have enough resistance left to survive the shock when the temperature came down with a crash. On Sunday night the doctor stayed in the house; he forced Giacinta to give the old Marchesa a sleeping draft in her evening glass of warmed wine, after which she was put, unresisting, to bed — he was almost as anxious about La Vecchia as he was about his patient. As a result the old lady slept deeply and long; when she woke, she at once sent Giacinta to inquire for the night’s news. A few moments later there was a tap on her door, and the Marchese Francesco walked in. He was still in his flowered dressing gown, his beard untrimmed, his thin hair anyhow, but his face was luminous with happiness. ‘It is past,’ he said. ‘It is past, and she lives! She is terribly weak, but she lives. Oh, Mama’ — and the poor man knelt down by her bed and put his disheveled gray head in her lap, as he used to do when the hair was brown and thick, and fairly sobbed in his relief.

Messengers to inquire had been coming all that week from all over the province, and from Odredo and Castellone at least twice a day; by midday on Monday it was fairly generally known in the neighborhood that the crisis was past and that the Marchesa Suzy was going to recover. At about five o’clock a little penciled note was brought up to the old Marchesa, who had had her first good afternoon nap for several days, conveying warm congratulations on the news from the Countess Aspasia, and asking whether the Marehesa felt equal to receiving her in person for a few moments? ‘I, too, have some good news for you,’ the note concluded.

The old Marchesa sent a message requesting her to come up — after the solitude and anxiety of the past week she felt quite in the mood to see Aspasia. When the usual flow of greetings and congratulations was over, and a full account of the course of Suzy’s illness had been given by the old Marchesa, and almost visibly pocketed by the Countess Aspasia, ‘And what is your good news, my dear Aspasia? Is it about her?’ the old lady asked.

‘Yes, Marchesa. It is all right, the Virgin be thanked! That, at least, that poor child is spared.’

‘I am glad. I am thankful,’ the old lady said gravely. ‘Poor little creature, she is a good girl — I cannot feel that she was really much in fault. Tell me, how is she?’

‘She is relieved, of course, but she is still low in herself,’ the Countess replied. ‘I think that, morally, the thing preys very much on her mind,’ she added, with unexpected penetration. ‘When she is alone, she just sits and looks! It is not good for her. It may be better when she goes home.’

‘In my opinion, she should not go home just yet,’ the old lady said. ‘My dear Aspasia, you have done a good work for that little thing — could you continue it for a week or so more? I should like a little time to consider — I think I might possibly arrange something. These last few days, with Suzy so ill, I have done nothing. But now — I must see,’ she repeated.

The old Marchesa’s ‘seeing’ involved, in the first place, the writing of two or three letters, and a brief and rather acid interview with Count Carlo. She told him roundly that he must now let Giulio have his wish, and go to Oxford. She did not mince her words. ‘His being mewed up at home in this old-fashioned way, with a sister and a governess, was always ridiculous; now it is become impossible. You must let him go.‘

Count Carlo did not like the idea, and was unwise enough to advance one or two arguments against it. They were decisively dealt with. At last —

‘Yes, and I have this further to say to you, Carlo — this affair with Suzy must now stop. It is enough. Marry again, if you must, or take a mistress in Venice; but this business en famillie I will not stand.’ Quelled and routed, the unhappy man eventually agreed to both propositions— he was mopping his brow with his fine cambric handkerchief as he walked down the broad staircase after leaving La Vecchia’s room.

The old Marchesa’s next move was to send, on the following day, for Giulio.

With Giulio and his lovesick condition she felt peculiarly impatient, and she awaited him in a rather irritable mood. He must go to Oxford, of course; nevertheless it was tiresome of him to have caused these extra complications, to worry Fräulein Gelsicher, and to have blurted out. everything about the little Prestwich to her darling Marietta. But when the boy actually walked into her room, impatience and irritation died. She was shocked by his appearance; he had a peculiar stricken look, and when he sat down and began to speak, the curious uncontrolled inflections of his voice and the movements of his hands suddenly made her realize that his nervous condition was really serious. He must be got out of it somehow, and quickly.

She began by talking to him about going to Oxford, and was further disturbed by his listlessness and lack of enthusiasm at the prospect. ‘I thought you wished so much to go, but you do not seem very glad,’she said at length. ‘Is it because you are so unhappy about Miss Prestwich?’

Giulio winced. ‘Yes, Bonne-Mama,’ he said.

‘Hm,’ said the old lady. ‘I thought you were to be a philosopher. Philosophers don’t go all to pieces because they are hurt.‘

‘You are thinking about the Stoics,’ the boy said gloomily, argumentative even in his sadness. ‘And, in any case, it is more for — more for her that I mind than for myself; that is what I can’t get over.’

‘Bother the Stoics!’ said the old Marchesa sharply. ‘And I fancy, Giulio, that you are deceiving yourself. Miss Prestwich has had a cruel experience, which has caused us all distress; but, as it most fortunately turns out, it will have no serious or lasting consequences.’

Then with a brisk ‘Now listen to me, my dear Giulio,’ the old Marchesa took up her parable, and gave him some of her views on life and love. She was very open with him. ‘Your real trouble is pure masculine possessivencss — another has taken what you love. So now you feel that she is spoiled, secondhand — is it not so?‘ And when, rather shamefacedly, he admitted it — ‘But that is fundamentally all nonsense,’she exclaimed vigorously; ‘especially since she will not have a child. Men have always these ideas! We should be in fine case, we women, if we could no longer look at a man because he had taken some other woman! Do not feel this, my child; it is a false feeling. A loose woman is one thing — a girl whom misfortune has overtaken is quite another. This is a good girl, whatever happened to her. No — be at peace; presently you shall see her, before she goes — I will arrange it. And if, after a time, you find that you love her still — well, you will be in England, and no doubt you will be able to meet her. In the meantime, you will have your Oxford.’ She paused; then: ‘In any case, for all your life remember this — do not exaggerate the importance of the body. Dio mio, have we souls, or have we not? And with which does the good God concern Himself?’

These preachments did Giulio a great deal of good. She had seen so much, one had to believe her, and belief in what she said was comforting and somehow cleansing. He thanked her, and was beginning to wonder if he ought not to be taking his leave, when suddenly she spoke of Marietta. She asked how the child was, and when Giulio said vaguely that she seemed all right, the old woman snapped out at him with a return of her normal sharpness.

‘She is all right, you think? My good Giulio, have you at all realized, in your concern for your own troubles, what she must be feeling? She too has lost Miss Prestwich, whom, remember, she also loved; and —’ she hesitated for a moment — ’in addition she is necessarily very unhappy about her mother, precisely on this account. She has had all this to bear and, as well, she is grieving and worrying over you and your unhappiness.’ She sat looking rather sternly at him, and when he did not answer she went on, ‘Might you not try now to do something to comfort her, to help her in her unhappiness?’

Giulio looked at her, slightly startled.

‘I don’t think I should be much good at that, Bonne-Mama,’ he said slowly. ‘I— I am very fond of Marietta; she’s a darling. But you see I am not much accustomed to helping people in such ways.’

‘No, I see that clearly. And it is high time that you began,’ said the old Marchesa.

XXVII

Giulio walked very slowly homeward from Vill’ Alta, thinking as he went. Yes, he felt better; he felt encouraged; the poisoning misery and hatred and despair had, as it were, been washed out of him by that vigorous directness. But the old Marchesa’s matter-of-fact acceptance of his love for Almina, her hint that it might some day come to fruition, and not be frowned upon — this did more to lighten his mood than anything else could have done. The worst part of his misery had actually been the feeling that in Almina’s humiliation his love had been humiliated, that this love itself was somehow tainted and soiled by her disgrace.

He walked on, remembering his talk with Marietta that day after he had been to see Roffredo at the villa. Some of her words came back — what she had said about the person who was tipped out of a boat not having committed suicide. But that, — he stopped a second time, astonished, as the thought struck him, — that was almost exactly what La Vecchia had said! ’A person who is overtaken by misfortune.’ And Marietta too had spoken, as the old lady had done, about the soul — something about the unconsenting spirit holding up its head in Purgatory. He walked forward once more, thinking how extraordinary it was that a young girl like Marietta should have had the same ideas about such a situation as the old, old woman. His little cousin’s words, unheeded at the time, took on a new weight; and he began now to think of what the old lady had said of Marietta and her troubles. Yes — she must indeed be very unhappy; and he had never even thought of that, had done nothing to help her! A rush of real affection and penitence, such as he had hardly ever experienced, warmed his heart still more. He began to hurry — he wanted to see Marietta quickly, and tell her about all this, and do whatever he could to comfort her.

He found her, as he had done on that evening nearly a fortnight before, sitting ready dressed for dinner by the marble table under the stone pine. As the young man approached he was struck, this time, by something curiously desolate about that small figure, in the unbecoming starched white dress, all alone under the great tree. He went over and put an awkward arm round her small shoulders. ‘What are you thinking about, cara?’ he asked.

The unwonted caress and endearment startled the child, shook her out of her usual self-control. Her eyes were swimming in sudden tears as she turned them up to her cousin.

‘Oh, her,‘ she said sadly. ‘I am almost always thinking of her.’

He sat down beside her, and again put his arm, with clumsy tenderness, round her little thin form.

‘Listen, I have some good news for you about her,’he said. ‘She is n’t going to — to have a baby.’

‘Who told you?’

‘Bonne-Mama. Marietta, that is good news, is n’t it?’

‘Yes, it is. Yes, it is very good,’ she said, warmly and gladly, fumbling for her handkerchief to wipe her eyes. ‘Tell me, what else did Bonne-Mama say?’

’Well, you know I am to go to Oxford? Gela told me yesterday, but she said I was not to speak of it; but now that Bonne-Mama has told me too, I do not see why I should not, especially to you.’

‘Oh, Giulio, I am glad! I am so very glad! How was this settled?’

‘Oh, it is all Bonne-Mama, of course. She sent for Papa, and arranged.’

‘That is very good,’ the child said thoughtfully. ‘It is right. Bonne-Mama always knows what is right; and she causes things to happen, as others cannot. She has some special force in her.’

‘Yes, she is wonderful,’ the boy said, earnestly. ‘But, Marietta, do you know, I think you have something of her way of knowing what is right also.’ And as she looked at him in surprise — ‘Do you remember what you said to me that first day, over there,’ — he waved behind him toward the ridge, — ‘about — about Almina? That because — what happened — was not of her intention, it did not affect her soul? Not touch her, really, at all?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I remember. I am sure it is true.’

‘Well, Bonne-Mama said almost the same thing to me this afternoon. She said that she was good, that it was only misfortune. And she spoke of the soul being what mattered.’

’I am very glad she told you this, because you will believe her,’ the child said, quite practically and without the smallest resentment.

‘Another time, I think perhaps I shall believe you too,’ the boy said. ‘I think you are much wiser than I realized. But, Marietta, has it helped you, also, to believe this — to be less unhappy, I mean to say?’ Giulio felt vaguely that he ought to be getting on with the business of comforting his little cousin; this talk was in itself easing and consoling, but so far he was not doing much.

‘Yes, in a way. But I miss her so dreadfully, all the time; and I hate not knowing how she is, and thinking of how unhappy she must be, all alone over there,’ the child said sadly, looking across to where Castellone showed white and maroon above the treetops. ‘You see, she may not know that we think this. She may feel about herself as — as you felt about her, till now. Oh, I wish I could see her!’ she said, on a long breath.

‘I wonder if you could not!’ Giulio said suddenly. ’I believe it might be possible, Marietta. Because, do you know, Bonne-Mama has promised that before she goes back to England I shall see her! She said that. But I think you ought to see her too. I shall tell BonneMama that you wish to.’

‘I wish Bonne-Mama would see her herself,’ the child said musingly. ‘That is what would help her most of all, if Bonne-Mama would say those things to her that she said to you. I should try to say them, if I were allowed to see her; but I don’t suppose she would pay any more attention to me than you did!’ she said, a momentary glint of amusement crossing her small face. ‘I am too young — no one pays any attention to what people say till their hair is up! There’s the gong! Giulio, you must fly,’ she added, as the deep musical notes boomed out across the garden.

In fact, this was another of the cases where Marietta and the old Marchesa thought the same thing right. A couple of days later, unprompted by Giulio, the old lady did something she very rarely did nowadays — after due preparation, and exchanges of notes, she ordered out the closed carriage and, escorted by both Giacinta and Roberto, she drove over to Castellone, in the teeth of the impassioned protests and lamentations of the Marchese Francesco, who was sure that it would be too much for her. ’The birthday was now only three days off; there was, in spite of Suzy’s illness, to be a big reception in the afternoon — she ought to be saving up all her strength for that, her son said; and the doctor and Giacinta said likewise. The old lady swept their objections aside. She wished to go; she was the best judge of her own powers; she was going. She went.

Her first call was on the Countess Livia. It was very formal — the old Marchesa found Livia, with her lack of vitality, her sour righteousness, and her religiosity, singularly unsympathetic. And she was a rare hand at keeping her powder dry; she was not going to waste her strength — which was by no means as great as she had given the doctor and the Marchese Francesco to understand — on a discussion of recent events with Livia, which would certainly irritate her. No — she had only one serious thing to say to the widow, and after ten minutes’ exchange of courteous trivialities, as she rose to take her leave she said it. ‘My dear Livia, I am sure you will understand me when I say that the more your son Roffredo is in Milan, and out of the province, for the next few months, the better. Good-bye. This has been such a pleasure. Till the twenty-third! A rivederci!’

Then she drove on along the wide terraced drive to the red wing, and called on the Countesses Aspasia and Roma. This interview, though less chilly, was also brief. Sitting very erect in her chair, the old lady formally thanked them both for what they had done for Miss Prestwich.

And then she said that she had a request to make. ‘I should like to speak with Miss Prestwich, alone. Is this possible? I beg that you will not derange yourselves — her room, the garden, wherever is most convenient!’ But of course there was really no question of her moving from the chair in which she sat — the sisters left, and after a few moments the door opened slowly, and Miss Prestwich came into the room.

She stood for a moment, hesitating, just inside the door, looking with large and rather timid eyes at the old Marchesa. ‘You wished to speak to me, Marchesa?’ she said at last, in her pretty, polite Italian.

‘Yes, my child, I do,’ she said, very pleasantly. ‘Come and sit down here by me, and let us have a little talk.‘

The ready color came into the girl’s face as she crossed the room. La Vecchia Marchesa had never called her ‘my child’ before.

‘Well, my child, I am not overproud of the way my relations have behaved to you,’ the old lady said, without further preamble. ‘It has distressed me very much that this should have happened to you while you were with us. I wish to tell you, on behalf of — of us all — that I regret it very deeply.’

This, which practically amounted to an apology, surprised and embarrassed Miss Prestwich so much that she was almost incapable of speech. She blushed more deeply than ever, and said, ’Thank you, Marchesa.’

‘Niente. There is something else that I wish to say to you. I had occasion recently to have an interview with my great-nephew, Roffredo, who told me, with all possible emphasis, that there was no foundation whatever for an accusation which was, I believe, made a ground for your dismissal — that of impropriety with him while under my son’s roof. I believe him — and I wish you to know that I believe him.’

This time Almina made no answer at all — speech was quite beyond her.

‘A piece of advice, however. When you are acting as a governess, never have anything to do with young men. You may be innocent as the dawn, but it does not pay. Dismiss them all. If they do not accept this, tell your employer, or leave. There is no other way.’

The girl looked at her. ‘Marchesa, I did mean — I did at one time refuse to see him. But then — it began again, and I found it almost impossible, in the circumstances — ’

‘Enough! I know the circumstances. You were most unfortunately situated,’ the old Marchesa interrupted. ‘I do not blame you, in this case; I am merely advising you for the future. And à propos of the future, have you made any plans?’

At that Almina fairly broke down. ‘No,’ she sobbed out. ‘How can I? I have no reference, from here — and it has been so short. I do not know what to do! I suppose I must go home. But — my mother! She had counted so much on this! And all my clothes! I cannot think what she will feel. And I, myself — now!’ She shuddered, and covered her face with her hands.

The old Marchesa sat, during this outpouring, watching and listening to the girl, and she was unusually moved. From the heights of her immense age, the cool wisdom which those long decades of experience had taught her, she now, at the close of her hundredth year, stretched out a hand, as it were, to the stricken creature, the pretty conscientious little foreigner whose good breeding and integrity had been so evident to her from the outset.

‘Listen,’ she said — ‘listen to me. In the first place, do not, I beg you, exaggerate what has happened. My nephew is, unfortunately, a reckless and selfish creature — he treated you shamefully when you went to him, as I believe in all innocence, for help. Now, in this matter I wish you to see clearly, to envisage things as they are, and not falsely,’ the old lady said, with emphasis. ‘You are not guilty — no sane person could hold you so. To love a selfish man is unwise, but it is not a crime; and you have had little experience. In your country, girls are very oddly brought up, according to our ideas; they are taught nothing about love — which, after all, is a very common occurrence. And I think that you perhaps overestimate the importance of this embrace. Is it the body which is immortal? Did your soul, willingly and of set purpose, yield yourself to him? Of course not — I knew it already, perfectly. Then let your soul rest in peace, for this. Call it an accident, if you will.’

She paused. Almina was looking at her with wide eyes and parted lips, but she said nothing.

‘After all, it might have been much worse,’ the old lady pursued briskly. ’You have escaped the embarrassment of a child. That would have been a real complication! But as it is, you are what you were — try to remember that! And now,’ she went on, fumbling in the little bag at her wrist, ‘I have a plan for you. I heard not long since from my friend, the old Grand Duchess of Saxe-Greinau, that she was seeking an English governess for her grandchildren; she knew that you had come to us, and she thought I might help her to find one. I wrote already yesterday to her, recommending you. I have told her that we no longer need you now, since, with my daughter’s illness, it is proposed to let Marietta be for several months, at least, with her cousin Elena, in the good Gelsicher’s care.’

She stopped, and began to remove from its envelope a letter which she had pulled out of her bag. ’Does this plan appeal to you?‘ she asked.

‘Oh, Marchesa, yes,’ the girl said, the color flooding into her face again. ‘But especially for Marietta! That is just what she needs; that is just what will help her most, at present — to be with the Signorina! I am so very glad. Nothing could be better,’ she said, almost, eagerly.

The old lady looked oddly at her. ‘Hm! Well, no one could call you selfish,’ she observed. ‘I am sorry the child has to lose you; and I am more than ever certain that I do right to recommend you to the Grand Duchess. Now, here is a recommendation which I have written for you,’ she said, handing her a couple of sheets covered with her fine writing; ‘when the time comes, you can send it to her.’

‘Oh, Marchesa, I am grateful. You are very good to me,’ the girl said, with the warm accents of happy sincerity.

‘Enough, enough; it is said. You are relieved — I understand,’ she said. ‘Now, tell me about your mother. Has she heard anything of all this?’

Almina’s mouth quivered‘No,’ she said. ‘I — I have not written. I have tried, but I could not! That is the worst part of all, to tell her this. She — I do not know how she will bear it.’

‘You must not tell her,’ said the old lady, very emphatically. ‘Why should you? It will cause her very great distress, and for what? How will she, or you, be the better for her knowing this?’

Almina murmured that she had never concealed anything from her mother.

‘So be it. Well, for her sake you will now begin! To tell her would be cruel — you must carry this burden alone. I repeat, you are not guilty — then keep your sorrow to yourself. As to the reason for your leaving here, I will write to her.’

‘You are very good to me, Marchesa,’ Almina said, rather tremulously; ‘I cannot thank you as I should wish.’

‘Don’t trouble, my child; your face speaks,’ the old woman said. ‘And now,’ she went on, ‘before I leave I should like to speak once more with the good Countesses. Farewell, my dear Miss Prestwich’ — and as the girl rose from the little curtsy she had learned to make in the province she tapped her on the arm. ‘Remember, you are what you were,’ she said. ‘Don’t forget it,’ she called after her, as the girl left the room.

To the Countess Aspasia, when she returned, she mentioned the proposed arrangements. ‘And in the meantime, my dear Aspasia, air is what she needs — of that I am sure. I should let her be constantly in the garden; let her sit there to read, to work. This has pulled her down.’ Then she drank the inevitable Marsala which was offered to her, and went back to Castellone in her carriage. She told the Marchese Francesco that she was none the worse for her outing, and insisted on going down to dine with him. But on the drive home Giacinta had noticed with concern that once or twice her aged mistress laid her little gloved hand to the left side of her bosom; and in the salone a lone after dinner, even before the coffee came, she fell asleep in her chair.

XXVIII

Two days after La Vecchia Marchesa’s visit to Castellone Miss Prestwick was sitting out in the garden, whither she had been duly hunted by the Countess Aspasia. From where she sat she could see the Monte Canone, its blunt squarish summit silvery with a powdering of new snow, the first of the year; she was thinking of the day when she had first seen it, from the churchyard wall at Macerbo, and Roffredo had told her its name. She had met him and the mountain, for the first time, together! She recalled that scene now with a curious cold detachment; she felt as if she were cut off from all personal connection with it by the events which had come in between. So a man might look at a hand or foot which, after hurting him intolerably, had been amputated, she thought.

La Vecchia Marchesa’s visit had effected an even more profound change in Almina’s mood than the old lady’s intervention had made in Giulio’s. To understand how profound one must remember that for nearly three weeks, after the most severe shock of her life, the girl had been living in almost complete mental isolation, without anyone to whom she could speak freely about her feelings. And the arrangements for her future which the old lady proposed had given her a further sweet relief; not only new hope, but — in the circumstances almost more important — a fresh orientation to her thoughts. How she had slept, that night — what a breakfast she had eaten the next morning! And with how thankful a heart, on the previous day, she had written to her mother, giving her own account of the Marchesa Suzy’s illness, the arrangements for Marietta, and the old Marchesa’s plans for herself, for which she asked her mother’s sanction. She had apologized for her silence, pleading, not quite ingenuously, the general stir and upset; but the mere fact of being in communication with her mother again, even disingenuously, had afforded her a quite exquisite comfort.

But the writing of that letter had somehow, for her, brought Gardone to an end. Even as she set down the sentences with her pen she had a curious feeling of finality; and it persisted. Her body in its clothes, her trunks and boxes, would only go presently, but she herself had already left the province, she felt. With an almost dreamy sense of the strangeness of this feeling, as she sat now gazing at the silvered head of the Canone she found herself looking back at Gardone as one does at a place that one has recently quitted. The strangeness lay in the fact that for months now life as it was lived there, so differently from in England, had seemed part of the very stuff of her own life, so familiar was it grown — and now she was remote from it. She thought of that life — and as she reviewed it, still with that wondering sense of being severed from it, those who had peopled this scene came clearly into her mind, in a sort of procession: the old Marchesa, with her black stick and her white lace, her crisp sentences; the Marchesa Suzy, indolent and graceful in her hammock, with her flowing skirts, her gold mesh bag, and her tiny cigarette; t he Marchese Francesco peering through his thick glasses; Marietta — oh, Marietta doing everything, everywhere! She turned away from that thought to the other household: Umberto bowing and beaming at the front door; Count Carlo stroking his beard and talking about vines or manures; Giulio’s impatient face then, and his quietly eager one when he came to work with her, his occasional bursts of mischief with Marietta and Elena; Elena herself, with her shining fashionable head and her lively malice, affectionately tormenting Fräulain Gelsicher; and the Swiss with her plain kind face, her shrewd speech, and her bonté.

Last of all, almost reluctantly, her thoughts moved again to Roffredo. Though she did not fully realize it, her own past feelings had blurred him to her — he had been a mouth and hands and a voice murmuring endearments, an excitement and a pain, for so long that his face, his bright head and his laughter, his splendid movements and his imperious manner, had become ghostly. Of them all, of those figures which had filled her world, she found that the most vivid and solid were, not he, but Marietta, the Swiss, and the old Marchesa.

The thought of the old Marchesa switched her mind off this reviewing of the past, and brought it back to their interview of two days before. For the twentieth time she went over in her mind the old lady’s words to her. It seemed very strange to the English girl that there should have been no condemnation, no hint of cheapening of her, in the old Marchesa’s attitude. On the contrary, in an utterly startling way she had minimized the episode at the villa, brushing it aside as an accident. ‘Is it the body which is immortal?‘ But the Marchesa had always seemed to her wise — was it not possible that she was right? Right not merely in an Italian way, but ultimately right? Were the sins and disasters of the body perhaps not so all-important, so finally ruinous, as she had been brought up to believe?

‘You are the same, remember’ — she could hear the old woman’s thin sharp voice, with its great precision of syllables, saying that too. Since this idea had been put into her mind, forty-eight hours before, the girl’s nature, eager to revive, had begun tentatively to embrace it — she began to find that her feelings now followed her thought. ‘I do feel almost the same,’ she said, half-incredulously, to herself.

But she was beginning to see another side of the whole affair more clearly too. If she was not irremediably stained by Roffredo’s embrace, when she was hardly conscious of it, still there had been conscious wrongdoing. She could face that, now. These things did affect her; they were the things of the will. And there had been a measure of something like error when she had surrendered her standards of what was really lovable and admirable to a purely physical charm. Oh, why had no one told her that the body exists, that the body has its own life and needs, and may betray the mind and the will? Why had no one ever told her what to expect, and how to deal with those overpowering blisses which could be, apparently, so unrelated to the soul? Why had no one ever spoken of all this to her?

She thought again, as she had so often thought in Gardone, of her mother’s final injunction to her — ‘Be prudent.’ Now she was critical of it. She had not been prudent, it was true; but all the same the advice struck her as inadequate. ‘That really comes to telling you not to love,’ she said to herself. ‘What one wants to know is how to love. There must be a right way of loving; just being careful and holding back can’t really be the best thing.’

In this critical mood she thought again of her relation with Roffredo, and now her thought was more gentle to it. Spoiled as it had been, wretched as it had left her, it had not been wholly ugly and bad — there had been elements of beauty and tenderness in it. Oh yes, there had, she thought, tears starting to her eyes; and if only she had known more about it, known how to love, those things might have been preserved. But now it was too late, she thought sadly, staring out over the green domes of the stone pines at the soft outlines of the mountains; she would have to go on with only her own bitter and unillumined experience to guide her.

A cracking of dry twigs on the slope below and to her right made her glance down in that direction. Giulio di Castellone, looking very hot, was scrambling up through the trees towards her. When lie reached her side he bowed and shook hands, saying ‘ Buon giorno, signorina,‘ rather formally; then he pulled a note out of his pocket, and handed it to her — ‘Bonne-Mama asked me to bring you this,’ he said.

Startled and embarrassed by this unexpected visitor, Almina took the note.

It was one of the old Marchesa’s usual command-requests, to the effect that she desired Miss Prestwich to come over to VilF Alta on the following morning — ‘to see my grandchild, who will be spending the day here, since it is, as perhaps you know, my birthday.’

Almina looked up from the sheet to Giulio with a stir of color and shining eyes.

‘How good the Marchesa is!’ she said. ‘I am to go over to-morrow to see Marietta!’ In her pleasure and surprise the first embarrassment of this visit was quite swept away.

Giulio had by this time seated himself by her on the rough bench; as he spoke he looked at her. ‘I am going to Oxford.’

She turned at once. ‘Oh, are you? I am so glad. How has this been settled?’

‘Oh, Bonne-Mama, of course!’

‘She is very good,’ the girl agreed fervently. ‘Do you know what she has arranged for — for me?’ she asked, rather shyly.

‘About Germany? Yes, she told me yesterday.’ He sat looking rather gloomily at, her. ‘Shall you ever go to England, if you take that post?’ he asked at length.

‘Oh, I suppose so. Sometimes, in the holidays. It is not so far as here. Why?’ she asked.

‘I had thought, if I was in England, that I might see you occasionally,’ he said. ’I had hoped it.’

’If you don’t always come back here in the Long’ (she used the idiom of her day), ‘I expect I should be at home then, some of the time.’

’I hope you will let me come and see you,’ he said. ‘I shall wish to, I think, very much. I — there is something I have to say to you,’he brought out, with a jerk. She turned, surprised, and sat looking at him with perfectly unsuspecting calm, while he remained stuck fast in embarrassment. ‘I — I shall not say it well; you must forgive me; I have never said, never thought such a thing before,’ the boy brought out at last, almost stammering in his nervous haste. And as she looked at him, with her clear gray eyes, in mounting astonishment — ‘I love you so much!’ he burst out.

She sat absolutely still, looking at him. It was incredible. He was saying this to her, now? After what had happened? Or did he perhaps not know?

‘Count Giulio, do you know why I am leaving?’ she said, slowly and stiffly, but on an irrepressible impulse.

‘Of course! I know everything,’ he answered, the color flying into his pale face. ‘In fact, Roffredo told me himself,’ he said, with characteristic impulsive tactlessness. ‘O cara signorina, what is it?’ he cried distressfully, as she hid her face in her hands. ‘Oh, forgive me — I told you I should say it badly! You see, I have never loved anyone before. Do forgive me!’

From behind the girl’s hands came a funny little sound, between a laugh and a sob. ‘And still you say this to me?’ she said, taking her hands away, and looking at him.

‘Yes, I do,’ he said. ‘Why not? Everyone knows it was not your fault.’ And as she turned her head away again, he took her hand and kissed it. ‘I love you, cara Almina,’ he said gravely. ‘I think I had better stick to that, for if I try to say anything else, I trip on something which hurts you! That is natural — there is so much to hurt you just now; you have been so much hurt! But if you will let me love you, perhaps you will forget that, a little.’

The tears gathered in her eyes.

‘Count Giulio, you are very good to me. I cannot understand this at all,’ she said, lamely and vaguely.

‘Can you not? But it has been so, almost from the first moment you came,’ he said earnestly. ‘I used to think women were — well, were somehow unhelpful, a hindrance to my life, except Gela. But then in you I found everything I valued — as in Gela, only with more learning. And with’ — he looked at her very shyly, and raised her hand to his lips again—‘with beauty as well,’ he said.

She found nothing to say but ‘Oh.’ But Giulio was now well started, and needed little help from her. His reverence, his adoration, his pain, the delicate ardors which, now that he saw her again, seemed to spring from it, and the shy hopes which leapt to birth from the very telling of his love to her, so, face to face — all this came pouring out, expressed with a directness which had the very quality of poetry. And the girl, listening in a sort of stilled wonder, for the first time really saw him. He was not just a moody, difficult, bookish boy: he was a person, a lovable and valuable person, single-minded in his passion for truth as in his passion for her; someone who with all his immaturity and his faults did, ultimately, conform to those standards which in Roffredo’s case she had flung aside, to surrender to physical charm.

And when he had gone, after a farewell from which their shyness could not quite exclude a stirred tenderness, she sat on alone, quietly wondering, and astonishingly raised in spirit. This declaration had done, would go on doing for her, something that nothing else could have achieved at that moment — nothing less than the rebuilding of her shattered personality, the re-creation of her belief in herself. The old Marchesa had begun it; but this went much further. And she was never to know that it was the old Marchesa who had told the boy, when she gave him the note as an excuse for finding Miss Prestwich alone in the garden, to do just that. ‘Tell her what is in your heart—and don’t forget to kiss her hand!’

Old ladies of a hundred do in fact know a great deal.

XXIX

The one-hundredth birthday of the old Marchesa di Vill’ Alta dawned as one of those still, blue-and-golden days which make late September in the province of Gardone a reminder of Ovid’s Golden Age. So the day dawned, and so it moved to its still and quiet close.

The Vill’ Alta carriage arrived early at Castellone, and carried Miss Prestwich through the yellow fields to the gray house on the hill. Tommaso’s straw Homburg swayed slightly against the sky in front of her, the green and beige carriage rug shrouded her knees, the hairs of the fat white horses blew back and settled on her sleeves. It was all as it had been, she thought, on the day of her arrival. And the likeness was completed when, as the carriage approached the little gate in the wall, the iron whined on the stone, and Marietta ran out, her black plaits flying, her face alight, to greet her governess. She carried her off to the torrino, avoiding the family gathering of sons and daughters that had assembled during the previous two days at the house, and they sat there, the two of them, the child’s arm tucked confidingly through that of Miss Prestwich. ‘Oh, I have so wanted to see you! I have so missed you! It has not been at all nice without you,’ the little creature said, and flung her arms round Almina’s neck, and hugged her almost with passion.

‘I wish you were not going away,’ she said presently, sitting back and looking at her companion — ‘but I see that it is best; necessary. You would not be happy here, now. Oh, how difficult love is!’ the child said, unexpectedly. ‘There are so many sorts — and they all seem to hurt people! They die, like Zia Nadia — after all, she really died for love; or they are ill, as Giulio was; or terribly hurt, like you. Do you mind my saying that?’

‘Marietta darling, I don’t mind what you say,’ Almina said. Somehow with her little pupil there was no embarrassment.

‘I am glad. I do think that for to-day, for this last time,’ — the delicate Donatello mouth quivered a little, — ’I think that you and I might speak freely. Oh, I have been so — so suffocated at Odredo, really speaking to no one. I have never needed to speak much before,’ the child said with great simplicity, — ‘because until all this happened there was not much to say. But now — how I have needed you to speak with!’

‘What is it you most wished to speak of?’ Almina asked — her sense of loving responsibility for her pupil rose up again and overcame any private feelings of shyness.

‘Oh, you — what happened; and Mama. About you, I see it clearly, I think — that it did not touch you; that it was an accident, not you. The worst has been Mama.’

‘She is better, now, is she not?’ Almina asked — even at that moment her English governessy instinct prompted this slight willful misunderstanding.

‘Yes, oh yes. It is not that! It is what she did to you, and the reason. I find that so hard to understand — and to bear. Mama ’ — she looked away to where the swifts wheeled in the soft blue above the road, as if she were pursuing a thought that flew and wheeled like a bird — ‘Mama has always been — oh, very important to me, though I really see her very little; she has not the time for much conversation with me,’ the little girl said simply. ‘And so, that she should do something wrong and cruel, not in a mistake — she who is always kind and generous to others— I have felt that I could not bear it!’ the poor child said, and put her head down on Miss Prestwich’s shoulder.

A month, a week even, before, Almina would have been quite incapable of dealing with this situation in any way that would have been of the smallest real use to her pupil. Now, stroking the child’s head, she thought quickly, and on quite new lines. And at last, still doubtfully, but on an imperative impulse, she spoke.

‘I can understand that,’ she said slowly; ‘how you feel, I mean. But, Marietta, because I have—loved — Count Roffredo myself,’ her voice was a little unsteady, ‘I think I can understand about her too. He has a sort of spell about him, when he chooses; it is like a kind of magic. It might move one to anything.’ And as her pupil raised her head, and looked at her with wide and rather astonished eyes, she went on: ‘And she— perhaps I ought not to say this to you, but I think he was possibly careless with her too; pretending to more love than he felt, and not thinking about her feelings. And I was wrong not to tell her about him — I see that. She may — I think she must have felt deceived, both by him and by me; and that would make one very angry.’

The child looked at her thoughtfully.

‘Yes,’ she said at last. ‘I see that — I do see it. I am glad you have told me this.’ And suddenly she flung her arms round Miss Prestwich again, burying her face. ‘Postiche, you have no idea how good you are!‘ she exclaimed. ‘Oh, how glad I am that I have seen you to-day!’ She raised her head to look into Almina’s face. ‘No one else could have told me this, helped me in this way.’

Almina was touched, and thankful too. Even in her own troubles, she had given quite a lot of thought to the repercussions on Marietta of all this affair. She decided to go on.

’I am glad this has helped you,’ she said steadily. ‘It is very important, I think, how one feels to one’s mother. I should have been very unhappy if you had been — had been at cross-purposes with the Marchesa because of me.’

Marietta looked at her consideringly. ‘What is your mother like?’ she asked suddenly.

‘My mother?’ Almina too considered. It was difficult to think of Mrs. Prestwich in connection with the Marchesa Suzy; the whole structure of English life, so different to that which she had come to know in Italy, stood between the two women.

‘Things are quite different in England,’she said slowly. ‘But my mother and I — that is the same thing; at least it could be, perhaps, with you and your mother. I feel — oh well, with her one is always perfectly safe. And I feel with her — well, that I can pull and pull on her love, and it will never break.’

Marietta took this in slowly, looking in front of her.

‘That is beautiful — and happy,’ she said at last. ‘That is what I should like. With Bonne-Mama, you know, I feel something of that too. Only she is so indulgent to me — almost too much. But with Mama — I am not sure. She is somehow further away. She must love me, I suppose — but I am little, and not pretty; I think beautiful mothers are just a little vexed, generally, to have daughters who are not! Mama would have liked me more if I had been something of a beauty.’

This quiet simple statement moved Almina almost unbearably. Her own observation entirely bore out its truth. And once again the new insight and frankness that her own pain had given her spoke from her mouth.

‘Marietta, I believe you could do something to alter that,’ she said. ‘You know you are very’ — she cast about for a word — ‘you “walk very much by yourself,”’ she said, quoting her contemporary Kipling; ‘you do not open out much to people, not even to your mother. I think perhaps, if you tried, you could get nearer to her; if you’ — she pushed up her hair with both hands and wrinkled her soft brows — ’if you let her see that you wanted to be. I may be wrong, but I think this.’

At that very moment, in the Marchesa Suzy’s room, up in the house, the same subject was under discussion. Hardly that, perhaps; rather La Vecchia was speaking, and Suzy listening. The old lady had planned her day carefully. The reception was to be at five o’clock, and she must take a good rest after luncheon; the late morning was always her own best time, and in these days of convalescence it was also Suzy’s — Suzy, she considered, was now strong enough to be talked to seriously, and the birthday was a good occasion on which to make an impression on a difficult point. So the old woman made her stiff, slow, resolute way to her daughterin-law’s room, and sat down by the bed, where Suzy lay, slightly propped up now on lace-fringed pillows, dressed in white crepe de Chine and swansdown, pearls on her neck, and her short curls arranged with some attempt at art. The loving warmth of the greetings which passed between the two women disguised itself presently in little playful sentences.

‘You are very elegant to-day, my daughter,’ the old Marchesa said, touching the swansdown and the pearls.

‘Of course—I have made a grande toilette for your birthday, Bonne-Mama. One does not celebrate such an event once a week!’ Suzy responded, smiling.

’It is true,’ the old lady pursued. ‘And my dear Suzy,’ — she laid her hand on the younger woman’s, — ‘on this day, when I have reached the fantastic age of a hundred years, I should like you to know, from my own mouth, how pleasant you have made life for an old woman, ever since you came into the family, fifteen years ago.’

The ready tears of weakness had sprung to Suzy’s eyes. ‘Oh, BonneMama, if you only knew what your goodness to me has meant!’ she said — and then, with a little half-sobbing laugh: ‘But it is sixteen years, cara; Marietta is fifteen.’

The old lady bridled for a moment — then her fine thready laughter pealed out. ‘So she is — I had forgotten!’ But her face changed then, to a gravity that was still charged with tenderness.

‘My daughter,’ she said, ‘I have something to say to you about Marietta. I think, you know, that she is beginning to need you now.’

Suzy looked puzzled.

‘To need me? How, Bonne-Mama? Till just now, I have always had her with me.’

‘In your house, yes; with you, cara mia, no,’ the old woman said, with unusually gentle firmness. ‘In fact she has had almost nothing of you. What she needs from you now is your time, your thought, your attention — all the practical evidences of an affection which, I feel sure, exists, but which might as well not exist if it is not fully demonstrated.’ She paused, and then went on: ‘I think perhaps the same is true of Francesco. He is not a young man any more; it would help him, comfort him, I fancy, to feel himself the object of such a loving attention as you have always shown me.’

In all their sixteen years together, these were almost the first words of direct criticism that Suzy had ever had from her mother-in-law. She looked at the old lady almost in amazement, and then turned her head away—tears welled up in her eyes again and began to run down her face. But the old Marchesa went steadily on.

‘To give them both — the child and my son — what they need may well involve the sacrifice of some of your other relationships,’ she said, leaning a little on the last word; ‘but I believe you would find this worth while. At my age, it is one’s children and one’s grandchildren who count — it is unwise to sacrifice them to more ephemeral affections.’

She paused again, and sat waiting for a response. Suzy gave her hand a slight squeeze, but still she said nothing. Very gently, but with a certain remorselessness, the old woman pursued her object, and once more began to address words to that silent weeping figure in the bed.

‘Marietta is a very remarkable child in some ways. Beauty she has not — importance she has; she is full of intelligence, of soul. She needs comprehension, affection — and an object for her loyalties and her love. You are the natural object for that, at present; and I cannot but feel, cara mia, that this exaggerated feeling of hers for the little Prestwich is in some sense a criticism of her relation to you. If you had chosen to fill her heart, she would hardly have looked at her governess!’ She waited a moment, and then said, in a different tone, one Suzy had never heard her use, far-away and wistful: —

‘I love her more than anything in the world; I wish this for her. So much — so much . . .’

Weak as she was, those words, the last ones so faintly spoken, moved Suzy very deeply. ‘Oh, Bonne-Mama, I will give her this — I will try!’ she sobbed out. ‘Children are — are not in my line, very much; if she had been a boy, it might have been easier! But I will do my best. I should like you to have everything you wish, to-day.’

The old woman rose, bent over the bed, and kissed her. ‘Thank you, figlia mia,’ she said, gently. ‘You have made me glad. You will have your reward,’ she added, with characteristic precision.

The old Marchesa did not get quite everything she wanted on her birthday, though she got a great deal. When she left Suzy she went back to her own sitting room and sat for a little in her upright chair, among the hydrangeas in pots, the baskets with beribboned handles, the bouquets which crowded the room, brought by the family, sent from all over the province, and even from Bologna and Rome. Well, that had not gone so badly; Suzy had certainly taken the point, and she was quite sufficiently intelligent, quite generous and skillful enough in her dealings with people, to carry her promise into effect, once she gave her mind to it. One could hope, now, that things would go better, the old woman thought. And sometime to-day she must find a moment to say a word to that darling child, that ardent brilliant creature, her precious little Marietta. A faint mist clouded her eyes at the thought of Marietta. What should she say to her ? That life could be hard, but not as hard as it sometimes seemed — and that it was also good? That the trick of it was — was — what had she been going to say?

She put her hand up to her left side — that tiresome little pain again! She was so fond of Suzy, it had been hard to say those severe things to her — tiring. She was really not equal to seeing her darling now — besides, perhaps she was still with her nice little Postiche. No, just now she must sit quiet —she was really rather tired. She rang her little silver bell for Giacinta, and told her to take out all the lilies — the scent was almost overpowering, quite stifling! She sat on, in her chair, and presently dropped off to sleep.

But there was no sign of fatigue or weakness about her that afternoon, when she sat in the great cool salone, in her richest black brocade, with the marvelous ruffled ‘front’ of point d’ Alençon, and the little cap to match. She was seated at the further end, in one of her favorite high-backed chairs, with the flowers from her room, lilies and all, banked behind and around her — a figure at once formidable and gracious, for all its tiny stature. Because of the Marchesa Nadia’s recent death it was only a ‘family reception’; but the stranger would hardly have guessed it from the names and numbers that thronged the room and the terrace; only the fact that the dresses were all black, white, gray, or lilac might have given it away.

The ramifications of the Vill’ Alta and Castellone families were so widespread that half the province could claim relationship, and every known cousin of every conceivable degree had contrived to be present, from near and far; Odredo and Castellone were full to overflowing with relations from a distance, Asquinis, di Montes, and Barbellinis — all come to celebrate an occasion which made half Italy vicariously proud. On a small table, under alabaster paperweights, were set out telegrams of congratulation from the Queen, from members of the houses of Aosta and Piedmont, and other notabilities; out on the terrace was an open-air buffet with Madeira, coffee, and sweet champagne, of which the centrepiece was a vast cake surrounded by a hundred candles.

At one point the old Marchesa proceeded out on to the terrace, to cut the cake and have her health drunk, and listen to speeches, seated in her usual wicker chair; but for the most part she remained at the end of the salone among her embattled masses of flowers, like royalty on a throne, while one and another were brought up to her by Anastasia Colonna, to kiss her hand and utter compliments and felicitations. They were brought one at a time, and as a rule swept away after a moment or two — Anastasia was anxious that the old lady should not overtax her strength.

Then suddenly, something of a stir and commotion became evident in the great drawing-room. The sons hastened in, Roberto and Giacinta were hurriedly summoned, Anastasia asked people to step outside. Anxiety and consternation flew through the assembly. ‘She is ill.’ ‘She has collapsed.’ ‘They are taking her upstairs.’ ‘The doctor has been sent for’ — the rumors ran from mouth to mouth. In five minutes the gossips of the province had killed the old Marchesa off outright. Some people left at once; the majority, however, remained, standing unhappily about on the terrace, in whispering groups, waiting for further news, for confirmation, for certainty.

‘Listen to Aspidistra!‘ Elena muttered indignantly to Fräulein Gelsicher — ’she has practically arranged the funeral already! Such rubbish — as if BonneMama, of all people, would go and do anything so melodramatic as to die today!’ And, in fact, after less than a quarter of an hour Anastasia reappeared on the terrace steps, to give to those nearest her a reassuring report. It was no more than a sudden faintness — after all, the day had been one of great exertion; the old Marchesa was now quite herself again, and was resting quietly in her room. She regretted extremely not to be able to bid her guests good-bye; but they would realize, Anastasia said, with something of her mother’s firm smoothness, that it would be most unwise for her to come down any more that day.

‘There you are!‘ Elena muttered to Fräulein Gelsicher. ‘What did I say?‘ The company, taking the hint, dispersed gradually. The Sorellone drove off in their pony carriage, Aspasia saying to Roma that Anastasia was always one for putting a good outward face on things — for her part, she did not believe the old lady would see the night out! Count Carlo, taking a last glass of champagne, expressed the belief that the Old One would live forever, and drank to her twohundredth birthday; Fräulein Gelsicher and Elena, disapproving of this levity, hurried him off — Marietta was to spend the night at home, by the old Marchesa’s wish, and to return to Odredo next day.

Countess Livia drove away with two carriage loads of guests to Castellone; she had just heard from Countess Roma of Miss Prestwich’s visit to Marietta that morning, and, while her lips moved silently in the words of the Office for the Dying, her mind was actively condemning the old woman for having allowed a pure young girl like Marietta to speak to ‘that creature.‘

In one of the Odredo carriages Giulio, made grumpy by anxiety, quarreled with his sister: ’She knows all that is necessary, she has done everything she could — why should she desire to live longer? To wish her to live till to-day was fundamentally absurd — there is no virtue in number! Why a hundred, rather than ninety-eight or ninety-nine?’ Elena told him curtly that philosophers were well known to be usually also fools.

Up in the old Marchesa’s sitting room the sal volatile and the brandy stood discarded on a table — they had done their work. The old lady had insisted on leaving the couch where they had placed her at first, and sat now in her high-backed chair — ’It is more comfortable so,’ she protested impatiently to Anastasia. It was only that tiresome little pain over the heart—‘which I may tell you I have constantly, lately’ — which had suddenly overtaken her downstairs, this time with surprising strength. ‘It is nothing—probably indigestion. That fine cake of Apollonia’s was very rich.’ And then she demanded to see Marietta.

But one birthday wish La Vecchia did not get. As a result of her insistence the little girl was sent for, and presently slipped in, light and slim as an elf, in her white muslin with the black ribands, and kissed her grandmother and asked her how she did. ‘Well, well — it was nothing,’ the old lady said. ‘Sit there, by me, my child — I want to talk to you.’ Marietta did as she was bidden, taking a low chair beside the old woman, who retained her little hand and fondled it caressingly. She sat for some time in silence, trying, for the second time that day, to recall what it was that she had wished to say to this precious young creature, this treasure of her old heart. But it was no use — she could not remember, she could not do it. She was too tired. There had been so many people, that afternoon.

’It is no good,’ she said at last, rather wistfully. ‘I had something to say to you, but I find that I am rather too tired now, my little one. I will tell you tomorrow, when I am fresher. Give me a kiss.’

The child put her arms round the old woman’s neck and kissed her—to her surprise, Bonne-Mama rubbed her fine old ivory-colored cheek gently, lingeringly, against the soft apricot-white one. ‘Thank you for letting me see Postiche, Bonne-Mama,’ the little girl said; ‘it has made me so happy, seeing her again. And I am so, so glad that you have made this nice plan for her. She is so good!’

‘Yes, she is,’ the old woman said. ‘Now, run away.’ She kissed the child again. ‘God bless you, my darling one, my treasure. I will see you in the morning.’

Marietta slipped out, quietly as she had come; she ran downstairs and made her way on to the stone-pine ridge. Darling Bonne-Mama, she did not really seem very ill; only rather tired and vague. How funny and tender she had been, too; generally she only just stroked one’s hand! And what could she have wanted to say? The child at once wondered if she could have done something wrong — wandering along between the stone pines, she ran her mind over the day, the past week or so, but she could think of nothing serious. But coming to one of the open spaces between the trees, where a great segment of the arc of mountains to the north opened on the eye, she stopped with held breath, and gazed and gazed — in a moment she had forgotten all about her grandmother, or possible naughtiness. Here was beauty; here was that strange source of the uplifting of the heart — sorrow or uncertainty must be stilled before this. Her spirit took wing, planing off into those remote realms of aspiration and bodiless worshiping bliss which are youth’s special home and kingdom. She stood there, lost and happy in her private world of wonder.

After Marietta had left the room the old Marehesa sat on, half-dozing, in her chair. Anastasia crept in, but, seeing her quiet and comfortable, crept out again. Giacinta was in the bedroom beyond, with the communicating door open — she too came in several times and fussed quietly about, pulling up the light indoor rug over the old woman’s lap, tidying the bottles on the side table; the old Marchesa, accustomed to these ministrations, paid no attention to her. In a dreamy vague way, behind her closed eyes, she was meditating— little scraps of thoughts that came and went. It had been a pleasant day, a pretty party. She wished Suzy could have been there — Suzy would have enjoyed it. She had enjoyed it herself. Everyone had seemed happy, had met contentedly — even Marietta and the little Prestwich. She was glad that was all arranged. It was a pity she herself had not been able to talk to Marietta —it was the one thing left undone. But she would be with the excellent Gelsicher now, the little thing. And she had really been too tired — too tired.

She was very tired, still; she had never been quite so tired before, she thought. In a strange remote way she felt that perhaps the call was near, now — not to-day, or to-morrow, but soon. If one was as tired as this, really rest was the only thing left. Still more dreamily, her mind skimmed over the long past — touching the landmarks, some great, some small, that stood up out of the misty distance. Oh well, life had been, on the whole, good — sometimes painful, often pleasant; never so important as one imagined at the time, as these young people imagined still. And she had had a good long spell of it. A childish sense of triumph stirred in her, and she startled Giacinta by murmuring aloud — ‘And I have lived to be a hundred!‘

The maid hurried forward. ‘Does the Marchesa want anything?‘

‘No, no — what more should I want?’ the old Marchesa said.

The woman went over to the window and raised the sun blind; it was getting rather dark in the room. The striped yellow awning rolled up with a little rattle, and settled into place with a click; the soft sunless light from the upper sky, faintly warmed by the evening gold, filled the room. Still holding the cord, Giacinta turned and looked at her mistress. ‘She looks old,’ she thought; ‘at last she looks very old. But she looks quite happy.’ She turned away again, and fastened the cord round the double hook, leaning forward over the sill to do so. Outside, the tops of the cypresses below the terrace stood up against that soft evening sky, burnished like green spears in the last sunlight; beyond, from the foot of the hill, the autumn countryside stretched away, golden with harvest, the completed fullness of the year’s cycle, and lit by the late sunshine, till it faded gently into a far, invisible horizon.

The maid turned back into the room. ‘It is a beautiful evening, la Marchesa,’ she remarked. But the old lady did not answer. The maid went over to her, pulled the rug up to cover the little old hands, put another shawl round her shoulders, and then, taking her work, seated herself under the window, where she could keep watch over her mistress, and sat sewing, as the light faded.

(The End)