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- Where Angels Fear to Tread - 4/34 -
Therefore I forbid her, and if she disobeys we have done with her for ever."
"I will do all I can," said Philip in a low voice. It was the first time he had had anything to do. He kissed his mother and sister and puzzled Irma. The hall was warm and attractive as he looked back into it from the cold March night, and he departed for Italy reluctantly, as for something commonplace and dull.
Before Mrs. Herriton went to bed she wrote to Mrs. Theobald, using plain language about Lilia's conduct, and hinting that it was a question on which every one must definitely choose sides. She added, as if it was an afterthought, that Mrs. Theobald's letter had arrived that morning.
Just as she was going upstairs she remembered that she never covered up those peas. It upset her more than anything, and again and again she struck the banisters with vexation. Late as it was, she got a lantern from the tool-shed and went down the garden to rake the earth over them. The sparrows had taken every one. But countless fragments of the letter remained, disfiguring the tidy ground.
When the bewildered tourist alights at the station of Monteriano, he finds himself in the middle of the country. There are a few houses round the railway, and many more dotted over the plain and the slopes of the hills, but of a town, mediaeval or otherwise, not the slightest sign. He must take what is suitably termed a "legno"--a piece of wood--and drive up eight miles of excellent road into the middle ages. For it is impossible, as well as sacrilegious, to be as quick as Baedeker.
It was three in the afternoon when Philip left the realms of commonsense. He was so weary with travelling that he had fallen asleep in the train. His fellow-passengers had the usual Italian gift of divination, and when Monteriano came they knew he wanted to go there, and dropped him out. His feet sank into the hot asphalt of the platform, and in a dream he watched the train depart, while the porter who ought to have been carrying his bag, ran up the line playing touch-you-last with the guard. Alas! he was in no humour for Italy. Bargaining for a legno bored him unutterably. The man asked six lire; and though Philip knew that for eight miles it should scarcely be more than four, yet he was about to give what he was asked, and so make the man discontented and unhappy for the rest of the day. He was saved from this social blunder by loud shouts, and looking up the road saw one cracking his whip and waving his reins and driving two horses furiously, and behind him there appeared the swaying figure of a woman, holding star-fish fashion on to anything she could touch. It was Miss Abbott, who had just received his letter from Milan announcing the time of his arrival, and had hurried down to meet him.
He had known Miss Abbott for years, and had never had much opinion about her one way or the other. She was good, quiet, dull, and amiable, and young only because she was twenty-three: there was nothing in her appearance or manner to suggest the fire of youth. All her life had been spent at Sawston with a dull and amiable father, and her pleasant, pallid face, bent on some respectable charity, was a familiar object of the Sawston streets. Why she had ever wished to leave them was surprising; but as she truly said, "I am John Bull to the backbone, yet I do want to see Italy, just once. Everybody says it is marvellous, and that one gets no idea of it from books at all." The curate suggested that a year was a long time; and Miss Abbott, with decorous playfulness, answered him, "Oh, but you must let me have my fling! I promise to have it once, and once only. It will give me things to think about and talk about for the rest of my life." The curate had consented; so had Mr. Abbott. And here she was in a legno, solitary, dusty, frightened, with as much to answer and to answer for as the most dashing adventuress could desire.
They shook hands without speaking. She made room for Philip and his luggage amidst the loud indignation of the unsuccessful driver, whom it required the combined eloquence of the station-master and the station beggar to confute. The silence was prolonged until they started. For three days he had been considering what he should do, and still more what he should say. He had invented a dozen imaginary conversations, in all of which his logic and eloquence procured him certain victory. But how to begin? He was in the enemy's country, and everything--the hot sun, the cold air behind the heat, the endless rows of olive-trees, regular yet mysterious--seemed hostile to the placid atmosphere of Sawston in which his thoughts took birth. At the outset he made one great concession. If the match was really suitable, and Lilia were bent on it, he would give in, and trust to his influence with his mother to set things right. He would not have made the concession in England; but here in Italy, Lilia, however wilful and silly, was at all events growing to be a human being.
"Are we to talk it over now?" he asked.
"Certainly, please," said Miss Abbott, in great agitation. "If you will be so very kind."
"Then how long has she been engaged?"
Her face was that of a perfect fool--a fool in terror.
"A short time--quite a short time," she stammered, as if the shortness of the time would reassure him.
"I should like to know how long, if you can remember."
She entered into elaborate calculations on her fingers. "Exactly eleven days," she said at last.
"How long have you been here?"
More calculations, while he tapped irritably with his foot. "Close on three weeks."
"Did you know him before you came?"
"Oh! Who is he?"
"A native of the place."
The second silence took place. They had left the plain now and were climbing up the outposts of the hills, the olive-trees still accompanying. The driver, a jolly fat man, had got out to ease the horses, and was walking by the side of the carriage.
"I understood they met at the hotel."
"It was a mistake of Mrs. Theobald's."
"I also understand that he is a member of the Italian nobility."
She did not reply.
"May I be told his name?"
Miss Abbott whispered, "Carella." But the driver heard her, and a grin split over his face. The engagement must be known already.
"Carella? Conte or Marchese, or what?"
"Signor," said Miss Abbott, and looked helplessly aside.
"Perhaps I bore you with these questions. If so, I will stop."
"Oh, no, please; not at all. I am here--my own idea--to give all information which you very naturally--and to see if somehow--please ask anything you like."
"Then how old is he?"
"Oh, quite young. Twenty-one, I believe."
There burst from Philip the exclamation, "Good Lord!"
"One would never believe it," said Miss Abbott, flushing. "He looks much older."
"And is he good-looking?" he asked, with gathering sarcasm.
She became decisive. "Very good-looking. All his features are good, and he is well built--though I dare say English standards would find him too short."
Philip, whose one physical advantage was his height, felt annoyed at her implied indifference to it.
"May I conclude that you like him?"
She replied decisively again, "As far as I have seen him, I do."
At that moment the carriage entered a little wood, which lay brown and sombre across the cultivated hill. The trees of the wood were small and leafless, but noticeable for this--that their stems stood in violets as rocks stand in the summer sea. There are such violets in England, but not so many. Nor are there so many in Art, for no painter has the courage. The cart-ruts were channels, the hollow lagoons; even the dry white margin of the road was splashed, like a causeway soon to be submerged under the advancing tide of spring. Philip paid no attention at the time: he was thinking what to say next. But his eyes had registered the beauty, and next March he did not forget that the road to
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