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- The Cardinal's Snuff-Box - 1/39 -


THE CARDINAL'S SNUFF-BOX

BY HENRY HARLAND

I

"The Signorino will take coffee?" old Marietta asked, as she set the fruit before him.

Peter deliberated for a moment; then burned his ships.

"Yes," he answered.

"But in the garden, perhaps?" the little brown old woman suggested, with a persuasive flourish.

"No," he corrected her, gently smiling, and shaking his head, "not perhaps--certainly."

Her small, sharp old black Italian eyes twinkled, responsive.

"The Signorino will find a rustic table, under the big willow-tree, at the water's edge," she informed him, with a good deal of gesture. "Shall I serve it there?"

"Where you will. I leave myself entirely in your hands," he said.

So he sat by the rustic table, on a rustic bench, under the willow, sipped his coffee, smoked his cigarette, and gazed in contemplation at the view.

Of its kind, it was rather a striking view.

In the immediate foreground--at his feet, indeed--there was the river, the narrow Aco, peacock-green, a dark file of poplars on either bank, rushing pell-mell away from the quiet waters of the lake. Then, just across the river, at his left, stretched the smooth lawns of the park of Ventirose, with glimpses of the many-pinnacled castle through the trees; and, beyond, undulating country, flourishing, friendly, a perspective of vineyards, cornfields, groves, and gardens, pointed by numberless white villas. At his right loomed the gaunt mass of the Gnisi, with its black forests, its bare crags, its foaming ascade, and the crenelated range of the Cornobastone; and finally, climax and cynosure, at the valley's end, Monte Sfiorito, its three snow-covered summits almost insubstantial-seeming, floating forms of luminous pink vapour, in the evening sunshine, against the intense blue of the sky.

A familiar verse had come into Peter's mind, and kept running there obstinately.

"Really," he said to himself, "feature for feature, down to the very 'cataract leaping in glory,' the scene might have been got up, apres coup, to illustrate it." And he began to repeat the beautiful hackneyed words, under his breath . . . .

But about midway of the third line he was interrupted.

II

"It's not altogether a bad sort of view--is it?" some one said, in English.

The voice was a woman's. It was clear and smooth; it was crisp-cut, distinguished.

Peter glanced about him.

On the opposite bank of the Aco, in the grounds of Ventirose, five or six yards away, a lady was standing, looking at him, smiling.

Peter's eyes met hers, took in her face . . . . And suddenly his heart gave a jump. Then it stopped dead still, tingling, for a second. Then it flew off, racing perilously.--Oh, for reasons--for the best reasons in the world: but thereby hangs my tale.

She was a young woman, tall, slender, in a white frock, with a white cloak, an indescribable complexity of soft lace and airy ruffles, round her shoulders. She wore no hat. Her hair, brown and warm in shadow, sparkled, where it caught the light, in a kind of crinkly iridescence, like threads of glass.

Peter's heart (for the best reasons in the world) was racing perilously. "It's impossible--impossible--impossible"--the words strummed themselves to its rhythm. Peter's wits (for had not the impossible come to pass?) were in a perilous confusion. But he managed to rise from his rustic bench, and to achieve a bow.

She inclined her head graciously.

"You do not think it altogether bad--I hope?" she questioned, in her crisp-cut voice, raising her eyebrows slightly, with a droll little assumption of solicitude.

Peter's wits were in confusion; but he must answer her. An automatic second-self, summoned by the emergency, answered for him.

"I think one might safely call it altogether good."

"Oh--?" she exclaimed.

Her eyebrows went up again, but now they expressed a certain whimsical surprise. She threw back her head, and regarded the prospect critically.

"It is not, then, too spectacular, too violent?" she wondered, returning her gaze to Peter, with an air of polite readiness to defer to his opinion. "Not too much like a decor de theatre?"

"One should judge it," his automatic second-self submitted, "with some leniency. It is, after all, only unaided Nature."

A spark flickered in her eyes, while she appeared to ponder. (But I am not sure whether she was pondering the speech or its speaker.)

"Really?" she said, in the end. "Did did Nature build the villas, and plant the cornfields?"

But his automatic second-self was on its mettle.

"Yes," it asserted boldly; "the kind of men who build villas and plant cornfields must be classified as natural forces."

She gave a light little laugh--and again appeared to ponder for a moment.

Then, with another gracious inclination of the head, and an interrogative brightening of the eyes, "Mr. Marchdale no doubt?" she hazarded.

Peter bowed.

"I am very glad if, on the whole, you like our little effect," she went on, glancing in the direction of Monte Sfiorito. "I" --there was the briefest suspension--"I am your landlady."

For a third time Peter bowed, a rather more elaborate bow than his earlier ones, a bow of respectful enlightenment, of feudal homage.

"You arrived this afternoon?" she conjectured.

"By the five-twenty-five from Bergamo," said he.

"A very convenient train," she remarked; and then, in the pleasantest manner, whereby the unusual mode of valediction was carried off, "Good evening."

"Good evening," responded Peter, and accomplished his fourth bow.

She moved away from the river, up the smooth lawns, between the trees, towards Castel Ventirose, a flitting whiteness amid the surrounding green.

Peter stood still, looking after her.

But when she was out of sight, he sank back upon his rustic bench, like a man exhausted, and breathed a prodigious sigh. He was absurdly pale. All the same, clenching his fists, and softly pounding the table with them, he muttered exultantly, between his teeth, "What luck! What incredible luck! It's she--it's she, as I 'm a heathen. Oh, what supernatural luck!"

III

Old Marietta--the bravest of small figures, in her neat black-and-white peasant dress, with her silver ornaments, and her red silk coif and apron--came for the coffee things.

But at sight of Peter, she abruptly halted. She struck an


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