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- The Cardinal's Snuff-Box - 20/39 -
"I think I can improvise a bridge across the river."
"I believe the rain has stopped," said the priest, looking towards the window.
Peter, manning his soul for the inevitable, got up, went to the door, opened it, stuck out his head.
"Yes," he acknowledged, while his heart sank within him, "the rain has stopped."
And now the storm departed almost as rapidly as it had arrived. In the north the sky was already clear, blue and hard-looking --a wall of lapis-lazuli. The dark cloud-canopy was drifting to the south. Suddenly the sun came out, flashing first from the snows of Monte Sfiorito, then, in an instant, flooding the entire prospect with a marvellous yellow light, ethereal amber; whilst long streamers of tinted vapour--columns of pearl-dust, one might have fancied--rose to meet it; and all wet surfaces, leaves, lawns, tree-trunks, housetops, the bare crags of the Gnisi, gleamed in a wash of gold.
Puffs of fresh air blew into the kitchen, filling it with the keen sweet odour of wet earth. The priest and the Duchessa and Emilia joined Peter at the open door.
"Oh, your poor, poor garden!" the Duchessa cried.
His garden had suffered a good deal, to be sure. The flowers lay supine, their faces beaten into the mud; the greensward was littered with fallen leaves and twigs--and even in one or two places whole branches had been broken from the trees; on the ground about each rose-bush a snow of pink rose-petals lay scattered; in the paths there were hundreds of little pools, shining in the sun like pools of fire.
"There's nothing a gardener can't set right," said Peter, feeling no doubt that here was a trifling tax upon the delights the storm had procured him.
"And oh, our poor, poor hats!" said the Duchessa, eyeing ruefully those damaged pieces of finery. "I fear no gardener can ever set them right."
"It sounds inhospitable," said Peter, "but I suppose I had better go and build your bridge."
So he threw a ladder athwart the river, and laid the planks in place, as he had seen Gigi do the day before.
"How ingenious--and, like all great things, how simple," laughed the Duchessa.
Peter waved his hand, as who should modestly deprecate applause. But, I 'm ashamed to own, he didn't disclaim the credit of the invention.
"It will require some nerve," she reflected, looking at the narrow planks, the foaming green water. "However--"
And gathering in her skirts, she set bravely forward, and made the transit without mishap. The priest and Emilia, gathering in their skirts, made it after her.
She paused on the other side, and looked back, smiling.
"Since you have discovered so efficacious a means of cutting short the distance between our places of abode," she said, "I hope you will not fail to profit by it whenever you may have occasion--on Thursday, for example."
"Thank you very much," said Peter.
"Of course," she went on, "we may all die of our wetting yet. It would perhaps show a neighbourly interest if you were to come up to-morrow, and take our news. Come at four o'clock; and if we're alive . . . you shall have another pinch of snuff," she promised, laughing.
"I adore you," said Peter, under his breath. "I'll come with great pleasure," he said aloud.
"Marietta," he observed, that evening, as he dined, "I would have you to know that the Aco is bridged. Hence, there is one symbol the fewer in Lombardy. But why does--you mustn't mind the Ollendorfian form of my enquiry--why does the chaplain of the Duchessa wear red stockings?"
"The chaplain of the Duchessa--?" repeated Marietta, wrinkling up her brow.
"Ang--of the Duchessa di Santangiolo. He wore red stockings, and shoes with silver buckles. Do you think that's precisely decorous--don't you think it 's the least bit light-minded--in an ecclesiastic?"
"He--? Who--?" questioned Marietta.
"But the chaplain of the Duchessa--when he was here this afternoon."
"The chaplain of the Duchessa!" exclaimed Marietta. "Here this afternoon? The chaplain of the Duchessa was not here this afternoon. His Eminence the Lord Prince Cardinal Udeschini was here this afternoon."
"What!" gasped Peter.
"Ang," said Marietta.
"That was Cardinal Udeschini--that little harmless-looking, sweet-faced old man!" Peter wondered.
"Sicuro--the uncle of the Duca," said she.
"Good heavens!" sighed he. "And I allowed myself to hobnob with him like a boon-companion."
"Gia," said she.
"You need n't rub it in," said he. "For the matter of that, you yourself entertained him in your kitchen."
"Scusi?" said she.
"Ah, well--it was probably for the best," he concluded. "I daresay I should n't have behaved much better if I had known."
"It was his coming which saved this house from being struck by lightning," announced Marietta.
"Oh--? Was it?" exclaimed Peter.
"Yes, Signorino. The lightning would never strike a house that the Lord Prince Cardinal was in."
"I see--it would n't venture--it would n't presume. Did--did it strike all the houses that the Lord Prince Cardinal was n't in?"
"I do not think so, Signorino. Ma non fa niente. It was a terrible storm--terrible, terrible. The lightning was going to strike this house, when the Lord Prince Cardinal arrived."
"Hum," said Peter. "Then you, as well as I, have reason for regarding his arrival as providential."
"I think something must have happened to my watch," Peter said, next day.
Indeed, its hands moved with extraordinary, with exasperating slowness.
"It seems absurd that it should do no good to push them on," he thought.
He would force himself, between twice ascertaining their position, to wait for a period that felt like an eternity, walking about miserably, and smoking flavourless cigarettes; --then he would stand amazed, incredulous, when, with a smirk (as it almost struck him) of ironical complacence, they would attest that his eternity had lasted something near a quarter of an hour.
"And I had professed myself a Kantian, and made light of the objective reality of Time! thou laggard, Time!" he cried, and shook his fist at Space, Time's unoffending consort.
"I believe it will never be four o'clock again," he said, in despair, finally; and once more had out his watch. It was half-past three. He scowled at the instrument's bland white face. "You have no bowels, no sensibilities--nothing but dry little methodical jog-trot wheels and pivots!" he exclaimed, flying to insult for relief. "You're as inhuman as a French functionary. Do you call yourself a sympathetic comrade for an impatient man?" He laid it open on his rustic table, and waited through a last eternity. At a quarter to four he crossed the river. "If I am early--tant pis!" he decided, choosing the lesser of two evils, and challenging Fate.
He crossed the river, and stood for the first time in the grounds of Ventirose--stood where she had been in the habit of standing, during their water-side colloquies. He glanced back at his house and garden, envisaging them for the first time, as it were, from her point of view. They had a queer air of belonging to an era that had passed, to a yesterday already remote. They looked, somehow, curiously small, moreover--the garden circumscribed, the two-storied house, with its striped sunblinds, poor and petty. He turned his back upon them--left them behind. He would have to come home to them later in the day, to be sure; but then everything would be different. A chapter would have added itself to the history of the world; a
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