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- The Cardinal's Snuff-Box - 3/39 -
to an Englishman--a youngish, presentable-looking creature, in a dinner jacket, with a tongue in his head, and an indulgent eye for Nature--named Peter Marchdale. Do you happen by any chance to know who he is, or anything about him?"
Peter very likely slept but little, that first night at the villa; and more than once, I fancy, he repeated to his pillow his pious ejaculation of the afternoon: "What luck! What supernatural luck!" He was up, in any case, at an unconscionable hour next morning, up, and down in his garden.
"It really is a surprisingly jolly garden," he confessed. "The agent was guiltless of exaggeration, and the photographs were not the perjuries one feared."
There were some fine old trees, lindens, acacias, chestnuts, a flat-topped Lombardy pine, a darkling ilex, besides the willow that overhung the river, and the poplars that stiffly stood along its border. Then there was the peacock-blue river itself, dancing and singing as it sped away, with a thousand diamonds flashing on its surface--floating, sinking, rising --where the sun caught its ripples. There were some charming bits of greensward. There was a fountain, plashing melodious coolness, in a nimbus of spray which the sun touched to rainbow pinks and yellows. There were vivid parterres of flowers, begonia and geranium. There were oleanders, with their heady southern perfume; there were pomegranate-blossoms, like knots of scarlet crepe; there were white carnations, sweet-peas, heliotrope, mignonette; there were endless roses. And there were birds, birds, birds. Everywhere you heard their joyous piping, the busy flutter of their wings. There were goldfinches, blackbirds, thrushes, with their young--the plumpest, clumsiest, ruffle-feathered little blunderers, at the age ingrat, just beginning to fly, a terrible anxiety to their parents--and there were also (I regret to own) a good many rowdy sparrows. There were bees and bumblebees; there were brilliant, dangerous-looking dragonflies; there were butterflies, blue ones and white ones, fluttering in couples; there were also (I am afraid) a good many gadflies--but che volete? Who minds a gadfly or two in Italy? On the other side of the house there were fig-trees and peach-trees, and artichokes holding their heads high in rigid rows; and a vine, heavy with great clusters of yellow grapes, was festooned upon the northern wall.
The morning air was ineffably sweet and keen--penetrant, tonic, with moist, racy smells, the smell of the good brown earth, the smell of green things and growing things. The dew was spread over the grass like a veil of silver gossamer, spangled with crystals. The friendly country westward, vineyards and white villas, laughed in the sun at the Gnisi, sulking black in shadow to the east. The lake lay deep and still, a dark sapphire. And away at the valley's end, Monte Sfiorito, always insubstantial-seeming, showed pale blue-grey, upon a sky in which still lingered some of the flush of dawn.
It was a surprisingly jolly garden, true enough. But though Peter remained in it all day long--though he haunted the riverside, and cast a million desirous glances, between the trees, and up the lawns, towards Castel Ventirose--he enjoyed no briefest vision of the Duchessa di Santangiolo.
Nor the next day; nor the next.
"Why does n't that old dowager ever come down and look after her river?" he asked Marietta. "For all the attention she gives it, the water might be undermining her property on both sides."
"That old dowager--?" repeated Marietta, blank.
"That old widow woman--my landlady--the Duchessa Vedova di Santangiolo."
"She is not very old--only twenty-six, twenty-seven," said Marietta.
"Don't try to persuade me that she is n't old enough to know better," retorted Peter, sternly.
"But she has her guards, her keepers, to look after her property," said Marietta.
"Guards and keepers are mere mercenaries. If you want a thing well done, you should do it yourself," said Peter, with gloomy sententiousness.
On Sunday he went to the little grey rococo parish church. There were two Masses, one at eight o'clock, one at ten--and the church was quite a mile from Villa Floriano, and up a hill; and the Italian sun was hot--but the devoted young man went to both.
The Duchessa was at neither.
"What does she think will become of her immortal soul?" he asked Marietta.
On Monday he went to the pink-stuccoed village post-office.
Before the post-office door a smart little victoria, with a pair of sprightly, fine-limbed French bays, was drawn up, ducal coronets emblazoned on its panels.
Peter's heart began to beat.
And while he was hesitating on the doorstep, the door opened, and the Duchessa came forth--tall, sumptuous, in white, with a wonderful black-plumed hat, and a wonderful white-frilled sunshade. She was followed by a young girl--a pretty, dark-complexioned girl, of fourteen, fifteen perhaps, with pleasant brown eyes (that lucent Italian brown), and in her cheeks a pleasant hint of red (that covert Italian red, which seems to glow through the thinnest film of satin).
Peter bowed, standing aside to let them pass.
But when he looked up, the Duchessa had stopped, and was smiling on him.
His heart beat harder.
"A lovely day," said the Duchessa.
"Delightful," agreed Peter, between two heart-beats.--Yet he looked, in his grey flannels, with his straw-hat and his eyeglass, with his lean face, his even colour, his slightly supercilious moustaches--he looked a very embodiment of cool-blooded English equanimity.
"A trifle warm, perhaps?" the Duchessa suggested, with her air of polite (or was it in some part humorous?) readiness to defer to his opinion.
"But surely," suggested he, "in Italy, in summer, it is its bounden duty to be a trifle warm?"
The Duchessa smiled.
"You like it? So do I. But what the country really needs is rain."
"Then let us hope," said he, "that the country's real needs may remain unsatisfied."
The Duchessa tittered.
"Think of the poor farmers," she said reproachfully.
"It's vain to think of them," he answered. "'T is an ascertained fact that no condition of the weather ever contents the farmers."
The Duchessa laughed.
"Ah, well," she consented, "then I 'll join in your hope that the fine weather may last. I--I trust," she was so good as to add, "that you're not entirely uncomfortable at Villa Floriano?"
"I dare n't allow myself to speak of Villa Floriano," he replied. "I should become dithyrambic. It's too adorable."
"It has a pretty garden, and--I remember--you admired the view," the Duchessa said. "And that old Marietta? I trust she does for you fairly well?" Her raised eyebrows expressed benevolent (or was it in some part humorous?) concern.
"She does for me to perfection. That old Marietta is a priceless old jewel," Peter vowed.
"A good cook?" questioned the Duchessa.
"A good cook--but also a counsellor and friend. And with a flow of language!"
The Duchessa laughed again.
"Oh, these Lombard peasant women. They are untiring chatterers."
"I 'm not sure," Peter felt himself in justice bound to confess, "that Marietta is n't equally untiring as a listener. In fact, there's only one respect in which she has disappointed me."
"Oh--?" said the Duchessa. And her raised eyebrows demanded particulars.
"She swears she does n't wear a dagger in her garter--has never heard of such a practice," Peter explained. "And now," he whispered to his soul, "we 'll see whether our landlady is up in modern literature."
Still again the Duchessa laughed. And, apparently, she was up
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