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- The Cardinal's Snuff-Box - 4/39 -
in modern literature. At any rate--
"Those are Lombard country-girls along the coast," she reminded him. "We are peaceful inland folk, miles from the sea. But you had best be on your guard, none the less." She shook her head, in warning. "Through all this country-side that old Marietta is reputed to be a witch."
"If she's a witch," said Peter, undismayed, "her usefulness will be doubled. I shall put her to the test directly I get home."
"Sprinkle her with holy water?" laughed the Duchessa. "Have a care. If she should turn into a black cat, and fly away on a broomstick, you'd never forgive yourself."
Wherewith she swept on to her carriage, followed by her young companion.
The sprightly French bays tossed their heads, making the harness tinkle. The footman mounted the box. The carriage rolled away.
But Peter remained for quite a minute motionless on the door-step, gazing, bemused, down the long, straight, improbable village street, with its poplars, its bridge, its ancient stone cross, its irregular pink and yellow houses--as improbable as a street in opera-bouffe. A thin cloud of dust floated after the carriage, a thin screen of white dust, which, in the sun, looked like a fume of silver.
"I think I could put my finger on a witch worth two of Marietta," he said, in the end." And thus we see," he added, struck by something perhaps not altogether novel in his own reflection, "how the primary emotions, being perennial, tend to express themselves in perennial formulae."
Back at the villa, he enquired of Marietta who the pretty brown-eyed young girl might have been.
"The Signorina Emilia," Marietta promptly informed him.
"Really and truly?" questioned he.
"Ang," affirmed Marietta, with the national jerk of the head; "the Signorina Emilia Manfredi--the daughter of the Duca."
"Oh--? Then the Duca was married before?" concluded Peter, with simplicity.
"Che-e-e!" scoffed Marietta, on her highest note. "Married? He?" Then she winked and nodded--as one man of the world to another. "Ma molto porn! La mamma fu robaccia di Milano. But after his death, the Duchessa had her brought to the castle. She is the same as adopted."
"That looks as if your Duchessa's heart were in the right place, after all," commented Peter.
"Gia," agreed Marietta.
"Hang the right place!" cried he. "What's the good of telling me her heart is in the right place, if the right place is inaccessible?"
But Marietta only looked bewildered.
He lived in his garden, he haunted the riverside, he made a daily pilgrimage to the village post, he thoroughly neglected the work he had come to this quiet spot to do. But a week passed, during which he never once beheld so much as the shadow of the Duchessa.
On Sunday he trudged his mile, through the sun, and up the hill, not only to both Masses, but to Vespers and Benediction.
She was present at none of these offices.
"The Pagan!" he exclaimed.
Up at the castle, on the broad marble terrace, where clematis and jessamine climbed over the balustrade and twined about its pilasters, where oleanders grew in tall marble urns and shed their roseate petals on the pavement, Beatrice, dressed for dinner, in white, with pearls in her hair, and pearls round her throat, was walking slowly backwards and forwards, reading a letter.
"There is a Peter Marchdale--I don't know whether he will be your Peter Marchdale or not, my dear; though the name seems hardly likely to be common--son of the late Mr. Archibald Marchdale, Q. C., and nephew of old General Marchdale, of Whitstoke. A highly respectable and stodgy Norfolk family. I've never happened to meet the man myself, but I'm told he's a bit of an eccentric, who amuses himself globe-trotting, and writing books (novels, I believe) which nobody, so far as I am aware, ever reads. He writes under a pseudonym, Felix--I 'm not sure whether it's Mildmay or Wildmay. He began life, by the bye, in the Diplomatic, and was attache for a while at Berlin, or Petersburg, or somewhere; but whether (in the elegant language of Diplomacy) he 'chucked it up,' or failed to pass his exams, I'm not in a position to say. He will be near thirty, and ought to have a couple of thousand a year--more or less. His father, at any rate, was a great man at the bar, and must have left something decent. And the only other thing in the world I know about him is that he's a great friend of that clever gossip Margaret Winchfield--which goes to show that however obscure he may be as a scribbler of fiction, he must possess some redeeming virtues as a social being--for Mrs. Winchfield is by no means the sort that falls in love with bores. As you 're not, either--well, verbum sap., as my little brother Freddie says."
Beatrice gazed off, over the sunny lawn, with its trees and their long shadows, with its shrubberies, its bright flower-beds, its marble benches, its artificial ruin; over the lake, with its coloured sails, its incongruous puffing steamboats; down the valley, away to the rosy peaks of Monte Sfiorito, and the deep blue sky behind them. She plucked a spray of jessamine, and brushed the cool white blossoms across her cheek, and inhaled their fairy fragrance.
"An obscure scribbler of fiction," she mused. "Ah, well, one is an obscure reader of fiction oneself. We must send to London for Mr. Felix Mildmay Wildmay's works."
On Monday evening, at the end of dinner, as she set the fruit before him, "The Signorino will take coffee?" old Marietta asked.
Peter frowned at the fruit, figs and peaches--
"Figs imperial purple, and blushing peaches"--
ranged alternately, with fine precision, in a circle, round a central heap of translucent yellow grapes.
"Is this the produce of my own vine and fig-tree?" he demanded.
"Yes, Signorino; and also peach-tree," replied Marietta.
"Peaches do not grow on fig-trees?" he enquired.
"No, Signorino," said Marietta.
"Nor figs on thistles. I wonder why not," said he.
"It is n't Nature," was Marietta's confident generalisation.
"Marietta Cignolesi," Peter pronounced severely, looking her hard in the eyes, "I am told you are a witch."
"No," said Marietta, simply, without surprise, without emotion.
"I quite understand," he genially persisted. "It's a part of the game to deny it. But I have no intention of sprinkling you with holy water-so don't be frightened. Besides, if you should do anything outrageous--if you should turn into a black cat, and fly away on a broomstick, for example--I could never forgive myself. But I'll thank you to employ a little of your witchcraft on my behalf, all the same. I have lost something --something very precious--more precious than rubies--more precious than fine gold."
Marietta's brown old wrinkles fell into an expression of alarm.
"In the villa? In the garden?" she exclaimed, anxiously.
"No, you conscientious old thing you," Peter hastened to relieve her. "Nowhere in your jurisdiction--so don't distress yourself: Laggiu, laggiu."
And he waved a vague hand, to indicate outer space.
The Signorino should put up a candle to St. Anthony of Padua," counselled this Catholic witch.
"St. Anthony of Padua? Why of Padua?" asked Peter.
"St. Anthony of Padua," said Marietta.
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