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- The Cardinal's Snuff-Box - 6/39 -


The Duchessa looked at the sunny landscape, the bright lawns, the high bending trees, with the light caught in the network of their million leaves; she looked at the laughing white villas westward, the pale-green vineyards, the yellow cornfields; she looked at the rushing river, with the diamonds sparkling on its surface, at the far-away gleaming snows of Monte Sfiorito, at the scintillant blue shy overhead.

Then she looked at Peter, a fine admixture of mirth with something like gravity in her smile.

"The dark backward and abysm of space?" she repeated. "And you do not wear black spectacles? Then it must be that your eyes themselves are just a pair of black-seeing pessimists."

"On the contrary," triumphed Peter, "it is because they are optimists, that they suspect there must be forwarder and more luminous regions than the Solar System."

The Duchessa laughed.

"I think you have the prettiest mouth, and the most exquisite little teeth, and the eyes richest in promise, and the sweetest laughter, of any woman out of Paradise," said Peter, in the silence of his soul.

"It is clear I shall never be your match in debate," said she.

Peter made a gesture of deprecating modesty.

"But I wonder," she went on, "whether you would put me down as 'another species of snatcher,' if I should ask you to spare me just the merest end of a crust of bread?" And she lifted those eyes rich in promise appealingly to his.

"Oh, I beg of you--take all I have," he responded, with effusion. "But--but how--?"

"Toss," she commanded tersely.

So he tossed what was left of his bread into the air, above the river; and the Duchessa, easily, deftly, threw up a hand, and caught it on the wing.

"Thank you very much," she laughed, with a little bow.

Then she crumbled the bread, and began to sprinkle the ground with it; and in an instant she was the centre of a cloud of birds. Peter was at liberty to watch her, to admire the swift grace of her motions, their suggestion of delicate strength, of joy in things physical, and the lithe elasticity of her figure, against the background of satiny lawn, and the further vistas of lofty sunlit trees. She was dressed in white, as always--a frock of I know not what supple fabric, that looked as if you might have passed it through your ring, and fell in multitudes of small soft creases. Two big red roses drooped from her bodice. She wore a garden-hat, of white straw, with a big daring rose-red bow, under which the dense meshes of her hair, warmly dark, dimly bright, shimmered in a blur of brownish gold.

"What vigour, what verve, what health," thought Peter, watching her, "what--lean, fresh, fragrant health!" And he had, no doubt, his emotions.

She bestowed her bread crumbs on the birds; but she was able, somehow, to discriminate mightily in favour of the goldfinches. She would make a diversion, the semblance of a fling, with her empty right hand; and the too-greedy sparrows would dart off, avid, on that false lead. Whereupon, quickly, stealthily, she would rain a little shower of crumbs, from her left hand, on the grass beside her, to a confiding group of finches assembled there. And if ever a sparrow ventured to intrude his ruffianly black beak into this sacred quarter, she would manage, with a kind of restrained ferocity, to "shoo" him away, without thereby frightening the finches.

And all the while her eyes laughed; and there was colour in her cheeks; and there was the forceful, graceful action of her body.

When the bread was finished, she clapped her hands together gently, to dust the last mites from them, and looked over at Peter, and smiled significantly.

"Yes," he acknowledged, "you outwitted them very skilfully. You, at any rate, have no need of a dragon."

"Oh, in default of a dragon, one can do dragon's work oneself," she answered lightly. "Or, rather, one can make oneself an instrument of justice."

"All the same, I should call it uncommonly hard luck to be born a sparrow--within your jurisdiction," he said.

"It is not an affair of luck," said she. "One is born a sparrow--within my jurisdiction--for one's sins in a former state.--No, you little dovelings"--she turned to a pair of finches on the greensward near her, who were lingering, and gazing up into her face with hungry, expectant eyes--"I have no more. I have given you my all." And she stretched out her open hands, palms downwards, to convince them.

"The sparrows got nothing; and the goldfinches, who got 'your all,' grumble because you gave so little," said Peter, sadly. "That is what comes of interfering with the laws of Nature." And then, as the two birds flew away, "See the dark, doubtful, reproachful glances with which they cover you."

"You think they are ungrateful?" she said. "No--listen."

She held up a finger.

For, at that moment, on the branch of an acacia, just over her head, a goldfinch began to sing--his thin, sweet, crystalline trill of song.

"Do you call that grumbling?" she asked.

"It implies a grumble," said Peter, "like the 'thank you' of a servant dissatisfied with his tip. It's the very least he can do. It's perfunctory--I 'm not sure it is n't even ironical."

"Perfunctory! Ironical!" cried the Duchessa. "Look at him! He's warbling his delicious little soul out."

They both paused to look and listen.

The bird's gold-red bosom palpitated. He marked his modulations by sudden emphatic movements of the head. His eyes were fixed intently before him, as if he could actually see and follow the shining thread of his song, as it wound away through the air. His performance had all the effect of a spontaneous rhapsody. When it was terminated, he looked down at his auditors, eager, inquisitive, as who should say, "I hope you liked it?"--and then, with a nod clearly meant as a farewell, flew out of sight.

The Duchessa smiled again at Peter, with intention.

"You must really try to take a cheerier view of things," she said.

And next instant she too was off, walking slowly, lightly, up the green lawns, between the trees, towards the castle, her gown fluttering in the breeze, now dazzling white as she came into the sun, now pearly grey as she passed into the shade.

"What a woman it is," said Peter to himself, looking after her. "What vigour, what verve, what sex! What a woman!"

And, indeed, there was nothing of the too-prevalent epicene in the Duchessa's aspect; she was very certainly a woman. "Heavens, how she walks!" he cried in a deep whisper.

But then a sudden wave of dejection swept over him. At first he could not account for it. By and by, however, a malicious little voice began to repeat and repeat within him, "Oh, the futile impression you must have made upon her! Oh, the ineptitudes you uttered! Oh, the precious opportunity you have misemployed!"

"You are a witch," he said to Marietta. "You've proved it to the hilt. I 've seen the person, and the object is more desperately lost than ever."

X

That evening, among the letters Peter received from England, there was one from his friend Mrs. Winchfield, which contained certain statistics.

"Your Duchessa di Santangiolo 'was' indeed, as your funny old servant told you, English: the only child and heiress of the last Lord Belfont. The Belfonts of Lancashire (now, save for your Duchessa, extinct) were the most bigoted sort of Roman Catholics, and always educated their daughters in foreign convents, and as often as not married them to foreigners. The Belfont men, besides, were ever and anon marrying foreign wives; so there will be a goodish deal of un-English blood in your Duchessa's own ci-devant English veins.

"She was born, as I learn from an indiscretion of my Peerage, in 1870, and is, therefore, as near to thirty (the dangerous age!) as to the six-and-twenty your droll old Marietta gives her. Her Christian names are Beatrice Antonia Teresa Mary --faites en votre choix. She was married at nineteen to Baldassarre Agosto, Principe Udeschini, Duca di Santangiolo, Marchese di Castellofranco, Count of the Holy Roman Empire, Knight of the Holy Ghost and of St. Gregory, (does it take your breath away?), who, according to Frontin, died in '93; and as there were no children, his brother Felipe Lorenzo succeeded to the titles. A younger brother still is Bishop of Sardagna. Cardinal Udeschini is the uncle.


The Cardinal's Snuff-Box - 6/39

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