In a Winter City/Chapter 5

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CHAPTER V.

The next day the Duca della Rocca left cards on Lady Hilda and the Comtesse de Caviare; and then for a fortnight never went near either of them except to exchange a few words with them in other people's houses. M. de St. Louis, who was vastly enamoured of his project, because it was his project (what better reason has anybody?) was irritated and in despair.

"You fly in the face of Fate!" he said, with much impatience.

Della Rocca laughed.

"There is no such person as Fate—she perished with all the rest of the Pagan world when we put up our first gas-lamp. The two I regret most of them all are Faunus and Picus; nowadays we make Faunus into a railway contractor, and shoot Picus for the market-stall."

"You are very romantic," said the Duc, with serene contempt. "It is an unfortunate quality; and I confess," he added, with a sigh, as if confessing a blemish in a favourite horse, "that, perhaps, she is a little deficient in the other extreme, a little too cold, a little too unimpressionable; there is absolutely no shadow of cause to suppose she ever felt the slightest emotion for anyone. That gives, perhaps, a certain hardness. It is not natural. 'Une petite faiblesse donne tant de charme.'"

"In a wife, one might dispense with the 'petite faiblesse' for anyone else," said Della Rocca, with a smile; the blemish did not seem much of a fault in his eyes.

"That is a romantic notion," said the Duc, with a little touch of disdain. "In real truth a woman is easier to manage who has had—a past. She knows what to expect. It is flattering to be the first object of passion to a woman. But it is troublesome: she exacts so much!"

"If I were not that, I have seldom cared to be anything," said Della Rocca.

"That is an Italian amorous fancy. Romeo and Othello are the typical Italian lovers. I never can tell how a northerner like Shakspeare could draw either. You are often very unfaithful; but while you are faithful you are ardent, and you are absorbed in the woman. That is one of the reasons why an Italian succeeds in love as no other man does. 'L'art de brûler silencieusement le cœur d'une femme" is a supreme art with you. Compared with you, all other men are children. You have been the supreme masters of the great passion since the days of Ovid."

"Because it is much more the supreme pursuit of our lives than it is with other men. How can Love be of much power where it is inferior to fox-hunting, and a mere interlude when there is no other sport to be had, as it is with Englishmen?"

"And with a Frenchman it is always inferior to himself!" confessed the French Duc, with a smile. "At least they say so. But every human being loves his vanity first. 'Only wounded my vanity?' poor Lord Strangford used to say. 'Pray what dearer and more integral part of myself could you wound?' He was very right. If we are not on good terms with ourselves we can never prevail with others."

"Yet a vain man seldom succeeds with women?"

"A man who lets them see that he is vain does not: that is another matter. Vanity—ah! there is Miladi, she has plenty of vanity; yet it is of a grandiose kind, and it would only take a little more time and the first grey hair to turn it into dissatisfaction. All kinds of discontent are only superb vanities. Byron's, Musset's, Bolingbroke's ———"

A horse nearly knocked the Duc down in the midst of his philosophies as he picked his way delicately amongst the standing and moving carriages to the place where the white great-coats with the black velvet collars of the Lady Hilda's servants were visible.

The Lady Hilda's victoria stood in that open square where it is the pleasure of fashionable Floralia to stop its carriages in the course of the drive before dinner.

The piazza is the most unlovely part of the park: it has a gaunt red café and a desert of hard-beaten sand, and in the middle there are some few plants, and a vast quantity of iron bordering laid out in geometrical patterns, with more hard-beaten sand between them, this being the modern Floralian idea of a garden; to which fatal idea are sacrificed the noble ilex shades, the bird-filled cedar groves, the deep delicious dreamful avenues, the moss-grown ways, and the leaf-covered fountains, worthy to shelter Narcissus and to bathe Nausicaa, which their wiser forefathers knew were alike the blessing and the glory of this land of the sun.

Nevertheless—perhaps because it is the last place in the world where anybody would be supposed ever voluntarily to stop a carriage—here motley modern society delights to group its fusing nationalities; and the same people who bored each other in the morning's calls, and will bore each other in the evening's receptions, bore each other sedulously in the open air, and would not omit the sacred ceremonial for anything—unless, indeed, it rained.

Perhaps after all Floralia reads aright the generation that visits it. The ilex shadows and the cedar-groves need Virgil and Horace, Tasso and Petrarca, Milton and Shelley.

The Lady Hilda, who never by any chance paused in the piazzone, had stopped a moment there to please Madame Mila, who, in the loveliest Incroyable bonnet, was seated beside her.

The men of their acquaintance flocked up to the victoria. Lady Hilda paid them scanty attention, and occupied herself buying flowers of the poor women who lifted their fragrant basket-loads to the carriage. Madame Mila chattered like the brightest of parrakeets, and was clamorous for news.

"Quid novi?" is the cry in Floralia from morning till night, as in Athens. The most popular people are those who, when the article is not to be had of original growth, can manufacture it. Political news nobody attends to in Floralia; financial news interests society a little more, because everybody has stocks or shares in something somewhere; but the news is Gossip,—dear delicious perennial ever-blessed gossip, that reports a beloved friend in difficulties, a rival in extremis, a neighbour no better than she should be, and some exalted personage or another caught hiding a king in his sleeve at cards, or kissing his wife's lady-of-the-bedchamber.

Gossip goes the round of the city in winter as the lemonade stands do in summer.

If you wish to be choyé and asked out every night, learn to manufacture it; it is very easy: take equal parts of flower of malice and essence of impudence, with several pepper-corns of improbability to spice it, some candied lemon-peel of moral reflections, and a few drops of the ammonia of indecency that will make it light of digestion, and the toothsome morsel will procure you welcome everywhere. If you can also chop up any real Paschal lamb of innocence in very fine pieces, so that it is minced and hashed and unrecognisable for ever, serve the mince with the vinegar of malignity, and the fresh mint of novelty, and you will be the very Carême of gossip henceforward. Run about society with your concoctions in and out of the best houses, as fast as you can go, and there will be no end to your popularity. You will be as refreshing to the thirst of the dwellers in them as are the lemonade-sellers to the throats of the populace.

Perhaps Fate still lurked and worked in the Latin land, and had hidden herself under the delicate marabouts of the chapeau Incroyable; at any rate, Madame Mila welcomed the Duc and his companion with eagerness, and engaged them both to dinner with her on the morrow in a way which there was no refusing.

Madame Mila was discontented with the news of the day. All her young men could only tell her of one person's ruin—poor Victor de Salaris', which she had always predicted and contributed to cause, and which was therefore certainly the more agreeable—and two scenes between married people whom she knew: one because the brute of a husband would not allow his wife to have her tallest footman in silk stockings; the other because the no less a brute of a husband would not let his wife have—a friendship. Madame Mila scarcely knew which refusal to condemn as the most heartless and the most vulgar.

The Lady Hilda dined with her on the morrow; and the little Comtesse, with the fine instinct at discovering future sympathies of a woman "qui a vécu," took care that Della Rocca took her cousin in to dinner.

"I would give all I possess to see Hilda attendrie," she said to herself: as what she possessed just then was chiefly an enormous quantity of unpaid bills, perhaps she would not have lost so very much. But the Lady Hilda was not attendrie: she thought he talked better than most men—at least, differently,—and he succeeded in interesting her, probably because he had been so indifferent in calling upon her. That was all. Besides, his manner was perfect; it was as vieille cour as M. de St. Louis's, and to the Italian noble alone is given the union of stateliest dignity with easiest grace.

Lady Hilda, who should have been born under Louis Quatorze, had often suffered much in her taste from an age when manner, except in the south, is only a tradition, smothered under cigar-ash, and buried in a gun-case.

As for him, he mused, while he talked to her, on the words of the Duc, who had known her all her life. Was it true that she had never felt even a passing "weakness?" Was it certain that she had always been as cold as she looked?

He wished that he could be sure.

After all, she was a woman of wonderful charm, though she did go about with Madame Mila, smoke cigarettes after dinner, and correct you as to the last mot made on the boulevards. He began to think that this was only the mere cachet of the world she lived in; only the mere accident of contact and habit.

All women born under the Second Empire have it more or less; and, after all, she had but little of it; she was very serene, very contemptuous, very high-bred; and her brilliant languid hazel eyes looked so untroubled that it would have moved any man into a wish to trouble their still and luminous depths.

She seemed to him very objectless and somewhat cynical. It was a pity. Nature had made her perfect in face and form, and gifted her with intelligence, and Fashion had made her useless, tired, and vaguely cynical about everything, as everybody else was in her world; except that yet larger number who resembled Madame Mila—a worse type still, according to his view.

It was a pity that the coldness and corruption of the great world had entered thus deeply into her; so he thought, watching the droop of her long eyelashes, the curve of her beautiful mouth, the even coming and going of her breath under her shining necklace of opals and emeralds.

He began to believe that the Duc was right. There was no "past" in that calmest of indolent glances.

"You smoke, Madame?" he said, a little abruptly to her, after dinner.

She looked at her slender roll of paper.

"It is a habit—like all the rest of the things one does. I do not care about it."

"Why do it then? Are you not too proud to follow a habit, and imitate a folly?"

She smiled a little, and let the cigarette pale its ineffectual fires and die out.

"They have not known how to deal with her," he thought to himself; and he sat down and played écarté, and allowed her to win, though he was one of the best players in Europe.

Fate had certainly been under the Incroyable bonnet of Madame Mila. For during the evening she suddenly recalled his villa, and announced her intention of coming to see it. In her little busy brain there was a clever notion that if she only could get her cousin once drawn into what the Duc would call a "petite faiblesse," she herself would hear no more lectures about Maurice; and lectures are always tiresome, especially when the lecturer has lent you several thousands, that it would be the height of inconvenience ever to be reminded to repay.

A woman who has "petites faiblesses" is usually impatient with one who has none; the one who has none is a kind of standing insolence. Women corrupt more women than men do. Lovelace does not hate chastity in women; but Lady Bellaston does with all her might.

Pretty Madame Mila was too good-natured and also too shallow to hate anything; but if she could have seen her cousin "compromised" she would have derived an exquisite satisfaction and entertainment from the sight. She would also have felt that Lady Hilda would have become thereby more natural, and more comfortable company.

"Dear me, she might have done anything she had liked all these years," thought Madame Mila; "nobody would have known anything—and nothing would hurt her if it were known, whilst she has all that money."

For Madame Mila herself, perched on one of the very topmost rungs of the ladder of the world's greatness, and able therefore to take a bird's-eye view therefrom of everything, was very shrewd in her way, and knew that society never was known yet to quarrel with the owner of fifty thousand a-year.

So she carried her airy little person, laden this night with gold embroideries on dull Venetian red, until she looked like a little figure made in Lac, over to the écarté table when the écarté was finished, and arranged a morning at Palestrina for the day after to-morrow. He could only express his happiness and honour, and his regrets that Palestrina was little more than an empty shell for their inspection.

The day after the morrow was clear and cloudless, balmy and delicious; such days as the Floralian climate casts here and there generously amidst the winter cold as a foretaste of its paradise of summer. The snow was on the more distant mountains of course, but only made the landscape more lovely, changing to the softest blush colour and rose under the brightness of the noonday sun. The fields were green with the springing cereals; the pine-woods were filling with violets; the water-courses were brimming and boisterously joyous.

It was winter still; but the sort of winter that one would expect in Fairyland or in the planet Venus.

Madame Mila, clad in the strictest directoire costume, with a wonderful hat on her head that carried feathers, grasses, oleander flowers, and a bird of Dutch Guiana, and was twisted up on one side in a miraculous manner, descended with her Maurice to the Lady Hilda's victoria, lent her for the day. To drive into the country at all was an act abominable and appalling to all her ideas.

In Paris, except on race days, she never went farther than the lake, and never showed her toilettes in the Assembly at Versailles, because of the endless drive necessary as a means to get there.

In country houses she carefully kept her own room till about five o'clock; and, when forced for her health to go to Vichy or St. Moritz, or any such place, she played cards in the mornings, and when she was obliged to go out, looked at the other invalids' dresses. Mountains were only unpleasant things to be tunnelled; forests were tolerable, because one could wear such pretty Louis Quinze hunting-habits and the curée by torchlight was nice; the sea again was made endurable by bathing costumes, and it was fun to go and tuck up your things and hunt for prawns or pearls in the rock-pools and shallows—it gave rise to many very pretty situations. But merely to drive into the country!—it was only fit occupation for a maniac. Though she had proposed it herself, the patient Maurice had a very mauvais quart-d'heure as they drove.

The Lady Hilda, who was too truly great an élégante ever to condescend in the open air to the eccentricities and bizarreries of Madame Mila—mountebankisms worthy a travelling show, she considered them to be—was clad in her black sables, which contrasted so well with the fairness of her skin, and drove out with the Princess Olga; Carlo Maremma and M. de St. Louis fronting them in the Schouvaloff barouche. She did not hate the cold, and shiver from the fresh sea-wind, and worry about the badness of the steep roads as Madame Mila did; on the contrary, she liked the drive, long though it was, and felt a vague interest in the first sight of Palestrina, its towers and belfries shining white on the mountain side, with the little villages clustered under its broad dark ring of forest.

"What a pity that Paolo is so poor!" said Carlo Maremma, looking upward at it.

"He carries his poverty with infinite grace," said the Princess Olga.

"He is worthy of riches," said the Duc.

Lady Hilda said nothing.

Palestrina was twelve miles and more from the city, and stood on the high hills facing the south-west; it was half fortress, half palace; in early times its lords had ruled from its height all the country round; and later on, in the latter half of the fifteenth century, a great Cardinal of the Della Rocca had made it into as sumptuous a dwelling-place as Caprarola or Poggio a Cajano.

Subsequently the family had ranged itself against the ruling faction of the province, and had suffered from war and confiscation; still later, Palestrina had been plundered by the French troops of Napoleon; yet, despoiled and impoverished as it was, it was majestic still, and even beautiful; for, unlike most such places, it had kept its girdle of oak and ilex woods; and its gardens, though wild and neglected, were unshorn of their fair proportions; and the fountains fell into their marble basins, and splashed the maiden-hair ferns that hung over them as they had dope in another age for the delight of the great Cardinal and his favourites.

Della Rocca received them in the southern loggia, a beautiful vaulted and frescoed open gallery, designed by Bramante, and warm in the noonday sun, as though January were June.

A king could not have had more grace of welcome and dignity of courtesy than this ruined gentleman—he had a very perfect manner, certainly, thought Lady Hilda once again. She was one of those women (they are many) upon whom manner makes more impression than mind or morals. Why should it not? It is the charm of life and the touchstone of breeding.

There was only one friend with him, a great minister, who had retired from the world and given himself up to the culture of roses and strawberries. There was a simple repast, from the produce of his own lands, ready in what had been once the banqueting hall. It was made graceful by the old Venetian glass, the old Urbino plates, the old Cellini salt-cellars; and by grapes, regina and salamana, saved from the autumn, and bouquets of Parma violets and Bengal roses, in old blue Savona vases. It was a frugal meal, but fit for the Tale-tellers of the Decameron.

They rambled over the great building first, with its vast windows showing the wide landscape of mountain and plain, and far away the golden domes and' airy spires of the city shining through a soft mist of olive trees. The glory of this house was gone, but it was beautiful still with the sweet clear sunlight streaming through its innumerable chambers, and touching the soft hues of frescoed walls that had grown faded with age, but had been painted by Spinello, by Francia, by the great Frate, and by a host whose names were lost, of earnest workers, and men with whom art had been religion.

It was all dim and worn and grey with the passage of time; but it was harmonious, majestic, tranquil. It was like the close of a great life withdrawn from the world into a cloistered solitude and content to be alone with its God.

"Do not wish for riches," said the Lady Hilda to him, as he said something to her of it. "If you had riches you would desecrate this; you would 'restore' it, you would 'embellish' it, you would ruin it."

He smiled a little sadly.

"As it is, I can only keep the rains from entering and the rats from destroying it. Poverty, Madame, is only poetical to those who do not suffer it. Look!" he added, with a laugh, "you will not find a single chair, I fear, that is not in tatters."

She glanced at the great old ebony chair she was resting in, with its rich frayed tapestry seat, and its carved armorial bearings.

"I have suffered much more from the staring, gilded, and satin abominations in a millionaire's drawing-room. You are ungrateful———"

"And you, Madame, judge of pains that have never touched, and cannot touch you. However, I can be but too glad that Palestrina pleases you in any way. It has the sunshine of heaven, though not of fortune."

"And I am sure you would not give it up for all the wealth of the Rothschilds."

"No."

"How lovely this place would look," Madame Mila was saying at the same moment, out of his hearing, to the Princess Olga, "if Owen Jones could renovate it and Huby furnish it. Fancy it with all the gilding re-gilded, and the pictures restored, and Aubusson and Persian carpets everywhere, and all those horrid old tapestries, that must be full of spiders, pulled down and burnt. What a heavenly place it would be—and what balls one might give in it! Why, it would hold ten thousand people!"

"Poor Paolo will never be able to do it," said the Princess Schouvaloff, "unless———"

She glanced at the Lady Hilda where she sat, at the further end of the chamber, whilst Della Rocca leaned against the embrasure of the window.

"I think she has a fancy for him," said Madam Mila. "But as for marrying, you know,—that, of course, is out of the question."

"I don't see why," said the Princess.

"Oh, out of the question;" said Madame Mila, hastily. "But if she should take a liking to him, it would be great fun. She's been so awfully exaltée about all that sort of thing. Dear me, what a pity all those nasty, old, dull frescoes can't be scraped off and something nice and bright, like what they paint now, be put there; but I suppose it would take so much money. I should hang silk over them; all these clouds of pale angels would make me melancholy mad. There is no style I care a bit for but Louis Quinze. I am having new wall hangings for my salon done by the Ste. Marie Réparatrice girls; a lovely green satin—apple-green—embroidered with wreaths of roses and broom, after flowergroups by Fantin. Louis Quinze is so cheerful, and lets you have such lots of gilding, and the tables have such nice straight legs, and you always feel with it as if you were in a theatre and expecting the Jeune Prémier to enter. Here one feels as if one were in a church."

"A monastery," suggested Princess Olga.

Thereon they went and had their luncheon, and Madame Mila studying the Capo da Monte dessert-service, appraised its value—for she was a shrewd little woman—and wondered, if Paolo della Rocca were so poor as they said, why did he not send up all these old porcelains and lovely potteries to the Hôtel Drouot: Capo da Monte, she reflected, sells for more than its weight in gold, now that it is the rage of the fashion. She felt inclined to suggest this to him, only she was not quite sure how he might take it. Italians, she had heard, were so absurdly proud and susceptible.

After luncheon, they went into the green old gardens; green with ilex and arbutus and laurel and cypress avenues, although it was mid-winter; and the great minister discoursed on the charms of the country and the beauty of solitude in a way that should almost have awakened the envy of Horace in his grave; and the Duc de St. Louis disagreed with him in witty arguments that might have made the shades of Rochefoucauld and Rivarol jealous.

And they rambled and idled and talked and sauntered in those charming hours which an Italian villa alone can create; and then the Ave Maria chimed from the belfries of a convent up above on the hill, and the winds grew chill, and the carriages were called round to the steps of the southern terrace, and the old steward brought to each lady the parting gift of a great cluster of the sweet Parma violets.

"Well, it's been pleasanter than I thought for," said Madame Mila, rolling homeward. "But oh, this wretched, odious road! I shall catch my death of cold, and I daresay we shall all be killed on these horrible hills in the dark!"

Lady Hilda was very silent as they drove downward, and left Palestrina alone to grow grey in the shades of the twilight.

 
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This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.