The Lightning Conductor/Chapter 17


Hotel de Russie, Rome,
January 2.

Darling Dad,

Forgive me for that inadequate little note written yesterday to wish you a Happy New Year; but short as it was, there was enough love in it to make the letter double postage. We have been working so hard at pleasure since that I haven't had time for anything except the various cables which from day to day I have flung to you from our chariot of fire as we sped half-way down the long leg of Italy—that's pink on my schoolroom map at home. Somehow, I've always thought of Italy as being pink, ever since I first hunted it out on the map; and it is still gloriously couleur de rose to the eyes of my body and mind.

How splendid it is not to be disappointed in something that you've looked forward to all your life, isn't it? But I don't think I am the kind of girl who is disappointed in real things—nature's real things, I mean. People have often said to me, "Oh, you will be disappointed in Europe, if you look forward to it so much." But I believe such creatures have no imagination. With imagination you have the glamour of the past and all the wonderful things that have happened in a place, as well as the mere beauty of the present. But then, without imagination one must just expect to have one's poor little soul go bare, and to live on all the "cold pieces" of life, never to taste the nectar and ambrosia of the gods; never to know the thrill of sympathy, or any other thrill that isn't purely physical.

I'm intoxicated with all I have seen and am seeing—which must excuse the harangue. And I'm intoxicated with the joy of driving the car. Lately I have been rivalling the Lightning Conductor, for my wrist is quite well again. The microbe of automobilism has entered into my blood. Yes, I'm speaking literally; I'm sure there's such a microbe, and that he's a brave beast. I should like to see him in your big microscope. Perhaps I'll bring him home for the purpose.

It has become the greatest joy I have ever known to get all I possibly can out of noble Balzac; to urge Balzac uphill as fast as I can; to drive Balzac downhill as fast as I dare; to manœuvre Balzac in and out of traffic with all my skill and nerve. But you mustn't be a bit uneasy about me. Brown is always at my elbow to "warn, to comfort, to command," and I know that he won't let me do anything I oughtn't or let any harm come of it if I did.

The worst of driving an automobile yourself, when you've really got that microbe in your blood, is that you don't see quite as much of the country as you would otherwise, and that you hate to stop, even when there are wonderful things to see. But then it used to be almost the same in both ways when one lived, breathed, and moved for bicycles. Do you remember how I would talk of nothing else, and made "bike slang" answer for all human nature's daily needs? You were annoyed one night when I took your arm as we were walking together, and told you you were "geared too high for me."

If my life depended now on giving accurate details of the country through which we've been driving, I should have to resign myself to die. I only know that I've never been so happy, or seen half so much that was beautiful and (as that Mrs. Bennett, who wanted to marry you so badly, was always saying) "soul-satisfying."

Well, we left Bordighera the day after Christmas. Brown called it "Boxing Day," but I didn't understand what he meant till he explained. We went spinning along the Riviera di Ponente, towards Genoa la Superba, where we were to halt for the night. Perhaps—just perhaps—a true critic of beauty, whose blood had cooled with much experience, would say that the Italian Riviera road wasn't quite equal to the French between Cannes and Mentone. But it's Italy, Italy! And there's the difference of charm between the two (as I said to Brown) that there is between a magnificent young French Duchesse, confident of her own charms, with generations of breeding and wealth behind her, and a lovely, peach-tinted, simple-hearted Italian peasant girl. How rich the colour is everywhere!—and yet it never seems to dazzle the eye. I suppose it's the wonderful atmosphere that harmonises everything. And then the lovely, softening effect of the years; the moss, the lichen; the endearing dilapidation! So many things appeal to your heart as you pass through Italy. Oh I don't know how to describe it; but luckily you've been here, and we generally feel things alike, you and I; so you'll know what I mean. Poor little pathetic houses, painted red, blue, or yellow! You laugh at them, and want to cry over them, and love them, too. And the reds, yellows, and blues are like no other reds, yellows, and blues in the world. Fancy, if we had houses like that in our new land! How frightful they would be! We would want the painters to be put in prison for their crime.

I can tell you this: That first day of ours was like hurrying through a whole gallery of Turner's paintings. I love Turner, and I often wonder if my world isn't as different from many people's old grey worlds as his was!

Another thing, we had become phenomenal. That is, we were in a motor-car-less region. Ours was the only car, whereas on the other side of Mentone we met a rival every ten minutes. I do get cause and effect so mixed up. Aren't there many automobiles in Italy because there are such lots of places where you can't buy petrol; or can't you buy petrol because people won't go in automobiles?

We went flashing along past pretty little Ospedaletti, with its big white casino, and into gay and colourful San Remo, where we bought inferior petrol and paid twice as much for it as in France. I wonder if any small watering-place ever had as many attractive-looking hotels in it as San Remo? If I were staying there, I should weep because I couldn't live in them all at once. But one would be obliged to have about thirty astral bodies to go round, and each one would have to be a well-dressed astral body. That would come expensive; or do astral bodies exude frocks, so to speak?

I insisted on stopping for a few moments within sight of Taggia, because a great friend of mine lived there, or rather, the author of his being. His name was "Doctor Antonio," and he existed in the pages of a book written by a famous Italian, John Ruffini. Brown gave me the book for a Christmas present, apologising for the liberty; but, you see, it was all about Bordighera, and he thought I would like to have it. So I did, for it is one of the most enchanting stories I have ever read, though written in an old-fashioned style, and also with a pretty little heroine who was so old-fashionedly meek I could have shaken her. I sat up nearly all night reading the book, and oh, how I cried! There never was such a splendid fellow in real life as Doctor Antonio, except, of course, you. And, do you know, if Brown had been born a gentleman I think he might have turned out something like that. I liked Taggia for Doctor Antonio's sake; and I admired Porto Maurizio on its haughty promontory. It towers in my recollection just as the real Porto Maurizio towers above the indigo -blue sea, out of which it seems to grow.

If it hadn't been for Brown, I'm ashamed to say I shouldn't have known much about the Ligurian Alps. Do you, Dad? They're frightfully interesting, a sort of "bed rock" of Italian history. Dear me, how ignorant one can be, when all the while one is quite pleased with oneself as an Educated Person, with a capital E and P.

Alassio I thought a dear little place. You stopped there when you were coaching, in your honeymoon days. How little you dreamed then that your daughter would go tearing through on a motor? It has a nicer beach than any of the rival towns we saw; no wonder the Italians love to bathe there! Brown told me interesting stories about the enormous, lofty brick towers of Albenza, that seemed to nod so drowsily over the narrow, shadowed streets; Savona was too much modernised to please me, though the name had chimed alluringly in my ears; and with Prà we were treading on the trailing skirts of Genoa. Jimmy Payne had told Aunt Mary that it was nicer to stay all night in Pegli than in Genoa, because there were large gardens and a splendid view; but Brown said, if we would trust him, he would take us to a hotel in the midst of Genoa, with a large garden and a splendid view. So we did trust him—at least I did. And oh, Dad, I had my first experience in driving through real, enormous city traffic in Genoa! I would try it; and I succeeded beyond my dreams. I have got things to a fine point now, so that I manipulate the clutch and throttle (don't they sound murderous?) almost automatically; and there's something quite magical in the ease with which one can bring the car instantly down to a crawling walk, which wouldn't disconcert a tortoise, behind a string of carts, or at a touch dart ahead of the string, and leave the swiftest horse as if he were standing still.

There must be comparatively few automobiles in Genoa, or else ours beat the record for beauty; for people in the long, straight, narrow old streets lined with palaces, or the wide, stately, newer streets of splendid shops (where they showed everything on earth except the Genoa velvet I had always yearned to see on its native heath) turned to stare at us. But oh, perhaps it was only because a girl was driving! Anyway, the girl didn't disgrace herself. You would have been proud to see her daringly steer down an old sloping causeway into the Garden of Eden—I mean, the garden of our hotel. Anyway, the girl was proud of herself when the Lightning Conductor said, "Brava! No one could have done that better."

Brown was quite right about coming on to Genoa. It was a lovely hotel, with quite a tropical garden that had a sort of private Zoo of its own; jolly little beasts and birds in cages, which Aunt Mary and I fed next morning, when we'd had a delicious rest after a long day. After an early breakfast we went sight-seeing; and isn't the Campo Santo the very quaintest thing you ever saw? I don't think I could have helped laughing at some of the extraordinary marble ladies (with hoop skirts and bustles, and embroidered granite ruffles, and stone roses in their bonnets, kissing the hands of angel husbands with mutton-chop whiskers and elastic-sided boots; or knocking at the doors of forbidding-looking tombs, with Death as a sort of unliveried footman saying, "Not at home") if it hadn't been for the mourners coming to visit their dead. Oh, the pathos of them, with their sad, dark eyes, their heavy black draperies, and the flowers they were bringing to tell their loved ones that they were never forgotten! Instead of laughing, I came near crying. But the two moods are often so near together that one makes mistakes in their identity. The only fine and simple thing in the huge, strange place was the tomb of Mazzini.

I was tremendously impressed with the harbour at Genoa. It seemed so proud, as if Italy need have no shame to be represented by it, in the presence of all the crowding ships from all the ports of the world.

The morning was still young and fair when we rushed away along the Riviera di Levante; and even Aunt Mary was congratulating herself that we were on an automobile and not a train. For a while our road ran side by side with the rail; and whenever the coast was at its most exquisite, with some jutting headland over which we could skim like a bird, the wretched train had to go burrowing through the earth like a mole, all the glory and beauty shut out in murky darkness. I counted about fifty tunnels between Genoa and Spezzia. When we'd escaped from the suburbs of Genoa, and the last tall houses which made you afraid it might be their day to fall, we came upon visions as lovely as any we had seen in the French Riviera. Those gleaming towns set on curving bays of sapphire will always seem like dream-towns to me, unless I go back and prove their reality; especially Rapallo, which was the most beautiful of all. Jennie Harborough and her mother spent all one winter there, I remember their telling me, and were sorry to go at the end. They went because it was rather cheap, but stayed because it was more lovely than the expensive places. From Rapallo, through Zoagli to Chiavari, we were high above the sea, winding through ravine after ravine, but at Chiavari the best of the coast was behind us; and at Sestri, much to our disgust, we had to turn our backs on the sea. Still, it was delicious mounting up among the foothills of the Apennines by the Col di Baracca, and running down to Spezzia, lying like a pretty, lazy woman, looking out upon the green gulf named after it. We had lunch in a cool, agreeable hotel to which I felt grateful because of its pretty name—the Croce di Malta. I did want to go and see Shelley's house at Lerici, but—well, I saw its photograph instead; for there was our Napier "sleeping with one valve open," luring us on, on under the shadow of the Apennines. One does feel a wretch always "going on" instead of lingering, but that microbe I told you about gives one a fever. Think of running through Lucca! But, if we did what we planned in the day we must sacrifice something, so we sacrificed Lucca to Pisa. The very name, before our arrival, made me a child again, looking through the big stereoscope in your study at the Leaning Tower, or at the steel engraving in Finden's Landscape Annual. But from the moment I saw it, like a carving in ivory, reclining gracefully on the bosom of a golden cloud, I forgot the stereoscope and the Annual. In future I shall always see it against that cloud of rosy sunset-gold.

I never knew how beautiful marble could be until I came to Pisa and Rome. Somehow I had associated Pisa with the Leaning Tower, and not with the Baptistry. I knew it existed, and, vaguely, that it was worth seeing; but Pisa meant the Leaning Tower to me. Now I couldn't tell you which has left the deeper impression. I'm not at all the same girl that I was before I put Pisa and Rome into the gallery of my mind. I must make myself a worthy frame for such pictures as I am storing up now. I have the feeling not only that I want to read better books, hear more splendid music, and do more noble things, but that I shall know how to appreciate more clearly everything that is exalted or exalting. I hope you won't think me sentimental to say that.

We stayed all night at a real Italian hotel on the Lung Arno. Brown suggested it, thinking that we might enjoy an experience thoroughly characteristic of the country through which we were flying so fast. Aunt Mary wasn't pleased with the idea at all, said it would be horrid, and prophesied unspeakable things; but, as usual, Brown proved to be right, and she consented to admit it if I would promise not to punish her with her own stock phrase—"I told you so!" You would have laughed to see me conscientiously trying to eat maccaroni in the true Italian way. I curled it round my fork beautifully, but the hateful thing would uncurl again before I could get it up to my mouth, and accidents happened.

I watched the Italians, too, pouring their wine from the fat glass flasks swung in pivoted cradles. They did it all with one hand, holding a goblet between the thumb and second finger, and twisting the index finger round the neck of the bottle to pull it forward. It looked such a neat and simple trick that I thought I could do likewise; but—well, it was the reverse of neat when I did it, and the spotless tablecloth was spotless no longer. Instead of glaring at me for the mischief I had done, the head waiter was all sympathy. How nice and Italian of him!

That night, lying between sheets that smelt of lavender—only better than American or English lavender—I lived through the day once more, seeing ruined watch-towers set on hills, old grey monasteries falling into beautiful decay, or apparitions of white marble cathedrals. Then, over and over again, that wonderful carved-ivory tower leaning against the golden sky came back to me—so clean, so uninjured by the reverent centuries, and the sound of the angel-voiced echo in the Baptistry, and the strange shapes of the dear beasts supporting the pulpit, just like I used to picture the beasts in Revelations when I was a little girl. Next morning I had another look at the Leaning Tower before we started, and in a shop I came across a delicious and beautifully written book called In Tuscany, by the English Consul at Leghorn, so I bought it, and now I know as much as Brown does about the country through which we passed during several perfect days.

I'm not sure, but I am being both brutal and banal in saying that the rest of our journey to Rome was comparatively uninteresting. Of course, nothing can be really uninteresting in Italy, but I suppose those first days had spoiled me. We drove for mile after mile through marshy land, where tall, melancholy eucalyptus trees told their tale of a brave struggle against malaria. All the windows and doors of the signal cabins by the railway stations were protected by wire gauze against mosquitoes, and we who have spent summers on Staten Island know what that means, don't we?

I think, if I were not in Rome, I could have written you a better account of our flight through Italy; but the Eternal City has blurred all other impressions for me now, though I think afterwards they will come back as clear and bright as ever. Nevertheless, I'm not going to write you much about Rome. It's too big for my pen, too mighty and too marvellous. I can only feel. You have been here, and Rome doesn't change. Only I wonder what you felt when you first saw the Laocoön and the Apollo Belvedere? I used to think I didn't quite appreciate sculpture, but now I know it was because something in me was waiting for the best, and refusing to be satisfied with what was less than the best. Why, I didn't even know what marble could be till I saw the Laocoön. I had meant to do a good deal of sight-seeing that day when I began with the Vatican; but I sat for hours in front of those writhing figures in their eternal torture. I couldn't go away. The statue seemed to belong to me, and I had found it again, after searching hundreds and hundreds of years. I wonder if I was once a princess in the palace of the Cæsars, in another state of existence, and if in those days I used to stand and worship the Laocoön? I shouldn't wonder a bit. And the Apollo Belvedere! What a gentleman—what a perfect gentleman he is! You will laugh at me for such a thought. It seems commonplace, but it isn't. Nobody's ever said it before. He's such a gentleman and so graciously beautiful that you know he must be a god. I shouldn't have minded worshipping him a bit. Paganism had its points.

I should love to come back to Rome on my wedding trip if I were married to exactly the right man; but if he were not exactly right I should kill him; whereas in ordinary places I might be able to stand him well enough, as well as most women stand their husbands. Speaking of men who aren't exactly right reminds me of Jimmy Payne. He is here. He seems to have a sort of instinct to tell him when one is about to drive up to a hotel, and then he stations himself in the door, expecting the blessing which is for those who stand and wait. We made a sensation driving down the narrow Corso at the fashionable hour, and Jimmy got some of the credit of it when he stepped forward to welcome us. He had heard me say that we would stop here, because I'd been told it was the only hotel in Rome with a garden, and was close to the Pincian; and Jimmy has such a way of remembering things you say, if he thinks it's to his advantage. His first appearance was slightly marred, however, by a sneeze which, like Lady Macbeth's etcetera spot, would "out" at the precise moment of shaking hands. He says he got influenza from the Duchessa di Something-or-Other, upon whom he was obliged to call the instant he arrived, or she would never have forgiven him; so of course it's not quite so hard to bear as common, second-class influenza. It appears that he was so anxious to see "dear Lady Brighthelmston before she could get away" that he shed his automobile at Genoa, and hurried on by train, though whether on receipt of a telegraphic bidding from her ladyship or not I don't know. Anyway, she didn't wait for him, or else the influenza frightened her; for she has gone, and apparently without leaving word for poor disconsolate Jimmy. She was at his hotel, and left word with the manager that she would wire when she was settled in "some place where there was a little sunshine" for her letters to be forwarded. He is waiting till that wire arrives.

Jimmy is "thick as thieves" with Aunt Mary, but as frigid as a whole iceberg to poor Brown, if they happen to run across each other. I do think, don't you, Dad, that it shows shocking bad breeding to be nasty to a person who, from the very nature of the case, can't answer back? When I hear people speaking rudely to servants I always set them down as cads. Imagine marrying a man and then finding out that he was a cad! One ought to be able to get a divorce. The weather has, I suppose, been terrible since we came to Rome; at least, I hear everyone in our hotel grumbling, and certainly gardens haven't been of much use to us. But I am in a mood not to mind weather. I am in Rome. I say that over to myself, and I read Lanciani and Hare, and then I don't know whether it rains or not. Besides, yesterday was clear on purpose for me to walk in the Pincian and Borghese Gardens. Brown had to go with me because Aunt Mary was afraid there would be another storm; and besides, some little English ladies she has met in our hotel had invited her to have tea with them in their bedroom. They make it themselves with their own things, because then you don't have to pay; and if there aren't enough cups to go round among the ladies they've asked, they take their tooth-brush glasses for themselves. And they bring in custardy cakes in paper-bags and cream in tiny pails which they hide in their muffs, and try to look unconscious. There are a lot here like that, and they stay all winter. None of them are married, and they all do and say exactly the things you know they will beforehand. Why, just to look at them you feel sure they'd have tatting on their stays, and make their own garters. But some of them are titled, or if they're not they talk a great deal about being "well connected"; and they do nothing on weekdays but read novels, work in worsteds, and play bridge with the windows hermetically sealed; or on Sundays but go to the English church. Only think, and they're in Rome!

I haven't wasted one minute since we came, but, thank goodness, I'm not trying to "do" Rome scientifically and exhaustively like so many poor wilted-looking Americans I've met here. They think they must see every picture in every gallery, and put at least their noses inside every church; and then they scribble things down in their note-books—things which will do them just as much good afterwards as Lizard Bill's writings on his slate when the ink trickled over his nose, in Alice's Adventures. One American lady in this hotel said her daughters had dragged her about so much that she didn't know what country she was in any more, except by the postage stamps. If I were in her place I should lie down to take a nap when I arrived in town, and say I had seen the things when I went back to Fond du Lac; there's where she lived before her daughters took to doing Paris in one day and London in two; they told me quite simply that was the time you needed to give.

Dad, we drove in the automobile along the Appian Way. It sounds shocking, but it wasn't; it was glorious. There is never anything jarring (I don't mean that for a pun) about going into the midst of old and wonderful things on a motor-car, for it is wonderful too, and it has a dignity of its own—the dignity of fine and perfect mechanism which seems alive, like a splendid Pegasus or an obedient unicorn, or some other strange legendary animal which you are obliged to respect and marvel at.

And Brown took me into the Colosseum last night—late—when the moon was rising out of torn black clouds.

But I said I wasn't going to write about Rome, and I won't—I vow I won't, not even about St. Peter's. I think one ought to stop here ten days, and see things all day long—just things you want to see, not things you ought to see; or else linger for months, and let everything soak into your soul. I can't do the latter, this time, with the Napier waiting—waiting; and so I'm making the best of the first.

Your reincarnated Roman Princess,