It was hard to get down to real work after Christmas, for there was a spirit of gaiety in the air that was too strong to be ignored. In the streets was always the shrill noise that came from little tin horns; children were always playing on the pavements with their new toys, and you could hardly go a block without seeing a crowd around a vender of something or other that was built to please small people. Monkeys that climb up frail, yellow sticks will always make me think of Florence in holiday dress, I know it! And through them I’ll see again the thick, taupe fogs that spread over the city so much of the time, to muffle its bells, leave slime upon its pavements and a dull creeping cold in all the shadows.
Paper rose leaves were tossed in the air, every pretty girl was spoken to, and there was lots of laughter, and the nicest sort of fun. I, myself, felt that grim Florence must be pleased, for the city of Florence is built to back brilliant costumes, and not the tweeds and serges that she sees most. I wondered, as I looked one night when I was out with Mr. Wake and Sam, whether ghosts in satins and brocades, the ghosts of brides who had ridden all over Florence on snow white chargers before their weddings, whether these ghosts weren’t, perhaps, mingling in the throng. Mr. Wake thought they were, and after I spoke of my feelings, he pointed out to me a ghost named Vanna Tornabuoni, who, because she had been wicked, saw in her mirror instead of her fair face that of the horned devil! And she therefore went to confession immediately, in Santa Maria Novella, if I’m not mistaken, and began a new and a better life.
And all this was pleasing and most fascinating, but as I said, it made work difficult even for me, and for Viola, who swayed with any wind, work stopped. Even Signor Paggi’s most bitter scorn didn’t do anything but make her weep.
“I’m sick of it anyway,” she confided to me just before New Year’s day. “I wish now I’d listened to Father and never come.”
“Didn’t he want you to?” I asked.
“No. The old objection, money. But I was wild over being with Leslie then, and I persuaded him. Now,” (She drew rings on her blotters; I had dropped into her room to find her writing) “now, I wish I had listened to him.”
I didn’t say anything; there wasn’t very much to say.
“About tomorrow,” she went on - I had come in to tell her that Mr. Wake asked us to go with him to a monastery called Certosa, on the following afternoon - “about tomorrow, I don’t know. But I don’t believe I’ll go this time. I saw a frock and a blouse in a shop on the Lungarno, and I thought that, if I could make the woman listen to reason, I’d take them both. She is asking about forty dollars in our money for the frock, but I think she’ll come down. I’m positively in rags, and I planned to go out about the time Mr. Wake wants us to start. I’m awfully keen to get that frock.”
(She never did, something kept her from even wanting it, but of that, later.)
“Can’t you shop in the morning?” I asked.
“Hate to get up.” (She drew a larger
ring.) “Truly sorry; I’d really like to but I’m obsessed by that blouse and
frock. The frock’s blue, with silver and lavender embroidered, Japanese-looking
motifs. Simply heavenly. French in every line! It’s honestly worth far more
than she asks, but I expect to get her down a few pegs.”
“Sorry,” I said, and then I went on to Leslie’s room to ask her. I found her wearing her chin strap and polishing her nails. “Hello,” she said without changing her expression. (I knew then that she had on a grease cream that is put on to remove wrinkles. Leslie hasn’t any, but she says a great aunt whom she looks a lot like has dozens, and so she means to stall them before they even think of coming!) “What do you want?”
“Here,” I said, and held out Mr. Wake’s letter, which Leslie took, held up to the light and looked through, and after murmuring, “Hand made,” read.
“Can’t,” she stated, “I suppose you’ll think I’m crazy, but I asked Miss Meek and Miss Bannister to go out to tea with me tomorrow afternoon.”
“I think it’s fine of you,” I disagreed.
“Not at all,” she answered sharply. (She hated being thought sentimental, and any mention of the kind things that she was coming to do, more and more regularly, really embarrassed her.) “Nothing ‘fine’ about it at all! Only Miss Meek had never been to Doney’s and I thought she’d like it.”
“She will,” I said, and then I told her I was sorry she couldn’t go, and went back to my own room, and sewed clean collars and cuffs in my serge dress, and looked over some music which Signor Paggi wanted me to read away from the piano and try to see and feel in my mind. Then I went to my window and opened it, to hang out and peer down in the court. It looked cold, and almost dreary, and I was glad to think that spring would be along soon, and I hoped that it would be nice, but I never dreamed, as I stood there, how nice it was to be, nor how many changes and happy readjustments it was to back.
Gino came out, as I was looking down, but he didn’t whistle or sing – I think that Italian whistling and singing is cranked by the bright sun - and then he went in again. A cat pounced on a dried leaf that fluttered across one of the brown paths. A brilliant parrot that hung in his cage outside of a window down the block a little way, sung out shrilly, and I noticed a dark-skinned woman across the way hanging clothes out on a line that was strung from her shutter to a neighbor’s. It was when I was seeing all these things that Beata tapped, and came in bearing my second letter from home - oh, it was so good to get them! - and one from Miss Sheila.
I read them both through several times, and then I slipped Mother’s letter in the pocket of the dress I wore, and Miss Sheila’s letter into the pocket of my suit coat, for in Miss Sheila’s letter was news that I felt sure Mr. Wake would enjoy, and I meant to read it aloud to him on the following day.
Certosa is a large and beautiful place
that tops a hill, about three miles outside of Florence, and I enjoyed going
there, although it made me feel sad. I suppose my feeling was silly, but the
order is an ancient one; they take in no new members, and all that are left to rattle
around in the very big place are a half dozen tottering old men, whose hands
shake as they unlock the heavy doors for you, and whose breath grows short as
they travel the long stairs that take one up to the Capella Prima, which means
the main chapel.
I noticed that the white-bearded, white-haired and white-robed monk who took us around talked almost incessantly, and Sam told me why.
“Quiet almost all the time,” he said, “from some vow or other, and I guess the poor old chaps feel like letting out when they can.”
I said I thought it was too bad, and that it was pleasanter to think of men getting old with their families around them, and Sam thought so too.
We were out in the Cloister of Certosa. Cloisters are open squares that are surrounded by the buildings to which they belong, and they are in all the churches and monasteries and are always most lovely. After the sifted, gray light of a church, the sunlight and the beautiful green growing things that fill these spaces are almost too lovely. And usually a white or brown garbed monk, sometimes wearing no more than sandals on his feet, stands in some archway or wanders back and forth in a loggia and this adds to the picture.
The cloister we looked on was centered by a well with a wrought-iron top that has been copied a great deal, and after Sam had spoken of it, he, as he whittled at a stick, asked me whether I intended to marry. I said I hoped so, but that with women a lot depended upon whether any man asked them. That made him laugh, and he put his hand over mine.
“Someone’s bound to ask you,” he said, as he curled up my fingers in my palm and then undid them again, to do it all over - sometimes Sam is very restless - “but, Jane, do tell me any old thing won’t do!”
“Oh, I’d have to like him,” I said, for although I knew little about love, I felt certain of that. Then Mr. Wake appeared, and he frowned on us terribly. “Look here, children,” he said, “you know you mustn’t hold hands in a cloister.” (I laughed, but I got pink, for honestly, I hadn’t realized I was doing that. It only seemed natural and nice, and not anything about it made me conscious until that moment!) “You know,” Mr. Wake went on, “one of these old boys will see you, and wonder how the thing is done, and pop! some nice evening he’ll crawl over the wall, and hike down to Florence, and try to find a sweetheart. Then some jealous brother will see him come in late, and report, and there’ll be no end of a row. You want to think of these things!”
I tried to free my hand, but Sam held it too tightly, because, I think, he saw it teased me.
“Fra Lippo Lippi did that,” said Mr. Wake. “He used to skip over the wall almost every evening after dark. Then he’d come in late, and tiptoe through the corridors, carrying his shoes in his hands. Mr. Browning made a good story about it. Tell you, when you get down to it, there is nothing new under the sun! Jane, am I going to have to speak sharply to you, about your conduct?” (He pretended I was holding Sam’s long hand.)
“You’d better be nice to me,” I said, and
I was really almost peevish, “because I’ve always tried to be nice to you, and
I have a letter from my Miss Sheila, that’s awfully nice.”
“It’s a shame,” said Sam quickly - and I think he was sorry he had teased me; he is almost always very gentle with me - and he patted my hand, and returned it to my lap with a great deal of funny ceremony. Then I ordered him off, and he wandered across the cloister and stood there smoking and watching us. And then I read Mr. Wake the nice news.
“Well, what, dear child?” he asked, as I got out the letter.
“You wait,” I said.
“I am, small person. Quite a letter, isn’t it?”
“Yes, the news is on the last page, I believe,” I answered. “She writes from front to back, and then down across the middle one. Here ’tis. ‘I have a secret to tell you,’ I read, ‘and one that you must keep.’”
“Ah, Eve!” broke in Mr. Wake, as he smiled down at me until all the little wrinkles stood out around his eyes.
“Well, you’re different,” I said. He swelled. “Adam!” I said, and he told me I was a saucy minx, to go on, and I did.
“‘This spring,’ Miss Sheila wrote, ‘will see me in Florence, but I don’t want Leslie to know I shall appear, for if she does I am sure she’ll want to go back with me. I think this winter is doing her good, and I want her to stick the entire time through.’
“Nice?” I said, as I folded up the letter which made crinkly, crackly noises as it went into the envelope, because it was written on such heavy paper. I had supposed Mr. Wake would think it very nice, and therefore I was surprised to look at him, and see him moisten his lips, and then hear him say, “I don’t know.”
“But, Mr. Wake!” I said - I was a good deal disappointed - “I thought you would like meeting her.” (He turned, walked away a few steps and then came back.)
“I’m afraid,” said Mr. Wake, “that I am too old to meet a Fairy Godmother. No doubt,” (he was trying to play, but his tone was a little stiff) “she’d suggest picnicking in the moonlight - isn’t that the hour when Fairy Rings are most popular? - and that might make my shoulders stiff. Then, seriously, dear child, I am no good as a cavalier; I falter. Children and old ladies are the age for me now, and soon it will be middle-aged women, whom I shall think of as children. So I am afraid I’d best refuse your alluring offer.”
“Well,” I said, and my voice was flat because I felt so, “you know you don’t have to meet her; Florence is big.”
“And the world,” he stated, “is big, but sometimes, in spite of the bigness, one can’t get away from – things.”
Well, I didn’t understand him. All that
winter he had asked me about Miss Sheila, until whenever I saw him her name
just naturally came out and sat on the tip of my tongue, waiting for the word
from him that would make it jump off into space. It did seem very queer! I
stuck the letter deep in my pocket, and tried not to feel disappointed, I knew
that I shouldn’t, but I did! Mr. Wake had been so dear to me, and was so dear,
that I wanted to make him happy, and I’d supposed I could do so by having a
party and asking him to meet Miss Sheila.
“You know,” he said, and I could see he was trying to get back to normal, and to make me think he felt quite as usual, “an old person like me, with a fat tummy, simply can’t meet a fairy godmother. He wouldn’t know how to act!”
“Your stomach’s much better,” I answered bluntly, “you needn’t blame it on that! If you don’t want to meet her, just say so, but, I’ll tell you, you’ll miss it! She’s lovely, and she’d be very kind to you. She’s kind to everyone.”
“Is she?” he broke in, and he smiled in a strange way.
“Yes,” I answered hotly, “she is.”
We were quiet a moment. Then Mr. Wake put his hand over mine. “Dear child,” he said, “I’m sorry to disappoint you.”
“What about examples now?” asked Sam, who came strolling up. Then he saw that there was something straining in the air, and he quickly changed the subject. “Found a bush all in bloom on the other side of the court,” he said, “Come over and see it, Jane. Almost as pretty as you are, back in a second, Signor Wake.”
“Long as you like,” said Mr. Wake with a wave, by which he meant we might linger.
“What is it!” asked Sam, after we had wandered into the center of the big space that was surrounded on all sides by the building. I told him, and then I said, “It surprised me; he has talked about her, so much that at first I thought he must have known her, but she wrote she’d never known anyone named Wake, and now he doesn’t want to know her.”
“Matchmaker?” asked Sam.
“No,” I answered, and a little sharply, because I was still disappointed, “but I thought he’d like it. And they are both so nice, and Miss Sheila is lonely - you can see it sometimes, although perhaps she doesn’t know it - and I did think that if they liked each other it would be nice.”
“I’ll tell you what,” said Sam, “I’ll let you make a match for me. I’ll pick out the girl, and you’ll tell me how to get her.”
“All right,” I promised, and I felt more dismal than ever. I don’t know why, but I did.
“That please you?” he asked.
“Not entirely,” I answered with candor,
“I think you’ll ruin your career if you marry too early!”
“It doesn’t look as if I would,” he stated, and he sighed. And I felt worse than ever.
“That’ll be the end of our friendship,” I prophesied, and I felt sad, and my voice sounded it.
“Sometimes it is,” Sam answered, and then he laughed. I didn’t see how he could. It was a pleasant day, and the court was full of sunshine, and the grass and even some of the rose bushes were green, but everything looked bleak to me. I felt alone, and blue.
“Anything wrong?” asked Sam, after we had strolled around a little while, and looked at the well, and stolen some sprigs of herb from a little plot that had a few early vegetables in it.
“There seems to be,” I answered.
“Why, Jane! How can there be under the warmth of an Italian sun, and in this lovely place, and with a - a troubadour who - who adores you?” then he stopped, and I felt much better. I don’t remember when I have felt so much better.
“I’m all right now,” I said, and I smiled up at him, and then because he looked a little different from usual, I thought we’d better go back to Mr. Wake. I said so.
“Love him as much as I do,” said Sam, “the dickens with him! Look here, dear, if there is any satisfaction in my liking you, you can collect it any time, and what’s more, the darned stuff’s rolling up a whacking big interest.”
I liked that; I said so. Then I said that we must go back to Mr. Wake, and I turned to go across the court, and Sam followed, saying he’d like to shake me.
Going down to the car we drank the wine that the friars make and sell in tiny little bottles. And Sam and I got silly and had lots of fun, but Mr. Wake was unusually quiet. I think, perhaps, we had tired him.
It was late when I reached home, for we had stopped to hear the last of a concert that was being given in the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, and that led to a little table with three chairs around it, and some chocolate, and cakes.
Then Mr. Wake left us at the Piazza del
Duomo, where he took the tram to Fiesole, and Sam walked up to the Piazza
Indipendenza with me; we didn’t hurry - he told me about his new orders, and I
told him how well the twins were doing - and it seemed to take quite a little
time. And it was all of seven when we stood outside the pension door, on the
third floor, and shook hands.
“You’ll be late for dinner,” said Sam.
“It doesn’t matter,” I answered.
“I hope it won’t be cold,” he said.
“I don’t care,” I responded. Then he said he was sorry, again, and he hoped it wouldn’t be cold, again, and I told him it didn’t matter, again, and then we reached the point we’d both been waiting for, which was, his saying, “Well, when can I see you again?”
And after I told him - I said, “Day after tomorrow,” because I didn’t think it was nice to rush things - I went in. I expected to hear Mr. Hemmingway reminiscing in the dining room, but no sound came from there; the place seemed strangely and unpleasantly still. I had expected also to encounter Beata carrying in one of the later courses, but when my eyes accommodated to the dim light I saw that Beata was sitting by the table, with her head in her arms, crying.
“Beata,” I broke out quickly, “not Pietro?” for I was afraid that something had come along to change the course of her plans, which all led up to and centered around a wedding which was to be early in February.
Beata looked up; “Signorina,” she said, “la cablegram. La Signorina Harrees-Clarke - la poverina, la poverina!”
That was all I stopped to hear. I hurried down the corridor to Viola’s room, and at that door I paused, for Leslie was sitting on the bed by Viola, holding both of her hands in hers, and saying, as she stroked them, “There, dear, there!”