A great deal happened in that slice of time which carried us from January into spring, although during that interval we felt as if we were going along almost entirely on the level. You never really do see the things that happen - not well - until you can look at them over your shoulder. I realize now that there was lots of excitement, and that there was really a good deal of abrupt change, but I didn’t see it then.
The riding out was great fun, for the day was fine, and Miss Meek and Miss Bannister and Mr. Hemmingway were having such a good time that we were all infected with it.
Mr. Hemmingway talked every second about the first time he had ever seen a motor, which was in Australia, he thought in Sidney, although oddly enough he could, in retrospect, only see the corner where the motor stood; and, all corners being pretty much the same, it might have been in Melbourne. And he thought it was in 1889, although it might have been in 1888 - and so on!
Miss Meek kept saying, “My eye, how jolly!” and Miss Bannister, who, as I said, lost all fear after a block of going, kept asking if the chauffeur couldn’t “speed it up a bit.” She admitted that she was “no end keen for going, don’t you know!”
When we reached the little house, I was so glad that Beata had asked us, because we saw, through her doing so, a side of life that we hadn’t come across before.
The house, which was of tan stucco with the usual, red tiled roof, stood on a tiny plot of ground over which were strewn all sorts of things. A broken cart, with one wheel gone, sagged in a corner, and near the tiny, shed-like barn, through the window of which an interested horse stuck its head, was a grindstone. Ground-scratching hens, who chattered in gentle clucks to their puffy, soft broods, walked in the house and out again as they pleased, and a red rooster stood on a crumbling stucco wall that was topped with broken glass, to flap his wings and crow. Down back of the house every inch of ground was terraced, for it seems that it is best used that way on hillsides, and because of this the Italian country, in most places, looks like unending flights of green-grown steps. Up under the eaves was a really beautiful figure of Christ nailed on the cross, and when people passed below that they bowed and crossed themselves.
Of course the sun was over everything, and there were some smells that weren’t exactly pleasant, but the whole place was pleasing, and a lot of its picturesque look came from the disorder and dirt.
And the guests! They were all dressed in their peasant best, and were laughing and joking, and telling Beata that they wished her many, strong children - this is quite a proper wish in Italy, and I really don’t know why it shouldn’t be anywhere; but people would think it queer, I suppose, if you said it at a wedding in Pennsylvania, or in New York - and before we started for the church, which was down in the valley below us, we all joined hands and circled Beata and Pietro who stood in the center, holding hands and smiling at each other shyly. Then everyone sang while we did this and it was very pretty to hear and to see and to join in.
Then we went, arm in arm, down a winding way, over slopes that were grown with small, gently green olive trees, or between fields of green that were already beginning to show the brightest growing hue; past a high-walled villa, and several tumbling houses of the poor. And whenever we met a person, or a group of them, they, knowing Beata or not, would call out a blessing upon the pair, and then stand, heads uncovered, until we had gone from sight. There is something very warming in the frankness of the Italians’ hearts; I think perhaps, in the United States, we keep our hearts too heavily covered.
In the church many candles were burning, and there was a little boy swinging an incense pot, and it was dark and cool and mysterious, after all the blaze of the sunshine outdoors. I liked the service, in spite of the fact that it was very long, and I enjoyed seeing how it was done.
After it was over, we went back to Beata’s father’s house to find the little lame brother (who was getting better all the time) waiting for us at the gate - he had seemed glad to stay with the grandmother – and Beata kissed him first, and then her grandmother, and everyone talked and laughed and joked. And then the refreshments, which were black bread, bright orange cheese, figs, and wine, were passed, and they did taste good.
Just before we left a new guest came, and she carried the tiniest baby I had ever seen, which was only three days old, and I was very much surprised when I found out it was hers; because Daddy always makes the mothers of babies stay in bed at least two weeks, and sometimes much longer. But it seems that all the peasants get up after two or three days, and when this woman said she had had to miss the wedding because of doing a big wash, I was more surprised, but very glad she came, for she let me hold the baby, who was named Leo Paolo Giovanni Battista Vincenzo Negri, and was so cunning.
I felt a little sad, going in; I don’t know why, unless perhaps it was because Miss Bannister and Miss Meek and Mr. Hemmingway had had so fine a time, and I kept wondering, as they talked - excitedly and as fast as they could and all at once - what they would do after we left.
But Fate and Mr. Wake helped them.
Early in March I heard from Miss Sheila that she would be in Florence sometime during April, but I didn’t tell Mr. Wake of this, for since that day at Certosa we hadn’t talked much of Miss Sheila. And the very same day that I heard that, Leslie came to me, with one of the big, square envelopes in her hand that came so often since she had written Ben Forbes.
“Ben Forbes is coming over,” she stated.
“Isn’t that dandy?” I answered. I had been practising; I had added an hour and was doing five a day, at that time.
“I think so,” she said, looking down.
“Has he ever been here before?” I asked, and she responded quickly and with a little remnant of her old irritation in her voice.
“Heavens, yes, child!” she replied, “dozens of times, of course! But not lately. He says he realizes that he has been keeping himself too tightly moored, and that he wants a few weeks of real play. He wants me to plan the whole time for him.”
“Well,” I said, “I think that’s great! What are you going to do?”
“Oh, take him to the Boboli Gardens, and that sort of thing. He likes outdoors and isn’t too keen for pictures. And we’ll walk. Where is that little place where you buy cakes, down in that covered street near the Arno?”
It seemed queer to have her ask that - I remembered so clearly her saying that she thought eating in alleys odd - but I didn’t remind her, and I told her about that, and about a place where you could get the best white wine, and then of a restaurant where Sam had taken me that was always full of Italian artists, and writers and poets, and where you never saw the gleam of a red Baedeker.
“He likes that sort of thing,” Leslie confided, “and I want him to have
a good time.”
“Of course,” I answered.
She sighed, and then smiled in a sort of a foolish way. “It’ll be nice to see him,” she said weakly.
“I should think it would be,” I answered.
“He’s thirty-three,” she said, “but what’s ten years?” (Leslie is twenty-three.)
“Nothing,” I stated. It was easy to say the right thing to her that day, for she put up a sign post at every turn.
“I think a man should be older than a woman,” said Leslie. I suppose she meant husband and wife.
“Hear about Viola?” she asked, as she leaned against the piano.
“No.” I stopped and looked up as she spoke.
“Paggi had a note from a German contralto, she’s pretty well known too, Madame Heilbig; and she wants a young accompanist, and Signor P. has recommended Vi. Viola’s to try out with the lady next week when she goes through here, and I believe Madame Heilbig will tour the States next year. Viola will love that. She’s already planning what she will wear. Do you remember how she expected to accompany a slim tenor with pretty brown eyes?”
I did, and I laughed.
Leslie laughed too, but not as kindly as I had - really she didn’t – for she and Viola, in spite of being friends again, still held a scratchy feeling toward each other.
“Nothing ever turns out as I expect it to,” said Leslie, “I’m beginning to get over being surprised about anything. Do you think a man would like that flower toque of mine?”
“He will unless he’s blind,” I replied, and then I told her to get out, because I had to go on with my work, but I didn’t have much time alone, for in a second Viola appeared.
“Darling,” she called from the doorway, “have you heard the news?”
I gave up then; I had to. “Not your version of it,” I answered; and she came skipping across the room to drop on a chair near me, and babble. There is no other description of it! She was so excited that she hardly stopped for breath.
I sat and listened, and honestly she went on for a half hour like that. Then she said, “Hear about Ben Forbes?”
“Taking him to the Boboli Gardens, and all that, artful, you know. Think of having a proposal in one of those arched-over pathways in that heavenly place! Oh!”
“Probably won’t,” I said.
“He will too,” Viola disagreed, “she’ll fix it! Look here, did you hear about his cook!”
I hadn’t, and I said so quickly, because I was interested.
“In the letter before this last one,” said Viola, “I think it came yesterday, he told Leslie, oh, in detail, my dear! about his ranch, and the way the ranch house looked and all that. Made it frightfully attractive, told her about the patio, what is a patio, anyway?”
“Enclosed court,” I answered, “I think they have them in some of the ranch houses in the southwest. They are sort of Mexican.”
“I see; well, he told her about that, and about how the sunsets looked on the mountains, it was a perfect love of a letter, but what I was getting at was this. He said he had a one-eyed Chinese cook who could spit eight feet. Can you imagine Leslie with that?”
I laughed. It did seem awfully funny.
“It’ll be the making of her,” she said (and it was!), “but I never would have believed she would allow herself to care for a man who lives in the middle of nowhere. However, _nothing turns out as one expects it to. I guess I ought to leave you?”
“You ought to,” I agreed, “but I don’t suppose you will.”
“Oh, do come have tea with me,” said Leslie from the doorway, and I gave up. We went to her room to find her bed covered with the veils which she had been trying on over her flowered toque.
“A woman should look her best,” she said, but she flushed and avoided looking at us as she said it.
“When will he be here?” asked Viola.