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Monday, April 24, 2023



Miss Sheila was at the Convent of San Girolamo, which is a hospital that is managed by nuns, at Fiesole. And she had written me about her plan to go there before the ship landed.

“I was very stupid and caught a little cold,” (I saw in her pretty hand. Later I found out that she had come as close to pneumonia as anyone can!) “and the ship’s doctor thinks I should rest a little while. So I am going to San Girolamo where I spent a few happy weeks when I was a girl and half ailing, and you, dear child, must come to see me there. I am going to ask you not to tell Leslie I am here just now. I am very much ashamed to confess it, but the idea of much chatter appals me. Ben - who I imagine may see her! - has promised to keep quiet until I am myself, and ready to join in all the fun. And then - some parties!

“Meanwhile, my dear, only your quiet, small self, and I hope I shall see you soon - Friday? You need not let me know if you can’t come then, but if you can, be assured of a warm welcome from your


          “SHEILA P.”

Of course I went, and as soon as I saw Miss Sheila I knew why she was afraid of noise, for it was easy to see that she had been really sick. She was quite as pretty as ever, but her skin looked too transparent and it flushed too easily, and I noticed that small beads of perspiration stood out on her smooth forehead and short upper lip, simply from the little exertion and excitement of seeing me. As soon as I noticed that, I talked, very slowly and steadily, about the valley that lay below us, and I didn’t look at her until, after a silence, she said: “Jane, you are rather a marvelous child, do you know it? And a great comfort. You have what made your mother the best nurse I have ever known, a great deal of real understanding.”

Well, I didn’t agree with her, and I knew she was too kind, but I did have enough understanding of her stretched, weak, shaky feeling to know that it wasn’t the time to say, as Leslie or Viola would, “How perfectly sweet of you! I am enchanted! Nothing could please me more! But why did you say that? Won’t you explain?”

Instead I said “Thank you,” which may have given the impression that I accepted all she said. However, that didn’t matter; the thing that mattered was getting her to sit back in her deck chair and lose her wound-up feeling and really rest.

“How is it going?” she asked, after I had asked the name of a big monastery that lay about halfway down the hill below us.

“Very well,” I answered, “Mother wrote me that the music committee of the Presbyterian Church are going to employ a substitute until I come back; that they told Daddy I was really engaged. And Signor Paggi is going to see that I have some lessons from an organist here to freshen me up - I took organ lessons at home, you know - and no end of people tell Mother that they are going to take lessons from me, and it’s all very satisfactory, and so wonderful that sometimes I can’t believe it is true!”

Miss Sheila smiled at me, said a warm, “Dear child!” and then I could feel her draw into a shell. I think that she was afraid I would try to thank her for all that she’d done, and that she wasn’t equal to it. So I said, very quickly, “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” and she answered with relief.

Then a sweet-faced sister came toward us between the rose bushes which made a narrow path of the terrace up to the open spot where we sat. She carried a cup of chocolate for Miss Sheila, and she wanted to get one for me, but I wouldn’t let her. Then she said, “Drink this, dear,” to Miss Sheila; asked if she were tired, looked at me searchingly, and then smiled and gave my shoulder a little pat, and went off in her gentle, smooth way.

“They are so kind,” said Miss Sheila, “and sometimes I think that this is the most beautiful spot in the world.”

I didn’t blame her for thinking so, (though her thinking so confessed that she hadn’t seen Mr. Wake’s garden) for the place is most lovely. It is, in some way connected with Cosimo I, it is said, and the Medici coat of arms is to be found around in different spots. It is a very old building, and it is, like everything else on the hillside, perched on the slant with all its lovely gardens planted on steps. And down below spreads out the country with little blazing yellow roadways, and pink and tan villas, and groves of gentle green olive trees, and a church and monastery that often send up the soft sound of bells. And of course the sunshine spreads over everything like a gold mantle, and the little grey-green olive leaves shimmer under every small breeze that comes along, and sometimes the song of a peasant girl rises. And of course there were rose leaves scattered on the terraces, blown from this or that bush, and the scents of many flowers in the warm soft air.

I can’t describe it, but someday someone will describe it, and then he will be able to build a villa that is richer and prouder and larger than another one that the Medicis built out near Fiesole - the one where Queen Victoria often visited - for a real description would make a real fortune!

“You like it, don’t you!” asked Miss Sheila, after she had drunk the chocolate and eaten the small biscuit, and I had set her cup down on the soft, short grass. I nodded. It is hard for me to say I like things when I do like them very much.

“It has changed you,” said Miss Sheila, “there is a new light in your eyes; the light of dreams, I think. And now tell me about things, your friends, your work, and Signor Paggi,” and I did.

Of course I had to mention Mr. Wake, and each time I did I faltered and grew conscious, although there was no reason for my doing this, since Miss Sheila had not known Terrence Wake, but a boy who was Terrence O’Gilvey.

He came up quite naturally through my hopes for Miss Meek, and Mr. Wake’s plan for Mr. Hemmingway, he was going to let Mr. Hemmingway stay in his villa for the summer months, which would be a great treat for anyone and heaven for a man who had lived for years in a dull pension, and through his befriending Sam, who was doing so well, and promising to do much more than well.

“How kind your Mr. Wake must be,” said Miss Sheila.

“He is,” I answered.

“I’d like to meet him,” she said.
“He’s dreadfully shy,” I responded, after that kind of a hard swallow that rasps and scratches as it goes down.
“Heavens, and earth! No man ought to be afraid of an old woman like me!” Miss Sheila mused.
“You aren’t old,” I put in, and almost sharply. “You have a prettier skin than I have, and as Leslie said, your silver hair simply adds a note of ‘chic.’”
Miss Sheila laughed. “That sounds like Leslie,” she commented, and that led her to change the subject, for which I was grateful. “Odd, my coming over with Ben Forbes, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, wasn’t it?”
“Nice man, really. Has something of the Grand Commander manner, but he’ll need it. Splendid arrangement, I honestly think. I want to meet your Sam.”
“I want you to meet him. But he’s not mine,” I answered.
“But I hope you’ll marry some time,” said Miss Sheila. “Go home and work a few years if you like, dear, but if you care for anyone, and anyone cares for you, don’t let anyone, or anything stand between you; it doesn’t pay.” She paused a moment. “But,” she continued after this little interval, “if love doesn’t come, I think that a profession to which you really belong, and a work that would expand through your own effort, and so grow more interesting to you all the time - I think that this would be a good insurance against loneliness.”

I looked at her quickly as she spoke of loneliness. She was staring off down below where there was a two-wheeled peasant cart lumbering up a winding hill road; but I felt that she didn’t see that, nor even hear the shrill, protesting squeaks that came from the unoiled hubs; and for that moment she came as close to looking tired and faded as I had ever seen her look.

“Sometimes,” she stated, in the crisp way she occasionally spoke, “being an old maid is a lonely business; especially when one is half ill, Jane, and would like a man to tiptoe into the room and knock over the wastebasket, and get off a muffled ‘Damn,’ and poke the smelling salts at you, and then wheeze out a loudly whispered, ‘Feeling any better?’”

Her picture made me smile, but it made me feel very sad for her, and it all did seem so useless, when down the hill, not half a mile, Mr. Wake was so lonely, too! But of course I could do nothing about it.

After about an hour with Miss Sheila that day, I stood up, and said I guessed I’d better be going, and Miss Sheila said “Oh, no, dear!” But I insisted, and so she kissed me, and I went off, to pause at the end of that rose-sheltered terrace and wave back at her. Then I went through the rest of the garden, and past the little chapel where a sweet-faced young girl knelt before the altar - she was about to take the vows, I heard later - and out through the gate and down the very long, wide, shady stone steps that are guarded on either side by tall cypress trees which, there, seemed like sentinels.

Then up a little hill to the Piazza at Fiesole, which was wild with a high, hot breeze, and there I took the car that clanged its way down the hillside into sultry Florence.
That day began my visiting Miss Sheila, and I went up to Fiesole by myself four times in the next two weeks, and then again with Viola, and Leslie and Ben Forbes - who seemed to linger on - and it was on that last afternoon that Miss Sheila said, “Bother! Why didn’t I think of Sam! I wanted to meet him, and you knew it, Jane! Why didn’t you speak of asking him today?”
I hadn’t thought that she would want him, and I said so, for I had supposed that the party was to be sort of a family affair because of Leslie’s and Ben’s engagement.
“Well,” said Miss Sheila, “no matter. Bring him up Sunday afternoon.”
Sunday was a beautiful day in spite of the fact that there was no air stirring and a feeling of weight over everything. Leslie said she knew it would rain - she was angry over it, because she and Ben had planned to motor in the Cascine and then out somewhere in the country – but I said I thought it wouldn’t, without rapping on wood; and as I may have said before, it never hurts to rap on wood, whether you are superstitious, or not. But I didn’t. Instead, I placed my entire trust in Fate and put on a white lawn dress and the hat I had bought at the Mercato Nuovo which I had trimmed with some flowers that cost very little.
At one I started out with Sam, for he had asked me to go somewhere and have lunch with him before we started up to the convent on the hillside.

We had a good time over our lunch, which we had in the coolest and most shadowed outdoor café we could find, and Sam ordered the green macaroni which is manufactured in Bologna, and some cold chicken and a salad, and some wine of course, and then a sweet that is very famous in Rome, and wonderfully good. And as we ate we talked the way we always do, which is hard.

Then we stood up, and I brushed the crumbs from my lap, and told Sam that he had a piece of green macaroni on the lapel of his coat, and after that we started toward the Piazza del Duomo, walking slowly and keeping on the shady side of the deep, narrow streets.

In the Piazza Sam bought me a little bunch of blue flowers which were combined with yellow daisies, and I slipped these in under my broad sash, and after that we took the car and began our ride up to Fiesole.

“I’m awfully keen to meet Miss Parrish,” said Sam, “because you like her so. She isn’t like her niece, is she?”

“Oh, no!” I answered quickly, “not at all!”

“Does she believe in careers for women and all that sort of rot?” asked Sam, as a fat woman who carried a baby and was followed by five children and a poodle dog, got on.

“No,” I answered, and then I told him what Miss Sheila had advised.

“Going to take her advice?” asked Sam, and he turned in the seat and leaned way over me until he could see under the brim of my broad hat.

“I don’t know,” I answered, although I did, all suddenly and at that minute.
“Don’t you?” he repeated, “Oh, Jane!”
And he looked so miserable, he really did, that I said I did know. And then I looked out of the window, although there wasn’t much to see just at that point except a tan stucco wall, with pink and blue tiles set in it.
“You’re too young to bother,” said Sam, as he plaited the end of my sash which I had been careful not to sit on because I didn’t want it crushed, “but when you get along to the age when I dare court you, I’ll tell you,” he drew a deep breath, “well_, you’ll see!” he ended, in a half threatening way.
I didn’t answer that.
“And if I hear of your looking at anybody else,” he went on, “I’ll come over and fill him up with buckshot.”
That made me laugh.
“It’s no joke,” he said quickly, “I’m miserable over your going off, and when I think that someone else may make you like him, oh, the dickens of a lot, well, then I can’t - I simply can’t see straight.”
“I won’t look at anybody,” I promised, “until you come.”

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