Signor Paggi’s studio is high up in one of those old palaces that seem to frown at you, and the palace is on the Via Tornabuoni, which is a street where lots of the wealthy and great people of old Florence lived, hundreds of years ago.
At that time of course, years back, in the Middle Ages, they knew nothing of modern improvements like portable houses or the sort of stucco bungalows that get full of cracks after the first frost, and so they put their houses up in the old-fashioned way, which does seem to wear well, for they stand today as they stood when they were built.
I liked looking at them; there is a great deal in my nature that answers to a real fight, and those houses were built for convenient fighting. Probably then, the architects were fussing over nice, little windows through which the owner could pour hot oil on a passing enemy, instead of the sun porches and breakfast rooms and the kind of truck that now occupies them.
It gave me a romantic, chilly thrill to see the blank walls of the first stories, which make the streets where the palaces exist look so cold and stern, for I realized that they didn’t have low windows in them because if they had had, people who felt like it could throw in bricks and things of such forceful nature, too easily.
They needed this type of dwelling because they scrapped so much. The Medicis, an old Florentine family, and all dead, but still somewhat talked about, were always fighting somebody or other, and so were the Strozzis and Tornabuonis, who were also prominent hundreds of years ago, but still remembered, I found, by a good many. I, personally, don’t wonder, and I must admit that more than once during my stay in Florence I wished I could skip back into the Middle Ages for a day or so, and root at just one good fight.
However, I realize that this is not a natural wish for “A young woman of refinement,” as Leslie would say.
We reached Signor Michele Paggi’s studio at the time when we should, in spite of the fact that Leslie kept everyone waiting while she took off a veil with brown speckles in it and put on one that had black dots stuck on it and then, after that was done, went back to hunt a pair of gloves with gray and white striped gauntlet tops.
“First impressions,” she said, and almost apologetically, “are everything, don’t you know? And I’d hate my veil not being right just this first time.”
“You have a perfect genius for assembling the proper accessories,” said Viola, who just a moment before had grumbled out, “Heavens, what is she doing? I never knew anyone who could fuss so over nothing!”
And then we went down our long stairs, through the crowded heart of Florence, up the four flights of stairs that took us to Signor Paggi’s floor, and down the hall toward the only door that had a placard on it, to find that the placard had Signor Michele Paggi’s name on it, and a curt invitation to walk in scrawled below that. We did. And I knew that my saying I was frightened reveals a yellow streak, but I was frightened, so I might as well say it.
Mr. Paggi’s verdict meant a very great deal to me, and I had heard that he sometimes refused to teach. And although I had tried not to remember that, I did remember it as people do remember things they try to cover in their minds. Those covered thoughts are always straying out! You are forever seeing a corner of one trailing out from under the thing you’ve thrown over it, or at least I am, and Mr. Paggi’s turning people away was one of them. I didn’t know quite what I would do if he turned me away, because of Miss Sheila and Mother and all the rest. They expected so much of me and I felt as if I’d die if I couldn’t keep them from disappointment. And of course I had my own dreams too.
Well, Leslie and Viola were entirely at ease, and somehow, I can’t explain, it didn’t help me, in fact their ease made me more uncomfortable. And while they walked around saying, “Adorable place!” “So much atmosphere!” and things like that, and wiggled their fingers to limber them up, I sat in a chair that looked better than it felt and swallowed and swallowed and swallowed, and almost wished that I had been like Roberta who plays nothing but rag, and ukelele accompaniments.
After quite a little time of this I saw a copy of the Saturday Evening Post on the table, and got it, and I was really beginning to be absorbed in something by Ring Lardner when an Italian girl came in. She was a sullen type, and she said “Good day,” without smiling.
“We are waiting for Signor Paggi,” Leslie said in her sweetest way, but it didn’t melt the girl who answered in the short-clipped manner that many Italians speak English, ending each word abruptly and completely before she started another. And she spoke in a level too, which made her seem most unsympathetic, and fussed over the leaves of a big ledger as she answered.
“I don’t know whether he see you,” she stated.
“But,” (Leslie laughed in an irritated, tried way) “we have an appointment!”
“He don’t care. When he have headache he don’t care for devil. You can wait, you can go, it is the same.” And then she disdainfully fluttered the big leaves she had been turning slowly.
“Will you be good enough to tell him,” said Leslie in a tight controlled way, “that Miss Parrish, that Miss Leslie Parrish is here?”
The girl looked up. “No,” she answered, “I do not wish to have the book push through the air at me, so” (she made a hitchy, overhead girl-gesture of throwing) “and he do not care who you are. Why should he care who you are?” she ended, her eyes now on Leslie and boring into Leslie. It was almost like a movie!
“Really,” broke out Leslie, and then she stopped and shrugged her shoulders and walked over to stand by a window that had a row of century plants on its sill. And here she hummed to pretend that the whole matter was beneath her notice, but she tapped her foot and I knew that she was angry.
Then we waited, and I never felt as if I did so much waiting as I did then, although the waiting wasn’t stretched across more than half an hour. It was stretched tightly, and that makes all the difference!
At last the inner door opened - we came to call what lay behind that door “The Torture Chamber” - and a woman came flouncing out. After her passing, a little man with stiff, coarse hair which stood straight up from his head, and a waxed mustache, paced up and down inside the little room. He looked as if he should be wearing a red uniform trimmed with gilt braid and snapping a short, limber whip at crouching lions; I’ve seen dozens just like him in cages!
“Temperamental!” Leslie whispered, and she was right!
“Fascinating,” Viola answered, in the same kind of a low, highly charged wheeze. Then we waited some more.
At last Signor Paggi came to the door and stared at us.
“Well?” he snapped, and I was glad to leave the business to Leslie, who stood up and spoke.
“Signor Paggi,” she said, “we have been sent here, because in America you are regarded as the most marvelous person…”
“I do not make fools play,” he broke in, “You remember that! You have appointment?”
“Yes,” Leslie answered, and with a good deal of resentment in her tone, “I told your office girl, but she, in a manner I must, in fairness to your interests, Signor Paggi, tell you was insolent, told me…”
“Very good secretary,” (he again interrupted) “I can get many pupils, but only in my life once have I found the good secretary. Come in.”
And, silent, we followed him.
The room was large and almost empty. It had a bench in it, a table on which was some music, a piano, and near that the chair that Signor Paggi sat in when he wasn’t too agitated to sit.
“You first,” he said, almost before we had crossed the threshold, and he pointed at me. I went to the piano and sat down. “Well, play!” he barked and I think I played something of MacDowell’s.
“Stop!” I heard. I stopped.
“What do you see?”
“Nothing,” I answered.
“It is very clear you see nothing. It is awful. You play like a peeg! Toodle, toodle, toodle, SQUEAK! Oh,” and then he clasped his hand to his forehead and glared up at the ceiling.
“You must see peecture,” he said after a moment of silence, “a pretty peecture; I give you time to theenk.” (He did) “Now go!”
And I did.
I don’t know what I played, but I saw our living room; the lounge that has grown lumpy from the twins jumping on it; the piles of popular music on the piano; mother’s darning in a big basket by the table; the Boston fern in the bay window; even a pan of fudge that didn’t harden, with a knife in it, and Roberta’s knitting - always a tie - half poked under a sofa cushion.
And I suppose that doesn’t seem like a pretty picture, but it was pretty to me, and it carried me through.
“You can take lessons from me,” Signor Paggi said, as I finished. I thanked him in a little squeaky voice that must have sounded funny.
“And now,” he went on, “you can get up. You theenk you seet upon my piano stool all day? You do not.”
And then I got up and went over to the bench, and my knees shook more than they had as I went over to the piano, which was so silly that it made me ashamed. Leslie took my place, and I don’t think she was much frightened. She was pretty sure of her playing she told us later, and she was used to playing for people, and her assurance I thought would help her, but it didn’t. Signor Paggi let her play all her selection, before he spoke, and as he did he cleaned his nails with a toothpick.
“Are you deaf?” he asked in an interested, remote way.
“Certainly not,” Leslie answered haughtily.
“Ah, how greatly then do I pity you! To hear yourself play! Oh, my!” (And again he clasped his forehead and rolled his eyes at the ceiling) “And also, you improve on Mr. Bach,” he went on, after his tragedy moment was past. “It is very kind of you to show the master how he should do. No doubt he is grateful! I think he turn in the grave. Mr. Paderewski have great sense; to work for a country who is lost is better than to teach some I have met. Oh, my! Some fool teach you that in girls’ school? You will drop airs with me, and play what is upon the sheet. You see?”
Leslie, with scarlet cheeks, and bright, angry eyes, got up, and nodded. Then Viola was summoned, and I felt most sorry for her because she had no nerve and she wobbled all the way over to the piano, but she did better than either Leslie or I, and she got off with “Skip that and thanks to heaven it will be shorter!”
And so ended that hard half hour that seemed hours long, and started all our winter’s work in Florence.
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