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Tuesday, May 2, 2023

CHAPTER ELEVEN - ENTER SAM DEANE! A Modern Trio in an Old Town

I knew he had fainted, but I spoke to him again to make sure, and I even laid my hand on his shoulder and shook him a little. Then I put my umbrella on the step, and my bag of cream puffs on that, and began to sop my handkerchief in the least dirty-looking puddle that I could find. And all the time I did this I frowned just as hard as I could at two little Italian boys who had paused to look on, and I said “Basta!” very fiercely, but they didn’t go on; instead they stood eating their chestnut paste and chattering with the greatest excitement. And soon their lingering proved a help to me, for their noise made an old lady pause. She had a tray of combs and hairpins that were studded with rhinestones and red glass, hung from her shoulder by a wide tape, and after she had studied the situation, she slipped the tape down over her arm, set her tray on the dryest spot she could find, and squatted before my charge and began to rub his hands. And while she did this she talked loudly and quickly at me until I was so confused that I lost all the use and understanding of the thirty or forty Italian words that I really did know.

Then a shopkeeper who wore a long, once white apron and who was chewing a toothpick came along and stopped, and he asked questions, and the old lady and the little boys all answered at once, and made their arms go like hard-working, energetic windmills as they answered. Then two soldiers in their olive drab came along, and they paused and wanted to know what was wrong, and the little boys and the old lady and the shopkeeper answered them, and they stood talking. And then a well-dressed man of, I should say, the middle class, saw our group, and joined it, and he wanted to know what was up, and when he was answered it sounded exactly like the point in a ball game where the home team makes the first run made, in the last half of the tenth inning.

And I suppose it must have been funny, but it didn’t seem so to me then. The man had been unconscious for so long that I was very, very much worried, and I didn’t know what to do!

And when still another man paused and asked the important question, and the whole thing was enacted again with even more enthusiasm, and more noise, I felt as if I were absolutely marooned. There was something very dreadful about those few moments during which I needed help so badly and had no way of asking for it.

The last man to join the volunteers stepped forward and I saw that he was an officer of the Infantry, and he looked as dapper as they always do in spite of the fact that mud was on his gleaming boots and that some passing cart or motor had evidently splashed mud up on a corner of his wide blue cape.

He bared his head and bowed to me, and then held out a little coral charm that looked like a horn, and which I found later are carried by millions of Italians as talismans against all sorts of evil.

He waved this and just at that moment the tall thin man happened to open his eyes; I heard the little crowd gasp, and then I saw them bow their heads and cross themselves quickly - and the little boys got chestnut paste on their blouses by their doing this - and then there was even higher, shriller, faster chatter, and through this my charge spoke.

“What’s the row?” he asked weakly.

“You fainted,” I answered.

“Fool thing to do,” he said, and he tried to get up, but the trying made him so dizzy that he had to sink back again, and then he closed his eyes as people do when they are confronted by a whirling world that has black spots before it.

“We have lots of time,” I assured him, and just as gently as I could, for I did feel so sorry for him. And then I turned to the Italians, and said “Grazie, grazie!” as hard as I could, and bowed as if the affair were quite over, and all of them except the little boys drifted away. After that I reached down and put my fingers on the sick man’s wrist, and when I located his pulse I found that it was pretty slow and that made me ask the elder of the two boys - in two languages, and five waves - if he could get a glass of water. And that made him nod and lay down his slab of chestnut paste by my patient on the step, and that told me a story. And I never in my life have felt so badly, or so sorry for anyone, as I did when I began to understand.

For the sick man looked at that nibbled little slab, and moistened his lips, and then he looked away. And then he looked at it again, and shifted his position, and once he even reached out toward it, and then he sat back and for a moment covered his eyes.

And I knew right then why those cream puffs had beckoned me from the window of the gay pastry shop! I opened the bag. “Sometimes,” I said, “when I’m faint, I eat; it takes the blood away from your stomach or puts it there, or something.” And honestly, Roberta couldn’t have said it any better!

Well, he took one, and he tried to eat it slowly, but he couldn’t. After he finished it, he said, “Thank you ever so much. I believe I must have missed my lunch. I sometimes get interested in work,” and then he paused and looked down at the bag.

“It’ll take more than one to help you,” I said, “you were awfully faint.”

But he shook his head. “No,” he answered, decidedly, “but thank you - and so much. You got those for yourself, and I’m afraid I’ve spoiled your party now. You have been most kind,” and then he drank the water the little boy had brought, said a few words of thanks in Italian, and sat looking before him. I had settled by him on the step, and sitting there wasn’t bad, for the rain had turned to so gentle a mist that it was little more than a fog, and it was getting so dark that the passing venders thought we were only natives, and so they didn’t bother us to buy lumpy-looking statuettes or postcards or rhinestone combs. The open-faced shops sent out shafts of light that were so dulled by the haze that they looked strained, and I can’t exactly explain but it was sort of cozy and nice in spite of the dampness, and pretty too.

After a little time my sick friend turned. “You must get on,” he stated.

“I’m not in any hurry,” I answered.

“But it’s getting late for you,” he said as he looked down. I liked his face even then. Later, Leslie said he wasn’t handsome, and she said that the only two really handsome men she had ever seen were Ben Forbes (and he has a pink wart on his chin!) and Wallace Reid; but I think that kind eyes and a good mouth and a firm chin make a man handsome, and I stick to it that Sam is.

“I’m going to take you home,” I stated, very seriously, and my friend laughed and then I knew him; for I had heard him laugh in that happy, quick way as he leaned out of a studio window that looked into our court and answered the sallies of Gino, who was rubbing his brasses down below. 

“You are a dear and kind little soul,” he said after the laugh faded, “but that tickled me; you are about four feet long, aren’t you? And I’m a perfect telegraph pole, and pretty heavy. Anyway,” he had grown very serious, “do you think I am going to let you bother anymore with me? You’ve wasted too much time now, and, what’s more important, one of your lovely cream puffs,” and after he said that he looked at the bag again, looked away quickly, and swallowed hard.

I knew I had to do something to make him let me help him, because I could see that he was stiff-necked, and that he intended to be independent, and so I said, and rather softly because I was embarrassed, “But I owe you lots.”

He said, “How come?” and turned again to look down at me, and I told him, and as I told him he listened hard, and once - of course I must have been mistaken - I thought his eyes filled.

“Well,” he said, after I finished, “Well,” and then, “You poor little chap!”

“Oh,” I said, “I’m all right now, but you see you helped me when I was unhappy and so it’s no more than fair that I should take you home, and – and share my cream puffs”

Then an old lady who carried a scaldino, which is a funny little stove that stands on legs and looks like a stew pot, came out of the door, and we stood up.

“Can you move?” I asked anxiously.

“You bet I can,” I heard, “I feel great! Come on, little friend.”

“You take my arm,” I ordered, and he did. And he insisted upon carrying the umbrella too, which we didn’t open, and every once in a while he leaned down so he could look under my hat, and then he would say, “You say you aren’t homesick anymore?”

And I’d say, “No, not anymore.”

And he’d answer with, “That’s right. You mustn’t be unhappy, you know! You just mustn’t be that!”

We walked in an awfully funny way, because his stride was miles long, and of course mine had to be short. And when he tried to shorten his stride, it made him teeter like a Japanese official - I know about these because our choral society gave The Mikado two years ago - while if I tried to accommodate my step to his I looked as if I were doing the bent knee walk the twins do, that lowers their bodies and shortens their legs and looks awfully funny; and they always do it back of Roberta when she is all dressed up and starts out to do her fancy calling.

So we hobbled and hitched along, and suddenly I laughed, and he laughed too, and then we were even better friends. It is strange, and very nice, I think, how laughter does this.

“My name is Sam Deane,” he announced, after our laughter had trailed off into a silence that had lasted past two fruit stores and a wine shop, “what is yours, if I may be so bold as to ask?”

“Plain Jane Jones,” I answered. “I think yours is a really nice name!” And then he told me that his wasn’t half as nice as mine, which was mere kindness, because there is nothing romantic or fancy about Jane or Jones; but, as Father said, there could be no Clytemnestras in a flock that was handicapped by the last name he gave us!

Then we reached the corner that would take us to the row of houses that backed on our court, and here we turned, and as we neared his house I kept getting more and more nervous, because I wanted to say something, and I didn’t know how to say it. That is a feeling that most women do not understand, but it comes to me often.

Mr. Sam Deane helped me, because I think he wanted to say something that he couldn’t say; anyway, we stood for quite a few minutes before his door, and then suddenly he said, “I am a dolt; I intend to see you around the block, of course; it’s much too late for you to walk alone.”

“You are just what you said you were,” I interrupted. “I’ve spent an hour getting you here; it would be too silly for you to try that! I’m going to take you up to your room, too.”

“No,” he answered, “really, Little Miss Jane Jones, you’re not. I’ll call Gino. The other wouldn’t do at all!” Then his tone changed and he ended with, “How am I ever going to thank you?”

“Oh, it was nothing,” I answered, and I looked down at the spot between the bricks that I was poking with the umbrella I had just recaptured. He laughed, but not as I had ever heard him laugh before; this was a tight, short laugh that didn’t seem as if it had much mirth in it.

“Well, just as you will have it,” he stated, “but I know.”

“Mr. Deane,” I said, “will you please take my cream puffs?”

He said, “No, my dear.” Said it with his chin set and his head high.

I waited for a moment, looking up at him. “Won’t you please?” I said, and I was perfectly amazed; my voice shook.

“You know I’m hungry, don’t you?” he asked stiffly.

I nodded, “That’s the reason I’m trying to give them to you,” I explained. “I don’t need them; Miss Julianna always gives us nice meals, and I only got them for diversion. I thought I’d eat them coming home because Mr. Paggi makes me nervous, but I’d forgotten my best suit, and that I had to carry an umbrella, and that made eating them difficult.” I paused, and looked up to see that my new friend wasn’t looking over my head any more, but down at me.

“It’s a devil of an agent who is making my trouble,” he confided, “he gave me an order, and now - try as hard as I may - I can’t make the thing suit him; and I can’t tell now whether he’s right, or whether he wants to revoke the order and is doing it by finding fault. You see, I can’t see the thing straight anymore.”

Suddenly I thought of Mr. Wake, who knows a great deal about pictures, and I felt that he would help Sam Deane; I was sure of it. It made me smile. “I know,” I said, “that things will change soon.”

Then Sam Deane said something that was kind, but of course nonsense. He said, “They have changed; you, you’ve made them.”

I poked the hole between the bricks after I said thank you, and then I realized that it must be getting late, and that I would be late for dinner if I didn’t hurry, so I held out the bag.

“I would take them from you,” I said, and after a second of hesitation he took them. He didn’t thank me at all; but he clamped the bag of cream puffs under his arm - he must have had to scrape them off the paper when he came to eat them - and then he put both his hands around my un-umbrellaed hand, and for a minute held it very tightly.

“I can’t say anything,” he said in a funny, jerky way.

“Oh, that’s all right,” I answered. And he laughed a little, and he did that in a jerky way too. Then he said, “You turn on your light, and switch it on and off three or four times, will you, when you get in? I’ll want to know that you’re all right.”

“I will,” I promised.

“And look here, you won’t be homesick, will you?”

“No,” I promised. Then I said “Goodnight,” and he said “Goodnight,” and I went off down the street. At the corner I looked back to see him still on the step and watching me, and that made me nervous, because people catch cold easily when they aren’t well, and he should have known it. And furthermore, there wasn’t the least necessity of his watching me, because I had often been out later than that by myself and I was quite safe.

In the Pension I hurried to my room, and took off my hat and coat and switched my light off and on several times as I had promised, and from across the court I had a fast-flashed answer.

Then I went out to dinner where Mr. Hemmingway was telling of his first trip in a yawl, whatever that is, which had been in the spring of 1871, or 1872, he had a fearful time remembering which; and where Miss Bannister was telling of the crumpets that they had had for tea when the gentry came during the years of her girlhood; and where Miss Meek was making sniff-prefaced remarks about people who made their money overnight in America - this was for Leslie’s benefit, and where Beata was to be seen, again with eyelids that were puffed from tears.

After dinner as I played Canfield in the dining room with Miss Meek looking on and saying, “That’s the way to it! Now smack the queen on the king jolly quick!” I thought of all the unfinished stories I had around me.

First there was Miss Sheila, whose love story had been unhappy.

Then there was Mr. Wake, and I felt certain that he had a long story tangled in the years that he had passed.

Leslie came next; Leslie who had cared enough for this Ben Forbes man to come to Florence in order to show him that she was not what he had said she was.

And Viola, who for some reason was making a pretense of studying when she really hated work.

Beata followed, Beata whose tie-knitting had ceased, and who cried as she did her dusting or scraped the carrots.

And I had added, just that evening, another one, and that was Sam Deane, who was hungry, and who was fighting, and who needed help.

All of them had stories and all of the stories seemed most interesting, to me. I, I realized, hadn’t any story, but I didn’t really need it, while there was so much activity and romance for everyone around me.

Before I undressed, I wrote Mr. Wake a long letter about Sam Deane, and I said that I was sorry to trouble him, but that I did want his help, and that Sam Deane lived on the third floor of the building that backed ours, which would be good for reducing Mr. Wake’s stomach. And then I signed myself most affectionately and admiringly his, and closed and addressed and stamped my letter.

Then I got Beata to take it out. I found her sitting before the wall shrine and looking at it dully.

“It must go quickly,” I said. And she said something of sweethearts and love, which was, of course, all off, but I hadn’t the time nor ability to explain and so I let it go; and then I went back to my room and undressed and went to bed.

Chapter 12

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