I looked at the bunch of paper roses that stood in the center of the table as I ate my soup, because I felt all the rest looking at me and it made me uncomfortable; and I suppose I would have looked at them, or down at my plate, all through the meal, if Miss Bannister hadn’t barked a question out at me.
“Where do you come from?” she asked,
with an emphasis and a rise in her sentence that was as new to me as the
Italian I was hearing.
“Pennsylvania,” I answered.
“Quite a village, I suppose?” she questioned.
I tried to explain, but right in the middle of my explanation she said: “One of my deaf days, but no matter, I don’t care in the least. I only asked to be polite, don’t you know.”
Which left me feeling as you do when you run for a car, but do nothing more than reach the spot where it was. I ate soup quite hard for several minutes.
Then Mr. Hemmingway, who had traveled quite a lot - I learned it soon! - helped me out by screaming information about the States across the table to Miss Bannister, who clattered her spoon and kept saying, “No matter, no matter!” all the time he talked. I felt just exactly as if I were in the middle of a funny dream, and one that wasn’t especially nice, and I honestly even half wondered whether I wouldn’t wake up to tell Mother about it, and have her say, “Now what did you eat before you went to bed?”
But I didn’t wake up and the dinner went on; Beata took away our soup plates, and then brought in big plates of spaghetti, cheese was passed and sprinkled over this, and I found it good, but difficult to eat, because it was in long pieces. Several on my plate I know would have gone around our hose reel dozens of times! Anyway, as I struggled with this and tried to cut it, Mr. Hemmingway began, and I began to understand him.
“I am familiar with the States,” he asserted, “although my travels in the States have not been extensive. I spent a winter in Canada while a comparatively young man; it was, if I recall correctly, the winter of 1882. Or was it ’83? Now I should know. Ah, I have it! It was ’83, and my certainty of this pertinent fact comes from the recollection that in ’82 I was in England, and I know this, because the year prior to that, which, if you will reckon, was ’81, I was detained in a village in South Wales, by a sharp attack of fever which was thought to have been introduced by the importation of French labor upon the occasion of…”
And so on. He never got there, but I did feel sorry for him, so I listened just as hard as I could, which is less trying where you can eat than at other places. He was having a splendid time, when Miss Meek cut in to question me.
“Student?” she boomed out, and she pronounced it, “Stew-dant.”
I felt pleased, and I wanted to answer nicely, but I had at least six inches of spaghetti in my mouth - I hadn’t meant to take so much but it kept trailing up, and I had to lap it in - and so I had to nod. I should have waited a minute before I let that pleased feeling get on top, because she shoved it right over a cliff by her next remark, which was, “Oh, my eye!” and she followed that with a prodigious groan. It wasn’t very flattering.
“But in a student pension,” began Mr. Hemmingway, “where the rates are lowered for others by the fact that practising makes the house in some ways less attractive, one must accept the handicap with grace. How well I remember in Vienna, when I, then quite a boy - let me see, what was the year?”
“No matter!” barked Miss Bannister, and then Miss Meek added something, after another groan, that interested me considerably.
“And two more coming!” she stated.
“Are there?” I asked quickly.
“I do not lie,” she answered frigidly, and I stammered out something about not having meant that she did, but that I was interested.
“Mees Leslie Parrish,” said Miss Julianna, who came in at the moment, after Beata who carried a big platter upon which were rounds of meat all wrapped in overcoats of cabbage leaves in which they had been baked, “and Mees Viola Harris-Clarke.”
I was surprised, and I couldn’t quite believe it, because Leslie Parrish was Miss Sheila’s niece, and I couldn’t see quite why she was coming to study.
Miss Sheila told me a good deal about Leslie while she visited us. I remember one day, while I sat on the guest room bed and helped Miss Sheila run two-toned ribbon - wonderfully lovely ribbon which was faint lavender on one side and pale peach pink on the other - into her beautiful underthings, that she, Miss Sheila, said her own niece would have played well if she had ever learned to work. And I remember just how she looked as she tossed a chemise to a chair and said, “But unhappily, the child has been frightfully, and wrongly indulged.”
It made me wonder a lot!
I knew that Leslie Parrish’s father had lots of money, all the Parrish family are wealthy, and I knew that she spent her time going to parties and making visits, and entertaining, for Miss Sheila had told me that too. So I thought Miss Julianna must be mistaken, because, for Leslie, the Pension Dante would be very simple.
“When did you hear this?” I asked.
“A week, ten days past,” she answered, “in the cable. You did not know?”
“No,” I answered, “I didn’t.”
“I suppose you did. Miss Parrish also write for you.”
“When are they to arrive?” asked Miss Meek.
“Tomorrow, or day after,” Miss Julianna answered, as Beata took away the plates that had had the meat on them and substituted some plates on which were lettuce and red cheese.
After this came a pastry, and that made Miss Bannister say, “Tart again!” in a high, querulous voice.
“Bally things!” said Miss Meek, who, I soon found, loved to be thought a sport and used lots of English slang, I think, because she had been a governess and still taught English to a few Italians, and was afraid of being considered school-teachery or prim.
They both ate their tarts just as if they enjoyed them, while Mr. Hemmingway began to tell about how the first tart was made in England, and was side-tracked by the reason that had made the man who had told it to him, tell it to him. I began to see that he was really ever so funny, and to feel like smiling each time he said, “Now let me see, it was raining that day if I recall correctly, or was it the day before that day when it rained so heavily? It seems to me it was that day, because I remember I had some new galoshes which I had gotten in East London at one of the curb stalls, and I recall the getting them, because…”
And on and on! His mind was full of little
paths that led him away from the main road, which even a clever person could
only occasionally glimpse through the haze Mr. Hemmingway made by details.
After we had finished the “tart,” Miss Meek pushed back her chair, and boomed out “Draughts?” to which Miss Bannister, who still seemed querulous, answered, “If you like.”
And they got out a checker board from behind a bookcase that was by a window; Beata cleared one corner of the table, and they began. Mr. Hemmingway stood looking on, rocking back and forth, first on his heels and then on his toes, and as he did this he tried, I think, to tell of a game of checkers he had seen played between experts somewhere in Brazil, but of course I couldn’t really tell.
“When I was a youngster,” he began, “now was I twenty-three or was I twenty-four? It seems to me I was twenty-four, because the year before I had typhus, and I am certain that that happened in my twenty-third year, and directly after my convalescence I took passage for South America which would make me twenty-four at that time, since my birthday is in November, (the year’s saddest month) and having gone directly after that, I must, therefore, have passed my twenty-fourth birthday.”
“Ho hum,” grunted out Miss Meek.
“However, no matter,” said Mr. Hemmingway quickly, “What I was about to entertain with is the history of my witnessing a match of draughts played between experts in San Paola. And how keenly I remember it! The day was fine.”
“Ho hum!” groaned Miss Meek.
“What’s he saying?” asked Miss Bannister.
“Not a bally thing! Getting ready, don’t you know!” Miss Meek shouted in answer, and I did feel sorry for him, but my sympathy wasn’t needed, for Miss Meek’s attitude, I soon learned, made no impression.
“I think,” I put in, “I must go to my room; I am so sorry, for I would love to hear about the match, but I must finish a letter to my family.” Which wasn’t true, but I didn’t know how to get off without some excuse!
I went to bed early, but again I didn’t sleep early, and I think it was fully a half hour before my eyelids closed. A cat down in the court had made all the screeching, whining, sizzling, hissing noises one cat can make, and big mosquitos had hummed around to disturb me, too. But at last I burrowed under the covers, and then I forgot, and when I woke, the sun was spread out across the square tiled floor in a wide, blazing streak. And the sky looked flat, as if some giant had stretched gleaming blue satin all over space; there wasn’t a cloud, nor a feeling of movement, outside my window, but only the brightness of the keen, strong sun, and that deep, thick blue. I lay looking out until someone tapped, and after my answer I heard Beata’s singing voice, saying: “Buon giorno, Signorina! Acqua calda!”
And I got up to take in a tall, slender-necked brass pitcher which was filled with water that sent up a cloud of steam.