After we had made a slinking exit that took us into the outer room, and the girl, at a nod from Signor Paggi, had put our names down in the book and given us slips upon which were our names and lesson hours, we started down stairs and no one said a word. I think we would have kept quiet for a long, long time if I hadn’t started laughing, but I did, very suddenly and without really knowing that I wanted to, and Viola, after a moment, joined me in a weak, close-to-hysterical way. Leslie didn’t laugh and her eyes were hard and her chin set, and she was so angry that she walked as if she had been wound up too tightly. She made me think of “Mr. Wog,” a mechanical toy man, that the twins start into the living room from the dining room door sometimes when Roberta has company. It makes her very angry, because she says it looks so silly, and she says that it naturally embarrasses a man to realize that someone has been listening to every word he said. The twins told me that they wait around in the dark under the dining room table until they hear the caller tell Roberta that she is so sympathetic, or beautiful, or that they have long admired her, and then they crawl out with their wound toy and start it in. Louise, who is the elder by two minutes, said that “Mr. Wog” almost always broke into Roberta’s soft, “Oh, do you think so?” and that they always had to stuff their handkerchiefs right into their mouths to keep from screaming with giggles.
But to get on, Leslie walked as Mr. Wog walks, and when she spoke she did so between sharply indrawn breaths and in a way that told a lot she didn’t trouble to put into words.
“Aunt Sheila knew this old devil,” she said, “I make no apologies for calling him that, and what she did was vicious, positively vicious! She—she said I wouldn’t stick, made me say I would, in fact,” (she paused, and had to draw several quieting breaths before she could go on) “in fact I wagered her a cottage that father gave me last birthday, a heavenly sweet place up on Lake Placid, I wagered her that, that I would stick it out and study with this horrible person! And if I can ever punish Ben Forbes for all this, I will consider that life has given me all the sweetness I shall ever crave!”
Then we stepped out into the street.
Of course it seemed about sixteen times as bright as it really was, because both the halls and Mr. Paggi’s rooms had been dark, and it seemed more good to be out than I can describe. After I blinked my eyes into adjustment with the outdoor glare, I stole a side glance at Leslie and wondered what sticking it out - if she could stick it out – would do for her? I knew that she would either flare up and leave it all, or that she’d have to change, and I remembered how Howard McDonald, who is Elaine’s brother, had learned to keep his temper by playing baseball. The training, and the having to abide by decisions that he thought unfair had been fine for him, and after a season of playing short-stop, everybody wondered whether he had changed, or whether they’d been mean? “Will you, can you stand it?” I questioned inside, and Leslie answered, almost immediately, quite as if I’d put my wonder into words.
“I am going to go through with it,” she stated through set teeth. “If I die of disease from living in that frightful hole, or from shocked, shattered nerves after a lesson, perhaps Aunt Sheila may have a question or two to ask of herself!”
“He couldn’t have known who you are, dear,” said Viola, who was groping around to find the right key.
Leslie laughed shortly.
“Aunt Sheila said I depended on that,” she confided. “That was during one of her all-too-frequent moments of flattery. Sometimes I think I have been the most misunderstood girl who has ever lived! And oh, how I ache, alone, in my fumbling through the dark!”
She stared ahead like everything after that; I guess she was trying to look dramatic. Viola said, “Poor darling, I understand.” And then Leslie said, “I,” (her voice dropped and broke) “I am close to fainting. I need tea,” and so they went to Doney’s which is the fanciest restaurant in Florence and marked “expensive” in Baedeker. After the remark about Siamese triplets I didn’t intend to have her think I wanted to be asked to her party, so I said, “I must leave you here,” although I had no idea where I was, or where I should be going.
“Must you, really?” Leslie asked so vaguely, that I got mad all over again and answered with, “I generally say what I mean,” which of course was not polite. Then, feeling a little ashamed of myself, I turned and left them and began to wonder which Italian I should ask where I was and where I was going - in English; but I kept passing them, and going farther and farther all the time because the doing it seemed hard.
Then suddenly I saw someone who was ahead of me, and I hurried, for I knew the gray homespun coat and the swing of the gray hat brim.
“Wait!” I called, and he turned, and then he was laughing down at me, and saying, “I just went up all those stairs that lead to the Pension Dante to hunt you, and found you out, and found where you were. Now tell me about it!”
“Oh, Mr. Wake!” I said, and I drew a deep breath because I was so glad to see him, and so relieved over finding someone who could talk as I did.
“Pretty bad?” he questioned, with a kind look.
“I’m so glad to see you,” I stated, which wasn’t exactly an answer, but it pleased Mr. Wake, for he said, “Why, dear child, how mighty fine of you!” and pumped my hands up and down in his. Then he said, “Look here, I’ve a plan. I say we go collect some food, spoil your dinner, add another inch to my tummy, and have a picnic. Like ’em?”
“Love them!” I answered.
His eyes twinkled down at me, and all the little laugh wrinkles on his temples stood out.
“Good!” he said, “I know a little shop down here, on a dark arched street, where Dante may have passed his Beatrice, and in that little shop there are cakes that must make the angels long to come down on parole. And near this bake shop is a wine shop, where I shall buy you either some vermouth, or some coffee, and my plan is to collect our goods, assemble them, and then eat. Is it welcome?”
“That’s exactly the sort of thing that suits my temperament,” I answered. “I can hardly forgive a person who uses a spoon on an ice cream cone!”
That made him laugh, although I don’t know why, and he took my hand in his, and drew it through his arm.
“Amazingly improper I am told,” he said as he did it, “but a fine way for comrades to walk, and I feel that we are going to be real comrades and friends.”
“I hope so,” I said, for I was liking him more and more all the time.
Then we didn’t talk for a little time, and I began to enjoy looking into the windows of the smart shops that are on the Via Tornabuoni, and at the gay crowds that shift and change so constantly. There were dandies lounging at the curbs, swinging their canes, curling their mustaches, and searching through the crowd, with soft-sentimental brown eyes, for some pretty girl at whom they could stare - to stare, in Italy, is a compliment! Then there were bright spots made by the women with their high-heaped trays of flowers, and the funny spots made by the insistent little boys who try to sell postcards and sometimes can’t be discouraged even by a sharp “Basta!” which seems to mean “Get out!” and “Enough!” and other things of that kind, all rolled into one!
In the street, the sharp cracking of the cabmen’s whips and their shrill, high calls made a new sound for me to add to my collection, and the beautiful motors which slid by made me wish that Elaine McDonald could have one glimpse; because one day at Roberta’s sewing club when all the rest of the girls were saying that my going away was fine and everything, Elaine had said that she would rather stay in Pennsylvania than go and hobnob with organ grinders, and I think she was jealous.
I liked all this more than I can say, and with Mr. Wake I wasn’t bothered by the crowds. Florence has about the same population as Baltimore, although Mr. Wake said it didn’t seem so because so many Italians crowd in a few rooms, and they live so tightly packed. One can walk to the edge of the city anywhere easily, for it doesn’t cover much space, but to me it seemed very large and, at first, confusing.
After we had walked some time we turned in a tiny street that had an archway over it, and seemed as dark as ink from contrast to the sunny street we’d left. I liked it, and, as I picked my way over the big cobblestones, I said so.
“It is a part of Florence that most tourists miss,” said Mr. Wake, “and it is too bad, for it is the most characteristic part. Ah, here we are,” he ended and we turned in a tiny doorway from which came the pleasant smell of hot sugar and warm bread.
We got our cakes - which were very good - and took them in our hands, and went on a few doors, around a corner, up a few steps - and those right in the street at the back of some great palace - and then we turned into a broader way and found a shop that had the entire front open - they roll up during the daytime and stay up even through all the winter - and here I had coffee and Mr. Wake a tiny glass of wine, and we ate and drank as the girl who had served us looked on and smiled. It was very pleasant, and I had a fine time! I told him about my interview with Signor Paggi and he thought I had got off easily.
After we had eaten and talked we walked up past the Loggia dei Lanzi which has statues in it that commemorate all sorts of historic events and faces the square in which there is a replica of Michael Angelo’s David; the square is large, and very busy with quickly passing people, and the people who pause to make small groups that are always dissolving, and ever reforming; and these people always look futile. I didn’t know why, but Mr. Wake said that the Palazzo Vecchio, which is at right angles to the Loggia dei Lanzi and looks scornfully down over everything, made it.
“See that old building over there?” he said, as he pointed with his cane.
“Um hum,” I answered, as I looked way up at the great big tower, and tried to keep my mouth shut while doing it. I don’t know why it is so easy to look up with your mouth open!
“In there,” said Mr. Wake, “are ghosts who talk of making war upon a neighboring town. They fear that Fiesole is growing too strong, Fiesole that looks down from the hill behind you.”
“Did they fight like that?” I asked.
“Exactly like that! And without putting anything on the bill-boards about it beforehand. You see Italy was - not so long ago either –a land of little countries, for each city had its rulers, and fought for its rights, to keep its possessions, or to gain others. And a lot of the plans went on in there,” and again he pointed with his cane.
“How old is it?” I asked, and then he told me and I gasped, for it was begun late in 1200 and finished in 1314.
“Not so old for Florence,” said Mr. Wake, after my gasp, “you know the original Battistero, or Baptistery, was built probably in the seventh or eighth century. It was remodeled to its present condition, practically, in 1200.”
“No, I didn’t,” I said, and humbly.
“Well, you’ve lots of time. And you’ll need it. There’s lots to see; the house where Dante lived, and the tomb of Galileo, and the grave of Mrs. Browning, and the literary landmarks. Thomas Hardy wrote things in this town, and George Eliot came here, and oh, ever so many more. And right before you in the middle of this square Savonarola was burned.”
And I had to ask who he was; I knew that I had heard the name, but I am lots better at remembering faces then I am at remembering names.
“The Billy Sunday of the year of our Lord, 1490,” said Mr. Wake, “who, after he had had more good art burned than has ever been produced since, displeased his followers, the Florentines, who tortured him, poor chap, and right over in that building, Jane, and then burned him.”
“Why did he want the pictures burned?” I asked.
“The subjects hadn’t any slickers on,” said Mr. Wake.
“Feel anything here?” asked Mr. Wake, after we had been quiet a few minutes.
“I feel as if I don’t matter much,” I answered.
“That’s it. The old building smiles scornfully, and says, ‘You will pass, but I shall stay!’”
Then we walked across the square between the cabs and motors, with the crowd, made up of soldiers and officers, and the big policemen – the carabinieri - who wear flowing capes and feathers in their hats, and always travel in pairs. As we reached the other side Mr. Wake told me one more thing, and then took me home.
I noticed a statue of a man who was carrying off a beautiful woman who struggled. There was lots of action in it; the girl looked as if she could play forward and the man looked as if he would be a whopper at the bat.
Mr. Wake saw me looking at them and said: “That’s the way they did it in the old days, and, no doubt, had I lived then, I wouldn’t be a bachelor. Would you like the story?”
“Very much,” I answered.
“Well,” he said, as he twirled his cane, “this was the way of it. Very early in the history of Rome, the debutante crop must have been low, for there weren’t enough wives for the young men, who were up and coming and probably wanted someone to darn their socks and to smile when they told their jokes. And then perhaps there was an extra income tax on the unmarried; they knew a lot about torture those days and so it is not impossible! Anyway, the Romans made a great festival in honor of Neptune, and they invited all the neighboring people to come and bring their families, and in the midst of the games the young Roman dandies rushed in among the spectators, and each selected a maiden that he thought he would like for his wife - it had to be a case of love at first sight, Jane - and carried her off.
“Soon after, the Sabine men, who were probably considerably put out, came bearing down upon Rome with loud shouts and the brandishing of glittering steel, and I myself can see the glare of it in the sun this day! But the Romans drove them back that time. However - and now we have the real nub of the story, Jane, and the real confession of the heart of woman - although the records have it that the Sabine brides put up a most unholy row when they started out upon their wedding journeys, they evidently liked the job of being Roman wives, and really respected the men who didn’t even give them time to pack or to cry just once again on mother’s shoulder, for before the second battle opened between the enraged and outraged Sabines and the conquering males of Rome, the Roman wives, once Sabine girls, rushed between the warring factions and pled so prettily for peace that it was granted, and the story goes on that the two people were so united that their Kings reigned together, and that all thereafter was both peaceful and prosperous.”
“Oh!” I said. I did like that story. “Did you ever feel like doing that!” I asked, for I thought it might be a confession of men as well as of women.
“I have,” he answered, “and if I had, perhaps, perhaps it would have been better!” and then he smiled down at me, but the smile didn’t bring out his laugh wrinkles, but instead it made him look strangely old and tired, which made me wonder. We walked on, for a little time, silently.
“By the way,” I said as we reached the covered corridor that is opposite the big Uffizi Gallery, “my Fairy Godmother writes letters!”
“And floats them to you upon dew?” asked Mr. Wake, “or does a spider throw them to you with a silver, silken thread?”
“No,” I responded, “she puts a blue charm on the upper right hand corner, and the letter comes to me!”
“And something of a marvel at that,” commented Mr. Wake. Then he dismissed fancies, and added, “You have heard from her?”
“Twice,” I answered, “I had a letter yesterday, and one that was posted only an hour after it came today.”
“I’ve a certain feeling, a want for seeing how fairy godmothers write,” said Mr. Wake.
“It’s in my pocket,” I told him, and we stopped and I fumbled around until I found the large, stiff square.
“There,” I said. Mr. Wake took it.
“No doubt you think me a strange old chap,” he said.
“Oh, no,” I answered, “a great many people are interested in writing nowadays.”
“It isn’t that, but your fairy godmother brought to my mind the years when I believed in fairies. A very nice writing, isn’t it? I think it is most charming, don’t you, Jane?”
“See how it looks on the page,” I said, taking it from him quickly, and then the letter from its envelope. “It is pretty, isn’t it?”
“‘Dear, dear Child:’” he read, and then suddenly, as if he were irritated, or had been hurt sharply, added, “Here, here, I don’t want to be reading your letters! And my soul, I must be getting you home! I’ve a dinner engagement over south of the Arno, and I will have to speed up a bit.”
And we did.
* * * * *
At dinner Leslie was uppish and unpleasant. I think she was still smarting from Mr. Paggi’s attack, and that her pride was so shaken she had to pretend some of the assurance that she had lost that afternoon. Anyway, something made her get into a very elaborate dinner dress, and put a high, Spanish comb in her hair, and wear her big, platinum-set ring of diamonds, and a little flexible pearl-set bracelet, and a platinum chain with pearls on that. She looked beautiful, but Mother never thought it was in good taste to wear things that are unsuitable, and I don’t either.
Leslie sailed in after Beata had brought in the soup, and Miss Meek, with whom Leslie had struck up a feud at the first meal, burst out with, “Oh, my eye! Look at the Queen of Sheba!” which seemed to make Leslie awfully mad, so when Miss Bannister asked me what I had done during the afternoon, I told everyone - to change the current - in spite of the fact that Miss Bannister had said, “One of my deaf days, and it doesn’t matter in the least, don’t you know. Only asked to be polite. Pass the bread.”
“Mr. Wake?” said Leslie, after I had told of my walk, and the Loggia dei Lanzi and the Sabine story. “And he took you into an alley restaurant to eat? How odd!”
“Perhaps the poor old bounder is jolly hard up,” said Miss Meek, who tries to be kind to people she likes.
“It wasn’t that,” I said, and I said it sharply, for I was getting more and more out of temper with Leslie. “We were hunting around for atmosphere; you ought to know what it is, Miss Parrish, you talk about it enough. He has a villa out the Fiesole way and I guess a person with a villa wouldn’t worry about a few cents, although I would like him just as well if he had to!”
“That’s the staunch-hearted flapper!” put in Miss Meek, as Leslie murmured, “So many of the climbing sort rent fearful little places - really no more than chicken coops, and then call them villas! So amusing.”
“Did you mean my friend?” I asked quickly, as I felt angry hot spots burn on my cheeks. You have to fasten Leslie. She likes to be mean in a remote, detached way, which is the meanest way one can be mean! Of course she didn’t own up to it; I might have known she wouldn’t! Instead, she answered with, “Really, why would I mean your friend whom I’ve never seen? What possible interest would I have in him?”
I didn’t answer that; I couldn’t, I was too angry. I ate instead, and so fast that I afterward came as close to feeling that I had a stomach as I ever do. If I had known then how Leslie would come to feel about Mr. Wake, and how she was one day to say, “Why didn’t you tell me he wrote books?” I would have been comforted. But the veil that covers the future is both heavy and thick, (I guess I must have gotten that out of some book, but I can’t remember where) and that evening I was to have nothing to comfort me.
Something diverted me on the way to my room, and that was Beata, who sat in the hall with her head on her pretty arms that were dropped on a table.
“Why, Beata!” I said, for she looked so forlorn, and I put my hand on her shoulder. That made her raise her head, and she looked at me and tried to smile, but there were tear stains on her cheeks and her heavy lashes were moist, and I saw that the red tie was crumpled up in her hand and I was certain that the tie was a little link in her story.
“Oh, Signorina,” she whimpered, and timidly groped for my hand, and when she found it she held to it tightly, while I patted her shoulder with the free one.
It seemed strange to stand there with her, understanding and helping each other without a word, when Leslie and I could not understand or help each other, with all our words in common.
Leslie sailed by at that moment, and raised her brows as she looked at the tableau I made with Beata.
She thought it was common. But it was not. I am not always certain of my judgment of her then, because at that time I didn’t like her, but I know I am right in saying that she at that moment was the ordinary soul, for she would have gone past need, and raised her brows in passing!
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