The week that followed the day of our first visit to Signor Paggi allowed us all to find our grooves and to settle into them. And each day I, in my going, started with a continental breakfast - one can slip over these quickly! - and after I had had my two rolls and a pot of something that smelled a little like coffee and tasted a lot like some health drink, I went on to two hours of practising. I finished these when the clock struck eleven, and then I’d write letters, or sew fresh collars and cuffs in my blue serge, or wash stockings and underwear, or walk until it was time for the mellow, soft-toned bell that hung in the hall to be rung and for Beata to say, “È pronto!” which of course meant lunch, and that it was one.
After lunch I had two more hours of practising and then I could do as I liked again. Sometimes I walked - always if I hadn’t in the morning – and sometimes I read or wrote, and once in a while Miss Meek asked me to play “draughts,” by which she meant checkers, or Miss Bannister would call me in her room to show me some old, faded, once brown, now yellowing photographs of the house where she had lived as a girl, and where her father, who had been “The Vicar,” had died. And I always said they were beautiful, and she would nod, and keep on nodding for quite a while, and point out the vine that her mother had planted, and the place where her father sat under the trees and read his books, and the spot where she and her little sister, who was dead, had had their dolly parties. I think she enjoyed doing it, and I was so glad that I could look at the photographs and say that they were lovely! and ask her little questions which she seemed to like answering.
Dinner and the evenings were all about the same, with Mr. Hemmingway “a-hemming” and trying to remember, and Miss Meek barking out “Oh, lud!”, or asking Leslie how “Lady Vere de Vere” was this evening? And Miss Bannister squeaking out questions and then telling whoever answered them that she didn’t care what they said. And “not to bother, please,” and then my room, for Leslie and Viola were very thick at that time and they wouldn’t have included me in any of their plans, even if I had let my pride weaken and let them see that I was a little lonely sometimes.
Of course I knew that I was in Florence to work, and that I was the luckiest girl in the world to be there, and I told myself that over and over again! But a person’s heart will go on feeling just as it wants to in spite of all the person’s reasoning and sense and I must admit that some of those hours after dinner found me, well, not exactly happy. I think I really would have been pretty close to the edge of honestly real misery if it hadn’t been for my Artist, who was working a good deal at night.
After I’d snapped on my electric light, which only lit the center of the great big room and made deep shadows behind each piece of furniture and turned the corners into inky blotches, I used to go to my window. If my artist were working, I’d go back to the electric turn, switch it off, and then cross the room again, scramble up to sit on the sill, rub my shins, for I always seemed to hit something in crossing! and watch.
At first, he was painting with a model, and the model was a little Italian boy, and that was the most fun to see, because the artist’s arranging him was interesting. He worked quickly those nights, and not very long. Then came his working alone, and what Leslie would have called, “Real drama, my dear!” For more than once I saw him stand away from his canvas, and study it in a way that told me he didn’t think it right. And once he dropped his palette on a table, flung himself down in a chair and dropped his head in his hands.
I can’t describe how interested I got in that picture and in the artist. I liked him even then, which does seem silly, but I did, and although I had never seen him enough closely to know his face, nor, of course, the picture, I felt that I must go tell him that it was fine, and that he mustn’t be discouraged! I reached the point - and after only a little time of looking into his work room - of talking half aloud, and saying all the things I wanted to say right to him. “It’s really good,” I would say, “you mustn’t get discouraged! What do you do with that stick you hold?”
Of course he didn’t answer, but it helped me, and I will say here that when anyone is miserable from thinking of the kind of noise that they are used to at home, and the way their mother looks when she sits by the table with the drop light on it, mending, it is a good thing to get really interested in someone else! I know. I speak from experience!
That was the way the first week went; the second one started out with the most interesting experience, and it ended with another one, and one that I never, at that point, would have imagined could be! But Fate has a great many little knots in her threads which make her change the pattern as she weaves, and Viola’s dislike of sickness, and being with sick people, made Fate pause, then take a stitch and draw me close to Leslie!
I reckoned time, quite naturally, not with the start of a calendar week, but from the day that I took my lesson. And it was on Wednesday, at five on a rainy afternoon, just after my second lesson that I came up the Via Tornabuoni all alone, stopped to buy three cream puffs, and then thought I’d step into the Duomo which almost fills the big Piazza del Duomo, and from its dome looks not only over all the city but far off to the hills.
It was hazy inside, for incense was floating, but the chill of the outside air that had come with the rain was gone, and the candles on the big altar made a pretty bright yellow blotch in the center of all the gray.
To people who only know churches in America, churches in Italy won’t be understood, for Americans go to church stiffly, and then hurry off criticizing the sermon or complaining about the hymns that were sung; they never would think of standing around to talk in church the way the Italians do; or think of going into church carrying a live rooster by the feet, or of sitting down in the back of a church to eat a loaf of black bread and a slice of orange-colored cheese. But the Italians do this, and all sorts of informal things, and it does make the churches seem very home-like and warm, and it’s nice to go in them. I wandered around, and I even thought of eating a cream puff, but I decided I wouldn’t because I hadn’t been brought up to it, and because it would spoil my dinner and because cream puffs sometimes squeeze out when you bite and I had on my best suit, so I carried them in that tender way that a person carries cream puffs and enjoyed the real Italy that one finds in the churches.
There was a soldier from the ranks talking with his mother. I heard him call her “Madre mia,” which means “Mother of mine,” and she smiled up at him until her face looked like a little winter apple, it was so full of wrinkles, and kept her hand on his arm which she kept patting.
Near them, on her knees by a confessional, which is a little box that looks like a telephone booth but really holds a Priest who tries to help you, instead of something that squeaks out, “The party doesn’t answer,” was another sort of Italian, a woman who was beautifully dressed, and behind her was her maid who wore the gay costume of the Roman peasant and who carried the beautiful lady’s little white dog.
Officers stood in groups chatting. Others came, dropped to their knees a moment, crossed themselves, and then joined them.
And a shabby old man with a lump on his back came in, got down to his knees very stiffly, and there looked at the altar for a long, long time as his lips moved. I don’t know why that made my throat feel cramped, because he was getting help, and for that moment all of the big church was his, and his God was close to him, I know. But I did feel a little funny, and so I hurried on, to look at a statue by a man named Michael Angelo, who died nearly four hundred years ago, but whose work is still in style.
After that I watched a little boy and girl who were sitting on a kneeling chair, listened to the priests, who were having a service up by the main altar, and then I went out.
I had been inside quite a little while, I knew, after I saw the outdoor light, for it was much darker, and the rain less a rain and more a fog. The people who hurried across the shining square with their funny flat umbrellas looked like big black toadstools, and all the lights reflected in the puddles, and the bright windows were hazed.
I didn’t want to put up my umbrella, because I love the feeling of a little moisture on my cheeks when I walk fast and get hot, but I had my cream puffs, and my best suit on, and so I did. And oh, how lucky it was that I did, for if I hadn’t - but that comes later.
I went down the steps, and across the Piazza del Duomo, keeping my eye out for the trams, (they call street cars “trams” in Florence) the cabs with their shouting, huddled-up drivers, and the purring motors, and I turned down the street that would take me past the English Pharmacy, for I needed a toothbrush.
On this I had gone along a few feet when I saw a man ahead of me who swayed. I was quite used to seeing drunken men at home, but I wondered about him; and when I remembered that Mr. Wake said the Italians never drank too much, I wondered whether he was ill.
But I only wondered idly, as you do wonder on streets about things you pass, and I might have passed him if he hadn’t, as I was beside him, suddenly clutched the handle of my umbrella just below the place I held it. Then he stood swaying, and looking down at me with eyes that were glazed and seemed close to sightless, as he said, “I beg pardon, Madam, I do humbly beg your pardon, I…”
And then he moistened his lips, and stopped, and I saw that he was really very ill.
I closed my umbrella, because once at home I saw a country-woman try to go through the revolving doors of our First National Bank with her umbrella up, and it impressed me with the fact that you can’t use umbrellas very skilfully if you are trying, with both hands, to do something else. And I got it down just in time, for the tall man was swaying, and he needed all the help I gave him and more!
“Sit down on this step,” I said, and I put my hand under his arm to guide him.
After he was down, his head rolled limply to one side and then dropped back against the wall, his eyes closed, and when I spoke to him he didn’t answer.