I went into reverse for Mr. Wake, because he seemed interested in my own fairy story, but I didn’t begin to tell it until after lunch.
Buying our lunches was the most interesting kind of a business transaction, and unpacking them was interesting too.
“At the next station,” Mr. Wake said, “I am going to get two mighty good lunches that come packed in little baskets, and there will be a little wicker-covered bottle, full of wine, that you can use for hair tonic or scent after it’s empty.”
And then the train slowed and he leaned far out of the opened window that was in the door of our compartment.
The station where we found ourselves after we had come to a gentle stop was much smaller than the one at Genoa, but it had the same foreign flavor, and a highly charged feeling of imperfectly suppressed excitement and happiness. I can’t quite explain about this; it rises, perhaps, from the clear, dazzling sunlight, the masquerade-ball look that is lent by gay uniforms, and the women who carry trays that are piled high with small bouquets. But anyway it is there. And this gaiety was strange to me. Of course at our stations there are always some people who scream such things as, “Let us know when you get to Aggie’s!” or, “Don’t forget to write!” at each other, through two panes of thick glass, but they don’t seem entirely happy and I feel that the majority are entirely sober about traveling, and when I mentioned my feeling to Mr. Wake, he said they had a right to be.
Mr. Wake called out something in Italian, and his cry mingled with the shrilly voiced wants of the many Italians who leaned from the other windows of the train, and a white-aproned man who trundled a truck that was piled high with little baskets caught the coins that were flung to him, and handed lunches into the train, and said his “Grazies” and made his bows.
And then he reached us, and Mr. Wake bought two baskets for two lire each, and we sat down and unpacked them. There were bologna sandwiches and ripe olives - which I then didn’t care for - and a slab of Italian cheese which I couldn’t name, a very good hard roll, figs and grapes, very fresh and delicious, and then there was the little gourd-shaped bottle with wicker around its feet, and a paper napkin. It seemed very reasonable to me for a few cents, because it was all I needed, and I always need quite a bit.
“I don’t know whether I’d better drink this,” I said, about the wine. “It might make me light-headed.”
“Nonsense,” said Mr. Wake, “it’s about as likely to as lemonade. The Italians drink it like water, and you never see one drunk – probably won’t unless some fool starts a prohibition movement.”
Then the train made its slippery, oiled start, and I spoke only once again, and then I was silent for some time. “Do they sell cushions, too?” I asked. I had seen a whole truck piled high with them, and had seen some of them being passed into the windows of the train, and I was naturally curious about everything.
“Rent them,” Mr. Wake answered. “The people leave them in the train, and they are rented again on the trip back.” That seemed very strange to me, too, coming, as I do, from a race that takes everything that isn’t nailed down, while traveling.
Then I really ate, and I was glad to have the quiet lull in which to look at the things we passed. Everything fascinated me, but nothing seemed real. I expected all the time to hear the click of the nickel as it drops into one of those boxes holding candy that are clamped to the back of the seats in our opera house. The country looked like a drop curtain, or the kind of a scene that brings on a Tyrolean chorus. There was a lot of pink and white and bright, bright green and salmon-colored houses, with blue shutters; and little shrines set high upon their walls, under the wide-hanging, gleaming roofs of tiles. And there were oxen on the smooth white roads we passed, drawing queer, lumbering-looking carts with huge wheels that creaked each time they completed their uneven circles. I had so many things to interest me that I was too busy. It made me think of the time that Daddy took the twins (my youngest sisters) to the circus, and they cried because they couldn’t look at all the rings at once. I felt that way, and so surprised over everything. I enjoyed my lunch, but I chewed dully and without my usual enthusiasm. That was because I was looking so hard at the same time. Mr. Wake watched me, and his eyes twinkled. I think he liked the way I felt. Anyway, as I brushed the crumbs from my lap and put the little basket in which the lunch had come up by my bag, Mr. Wake said, “You know, I have a firm conviction that you are going to enjoy Florence.”
“I’d be an idiot not to, wouldn’t I?” I asked.
“Surely, but the world is full of idiots. Mr. Carlyle once said, ‘London has a population of three million people, most of whom are fools’ - but tell me your story. You come from Pennsylvania?”
“Yes,” I answered, “from a little town that has the smell of oil in the air, and that is surrounded by hills that have oil wells on them. It’s a fine town. You’d like it.”
“No doubt,” agreed Mr. Wake, and again he smiled at me.
“And,” I confided, “I’d never even been to Buffalo, which is our closest city, so you can imagine what all this does to me.”
“And who waved the wand?” he asked.
“Miss Sheila Parrish,” I answered.
“Miss—,” he stopped, then began again, “Miss who?” he asked.
“Miss Sheila Parrish,” I repeated. “It’s a pretty name, isn’t it?”
Mr. Wake didn’t answer immediately, and then he said, “It is a pretty name; I’m thinking it holds a touch of old Ireland and a deal of romance.”
“She hasn’t many friends,” I said, “she says she is fond of solitude.”
Mr. Wake, who was looking down at a strange ring he wore - which I soon learned was a scarab, - twisted it as he said, “Well, now you have introduced the fairy who holds the wand, tell me, please, how did she wave it?” And I told him.
* * * * *
It had begun early in May on a rainy day when I had spilled fudge right in the middle of the front breadth of my one good dress. I felt dreadfully about it, because Mother is always asking me to wear an apron, and she works so hard to keep us looking nice that the idea of making her more work made me miserable. But there the fudge was, spreading over the floor, with the treacherous pan handle, that had made me knock it off, looking as mild and blameless as the twins after they have been eating pink and yellow candy bananas (these are forbidden) and there I stood looking down miserably at the front of my skirt and wondering what to do.
Well, I remember I murmured, “I might as well scrape it up, and get out of this,” and so I got a palette knife and scraped the top layer of fudge off the floor for the twins - who don’t care at all what has happened to any fudge as long as it happens to come to them - and then I scraped my dress, and sponged it a little, and then - miserable and feeling weighted -went up to the third floor where I sleep in the same room with Roberta, and got into my old, faded pink lawn.
I hated that lawn dress, and it helped me to wear it while I waited for Mother who was downtown buying Ferris waists and garter elastic and bone buttons and dish towel material and all those things mothers buy at least once a month, and of course I needed to see mother - as every one of us always needs her when we have been into mischief!
I knew she would say, “Never mind, honey, we’ll fix it in no time! I have more goods and I’ll slip in a new front breadth before you can say ‘Jack Robinson!’” And I knew that I would feel humble and mean because of her being so nice, but cleared up too, and that I would slide up to her, and lay my face against her shoulder, and say, “Oh, Mother,” in a tight way, because thinking of how wonderful she is, and how much too good for us, always makes me want to cry, and I would rather die than cry.
The only time when I ever did cry without shame was when my favorite pitcher was expelled, and most unjustly, from The Oil City League.
However, to get on, I went downstairs, and watered the plants and dusted and did all those things I never do while feeling well mentally, and then I sat down and played the piano.
I didn’t play anything that echoed my mood but I played a dancing, gay, bright thing. I believe most people save the sad ones for those moments when they want to feel sentimental, or are not afraid of being sad.
Anyway I played this thing which sounded as if gipsies might dance to it in the heart of a summer day, and I played it, I believe, fairly well.
After I finished it I sat idle, my hands on the piano keys, feeling even more depressed than before, and it was into this moment of dreariness that the fairy godmother stepped.
Perhaps I heard a little noise, and perhaps I only felt eyes on me, but in any event, I turned - something made me turn - and then I said, “Why, Miss Sheila!” for although I had never seen the pretty woman who stood in the doorway, I had often - very often - seen the picture of the girl she had been, and the years had not changed her much.
She came toward me as I got up, and she held out both hands, and I saw that she had felt tears, for her long lashes were wet, and made into little points.
“Bless you, darling child!” she said, as she kissed me, “how did you know?” and I said, “Mother has a picture of you, and of course we’ve always talked of you, for Mother loved you so much; she said you were so kind to her!”
“Kind to her?” she echoed, “dear soul, think of all that she did for me.”
And then her eyes brimmed again, and Mother spoke quickly of how they had met, because I think she felt that it was too hard for Miss Sheila to remember the time when Mother, then a trained nurse, had cared for Miss Sheila’s younger brother who died.
“Right by the First National,” Mother said, “and there I was, coming out of Mr. Duffy’s with a pound of liver, and I looked up and saw dear Miss Sheila!”
“And I’ve tried to find you everywhere, Margaret,” said Miss Sheila to Mother, “but that trip - I traveled, you know, after we parted, and I lost hold of threads for a time, and then when I came back I couldn’t locate you. I suppose you married the young intern in the Pennsylvania Hospital, during that interval?”
Mother laughed, flushed and nodded.
“He used to write her letters that weighed seven to eight pounds, every day,” said Miss Sheila to me, as she shook her pretty head disapprovingly, “I assure you the poor postman grew quite stooped; I hope, Jane, that no young intern writes to you?”
And I told her that none did, and that I wouldn’t let any, because I wanted a husband whom I would know by sight, anyway, and one that didn’t smell of ether.
And then I put my hand on the piano. “It’s this with me,” I said shyly, because I do feel shy about my playing. It makes me feel lumpy in my throat from the way I love it, and that embarrasses me.
“I don’t wonder,” said Miss Sheila as she looked at me searchingly, “I heard you. Jane—”
And she didn’t wave her wand, but I saw the flicker of its silver magic in the air.
“Jane,” she continued, “I have a hobby, and it is helping girls to find work that they like, and after finding it, helping them to go on with it. This, because I, myself, have been without work, and suffered from it. You can play, my child, and your mother is going to give me the great pleasure of letting me help you play better. You are, Margaret? My dear, remember the old days, and all that you did for me! Jane,” (she turned back to me) “in Florence there is rather a marvelous teacher named Michele Paggi, and in October you shall go to him!”
* * * * *
That was the story.
I told it to Mr. Terrance Wake as if he could see our house, and knew the people in it, including Miss Sheila, who abandoned the party with whom she was motoring and came to stay with us for a time.
And as I ended it, on that Italian train that was taking me nearer and nearer to Florence, I looked up to see that Mr. Wake was still twisting a scarab ring and looking down at it.
“So you see,” I said, “why I am here, and why I love Miss Sheila.”
“Yes,” he said, and he raised his head to smile at me in a strange way. “Yes, I see,” and then he looked away from me and down again at his scarab ring.