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Monday, May 1, 2023

CHAPTER TWELVE - DARK CLOUDS A Modern Trio in an Old Town

The days that followed were dark and gloomy; the cold crept inside and everyone was uncomfortable and almost every one cross. Sometimes I think that the weather really makes all the history, and certainly if it hadn’t been damp Leslie wouldn’t have been sick with a cold; and if she hadn’t had a cold she wouldn’t have quarreled with Viola; and if Viola and she hadn’t quarreled, Viola wouldn’t have told Miss Meek all about Leslie’s heart affair; and if Viola hadn’t confided it to Miss Meek, then Viola and Leslie might have patched up their difference long before they did. All this happened in the course of two dragging, rough-surfaced days, during which no one was happy. And I contend that the strain started from the clouded skies, and the chill which crept in to cling to the floors and live boldly in the passages.

Friday afternoon I slipped a slicker over my everyday suit, which is a belted tweed, and pulled a plain little felt hat low, and started out. It was raining miserably, but I thought that I could shake off the queer, unpleasant weight that I felt inside, if I walked hard, for I had done that before. But everything conspired to hinder me.

I suppose everyone has pictures that they collect without meaning to; funny, little pictures that live in their minds and spring up at odd moments; and pictures that sometimes come, with time, to bring back no more than the feeling of the long-forgotten day when the particular picture hung itself up inside.

Cats that step reluctantly and pick up their feet in their wet-hating, curly way, will, I know, always take me back to the damp air of that afternoon when I walked down past the fish market to the Piazza del Duomo, where the cobbles shone in the wet and reflected the bobbing umbrellas, and where, instead of the usual chattering crowds, there were empty spaces, which was bound to give a feeling of loneliness to anyone who knew and loved the Florence of sunny days.

I went through this and down past the Loggia dei Lanzi, where there were no stalls or no hand trucks heaped with flowers, and then through the court-like street that divides the two upper floors of the big Uffizi Gallery, on under the little passageway that connects these, and then along the balustraded walk that overlooks the Arno.

It is lovely to walk by this river in the sunlight, because then there are women down below, on the shallow strips of beach that crop up here and there, who wash clothes by beating them on stones with stones, and who sing and joke, or call scornful taunts at each other, as they work. But this day it was empty save for a little boy who sat in the stern of a moored boat and fished, I suppose with a bent pin on his string, just as his little American brother might do in my own land.

After I had walked toward the Grazia Bridge, and crossed the street to see something I thought pretty in one of the windows of the shops, I turned and went back toward the Ponte Vecchio, which means “The Old Bridge,” and as I walked across this I considered what I would buy to take home to Mother, Father, Roberta and the twins.

I did this because the bridge is lined with little shops that have windows that twinkle from the gold and silver they hold and the gleaming of all the stones I had ever heard of and many, many more.

Then, and with the weighted, unpleasant feeling still with me, I turned in the direction that would take me home, and hurried as quickly as I could because the rain was coming down faster and it was coming on the slant.

The people in the shops I passed were idle, and the women huddled up with the stew pot little stoves they call scaldinoes tucked under their feet and skirts. They still sat in their doorways although a real storm raged, and I learned that day, truly, that most of Italy does live in the street.

As I turned in the Via Nazionale, which is our street and becomes the Piazza Indipendenza as soon as it reaches the park, I saw, through an open door, a piece of stove pipe that stood on four legs and had a curling little chimney at one end, and that made me smile a little, for the original pattern was invented by an American sea captain who wintered in Florence and almost died of the cold; and the stoves, which Mr. Wake says get much hotter than the infernal regions ever could, are called “American pigs.”

I found the hall very, very dark, and after I had climbed the stairs and got in the Pension corridor I found that that also was dark, and then Miss Julianna came along, switched on the lights, and through that I heard Beata’s story.

“She is ashamed,” said Miss Julianna, “to have you see the cry on her cheek.”

I said I was sorry, as Beata, who had been sitting in the half-light by a table, lowered her head and looked away.

“It is sad,” Miss Julianna agreed, “the good girl, Beata! She loves very much, and also has love give to her, but has not the dowry! And you know here it is necessary.”

“Can’t she earn it?” I asked.

“She had save some, but her small brother, Giuseppe, walks of the crutch, and could be made well; for him she give her money that was saved. No, Beata?” she ended, after adding a string of Italian that was too quickly spoken for me to follow.

Beata nodded, and she spoke quickly, and then she sobbed.

“She say,” said Miss Julianna, “that she is happy and would do again, but her heart, poor little foolish one! Her heart go on loving when it should now stop! It is sad! No, Signorina?”

I thought it was! And I went over by Beata and patted her shoulder. It did seem unfair for her to be unhappy, because she was always so pleasant and kind.

“The Signorina Parreesh_ is more bad of the throat,” went on Miss Julianna; “I went in; she say, ‘How glad to die, I would be!’ also you have the letter here.”

I took the letter with a good deal of hope that trickled off into nothing as I saw dear Miss Sheila’s writing. It had been over a week since I had heard from home, and it seemed much longer than it was. Of course I was glad to hear from Miss Sheila, but I needed a letter from Mother, all full of an account of the things the twins had done, and who was calling on Roberta that night, and who was sick, and how many appendixes Daddy had taken out, and what they’d had for dinner, and how the geraniums were doing, and how Marshal Foch - who is our canary - was almost through molting.

That was what I needed and so I had to swallow hard several times before I opened Miss Sheila’s letter. I had thought surely the letter was from Mother. And after I opened it I swallowed harder, for the twins had contracted diphtheria - as they did everything, together - and Miss Sheila said that Mother wouldn’t be able to write for some time. Mother had telegraphed her and asked her to write me and to keep me informed.

Well, after I stood around a minute looking down at the page the way you do when it holds something you’d rather not see, I went along the corridor to my room, and in there, I sat down in the cold, and wondered whether the twins were very sick, and then I thought of the times I’d been cross to them, and then I wondered whether Mother could get it, and I had to swallow awfully hard over that, and then I thought of Father. And I got up very quickly and squared my shoulders, and took off my coat, and put it over a chair to dry, and hung my hat on the bed post, and went off down the corridor to Leslie’s room, for Father had no use for people who are not sports. It helped me to remember that.

Leslie was sitting up with her feet in a tub of hot water, and she had on a chin strap that tied on top of her head in a funny little bow, and she was crying. I was sorry for her, and sorrier for myself, and we were both miserable, but she looked funny. I saw it even then.

“Always wear this when I’m alone,” she said thickly and in jerks. (She was talking about the rubber strap that was jacking up her chin.) “Mother has a double-chin and the blood just drains from my heart every time I look at her!”

“I wouldn’t worry about it to-day,” I advised. Then I asked her whether I could get her anything. She shook her head, and then she spoke.

“Viola told Miss Meek everything I’d ever told her,” she said, “all about Ben Forbes saying I was idle, and a p-parisite. Don’t you think that was mean?”

I did. And I said so.

She sniffed, and then suddenly, she hid her face in her arm and began to cry hard.

“I wish,” she whimpered, “I were dead.”

And then I got her story.

       *       *       *       *       *

This Benjamin Forbes had lived next door to the Parrishes in New York, and he did until Leslie was eighteen, which was the year before she “came out,” (whatever that is) anyway, he used to help Leslie with her lessons, and take her to the Zoo and riding in the park, and he bought her candy, (the hard, healthy variety that comes in jars and is no good, but the only sort she was permitted to eat, and she said she appreciated the fact that his intentions were kind) and he even used to go to the dentist’s with her while she was having her teeth straightened.

Well, she said that he never thought of her except as a little girl, but that she adored him, and that one night when she was at a fudge party at boarding school - and she was only sixteen at the time – when the other girls were discussing and planning their husbands, she, Leslie, suddenly knew what sort she wanted, and that the sort was Ben.

And she placed him on an altar then, (I quote; for Leslie’s style is not mine) and she never wavered once although she had much attention paid to her, and had had two and a half proposals - the half coming from the fact that her father plunked right in the center of the third one, and evicted the suitor, who left in such agitation that he went without his hat. (Leslie kept it for a souvenir) However, to get on, Mr. Forbes’ younger brother wasn’t strong, and so Mr. Forbes bought a ranch and went out there, and he liked it and they stayed.

He came back after four years, and offered to take Leslie to the Hippodrome, which showed he didn’t know she had grown up, but she suggested a Russian play instead, and he took her there, but she said she could see he didn’t enjoy it, and that he was not pleased with her having matured and that he rather resented it, and he didn’t seem to know how to talk to her, and he acted baffled, and she said that, as he groped, and unconsciously showed his disappointment, every dream and hope of hers was scattered in the dust. (I am quoting Leslie again.) Well, he left after he had been in New York a week, but the night before he left Leslie asked him frankly why he didn’t like her, (she told him that she could see he didn’t) and then he admitted that he was a little disappointed.

“I like girls,” he said, “who can work, and who don’t make playing their only work. All you can do is go to teas and poppycock parties, now isn’t it?” (She said he was gentle, but that he told her all he felt.)

“You can’t,” he went on, “even play the piano as well as you did at fourteen; you can’t keep house, can you?” (And Leslie couldn’t.) “And it seems to me,” he ended, “that you are content to be a pretty little parasite, and that disappoints me.”

And his saying that sent her to Florence, and it started, she said, a ceaseless ache in her heart. And the ache grew too large to keep hidden, and Leslie confided in Viola; and Viola, in an effort to make Miss Meek realize that Leslie was away out of her natural placing, told Miss Meek that Leslie’s broken heart had led her to seek the solace of work in these humble surroundings. And Viola’s talking to Miss Meek was made by the fact that Viola hated sickness, couldn’t bear being with people who were sick, and had to talk to someone.

In that way the confidence became a triangle, and it ended as such triangles usually do, where it started, for Miss Meek came into Leslie’s room and boomed out, “Oho, Miss Smarty! The Queen didn’t rule everyone now, did she? And I’ll say jolly lucky for the Forbes man at that!” (Miss Meek dislikes Leslie.)

And when Viola appeared later, and said, from the doorway, “Darling, is there anything I can do for you?” Leslie answered, “You can try to keep your mouth shut!” and then I think they had a row, although Leslie says that people of her station never row. It seemed like one to my simple nature, though, and during the course of it Leslie told Viola that her people were “nobodies” and that Mrs. Parrish hadn’t been “at all pleased” when she heard of Viola’s going, and that she, Leslie, now knew it was a “climber’s scheme;” and then Viola said that Leslie considered herself more important than she was, and that money wasn’t anything, and that now she knew that society was a “hollow sham,” since people like Leslie could masquerade as paragons or paramounts, or something like that - I sort of forget - in it.

And then they both cried, and Viola slammed the door as she left, and that started it - which was a feud that lasted until Viola had a trouble that was big enough to make even Leslie forgive her the things that she had said, on that rainy day that backed so many unpleasant happenings.

After I left Leslie, I went to my own room and stood by the window looking across the court. There was no light in my artist’s window and there had been no sign of any life in the big room since the evening that followed my taking him home.

Mr. Wake had sent me a little note that read: “Sam Deane is all right now. Will report on Saturday.” But that didn’t tell me whether long Sam Deane had gone on to another part of the country or to another land or was still in Florence, and, somehow, it didn’t seem to satisfy me.

I wondered a lot as I stood there, and I realized that I had hoped, really without knowing it, that I’d see that tall Deane man again. But his rooms were empty and dark, and it was raining, and a swinging sign somewhere in the neighborhood protested in high shrill squeaks as the wind pushed it back and forth, and the twins had diphtheria, and I had been so cross to them sometimes, and they were so dear, and poor Beata had lost her sweetheart, and Leslie was crying, and Viola angry and miserable – and I did want to wander out into our big, yellow-walled kitchen and say “What are you going to have for supper, Mother?” and to know that they were all, every one of them, all right.

The court was growing very dark, and the shadows were gloomy. The rain was caught by a swooping wind and swished against the windows and ran down the panes in rivulets. And just after that the Pension bell jangled loudly, and I thought of the twins and of cablegrams, and when, after a long, long tightly stretched moment or two, someone tapped on my door, I had to moisten my lips before I could even half whisper, “Come.”

And then…

Oh, well, there is always, always, blue back of the gray! But somehow, when one is far from home and it rains hard, you sort of forget it!

Chapter 13 

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