The Wheat Princess, Page 2Jean Webster
IT was late and the studio was already well filled when two new-comerswere ushered into the room--one a woman still almost young, and still(in a kindly light) beautiful; the other a girl emphatically young, heryouth riding triumphant over other qualities which in a few years wouldbecome significant. A slight, almost portentous, hush had fallen overthe room as they crossed the threshold and shook hands with their host.In a group near the door a young man--it was Laurence Sybert, the firstsecretary of the American Embassy--broke off in the middle of asentence with the ejaculation: 'Ah, the Wheat Princess!'
'Be careful, Sybert! She will hear you,' the grey-hairedconsul-general, who stood at his elbow, warned.
Sybert responded with a laugh and a half-shrug; but his tones, thoughlow, had carried, and the girl flashed upon the group a pair of vividhazel eyes containing a half-puzzled, half-questioning light, as thoughshe had caught the words but not the meaning. Her vague expressionchanged to one of recognition; she nodded to the two diplomats as sheturned away to welcome a delegation of young lieutenants, brilliant inblue and gold and shining boots.
'Who is she?' another member of the group inquired as he adjusted apair of eye-glasses and turned to scrutinize the American girl--she wasAmerican to the most casual observer, from the piquant details of hergown to the masterly fashion in which she handled her four young men.
'Don't you know?' There was just a touch of irony in Sybert's tone.'Miss Marcia Copley, the daughter of the American Wheat King--I fancyyou've seen his name mentioned in the papers.'
'Well, well! And so that's Willard Copley's daughter?' He readjustedhis glasses and examined her again from this new point of view. 'Sheisn't bad-looking,' was his comment. 'The Wheat Princess!' He repeatedthe phrase with a laugh. 'I suppose she has come over to marry anItalian prince and make the title good?'
The originator of the phrase shrugged anew, with the intimation that itwas nothing to him who Miss Marcia Copley married.
'And who is the lady with her?'
It was Melville, the consul-general, who replied.
'Her aunt, Mrs. Howard Copley. They live in the Palazzo Rosicorelli.'
'Ah, to be sure! Yes, yes, I know who they are. Her husband's areformer or a philanthropist, or something of the sort, isn't he? I'veseen him at the meets. I say, you know,' he added, with an appreciativesmile, 'that's rather good, the way the two brothers balance eachother. Philanthropist and Wheat King!'
An English girl in the group turned and studied the American girl amoment with a critical scrutiny. Marcia Copley's appearance wasdaintily attractive. Her hat and gown and furs were a burnished brownexactly the colour of her hair; every little accessory of her dress wasunobtrusively fastidious. Her whole bearing, her easy social grace,spoke of a past in which the way had been always smoothed by money. Shecarried with her a touch of imperiousness, a large air of commandingthe world. The English girl noted these things with jealous feminineeyes.
'Really,' she said, 'I don't see how she has the audacity to facepeople. I should think that every beggar in the street would be areproach to her.'
'There were beggars in Italy long before Willard Copley corneredwheat,' Melville returned.
'If what the _Tribuna_ says is true,' some one ventured, 'Howard Copleyis as much implicated as his brother.'
'I dare say,' another laughed; 'millionaire philanthropists have a wayof taking back with the left hand what they have given with the right.'
Sybert had been listening in a half-indifferent fashion to thestrictures on the niece, but in response to the implied criticism ofthe uncle he shook his head emphatically.
'Howard Copley is no more implicated in the deal than I am,' hedeclared. 'He and his brother have had nothing to do with each otherfor the last ten years. His philanthropy is honest, and his money is asclean as any fortune can be.'
The statement was not challenged. Sybert was known to be HowardCopley's friend, and he further carried the reputation of being a warmpartizan on the one or two subjects which engaged his enthusiasm--onthose which did not engage it he was nonchalant to a degree for arising diplomat.
The two--Sybert and the consul-general--with a nod to the grouppresently drifted onward toward the door. The secretary was bent upondeparture at the earliest possible opportunity. Teas were a part of theofficial routine of his life, but by the simple device of coming lateand leaving early he escaped as much of their irksomeness as possible.Aside from being secretary of the Embassy, Sybert was a nephew of theambassador, and it was the latter calling which he found the moreonerous burden of the two. His Excellency had formed a troublesomehabit of shifting social burdens to the unwilling shoulders of theyounger man.
They paused at Mrs. Copley's elbow with outstretched hands, and werereceived with a flattering show of cordiality from the aunt, thoughwith but a fleeting nod from the niece; she was, patently, toointerested in her officers to have much attention left.
'Where is your husband?' Sybert asked.
The lady raised her eyebrows in a picturesque gesture.
'Beggars,' she sighed. 'Something has happened to the beggars again.'Mr. Copley's latest philanthropic venture had been the 'Anti-BeggingSociety.' Bread-tickets had been introduced, the beggars were beinghunted down and given work, and as a result Copley's name was cursedfrom end to end of Rome.
The men smilingly murmured their commiserations.
'And what are you two diplomats doing here?' Mrs. Copley asked. 'Ithought that Mr. Dessart invited only artists to his teas.'
Sybert's gloomy air, as he eyed the door, reflected the question. Itwas Melville who answered:
'Oh, we are admirers of art, even if we are not practitioners. Besides,Mr. Dessart and I are old friends. We used to know each other inPittsburg when he was a boy and I was a good deal younger than I amnow.'
His gaze rested for a moment upon their host, who formed one of thehilarious group about Miss Copley. He was an eminently picturesqueyoung fellow, fitted with the usual artist attributes--a velveteenjacket, a flowing necktie, and rather long light-brown hair whichconstantly got into his eyes, causing him to shake his head impatientlyas he talked. He had an open, frank face, humorous blue eyes and theinestimable, eager air of being in love with life.
The conversation showing signs of becoming general, the officers, withvisible reluctance, made their bows and gave place to the new-comers.The girl now found time to extend a cordial hand to Melville, while tothe secretary she tossed a markedly careless, 'Good afternoon, Mr.Sybert.' If Miss Marcia's offhand manner conveyed something a triflestronger than indifference, so Sybert's half-amused smile as he talkedto her suggested that her unkindness failed to hurt; that she was tooyoung to count.
'And what is this I hear about your moving out to a villa for thespring?' he inquired, turning to Mrs. Copley.
'Yes, we are thinking of it, but it is not decided yet.'
'We still have Uncle Howard to deal with,' added the girl. 'He was thefirst one who suggested a villa, but now that exactly the right onepresents itself, we very much suspect him of trying to back out.'
'That will never do, Miss Marcia,' said Melville. 'You must hold him tohis word.'
'We are going out to-morrow to inspect it, and if Aunt Katherine and Iare pleased----' She broke off with a graceful gesture which intimatedmuch.
Sybert laughed. 'Poor Uncle Howard!' he murmured.
The arrival of fresh guests called their host away, and Mrs. Copley andMelville, turning aside to greet some friends, left Miss Copley for themoment to a _tete a tete_ with Sybert. He maintained his side of theconversation in a half-perfunctory fashion, while the girl allowed aslight touch of hostility to creep beneath her animation.
'And where is the villa to be, Miss Marcia--at Frascati, I suppose?'
'Farther away than Frascati; at Castel Vivalanti.'
'Up in the Sabine hills between Palestrina and Tivoli.'
'Oh, I know where it
is; I have a vivid recollection of climbing thehill on a very hot day. I was merely exclaiming at the locality; it'srather remote, isn't it?'
'Its remoteness is the best thing about it. Our object in moving intothe hills is to escape from visitors, and if we go no farther thanFrascati we shan't do much escaping.'
This to the family's most frequent visitor was scarcely a hospitablespeech, and a smile of amusement crept to the corners of Sybert's mouth.
Apparently just becoming aware of the content of her speech, she addedwith slightly exaggerated sweetness: 'Of course I don't mean you, Mr.Sybert. You come so often that I regard you as a member of thehousehold.'
The secretary apparently had it on his tongue to retort, but, thinkingbetter of it, he maintained a discreet silence, while their hostapproached with the new arrivals--a lady whose name Miss Copley did notcatch, but who was presented with the explanatory remark, 'she writes,'and several young men who, she judged by their neckties, were artistsalso. The talk turned on the villa again, and Miss Copley was calledupon for a description.
'I haven't seen it myself,' she returned; 'but from the steward'saccount it is the most complete villa in Italy. It has a laurel walkand an ilex grove, balconies, fountains, a marble terrace, a view, andeven a ghost.'
'A ghost?' queried Dessart. 'But I thought they were extinct--that therailroads and tourists had driven them all back to the grave.'
'Not the ghost of the "Bad Prince"; we rent him with the place--and themost picturesque ghost you ever dreamed of! He hoarded his wheat whilethe peasants were starving, and they murdered him two hundred yearsago.' She repeated the story, mimicking in inimitable fashion thegestures and broken English of Prince Vivalanti's steward.
A somewhat startled silence hung over the close of the recital, whileher auditors glanced at each other in secret amazement. The questionuppermost in their minds was whether it was ignorance or mere bravadothat had tempted her into repeating just that particular tale. It was asubject which Miss Copley might have been expected to avoid. LaurenceSybert alone was aware that she did not know what a dangerous topic shewas venturing on, and he received the performance with an appreciativelaugh.
'A very picturesque story, Miss Copley. The old fellow got what hedeserved.'
Marcia Copley assented with a smiling gesture, and the woman who wroteskilfully bridged over a second pause.
'You were complaining the other day, Mr. Dessart, that the foreignersare making the Italians too modern. Why do you not catch the ghost? Heis surely a true antique.'
'But I am not an impressionist,' he pleaded.
'Who is saying anything against impressionists?' a young man asked insomewhat halting English as he paused beside the group.
'No one,' said Dessart; 'I was merely disclaiming all knowledge of themand their ways. Miss Copley, allow me to present Monsieur Benoit, thelast _Prix de Rome_--he is the man to paint your ghost. He's animpressionist and paints nothing else.'
'I suppose you have ghosts enough in the Villa Medici, without havingto search for them in the Sabine hills.'
'Ah, _oui_, mademoiselle; the Villa Medici has ghosts of manykinds--ghosts of dead hopes and dead ambitions among others.'
'I should think the ghost of a dead ambition might be too illusive foreven an impressionist to catch,' she returned.
'Perhaps an impressionist is better acquainted with them than withanything else,' suggested Dessart, a trifle unkindly.
'Not when he's young and a _Prix de Rome_,' smiled the woman who wrote.
Mrs. Copley requiring her niece's presence on the other side of theroom, the girl nodded to the group and withdrew. The writer lookedafter her with an air of puzzled interest.
'And doesn't Miss Copley read the papers?' she inquired mildly.
'Evidently she does not,' Sybert rejoined with a laugh as he made hisadieus and withdrew.
Half an hour later, Marcia Copley, having made the rounds of the room,again found herself, as tea was being served, in the neighbourhood ofher new acquaintance. She dropped down on the divan beside her with aslight feeling of relief at being for the moment out of the current ofchatter. Her companion was a vivacious little woman approaching middleage; and though she spoke perfect English, she pronounced her wordswith a precision which suggested a foreign birth. Her conversation wasdiverting; it gave evidence of a vast amount of worldly wisdom as wellas a wide acquaintance with other people's affairs. And her range ofsubjects was wide. She flitted lightly from an artistic estimate ofsome intaglios of the Augustan age, that had just been dug up outsidethe Porta Pia, to a comparison of French and Italian dressmakers and aprophecy as to which cardinal would be the next pope.
A portfolio of sketches lay on a little stand beside them, and shepresently drew them toward her, with the remark, 'We will see how ouryoung man has been amusing himself lately!'
There were a half-dozen or so of wash-drawings, and one or two outlinesketches of figures in red chalk. None of them was at all finished, butthe hasty blocking in showed considerable vigour, and the subjects wereat least original. There was no Castle of St. Angelo with a boatman inthe foreground, and no Temple of Vesta set off by a line of scarletseminarists. One of the chalk drawings was of an old chestnut womancrouched over her charcoal fire; another was of the _octroi_ officerunder the tall arch of the San Giovanni gate, prodding the contents ofa donkey-cart with his steel rod. There were corners of wall shaded bycypresses, bits of architectural adornment, a quick sketch of thelichen-covered elephant's head spouting water at Villa Madama. Theyall, slight as they were, possessed a certain distinction, andsuggested a very real impression of Roman atmosphere. Marcia examinedthem with interest.
'They are extremely good,' she said as she laid the last one down.
'Yes,' her companion agreed; 'they are so good that they ought to bebetter--but they never will be.'
'How do you mean?'
'I know Paul Dessart well enough to know that he will never paint apicture. He has talent, and he's clever, but he's at everybody'sservice. The workers have no time to be polite. However,' she finished,'it is not for you and me to quarrel with him. If he set to work inearnest he would stop giving teas, and that would be a pity, would itnot?'
'Indeed it would!' she agreed. 'How pretty the studio looks thisafternoon! I have seen it only by daylight before, and, like all therest of us, it improves by candle-light.' Her eyes wandered about thebig room, with its furnishings of threadbare tapestry and antiquecarved chairs. The heavy curtains had been partly drawn over thewindows, making a pleasant twilight within. A subtle odour of linseedoil and cigarette smoke, mingled with the fresh scent of violets,pervaded the air.
Paul Dessart, with the _Prix de Rome_ man and a young English sculptorof rising fame, presently joined them; and the talk drifted into Romanpolitics--a subject concerning which, the artists declared with oneaccord, they knew nothing and cared less.
'Oh, I used to get excited over their squabbles,' said the Englishman;'but I soon saw that I should have to choose between that andsculpture; I hadn't time for both.'
'I don't even know who's premier,' put in Dessart.
'A disgraceful lack of interest!' maintained the American girl. 'I haveonly been in Rome two months, and I am an authority on the TripleAlliance and the Abyssinian war; I know what Cavour wanted to do, andwhat Crispi has done.'
'That's not fair, Miss Copley,' Dessart objected. 'You've been going tofunctions at the Embassy, and one can absorb politics there throughone's skin. But I warn you, it isn't a safe subject to get interestedin; it becomes a disease, like the opium habit.'
'He's not so far from the truth,' agreed the sculptor. 'I was talkingto a fellow this afternoon, named Sybert, who--perhaps you know him,Miss Copley?'
'Yes, I know him. What about him?'
'Oh--er--nothing, in that case.'
'Pray slander Mr. Sybert if you wish--I'll promise not to tell. He'sone of my uncle's friends, not one of mine.'
r /> 'Oh, I wasn't going to slander him,' the young man expostulated atrifle sheepishly. 'The only thing I have against Sybert is the factthat my conversation bores him.'
Marcia laughed with a certain sense of fellow-feeling.
'Say anything you please,' she repeated cordially. 'My conversationbores him too.'
'Well, what I was going to say is that he has had about all the Romanpolitics that are good for him. If he doesn't look out, he'll begetting in too deep.'
'Too deep?' she queried.
It was Dessart who pursued the subject with just a touch of malice.Laurence Sybert, apparently, was not so popular a person as a diplomatshould be.
'He's lived in Rome a good many years, and people are beginning towonder what he's up to. The Embassy does very well for a blind, for hedoesn't take any more interest in it than he does in whether or notTammany runs New York. All that Sybert knows anything about or caresanything about is Italian politics, and there are some who think thathe knows a good sight more about them than he ought. He's in with theChurch party, in with the Government--first friends with the Right, andthen with the Left.'
'Monsieur Sybert is what you call an eclectic,' suggested Benoit. 'Hechooses the best of each.'
'I'm not so sure of that,' Dessart hinted darkly. 'He's interested inother factions besides the Vatican and the Quirinal. There are one ortwo pretty anarchistic societies in Rome, and I've heard itwhispered----'
'You don't mean----' she asked, with wide-open eyes.
The woman who wrote shook her head, with a laugh. 'I suspect that Mr.Sybert's long residence in Rome might be reduced to a simpler formulathan that. It was a very wise person who first said, "_Cherchez lafemme_."'
'Oh, really?' said Marcia, with a new note of interest. Laurence Sybertwas not a man whom she had ever credited with having emotions, and thesuggestion came as a surprise.
'Rumour says that he still takes a very strong interest in the prettylittle Contessa Torrenieri. All I know is that nine or ten years ago,when she was Margarita Carretti, he was openly among her admirers; butshe naturally preferred a count--or at least her parents did, which inItaly amounts to the same.'
The girl's eyes opened still wider; the Contessa Torrenieri was also afrequent guest at the palazzo. But Dessart received the suggestion witha very sceptical smile.
'And you think that he is only waiting until, in the ripeness of time,old Count Torrenieri goes the way of all counts? I know you are theauthority on gossip, madame, but, nevertheless, I doubt very much ifthat is Laurence Sybert's trouble.'
'You don't really mean that he is an anarchist?' Marcia demanded.
'I give him up, Miss Copley.' The young man shrugged his shoulders andspread out his hands in a gesture purely Italian.
'Are you talking politics?' asked Mrs. Copley as she joined the groupin company with Mr. and Mrs. Melville.
'Always politics,' laughed her niece--'or is it Mr. Sybert now?'
'They're practically interchangeable,' said Dessart.
'And did I hear you calling him an anarchist, Miss Marcia?' Melvilledemanded.
She repudiated the charge with a laugh. 'I'm afraid Mr. Dessart's theguilty one.'
'Here, here! that will never do! Sybert's a special friend of mine. Ican't allow you to be accusing him of anything like that.'
'A little applied anarchy wouldn't be out of place,' the young manreturned. 'I feel tempted to use some dynamite myself when I see theway this precious government is scattering statues of Victor Emmanuelbroadcast through the land.'
'If you are going to get back into politics,' said Mrs. Copley, rising,'I fear we must leave. I know from experience that it is a longsubject.'
The two turned away, escorted to the carriage by Dessart and theFrenchman, while the rest of the group resettled themselves in theempty places. The woman who wrote listened a moment to the badinage andlaughter which floated back through the open door; then, 'Mr. Dessart'sheiress is very attractive,' she suggested.
'Why Mr. Dessart's?' Melville inquired.
'Perhaps I was a little premature,' she conceded--'though, I venture toprophesy, not incorrect.'
'My dear lady,' said Mrs. Melville impressively, 'you do not know Mrs.Copley. Her niece is more likely to marry an Italian prince than anameless young artist.'
'She's no more likely to marry an Italian prince than she is a SouthAfrican chief,' her husband affirmed. 'Miss Marcia is a young woman whowill marry whom she pleases--though,' he added upon reflection, 'I amnot at all sure it will be Paul Dessart.'
'She might do worse,' said his wife. 'Paul is a nice boy.'
'Ah--and she might do better. I'll tell you exactly the man,' he added,in a burst of enthusiasm, 'and that is Laurence Sybert.'
The suggestion was met by an amused smile from the ladies and a shrugfrom the sculptor.
'My dear James,' said Mrs. Melville, 'you may be a very good businessman, but you are no match-maker. That is a matter you would best leaveto the women. As for your Laurence Sybert, he hasn't the ghost of achance--and he doesn't want it.'
'I'm doubting he has other fish to fry just now,' threw out thesculptor.
'Sybert's all right,' said Melville emphatically.
The woman who wrote laughed as she rose. 'It will be an interestingmatter to watch,' she announced; 'but you may mark my words that ourhost is the man.'