Jerry, Page 2Jean Webster
The terrace of Villa Rosa juts out into the lake, bordered on three sidesby a stone parapet, and shaded above by a yellow-ochre awning. Masses ofoleanders hang over the wall and drop pink petals into the blue watersbelow. As a study in colour the terrace is perfect, but, like thecourtyard of the Hotel du Lac, decidedly too hot for mid-afternoon. Tothe right of the terrace, however, is a shady garden set in alleys ofcypress trees, and separated from the lake by a strip of beach and a lowbalustrade. There could be no better resting-place for a warm afternoon.
It was close upon four--five minutes past to be accurate--and the usualafternoon quiet that enveloped the garden had fled before the garrulousadvent of four girls. Three of them, with black eyes and blacker hair,were kneeling on the beach thumping and scrubbing a pile of linen. Inspite of their chatter they were working busily, and the grass beyond thewater-wall was already white with bleaching sheets, while a lace-trimmedpetticoat fluttered from a near-by oleander, and rows of silk stockingsstretched the length of the parapet. The most undeductive observer wouldhave guessed by this time that the pink villa, visible through the trees,contained no such modern conveniences as stationary tubs.
The fourth girl, with grey eyes and yellow-brown hair, was sitting atease on the balustrade, fanning herself with a wide-brimmed hat anddangling her feet, clad in white tennis shoes, over the edge. She wore asuit of white linen cut sailor fashion, low at the throat and withsleeves rolled to the elbows. She looked very cool and comfortable andfree as she talked, with the utmost friendliness, to the three girlsbelow. Her Italian, to an unaccustomed ear, was exactly as glib astheirs.
The washer-girls were dressed in the gayest of peasant clothes--green andscarlet petticoats, flowered kerchiefs, coral beads and flashingearrings; you would have to go far into the hills in these degeneratedays before meeting their match on an Italian highway. But the girl onthe wall, who was actual if not titular ruler of the domain of VillaRosa, possessed a keen eye for effect; and--she plausibly argued--sinceone must have washer-women about, why not, in the name of all that isbeautiful, have them in harmony with tradition and the landscape?Accordingly, she designed and purchased their costumes herself.
There drifted presently into sight from around the little promontory thathid the village a blue and white boat with yellow lateen sails. She waspropelled gondolier fashion, for the wind was a mere breath, by apicturesque youth in a suit of dark blue with white sash and flaringcollar--the hand of the girl on the wall was here visible also.
The boat fluttering in toward shore, looked like a giant butterfly; andher name, emblazoned in gold on her prow, was, appropriately, the_Farfalla_. Earlier in the season, with a green hull and a dingy brownsail, she had been, prosaically enough, the _Maria_. But since the adventof the girl all this had been changed. The _Farfalla_ dropped her yellowwings with the air of a salute, and lighted at the foot of thewater-steps under the terrace. The girl on the parapet leaned forwardeagerly.
'Did you get any mail, Giuseppe?' she called.
'_Si_, signorina.' He scrambled up the steps and presented a copy of theLondon _Times_.
She received it with a shrug. Clearly, she felt little interest in theLondon _Times_. Giuseppe took himself back to his boat and commencedfussing about its fittings, dusting the seats, plumping up the cushions,with an air of absorption which deceived nobody. The signorina watchedhim a moment with amused comprehension, then she called peremptorily--
'Giuseppe, you know you must spade the garden border.'
Poor Giuseppe, in spite of his nautical costume, was man of all work. Heglanced dismally toward the garden border which lay basking in thesunshine under the wall that divided Villa Rosa from the rest of theworld. It contained every known flower which blossoms in July in thekingdom of Italy, from camellias and hydrangeas to heliotrope andwall-flowers. Its spading was a complicated business and it lay too faroff to permit of conversation. Giuseppe was not only a lazy, but also asocial soul.
'Signorina,' he suggested, 'would you not like a sail?'
She shook her head. 'There is not wind enough and it is too hot and toosunny.'
'But yes, there's a wind, and cool--when you get out on the lake. I willput up the awning, signorina, the sun shall not touch you.'
She continued to shake her head and her eyes wandered suggestively to thehydrangeas, but Giuseppe still made a feint of preoccupation. Not being acruel mistress, she dropped the subject, and turned back to herconversation with the washer-girls. They were discussing--a pleasanttopic for a sultry summer afternoon--the probable content of Paradise.The three girls were of the opinion that it was made up of warm sunshineand cool shade, of flowers and singing birds and sparkling waters, ofblue skies and cloud-capped mountains--not unlike, it will be observed,the very scene which at the moment stretched before them. In so much theywere all agreed, but there were several debatable points. Whether thestones were made of gold, and whether the houses were not gold too, and,that being the case, whether it would not hurt your eyes to look at them.Marietta declared, blasphemously, as the others thought, that shepreferred a simple grey stone villa or at most one of pink stucco, to allthe golden edifices that Paradise contained.
It was by now fifteen minutes past four, and a spectator had arrived,though none of the five were aware of his presence. The spectator wasstanding on the wall above the garden border examining with appreciationthe idyllic scene below him, and with most particular appreciation, thedainty white-clad person of the girl on the balustrade. He waswondering--anxiously--how he might make his presence known. For no verytangible reason he had suddenly become conscious that the matter would beeasier if he carried in his pocket a letter of introduction. The purlieusof Villa Rosa in no wise resembled a desert island; and in the face ofthat very fluent Italian, the suspicion was forcing itself upon him that,after all, the mere fact of a common country was not a sufficient bond ofunion. He had definitely decided to withdraw, when the matter was takenfrom his hands.
The wall--as Gustavo had pointed out--was broken; it was owing to thisfact that he had been so easily able to climb it. Now, as he stealthilyturned, preparing to re-descend in the direction whence he had come, theloose stone beneath his foot slipped and he slipped with it. Fivestartled pairs of eyes were turned in his direction. What they saw, was ayoung man in flannels suddenly throw up his arms, slide into an azaleabush, from this to the balustrade, and finally land on all fours on thenarrow strip of beach, a shower of pink petals and crumbling masonryfalling about him. A momentary silence followed; then the washer-girls,making sure that he was not injured, broke into a shrill chorus oflaughter, while the _Farfalla_ rocked under impact of Giuseppe's mirth.The girl on the wall alone remained grave.
The young man picked himself up, restored his guide-book to his pocket,and blushingly stepped forward, hat in hand, to make an apology. One kneebore a splash of mud, and his tumbled hair was sprinkled with azaleablossoms.
'I beg your pardon,' he stammered, 'I didn't mean to come so suddenly;I'm afraid I broke your wall.'
The girl dismissed the matter with a polite gesture.
'It was already broken,' and then she waited with an air of graveattention until he should state his errand.
'I--I came----' He paused and glanced about vaguely; he could not at themoment think of any adequate reason to account for his coming.
'Yes?' Her eyes studied him with what appeared at once a cool and anamused scrutiny. He felt himself growing red beneath it.
'Can I do anything for you?' she prompted with the kind of desire ofputting him at his ease.
'Thank you----' He grasped at the first idea that presented itself. 'I'mstopping at the Hotel du Lac, and Gustavo, you know, told me there was avilla somewhere around here that belongs to Prince Someone or Other. Ifyou ring at the gate and give the gardener two francs and a visitingcard, he will let you walk around and look at the trees.'
'I see!' said the girl, 'and so now you are looking for the gate?' Hertone suggested that she sus
pected him of trying to avoid both it and thetwo francs. 'Prince Sartorio-Crevelli's villa is about half a milefarther on.'
'Ah, thank you,' he bowed a second time, and then added out of thedesperate need of saying something, 'There's a cedar of Lebanon in it andan india-rubber plant from South America.'
She continued to observe him with polite interest, though she made nomove to carry on the conversation.
'You--are an American?' he asked at length.
'Oh, yes,' she agreed easily. 'Gustavo knows that.'
He shifted his weight.
'I am an American too,' he observed.
'Really?' The girl leaned forward and examined him more closely, aninnocent, candid, wholly detached look in her eyes. 'From your appearanceI should have said you were German--most of the foreigners who visitValedolmo are German.'
'Well, I'm not,' he said shortly. 'I'm American.'
'It is a pity my father is not at home,' she returned, '_he_ enjoysmeeting Americans.'
A gleam of anger replaced the embarrassment in the young man's eyes. Heglanced about for a dignified means of escape; they had him pretty wellpenned in. Unless he wished to reclimb the wall--and he did not--he mustgo by the terrace, which retreat was cut off by the washer-women, or bythe parapet, already occupied by the girl in white and the washing. Heturned abruptly and his elbow brushed a stocking to the ground.
He stooped to pick it up and then he blushed still a shade deeper.
'This is washing day,' observed the girl with a note of apology. She roseto her feet and stood on the top of the parapet while she beckoned toGiuseppe, then she turned and looked down upon the young man with anexpression of frank amusement. 'I hope you will enjoy the cedar ofLebanon and the india-rubber tree. Good afternoon.'
She jumped to the ground and crossed to the water-steps, where Giuseppe,with a radiant smile, was steadying the boat against the landing. Shesettled herself comfortably among the cushions and then for a momentglanced back towards shore.
'You would better go out by the gate,' she called. 'The wall on thefarther side is harder to climb than the one you came in by; andbesides, it has broken glass on the top.'
Giuseppe raised the yellow sail and the _Farfalla_, with a graceful dip,glided out to sea. The young man stood eyeing its progress revengefully.Now that the girl was out of hearing, a number of pointed things occurredto him which he might have said. His thoughts were interrupted by a freshgiggle from behind, and he found that the three washer-girls werelaughing at him.
'Your mistress's manners are not the best in the world,' said heseverely, 'and I am obliged to add that yours are no better.'
They giggled again, though there was no malice behind their humour; itwas merely that they found the lack of a language in common amirth-provoking circumstance. Marietta, with a flash of black eyes,murmured something very kindly in Italian, as she shook out a linensailor suit--the exact twin of the one that had gone to sea--and spreadit on the wall to dry.
The young man did not linger for further words. Setting his hat firmly onhis head, he vaulted the parapet and strode off down the cypress alleythat stretched before him; he passed the pink villa without a glance. Atthe gate he stood aside to admit a horse and rider. The horse wasprancing in spite of the heat; the rider wore a uniform and a shiningsword. There was a clank of accoutrements as he passed, and the wayfarercaught a gleam of piercing black eyes and a slight black moustache turnedup at the ends. The rider saluted politely and indifferently, and jangledon. The young man scowled after him maliciously until the cypresses hidhim from view; then he turned and took up the dusty road back towards theHotel du Lac.
It was close upon five, and Gustavo was in the courtyard feeding theparrot, when his eye fell upon the American guest scuffling down the roadin a cloud of white dust. Gustavo hastened to the gate to welcome himback, his very eyebrows expressive of his eagerness for news.
'You are returned, signore?'
The young man paused and regarded him unemotionally.
'Yes, Gustavo, I am returned--with thanks.'
'You have seen ze Signorina Costantina?'
'Yes, I saw her.'
'And is it not as I have said, zat she is beautiful as ze holy angels?'
'Yes, Gustavo, she is--and just about equally remote. You may make out mybill.'
The waiter's face clouded.
'You do not wish to remain longer, signore?'
'Can't stand it, Gustavo; it's too infernally restful.'
Poor Gustavo saw a munificent shower of tips vanishing into nothing. Hisface was rueful, but his manner was undiminishingly polite.
'_Si_, signore, sank you. When shall you wish ze omnibus?'
'To-morrow morning for the first boat.'
Gustavo bowed to the inevitable; and the young man passed on. He pausedhalf-way across the courtyard.
'What time does the first boat leave?'
'At half-past five, signore.'
'Er--no--I'll take the second.'
'_Si_, signore. At half-past ten.'