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The Smile of the Stranger

Joan Aiken

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  Copyright © 1978, 2016 by Joan Aiken

  Cover and internal design © 2016 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

  Cover art by Aleta Rafton

  Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

  The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious and are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

  Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

  P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410

  (630) 961-3900

  Fax: (630) 961-2168

  Originally published in 1978 in the United States by Doubleday & Company, Inc. This edition issued based on the paperback edition published in 1978 in New York by Warner Books.


  Front Cover

  Title Page
















  Historical Note

  A Sneak Peek at The Weeping Ash

  A Sneak Peek at The Girl from Paris

  About the Author

  Back Cover

  Beware of blind Love, lest the dart from his bow

  And the smile of the stranger should bring you to woe.



  Beguiled by the amazingly low prices marked on a silk collar and pair of matching gloves that lay temptingly displayed in a milliner’s window between two silversmiths’ booths on the Ponte Vecchio, a tall foreign lady had entered the little shop haughtily glancing about her and demanded to buy the articles in question, pointing them out with her parasol and authoritatively announcing: “Vorrei comprare questo paio di guanti e colletto!”

  The slatternly but astute-looking proprietress subjected her would-be customer to a swift, comprehensive scrutiny.

  The Englishness of the purchaser had been beyond question as soon as she opened her mouth—no other nation could pronounce Italian so villainously. At first glance it might have seemed that she was a wealthy lady of fashion, for she appeared to be rigged out, if not in the first, at least in the second stare of the mode. Her walking dress of black-and-white-striped poplin was gathered around the shoulders into a fichu, which came to a knot low on the bosom; and it was worn over a pink quilted satin petticoat. Yellow Roman boots completed her toilette and she carried a silk reticule and an ivory-handled parasol; her elegantly tilted broad-brimmed hat had a silk scarf tied round its shallow crown, and revealed short ringlets, skillfully curled, of dark hair slightly streaked with gray. Her long pale face wore a supercilious expression, and her voice had the timbre of one accustomed to command. Yet closer inspection would have revealed that none of her articles of wear were in their first youth—indeed, they were of a style that had been worn since 1780—at least fourteen years; moreover, her silk gloves were darned, her parasol handle was cracked, and her petticoat was somewhat faded. But the light in the shop being decidedly obscure, the proprietress naturally took the Inglesa to be a lady of rank and fashion; she therefore had no hesitation in asserting that the cheap goods in the window were not for sale.

  “Sold already to another person. They have been paid for and are but awaiting collection!” she kept repeating over and over.

  The customer’s Italian was not equal to grasping the meaning of these words, and she, for her part, continued to point to the gloves, and to declare, “Preferisco questo! I want this! Those ones. Not these”—pushing aside the various much more expensively priced items which the shopwoman persisted in fetching out from her store and displaying on the counter.

  At last, quite out of patience, the shop owner fairly snatched the disputed gloves and scarf out of the window, and locked them up in a box, proclaiming, “Not-a for sale!”

  “Then I consider it a perfectly outrageous piece of imposture that you should be exhibiting them in your window!” exclaimed the customer, relapsing into her mother tongue, “and I have a great mind to report you to the Prefecture!”

  Either failing to understand this threat or, more probably, choosing to ignore it as quite impossible of execution, the shopkeeper shrugged up her expressive shoulders, protruded her lower lip, and rolled her black eyes heavenward in total scorn.

  Feeling herself defeated, the English lady glanced sharply about her, hoping to pick up another bargain in default of the one she had failed to secure. A rack of shawls attracted her eye, and she moved over to it, having observed a ticket with a promisingly low price at the end of the rail. After some consideration, she selected a mulberry-colored shawl and held it up.

  “Mi piace questo! I will have this.”

  But when she laid her money on the counter—having carefully extracted it from her purse, coin by coin—the proprietress burst into a flood of expostulation, and, as the customer showed no signs of comprehension, she wrote down the true price on a piece of paper and angrily thrust it forward.

  “What? What can you mean? E costa troppo! That is three times the price stated on the ticket!” And the indignant lady pointed to it.

  Exasperated, it seemed, beyond all bearing, the shop owner turned to a young girl in a gray cloak and straw bonnet who had just entered the place. To the newcomer she poured out a furious complaint and a demand for assistance with this stupid and contentious foreigner.

  “Excuse me, ma’am!” the girl then said, in very clear pretty English, with just the hint of an accent. “Signora Neroni asks me to explain to you that only the first shawl on that rack is at the price marked; the others are more expensive.”

  “It is all a piece of barefaced deceit. Disgraceful! Outrageous! I shall certainly report it to the polizia. I shall tell the whole story to Mr. Wyndham, the British Envoy, with whom I am acquainted. The Grand Duke shall hear of this!”

  The signora’s derisive expression robbed these threats of their sting, and the girl remarked sympathetically, “I am afraid you would soon catch cold at that, ma’am. Signora Neroni is one of the best-respected traders on the Ponte Vecchio, and she is related to the Prefect by marriage.”

  “Her trade practices are grossly deceitful!”

  “They are common practice in Florence, ma’am.”

  Angrily the lady, knowing this to be true, turned to reconsider the selection of shawls, while the girl, breaking into soft, fluent Italian, rapidly bought four white handkerchiefs from Signora Neroni.

  “And how is your dear papa?” that lady inquired. “My husband says he has not seen him lately at the coffeehouse.”

  “He has had a bad cold, but he is better now, signora, I thank you, and is working

  “Always at the same business—il re Carlo?”

  “Yes, signora.”

  “Better he should trouble his head less about that Carlo, and more about finding a husband for his own daughter!” grumbled the signora. “What can it matter about an old dead-and-gone, probably no better than he should be?”

  “King Carlo was, on the contrary, a most excellent man!” flashed the girl. “He was devout—affectionate—and very handsome! If I ever do have a husband, I should wish him to be just such a person—”

  Then she stopped, her mouth open. Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she had seen the tall foreign lady swiftly and unobtrusively slip one of the pairs of gloves off a small table and tuck them into her reticule. Or could she have been deceived? The movement was so rapid that her eyes might have been mistaken. She could hardly base an accusation on such insecure grounds. And Signora Neroni, apparently, had seen nothing. Moreover, the lady now walked forward with the coolest composure, and halted the girl with an uplifted hand as she was about to leave the shop.

  “Excuse me, miss—one moment, if you please!”

  “Ma’am?” The girl paused, with an inquiring expression on her small round face.

  “You seem well acquainted with this town, young lady. I wonder if you can give me information as to the direction of an English gentleman—a writer—who, I believe, resides in this quarter.”

  At these words a veiled, cautious look descended over the girl’s lively countenance. She had a wide, smiling mouth and large, dancing expressive eyes; but now the lids came down over these and she gazed pensively at the ground—not before, however, the visitor thought she had detected a swift exchange of glances with Signora Neroni. But the answer was quiet and civil enough.

  “I will help you, ma’am, if I can. What is the gentleman’s name?”

  “I understand that he goes under the name of Mr. Charles Elphinstone. He is a writer of books. I have asked at the Envoy’s office, but they seemed unable to help me,” the Englishwoman said aggrievedly.

  The girl looked up again. Now her face was quite devoid of expression. In a similarly colorless voice she replied, “I regret, ma’am. I fear that I am unable to help you either,” and, turning, she left the shop with silent speed.

  Something about the girl’s tone—her look, her movement—aroused all the Englishwoman’s curiosity, or suspicion.

  “One moment! Miss! If you please!” she demanded in a loud peremptory tone, and she moved hastily to the shop entrance, looking out to see which way the girl had gone. But the commonplace gray cloak and the inconspicuous chip-straw hat were already lost in the crowd; gray cloaks and straw bonnets abounded among the shoppers and strollers enjoying the evening breeze along the Arno; the girl was nowhere to be discovered.

  With an angry exclamation the Englishwoman stood still, staring around her, biting her knuckle; a bright spot of color burned on either high cheekbone, and she frowned, thrusting her long face forward in a curiously predatory and determined gesture; then, after a moment’s indecision, she re-entered the milliner’s shop, pulled out once more her slender knitted-silk purse, and started to interrogate the signora.

  * * *

  Meanwhile the girl, after crossing the Ponte Vecchio in a northerly direction, threaded her way between bullocks and wine carts, and turned right, following the path beside the rushing Arno, which, now in early-autumn spate, had begun to dislodge the fishermen and mud diggers from its banks. Cautiously glancing behind her, the girl took a left turn and proceeded swiftly through a maze of little streets, going in the direction of Santa Croce. She seemed perfectly at home in the confusing network of alleys, occasionally nodding to people as she passed them, pausing here or there to buy fruit from the market stalls at street corners or in little piazzas. At last, reaching the doorway of a high, narrow house, she passed inside, and began going lightly and rapidly up the steep flights of stairs within.

  On a landing two flights up she paused to let a fat old lady puff her way down.

  “Good night, Signora Fontini. Thank you for seeing to Papa!”

  “Aha, you are back, bambina! You are a good girl, you return swiftly. Your dear papa has been hoping you would soon be home—he says that he has many more words in his mind, ready to dictate. Dio mio, what a thinker! What a worker! Even when he is sick, he cannot rest for half an hour while his poor daughter takes the air! And he himself coughing and sneezing as if the devil had got into his chest! He should keep quiet and rest, I tell him, not talk away as he does, hour after hour.”

  “Poor Papa! He is so anxious to finish this book. Let us hope that these grapes and oranges will help his throat. Fruit is all he will take at present.”

  “Not good! Not good at all,” muttered the old lady, continuing her way down the staircase. “Fruit is all very well for children. But a man, a grown man like the signore, needs good red meat and wine and a nourishing dish of pasta from time to time. I could bring him up a bowl of my spaghetti Bolognese. But it is no use talking! All the English are the same, mad as hares on the mountains. The signore Carlo is good and kind as a saint, but he is as crazy as all the rest.”

  “Is that you, Juliana?” called a man’s voice as the old lady panted her way downward, and the girl ran on up the last flight.

  “Yes, Papa!” she called, and entered a small but pleasant room. It was bare and clean, with a floor of polished red tiles, and a remarkable painted ceiling covered by heraldic devices in pink, blue, yellow, and red. The shuttered windows were closed against the evening chills and damps, and a small charcoal brazier gave warmth. Close to this, a tall man with a thin, lined face lay reclined in a basket chair. He was wrapped in a large knitted blanket, which, however, he had impatiently half tossed aside. His hair, tied back with a ribbon, was white, it seemed more from ill health than from age. His posture suggested a considerable degree of weakness, but the eyes were at variance with the haggard cast of his face: brilliant blue, they burned with intellectual fire.

  “Thank you for being so speedy, my dearest,” he said as the girl carefully shut the door behind her. “Your feet are shod with wings, I believe, like Hermes.”

  “However fast I may run,” said Juliana, setting down her purchases on a small marble table and crossing the room to give him a warm hug, “I am quite sure you will have thought of another twenty pages while I have been gone! Old Annunciata said you had more work for me?”

  “Well—it is true—I have planned out most of the chapter dealing with Charles’s trial and execution—if you are not too tired, my dear child, after your shopping errands?”

  A sneeze stopped him at this point, and Juliana said, “It is more of a question whether you are not too tired, Papa, for such an exertion, so low as you are with your cold. Do you not think your throat is too sore for dictation?”

  “No—no!” he said eagerly. “I am most desirous of setting this chapter down on paper while it is yet clear in my mind. By the mercy of Providence, the more feeble my poor body becomes, the quicker my wits seem to work—a-a-a-tschoo!”

  If Juliana was daunted by the thought of the probable hours of work that lay ahead, she gave no sign of it, but said cheerfully, “Very well, Papa, but just let me put these things away. And, first, here are your new handkerchiefs—you will certainly need them, if I am to understand anything at all of what you say. I will just hang up my cloak—so—and the hat on the peg—now I’m ready for you, Papa. Oh, but I had better pour a little more ink into the standish—if this is to be one of your longer chapters, we do not want to run dry in the middle!”

  Having carefully decanted some black ink from a stone jug and supplied herself with a large heap of paper, she mended the point of her pen with a small silver knife shaped like a fish, and then sat down at a low table close to her father.

  “You are certain that you are not too tired, my child?”

  “Oh, what
fudge! You know that I am as strong as a pony, Papa!” Her mouth curved into its usual wide smile, but she had to conceal an inward sigh at her father’s own reckless use of his waning strength.

  While he vigorously blew his nose on one of the newly purchased handkerchiefs, she remarked, “A curious and somewhat comical episode occurred while I was procuring those—but I will not distract you by telling you about it now—that can wait until suppertime. Now, pray dictate, dearest Papa.”

  He had been waiting with ill-concealed impatience, and the moment she had her pen dipped in the silver inkwell, he launched into dictation as if the words had been coiled up inside his head, and now flowed out like a ribbon.

  “On the twenty-seventh day of January, Charles, again dragged before the Court, demanded to be allowed to speak and defend himself before the Lords and the Commons. Downes, one of the Commissioners, thought that he should be permitted to do so, but Oliver Cromwell turned on Downes, exclaiming in fury, ‘What ails thee? Art thou mad? Canst thou not be still and quiet?’ The Court then retired to debate Charles’s request in camera, and, during the discussion that followed, Cromwell called Charles ‘the hardest-hearted man upon the earth.’”

  The girl’s pen scratched busily, and her father, who had been gazing with absent eyes at the painted ceiling, lowered his gaze to inquire, “Do you have all that down, my dear?”

  “Yes, Papa. Oh, how could they have so misunderstood his character? What a thick-skinned, bacon-brained numbskull that Cromwell must have been! Charles was not hard-hearted—only single-minded. Only bent upon doing his duty! Consider how he loved his wife and children! Consider how truly religious he was! Consider—”

  “Hush, child!” said her father, laughing. “Who is writing this book, pray? Do not put yourself in a passion—due justice shall be done!”

  “I am sorry, Papa! Only, when I hear him traduced, it makes me so wild! But I will not interrupt again—I beg your pardon!”

  “Now, where was I?”

  “Cromwell named Charles ‘the hardest-hearted man on earth.’”