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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Children Of The King: A Tale Of Southern Italy - Chapter 11
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The Children Of The King: A Tale Of Southern Italy - Chapter 11 Post by :joekumar2003 Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2012 Read :2250

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The Children Of The King: A Tale Of Southern Italy - Chapter 11

CHAPTER XI

Again the mother and daughter were together in the cool shade of their terrace. Outside, it was very hot, for the morning breeze did not yet stir the brown linen curtains which kept out the glare of the sea, and myriads of locusts were fiddling their eternal two notes without pause or change of pitch, in every garden from Massa to Scutari point, which latter is the great bluff from which they quarry limestone for road making, and which shuts off the amphitheatre of Sorrento from the view of Castellamare to eastward. The air was dry, hot and full of life and sound, as it is in the far south in summer.

"And when do you propose to marry me?" asked Beatrice in a discontented tone.

"Dearest child," answered her mother, "you speak as though I were marrying you by force to a man whom you detest."

"That is exactly what you are doing."

The Marchesa raised her eyebrows, fanned herself lazily and smiled.

"Are we to begin the old argument every morning, my dear?" she asked. "It always ends in the same way, and you always say the same dreadful things to me. I really cannot bear it much longer. You know very well that you bound yourself, and that you were quite free to tell San Miniato that you did not care for him. A girl should know her own mind before she tells a man she loves him--just as a man should before he speaks."

"San Miniato certainly knows his own mind," retorted Beatrice viciously. "No one can accuse him of not being ready and anxious to marry me--and my fortune."

"How you talk, my angel! Of course if you had no fortune, or much less than you have, he could not think of marrying you. That is clear. I never pretended the contrary. But that does not contradict the fact that he loves you to distraction, if that is what you want."

"To distraction!" repeated Beatrice with scorn.

"Why not, dearest child? Do you think a man cannot love because he is poor?"

"That is not the question, mamma!" cried Beatrice impatiently. "You know it is not. But no woman can be deceived twice by the same comedy, and few would be deceived once. You know as well as I that it was all a play the other night, that he was trying to find words, as he was trying to find sentiments, and that when the words would not be found he thought it would be efficacious to seize my hand and kiss it. I daresay he thought I believed him--of course he did. But not for long--oh! not for long. Real love finds even fewer words, but it finds them better, and the ring of them is truer, and one remembers them longer!"

"Beatrice!" exclaimed the Marchesa. "What can you know of such things! You talk as though some man had dared to speak to you--"

"Do I?" asked the girl with sudden coldness, and a strange look came into her eyes, which her mother did not see.

"Yes, you do. And yet I know that it is impossible. Besides the whole discussion is useless and wears me out, though it seems to interest you. Of course you will marry San Miniato. When you have got past this absurd humour you will see what a good husband you have got, and you will be very happy."

"Happy! With that man!" Beatrice's lip curled.

"You will," answered her mother, taking no notice. "Happiness depends upon two things in this world, when marriage is concerned. Money and a good disposition. You have both, between you, and you will be happy."

"I never heard anything more despicable!" cried the young girl. "Money and disposition! And what becomes of the heart?"

The Marchesa smiled and fanned herself.

"Young girls without experience cannot understand these things," she said. "Wait till you are older."

"And lose what looks I have and the power to enjoy anything! And you say that you are not forcing me into this marriage! And you try to think, or to make me think, that it is all for the best, and all delightful and all easy, when you are sacrificing me and my youth and my life and my happiness to the mere idea of a better position in society--because poor papa was a sulphur merchant and bought a title which was only confirmed because he spent a million on a public charity--and every one knows it--and the Count of San Miniato comes of people who have been high and mighty gentlemen for six or seven hundred years, more or less. That is your point of view, and you know it. But if I say that my father worked hard to get what he got and deserved it, and was an honest man, and that this great personage of San Miniato is a penniless gambler, who does not know to-day where he will find pocket money for to-morrow, and has got by a trick the fortune my father got by hard work--then you will not like it. Then you will throw up your hands and cry 'Beatrice!' Then you will tell me that he loves me to distraction, and you will even try to make me think that I love him. It is all a miserable sham, mamma, a vile miserable sham! Give it up. I have said that I will marry him, since it appears that I have promised. But do not try to make me think that I am marrying him of my own free will, or he marrying me out of disinterested, pure, beautiful, upright affection!"

Having delivered herself of these particularly strong sentiments, Beatrice was silent for a while. As for the Marchesa, she was either too wise, or too lazy, to answer her daughter for the present and she slowly fanned herself, lying quite still in her long chair, her eyes half closed and her left hand hanging down beside her.

Indeed Beatrice, instead of becoming more reconciled with the situation she had accepted, was growing more impatient and unhappy every day, as she realised all that her marriage with San Miniato would mean during the rest of her natural life. She had quite changed her mind about him, and with natures like hers such sudden changes are often irrevocable. She could not now understand how she could have ever liked him, or found pleasure in his society, and when she thought of the few words she had spoken and which had decided her fate, she could not comprehend the state of mind which had led her into such a piece of folly, and she was as angry with herself as, for the time being, she was angry with all the world besides.

She saw, too, and for the first time, how lonely she was in the world, and a deep and burning longing for real love and sympathy took possession of her. She had friends, of course, as young girls have, of much her own age and not unlike her in their inexperienced ideas of life. But there was not one of them at Sorrento, nor had she met any one among the many acquaintances she had made, to whom she would care to turn. Even her own intimate associates from childhood, who were far away in Sicily, or travelling elsewhere, would not have satisfied her. They could not have understood her, their answers to her questions would have seemed foolish and worthless, and they would have tormented her with questions of their own, inopportune, importunate, tiresome. She herself did not know that what she craved was the love or the friendship of one strong, honest man.

It was strange to find out suddenly how wide was the breach which separated her from her mother, with whom she had lived so happily throughout her childhood and early youth, with whom she had agreed--or rather, who had agreed with her--on the whole almost without a discussion. It was hard to find in her now so little warmth of heart, so little power to understand, above all such a display of determination and such quiet force in argument. Very indolent women are sometimes very deceptive in regard to the will they hold in reserve, but Beatrice could not have believed that her mother could influence her as she had done. She reflected that it had surely been within the limits of the Marchesa's choice to take her daughter's side so soon as she had seen that the latter had mistaken her own feelings. She need not have agreed with San Miniato, on that fatal evening at Tragara, that the marriage was definitely settled, until she had at least exchanged a word with Beatrice herself.

The future looked black enough on that hot summer morning. The girl was to be tied for life to a man she despised and hated, to a man who did not even care for her, as she was now convinced, to a man with a past of which she knew little and of which the few incidents she had learned repelled her now, instead of attracting her. She fancied how he had spoken to those other women, much as he had spoken to her, perhaps a little more eloquently as, perhaps, he had not been thinking of their fortunes but of themselves, but still always in that high-comedy tone with the studied gesture and the cadenced intonation. She did not know whether they deserved her pity, those two whom he pretended to have loved, but she was ready to pity them, nameless as they were. The one was dead, the other, at least, had been wise enough to forget him in time.

Then she thought of what must happen after her marriage, when he had got her fortune and could take her away to the society in which he had always lived. There, of course, he would meet women by the score with whom he was and long had been on terms of social intimacy far closer than he had reached with her in the few weeks of their acquaintance. Doubtless, he would spend such time as he could spare from gambling, in conversation with them. Doubtless, he had many thoughts and memories and associations in common with them. Doubtless, people would smile a little and pity the young countess. And Beatrice resented pity and the thought of it. She would rather pity others.

Evil thoughts crossed her young brain, and she said to herself that she might perhaps be revenged upon the world for what she was suffering, for the pain that had already come into her young life, for the wretched years she anticipated in the future, for her mother's horrible logic which had forced her into the marriage, above all for San Miniato's cleverly arranged scene by which the current of her existence had been changed. San Miniato had perhaps gone too far when he had said that Beatrice was kind. She, at least, felt that there was anything but kindness in her heart now, and she desired nothing so much as to make some one suffer something of what she felt. It was wicked, doubtless, as she admitted to herself. It was bad and wrong and cruel, but it was not heartless. A woman without heart would not have felt enough to resent having felt at all, and moreover would probably be perfectly well satisfied with the situation.

The expression of hardness deepened in the young girl's face as she sat there, silently thinking over all that was to come, and glancing from time to time at her mother's placid countenance. It was really amazing to see how much the Marchesa could bear when she was actually roused to a sense of the necessity for action. Her constitution must have been far stronger than any one supposed. She must indeed have been in considerable anxiety about the success of her plans, more than once during the past few days. Yet she was outwardly almost as unruffled and as lazy as ever.

"Dearest child," she said at last, "of course, as I have said, I cannot argue the point with you. No one could, in your present state of mind. But there is one thing which I must say, and which I am sure you will be quite ready to understand."

Beatrice said nothing, but slowly turned her head towards her mother with a look of inquiry.

"I only want to say, my angel, that whatever you may think of San Miniato, and however much you may choose to let him know what you think, it may be quite possible to act with more civility than you have used during the last few days."

"Is that all?" asked Beatrice with a hard laugh. "How nicely you turn your phrases when you lecture me, mamma! So you wish me to be civil. Very well, I will try."

"Thank you, Beatrice carissima," answered her mother with a sigh and a gentle smile. "It will make life so much easier."

Again there was a long silence, and Beatrice sat motionless in her chair, debating whether she should wait where she was until San Miniato came, as he was sure to do before long, or whether she should go to her room and write a letter to some intimate friend, which would of course never be sent, or, lastly, whether she should not take Teresina and go down to her bath in the sea before the midday breakfast. While she was still hesitating, San Miniato arrived.

There was something peculiarly irritating to her in his appearance on that morning. He was arrayed in perfectly new clothes of light gray, which fitted him admirably. He wore shoes of untanned leather which seemed to be perfectly new also, and reflected the light as though they were waxed. His stiff collar was like porcelain, the single pearl he wore in his white scarf was so perfect that it might have been false. His light hair and moustache were very smoothly brushed and combed and his face was exasperatingly sleek. There was a look of conscious security about him, of overwhelming correctness and good taste, of pride in himself and in his success, which Beatrice felt to be almost more than she could bear with equanimity. He bent gracefully over the Marchesa's hand and bowed low to the young girl, not supposing that hers would be offered to him. In this he was mistaken, however, for she gave him the ends of her fingers.

"Good morning," she said gently.

The Marchesa looked at her, for she had not expected that she would speak first and certainly not in so gentle a tone. San Miniato inquired how the two ladies had slept.

"Admirably," said Beatrice.

"Ah--as for me, dearest friend," said the Marchesa, "you know what a nervous creature I am. I never sleep."

"You look as though you had rested wonderfully well," observed Beatrice to San Miniato. "Half a century, at least!"

"Do I?" asked the Count, delighted by her manner and quite without suspicion.

"Yes. You look twenty years younger."

"About ten years old?" suggested San Miniato with a smile.

"Oh no! I did not mean that. You look about twenty, I should say."

"I am charmed," he answered, without wincing.

"It may be only those beautiful new clothes you have on," said Beatrice with a sweet smile. "Clothes make so much difference with a man."

San Miniato did not show any annoyance, but he made no direct answer and turned to the Marchesa.

"Marchesa gentilissima," he said, "you liked my last excursion, or were good enough to say that you liked it. Would you be horrified if I proposed another for this evening--but not so far, this time?"

"Absolutely horrified," answered the Marchesa. "But I suppose that if you have made up your mind you will bring those dreadful men with their chair, like two gendarmes, and they will take me away, whether I like it or not. Is that what you mean to do?"

"Of course, dearest Marchesa," he replied.

"Donna Beatrice has taught me that there is no other way of accomplishing the feat. And certainly no other way could give you so little trouble."

"What is the excursion to be, and where?" asked Beatrice pretending a sudden interest.

"Crab-hunting along the shore, with torches. It is extremely amusing, I am told."

"After horrid red things that run sidewise and are full of legs!" The Marchesa was disgusted.

"They are green when they run about, mamma," observed Beatrice. "I believe it is the cooking that makes them red. It will be delightful," she added, turning to San Miniato. "Does one walk?"

"Walk!" exclaimed the Marchesa, a new horror rising before her mental vision.

"We go in boats," said San Miniato. "In the sail boat first and then in a little one to find the crabs. I suppose, Marchesa carissima, that Donna Beatrice may come with me in the skiff, under your eye, if she is accompanied by your maid?"

"Of course, my dear San Miniato! Do you expect me to get into your little boat and hunt for reptiles? Or do you expect that Beatrice will renounce the amusement of getting wet and covered with seaweed and thoroughly unpresentable?"

"And you, Donna Beatrice? Do you still wish to come?"

"Yes. I just said so."

"But that was at least a minute ago," answered San Miniato.

"Ah--you think me very changeable? You are mistaken. I will go with you to find crabs to-night. Is that categorical? Must you consult my mother to know what I mean?"

"It will not be necessary this time," replied the Count, quite unmoved. "I think we understand each other."

"I think so," said Beatrice with a hard smile.

The Marchesa was not much pleased by the tone the conversation was taking. But if Beatrice said disagreeable things, she said them in a pleasant voice and with a moderately civil expression of face, which constituted a concession, after all, considering how she had behaved ever since the night at Tragara, scarcely vouchsafing San Miniato a glance, answering him by monosyllables and hardly ever addressing him at all.

"My dear children," said the elder lady, affecting a tone she had not assumed before, "I really hope that you mean to understand each other, and will."

"Oh yes, mamma!" assented Beatrice with alacrity. "With you to help us I am sure we shall come to a very remarkable understanding--very remarkable indeed!"

"With originality on your side, and constancy on mine, we may accomplish much," said San Miniato, very blandly.

Beatrice laughed again.

"Translate originality as original sin and constancy as the art of acting constantly!" she retorted.

"Why?" enquired San Miniato without losing his temper. He thought the question would be hard to answer.

"Why not?" asked Beatrice. "You will not deny me a little grain of original sin, will you? It will make our life so much more varied and amusing, and when I say that you act constantly--I only mean what you said of yourself, that you are constant in your actions."

"You so rarely spare me a compliment, Donna Beatrice, that you must forgive me for not having understood that one sooner. Accept my best thanks--"

"And agree to the expression of my most distinguished sentiments, as the French say at the end of a letter," said Beatrice, rising. "And now that I have complimented everybody, and been civil, and pleased everybody, and have been thanked and have taken all the original sin of the party upon my own shoulders, I will go and have a swim before breakfast. Good-bye, mamma. Good-bye, Count."

With a quick nod, she turned and left them, and went in search of Teresina, whose duty it was to accompany her to the bath. The maid was unusually cheerful, though she had not failed to notice the change in Beatrice's manner which had taken place since the day of the betrothal, and she understood it well enough, as she had told Bastianello. Moreover she pitied her young mistress sincerely and hated San Miniato with all her heart; but she was so happy herself that she could not possibly hide it.

"You are very glad that I am to be married, Teresina," said Beatrice as they went out of the house together, the maid carrying a large bag containing bathing things.

"I, Signorina? Do you ask me the real truth? I do not know whether to be glad or sorry. I pray you, Signorina, tell me which I am to be."

"Oh--glad of course!" returned Beatrice, with a bitter little laugh. "A marriage should always be a matter for rejoicing. Why should you not be glad--like every one else?"

"Like you, Signorina?" asked Teresina with a glance at the young girl's face.

"Yes: Like me." And Beatrice laughed again in the same way.

"Very well, Signorina. I will be as glad as you are. I shall find it very easy."

It was Beatrice's turn to look at her, which she did, rather suspiciously. It was clear enough that the girl had her doubts.

"Just as glad as you are, Signorina, and no more," said Teresina again, in a lower voice, as though she were speaking to herself.

Beatrice said nothing in answer. As they reached the end of the path through the garden, they saw Ruggiero and his brother sitting as usual by the porter's lodge. Both got up and came quickly forward. Bastianello took the bag from Teresina's hand, and the maid and the two sailors followed Beatrice at a little distance as she descended the inclined tunnel.

It was pleasant, a few minutes later, to lie in the cool clear water and look up at the blue sky above and listen to the many sounds that came across from the little harbour. Beatrice felt a sense of rest for the first time in several days. She loved the sea and all that belonged to it, for she had been born within sight of it and had known it since she had been a child, and she always came back to it as to an element that understood her and which she understood. She swam well and loved the easy, fluent motion she felt in the exercise, and she loved to lie on her back with arms extended and upturned face, drinking in the light breeze and the sunshine and the deep blue freshness of sky and water.

While she was bathing Bastianello and Teresina sat together behind the bathing-house, but Ruggiero retired respectfully to a distance and busied himself with giving his little boat a final washing, mopping out the water with an old sponge, which he passed again and again over each spot, as though never satisfied with the result. He would have thought it bad manners indeed to be too near the bathing-place when Beatrice was in swimming. But he kept an eye on Teresina, whom he could see talking with his brother, and when she went into the cabin, he knew that Beatrice had finished her bath, and he found little more to do in cleaning the old tub, which indeed, to a landsman's eye, presented a decidedly smart appearance in her new coat of white paint, with a scarlet stripe. When he had finished, he sauntered up to the wooden bridge that led to the bathing cabins and sat down on the upper rail, hooking one foot behind the lower one. Bastianello, momentarily separated from Teresina, came and stood beside him.

"A couple of fenders would save the new paint on her, if we are going for crabs," he observed, thoughtfully.

Ruggiero made that peculiar side motion of the head which means assent and approval in the south.

"And we will bring our own kettle for the crabs, and get the milk from the hotel," continued the younger brother, who anticipated an extremely pleasant evening in the society of Teresina. "And I have told Saint Peter to bring the torches, because he knows where to get them good," added Bastianello who did not expect Ruggiero to say anything. "What time do we go?"

"Towards an hour and a half of the night," said Ruggiero, meaning two hours after sunset. "Then the padroni will have eaten and the rocks will be covered with crabs, and the moon will not be yet risen. It will be dark under Scutari till past midnight, and the crabs will sit still under the torch, and we can take them with our hands as we always do."

"Of course," answered Bastianello, who was familiar with the sport, "one knows that."

"And I will tell you another thing," continued Ruggiero, who seemed to warm with the subject. "You shall pull stroke and I will pull bow. In that way you will be near to Teresina and she will amuse herself the better, for you and she can take the crabs while I hold the torch."

"And the Signorina and the Count can sit together in the stern," said Bastianello, who seemed much pleased with the arrangement. "The best crabs are between Scutari and the natural arch."

"One knows that," assented Ruggiero, and relapsed into silence.

Presently the door of the cabin opened and Beatrice came out, her cheeks and eyes fresh and bright from the sea. Of course Bastianello at once ran to help Teresina wring out the wet things and make up her bundle, and Beatrice came towards Ruggiero, who took off his cap and stood bareheaded in the sun as she went by, and then walked slowly behind her, at a respectful distance. To reach the beginning of the ascent they had to make their way through the many boats hauled up beyond the slip upon the dry sand. Beatrice gathered her light skirt in her hand as she passed Ruggiero's newly painted skiff, for she was familiar enough with boats to know that the oil might still be fresh.

"It is quite dry, Excellency," he said. "The boat belongs to me."

Beatrice turned with a smile, looked at it and then at Ruggiero.

"What did I tell you the other day, Ruggiero?" she asked, still smiling. "You were to call me Signorina. Do you remember?"

"Yes, Signorina. I beg pardon."

Beatrice saw that Teresina had not yet left the cabin with her bag, and that Bastianello was loitering before the door, pretending or really trying to help her.

"Do you know what Teresina has been telling me, Ruggiero?" asked Beatrice, stopping entirely and turning towards him as they stood in the narrow way between Ruggiero's boat and the one lying next to her.

"Of Bastianello, Signorina?"

"Yes. That she wants to marry him. She told me while I was dressing. You know?"

"Yes, Signorina, and I laughed when he told me the story the other day, over there on the pier."

"I heard you laughing, Ruggiero," answered Beatrice, remembering the unpleasant impression she had received when she had looked down from the terrace. His huge mirth had come up as a sort of shock to her in the midst of her own trouble. "Why did you laugh?" she asked.

"Must I tell you, Signorina?"

"Yes."

"It was this. Bastianello had a thought. He imagined to himself that I loved Teresina--I!--"

Ruggiero broke off in the sentence and looked away. His voice shook with the deep vibration that sometimes pleased Beatrice. He paused a moment and then went on.

"I, who have quite other thoughts. And so he said with himself, 'Ruggiero loves and is afraid to speak, but I will speak for him.' But it was honest of him, Signorina, for he loved her himself. And so he asked her for me first. But she would not. And then, between one word and another, they found out that they loved. And I am very glad, for Teresina is a good girl as she showed the other day in the garden, and the little boy of the Son of the Fool saw it when she threw the gold at that man's feet--"

He stopped again, suddenly realising what he was saying. But Beatrice, quick to suspect, saw the look of pained embarrassment in his face and almost guessed the truth. She grew pale by degrees.

"What man?" she asked shortly.

Ruggiero turned his head and looked away from her, gazing out to seaward.

"What was the man's name?" she asked again with the stern intonation that anger could give her voice.

Still Ruggiero would not speak. But his white face told the truth well enough.

"On what day was it?" she enquired, as though she meant to be answered.

"It was the day when you talked with me about my name, Signorina."

"At what time?"

"It must have been between midday and one o'clock."

Beatrice remembered how on that day San Miniato had given a shallow excuse for not remaining to breakfast at that hour.

"And what was his name?" she now asked for the third time.

"Excellency--Signorina--do not ask me!" Ruggiero was not good at lying.

"It was the Conte di San Miniato, Ruggiero," said Beatrice in a low voice that trembled with anger. Her face was now almost as white as the sailor's.

Ruggiero said nothing at first, but turned his head away again.

"Per Dio!" he ejaculated after a short pause. But there was no mistaking the tone.

Beatrice turned away and with bent head began to walk towards the ascent. She could not help the gesture she made, clenching her hands once fiercely and then opening them wide again; but she thought no one could see her. Ruggiero saw, and understood.

"She is saying to herself, 'I must marry that infamous animal,'" thought Ruggiero. "But I do not think that she will marry him."

At the foot of the ascent, Beatrice turned and looked back. Teresina and Bastianello were coming quickly along the little wooden bridge, but Ruggiero was close to her.

"You have not done me a good service to-day, Ruggiero," she said, but kindly, dreading to wound him. "But it is my fault, and I should not have pressed you as I did. Do not let the thought trouble you."

"I thank you, Signorina. And it is true that this was not a good service, and I could bite out my tongue because it was not. But some Saint may give me grace to do you one more, and that shall be very good."

"Thank you, Ruggiero," said Beatrice, as the maid and the other sailor came up.

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