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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Ink-stain (tache D'encre: A Spot Of Ink) - BOOK II - Chapter XII. I GO TO ITALY
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The Ink-stain (tache D'encre: A Spot Of Ink) - BOOK II - Chapter XII. I GO TO ITALY Post by :watchtower Category :Long Stories Author :Rene Bazin Date :April 2012 Read :706

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The Ink-stain (tache D'encre: A Spot Of Ink) - BOOK II - Chapter XII. I GO TO ITALY

June 10th.

In the train. We have passed the fortifications. The stuccoed houses of the suburbs, the factories, taverns, and gloomy hovels in the debatable land round Paris are so many points of sunshine in the far distance. The train is going at full speed. The fields of green or gold are being unrolled like ribbons before my eyes. Now and again a metallic sound and a glimpse of columns and advertisements show that we are rushing through a station in a whirlwind of dust. A flash of light across our path is a tributary of the river. I am off, well on my way, and no one can stop me--not Lampron, nor Counsellor Boule, nor yet Plum et. The dream of years is about to be realized. I am going to see Italy--merely a corner of it; but what a pleasure even that is, and what unlooked-for luck!

A few days ago, Counsellor Boule called me into his office.

"Monsieur Mouillard, you speak Italian fluently, don't you?"

"Yes, sir." "Would you like a trip at a client's expense?"

"With pleasure, wherever you like."

"To Italy?"

"With very great pleasure."

"I thought so, and gave your name to the court without asking your consent. It's a commission to examine documents at Milan, to prove some copies of deeds and other papers, put in by a supposititious Italian heir to establish his rights to a rather large property. You remember the case of Zampini against Veldon and others?"

"Quite well."

"It is Zampini's copies of the deeds on which he bases his claim which you will have to compare with the originals, with the help of a clerk from the Record Office and a sworn translator. You can go by Switzerland or by the Corniche route, as you please. You will be allowed six hundred francs and a fortnight's holiday. Does that suit you?"

"I should think so!"

"Then pack up and be off. You must be at Milan by the morning of the eighteenth."

I ran to tell the news to Lampron, who was filled with surprise and not a little emotion at the mention of Italy. And here I am flying along in the Lyons express, without a regret for Paris. All my heart leaps forward toward Switzerland, where I shall be to-morrow. I have chosen this green route to take me to the land of blue skies. Up to the last moment I feared that some obstacle would arise, that the ill-luck which dogs my footsteps would keep me back, and I am quite surprised that it has let me off. True, I nearly lost the train, and the horse of cab No. 7382 must have been a retired racer to make up for the loss of time caused by M. Plumet.

Counsellor Boule sent me on a business errand an hour before I started. On my way back, just as I was crossing the Place de l'Opera in the aforesaid cab, a voice hailed me:

"Monsieur Mouillard!"

I looked first to the right and then to the left, till, on a refuge, I caught sight of M. Plumet struggling to attract my attention. I stopped the cab, and a smile of satisfaction spread over M. Plumet's countenance. He stepped off the refuge. I opened the cab-door. But a brougham passed, and the horse pushed me back into the cab with his nose. I opened the door a second time; another brougham came by; then a third; finally two serried lines of traffic cut me off from M. Plumet, who kept shouting something to me which the noise of the wheels and the crowd prevented me from hearing. I signalled my despair to M. Plumet. He rose on tiptoe. I could not hear any better.

Five minutes lost! Impossible to wait any longer! Besides, who could tell that it was not a trap to prevent my departure, though in friendly guise? I shuddered at the thought and shouted:

"Gare de Lyon, cabby, as fast as you can drive!"

My orders were obeyed. We got to the station to find the train made up and ready to start, and I was the last to take a ticket.

I suppose M. Plumet managed to escape from his refuge.

GENEVA.

On my arrival I found, keeping order on the way outside the station, the drollest policeman that ever stepped out of a comic opera. At home we should have had to protect him against the boys; here he protects others.

Well, it shows that I am really abroad.

I have only two hours to spare in this town. What shall I see? The country; that is always beautiful, whereas many so-called "sights" are not. I will make for the shores of the lake, for the spot where the Rhone leaves it, to flow toward France. The Rhone, which is so muddy at Avignon, is clean here; deep and clear as a creek of the sea. It rushes along in a narrow blue torrent compressed between a quay and a line of houses.

The river draws me after it. We leave the town together, and I am soon in the midst of those market-gardens where the infant Topffer lost himself, and, overtaken by nightfall, fell to making his famous analysis of fear. The big pumping wheels still overtop the willows, and cast their shadows over the lettuce-fields. In the distance rise slopes of woodland, on Sundays the haunt of holiday-makers. The Rhone leaps and eddies, singing over its gravel beds. Two trout-fishers are taxing all their strength to pull a boat up stream beneath the shelter of the bank.

Perhaps I was wrong in not waiting to hear what M. Plumet had to tell me. He is not the kind of man to gesticulate wildly without good reason.

ON THE LAKE.

The steamer is gaining the open water and Geneva already lies far behind. Not a ripple on the blue water that shades into deep blue behind us. Ahead the scene melts into a milky haze. A little boat, with idle sails embroidered with sunlight, vanishes into it. On the right rise the mountains of Savoy, dotted with forests, veiled in clouds which cast their shadows on the broken slopes. The contrast is happy, and I can not help admiring Leman's lovely smile at the foot of these rugged mountains.

At the bend in the banks near St. Maurice-en-Valais, the wind catches us, quite a squall. The lake becomes a sea. At the first roll an Englishwoman becomes seasick. She casts an expiring glance upon Chillon, the ancient towers of which are being lashed by the foam. Her husband does not think it worth his while to cease reading his guide-book or focusing his field-glass for so trifling a matter.

ON THE DILIGENCE

I am crossing the Simplon at daybreak, with rosepink glaciers on every side. We are trotting down the Italian slope. How I have longed for the sight of Italy! Hardly had the diligence put on the brake, and begun bowling down the mountain-side, before I discovered a change on the face of all things. The sky turned to a brighter blue. At the very first glance I seemed to see the dust of long summers on the leaves of the firs, six thousand feet above the sea, in the virgin atmosphere of the mountain-tops: and I was very near taking the creaking of my loosely fixed seat for the southern melody of the first grasshopper.

BAVENO

No one could be mistaken; this shaven, obsequious, suavely jovial innkeeper is a Neapolitan. He takes his stand in his mosaic-paved hall, and is at the service of all who wish for information about Lago Maggiore, the list of its sights; in a word, the programme of the piece.

ISOLA BELLA, ISOLA MADRE.

Yes, they are scraped clean, carefully tended, pretty, all a-blowing and a-growing; but unreal. The palm trees are unhomely, the tropical plants seem to stand behind footlights. Restore them to their homes, or give me back Lake Leman, so simply grand.

MENAGGIO.

After the sky-blue of Maggiore and the vivid green of Lugano, comes the violet-blue of Como, with its luminous landscape, its banks covered with olives, Roman ruins, and modern villas. Never have I felt the air so clear. Here for the first time I said to myself: "This is the spot where I would choose to dwell." I have even selected my house; it peeps out from a mass of pomegranates, evergreens, and citrons, on a peninsula around which the water swells with gentle murmur, and whence the view is perfect across lake, mountain, and sky.

A nightingale is singing, and I can not help reflecting that his fellows here are put to death in thousands. Yes, the reapers, famed in poems and lithographs, are desperate bird-catchers. At the season of migration they capture thousands of these weary travellers with snares or limed twigs; on Maggiore alone sixty thousand meet their end. We have but those they choose to leave us to charm our summer nights.

Perhaps they will kill my nightingale in the Carmelite garden. The idea fills me with indignation.

Then my thoughts run back to my rooms in the Rue de Rennes, and I see Madame Menin, with a dejected air, dusting my slumbering furniture; Lampron at work, his mother knitting; the old clerk growing sleepy with the heat and lifting his pen as he fancies he has got a bite; Madame Plumet amid her covey of workgirls, and M. Plumet blowing away with impatient breath the gold dust which the gum has failed to fix on the mouldings of a newly finished frame.

M. Plumet is pensive. He is burdened with a secret. I am convinced I did wrong in not waiting longer on the Place de L'Opera.

MILAN.

At last I am in Milan, an ancient city, but full of ideas and energy, my destination, and the cradle of the excellent Porfirio Zampini, suspected forger. The examination of documents does not begin till the day after to-morrow, so I am making the best of the time in seeing the sights.

There are four sights to see at Milan if you are a musician, and three if you are not: the Duomo, 'vulgo', cathedral; "The Marriage of the Virgin," by Raphael; "The Last Supper," by Leonardo; and, if it suits your tastes, a performance at La Scala.

I began with the Duomo, and on leaving it I received the news that still worries me.

But first of all I must make a confession. When I ascended through the tropical heat to the marble roof of the cathedral, I expected so much that I was disappointed. Surprise goes for so much in what we admire. Neither this mountain of marble, nor the lacework and pinnacles which adorn the enormous mass, nor the amazing number of statues, nor the sight of men smaller than flies on the Piazza del Duomo, nor the vast stretch of flat country which spreads for miles on every side of the city--none of these sights kindled the spark of enthusiasm within me which has often glowed for much less. No, what pleased me was something quite different, a detail not noticed in the guide-books, I suppose.

I had come down from the roof and was wandering in the vast nave from pillar to pillar, when I found myself beneath the lantern. I raised my eyes, but the flood of golden light compelled me to close them. The sunlight passing through the yellow glass of the windows overhead encircled the mighty vault of the lantern with a fiery crown, and played around the walls of its cage in rays which, growing fainter as they fell, flooded the floor with their expiring flames, a mysterious dayspring, a diffused glory, through which litany and sacred chant winged their way up toward the Infinite.

I left the cathedral tired out, dazed with weariness and sunlight, and fell asleep in a chair as soon as I got back to my room, on the fifth floor of the Albergo dell' Agnello.

I had been asleep for about an hour, perhaps, when I thought I heard a voice near me repeating "Illustre Signore!"

I did not wake. The voice continued with a murmur of sibilants:

"Illustrissimo Signore!"

This drew me from my sleep, for the human ear is very susceptible to superlatives.

"What is it?"

"A letter for your lordship. As it is marked 'Immediate,' I thought I might take the liberty of disturbing your lordship's slumbers."

"You did quite right, Tomaso."

"You owe me eight sous, signore, which I paid for the postage."

"There's half a franc, keep the change."

He retired calling me Monsieur le Comte; and all for two sous--O fatherland of Brutus! The letter was from Lampron, who had forgotten to put a stamp on it.

"MY DEAR FRIEND:

"Madame Plumet, to whom I believe you have given no instructions so to do, is at present busying herself considerably about your affairs. I felt I ought to warn you, because she is all heart and no brains, and I have often seen before the trouble into which an overzealous friend may get one, especially if the friend be a woman.

"I fear some serious indiscretion has been committed, for the following reasons.

"Yesterday evening Monsieur Plumet came to see me, and stood pulling furiously at his beard, which I know from experience is his way of showing that the world is not going around the right way for him. By means of questions, I succeeded, after some difficulty, in dragging from him about half what he had to tell me. The only thing which he made quite clear was his distress on finding that Madame Plumet was a woman whom it was hard to silence or to convince by argument.

"It appears that she has gone back to her old trade of dress-making, and that one of her first customers--God knows how she got there!-- was Mademoiselle Jeanne Charnot.

"Well, last Monday Mademoiselle Jeanne was selecting a hat. She was blithe as dawn, while the dressmaker was gloomy as night.

"'Is your little boy ill, Madame Plumet?'

"'No, Mademoiselle.'

"'You look so sad.'

"Then, according to her husband's words, Madame Plumet took her courage in her two hands, and looking her pretty customer in the face, said:

"'Mademoiselle, why are you marrying?'

"'What a funny question! Why, because I am old enough; because I have had an offer; because all young girls marry, or else they go into convents, or become old maids. Well, Madame Plumet, I never have felt a religious vocation, and I never expected to become an old maid. Why do you ask such a question?'

"'Because, Mademoiselle, married life may be very happy, but it may be quite the reverse!'

"After giving expression to this excellent aphorism, Madame Plumet, unable to contain herself any longer, burst into tears.

"Mademoiselle Jeanne, who had been laughing before, was now amazed and presently grew rather anxious.

"Still, her pride kept her from asking any further questions, and Madame Plumet was too much frightened to add a word to her answer. But they will meet again the day after to-morrow, on account of the hat, as before.

"Here the story grew confused, and I understood no more of it.

"Clearly there is more behind this. Monsieur Plumet never would have gone out of his way merely to inform me that his wife had given him a taste of her tongue, nor would he have looked so upset about it. But you know the fellow's way; whenever it's important for him to make himself clear he loses what little power of speech he has, becomes worse than dumb-unintelligible. He sputtered inconsequent ejaculations at me in this fashion:

"'To think of it, to-morrow, perhaps! And you know what a business! Oh, damnation! Anyhow, that must not be! Ah! Monsieur Lampron, how women do talk!'

"And with this Monsieur Plumet left me.

"I must confess, old fellow, that I am not burning with desire to get mixed up in this mess, or to go and ask Madame Plumet for the explanation which her husband was unable to give me. I shall bide my time. If anything turns up to-morrow, they are sure to tell me, and I will write you word.

"My mother sends you her love, and begs you to wrap up warmly in the evening; she says the twilight is the winter of hot climates.

"The dear woman has been a little out of sorts for the last two days. Today she is keeping her bed. I trust it is nothing but a cold.

"Your affectionate friend,

"SYLVESTRE LAMPRON."

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