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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesTogether - Part Two - Chapter 15
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Together - Part Two - Chapter 15 Post by :hlpunltd Category :Long Stories Author :Robert Herrick Date :May 2012 Read :2481

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Together - Part Two - Chapter 15

PART TWO CHAPTER XV

When Vickers Price raised his eyes from his desk and, losing for the moment the clattering note of business that surged all around him, looked through dusky panes into the cloud of mist and smoke, visions rose before him that were strange to the smoky horizon of the river city....

From the little balcony of his room on the Pincio, all Rome lay spread before him,--Rome smiling under the blue heaven of an April morning! The cypresses in the garden pointed to a cloudless sky. Beyond the city roofs, where the domes of churches rose like little islands, was the green band of the Janiculum, and farther southwards the river cut the city and was lost behind the Aventine. And still beyond the Campagna reached to the hills about Albano.

Beneath he could see the Piazza del Popolo, with a line of tiny cabs standing lazily in the sunlight, and just below the balcony was a garden where a fountain poured softly, night and day. Brilliant balls of colored fruit hung from the orange trees, glossy against the yellow walls of the palazzo across the garden. From the steep street on the other side of the wall rose the thin voice of a girl, singing a song of the mountains, with a sad note of ancient woe, and farther away in the city sounded the hoarse call of a pedler.... This was not the Rome of the antiquary, not the tawdry Rome of the tourist. It was the Rome of sunshine and color and music, the Rome of joy, of youth! And the young man, leaning there over the iron railing, his eyes wandering up and down the city at his feet, drank deep of the blessed draught,--the beauty and the joy of it, the spirit of youth and romance in his heart....

From some one of the rooms behind a neighboring balcony floated a woman's voice, swelling into a full contralto note, then sinking low and sweet into brooding contemplation. After a time Vickers went to his work, trying to forget the golden city outside the open window, but when the voice he had heard burst forth joyously outside, he looked up and saw the singer standing on her balcony, shading her eyes with a hand, gazing out over the city, her voice breaking forth again and again in scattered notes, as though compelled by the light and the joy of it all. She was dressed in a loose black morning gown that rippled in the breeze over her figure. She clasped her hands above her bronze-colored hair, the action revealing the pure white tint of neck and arms, the well-knit body of small bones. She stood there singing to herself softly, the note of spring and Rome in her voice. Still singing she turned into her room, and Vickers could hear her, as she moved back and forth, singing to herself. And as he hung brooding over Rome, listening to the gurgle of the fountain in the garden, he often listened to this contralto voice echoing the spirit within him.... Sometimes a little girl came out on the balcony to play.

"Are you English?" she asked the young man one day.

"No, American, like you, eh?" Vickers replied.

They talked, and presently the little girl running back into the room spoke to some one: "There is a nice man out there, mother. He says he's American, too." Vickers could not hear what the woman said in reply....

The child made them friends. Mrs. Conry, Vickers learned, was his neighbor's name, and she was taking lessons in singing, preparing herself, he gathered, for professional work,--a widow, he supposed, until he heard the little girl say one day, "when we go home to father,--we are going home, mother, aren't we? Soon?" And when the mother answered something unintelligible, the little girl with a child's subtle tact was silent....

This woman standing there on the balcony above the city,--all gold and white and black, save for the gray eyes, the curving lines of her supple body,--this was what he saw of Europe,--all outside those vivid Roman weeks that he shared with her fading into a vague background. Together they tasted the city,--its sunny climbing streets, its white squares, and dark churches, the fields beyond the Colosseum, the green Campagna, the vivid mornings, the windless moonlight nights! All without this marvellous circle, this charmed being of Rome, had the formlessness of a distant planet. Here life began and closed, and neither wished to know what the other had been in the world behind.

That she was from some Southern state,--"a little tiny place near the Gulf, far from every civilized thing," Mrs. Conry told him; and it was plain enough that she was meagrely educated,--there had been few advantages in that "tiny place." But her sensuous temperament was now absorbing all that it touched. Rome meant little to her beyond the day's charm, the music it made in her heart; while the man vibrated to every association, every memory of the laden city....

Thus the days and weeks slipped by until the gathering heat warned them of the passing of time. One June day that promised to be fresh and cool they walked through the woods above the lake of Albano. Stacia Conry hummed the words of a song that Vickers had written and set to music, one of a cycle they had planned for her to sing--the Songs of the Cities. This was the song of Rome, and in it Vickers had embedded the sad strain that the girl sang coming up the street,--the cry of the past.

"That is too high for me," she said, breaking off. "And it is melancholy. I hate sad things. It reminds me of that desolate place at the end of the earth where I came from."

"All the purest music has a strain of sadness," Vickers protested.

"No, no; it has longing, passion! ... I escaped!" She looked down on the cuplike lake, shimmering in the sun below. "I knew in my heart that _this lived, this world of sunshine and beauty and joy. I thirsted for it. Now I drink it!"

She turned on him her gray eyes, which were cool in spite of her emotion. She had begun again the song in a lower key, when at a turn in the path they came upon a little wooden shrine, one of those wayside altars still left in a land where religion has been life. Before the weather-stained blue-and-red madonna knelt a strangely mediaeval figure,--a man wasted and bare-headed, with long hair falling matted over his eyes. An old sheepskin coat came to his bare knees. Dirty, forlorn, leaning wearily on his pilgrim's staff, the man was praying before the shrine, his lips moving silently.

"What a figure!" Vickers exclaimed in a low voice, taking from his pocket a little camera. As he tiptoed ahead of Mrs. Conry to get his picture before the pilgrim should rise, he saw the intense yearning on the man's face. Beckoning to his companion, Vickers put the camera into his pocket and passed on, Mrs. Conry following, shrinking to the opposite side of the way, a look of aversion on her mobile face.

"Why didn't you take him?" she asked as they turned the corner of the road.

"He was praying,--and he meant it," Vickers answered vaguely.

The woman's lips curved in disgust at the thought of the dirty pilgrim on his knees by the roadside.

"Only the weak pray! I hate that sort of thing,--prayer and penitence."

"Perhaps it is the only real thing in life," Vickers replied from some unknown depth within him.

"No, no! How can you say that? You who know what life can be. Never! That is what they tried to teach me at school. But I did not believe it. I escaped. I wanted to sing. I wanted my own life." She became grave, and added under her breath: "And I shall get it. That is best, best, best!" She broke into a run down the sun-flecked road, and they emerged breathless in an olive orchard beside the lake. Her body panted as she threw herself down on the grass. "Now!" she smiled, her skin all rose; "can you say that?" And her voice chanted, "To live,--my friend,--to LIVE! And you and I are made to live,--isn't it so?"

The artist in Vickers, the young man of romance, his heart tender with sentiment, responded to the creed. But woven with the threads of this artist temperament were other impulses that stirred. The pilgrim in the act of penitence and ecstatic devotion was beautiful, too, and real,--ah, very real, as he was to know....

They supped that afternoon in a little wine shop looking towards the great dome swimming above Rome. And as the sun shot level and golden over the Campagna, lighting the old, gray tombs, they drove back to the city along the ancient Latin road. The wonderful plain, the most human landscape in the world, began to take twilight shadows. Rome hung, in a mist of sun, like a mirage in the far distance, and between them and the city flowed the massive arches of an aqueduct, and all about were the crumbling tombs, half hidden by the sod. The carriage rolled monotonously onwards. The woman's eyes nearly closed; she looked dreamily out through the white lids, fringed with heavy auburn lashes. She still hummed from time to time the old refrain of Vickers's song. Thus they returned, hearing the voice of the old world in its peculiar hour.

"I am glad that I have had it--that I have lived--a little. This, this!--I can sing to-night! You must come and sit on my balcony and look at the stars while I sing to you--the music of the day."

As the Porta San Paolo drew near, Vickers remarked:--

"I shall write you a song of Venice,--that is the music for you."

"Venice, and Paris, and Vienna, and Rome,--all! I love them all!"

She reached her arms to the great cities of the earth, seeing herself in triumph, singing to multitudes the joy of life.... "Come to-night,--I will sing for you!"...

On the porter's table at the hotel lay a thick letter for Mrs. Conry. It bore the printed business address,--THE CONRY CONSTRUCTION COMPANY. Mrs. Conry took it negligently in her white hand. "You will come later?" she said, smiling back at the young man.

* * * * *

Sitting crowded in front of Arragno's and sipping a liqueur, Fosdick remarked to Vickers: "So you have run across the Conry? Of course I know her. I saw her in Munich the first time. The little girl still with her? Then it was Vienna.... She's got as far as Rome! Been over here two or three years studying music. Pretty-good voice, and a better figure. Oh, Stacia is much of a siren."

Vickers moved uneasily and in reply to a question Fosdick continued:--

"Widow--grass widow--properly linked--who knows? Our pretty country-women have such a habit of trotting around by themselves for their own delectation that you never can tell how to place them. She may be divorced--she may be the other thing! You can't tell. But she is a very handsome woman."...

Mrs. Conry herself told Vickers the facts, as they sat at a little restaurant on the Aventine where they loved to go to watch the night steal across the Palatine.

"... He offered me my education--my chance. I took it. I went to the conservatory at Cincinnati. Then he wanted to marry me, and promised to send me abroad to study more."... Her tone was dry, impartially recounting the fact. Then her eyes dropped, and Vickers's cigarette glowed between them as they leaned across the little iron table.... "I was a child then--did not know anything. I married him. The first years business was poor, and he could not let me have the money. When times got better, he let me come--kept his promise. I have been here nearly three years, back two or three times. And now," her voice dropped, "I must go back for good--soon."

Nothing more. But it seemed to Vickers as if a ghost had risen from the river mist and come to sit between them. That the woman was paying a price for her chance, a heavy price, he could see. They walked back to the city between the deserted vineyards. As they crossed the river, Mrs. Conry stopped, and remarked sombrely, "A bargain is a bargain the world over, is it not?"

Vickers felt the warm breathing woman close to him, felt her brooding eyes. "One pays," he murmured, "I suppose!"

She threw up her hand in protest, and they walked on into the lighted city.

* * * * *

Occasionally Fosdick joined their excursions, and after one of them he said to Vickers:--

"My friend, she is wonderful; more so every time I see her. But beneath that soft, rounded body, with its smooth white skin, is something hard. Oh, I know the eyes and the hair and the throat and the voice! I, too, am a man. Paint her, if you like, or set her to music. She is for _bel canto and moonlight and the voice of Rome. But there is a world outside this all, my friend, to which you and I belong, and _you rather more than I.... Stacia Conry doesn't belong at all."

"Which means?" demanded Vickers steadily of the burly Fosdick.

"Take care that you don't get stuck in the sea of Sargasso. I think something bitter might rise out of all that loveliness."

Nevertheless, instead of going to the Maloya with Fosdick, Vickers stayed on in Rome, and September found him there and Mrs. Conry, too, having returned to the city from the mountain resort, where she had left the little girl with her governess. They roamed the deserted city, and again began to work on the songs which Mrs. Conry hoped to give in concerts on her return to America. Very foolish of the young man, and the woman, thus to prolong the moment of charm, to linger in the Sargasso Sea! But at least with the man, the feeling that kept him in Rome those summer months was pure and fine, the sweetest and the best that man may know, where he gives of his depths with no thought of reward, willing to accept the coming pain.... Little Delia, who had seen quite as much of Vickers as her mother, said to him the day she left with her governess:--

"We're going home soon--before Thanksgiving. I'm so glad! And you'll be there, too?"

"I suppose not, Delia," the young man replied. But as it happened he was the first to go back....

That late September day they had returned from a ramble in the hills. It was nearly midnight when the cab rattled up the deserted streets to their hotel. As Vickers bade his companion good-night, with some word about a long-projected excursion to Volterra, she said:--

"Come in and I will sing for a while. I don't feel like sleep.... Yes, come! Perhaps it will be the last of all our good times."

In the large dark apartment the night wind was drawing over the roofs of the hill through the open windows, fluttering stray sheets of music along the stone floor. Mrs. Conry lighted a candle on the piano, and throwing aside her hat and veil, dropping her gloves on the floor, struck some heavy chords. She sang the song they had been working over, the song of Venice, with a swaying melody as of floating water-grasses. Then she plunged into a throbbing aria,--singing freely, none too accurately, but with a passion and self-forgetfulness which promised greater things than the concert performer. From this on to other snatches of opera, to songs, wandering as the mood took her, coming finally to the street song that Vickers had woven into his composition for Rome, with its high, sad note. There her voice stopped, died in a cry half stifled in the throat, and leaving the piano she came to the window. A puff of wind blew out the candle. With the curtains swaying in the night wind, they stood side by side looking down into the dark city, dotted irregularly with points of light, and up above the Janiculum to the shining stars.

"Rome, Rome," she murmured, and the words sighed past the young man's ears,--"and life--LIFE!"

It was life that was calling them, close together, looking forth into the night, their hearts beating, the longing to grasp it, to go out alone into the night for it. Freedom, and love, and life,--they beckoned! Vickers saw her eyes turn to him in the dark....

"And now I go," he said softly. He found his way to the door in the dark salon, and as he turned he saw her white figure against the swaying curtain, and felt her eyes following him.

In his room he found the little blue despatch, sent up from his banker, which announced his brother's death, and the next morning he left by the early express for the north to catch the Cherbourg boat. As he passed Mrs. Conry's salon he slipped under the door the despatch with a note, which ended, "I know that we shall see each other again, somewhere, somehow!" and from the piazza he sent back an armful of great white _fleur-de-lys_. Later that morning, while Vickers was staring at the vintage in the Umbrian Valley and thinking of the woman all white and bronze with the gray eyes, Mrs. Conry was reading his note. A bitter smile curved her lips, as she gathered up the white flowers and laid them on the piano.

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