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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Children Of The King: A Tale Of Southern Italy - Chapter 4
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The Children Of The King: A Tale Of Southern Italy - Chapter 4 Post by :karma69_us Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2012 Read :3256

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The Children Of The King: A Tale Of Southern Italy - Chapter 4

CHAPTER IV

Ruggiero found out before long that his master for the summer was eccentric in his habits, judging from the Sorrentine point of view in regard to order and punctuality. Ruggiero's experience of fine gentlemen was limited indeed, but he could not believe that they all behaved like San Miniato, whose temper was apparently as changeable as his tastes. Sometimes he went to bed at nine o'clock and rose at dawn. Sometimes on the other hand he got up at seven in the evening and went to bed by daylight. Sometimes everything Ruggiero did was right, and sometimes everything was wrong. There were days when the Count could not be induced to move from the Marchesa di Mola's terrace between noon and midnight or later, and again there were days when he went off in his boat in the morning and did not return until the last stragglers on the terrace of the hotel were ready to go to bed. He was irregular even in playing, which was after all his chief pastime. Possibly he knew of reasons why it should be good to gamble on one day and not upon another. Then he had his fits of amateur seamanship, when he would insist upon taking the tiller from Ruggiero's hand. The latter, on such occasions, remained perched upon the stern in case of an emergency. San Miniato was a thorough landsman and never understood why the wind always seemed to change, or die away, or do something unexpected so soon as he began to steer the boat. From time to time Ruggiero, by way of a mild hint, held up his palm to the breeze, but San Miniato did not know what the action meant. Ruggiero trimmed the sails to suit the course chosen by his master as well as possible, but straightway the boat was up in the wind again if she had been going free, or was falling off if the tacks were down and the sheets well aft. San Miniato was one of those men who seem quite incapable of doing anything sensible from the moment they leave the land till they touch it again, when their normal common sense returns, and they once more become human beings.

On the other hand nothing frightened him, though he could not swim a stroke. More than once Ruggiero allowed him almost to upset the boat in a squall, and more than once, when, steering himself, and when there was a fresh breeze, drove her till the seas broke over the bows, and the green water came in over the lee gunwale--just to see whether the Count would change colour. In this, however, he was disappointed. San Miniato's temper might change and his tastes might be as variable as the moon, or the weather, but his face rarely expressed anything of what he felt, and if he felt anything at such times it was assuredly not fear. He had good qualities, and courage was one of them, if courage may be called a quality at all. Ruggiero was not at all sure that his new master liked the sea, and it is possible that the Count was not sure of the fact himself; but for the time, it suited him to sail as much as possible, because Beatrice Granmichele was fond of it, and would therefore amuse herself with excursions hither and thither during the summer. As her mother rarely accompanied her, San Miniato could not, according to the customs of the country, join her in her boat, and the next best thing was to keep one for himself and to be as often as possible alongside of her, and ready to go ashore with her if she took a fancy to land in some quiet spot.

The Marchesa di Mola, having quite made up her mind that her daughter should marry San Miniato, and being almost too indolent about minor matters to care for appearances, would have allowed the two to be together from morning till night under the very least shadow of a chaperon's supervision, if Beatrice herself had shown a greater inclination for San Miniato's society than she actually did. But Beatrice was the only one of the party who had arrived at no distinct determination in the matter. San Miniato attracted her, and was very well in his way, but that was all. Amidst the shoals of migratory Neapolitans with magnificent titles and slender purses, who appeared, disported themselves and disappeared again, at the summer resort, it was quite possible that one might be found with more to recommend him than San Miniato could boast. Most of them were livelier than he, and certainly all were noisier. Many of them had very bright black eyes, which Beatrice liked, and they were all dressed a little beyond the extreme of the fashion, a fact of which she was too young to understand the psychological value in judging of men. Some of them sang very prettily, and San Miniato did not possess any similar accomplishment. Indeed, in the young girl's opinion, he approached dangerously near to being a "serious" man, as the Italians express it, and but for his known love of gambling he might have seemed to her altogether too dull a personage to be thought of as a possible husband. It is not easy to define exactly what is meant in Italian by a "serious" man. The word does not exactly translate the French equivalent, still less the English one. It means something in the nature of a Philistine with a little admixture of Ciceronism--pass the word--and a dash of Cato Censor to sour the whole--a delight to school-masterly spirits, a terror to lively damsels, the laughing-stock of the worldly wise and only just too wise to find a congenial atmosphere in the every-day world. However, as San Miniato just escaped the application of the adjective I have been trying to translate, it is enough to say that he was not exactly a "serious man," being excluded from that variety of the species by his passion for play, which was dominant, and by the incidents of his past history, which had not been dull.

It is true that a liking for cards and a reputation for success gained in former love affairs are not in any sense a substitute for the outward and attractive expressions of a genuine and present passion, but they are better than nothing when they serve to combat such a formidable imputation as that of "seriousness." Anything is better than that, and as Beatrice Granmichele was inclined to like the man without knowing why, she made the most of the few stories about him which reached her maiden ears, and of his taste for gaming, in order to render him interesting in her own eyes. He did, indeed, make more or less pretty speeches to her from time to time, of a cheerfully complimentary character when he had won money, of a gracefully melancholy nature when he had lost, but she was far too womanly not to miss something very essential in what he said and in his way of saying it. A woman may love flattery ever so much and have ever so strong a moral absorbent system with which to digest it; she does not hate banality the less. There is no such word as banality in the English tongue, but there might be, and if there were, it would mean that peculiarly tasteless and saltless nature of actions and speeches done and delivered by persons who are born dull, or who are mentally exhausted, or are absent-minded, or very shy, but who, in spite of natural or accidental disadvantages are determined to make themselves agreeable. The standard of banality differs indeed for every woman, and with every woman for almost every hour of the day, and men of the world who husband their worldly resources are aware of the fact. Angelina at three in the afternoon, fresh from rest and luncheon--if both agree with her--is wreathed in smiles at a little speech of Edwin's which would taste like sweet camomile tea after dry champagne, at three in the morning, when the Hungarian music is ringing madly in her ears and there are only two more waltzes on the programme. Music, dancing, lights and heat are to a woman of the world what strong drinks are to a normal man; they may not intoxicate, but they change the humour. Fortunately for San Miniato the young lady whom he wished to marry was not just at present exposed to the action of those stimulants, and her moods were tolerably even. If he had been at all eloquent, the same style of eloquence would have done almost as well after dinner as after breakfast. But the secret springs of love speech were dried up in his brain by the haunting consciousness that much was expected of him. He had never before thought of marrying and had not yet in his life found himself for any length of time constantly face to face in conversation with a young girl, with limitations of propriety and the fear of failure before his eyes. The situation was new and uncomfortable. He felt like a man who has got a hat which does not belong to him, which does not fit him and which will not stay on his head in a high wind. The consequence was that his talk lacked interest, and that he often did not talk at all. Nevertheless, he managed to show enough assiduity to keep himself continually in the foreground of Beatrice's thoughts. Being almost constantly present she could not easily forget him, and he held his ground with a determination which kept other men away. When a man can make a woman think of him half-a-dozen times a day and can prevent other men from taking his place when he is beside her, he is in a fair way to success.

On a certain evening San Miniato had a final interview with the Marchesa di Mola in which he expressed all that he felt for Beatrice, including a little more, and in which he described his not very prosperous financial condition with mitigated frankness. The Marchesa listened dreamily in the darkness on the terrace while her daughter played soft dance music in the dimly lighted room behind her. Beatrice probably had an idea of what was going on outside, upon the terrace, and was trying to make up her own mind. She played waltzes very prettily, as women who dance well generally do, if they play at all.

When San Miniato had finished, the Marchesa was silent for a few seconds. Then she tapped her companion twice upon the arm with her fan, in a way which would have seemed lazy in any one else, but which, for her, was unusually energetic.

"How well you say it all!" she exclaimed.

"And you consent, dear Marchesa?" asked the Count, with an eagerness not all feigned.

"You say it all so well! If I could say it half so well to Beatrice--there might be some possibility. But Beatrice is not like me--nor I like you--and so--"

She broke off in the middle of the sentence with an indolent little laugh.

"If she were like you," said San Miniato, "I would not hesitate long."

There was an intonation in his voice that pleased the middle-aged woman, as he had intended.

"What would you do?" she asked, fanning herself slowly in the dark.

"I would speak to her myself."

"Heavens!" Again the Marchesa laughed. The idea seemed eccentric enough in her eyes.

"Why not?"

"Why not? Dearest San Miniato, do not try to make me argue such insane questions with you. You know how lazy I am. I can never talk."

"A woman need not talk in order to be persuaded. It is enough that the man should. Let me try."

"I will shut my ears."

"I will kneel at your feet."

"I shall go to sleep."

"I could wake you."

"How?"

"By telling you that I mean to speak to Donna Beatrice myself."

"Such an idea would wake the dead!"

"So much the better. They would hear me."

"They would not help you, if they heard you," observed the Marchesa.

"They could at least bear witness to the answer I should receive."

"And suppose, dear friend, that the answer should not be what you wish, or expect--would you care to have witnesses, alive or dead?"

"Why should the answer be a negative?"

"Because," replied the Marchesa, turning her face directly to his, "because Beatrice is herself uncertain. You know well enough that no man should ever tell a woman he loves her until he is sure that she loves him. And that is not the only reason."

"Have you a better one?" asked San Miniato with a laugh.

"The impossibility of it all! Imagine, in our world, a man deliberately asking a young girl to marry him!"

San Miniato smiled, but the Marchesa could not see the expression of his face.

"We do not think it so impossible in Piedmont," he answered quietly.

"I am surprised at that." The lady's tone was rather cold.

"Are you? Why? We are less old-fashioned, that is all."

"And is it really done in--in good families?"

"Often," answered San Miniato, seeing his advantage and pressing it. "I could give you many instances without difficulty, within the last few years."

"The plan certainly saves the parents a great deal of trouble," observed the Marchesa, lazily shutting her eyes and fanning herself again.

"And it places the decision of the most vital question in life in the hands of the two beings most concerned."

San Miniato spoke rather sententiously, for he knew how to impress his companion and he meant to be impressive.

"No doubt," answered the Marchesa. "No doubt. But," she continued, bringing up the time-honoured argument, "the two young people most concerned are not always the people best able to judge of their own welfare."

"Of course they are not," assented San Miniato, readily enough, and abandoning the point which could be of no use to him. "Of course not. But, dearest Marchesa, since you have judged for us--and there is no one else to judge--do you not think that you might leave the rest in my hands? The mere question to be asked, you know, in the hope of a final answer--the mere technicality of love-making, with which you can only be familiar from the woman's point of view, and not from the man's, as I am. Not that I have had much experience---"

"You?" laughed the Marchesa, touching his hand with her fan. "You without much experience! But you are historical, dearest friend! Who does not know of your conquests?"

"I, at least, do not," answered San Miniato with well-affected modesty. "But that is not the question. Let us get back to it. This is my plan. The moon is full to-morrow and the weather is hot. We will all go in my boat to Tragara and dine on the rocks. It will be beautiful. Then after dinner we can walk about in the moonlight--slowly, not far from you, as at the end of this terrace. And while you are looking on I, in a low voice, will express my sincere feelings to Donna Beatrice, and ask the most important of all questions. Does not that please you? Is it not well combined?"

"But why must we take the trouble to go all the way to Capri? What sense is there in that?"

"Dearest Marchesa, you do not understand! Consider the surroundings, the moonlight, the water rippling against the rocks, the soft breeze--a little music, too, such as a pair of mandolins and a guitar, which we could send over--all these things are in my favour."

"Why?" asked the Marchesa, not understanding in the least how he could attach so much value to things which seemed to her unappreciative mind to be perfectly indifferent.

"Besides," she added, "if you want to give a party, you can illuminate the garden of the hotel with Chinese lanterns. That would be much prettier than to picnic on uncomfortable rocks out in the sea with nothing but cold things to eat and only the moon for an illumination. I am sure Beatrice would like it much better."

San Miniato laughed.

"What a prosaic person you are!" he exclaimed. "Can you not imagine that a young girl's disposition may be softened by moonlight, mandolins and night breezes?"

"No. I never understood that. And after all if you want moonlight you can have it here. If it shines at Capri it will shine at Sorrento. At least it seems to me so."

"No, dearest Marchesa," answered San Miniato triumphantly. "There you are mistaken."

"About the moon?"

"Yes, about the moon. When it rises we do not see it here, on account of the mountains behind us."

"But I have often seen the moon here, from this very place," objected the Marchesa. "I am sure it is not a week ago that I saw it. You do not mean to tell me that there are two moons, and that yours is different from mine!"

"Very nearly. This at least I say. When the moon is full we can see it rise from Tragara, and we can not see it from this place."

"How inexplicable nature is!" exclaimed the Marchesa fanning herself lazily. "I will not try to understand the moon any more. It tires me. A lemonade, San Miniato--ring for a lemonade. I am utterly exhausted."

"Shall I ask Donna Beatrice's opinion about Tragara?" inquired San Miniato rising.

"Oh yes! Anything--only do not argue with me. I cannot bear it. I suppose you will put me into that terrible boat and make me sit in it for hours and hours, until all my bones are broken, and then you will give me cold macaroni and dry bread and warm wine and water, and the sailors will eat garlic, and it will be insufferable and you will call it divine. And of course Beatrice will be so wretched that she will not listen to a word you say, and will certainly refuse you without hesitation. A lemonade, San Miniato, for the love of heaven! My throat is parched with this talking."

When the Marchesa had got what she wanted, San Miniato sat down beside Beatrice at the piano, in the sitting room.

"Donna Beatrice gentilissima," he began, "will you deign to tell me whether you prefer the moon to Chinese lanterns, or Chinese lanterns to the moon?"

"To wear?" asked the young girl with a laugh.

"If you please, of course. Anything would be becoming to you--but I mean as a question of light. Would you prefer a dinner by moonlight on the rocks of Tragara with a couple of mandolins in the distance, or would you like better a party in the hotel gardens with an illumination of paper lanterns? It is a most important question, I assure you, and must be decided very quickly, because the moon is full to-morrow."

"What a ridiculous question!" exclaimed Beatrice, laughing again.

"Why ridiculous?"

"Because you ought to know the answer well enough. Imagine comparing the moon with Chinese lanterns!"

"Your mother prefers the latter."

"Oh, mamma--of course! She is so practical. She would prefer carriage lamps on the trees--gas if possible! When are we going to Tragara? Where is it? Which boat shall we take? Oh, it is too delightful! Can we not go to-night?"

"We can do anything which Donna Beatrice likes," answered San Miniato. "But if you will listen to me, I will explain why to-morrow would be better. In the first place, we have dined once this evening, so that we could not dine again."

"We could call it supper," suggested Beatrice.

"Of course we could, if we could eat it at all. But it is also ten o'clock, and we could not get to Tragara before one or two in the morning. Lastly, your mother would not go."

"Will she go to-morrow?" asked Beatrice with sudden anxiety. "Have you asked her?"

"She will go," answered San Miniato confidently. "We must make her comfortable. That is the principal thing."

"Yes. She shall have her maid and we must take a chair for her to sit in, and another to carry her, and two porters, and a lamp, and a table, and a servant to wait on her. And she will want champagne, well iced, and a carpet for her feet, and a screen to keep the wind from her, if there is any, and several more things which I shall remember. But I know all about it, for we once made a little excursion from Taormina and dined out of doors, and I know exactly what she wants."

"Very well, she shall have everything," said San Miniato smiling at the catalogue of the Marchesa's wants. "If she will only go, we will do all we can."

"When it is time, let the two porters come in here with the chair and take her away," answered Beatrice. "Dear mamma! She will be much too lazy to resist. What fun it will be!"

And everything was done as Beatrice had wished. San Miniato made a list of things absolutely indispensable to the Marchesa. The number of articles was about two hundred and their bulk filled a boat which was despatched early in the following afternoon to be rowed over to Tragara and unloaded before the party arrived.

Ruggiero and his brother worked hard at the preparations, silent, untiring and efficient as usual, but delighted in their hearts at the prospect of something less monotonous than the daily sail or the daily row within sight of Sorrento. To men who have knocked about the sea for years, from Santa Cruz to Sebastopol, the daily life of a sailor on a little pleasure boat lacks interest, and if circumstances had been, different Ruggiero would probably have shipped before now as boatswain on board one of the neat schooners which are yearly built at the Piano di Sorrento, to be sold with their cargoes of salt as soon as they reach Buenos Ayres. But Ruggiero had contracted that malady of the heart which had taken him to the chemist's for the first time in his life, and which materially hindered the formation of any plan by which he might be obliged to leave his present situation. Moreover the disease showed no signs of yielding; on the contrary, the action of the vital organ concerned became more and more spasmodic and alarming, while its possessor grew daily leaner and more silent.

The last package had been taken down, the last of the score of articles which the Marchesa was sure to want with her in the sail boat before she reached the spot where the main cargo of comforts would be waiting; the last sandwich, the last box of sweetmeats, the iced lemonade, the wraps and the parasols were all stowed away in their places. Then San Miniato went to fetch the Marchesa, marshalling in his two porters with their chair between them.

"Dearest Marchesa," said the Count, "if you will give yourself the trouble to sit in this chair, I will promise that no further exertion shall be required of you."

The Marchesa di Mola looked up with a glance of sleepy astonishment.

"And why in that chair, dearest friend? I am so comfortable here. And why have you brought those two men with you?"

"Have you forgotten our dinner at Tragara?" asked San Miniato.

"Tragara!" gasped the Marchesa. "You are not going to take me to Tragara! Good heavens! I am utterly exhausted! I shall die before we get to the boat."

"Altro e parlar di morte--altro e morire," laughed San Miniato, quoting the famous song. "It is one thing to talk of death, it is quite another to die. Only this little favour Marchesa gentilissima--to seat yourself in this chair. We will do the rest."

"Without a hat? Just as I am? Impossible! Come in an hour--then I shall be ready. My maid, San Miniato--send for Teresina. Dio mio! I can never go! Go without us, dearest friend--go and dine on your hideous rocks and leave us the little comfort we need so much!"

But protestations were vain. Teresina appeared and fastened the hat of the period upon her mistress's head. The hat of the period chanced to be a one-sided monstrosity at that time, something between a cart wheel, an umbrella and a flower garden, depending for its stability upon the proper position of several solid skewers, apparently stuck through the head of the wearer. This headpiece having been adjusted the Marchesa asked for a cigarette, lighted it and looked about her.

"It is really too much!" she exclaimed. "Button my gloves, Teresina. I shall not go after all, not even to please you, dearest friend. What a place of torture this world is! How right we are to try and get a comfortable stall in the next! Go away, San Miniato. It is quite useless."

But San Miniato knew what he was doing. With gentle strength he made her rise from her seat and placed her in the chair. The porters lifted their burden, settled the straps upon their shoulders, the man in front glanced back at the man behind, both nodded and marched away.

"This is too awful!" sighed the Marchesa, as she was carried out of the door of the sitting room. "How can you have the heart, dearest friend! An invalid like me! And I was supremely comfortable where I was."

But at this point Beatrice appeared and joined the procession, radiant, fresh as a fragrant wood-flower, full of life as a young bird. Behind her came Teresina, the maid, necessary at every minute for the Marchesa's comfort, her pink young cheeks flushed with pleasure and her eyes sparkling with anticipation, fastening on her hat as she walked.

"I was never so happy in my life," laughed Beatrice. "And to think that you have really captured mamma in spite of herself! Oh, mamma, you will enjoy it so much! I promise you shall. There is iced champagne, and the foot warmer and the marrons glaces and the lamp and everything you like--and quails stuffed with truffles, besides. Now do be happy and let us enjoy ourselves!"

"But where are all these things?" asked the Marchesa. "I shall believe when I see."

"Everything is at Tragara already," answered Beatrice tripping down the stairs beside her mother's chair. "And we really will enjoy ourselves," she added, turning her head with a bewitching smile, and looking back at San Miniato. "What a general you are!"

"If you could convince the Minister of War of that undoubted fact, you would be conferring the greatest possible favour upon me," said the Count. "He would have no trouble in persuading me to return to the army as commander-in-chief, though I left the service as a captain."

So they went down the long winding way cut through the soft tufo rock and found the boat waiting for them by the little landing. The Marchesa actually took the trouble to step on board instead of trusting herself to the strong arms of Ruggiero. Beatrice followed her. As she set her foot on the gunwale Ruggiero held up his hand towards her to help her. It was not the first time this duty had fallen to him, but she was more radiantly fresh to-day than he had ever seen her before, and the spasm that seemed to crush his heart for a moment was more violent than usual. His strong joints trembled at her light touch and his face turned white. She felt that his hand shook and she glanced at him when she stood in the boat.

"Are you ill, Ruggiero?" she asked, in a kindly tone.

"No, Excellency," he answered in a low voice that was far from steady, while the shadow of a despairing smile flickered over his features.

He put up his hand to help Teresina, the maid. She pressed it hard as she jumped down, and smiled with much intention at the handsome sailor. But she got no answer for her look, and he turned away and shoved the boat off the little stone pier. Bastianello was watching them both, and wishing himself in Ruggiero's place. But Ruggiero, as he believed, had loved the pretty Teresina first, and Ruggiero had the first right to win her if he could.

So the boat shot out upon the crisping water into the light afternoon breeze, and up went foresail and mainsail and jib, and away she went on the port tack, San Miniato steering and talking to Beatrice--which things are not to be done together with advantage--the Marchesa lying back in a cane rocking-chair and thinking of nothing, while Teresina held the parasol over her mistress's head and shot bright glances at the sailors forward. And Ruggiero and Bastianello sat side by side amidships looking out at the gleaming sea to windward.

"What hast thou?" asked Bastianello in a low voice.

"The pain," answered his brother.

"Why let thyself be consumed by it? Ask her in marriage. The Marchesa will give her to thee."

"Better to die! Thou dost not know all."

"That may be," said Bastianello with a sigh.

And he slowly began to fake down the slack of the main halyard on the thwart, twisting the coil slowly and thoughtfully as it grew under his broad hands, till the rope lay in a perfectly smooth disk beside him. But Ruggiero changed his position and gazed steadily at Beatrice's changing face while San Miniato talked to her.

So the boat sped on and many of those on board misunderstood each other, and some did not understand themselves. But what was most clear to all before long was that San Miniato could not make love and steer his trick at the same time.

"Are we going to Castellamare?" asked Bastianello in a low voice as the boat fell off more and more under the Count's careless steering.

Ruggiero started. For the first time in his life he had forgotten that he was at sea.

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