Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 20

When at last Signor Vinciguerra was in France the whole thing seemed ridiculously easy. Mrs. Rylands was astonished to think the affair had ever seemed a challenge to her courage or a defiance of danger. For a day he lay hidden in Philip’s room and no one, who was not in the secret, thought of going there. The next morning he walked out of Casa Terragena with Miss Frant the maid, even as he had walked in, as a nurse. He was now carefully shaved, made up, dressed completely in garments hastily unpicked and resewn to fit him passably, and assisted by glasses. The men were already up the garden with the luggage, for Mrs. Rylands was going to visit her dear friends the Jex-Hiltons at Cannes for a couple of nights. Frant had let out to Bombaccio that her mistress had to see a great British specialist. Nothing to be really anxious about in Mrs. Rylands’ condition but something not quite in order.

It was visitors’ day for the gardens. If anyone observed a nurse who was not Mrs. McManus, well, it was some other nurse. Or there are such things as consultations of nurses. Above waited Parsons the English chauffeur with the best car. Vinciguerra was left in a quiet corner and Frant went on to fuss about the luggage at the gates and send the man back for a thoughtfully forgotten umbrella and a book. Mrs. Rylands, assisted up the garden path by Mrs. McManus, was handed over to Vinciguerra at the trysting place. He produced an excellent falsetto and talked English as he helped his protectress into the car.

There was tension, certainly there was tension, as far as the Italian custom house at the roadside. But the douaniers gave but a glance and motioned the familiar car on with friendly gestures. A lurking Fascist young gentleman, just too late, thought the inspection perfunctory and was for supplementing it. He called out “Alo!” after the car. That was the greatest thrill. Parsons slewed his eye round for orders. He hated foreigners who said “Alo” to him. “Go on,” said and signalled his mistress; “Go on!” said Frant, sitting beside him, and he put his foot down on the accelerator only too gladly.

She glanced back through the oval window at the back of the car. The young Italian gentleman was not pursuing. He had gone back to lecture the douaniers — on thoroughness no doubt.

The French douane was even less trouble. Bows and smiles. Mrs. Rylands, that charming neighbour, was welcome to France.

And this was all! They were purring smoothly along the eastern sea front of Modane. People promenading, people bathing. In bright sunshine, in a free world. It was all over. The danger, the stress.

“I have had to masquerade as a woman,” said Signor Vinciguerra resentfully and took off the glasses which blurred the world for him. “But I am out of prison. I know I look ridiculous, I know —— Dio mio!”

He sobbed. Tears filled his eyes.

“Il suo coraggio,” he said, crushing her hand with both of his. “Non dimentichero mai quel ch’ Ella ha fatto per me. Never. Never.”

“In two hours or less we will be in Cannes,” said Mrs. Rylands, trying to save some of her hand. “Then you shall be a man again. . . . Don’t! Don’t!”

“I should have been beaten. I should have died like a dog.”

He recovered abruptly. “This is absurd,” he said. “Forgive me, dear Lady.”

He was silent but still intensely expressive.

“Don’t you think this view of Cap Martin is perfectly lovely?” said Mrs. Rylands. . . .

Just at that very moment Mrs. McManus and Bombaccio confronted each other in the hall of Casa Terragena.

“But I thought you had gone with the Signora!” said Bombaccio.

“There’s some telegrams in Ventimiglia. We thought of them at the last moment. I’ll want the second car for that. Then I shall go on by train.”

“I could have sent them on.”

“What is that you’ve got in your hand there? a pair of shoes?”

“They were found in the garden,” said Bombaccio. “They were found in a trampled place under a rock beneath the tennis court. And these —affari. Ecco!” Bombaccio held them out; the decorative socks of a man of the world but with a huge hole in one heel. “What can they be? And where are the feet they should have? Surely this is of the traddittore! Il Vinciguerra.”

“Some of him,” reflected Mrs. McManus. “Surely His shoes and socks! Where did you say they found them?”

“Below the tennis court.”

“Very likely if you look about you’ll find some more of him. He must have scattered to avoid them. Unless they found him and tore him to pieces — quietly. But then they’d be all bloody. Will you be ordering the car? For the eleven o’clock train.”

Ahead of her the car with the fugitive ran swift and smooth through Monte Carlo, Beaulieu, Villefranche, Nice, Antibes. At Cannes Mary Jex-Hilton came running down the steps to receive her guest. “You felt dull, you darling, and you came over to us! The sweetest thing in the world to do! Trusting us.”

“I’d a particular reason,” said Mrs. Rylands, descending and embracing. She collected her wits. “Parsons, just help Frant with those bags into the house and upstairs.”

Behind Parsons’ back Frant turned round and grimaced strangely to assure her mistress that the chauffeur should be taken well out of the way.

“This nurse of mine, darling,” said Mrs. Rylands, turning to the quasi-feminine figure that sat now in a distinctly heteroclitic attitude, bowing and smiling deprecatingly, “is Signor Vinciguerra, the great publicist. He has barely escaped with his life — from over there. I will tell you — how we found him, being hunted, in the garden.”

“My dear! And you saved him?”

“Well, here he is!”

“You heroine! And it’s Signor Vinciguerra!” Mrs. Jex-Hilton held out her hand. “We met in Milan. Two years ago! You don’t remember, but I do. Won’t you get out?”

Mrs. Rylands whispered. “He doesn’t like walking about in these things. Naturally.”

Mrs. Jex-Hilton thought rapidly.

“I’ll get Ted’s bathing-wrap. It’s just inside the hall. It’s more dignified. A toga.”

It was true. The ambiguous nurse accepted the wrap, arranged a fold or so and became a Roman Senator, fit for the statuary. Except about the shoes and ankles. The round bare face assumed a serene and resolute civility. Signor Vinciguerra walked into the house, a statesman restored.

It was easier and easier.

When at last Mrs. Rylands sat down in the pretty white and green and chintz bedroom Mary had given her, to write to Philip and tell him all about it, the terror and stress of those dark moments in the garden were already impossible to recall. It was incredible that it should ever have seemed too mighty a task to help this fugitive. She was disposed to see the whole story now like some hilarious incident at a picnic. And for a time, all the great and subtle things she had thought about God and His infinite mightiness and nearness, had passed completely out of her mind. She knew she had much to write to Philip on that matter also, but now it was impossible. What did become clear presently was the grave import of the things Vinciguerra had said in her little sitting-room about the suppression of intellectual activity in Italy and the world. That stood out quite plainly still. She wrote of that.

Mrs. McManus arrived with the story of the shoes and socks in the afternoon. Later when she came against Parsons in the garden, he regarded her with perplexity.

“I say,” he remarked. “Are you another nurse?”

“What nonsense! There’s never another about me.”

“But wasn’t there another just now — with glasses?”

“Not it.”

“I could have sworn. . . . Rummy! You look so changed.”

“It’s the air,” said Mrs. McManus.

Little more was left to clean up of the Vinciguerra adventure. He was to lie perdu with the Jex-Hiltons for two or three days and then make his way to Geneva where he could appear in public and perhaps talk to an interviewer. It would be amusing to cast suspicion on Mont Blanc and suggest unsuspected passes in Savoy. It would help to divert any suspicion that might have fallen upon Casa Terragena. There still seemed some slight danger of leakage in the household however. When presently Mrs. Rylands returned to her home, Frant found Bombaccio in a much too inquiring state of mind for comfort. It was almost as if someone had slept in a rug on the Signor’s bed; and had anyone tampered with his shaving things? Who had consumed the better part of half a litre of brandy? And made crumbs in the Signor’s room? Then —— He showed Frant the mysterious shoes and socks, and sent his eloquent eyebrows up and the corners of his still more eloquent mouth down. He explained them and thought Frant was densely stupid. “After that,” said Bombaccio, “a man could not go far.” He had shown them to no one else Frant elicited, but what ought he to do about them? He watched her closely as he spoke. He eyed her almost mesmerically. She did not watch him at all — she observed him with a wooden averted face. Then she reported adequately to her mistress. Mrs. Rylands decided to deal with Bombaccio herself.

She found him arranging the newspapers in the downstairs room. She went past him and out upon the blazing terrace and then called him to her.

“How beautiful the garden is this morning,” she said.

Bombaccio was touched by this appeal for æsthetic sympathy and confirmed her impression richly and generously.

“Adam and Eve,” she interrupted, “were put into a garden even more beautiful than this.”

Bombaccio said that we were told so but that he found it difficult to believe.

“They were turned out,” said Mrs. Rylands.

Bombaccio’s gesture deplored the family fall.

“They were turned out, Bombaccio, for wanting to know too much.”

Bombaccio started and regarded her as man to woman, through a moment of impressive silence. “There is nothing in the world the Signora might not trust to me,” he said. “Have I ever been disloyal even in the smallest matter to the famiglia Rylands?”

“No,” said Mrs. Rylands, and acted profound deliberation. She laid a consciously fragile hand on his arm.

“I will trust you to do the most difficult thing of all, Bombaccio. For man or woman. That is — not even to ask questions. As hard as that. For questions you understand are like microbes; they are little things, but if you scatter them about they may cause great misfortunes.”

She added, almost as if inadvertently: “Signor Rylands had reasons to be very grateful to Signor Vinciguerra. It would have been said if anything had happened in this garden to one to whom we are indebted.”

Bombaccio’s bow, finger upon his lips, put the last seal upon her security.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30