The Villa del Ciprés at Orotava was built on a headland above the Puerto. It had taken its name from its fine cypress trees, of which there were many in the spacious garden. At the Puerto there were laughter, shouting and singing as the oxen wagons with their crates of bananas came grating and stumbling down to the wharf. At the Puerto one might almost have said there was commerce, for beyond the pier waited the dirty fruit steamers; but the Villa del Ciprés stood proudly aloof like a Spanish grandee who had seen better days — one felt that it literally hated commerce.
The villa was older than the streets of the Puerto, though much grass grew between their venerable cobbles. It was older than the oldest villas on the hill, the hill that was known as old Orotava, though their green latticed shutters were bleached by the sun of innumerable semitropical summers. It was so old indeed, that no peasant could have told you precisely when it had come into being; the records were lost, if they had ever existed — for its history one had to apply to its owner. But then its owner was always in Spain, and his agent who kept the place in repair, was too lazy to bother himself over trifles. What could it matter when the first stone was laid, or who laid it? The villa was always well let — he would yawn, roll a cigarette in his fingers, lick the paper with the thick, red tip of his tongue, and finally go to sleep in the sunshine to dream only of satisfactory commissions.
The Villa del Ciprés was a low stone house that had once been, tinted a lemon yellow. Its shutters were greener than those on the hill, for every ten years or so they were painted. All its principal windows looked over the sea that lay at the foot of the little headland. There were large, dim rooms with rough mosaic floors and walls that were covered by ancient frescoes. Some of these frescoes were primitive but holy, others were primitive but distinctly less holy; however, they were all so badly defaced, that the tenants were spared what might otherwise have been rather a shock at the contrast. The furniture, although very good of its kind, was sombre, and moreover it was terribly scanty, for its owner was far too busy in Seville to attend to his villa at Orotava. But one glory the old house did certainly possess; its garden, a veritable Eden of a garden; obsessed by a kind of primitive urge towards all manner of procreation. It was hot with sunshine and the flowing of sap, so that even its shade held a warmth in its greenness, while the virile growth of its flowers and its trees gave off a strangely disturbing fragrance. These trees had long been a haven for birds, from the crested hoopoes to the wild canaries who kept up a chorus of song in the branches.
Stephen and Mary arrived at the Villa del Ciprés, not very long after Christmas. They had spent their Christmas Day aboard ship, and on landing had stayed for a week at Santa Cruz before taking the long, rough drive to Orotava. And as though the fates were being propitious, or unpropitious perhaps — who shall say? — the garden was looking its loveliest, almost melodramatic it looked in the sunset. Mary gazed round her wide-eyed with pleasure; but after a while her eyes must turn, as they always did now, to rest upon Stephen; while Stephen’s uncertain and melancholy eyes must look back with great love in their depths for Mary.
Together they made the tour of the villa, and when this was over Stephen laughed a little: ‘Not much of anything is there, Mary?’ ‘No, but quite enough. Who wants tables and chairs?’
‘Well, if you’re contented. I am,’ Stephen told her. And indeed, so far as the Villa del Ciprés went, they were both very well contented.
They discovered that the indoor staff would consist of two peasants; a plump, smiling woman called Concha, who adhered to the ancient tradition of the island and tied her head up in a white linen kerchief, and a girl whose black hair was elaborately dressed, and whose cheeks were very obviously powdered — Concha’s niece she was, by name Esmeralda. Esmeralda looked cross, but this may have been because she squinted so badly.
In the garden worked a handsome person called Ramon, together with Pedro, a youth of sixteen. Pedro was light-hearted, precocious and spotty. He hated his simple work in the garden; what he liked was driving his father’s mules for the tourists, according to Ramon. Ramon spoke English passably well; he had picked it up from the numerous tenants and was proud of this fact, so while bringing in the luggage he paused now and then to impart information. It was better to hire mules and donkeys from the father of Pedro — he had very fine mules and donkeys. It was better to take Pedro and none other as your guide, for thus would be saved any little ill-feeling. It was better to let Concha do all the shopping — she was honest and wise as the Blessed Virgin. It was better never to scold Esmeralda, who was sensitive on account of her squint and therefore inclined to be easily wounded. If you wounded the heart of Esmeralda, she walked out of the house and Concha walked with her. The island women were often like this; you upset them and per Dios, your dinner would burn! They would not even wait to attend to your dinner.
‘You come home,’ smiled Ramon, ‘and you say, “What burns? Is my villa on fire?” Then you call and you call. No answer . . . all gone!’ And he spread out his hands with a wide and distressingly empty gesture.
Ramon said it was better to buy flowers from him: ‘I cut fresh from the garden when you want,’ he coaxed gently. He spoke even his broken English with the soft, rather sing-song drawl of the local peasants.
‘But aren’t they our flowers?’ inquired Mary, surprised.
Ramon shook his head: ‘Yours to see, yours to touch, but not yours to take, only mine to take — I sell them as part of my little payment. But to you I sell very cheap, Señorita, because you resemble the santa noche that makes our gardens smell sweet at night. I will show you our beautiful santa noche.’ He was thin as a lath and as brown as a chestnut, and his shirt was quite incredibly dirty; but when he walked he moved like a king on his rough bare feet with their broken toenails. ‘This evening I make you a present of my flowers; I bring you a very big bunch of tabachero,’ he remarked.
Oh, you mustn’t do that,’ protested Mary, getting out her purse. But Ramon looked offended: ‘I have said it. I give you the tabachero.’
Their dinner consisted of a local fish fried in oil — the fish had a very strange figure, and the oil, Stephen thought, tasted slightly rancid; there was also a small though muscular chicken. But Concha had provided large baskets of fruit; loquats still warm from the tree that bred them, the full flavoured little indigenous bananas, oranges sweet as though dripping honey, custard apples and guavas had Concha provided, together with a bottle of the soft yellow wine so dearly beloved of the island Spaniards.
Outside in the garden there was luminous darkness. The night had a quality of glory about it, the blue glory peculiar to Africa and seen seldom or never in our more placid climate. A warm breeze stirred the eucalyptus trees and their crude, harsh smell was persistently mingled with the thick scents of heliotrope and datura, with the sweet but melancholy scent of jasmine, with the faint, unmistakable odour of cypress. Stephen lit a cigarette: Shall we go out, Mary?’
They stood for a minute looking up at the stars, so much larger and brighter than stars seen in England. From a pond on the farther side of the villa, came the queer, hoarse chirping of innumerable frogs singing their prehistoric love songs. A star fell, shooting swiftly earthward through the darkness.
Then the sweetness that was Mary seemed to stir and mingle with the very urgent sweetness of that garden; with the dim, blue glory of the African night, and with all the stars in their endless courses, so that Stephen could have wept aloud as she stood there, because of the words that must not be spoken. For now that this girl was returning to health, her youth was becoming even more apparent, and something in the quality of Mary’s youth, something terrible and ruthless as an unsheathed sword, would leap out at such moments and stand between them.
Mary slipped a small, cool hand into Stephen’s, and they walked on towards the edge of the headland. For a long time they gazed out over the sea, while their thoughts were always of one another. But Mary’s thoughts were not very coherent, and because she was filled with a vague discontent, she sighed and moved even nearer to Stephen, who suddenly put an arm round her shoulder.
Stephen said: ‘Are you tired, you little child?’ And her husky voice was infinitely gentle, so that Mary’s eyes filled with sudden tears.
She answered: ‘I’ve waited a long, long time, all my life — and now that I’ve found you at last, I can’t get near you. Why is it? Tell me.’
‘Aren’t you near? It seems to me you’re quite near!’ And Stephen must smile in spite of herself.
‘Yes, but you feel such a long way away.’
‘That’s because you’re not only tired out but foolish!’
Yet they lingered; for when they returned to the villa they would part, and they dreaded these moments of parting. Sometimes they would suddenly remember the night before it had fallen, and when this happened each would be conscious of a very great sadness which their hearts would divine, the one from the other.
But presently Stephen took Mary’s arm: ‘I believe that big star’s moved over more than six inches I It’s late — we must have been out here for ages.’ And she led the girl slowly back to the villa.
The days slipped by, days of splendid sunshine that gave bodily health and strength to Mary. Her pale skin was tanned to a healthful brown, and her eyes no longer looked heavy with fatigue — only now their expression was seldom happy.
She and Stephen would ride far afield on their mules; they would often ride right up into the mountains, climbing the hill to old Orotava where the women sat at their green postigos through the long, quiet hours of their indolent day and right on into the evening. The walls of the town would be covered with flowers, jasmine, plumbago and bougainvillea. But they would not linger in old Orotava; pressing on they would climb always up and up to the region of heath and trailing arbutus, and beyond that again to the higher slopes that had once been the home of a mighty forest. Now, only a few Spanish chestnut trees remained to mark the decline of that forest.
Sometimes they took their luncheon along, and when they did this young Pedro went with them, for he it was who must drive the mule that carried Concha’s ample lunch-basket. Pedro adored these impromptu excursions, they made an excuse for neglecting the garden. He would saunter along chewing blades of grass, or the stem of some flower he had torn from a wall; or perhaps he would sing softly under his breath, for he knew many songs of his native island. But if the mule Celestino should stumble, or presume, in his turn, to tear flowers from the wall, then Pedro would suddenly cease his soft singing and shout guttural remarks to old Celestino: Vaya, burro! Celestino, arre! Arre — boo!’ he would shout with a slap, so that Celestino must swallow his flowers in one angry gulp, before having a sly kick at Pedro.
The lunch would be eaten in the cool upland air, while the beasts stood near at hand, placidly grazing. Against a sky of incredible blueness the Peak would gleam as though powdered with crystal — Teide, mighty mountain of snow with the heart of fire and the brow of crystal. Down the winding tracks would come goats with their herds, the tinkle of goat-bells breaking the stillness. And as all such things have seemed wonderful to lovers throughout the ages, even so now they seemed very wonderful to Mary and Stephen.
There were days when, leaving the uplands for the vale, they would ride past the big banana plantations and the glowing acres of ripe tomatoes. Geraniums and agaves would be growing side by side in the black volcanic dust of the roadway. From the stretching Valley of Orotava they would see the rugged line of the mountains. The mountains would look blue, like the African nights, all save Teide, clothed in her crystalline whiteness.
And now while they sat together in the garden at evening, there would sometimes come beggars, singing; ragged fellows who played deftly on their guitars and sang songs whose old melodies hailed from Spain, but whose words sprang straight from the heart of the island:
A-a-a-y! Before I saw thee I was at peace,
But now I am tormented because I have seen thee. Take away mine eyes, oh, enemy! Oh, beloved!
Take away mine eyes, for they have turned me to fire. My blood is as the fire in the heart of Teide.
A-a-a-y! Before I saw thee I was at peace.’
The strange minor music with its restless rhythms, possessed a very potent enchantment, so that the heart beat faster to hear it, and the mind grew mazed with forbidden thoughts, and the soul grew heavy with the infinite sadness of fulfilled desire; but the body knew only the urge towards a complete fulfilment . . . A-a-a-y! Before I saw thee I was at peace.’
They would not understand the soft Spanish words, and yet as they sat there they could but divine their meaning, for love is no slave of mere language. Mary would want Stephen to take her in her arms, so must rest her cheek against Stephen’s shoulder, as though they two had a right to such music, had a right to their share in the love songs of the world. But Stephen would always move away quickly.
‘Let’s go in,’ she would mutter; and her voice would sound rough, for that bright sword of youth would have leapt out between them.
There came days when they purposely avoided each other, trying to find peace in separation. Stephen would go for long rides alone, leaving Mary to idle about the villa; and when she got back Mary would not speak, but would wander away by herself to the garden. For Stephen had grown almost harsh at times, possessed as she now was by something like terror, since it seemed to her that what she must say to this creature she loved would come as a death-blow, that all youth and all joy would be slain in Mary.
Tormented in body and mind and spirit, she would push the girl away from her roughly: ‘Leave me alone, I can’t bear any more!’ ‘Stephen — I don’t understand. Do you hate me?’
‘Hate your Of course you don’t understand — only, I tell you I simply can’t bear it.’
They would stare at each other pale-faced and shaken.
The long nights became even harder to endure, for now they would feel so terribly divided. Their days would be heavy with misunderstandings, their nights filled with doubts, apprehensions and longings. They would often have parted as enemies, and therein would lie the great loneliness of it.
As time went on they grew deeply despondent, their despondency robbing the sun of its brightness, robbing the little goat-bells of their music, robbing the dark of its luminous glory. The songs of the beggars who sang in the garden at the hour when the santa noche smelt sweetest, those songs would seem full of a cruel jibing: A-a-a-y! Before I saw thee I was at peace, but now I am tormented because I have seen thee.’
Thus were all things becoming less good in their sight, less perfect because of their own frustration.
But Mary Llewellyn was no coward and no weakling, and one night, at long last, pride came to her rescue. She said: ‘I want to speak to you, Stephen.’
‘Not now, it’s so late — tomorrow morning.’
‘No, now.’ And she followed Stephen into her bedroom.
For a moment they avoided each other’s eyes, then Mary began to talk rather fast: ‘I can’t stay. It’s all been a heart-breaking mistake. I thought you wanted me because you cared. I thought — oh, I don’t know what I thought — but I won’t accept your charity, Stephen, not now that you’ve grown to hate me like this — I’m going back home to England. I forced myself on you. I asked you to take me. I must have been mad; you just took me out of pity; you thought that I was ill and you felt sorry for me. Well, now I’m not ill and not mad any more, and I’m going. Every time I come near you you shrink or push me away as though I repelled you. But I want us to part quickly because . . . ’ Her voice broke: ‘because it torments me to be always with you and to feel that you’ve literally grown to hate me. I can’t stand it; I’d rather not see you, Stephen.’
Stephen stared at her, white and aghast. Then all in a moment the restraint of years was shattered as though by some mighty convulsion. She remembered nothing, was conscious of nothing except that the creature she loved was going.
‘You child,’ she gasped, ‘you don’t understand, you can’t understand — God help me, I love you!’ And now she had the girl in her arms and was kissing her eyes and her mouth: ‘Mary . . . Mary . . . They stood there lost to all sense of time, to all sense of reason, to all things save each other, in the grip of what can be one of the most relentless of all the human emotions.
Then Stephen’s arms suddenly fell to her side: ‘Stop, stop for God’s sake — you’ve got to listen.’
Oh, but now she must pay to the uttermost farthing for the madness that had left those words unspoken — even as her father had paid before her. With Mary’s kisses still hot on her lips, she must pay and pay unto the uttermost farthing. And because of an anguish that seemed past endurance, she spoke roughly; the words when they came were cruel. She spared neither the girl who must listen to them, nor herself who must force her to stand there and listen.
‘Have you understood? Do you realize now what it’s going to mean if you give yourself to me?’ Then she stopped abruptly . . . Mary was crying.
Stephen said, and her voice had grown quite toneless: ‘It’s too much to ask — you’re right; it’s too much. I had to tell you — forgive me, Mary.’
But Mary turned on her with very bright eyes: ‘You can say that — you, who talk about loving! What do I care for all you’ve told me? What do I care for the world’s opinion? What do I care for anything but you, and you just as you are — as you are, I love you! Do you think I’m crying because of what you’ve told me? I’m crying because of your dear, scarred face . . . the misery on it . . . Can’t you understand that all that I am belongs to you, Stephen?’ Stephen bent down and kissed Mary’s hands very humbly, for now she could find no words any more . . . and that night they were not divided.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55