One day, on entering Roderick’s lodging (not the modest rooms on the Ripetta which he had first occupied, but a much more sumptuous apartment on the Corso), Rowland found a letter on the table addressed to himself. It was from Roderick, and consisted of but three lines: “I am gone to Frascati — for meditation. If I am not at home on Friday, you had better join me.” On Friday he was still absent, and Rowland went out to Frascati. Here he found his friend living at the inn and spending his days, according to his own account, lying under the trees of the Villa Mondragone, reading Ariosto. He was in a sombre mood; “meditation” seemed not to have been fruitful. Nothing especially pertinent to our narrative had passed between the two young men since Mrs. Light’s ball, save a few words bearing on an incident of that entertainment. Rowland informed Roderick, the next day, that he had told Miss Light of his engagement. “I don’t know whether you’ll thank me,” he had said, “but it’s my duty to let you know it. Miss Light perhaps has already done so.”
Roderick looked at him a moment, intently, with his color slowly rising. “Why should n’t I thank you?” he asked. “I am not ashamed of my engagement.”
“As you had not spoken of it yourself, I thought you might have a reason for not having it known.”
“A man does n’t gossip about such a matter with strangers,” Roderick rejoined, with the ring of irritation in his voice.
“With strangers — no!” said Rowland, smiling.
Roderick continued his work; but after a moment, turning round with a frown: “If you supposed I had a reason for being silent, pray why should you have spoken?”
“I did not speak idly, my dear Roderick. I weighed the matter before I spoke, and promised myself to let you know immediately afterwards. It seemed to me that Miss Light had better know that your affections are pledged.”
“The Cavaliere has put it into your head, then, that I am making love to her?”
“No; in that case I would not have spoken to her first.”
“Do you mean, then, that she is making love to me?”
“This is what I mean,” said Rowland, after a pause. “That girl finds you interesting, and is pleased, even though she may play indifference, at your finding her so. I said to myself that it might save her some sentimental disappointment to know without delay that you are not at liberty to become indefinitely interested in other women.”
“You seem to have taken the measure of my liberty with extraordinary minuteness!” cried Roderick.
“You must do me justice. I am the cause of your separation from Miss Garland, the cause of your being exposed to temptations which she hardly even suspects. How could I ever face her,” Rowland demanded, with much warmth of tone, “if at the end of it all she should be unhappy?”
“I had no idea that Miss Garland had made such an impression on you. You are too zealous; I take it she did n’t charge you to look after her interests.”
“If anything happens to you, I am accountable. You must understand that.”
“That’s a view of the situation I can’t accept; in your own interest, no less than in mine. It can only make us both very uncomfortable. I know all I owe you; I feel it; you know that! But I am not a small boy nor an outer barbarian any longer, and, whatever I do, I do with my eyes open. When I do well, the merit’s mine; if I do ill, the fault’s mine! The idea that I make you nervous is detestable. Dedicate your nerves to some better cause, and believe that if Miss Garland and I have a quarrel, we shall settle it between ourselves.”
Rowland had found himself wondering, shortly before, whether possibly his brilliant young friend was without a conscience; now it dimly occurred to him that he was without a heart. Rowland, as we have already intimated, was a man with a moral passion, and no small part of it had gone forth into his relations with Roderick. There had been, from the first, no protestations of friendship on either side, but Rowland had implicitly offered everything that belongs to friendship, and Roderick had, apparently, as deliberately accepted it. Rowland, indeed, had taken an exquisite satisfaction in his companion’s deep, inexpressive assent to his interest in him. “Here is an uncommonly fine thing,” he said to himself: “a nature unconsciously grateful, a man in whom friendship does the thing that love alone generally has the credit of — knocks the bottom out of pride!” His reflective judgment of Roderick, as time went on, had indulged in a great many irrepressible vagaries; but his affection, his sense of something in his companion’s whole personality that overmastered his heart and beguiled his imagination, had never for an instant faltered. He listened to Roderick’s last words, and then he smiled as he rarely smiled — with bitterness.
“I don’t at all like your telling me I am too zealous,” he said. “If I had not been zealous, I should never have cared a fig for you.”
Roderick flushed deeply, and thrust his modeling tool up to the handle into the clay. “Say it outright! You have been a great fool to believe in me.”
“I desire to say nothing of the kind, and you don’t honestly believe I do!” said Rowland. “It seems to me I am really very good-natured even to reply to such nonsense.”
Roderick sat down, crossed his arms, and fixed his eyes on the floor. Rowland looked at him for some moments; it seemed to him that he had never so clearly read his companion’s strangely commingled character — his strength and his weakness, his picturesque personal attractiveness and his urgent egoism, his exalted ardor and his puerile petulance. It would have made him almost sick, however, to think that, on the whole, Roderick was not a generous fellow, and he was so far from having ceased to believe in him that he felt just now, more than ever, that all this was but the painful complexity of genius. Rowland, who had not a grain of genius either to make one say he was an interested reasoner, or to enable one to feel that he could afford a dangerous theory or two, adhered to his conviction of the essential salubrity of genius. Suddenly he felt an irresistible compassion for his companion; it seemed to him that his beautiful faculty of production was a double-edged instrument, susceptible of being dealt in back-handed blows at its possessor. Genius was priceless, inspired, divine; but it was also, at its hours, capricious, sinister, cruel; and men of genius, accordingly, were alternately very enviable and very helpless. It was not the first time he had had a sense of Roderick’s standing helpless in the grasp of his temperament. It had shaken him, as yet, but with a half good-humored wantonness; but, henceforth, possibly, it meant to handle him more roughly. These were not times, therefore, for a friend to have a short patience.
“When you err, you say, the fault’s your own,” he said at last. “It is because your faults are your own that I care about them.”
Rowland’s voice, when he spoke with feeling, had an extraordinary amenity. Roderick sat staring a moment longer at the floor, then he sprang up and laid his hand affectionately on his friend’s shoulder. “You are the best man in the world,” he said, “and I am a vile brute. Only,” he added in a moment, “you don’t understand me!” And he looked at him with eyes of such radiant lucidity that one might have said (and Rowland did almost say so, himself) that it was the fault of one’s own grossness if one failed to read to the bottom of that beautiful soul.
Rowland smiled sadly. “What is it now? Explain.”
“Oh, I can’t explain!” cried Roderick impatiently, returning to his work. “I have only one way of expressing my deepest feelings — it’s this!” And he swung his tool. He stood looking at the half-wrought clay for a moment, and then flung the instrument down. “And even this half the time plays me false!”
Rowland felt that his irritation had not subsided, and he himself had no taste for saying disagreeable things. Nevertheless he saw no sufficient reason to forbear uttering the words he had had on his conscience from the beginning. “We must do what we can and be thankful,” he said. “And let me assure you of this — that it won’t help you to become entangled with Miss Light.”
Roderick pressed his hand to his forehead with vehemence and then shook it in the air, despairingly; a gesture that had become frequent with him since he had been in Italy. “No, no, it’s no use; you don’t understand me! But I don’t blame you. You can’t!”
“You think it will help you, then?” said Rowland, wondering.
“I think that when you expect a man to produce beautiful and wonderful works of art, you ought to allow him a certain freedom of action, you ought to give him a long rope, you ought to let him follow his fancy and look for his material wherever he thinks he may find it! A mother can’t nurse her child unless she follows a certain diet; an artist can’t bring his visions to maturity unless he has a certain experience. You demand of us to be imaginative, and you deny us that which feeds the imagination. In labor we must be as passionate as the inspired sibyl; in life we must be mere machines. It won’t do. When you have got an artist to deal with, you must take him as he is, good and bad together. I don’t say they are pleasant fellows to know or easy fellows to live with; I don’t say they satisfy themselves any better than other people. I only say that if you want them to produce, you must let them conceive. If you want a bird to sing, you must not cover up its cage. Shoot them, the poor devils, drown them, exterminate them, if you will, in the interest of public morality; it may be morality would gain — I dare say it would! But if you suffer them to live, let them live on their own terms and according to their own inexorable needs!”
Rowland burst out laughing. “I have no wish whatever either to shoot you or to drown you!” he said. “Why launch such a tirade against a warning offered you altogether in the interest of your freest development? Do you really mean that you have an inexorable need of embarking on a flirtation with Miss Light? — a flirtation as to the felicity of which there may be differences of opinion, but which cannot at best, under the circumstances, be called innocent. Your last summer’s adventures were more so! As for the terms on which you are to live, I had an idea you had arranged them otherwise!”
“I have arranged nothing — thank God! I don’t pretend to arrange. I am young and ardent and inquisitive, and I admire Miss Light. That’s enough. I shall go as far as admiration leads me. I am not afraid. Your genuine artist may be sometimes half a madman, but he’s not a coward!”
“Suppose that in your speculation you should come to grief, not only sentimentally but artistically?”
“Come what come will! If I ’m to fizzle out, the sooner I know it the better. Sometimes I half suspect it. But let me at least go out and reconnoitre for the enemy, and not sit here waiting for him, cudgeling my brains for ideas that won’t come!”
Do what he would, Rowland could not think of Roderick’s theory of unlimited experimentation, especially as applied in the case under discussion, as anything but a pernicious illusion. But he saw it was vain to combat longer, for inclination was powerfully on Roderick’s side. He laid his hand on Roderick’s shoulder, looked at him a moment with troubled eyes, then shook his head mournfully and turned away.
“I can’t work any more,” said Roderick. “You have upset me! I’ll go and stroll on the Pincian.” And he tossed aside his working-jacket and prepared himself for the street. As he was arranging his cravat before the glass, something occurred to him which made him thoughtful. He stopped a few moments afterward, as they were going out, with his hand on the door-knob. “You did, from your own point of view, an indiscreet thing,” he said, “to tell Miss Light of my engagement.”
Rowland looked at him with a glance which was partly an interrogation, but partly, also, an admission.
“If she’s the coquette you say,” Roderick added, “you have given her a reason the more.”
“And that’s the girl you propose to devote yourself to?” cried Rowland.
“Oh, I don’t say it, mind! I only say that she’s the most interesting creature in the world! The next time you mean to render me a service, pray give me notice beforehand!”
It was perfectly characteristic of Roderick that, a fortnight later, he should have let his friend know that he depended upon him for society at Frascati, as freely as if no irritating topic had ever been discussed between them. Rowland thought him generous, and he had at any rate a liberal faculty of forgetting that he had given you any reason to be displeased with him. It was equally characteristic of Rowland that he complied with his friend’s summons without a moment’s hesitation. His cousin Cecilia had once told him that he was the dupe of his intense benevolence. She put the case with too little favor, or too much, as the reader chooses; it is certain, at least, that he had a constitutional tendency towards magnanimous interpretations. Nothing happened, however, to suggest to him that he was deluded in thinking that Roderick’s secondary impulses were wiser than his primary ones, and that the rounded total of his nature had a harmony perfectly attuned to the most amiable of its brilliant parts. Roderick’s humor, for the time, was pitched in a minor key; he was lazy, listless, and melancholy, but he had never been more friendly and kindly and appealingly submissive. Winter had begun, by the calendar, but the weather was divinely mild, and the two young men took long slow strolls on the hills and lounged away the mornings in the villas. The villas at Frascati are delicious places, and replete with romantic suggestiveness. Roderick, as he had said, was meditating, and if a masterpiece was to come of his meditations, Rowland was perfectly willing to bear him company and coax along the process. But Roderick let him know from the first that he was in a miserably sterile mood, and, cudgel his brains as he would, could think of nothing that would serve for the statue he was to make for Mr. Leavenworth.
“It is worse out here than in Rome,” he said, “for here I am face to face with the dead blank of my mind! There I could n’t think of anything either, but there I found things to make me forget that I needed to.” This was as frank an allusion to Christina Light as could have been expected under the circumstances; it seemed, indeed, to Rowland surprisingly frank, and a pregnant example of his companion’s often strangely irresponsible way of looking at harmful facts. Roderick was silent sometimes for hours, with a puzzled look on his face and a constant fold between his even eyebrows; at other times he talked unceasingly, with a slow, idle, half-nonsensical drawl. Rowland was half a dozen times on the point of asking him what was the matter with him; he was afraid he was going to be ill. Roderick had taken a great fancy to the Villa Mondragone, and used to declaim fantastic compliments to it as they strolled in the winter sunshine on the great terrace which looks toward Tivoli and the iridescent Sabine mountains. He carried his volume of Ariosto in his pocket, and took it out every now and then and spouted half a dozen stanzas to his companion. He was, as a general thing, very little of a reader; but at intervals he would take a fancy to one of the classics and peruse it for a month in disjointed scraps. He had picked up Italian without study, and had a wonderfully sympathetic accent, though in reading aloud he ruined the sense of half the lines he rolled off so sonorously. Rowland, who pronounced badly but understood everything, once said to him that Ariosto was not the poet for a man of his craft; a sculptor should make a companion of Dante. So he lent him the Inferno, which he had brought with him, and advised him to look into it. Roderick took it with some eagerness; perhaps it would brighten his wits. He returned it the next day with disgust; he had found it intolerably depressing.
“A sculptor should model as Dante writes — you’re right there,” he said. “But when his genius is in eclipse, Dante is a dreadfully smoky lamp. By what perversity of fate,” he went on, “has it come about that I am a sculptor at all? A sculptor is such a confoundedly special genius; there are so few subjects he can treat, so few things in life that bear upon his work, so few moods in which he himself is inclined to it.” (It may be noted that Rowland had heard him a dozen times affirm the flat reverse of all this.) “If I had only been a painter — a little quiet, docile, matter-of-fact painter, like our friend Singleton — I should only have to open my Ariosto here to find a subject, to find color and attitudes, stuffs and composition; I should only have to look up from the page at that mouldy old fountain against the blue sky, at that cypress alley wandering away like a procession of priests in couples, at the crags and hollows of the Sabine hills, to find myself grasping my brush. Best of all would be to be Ariosto himself, or one of his brotherhood. Then everything in nature would give you a hint, and every form of beauty be part of your stock. You would n’t have to look at things only to say — with tears of rage half the time — ‘Oh, yes, it’s wonderfully pretty, but what the deuce can I do with it?’ But a sculptor, now! That’s a pretty trade for a fellow who has got his living to make and yet is so damnably constituted that he can’t work to order, and considers that, aesthetically, clock ornaments don’t pay! You can’t model the serge-coated cypresses, nor those mouldering old Tritons and all the sunny sadness of that dried-up fountain; you can’t put the light into marble — the lovely, caressing, consenting Italian light that you get so much of for nothing. Say that a dozen times in his life a man has a complete sculpturesque vision — a vision in which the imagination recognizes a subject and the subject kindles the imagination. It is a remunerative rate of work, and the intervals are comfortable!”
One morning, as the two young men were lounging on the sun-warmed grass at the foot of one of the slanting pines of the Villa Mondragone, Roderick delivered himself of a tissue of lugubrious speculations as to the possible mischances of one’s genius. “What if the watch should run down,” he asked, “and you should lose the key? What if you should wake up some morning and find it stopped, inexorably, appallingly stopped? Such things have been, and the poor devils to whom they happened have had to grin and bear it. The whole matter of genius is a mystery. It bloweth where it listeth and we know nothing of its mechanism. If it gets out of order we can’t mend it; if it breaks down altogether we can’t set it going again. We must let it choose its own pace, and hold our breath lest it should lose its balance. It’s dealt out in different doses, in big cups and little, and when you have consumed your portion it’s as naif to ask for more as it was for Oliver Twist to ask for more porridge. Lucky for you if you’ve got one of the big cups; we drink them down in the dark, and we can’t tell their size until we tip them up and hear the last gurgle. Those of some men last for life; those of others for a couple of years. Nay, what are you smiling at so damnably?” he went on. “Nothing is more common than for an artist who has set out on his journey on a high-stepping horse to find himself all of a sudden dismounted and invited to go his way on foot. You can number them by the thousand — the people of two or three successes; the poor fellows whose candle burnt out in a night. Some of them groped their way along without it, some of them gave themselves up for blind and sat down by the wayside to beg. Who shall say that I ’m not one of these? Who shall assure me that my credit is for an unlimited sum? Nothing proves it, and I never claimed it; or if I did, I did so in the mere boyish joy of shaking off the dust of Northampton. If you believed so, my dear fellow, you did so at your own risk! What am I, what are the best of us, but an experiment? Do I succeed — do I fail? It does n’t depend on me. I ’m prepared for failure. It won’t be a disappointment, simply because I shan’t survive it. The end of my work shall be the end of my life. When I have played my last card, I shall cease to care for the game. I ’m not making vulgar threats of suicide; for destiny, I trust, won’t add insult to injury by putting me to that abominable trouble. But I have a conviction that if the hour strikes here,” and he tapped his forehead, “I shall disappear, dissolve, be carried off in a cloud! For the past ten days I have had the vision of some such fate perpetually swimming before my eyes. My mind is like a dead calm in the tropics, and my imagination as motionless as the phantom ship in the Ancient Mariner!”
Rowland listened to this outbreak, as he often had occasion to listen to Roderick’s heated monologues, with a number of mental restrictions. Both in gravity and in gayety he said more than he meant, and you did him simple justice if you privately concluded that neither the glow of purpose nor the chill of despair was of so intense a character as his florid diction implied. The moods of an artist, his exaltations and depressions, Rowland had often said to himself, were like the pen-flourishes a writing-master makes in the air when he begins to set his copy. He may bespatter you with ink, he may hit you in the eye, but he writes a magnificent hand. It was nevertheless true that at present poor Roderick gave unprecedented tokens of moral stagnation, and as for genius being held by the precarious tenure he had sketched, Rowland was at a loss to see whence he could borrow the authority to contradict him. He sighed to himself, and wished that his companion had a trifle more of little Sam Singleton’s evenness of impulse. But then, was Singleton a man of genius? He answered that such reflections seemed to him unprofitable, not to say morbid; that the proof of the pudding was in the eating; that he did n’t know about bringing a genius that had palpably spent its last breath back to life again, but that he was satisfied that vigorous effort was a cure for a great many ills that seemed far gone. “Don’t heed your mood,” he said, “and don’t believe there is any calm so dead that your own lungs can’t ruffle it with a breeze. If you have work to do, don’t wait to feel like it; set to work and you will feel like it.”
“Set to work and produce abortions!” cried Roderick with ire. “Preach that to others. Production with me must be either pleasure or nothing. As I said just now, I must either stay in the saddle or not go at all. I won’t do second-rate work; I can’t if I would. I have no cleverness, apart from inspiration. I am not a Gloriani! You are right,” he added after a while; “this is unprofitable talk, and it makes my head ache. I shall take a nap and see if I can dream of a bright idea or two.”
He turned his face upward to the parasol of the great pine, closed his eyes, and in a short time forgot his sombre fancies. January though it was, the mild stillness seemed to vibrate with faint midsummer sounds. Rowland sat listening to them and wishing that, for the sake of his own felicity, Roderick’s temper were graced with a certain absent ductility. He was brilliant, but was he, like many brilliant things, brittle? Suddenly, to his musing sense, the soft atmospheric hum was overscored with distincter sounds. He heard voices beyond a mass of shrubbery, at the turn of a neighboring path. In a moment one of them began to seem familiar, and an instant later a large white poodle emerged into view. He was slowly followed by his mistress. Miss Light paused a moment on seeing Rowland and his companion; but, though the former perceived that he was recognized, she made no bow. Presently she walked directly toward him. He rose and was on the point of waking Roderick, but she laid her finger on her lips and motioned him to forbear. She stood a moment looking at Roderick’s handsome slumber.
“What delicious oblivion!” she said. “Happy man! Stenterello”— and she pointed to his face —“wake him up!”
The poodle extended a long pink tongue and began to lick Roderick’s cheek.
“Why,” asked Rowland, “if he is happy?”
“Oh, I want companions in misery! Besides, I want to show off my dog.” Roderick roused himself, sat up, and stared. By this time Mrs. Light had approached, walking with a gentleman on each side of her. One of these was the Cavaliere Giacosa; the other was Prince Casamassima. “I should have liked to lie down on the grass and go to sleep,” Christina added. “But it would have been unheard of.”
“Oh, not quite,” said the Prince, in English, with a tone of great precision. “There was already a Sleeping Beauty in the Wood!”
“Charming!” cried Mrs. Light. “Do you hear that, my dear?”
“When the prince says a brilliant thing, it would be a pity to lose it,” said the young girl. “Your servant, sir!” And she smiled at him with a grace that might have reassured him, if he had thought her compliment ambiguous.
Roderick meanwhile had risen to his feet, and Mrs. Light began to exclaim on the oddity of their meeting and to explain that the day was so lovely that she had been charmed with the idea of spending it in the country. And who would ever have thought of finding Mr. Mallet and Mr. Hudson sleeping under a tree!
“Oh, I beg your pardon; I was not sleeping,” said Rowland.
“Don’t you know that Mr. Mallet is Mr. Hudson’s sheep-dog?” asked Christina. “He was mounting guard to keep away the wolves.”
“To indifferent purpose, madame!” said Rowland, indicating the young girl.
“Is that the way you spend your time?” Christina demanded of Roderick. “I never yet happened to learn what men were doing when they supposed women were not watching them but it was something vastly below their reputation.”
“When, pray,” said Roderick, smoothing his ruffled locks, “are women not watching them?”
“We shall give you something better to do, at any rate. How long have you been here? It’s an age since I have seen you. We consider you domiciled here, and expect you to play host and entertain us.”
Roderick said that he could offer them nothing but to show them the great terrace, with its view; and ten minutes later the group was assembled there. Mrs. Light was extravagant in her satisfaction; Christina looked away at the Sabine mountains, in silence. The prince stood by, frowning at the rapture of the elder lady.
“This is nothing,” he said at last. “My word of honor. Have you seen the terrace at San Gaetano?”
“Ah, that terrace,” murmured Mrs. Light, amorously. “I suppose it is magnificent!”
“It is four hundred feet long, and paved with marble. And the view is a thousand times more beautiful than this. You see, far away, the blue, blue sea and the little smoke of Vesuvio!”
“Christina, love,” cried Mrs. Light forthwith, “the prince has a terrace four hundred feet long, all paved with marble!”
The Cavaliere gave a little cough and began to wipe his eye-glass.
“Stupendous!” said Christina. “To go from one end to the other, the prince must have out his golden carriage.” This was apparently an allusion to one of the other items of the young man’s grandeur.
“You always laugh at me,” said the prince. “I know no more what to say!”
She looked at him with a sad smile and shook her head. “No, no, dear prince, I don’t laugh at you. Heaven forbid! You are much too serious an affair. I assure you I feel your importance. What did you inform us was the value of the hereditary diamonds of the Princess Casamassima?”
“Ah, you are laughing at me yet!” said the poor young man, standing rigid and pale.
“It does n’t matter,” Christina went on. “We have a note of it; mamma writes all those things down in a little book!”
“If you are laughed at, dear prince, at least it’s in company,” said Mrs. Light, caressingly; and she took his arm, as if to resist his possible displacement under the shock of her daughter’s sarcasm. But the prince looked heavy-eyed toward Rowland and Roderick, to whom the young girl was turning, as if he had much rather his lot were cast with theirs.
“Is the villa inhabited?” Christina asked, pointing to the vast melancholy structure which rises above the terrace.
“Not privately,” said Roderick. “It is occupied by a Jesuits’ college, for little boys.”
“Can women go in?”
“I am afraid not.” And Roderick began to laugh. “Fancy the poor little devils looking up from their Latin declensions and seeing Miss Light standing there!”
“I should like to see the poor little devils, with their rosy cheeks and their long black gowns, and when they were pretty, I should n’t scruple to kiss them. But if I can’t have that amusement I must have some other. We must not stand planted on this enchanting terrace as if we were stakes driven into the earth. We must dance, we must feast, we must do something picturesque. Mamma has arranged, I believe, that we are to go back to Frascati to lunch at the inn. I decree that we lunch here and send the Cavaliere to the inn to get the provisions! He can take the carriage, which is waiting below.”
Miss Light carried out this undertaking with unfaltering ardor. The Cavaliere was summoned, and he stook to receive her commands hat in hand, with his eyes cast down, as if she had been a princess addressing her major-domo. She, however, laid her hand with friendly grace upon his button-hole, and called him a dear, good old Cavaliere, for being always so willing. Her spirits had risen with the occasion, and she talked irresistible nonsense. “Bring the best they have,” she said, “no matter if it ruins us! And if the best is very bad, it will be all the more amusing. I shall enjoy seeing Mr. Mallet try to swallow it for propriety’s sake! Mr. Hudson will say out like a man that it’s horrible stuff, and that he’ll be choked first! Be sure you bring a dish of maccaroni; the prince must have the diet of the Neapolitan nobility. But I leave all that to you, my poor, dear Cavaliere; you know what’s good! Only be sure, above all, you bring a guitar. Mr. Mallet will play us a tune, I’ll dance with Mr. Hudson, and mamma will pair off with the prince, of whom she is so fond!”
And as she concluded her recommendations, she patted her bland old servitor caressingly on the shoulder. He looked askance at Rowland; his little black eye glittered; it seemed to say, “Did n’t I tell you she was a good girl!”
The Cavaliere returned with zealous speed, accompanied by one of the servants of the inn, laden with a basket containing the materials of a rustic luncheon. The porter of the villa was easily induced to furnish a table and half a dozen chairs, and the repast, when set forth, was pronounced a perfect success; not so good as to fail of the proper picturesqueness, nor yet so bad as to defeat the proper function of repasts. Christina continued to display the most charming animation, and compelled Rowland to reflect privately that, think what one might of her, the harmonious gayety of a beautiful girl was the most beautiful sight in nature. Her good-humor was contagious. Roderick, who an hour before had been descanting on madness and suicide, commingled his laughter with hers in ardent devotion; Prince Casamassima stroked his young moustache and found a fine, cool smile for everything; his neighbor, Mrs. Light, who had Rowland on the other side, made the friendliest confidences to each of the young men, and the Cavaliere contributed to the general hilarity by the solemnity of his attention to his plate. As for Rowland, the spirit of kindly mirth prompted him to propose the health of this useful old gentleman, as the effective author of their pleasure. A moment later he wished he had held his tongue, for although the toast was drunk with demonstrative good-will, the Cavaliere received it with various small signs of eager self-effacement which suggested to Rowland that his diminished gentility but half relished honors which had a flavor of patronage. To perform punctiliously his mysterious duties toward the two ladies, and to elude or to baffle observation on his own merits — this seemed the Cavaliere’s modest programme. Rowland perceived that Mrs. Light, who was not always remarkable for tact, seemed to have divined his humor on this point. She touched her glass to her lips, but offered him no compliment and immediately gave another direction to the conversation. He had brought no guitar, so that when the feast was over there was nothing to hold the little group together. Christina wandered away with Roderick to another part of the terrace; the prince, whose smile had vanished, sat gnawing the head of his cane, near Mrs. Light, and Rowland strolled apart with the Cavaliere, to whom he wished to address a friendly word in compensation for the discomfort he had inflicted on his modesty. The Cavaliere was a mine of information upon all Roman places and people; he told Rowland a number of curious anecdotes about the old Villa Mondragone. “If history could always be taught in this fashion!” thought Rowland. “It’s the ideal — strolling up and down on the very spot commemorated, hearing sympathetic anecdotes from deeply indigenous lips.” At last, as they passed, Rowland observed the mournful physiognomy of Prince Casamassima, and, glancing toward the other end of the terrace, saw that Roderick and Christina had disappeared from view. The young man was sitting upright, in an attitude, apparently habitual, of ceremonious rigidity; but his lower jaw had fallen and was propped up with his cane, and his dull dark eye was fixed upon the angle of the villa which had just eclipsed Miss Light and her companion. His features were grotesque and his expression vacuous; but there was a lurking delicacy in his face which seemed to tell you that nature had been making Casamassimas for a great many centuries, and, though she adapted her mould to circumstances, had learned to mix her material to an extraordinary fineness and to perform the whole operation with extreme smoothness. The prince was stupid, Rowland suspected, but he imagined he was amiable, and he saw that at any rate he had the great quality of regarding himself in a thoroughly serious light. Rowland touched his companion’s arm and pointed to the melancholy nobleman.
“Why in the world does he not go after her and insist on being noticed!” he asked.
“Oh, he’s very proud!” said the Cavaliere.
“That’s all very well, but a gentleman who cultivates a passion for that young lady must be prepared to make sacrifices.”
“He thinks he has already made a great many. He comes of a very great family — a race of princes who for six hundred years have married none but the daughters of princes. But he is seriously in love, and he would marry her tomorrow.”
“And she will not have him?”
“Ah, she is very proud, too!” The Cavaliere was silent a moment, as if he were measuring the propriety of frankness. He seemed to have formed a high opinion of Rowland’s discretion, for he presently continued: “It would be a great match, for she brings him neither a name nor a fortune — nothing but her beauty. But the signorina will receive no favors; I know her well! She would rather have her beauty blasted than seem to care about the marriage, and if she ever accepts the prince it will be only after he has implored her on his knees!”
“But she does care about it,” said Rowland, “and to bring him to his knees she is working upon his jealousy by pretending to be interested in my friend Hudson. If you said more, you would say that, eh?”
The Cavaliere’s shrewdness exchanged a glance with Rowland’s. “By no means. Miss Light is a singular girl; she has many romantic ideas. She would be quite capable of interesting herself seriously in an interesting young man, like your friend, and doing her utmost to discourage a splendid suitor, like the prince. She would act sincerely and she would go very far. But it would be unfortunate for the young man,” he added, after a pause, “for at the last she would retreat!”
“A singular girl, indeed!”
“She would accept the more brilliant parti. I can answer for it.”
“And what would be her motive?”
“She would be forced. There would be circumstances. . . . I can’t tell you more.”
“But this implies that the rejected suitor would also come back. He might grow tired of waiting.”
“Oh, this one is good! Look at him now.” Rowland looked, and saw that the prince had left his place by Mrs. Light and was marching restlessly to and fro between the villa and the parapet of the terrace. Every now and then he looked at his watch. “In this country, you know,” said the Cavaliere, “a young lady never goes walking alone with a handsome young man. It seems to him very strange.”
“It must seem to him monstrous, and if he overlooks it he must be very much in love.”
“Oh, he will overlook it. He is far gone.”
“Who is this exemplary lover, then; what is he?”
“A Neapolitan; one of the oldest houses in Italy. He is a prince in your English sense of the word, for he has a princely fortune. He is very young; he is only just of age; he saw the signorina last winter in Naples. He fell in love with her from the first, but his family interfered, and an old uncle, an ecclesiastic, Monsignor B— — hurried up to Naples, seized him, and locked him up. Meantime he has passed his majority, and he can dispose of himself. His relations are moving heaven and earth to prevent his marrying Miss Light, and they have sent us word that he forfeits his property if he takes his wife out of a certain line. I have investigated the question minutely, and I find this is but a fiction to frighten us. He is perfectly free; but the estates are such that it is no wonder they wish to keep them in their own hands. For Italy, it is an extraordinary case of unincumbered property. The prince has been an orphan from his third year; he has therefore had a long minority and made no inroads upon his fortune. Besides, he is very prudent and orderly; I am only afraid that some day he will pull the purse-strings too tight. All these years his affairs have been in the hands of Monsignor B— — who has managed them to perfection — paid off mortagages, planted forests, opened up mines. It is now a magnificent fortune; such a fortune as, with his name, would justify the young man in pretending to any alliance whatsoever. And he lays it all at the feet of that young girl who is wandering in yonder boschetto with a penniless artist.”
“He is certainly a phoenix of princes! The signora must be in a state of bliss.”
The Cavaliere looked imperturbably grave. “The signora has a high esteem for his character.”
“His character, by the way,” rejoined Rowland, with a smile; “what sort of a character is it?”
“Eh, Prince Casamassima is a veritable prince! He is a very good young man. He is not brilliant, nor witty, but he’ll not let himself be made a fool of. He’s very grave and very devout — though he does propose to marry a Protestant. He will handle that point after marriage. He’s as you see him there: a young man without many ideas, but with a very firm grasp of a single one — the conviction that Prince Casamassima is a very great person, that he greatly honors any young lady by asking for her hand, and that things are going very strangely when the young lady turns her back upon him. The poor young man, I am sure, is profoundly perplexed. But I whisper to him every day, ‘Pazienza, Signor Principe!’”
“So you firmly believe,” said Rowland, in conclusion, “that Miss Light will accept him just in time not to lose him!”
“I count upon it. She would make too perfect a princess to miss her destiny.”
“And you hold that nevertheless, in the mean while, in listening to, say, my friend Hudson, she will have been acting in good faith?”
The Cavaliere lifted his shoulders a trifle, and gave an inscrutable smile. “Eh, dear signore, the Christina is very romantic!”
“So much so, you intimate, that she will eventually retract, in consequence not of a change of sentiment, but of a mysterious outward pressure?”
“If everything else fails, there is that resource. But it is mysterious, as you say, and you need n’t try to guess it. You will never know.”
“The poor signorina, then, will suffer!”
“Not too much, I hope.”
“And the poor young man! You maintain that there is nothing but disappointment in store for the infatuated youth who loses his heart to her!”
The Cavaliere hesitated. “He had better,” he said in a moment, “go and pursue his studies in Florence. There are very fine antiques in the Uffizi!”
Rowland presently joined Mrs. Light, to whom her restless protege had not yet returned. “That’s right,” she said; “sit down here; I have something serious to say to you. I am going to talk to you as a friend. I want your assistance. In fact, I demand it; it’s your duty to render it. Look at that unhappy young man.”
“Yes,” said Rowland, “he seems unhappy.”
“He is just come of age, he bears one of the greatest names in Italy and owns one of the greatest properties, and he is pining away with love for my daughter.”
“So the Cavaliere tells me.”
“The Cavaliere should n’t gossip,” said Mrs. Light dryly. “Such information should come from me. The prince is pining, as I say; he’s consumed, he’s devoured. It’s a real Italian passion; I know what that means!” And the lady gave a speaking glance, which seemed to coquet for a moment with retrospect. “Meanwhile, if you please, my daughter is hiding in the woods with your dear friend Mr. Hudson. I could cry with rage.”
“If things are so bad as that,” said Rowland, “it seems to me that you ought to find nothing easier than to dispatch the Cavaliere to bring the guilty couple back.”
“Never in the world! My hands are tied. Do you know what Christina would do? She would tell the Cavaliere to go about his business — Heaven forgive her! — and send me word that, if she had a mind to, she would walk in the woods till midnight. Fancy the Cavaliere coming back and delivering such a message as that before the prince! Think of a girl wantonly making light of such a chance as hers! He would marry her tomorrow, at six o’clock in the morning!”
“It is certainly very sad,” said Rowland.
“That costs you little to say. If you had left your precious young meddler to vegetate in his native village you would have saved me a world of distress!”
“Nay, you marched into the jaws of danger,” said Rowland. “You came and disinterred poor Hudson in his own secluded studio.”
“In an evil hour! I wish to Heaven you would talk with him.”
“I have done my best.”
“I wish, then, you would take him away. You have plenty of money. Do me a favor. Take him to travel. Go to the East — go to Timbuctoo. Then, when Christina is Princess Casamassima,” Mrs. Light added in a moment, “he may come back if he chooses.”
“Does she really care for him?” Rowland asked, abruptly.
“She thinks she does, possibly. She is a living riddle. She must needs follow out every idea that comes into her head. Fortunately, most of them don’t last long; but this one may last long enough to give the prince a chill. If that were to happen, I don’t know what I should do! I should be the most miserable of women. It would be too cruel, after all I’ve suffered to make her what she is, to see the labor of years blighted by a caprice. For I can assure you, sir,” Mrs. Light went on, “that if my daughter is the greatest beauty in the world, some of the credit is mine.”
Rowland promptly remarked that this was obvious. He saw that the lady’s irritated nerves demanded comfort from flattering reminiscence, and he assumed designedly the attitude of a zealous auditor. She began to retail her efforts, her hopes, her dreams, her presentiments, her disappointments, in the cause of her daughter’s matrimonial fortunes. It was a long story, and while it was being unfolded, the prince continued to pass to and fro, stiffly and solemnly, like a pendulum marking the time allowed for the young lady to come to her senses. Mrs. Light evidently, at an early period, had gathered her maternal hopes into a sacred sheaf, which she said her prayers and burnt incense to, and treated like a sort of fetish. They had been her religion; she had none other, and she performed her devotions bravely and cheerily, in the light of day. The poor old fetish had been so caressed and manipulated, so thrust in and out of its niche, so passed from hand to hand, so dressed and undressed, so mumbled and fumbled over, that it had lost by this time much of its early freshness, and seemed a rather battered and disfeatured divinity. But it was still brought forth in moments of trouble to have its tinseled petticoat twisted about and be set up on its altar. Rowland observed that Mrs. Light had a genuine maternal conscience; she considered that she had been performing a sacred duty in bringing up Christina to set her cap for a prince, and when the future looked dark, she found consolation in thinking that destiny could never have the heart to deal a blow at so deserving a person. This conscience upside down presented to Rowland’s fancy a real physical image; he was on the point, half a dozen times, of bursting out laughing.
“I don’t know whether you believe in presentiments,” said Mrs. Light, “and I don’t care! I have had one for the last fifteen years. People have laughed at it, but they have n’t laughed me out of it. It has been everything to me. I could n’t have lived without it. One must believe in something! It came to me in a flash, when Christina was five years old. I remember the day and the place, as if it were yesterday. She was a very ugly baby; for the first two years I could hardly bear to look at her, and I used to spoil my own looks with crying about her. She had an Italian nurse who was very fond of her and insisted that she would grow up pretty. I could n’t believe her; I used to contradict her, and we were forever squabbling. I was just a little silly in those days — surely I may say it now — and I was very fond of being amused. If my daughter was ugly, it was not that she resembled her mamma; I had no lack of amusement. People accused me, I believe, of neglecting my little girl; if it was so, I’ve made up for it since. One day I went to drive on the Pincio in very low spirits. A trusted friend had greatly disappointed me. While I was there he passed me in a carriage, driving with a horrible woman who had made trouble between us. I got out of my carriage to walk about, and at last sat down on a bench. I can show you the spot at this hour. While I sat there a child came wandering along the path — a little girl of four or five, very fantastically dressed in crimson and orange. She stopped in front of me and stared at me, and I stared at her queer little dress, which was a cheap imitation of the costume of one of these contadine. At last I looked up at her face, and said to myself, ‘Bless me, what a beautiful child! what a splendid pair of eyes, what a magnificent head of hair! If my poor Christina were only like that!’ The child turned away slowly, but looking back with its eyes fixed on me. All of a sudden I gave a cry, pounced on it, pressed it in my arms, and covered it with kisses. It was Christina, my own precious child, so disguised by the ridiculous dress which the nurse had amused herself in making for her, that her own mother had not recognized her. She knew me, but she said afterwards that she had not spoken to me because I looked so angry. Of course my face was sad. I rushed with my child to the carriage, drove home post-haste, pulled off her rags, and, as I may say, wrapped her in cotton. I had been blind, I had been insane; she was a creature in ten millions, she was to be a beauty of beauties, a priceless treasure! Every day, after that, the certainty grew. From that time I lived only for my daughter. I watched her, I caressed her from morning till night, I worshipped her. I went to see doctors about her, I took every sort of advice. I was determined she should be perfection. The things that have been done for that girl, sir — you would n’t believe them; they would make you smile! Nothing was spared; if I had been told that she must have a bath every morning of molten pearls, I would have found means to give it to her. She never raised a finger for herself, she breathed nothing but perfumes, she walked upon velvet. She never was out of my sight, and from that day to this I have never said a sharp word to her. By the time she was ten years old she was beautiful as an angel, and so noticed wherever we went that I had to make her wear a veil, like a woman of twenty. Her hair reached down to her feet; her hands were the hands of a princess. Then I saw that she was as clever as she was beautiful, and that she had only to play her cards. She had masters, professors, every educational advantage. They told me she was a little prodigy. She speaks French, Italian, German, better than most natives. She has a wonderful genius for music, and might make her fortune as a pianist, if it was not made for her otherwise! I traveled all over Europe; every one told me she was a marvel. The director of the opera in Paris saw her dance at a child’s party at Spa, and offered me an enormous sum if I would give her up to him and let him have her educated for the ballet. I said, ‘No, I thank you, sir; she is meant to be something finer than a princesse de theatre.’ I had a passionate belief that she might marry absolutely whom she chose, that she might be a princess out and out. It has never left me till this hour, and I can assure you that it has sustained me in many embarrassments. Financial, some of them; I don’t mind confessing it! I have raised money on that girl’s face! I’ve taken her to the Jews and bade her put up her veil, and asked if the mother of that young lady was not safe! She, of course, was too young to understand me. And yet, as a child, you would have said she knew what was in store for her; before she could read, she had the manners, the tastes, the instincts of a little princess. She would have nothing to do with shabby things or shabby people; if she stained one of her frocks, she was seized with a kind of frenzy and tore it to pieces. At Nice, at Baden, at Brighton, wherever we stayed, she used to be sent for by all the great people to play with their children. She has played at kissing-games with people who now stand on the steps of thrones! I have gone so far as to think at times that those childish kisses were a sign — a symbol — a portent. You may laugh at me if you like, but have n’t such things happened again and again without half as good a cause, and does n’t history notoriously repeat itself? There was a little Spanish girl at a second-rate English boarding-school thirty years ago! . . . The Empress certainly is a pretty woman; but what is my Christina, pray? I’ve dreamt of it, sometimes every night for a month. I won’t tell you I have been to consult those old women who advertise in the newspapers; you’ll call me an old imbecile. Imbecile if you please! I have refused magnificent offers because I believed that somehow or other — if wars and revolutions were needed to bring it about — we should have nothing less than that. There might be another coup d’etat somewhere, and another brilliant young sovereign looking out for a wife! At last, however,” Mrs. Light proceeded with incomparable gravity, “since the overturning of the poor king of Naples and that charming queen, and the expulsion of all those dear little old-fashioned Italian grand-dukes, and the dreadful radical talk that is going on all over the world, it has come to seem to me that with Christina in such a position I should be really very nervous. Even in such a position she would hold her head very high, and if anything should happen to her, she would make no concessions to the popular fury. The best thing, if one is prudent, seems to be a nobleman of the highest possible rank, short of belonging to a reigning stock. There you see one striding up and down, looking at his watch, and counting the minutes till my daughter reappears!”
Rowland listened to all this with a huge compassion for the heroine of the tale. What an education, what a history, what a school of character and of morals! He looked at the prince and wondered whether he too had heard Mrs. Light’s story. If he had he was a brave man. “I certainly hope you’ll keep him,” he said to Mrs. Light. “You have played a dangerous game with your daughter; it would be a pity not to win. But there is hope for you yet; here she comes at last!”
Christina reappeared as he spoke these words, strolling beside her companion with the same indifferent tread with which she had departed. Rowland imagined that there was a faint pink flush in her cheek which she had not carried away with her, and there was certainly a light in Roderick’s eyes which he had not seen there for a week.
“Bless my soul, how they are all looking at us!” she cried, as they advanced. “One would think we were prisoners of the Inquisition!” And she paused and glanced from the prince to her mother, and from Rowland to the Cavaliere, and then threw back her head and burst into far-ringing laughter. “What is it, pray? Have I been very improper? Am I ruined forever? Dear prince, you are looking at me as if I had committed the unpardonable sin!”
“I myself,” said the prince, “would never have ventured to ask you to walk with me alone in the country for an hour!”
“The more fool you, dear prince, as the vulgar say! Our walk has been charming. I hope you, on your side, have enjoyed each other’s society.”
“My dear daughter,” said Mrs. Light, taking the arm of her predestined son-inlaw, “I shall have something serious to say to you when we reach home. We will go back to the carriage.”
“Something serious! Decidedly, it is the Inquisition. Mr. Hudson, stand firm, and let us agree to make no confessions without conferring previously with each other! They may put us on the rack first. Mr. Mallet, I see also,” Christina added, “has something serious to say to me!”
Rowland had been looking at her with the shadow of his lately-stirred pity in his eyes. “Possibly,” he said. “But it must be for some other time.”
“I am at your service. I see our good-humor is gone. And I only wanted to be amiable! It is very discouraging. Cavaliere, you, only, look as if you had a little of the milk of human kindness left; from your venerable visage, at least; there is no telling what you think. Give me your arm and take me away!”
The party took its course back to the carriage, which was waiting in the grounds of the villa, and Rowland and Roderick bade their friends farewell. Christina threw herself back in her seat and closed her eyes; a manoeuvre for which Rowland imagined the prince was grateful, as it enabled him to look at her without seeming to depart from his attitude of distinguished disapproval. Rowland found himself aroused from sleep early the next morning, to see Roderick standing before him, dressed for departure, with his bag in his hand. “I am off,” he said. “I am back to work. I have an idea. I must strike while the iron’s hot! Farewell!” And he departed by the first train. Rowland went alone by the next.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10