I set out to see Italy thoroughly on two occasions, and each time I was stopped at the frontier and could not get any further. So I do not know Italy, said my friend, Charles Jouvent. And yet my two attempts gave me a charming idea of the manners of that beautiful country. Some time, however, I must visit its cities, as well as the museums and works of art with which it abounds. I will make another attempt to penetrate into the interior, which I have not yet succeeded in doing.
You don’t understand me, so I will explain: In the spring of 1874 I was seized with an irresistible desire to see Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples. I am, as you know, not a great traveller; it appears to me a useless and fatiguing business. Nights spent in a train, the disturbed slumbers of the railway carriage, with the attendant headache, and stiffness in every limb, the sudden waking in that rolling box, the unwashed feeling, with your eyes and hair full of dust, the smell of the coal on which one’s lungs feed, those bad dinners in the draughty refreshment rooms are, according to my ideas, a horrible way of beginning a pleasure trip.
After this introduction, we have the miseries of the hotel; of some great hotel full of people, and yet so empty; the strange room and the doubtful bed!
I am most particular about my bed; it is the sanctuary of life. We entrust our almost naked and fatigued bodies to it so that they may be reanimated by reposing between soft sheets and feathers.
There we find the most delightful hours of our existence, the hours of love and of sleep. The bed is sacred, and should be respected, venerated and loved by us as the best and most delightful of our earthly possessions.
I cannot lift up the sheets of a hotel bed without a shudder of disgust. Who has occupied it the night before? Perhaps dirty, revolting people have slept in it. I begin, then, to think of all the horrible people with whom one rubs shoulders every day, people with suspicious-looking skin which makes one think of the feet and all the rest! I call to mind those who carry about with them the sickening smell of garlic or of humanity. I think of those who are deformed and unhealthy, of the perspiration emanating from the sick, of everything that is ugly and filthy in man.
And all this, perhaps, in the bed in which I am about to sleep! The mere idea of it makes me feel ill as I get into it.
And then the hotel dinners — those dreary table d’hote dinners in the midst of all sorts of extraordinary people, or else those terrible solitary dinners at a small table in a restaurant, feebly lighted by a wretched composite candle under a shade.
Again, those terribly dull evenings in some un known town! Do you know anything more wretched than the approach of. dusk on such an occasion? One goes about as if almost in a dream, looking at faces that one never has seen before and never will see again; listening to people talking about matters which are quite indifferent to you in a language that perhaps you do not understand. You have a terrible feeling, almost as if you were lost, and you continue to walk on so as not to be obliged to return to the hotel, where you would feel more lost still because you are at home, in a home which belongs to anyone who can pay for it; and at last you sink into a chair of some well-lighted cafe, whose gilding and lights oppress you a thousand times more than the shadows in the streets. Then you feel so abominably lonely sitting in front of the glass of flat bock beer that a kind of madness seizes you, the longing to go somewhere or other, no matter where, as long as you need not remain in front of that marble table amid those dazzling lights.
And then, suddenly, you are aware that you are really alone in the world, always and everywhere, and that in places which we know, the familiar jostlings give us the illusion only of human fraternity. At such moments of self-abandonment and sombre isolation in distant cities one thinks broadly, clearly and profoundly. Then one suddenly sees the whole of life outside the vision of eternal hope, apart from the deceptions of our innate habits, and of our expectations of happiness, which we indulge in dreams never to be realized.
It is only by going a long distance from home that we can fully understand how short-lived and empty everything near at hand is; by searching for the unknown, we perceive how commonplace and evanescent everything is; only by wandering over the face of the earth can we understand how small the world is, and how very much alike it is everywhere.
How well I know, and how I hate and almost fear, those haphazard walks through unknown streets; and this was the reason why, as nothing would induce me to undertake a tour in Italy by myself, I made up my mind to accompany my friend Paul Pavilly.
You know Paul, and how he idealizes women. To him the earth is habitable only because they are there; the sun gives light and is warm because it shines upon them; the air is soft and balmy because it blows upon their skin and ruffles the soft hair on their temples; and the moon is charming because it makes them dream and imparts a languorous charm to love. Every act and action of Paul’s has woman for its motive; all his thoughts, all his efforts and hopes are centered in them.
When I mentioned Italy to Paul he at first absolutely refused to leave Paris. I, however, began to tell him of the adventures I had on my travels. I assured him that all Italian women are charming, and I made him hope for the most refined pleasures at Naples, thanks to certain letters of introduction which I had; and so at last he allowed himself to be persuaded.
We took the express one Thursday evening, Paul and I. Hardly anyone goes south at that time of the year, so that we had the carriages to ourselves, and both of us were in a bad temper on leaving Paris, sorry for having yielded to the temptation of this journey, and regretting Marly, the Seine, and our lazy boating excursions, and all those pleasures in and near Paris which are so dear to every true Parisian.
As soon as the train started Paul stuck himself in his corner, and said, “It is most idiotic to go all that distance,” and as it was too late for him to change his mind then, I said, “Well, you should not have come.”
He made no answer, and I felt very much inclined to laugh when I saw how furious he looked. He is certainly always rather like a squirrel, but then every one of us has retained the type of some animal or other as the mark of his primitive origin. How many people have jaws like a bulldog, or heads like goats, rabbits, foxes, horses, or oxen. Paul is a squirrel turned into a man. He has its bright, quick eyes, its hair, its pointed nose, its small, fine, supple, active body, and a certain mysterious resemblance in his general bearing; in fact, a similarity of movement, of gesture, and of bearing which might almost be taken for a recollection.
At last we both went to sleep with that uncomfortable slumber of the railway carriage, which is interrupted by horrible cramps in the arms and neck, and by the sudden stoppages of the train.
We woke up as we were passing along the Rhone. Soon the continued noise of crickets came in through the windows, that cry which seems to be the voice of the warm earth, the song of Provence; and seemed to instill into our looks, our breasts, and our souls the light and happy feeling of the south, that odor of the parched earth, of the stony and light soil of the olive with its gray-green foliage.
When the train stopped again a railway guard ran along the train calling out “Valence” in a sonorous voice, with an accent that again gave us a taste of that Provence which the shrill note of the crickets had already imparted to us.
Nothing fresh happened till we got to Marseilles, where we alighted for breakfast, but when we returned to our carriage we found a woman installed there.
Paul, with a delighted glance at me, gave his short mustache a mechanical twirl, and passed his fingers through his, hair, which. had become slightly out of order with the night’s journey. Then he sat down opposite the newcomer.
Whenever I happen to see a striking new face, either in travelling or in society, I always have the strongest inclination to find out what character, mind, and intellectual capacities are hidden beneath those features.
She was a young and pretty woman, certainly a native of the south of France, with splendid eyes, beautiful wavy black hair, which was so thick and long that it seemed almost too heavy for her head. She was dressed with a certain southern bad taste which made her look a little vulgar. Her regular features had none of the grace and finish of the refined races, of that slight delicacy which members of the aristocracy inherit from their birth, and which is the hereditary mark of thinner blood.
Her bracelets were too big to be of gold; she wore earrings with large white stones that were certainly not diamonds, and she belonged unmistakably to the People. One surmised that she would talk too loud, and shout on every occasion with exaggerated gestures.
When the train started she remained motionless in her place, in the attitude of a woman who was indignant, without even looking at us.
Paul began to talk to me, evidently with an eye to effect, trying to attract her attention, as shopkeepers expose their choice wares to catch the notice of passersby.
She, however, did not appear to be paying the least attention.
“Toulon! Ten minutes to wait! Refreshment room!” the porters shouted.
Paul motioned to me to get out, and as soon as we had done so, he said:
“I wonder who on earth she can be?”
I began to laugh. “I am sure I don’t know, and I don’t in the least care.”
He was quite excited.
“She is an uncommonly fresh and pretty girl. What eyes she has, and how cross she looks. She must have been dreadfully worried, for she takes no notice of anything.”
“You will have all your trouble for nothing,” I growled.
He began to lose his temper.
“I am not taking any trouble, my dear fellow. I think her an extremely pretty woman, that is all. If one could only speak to her! But I don’t know how to begin. Cannot you give me an idea? Can’t you guess who she is?”
“Upon my word, I cannot. However, I should rather think she is some strolling actress who is going to rejoin her company after a love adventure.”
He seemed quite upset, as if I had said something insulting.
“What makes you think that? On the contrary, I think she looks most respectable.”
“Just look at her bracelets,” I said, “her earrings and her whole dress. I should not be the least surprised if she were a dancer or a circus rider, but most likely a dancer. Her whole style smacks very much of the theatre.”
He evidently did not like the idea.
“She is much too young, I am sure; why, she is hardly twenty.”
“Well,” I replied, “there are many things which one can do before one is twenty; dancing and elocution are among them.”
“Take your seats for Nice, Vintimiglia,” the guards and porters called.
We got in; our fellow passenger was eating an orange, and certainly she did not do it elegantly. She had spread her pocket-handkerchief on her knees, and the way in which she tore off the peel and opened her mouth to put in the pieces, and then spat the pips out of the window, showed that her training had been decidedly vulgar.
She seemed, also, more put out than ever, and swallowed the fruit with an exceedingly comic air of rage.
Paul devoured her with his eyes, and tried to attract her attention and excite her curiosity; but in spite of his talk, and of the manner in which he brought in well-known names, she did not pay the least attention to him.
After passing Frejus and St. Raphael, the train passed through a veritable garden, a paradise of roses, and groves of oranges and lemons covered with fruits and flowers at the same time. That delightful coast from Marseilles to Genoa is a kingdom of perfumes in a home of flowers.
June is the time to see it in all its beauty, when in every narrow valley and on every slope, the most exquisite flowers are growing luxuriantly. And the roses! fields, hedges, groves of roses. They climb up the walls, blossom on the roofs, hang from the trees, peep out from among the bushes; they are white, red, yellow, large and small, single, with a simple self-colored dress, or full and heavy in brilliant toilettes.
Their breath makes the air heavy and relaxing, and the still more penetrating odor of the orange blossoms sweetens the atmosphere till it might almost be called the refinement of odor.
The shore, with its brown rocks, was bathed by the motionless Mediterranean. The hot summer sun stretched like a fiery cloth over the mountains, over the long expanses of sand, and over the motionless, apparently solid blue sea. The train went on through the tunnels, along the slopes, above the water, on straight, wall-like viaducts, and a soft, vague, saltish smell, a smell of drying seaweed, mingled at times with the strong, heavy perfume of the flowers.
But Paul neither saw, looked at, nor smelled anything, for our fellow traveller engrossed all his attention.
When we reached Cannes, as he wished to speak to me he signed to me to get out, and as soon as I did so, he took me by the arm.
“Do you know, she is really charming. Just look at her eyes; and I never saw anything like her hair.”
“Don’t excite yourself,” I replied, “or else address her, if you have any intentions that way. She does not look unapproachable; I fancy, although she appear to be a little bit grumpy.”
“Why don’t you speak to her?” he said.
“I don’t know what to say, for I am always terribly stupid at first; I can never make advances to a woman in the street. I follow them, go round and round them, and quite close to them, but never know what to say at first. I only once tried to enter into conversation with a woman in that way. As I clearly saw that she was waiting for me to make overtures, and as I felt bound to say something, I stammered out, ‘I hope you are quite well, madame?’ She laughed in my face, and I made my escape.”
I promised Paul to do all I could to bring about a conversation, and when we had taken our places again, I politely asked our neighbor:
“Have you any objection to the smell of tobacco, madame?”
She merely replied, “Non capisco.”
So she was an Italian! I felt an absurd inclination to laugh. As Paul did not understand a word of that language, I was obliged to act as his interpreter, so I said in Italian:
“I asked you, madame, whether you had any objection to tobacco smoke?”
With an angry look she replied, “Che mi fa!”
She had neither turned her head nor looked at me, and I really did not know whether to take this “What do I care” for an authorization, a refusal, a real sign of indifference, or for a mere “Let me alone.”
“Madame,” I replied, “if you mind the smell of tobacco in the least —”
She again said, “Mica,” in a tone which seemed to mean, “I wish to goodness you would leave me alone!” It was, however, a kind of permission, so I said to Paul:
“You may smoke.”
He looked at me in that curious sort of way that people have when they try to understand others who are talking in a strange language before them, and asked me:
“What did you say to her?”
“I asked whether we might smoke, and she said we might do whatever we liked.”
Whereupon I lighted my cigar.
“Did she say anything more?”
“If you had counted her words you would have noticed that she used exactly six, two of which gave me to understand that she knew no French, so four remained, and much can be said in four words.”
Paul seemed quite unhappy, disappointed, and at sea, so to speak.
But suddenly the Italian asked me, in that tone of discontent which seemed habitual to her, “Do you know at what time we shall get to Genoa?”
“At eleven o’clock,” I replied. Then after a moment I went on:
“My friend and I are also going to Genoa, and if we can be of any service to you, we shall be very happy, as you are quite alone.” But she interrupted with such a “Mica!” that I did not venture on another word.
“What did she say?” Paul asked.
“She said she thought you were charming.”
But he was in no humor for joking, and begged me dryly not to make fun of him; so I translated her question and my polite offer, which had been so rudely rejected.
Then he really became as restless as a caged squirrel.
“If we only knew,” he said, “what hotel she was going to, we would go to the same. Try to find out so as to have another opportunity to make her talk.”
It was not particularly easy, and I did not know what pretext to invent, desirous as I was to make the acquaintance of this unapproachable person.
We passed Nice, Monaco, Mentone, and the train stopped at the frontier for the examination of luggage.
Although I hate those ill-bred people who breakfast and dine in railway-carriages, I went and bought a quantity of good things to make one last attack on her by their means. I felt sure that this girl must, ordinarily, be by no means inaccessible. Something had put her out and made her irritable, but very little would suffice, a mere word or some agreeable offer, to decide her and vanquish her.
We started again, and we three were still alone. I spread my eatables on the seat. I cut up the fowl, put the slices of ham neatly on a piece of paper, and then carefully laid out our dessert, strawberries, plums, cherries and cakes, close to the girl.
When she saw that we were about to eat she took a piece of chocolate and two little crisp cakes out of her pocket and began to munch them.
“Ask her to have some of ours,” Paul said in a whisper.
“That is exactly what I wish to do, but it is rather a difficult matter.”
As she, however, glanced from time to time at our provisions, I felt sure that she would still be hungry when she had finished what she had with her; so, as soon as her frugal meal was over, I said to her:
“It would be very kind of you if you would take some of this fruit.”
Again she said “Mica!” but less crossly than before.
“Well, then,” I said, “may I offer you a little wine? I see you have not drunk anything. It is Italian wine, and as we are now in your own country, we should be very pleased to see such a pretty Italian mouth accept the offer of its French neighbors.”
She shook her head slightly, evidently wishing to refuse, but very desirous of accepting, and her mica this time was almost polite. I took the flask, which was covered with straw in the Italian fashion, and filling the glass, I offered it to her.
“Please drink it,” I said, “to bid us welcome to your country.”
She took the glass with her usual look, and emptied it at a draught, like a woman consumed with thirst, and then gave it back to me without even saying “Thank you.”
I then offered her the cherries. “Please take some,” I said; “we shall be so glad if you will.”
Out of her corner she looked at all the fruit spread out beside her, and said so rapidly that I could scarcely follow her: “A me non piacciono ne le ciriegie ne le susine; amo soltano le fragole.”
“What does she say?” Paul asked.
“That she does riot care for cherries or plums, but only for strawberries.”
I put a newspaper full of wild strawberries on her lap, and she ate them quickly, tossing them into her mouth from some distance in a coquettish and charming manner.
When she had finished the little red heap, which soon disappeared under the rapid action of her hands, I asked her:
“What may I offer you now?”
“I will take a little chicken,” she replied.
She certainly devoured half of it, tearing it to pieces with the rapid movements of her jaws like some carnivorous animal. Then she made up her mind to have some cherries, which she “did not like,” and then some plums, then some little cakes. Then she said, “I have had enough,” and sat back in her corner.
I was much amused, and tried to make her eat more, insisting, in fact, till she suddenly flew into a rage, and flung such a furious mica at me, that I would no longer run the risk of spoiling her digestion.
I turned to my friend. “My poor Paul,” I said, “I am afraid we have had our trouble for nothing.”
The night came on, one of those hot summer nights which extend their warm shade over the burning and exhausted earth. Here and there, in the distance, by the sea, on capes and promontories, bright stars, which I was, at times, almost inclined to confound with lighthouses, began to shine on the dark horizon:
The scent of the orange trees became more penetrating, and we breathed with delight, distending our lungs to inhale it more deeply. The balmy air was soft, delicious, almost divine.
Suddenly I noticed something like a shower of stars under the dense shade of the trees along the line, where it was quite dark. It might have been taken for drops of light, leaping, flying, playing and running among the leaves, or for small stars fallen from the skies in order to have an excursion on the earth; but they were only fireflies dancing a strange fiery ballet in the perfumed air.
One of them happened to come into our carriage, and shed its intermittent light, which seemed to be extinguished one moment and to be burning the next. I covered the carriage-lamp with its blue shade and watched the strange fly careering about in its fiery flight. Suddenly it settled on the dark hair of our neighbor, who was half dozing after dinner. Paul seemed delighted, with his eyes fixed on the bright, sparkling spot, which looked like a living jewel on the forehead of the sleeping woman.
The Italian woke up about eleven o’clock, with the bright insect still in her hair. When I saw her move, I said: “We are just getting to Genoa, madame,” and she murmured, without answering me, as if possessed by some obstinate and embarrassing thought:
“What am I going to do, I wonder?”
And then she suddenly asked:
“Would you like me to come with you?”
I was so taken aback that I really did not understand her.
“With us? How do you mean?”
She repeated, looking more and more furious:
“Would you like me to be your guide now, as soon as we get out of the train?”
“I am quite willing; but where do you want to go.”
She shrugged her shoulders with an air of supreme indifference.
“Wherever you like; what does it matter to me?” She repeated her “Che mi fa” twice.
“But we are going to the hotel.”
“Very well, let us all go to the hotel,” she said, in a contemptuous voice.
I turned to Paul, and said:
“She wishes to know whether we should like her to come with us.”
My friend’s utter surprise restored my self-possession. He stammered:
“With us? Where to? What for? How?”
“I don’t know, but she made this strange proposal to me in a most irritated voice. I told her that we were going to the hotel, and she said: ‘Very well, let us all go there!’ I suppose she is without a penny. She certainly has a very strange way of making acquaintances.”
Paul, who ‘was very much excited, exclaimed:
“I am quite agreeable. Tell her that we will go wherever she likes.” Then, after a moment’s hesitation, he said uneasily:
“We must know, however, with whom she wishes to go — with you or with me?”
I turned to the Italian, who did not even seem to be listening to us, and said:
“We shall be very happy to have you with us, but my friend wishes to know whether you will take my arm or his?”
She opened her black eyes wide with vague surprise, and said, “Che ni fa?”
I was obliged to explain myself. “In Italy, I believe, when a man looks after a woman, fulfils all her wishes, and satisfies all her caprices, he is called a patito. Which of us two will you take for your patito?”
Without the slightest hesitation she replied:
I turned to Paul. “You see, my friend, she chooses me; you have no chance.”
“All the better for you,” he replied in a rage. Then, after thinking for a few moments, he went on:
“Do you really care about taking this creature with you? She will spoil our journey. What are we to do with this woman, who looks like I don’t know what? They will not take us in at any decent hotel.”
I, however, just began to find the Italian much nicer than I had thought her at first, and I was now very desirous to take her with us. The idea delighted me.
I replied, “My dear fellow, we have accepted, and it is too late to recede. You were the first to advise me to say ‘Yes.’”
“It is very stupid,” he growled, “but do as you please.”
The train whistled, slackened speed, and we ran into the station.
I got out of the carriage, and offered my new companion my hand. She jumped out lightly, and I gave her my arm, which she took with an air of seeming repugnance. As soon as we had claimed our luggage we set off into the town, Paul walking in utter silence.
“To what hotel shall we go?” I asked him. “It may be difficult to get into the City of Paris with a woman, especially with this Italian.”
Paul interrupted me. “Yes, with an Italian who looks more like a dancer than a duchess. However, that is no business of mine. Do just as you please.”
I was in a state of perplexity. I had written to the City of Paris to retain our rooms, and now I did not know what to do.
Two commissionaires followed us with our luggage. I continued: “You might as well go on first, and say that we are coming; and give the landlord to understand that I have a — a friend with me and that we should like rooms quite by themselves for us three, so as not to be brought in contact with other travellers. He will understand, and we will decide according to his answer.”
But Paul growled, “Thank you, such commissions and such parts do not suit me, by any means. I did not come here to select your apartments or to minister to your pleasures.”
But I was urgent: “Look here, don’t be angry. It is surely far better to go to a good hotel than to a bad one, and it is not difficult to ask the landlord for three separate bedrooms and a dining-room.”
I put a stress on three, and that decided him.
He went on first, and I saw him go into a large hotel while I remained on the other side of the street, with my fair Italian, who did not say a word, and followed the porters with the luggage.
Paul came back at last, looking as dissatisfied as my companion.
“That is settled,” he said, “and they will take us in; but here are only two bedrooms. You must settle it as you can.”
I followed him, rather ashamed of going in with such a strange companion.
There were two bedrooms separated by a small sitting-room. I ordered a cold supper, and then I turned to the Italian with a perplexed look.
“We have only been able to get two rooms, so you must choose which you like.”
She replied with her eternal “Che mi fa!” I thereupon took up her little black wooden trunk, such as servants use, and took it into the room on the right, which I had chosen for her. A bit of paper was fastened to the box, on which was written, Mademoiselle Francesca Rondoli, Genoa.
“Your name is Francesca?” I asked, and she nodded her head, without replying.
“We shall have supper directly,” I continued. “Meanwhile, I dare say you would like to arrange your toilette a little?”
She answered with a ‘mica’, a word which she employed just as frequently as ‘Che me fa’, but I went on: “It is always pleasant after a journey.”
Then I suddenly remembered that she had not, perhaps, the necessary requisites, for she appeared to me in a very singular position, as if she had just escaped from some disagreeable adventure, and I brought her my dressing-case.
I put out all the little instruments for cleanliness and comfort which it contained: a nail-brush, a new toothbrush — I always carry a selection of them about with me — my nail-scissors, a nail-file, and sponges. I uncorked a bottle of eau de cologne, one of lavender-water, and a little bottle of new-mown hay, so that she might have a choice. Then I opened my powder-box, and put out the powder-puff, placed my fine towels over the water-jug, and a piece of new soap near the basin.
She watched my movements with a look of annoyance in her wide-open eyes, without appearing either astonished or pleased at my forethought.
“Here is all that you require,” I then said; “I will tell you when supper is ready.”
When I returned to the sitting-room I found that Paul had shut himself in the other room, so I sat down to wait.
A waiter went to and fro, bringing plates and glasses. He laid the table slowly, then put a cold chicken on it, and told me that all was ready.
I knocked gently at Mademoiselle Rondoli’s door. “Come in,” she said, and when I did so I was struck by a strong, heavy smell of perfumes, as if I were in a hairdresser’s shop.
The Italian was sitting on her trunk in an attitude either of thoughtful discontent or absent-mindedness. The towel was still folded over the waterjug that was full of water, and the soap, untouched and dry, was lying beside the empty basin; but one would have thought that the young woman had used half the contents of the bottles of perfume. The eau de cologne, however, had been spared, as only about a third of it had gone; but to make up for that she had used a surprising amount of lavender-water and new-mown hay. A cloud of violet powder, a vague white mist, seemed still to be floating in the air, from the effects of her over-powdering her face and neck. It seemed to cover her eyelashes, eyebrows, and the hair on her temples like snow, while her cheeks were plastered with it, and layers of it covered her nostrils, the corners of her eyes, and her chin.
When she got up she exhaled such a strong odor of perfume that it almost made me feel faint.
When we sat down to supper, I found that Paul was in a most execrable temper, and I could get nothing out of him but blame, irritable words, and disagreeable remarks.
Mademoiselle Francesca ate like an ogre, and as soon as she had finished her meal she threw herself upon the sofa in the sitting-room. Sitting down beside her, I said gallantly, kissing her hand:
“Shall I have the bed prepared, or will you sleep on the couch?”
“It is all the same to me. ‘Che mi fa’!”
Her indifference vexed me.
“Should you like to retire at once?”
“Yes; I am very sleepy.”
She got up, yawned, gave her hand to Paul, who took it with a furious look, and I lighted her into the bedroom. A disquieting feeling haunted me. “Here is all you want,” I said again.
The next morning she got up early, like a woman who is accustomed to work. She woke me by doing so, and I watched her through my half-closed eyelids.
She came and went without hurrying herself, as if she were astonished at having nothing to do. At length she went to the dressing-table, and in a moment emptied all my bottles of perfume. She certainly also used some water, but very little.
When she was quite dressed, she sat down on her trunk again, and clasping one knee between her hands, she seemed to be thinking.
At that moment I pretended to first notice her, and said:
Without seeming in at all a better temper than the previous night, she murmured, “Good-morning!”
When I asked her whether she had slept well, she nodded her head, and jumping out of bed, I went and kissed her.
She turned her face toward me like a child who is being kissed against its will; but I took her tenderly in my arms, and gently pressed my lips on her eyelids, which she closed with evident distaste under my kisses on her fresh cheek and full lips, which she turned away.
“You don’t seem to like being kissed,” I said to her.
“Mica!” was her only answer.
I sat down on the trunk by her side, and passing my arm through hers, I said: “Mica! mica! mica! in reply to everything. I shall call you Mademoiselle Mica, I think.”
For the first time I fancied that I saw the shadow of a smile on her lips, but it passed by so quickly that I may have been mistaken.
“But if you never say anything but Mica, I shall not know what to do to please you. Let me see; what shall we do to-day?”
She hesitated a moment, as if some fancy had flitted through her head, and then she said carelessly: “It is all the same to me; whatever you like.”
“Very well, Mademoiselle Mica, we will have a carriage and go for a drive.”
“As you please,” she said.
Paul was waiting for us in the dining-room, looking as bored as third parties usually do in love affairs. I assumed a delighted air, and shook hands with him with triumphant energy.
“What are you thinking of doing?” he asked.
“First of all, we will go and see a little of the town, and then we might get a carriage and take a drive in the neighborhood.”
We breakfasted almost in silence, and then set out. I dragged Francesca from palace to palace, and she either looked at nothing or merely glanced carelessly at the various masterpieces. Paul followed us, growling all sorts of disagreeable things. Then we all three took a drive in silence into the country and returned to dinner.
The next day it was the same thing and the next day again; and on the third Paul said to me: “Look here, I am going to leave you; I am not going to stop here for three weeks watching you make love to this creature.”
I was perplexed and annoyed, for to my great surprise I had become singularly attached to Francesca. A man is but weak and foolish, carried away by the merest trifle, and a coward every time that his senses are excited or mastered. I clung to this unknown girl, silent and dissatisfied as she always was. I liked her somewhat ill-tempered face, the dissatisfied droop of her mouth, the weariness of her look; I liked her fatigued movements, the contemptuous way in which she let me kiss her, the very indifference of her caresses. A secret bond, that mysterious bond of physical love, which does not satisfy, bound me to her. I told Paul so, quite frankly. He treated me as if I were a fool, and then said:
“Very well, take her with you.”
But she obstinately refused to leave Genoa, without giving any reason. I besought, I reasoned, I promised, but all was of no avail, and so I stayed on.
Paul declared that he would go by himself, and went so far as to pack up his portmanteau; but he remained all the same.
Thus a fortnight passed. Francesca was always silent and irritable, lived beside me rather than with me, responded to all my requirements and all my propositions with her perpetual Che mi fa, or with her no less perpetual Mica.
My friend became more and more furious, but my only answer was, “You can go if you are tired of staying. I am not detaining you.”
Then he called me names, overwhelmed me with reproaches, and exclaimed: “Where do you think I can go now? We had three weeks at our disposal, and here is a fortnight gone! I cannot continue my journey now; and, in any case, I am not going to Venice, Florence and Rome all by myself. But you will pay for it, and more dearly than you think, most likely. You are not going to bring a man all the way from Paris in order to shut him up at a hotel in Genoa with an Italian adventuress.”
When I told him, very calmly, to return to Paris, he exclaimed that he intended to do so the very next day; but the next day he was still there, still in a rage and swearing.
By this time we began to be known in the streets through which we wandered from morning till night. Sometimes French people would turn round astonished at meeting their fellow-countrymen in the company of this girl with her striking costume, who looked singularly out of place, not to say compromising, beside us.
She used to walk along, leaning on my arm, without looking at anything. Why did she remain with me, with us, who seemed to do so little to amuse her? Who was she? Where did she come from? What was she doing? Had she any plan or idea? Where did she live? As an adventuress, or by chance meetings? I tried in vain to find out and to explain it. The better I knew her the more enigmatical she became. She seemed to be a girl of poor family who had been taken away, and then cast aside and lost. What did she think would become of her, or whom was she waiting for? She certainly did not appear to be trying to make a conquest of me, or to make any real profit out of me.
I tried to question her, to speak to her of her childhood and family; but she never gave me an answer. I stayed with her, my heart unfettered and my senses enchained, never wearied of holding her in my arms, that proud and quarrelsome woman, captivated by my senses, or rather carried away, overcome by a youthful, healthy, powerful charm, which emanated from her fragrant person and from the well-molded lines of her body.
Another week passed, and the term of my journey was drawing on, for I had to be back in Paris by the eleventh of July. By this time Paul had come to take his part in the adventure, though still grumbling at me, while I invented pleasures, distractions and excursions to amuse Francesca and my friend; and in order to do this I gave myself a great amount of trouble.
One day I proposed an excursion to Sta Margarita, that charming little town in the midst of gardens, hidden at the foot of a slope which stretches far into the sea up to the village of Portofino. We three walked along the excellent road which goes along the foot of the mountain. Suddenly Francesca said to me: “I shall not be able to go with you to-morrow; I must go and see some of my relatives.”
That was all; I did not ask her any questions, as I was quite sure she would not answer me.
The next morning she got up very early. When she spoke to me it was in a constrained and hesitating voice:
“If I do not come back again, shall you come and fetch me?”
“Most certainly I shall,” was my reply. “Where shall I go to find you?”
Then she explained: “You must go into the Street Victor-Emmanuel, down the Falcone road and the side street San-Rafael and into the furniture shop in the building at the right at the end of a court, and there you must ask for Madame Rondoli. That is the place.”
And so she went away, leaving me rather astonished.
When Paul saw that I was alone, he stammered out: “Where; is Francesca?” And when I told him what had happened, he exclaimed:
“My dear fellow, let us make use of our opportunity, and bolt; as it is, our time is up. Two days, more or less, make no difference. Let us go at once; go and pack up your things. Off we go!”
But I refused. I could not, as I told him, leave the girl in that manner after such companionship for nearly three weeks. At any rate, I ought to say good-by to her, and make her accept a present; I certainly had no intention of behaving badly to her.
But he would not listen; he pressed and worried me, but I would not give way.
I remained indoors for several hours, expecting Francesca’s return, but she did not come, and at last, at dinner, Paul said with a triumphant air:
“She has flown, my dear fellow; it is certainly very strange.”
I must acknowledge that I was surprised and rather vexed. He laughed in my face, and made fun of me.
“It is not exactly a bad way of getting rid of you, though rather primitive. ‘Just wait for me, I shall be back in a moment,’ they often say. How long are you going to wait? I should not wonder if you were foolish enough to go and look for her at the address she gave you. ‘Does Madame Rondoli live here, please?’ ‘No, monsieur.’ I’ll bet that you are longing to go there.”
“Not in the least,” I protested, “and I assure you that if she does not come back to-morrow morning I shall leave by the express at eight o’clock. I shall have waited twenty-four hours, and that is enough; my conscience will be quite clear.”
I spent an uneasy and unpleasant evening, for I really had at heart a very tender feeling for her. I went to bed at twelve o’clock, and hardly slept at all. I got up at six, called Paul, packed up my things, and two hours later we set out for France together.
The next year, at just about the same period, I was seized as one is with a periodical fever, with a new desire to go to Italy, and I immediately made up my mind to carry it into effect. There is no doubt that every really well-educated man ought to see Florence, Venice and Rome. This travel has, also, the additional advantage of providing many subjects of conversation in society, and of giving one an opportunity for bringing forward artistic generalities which appear profound.
This time I went alone, and I arrived at Genoa at the same time as the year before, but without any adventure on the road. I went to the same hotel, and actually happened to have the same room.
I was hardly in bed when the recollection of Francesca which, since the evening before, had been floating vaguely through my mind, haunted me with strange persistency. I thought of her nearly the whole night, and by degrees the wish to see her again seized me, a confused desire at first, which gradually grew stronger and more intense. At last I made up my mind to spend the next day in Genoa to try to find her, and if I should not succeed, to take the evening train.
Early in the morning I set out on my search. I remembered the directions she had given me when she left me, perfectly — Victor-Emmanuel Street, house of the furniture-dealer, at the bottom of the yard on the right.
I found it without the least difficulty, and I knocked at the door of a somewhat dilapidated-looking dwelling. It was opened by a stout woman, who must have been very handsome, but who actually was only very dirty. Although she had too much embonpoint, she still bore the lines of majestic beauty; her untidy hair fell over her forehead and shoulders, and one fancied one could see her floating about in an enormous dressing-gown covered with spots of dirt and grease. Round her neck she wore a great gilt necklace, and on her wrists were splendid bracelets of Genoa filigree work.
In rather a hostile manner she asked me what I wanted, and I replied by requesting her to tell me whether Francesca Rondoli lived there.
“What do you want with her?” she asked.
“I had the pleasure of meeting her last year, and I should like to see her again.”
The old woman looked at me suspiciously.
“Where did you meet her?” she asked.
“Why, here in Genoa itself.”
“What is your name?”
I hesitated a moment, and then I told her. I had hardly done so when the Italian put out her arms as if to embrace me. “Oh! you are the Frenchman how glad I am to see you! But what grief you caused the poor child! She waited for you a month; yes, a whole month. At first she thought you would come to fetch her. She wanted to see whether you loved her. If you only knew how she cried when she saw that you were not coming! She cried till she seemed to have no tears left. Then she went to the hotel, but you had gone. She thought that most likely you were travelling in Italy, and that you would return by Genoa to fetch her, as she would not go with you. And she waited more than a month, monsieur; and she was so unhappy; so unhappy. I am her mother.”
I really felt a little disconcerted, but I regained my self-possession, and asked:
“Where is she now?”
“She has gone to Paris with a painter, a delightful man, who loves her very much, and who gives her everything that she wants. Just look at what she sent me; they are very pretty, are they not?”
And she showed me, with quite southern animation, her heavy bracelets and necklace. “I have also,” she continued, “earrings with stones in them, a silk dress, and some rings; but I only wear them on grand occasions. Oh! she is very happy, monsieur, very happy. She will be so pleased when I tell her you have been here. But pray come in and sit down. You will take something or other, surely?”
But I refused, as I now wished to get away by the first train; but she took me by the arm and pulled me in, saying:
“Please, come in; I must tell her that you have been in here.”
I found myself in a small, rather dark room, furnished with only a table and a few chairs.
She continued: “Oh, she is very happy now, very happy. When you met her in the train she was very miserable; she had had an unfortunate love affair in Marseilles, and she was coming home, poor child. But she liked you at once, though she was still rather sad, you understand. Now she has all she wants, and she writes and tells me everything that she does. His name is Bellemin, and they say he is a great painter in your country. He fell in love with her at first sight. But you will take a glass of sirup?-it is very good. Are you quite alone, this year?”
“Yes,” I said, “quite alone.”
I felt an increasing inclination to laugh, as my first disappointment was dispelled by what Mother Rondoli said. I was obliged; however, to drink a glass of her sirup.
“So you are quite alone?” she continued. “How sorry I am that Francesca is not here now; she would have been company for you all the time you stayed. It is not very amusing to go about all by oneself, and she will be very sorry also.”
Then, as I was getting up to go, she exclaimed:
“But would you not like Carlotta to go with you? She knows all the walks very well. She is my second daughter, monsieur.”
No doubt she took my look of surprise for consent, for she opened the inner door and called out up the dark stairs which I could not see:
“Carlotta! Carlotta! make haste down, my dear child.”
I tried to protest, but she would not listen.
“No; she will be very glad to go with you; she is very nice, and much more cheerful than her sister, and she is a good girl, a very good girl, whom I love very much.”
In a few moments a tall, slender, dark girl appeared, her hair hanging down, and her youthful figure showing unmistakably beneath an old dress of her mother’s.
The latter at once told her how matters stood.
“This is Francesca’s Frenchman, you know, the one whom she knew last year. He is quite alone, and has come to look for her, poor fellow; so I told him that you would go with him to keep him company.”
The girl looked at me with her handsome dark eyes, and said, smiling:
“I have no objection, if he wishes it”
I could not possibly refuse, and merely said:
“Of course, I shall be very glad of your company.”
Her mother pushed her out. “Go and get dressed directly; put on your blue dress and your hat with the flowers, and make haste.”
As soon as she had left the room the old woman explained herself: “I have two others, but they are much younger. It costs a lot of money to bring up four children. Luckily the eldest is off my hands at present.”
Then she told all about herself, about her husband, who had been an employee on the railway, but who was dead, and she expatiated on the good qualities of Carlotta, her second girl, who soon returned, dressed, as her sister had been, in a striking, peculiar manner.
Her mother examined her from head to foot, and, after finding everything right, she said:
“Now, my children, you can go.” Then turning to the girl, she said: “Be sure you are back by ten o’clock to-night; you know the door is locked then.” The answer was:
“All right, mamma; don’t alarm yourself.”
She took my arm and we went wandering about the streets, just as I had wandered the previous year with her sister.
We returned to the hotel for lunch, and then I took my new friend to Santa Margarita, just as I had taken her sister the year previously.
During the whole fortnight which I had at my disposal, I took Carlotta to all the places of interest in and about Genoa. She gave me no cause to regret her sister.
She cried when I left her, and the morning of my departure I gave her four bracelets for her mother, besides a substantial token of my affection for herself.
One of these days I intend to return to Italy, and I cannot help remembering with a certain amount of uneasiness, mingled with hope, that Madame Rondoli has two more daughters.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58