No (said my friend Charles Jouvent), I do not know Italy; I started to see it thoroughly twice, and each time I was stopped at the frontier and could not manage to get any further. And yet my two attempts gave me a charming idea of the manners of that beautiful country. I must, however, some time or other visit its cities, as well as the museums and works of art with which it abounds. I will also 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 myself: 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 traveler; 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 by the express, we have the miseries of the hotel; of some great hotel full of people, and yet so empty; the strange room, and the dubious bed! I am most particular about my bed; it is the sanctuary of life. We intrust 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 an hotel bed without a shiver of disgust. What have its occupants been doing in 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 purulent, of the perspiration emanating from the sick, and of everything that is ugly and filthy in man.
And all this, perhaps, in the bed in which I am going to sleep! The mere idea of it makes me feel ill as I get in.
And then the hotel dinners — those dreary table d’hôte 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 up by a wretched composite candle under a shade.
Again, those terribly dull evenings in some unknown town! Do you know anything more wretched than when it is getting dark on such an occasion? One goes about as if almost in a dream, looking at faces which one has never seen before and will never 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 fall into a chair of some well-lit café, whose gilding and lights overwhelm 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,1 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 and in the dazzling brightness.
1 Munich beer — often brewed in France! — which is much affected by the Parisians in summer.
And then, suddenly, you perceive that you are really alone in the world, always and everywhere; but that in places which we know the familiar jostlings give us the illusion only of human fraternity. At such moments of self-abandonment and somber isolation in distant cities one thinks broadly, clearly, and profoundly. Then one suddenly sees the whole of life outside the vision of eternal hope, outside the deceptions of our innate habits, and of our expectations of happiness, of which we indulge in dreams never to be realized.
It is only by going a long distance 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 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 woman is everything, the world, life itself, to him. There are many men like that, to whom existence becomes poetical and idealized by the presence of women. The earth is inhabitable only because they are there; the sun shines and is warm because it lights upon them; the air is soft and balmy because it blows upon their skin and ruffles the short hairs 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 on 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 carriage 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 into his corner, and said, “It is most idiotic to go all that way,” and as it was too late for him to change his mind then, I said, “Well, you should not have come.”
He gave me 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 race. How many people have jaws like a bull-dog, or heads like goats, rabbits, foxes, horses, or oxen. Paul is a squirrel turned into a man. He has its bright, quick eyes, its old hair, pointed nose, its small, fine, supple, active body, and a certain mysterious resemblance in his general bearing: in fact, a similarity of movements, of gestures, 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 going along the Rhone. Soon the continued noise of the grasshoppers came in through the window, 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 servant 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 grasshoppers had already imparted to us.
Nothing new happened until we got to Marseilles, where we got out to breakfast, but when we returned to our carriage we found a woman installed there.
Paul, with a delightful look at me, gave his short moustache 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 while traveling 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, a native of the South of France certainly, with splendid eyes, beautiful wavy black hair, which was so thick, long, and strong that it seemed almost too heavy for her head. She was dressed with a certain Southern elegant 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 which were certainly not diamonds, and she belonged unmistakably to the commonalty. One would have guessed 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 in a rage, without even looking at us.
Paul began to talk to me, evidently with an eye to effect, trying to attract her attention, like shopkeepers who expose their choice wares to catch the notice of passers-by.
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 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 theater.”
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 reciting are among them, without counting another little business which is, perhaps, her sole occupation.”
“Take your seats for Nice, Vintimiglia,” the guards and porters called out.
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 figs, and then spat the pips out of the window, showed that her education 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 Fréjus and St. Raphael, the train passed through a veritable garden, a paradise of roses, and groves of oranges and lemons covered with fruit 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 toilets.
Their continual breath makes the air heavy and relaxing, while the still more penetrating odor of the orange blossoms sweetens the atmosphere till it might almost be called the sugar-plum of the smell.
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 hard, fixed 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 traveler engrossed all his attention.
When we got to Cannes, as he wished to speak to me he signed to me to get out again, and as soon as I had done 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 tackle her, if you have any intentions that way. She does not look impregnable, I fancy, although she appears 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 closely to them, but I 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, madam?’ 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, madam?”
She merely replied, “Non capisco.”1
1 I do not understand.
So she was 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, madam, whether you had any objection to tobacco smoke?”
With an angry look she replied, “Che mi fa.”2
2 What does it matter to me?
She had neither turned her head nor looked at me, and I really did not know whether to take this “What does it matter to me” for an authorization, a refusal, a real sign of indifference, or for a mere “Leave me alone.”
“Madame,” I replied, “if you mind the smell of tobacco in the least — ”
She again said, “Mica,”3 in a tone of voice 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:
3 Not at all.
“You can 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 if we might smoke, and she said we might do whatever we liked.”
Whereupon I lighted my cigar.
“Did she not 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 a lot 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 that 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 agitated as a squirrel in a cage.
“If we only knew,” he said, “what hotel she was going to, we would go to the same. Try and find out, so as to have another opportunity for making her speak.”
It was not particularly easy, and I did not know what pretext to invent, anxious 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 badly brought-up 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 overcome her.
We started again, and we three were still alone. I spread my eatables out 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, the strawberries, plums, cherries, and cakes, close to the girl.
When she saw that we were going 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 want 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, 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 bottle, 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 tormented with thirst, and then gave it back to me without even saying “Thank you.”
Then I offered her the cherries. “Please take some,” I said; “we shall be so pleased if you will.”
Out of her corner she looked at all the fruit spread out before her, and said so rapidly that I could scarcely follow her: “A me non piacciono ne le ciliegie ne le susine; amo soltano le fragole.”
“What does she say?” Paul asked.
“That she does not 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, throwing them into her mouth from some distance in a coquettish and charming manner.
When she had finished the little red heap which we had seen rapidly diminishing, crushed and disappearing 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,” 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, pressing her, in fact, till she suddenly got in a rage again, 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 began to shine on the dark horizon, which I was, at times, almost inclined to confound with lighthouses.
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 at 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, madam,” 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 go with you now, as soon as we get out of the train?”
“I am quite willing; but where do you want to go to? Where shall I take you to?”
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 wants to know if 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 irritable 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 halfpenny. 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 take her wherever she likes.” Then, after a moment’s hesitation, he said uneasily:
“We must know, however, with whom she wants 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 take you with us, but my friend wants to know whether you will take my arm or his?”
She opened her black eyes wide with vague surprise, and said, “Che mi fa?”
I was obliged to explain myself. “In Italy, I believe, when a man looks after a woman, fulfills 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 anxious to take her with us. The idea delighted me. I already felt those little shivers which the expectation of a night of love sends through the veins.
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 started 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 strumpet 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, so that we should like rooms quite by themselves for us three, so as not to be brought in contact with other travelers. He will understand, and we will decide according to his answer.”
But Paul growled, “Thank you; such sort of commissions and such parts do not suit me by any means. I did not come here to get ready 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 dragging along my fair Italian, who did not say a word, and followed by 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 there 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 her little black wooden box, just like servants use, and took it into the room on the right, which I had chosen for her, . . . for us. A bit of paper was fastened on 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 daresay you would like to arrange your dress a little?”
She answered with a mica, a word which she employed just as frequently as Che mi fa, but I went on: “It is always pleasant after a journey.”
Then I suddenly remembered that she had not, perhaps, the necessary objects, 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 nailbrush, a new toothbrush — for 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, put my fine towels over the water-jug, and placed a piece of new soap near the basin.
She watched my movements with a vexed look in her wide open eyes, without appearing either astonished or satisfied 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 taken possession of the other room, and had shut himself in, so I sat down to wait.
A waiter went backwards and forwards, bringing plates and glasses. He laid the table slowly, then put a cold fowl 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 and perfumer’s shop.
The Italian was sitting on her box in an attitude either of thoughtful discontent or absent-mindedness. The towel was still folded over the water-jug that was quite full, and the soap, untouched and dry, was laying beside the empty basin; but one would have thought that the young woman had drunk half of the bottles of scent. 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 scent that it almost made me feel faint.
When she 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 compliments.
Mademoiselle Francesca ate like an ogre, and as soon as she had finished her meal she threw herself upon the sofa. As for me, I saw the decisive moment approaching for settling how we were to apportion the rooms. I determined to take the bull by the horns, and sitting down by the Italian I said gallantly, kissing her hand:
“As we have only two bedrooms, will you allow me to share yours with you?”
“Do just as you like,” she said. “It is all the same to me. Che mi fa?”
Her indifference vexed me.
“But you are sure you do not mind my being in your room with you?” I said.
“It is all the same to me; do just as you like.”
“Should you like to go to bed at once?”
“Yes; I am very sleepy.”
She got up, yawned, gave Paul her hand, who took it with a furious look, and I lighted her into our room. A disquieting feeling haunted me. “Here is all you want,” I said again.
This time I took care to pour half the water into the basin, and to put a towel near the soap.
Then I went back to Paul. As soon as I got into the room, he said, “You have got a nice sort of camel there!” and I answered, laughing. “My dear friend, don’t speak ill of sour grapes,” and he replied, ill-temperedly:
“Just take care how this ends, my good fellow.”
I almost trembled with that feeling of fear which assails us after some suspicious love escapade — that fear which spoils our pleasant meetings, our unexpected caresses, our chance kisses. However, I put a bold face on the matter. “At any rate, the girl is no adventuress.”
But the fellow had me in his power; he had seen the shadow of my anxiety on my face.
“What do you know about her? You really astonish me. You pick up an Italian woman traveling alone by railway, and she volunteers, with most singular cynicism, to go and to be your mistress in the first hotel you come to. You take her with you, and then you declare that she is not a ——! And you persuade yourself that you are not running more risk than if you were to go and spend the night with a woman who had the small-pox.”
He laughed with an unpleasant and angry laugh. I sat down, a prey to uneasiness. What was I to do, for he was right after all? And a struggle began within me, between desire and fear.
He went on: “Do as you like, I have warned you, so, do not complain of the consequences.”
But I saw an ironical gayety in his eyes, such a delight in his revenge, and he made fun of me so jovially that I did not hesitate any longer. I gave him my hand, and said, “Good night. You know the old saying: A victory without peril is a triumph without glory, and upon my word, the victory is worth the danger.”
And with a firm step I went into Francesca’s room.
I stopped short at the door in surprise and astonishment. She was already asleep. Sleep had overcome her when she had finished undressing, and she was reposing in the charming attitude of one of Titian’s women.
It seemed as if she had lain down from sheer fatigue in order to take off her stockings, for they were lying on the bed. Then she had thought of something pleasant, no doubt, for she had waited to finish her reverie before moving, and then, closing her eyes, she had lost consciousness. A nightgown, embroidered about the neck such as one buys in cheap ready-made shops, was lying on the chair.
She was charming, young, firm and fresh.
There is nothing prettier than a pretty woman asleep, and in a moment, seeing her thus in all her naïve charms, I was going to forget my friend’s prudent counsels, but, suddenly turning to the toilet-table, I saw everything in the same state as I left it, and I sat down, anxious, and a prey to irresolution.
I remained thus for a long time, not able to make up my mind either what to do. Retreat was impossible, and I must either pass the night on a chair, or go to bed myself at my own risk and peril.
I had no thoughts of sleeping either here or there, for my head was too excited and my eyes too occupied.
I moved about without stopping, feverish uncomfortable, enervated. Then I began to reason with myself, certainly with a view to capitulation. “If I lie down that does not bind me to anything, and I shall certainly be more comfortable on a mattress than on a chair.”
I undressed slowly, and then, stepping over the sleeping girl, I stretched myself out against the wall, turning my back on temptation.
In this position I remained for a long time without going to sleep, when suddenly my neighbor woke up. She opened her eyes with astonishment, and still with that discontented look in them; then, perceiving that she was undressed, she got up, and calmly put on her nightgown with as much indifference as if I had not been present.
Returning, she did not trouble herself at all about me, and immediately went quietly to sleep again with her head resting on her right arm.
As for me, I began to meditate on human weakness and fatuity, and then I went to sleep also.
She got up early, like a woman who is used to work in the morning. She woke me up 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 toilet-table, and in a moment she emptied all the scent that remained in my bottles. She certainly also used some water, but very little.
When she was quite dressed, she sat down on her box again, and holding one knee between her hands, she seemed to be thinking.
At that moment I first pretended to notice her, and said:
“Good morning, Francesca.”
Without seeming in at all a better temper than the previous night, she murmured, “Good morning.”
When I asked her whether she slept well, she nodded Yes, and jumping out of bed, I went and kissed her.
She turned her face towards me like a child who is being kissed against its will; but I took her tenderly in my arms, and gently put my lips on her large eyes, which she closed with evident distaste under my kisses on her fresh cheeks 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 try to please you. Let us see; what shall we do today?”
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 generally 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 take a carriage, for a drive in the neighborhood.”
We breakfasted nearly in silence and then started. I dragged Francesca from palace to palace, and she either looked at nothing or merely just glanced carelessly at all the various masterpieces. Paul followed us, growling all sorts of disagreeable things. Then we all three took a silent drive into the country and returned to dinner.
The next day it was the same thing and the next day again; so 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 yielded to my desires, the very indifference of her caresses. A secret bond, that mysterious bond of animal love, the secret attachment of that possession which does not satiate, bound me to her. I told Paul so, quite frankly. He treated me as if I had been 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 desires, all my demands, and all my propositions with her perpetual Che mi fa, or with her no less perpetual Mica.
My friend got 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 to 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 for, most likely. You are not going to bring a man all the way from Paris in order to shut him up at an hotel in Genoa with an Italian adventuress.”
When I told him, very calmly, to return to Paris, he exclaimed that he was going 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, and 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 procure her so little pleasure? 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 was not one of those who make a living by any profession of venal love. She rather seemed to me to be a girl of poor family who had been seduced and taken away, and then cast aside and lost. What did she think was going to 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 get 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 seduced, overcome by a youthful, healthy, powerful charm, which emanated from her sweet-smelling person and from the robust 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 July 11. 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 my mistress and my friend; and in order to do this I gave myself a large 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 all three were following 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 tomorrow; I must go and see some of my relations.”
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; then, as I remained in bed, she sat down at the foot of it, and said in a constrained and hesitating voice:
“If I do not come back to-night, shall you come and fetch me?”
“Most certainly I shall,” was my reply. “Where must I come to?”
Then she explained: “You must go into the Street Victor–Emmanuel, down the Passage Falene, and go into the furniture shop at the bottom, in a court, and there you must ask for Mme. Rondoli — That is where it is.”
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 chance, and bolt; as it is, our time is up. Two days, more or less, make no difference. Let us start 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 such a manner, after having lived with her for nearly three weeks. At any rate, I ought to say good-bye 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 thrown you over, 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 Mme. Rondoli live here, please?’ ‘No, Sir.’ 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 tomorrow morning I shall start 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 started 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 well-educated man ought to see Florence, Venice, and Rome. It 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 scarcely 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 and find her, and if I should not succeed, I would 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, etc., etc., 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. A fat woman opened it, who must have been very handsome, but who actually was only very dirty. Although she was too fat, she still bore the lines of majestic beauty; her untidy hair fell over her forehead and shoulders, and one fancied one could see her fat body 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 scarcely 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 traveling 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, Sir, 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: “O! She is very happy now, very happy. When you met her in the train she was very miserable, for her lover had just left her at Marseilles, and she was coming back, 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 met her in the street here, and fell in love with her out of hand. But you will take a glass of syrup? — 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 syrup.
“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, Sir.”
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, with her hair hanging down, and whose youthful figure showed 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 employé 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 done 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 done with her sister the year previously.
And she did not go home that night, although the door was to be closed at ten o’clock!
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 the other.
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 Mme. Rondoli has two more daughters.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58