Mr. Harry Desborough lodged in the fine and grave old quarter of Bloomsbury, roared about on every side by the high tides of London, but itself rejoicing in romantic silences and city peace. It was in Queen Square that he had pitched his tent, next door to the Children’s Hospital, on your left hand as you go north: Queen Square, sacred to humane and liberal arts, whence homes were made beautiful, where the poor were taught, where the sparrows were plentiful and loud, and where groups of patient little ones would hover all day long before the hospital, if by chance they might kiss their hand or speak a word to their sick brother at the window. Desborough’s room was on the first floor and fronted to the square; but he enjoyed besides, a right by which he often profited, to sit and smoke upon a terrace at the back, which looked down upon a fine forest of back gardens, and was in turn commanded by the windows of an empty room.
On the afternoon of a warm day, Desborough sauntered forth upon this terrace, somewhat out of hope and heart, for he had been now some weeks on the vain quest of situations, and prepared for melancholy and tobacco. Here, at least, he told himself that he would be alone; for, like most youths, who are neither rich, nor witty, nor successful, he rather shunned than courted the society of other men. Even as he expressed the thought, his eye alighted on the window of the room that looked upon the terrace; and to his surprise and annoyance, he beheld it curtained with a silken hanging. It was like his luck, he thought; his privacy was gone, he could no longer brood and sigh unwatched, he could no longer suffer his discouragement to find a vent in words or soothe himself with sentimental whistling; and in the irritation of the moment, he struck his pipe upon the rail with unnecessary force. It was an old, sweet, seasoned briar-root, glossy and dark with long employment, and justly dear to his fancy. What, then, was his chagrin, when the head snapped from the stem, leaped airily in space, and fell and disappeared among the lilacs of the garden?
He threw himself savagely into the garden chair, pulled out the story-paper which he had brought with him to read, tore off a fragment of the last sheet, which contains only the answers to correspondents, and set himself to roll a cigarette. He was no master of the art; again and again, the paper broke between his fingers and the tobacco showered upon the ground; and he was already on the point of angry resignation, when the window swung slowly inward, the silken curtain was thrust aside, and a lady, somewhat strangely attired, stepped forth upon the terrace.
‘Senorito,’ said she, and there was a rich thrill in her voice, like an organ note, ‘Senorito, you are in difficulties. Suffer me to come to your assistance.’
With the words, she took the paper and tobacco from his unresisting hands; and with a facility that, in Desborough’s eyes, seemed magical, rolled and presented him a cigarette. He took it, still seated, still without a word; staring with all his eyes upon that apparition. Her face was warm and rich in colour; in shape, it was that piquant triangle, so innocently sly, so saucily attractive, so rare in our more northern climates; her eyes were large, starry, and visited by changing lights; her hair was partly covered by a lace mantilla, through which her arms, bare to the shoulder, gleamed white; her figure, full and soft in all the womanly contours, was yet alive and active, light with excess of life, and slender by grace of some divine proportion.
‘You do not like my cigarrito, Senor?’ she asked. ‘Yet it is better made than yours.’ At that she laughed, and her laughter trilled in his ear like music; but the next moment her face fell. ‘I see,’ she cried. ‘It is my manner that repels you. I am too constrained, too cold. I am not,’ she added, with a more engaging air, ‘I am not the simple English maiden I appear.’
‘Oh!’ murmured Harry, filled with inexpressible thoughts.
‘In my own dear land,’ she pursued, ‘things are differently ordered. There, I must own, a girl is bound by many and rigorous restrictions; little is permitted her; she learns to be distant, she learns to appear forbidding. But here, in free England — oh, glorious liberty!’ she cried, and threw up her arms with a gesture of inimitable grace —‘here there are no fetters; here the woman may dare to be herself entirely, and the men, the chivalrous men — is it not written on the very shield of your nation, honi soit? Ah, it is hard for me to learn, hard for me to dare to be myself. You must not judge me yet awhile; I shall end by conquering this stiffness, I shall end by growing English. Do I speak the language well?’
‘Perfectly — oh, perfectly!’ said Harry, with a fervency of conviction worthy of a graver subject.
‘Ah, then,’ she said, ‘I shall soon learn; English blood ran in my father’s veins; and I have had the advantage of some training in your expressive tongue. If I speak already without accent, with my thorough English appearance, there is nothing left to change except my manners.’
‘Oh no,’ said Desborough. ‘Oh pray not! I— madam —’
‘I am,’ interrupted the lady, ‘the Senorita Teresa Valdevia. The evening air grows chill. Adios, Senorito.’ And before Harry could stammer out a word, she had disappeared into her room.
He stood transfixed, the cigarette still unlighted in his hand. His thoughts had soared above tobacco, and still recalled and beautified the image of his new acquaintance. Her voice re-echoed in his memory; her eyes, of which he could not tell the colour, haunted his soul. The clouds had risen at her coming, and he beheld a new-created world. What she was, he could not fancy, but he adored her. Her age, he durst not estimate; fearing to find her older than himself, and thinking sacrilege to couple that fair favour with the thought of mortal changes. As for her character, beauty to the young is always good. So the poor lad lingered late upon the terrace, stealing timid glances at the curtained window, sighing to the gold laburnums, rapt into the country of romance; and when at length he entered and sat down to dine, on cold boiled mutton and a pint of ale, he feasted on the food of gods.
Next day when he returned to the terrace, the window was a little ajar, and he enjoyed a view of the lady’s shoulder, as she sat patiently sewing and all unconscious of his presence. On the next, he had scarce appeared when the window opened, and the Senorita tripped forth into the sunlight, in a morning disorder, delicately neat, and yet somehow foreign, tropical, and strange. In one hand she held a packet.
‘Will you try,’ she said, ‘some of my father’s tobacco — from dear Cuba? There, as I suppose you know, all smoke, ladies as well as gentlemen. So you need not fear to annoy me. The fragrance will remind me of home. My home, Senor, was by the sea.’ And as she uttered these few words, Desborough, for the first time in his life, realised the poetry of the great deep. ‘Awake or asleep, I dream of it: dear home, dear Cuba!’
‘But some day,’ said Desborough, with an inward pang, ‘some day you will return?’
‘ Never!’ she cried; ‘ah, never, in Heaven’s name!’
‘Are you then resident for life in England?’ he inquired, with a strange lightening of spirit.
‘You ask too much, for you ask more than I know,’ she answered sadly; and then, resuming her gaiety of manner: ‘But you have not tried my Cuban tobacco,’ she said.
‘Senorita,’ said he, shyly abashed by some shadow of coquetry in her manner, ‘whatever comes to me — you — I mean,’ he concluded, deeply flushing, ‘that I have no doubt the tobacco is delightful.’
‘Ah, Senor,’ she said, with almost mournful gravity, ‘you seemed so simple and good, and already you are trying to pay compliments — and besides,’ she added, brightening, with a quick upward glance, into a smile, ‘you do it so badly! English gentlemen, I used to hear, could be fast friends, respectful, honest friends; could be companions, comforters, if the need arose, or champions, and yet never encroach. Do not seek to please me by copying the graces of my countrymen. Be yourself: the frank, kindly, honest English gentleman that I have heard of since my childhood and still longed to meet.’
Harry, much bewildered, and far from clear as to the manners of the Cuban gentlemen, strenuously disclaimed the thought of plagiarism.
‘Your national seriousness of bearing best becomes you, Senor,’ said the lady. ‘See!’ marking a line with her dainty, slippered foot, ‘thus far it shall be common ground; there, at my window-sill, begins the scientific frontier. If you choose, you may drive me to my forts; but if, on the other hand, we are to be real English friends, I may join you here when I am not too sad; or, when I am yet more graciously inclined, you may draw your chair beside the window and teach me English customs, while I work. You will find me an apt scholar, for my heart is in the task.’ She laid her hand lightly upon Harry’s arm, and looked into his eyes. ‘Do you know,’ said she, ‘I am emboldened to believe that I have already caught something of your English aplomb? Do you not perceive a change, Senor? Slight, perhaps, but still a change? Is my deportment not more open, more free, more like that of the dear “British Miss” than when you saw me first?’ She gave a radiant smile; withdrew her hand from Harry’s arm; and before the young man could formulate in words the eloquent emotions that ran riot through his brain — with an ‘Adios, Senor: good-night, my English friend,’ she vanished from his sight behind the curtain.
The next day Harry consumed an ounce of tobacco in vain upon the neutral terrace; neither sight nor sound rewarded him, and the dinner-hour summoned him at length from the scene of disappointment. On the next it rained; but nothing, neither business nor weather, neither prospective poverty nor present hardship, could now divert the young man from the service of his lady; and wrapt in a long ulster, with the collar raised, he took his stand against the balustrade, awaiting fortune, the picture of damp and discomfort to the eye, but glowing inwardly with tender and delightful ardours. Presently the window opened, and the fair Cuban, with a smile imperfectly dissembled, appeared upon the sill.
‘Come here,’ she said, ‘here, beside my window. The small verandah gives a belt of shelter.’ And she graciously handed him a folding-chair.
As he sat down, visibly aglow with shyness and delight, a certain bulkiness in his pocket reminded him that he was not come empty-handed.
‘I have taken the liberty,’ said he, ‘of bringing you a little book. I thought of you, when I observed it on the stall, because I saw it was in Spanish. The man assured me it was by one of the best authors, and quite proper.’ As he spoke, he placed the little volume in her hand. Her eyes fell as she turned the pages, and a flush rose and died again upon her cheeks, as deep as it was fleeting. ‘You are angry,’ he cried in agony. ‘I have presumed.’
‘No, Senor, it is not that,’ returned the lady. ‘I—’ and a flood of colour once more mounted to her brow —‘I am confused and ashamed because I have deceived you. Spanish,’ she began, and paused —‘Spanish is, of course, my native tongue,’ she resumed, as though suddenly taking courage; ‘and this should certainly put the highest value on your thoughtful present; but alas, sir, of what use is it to me? And how shall I confess to you the truth — the humiliating truth — that I cannot read?’
As Harry’s eyes met hers in undisguised amazement, the fair Cuban seemed to shrink before his gaze. ‘Read?’ repeated Harry. ‘You!’
She pushed the window still more widely open with a large and noble gesture. ‘Enter, Senor,’ said she. ‘The time has come to which I have long looked forward, not without alarm; when I must either fear to lose your friendship, or tell you without disguise the story of my life.’
It was with a sentiment bordering on devotion, that Harry passed the window. A semi-barbarous delight in form and colour had presided over the studied disorder of the room in which he found himself. It was filled with dainty stuffs, furs and rugs and scarves of brilliant hues, and set with elegant and curious trifles-fans on the mantelshelf, an antique lamp upon a bracket, and on the table a silver-mounted bowl of cocoa-nut about half full of unset jewels. The fair Cuban, herself a gem of colour and the fit masterpiece for that rich frame, motioned Harry to a seat, and sinking herself into another, thus began her history.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00