- CHAPTER XIII Afternoon Calls
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I don't see where your eyes can stop."
OUR hotel had a big loggia, as large as a good-sized room, and we dined in it, with a gorgeous stage setting. The mountains floated in mid-sky, pearly pale, and magical under the rising moon. The little circle of light from our pink-shaded candles on the table (I say our, because Boy and I dined together) gave to the picture a bizarre effect, which French artists love to put on canvas; a blur of gold-and-rose artificial light, blending with the silver-green radiance of a full moon.
I don't know what we had to eat, except that there were trout from the river, and luscious strawberries and cream; but I know that the dinner seemed perfect, and that the head waiter, a delightful person, brought us champagne, with a long-handled saucepan wrapped in an immaculate napkin, to do duty as an ice-pail. I wondered why I had not come long ago to this place, named in honour of Augustus Cæsar, and why everybody else did not come. The ex-Brat was in the same frame of mind. We talked of more things than are dreamed of in philosophy--(other people's philosophy)--and there was not a book which was a dear friend of mine that was not a friend of this strange child's.
144 The Princess PassesWe sat until the moon was high, and the candles low. I felt curiously happy and excited, a mood no doubt due in part to the climate of Aosta, in part to the discovery of a congenial spirit, where I had least expected to find one.
Last night, we had been, at best, on terms of armed neutrality; to-night we were friends, and would continue friends, though we parted to-morrow. But parting was not what we thought of at the moment. On the contrary, half to our surprise, we found ourselves planning to see Aosta in each other's company.
After ten o'clock, when, deliciously fatigued, I was on my way to my room along a great arcaded balcony which ran the length of the house, I met Joseph, lying in wait for me. My conscience pricked. I had forgotten to send the poor, tired fellow definite instructions for the next day. He had come to solicit them, but, if I could judge by moonlight, he looked far from jaded; indeed, he had an air of alertness, for him almost of gaiety.
"You and Finois can have a rest to-morrow and the day after," said I, "while I do some sightseeing. I hear that I shall need one day at least for the town, and another for a drive to the châteaux and show-places of the neighbourhood. I hope you will be able to amuse yourself."
"Monsieur must not think of me. I shall do very well," dutifully replied Joseph.
"It is a pity that you and Innocentina do not get on. Otherwise--"
145 Afternoon Callsam not even sure that with good influences she might not improve. I have been talking to her, Monsieur, of religion. She is black Catholic, and I Protestant, but I think that some of my arguments made a certain impression upon her mind."
After this, I gave myself no further anxiety about Joseph's to-morrow, but went to bed, and dreamed of fighting for the Boy's life, Gulliver-like, against a band of infuriated Brownies.
My first morning thought was to look out of all four windows at the mountains; my next, to ring for a bath.
Now, as a rule, your morning tub is a function you are not supposed to describe in detail; but not to picture the ceremony as performed at Aosta, is to pass by the place without giving the proper dash of local colour.
I rang. A girl appeared who struck me as singularly beautiful, but I discovered later that all girls are more or less beautiful at Aosta. The propriety of this morning visit was insured by the white cap, which was, so to speak, an adequate chaperon. On my request for a bath, the beauty looked somewhat agitated, but, after reflection, said that she would fetch one, and vanished, tripping lightly along the balcony.
Twenty minutes then passed, and at the end of that time the young lady returned, almost obliterated by an enormous linen sheet which engulfed her like an avalanche. She was accompanied by a man and a boy, staggering under a strange object which resembled a vast arm-chair, of the grandfather variety. When placed on the floor, I became aware that it was a kind of cross between a throne and a bath-tub, and, having seen the huge sheet flung over
146 The Princess Passesit, I still rested in doubt as to the latter's purpose. The man and boy, who had not stood upon the order of their going, returned after an embarrassing absence, with pails of water, the contents of which, to my surprise, they flung upon the sheet.
I tried to explain that, if this were a bath, I preferred it without the family linen, but the femme de chambre seemed so shocked at these protestations, that I ceased uttering them, and determined to make the best of things as they stood.
When I was again alone, after several rehearsals I found a way of accommodating the human form to the hybrid receptacle, and was amazed at its luxuriousness. The secret of this lay in the sheet, which was fragrant of lavender, and protected the body from contact with a cold, base metal which hundreds of other bodies must have touched before.
"'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands," might be said of a hotel bath-tub as well as of a stolen purse; and having once known the linen-lined bath of Aosta, I was promptly spoiled for common, un-lined tubs. This was a lesson not to form hasty opinions; but being a normal man, I shall no doubt continue to do so until the day of my death.
The Boy and I broke our fast together on the loggia, which was even more entertaining as a salle-à-manger by morning than by night. The coffee was exquisite; the hot, foaming milk had but lately been drawn from its original source, a little biscuit-coloured Alderney with the pleading eyes of that fair nymph stricken to heiferhood by jealous Juno. The strawberries and figs came to the table from the hotel garden, and so did the luscious roses, which filled a bowl in the centre of our small white table.
147 Afternoon Calls
This was Arcadia. The very simplicities of the hotel endeared it to our hearts, and there was no real comfort lacking which we could have obtained in London or in Paris.
After breakfast we set off with our cameras to the town, a walk of ten or fifteen minutes. It was strange, in this pilgrimage of mine, how often I found myself running back into the Feudal or Middle Ages, as far removed from the familiar bustle of modern days as if an iron door had been shut and padlocked behind me.
There was little of the Twentieth Century in Aosta (named by Augustus the "Rome of the Alps"), except the monument to "Le Roi Chasseur," and the bookshops, which seemed extraordinarily well supplied with the best literature of all countries. The type of face we met was primitive; scarcely one which would have been out of place on some old Roman coin. Here, at the end of a narrow, shadowed street, where St. Anselm first saw the light (it must have been with difficulty) we came upon a magnificent archway, built to do honour to Augustus Cæsar's defeat of the brave Salasses, four and twenty years before the world had a Saviour. A few steps further on, and we were under the majestic mass of the Porta Pretoria; or we were crossing a Roman bridge, or gazing at the ruins of Roman ramparts. Or, we lost our way in searching for the amphitheatre, and found ourselves suddenly skipping over centuries into the Middle Ages, represented by the mysterious Tour Bramafam, the Tour des Prisons, or the Tour du Lepreux, round which Xavier Maistre wrote his pathetic dialogue. Then, there was the cathedral with its extraordinary painted façade, like a great coloured picture-book;
148 The Princess Passesand the tall cross, straddling a spring in a paved street, put up in thanksgiving by the Aostans when they joyfully saw Calvin's back for the last time.
We spent all day in sightseeing, and had another moonlight evening on the loggia. We were great pals now, Boy and I. I had never met anyone in the least like him. At one moment he was a human boy, almost a child; at another his brain leaped beyond mine, and he became a poet or a philosopher; again he was an elfin sprite, a creature for whom Puck was the one thinkable name. There was a single thing only, about which you could always be sure. He would never be twice the same.
Still, though we were friends, "Boy" and "Man" we remained. He kept his name a secret, and he had forbidden me to mention mine. Nor had he spoken of his route or destination, after Aosta. As to this I was curious, for I knew now that it would be a wrench to part with the strange little being whose ears I had tingled to box three days (or was it three years?) ago. Already he had done me good; and though I had hardly reached the point of confessing as much to myself, as a plain matter of fact I would not have exchanged his quaint companionship for that of my lost love. How she would have hated this idyllic Arcadia! How triste she would have been; how weary after a day's tour among relics of past ages; and how much she would have preferred Bond Street to the Arch of Augustus, or the park to our snow mountains and green valley! Even Davos she would have found intolerable had it not been for the tobogganing, the dances and the theatricals, in all of which she had played a leading part. Deep down in the darkest corner of
149 Afternoon Callsmy soul, I now knew that I would not have fallen in love with Helen Blantock had I first met her in Aosta.
The Boy and I agreed that our head waiter was one of the nicest men we had ever met, and when he pledged his personal honour that a day's wandering among neighbouring castles would be "very repaying," we determined to bolt the five he most recommended in one gulp, on our second and last afternoon. If he could, he would have sent us spinning like teetotums from one concentric ring of historic châteaux to another, until goodness knows how far from Aosta, Finois, Souris, and Fanny-anny, we should have ended. He would also have despatched us on a two or three days' excursion to Courmayeur; and I fear that his respect for us went down like mercury in a chilled thermometer, when he understood that we had not come to the country to do any of the famous climbs. He named so many, dear to the hearts of my Alpine Club acquaintances, that it would have taken us well into the new year to accomplish half; and he accepted with mild, disapproving resignation our fiat that there were other parts of the world worth seeing.
As we had to cover a radius of many miles, in our rounds of visits at the few sample châteaux we had selected from the waiter's list, we decided to spare our legs and those of the animals. It was hardly playing the game we had set out to play--we two strangely-met friends--to amble conventionally from show-house to show-house, in a carriage, with guide-books in our hands, like everyday tourists; nevertheless, we did this unworthy thing. Perhaps, therefore, I deserved the punishment which fell upon me.
150 The Princess Passes
Little did I dream, when I flippantly spoke of our expedition as "driving out to pay calls," how nearly my thoughtless words were to be realised. We started immediately after an early déjeuner, sitting side by side in a little low-swung carriage, a superior phaeton, or poor relation of a victoria. The day was hot, but a delicious breeze came to us from the snow mountains, and there was a peculiar buoyancy in the air.
Our first castle was Sarre, the Château Royal,an enormous brown building with a disproportionately high tower. This hunting-lodge of the King would have been grimly ugly, were it not for its rocky throne, high above the river bed, and its background of glistening white mountains. The huge pile looked like a sleeping dragon with its hundreds of window-eyes close-lidded, and I could not imagine it an amusing place for a house party. I was glad that the Boy was not animated with that wild mania for squeezing the last drop from the orange of sightseeing which makes some travelling companions so depressing. The castle was closed to visitors, yet many people would have insisted on climbing the steep hill for the barren satisfaction of saying that they had been there. I rejoiced that my little Pal was not one of these; but I should have been more prudent had I waited.
We drove on, after a pause for inspection, along a road which would have rejoiced the motor-loving heart of Jack Winston, and I made a note to tell him what a magnificent tour he might have in this enchanted country one day with his car, tooling down from Milan. As I mentally arranged my next letter to the Winstons, the Boy gave a little cry of delight. "Oh, what a queer, delightful place!
151 Afternoon CallsIt's all towers, just held together by a thread of castle. It must be Aymaville."
I looked up and beheld on a high hill an extraordinary château, something like four chess castles grouped together at the corners of a square heap of dice. It does not sound an attractive description, yet the place deserved that adjective. It was charming, and wonderfully "liveable," among its vineyards, commanding such a view as is given to few show-places in the world.
"The descendants of the original family have restored it, and live there, don't they?" asked the Boy in Italian of the cocher.
The man answered that this was the case, and was inspired by my evil genius to enquire if ces messieurs would like to go over the château.
"Is it allowed?" the Boy questioned eagerly.
"But certainly. Shall I drive up to the house? It will be only an all little ten minutes."
Without waiting for my answer, the Boy took my consent for granted, and said yes.
Instantly we left the broad white road, and began winding up a narrow, steep, and stony way, among vineyards. The cocker's all little ten minutes lengthened into half an hour, but at last we halted before a garden gate--a high, uncompromising, reserved-looking gate.
"The fellow must be mistaken," said I. "This place has not the air of encouraging visitors;" but, before the words were out of my mouth, the enterprising cocker had rung the gate bell.
152 The Princess Passeswould I have whipped up our fat, barrel-shaped nag, and driven into the nearest rabbit-hole, but it was too late. The gardener took the enquiry as to whether visitors were admitted, with the gravity he would have given to a question in the catechism: Is your name N. or M.? Can one see your master's house?
Oh, without doubt, one could see the house.Would les messieurs kindly accompany him? His aspect wept, and mine (unless it belied me) copied his. "Isn't it hateful?" I asked, sotto voce, of the Boy, expecting sympathy which I did not get. "No, I think it's great fun," said he.
"But I'm sure they are not in the habit of showing the house. You can tell by the man's manner. He's nonplussed. I should think no one has ever had the cheek to apply for permission before."
"Then they ought to be complimented because we have."
I was silenced, though far from convinced; but if you have made an engagement with an executioner, it is a point of honour not to sneak off and leave him in the lurch, when he has taken the trouble to sharpen his axe, and put on his red suit and mask for your benefit.
We arrived, after a walk through a pretty garden, upon a terrace where there was a marvellous view. The gardener showed it to us solemnly, we pacing after him all round the château, as if we played a game. At the open front door we were left alone for a few minutes, heavy with suspense, while our guide held secret conclave with a personable woman who was no doubt a housekeeper. Astonished, but civil, with dignified Italian courtesy she finally
153 Afternoon Callsinvited us in, and I was coward enough to let the Boy lead, I following with a casual air, meant to show that I had been dragged into this business against my will; that I was, in fact, the tail of a comet which must go where the comet leads.
Everywhere, inside the castle, were traces that the family had fled with precipitation. Here was a bicycle leaning abject against a wall; there, an open book thrown on the floor; here, a fallen chair; there, a dropped piece of sewing.
Once or twice in England, I had stayed in a famous show-house, and my experience on the public Thursdays there had taught me what these people were enduring now. At Waldron Castle we had been hunted from pillar to post; if we darted from the hall into a drawing-room, the public would file in before we could escape to the boudoir; the lives of foxes in the hunting season could have been little less disturbed than ours, and we were practically only safe in our own or each other's bedrooms--indeed, any port was precious in a storm.
By the time that the Boy and I had been led, like stalled oxen, through a long series of living-rooms, I knowing that the rightful inhabitants were panting in wardrobes, my nerves were shattered. I admired everything, volubly but hastily, and broke into fireworks of adjectives, always edging a little nearer to the exit, though not, I regret to say, invariably aided by the Boy. He, indeed, seemed to find an impish pleasure in my discomfiture.
During the round, I was dimly conscious that the entire staff of servants, most of them maids, and embarrassingly beautiful, flitted after us like the ghosts who accompanied Dante and his guide on their tour
154 The Princess Passesof the Seven Circles. As, at last, we returned to the square entrance hall, they melted out of sight, still like shadows, and I had a final moment of extreme anguish when, at the door, the housekeeper refused the ten francs I attempted to press into her haughty Italian palm.
"No more afternoon calls on châteaux for me, after thatexperience," I gasped, when we were safely seated in the homelike vehicle which I had not sufficiently appreciated before.
"Oh, I shall be disappointed if you won't go with me to the Château of St. Pierre which we saw in the photograph--that quaint mass of towers and pinnacles, on the very top of a peaked rock," said the Boy. "I've been looking forward to it more than to anything else, but I shan't have courage to do it alone."
"Courage?" I echoed. "After the brazen way in which you stalked through the scattered belongings of the family at Aymaville, you would stop at nothing."
"In other words, I suppose you think me a typical Yankee boy? But I really was nervous, and inclined to apologise to somebody for being alive. That's why I can't go through another such ordeal without company; yet I wouldn't miss this eleventh- century castle for a bag of your English sovereigns."
"If only it had been left alone, and not restored!" I groaned." In that case we should meet no one but bats."
"We? Then you will go with me?"
"I suppose so," I sighed. "It can't add more than a dozen grey hairs, and what are they among so many?
155 Afternoon Calls
A few kilometres further on we reached the "bizarre monticule," from which sprouted a still more bizarre château. From our low level, it was impossible to tell where the rock stopped, and where the castle began, so deftly had man seized every point of vantage offered by Nature--and "points" they literally were.
The ascent from the road to the château was much like climbing a fire-escape to the top of a New York sky-scraper, but we earned the right to cry "Excelsior!" at last, had we not by that moment been speechless. History now repeated itself. I rang; the castle gate was opened, but this time by a major-domo, who had already in some marvellous way learned that strangers might be expected.
Never was so appallingly hospitable a man, and I trusted that even the Boy suffered from his kindness. Madame la Baronne, who was away for the afternoon, would chide him if guests were allowed to leave her house without refreshment. Eat we must, and drink we must, in the beautiful hall evidently used as a sitting-room by the absent châtelaine. Her wine and her cakes were served on an ancient silver tray, almost as old as the family traditions, and it was not until we had done to both such justice as the major-domo thought fair that he would consent to let us go further.
The house was really of superlative interest, though spoiled here and there by eccentric modern decoration. Much of the window glass had remained intact through centuries; the walls were twelve feet thick; the oak-beamed ceilings magnificent, and the secret stairways and rooms in the thickness of the walls, bewildering; but when our conductor began leading us into the bedrooms in
156 The Princess Passesdaily use by the ladies of the castle, my gorge rose. "This is awful," I said. "I can't go on. What if Madame la Baronne returns and finds a strange man and a boy in her bedroom? Good heavens, now he's opening the door of the bath!"
"We must go on," whispered the Boy, convulsed with silent laughter. "If we don't, the major-domo won't understand our scruples. He'll think we're tired, and don't appreciate the castle. It would never do to hurt his feelings, when he has been so kind."
"To the bitter end, then," I answered desperately; and no sooner were the words out of my mouth than the bitter end came. It consisted of a collision with the Baronne's dressing-jacket, which hung from a hook, and tapped me on the shoulder with one empty frilled sleeve, in soft admonition. I could bear no more. One must draw the line somewhere, and I drew the line at intruding upon ladies' dressing-jackets in their most sacred fastnesses.
If I had been a woman, my pent-up emotion at this moment would have culminated in hysterics, but being a man, I merely bolted, stumbling, as I fled, over my absent hostess' bedroom slippers. I scuttled down a winding flight of tower stairs, broke incontinently into a lighted region which turned out to be a kitchen, startled the cook, apologised incoherently, and somehow found myself, like Alice in Wonderland, back in the great entrance hall. There, starting at every sound, lest a returning family party should catch me "lurking," I awaited the Boy.
157 Afternoon Callsrefused pitilessly to do more than view the exterior of other châteaux. It was evening when we saw our white hotel once more, and a haze of starlight dusted the sky and all the blue distance with silver powder.
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