- CHAPTER XV Enter the Contessa
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Enter the Contessa
Made in a piece of nature's madness,
Too small, almost, for the life and gladness
That over-filled her."
HERE was a case of Mahomet, en route to pay his respects to the Mountain, being met halfway by the object of his pilgrimage; though to liken the Contessa di Ravello to a mountain is perhaps to brutalise a poetic license. She is a fairy of a woman, a pocket Venus. Gaetà is her name, and her sponsors in baptism must have been endowed with prophetic souls, for she is the very spirit of irresponsible, childlike gaiety.
Not that she has a sense of humour. There is all the difference in the world between a sense of humour and a sense of fun, and truth to tell, the Contessa had no more humour than a frolicsome kitten. She had always been in a frolic of some sort, when I had known her in Davos, whither she had gone because she thought it would be "what you call a lark "; and she was in a frolic now, judging by her merry laughter when she saw me.
Her great wine-brown eyes were laughing, her full, cupid-lips were laughing, and more than all, the two deep, round dimples in the olive cheeks were laughing. Even the little rings of black hair on her | | 177 low forehead seemed to quiver with mirth, as her head moved with quick, bird-like gestures. She was dressed all in grey, and the cut-steel buttons on her dress twinkled as if they too were in the joke.
"Fancy meeting you here, of all places!" she said, in her pretty English, lisping but correct. "It is a good gift from the saints. We have had such stupid adventures, and we have been so bored."
"We" were evidently the handsome, slightly moustached women of thirty-five, and the thin, darkly dour man of fifty who were with the Contessa in the carriage; and a moment later she had introduced me to the Baron and Baronessa di Nivoli. I echoed the name with some interest. "Have I the pleasure of meeting the inventor of the new air-ship which is so much talked about?" I asked.
"That is my brother Paolo," replied the Baron, unbending slightly.
"He will join us later," added the Baronessa, with a quick look at the pretty and rich little widow which betrayed to me a secret. She then turned a dark, disapproving gaze upon me which told another, and I could have laughed aloud. "They want to nobble my poor little Contessa for brother-aëronaut, and they don't countenance chance meetings with strange young men," I said to myself, greatly amused. "If they can see through the dust, and suspect in me a possible rival for the absent, they have sharp eyes, or keen imaginations, and I may be in for a little fun."
We were at the hotel door, and I was allowed to help the Contessa out, though the elder lady preferred the aid of the concierge. For the moment Gaetà had forgotten the claims of her companions, and remembered only mine. It is a butterfly way | | 178 of hers to forget easily, and flutter with delight in a new corner of the garden, just because it is new.
"You are staying here? How nice!" she exclaimed, without giving me time to answer. "We should have arrived last night, but we had an accident to our carriage--a broken wheel. It was coming down from the Hospice of St. Bernard, which we had been to visit--oh, not to please me, do not think it. It was the Baron, here. In dim ages his people and the saint were cousins, though the idea of a saint having cousins seems actually sacrilegious, doesn't it? I do not love monks, I only respect them, which is so disagreeable. But the Baron took us. Dio mio! I have no warm blood left. It was frozen up there. And then, that our carriage should have broken down at a little place--the wrong end of nowhere--Bourg St. Something! We had to stop all night. Fancy me without my maid, who was to meet me here. I do not know if my dress is not on wrong side before. Later, we all have to go on to Chamounix and then to Aix-les-Bains. I've taken a villa there for a month. You must come and see me."
Thus she chattered on as we entered the hotel, and then, suddenly, her bright eyes fell upon the Boy, who had retired near the stairway. There he stood, with a book in his hand, and an unwonted colour in his brown cheeks, glowing red under the strange blue jewels of his eyes.
"What a divine boy!" the Countess half whispered to me, not taking her gaze from him. "He is exactly like a wonderful painting by some old Master of my own dear country. What eyes! They are better and bigger sapphires than any I own, though I've some famous ones. And how strange | | 179 they are--looking out of his brown face, from under such black lashes, too. Oh, a picture, certainly. He is not like a modern, every-day boy, at all. He can't be English, of that I'm sure, and yet--"
"He is American," I said, when she paused thoughtfully, the Boy at his distance reading or pretending to read, as he stood. "But you are right. He is very far from being an every-day boy."
"You know him, then?"
"We've been travelling companions for days, and have got to be tremendous pals."
"How old is he?" asked the Contessa, a deep glow of interest and curiosity kindling in her warm brown eyes.
"I don't know. He has talked freely about himself only once or twice, though we've discussed together most other subjects under the sun."
"How deliciously mysterious. Mysterious! yes, that's the word for him. He has mysterious eyes; a mysterious face. There is a shadow upon it. That is part of the fascination, is it not? I am sure he is fascinating."
"Extraordinarily so. I have never met anyone at all like him."
"He might be a boy Tasso. But he has suffered; he is not a child any more, though his face is smooth as mine. He must be eighteen or nineteen?"
"I should give him less, though he has read and thought a tremendous lot for a boy."
"Men are not judges of age, thank heaven. Women are. I will have it that your friend is nineteen. I should be too silly to take an interest in him, were he less, if it were not motherly; and that | | 180 wouldn't be entertaining. You see, I am already twenty-two."
"You look eighteen," I said; and it was true. Widow as she was, it was not possible to think of the Contessa as a responsible, grown woman.
"I told you that you were no judge of age. I was married at eighteen, a widow at nineteen. Dio mio! but it all seems a long time ago, already! Lord Lane, you must introduce to me your friend the boy."
Here was a dilemma, but I got out of it by telling the truth, which is usually, in the end, the best policy, many wise opinions to the contrary notwithstanding. "You will laugh," I said, "but I don't know his name."
"True, nevertheless, like most things that seem impossible; nor does he know mine, unless he heard you speak it driving up to the hotel. He was at the door."
"Men are extraordinary! But, introduce him. You can manage somehow. It's not his name I care for. It is those eyes. I shall invite him to come and see me in Aix. Please bring him to me now. The Baron is arranging about our rooms, and there is sure to be a misunderstanding of some sort, as we had engaged for last night and did not come. The Baronessa? Oh, never mind; she had better listen to her husband. She is my friend, and is soon to be my guest, but she has got upon my nerves to-day."
Thus bidden, I could do no less than walk away down the hall to where the Boy stood with his book, leaning against the baluster.
"I've done all I could about the bag," I said.| | 181
"The people in the post-office seemed hopeful that the big reward would do the trick."
"Thank you. You are very good," he returned. Something in his tone made me look at him closely. There was a change in him, though for my life I could not have told what it was or why it had come; there was ice in his voice, though I had spent nearly two dusty, unwashed hours in his service, while he refreshed himself at leisure.
"I hope it will be all right," I went on, rather heavily. "Look here, that pretty little fairy would like to know you. She's the Contessa di Ravello. Come along and be introduced."
The Boy flung up his head, his blue eyes flashing.
"Why am I to be dragged at her chariot wheels?" he demanded.
"Oh, rot, my child. Don't put on airs. Men twice your age would snatch at such a chance."
"I can't tell what I may be capable of when I'm twice my age. It's difficult enough to know myself now. But I know--"
"Come on, do, like the dear Little Old Pal you really are," I cut in. "You don't want to put me in a false position, do you?. Besides, I'd like particularly to get your opinion on the Contessa. I may have to ask your advice about something connected with her, later."
This fetched him, though with not too good a grace. "You don't know my name," he said, with a return of impishness, as we walked together towards the Contessa.
"I think that you have the advantage of me in that way, now."
"If you call it an advantage. I had a presentiment you weren't plain mister, so I'm not surprised. | | 182 You may tell your Countess that my name is Laurence."
"Christian name or 'Pagan' name?"
"Make the Christian name Roy."
In another moment I was introducing Mr. Roy Laurence to the Contessa di Ravello; and as they stood eyeing each other, the fairy Gaetà pulsing with coquetry through all her hot-blooded Italian veins, the Boy aloof and critical, I was struck with the picture that the two figures made.
The Boy had three or four inches more of height than the Contessa, and looked almost tall beside her, though I had thought of him as small. Her round, dimpled face seemed no older than his oval brown one, in this moment of his gravity, and the haughty air of a young prince which he wore now, consciously or unconsciously, had a certain provoking charm for a spoiled beauty used to conquest. The big blue stars which lit his face expressed a resolve not to yield to any blandishment, and this no doubt piqued Gaetà, before whom all the boys and youths at Davos had gone down like grass before the scythe. Helen Blantock came after she had left the place, otherwise she might have had to fight for her rights as queen; but as it was, she had been without rivals and probably had known few dangerous ones elsewhere. Never had I seen her take as much real pains to be charming to a grown man, as she took with this silent boy, during the few moments that her friends spent in wrestling with the landlord. What lamps she lit in the windows of her eyes, suddenly raising their curtains on dazzling glances! What rosy flags she hung out in his honour, on dimpled cheeks; what rich display of pearls and coral her cupid-mouth gave him! but all in vain, so far as | | 183 any change in his cold young face showed. I had seen it warm for a gleam of light on the wing of a swooping bird, or an effect of cloud-shadow on a mountain, as it would not warm for this galaxy of bewitchments, and his quiet civility was but a sharper pin-prick, I should fancy, to a woman's vanity.
The little scene was not long in playing, however. Soon the Baronessa swept to her friend's side, and bore her away, like a large steam-tug making off against wind and tide with a dainty sailing yacht.
Ignoring the subject of the lady, Boy began questioning me about the business of the bag, thanking me again more cordially for what I had done, when I had answered.
"I must have a bath and change now," said I at last. "At what time shall we dine?"
"We? You will be dining with your new friend."
"She's an old friend, if one counts by time of acquaintance, and charming, as you've seen; still, we're rather tired perhaps, and not up to dinner pitch. I'm not sure but we'd get on better alone together, you and I."
"I've taken a private sitting-room, and I'm going to dine there."
"Will you have me with you?"
"If you like."
"It will be a good opportunity to get your advice."
The Boy did not answer; but when we sat at table, and had talked for a while of indifferent things, he said abruptly: "What were you going to ask me?"
"Your advice as to whether it would be well to fall in love with the little Contessa."| | 184
"Has she money?"
"Hang it all, do you think I'm the kind of man to want a woman for her money?"
"I've known you about six days."
"Don't hedge. Can't six days tell you as much as six years--such six days as we've had?"
"Yes. It's true. I would stake a good deal that you're not that kind of man. I don't know why I said it. Something hateful made me. The Contessa is very pretty. Could you--fall in love with her?"
"It would be an interesting experiment to try."
"If you think so, you must already have begun."
"No, not yet. I assure you I have an open mind. But it's an odd coincidence meeting her like this. I was making the fact that she has a house at Monte Carlo an excuse for going down there--sooner or later--as an end to my journey. Now, she is to be in Chamounix, and she intends to invite us both, it seems, to visit her in Aix-les-Bains, where she has taken a villa."
The Boy looked at me suddenly, with a slight start. "She is going to Chamounix?"
"So she says."
"And--she will invite you to visit her at her villa in Aix-les-Bains."
"You, too. You said yesterday you wanted to go to Aix, as you had never been; and we planned an expedition by the mule-path up Mont Revard."
"I know. But--but would you visit the Contessa?"
"We might amuse ourselves. She would be well chaperoned, no doubt by the Baronessa. There's a brother of the Baron's in the background. Probably he'll turn up at Aix. Certainly he will if | | 185 his relatives have any control over his actions. He's no other, it turns out, than Paolo di Nivoli, the young Italian whose airship invention has been made a fuss about lately. It would be rather a joke to try and cut him out with the Contessa--if one could."
"Oh--cut him out." The Boy seemed thoughtful. "Though you aren't in love with her?"
"Will you go if I do--that is, if she really asks us?"
I expected him to flash out a refusal, but he brooded under a deep shadow of eyelashes for a while, looking half cross, half mischievous, and finally said: "I'll think it over."
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