- CHAPTER XX The Great Paolo
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The Great Paolo
"Condescension is an excellent thing; but it is strange how one-sided the pleasure of it is."—R. L. STEVENSON.
AFTER I went to bed that night, I thought long and bitterly of the Little Pal's defection. Mentally, I addressed him as a young gazelle who had gladdened me with his soft dark eye, only to withdraw the light of that orb when it was most needed. As he apparently wished me to understand that, now he was on with Gaetà, he would fain be off with me, I would take him not only at his word, but before it. I would make an excuse to avoid stopping at the Contessa's villa, but would let him revel there alone in his glory; if one did not count the Di Nivolis.
Next morning we met by appointment at eight o'clock, and tried to behave as if nothing had happened; but I realised that I would have been a dead failure as an actor. I was grumpy and glum, and the coaxing, child-like ways which the Boy used for my beguiling were in vain. I did not say anything about my change of plans for Aix, but I brooded darkly upon them throughout the day, my mood eating away all pleasure in the charming scenery through which we passed, as a black worm eats into the heart of a cherry.
We had about twenty-nine kilometres to go, and by the time that the shadows were growing long and blue, we were approaching Aix-les-Bains. | | 236 Nature had gone back to the simple apparel of her youth, here. She was idyllic and charming, but we were not to ask of her any more sensational splendours, by way of costume, for she had not brought them with her in her dress-basket. There were near green hills, and far blue mountains, and certain rocky eminences in the middle distance, but nothing of grandeur. Poplars marched along with us on either side, primly on guard, and puritanical, though all the while their myriad little fingers seemed to twinkle over the keyboard of an invisible piano, playing a rapid waltz.
Then we came at last into Aix-les-Bains, where I had spent a merry month during a "long," in Oxford days. I had not been back since.
Already the height of the season was over, for it was September now, but the gay little watering-place seemed crowded still, and in our knicker-bockers, with our pack-mule and donkeys, and their attendants, we must have added a fantastic note to the dance-music which the very breezes play among tree-branches at light-hearted Aix.
"Pretty, isn't it?" I remarked indifferently, as we passed through some of, the most fashionable streets.
"Yes, very pretty," said the Boy. "But what is there that one misses? There's something--I'm not sure what. Is it that the place looks huddled together? You can't see its face, for its features. There are people like that. You are introduced them; you think them charming; yet when you've been away for a little while you couldn't for your life recall the shape of their nose, or mouth, or eyes. I feel it is going to be so with Aix, for me."
The villa which the Contessa had taken for a few | | 237 weeks before her annual flitting for Monte Carlo, was on the way to Marlioz, and we had been told exactly how to find it. Still silent as to my ultimate intentions, I tramped along with the Boy beside me, Joseph and Innocentina bringing up the rear. We would know the villa from the description we had been given, and having passed out of the town, we presently saw it; a little dun-coloured house, standing up slender and graceful among trees, like a charming grey rabbit on the watch by its hidden warren in the woods.
"I'm tired, aren't you?" asked the Boy. "I shall be glad to rest."
Now was my time. "I shan't be able to rest quite yet," said I, with a careless air. "I shall see you in, say 'How-de-do' to the Contessa, and then I must be off to the hotel where I used to stop. I remember it as delightful."
"Why," exclaimed the Boy blankly, "but I thought--I thought we were going to stay with the Contessa!"
"You are, but I'm not," I explained calmly. "My friends the Winstons may very likely turn up at the same hotel" (this was true on the principle that anything, no matter how unexpected, may happen); "and if they should, I'd want to be on the spot to give them a welcome. I wouldn't miss them for the world."
"The Contessa will be disappointed," said the Boy slowly.
"Oh no, I don't think so; and if she is, a little, you will easily console her."
"If I had dreamed that you wouldn't--" The Boy began his sentence hastily, then cut it as quickly short.| | 238
"I opened the gate. We passed in together, Joseph remaining outside according to my directions keeping Fanny-anny as well as Finois, while Innocentina followed the Boy with the pack-donkey.
A turn in the path brought us suddenly upon a lawn, surrounded with shrubbery which at first had hidden it from our view. There, under a huge crimson umbrella, rising flower-like by its long slender stem from the smooth-shaven grass, sat four persons in basket chairs, round a small tea table. Gaetà, in green as pale as Undine's draperies, sprang up with a glad little cry to greet us. The Baron and Baronessa smiled bleak "society smiles," and a handsome, fair young man frankly glared.
Evidently this was the great Paolo, master of the air and ships that sail therein; and as evidently he had heard of us.
Now I knew what the Baron had meant when he said to his wife: "Something shall happen, my dear." He had telegraphed a danger-signal to Paolo, and Paolo had lost not a moment in responding. This looked as if Paolo meant business in deadly earnest, where the Contessa was concerned; for how many dinners and medals must he not have missed in Paris, how many important persons in the air-world must he not have offended, by breaking his engagements in the hope of making one here?.
He was fair, with a Latin fairness, this famous young man. There was nothing Saxon or Anglo-Saxon about him. No one could possibly bestow him--in a guess--upon any other country than his native Italy. He was thirty-one or two perhaps, long-limbed and wolfishly spare, like his elder brother, whom he resembled thus only. He had an eagle nose, prominent red lips, sulky and sensuous, a | | 239 fine though narrow forehead under brown hair cut en brosse, a shade darker than the small, waxed moustache and pointed beard. His brows turned up slightly at the outer corners, and his heavy-lidded, tobacco-coloured eyes were bold, insolent, and passionate at the same time.
This was the man who wished to marry butterfly Gaetà, and who had come on the wings of the wind, in an airship "shod with fire," or in the train de luxe, to defend his rights against marauders.
His look, travelling from me to the Boy, and from the Boy to Innocentina and meek grey Souris, was so eloquent of contempt passing words, that I should have wanted to knock the sprawling flannelled figure out of the basket chair, if I had not wanted still more to yell with laughter.
He, the Boy and I were like dogs from rival kennels eyeing each other over, and thinking poorly of the other's points. Paolo di Nivoli was doubtless saying to himself what a splendid fellow he was, and how well dressed and famous; also how absurd it really would be to fear one of us dusty, knicker-bockered, thick-booted, panama-hatted louts, in the tournament of love. The donkey, too, with its pack, and Innocentina with her toadstool hat, must have added for the aëronaut the last touch of shame to our environment.
As for us,--if I may judge the Boy by myself,--we were totting up against the Italian his stiff crest of hair, for all the world like a toothbrush, rampant, gules; the smear of wax on the spikes of his unnecessarily fierce moustache; the ridiculous pin-points of his narrow brown shoes; the flaunting newness of his white flannels; the detestable little tucks in his shirt; his pink necktie.| | 240
In fact, each was despising the other for that on which the other prided himself.
All this passed in a glance, but the frigid atmosphere grew no warmer for the introduction hastily effected by Gaetà. To be sure, the Boy bowed, I bowed, and Paolo bowed the lowest of the trio, so that we saw the parting in his hair; but three honest snorts of defiance would have been no more unfriendly than our courtesies.
Not a doubt that Gaetà felt the electricity in the air, with the instinct of a woman; but with the instinct of a born flirt, she thrilled with it. Her colour rose; her warm eyes sparkled. She was perfectly happy; for--from her point of view--were there not here three male beings all secretly ready to fly at one another's throat for love of her; and what can a spoiled beauty want more?
She covered the little awkwardness with charming tact, for all her childishness; and then the excuses I made for my defection caused a diversion. She was so sorry; it was really too bad. I was going to desert her for other friends. Were not we friends, nice new friends, so much more interesting than old friends, whom you knew inside-out, like your frocks or your gloves? But surely, I would come often, very often to the villa--always for déjeunerand dîner, till the other friends arrived, was it not ? And I would not try to take Signor Boy (this was the name she had built on mine for him) away from her and the dear Baronessa?
I reassured her on this last point, promised everything she asked, and then got away as quickly as I could, lest I should disgrace myself by letting escape the wild laughter which I caged with difficulty.
It was arranged that we should all meet that even- | | 241 ing, after dinner, at the Villa des Fleurs, for one of those fêtes de nuit which Gaetà loved; and then I turned my back upon the group under the red umbrella, without a glance for the Boy.
I tramped into the town once more, with Joseph close behind, leading his own Finois and Innoncentina's Fanny, and found my way to the hotel, in its large shady garden, where coloured lamps were already beginning to glow in the twilight. Soon I had all the resources of civilisation at my command: a white-and-gold panelled suite, with a bath as big as a boudoir, and hot water enough to make of me a better man (I hoped) than Paolo di Nivoli.
Later I dined on the wide balcony, with flower-fragrance blowing towards me from the mysterious blue dusk of the garden. I ought, I said to myself, to be well-contented, for the dinner was excellent, and the surroundings a picture in aquarelles. Still, I had a vague sense of something very wrong, such as a well brought up motor car must feel when it has a screw loose, and can't explain to the chauffeur. What was it? The Boy's absence? Nonsense; he didn't want me, rather the contrary. Why should I want him? A few weeks ago I had not known that he existed. I drank a pint of dry champagne, iced almost to freezing point; but instead of hardening my heart against the ex-Brat, to my annoyance the sparkling liquid gradually but surely produced the opposite effect.
The fragrance of the flowers, the soft wind among the chestnut trees in the garden, the beauty of the night, all reproached me for my conduct to the young creature I had abandoned. What use was it to remind myself that I had merely taken a leaf out of his book, that I had even played into his hands, as | | 242 he seemed to desire? The answer would come that ,he was a boy, and I a man. No matter what he had done, I ought not to have left him to flirt with Gaetà under the jealous eyes of the Italian, who was "a whirlwind, and caught a woman off her feet."
It was too late now to think of this, for I had refused Gaetà's invitation to visit at her house, and having done so I could not ask for another, even if I would. Probably the Boy would know well enough how far to go, and to protect himself from consequences when he had reached the limit.
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