- CHAPTER XXII There is no Such Girl
|<< chapter 22||< chapter 1||chapter 24 >||chapter 31 >>|
There is no Such Girl
"She has forgotten my kisses, and I--have forgotten her name."—A. C. SWINBURNE.
I WENT early in the morning to the villa with the intention of culling the Boy like a wayside flower, and carrying him off to the lake. The hour was unearthly for a morning call, and the windows were still asleep, but I was spared the necessity of raising the echoes with an untimely peal of the bell. Under the red umbrella lounged the boy, reading with the appearance, at least, of nonchalance. For all he could tell, I might have failed in my mission, and have come to announce the hour fixed for deadly combat; but he was not even pale. Indeed, I had never seen him rosier, or brighter-eyed.
I sat down on the rustic seat beside him, and with a glance at the veiled windows of the villa, I remarked in a low voice, "It's all right."
"That goes without saying."
"Because you promised."
"Thanks for the compliment. Have you had your café au lait?"
"No. I got up early, and thought of walking round to your hotel to see you, but decided I wouldn't."
"I half expected you."| | 259
"I didn't want to seem too--importunate. I hoped you'd come here."
"Like a promising child, I've justified your hopes. Let's walk down to the Grand Port, to a garden restaurant I remember; and over our coffee, I'll tell you the story of my diplomatic coup. Meanwhile, we'll discuss Shakespeare and the musical glasses."
"Anything but the Contessa," said the Boy, springing up, and cramming his panama over his curls. "I shall breathe more freely on the other side of the gate, and I shan't consider myself out of the scrape until I'm out of her house for good."
In the street he drew fuller breaths, and with each yard of distance that we put between ourselves and the villa his eyes grew brighter and his step more airy.
I unfolded my plan for the morning, which was to take a trip up the lake to the Abbey of Hautecombe, and return in time for déjeuner, since, as a guest of the Contessa, the Boy could scarcely absent himself all day without conspicuous rudeness. "You'll have to be tied to the lady's apron strings, if she wants you knotted there, for the afternoon," said I. "But I'm going to have a telegram from my friends to meet them on the top of Mont Revard tomorrow, so if you want an excuse--"
"What, your friends the Wintstons?" he broke in, with one of the sudden flaming blushes that made him seem so young.
"Yes, why not?"
"They are coming to join you?"
"I told you they might turn up at any moment, and--"
"And now the moment has arrived. Then it has also arrived for us to say good-bye."| | 260
"Do you mean that?"
"Oh, don't think me ungrateful--or ungracious. I'm neither. But, in any case, we must sooner or later have reached the parting of the ways. You are bound to Monte Carlo. I have--the vaguest plans."
"I thought you said that your sister might be going there with friends."
"But my sister and I are--very different persons."
"Surely you would wish to meet her there?"
"It's rather undecided at present, anyhow," returned the Boy, his eyes bent on the ground as we walked, our steps less sprightly now. "There's only one thing settled, which is, that I can't go with you up Mont Revard to meet--people."
"There isn't the slightest chance of my meeting anyone there, friend Diogenes," I began. "I was only waiting for you to give me time to explain, since you're inclined to be obtuse, the difference between sending a telegram to yourself, and--"
"Oh, I see. You aren't going to meet a soul on Mont Revard?"
"Not even an astral body--by appointment. And the plan was made for your deliverance. Rather hard lines that you should kick at it."
He looked up, laughing and merry once more. "I won't kick again. Man, you are--well, you're different from other men. Yes, from every other man I've ever met."
"Am I to take that as praise?"
He nodded, his big eyes sending blue rays into mine.
"Thanks. Best man you ever met?"
Another nod, and more colour in his cheeks.| | 261
"Good enough to be introduced to your sister?"
"Good enough--even for that."
"What if I should fall in love with her?"
The Boy straightened his shoulders, after a slight start of surprise, and seemed to pull himself together. For a moment he was silent, as we walked on under the close-growing plane trees which lined the long, straight road to the Grand Port. Then at last he said, "You wouldn't."
"How can you tell that?"
"Because--she isn't--your style."
"You don't know my 'style' of girl."
"Oh, yes, I do. Don't you remember a talk we had, the first day we were friends? We told each other a lot of things. I can see that girl; the girl who--who--"
"Jilted me," I supplied. "Don't hesitate to call a spade a spade."
"A lovely, angelic-looking creature, typically English; golden hair; skin like cream and roses."
"The type has palled upon me," said I. "I know now that Molly Winston--my friend's wife--was right. I never really loved that girl. It was her popularity and my own vanity that I was in love with."
"Are you sure?"
"As sure as that I'm starving for my breakfast. If the young lady--she's married now, and I wish her all happiness--should appear before me at the end of this street, and sob out a confession of repentance for the past, it wouldn't in the least affect my appetite. I should tell her not to mind, and hurry on to join you at the corner."
"You would have forgotten by that time that there was a Me."| | 262
"I can't think of anyone or anything at the moment which would make me forget that," said I.
"Not she, nor any other pretty doll."
"An earthquake, then?"
"Nor an earthquake: for I should probably occupy myself in trying to save your life. To tell the honest truth, Little Pal, you've become a confirmed habit with me, and I confess that the thought of finishing this tramp without you gave me a distinct shock, when you flung it at my head. If you were open to the idea of adoption, I think I should have to adopt you, you know: for, now that I've got used to seeing you about, it seems to me that, as certain advertisements say of the articles they recommend, no home would be complete without you. But there's your sister; she would object to annexation."
The Boy was busily kicking fallen leaves as he walked. "You might ask her--if you should ever see each other."
"Make her meet you at Monte Carlo, and introduce us there. I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll give a dinner at the Hôtel de Paris--the night after we arrive. It shall be in your hands, and of course your sister's, who ought to know your pal. You must try hard to get her to come. Is it a bargain?"
"I can't answer for her."
"But I only ask you to try your hardest. Come now, when I've told you about last night, you'll say I deserve a reward."
"Yes, I'll try."
"But, by Jove, I'd forgotten that your sister is an heiress," I went on. "I've vowed not to fall in love with a girl who has a lot of money."| | 263
"I told you that you wouldn't fall in love with her."
"Is she like you?"
"A good many people think so. That's why I'm so sure she wouldn't be the sort of girl you'd care for--you, a man who admires the English rose type or--a Contessa."
"The Contessa was your affair. For me, a woman of her type could never be dangerous. Whereas, a girl like your sister--"
"Still harping on my sister!"
"I often think of her as 'The Princess.' It's a pretty name. I fancy it suits her. Once or twice, since we've been chums, you have had letters, I know. I hope you've better news of her?"
"She's cured in body and mind. It is--rather a queer coincidence, perhaps, for like you, she has found out, so she tells me--that she wasn't really in love with--the man. She was only in love with love."
"I'm heartily glad. If she's as true and brave a little soul, as glorious a pal as you are, she will one day make some fellow the happiest man alive."
The Boy did not answer. Perhaps he was overwhelmed with the indirect praise suddenly heaped upon him; perhaps he thought that I spoke too freely of the Princess his sister. I was not sure, myself, that I had not gone beyond good taste; but calling up the picture of a girl, resembling in character the Little Pal, had stirred me to sudden enthusiasm. Fancy a girl looking at one with such eyes! a girl capable of being such a companion. It would not bear thinking of. There could be no such girl.
I was glad that, at this moment, we arrived at the Grand Port, and the garden restaurant, where my | | 264 regrets for the light that never was on land or sea--or in a girl's eyes--were temporarily drowned in café au lait
The talk was no more of the unseen Princess, but of Paolo. At last I condescended to enter into a detailed account of the night's happenings, where the aëronaut was concerned, and the Boy threw up his chin, showing his little white teeth in a burst of laughter at my manœuvre. "But that isn't an American duel," he objected, still rippling with mirth. "You commit suicide, you know. The man who draws the short bit of paper agrees to go quietly off and kill himself decently somewhere, before the end of a stipulated time."
"I'm aware of that, but I gambled on Paolo's ignorance of the custom," said I. "I flattered myself that I'd totted up his character like a sum on a slate, and I acted on the estimate I formed. If I had kept entirely to facts, without giving the rein to my imagination, you might now be doomed to travel at this time next year to Buda-Pesth, and there drown yourself in the largest possible vat of beer. Had Paolo been unlucky in the matter of getting the short bit of paper, a little thing like that wouldn't have bothered him much. He would simply have gone off for a long trip in his newest air-ship, and conveniently forgotten such an obscure engagement. It was the thought of standing up defenceless, to be artistically potted at by you, that turned his heart to water."
"I believe you're right, and anyway, you are very clever," said the Boy. "What does one do for a man who has saved one's life?"
"If you were only a girl, now--a Princess in a fairy story--you would bestow upon me your hand," | | 265 I replied gaily. "As it is--I can't at the moment think of a punishment to fit the crime."
"Though I can't be a Princess, I might play the Prince, and give you a ring," he said, pulling at the queer seal ring he always wore.
"But it wouldn't fit the crime--I mean the finger."
"Mere mortals never argue when the fairy Prince makes them a present. Do take the ring. I should like you to have it to--remember me by."
"To remember you by? But such chums as we have got to be don't give memory much pull; they arrange to see each other often."
"Fairy Princes vanish sometimes, you know."
"If I take your ring, will you appear if I rub it?"
The Boy was smiling, but his eyes looked grave.
"If when the Fairy Prince has vanished--that is, if he should--you want to see him really badly, try rubbing the ring. It might work. But you'll probably lose the ring before that--and the memory."
I answered by hooking the ring, which was far too small for the least of my fingers, into the spring-loop which held my watch on its chain.
"My watch and I are one," I said. "Only burglary or death can separate me from the ring now; and if I'm smashed next time Jack Winston lets me drive his motor car, there will probably be a romantic little paragraph in the papers--perhaps even a pathetic verse--about the ring on the dead man's watch-chain, which will give you every satisfaction."
"The boat's whistling," said the Boy. "We'd better run, if we want to see the Abbey of Hautecombe before lunch."
We did run, and caught the boat in that uncertain and exciting manner which brings into play a | | 266 physical appurtenance unrecognised by science, i. e., the skin of the teeth. Under the awning which shaded the deck, we took the only two seats not occupied by an abnormally large German family,-- abnormally large individually as well as collectively,--and settled ourselves for half an hour's enjoyment of a charming water-panorama.
"What a heavenly place Aix is!" exclaimed the Boy fervently. "I'm so glad I came."
"I thought yesterday that you were disappointed in the place."
"Oh, yesterday was yesterday. To-day's to-day. How glorious everything is, in the world. I do love living. And I like everybody so much. What nice, good creatures one's fellow beings are. My heart warms to them. I don't believe anybody's really horrid, through and through. I should like to pat somebody on the shoulder."
"Queer thing; I feel exactly the same way this morning," said I. "Shall we throw ourselves on one another's bosom, and kiss each other on both cheeks, German fashion, to show our good will towards all mankind? I'm sure our travelling companions would warmly sympathize with our schwärmerei."
"No-o, perhaps we'd better not risk setting them the example, for fear they should follow it."
"Then let's shake hands."
He put out his little slim brown paw, and I seized it with such heartiness that he visibly winced, but not a squeak did the pain draw from him; and the large Germans, looking on gravely, no doubt thought that, according to some queer English rite, we had registered an important vow.
Really the world was a nice place that day, though | | 267 I might not have noticed it so much if the Boy and I had been still at loggerheads.
Yesterday, as we entered Aix, I had said to myself that the mountains surrounding the town had descended to depths of dumpy ugliness unworthy the name and dignity of mountains. I had formulated the idea that there should be world landscape-gardeners appointed, to work on a grand scale, and alter hills or mountains which Nature had neglected or bungled. But to-day, as we steamed down the long, narrow Lac de Bourget, sitting shoulder to shoulder, the light breeze fluttering butterfly-wings against our faces, I could not see that there was anything for the most fastidious taste to alter, anywhere.
As the lake at Annecy had been incredibly blue, this lake was incredibly green. No weekly penny paper in England, even in its fattest holiday number, would have room enough to compute the vast number of emeralds which must have been melted to give that vivid tint to the sparkling water. It was as easy to see the inhabitants of the lake having their luncheon at the bottom, on tables exquisitely decorated with coloured pebbles, as it is to look in through the plate-glass window of a restaurant. As our course changed, the mountains girdling the lake and filling in the perspective, grouped themselves in graceful attitudes, like professional beauties sitting for their photographs. There were châteaux dotted here and there on the hillside, and I no longer peopled them with myself and Helen Blantock. I realised that if one had a palace on the Lake of Como or Bourget, or any other romantic sheet of water, one could be happy as an elderly bachelor, if one's days were occasionally enlivened by visits from congenial friends | | 268 such as the Winstons and the Boy. No wonder that Lamartine was happy at Chatillon, writing his Meditations! I felt that a long residence on the shores of the Lac de Bourget would inspire me to some modest meditations of my own, and I could even have taken down a few memoranda for them, had I not feared that the Boy would laugh to see my notebook come out.
I remembered Hautecombe, with its ancient Abbey, deep cream-coloured, like old ivory or the marbles of the Vatican, glimmering among dark trees, and mirrored in the lake so clearly that, gazing long at the reflection, one felt as if standing on one's head. I pointed it out to the Boy from a distance, on its jutting promontory, with the pride of the well-informed guide, and talked of the place with a superficial appearance of erudition. But after all, when he came to pin me down with questions, my bubble-reputation burst. Not a date could I pump up from the drained depths of my recollection, and in the end I had to accept ignominiously from the Boy such crumbs as he had collected from a guide-book larder. What was it to us, I contended, that the monastery was said to have been built in 1125? What did it matter that it had originally been the home of Cistercians? Why clog one's mind with such details, since it was enough for all purposes of romance to know that the old building had weathered many wars and many centuries, and that a special clause had protected the monks when Savoie was ceded by Italy to France? The great charm of the place for me, apart from its natural beauty, lay in the thought that it was the last home of dead kings, the vanished Princes of Savoie; I did not want to know the facts of its restoration at different dates, and | | 269 would indeed shut my eyes upon all such traces if I could.
Though the Abbey and its double in the lake had remained a picture in my mind, through the years since I had seen them, I was struck anew with the peaceful loveliness of the place as we approached the little landing-stage. The Kings of Savoie had chosen well in choosing to sleep their last sleep at Hautecombe.
The Boy and I slowly ascended the deeply shadowed road which led up the hill to the Abbey, but leisurely as we walked, we soon outpaced the Germans. For this we were not sorry, since it gave us the silent grey church to ourselves--and the sleeping Kings. We bestowed money for his charities upon the white-robed monk who would have shown us the tombs and the chapels, conscientiously gabbling history the while; and then, with compliments, we freed him from the duty. His hard facts would have been like dogs yapping at our heels, and, as the Boy said, we would not have been able to hear ourselves think.
We whispered as if fearing to wake the sleepers, as we wandered from one bed of marble in its dim niche, to another. Never, perhaps, did so many crowned heads lie under the same roof as at peaceful Hautecombe, sleeping longer, more soundly far, than the Princess in her enchanted Palace in the Wood. For centuries the convent bells have rung, calling the monks to prayer; and sometimes the walls have trembled with the thunder of cannon; yet the sleepers have not stirred. There they have lain, those stately, royal figures, with hands folded placidly on placid bosoms, resting well after stress and storm.| | 270
It was difficult to keep in mind that the real kings and queens had mouldered into dust under the stone where reposed their counterfeit presentments. Again, and again we had to send away the impression that we were looking at the actual bodies, transformed by, the slow process of centuries into marble, together with their guardian lions, their favourite hounds, and their curly lambs.
The endless slumber of these royal men and women of Savoie seemed magical, mysterious. We felt that, if we but had the secret of the talisman, we could wake them; that they would slowly rise on elbow, and gaze at us, stony-eyed, and reproachful for shattering their dreams.
The murmurous silence of the church whispered broken snatches of their life stories--not that part which we could read in history, or see graven in Latin on their tombs, but that part of which they might choose to dream. Had those knightly men in carven armour loved the marble ladies lying in stately right of possession by their sides, or had their fancy wandered to others whose dust lay now in some far, obscure corner of earth?
If my homage could have compensated in any small degree for kingly unfaith, a drop of balm would have fallen upon the marble heart of each royal lady to whom such injustice had perchance been done; for I loved them all for their noble dignity, and the sweet femininity which remained to them even under the mask of stone. Their names alone warmed the blood with the wine of romance: the Princess Yolande; the Duchess Beatrix; the Lady Melusine. Surely, with such names and such profiles, they had been worth a man's living or dying for; and if life had not been so vivid for me that day, I | | 271 should have wished myself back in the far past, in heavy, uncomfortable armour, fighting their battles.
"'Where are all the dear, dead women?'" asked the Boy. " 'What's become of all the gold that used to hang, and brush their shoulders?' Maybe part of the answer to Browning's question lies in those tombs."
"They were Princesses, like your sister," said I. "I've been fancying them with her eyes."
"What do you know about her eyes?" he asked quickly.
"I imagine them like yours."
"Let's get out into the sunshine again," said the Boy. "I'm afraid it's time to leave the princesses, and go back to the Contessa."
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