Read SIENA : CHAPTER V of Olive in Italy , free online book, by Moray Dalton, on

A large parcel addressed to Miss Agar was brought to the house a few weeks later. Olive was out giving a lesson when it came, and Gemma turned it over, examining the post-mark and the writing.

“Shall I open it and see what is inside? She would never know.”

Carmela was horrified. “How can you think of such a thing!”

“Besides, it is sealed,” added Maria.

These two liked their cousin well enough, and when they wished to tease the Odalisque they called her “carina” and praised her fresh prettiness. It was always so easy to make Gemma angry, and lately she had been more capricious and difficult than ever. Her sisters were continually trying to excuse her.

“She is so nervous,” Maria said loyally, but her paraphrase availed nothing. Olive understood her cousin and disliked her extremely, though she accorded her a reluctant admiration.

She came in now with her books an English grammar and a volume of translations under her arm, and seeing that Gemma was watching her, she took her parcel with a carefully expressionless phrase of thanks to Carmela, who was anxious to cut the string, and carried it into her room unopened. It was the tea-basket Jean Avenel had promised her. She read the enclosed note, however, before she looked at it.

“I am going to America and then to Russia. Do not quite forget me. If ever you need anything write to my brother, Hilaire Avenel, Villa Fiorelli, Settignano, near Florence, and he will serve you for my sake as he would for your own if he knew you. I think I have played better since I have known you, my rose. One must suffer much before one can express the divine sorrow of Chopin. I said I would not write, but some promises are made to be broken. Can you forgive me?


America and Russia ... the divine sorrow of Chopin ... I have played better.... He was a pianist then, and surely a great one. Olive remembered the slender brown hands that had seemed to her so supple and so strong. But the name of Avenel was strange to her, and she was sure she had never seen it on posters, or in the papers and magazines that chronicle the doings of musical celebrities.

She took the tea-things out of the basket one by one and looked at them with pleasure. The sugar box and the caddy and the spoon were all of silver, and engraved with her initials, and the cup and saucer were painted with garlands of pale roses.

Tears filled her eyes as she sat down at the little table in the window and began to write.

“You have sent me a tea equipage fit for an empress! It is perfect, and I do not know how to thank you. Yes. I forgive you for writing. Have I really helped you to play? I am so glad. You say Chopin, so I suppose it is the piano? I must tell you that I remember all the stories you told me of Siena, and they add to the interest of my days. I give English lessons, and am making enough money to keep myself, but in the intervals of grammar and ‘I Promessi Sposi’ (no less than three of my pupils are translating that interminable romance into so-called English) I study the architecture of the early Renaissance in the old narrow streets, and gaze upon Byzantine Madonnas in the churches. The Duomo is an archangel’s dream, and I like to go there with my cousins and steep my soul in its beauty while they say their prayers and fan themselves. One of them is pretty and she hates me; the other two are stout and kind and empty-headed, and their aunt is nothing a large, heavy nothing ”

Olive laid down her pen. “What will he think if I write him eight pages? That I want to begin a correspondence? I do, but he must not know it.”

She tore her letter up into small pieces and wrote two lines on a sheet of note-paper.

“Thank you very much for your kind present and for what
you say. Of course I forgive you ... and I shall not
forget. Yours sincerely, OLIVE AGAR.”

She went to the window and threw the torn scraps of the first letter out into the street, and then she sat down again and began to cry; not for long. Women who know how precious youth is understand that tears are an expensive luxury, and they are sparing of them accordingly. They suffer more in the stern repression of their emotions than do those who yield easily to grief, but they keep their eyelashes and their complexions.

Olive bathed her eyes presently and smoked a cigarette to calm her nerves. She was going out that evening to dine with her favourite pupil and his mother, and she knew they would be distressed if she looked ill or sad.

Aurelia de Sanctis had had troubles enough of her own. She had married a patriot, a man with a beautiful eager face and a body spent with disease, and a fever that never left him since the days when he lurked in the marshes of the Maremma, crouched in a tangle of wet reeds and rushes, and watching for the flash of steel in the sunshine.

Austrian bayonets ... he raved of them in his dreams, and called upon the names of comrades who had rotted in prisons or died in exile. His young wife nursed him devotedly until he died, leaving her a widow at twenty-seven. She had a small pension from the Government, and she worked at dressmaking to eke it out.

Her only child had grown up to be a hopeless invalid. He could not go to school, so he lay all day on the sofa by the window in the tiny sitting-room and helped his mother with her sewing. His poor little bony hands were very quick and dexterous.

In the evenings he read everything he could get hold of, books and newspapers. The professors from the University, who came to see him and were kind to him for his father’s sake, told each other that he was a genius and that his soul was eating up his frail body. They wondered, pitifully, what poor Signora Aurelia would do when

The mother was hopeful, however. “He takes such an interest in everything that I think he must have a strong vitality though he seems delicate,” she said.

He had expressed a wish to learn English, and when Signora Aurelia first heard of Olive she wrote asking her to come and see her. The De Sancti lived a little way outside the Porta Romana, on the edge of the hill and outside the town, and Maria advised her cousin not to go there.

“It is so far out on a hot dusty road, and you will grow as thin and dry as an old hen’s drumstick if you walk so much. And I know the signora is poor and will not be able to pay well.”

Olive went, nevertheless. Signora Aurelia herself opened the door to her and showed evident pleasure at seeing her. The poor woman had been beautiful, and now that she was worn by time and sorrow she still looked like a goddess, exiled to earth, and altogether shabby a deity in reduced circumstances but none the less divinely fair and kind. Her great love for her child had so moulded her that she seemed the very incarnation of motherhood. So might Ceres have appeared as she wandered forlornly in search of her lost Persephone, gentle, weary, her fineness a little blunted by her woes.

“Are you the English signorina? Come in! My son will be so pleased,” she said as she led the girl into the room where Astorre was working at embroidery.

Olive saw a boy of seventeen sewing as he lay on the sofa. There were some books on the floor within his reach, and a glass of lemonade was set upon the window-sill, but he seemed quite absorbed in making fine stitches. He looked up, however, as they came in and smiled at his mother.

“I have nearly finished,” he said. “Presently I shall read the sonnet, ‘Pace non trovo, e non ho da far guerra,’ to refresh myself.”

“This is the signorina who teaches English, niño mio.”

His face lit up at once and he held out his hand. “I have already studied the grammar, but the pronunciation ... ah! that will be hard to learn. Will you help me, signorina?”

“Yes, indeed I will. We will read and talk together, and soon you will speak English better than I can Italian.”

As she spoke and smiled her heart ached to see the hollowness of his cheeks and the lines of pain about his young mouth. She guessed that his poor body was all twisted and deformed under the rug that covered it. Signora Aurelia took her out on to their little terrace garden before she left. Twenty miles and more of fair Tuscan earth lay at their feet, grey olive groves and green vineyards, and the hills beyond all shimmering in the first heat of spring. Olive exclaimed at the beauty of the world.

“Yes. On summer evenings Astorre can lie here and watch what he calls the pageant of the skies. The poor child is so fond of colour. I know you will be very patient with him, signorina. He is so clever, but some days he is in pain, and then he gets tired and so cannot learn so well. You have kindly promised to come twice a week, but I must tell you that I am not rich ” She looked at Olive wistfully.

The girl dared not offer to teach Astorre for nothing. “I can see your son will be a very good pupil,” she said hastily. “Would one lire the lesson suit you?”

“Oh, yes,” the signora said with evident relief. “But are you sure that is enough? You must not sacrifice yourself, my dear ”

“It will be a pleasure to come,” Olive said very sincerely.

The acquaintance soon ripened into a triangular friendship. The signora grew to love the girl because she amused Astorre and was never obviously sorry for him, or too gentle with him, as were some of the well-meaning people who came to see the boy. “An overflow of pity is like grease exuding,” he said once. “I hate it.”

He was very old for his years. He had read everything apparently, and he discussed problems of life and death with the air of a man of forty. He had no illusions about himself. “I shall die,” he said once to Olive when his mother was not in the room. “My father gave me a spirit that burns like Greek fire and a body like like a spent shell.”

The easy, desultory lessons were often prolonged, and then the girl stayed to dinner and played dominoes afterwards with him or with his mother until ten o’clock, when old Carolina came to fetch her home. The withered little serving-woman was voluble, and always cheerfully ready to lighten the way with descriptions of the last moments of her children. She had had thirteen, and two were still surviving. “One grows accustomed, signorina mia