Read FLORENCE : CHAPTER IX of Olive in Italy , free online book, by Moray Dalton, on ReadCentral.com.

The Villa Fiorelli is set high among the olive groves above the village of Settignano. There are Medicean balls on a shield over the great wrought-iron gates, and the swarthy splendid banker princes appear as the Magi in the faded fresco painting of the Nativity in the chapel. They have knelt there in the straw of the stable of Bethlehem for more than four hundred years. The nobili of Florence were used to loiter long ago on the terrace in the shade of the five cypresses, and women, famous or infamous, but always beautiful, listened to sonnets said and songs sung in their honour in the scented idleness of the rose garden. The villa belonged first to handsome, reckless Giuliano, the lover of Simonetta and others, and the father of a Pope, and when the dagger thrusts of the Pazzi put an end to his short life his elder brother and lord, Lorenzo, held it for a while before he sold it to the Salviati. So it passed through many hands until at last Hilaire Avenel bought it and filled it with the books and armour that he loved. There were Spanish suits, gold-chased, in the hall, Moorish swords and lances, and steel hauberks on the staircase, and stray arquebuses, greaves and gauntlets everywhere. They were all rather dusty, since Hilaire was unmarried; but he was well served nevertheless. He was not a sociable person, and no Florentine had ever partaken of a meal with him, but it was currently reported that he sat through a ten-course dinner every night of his life, crumbling the bread at the side of his plate, and invariably refusing to partake of nine of the dishes that were handed in form by the old butler.

“It’s real mean of your brother to keep his lovely garden shut up all through the spring,” the Marchesa Lorenzoni had said once to Jean, and he had replied, “Well, it is his.”

That seemed final, but the present Marchesa and late relict of Jonas P. Whittaker of Pittsburg was not so easily put off. She was apt to motor up to Settignano more than once in the May month of flowers; the intractable Hilaire was never at home to her, but she revenged herself by multitudinous kind inquiries. He was an invalid, but he disliked to be reminded of his infirmities almost as much as he did most women and all cackle about the weather.

Jean lived with him when not playing Chopin at the ends of the earth, and when the two were together the elder declared himself to be perfectly happy. “I only want you.”

“And your first editions and your Cellini helmet.”

When Jean came back from his American tour his brother was quick to notice a change in him, and when on the day after his Florentine concert he came in late for a dinner which he ate in silence, Hilaire spoke his mind. They were together in the library. Jean had taken a book down from the shelves but he was not reading it.

“Bad coffee.”

“Was it?”

Hilaire was watching his brother’s face. It seemed to him that there were lines in it that he had not seen before, and the brown eyes that gazed so intently into the fire were surely very tired.

He began again rather awkwardly. “You have been here a week, Jean.”

“Yes.”

“Did the concert go off well?”

“Oh, well enough. As usual.”

“You went away alone in the Itala car before nine this morning and you came back scarcely an hour ago. What is the matter? Is there some new trouble? Jean, dear man, I am older than you; I have only you. What is it?”

Jean reached out for his tobacco pouch. “Hilaire,” he said very gravely, after a pause, which he occupied in filling his pipe. “You remember I asked you to do anything, anything, for a girl named Olive Agar. You have never heard from her or of her?”

“Never.”

“Ah,” he sighed, “I have been to Siena. There was some affair early in September she came to Florence, to the Lorenzoni of all people in the world.”

Hilaire whistled.

“Yes, I know,” the younger man said gloomily, as though he had spoken. “That woman! What she must have suffered in these months! Well, she left them suddenly at the beginning of November.”

“Where is she now?”

“That’s just it. I don’t know.”

“Why did she leave Siena?”

“There was some trouble a bad business,” he answered reluctantly. “She lived with some cousins, and one of them committed suicide. She came away to escape the horror and all the talk, I suppose.”

“Ah, I need not ask why she left the Lorenzoni woman. No girl in her senses would stay an hour longer than she could help with her.”

“Hilaire, I think I half hoped to see her at the concert yesterday. When I came on the platform I looked for her, and I am sure I should have seen her in that crowd if she had been there. She is different, somehow. I played like a machine for the first time in my life, I think, and during the interval the manager asked me why I had not given the nocturne that was down on the programme. I said something about a necessary alteration at the last moment, but I don’t know now what I did play. I was thinking of her. A girl alone has a bad time in this world.”

“You are going to find her? Is she in love with you?”

Jean flushed. “I can’t answer that.”

“That’s all right. What I really wanted to know was if you cared for her. I see you do. Oh, Lord!” The older man sighed heavily as he put down his coffee-cup. “I wish you would play to me.”

Jean went into the music-room, leaving the folding doors between open, and sat down at the piano. There was no light but the moon’s, and Hilaire saw the beloved head dark against the silvery grey of the wall beyond. The skilled hands let loose a torrent of harmonies.

“Damn women!” said Hilaire, under cover of the fortissimo.

He spent some hours in the library on the following day re-arranging and dusting his books, lingering over them, reading a page here and there, patting their old vellum-bound backs fondly before he returned them to their shelves. They absorbed him, and yet the footman bringing in his tea on a tray heard him saying, “I must not worry.”

Jean had always come to him with his troubles ever since he was a child, and the worst of all had been brought about by a woman. That was years ago now. Hilaire had been away from England, and he had come back to find his brother aged and altered and married.

They had got on so well together without women in these latter years that Hilaire had hoped they might live and die in peace, but it seemed that it was not to be. Jean had gone out again in the car to look for his Olive. Well, if she made him happy Hilaire thought they might get on very well after all. But he had forebodings, and later, he sat frowning at the white napery and glittering glass and silver reflected in the polished walnut wood of his well-appointed table, and he refused soup and fish with unnecessary violence. Jean loved this girl and she could make him happy if she would, but would she? She was evidently not of a “coming-on disposition”; she was good, and Jean was, unfortunately, still married to the other.

It had been raining all day. The wind moaned in the trees and sighed in the chimney, and now and again the blazing logs on the hearth hissed as drops fell on them from above.

“There is a good fire in the signorino’s dressing-room, I hope. He has been out all day, and it is so stormy that ”

“The signorino has come in, eccellenza. He he brought a lady with him. She seemed faint and ill, and I sent for the gardener’s wife to come and look after her. I have given her the blue room, and the housekeeper is with her now. She was busy with the dinner when she first came.” The old butler rubbed his hands together.

“I hope I did right,” he said after a pause.

Hilaire roused himself. “Oh, quite right, of course. She will want something to eat.”

“I have sent up a tray ”

“Ah, when?”

“He here he is.”

The old man drew back as Jean came in. “I am sorry to be late, Hilaire.”

“It does not matter.”

Thereafter both sat patiently waiting for the end of a dinner that seemed age-long. When, at last, they were alone Jean rose to his feet; he was very pale and his brown eyes glittered.

“Did Stefano tell you? I have found her and brought her here.”

“Oh, she has come, has she?”

“You think less of her for that. Ah, you will misjudge her until you know her. Wait.”

He hurried out of the room.

Hilaire stood on the hearth with his back to the fire. He repeated his formula, but there was a not unkindly light in his tired eyes, and when presently the door was opened and the girl came in he smiled.

The club foot, of which he was nervously conscious at times, held him to his place, but she came forward until she was close to him.

“You are his brother,” she began. “I what a good fire.”

She knelt down on the bear skin and stretched her hands to the blaze. Hilaire noticed that she was excessively thin; the rose-flushed cheeks were hollow and the curves of the sweet cleft chin too sharp. He looked at her as she crouched at his feet; the nape of the slim neck showed a very pure white against the shabby black of her dress, there were fine threads of gold in the soft brown tangle of her hair.

Jean was dragging one of the great armchairs closer.

“You are cold,” he said anxiously. “Come and sit here.”

She rose obediently.

“Have you had any dinner?” asked Hilaire.

“Yes; they brought me some soup in my room. I am not hungry now.”

She spoke very simply, like a child. Jean had rifled all the other chairs to provide her with a sufficiency of cushions, and now he brought her a footstool.

“I think I must take my shoes off,” she said. “So cold you see they let the water in, and ”

“Take them off at once,” ordered Hilaire, and he watched, still with that faint smile in his eyes, as Jean knelt to do his bidding.

“That’s very nice,” sighed the girl. “I never knew before that real happiness is just having lots to eat and being warm.”

The two men looked at each other.

“I have often wondered about you,” she said to Hilaire presently. “Your eyes are just like his. I think if I had known that I should have had to come before; but you see I promised Cardinal Jacopo of Portugal in San Miniato that I would not. What am I talking about?” Her voice broke and she covered her face with her hands.

“Oh, my God!” Jean would have gone to her, but his brother laid a restraining hand on his arm.

“Leave her alone,” he said. “She will be all right to-morrow. It’s only excitement, nervous exhaustion. She must rest and eat. Wait quietly and don’t look at her.”

Jean moved restlessly about the room; Hilaire, gravely silent, seemed to see nothing.

So the two men waited until the girl was able to control her sobs.

“I am so sorry,” she said presently. “I have made you uncomfortable; forgive me.”

“Will you take a brandy-and-soda if I give it you?”

“Yes, if you think it will do me good.”

Hilaire limped across to the sideboard. He was scarcely gone half a minute, but when he came back with a glass of the mixture he had prescribed he saw his brother kneeling at the girl’s side, his arms about her, his face hidden in the folds of her skirt.

“Jean! Get up!” he said very sharply. “Pull yourself together.”

Olive sat stiffly erect; her swollen, tear-stained lids hid the blue eyes, her pale, quivering lips formed words that were inaudible.

Hilaire ground his teeth. “Get up!”

After a while the lover loosed his hold; he bent to kiss the girl’s feet; then he rose and went silently out of the room. Hilaire listened for the closing of another door before he rang the bell.