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

For some days and nights Olive lived only to eat and sleep. When she woke it was to hear a kind old voice urging her to take hot milk or soup, to see a kind old face framed in white hair set off by black lace lappets; and yet whenever she closed her eyes at first she was aware of a passionate aching echo of words said that was sad as the sound of the sea in a shell. “I love you I love you ” until at last sleep helped to knit up the ravelled sleave of care.

Every morning there were fresh roses for her.

“The signorino hopes you are better.”

“Oh, much better, thank you.” And after a while a day came when she felt really strong enough to get up. She dressed slowly and came down and out on to the terrace. The crumbling stones of the balustrade were moss-grown, as was the slender body of the bronze Mercury, poised for flight and dark against the pale illimitable blue of the December sky. Hilaire Avenel never tried to make Nature neat; the scarlet leaves of the Virginia creeper came fluttering down and were scattered on the worn black and white mosaic of the pavement; they showed like fire flickering in the sombre green of the cypresses. Beyond and below the garden, the olive and ilex woods, and the steep red roofs of Settignano, lay Florence, a city of the plain, and wreathed in a delicate mist. There was the great dome of Santa Maria dei Fiori; the tortuous silver streak that was Arno, spanned by her bridges; there was Giotto’s tower, golden-white and rose golden, there the campanile of the Badia, the grim old Bargello, and the battlemented walls of the Palazzo Vecchio; farther still, across the river, the heights of San Miniato al Monte, Bellosguardo, and Mont’ Oliveto, cypress crowned.

Two white rough-coated sheep-dogs came rushing up the steps from the garden to greet Olive with sharp barks of joy, and Hilaire was not slow to follow. Olive still thought him very like his brother, an older and greyer Jean.

“I have been so looking forward to showing you the garden,” he said hurriedly in his kind eagerness to put her at her ease. “There are still a few late chrysanthemums, and you will find blue and white violets in the grass by the sundial.”

They passed down the steps together and through the green twilight of the orange groves, and came to a little fountain in the midst of a space of lawn set about with laurels. Hilaire threw a biscuit into the pool, and the dark water gleamed with silver and gold as the fish rushed at it.

“I flatter myself that all the living things in this garden know me,” he said. “I bar the plainer kinds of insects and scorpions, of course; but the small green lizards are charming, aren’t they?”

“Mamie Whittaker had one on a gold chain. She used to wear it sometimes.”

“She would,” he said drily. “The young savage! Better go naked than torture harmless things.”

“This place is perfect,” sighed Olive; and then, “You have no home in France?”

“We should have; but our great-grandfather was guillotined in Paris during the Terror, and his wife and child came to England. Years later, when they might have gone back they would not. Why should they? Napoleon had given the Avenel estates to one of his ruffians, who had since seceded to the Bourbon and so made all secure. Besides, they were happy enough. Marie Louis Hilaire gave music lessons, and the Marquise scrubbed and cooked and patched their clothes she, who had been the Queen’s friend, and so they managed to keep the little home together. Presently the young man married, and then Jean Marie appeared on the scene. We have a picture of him at the age of five, in a nankeen frock and a frill. Our mother was a Hungarian hence Jean’s music, I suppose and there is Romany blood on that side. These are our antecedents. You will not be surprised at our vagaries now?”

Olive smiled. “No, I shall remember the red heels of Versailles, English bread and butter, and the gipsy caravan.”

“Jean has fetched your books from the Monte di Pieta. Marietta found the tickets in your coat pocket. You don’t mind?”

Looking at her he saw her eyes fill with tears, and he hurried on: “No rubbish, I notice. Are you fond of reading?”

“Yes.”

“I was wondering if you would care to undertake a work for me.”

“I should be glad to do anything,” she said anxiously.

“I have some thousands of books in the villa. Those I have collected myself I know they are all in the library but there are many that were left me by my father, and others that came from an uncle, and they are all piled up in heaps in the empty rooms on the second floor. I want someone to sort them out, catalogue, and arrange them for me. Would you care to do it?”

“Yes, indeed.”

“That’s all right then,” he said hastily. “I’ll get a carpenter in at once to put up some more shelves ready for them. And I think you had better stay on in the villa, if you don’t mind. It will be more convenient. The salary will be two hundred lire a month, paid in advance.”

“Your kindness I can’t express my gratitude ” she began tremulously.

“Nonsense! This is a business transaction, and I am coming out of it very well. I should not get a man to do the work for that absurdly small sum. I am underpaying you on purpose because I hate women.”

Olive laughed. “Commend me to misogynists henceforth.”

She wanted to begin at once, but her host assured her that he would rather she waited until the shelves were put up.

“You will have to sort them out several times, according to date, language and subject. Perhaps Jean can help you when he returns. He is away just now.”

Watching her, he saw the deepening of the rose.

“I I can’t remember exactly what happened the night I came, Mr Avenel. You know I had not been able to find work, and though my padrona was kind she was very poor too. She pawned my things for me, but they fetched so little, and I had not had anything to eat for ever so long when he came. He has not gone away because of me, has he?”

Hilaire threw the fish another biscuit; it fell among the lily leaves at the feet of the weather-stained marble nymph of the fountain.

“I must decline to answer,” he said gravely, after a pause. “I understand that you are twenty-three and old enough therefore to judge for yourself, and I do not intend to influence either you or Jean, if I can help it. You will be perfectly free to do exactly what you think right, my dear girl. I will only give you one bit of advice, and that is, look at life with your eyes wide open. Don’t blink! This is Friday, and Jean is coming to see you on Wednesday.”