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

Jean sat leaning forward that he might see the road. The night was dark, starless, and very wet, and he and the chauffeur were all streaming with rain and splashed with liquid mud that spattered up from the car wheels. Now and again they rattled over the rough cobble stones of a village street, but the way for the most part lay through deep woods and by mountain gorges. The roar of Arno in flood, swollen with melted snows, and hurrying on its way to the sea, was with them for a while, but other sounds there were none save the rustling of leaves in the coverts, the moaning of wind in the tree-tops, the drip-drip of the rain, and the steady throbbing of the car.

When the darkness lightened to the grey glimmer of a cheerless dawn Jean changed places with the chauffeur; Vincenzo was a careful driver, and he dared not trust his own impatience any longer. His hands were numbed with cold, and now he took off his gloves to chafe them, but first he felt in his inner pocket for the flimsy sheets of paper that lay there safe against his heart.

He had been sitting alone at the piano in the music-room, not playing, but softly touching the keys and dreaming in the dark, when Hilaire came in to him.

“You need not write to her after all. She has sent for you. Hear what she says.” He stood in the doorway to read the message by the light that filtered in from the hall. Jean listened carefully.

“The car I must tell Vincenzo.” The lines of the strong, lean face seemed to have softened, and the brown eyes were very bright. His brother smiled as he laid a kindly hand upon his arm. “The car will be round soon. I have sent word, and you have plenty of time. Assure Olive of my brotherly regard, and tell her that my books are still waiting to be catalogued. If she will come here for a while she will be doing a kindness to a lonely man.”

“I wonder what she is frightened of,” Jean said thoughtfully, and frowning a little. “She says ‘was yours’ too; I don’t like that.”

“Well, you must do your best for her,” Hilaire answered in his most matter-of-fact tone. “Be prepared.”

Jean agreed, and when he went to get ready he transferred a pistol from a drawer of the bureau to his coat pocket. “I shall bring her back with me if I can. Good-bye.”

The sun shone for a few minutes after its rising through a rift in the clouds, but soon went in again; the rain still poured down, and the distance was hidden in mist that clung to the hillsides and filled each ravine and cranny in the rocks. They were near Orvieto when the car broke down; Vincenzo was out on the road at once, but his master sat quite still. He could not endure the thought of any delay.

“What is it? Will it take long?” He had forced himself to wait a minute before he asked the question, but still his lips felt stiff, and all the colour had gone out of them.

The man reassured him. “It is nothing.”

Jean went to help him, and soon they were able to go on again.

They came presently to the fen lands the Campagna that so greatly needs the magic and glamour of the Roman sunshine, the vault of the blue sky above, and the sound of larks singing to adorn it. It seemed a desolate and dreary waste, wind-swept, and shivering under the lash of the rain on such a morning as this, and the car was a very small thing moving in that apparently illimitable plain along a road that might be endless. Jean saw a herd of the wild, black buffaloes standing in a pool at the foot of a broken arch of the Claudian aqueduct, and now and again he caught a glimpse of fragments of masonry, or a ruined tower, ancient stronghold of one or other of the robber barons who preyed on Rome-ward pilgrims in the age of faith and rapine.

They reached Albano soon after eleven o’clock, and Jean left his man in the car while he went in to the Ristorante of the Albergo della Posta. He ordered a cup of coffee, and sat down at one of the little marble tables near the door to drink it. There was no one else in the place at the moment.

“Can you tell me the way to the Villino Bella Vista?”

The waiter looked at him curiously. “It is down in the olive woods and quite near the lake, and you must go to it by a lane from the Galleria di Sopra, the upper road to Castel Gandolfo.” After a momentary hesitation he added, “Scusi! But are you thinking of taking it, signore?”

Jean started. It had not occurred to him that the house might be empty. “I don’t know,” he answered cautiously. “Has it been to let long?”

“Oh, yes,” the man said. “The Princess Tor di Rocca spent her last years there, alone, and after her death the agent in Rome found tenants. But lately no one has come to it, even to see.” He lowered his voice. “The place has a bad name hereabouts. The contadini rough, ignorant folk, signore say she still walks in the garden at moonrise, waiting for the husband and son who never came; and the women who go to wash their linen in the lake will not come back that way at night for fear of seeing her dead eyes peering at them through the bars of the gate.”

“Ah, that is very interesting,” Jean said appreciatively. He finished his coffee, paid for it with a piece of silver, and waited to light a cigarette before he went out.

Vincenzo sat still in the car, a model of patient impassivity, but he turned a hungry eye on his master as he came down the steps.

“You can go and get something to eat. I shall drive up to the Galleria di Sopra, and you must follow me there. You will find the car at the side of the road. Stay with it until I come, and if anyone asks questions you need not answer them.”

Jean drove up the steep hill towards the lake. The rain was still heavy, and the squalid streets of the little town were running with mud. He turned to the left by the Calvary at the foot of the ilex avenue by the Capuchin church, and stopped the car some way further down the road. The lane the waiter had told him of was not hard to find. It was a narrow path between high walls of olive orchards; it led straight down to the lake, and the entrance to the Villino was quite close to the water’s edge. Nothing could be seen of it from the lane but the name painted on the gate-posts and one glimpse of a shuttered window, forlorn and viewless as a blind eye, and half hidden by flowering laurels. Jean looked at his watch. It was ten minutes to twelve, and she had written “after noon,” but he could not be sure that she had not come already, and since he had heard the name of Tor di Rocca he was more than ever anxious to be with her.

He tried the gate but it was locked; there was nothing for it but to climb the wall, and as he was light and active he scrambled over without much difficulty and landed in a green tangle of roses and wild vines. He knocked at the house door, and stood for a while listening to the empty answering echoes and to the drip-drip of rain from the eaves. Evidently there was no one there. He drew back into the shrubberies; great showers of drops were shaken down on him from the gold-powdered mimosa blossoms that met above his head; he shook himself impatiently, like a dog that is disturbed while on guard. From where he stood he could see the gate and the grass-grown path that led from it to the house. The time passed very slowly. He looked at his watch four times in the next fifteen minutes, and he was beginning to wonder if he had not left Florence on a fool’s errand when Olive came.

He saw her fumbling with the key; it was hard to turn in the rusty lock, and she had to close her umbrella and stand it against the wall so as to have both hands free. The gate swung open slowly, creaking on its warped hinges. Jean noticed that she left it unlatched and that she looked back over her shoulder twice as she came down the path, as though she thought someone might be following her.

She opened the house door with a key she had and went in, and he came after her. He stood for a moment on the threshold listening. She was hurrying from room to room, opening the shutters and the windows and letting in the light and air; the doors banged after her, and muslin curtains flapped like wings as the wind blew them.

His heart was beating so that he thought she must hear it before she saw him, before his step sounded in the passage. As he came in she gave a sort of little cry and ran to him, and he put his arms about her and kissed her again and again; her dear lips that were wet and cold with rain, her soft brown hair, the curves of cheek and chin that were as sweet to feel as to see. One small hand held the lapel of his coat, and he was pleasantly aware of the other being laid about his neck. She had wanted him so much and he had come.

“Thank God, you are here, Jean. Oh, if you knew how frightened I have been.”

He kissed her once more, and then, framing her face with his hands, he looked down into her eyes. The blue eyes yearned to his, but there was fear in them still, and he saw the colour he had brought into her cheeks fading.

“I am not worth all the trouble I have given you.”

“Perhaps not,” he said, smiling. “Hilaire sent you a long message, but I want to hear what we are supposed to be doing here first.”

“Dear Hilaire!... Jean, you won’t be angry?”

“I don’t promise anything,” he said. “I shall probably be furious. But in any case, if it is going to be a long story we may as well make ourselves at home.”

“Not here! I must tell you quickly, before he comes.”

He noticed that she looked towards the door, and he understood that she was listening fearfully for the creaking of the gate, the sound of footsteps on the path outside, the turning of the key in the lock.

“Tor di Rocca, I suppose? When is he coming?”

“Between one and two.”

“We have at least half an hour then,” he said comfortably, and drew her closer to him with his arm about her shoulders.

“When I first came to Rome I tried for weeks to get something to do, but no one seemed to want lessons. Then one day Signora Aurelia’s sister told me how poor she was. She cried, and I was very much upset because I felt I was a burden, and that very afternoon I found out a way of making money ... Jean, you won’t be angry?”

“No, dearest.”

“I became a model ” She paused, but he said nothing and she went on. “I sat for one man only after the first week, and he was always good and kind to me, always. He painted a picture of me I think you would like it and the day before yesterday he had a show of his work. A lot of people came. I did not see Prince Tor di Rocca, but he was there, and after a while he spoke to me. I had met him before and I understood from what he said that Mamie Whittaker had broken her engagement with him.

“The next morning M’sieur Camille had to go out, and I was alone in the studio when the Prince came in and tried to make love to me. I was frightened, and I screamed, and just then Camille returned, and he knocked him down. He got up again at once. Nothing much was said, and he went away, but I understood that they were going to fight. I went home and thought about it, and when I realised that one or other of them might be killed I felt I could not bear it.

“I am so afraid of death, Jean. I try to believe in a future life, but that will be different, and I want the people I love in this one; just human, looking tired sometimes and shabby, or happy and pleased about things. I remember my mother had a blue hat that suited her, and I can’t think of it now without tears, because I long to see her pinning it on before the glass and asking me if it is straight, and I suppose I shall never see or hear that again, even if we do meet in heaven. Death is so absolutely the end. If only people are alive distance and absence don’t really matter; there is always hope. And then, you know, Camille is so brilliant; it would be a loss to France, to the whole world, if he was killed.”

“What did you say his name was?”

“Camille Michelin.”

“I know him then. He came to me once in Paris, after a concert, and fell on my neck without an introduction. Afterwards he painted my portrait.”

“He is nice, isn’t he?” she said eagerly.

He assented. “Well, go on. You could not let them fight ”

“I went to see the Prince at his hotel, and I persuaded him to write a sort of apology.”

“You persuaded him. How?”

“Jean, that man is the exact opposite of the centurion’s servant; say ‘go’ and he stays, ‘don’t do it’ and he does it. And I once made the fatal mistake of telling him I could never love him. He did not want me to before, but now He is a spoilt boy who only cares for the fruit that is forbidden or withheld. It is the scaling of the orchard wall that he enjoys; if he could walk in by the gate in broad daylight I am sure he never would, or, at any rate, he would soon walk out again. I promised to come here alone to meet him, and not to tell Camille, and I have kept my promise. If you knew how frightened I was.... I thought you might be away, and that Hilaire perhaps could not come in your stead, though I knew he would if it were possible.”

The man left her then and went to the window, where he stood looking out upon the driving mist and rain that made the troubled waters of the lake seem grey, and shrouded all the wooded hills beyond.

“Suppose I had not come,” he said presently. “What would you have done?”

“You ask that?”

He turned upon her. “Yes,” he said hardly, “just that.”

She took a small pistol from the pocket of her loose sac coat and gave it to him.

“So you were going to shoot him? I thought ”

She tried to still the quivering of her lips. “No, myself. Oh, I am not really inconsistent. I told you I was afraid of death. I will say all now and have done; I am afraid of life too, with its long slow pains, and most of all of what men call love. I don’t want to go on,” she cried hysterically. “I am sick. I don’t want to see, or hear, or feel anything any more. I have had enough. All this year I have struggled, and people have been kind; but friendship is a poor, weak thing, and love love is hateful.”

She hid her face in her hands.

“Rubbish!” he said, and then, in a changed voice, “My darling, you will be better soon. I must get you away from here.”

Gently he drew her hands away from her face and lifted them to his lips; the soft palms were wet with tears.

They were standing on the threshold of an inner room. “You can go in here until I have done with Tor di Rocca,” he said. “But first I must tell you that Gertrude has written to me asking me to get a divorce. There is a man, of course, and the case will not be defended. Olive, will you marry me when I am free?”

“Oh, Jean, I I am so glad.”

“You will marry me then?” he insisted.

“How thin you are, my dear. Just a very nice bag of bones. Were were you sorry when I came away?”

“You little torment,” he said. “Answer me.”

“Ask again. I want to hear.”

“Will you marry me?”

“Yes, of course.”

A nightingale began to sing in the garden; broken notes, a mere echo of what the stars heard at night, but infinitely sweet as the soul of a rose made audible; and as he sang a sudden ray of sunshine shot the grey rain with silver. It seemed to Jean that rose-sweetness was all about him in this his short triumph of love; that a flower’s heart beat against his own, that a flower’s lips caressed the lean darkness of his cheek. There were threads of gold in the soft brown tangle of hair gold unalloyed as was the hard-won happiness that made him feel himself invincible, panoplied in an armour of joy that should defend them from all slings and arrows. He was happy, and so the world seemed full of music; there was harmony in the swaying of tall dark cypresses, moved by winds that strewed the grass with torn petals of orange blossoms from the trees by the lake side, in the clouds’ processional, in the patter of rain on the green shining laurel leaves.

Laurels his laurels had been woven in with rue, and latterly with rosemary for dear remembrance; he had never cared greatly for his fame and it seemed worthless to him now that he had realised his dream and gathered his rose.

He was impatient to be gone, to take the woman he loved out of this house of sad memories, of empty echoes, of dust and rust and decay. Already he seemed to feel the rush of the cold night air, to hear the roar of Arno, hurrying to the sea, above the steady throbbing of the car; to see the welcoming lights of home shining out of the dark at the steep edge of the hills above Settignano.

“About the Prince,” he said presently. “Am I to fight him?”

She started. “Oh, no! That would be worse than ever. I thought you were too English for that,” she said naively.

He smiled. “Well, perhaps I am, but I suppose there may be a bit of a scuffle. You won’t mind that?”

“I don’t know,” she said helplessly.

A moment later they heard the gate creak as it swung on its hinges. “He is coming.”

They kissed hurriedly, with, on her side, a passion of farewell, and he would have made her go into the room beyond, but she clung to him, crying incoherently. “No ... no ... together ...”

Tor di Rocca stopped short by the door; the smile that had been in his hot eyes as they met Olive’s faded, and the short, Neronic upper lip lifted in a sort of snarl.

“I don’t quite understand,” he said. “How did you come here? This is my house, Avenel.”

“I know it, and I do not wish to trespass on your hospitality. You will excuse us?”

But the Prince stood in the way. “I am not a child to be played with. I’ll not let her go. You may leave us, however,” he added, and he stood aside as though to let him pass.

Jean met his angry eyes. “The lady is unwilling. Let that be the end,” he said quietly.

Olive watched the Italian fearfully; his face was writhen, and all semblance of beauty had gone out of it; its gnawing, tearing, animal ferocity was appalling. When he called to her she moved instinctively nearer to Jean, and then with the swift prescience of love threw herself on his breast, tried to shelter him, as the other drew his revolver and fired.

Jean had his arm about her, but he let her slip now and fall in a huddled heap at his feet. She was safer there, and out of the way. The two men exchanged several shots, but Jean’s went wide; he was hampered by his heavy motor coat, and the second bullet had scored its way through his flesh before he could get at his weapon; there were four in his body when he dropped.

Tor di Rocca leant against the wall; he was unhurt, but he felt a little faint and sick for the moment. Hurriedly he rehearsed what he should say to the Questore presently. He had met the girl in this house of his; Avenel, her lover, had broken in upon them; he had shot her and fired at the Prince himself, but without effect, and he had killed him in self-defence.

That was plain enough, but it was essential that his should be the only version, and when the smoke cleared away he crossed the room to look at the two who must speak no word, and to make sure.

The man was still alive for all the lead in him; Tor di Rocca watched, with a sort of cruel, boyish interest in the creature he had maimed, as slowly, painfully, Jean dragged himself a little nearer to where the girl lay, tried to rise, and fell heavily. Surely he was dead now but no; his hands still clawed at the carpet, and when Tor di Rocca stamped on his fingers he moaned as he tried to draw them away. Olive lived too, but her breathing was so faint that it would be easily stifled; the pressure of his hand even, but Filippo shrank from that. He could not touch the flesh that would be dust presently because of him. He hesitated, and then, muttering to himself, went to take one of the cushions from the window seat.

Out in the garden the nightingale had not ceased to sing; the cypresses swayed in the winds that shook the promise of fruit from the trees; the green and rose and gold of a rainbow made fair the clouds’ processional. The world was still full of music, of transitory life and joy, of dreams that have an ending.