Read THE BEAUTIFUL WRETCH: CHAPTER IX of The Beautiful Wretch The Pupil of Aurelius and The Four Macnicols , free online book, by William Black, on ReadCentral.com.

THE SERENATA.

Next morning also he was preoccupied and anxious, insomuch that even Nan noticed it, and good-naturedly hoped he had had no bad news. He started somewhat.

‘No, oh no,’ he said. ’Only the telegram I got last night makes it necessary for me to start for home to-morrow.’

‘Then, at least,’ said Nan cheerfully, ’you will see Lake Como before you go.’

Her eldest sister smiled in her superior way.

‘Nan’s head is full of romance,’ she said. ’She expects to see the Como of the print-shops: don’t you, Nan? Blue water and golden boats, and pink hills, and Claude Melnotte’s castle lifting its whatever was it? to eternal summer. I am afraid the quotation is not quite correct.’

And the truth was that, despite this warning, Nan did seem somewhat disappointed, when, after hours of rattling and splashing along a muddy road, they came upon a stretch of dirty, chalky-green water that in a manner mirrored the gray and barren crags above it.

‘That isn’t Como!’ cried Nan. ‘It can’t be.’

‘Oh, but it is,’ Miss Beresford said, laughing. ’At least it’s the upper end of it.’

But Nan would not believe it; and when at last they reached Colico, and fought their way through the crowd of swarthy good-for-nothings who strove to attach themselves to every scrap of luggage, and when they had got on board the steamer and secured commanding positions on the upper deck, then Nan declared that they were about to see the real Lake of Como. It was observed that the young sailor glanced once or twice rather anxiously at the sky and the seething clouds.

Well, they sailed away down through this stretch of pallid green water, that was here and there ruffled with wind, and here and there smooth enough to reflect the silver-gray sky; and they called at successive little villages; and they began to be anxious about a certain banking up of purple clouds in the south-west. They forgot about the eternal summer, and got out their waterproofs. They were glad to find themselves drawing near to Bellagio, and its big hotels, and villas, and terraced gardens. The wind had risen; the driven green water was here and there hissing white; and just as they were landing, a pink flash of lightning darted across that dense wall of purple cloud, and there was a long and reverberating rattle of thunder.

‘It seems to me we have just got in in time,’ said Frank King in the hall of the hotel.

The storm increased in fury. The girls could scarcely dress for dinner through being attracted to the window by the witches’ cantrips outside. The thunder blackness in the south-west had deepened; the wind was whirling by great masses of vapour; the water was springing high along the terraces; and the trees in the terraced gardens were blown this way and that, even though their branches were heavy with rain. Then it was that Edith Beresford said

’Nan, you ought to persuade Lieutenant King to stay over another day. He hasn’t seen Como. This isn’t Como.’

‘I?’ said Nan, sharply. ’What have I to do with it? He can go or stay as he pleases.’

‘Besides,’ continued Edith, ‘in consequence of this tempo cattivo

‘I suppose that means weather that rains cats and dogs,’ said Nan, whose anger was of the briefest duration.

’ the grand Serenata is put off till to-morrow night. Now he ought to stay and see the illuminations of the boats.’

‘The illuminations,’ said Nan. ’I should think he had something else to think of.’

Nevertheless, when, at dinner, Miss Edith was good enough to put these considerations before Lieutenant King, he seemed very anxious to assent, and he at once called for a time-table; and eventually made out that by taking the night train somewhere or other, he could remain at Bellagio over the next day. And he was rewarded, so far as the weather went. The morning was quite Como-like fair and blue and calm; the sun shining on the far wooded hills, and on the sparkling little villages at their foot; the green lake still running high, with here and there a white tip breaking; a blaze of sunlight on the gardens below on the green acacia-branches and the masses of scarlet salvia and on the white hot terraces where the lizards lay basking.

It was a long, idle, delicious day; and somehow he contrived to be near Nan most of the time. He was always anxious to know what she thought about this or about that; he directed her attention to various things; he sometimes talked to her about his ship and about what sailors thought of when they were far from home and friends. They went out on the lake these four; the hot sun had stilled the water somewhat; reclining in the cushioned stern of the boat, in the shelter of the awning, they could hear the bells on shore faint and distant. Or they walked in that long allée leading from one end of the gardens the double line of short chestnuts offering cool and pleasant shadow; the water lapping along the stone parapet beside them; and between each two of the stems a framed picture, as it were, of the lake and the velvet-soft slopes beyond. It was all very pretty, they said. It was a trifle common-place, perhaps; there were a good many hotels and little excursion steamers about; and perhaps here and there a suggestion of the toy-shop. But it was pretty. Indeed, towards sunset, it was very nearly becoming something more. Then the colours in the skies deepened; in the shadows below the villages were lost altogether; and the mountains, growing more and more sombre under the rich gold above began to be almost fine. One half forgot the Cockneyism and familiarity of the place, and for a moment had a glimpse of the true loneliness and solemnity of the hills.

As the dusk fell they began to bethink themselves of what was before them.

’It would have been a bad thing for the musicians from La Scala if they had attempted to go out last evening,’ Miss Beresford remarked.

‘It will be a bad thing for us,’ said Edith, who was the musical one, ’if we attempt to go on board their steamer this evening. It will be far too loud. You should never be too near. And, especially where there is water, music sounds so well at some distance.’

‘You can hire a small boat, then,’ said Nan. ’They are all putting up their Chinese lanterns.’

‘Oh, I wouldn’t advise that,’ said Frank King, quickly. ’I don’t think it would be safe.’

‘A sailor afraid of boats!’ said Miss Edith with a laugh.

‘Oh, as for that,’ said Nan, warmly, ’every one knows that it’s those who are most ignorant of boats who are most reckless in them. It’s very easy to be brave if you’re stupidly ignorant. I know papa used to say it was always the most experienced sportsman who took most care about unloading his gun on going into a house. Why, if you’re walking along the pier, and see some young fools standing up in a boat and rocking it until the gunwale touches the water, you may be sure they’re haberdashers down from the borough for a day, who have never been in a boat before.’

In the dusk they could not see that Frank King’s face flushed with pleasure at this warm defence; but he only said quietly,

’You see there will be ten or twelve steamers churning about in the dark; and if some careless boatman were to make a mistake or lose his head you might be under the paddles in a second. I think you should either get on board or stay ashore; and I should say you were as well off here as anywhere. You will see the procession on the lake very well; and even if they should halt over there at Cadenabbia for the music, we could hear it here excellently.’

‘It is very good advice, Edith,’ said Miss Beresford, seriously. ’I don’t at all like small boats. And there goes the first dinner-bell; so let’s make haste.’

At dinner Frank King did not say much; he seemed to be thinking of his departure on the morrow. Once, however, when they happened to be talking about Brighton, he looked across the table to Nan, and said,

’Oh, by the way, what was the name of the woman you told me about whom you met on the downs?’

‘Singing Sal,’ answered Nan, with composure.

‘I shall ask about her when I get to Portsmouth,’ he said.

’She is seldom in the big towns; she prefers tramping by herself along the country roads.’

‘Is this another of Nan’s protegees?’ asked Miss Beresford. ’She knows the most extraordinary people. She is like the children when they are sent down to the beach when the tide is low; they are always most delighted with the monstrous and hideous things they can pick up.’

‘You must have seen Singing Sal,’ said Nan quietly. ’And she is neither monstrous nor hideous. She is very well dressed, and she sings with a great deal of feeling.’

‘Perhaps she will come and have afternoon tea with us?’ said Edith, with a sarcastic air.

‘I don’t think she would find it interesting enough,’ Nan answered, calmly.

When, after dinner, they went out on to the balcony above the garden, they found that the wonders of the night had already begun. Far on the other side of the lake the houses of Cadenabbia were all ablaze with millions of small gold points, the yellow glow from which glimmered down on the black water. Then in the garden here, there were rows upon rows of Chinese lanterns, of all colours, just moving in the almost imperceptible breeze; while along the shore, the villas had their frontage-walls decorated with brilliant lines of illuminated cups, each a crimson, or white, or emerald star. Moreover, at the steps of the terrace below, there was a great bustle of boats; and each boat had its pink paper lantern glowing like a huge firefly in the darkness; and there was a confusion of chaffering and calling with brightly dressed figures descending by the light of torches, and disappearing into the unknown. Then these boats began to move away with their glow-worm lanterns swaying in the black night. The hotel seemed almost deserted. There was silence along the shores.

By and by, at a great distance, they beheld a wonderful thing come slowly into view far away in the open space of darkness that they knew to be the lake. It was at first only a glow of crimson; but as it came nearer, this glow separated into points, each point a ruby-coloured shaft of fire, and they saw that this must be a steamer illuminated by red lamps. And then another steamer, and another, came sailing up, with different colours gleaming; until one, far higher than the others a great mass of glittering gold appeared in the midst of them, and round this all the fleet of small boats, that were, of course, only distinguishable by their parti-coloured lanterns, seemed to gather.

‘That is the steamer that has the musicians, clearly,’ said Frank King.

‘Yes; but I don’t hear any music,’ answered Edith, in a voice that seemed rather ominous.

They sat and waited. The last of the guests had got into the small boats and gone away; they were left alone in front of the big hotel. The moon was rising behind the hills in the south, and already the surface of the lake was beginning to declare itself a dull blue-black.

‘I cannot hear the least sound; is it possible they can be playing?’ said Edith, disappointedly.

It was a beautiful spectacle, at all events, even if there were no sound accompanying it. For now the moon had risen clear, and there was a pale soft light all along the northern hills, and just enough radiance lying over the bosom of the lake to show the darkness of the hulls of the distant steamers. And then, as they watched, some order seemed to grow out of that confusion of coloured lights; the high golden mass drew away; and then the others followed, until the long undulating line seemed like some splendid meteor in the night. There was no sound. Cadenabbia, with all its yellow fire, was as clearly deserted as this Bellagio here, with all its paper lanterns and coloured cups. The procession had slowly departed. The Serenata was taking place somewhere else. The gardens of this hotel were silent but for the occasional voices of Frank King and his companions.

Well, they laughed away their disappointment; and chatted pleasantly, and enjoyed the beautiful night, until Miss Beresford thought it was time for them to go indoors.

‘But where’s Nan?’ she said. ‘That girl is never to be found.’

‘I think I can find her,’ said Frank King, rising hastily. He had been regarding for some time back that long allée between the chestnuts, and a dark figure there that was slowly pacing up and down, occasionally crossing the patches of moonlight. When he had got about half-way along, he found Nan leaning with her elbows on the parapet, and looking out on the moonlit lake.

‘Oh, Miss Anne,’ he said, ‘your sister wants you to come indoors.’

‘All right,’ she said cheerfully, raising herself and preparing to go.

‘But I want to say a word to you,’ he said hurriedly. ’I have been trying for an opportunity these two days. I hope you won’t think it strange or premature or impertinent ’

‘Oh no,’ said Nan, with a sudden fear of she knew not what; ’but let us go indoors.’

‘No, here, now,’ he pleaded. ’Only one moment. I know we are young; perhaps I should not ask you to pledge yourself, but all I ask for is to be allowed to hope. Surely you understand. Nan, will you be my wife some day?’

He would have taken her hand; but she withdrew quickly, and said with a sort of gasp

’Oh, I am so sorry. I had no idea. It must be my fault, I am sure; but I did not know I was not thinking of such a thing for a moment ’

‘But you will give me leave to hope?’ he said. ’I mean some day not now.’

‘Oh no, no!’ she said with an earnestness that was almost piteous. ’If I have made a mistake before, this must be clear now. Oh, don’t think of such a thing. It never could be never, never. I am very sorry if I have pained you; but but you don’t know anything about me; and you will soon forget, for we are both far too young at least I am to think of such things; and and I am very, very sorry.’

‘But do you mean that I am never to think of it again, even as a hope?’ he said, slowly.

’Oh, I do mean that I do! If there has been a mistake, let it be clear now. Can I not be your friend?’

She held out her hand. After a second or so of hesitation, he took it.

‘I know more of you than you suspect,’ he said slowly, and with a touch of hopelessness in his voice. ’I could see what you were the first half-hour I had spoken to you. And I know you know your own mind, and that you are sincere. Well, I had hoped for something else; but even your friendship will be valuable to me when I have had a little time to forget.’

‘Oh, thank you, thank you!’ said Nan, somewhat incoherently. ’I know you will be wise. You have your profession to think of; that is of far more importance. I know you will be wise, and generous too, and forgive me if the fault has been mine. Now, we will not speak of any such thing again; let it be as if it had never been. Come.’

He pressed her hand in silence it was a token of good-bye. These two did not see each other again for more than three years.