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On the first day of the third week Rose wrote to Frederick.
In case she should again hesitate and not post the letter, she gave it to Domenico to post; for if she did not write now there would be no time left at all. Half the month at San Salvatore was over. Even if Frederick started directly he got the letter, which of course he wouldn't be able to do, what with packing and passport, besides not being in a hurry to come, he couldn't arrive for five days.
Having done it, Rose wished she hadn't. He wouldn't come. He wouldn't bother to answer. And if he did answer, it would just be giving some reason which was not true, and about being too busy to get away; and all that had been got by writing to him would be that she would be more unhappy than before.
What things one did when one was idle. This resurrection of Frederick, or rather this attempt to resurrect him, what was it but the result of having nothing whatever to do? She wished she had never come away on a holiday. What did she want with holidays? Work was her salvation; work was the only thing that protected one, that kept one steady and one's values true. At home in Hampstead, absorbed and busy, she had managed to get over Frederick, thinking of him latterly only with the gentle melancholy with which one thinks of some one once loved but long since dead; and now this place, idleness in this soft place, had thrown her back to the wretched state she had climbed so carefully out of years ago. Why, if Frederick did come she would only bore him. Hadn't she seen in a flash quite soon after getting to San Salvatore that that was really what kept him away from her? And why should she suppose that now, after such a long estrangement, she would be able not to bore him, be able to do anything but stand before him like a tongue-tied idiot, with all the fingers of her spirit turned into thumbs? Besides, what a hopeless position, to have as it were to beseech: Please wait a little--please don't be impatient--I think perhaps I shan't be a bore presently.
A thousand times a day Rose wished she had let Frederick alone. Lotty, who asked her every evening whether she had sent her letter yet, exclaimed with delight when the answer at last was yes, and threw her arms round her. "Now we shall be completely happy!" cried the enthusiastic Lotty.
But nothing seemed less certain to Rose, and her expression became more and more the expression of one who has something on her mind.
Mr. Wilkins, wanting to find out what it was, strolled in the sun in his Panama hat, and began to meet her accidentally.
"I did not know," said Mr. Wilkins the first time, courteously raising his hat, "that you too liked this particular spot." And he sat down beside her.
In the afternoon she chose another spot; and she had not been in it half an hour before Mr. Wilkins, lightly swinging his cane, came round the corner.
"We are destined to meet in our rambles," said Mr. Wilkins pleasantly. And he sat down beside her.
Mr. Wilkins was very kind, and she had, she saw, misjudged him in Hampstead, and this was the real man, ripened like fruit by the beneficent sun of San Salvatore, but Rose did want to be alone. Still, she was grateful to him for proving to her that though she might bore Frederick she did not bore everybody; if she had, he would not have sat talking to her on each occasion till it was time to go in. True he bored her, but that wasn't anything like so dreadful as if she bored him. Then indeed her vanity would have been sadly ruffled. For now that Rose was not able to say her prayers she was being assailed by every sort of weakness: vanity, sensitiveness, irritability, pugnacity --strange, unfamiliar devils to have coming crowding on one and taking possession of one's swept and empty heart. She had never been vain or irritable or pugnacious in her life before. Could it be that San Salvatore was capable of opposite effects, and the same sun that ripened Mr. Wilkins made her go acid?
The next morning, so as to be sure of being alone, she went down, while Mr. Wilkins was still lingering pleasantly with Mrs. Fisher over breakfast, to the rocks by the water's edge where she and Lotty had sat the first day. Frederick by now had got her letter. To-day, if he were like Mr. Wilkins, she might get a telegram from him.
She tried to silence the absurd hope by jeering at it. Yet--if Mr. Wilkins had telegraphed, why not Frederick? The spell of San Salvatore lurked even, it seemed, in notepaper. Lotty had not dreamed of getting a telegram, and when she came in at lunch-time there it was. It would be too wonderful if when she went back at lunch-time she found one there for her too. . .
Rose clasped her hands tight round her knees. How passionately she longed to be important to somebody again--not important on platforms, not important as an asset in an organization, but privately important, just to one other person, quite privately, nobody else to know or notice. It didn't seem much to ask in a world so crowded with people, just to have one of them, only one out of all the millions, to oneself. Somebody who needed one, who thought of one, who was eager to come to one--oh, oh how dreadfully one wanted to be precious!
All the morning she sat beneath the pine-tree by the sea. Nobody came near her. The great hours passed slowly; they seemed enormous. But she wouldn't go up before lunch, she would give the telegram time to arrive. . .
That day Scrap, egged on by Lotty's persuasions and also thinking that perhaps she had sat long enough, had arisen from her chair and cushions and gone off with Lotty and sandwiches up into the hills till evening. Mr. Wilkins, who wished to go with them, stayed on Lady Caroline's advice with Mrs. Fisher in order to cheer her solitude, and though he left off cheering her about eleven to go and look for Mrs. Arbuthnot, so as for a space to cheer her too, thus dividing himself impartially between these solitary ladies, he came back again presently mopping his forehead and continued with Mrs. Fisher where he had left off, for this time Mrs. Arbuthnot had hidden successfully. There was a telegram, too, for her he noticed when he came in. Pity he did not know where she was.
"Ought we to open it?" he said to Mrs. Fisher.
"No," said Mrs. Fisher.
"It may require an answer."
"I don't approve of tampering with other people's correspondence."
"Tampering! My dear lady--"
Mr. Wilkins was shocked. Such a word. Tampering. He had the greatest possible esteem for Mrs. Fisher, but he did at times find her a little difficult. She liked him, he was sure, and she was in a fair way, he felt, to become a client, but he feared she would be a headstrong and secretive client. She was certainly secretive, for though he had been skilful and sympathetic for a whole week, she had as yet given him no inkling of what was so evidently worrying her.
"Poor old thing," said Lotty, on his asking her if she perhaps could throw light on Mrs. Fisher's troubles. "She hasn't got love."
"Love?" Mr. Wilkins could only echo, genuinely scandalized. "But surely, my dear--at her age--"
"Any love," said Lotty.
That very morning he had asked his wife, for he now sought and respected her opinion, if she could tell him what was the matter with Mrs. Arbuthnot, for she too, though he had done his best to thaw her into confidence, had remained persistently retiring.
"She wants her husband," said Lotty.
"Ah," said Mr. Wilkins, a new light shed on Mrs. Arbuthnot's shy and modest melancholy. And he added, "Very proper."
And Lotty said, smiling at him, "One does."
And Mr. Wilkins said, smiling at her, "Does one?"
And Lotty said, smiling at him, "Of course."
And Mr. Wilkins, much pleased with her, though it was still quite early in the day, a time when caresses are sluggish, pinched her ear.
Just before half-past twelve Rose came slowly up through the pergola and between the camellias ranged on either side of the old stone steps. The rivulets of periwinkles that flowed down them when first she arrived were gone, and now there were these bushes, incredibly rosetted. Pink, white, red, striped--she fingered and smelt them one after the other, so as not to get to her disappointment too quickly. As long as she hadn't seen for herself, seen the table in the hall quite empty except for its bowl of flowers, she still could hope, she still could have the joy of imagining the telegram lying on it waiting for her. But there is no smell in a camellia, as Mr. Wilkins, who was standing in the doorway on the look-out for her and knew what was necessary in horticulture, reminded her.
She started at his voice and looked up.
"A telegram has come for you," said Mr. Wilkins.
She stared at him, her mouth open.
"I searched for you everywhere, but failed--"
Of course. She knew it. She had been sure of it all the time. Bright and burning, Youth in that instant flashed down again on Rose. She flew up the steps, red as the camellia she had just been fingering, and was in the hall and tearing open the telegram before Mr. Wilkins had finished his sentence. Why, but if things could happen like this-- why, but there was no end to--why, she and Frederick--they were going to be--again--at last--
"No bad news, I trust?" said Mr. Wilkins who had followed her, for when she had read the telegram she stood staring at it and her face went slowly white. Curious to watch how her face went slowly white.
She turned and looked at Mr. Wilkins as if trying to remember him.
"Oh no. On the contrary--"
She managed to smile. "I'm going to have a visitor," she said, holding out the telegram; and when he had taken it she walked away towards the dining-room, murmuring something about lunch being ready.
Mr. Wilkins read the telegram. It had been sent that morning from Mezzago, and was:
Am passing through on way to Rome. May I pay my respects this afternoon?
Why should such a telegram make the interesting lady turn pale? For her pallor on reading it had been so striking as to convince Mr. Wilkins she was receiving a blow.
"Who is Thomas Briggs?" he asked, following her into the dining-room.
She looked at him vaguely. "Who is--?" she repeated, getting her thoughts together again.
"Oh. Yes. He is the owner. This is his house. He is very nice. He is coming this afternoon."
Thomas Briggs was at that very moment coming. He was jogging along the road between Mezzago and Castagneto in a fly, sincerely hoping that the dark-eyed lady would grasp that all he wanted was to see her, and not at all to see if his house were still there. He felt that an owner of delicacy did not intrude on a tenant. But--he had been thinking so much of her since that day. Rose Arbuthnot. Such a pretty name. And such a pretty creature--mild, milky, mothery in the best sense; the best sense being that she wasn't his mother and couldn't have been if she had tried, for parents were the only things impossible to have younger than oneself. Also, he was passing so near. It seemed absurd not just to look in and see if she were comfortable. He longed to see her in his house. He longed to see it as her background, to see her sitting in his chairs, drinking out of his cups, using all his things. Did she put the big crimson brocade cushion in the drawing-room behind her little dark head? Her hair and the whiteness of her skin would look lovely against it. Had she seen the portrait of herself on the stairs? He wondered if she liked it. He would explain it to her. If she didn't paint, and she had said nothing to suggest it, she wouldn't perhaps notice how exactly the moulding of the eyebrows and the slight hollow of the cheek--
He told the fly to wait in Castagneto, and crossed the piazza, hailed by children and dogs, who all knew him and sprang up suddenly from nowhere, and walking quickly up the zigzag path, for he was an active young man not much more than thirty, he pulled the ancient chain that range the bell, and waited decorously on the proper side of the open door to be allowed to come in.
At the sight of him Francesca flung up every bit of her that would fling up--eyebrows, eyelids, and hands, and volubly assured him that all was in perfect order and that she was doing her duty.
"Of course, of course," said Briggs, cutting her short. "No one doubts it."
And he asked her to take in his card to her mistress.
"Which mistress?" asked Francesca.
"There are four," said Francesca, scenting an irregularity on the part of the tenants, for her master looked surprised; and she felt pleased, for life was dull and irregularities helped it along at least a little.
"Four?" he repeated surprised. "Well, take it to the lot then," he said, recovering himself, for he noticed her expression.
Coffee was being drunk in the top garden in the shade of the umbrella pine. Only Mrs. Fisher and Mr. Wilkins were drinking it, for Mrs. Arbuthnot, after eating nothing and being completely silent during lunch, had disappeared immediately afterwards.
While Francesca went away into the garden with his card, her master stood examining the picture on the staircase of that Madonna by an early Italian painter, name unknown, picked up by him at Orvieto, who was so much like his tenant. It really was remarkable, the likeness. Of course his tenant that day in London had had her hat on, but he was pretty sure her hair grew just like that off her forehead. The expression of the eyes, grave and sweet, was exactly the same. He rejoiced to think that he would always have her portrait.
He looked up at the sound of footsteps, and there she was, coming down the stairs just as he had imagined her in that place, dressed in white.
She was astonished to see him so soon. She had supposed he would come about tea-time, and till then she had meant to sit somewhere out of doors where she could be by herself.
He watched her coming down the stairs with the utmost eager interest. In a moment she would be level with her portrait.
"It really is extraordinary," said Briggs.
"How do you do," said Rose, intent only on a decent show of welcome.
She did not welcome him. He was here, she felt, the telegram bitter in her heart, instead of Frederick, doing what she had longed Frederick would do, taking his place.
"Just stand still a moment--"
She obeyed automatically.
"Yes--quite astonishing. Do you mind taking off your hat?"
Rose, surprised, took it off obediently.
"Yes--I thought so--I just wanted to make sure. And look--have you noticed--"
He began to make odd swift passes with his hand over the face in the picture, measuring it, looking from it to her.
Rose's surprise became amusement, and she could not help smiling. "Have you come to compare me with my original?" she asked.
"You do see how extraordinarily alike--"
"I didn't know I looked so solemn."
"You don't. Not now. You did a minute ago, quite as solemn. Oh yes--how do you do," he finished suddenly, noticing her outstretched hand. And he laughed and shook it, flushing--a trick of his--to the roots of his hair.
Francesca came back. "The Signora Fisher," she said, "will be pleased to see Him."
"Who is the Signora Fisher?" he asked Rose.
"One of the four who are sharing your house."
"Then there are four of you?"
"Yes. My friend and I found we couldn't afford it by ourselves."
"Oh, I say--" began Briggs in confusion, for he would best have liked Rose Arbuthnot--pretty name--not to have to afford anything, but to stay at San Salvatore as long as she liked as his guest.
"Mrs. Fisher is having coffee in the top garden," said Rose. "I'll take you to her and introduce you."
"I don't want to go. You've got your hat on, so you were going for a walk. Mayn't I come too? I'd immensely like being shown round by you."
"But Mrs. Fisher is waiting for you."
"Won't she keep?"
"Yes," said Rose, with the smile that had so much attracted him the first day. "I think she will keep quite well till tea."
"Do you speak Italian?"
"No," said Rose. "Why?"
On that he turned to Francesca, and told her at a great rate, for in Italian he was glib, to go back to the Signora in the top garden and tell her he had encountered his old friend the Signora Arbuthnot, and was going for a walk with her and would present himself to her later.
"Do you invite me to tea?" he asked Rose, when Francesca had gone.
"Of course. It's your house."
"It isn't. It's yours."
"Till Monday week," she smiled.
"Come and show me all the views," he said eagerly; and it was plain, even to the self-depreciatory Rose, that she did not bore Mr. Briggs.
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