VISITORS FROM ROME

It was one of those evenings which, to any one acquainted only with our
English climate, seem like a foretaste of paradise. I sat before a
tiny marble table at one of the open-air _cafés_ at the head of the
Marina, listening idly to the music of the band only a few yards off,
and gazing over the peaceful, glistening sea which stretched away in
front. There were many people passing backwards and forwards, but my
thoughts were far away, and I took notice of none of them. With my
head resting upon my arm, and my arm upon the low balustrade, I had
fallen into a semi-somnolent slumber of thought, and the faces of the
people who lounged by chattering and laughing I saw only as figures in
a dream. My cigarette even had burnt out between my lips, and the
coffee which stood by my side I had not tasted.

The roadway was completely blocked with the carriages of the Palermitan
nobility and elite, and the promenade was thronged with a heterogeneous
stream of fishermen and natives and visitors. All Palermo flocks on to
the Marina at nightfall–as who would not?–to hear the band and
breathe in the freshness of the sea, and with other objects very
similar to those which attract promenaders on to the esplanades of
English watering-places at a similar hour. Often I had amused myself
by watching them, and looking out for English visitors; but to-night,
early in the evening, I had seen a Sicilian countess who reminded me
slightly of Maud, and my thoughts had flashed back to Devereux, and
remained there, heedless of my efforts to recall them, hovering around
one fair face, which sometimes I feared was more to me than anything
else in the world.

What should recall them but the glad, amazed greeting of an English
voice! I sprang to my feet, and before me, her face radiant with
pleasure, and her little hand stretched out eagerly, stood Lady Olive.

“Of all the strange meetings I ever heard of, Mr. Arbuthnot, this is
the most extraordinary!” she exclaimed. “It quite takes my breath
away!”

I held her hand in mine forgetful of what I was doing–amazed and
admiring. A warm climate evidently suited Lady Olive, for I had never
seen her look so charming as she did then in the airy muslin dress
which floated gracefully around her slight figure, with a great bunch
of light-coloured violets in the bosom of her gown, and with a decided
tinge of colour and delighted sparkle in her eyes.

“Mr. Arbuthnot, am I a ghost that you look at me so without speaking?
And you really must let go my hand, please.”

I dropped it at once.

“Lady Olive,” I exclaimed, “I never met any one whom I was so pleased
to see! Whatever stroke of good fortune brought you to Sicily?”

“This,” she laughed, laying her arm within that of a tall, bearded
gentleman who stood wondering by her side. “Papa, this is Mr.
Arbuthnot. Mr. Arbuthnot, my father, Lord Parkhurst.”

He held out his hand cordially.

“Very glad to meet you, Mr. Arbuthnot. I have heard my daughter speak
of you often.”

We were blocking up the crowded promenade, and so we all three turned
and walked leisurely along amongst the others. In a few minutes I had
heard that Lord Parkhurst had brought his daughter and some other
friends here from Rome in his yacht, and they were uncertain as to
their stay. And in return I had told them that I was living with my
father for a while close to Palermo.

Presently we came up with the remainder of their party, and Lord
Parkhurst, leaving his daughter in my charge, joined them. A tall,
good-humoured-looking boy strolled up to us, looking at me
questioningly. Lady Olive introduced me to her brother, who came over
to my side, and seemed disposed to stay with us.

“Now, we’re not going to have you, Frank,” Lady Olive declared,
laughing. “Mr. Arbuthnot and I are old friends, and we have a lot to
talk about. Go and take care of Cissy, do!”

He laughed good-humouredly, and then, nodding to me, strolled off with
his hands in his pockets. Lady Olive rested her little hand upon my
arm for a moment, and guided me down towards the winter garden, where
the throng was less dense. There we found a low seat, and sat down
with our faces to the sea, and our backs to the ever-increasing crowd,
the murmur of whose conversation reached us in an incessant subdued hum.

“And now, Mr. Arbuthnot, tell me all the news, please; I want to know
everything about yourself,” exclaimed Lady Olive, making herself
comfortable. “Quick, please; we haven’t more than half-an-hour before
some one will be looking for me.”

“Half-a-minute will suffice to tell you my news,” I answered, and I
told her the little that had happened to me since Marian’s marriage.
Told her of my meeting with my father, and of our quiet life together.
She listened with more than interest; and very enchanting she looked in
the golden light which shone upon her up-turned, piquant face, and in
her dark, tender eyes, which had almost filled with compassionate tears
when I had finished. For, after all, there was something sad about my
story.

“I think it is so good of you, Mr.–Mr. Arbuthnot, to give up your
life, as you are doing, to your father,” she said softly.

I laughed at the idea.

“Give it up! It is no sacrifice. I like being with him; and life
isn’t at all unpleasant out here, I can tell you.”

“Isn’t it a little dull?” she asked, hesitatingly.

“I had not found it so,” I told her. “Perhaps I should when she were
gone,” I added.

She made a mocking face at me, and then suddenly became grave again.

“Mr. Arbuthnot, I wonder whether you will mind,” she said, looking at
me very earnestly, “but papa knows your real name and all about you. I
couldn’t help telling him, because I have thought about you so much.
You are not angry?”

I smiled down at her reassuringly. Angry! Why should I be? Instead,
I must confess that I felt a decided glow of pleasure at her eager
words.

“Tell me something about yourself now,” I begged, “and some English
news, if there is any.”

“English news! Well, old Sir Francis is moping worse than ever since
you left; Mr. Rupert Devereux has written the novel of the season; Mr.
Francis, from all I can hear of him, is going to the bad; and
Maud–they say Maud is engaged to that little fop, Lord Annerley. Is
that enough news?”

Yes, it was quite enough! Something told me that she was watching for
the effect of her words, and a sort of stubborn pride held my features
rigid, and enabled me to answer lightly, and to put the words which I
had heard away from me.

We talked for a long time in low tones, exchanging reminiscences and
speeches, my share of which I have often since repented. But to meet
unexpectedly a countrywoman, especially so charming a one as Lady
Olive, in a strange country, when you have seen nothing but strange
faces for many months, is sufficient excuse for a little more than
cordiality creeping into the conversation. And then there was the
influence of the scene and of the night, an influence which no one can
properly appreciate who does not know what the long summer nights of
Southern Europe are like. Everything seemed steeped in a sort of
languid, evanescent beauty. The dark mountains stretching out like
giant sentinels into the silvery, glistening bay, the twinkling lights
from the low, white houses, the softened strains of the band, the musky
air heavily laden with the mingled perfume of the orange grove, the
hyacinths, and the more distant vineyards, and Lady Olive’s beautiful
dark eyes so close to mine, and flashing with such a dangerously sweet
light–all these seemed leagued together to stir my senses and my
heart. If Lady Olive spoke in a lower tone and with a tenderer accent
than she need have done, was I to blame, knowing her to be a flirt, if
I followed suit? The wonder is that I forbore to answer the mute
invitation of her eyes, and press my lips against the archly tender,
oval face, which more than once almost touched mine.

But for the thought that, gone from me for ever though she might be,
Maud’s kiss was the last upon my lips, assuredly I should have yielded
to the fascination of that moment.

Fewer and fewer became our words, until at last we ceased talking
altogether, and remained silent, drinking in the exquisite enjoyment of
our surroundings.

At last Lady Olive rose reluctantly.

“Mr. Arbuthnot, we must really go. They’ll be coming to look for us
directly, and, really, if it hadn’t been too ridiculous, people might
almost imagine that we’d been spooning, mightn’t they?”

She blushed as she smoothed down the folds of her white dress, and
waited whilst I lit a cigarette. Certainly, if people had entertained
that very ridiculous notion there would have been some excuse for them,
for our hands had been very close together–very close indeed–and
there was a soft light in Lady Olive’s lustrous eyes which, to any one
who had not known that she was a flirt, and could command them at will,
might have suggested love-making. Our _tête-à-tête_, such as it was,
was over for the present, at any rate, for we had scarcely gone a dozen
yards when we came upon Lord Parkhurst, with Miss Cissy, who, I found
out afterwards, was Lady Olive’s youngest sister, and Master Frank, and
a tall, sandy-haired man, with bushy eyebrows and an intelligent
forehead, whom Lord Parkhurst introduced to me as Mr. Burton Leigh.

We all walked up the promenade together, but presently Lord Parkhurst
took an opportunity to draw me a little behind the others.

“My dear fellow,” he said kindly, “my daughter told me all your sad
history when she came to rue from England. Do you know, I should like
to know your father, Mr. Devereux, very much. My cousin was in his
regiment, and always swore that there was something wrong about that
court-martial. Do you think that he would mind my calling on him?”

I hesitated, at a loss how to decide.

“Well, well, let it be until you have asked him,” Lord Parkhurst went
on, good-humouredly. “We shall be here for a week or two, at any rate,
and I hope that we shall see a good deal of you. We thought of going
to see the convent at San Martino to-morrow. Will you join us?”

“The convent of San Martino?” I exclaimed. “Why, you will pass our
house.”

“Indeed! Then we will look in and see your father on our way back, if
he has no objection. You’ll come in for an hour?”

We had reached the entrance to the hotel, and Lady Olive was looking
behind to see that I was following. But I shook my head.

“I have a six-mile ride over a rough country,” I said, “and though the
patience of mules is supposed to be inexhaustible, experience has
taught me that that idea is a popular delusion. I’ve kept mine waiting
four hours already, and I really must go.”

“If you must, then,” Lord Parkhurst said, holding out his hand, “where
shall we see you to-morrow?”

“I’ll come and meet you if you’ll tell me what time you’ll start.”

They consulted, and fixed upon an hour. Then I shook hands with Lady
Olive and the rest of the party, and walked back along the now nearly
deserted Marina to the inn where I had left my mule.

Jacko was a faithful beast and sure of foot. But he was slow, and by
the time we had reached home it was past midnight. My father was
sitting up for me, poring over a musty old volume, which he laid down,
as I entered.

“Hugh, my boy, I thought you were lost. Disgraceful hour, sir,” he
added, with a mild attempt at facetiousness.

I laughed, and throwing my whip into a corner, poured myself out a cup
of coffee.

“Father, what do you think has happened?” I explained. “I have met
some English friends in Palermo.”

“Who are they?” he asked nervously.

“Lord Parkhurst and his daughter. Lady Olive is a friend of Miss
Devereux’s, and a very jolly little girl she is.”

My father nodded.

“Glad you’ve been enjoying yourself,” he remarked. “I hope they are
going to stay for a time. They’ll be company for you.”

“And you too, father,” I added quickly. “Lord Parkhurst wants to call
and see you. He knows all about us, and he seems very anxious to make
your acquaintance. Do you mind?”

My father considered for some time before he answered. I could see
that the idea half pleased him, although he could not quite make up his
mind to break through his old habit.

“I don’t think I should mind much, Hugh,” he said at last. “But
there’s no one else, is there?”

“Only a son, and two daughters. Lady Olive is quite as anxious to know
you as her father. Oh! and there’s a fellow called Burton Leigh.”

“Burton Leigh!” repeated my father. “Burton Leigh! There is no man
whom I should like to meet more if it’s the same Burton Leigh who wrote
this treatise on Modern Mahometanism.”

“Same fellow,” I declared, without hesitation. “He looks beastly
clever, and Lady Olive said that he’d lived for years in Egypt with a
tribe of Arabs. Same fellow for certain.”

“How strange! When are they coming, Hugh?”

“To-morrow,” I answered, invoking secret blessings on the head of Mr.
Burton Leigh. “They are coming this way to San Martino, and I was to
let them know whether they might call.”

My father and I were sitting at breakfast on the following morning, out
of doors, on the wooden balcony, when I again recurred to the visit
which we were to receive.

Below us stretched a wild, neglected garden, picturesque but overgrown,
and further away was a flourishing vineyard and a bare stretch of
heath, only redeemed from absolute ugliness by the brilliant patches of
wild-flowers and frequent groups of olive-trees. Although it was early
morning the warm air was already laden with the languid, almost
oppressive, scent of wild hyacinths and other odorous plants, and there
seemed to be every promise of a scorching hot day. As usual, our
breakfast consisted almost entirely of different sorts of fruits and
the wine of the country, and until we had nearly finished and my father
had leaned back in his low wicker chair, with the blue smoke from a
cigarette curling around him, we scarcely interchanged a word.

“I wonder if there’s anything in the house for lunch?” I remarked,
rather abruptly.

My father looked at me with a mild astonishment, for we seldom asked
one another questions of that sort, leaving almost everything to our
housekeeper.

“I haven’t the faintest idea,” he acknowledged, languidly fanning
himself with his hat. “Better ask Marie. Why this premature
curiosity?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “We may have company,” I remarked.

My father arched his eyebrows, and looked at me incredulously.

“Company, nonsense! You haven’t asked your friends to luncheon, have
you?”

I shook my head. “Haven’t asked them, but I shouldn’t wonder if they
weren’t here all the same. They are going to San Martino, and it
occurs to me that by the time they reach here they may be glad of a
rest. It’s going to be a warmish day.”

Marie had come out to take away the remains of our breakfast, and I
appealed to her. She shrugged her massive shoulders discouragingly,
and held up her hands. We were not often home for lunch, and she had
provided nothing.

We looked at one another helplessly, my father and I, and then
simultaneously broke into a short laugh.

“Let us hope your friends will have had a good breakfast, Hugh,” my
father said. “But, Marie,” he added, “surely there were chickens?”

“Ah, surely, there were chickens, so many that they were becoming a
nuisance! Pietro should kill some at once, that they might be cooked
and cold by luncheon time.”

“And omelettes, Marie; you can make omelettes?” I suggested.

She was half indignant at the idea of there being any doubt about it!
Omelettes there could be, surely! Were not her omelettes equal to any
one’s? And if the signers were expecting visitors, they need have no
fear! They might make their minds quite at rest. Lunch there should
be, fit for any one.

We both breathed more freely, and decided that Marie was a treasure.
Then I lounged off into the garden on a very womanish errand–namely,
to gather some flowers to decorate the table with, and finally, having
seen all things in a state of preparation, I mounted Jacko and rode off
towards Palermo, leaving my father vastly amused at the orders I had
given.

Just outside the city I met them in a heavy native carriage, and,
turning round, I rode by their side. Frank and Mr. Leigh were also on
mules, but Lady Olive, in a cream-coloured costume, and with a bunch of
hyacinths, which I had given her the night before, in her bosom, was
sitting in the carriage by her father’s side. She welcomed me with the
most becoming blush, and, as I touched her hand, I could not help
thinking how fresh, and cool, and English-like she appeared. Perhaps
my eyes told her something of my admiration, for she turned hers
quickly away, and seemed eager to commence a conversation.

“Mr. Arbuthnot, how strange you look on that animal after the Black
Prince! Aren’t you afraid of your feet touching the ground?”

“Jacko is not to be despised,” I assured her. “I’m afraid the Black
Prince’s knees would suffer in this country. Ever ridden one of these
animals before?” I asked Mr. Leigh, who was by my side.

He smiled at the question.

“In very many countries,” he answered. “I’ve crossed the Pyrenees, and
cantered into Jerusalem on one. They’re sure-footed beasts.”

I looked at him with interest. Evidently he had been a traveller, and
he was doubtless the man whom my father desired to meet.

There was not much opportunity for conversation, for the road was such
that it took all our attention to remain safely in our saddles. Our
progress, too, or rather the progress of the carriage, was slow, and
long before we had arrived at the villa Lord Parkhurst began to look
hot and Lady Olive a little bored. Only Frank seemed to be thoroughly
enjoying himself, with that indifference to the weather which a hardy
school-boy generally displays, galloping round in circles, and urging
his animal, a respectable and highly disgusted old mule, into the most
extraordinary antics. At last the ruined front of the villa, half
hidden amongst the grove of orange-trees which stretched behind it,
came in sight.

“What a dear old place!” remarked Lady Olive. “Who lives there, Mr.
Arbuthnot?”

“At present we do,” I said, riding up to the side of the carriage. “If
you would really like to make my father’s acquaintance, Lord Parkhurst,
we should find him at home now, and he would be pleased to see you.”

Lord Parkhurst seized upon the idea with avidity.

“I should like it above all things,” he declared, “and a change from
this beastly rackety machine and this broiling sun will be very
welcome. What do you say, Olive?”

Lady Olive was quite of her father’s opinion, and so in a few minutes a
halt was made at the rusty iron gates supported by tottering grey stone
pillars, and we all trooped up the grass-grown avenue.

My father met us at the door, and welcomed our guests with an air of
dignified courtesy of which many years of seclusion had not robbed him.
He brought up the rear, exchanging affable common-placisms with Lord
Parkhurst, whilst I, with Lady Olive and the rest of the party, crossed
the marble floor of the entrance-hall, stained and discoloured by age,
and entered the larger of the two rooms which we had made some attempt
at furnishing. The close-drawn blinds had kept out the burning sun,
and after the fierce heat outside the room seemed cool and pleasant
enough, although its decorations were faded and its walls in places
dilapidated. Lady Olive, stretched in my father’s easy chair,
pronounced her firm intention of remaining where she was until the sun
had lost some of its fierceness, and Lord Parkhurst, who was fanning
himself with an air of great contentment, seemed by no means reluctant.
So we sat there, a merry, chattering party, my father and Mr. Leigh
deep in the discussion of some vexed point in the latter’s book–a
discussion in which Lord Parkhurst seemed also interested–and we
younger ones talking in a somewhat lighter vein.

Presently Marie threw open the folding doors and announced luncheon,
and my father, with Lady Olive on his arm–how many years was it, I
wonder, since he had performed a like ceremony?–led the way out into
the wide shaded balcony where lunch had been prepared. We were quite
out of the sun, and the air here was fresh and cool, and laden with
sweet scents from the orange-grove close at hand.

“I call this perfectly delicious,” Lady Olive declared, sinking into
her bamboo chair at the bottom end of the table. “Mr. Arbuthnot, your
house is an enchanted one! I was just thinking how nice a bunch of
grapes would be, and–behold!”

There were certainly plenty of grapes, and, with a snowy white cloth
and the flowers which were intermingled with the fruit, and strewn all
over it, the table looked very well for a bachelor abode. My father
made a dignified but courteous host, and several times I found myself
admiring his easy, natural manners, whilst Lady Olive, opposite to him,
looked charming and bright, and kept us all talking and amused. After
lunch was over my father and Mr. Leigh again became absorbed in a
_tête-à-tête_, and, as Lord Parkhurst showed decided symptoms of
indulging in a siesta, Lady Olive and I, with her brother Frank and the
younger sister following, strolled down the steps into the neglected
and luxuriantly overgrown but picturesque old garden. I am afraid we
talked a good many soft nothings that afternoon, Lady Olive and I, my
share in which I have often bitterly repented. But then, how many
excuses there were! Lady Olive had openly professed herself to be a
flirt, and as such I always regarded her, light-hearted, gay, and with
winning manners, but a thorough-paced coquette. Her tender looks, and
the soft light which so often shone in her dark eyes, had never been
dangerous to me, for I had never believed in their sincerity. They had
been very pleasant to respond to, and the occasional pressure of her
small white fingers had been pleasant enough to feel. But I had always
responded to these with a half-laughing acquiescence, feeling that I
was playing my part in a game dangerous to neither of us. Experience
has taught me that danger is an element never absent from such mocking
interchanges of assumed affection, and that flirting, even in the most
innocent manner, and even with one who calls herself a flirt, is better
left alone.

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