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   Chapter 2 No.2

South Wind By Norman Douglas Characters: 17972

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


The Duchess of San Martino, a kind-hearted and imposing lady of mature age who, under favourable atmospheric conditions (in winter-time, for instance, when the powder was not so likely to run down her face), might have passed, so far as profile was concerned, for a faded French beauty of bygone centuries-the Duchess was no exception to the rule.

It was an old rule. Nobody knew when it first came into vogue. Mr. Eames, bibliographer of Nepenthe, had traced it down to the second Phoenician period, but saw no reason why the Phoenicians, more than anybody else, should have established the precedent. On the contrary, he was inclined to think that it dated from yet earlier days; days when the Troglodytes, Manigones, Septocardes, Merdones, Anthropophagoi and other hairy aboriginals used to paddle across, in crazy canoes, to barter the produce of their savage African glens-serpent-skins, and gums, and gazelle horns, and ostrich eggs-for those super-excellent lobsters and peasant girls for which Nepenthe had been renowned from time immemorial. He based this scholarly conjecture on the fact that a gazelle horn, identified as belonging to a now extinct Tripolitan species, was actually discovered on the island, while an adolescent female skull of the hypo-dolichocephalous (Nepenthean) type had come to light in some excavations at Benghazi.

It was a pleasant rule. It ran to the effect that in the course of the forenoon all the inhabitants of Nepenthe, of whatever age, sex, or condition, should endeavour to find themselves in the market-place or piazza-a charming square, surrounded on three sides by the principal buildings of the town and open, on the fourth, to a lovely prospect over land and sea. They were to meet on this spot; here to exchange gossip, make appointments for the evening, and watch the arrival of new-comers to their island. An admirable rule! For it effectively prevented everybody from doing any kind of work in the morning; and after luncheon, of course, you went to sleep. It was delightful to be obliged, by iron convention, to stroll about in the bright sunshine, greeting your friends, imbibing iced drinks, and letting your eye stray down to the lower level of the island with its farmhouses embowered in vineyards; or across the glittering water towards the distant coastline and its volcano; or upwards, into those pinnacles of the higher region against whose craggy ramparts, nearly always, a fleet of snowy sirocco-clouds was anchored. For Nepenthe was famous not only for its girls and lobsters, but also for its south wind.

As usual at this hour the market-place was crowded with folks. It was a gay throng. Priests and curly-haired children, farmers, fishermen, citizens, a municipal policeman or two, brightly dressed women of all ages, foreigners in abundance-they moved up and down, talking, laughing, gesticulating. Nobody had anything particular to do; such was the rule.

The Russian sect was well represented. They were religious enthusiasts, ever increasing in numbers and led by their Master, the divinely inspired Bazhakuloff, who was then living in almost complete seclusion on the island. They called themselves the "Little White Cows," to mark their innocence of worldly affairs, and their scarlet blouses, fair hair, and wondering blue eyes were quite a feature of the place. Overhead, fluttering flags and wreaths of flowers, and bunting, and brightly tinted paper festoons-an orgy of colour, in honour of the saint's festival on the morrow.

The Duchess, attired in black, with a black and white sunshade, and a string of preposterous amethysts nestling in the imitation Val of her bosom, was leaning on the arm of an absurdly good-looking youth whom she addressed as Denis. Everyone called him Denis or Mr. Denis. People used his surname as little as possible. It was Phipps.

With a smile for everyone, she moved more deliberately than the rest, and used her fan rather more frequently. She knew that the sirocco was making stealthy inroads upon her carefully powdered cheeks; she wanted to look her best on the arrival of Don Francesco, who was to bring some important message from the clerical authorities of the mainland anent her forthcoming reception into the Roman Catholic Church. He was her friend. Soon he would be her confessor.

Wordly-wise, indolent, good-natured and, like most Southerners, a thorough-going pagan, Don Francesco was deservedly popular as ecclesiastic. Women adored him; he adored women. He passed for an unrivalled preacher; his golden eloquence made converts everywhere, greatly to the annoyance of the parroco, the parish priest, who was doubtless sounder on the Trinity but a shocking bad orator and altogether deficient in humanity, and who nearly had a fit, they said, when the other was created Monsignor. Don Francesco was a fisher of men, and of women. He fished AD MAIOREM DEI GLORIAM, and for the fun of the thing. It was his way of taking exercise, he once confessed to his friend Keith; he was too fat to run about like other people-he could only talk. He fished among natives, and among foreigners.

Foreigners were hard to catch, on Nepenthe. They came and went in such breathless succession. Of the permanent residents only the Duchess, always of High Church leanings, had of late yielded to his blandishments. She was fairly hooked. Madame Steynlin, a lady of Dutch extraction whose hats were proverbial, was uncompromisingly Lutheran. The men were past redemption, all save the Commissioner who, however, was under bad influences and an incurable wobbler, anyhow. Eames, the scholar, cared for nothing but his books. Keith, a rich eccentric who owned one of the finest villas and gardens on the place, only came to the island for a few weeks every year. He knew too much, and had travelled too far, to be anything but a hopeless unbeliever; besides, he was a particular friend of his, with whom he agreed, in his heart of hearts, on every subject. The frequenters of the Club were mostly drunkards, derelicts, crooks, or faddist-not worth catching.

Carriages began to arrive on the scene. That of Don Francesco drove up first of all. He stepped out and sailed across the piazza like a schooner before the wind. But his discourse, usually ample and florid as befitted both his person and his calling, was couched on this occasion in Tacitean brevity.

"We have landed a queer fish, Duchess," he remarked. "He calls himself

Bishop of Bim-Bam-Bum, and resembles a broken-down matrimonial agent.

So lean! So yellow! His face all furrowed! He has lived very viciously,

that man. Perhaps he is mad. In every case, look to your purse, Mr.

Denis. He'll be here in a minute."

"That's quite right," said the young man. "The Bishop of Bampopo. It's in the NEW YORK HERALD. Sailing by the MOZAMBIQUE. But they didn't say he was coming to the island. I wonder what he wants here?"

Don Francesco was aghast.

"Indeed?" he asked. "A bishop, and so yellow! He must have thought me very rude," he added.

"You couldn't be rude if you tried," said the Duchess, giving him a playful slap with her fan.

She was burning with ardour to be the first to introduce such a lion to the local society. But fearful of making a FAUX PAS, she said:

"You'll go and speak to him, Denis. Find out if it's the right one-the one you read about in the paper, I mean. Then come and tell me."

"Good Lord, Duchess, don't ask me to do that! I couldn't tackle a bishop. Not an African. Not unless he has a proper apron on."

"Be a man, Denis. He won't bite a pretty boy like you."

"What nice things the lady is saying to you," observed Don Francesco.

"She always does," he laughed, "when she wants me to do something for her. I haven't been on this island long, but I have already found out the Duchess! You do it, Don Francesco. He is sure to be the right one. They get yellow, out there. Sometimes green."

Mr. Heard was intercepted on his way to the hotel by the genial priest, and formally presented to the Duchess. She was more than condescending to this stern and rather tired-looking man; she was gracious. She made all kinds of polite enquiries, and indicated the various sites and persons of interest; while Don Francesco, he observed, had unaccountably recovered from his sudden attack of bad humour on the steamer.

"And that is where I live," she said, pointing to a large and severe structure whose walls had plainly not been whitewashed for many long years. "It's an old disused convent, built by the Good Duke Alfred. Wasn't it, Denis?"

"I really couldn't say, Duchess. I never heard of the gentleman."

"That Good Duke was an unmitigated ruffian," observed Don Francesco.

"Oh, don't say that! Think of all the good he did for the island. Think of that frieze in the church! I have acres and acres of rooms to walk about in," she continued, addressing the bishop. "All by myself! I'm quite a hermit, you know. You will perha

ps be able to have a cup of tea with me to-day?"

"Not exactly a hermit," Denis interposed.

"To take tea with the Duchess is an experience, a revelation," said Don Francesco in judicial tones. "I have enjoyed that meal in various parts of the world, but nobody can manage it like she can. She has the true gift. You will make tea for us in Paradise, dear lady. As to luncheon, let me tell you in confidence, Mr. Heard, that my friend Keith, whom you will meet sooner or later, has a most remarkable chef. What that man of Keith's cannot cook is not worth eating."

"How delightful!" replied the bishop, slightly embarrassed. "And where," he added, laughing-"where does one dine?"

"I do not dine. Madame Steynlin used to give nice evening parties," he continued reflectively, and with a shade of sadness in his voice. "Excellent little dinners! But she is so taken up with Russians just now; they quite monopolise her house. Down there; do you see, Mr. Heard? That white villa by the sea, at the end of the promontory? She is so romantic. That is why she bought a house which nobody else would have bought at any price. That little place, all by itself-it fascinated her. Bitterly she regrets her choice. She has discovered the drawbacks of a promontory. My dear Duchess, never live on a promontory! It has fearful inconveniences; you are overlooked by everybody. All the islands know what you do, and who visits you, and when, and why…. Yes, I remember those dinners with regret. Nowadays I must content myself with a miserable supper at home. The doctor has forbidden dinners. He says I am getting too fat."

Denis remarked:

"Your fat is your fortune, Don Francesco."

"My fortune, then, is a heavy load to bear. Mr. Keith tells me I have seven double chins, three behind and four in front. He says he has counted them carefully. He declares that an eighth is in course of formation. It is too much for a person of my austere temperament."

"You need never believe a word Keith says," said the Duchess. "He upsets me with his long words and his-his awful views. He really does."

"I tell him he is the Antichrist," observed Don Francesco, gravely shaking his head. "But we shall see! We shall catch him yet."

The Duchess had no idea what the Antichrist was, but she felt sure it was something not quite nice.

"If I thought he was anything like that, I would never ask him to my house again. The Antichrist! Ah, talk of angels-"

The person in question suddenly appeared, superintending half a dozen young gardeners who carried various consignments of plants wrapped up in straw which had arrived, presumably, by the steamer.

Mr. Keith was older than he looked-incredibly old, in fact, though nobody could bring himself to believe it; he was well preserved by means of a complicated system of life, the details of which, he used to declare, were not fit for publication. That was only his way of talking. He exaggerated so dreadfully. His face was clean-shaven, rosy, and of cherubic fulness; his eyes beamed owlishly through spectacles which nobody had ever seen him take off. But for those spectacles he might have passed for a well-groomed baby in a soap-advertisement. He was supposed to sleep in them.

It looked as if Mr. Keith had taken an instantaneous liking to the bishop.

"Bampopo? Why, of course. I've been there. Years and years ago. Long before your time, I'm afraid. How is the place getting on? Better roads, no doubt. And better food, I hope? I was much interested in that little lake-you know? It seemed to have no outlet. We must talk it over. And I like those Bulanga people-fine fellows! You liked them too? I'm glad to hear it. Such a lot of nonsense was talked about their depravity! If you have nothing better to do, come and lunch to-morrow, can you? Villa Khismet. Anybody will show you the way. You, Denis," he added, "you disappoint me. You look like a boy who is fond of flowers. And yet you have never been to see my cannas, which are the finest in the kingdom, to say nothing of myself, who am also something of a flower. A carnivorous orchid, I fancy."

"A virgin lily," suggested Don Francesco.

"I wish I could manage to come," replied Mr. Heard. "But I must look for a cousin of mine to-morrow; Mrs. Meadows. Perhaps you know her?"

The priest said:

"We all know Mrs. Meadows. And we all like her. Unfortunately she lives far, far away; right up there," and he pointed vaguely towards the sirocco clouds. "In the Old Town, I mean. She dwells like a hermit, all alone. You can drive up there in a carriage, of course. It is a pity all these nice people live so far away. There is Count Caloveglia, for instance, whom I would like to see every day of my life. He talks better English than I do, the old humbug! He, too, is a hermit. But he will be down here to-morrow. He never misses the theatricals."

Everybody seems to be a hermit hereabouts, thought Mr. Heard. And yet this place is seething with people!

Aloud he said:

"So my cousin lives up in the fog. And does it always hang about like this?"

"Oh dear no!" replied the Duchess. "It goes away sometimes, in the afternoon. The sirocco, this year, has been most exceptional. Most exceptional! Don't you think so, Denis?"

"Really couldn't say, Duchess. You know I only arrived last week."

"Most exceptional! Don Francesco will bear me out."

"It blows," said the priest, "when the good God wishes it to blow. He has been wishing pretty frequently of late."

"I am writing to your cousin," the Duchess remarked, "to ask her to my small annual gathering after the festival of Saint Dodekanus. To-morrow, you know. Quite an informal little affair. I may count on you, Bishop? You'll all come, won't you? You too, Mr. Keith. But no long words, remember! Nothing about reflexes and preternatural and things like that. And not a syllable about the Incarnation, please. It scares me. What's the name of her villa, Denis?"

"Mon Repos. Rather a commonplace name, I think-Mon Repos."

"It is," said Keith. "But there is nothing commonplace about the lady.

She is what I would call a New Woman."

"Dear me!"

Mr. Heard was alarmed at this picture of his cousin. He did not altogether approve of New Women.

"She has long ago passed the stage you have in mind, Bishop. She is newer than that. The real novelty! Looks after the baby, and thinks of her husband in India. I believe I have many points in common with the New Woman. I often think of people in India."

"Such a dear little child," said the Duchess.

"Almost as round as myself," added Don Francesco. "There goes the Commissioner! He is fussing about with the judge, that red-haired man-do you see, Mr. Heard?-who limps like Mephistopheles and spits continually. They say he wants to imprison all the Russians. Poor folks! They ought to be sent home; they don't belong here. He is looking at us now. Ha, the animal! He has the Evil Eye. He is also scrofulous, rachitic. And his name is Malipizzo."

"What a funny name," remarked the Bishop.

"Yes, and he is a funny animal. They are great friends, those two."

"A horrible man, that judge," said the Duchess. "Only think, Mr. Heard, an atheist."

"A freemason," corrected Mr. Keith.

"It's the same thing. And ugly! Nobody has a right to be quite so ugly.

I declare he's worse than the cinematographic villain-you remember,

Denis?"

"It is a miracle he has lived so long, with that face," added Don Francesco. "I think God created him in order that mankind should have some idea of the meaning of the word 'grotesque.'"

The proud title "Commissioner" caused the bishop to pay particular attention to the other of the two individuals in question. He beheld a stumpy and pompous-looking personage, flushed in the face, with a moth-eaten grey beard and shifty grey eyes, clothed in a flannel shirt, tweed knickerbockers, brown stockings, white spats and shoes. Such was the Commissioner's invariable get-up, save that in winter he wore a cap instead of a panama. He was smoking a briar pipe and looking blatantly British, as if he had just spent an unwashed night in a third-class carriage between King's Cross and Aberdeen. The magistrate, on the other hand-the red-haired man-was jauntily dressed, with a straw hat on one side of his repulsive head, and plenty of starch about him.

"I never knew we had a Commissioner here," said Mr. Heard.

Keith replied:

"We haven't. He is Financial Commissioner for Nicaragua. An incomparable ass is Mr. Freddy Parker."

"Oh, he has a sensible idea now and then, when he forgets to be a fool," observed Don Francesco. "He is President of the Club, Mr. Heard. They will elect you honorary member. Take my advice. Avoid the whisky."

Denis remarked, after a critical glance in the same direction:

"I notice that the Commissioner looks redder in the face than when I last saw him."

"That," said Keith, "is one of Mr. Parker's characteristics."

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