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   Chapter 16 A CHAPTER OF ENCHANTMENT

My Friend the Chauffeur By A. M. Williamson Characters: 25081

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


A birthday must be happy spent in such an exquisite place, I told myself, when I'd got up and peeped out of the window upon a land of enchantment-even a birthday more advanced than one would choose. By morning light the lake was no longer sapphire, but had taken on a brilliant, opaque blue, like lapis lazuli. Umbrella pines were stretched in dark, jagged lines on an azure background. Black cypresses pointed warning fingers heavenward, rising tall and slim and solemn, out of a pink cloud of almond blossoms. The mountains towering round the lake, as if to protect its beauty with a kind of loving selfishness, had their green or rugged brown sides softened with a purplish glow like the bloom on a grape. And in the garden that flowed in waves of radiant colour from terrace to terrace, as water flows over a weir, roses and starry clematis, amethyst wistaria, rosy azalea, and a thousand lovely things I'd never seen before, mingled tints as in a mosaic of jewels.

I had lain awake in the night listening to a bird which I could almost have believed a fairy, and, though I'd never heard a nightingale, I wondered if he could be one. He said over and over again, through the white hours perfumed with roses and flooded with moonlight: "Do look, do look! Spirit, spirit, spirit!" And so, just in case he might have been calling me, I got up early to see what he had wanted me to see. Then I was gladder than ever that we had decided to spend at least that day and another night at Serbelloni, for one might journey to all four corners of the globe and not find another place so magically beautiful.

Although I was up so early, perhaps I spent a longer time over my toilet than the two girls do over theirs; and when I was ready neither Maida nor Beechy were in their rooms. I had opened my door to go down and look for them when I came face to face with a waiter carrying an enormous bouquet. It was for me, with a perfectly lovely poem written by the Prince. At least, it was in his handwriting, so I suppose it was by him, and it was full of pretty allusions to an "adorable woman," with praises for the gracious day that gave her to the world. I was pleased! It was like going back and being a young girl again, and I could have sung for joy, as the bird did last night.

The rest of the party were on an entrancing terrace, looking down over other flowery terraces upon the town of Bellagio, with its charming old campanile, and its grey roofs like a flock of doves clustering together on the border of the lake. The water was so clear and still that the big hotels and villas on the opposite shore seemed to have fallen in head down, and each little red-and-white canopied boat waiting for passengers at the quay had its double in the bright blue mirror. Clouds and mountains were all reflected too, and it seemed as if one might take one's choice between the real world and the dream world.

Maida and Beechy had already been for a walk with Sir Ralph and Mr. Barrymore, who had taken them up by a labyrinth of wooded paths to an old ruined castle which they described as crowning the head of the promontory. It had been built by the Romans, and in the Middle Ages was the stronghold of brigands, who captured beautiful ladies and terrorized the whole country. The girls were excited about some secret passages which they had found, leading down from the ruin to wonderful nooks screened on one side by trees and hanging over sheer abysses on the other. They wanted to show also an old chapel and a monks' burying ground which you had to reach by scrambling down a narrow stairway attached to the precipitous rocks, like a spider web. But I had on my white suede shoes with the Louis Quinze heels, which look so well with a white dress and dark blue silk stockings; besides, I began to want my breakfast, and it would have been impolite to disappear before I thanked the Prince, who might come out at any moment.

We had our coffee and rolls in a kind of bower close to the terrace; and afterwards I did walk along the level path, fenced in with a tangle of roses-pink, and white, and gold, and crimson-as far as a high shelf, cut into the face of the sheer cliff which plunges vertically down, down into the blue-green water. The Prince was my companion, and he (who has distinguished friends in the neighbourhood, which he has visited before) told me a strange story of the place. Once, he said, the Princes of Stanga were lords of the land here, and a certain daughter of the house was famous as the handsomest and cruellest Princess of her time. Despite her dreadful disposition, she had crowds of lovers, whom she used to invite to walk with her by moonlight, after a tête-à-tête supper. She would lead them to this very spot on which we stood, and just as she had lured them on to make a burning declaration of love she would give a laugh, and a sudden push, which hurled them to death in the lake far below. How different, judging from what I have read in the ladies' magazines, from the home-life of our dear Princesses of to-day! And how different from my habits, if I am asked to become, and do become, a Princess. I should have liked to throw out some delicate little suggestion of this sort, and perhaps would have found the right words, had not Beechy appeared at that moment with Sir Ralph. Then my whole attention was taken up, as it had been during breakfast, by tactfully staving off any allusion on the Prince's part to my birthday. All was in vain, however; he said something gallant, and I was quite as giddy for a few seconds as one of the wicked Princess's lovers, lest Beechy should be in an impish mood and throw out allusions to my age. But she was as good as a kitten, though she looked at me in a naughty way, and only said, "Would any one believe Mamma was twenty-nine to-day-if it weren't for Me?"

When we went indoors afterwards I gave her that ruby heart ring of mine that she likes.

All day long we were busy doing agreeable things. We lunched down by the lake shore, in the garden of a big hotel there, and afterwards were rowed across to Cadenabbia, in one of the canopied boats, to visit the Villa Carlotta in its wonderful terraced garden. I was delighted with the boat and the man who rowed us, in his white clothes and scarlet sash, but the Prince half-whispered in my ear that he was going to show me something better in the evening, when the time came for the "birthday surprise" about which I must please say nothing-not even to Beechy.

We had coffee at the most idyllic spot imaginable, which we reached by leaving the boat and mounting rather a steep path that went up beside a baby cascade. At the top was a shady terrace, with arbours of grape vines and roses, and a peasant's house, where the people live who waited upon us. We had thick cream for our coffee, and delicious stuff with raisins in it and sugar on top, which was neither bread nor cake. I wanted the recipe for it, but I didn't like to get any one to ask; and perhaps it wouldn't taste the same in Denver. Oh dear me, I begin to think there are lots of things that won't taste the same in Denver! But I should love better than anything to go back with a high title, and see what some of those society women, who turned up their noses at me when I was only Mrs. Simon Kidder, would do then. There isn't one who has a right to put crowns on her baggage or anywhere else, and I've got that already, whatever happens by and by.

We were rowed back to Bellagio again, and climbed up by a short cut to the Villa Serbelloni just in time to escape a storm on the lake. In a flower-draped cave above our favourite terrace, we sat in garden chairs and watched the effect, while Mr. Barrymore and Sir Ralph talked about Pliny, whose statue was nearby, and some strange old general of Napoleon's who lived for awhile at the Villa Serbolloni, and terrorized people who wanted him to pay his debts, by keeping fierce, hungry bloodhounds to patrol the place night and day.

When you are nicely sheltered, to watch rain falling in the distance, and marching like troops of grey ghosts along the sky, is something like watching other people's troubles comfortably, while you are happy yourself-though Maida would think that a selfish speech. Anyway, the effect of that storm was thrilling. First, Nature seemed to stop smiling and grow very grave as the shadows deepened among the mountains. Then, suddenly the thing happened which she had been expecting. A spurt of ink was flung across the sky and lake, leaving on the left a wall of blue, on the right an open door of gold. Black feathers drooped from the sky and trailed across the roughened water, to be blown away from sight as the storm passed from our lake to another; and when they had vanished, out came the sun again to shine through violet mists which bathed the mountain sides, and made their peaks seem to rise from a transparent sea.

We could not tear ourselves away until sunset; and by the time we had dressed for dinner, the rising moon had traced a path of silver from shore to shore, across the pansy-purple water, where the lights of Cadennabia were sending golden ladders down to the bottom of the lake.

I supposed that we would dine indoors, but the arbour where we had breakfasted was illuminated with coloured lanterns, which gleamed like rubies and emeralds and topazes among the dark tree branches, and the trails of roses and wistaria. "This is part of my surprise," said the Prince. "I have arranged this in honour of your birthday, dear Countess. No, don't thank me. Is it not my greatest pleasure to think of you?"

Perhaps it was because I was in a mood to be pleased with everything, but it did seem as if I had never tasted such a dinner as that was. We had every delicacy in and out of season, a fruit salad which is a specialty of the house, made of strawberries, fresh figs, cherries, pineapples, and almonds; and when I thought that all the surprise was over, along the terrace came a procession of green, blue and rose-coloured lights, as if fairies were flitting among the trees. But the fairies turned out to be waiters, bringing illuminated ices in fantastic shapes, and a birthday cake for me lighted with twenty-nine tiny wax candles.

All had been thought of by the Prince; and if there had been any doubt in my mind before, I now saw that he really loved me for myself alone. When everybody had wished me good wishes, blowing out the candles as they wished, we left the table to stroll about in the moonlight, and the Prince and I got separated from the others. "Ah, but this isn't all," he broke in, when I was trying to tell him how much I appreciated what he had done. "The best, I hope, is to come, if you will trust yourself to me for a little while."

I was ready to do so for any length of time, and when he had sent to the house for my wrap, and was leading me down a sloping path which I hadn't seen before, my curiosity bubbled like a tea-kettle beginning to boil.

"We are going to the little harbour on the Lecco side," he explained, "and there-you shall see what you shall see."

"Are you planning to run away with me?" I asked, laughing.

"Perhaps," said he, "and as fast as if we were in my automobile, though we shall travel by water."

I couldn't think what he meant, until we arrived at the harbour of which he had spoken. There, among two or three canopied row-boats was one as different as a swan is from geese. It had no canopy; and as the Prince brought me down to the quay, a man who had been sitting in the boat jumped up and touched his cap, which was shaped like a chauffeur's. And sure enough it was a chauffeur's, for this was a motor-boat, which had been lent by friends to Prince Dalmar-Kalm, especially for him to take me on the lake by moonlight.

He told me that he had hurried to Bellagio on purpose to borrow it, and if we did not leave too early to-morrow the people would call on me-distinguished people, who would delight in doing honour to the "American Countess."

Those were his very words; and he was so kind that I hadn't the heart to let him see I was frightened to go out in the motor-boat. I should have been far happier in a slow, comfortable old row-boat; and when I found that the Prince intended to leave the chauffeur behind, and manage the thing himself, my heart felt as if it had melted and begun to trickle down between my ribs. It did seem hard, just as I had got used to a motor-car, to have this new experience thrust upon me, all unpr

epared. Often I had thought what noble sentiments one ought to utter while driving in an automobile, considering that, at any moment your next words might be your last! but as we shot away from that little quay, out into the cold white path of the moon, I felt that to save my life I couldn't have uttered any sentiments at all.

The Prince, however, appeared to be happy, and to have perfect confidence in himself, in spite of the water looking twice as wet as it had looked in the afternoon. This motor was of the same make as that in his car, he said; it was by his advice that his friends had bought it, therefore he understood it very well, and where would I like to go?

"Anywhere," I answered, as pleasantly as a woman can, whose heart has just turned to water.

"If I could but flatter myself that you meant anywhere with me!" he exclaimed. "To me, also, our destination is indifferent, provided that I am with you and have you to myself, undisturbed by others not worthy to approach you. Do you know, Countess, this is the first time you have ever been alone with me, for more than a few moments?"

"It's only been a few minutes now," I faltered, for the sake of something to say.

"Ah, but it will be many minutes before I give you up," said he, "unless you are cruel."

My heart began to beat fast, for his manner made me guess that something special was coming, and though I had often thought such a moment might arrive, and decided, or almost decided, how I would act, when it was actually at hand it seemed more tremendous than I had supposed.

"You must try to keep me in good humour, then," said I; but though the moon was beautifully romantic, and I felt he was looking at me with his whole soul in his eyes, I couldn't help keeping one of mine glued on the steering gear, or whatever one ought to call it, and wondering whether he was paying as much attention to it as he was to me.

"I am more anxious to please you than anything else in the world; you must have seen that long ago," he went on, moving closer. I gave a little bound, because the boat was certainly going in zigzags, and he was so near that by accident I jogged his elbow. With that, the boat darted off to the left, at twice the rate it had been going. I screamed under my breath, as Beechy says, and caught hold of the seat with both hands. The Prince did something in a hurry to the machinery, and suddenly the engine was as still as death. The boat went on for a few yards, as if by its own impetus, and then began to float helplessly.

"I've stopped the motor by mistake," he explained. "I will start it again soon, but let us remain as we are for the present. It is so delicious to rock quietly on the little waves with you beside me, and the rest of the world far away."

"Oh, but the waves aren't so very little," I said. "The water hasn't smoothed down since the storm. It's awfully nice and poetic, but don't you think it would be still nicer if you just steered?"

"I cannot steer the boat unless the motor is working," he replied. "But there is no danger of our being run down at this time. The moon lights the water with a great white lamp."

"Yes, but look at that big, dark cloud," said I, pointing up. "It will be putting out the light of the lamp in about five minutes. And-and I do see things moving on the water. When the moon is obscured, we might have a collision."

The Prince looked up and saw the cloud too. "Very well," he said. "I will start the motor at once on one condition-that you do not ask me to take you home for an hour, at least."

"I promise that," I answered, quite shyly.

Instantly he set to work at the motor; but it wouldn't start. The Prince did a great many things, and even lighted dozens of matches, to see what was the matter, but not a throb would the engine give.

"I am afraid," he announced at last, in a voice that tried not to sound cross, "I'm afraid the sparking-plug is broken."

"Well?" said I, "What then? Shall we be drowned?"

"Not at all," he reassured me, taking my hand. "We shall only drift about until some one comes to our rescue, as unfortunately there are no oars on board. If I thought you were not unhappy, I could rejoice in the accident."

I let him keep my hand, but I couldn't feel as happy as I ought, to be polite. "It's-it's very interesting," I stammered, "but they don't know where we are, and they'll never think to search the lake for us!"

"The chauffeur will come to see what is wrong if I do not get the boat back by a little after midnight," said the Prince

.

"A little after midnight!" I echoed. "But that would be awful! What would they think? And oh, see, the cloud's over the moon! Ugh, how dark it is. We shall certainly be run down. Couldn't we call for help?"

"We are a long way already from the shore," said the Prince; "and besides it is not dignified to shout. By and by some one will come. Meanwhile, let us enjoy ourselves. Dear Countess, I confess I brought you here to-night-your birthday night-for a purpose. Will you listen while I tell you what it is?"

"Sh! Wait one minute. Aren't those voices in the distance, and don't you see something big and dark bearing down upon us?"

"They exist but in your imagination," answered the Prince; "Or is it only that you wish to put me off?"

"Oh, no; I wouldn't be so rude," said I. "Please excuse me." But I was on pins and needles, trying to keep an eye in every direction at once (as if I'd had a headlight in my face) and to make the most of my situation at the same time.

"Then I will no longer strain my patience," cried the Prince in a warm voice. "Dearest Countess, I am at your feet."

And so he was, for he went right down on his knees in the bottom of the boat, kneeling on my dress so that I couldn't have stirred an inch if I'd wanted to, which I didn't; for I meant to accept him. He had had only my right hand, but now he seized the left, too, and began to kiss, first one, and then the other, as if I'd been a queen.

This was the first time a man had ever gone down on his knees to me, for the Prince is the only foreign gentleman I ever knew, and Mr. Kidder proposed in a buggy. Afraid as I was of a collision, I was enjoying myself very much, when suddenly a horrid thing happened. A great white light pounced upon us like a hawk on a chicken, and focussed on us as if we were a tableau. It was so bright, shining all over us and into our eyes, that it made everything else except just the Prince and me, and our boat, look black, as if it were raining ink. And we were so taken aback with surprise, that for an instant or two we kept our position exactly as if we were sitting for our photographs, the Prince kneeling at my feet and kissing my hands, I bending down my face over his head.

I never experienced such a moment in my life, and the thought flashed into my head that it was Simon's ghost come to forbid my second marriage. This idea was so frightful, that it was actually a relief to hear a vulgar shout of laughter coming from the other end of the light, wherever that was.

The Prince recovered before I did, and jerked himself up to a sitting posture on the seat, exclaiming something in German, which I am afraid was swearing.

"Those Italian ruffians of the douane, with their disgusting search-light!" he sputtered in English when he was recovering himself a little. "But do not derange yourself, Countess. They have seen that we are not smugglers, which is one advantage, because they will not trouble us any more."

A great white light pounced upon us like a hawk on a chicken

All this time the light was in our faces, and the hateful customs people could see every feature, down to the shortest eyelash. When they did turn the horrid white stream in another direction, I felt as weak as if the search-light had been a stream of cold water.

I tried not to be hysterical, but I couldn't help crying and laughing alternately, especially when the Prince would have taken my hands and begun all over again.

"'Ware the light!" I gasped, as nervous as a cat that hears a mouse in the wall. And though I really did want the Prince to propose to me, and was anxious to say that I would be his princess, in the circumstances I was as thankful as I was astonished to hear Beechy's voice calling to me across the water.

In five minutes more a row-boat containing all the members of our party came alongside, and the lights in our bow and theirs showed us their faces, though the moon was still hiding her face in her hands with a pair of black gloves on.

"We thought you'd gone down to the lake," said Beechy, "so I persuaded the others to come too; but we never dreamed you were in a motor-boat, or whereabouts you were, till we saw you."

I felt myself get as red as fire; though, when one comes to think of it, I am my own mistress, and Beechy can't keep me from doing anything that I've made up my mind to do.

"This boat belongs to a friend of the Prince's," I explained. "We were trying it when it broke down, and he has been examining the motor."

"So I noticed," remarked Beechy. "I guess you're a little near-sighted, aren't you, Prince?"

He did not answer her, but explained to Mr. Barrymore the cause of the accident, and asked to be towed into harbour.

Of course, my evening was spoiled. I tried to laugh it off and say how Providential it was they had come to our rescue; but though I kept telling myself every minute that there was no need for me to mind Beechy, I dreaded meeting her alone. However, the evil moment wouldn't be put off forever, and she came along the balcony from her window to mine when I had shut myself up in my bedroom.

I expected her to fly out at me, but her manner was the same as usual.

"Want me to undo your frock behind, Mamma?" she asked.

Then, when she had got me half unhooked: "Tell me what the Prince said when he proposed."

"He didn't propose," said I.

"If he didn't I shall ask Sir Ralph to call him out. He'd no business kissing your hands unless he'd proposed."

I was surprised at this attitude. But it made me feel confidential. "He hadn't had a chance," I volunteered. "He was just going to, when the search-light-"

"-Searched. Lucky for you the interruption came at the right moment."

"Why? I thought-"

"Because it saved you the pain of refusing him."

"But, Beechy darling, I don't think I was going to refuse him."

"Don't you? Well, I do. I'm sure of it."

"Dearest, if you wouldn't look at me in that square-chinned way! It's so like your poor Papa."

"I'm Papa's daughter. But I don't intend to be Prince Dalmar-Kalm's step-daughter."

I began to cry a little. "Why do you always try to thwart me when I want to be happy?" I asked.

"That isn't fair to say. Look at my short dress and my hair in pigtails. There's proof enough of what I'm ready to do to make you happy. I let you be a Countess, and you may be a Princess if you can buy the title, but no Princes on this ranch!"

My blood was up, and I determined to fight. "Beechy," I exclaimed. "I guess I've a right to do as I like, and I will. It's for your good as well as mine, for me to marry a title, and I'm going to. I shall say 'yes' when the Prince proposes."

"He won't propose," said she, suddenly as cool as if she had been in a refrigerator.

"He will, the minute I give him the opportunity, and I shall to-morrow; I don't care what you do."

"I bet he won't. I'll bet you a good deal. Anything you like, except the long dress I've got in my trunk, and the package of hairpins in my grip."

"What makes you think he won't?" I asked, worried by her manner, which was odd.

"I know he won't."

"You know the Prince will never propose to me?"

She nodded.

I flew at her, and took her by the shoulders, as if she'd been seven instead of-her present age.

"You cruel girl!" I exclaimed. "You're going to tell him how old I am, and-and a lot of hateful things."

"No, I'm not, and for a good reason. It wouldn't change his mind. So long as your banking account's all right, he wouldn't care if you were Methusaleh. I shan't tell him anything about you. I shan't mention your name. But he won't propose."

"What are you going to do?" I stammered.

"That's my secret."

"Oh, you have got something in your head?"

She nodded again. "And up my sleeve."

"You will poison his mind."

"No, I won't. I shall only-play dolls."

And she went on unfastening my waist.

PART IV

TOLD BY MAIDA DESTREY

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