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My Friend the Chauffeur By A. M. Williamson Characters: 19254

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

"Another Cuneo!" groaned Aunt Kathryn, at sight of the hotel in the steep little town of Desenzano, on Lake Garda; but later she apologized to the quaint court-yard for her misunderstanding, and was more than tolerant of her vast bedroom draped with yellow satin, and opening on an arboured terrace worthy even of a Countess Dalmar.

For miles our way towards Verona next morning was pink and white with chestnut bloom. Even the shadows seemed warmly pink under the long unbroken arch of flowering trees. Far away, behind the green netting of their branches, we caught blue flashes of lake and mountain peaks of amethyst, while Beechy wished for a dozen noses dotted about here and there at convenient intervals on her body, so that she might make the most of the perfumed air. "But you would want them all cut off when you got to the nearest town," remarked Aunt Kathryn.

Ever since Brescia, the road had been so smooth and well kept that it was as if we had come into a different country; but Mr. Barrymore said it was because we were now under the jurisdiction of Venice-Venice, as rich and practical as romantic. And I had to repeat the name over and over in my mind-Verona and Padua too-to make myself believe that we were actually so near.

Horses were better trained in this district, and "knew a motor when they saw it." Even a drove of sheep (near the wonderful fortress of Peschiera with its coiled python of a river) seemed comparatively indifferent as they surged round us in a foaming wave of wool. But then, sheep have no facial expression. All other four-footed things show emotion by a change of countenance, just as human beings do-more, because they don't conceal their feelings-but sheep look as if they wore foolishly smiling masks. Even when, as their ranks closed in around the automobile, we broke a chain with a pretty little tinkling noise, and some of the sheep tripped up on it, they did nothing but smile and merely mention "ba-a" in an indifferent, absent-minded way.

"If you only knew how much nicer you are with mint sauce!" Beechy taunted them, as we swept round a corner and were in the labyrinth of the fortress, which was, our men told us, part of the once famous quadrilateral that made trouble for Italy in '48.

"There's something pathetic about old, obsolete forts as grand as Peschiera," Mr. Barrymore said to me. "So much thought and money spent, the best military science of the day employed to make a stronghold as feeble against modern arms as a fort of cards. Such a fortress seems like an aged warrior, past his fighting days, or an old hunting dog, as keen on the chase as ever, poor fellow, but too old to move from before the fire, where he can only lie and dream of past triumphs."

"I was thinking almost exactly the same!" I exclaimed, and I liked Mr. Barrymore all the better; for it draws you nearer to a person when you find that your thoughts resemble each other in shape and colour. Oddly enough, it's often so with Mr. Barrymore and me; which is the reason it's so agreeable to have the place beside him when he drives.

No more than half a dozen miles from Peschiera we saw the Tower of San Martino, raised on the great battlefield of Solferino. By this time we had left the lake behind; but we had exchanged the low, amethyst mountains for tall white ones, glorious pinnacles of snow which were the higher Austrian Alps. Everything was impressive on this road to Verona, even the farmhouses, of an entirely different character from those of the "yesterday country;" and then, at last, we came in sight of Verona herself, lying low within a charmed circle of protecting hills, on which castles and white villas looked down from among cypresses and rose-pink almond trees.

I was glad that the gateway by which we entered Verona was the finest through which we had passed, for though Mr. Barrymore called the town "an inn for the great travellers of history," it was more for me. It was the home of romance; for was it not Juliet's home and Romeo's?

That gateway, and the splendid old crenellated bridge of dark red brick (toning deliciously with the clear, beryl-green of the swift-rushing Adda) made a noble, preface for the city. And then, each old, old street into which we turned was a new joy. What lessons for modern architects in those time-softened brick fa?ades, with the moulded arches of terra-cotta framing the green open-work of the shutters!

I began to feel a sense of exaltation, as if I had listened to an anthem played by a master hand on a cathedral organ. I couldn't have told any one, but I happened to glance at Mr. Barrymore, and he at me, just as he had driven into the piazza where Dante's house looks down over the tombs of the Scaligers. Then he smiled, and said, "Yes, I know. I always feel like that, too, when I come here-but even more in Venice."

"How am I feeling?" I asked, smiling with him.

"Oh, a little bit as if your soul had got out of your body and taken a bath in a mountain spring, after you'd been staggering up some of the steep paths of life in the dust and sun. Isn't that it?"

"Yes. Thank you," I answered. And we seemed to understand each other so well that I was almost frightened.

"I want all these streets for mine," said Beechy, in a chattering mood. "Oh, and especially the market-place, with that strange old fountain, and the booths under the red umbrellas like scarlet mushrooms. Mamma, have you got money enough to buy them for me, and have them packed up in a big box with dried moss, like the toy villages, and expressed to Denver?"

"Speaking of dried moss, all these lovely old churches and palaces and monuments look as if history had covered them with a kind of delicate lichen," I said, more to Mr. Barrymore than to Beechy. "And it enhances their beauty, as the lace of a bride's veil enhances the beauty of her face."

"Or a nun's veil," cut in Beechy. I wonder why she says things like that so often lately? Well, perhaps it's best that I should be reminded of my vocation, but it gives me a cold, desolate feeling for a minute, and seems to throw a constraint upon us all.

We had made the Chauffeulier stop three or four times in every street to look at some beautiful bit; a gate of flexible iron-work that even Ruskin must have admired, the doorway of a church, the wonderful windows of a faded palace; but suddenly I felt ready to go to the hotel, where we were to stop for the night, that we might do our sight-seeing slowly.

It was a delightful hotel, itself once a palace, and to be there was to be "in the picture," in such a place as Verona. The Prince had arrived before us, as his motor is retrieving its reputation, and we all lunched together, making plans for the afternoon.

As usual, he was blasé-so different from Mr. Barrymore, who has seen the best things in Italy as often as Prince Dalmar-Kalm has, yet never tires; indeed, finds something new each time.

The Prince began by announcing that Verona bored him. But one could always go to sleep.

"That's what I mean to do," said Aunt Kathryn, who generally takes her cue from him. "I consider that I've seen Verona now, and I shall lie down this afternoon. Perhaps later I shall write a few letters in the hall."

I was unkind enough to fancy this a hint for the Prince, but perhaps I wronged her. And anyway, why should she not give him hints if she likes? He has been very attentive to her, although for the last few days I don't think they have been quite so much in "each others' pockets" (as Beechy calls it) as before.

A little attention was needed by the automobile, it appeared-such as a tightening up of chains, and a couple of lost grease-cups to replace; therefore Mr. Barrymore's time would be filled up without any sight-seeing. But Sir Ralph offered to take Beechy and me anywhere we liked to go. I was very glad that the Prince said nothing about accompanying us, for somehow I'd been afraid he would.

We consulted guide-books until we were bewildered, but in the midst of confusion I held fast to two things. We had seen Romeo's house, towering picturesquely behind the Scaligers' tombs; but I wanted to see where Juliet had lived, and where she had been buried.

"The Prince says it's all nonsense," exclaimed Aunt Kathryn. "If there was a slight foundation for the story in a great family scandal here about Shakspere's time, anyhow there's none for the houses or the tomb-"

Beechy stopped her ears. "You're real mean," she said, "you and the Prince both. It's just as bad as when you thought it your duty to tell me there was no Santa Claus. But I don't care; there is. I shall believe it when I'm seventeen; and I believe in the Romeo and Juliet houses too."

But when we were in the street of Juliet's house-she and Sir Ralph and I-Beechy pouted. Standing with her hands behind her, her long braids of hair dangling half-way down her short skirt as she threw back her head to gaze up, she looked incredibly modern and American. "There were no tourists' agencies in those days," she remarked, regretfully, "so I suppose Shakspere had to trust to hearsay, and somebody must have told him a big tarradiddle. I guess Juliet was really on a visit to an aunt in the country when she first met Romeo, for fancy a girl in her senses yelling down from that balcony up at the top of a tall house to any lover, let alone a secret one? Besides, there wouldn't have been enough rope in Verona to make the ladder for Romeo to climb up."

After this speech, I decided that, fond as I really am of her, I could not visit Juliet's tomb in Beechy's society. I g

ave no hint of my intentions, but after an exquisite hour (which nobody could spoil) in that most adorable of churches, San Zenone, and another in Sant' Anastasia, I slipped away while Beechy and Sir Ralph were picking out the details of St. Peter's life on the panels of a marvellous pilaster.

We had had a cab by the hour; and when they should discover my absence, they would take it for granted that I had got tired and gone home. They would then proceed to carry out their programme of sight-seeing very happily without me, for Beechy amuses Sir Ralph immensely, child as she is, and she makes no secret of taking pleasure in his society. She teases him, and he likes it; he draws her out, and her wit brightens in the process.

I hurried off when their backs were turned. Not far away I found a prowling cab, and told the man to drive me to Juliet's tomb. He stared, as if in surprise, for I suppose girls of our class don't go about much alone in Italian towns; but he condescended to accept me as a fare. However, to show his disapproval maybe, he rattled me through streets old and beautiful, ugly and modern (why should most modern things be ugly, even in Italy?) at a tremendous pace. At last he stopped before a high, blank wall, in a most dismal region, apparently the outskirts of the town. I would hardly believe that he had brought me to the right place, but he reassured me. In the distance another cab was approaching, probably on the same errand. I rang a bell, and a gate was opened by a nice-looking woman, who knew well what I wanted without my telling, and she spoke so clearly that I was able to understand much of what she said. Instead of feeling that the romance of visiting Juliet's burial-place was destroyed by traversing the great open square of the communal stables, where an annual horse show is held, I was conscious of a strange charm in the unsuitable surroundings. It was like coming upon a beautiful white pearl in a battered old oyster-shell, to pass through this narrow gateway at the far end of a dusty square, and find myself face to face with a glimmering tomb in a quiet cloister.

The strong contrast between the sordid exterior and this dainty, hidden interior was nothing less than dramatic. The lights and shadows played softly at hide-and-seek, like dumb children, over the grass, among the pillars of the little cloister, over the tomb itself. I was thankful to be alone, troubled by no fellow-tourists, safe from little Beechy's too comical fancies, free to be as sentimental as I liked. And I liked to be very sentimental indeed.

I stood by the tomb, feeling almost like a mourner, when a voice made me start. "Is it Juliet's spirit?" asked Prince Dalmar-Kalm.

I would rather it had been any one else. "How odd that you should come here!" I exclaimed, while my face must have shown that the surprise was not too pleasant.

"It is not at all odd. You are here," answered the Prince. "You said at déjeuner that you were coming, if you had to come alone. Eh bien? I saw Miss Beechy and Sir Ralph Moray driving together, deep in Baedeker. My heart told me where you were; and I arrive to find you looking like Juliet come to life again. Perhaps it is so indeed. Perhaps you were Juliet in another incarnation. Yes, I feel sure you were. And I was Romeo."

"I'm sure you were not," I replied; but I could not help laughing at his stagey manner, though I was more annoyed than ever now, and annoyed with myself too. "I particularly wished to be alone here, or I wouldn't have slipped away from Beechy and Sir Ralph, so-"

"And I particularly wished to be alone here with you, or I wouldn't have followed when you had slipped away from them," he broke in. "Oh, Miss Destrey-my Madeleine, you must listen to me. There could be no place in the world more appropriate to the tale of a man's love for a woman than this, where a man and woman died for love of one another."

"I thought you called all this 'nonsense'?" I cut him short. "No, Prince, neither here nor anywhere must you speak of love to me, for I don't love you, and never could."

"I know that you mean to shut yourself away from the world," he interrupted me again. "But you shall not. It would be sacrilege. You-the most beautiful, the most womanly girl in the world-to-"

"No more, please!" I cried. "It doesn't matter what my future is to be, for you will not be in it. I-"

"I must be in it. I adore you. I can't give you up. Haven't you seen from the first how I loved you?"

"I thought I saw you liked trying to flirt when no one was looking. That sounds rather horrid, but-it's the truth."

"You misjudged me cruelly. Have you no human ambition? I could place you among the highest in any land. With me, your beauty should shine as it never could in your own country. Is it nothing to you that I can make you a Princess?"

"Less than nothing," I answered, "though perhaps it would be pretty of me to thank you for wanting to make me one. So I do thank you; and I'll thank you still more if you will go now, and leave me to my thoughts."

"I cannot go till I have made you understand how I love you, how indispensable you are to me," he persisted. And I grew really angry; for he had no right to persecute me, when I had refused him.

"Very well, then, I shall go," I said, and would have passed him, but he seized my hand and held it fast.

It was this moment that Mr. Barrymore chose for paying his respects to Juliet's tomb; and I blushed as I have never blushed in my life, I think-blushed till the tears smarted in my eyes. I was afraid he would believe that I'd been letting Prince Dalmar-Kalm make love to me. But there was nothing to say, unless I were willing to have a scene, and that would have been hateful. Nor was there anything to do except the obvious thing, snatch my hand away; and that might seem to be only because some one had come. But how I should have loved to box the Prince's ears! I never dreamed that I had such a temper. I suppose, though, there must be something of the fishwife in every woman-something that comes boiling up to the surface once in a while, and makes noblesse oblige hard to remember.

The one relief to my feelings in this situation was given by my queer little new pet-the wisp of a black doggie I've named Airole, after the village where he grew. I'd brought him into the cloister in my arms hidden under a cape, because he had conceived a suspicious dislike of the cabman. Now he said all the things to the Prince that I wanted to say, and more, and would have snapped, if the Prince had not retired his hand in time.

The process of quieting Airole gave me the chance to make up my mind what I should do next. If I went away, I couldn't prevent Prince Dalmar-Kalm from going with me, and Mr. Barrymore would have a right to imagine that I wished to continue the interrupted scene. If I stayed it was open for him to fancy that I wanted to be with him; but between two evils one chooses the less; besides, a nice thing about Mr. Barrymore is that, notwithstanding his good looks and cleverness, he's not conceited-not conceited enough, I sometimes think, for he lets people misunderstand his position and often seems more amused than angry at a snub.

Acting on my quick decision, I said, "Oh, I'm glad you've come. You know so much about Verona. Please talk to me of this place-only don't say it isn't authentic, for that would be a jarring note."

"I'm afraid I don't care enough whether things are authentic or not," he answered, both of us ignoring the Prince. "You know, in my country, legend and history are a good deal mixed, which makes for romance. Besides, I'm inclined to believe in stories that have been handed down from generation to generation-told by grandfathers to their grandchildren, and so on through the centuries till they've reached us. When they're investigated by the cold light of reason, at least they can seldom be disproved."

I agreed, and the conversation went on, deliberately excluding the Prince. Each minute I said to myself, "Surely he'll go." But he did not. He stayed while Mr. Barrymore and I discussed the genius of Shakspere, chiming in now and then as if nothing had happened, and remaining until we were ready to go.

At the cab there was another crisis. I hadn't yet entirely realized the Prince's stupendous capacity for what Beechy would put into one short, sharp word "Cheek." But I fully appreciated it when he calmly manifested his intention of getting into my cab, as if we had come together.

Something had to be done instantly, or it would be too late.

Leaning from my seat so that the Prince had to wait with his foot on the step, I exclaimed, "Oh! Mr. Barrymore, won't you let me give you a lift? Prince Dalmar-Kalm has his own cab, and I'm alone in this."

"Thanks very much, I shall be delighted," said the Chauffeulier.

Even the Prince's audacity wasn't equal to the situation created by these tactics. He retired, hat in hand, looking so furious that I could hardly help laughing. Mr. Barrymore got in beside me, and we drove off leaving the Prince with nobody but his own cabman to vent his rage on.

I rather hoped, for a minute, that Mr. Barrymore would say something which would give me the chance for a vague word or two of explanation; but he didn't. He simply talked of indifferent things, telling me how the work on the car was finished, and how he had had time after all to wander among his favourite bits of Verona. And then, in a flash of understanding, I saw how much more tactful and manly it was in him not to mention the Prince.

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