EUSTACE EXAMINES HIS MIND

“I looked into my mind,
And what did I find?
The waifs of the life I had left behind.

“The tears of a girl,
A blossom–a curl,
The heart of a woman who married an Earl.

“Ambitions and fears,
Gay laughter and tears,
Dead sorrows, dead pleasures of long perished years.

“Ah, folly to sigh
For passions that die,
Sir Poet, ’tis best to let sleeping dogs lie.”

“I suppose,” said Eustace to his friend, “that as we are here we may
as well see something of the place.”

“But we have seen a lot,” objected Angus, removing his post-prandial
cigarette.

“Do you think so?” observed Gartney serenely; “it strikes me that your
‘seeing a lot’ has been principally confined to pottering about this
place in company with Miss Sheldon.”

Otterburn looked a trifle sheepish at this very pointed remark, and
resumed his cigarette with a nervous laugh.

They were seated under a mulberry tree, looking at the lake flashing
in the brilliant sunshine, listening to a noisy cicada that was
singing to itself in an adjacent flower-bed, and watching the brown
lizards chasing one another over the hot stones of the parapet.

“Where do you want to go to?” asked the Master, after a pause.

“I was thinking of driving to Cantari. It’s a queer old village,
dating from the time of Il Medeghino.”

“Who the deuce was he?”

“A pirate of this ilk, who used to sweep the lake with a fleet of
ships.”

“It wouldn’t take a very big fleet to do that,” said Otterburn,
staring at the narrow limits of the lake. “I daresay one of our
ironclads could have knocked the whole show to kingdom-come in no
time.”

“Very probably,” replied Eustace dryly, “but luckily for Il Medeghino
there were no ironclads in those days, and a good thing too.
Torpedoes, Gatling guns, and dynamite have taken all the romance out
of war. But this is not the question. What about Cantari. Will you
come?”

“Well, I hardly know–I–do you think Miss Sheldon would care to
come?”

“She might, only I’m not going to ask her. There’s not much amusement
in watching her flirting with you in some old church. Besides she’d
admire the altar-cloth because it would make such a lovely dress, and
the jewels of the shrine because they would look so charming on her
own neck. No. I am not going to have my enjoyment spoilt by the
everlasting chatter of a woman’s tongue.”

“You’re horribly severe,” said Angus wincing. “You don’t like Miss
Sheldon.”

“As a pretty woman, yes. As a companion, no. She’s a coquette.’

“Oh, I don’t think so.”

“Don’t you? Well, wait a week. Your disenchantment will soon
commence.”

“She’s a true woman,” declared Macjean hotly.

“And therefore capricious. My dear lad, the two things are
inseparable. But once more–for the third time. What about Cantari?”

The young man looked at the blue sky above, the blue lake below, the
brilliantly-coloured flowers, and ultimately brought his eyes back to
Eustace.

“I’ll come if you like,” he said awkwardly.

“Oh, don’t trouble,” replied Eustace curtly, springing to his feet,
“I’ll go alone,” and he walked off in a huff, Otterburn making no
attempt to stop him.

“What a cross chap he is,” muttered the Master to himself, “he always
wants a fellow to be dodging about those old ruins. It isn’t good
enough when there’s a pretty girl about–not much. Life’s too short to
waste one’s chances.”

After which slightly egotistical soliloquy, Otterburn pitched his
cigarette into a flower-bed and strolled off to the music-room, where
he found Miss Sheldon strumming waltzes on a fearfully bad piano.

“Oh, here you are,” she cried, rising with alacrity, “I’m so glad. I
want to go out for a stroll, and Mrs. Trubbles doesn’t. That nuisance
of a husband of hers is talking her to sleep with politics.”

“He is rather a trial,” murmured Otterburn, as they went outside.

“Trial!” echoed Miss Sheldon, with supreme contempt, unfurling her
sunshade, “I should just think so. One might as well have married a
Blue-Book. Why did she marry him?”

“For the sake of contrast, probably.”

“It’s not impossible. Where is the amiable Mr. Gartney?”

“Gone geologizing, or ruin-hunting. Something of that sort!”

“Alone?”

“Entirely.”

“Then he’s in very good company.”

“Oh, I say, you know,” said Angus, making a weak stand for the
character of his absent friend, “Gartney isn’t a bad fellow.”

“I never said he was.”

“No–but you think—-”

“It’s more than you do, or you wouldn’t stand there talking such
nonsense,” said Victoria severely. “Come and buy me some peaches.”

So Otterburn held his tongue in the meekest manner, and bought her
peaches, which they devoured comfortably by the lake, talking of
everything, except Eustace Gartney.

In the meanwhile that gentleman, considerably upset in his own mind by
what he termed Macjean’s selfishness (he was quite oblivious of his
own), had gone round to some stables in the village, selected a
carriage, and was now being driven along the dusty white road in the
direction of Cantari.

The driver, a swarthy young man with a somewhat dilapidated suit of
clothes, a shining hard hat, and a good-natured smile, called the
weak-kneed animal which drew the vehicle “Tista,” and “Tista” was the
nearest approach to a skeleton ever seen outside the walls of a
museum. Peppino (the driver) encouraged Tista (the horse) by first
shouting and then abusing him in voluble Italian.

“Ah, pig of a horse why go so slow? Child of Satan, is not the corn of
the illustrious Signor waiting for thee at Cantari?”

It might have been, but Tista seemed to have his doubts about the
truth of this statement, for he did not mend his pace, but ambled
complacently on, stopping every now and then to whisk a fly from his
hide. At last, in despair, Peppino got down from his perch and trudged
up the hill beside Tista, who shook his bells bravely and made a great
show of speed over the irregular road.

“Hadn’t you better carry him?” asked Eustace in Italian, observing
this comedy in sarcastic silence. “I don’t think he’ll live as far as
Cantari.”

Peppino touched his hat, grinned at the wit of the English milord, and
without any reply went on abusing the stolid Tista with the brilliant
vocabulary of a Texus mule driver. At last Tista with much difficulty
managed to gain the top of the hill, whereupon Peppino mounted his
perch once more, cracked his whip in grand style, and his attenuated
horse proceeded to tumble down the incline.

Tista neither galloped, cantered, nor walked, but simply tumbled down
the hill, being considerably assisted in his descent by the weight of
the carriage behind. Then came a stretch of comparatively level road,
running along the side of the lake, where Tista resumed his ambling,
and after a deliberate journey the three, horse, driver and passenger,
reached Cantari.

Here Eustace left his carriage at the Albergo Garibaldi, and, lighting
a cigarette as a preventative against the evil odours of the village,
strolled through the narrow streets with listless curiosity.

Cantari is situated on the side of a steep mountain which slopes sheer
into the lake, and in fact some of the dwellings are built on stone
piles over the tideless waters. All the houses, grey and weather-worn
are huddled together as if for warmth, and from the bright green
forests high above there falls a great sheet of foaming water, which
descends through the centre of the village by several stages until it
plunges with a muffled roar into the lake.

A perfect labyrinth of streets, narrow and gloomy, with tall grey
houses on either side, cobbled stone pavements sloping from both sides
to an open drain in the centre, and high above a glimpse of blue sky
rendered all the more brilliant by the chill darkness of the place
below. Then endless flights of rugged stairs, worn into hollows by the
heavy feet of many generations, long sombre passages with humid walls,
and slender stone bridges throwing a single arch across the tumbling
white torrent raging below in dusky depths of cruel seeming. Heavily
barred doors set in the massive walls, and higher up, rows of grated
windows like those of some oriental seraglio, with open green
shutters, just catching a fleeting glimpse of sunlight; still higher,
iron railed balconies over which white linen hung out to dry, and
highest of all, the vivid red of the tiled roofs, round which swooped
and twittered the swift swallows.

In these dreary streets and alleys a perpetual twilight ever
reigns, adding to the uncanny feeling of the place. Now and then a
gaudily-dressed _contadina_, all red skirt, gold earrings and barbaric
colouring, clatters down in her wooden pattens; dark-browed,
mobile-faced men lounge idly against the walls, laughing gaily, and at
intervals sleek grey donkeys, laden with baskets piled with the vivid
colours of vegetables and fruit, climb painfully up the steep ascent.

“It’s like the Middle Ages,” mused Eustace, as he toiled upward. “All
kinds of dark deeds could take place in these winding streets. I
wouldn’t be surprised to see a band of the Baglioni waiting for some
foe of their house in these dark corners, or to meet Dante climbing
these steep stairs dreaming of Hell and Beatrice. Stradella might sing
in the moonlight under that high balcony, where doubtless at night a
peasant Juliet chatters love in villainous patois to some dark-browed
Romeo.”

A sudden turn of the stairs brought him into the brilliant sunshine
and on to a little piazza hanging midway on the green mountain between
the blue lake and the blue sky. Severally on three sides, an albergo,
a café, a church, and on the fourth a wondrous view of sparkling
waters, cloud-swathed hills, and distant pinnacles of Alpine snow.

Thoroughly tired out by his climb, Eustace sat thankfully down in an
iron chair, put his feet on another, and ordered some wine from a
dreary little waiter who emerged from the café to attend to his wants.
While waiting, Eustace tilted his straw hat over his eyes, weary with
the vivid colours of the landscape, and fell fast asleep. The waiter
brought the wine, saw that the English gentleman was asleep, so
retired cautiously without waking him.

In the pale blue sky the restless swallows flashed in rapid circles or
twittered around the sloping eaves of the houses. On the hot stones of
the little piazza slept the restless brown lizards, and in the centre
a fountain of sparkling water splashed musically in its wide stone
basin, all carved in Renaissance style with vines and masks and nude
figures of frenzied Bacchanals. The sun dipped behind the arid peak of
a great mountain, and threw its shadow on to the mountain village,
while the mellow bells began to ring slowly in the slender campanile.
Eustace awoke with a start, to find that he had been asleep for some
considerable time, and after drinking his wine, and feeing the dreary
little waiter, went across to have a look at the church before
descending.

It was exactly the same as any other Italian church, frescoes of
angels, and saints, and wide-eyed cherubim, side altars, before which
burned the low, steady flame of oil lamps, high altar glittering with
jewels and flowers, painted windows, faint odour of incense and all
such things. A woman was kneeling at the confessional, within which
sat a severe-looking priest, and Eustace, catching a glimpse of this,
took a seat in the shadow near the door lest he should disturb them.

“If I could only believe like that,” he thought to himself as he
enviously watched the kneeling woman, “how much happier I should be;
but it is impossible for me to shift my burden of sins on to the
shoulders of another man. This is the age of disbelief, and I am of
it, but I would give the whole world to be able to return to the
primitive simple faith of these peasants, to believe in miracles, in
the intercession of saints, in the canonization of pious people, and
in all those beautiful fables which make their lives so bright.”

The still church, the faint fumes of incense, the sudden flash in the
dusky shadows of cross and pictured face, all influenced his
singularly impressionable nature. He felt lifted up from the things of
this earth into a higher region of spirituality, and in the exaltation
of the moment felt inclined to kneel down on the cold pavement and
lift up his voice in prayer. But the mocking spirit of disbelief, the
spirit which denies, damped this sudden impulse of strong faith, and
he sat there in the cold twilight, pitying himself profoundedly with
the self-commiseration of an egotist, for the weariness of his life,
which came from the selfishness of his own actions.

“How infinitely dreary is this life of ours, with its cant and humbug,
its hollow aspirations and unsatisfying rewards. We try to make
ourselves happy and only succeed in rendering ourselves cynical. If
there were only some chance of compensation in the next world, but
that is such a doubtful point. We are like wanderers on a lonely moor
misled by false lights–false lights of our own creation. We know
nothing, we can prove nothing, we believe nothing–not very gratifying
after eighteen centuries of Christianity. After all, I daresay that
old Greek philosopher was right, who said ‘Eat, drink, for to-morrow
we die.’ Still, one grows weary of eating, and drinking, and other
things–especially other things. Marriage, for instance–I ought to
marry, and yet–it’s such a hazardous experiment. I would tire of the
best woman breathing, unless I chanced on the other half of myself,
according to Plato’s theory. That, I’m afraid, is impossible, though
it certainly hasn’t been for the want of trying. I’ve loved a good
many women, but the passion has only lasted the life of a rose.”

At this moment of his reflections he chanced to raise his eyes, and
saw in front of him a picture of the Madonna, with the calm look of
maternity on her face, and this sight turned his thoughts in the
direction of Lady Errington.

“It is curious that I should be so attracted by that woman. I wonder
what can be the reason. She is not particularly brilliant, nor clever,
nor exquisitely beautiful, and yet she seems to satisfy that hunger of
the soul I have felt all my life. One can think, but not describe a
woman’s character, even the most shallow woman’s; there is always
something that escapes one. Alizon Errington has that something, and
it is that which attracts me so powerfully. That calm, reposeful,
sympathetic nature which appeals so strongly to a worn-out soul. If I
were ill, I would like her to sit beside me and lay her cool hand on
my forehead–she is like moonlight, dreamy, restful and indescribable.

“Perhaps she is the woman of my dreams, the impossible ideal which all
men imagine and no man ever meets. If this should be the case, Fate
has played me a cruel trick in making her my cousin’s wife. She does
not love him–No!–she loves nothing except a vague fancy, which will
turn to a passionate reality when she becomes a mother.

“Guy is living in a fool’s paradise, for he takes her sympathetic
nature for a loving one. Some day he will be undeceived and find that
he loves a statue, a snow queen, who can never respond to his passion.
When she becomes a mother she will find her soul, which will only
awaken at the cry of a child; but at present she is an Undine–a
faint, white ghost–the shadow of what a woman should be.

“Do I love her?–I don’t know. There is something too spiritual about
this new passion of mine. It is as evanescent as the dew, as unreal as
moonlight; there is no flesh and blood reality about such platonisms.
I am no Pygmalion to worship a statue. Still, if the gods endowed this
statue with life–What then? It is difficult to say. I would love her.
I would adore her, and yet–she is the wife of my cousin and I–I am
the fool of fortune.”

With a dreary laugh he rose from his seat, feeling cramped and chill
in the grim shadows. He went outside, but the sunlight had died out of
the sky and all the beautiful, brilliant world was dull and grey; the
magic light had passed away from on land and water, leaving a sombre,
weary earth, across which the wind blew cold and bleak.

“Rose-coloured spectacles! Rose-coloured spectacles!” he muttered,
plunging into the gloomy stairs of the street. “If I could only buy a
pair.”

Peppino and Tista were waiting for him at the Albergo Garibaldi, and
in a few minutes he was on his way back to the Villa Medici.

The sun had disappeared behind the distant hills, and in a
rose-coloured sky hung the faint shadow of a waning moon, looking thin
and haggard amid the fast-fading splendour.

“She is like the moon,” he sighed sadly, “like the pale, cold moon. As
fair–as calm–and as lifeless as that dead world.”