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首页 » 经典英文小说 » All along the River » CHAPTER XIX.
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The new year was just a week old, and Isola and Allegra were standing on a terraced hillside in a country where January has noontides as brilliant and balmy as an English June. They had travelled up that almost perpendicular hill in a roomy landau drawn by a pair of strong horses, and now, near the summit of the hill, on the last of those many terraces that zig-zag up the face of the cliff, they had alighted from the carriage, and were standing side by side upon the broad white road, at an angle where the cliff dipped suddenly, clothed with the wild growth of stunted olive and bushy pine, down and down to the abyss where the blue sea looked like a sapphire at the bottom of a pit. They stood and gazed, and gazed again, almost bewildered by the infinite beauty and variety of that dazzling prospect.

Below them, in the shelter of the land-locked bay, Ospedaletti's pavilioned Casino shone whitely out of a garden of palm and cactus, with terrace and balustrade vanishing down by the sea. To the right, the steep promontory of Bordighera jutted far out into the blue; and over the rugged crest of the hill Mentone's long white front lay in a gentle curve, almost level with the sea—a strip of vivid white between the blue of the water and the gloom of that great barren mountain wall which marks the beginning of modern Italy. And beyond, again, showed the twin towers of Monaco; and further still, in the dim blue distance, rose the battlemented line of the Esterelles, dividing the fairyland of the Riviera from the workaday realities of shipbuilding Toulon and commercial Marseilles.

On this side of those pine-clad mountains there were only pleasure and fancy, wealth, fashion, the languid invalid, and the feverish gambler; on the other side there were toilers and speculators, the bourse and the port, the world of stern fact.

To the left, deep down within the hills, lay the little har[Pg 223]bour of San Remo, with its rugged stone pier and its shabby old houses, and the old, old town climbing up the steep ascent to that isolated point where the white dome of the Sanctuary shone out against the milky azure of the noontide sky; and further and further away stretched the long line of the olive-clothed hills, to the purple distance, where the seamen's church of Madonna della Guardia stands boldly out between sky and sea, as if it were a half-way house on the road to heaven.

"How lovely it all is!" cried Allegra. "But don't you feel that one careless step upon that flowery edge yonder would send us whirling down the cliffs to awful, inevitable death? When that man passed us just now with his loaded cart, I felt sick with fear—the wheels seemed to graze the brink of the abyss as the horse crept slowly along—poor stolid brute!—unconscious of his danger. It is a dreadful drive, Isola, this zig-zag road to Colla—slant above slant, backwards and forwards, up the face of this prodigious cliff. I had to shut my eyes at every turn of the road, when the world below seemed to swim in a chaos of light and colour—so beautiful, so terrible! Do you see the height of those cliffs, terrace above terrace, hill above hill? Why, that level road at the very bottom is the top of a taller cliff than those I used to think so appalling at Broadstairs and Ramsgate!"

"I don't think it would make much difference to a man who fell over the edge whether he fell here or in the Isle of Thanet," said Martin Disney, as he stood, with his arm drawn through his wife's, sweeping the prospect with his field glass.

"Oh, but it would! One would be only a sudden shock and a plunge into the sea, or swift annihilation on the rocks below; but from this awful height—think of the horror of it! To go whirling down, plucked at here by an olive branch, or there by a jagged rock, yet always whirling downward, rebounding from edge to edge, faster, and faster, and faster, till one were dashed into a shapeless mass on that white road yonder!"

[Pg 224]

"And to think of people living up there in the clouds, and going to sleep every night with the knowledge of this mighty wall and that dreadful abyss in their minds!" she concluded, pointing upward to where the little white town of Colla straggled along the edge of the hill.

They were going up to see the pictures and books in the little museum by the church. It was their first excursion, since their arrival in Italy, for Martin Disney had been anxious that his wife should be thoroughly rested after her long journey, before she was called upon to make the slightest exertion. She was looking better and stronger already, they were both agreed; and she was looking happier, a fact which gave her husband infinite satisfaction. They had come by the St. Gothard, had rested a night at Dover and a night at Basle, and had stopped at Lucerne for three days, and again a couple of days at Milan, and again at Genoa, exploring the city, and the Campo Santo in a leisurely way; Allegra exalted out of herself almost by the delight of those wonderful collections in the palaces of the Via Balbi—the Veroneses, the Titians, the Guidos—Isola languidly admiring, languidly wondering at everything, but only deeply moved when they came to the strange city of the dead, the scenic representation of sickness, calamity, grief and dissolution, in every variety of realistic representation or of classic emblem. Sculptured scenes of domestic sorrow, dying fathers, kneeling children, weeping widows—whole families convulsed in the throes of that last inevitable parting; the death of youth and beauty; the fallen rose-wreath; the funeral urn; the lowered torch; hyacinth and butterfly; Psyche and Apollo; the fatal river and the fatal boat; grimness and beauty—the actual and the allegorical curiously mixed in the sculptured images that line the cold white colonnades, where the footsteps of holiday-makers echo with a sepulchral sound under the vaulted roof. Here Isola was intensely interested, and insisted on going up the marble steps, flight after flight, and to the very summit of the hill of graves, with its wide-reaching prospect of mountain, and fort, and city, and sea.

[Pg 225]

"Think how hard it must be to lie here and know nothing of all that loveliness," she said, her eyes widening with wonder as they gazed across the varied perspective of vale and mountain, out to the faint blue sea. "How hard, how hard! Do they feel it and know it, Allegra? Can this I—which feels so keenly, which only sleeps in order to enter a new world of dreams—busier and more crowded and more eventful than the real world—can this consciousness go out all at once like the flame of a candle—and nothing, nothing, nothing be left?"

"They are not here," said Allegra, with gentle seriousness. "It is only the husk that lies here—the flower-seed has been carried off in God's great wind of death—and the flower is blossoming somewhere else."

"One allegory is as good as another," said Isola. "We can but console ourselves with symbols. I don't like this crowded city of the dead, Allegra. For God's sake, don't let Martin have me buried here, if I should die at San Remo!"

"Dearest, why will you harbour such ghastly thoughts?"

"Oh, it was only a passing fancy. I thought it just possible that if I were to die while we are in Italy, Martin might think to honour me by having me laid in this splendid cemetery. He seemed so struck by the grandeur and beauty of the monuments, just now, when we were in those colonnades down yonder."

Colonel Disney had lingered a little way off to look at Mazzini's monument. He came up to them now, and hurried them back to the gate, where their carriage was waiting. And so ended their last afternoon in Genoa; and the most vivid picture of the city and its surroundings that Isola carried away with her was the picture of those marble tombs upon the hill, and those tall and gloomy cypresses which are the trees of death.

Yes, she was better, gayer, and more active—more like the girl-wife whom Martin Disney had carried home to[Pg 226] Cornwall, prouder than Tristram when he sailed away with Irish Isolt.

The Italian sunshine had revived his fading flower, Disney told himself, ready to love all things in a land that had brought the smiles back to his wife's pale lips, and a delicate bloom to her wan cheeks. Yes, she was happier than she had been of late in Cornwall. He saw and rejoiced in the change.

They stayed at a hotel for more than a week, while they deliberated upon the choice of a villa. They found one at last, which seemed to realize their ideas of perfection. It was not a grand or stately dwelling. No marble bell-tower or architectural loggia attracted the eye of the passing pedestrian. It was roomy, and bright, and clean, and airy, built rather in the Swiss than the Italian style, and it stood upon the slope of the hill on the west side of the town, with nothing but olive-woods between its terraced garden and the road that skirted the sea. It was a reminiscence of the Alps, built by a retired merchant of Zurich, and its owner had called it Lauter Brunnen. The house was at most two years old; but life's vicissitudes had left it empty for a year and a half, and the rent asked of Colonel Disney was much less than he had been prepared to pay.

The installation was full of delight for Isola and her sister-in-law. The house afforded innumerable surprises, unexpected nooks and corners of all kinds. There were lovely views from every window—east, west, north, or south—and there was a garden full of roses, a garden made upon so steep a slope that it was a succession of terraces, with but little intervening level ground, and below the lowest terrace the valley stretched down to the sea, a tangle of gnarled old olive trees, wan and silvery, with a ruined gateway just seen among the foliage at the bottom of a dim grey glade.

To the right, straggling along the edge of the wooded hill, appeared the white houses and churches, cupola, pinnacle, and dome of Colla, so scattered as to seem two towns rather[Pg 227] than one, and with picturesque suggestions of architectural splendour that were hardly borne out by the reality, when one climbed those rugged mule-paths, and crossed the romantic gorge above the waterfall, and then upward and upward to the narrow alleys and crumbling archways, and the spacious old church with its lofty doorway standing high above the stony street.

Only a few paces from Colonel Disney's villa there was a stately house that had gone to ruin. The roof was off in some places; there were neither floors nor windows left; and the walls were open to the wind and rain—frescoed walls, upon which might be traced figures of saint and martyr, angel and madonna. There was a spacious garden, with an avenue of cypresses—a garden where the flowers had been growing wild for years, and where Isola and Allegra wandered and explored as they pleased. It was higher on the hillside than their own villa, and from the eastward edge of this garden they looked—across a yawning gulf in which lay all the lower town of San Remo—to the Sanctuary and the Leper Hospital, conspicuous on the crest of the opposite hill.

The need for Citadel and Sanctuary had passed with the fiercer age in which they were built. Neither Saracen nor pirate menaced San Remo nowadays; but the old white walls made a picturesque note in the landscape, and the very name of Sanctuary had a romantic sound.

The first week in the new house was like a week in fairyland. The weather was peerless—a climate that makes people forget there is such a season as winter in the world—and the two girls wandered about in the olive woods and climbed the mule-paths all through the fresh balmy hours or in the hottest noontides sat in the deserted garden or in a sheltered corner near an old stone well—one of those wells which suggest the meeting of Isaac and Rebecca—and Allegra painted while Isola read to her, in the low sweet voice which lent new and individual music to the sweetest verse of her favourites, Byron, Keats, and Shelley.

[Pg 228]

In these sequestered spots, where only a peasant woman laden with a basket of olives, or a padre, going from Colla to San Remo, ever passed within sight of them, they read the Eve of St. Agnes and the Pot of Basil—the Prisoner of Chillon, Manfred, and all those familiar lyrics and favourite passages of Shelley which Isola held in her heart of hearts. The wonder-dream of Alastor—the passionate lament of Adona?s, could not seem purer or more spiritual than the life of these young women in those calm days through which January slipped into February, unawares, like a link in a golden chain—a chain of sunshine and flowers.

In February came the Carnival; and pretty little rustic San Remo decked itself with bunting and greenery, and made believe to hold a Battle of Flowers, which had a certain village simplicity as compared with the serried ranks of carriages, the fashion, and beauty, and wealth of floral displays, along the Promenade des Anglais or the Croisette. With the Carnival came the mistral, which generally seems to be waiting round the corner ready to leap out upon the flower-throwers, to blight their bouquets, and blow dust into the eyes of beauty, and make the feeble health-seekers cower in the corners of their rose-decked carriages. This Lenten season was no exception to other seasons; and the calendar—which had been as it were in abeyance since New Year's Day—came into force again—and stern and sterile Winter said, "Here am I. Did you think I had forgotten you?" The invalids were roughly awakened from their dream of Paradise, to discover that February even in San Remo meant February, and could not always be mistaken for May or June.

Isola felt the change, though she was hardly conscious of it on the day of the floral battle, when she was sitting in a roomy landau, covered with the dark shining foliage and pale yellow fruit from some of those lemon trees in the orchard where she and Allegra had spent their morning hours. Allegra had planned the decorations, and had gone down to the coach-house to assist in the work, delighted to[Pg 229] chatter with the coachman in doubtful Italian, groping her way in a language in which her whole stock-in-trade consisted of a few quotations from Dante or Petrarch—and all the wise saws of Dr. Riccabocca.

"I would have none of that horrid pepper tree which pervades the place with its floppy foliage, and dull red fruit," she told Isola, descanting on the result of her exertions. "I was rather taken with the pepper trees at first, but I am satiated with their languid grace. They are like the weeping ash or the weeping willow. There is no real beauty in them. I would rather have one of those cypresses towering up among the grey-green olives in the valley below Colla than all the pepper trees in the public gardens. I have used no flowers but narcissus; no colour but the pale gold of the lemons and the dark green of the leaves; except one bit of audacity which you will see presently."

This was at noon, after two hours' work in the coach-house. An hour later the carriage was at the door.

Allegra's audacity was an Algerian curtain, a rainbow of vivid colour, with which she had draped the back of the landau, hiding all the ugliness of rusty leather. The carriage, or it might have been the two girlish faces in it, one so pale and gentle, the other so brilliant and changeful in its lights and shadows, made the point of attraction in the little procession. Everybody spoke of the two girls in the lemon landau, with the nice-looking, middle-aged man. Were they his daughters, people wondered, or his nieces; and at what hotel were they staying? It was a disappointment to discover that they were living in that villa to the west of the town, out of the way of everything and everybody, and that they were seldom to be seen in public, except at the new church, where they were regular worshippers.

"The man is Colonel Disney, and the tall, striking-looking girl is his wife," said one person better informed than the rest, but making a wrong selection all the same.


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