From Tales from the Italian and Spanish, Vol. III, Stories of Humor and Adventure, The Review of Reviews Co.; New York; 1920; pp. 253-266.253
OUT of the whole list of her cousin’s friends, her one special aversion was this particular man.
Had they done it one purpose, they could not have made a better choice to guard her against temptation; but there are women of valiant temper who would as lief as not be tempted, — and what are you going to do about it?
Urania, as it happened, was one of this sort. She refused her escort’s proffered hand and sprang lightly into the boat, without taking the trouble to hide either her great vexation or her small foot with its twelve-button moose-skin boot. Romeo saw all twelve of the buttons, and regretted that there had not been a thirteenth.
They seated themselves in the boat.
Do you remember, readers, that terrible flood of eighteen hundred and —? But, no, let us not mention dates. When there are ladies to be brought into a story, it is better that dates should be suppressed.
It is quite enough to know that the Po had been outdoing itself, overflowing its bounds and turning the whole region on its right bank into a vast lake all the way to Parma. It had also flooded Cremona; and in that locality the railway was under water at various points. Anyone who wished to return from Castalmaggiore to Milan was obliged to cross the river and continue by boat over the 254 inundated fields as far as Parma, in order to take the Alessandria line. This was precisely what Urania was doing at the close of her visit to her cousin’s country home.
The landscape was strange. The vineyards and all the low-growing shrubbery had vanished beneath the water, above which emerged, here and there, the lofty crown of an elm or poplar resembling a gigantic floating lily. There was something of Biblical majesty about those waters that mounted, mounted steadily, leveling, destroying, leaving in their wake terror and death.
Down the current various objects swept past them, singular and often unrecognizable: planks and beams from fallen cottages; fragments of furniture, clothing, implements, kitchen utensils, rags; even to a cage in which a number of hens were cackling madly, quite convinced that the end of the world had come.
The task of making way across this impromptu lake, whose treacherous points were unknown, was anything but easy; it became necessary to proceed warily, taking soundings and shoving off with the oars from the many tree-trunks that obstructed their progress.
Urania was enjoying herself immensely. Intrepid spirit, she loved danger, and her one regret was that instead of this fashion-plate of a Romeo, she had not been accompanied by her cousin. He was a man!
Without drawing rash conclusions, it is safe to risk the conjecture that this cousin occupied her thoughts a good deal. His soldierly carriage, his bold opinions, his martial spirit, his sweeping mustache, and the sonorous click of his spur-armed heels had made a deep impression upon her. In her scorn of effeminate men, she had even reached the point of admiring her cousin’s calloused hands. Oh! if he were with her, how much she would have enjoyed herself on an adventure like this!
Romeo, seated in the bow (she was in the stern), seemed to be taking slight interest in the picturesque scene that surrounded him; his cold and delicately chiseled profile stood out as sharply as an antique cameo against the lucent 255 mirror of the water; with one hand he was stroking his slight, blond mustache, the other hand hung over the gunwale of the boat. He was insufferable. Urania turned her head deliberately away.
“It is quite certain,” she thought to herself, “that that man has no blood in his veins; he must have been brought up on cod-liver oil.” And this idea clung so persistently to her brain that it seemed as though she could actually see her companion at the early age of five, with his little bib under his chin and his little mouth wide open to swallow down the spoonful of oil.
At that moment the boatman drew in his oars and casting a careful look around him, said:
“I am afraid that I haven’t chosen the best route.”
“Why?” demanded Urania.
“Because the trees are growing here as thick as they can grow; and instead of following the old roadway we have got into some woods, or something very much like it.”
Romeo straightened up. “Perhaps if we had twice the power at the oars ——”
“Do you know how to row?”
“I can try.”
And he proceeded to take an oar and, to the great astonishment of the boatmen, showed that he could give him points on the use of it.
“Oh! oh!” said the man. “You are beating me at my own trade.”
“Do you think so? Then let me give you a little advice. Strength does no good here. We had better save it and row carefully with the one object of avoiding obstacles; this boat couldn’t stand a very hard bump.”
The boatman compressed his lips without answering.
Urania began to wonder whether she had not perhaps been imprudent in choosing to make the journey at night; in order to avoid sunshine and dust it turned out that she was running a rather ugly risk. Her cousin’s presence seemed to her more desirable than ever; she could imagine what a fine effect his deep voice would have made, thundering 256 across the water, and his athletic arms at the oars, and his forehead bronzed by the sun and covered with the moisture of strength!
With him at least danger would have a heroic, a poetic side; one could face it with a certain pleasure!
She cast a glance of compassion and contempt upon the fair-headed cavalier that they had chosen to give her, and settled herself back comfortably, with her arms crossed, determined to accept the outcome with resignation, since it was not in her power to alter it.
The rowboat, meanwhile, continued to bump, right and left, now tangling itself in a clump of herbage, now rebounding from the trunk of a tree, and threatening at every instant to capsize.
The boatman’s face was growing, all the time, more gloomy.
Romeo, quite self-possessed, stooped over towards the bottom of the boat and lifting a plank called attention to the fact that the water had begun to leak in.
Urania, with all her courage, turned pale.
“But what is to become of us?” she demanded, turning round for the first time towards her cousin’s friend.
“Do not be disturbed,” said Romeo. “There is no danger that we shall be drowned.”
“And is there no other danger?”
The young man looked at her for a moment doubtfully; then he said, without abandoning his indifferent attitude:
“Let us hope not.”
Urania’s uneasiness was growing minute by minute: she was especially indignant with Romeo, that we know; but she was also indignant with herself, with the boat, with the boatman, with the Po, with the autumn rains, and oh! how very, very indignant with negligent cousins who get their friends to represent them!
“I am afraid,” said Romeo again, with a placidity that would have driven a saint to desperation, “that your chance of making the journey today has been lost.”
“Cheerful news!” exclaimed Urania. “To miss connections 257 is the one thing wanting to put the crowning touch on this highly enjoyable trip!”
She was cuttingly sarcastic. But destiny was preparing for her far different reasons for bad humor and vexation. All of a sudden the boat came to a stop, imbedded in a sort of bog formed of sand and straw and uprooted hedges. It was bound to end that way.
Having lost their course, the only one practicable in that ocean dating from yesterday, they had gone at haphazard over field and farm, and here they were stranded in the midst of vines and elm trees, two kilometers distant from Parma. A most unlikely adventure, let us grant, though none the less true.
Consider further, gentle readers, that the sun was setting and that the very last of its last vermilion rays that threw their splendor on the topmost branches of the poplars announced that evening was near at hand.
Romeo, as self-possessed as ever, (after asking permission of the lady), removed his coat, unbuttoned his cuffs, loosened his cravat; laid them all carefully in a corner, and taking possession of an oar, proceeded to aid the boatman in the difficult task of dislodging the boat.
I myself do not share Urania’s unkind prejudice against blond men: accordingly I can do justice to that young man and testify that he was exceedingly god to look upon with his cheeks flushed with effort, and his fair hair disordered and scattered over his pale brow. His strong white arms rose and fell regularly, revealing their vigorous muscles through the batiste of his sleeves. There was in him, something of Hercules as well as of Apollo. It was a pity that Urania was not looking at him.
When at last, after an hour’s labor, they succeeded in getting the boat free from its entanglement, a few scattered stars were already gleaming.
“Whew!” said the boatman, wiping his brow.
“Do you think you have reached port, my friend?” demanded Romeo, resting one foot upon the gunwale, which promptly creaked and groaned. “At the first hard shock 258 this poor carcass would fly into a dozen fragments. I would take my oath.”
“You certainly are a bird of ill-omen!” said Urania, in exasperation. “Even if I were not a bit superstitious, there would still be reason to think that your presence is disastrous to my journey.”
“Do you wish me to throw myself into the water, to free you of my presence? I am quite ready.”
Romeo’s tone was calm and cold, with a touch of bitterness; the young woman suddenly felt ashamed of having shown herself until now so inexorably rude. She smiled and, assuming a jesting tone, rejoined:
“Good gracious, how sensitive you are! I apologize for my bad humor; but admit that I am to be sympathized with!”
Romeo bowed in reply.
“Well, what are we going to do?” interrupted the boatman. “It’s quite sure the poor boat won’t stand the weight of three people after the knocking about that it has had.”
At the distance of a gunshot could be seen the roof of a house, emerging above the water which had covered all the rest of the humble edifice. The occupants of the cottage had evidently abandoned it in their flight, and the little island formed by the roof seemed to Romeo a spot that might afford them refuge.
“I propose,” said he, “that one of us two men lands there with the lady on that roof and that the other goes on as fast as possible to Parma to fetch a boat in better condition. There is nothing else to do; what does the lady think?”
The project appeared to Urania just a little hypothetical and not at all reassuring; still less so when Romeo added, in his most dispassionate tone:
“I know this man personally and will guarantee that he is capable of protecting you against any danger that may arise.”
Then it was he who wanted to get away?
“But,” questioned Urania, in perturbation, “would it 259 not be more natural for the boatman to stay with his own boat?” (with the tacit implication: And that you remain to keep me company).
This was a surrender, with arms and baggage; none the less, Romeo, instead of showing any symptom of complacency, replied tranquilly:
“Just as you prefer,” (with the tacit implication: It is quite the same to me).
Now this impertinent, It is quite the same to me, stabbed the fair lady’s pride to the very quick. Who knows how many other men would have been only too glad of the chance? — Her cousin, for example!
It was strange. From one cause to another, this Signor Romeo occupied her thoughts all the time; at first she merely detested him, — now she would have found pleasure in strangling him.
She was on the point of crying out, “No, go yourself!” But what sort of a figure would she have cut? Would it not seem like attaching too much importance to a fashion-plate? And besides, to be frank, the prospect of remaining several hours on a roof, in company of a boatman——!
Accordingly, no further words were exchange.
The shipwrecked pair landed upon this latest of islands, and the little boat, lopsided and crippled, continued on its course towards Parma.
“Hurry, won’t you?” shouted Romeo, improvising a speaking trumpet with his hands.
“Hurry all you can!” supplemented Urania.
Neither of the two had the smallest hope of enjoying themselves in their new refuge.
If antipathy is as easily reciprocated as sympathy, then a merry duet was likely to follow.
Meanwhile, since there was a chimney in the middle of the roof. Urania, observing that Romeo chose the southern side, seated herself upon the northern, — and the chimney divided them. But the verb, seated herself, is in this case an audacious metaphor. Urania crouched down as best she could, gathering her skirts around her, without 260 succeeding in hiding her dainty moose-skin boots, which were much amazed to find themselves upon so hard and cold a foot-rest, — cold as well as hard, because by the twenty-second of October, after sunset, and with water on all sides, it is decidedly anything but warm.
Romeo would gladly have gone for a walk, but how is one to go for a walk on a roof. He compromised by sitting on the other side of the chimney.
“And to think that we shall have to say here —” began Urania, without turning her head. “How long do you think, signore, that we shall have to stay here?”
“That depends upon the boatman and the mishaps that may arise. I am exceedingly sorry on your account.”
“Why not say, on your own account too?”
“That may not happen to be the case.”
“But since it is?”
“Let us assume that it is!”
“In that case it would be my turn to be sorry for you.”
Romeo hereupon fell to tapping the tiles with his walking-stick; Urania to braiding the fringe of her shawl.
And it was growing cold!”
A sense of fear, of pathetic and humble weakness, little by little invaded Urania’s heart. Intrepid though she was, after all she was a woman; and to find herself alone with a strange man in circumstances so unusual awoke in her a longing for kindness and affection; she felt very, very small. She thought of her parents, who were dead, of her friends, who were far away, of her illusions, which had vanished, of the brevity of life, and of a hundred melancholy things besides.
And it was growing dark! The few stars had disappeared; an icy wind was heaping up big clouds in the sky.
“It is impossible,” said Romeo, “for you to be exposed to the night dampness, without suffering for it; permit me to cover you with my coat; I am hardened to all sorts of temperature. That is the advantage that we men derive from the hardships of camp life.”261
Urania let him have his way. Presently she inquired:
“Then you have been a soldier?”
“First with Garibaldi, and then in the regular army, I have been in action twice.”
By some movement that he made, Romeo detached a tile, which rolled over and over and fell into the water. This chance incident suggested an idea to him, of which Urania fully approved.
It was simply a question of breaking a hole through the roof and descending into the house, to see whether there was any ay of making themselves more comfortable.
The young man set to work with good grace, and Urania had no hesitation in aiding him with her own white, slender fingers.
The breach once made, Romeo lowered himself into it resolutely, but Urania, with an instinctive and gracious impulse, seized him by the hand.
“Be careful!” she exclaimed, “supposing you should fall!”
“Make vows for me, and I shall come back unharmed!”
There is no knowing whether she made vows for him, but it is quite certain that he time seemed very long to her, and that every few moments she bent over the opening and called down:
“Signor Romeo! Signor Romeo!”
And when the young man reascended, dripping all over and with a mattress on his shoulder, the intrepid lady felt herself relieved of a great fear. She had had for an instant the dreadful conviction that she would never see him again.
“The house is uninhabitable,” said Romeo, flinging down the mattress. “The water has penetrated into every nook and corner; the furniture is all dropping to pieces; there isn’t a spot to set your foot. But Providence, which, as the saying goes, protects drunkards and lovers, has consented to be merciful ——”
“Notwithstanding,” interrupted Urania hastily, “that 262 we had no claim to it, either under the one head or the other!”
“—— and,” continued Romeo, without heeding the interruption, “has kept this discouraged looking mattress afloat on a wooden bed. Don’t you think that it is a welcome substitute for the ascetic nudity of these tiles?”
The mattress having been spread out, Urania politely insisted that her cavalier should seat himself beside her on it; and he did so.
This arrangement having brought them into rather close proximity, Urania could not help thinking that, if instead of Romeo, her cousin had been there, she could not have escaped from a rather strong odor of pipe-smoke and of the fish-oil with which he was accustomed to grease his heavy hunting-boots.
Undoubtedly, within the close neighborhood of a mattress, this young man was preferable. And yet she could not reconcile herself to being alone with him upon a house-top. What would her friends in Milan say about it, if they should know? Under other circumstance (she did not confess openly what sort), the adventure might have turned out most agreeably; but as it was, it was ridiculous, perfectly ridiculous!
And since these last words had escaped her aloud, Romeo added:
“The ridiculous borders upon the sublime. Never did a poet’s fantasy, fondly brooding over gilded balconies and marble terraces, succeed in surrounding his idyllic characters with so much poetry as we have around us on this wretched house-top. Here are no carven cornices, no zephyrs laden with the scent of flowers, no rays of moonlight (you see how black the night is), no fleecy clouds, no gliding gondolas, no nightingales, nor lutes, nor songs of love, — nothing but one solid resting-place in the midst of this fatal lake. And all around us whirl the fragments of devastated homes, of scattered firesides; the pillow from some cradle brings us, across the water, the weeping of a mother. Listen: down below, where we struck against 263 the wall of a submerged factory, can you not hear the cries of the poor workmen? Can you not see the misery that spread together with the waters over the devastated fields?”
Romeo spoke tranquilly, without emphasis; perceiving, however, that his companion shuddered slightly, he took her hand and continued:
“How many families left without a roof over their heads! How many people deprived of bread! Whose lives of abnegation and toil lie buried beneath those motionless waters: so many deluded hopes, so many useless sacrifices. They were sleeping serenely in the midst of their gathered harvests, in the peace of their simple existence, and the terrible scourge struck them when they were unarmed. What a scene! The cries of desperation awoke echoes never roused before; blazing torches roamed about like souls in pain on crumbling bridges and shattered boats. Half-clad women, naked children, men going mad with sorrow and fear. With every object that disappeared there rose a cry, with every fresh breaking of the dikes there came an answering groan, and on that terrible night also there were no stars, there was no moon — the lamentations of the victims arose from the waters towards an invisible and perhaps an unheeding sky. Majestic and touching poetry, is it not, signora?”
Was the question ironical? What deep bitterness was it that affected the tone of his voice?
Urania felt that strong cool hand press her own; the effeminate young mad had disappeared; beneath that fastidious exterior was hidden a manly heart, a heart that was noble and good.
“You speak,” said the lady, “as though you had taken part in the scenes of the flood.”
“I was there.”
“You were? you were among those brave men who risked their lives in small boats on that angry river to bring help to the victims? But you said nothing about it; no one knew.”264
“It didn’t seem necessary.”
“Did my cousin go with you?”
“No. He had an engagement to go hunting.”
A stinging remorse, a deep shame at having been so grossly mistaken flushed Urania’s cheeks under cover of the darkness.
The flush remained unseen, but a certain person undoubtedly felt the enthusiastic pressure of her little hand when she said:
“I do admire men who are brave and strong. How I envy them the good that hey are able to do!”
“Tender and gentle women can also do a great deal of good. Man gives material aid, but woman comforts the soul.”
“Do you really think that woman has so much power?”
“How could I doubt it when a single glance from her exalts us and makes us better; when a single soft word, a clasp of the hand, a spontaneous and innocent impulse of her affectionate heart repays us for prolonged disdain?”
Was is possible that his voice really trembled? It seemed to Urania that it did.
“Isn’t there a committee, a subscription, something or other being done for the victims?”
“I am making arrangements for that now.”
“Should I be so indiscreet if I begged you to count on my aid in the good work?”
“The indiscretion is mine in accepting it immediately — so as to give you no time to reconsider.”
Still another touch of bitterness! Urania felt it, but she knew it was deserved and said nothing. It was only after quite a long and interesting silence that she exclaimed, in order to break the spell:
“Who knows how many hours it will be! The boatman is taking a long time; I am cold.”
Romeo drew nearer to her. Good heavens, what could he possibly do? If he dared put his arm around her, — why, then, of course, they might be warmer! Did he, Romeo, actually think of such a thing? At all events, it 265 was a thought that could not be expressed, either in Greek or in Latin! He contented himself with replying:
“Let me have both your hands. Like this!”
And he laid them over his heart.
The intrepid lady realized that she was feeling smaller and weaker than ever.
“Tell me, suppose the man shouldn’t come back?”
“Then we would build a shelter, like Robinson Crusoe, and wait for an opportunity to return to our native land.
As the uttered these words, laughingly, the young man pressed against his breast the two little hands that had found a refuge there; and since the arms are such near neighbors to the hands, those pretty arms of Urania also found a resting-place.
It was at this moment that Urania murmured:
“Forgive me, won’t you? I judged you so wrongly!”
And Romeo, much moved and very serious, replied:
“Thank you. Now I am happy.”
The boatman was at liberty to take his own time. Neither of the two thought again of complaining. In fact, when he reached them, at about ten o’clock, and tried in much confusion to excuse himself for his involuntary delay, Romeo interrupted him:
“Not at all, my dear man, you have come if anything too soon!”
“Look at that, now!” thought the boatman. “What a good sort these gentlefolk are! Accustomed as they are to spring cushions, they still know how to spend a couple of hours on a house-top, without even showing that they were uncomfortable!”
A year later, at the time when Urania made her usual visit to her cousins, she suggested to Romeo that they should take a walk over the district where the flood had been.
The houses had been rebuilt, the vineyards restored, the hedges put back in their proper places. Throughout the rock-strewn fields there breathed the abundance of a prosperous 266 harvest; the meadow were green, the sky serene, and beneath the giant poplars the poor peasantry reposed, weary but cheerful.
The two young people paused beside a small dwelling; screened by the shadow which the lately repaired roof cast above the pathway, with a simultaneous impulse they clasped each other heart to heart, and without uttering a word, exchanged a kiss.
A Fair Reader, scandalized: “O-o-o-h!”
The Author: “But they were engaged!”