The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
(From the Italian of Matilde Serao,* with the kind permission of the Author.)
[* Matilde Serao is on of the leading literary women of Italy. She is by birth Italo-Greek, born at Elis, in Achaia, March 7, 1836. Her mother was a descendant of the Greek princes Scanavy, some of whom were emperors at Trebizond. She was a great linguist and a woman of culture, the first instructress of her daughter, who, when her father, a Neopolitan exile, returned to his country, completed her education and took her diploma in the schools of New Italy. She is a great champion of the emancipation of women and their higher education. Her books have charming studies of women and girl characters. The present sketch is from a collection of short sketches entitled "Dal Vero" (From Life), and some mother may find here not only a holiday tale, but the key to a daughter's character.]
Sofia did not raise her eyes from her work as her light fingers flew over the delicate lace. Lulu on the contrary went round and round the room, displacing the litte ornaments on the brackets, opening drawers to look absently into them; it was clear that she wanted to do or say something especial, but her elder sister's serious manner repressed her. She tried singing the verse of a song; Sofia did not seem to take it in. At length Lulu, whose fault was not too much patience, decided to plunge into the subject, and planting herself in front of her sister asked:
"Sofia, what do you think Mademoiselle Jeannette told me?"
"Nothing very interesting for certain."
"There you are, with an answer so cold and dry that it makes one shiver even in the summer. Where do you get your from from, my arctic sister?"
"Lulu! you are really nothing but a baby."
"Ah! that is where you are mistaken, you grandmother of my heart; I am certainly no a baby, for I am going to be married."
"That is precisely what Jeannette has told me."
"What nonsense! I don't believe a word of it."
"Now then, I will narrate everything to you, as they say in the play. It will indeed be a narrative; but your Serious Highness must give me your attention."
"Yes, yes; only tell me."
"The day of the races at the Campo di Marte; behold the time and the place! You were not there; you who prefer your everlasting books . . ."
"If you make digressions I shall not listen."
"You must listen; the secret is suffocating me; it is killing me."
"Are you going to begin again?"
"I'll leave off teasing. Well then; we are in the front row of the grand stand at the races. Paolo Lovato comes up and introduces a handsome young man--Roberto Montefranco. The usual salutes and vague compliments take place; they find seats just behind us; we exchange a few words till we hear the signal for the start of the horses. You remember that I backed Gorgona, little thinking how ungrateful she would prove. Well! we must resign ourselves to ingratitude even in the beasts. The horses have vanished into a cloud of dust. 'Gorgona is winning!' I exclaim. 'No,' says Montefranco, smiling; 'it is Lord Lavello.' I retort with a contradiction; he continues to smile and contradict again. We lay a wager, a discresione.* At length, after half an hour of palpitation and anxiety, I learn that Gorgona is a traitress, that I have lost and Montefranco has won! Imagine it! I tell him I wish to pay instantly; he bows and says there is time. I meet him on the Chaja and give him a questioning glance, which he answers by a salute, and smiles mysteriously. It is the same at the theatre, and everywhere else. I live in the greatest curiosity. Roberto is handsome, is twenty-six years old, and this morning the Signor Montefranco pere, my future father-in-law, has been two hours in conference with mamma."
* [discresione: A wager in which the winner may choose how he will be paid.]
"Signs of attention in my audience. I hear of the Signor papa's visit from Jeannette. Well, then, the marriage must be a settled thing. There is only one point of momentous gravity to arrange. When I go before the vice-syndic shall I wear a grey or a dead-leaf coloured gown? Shall I have a bonnet with strings or without them?"
"How can you rund on so?"
"Run on; of course I do; there are no obstacles to stop me. Roberto and I are madly in love with each other; our worthy parents are content . . ."
"And you would marry a man thus?"
"What does thus mean? the word is elastic."
"Without knowing him; without real love?"
"But I do know him; I have seen him at the races and promenade. I adore him. The day before yesterday, no having seen him, I refused to take breakfast, and only drank three cups of coffee in the hope of suicide!"
"He marries me, therefore he loves me!" replied Lulu triumphantly.
But seeing Sofia's face pale she repented the imprudent phrase, and, bending towards her, asked affectionately, "Have I said anything wrong?"
"No! darling, no! you are right, those who love marry each other. The difficulty lies in making oneself beloved," and she sighed lightly.
"Make oneself loved? Make oneself loved," repeated Lulu with irritation. "It is the easiest thing, Sofia; but when like you one has a severe brow, sad eyes, and unsmiling lips; when one goes off in a corner to muse while everybody else is dancing and jesting, when instead of laughing one reads, instead of living one dreams, when one is still young and yet has the air of being old and tired,--then it may be difficult to be loved."
Sofia lowered her head and did not answer. Her lips trembled a little as if she suppressed a sob.
"Have I annoyed you again?" demanded Lulu. "It is only because I want to see you beloved, surrounded by affection and engaged. How nice it would be for us to be married on the same day!"
"We are talking nonsense. I shall always remain a spinster."
"No, madame, you shall not; I shall forbid it, you naughty creature, If Roberto is a worthy man he ought to have a bachelor brother. I will have it that he has a bachelor brother--he must and shall."
At this moment the girl's mother entered the room dressed for walking.
"Are you going out, mamma?" said Lulu.
"Yes, dear; I am going to see the lawyer."
"Ugh! the lawyer; that is a solemn business."
"You shall see, Madame Featherbrain. Sofia, will you come with me for a few minutes?"
"What? Has Sofia dark mysteries with the lawyer too?"
"Lulu! when will you make up your mind to be serious?"
"Soon, mamma; you shall see."
She opened the door to let her mother and sister pass, made two profound courtesies, murmuring.
When they were gone she laughed aloud and called out from the threshold, "Talk away, talk if you like; I will pretend to know nothing about it."
In the ordinary course of events Roberto Montefranco was not accustomed to thinking; he had not the time. The day slid by between breakfast, a ride, visits, and dinner; the evening passed more sweetly at the side of his betrothed--Lulu. Then there were pecuniary affairs to arrange, appointments with the lawyer, contracts to sign, a few old debts to pay, and lastly the preparations for his new home and wedding tour. There scarcely remained half and hour in which to read his paper, and a quarter of an hour to loiter at the door of the cafe. Thus no one had ever seen him absorbed in profound reflections, nor knew whether he ever occupied his mind in solving social problems, for there appeared nothing tragic or heroic in his character. On the contrary he enjoyed a serenity of mind which was the envy of many people.
That day--one day, in the morning--he was extended in an armchair, one leg crossed on the other, a toothpick in his mouth, and a volume of "Quadrio" in his hand, for he was precisely intending to read. The book was interesting, but--new and unlooked-for event--the reader was distrait. More, he was even nervous and restless. He never turned a page, because after reading two lines the letters began to jump about, become confused, and even to vanish. Roberto, nolens volens, departed into the unknown regions of thought.
"My father is satisfied, the uncles send their saintly benedictions, the girl cousins are offended, friends at the cafe offer ironical congratulations, serious friends press my hand benevolently; therefore I do well to take a wife. It cannot be denied that Lulu is very charming. When she gives me those playful glances, when she laughs and shows her white teeth, I always want to clasp that light little head in my two hands and shower kisses upon it! She has a fine character too, a character of pure gold, always gay, always good-humoured, ready for fun, full of spirit, never unrefined, never melancholy. There we shall agree. I cannot endure a pensive brow, especially in persons I love; it seems as though they are always hiding a secret sorrow, a grief I know nothing of and cannot mitigate, or of which I might possibly be the cause. My future sister-in-law, Sofia, has the gift of irritating me with that cold impassible face of hers. When she appears my soul shuts itself up, the smile dies on my lips, and even if the brightest sun of spring is shining, it seems a grey and dark November day. I have not the courage even to jest with Lulu, that Sofia is such a kill-joy. She must be aware of the bad impression she makes on me, for she greets me without even looking in my face; she never gives me her hand, answers shortly 'Yes'; she must have seen my antipathy. Perhaps she does not like it. Now, Lulu is always laughing, but how very young! She never says a serious word, and even if she tries to be grave cannot succeed, and seems to be still jesting; tells me she loves me, and then begins to laugh and talk of something else. She likes me, but not with a desperate love. To be frank, neither am I in agonies; it is better so perhaps. For my part I have two clear theories: first, that a betrothed couple should be of the same character; secondly, they should never begin with a great passion. That is how the case stands with Lulu, and we are perfectly happy. We shall make a tour through Italy without haste, without fatigue, enjoying every comfort, staying wherever we choose, and noticing even the smallest things. We shall require three months--no, not enough--say four. I shall be glad to take Lulu away from the sad compainionship of Sofia for a good long time. But, I ask, is it natural for that girl to be so solemn at her age? She is only twenty-three, and I don't believe she is plain. On the contrary, she has very fine eyes and the carriage of a queen. If she were not so dreadfully serious she might be pleasing. I forsee she will remain an old maid; possibly this is her cross; perhaps she is in love--a faithless swain! I should really be curious to know the cause of her sadness . . . I shall ask Lulu when we are alone some day.
"Lulu delights in sweets; she confessed it the second evening I called. You should see how she sucks them; comfits melt and disappear behind her rosy lips; and after a time she puts on an air of compunction to show they are all gone. She is a dear, dear sweet little thing! She has confided to me in a whisper that when it thunders she is frightened, and hides her head under the sofa cushions; that she has always dreamed of having a black velvet dress, with a very long train and white lace collar and cuffs. She assures me that she is as jealous as a Spaniard, and shall buy a little poniard with a steel handle, inlaid with gold, to accomplish her vengeance. She is adorable when she says these little things with her childish air of conviction. Even Sofia is obliged to smile sometimes, and that brightens her face . . . Oh, that Sofia! that Sofia! who will ever understand her? . . . "
The book fell from his knees to the ground. Our hero started at the sound; he looked wonderingly and almost touched himself to see if he were real. Yes, it was truly himself, Roberto Montefranco, caught in the flagrant delinquency of meditation.
Twilight fell like a fine rain of ashy grey; Sofia, standing at the window behind the balcony, looked down on the busy and populous street. It was the hour when the Via Toledo became almost perilous with the immense number of carriages, both small and great, which crossed each other, ascending and descending without a break. Sofia seemed to be watching for some one; all at once a brilliant flush passed over her face, she drooped her head a little, became pale again, and withdrew directly into the room.
Scarcely a minute had passed when Lulu dashed in like a whirlwind, slamming doors and displacing chairs to run the more freely.
"What are you doing here, Donna Sofia Santangelo? Are you reading?"
"Yes . . . reading."
"Have you not energy even to stay on the balcony?"
"And what if I had?"
"Bah! I ought to have been there myself, but Albina the dressmaker was trying my dress for this evening. I was burning with impatience to get down here. Last evening I told Roberto to wear his bluish overcoat, to put Selim into the dog-cart, and to drive by at half-past six. Who knows whether he has obeyed?"
"Roberto has passed in the dog-cart with his blue coat on."
"Misericordia! How do you know that? Were you not reading?"
"I was behind the window."
"And you recognised Roberto when you never trouble to look at him. Here's a miracle! Did he bow to you?"
"How did he take off his hat?"
"Just.. as he usually does."
"And did you return the salute?"
"Do you think I have no manners?"
"Of course you gave him a smile?"
"No . . . that is, I don't know."
"You are a naughty girl, Sofia. It was only yesterday Roberto was talking about you."
"Telling you that I was naughty?"
"No, but asking the reason of your reserved manner, so different to mine. Then I went off into a fine panegyric, and told him you were better, more amiable and loving than I am myself, but you only had the defect of hiding your good qualities. Only imagine, he listened with great interest, and ended by asking why you had such an aversion for him."
"He said so, and you must know he was not far wrong; you treat hime with so little cordiality. Yet even on this point I defended you. I told him a fib and said he was very simpatico to you, and that you esteemed him ever so much."
"I know it is not the fact, but Roberto likes you so much it seems ungrateful to make a stranger of him."
Sofia threw her arms round her sister's neck and kissed her. Lulu held her there a moment and murmured caressingly,
"Why will you not love Roberto a little?"
The other drew back with a brusque movement and said not a word.
"So," Lulu recommenced, changing the subject with a shrug of her shoulders, "you are really not coming with us this evening?"
"No, I have a headache; you can go with mamma."
"The usual thing. Well, it matters little as long as I go somehow, for I enjoy balls immensely."
"Is Roberto going with you?"
"Nix; he is going to a meeting at his club. I shall take advantage of his absence to dance till to-morrow morning."
"And suppose he should come to know it?"
"All the better; he will learn henceforth to let me do as I like. I don't want to spoil him."
"You do not love him very much, I fancy.
"I do--very, very much in my own way. But I must go and dress; it wll take me at least two hours."
* * * * *
Sofia listened to the rumble of the carriage as it diminished in the distance, carrying away her mother and sister. She was alone--alone, as she had always desired to be. From a child, when anyone displeased her, she had cried herself to sleep in solitude, and the habit had remained. She seemed quite lost in the great salone, under the light of the chandelier, her hands idle and head leaning back on the chair. A great emotion was depicted on her face, the reflection of an acute internal struggle. It is certain that in moments of complete solitude the consciousness of a great sorrow returned upon her--a sense of the reality so long repulsed became clear, distinct, even cruel.
A sound of footsteps startled her; it was Roberto! Seeing her alone he stopped, hesitating; but then supposing the rest of the family to be in the next room he advanced. Sofia rose immediately, much perturbed.
"Good evening, signorina."
They were both confused. "Dio! how stiff this Sofia is," thought Roberto.
At length the girl recovered herself and regained command of her features, which became calm and severe. They seated themselves with a distance between them.
"Madame, your mother is well, I hope?"
"Tolerably well, thank you."
Here a silence. Roberto had a strange sensation as if a joy were filling him with bitterness.
"Is Lulu engaged?" he asked.
"She is at the Dellino's ball with mamma," she replied, hurriedly, almost as if she would have answered before the question was asked.
Sofia was alone then, and if he were not the most uncourteous of men he ought to remain with her! At this idea Roberto had an irresistible desire to flee. But he did not stir.
"I came in because there are not the legal number of members at the club meeting," he said, after a pause, as though excusing himself for being there.
"Lulu did not expect you . . . I am sorry . . ."
"Oh! it does not matter," interrupted Roberto, so hastily that the remark was not flattering to the absent one. "And you," he added, "have not gone with them?"
"No. I do not care for balls, you know."
"You prefer reading?"
"Is it good for you?"
"I have good eyes," answered Sofia, raising them before the face of her interlocutor.
"And fine ones too," thought Roberto, "but they are without expression;" then aloud, "I meant to say . . ."
"That it is not morally good perhaps. I do not think it does me harm. I gather much peace from the books I read."
"Have you then such need of peace?"
"We all have."
Sofia's voice was deep and sonorous, and it charmed Roberto as if he heard it for the first time. He seemed to find himself in the presence of a woman hitherto unknown, but who now in every act and word revealed herself to him, for Sofia had by this time lost all her coldness and allowed herself to smile, to glance, and to talk to him as though he were her friend. What had there been between them till this moment? What had arisen now?
"When I like a book," continued Roberto, "I have a great desire to know the author of it, to know whether he is a good man, and if he has loved or suffered."
"Perhaps you would be only disillusioned, for authors always describe the loves of other people, but never their own."
"Probably out of repsect to them."
"I think it is from jealousy. There are cases in which love is the only hidden treasure of a soul."
The voice of Sofia never changed as she said this. Her honest countenance beamed, and she was so simple, pure, and spoke with such conviction that Roberto felt no surprise in hearing her talk thus understandingly of love. Indeed, he no more marvelled at anything; it seemed perfectly natural, even expected. Yes, he even felt that evening passed alone with the strange girl had been decided on by fate long ago, and waited for. When he rose to go they looked each in the face of the other as if studying to understand what they saw there. Sofia gave her hand. Roberto took it and bowed; the portiere fell heavily. They had parted.
Once away from the fascination of Sofia's presence and conversation, Roberto felt his whole being disturbed. He was joyful, he was melancholy, he could have wished to die, and yet was full of life. He could only think of Lulu, of himself, and the future.
Sofia felt very happy; oh! so happy! For this reason she sobbed and wept, with her head buried in the cushions.
Three months had gone by, but Lulu's engagement lengthened out. Sometimes her mother, who did not quite understand this postponement, called her daughter aside and asked what it meant.
"I should like to wait a little," Lulu always replied. "I must know Roberto better first."
In fact the girl had become an observer. She went about as usual--singing, laughing, and jesting, but she sometimes varied these occupations by sounding the behaviour of her sister, and weighing Roberto's words. She was often seen with her lips close shut, her eyebrows knitted with an air of great intentness. At other times Lulu looked around her with much attention.
And strange things were happening all around. Roberto was no longer gay and serene as he used to be, but was pensive, pale, and disturbed. He spoke shortly and abstractedly; things he once liked were now indifferent to him. At times by a great effort he commanded himself, and returned to his old manner, but not for long. He had never been accustomed to dissimulate, and succeeded but ill His very eyes revealed the passion, the secret he bore.
Then a new Sofia came to light. A Sofia nervous and unquiet, who at some times embraced her sister with effusion; at others kept out of sight, even fleeing her for hours. Flitting flushes passed over her features like fever heats; a flame gleamed in her eyes; her voice was now deep and intense, then dry and strident; her lips trembled; her very hands were agitated. She did not sleep at night. Lulu arose and went barefoot to listen at her door, where she heard Sofia weeping and agitated. When questioned Sofia declared that nothing was the matter, and that she was just the same as usual. When Roberto and Sofia were together--and this happened nearly every day--then, indeed, the change was more apparent. There were few words, answers either too ready or too vague, singular glances. They would stay whole evenings without speaking, but each studied the actions of the other. They never sat near each other, but Roberto always found means to handle the book or work which Sofia had touched. Sometimes she did not appear, and then Roberto was more restless, fixed his eyes on the closed door, and answered at random. At other times he would take his hat and depart within five minutes after Sofia came in, and then the girl would grow pale, a dark circle grew beneath her eyes, she decided to see him no more. For a week she shut herself up in her room every evening, fretting with impatience and stifling her laments.
One evening Lulu entered her chamber.
"Will you do me a favour?" she said.
"What is it?" she said.
"I want to write a letter; Roberto is all alone on the terrace; do go down and keep him company."
"But I . . ."
"Are you going to keep yourself shut up? What will it cost you to oblige me in such a little thing?"
"You will come soon then at least?"
"Just give me time to write two or three lines."
Sofia went towards the terrace, striving to subdue her heart for those few minutes. She stopped on the threshold. Roberto was pacing outside; she came near.
"Lulu has sent me," she said, in a low voice.
"Were you forced to come?"
"Not forced; no."
She trembled all over. Roberto was near her, with his face convulsed with passion.
"What have I done to you, Sofia?"
"Nothing; you have done nothing. Do not look at me in that manner," she supplicated, vaguely.
"You know then, Sofia, that I love you only too, too well."
"Oh, Roberto, be silent; for pity's sake do not say it. If Lulu heard you!"
"I do not love Lulu; I love you."
"It is treachery!"
"I know it, but I love you. I can go away."
"Well!" cried Lulu from a distance before appearing at another door. "Well! is this peace made?"
But no one replied. Sofia fled, hiding her face in her hands, and Roberto sttod motionless and silent, as if stupefied.
"Roberto!" called Lulu.
"Nothing . . . I must leave;" and without even saying good-bye he too went off with a despairing gesture. Lulu followed him with a serious glance, and reamined lost in thought.
"One goes off here, another there," she murmured, "and till now--enough. I must act here, I see."
"For all these excellent reasons I cannot marry Signor Roberto Montefranco," concludes Lulu, speaking to her mother.
"They are all absurd reasons, my child." And the mother shook her head.
"Never mind. Do you wish me to put the matter plainer? Roberto does not please me, and I will not marry him."
"You are at least outspoken; but the deed remains still a mere caprice. Roberto loves you."
"He will console himself."
"Your word has been given."
"Let us take it back then; we are no more in the times of forced marriages."
"What will the world say?"
"Mother, dear, please define the world."
"People, I mean."
"What people? I don't know them, and am not obliged to be made miserable for my lords the people."
"You are a dreadful child. But think of me; what am I to say to Roberto? How can I arrange matters?"
"Say whatever you please. Mothers are made for such offices."
"Yes, to repair all your mistakes! It will certainly make a scandal."
"I hope not, you only have to say it politely, and in a pleasing manner. I even give you leave to blame me, you may say I am capricious, light and childish; add that I should make a very bad wife, that I never can be serious a moment, that I have no dignity, and that my sister is . . ."
"Your sister? Are you losing your senses, Lulu?"
"Oh, it might very well happen! At present Roberto and Sofia are indifferent, but they will soon know each other better, esteem will follow . . . and then . . . who knows, who knows? You may be praised as a good mother for marrying your eldest daughter first."
"In fact . . ."
"Oh, I shall not lack a husband in time, I am hardly eighteen yet. Besides, I want to amuse myself and dance yet awhile, I want to enjoy my happy youthfulness with my dear good mammina mammuccia,"* pleaded Lulu coaxingly.
* ["Mammina mammuccia": Pet diminutives of mother.]
"You are a little imp," answered the mother, much moved, as she embraced her daughter.
"Then we understand each other. You have to break the unpleasant news very pleasingly to Roberto, but be sure and say we hope the friendship may continue, and that he will come often and see us. If those two are to fall in love, they certainly will, it is written.
"But Lulu, do you really think things will be settled so easily? You know I hate embroilments of all kinds."
"Oh, you unpersuadable mother! Oh, mother worse than St. Thomas! Yes, yes! I assure you, with my proved experience, that there shall be no scandal. To conclude, Roberto is a gentleman, and would never wish me to marry him if I do not care for him."
"What seems so impossible to me is the affair of Sofia."
"Nothing is more possible than the impossible," replied Lulu, with great gravity.
"My dear, have done with your ridiculous axioms. Well, then, we will leave it to Time; perhaps he will regulate our affairs. But that does not make you any the less of a madcap."
"And a whimsical mortal."
"With a head devoid of judgment."
"And a hare-brain. I will be all you say; preach at me--I deserve it. Well, have you anything more to say? I am waiting."
"Give me a kiss, and be off to bed. Good night, baby."
"Thanks, dear little mother. Good night."
"It is better thus," said the mother to herself. "Yes, better. Lulu is too young yet. One sees every day the sad consequences of the mariage de convenance. God save us from it. This is far better."
"Auff!" said Lulu, as she drew a long breath. "What diplomacy I have had to use! what arts, to overcome mamma! I should really make a splendid ambassador. What a victory! Talk of the triumphs of love--this is the triumph of Lulu!"
She stopped at her sister's door and listened. Now and then she heard a repressed sigh; poor Sofia had lost her rest again.
"Sleep, Sofia, sleep," murmured Lulu in a soft voice, and she kissed the handle of the door as if it had been the cheek of her sister. "Be calm and rest, I have worked for you this evening."
And the generous girl slumbered, happy and content in the happiness of those she loved.
* * * * *
Time, that good old Time, like the eternal and judicious honest old fellow he is, has fulfilled his task. Lulu is now puzzling her brain on the important question whether a bridesmaid should wear a blue silk dress or a simple foulard gown trimmed with lace? She asks Roberto if he is going to supply plenty of comfits for her to suck, and if Sofia will give her that embroidered handkerchief that is light as a cloud.
Those two, who know what the heart of the girl is capable of, smile at her gay nonsense, and love her dearly, for they consider her as their Providence.
"I have always declared," says Roberto Montefranco, speaking to a friend about his marriage, "that husband and wife should be of opposite characters. Extremes meet. In that way they understand each other, mingle and form a complete whole, while marriages between people of equal tastes are like parallels, they go side by side, but never meet. And then, where love is . . . but--I always said so!"
LEADER SCOTT (translator).
Typed September 2013