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Vanitas. Lee, Vernon, 1856–1935.
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page: 58

VI.

ONE morning Marion, by way of exception, saw and studied Lady Tal without the usual medium of the famous novel. It was early, with the very first autumn crispness in the blue morning, in the bright sun which would soon burn, but as yet barely warmed. Marion was taking his usual ramble through the tortuous Venetian alleys, and as usual he had found himself in one of his favourite haunts, the market on the further slope of the Rialto.

That market—the yellow and white awnings, and the white houses against the delicate blue sky; the bales and festoons of red and green and blue and purple cotton stuffs outside the little shops, and below that the shawled women pattering down the bridge steps towards it; the monumental display of piled up peaches and pears, and heaped up pumpkins and mysterious unknown cognate vegetables, round and long, purple, yellow, red, grey, among the bay leaves, the great, huge, smooth, green-striped things, cut page: 59 open to show their red pulp, the huger things looking as if nature had tried to gild and silver them unsuccessfully, tumbled on to the pavement; the butchers' shops with the gorgeous bullocks' hearts and sacrificial fleeced lambs; the endless hams and sausages—all this market, under the blue sky, with this lazy, active, noisy, brawling, friendly population jerking and lolling about it, always seemed to Marion one of the delightful spots of Venice, pleasing him with a sense (although he knew it to be all false) that here was a place where people could eat and drink and laugh and live without any psychological troubles.

On this particular morning, as this impression with the knowledge of its falseness was as usual invading Marion's consciousness, he experienced a little shock of surprise, incongruity, and the sudden extinction of a pleasingly unreal mood, on perceiving, coming towards him, with hand cavalierly on hip and umbrella firmly hitting the ground, the stately and faultlessly coated and shirted and necktied figure of Lady Atalanta.

“I have had a go already at Christina,” she said, after extending to Marion an angular though friendly handshake, and a cheerful frank inscrutable smile of her big blue eyes and her little red mouth. “That page: 60 novel is turning me into another woman: the power of sinning, as the Salvationists say, has been extracted out of my nature even by the rootlets; I sat up till two last night after returning fom the Lido, and got up this morning at six, all for the love of Christina and literature. I expect Dawson will give me warning; she told me yesterday that she ‘had never know any other lady that writes so much or used them big sheets of paper, quite henormous, my lady.’ Dear old place, isn't it? Ever tasted any of that fried pumpkin? It's rather nasty but quite good; have some? I wonder we've not met here before; I come here twice a week to shop. You don't mind carrying parcels, do you?” Lady Tal had stopped at one of the front stalls, and having had three vast yellow paper bags filled with oranges and lemons, she handed the two largest to Marion.

“You'll carry them for me, won't you, there's a good creature: like that I shall be able to get rather more rolls than I usually can. It's astonishing how much sick folk care for rolls. I ought to explain I'm going to see some creatures at the hospital. It takes too long going there in the gondola from my place, so I walk. If you were to put those bags well on your chest like that, under your chin, they'd be easier page: 61 to hold, and there'd be less chance of the oranges bobbing out.”

At a baker's in one of the little narrow streets near the church of the Miracoli, Lady Atalanta provided herself with a bag of rolls, which she swung by the string to her wrist. Marion then perceived that she was carrying under her arm a parcel of paper-covered books, fastened with an elastic band.

“Now we shall have got everything except some flowers, which I daresay we can get somewhere on the way,” remarked Lady Tal. “Do you mind coming in here?” and she entered one of those little grocer's shops, dignified with the arms of Savoy in virtue of the sale of salt and tobacco, and where a little knot of vague, wide-collared individuals usually hang about among the various-shaped liqueur bottles in an atmosphere of stale cigar, brandy and water, and kitchen soap.

“May—I—a—a—ask for anything for you, Lady Tal?” requested Marion, taken completely by surprise by the rapidity of his companion's movements. “You want stamps, I presume; may I have the honour of assisting you in purchase?”

“Thanks, it isn't stamps; it's snuff, and you wouldn't know what sort to get.” And Lady Tal, page: 62 making her stately way through the crowd of surprised loafers, put a franc on the counter and requested the presiding female to give her four ounces of Semolino, but of the good sort—“It's astonishing how faddy those old creatures are about their snuff!” remarked Lady Tal, pocketing her change. “Would you put this snuff in your pocket for me? Thanks. The other sort's called Bacubino, it's dark and clammy, and it looks nasty. Have you ever taken snuff? I do sometimes to please my old creatures; it makes me sneeze, you know, and they think that awful fun.”

As they went along Lady Atalanta suddenly perceived, in a little green den, something which attracted her attention.

“I wonder whether they're fresh?” she mused. “I suppose you can't tell a fresh egg when you see it, can you, Mr. Marion? Never mind, I'll risk it. If you'll take this third bag of oranges, I'll carry the eggs—they might come to grief in your hands, you know.”

“What an odious, odious creature a woman is,” thought Marion. He wondered, considerably out of temper, why he should feel so miserable at having to carry all those oranges. Of course with three gaping page: 63 bags piled on his chest there was the explanation of acute physical discomfort; but that wasn't sufficient. It seemed as if this terrible, aristocratic giantess were doing it all on purpose to make him miserable. He saw that he was intensely ridiculous in her eyes, with those yellow bags against his white waistcoat and the parcel of snuff in his coat pocket; his face was also, he thought, streaming with perspiration, and he couldn't get at his handkerchief. It was childish, absurd of him to mind; for, after all, wasn't Lady Atalanta equally burdened? But she, with her packets of rolls, and packet of books, and basket of eggs, and her umbrella tucked under her arm, looked serene and even triumphant in her striped flannel.

“I beg your pardon—would you allow me to stop a minute and shift the bags to the other arm?” Marion could no longer resist that fearful agony. “If you go on I'll catch you up in a second.”

But just as Marion was about to rest the bags upon the marble balustrade of a bridge, his paralysed arm gave an unaccountable jerk, and out flew one of the oranges, and rolled slowly down the stone steps of the bridge.

“I say, don't do that! You'll have them all in the canal!” cried Lady Atalanta, as Marion quickly page: 64 stooped in vain pursuit of the escaped orange, the movement naturally, and as if it were being done on purpose, causing another orange to fly out in its turn; a small number of spectators, gondoliers and workmen from under the bridge, women nursing babies at neighbouring windows, and barefooted urchins from nowhere in particular, starting up to enjoy the extraordinary complicated conjuring tricks which the stout gentleman in the linen coat and Panama hat had suddenly fallen to execute.

“Damn the beastly things!” ejaculated Marion, forgetful of Lady Atalanta and good breeding, and perceiving only the oranges jumping and rolling about, and feeling his face grow redder and hotter in the glare on that white stone bridge. At that moment, as he raised his eyes, he saw, passing along, a large party of Americans from his hotel; Americans whom he had avoided like the plague, who, he felt sure, would go home and represent him as a poor creature and a snob disavowing his “people.” He could hear them, in fancy, describing how at Venice he had turned flunky to one of your English aristocrats, who stood looking and making game of him while he ran after her oranges, “and merely because she's the daughter of an Earl or Marquis or such like.”

page: 65

“Bless my heart, how helpless is genius when it comes to practical matters!” exclaimed Lady Atalanta. And putting her various packages down carefully on the parapet, she calmly collected the bounding oranges, wiped them with her handkerchief, and restored them to Marion, recommending him to “stick them loose in his pockets.”

Marion had never been in a hospital (he had been only a boy, and in Europe with his mother, a Southern refugee, at the time of the War), the fact striking him as an omission in his novelist's education. But he felt as if he would never wish to describe the one into which he mechanically followed Lady Tal. With its immense, immensely lofty wards, filled with greyish light, and radiating like the nave and transepts of a vast church from an altar with flickering lights and kneeling figures, it struck Marion, while he breathed that hot, thick air, sickly with carbolic and chloride of lime, as a most gruesome and quite objectionably picturesque place. He had a vague notion that the creatures in the rows and rows of greyish white beds ought to have St. Vitus's dance or leprosy or some similar mediæval disease. They were nasty enough objects, he thought, as he timidly followed Lady Tal's rapid and page: 66 resounding footsteps, for anything. He had, for all the prosaic quality of his writings, the easily roused imagination of a nervous man: and it seemed to him as if they were all of them either skeletons gibbering and screeching in bed, or frightful yellow and red tumid creatures, covered with plasters and ligatures, or old ladies recently liberated from the cellar in which, as you may periodically read in certain public prints, they had been kept by barbarous nephews or grandchildren—

“Dear me, dear me, what a dreadful place!” he kept ejaculating, as he followed Lady Atalanta, carrying her bags of oranges and rolls, among the vociferating, grabbing beldames in bed, and the indifferent nuns and serving wenches toiling about noisily: Lady Tal going methodically her way, businesslike, cheerful, giving to one some snuff, to another an orange or a book, laughing, joking in her bad Italian, settling the creatures' disagreeable bed-clothes and pillows for them, as if instead of cosseting dying folk, she was going round to the counters of some huge shop. A most painful exhibition, thought Marion.

“I say, suppose you talk to her, she's a nice little commonplace creature who wanted to be a school-mistress and is awfully fond of reading novels—tell page: 67 her—I don't know how to explain it—that you write novels. See, Teresina, this gentleman and I are writing a book together, all about a lady who married a silly husband—would you like to hear about it?”

Stroking the thin white face, with the wide forget-me-not eyes, of the pretty, thin little blonde, Lady Tal left Marion, to his extreme discomfort, seated on the edge of a straw chair by the side of the bed, a bag of oranges on his knees and absolutely no ideas in his head.

“She is so good,” remarked the little girl, opening and shutting a little fan which Lady Tal had just given her, “and so beautiful. Is she your sister? She told me she had a brother whom she was very fond of, but I thought he was dead. She's like an angel in Paradise.”

“Precisely, precisely,” answered Marion, thinking at the same time what an uncommonly uncomfortable place Paradise must, in that case, be. All this was not at all what he had imagined when he had occasionally written about young ladies consoling the sick; this businesslike, bouncing, cheerful shake-up-your-pillows and shake-up-your-soul mode of proceeding.

page: 68

Lady Tal, he decided within himself, had emphatically no soul; all he had just witnessed, proved it.

“Why do you do it?” he suddenly asked, as they emerged from the hospital cloisters. He knew quite well: merely because she was so abominably active.

“I don't know. I like ill folk. I'm always so disgustingly well myself; and you see with my poor brother, I'd got accustomed to ill folk, so I suppose I can't do without. I should like to settle in England—if it weren't for all those hateful relations of mine and of my husband's—and go and live in the East End and look after sick creatures. At least I think I should; but I know I shouldn't.”

“Why not?” asked Marion.

“Why? Oh, well, it's making oneself conspicuous, you know, and all that. One hates to be thought eccentric, of course. And then, if I went to England, of course I should have to go into society, otherwise people would go and say that I was out of it and had been up to something or other. And if I went into society, that would mean doing simply nothing else, not even the little I do here. You see I'm not an independent woman; all my husband's relations are perpetually ready to pull me to pieces on account of his money! There's nothing they're not prepared to page: 69 invent about me. I'm too poor and too expensive to do without it, and as long as I take his money, I must see to no one being able to say anything that would have annoyed him—see?”

“I see,” answered Marion.

At that moment Lady Atalanta perceived a gondola turning a corner, and in it the young millionaire whom she had chaffed about his sideboard.

“Hi, hi! Mr. Clarence!” she cried, waving her umbrella. “Will you take me to that curiosity-dealer's this afternoon?”

Marion looked at her, standing there on the little wharf, waving her red umbrella and shouting to the gondola; her magnificent rather wooden figure more impeccably magnificent, uninteresting in her mannish flannel garments, her handsome pink and white face, as she smiled that inexpressive smile with all the pearl-like little teeth, more than ever like a big mask—

“No soul, decidedly no soul,” said the novelist to himself. And he reflected that women without souls were vaguely odious.

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