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Vanitas. Lee, Vernon, 1856–1935.
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page: 229

I.

CECCO BANDINI had just returned from the Maremma, to whose solitary marshes and jungles he had fled in one of his fits of fury at the stupidity and wickedness of the civilised world. A great many months spent among buffaloes and wild boars, conversing only with those wild cherry-trees, of whom he used whimsically to say, “they are such good little folk,” had sent him back with an extraordinary zest for civilisation, and a comic tendency to find its products, human and otherwise, extraordinary, picturesque, and suggestive. He was in this frame of mind when there came a light rap on his door-slate; and two ladies appeared on the threshold of his studio, with the shaven face and cockaded hat of a tall footman over-topping them from behind. One of them was unknown to our painter; the other was numbered among Cecchino's very few grand acquaintances.

“Why haven't you been round to me yet, you savage?” she asked, advancing quickly with a brusque page: 230 hand-shake and a brusque bright gleam of eyes and teeth, well-bred but audacious and a trifle ferocious. And dropping on to a divan she added, nodding first at her companion and then at the pictures all round, “I have brought my friend, Madame Krasinska, to see your things,” and she began poking with her parasol at the contents of a gaping portfolio.

The Baroness Fosca—for such was her name—was one of the cleverest and fastest ladies of the place, with a taste for art and ferociously frank conversation. To Cecco Bandini, as she lay back among her furs on that shabby divan of his, she appeared in the light of the modern Lucretia Borgia, the tamed panther of fashionable life. “What an interesting thing civilisation is!” he thought, watching her every movement with the eyes of the imagination; “why, you might spend years among the wild folk of the Maremma without meeting such a tremendous, terrible, picturesque, powerful creature as this!”

Cecchino was so absorbed in the Baroness Fosca, who was in reality not at all a Lucretia Borgia, but merely an impatient lady bent upon amusing and being amused, that he was scarcely conscious of the presence of her companion. He knew that she was page: 231 very young, very pretty, and very smart, and that he had made her his best bow, and offered her his least rickety chair; for the rest, he sat opposite to his Lucretia Borgia of modern life, who had meanwhile found a cigarette, and was puffing away and explaining that she was about to give a fancy ball, which should be the most crâne, the only amusing thing, of the year.

“Oh,” he exclaimed, kindling at the thought, “do let me design you a dress all black and white and wicked green—you shall go as Deadly Nightshade, as Belladonna Atropa—”

“Belladonna Atropa! why my ball is in comic costume” .... The Baroness was answering contemptuously, when Cecchino's attention was suddenly called to the other end of the studio by an exclamation on the part of his other visitor.

“Do tell me all about her;—has she a name? Is she really a lunatic?” asked the young lady who had been introduced as Madame Krasinska, keeping a portfolio open with one hand, and holding up in the other a coloured sketch she had taken from it.

“What have you got there? Oh, only the Sora Lena!” and Madame Fosca reverted to the contemplation of the smoke-rings she was making.

page: 232

“Tell me about her—Sora Lena, did you say?” asked the younger lady eagerly.

She spoke French, but with a pretty little American accent, despite her Polish name. She was very charming, Cecchino said to himself, a radiant impersonation of youthful brightness and elegance as she stood there in her long, silvery furs, holding the drawing with tiny, tight-gloved hands, and shedding around her a vague, exquisite fragrance—no, not a mere literal perfume, that would be far too coarse but something personal akin to it.

“I have noticed her so often,” she went on, with that silvery young voice of hers; “she's mad, isn't she? And what did you say her name was? Please tell me again.”

Cecchino was delighted. “How true it is,” he reflected, “that only refinement, high-breeding, luxury can give people certain kinds of sensitiveness, of rapid intuition! No woman of another class would have picked out just that drawing, or would have been interested in it without stupid laughter.”

“Do you want to know the story of poor old Sora Lena?” asked Cecchino, taking the sketch from Madame Krasinska's hand, and looking over it at the charming, eager young face.

page: 233

The sketch might have passed for a caricature; but anyone who had spent so little as a week in Florence those six or seven years ago would have recognised at once that it was merely a faithful portrait. For Sora Lena—more correctly Signora Maddalena—had been for years and years one of the most conspicuous sights of the town. In all weathers you might have seen that hulking old woman, with her vague, staring, reddish face, trudging through the streets or standing before shops, in her extraordinary costume of thirty years ago, her enormous crinoline, on which the silk skirt and ragged petticoat hung limply, her gigantic coal-scuttle bonnet, shawl, prunella boots, and great muff or parasol; one of several outfits, all alike, of that distant period, all alike inexpressibly dirty and tattered. In all weathers you might have seen her stolidly going her way, indifferent to stares and jibes, of which, indeed, there were by this time comparatively few, so familiar had she grown to staring, jibing Florence. In all weathers, but most noticeably in the worst, as if the squalor of mud and rain had an affinity with that sad, draggled, soiled, battered piece of human squalor, that lamentable rag of half-witted misery.

“Do you want to know about Sora Lena?” re- repeated page: 234 peated Cecco Bandini, meditatively. They formed a strange, strange contrast, these two women, the one in the sketch and the one standing before him. And there was to him a pathetic whimsicalness in the interest which the one had excited in the other. “How long has she been wandering about here? Why, as long as I can remember the streets of Florence, and that,” added Cecchino sorrowfully, “is a longer while than I care to count up. It seems to me as if she must always have been there, like the olive-trees and the paving stones; for after all, Giotto's tower was not there before Giotto, whereas poor old Sora Lena— But, by the way, there is a 1imit even to her. There is a legend about her; they say that she was once sane, and had two sons, who went as Volunteers in '59, and were killed at Solferino, and ever since then she has sallied forth, every day, winter or summer, in her best clothes, to meet the young fellows at the Station. May be. To my mind it doesn't matter much whether the story be true or false; it is fitting,” and Cecco Bandini set about dusting some canvases which had attracted the Baroness Fosca's attention. When Cecchino was helping that lady into her furs, she gave one of her little brutal smiles, and nodded in the direction of her companion.

page: 235

“Madame Krasinska,” she said laughing, “is very desirous of possessing one of your sketches, but she is too polite to ask you the price of it. That's what comes of our not knowing how to earn a penny for ourselves, doesn't it, Signor Cecchino?”

Madame Krasinska blushed, and looked more young, and delicate, and charming.

“I did not know whether you would consent to part with one of your drawings,” she said in her silvery, child-like voice,—“it is—this one—which I should so much have liked to have—...... to have .... bought.” Cecchino smiled at the embarrassment which the word “bought” produced in his exquisite visitor. Poor, charming young creature, he thought; the only thing she thinks people one knows can sell, is themselves, and that's called getting married. “You must explain to your friend,” said Cecchino to the Baroness Fosca, as he hunted in a drawer for a piece of clean paper, “that such rubbish as this is neither bought nor sold; it is not even possible for a poor devil of a painter to offer it as a gift to a lady—but,”—and he handed the little roll to Madame Krasinska, making his very best bow as he did so—“it is possible for a lady graciously to accept it.”

page: 236

“Thank you so much,” answered Madame Krasinska, slipping the drawing into her muff; “it is very good of you to give me such a ...... such a very interesting sketch,” and she pressed his big, brown fingers in her little grey-gloved hand.

“Poor Sora Lena!” exclaimed Cecchino, when there remained of the visit only a faint perfume of exquisiteness; and he thought of the hideous old draggle-tailed mad woman, reposing, rolled up in effigy, in the delicious daintiness of that delicate grey muff.

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