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What Katy Did Next(chapter9)

2006-08-22 19:17

  CHAPTER 9

  A ROMAN HOLIDAY

  `Oh dear!' said Mrs Ashe, as she folded her letters and laid them aside, `I wish those Pages would go away from Nice, or else that the frigates were not there.'

  `Why! What's the matter?' asked Katy, looking up from the many-leaved journal from Clover over which she was poring.

  `Nothing is the matter except that those everlasting people haven't gone to Spain yet, as they said they would, and Ned seems to keep on seeing them,' replied Mrs Ashe petulantly.

  `But, dear Polly, what difference does it make? And they never did promise you to go at any particular time, did they?'

  `No, they didn't; but I wish they would, all the same. Not that Ned is such a goose as really to care anything for that foolish Lilly!' Then she gave a little laugh at her own inconsistency, and added: `But I oughtn't to abuse her when she is your cousin.'

  `Don't mention it,' said Katy cheerfully. `But, really, I don't see why poor Lilly need worry you so, Polly dear.'

  The room in which this conversation took place was on the very topmost floor of the Hotel del Mondo in Rome. It was large and many-windowed, and though there was a little bed in one comer half hidden behind a calico screen, with a bureau and washing-stand, and a sort of stout mahogany hat tree on which Katy's dresses and jackets were hanging, the remaining space, with a sofa and easy chairs grouped round a fire, and a round table furnished with books and a lamp, was ample enough to make a good substitute for the private sitting room which Mrs Ashe had not been able to procure on account of the near approach of the carnival and the consequent crowding of strangers to Rome. In fact, she was assured that under the circumstances she was lucky in finding rooms as good as these, and she made the most of the assurance as a consolation for the somewhat unsatisfactory food and service at the hotel, and the four long flights of stairs which must be passed every time they needed to reach the dining room or the street door.

  The party had been in Rome only four days, but already they had seen a host of interesting things. They had stood in the strange sunken space with its marble floor and broken columns, which is all that is left of the great Roman Forum. They had visited the Coliseum, at that period still overhung with ivy garlands and trailing greeneries, and not, as now, scraped clean and bare and `tidied' out of much of its picturesqueness. They had seen the Baths of Caracalla and the Temple of Janus and St Peter's and the Vatican marbles, and had driven out on the Campagna and to the Pamphili-Doria Villa to gather purple and red anemones, and to the English cemetery to see the grave of Keats. They had also peeped into certain shops, and attended a reception at the American minister's - in short, like most unwarned travellers, they had done about twice as much as prudence and experience would have permitted, had those worthies been consulted.

  All the romance of Katy's nature responded to the fascination of the ancient city - the capital of the world, as it may truly be called. The shortest drive or walk brought them face to face with innumerable and unexpected delights. Now it was a wonderful fountain, with plunging horses and colossal nymphs and Tritons, holding cups and horns from which showers of white foam rose high in air to fall like rushing rain into an immense marble basin. Now it was an arched doorway with traceries as fine as lace - sole remaining fragment of a heathen temple, flung and stranded as it were by the wave of time on the squalid shore of the present. Now it was a shrine at the meeting of three streets, where a dim lamp burned beneath the effigy of the Madonna, with always a fresh rose beside it in a vase, and at its foot a peasant woman kneeling in red bodice and blue petticoat, with a lace-trimmed towel folded over her hair. Or again, it would be a sunlit terrace lifted high on a hillside, and crowded with carriages full of beautifully-dressed people, while below all Rome seemed spread out like a panorama, dim, mighty, majestic, and bounded by the blue wavy line of the Campagna and the Alban hills. Or perhaps it might be a wonderful double flight of steps with massive balustrades and pillars with urns, on which sat a crowd of figures in strange costumes and attitudes, who all looked as though they had stepped out of pictures, but who were in reality models waiting for artists to come by and engage them. No matter what it was - a bit of oddly-tinted masonry with a tuft of brown and orange wall-flowers hanging upon it, or a vegetable stall where endive and chicory and curly lettuces were arranged in wreaths with tiny orange gourds and scarlet peppers for points of colour - it was all Rome, and, by virtue of that word, different from any other place - more suggestive, more interesting, ten times more mysterious than any other could possibly be, so Katy thought.

  This fact consoled her for everything and anything - for the fleas, the dirt, for the queer things they had to eat and the still queerer odours they were forced to smell! Nothing seemed of any particular consequence except the deep sense of enjoyment, and the newly-discovered world of thought and sensation of which she had become suddenly conscious.

  The only drawback to her happiness, as the days went on, was that little Amy did not seem quite well. She had taken a cold on the journey from Naples, and though it did not seem serious, that, or something, made her look pale and thin. Her mother said she was growing fast, but the explanation did not quite account for the wistful look in the child's eyes and the tired feeling of which she continually complained. Mrs Ashe, with vague uneasiness, began to talk of cutting short their Roman stay and getting Amy off to the more bracing air of Florence. But meanwhile there was the carnival close at hand, which they must by no means miss, and the feeling that their opportunity might be a brief one made her and Katy all the more anxious to make the very most of their time. So they filled the days full with sights to see and things to do, and came and went, sometimes taking Amy with them, but more often leaving her at the hotel under the care of a kind German chambermaid, who spoke pretty good English and to whom Amy had taken a fancy.

  `The marble things are so cold, and the old broken things make me so sorry,' she explained, `and I hate beggars because they are dirty, and the stairs make my back ache; and I'd a great deal rather stay with Maria and go up on the roof, if you don't mind, Mamma.'

  This roof, which Amy had chosen as a play-place covered the whole of the great hotel, and had been turned into a sort of upper-air garden by the simple process of gravelling it all over, placing trellises of ivy here and there, and setting tubs of oranges and oleanders and boxes of gay geraniums and stock-gillyflowers on the balustrades. A tame fawn was tethered there. And adopted him as a playmate, and what with his company and that of the flowers, the times when her mother and Katy were absent from her passed not unhappily.

  Katy always repaired to the roof as soon as they cam in from their long mornings and afternoons of sight seeing. Years afterward, she would remember with contrition how pathetically glad Amy always was to see her She would put her little head on Katy's breast and hold her tight for many minutes without saying a word. When she did speak it was always about the house and the garden that she talked. She never asked any questions a to where Katy had been, or what she had done; it seemed to tire her to think about it.

  `I should be very lonely sometimes if it were not for my dear little fawn,' she told Katy once. `He is so sweet that don't miss you and mamma very much while I have him to play with. I call him Florio - don't you think that is; pretty name? I like to stay with him a great deal better than to go about with you to those nasty-smelling old churches, with fleas hopping all over them!'

  So Amy was left in peace with her fawn, and the other made haste to see all they could before the time came t go to Florence.

  Katy realized one of the `moments' for which she had come to Europe when she stepped for the first time on the balcony, overhanging the Corso, which Mrs Ashe had hired in company with some acquaintances made at the hotel, and looked down at the ebb and surge of the just-begun carnival. The narrow street seemed humming with people of all sorts and conditions. Some were masked, some were not. There were ladies and gentlemen in fashionable clothes, peasants in the gayest costumes, surprised-looking tourists in tall hats and linen dusters, harlequins, clowns, devils, nuns, dominoes of every colour - red, white, blue, black; above, the balconies bloomed like a rose garden with pretty faces framed in lace veils or picturesque hats. Flowers were everywhere wreathed along the house fronts, tied to the horses' ears, in ladies' hands and gentlemen's button holes, while vendors went up and down the street bearing great trays of violets and carnations and camellias for sale. The air was full of cries and laughter, and the shrill calls of merchants advertising their wares - candy, fruit, birds, lanterns, and confetti, the latter being merely lumps of lime, large or small, with a pea or a bean embedded in each lump to give it weight. Boxes full of this unpleasant confection were suspended in front of each balcony, with tin scoops to use in ladling it out and flinging it about. Everybody wore or carried a wire mask as protection against this white, incessant shower, and before long the air became full of a fine dust, which hung above the Corso like a mist, and filled the eyes and noses and clothes of all present with irritating particles.

  Pasquino's Car was passing underneath just as Katy and Mrs Ashe arrived - a gorgeous affair, hung with silken draperies, and bearing as symbol an enormous egg in which the carnival was supposed to be in act of incubation. A huge wagon followed in its wake, on which was a house some sixteen feet square, whose sole occupant was a gentleman attended by five servants, who kept him supplied with confetti, which he showered liberally on the heads of the crowd. Then came a car in the shape of a steamboat, with a smoke pipe and sails, over which flew the Union Jack, and which was manned with a party wearing the dress of British tars. The next wagon bore a company of jolly maskers equipped with many coloured instruments, which they banged and rattled as they went along. Following this was a troupe of beautiful circus horses, cream coloured with scarlet trappings, or sorrel with blue, ridden by ladies in pale-green velvet laced with silver, or blue velvet and gold. Another car bore a bird cage which was an exact imitation of St Peter's, within which perched a lonely old parrot. This device evidently had a political significance, for it was alternately hissed and applauded as it went along. The whole scene was like a brilliant, rapidly-shifting dream, and Katy, as she stood with lips apart and eyes wide open with wonderment and pleasure, forgot whether she existed or not - forgot everything except what was passing before her gaze.

  She was roused by a stinging shower of lime dust. An Englishman on the next balcony had taken courteous advantage of her preoccupation, and had flung a scoopful of confetti in her undefended face! It is generally Anglo-Saxons of the less refined class, English or Americans, who do these things at carnival times. The national love of a rough joke comes to the surface, encouraged by the licence of the moment, and all the grace and prettiness of the festival vanish. Katy laughed and dusted herself as well as she could, and took refuge behind her mask, while a nimble American boy of the party changed places with her, and thenceforward made that particular Englishman his special target, plying such a lively and adroit shovel as to make Katy's assailant rue the hour when he evoked this national reprisal. His powdered head and rather clumsy efforts to retaliate excited shouts of laughter from the adjoining balconies. The young American, fresh from tennis and college athletics, darted about and dodged with an agility impossible to his heavily-built foe, and each effective shot and parry on his side was greeted with little cries of applause and the clapping of hands on the part of those who were watching the contest.

  Exactly opposite them was a balcony hung with white silk, in which sat a lady who seemed to be of some distinction, for every now and then an officer in brilliant uniform, or some official covered with orders and stars, would be shown in by her servants, bow before her with the utmost deference, and after a little conversation retire, kissing her gloved hand as he went. The lady was a beautiful person, with lustrous black eyes and dark hair, over which a lace mantilla was fastened with diamond stars. She wore pale blue with white flowers, and altogether, as Katy afterwards wrote to Clover, reminded her exactly of one of those beautiful princesses whom they used to act plays about in their childhood and quarrel over, because every one of them wanted to be the princess and nobody else.

  `I wonder who she is?' said Mrs Ashe in a low tone. `She might be almost anybody from her looks. She keeps glancing across to us, Katy. Do you know, I think she has taken a fancy to you.'

  Perhaps the lady had, for just then she turned her head and said a word to one of her footmen, who immediately placed something in her hand. It was a little shining bonbonnière, and, rising, she threw it straight at Katy. Alas! It struck the edge of the balcony and fell into the street below, where it was picked up by a ragged little peasant girl in a red jacket, who raised a pair of astonished eyes to the heavens, as if sure that the gift must have fallen straight from there. Katy bent forward to watch its fate, and went through a little pantomime of regret and despair for the benefit of the opposite lady, who only laughed, and, taking another from her servant, flung with better aim, so that it fell exactly at Katy's feet. This was a gilded box in the shape of a mandolin, with sugar plums tucked cunningly away inside. Katy kissed both her hands in acknowledgment for the pretty toy, and tossed back a bunch of roses which she happened to be wearing in her dress. After that it seemed the chief amusement of the fair unknown to throw bonbons at Katy. Some went straight and some did not, but before the afternoon ended, Katy had quite a lapful of confections and trifles - roses, sugared almonds, a satin casket, a silvered box in the shape of a horseshoe, a tiny cage with orange blossoms for birds on the perches, anute gondola with a marron glacé by way of passenger, and, prettiest of all, a little ivory harp strung with enamelled violets instead of wires. For all these favours she had nothing better to offer in return than a few long-tailed bonbons with gay streamers of ribbon. These the lady opposite caught very cleverly, rarely missing one, and kissing her hand in thanks each time.

  `Isn't she exquisite?' demanded Katy, her eyes shining with excitement. `Did you ever see anyone so lovely in your life, Polly dear? I never did. There, now! She is buying those birds to set them free, I do believe.'

  It was indeed so. A vendor of larks had, by the aid of a long staff, thrust a cage full of wretched little prisoners up into the balcony, and `Katy's lady', as Mrs Ashe called her, was paying for the whole. As they watched she opened the cage door, and with the sweetest look on her face encouraged the birds to fly away. The poor little creatures cowered and hesitated, not knowing at first what use to make of their new liberty, but at last one, the boldest of the company, hopped to the door, and with a glad, exultant chirp flew straight upward. Then the others, taking courage from his example, followed, and all were lost to view in the twinkling of an eye.

  `Oh, you angel!' cried Katy, leaning over the edge of the balcony and kissing both hands impulsively, `I never saw anyone so sweet as you are in my life. Polly dear, I think carnivals are the most perfectly bewitching things in the world. How glad I am that this lasts a week, and that we can come every day! Won't Amy be delighted with these bonbons! I do hope my lady will be here tomorrow.'

  How little she dreamed that she was never to enter that balcony again! How little can any of us see what lies before us till it comes so near that we cannot help seeing it, or shut our eyes, or turn away!

  The next morning, almost as soon as it was light, Mrs Ashe tapped at Katy's door. She was in her dressing gown, and her eyes looked large and frightened.

  `Amy is ill,' she cried. `She has been hot and feverish all night, and she says that her head aches dreadfully. What shall I do, Katy? We ought to have a doctor at once, and I don't know the name of any doctor here.'

  Katy sat up in bed, and for one bewildered moment did not speak. Her brain felt in a whirl of confusion, but presently it cleared, and she saw what to do.

  `I will write a note to Mrs Sands,' she said. Mrs Sands was the wife of the American minister, and one of the few acquaintances they had made since they came to Rome. `You remember how nice she was the other day, and how we liked her, and she has lived here so long that of course she must know all about the doctors. Don't you think that is the best thing to do?'

  `The very best,' said Mrs Ashe, looking relieved. `I wonder I did not think of it myself, but I am so confused that I can't think. Write the note at once, please, dear Katy. I will ring your bell for you, and then I must hurry back to Amy.'

  Katy made haste with the note. The answer came promptly in half an hour, and by ten o'clock the physician recommended appeared. Dr Hilary was a dark little Italian to all appearance, but his mother had been a Scots woman, and he spoke English very well - a great comfort to poor Mrs Ashe, who knew not a word of Italian and not a great deal of French. He felt Amy's pulse for a long time, and tested her temperature, but he gave no positive opinion, only left a prescription, and said that he would call later in the day, and should then be able to judge more clearly what the attack was likely to be.

  Katy augured ill from this reserve. There was no talk of going to the carnival that afternoon; no one had any heart for it. Instead, Katy spent the time in trying to recollect all she had ever heard about the care of sick people - what was to be done first and what next - and in searching the shops for a feather pillow, which luxury Amy was imperiously demanding. The pillows of Roman hotels are, as a general thing, stuffed with wool, and very hard.

  `I won't have this horrid pillow any longer,' poor Amy was screaming. `It's got bricks in it. It hurts the back of my neck. Take it away, Mamma, and give me a nice soft American pillow. I won't have this a minute longer. Don't you hear me, Mamma? Take it away!'

  So, while Mrs Ashe pacified Amy to the best of her ability, Katy hurried out in quest of the desired pillow. It proved almost an unattainable luxury, but at last, after a long search, she secured an air cushion, a down cushion about twelve inches square, and one old feather pillow which had come from some auction, and had apparently lain for years in the comer of the shop. When this was encased in a fresh cover of Canton flannel, it did very well, and stilled Amy's complaints a little; but all night she grew worse, and when Dr Hilary came next day, he was forced to utter plainly the dreaded words `Roman fever'. Amy was in for an attack - a light one he hoped it might be - but they had better know the truth and make ready for it.

  Mrs Ashe was utterly overwhelmed by this verdict, and for the first bewildered moments did not know which way to turn. Katy, happily, kept a steadier head. She had the advantage of a little preparation of thought, and had decided beforehand what it would be necessary to do `in case'. Oh, that fateful `in case'! The doctor and she consulted together, and the result was that Katy sought out the padrona of the establishment, and without hinting at the nature of Amy's attack, secured some rooms just vacated, which were at the end of a corridor, and a little removed from the rooms of other people. There was a large room with corner windows, a smaller one opening from it, and another, still smaller, close by, which would serve as a storeroom or might do for the use of a nurse.

  These rooms, without much consultation with Mrs Ashe - who seemed stunned, and sat with her eyes fixed on Amy, just answering, `Certainly, dear, anything you say', when applied to - Katy had arranged according to her own ideas of comfort and hygienic necessity, as learned from Miss Nightingale's excellent little book on nursing. From the larger room she had the carpet, curtains, and nearly all the furniture taken away, the floor scrubbed with hot soap suds, and the bed pulled out from the wall to allow a free circulation of air all around it. The smaller one she made as comfortable as possible for the use of Mrs Ashe, choosing for it the softest sofa and the best mattresses that were obtainable, for she knew that her friend's strength was likely to be severely tried if Amy's illness proved serious. When all was ready, Amy, well wrapped in her coverings, was carried down the entry and laid in the fresh bed with the soft pillows about her, and Katy, as she went to and fro, conveying clothe' and books and filling drawers, felt that they were perhaps making arrangements for a long, hard trial of faith and spirits.

  By the next day the necessity of a nurse became apparent, and in the afternoon Katy started out in a little hired carriage in search of one. She had a list of names, and went first to the English nurses, but, finding them all engaged, she ordered the coachman to drive to a convent where there was hope that a nursing sister might be procured.

  Their route lay across the Corso. So utterly had the carnival with all its gay follies vanished from her mind that she was for a moment astonished at finding herself en tangled in a motley crowd, so dense that the coachman was obliged to rein in his horses and stand still for some time.

  There were the same masks and dominoes, the same picturesque peasant costumes which had struck her as so gay and pretty only three days before. The same jests and merry laughter filled the air, but somehow it all seemed out of tune. The sense of cold, lonely fear that had taken possession of her killed all capacity for merriment; the apprehension and solicitude of which her heart was full made the gay chattering and squeaking of the crowd sound harsh and unfeeling. The bright colours affronted her dejection; she did not want to see them. She lay back in the carriage, trying to be patient through the detention, and half shut her eyes.

  A shower of lime dust aroused her. It came from a party of burly figures in white cotton dominoes, whose carriage had been stopped by the crowd close to her own. She signified by gestures that she had no confetti and no protection, that she `was not playing', in fact, but her appeal made no difference. The maskers kept on shovelling lime all over her hair and person and the carriage, and never tired of the sport till an opportune break in the procession enabled their vehicle to move on.

  Katy was shaking their largesse from her dress and parasol as well as she could, when she heard an odd gibbering sound close to her ear, and the laughter of the crowd attracted her attention to the back of the carriage. A masker attired as a scarlet devil had climbed into the hood, and was now perched close behind her. She shook her head at him, but he only shook his in return, and chattered and grimaced, and bent over till his fiery mask almost grazed her shoulder. There was no hope but in good humour, as she speedily realized, and, recollecting that in her shopping bag one or two of the carnival bonbons still remained, she took these out and offered them in the hope of propitiating him. The fiend bit one to ensure that it was made of sugar and not lime, while the crowd laughed more than ever; then, seeming satisfied, he made Katy a little speech in rapid Italian, of which she did not comprehend a word, kissed her hand, jumped down from the carriage, and disappeared into the crowd, to her great relief.

  Presently after that the driver spied an opening, of which he took advantage. They were across the Corso now, with the roar and rush of the carnival dying into silence as they drove rapidly on, and Katy, as she finished wiping away the last of the lime dust, wiped some tears from her cheeks as well.

  `How hateful it all was!' she said to herself. Then she remembered a sentence read somewhere: `How heavily roll the wheels of other people's joys when your heart is sorrowful!' and she realized that it is true.

  The convent was propitious, and promised to send a sister next morning, with the proviso that every second day she was to come back to sleep and rest. Katy was too thankful for any aid to make objections, and drove home with visions of saintly nuns with pure, pale faces full of peace and resignation, such as she had read of in books, floating before her eyes.

  Sister Ambrogia, when she appeared next day, did not exactly realize these imaginations. She was a plump little person, with rosy cheeks, a pair of demure black eyes, and a very obstinate mouth and chin. It soon appeared that natural inclination, combined with the rules of her convent, made her theory of a nurse's duties a very limited one.

  If Mrs Ashe wished her to go down to the office with an order, she was told: `We sisters care for the sick; we are not allowed to converse with porters and hotel people.'

  If Katy Suggested that on the way home she should leave a prescription at the chemists, it was: `We sisters are for nursing only; we do not visit shops.' And when she was asked if she could make beef tea, she replied calmly but decisively: `We are not cooks.'

  In fact, all that Sister Ambrogia seemed able or willing to do, beyond the bathing of Amy's face and brushing her hair, which she accomplished handily, was to sit by the bedside telling her rosary, or plying a little ebony shuttle in the manufacture of a long Strip of tatting. Even this amount of usefulness was interfered with-by the fact that Amy, who by this time was in a Semi-delirious condition, had taken an aversion to her at the first glance, and was not willing to be left with her for a single moment.

  `I won't stay here alone with Sister Embroidery,' she would cry, if her mother and Katy went into the next room for a moment's rest or a private consultation. `I hate Sister Embroidery Come back, Mamma, come back this moment! She's making faces at me, and chattering just like an old parrot, and I don't understand a word she says. Take Sister Embroidery away, Mamma, I tell you! Don't you hear me? Come back, I say!'

  The little voice would be raised to a shrill scream, and Mrs Ashe and Katy, hurrying back, would find Amy sitting up on her pillow with wet, Scarlet-flushed cheeks and eyes bright with fever, ready to throw herself out of bed, while, calm as Mabel, whose curly head lay on the pillow beside her little mistress, Sister Ambrogia, unaware of the intricacies of the English language, was placidly felling her beads and muttering prayers to herself. Some of these prayers, I do not doubt, related to Amy's recovery' if not to her conversation, and were well meant, ut they were rather irritating, under the circumstances!

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