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The Man at the Villa Carlotta
I first met James Forrest in a train travelling from Milan to Varenna on Lake Como. It was not at all a romantic meeting, for my suitcase had just descended on his head, knocking him half senseless. But he struggled up, all brave, and started trying to get it back on the rack again, which was definitely a waste of effort as I was getting off at Varenna, the next station. Anyway, I needn't have worried, for almost immediately it fell down again, dealing him another telling blow on the side of his dark red dishevelled head. I discovered afterwards of course that this dishevelled look was not so much the suitcase as his normal appearance although the bump that was rapidly rising on his forehead was definitely the suitcase.
As soon as I felt that I could speak without laughing in his face, I said, "Oh, thank you, but please don't bother. I'm getting out at Varenna and I think it's the next stop."
He gave me rather a strange look over the top of the case which he was now clutching in his arms - as if it was my fault - and put it down on the floor between us. As the train was racketing and rolling along the shores of Lake Como in a thoroughly abandoned manner, the suitcase immediately fell over, rapping him sharply on the shin. This chap, I thought, is obviously one of these people who wage a lifelong struggle against inanimate objects, so I grabbed the suitcase myself, wedged it between my knees, and smiled at him placatingly.
He stopped glaring at me in this sort of intense scowling way and smiled back. It improved him no end. "I'm getting off at Varenna myself," he said. "Going to Veraggio, actually -."
"Oh, really," I said, but I thought oh, help! Getting off the train, crossing the lake in one of those little toy steamers, this chap being helpful and gallant all the way, I'll be lucky if my suitcase doesn't land at the bottom of the lake.
" - in fact," he was saying, squinting at the label fluttering from the handle of my case, "I think I'm going to the same place as you, the Villa Carlotta - ?"
Oh, help, I thought.
This red-haired, I must admit rather handsome young man, even if he was a bit dishevelled, would have fitted in neatly with my mother's forebodings about my going to the Villa Carlotta, only by this time she would be expecting him to have murdered me and tossed my mangled corpse out into the lake. My mother doesn't know that Italian trains are usually as crowded as anything, not at all the scene of dark, sinister deeds.
"Yes, but why Italy?" my mother had said.
This didn't really deserve an answer but I was trying to keep on the right side of her.
"I just fancy Italy," I said.
"If," she said wheedlingly, "you stayed at home before going to the university, you could do a secretarial course. Very useful."
Fancy putting forward a secretarial course as a counter-attraction to Italy! All mothers, I expect, are a bit dotty, but mine must be dottier than most. "I know shorthand's very useful," I said, "but I just couldn't master those squiggly lines. And I can type anyway. I just want to live in Italy for a year and I'd rather be paid at the same time."
"A year!" said my mother.
When I got this job with Signora Donizetti, sort of au pair really and sort of companion to their daughter Bianca (aged sixteen) and teaching her English at the same time, my mother went all horrified again. "Au pair!" she said scornfully. "Washing dishes more likely." There was a strong feeling that if any dishes were going to be washed by me, they should be my mother's.
Of course she came round in the end and said that she and my father would come out and see me at Christmas, how would I like that? And I said that I'd like that fine, if I lasted that long. "Oh, you'll last," she said, grinning at me. "You wash dishes beautifully, Flora."
The idea was that I should spend two months with the Donizetti family at their villa on Lake Como, and after that in Milan, travelling with them if they happened to go to the Dolomites (ski-ing) or Florence (very cultural). Could you imagine anything more blissful, worth washing a few dishes - . So here I was, at the air terminal in Milan, happily watching the luggage come up on a sort of roundabout. I watched my suitcase circling round six times before I could bear to lift it off, when up bustled Signore Donizetti , not at all the suave businessman who had interviewed me in London, but a worried anxious little man. He gave me lunch at the restaurant in the air terminal (vitello tonnato, super) and explained how the plans were all upset. Signora Donizetti was at that moment in a nursing home about to have her appendix taken out and Bianca, naturally, was with her and would I mind travelling up to the villa alone - it would not be at all interesting for me in Milan while he and Bianca were all the time at the hospital - where Margherita the maid would look after me until Bianca could join me, just as soon as the operation was safely over.
I did have a slight sinking of the heart at the thought of my virtually non-existent Italian (a few weeks' glancing at Teach Yourself Italian hadn't got me very far, only about as far as the numbers up to ten, and pretty shaky at that on number nine which I never could remember) but I was the one who insisted on spending a year in Italy, wasn't I, so I said of course I didn't mind, I'd be fine and not to bother taking me to the station, to get back immediately and give my love to Bianca. Fortunately, he wouldn't hear of this, put me safely on this dotty little train which stopped at every tree, told me to get off at Varenna and there take the steamer across the lake to Veraggio where someone would meet me.
Meantime, of course, I had met James Forrest, that clumsy fellow, who wanted to carry all my luggage as well as his own which struck me as a bit ambitious for someone as butter-fingered as he seemed to be; and as we stood on the pier at Varenna watching the approach of the little steamer, lit by the evening sun, I couldn't help wondering where James Forrest fitted into the Villa Carlotta.
He didn't seem too sure himself. "General dogsbody, I think," he said, "driving the car, running errands, and looking after the pictures at the Villa Carlotta - . But I don't care. I just wanted to be in Italy for a few months." I nodded sympathetically. "I was lucky to get this job," he went on, "a friend of mine applied too. I thought he'd be a certainty because he has an M.A. degree in Fine Arts while I have a pretty humble B.A. in English Languages. I didn't know anything about a daughter though. In fact, I thought this chap wasn't married."
Well, I didn't know anything about any pictures so perhaps that made us quits. I did vaguely wonder why the Signore hadn't put me in charge of James Forrest for the journey up to Lake Como, but the dear little steamer chugged up just then and I got myself on and watched James Forrest battling with his luggage and the gangway. I've never seen anyone getting into such a tangle without actually falling flat on his face.
It began to grow dark as we crossed the lake, and all round the shores of the lake and high up the mountains, little points of light came up and I felt all dewy-eyed, it was so beautiful and romantic. It was quite dark when we reached Veraggio but there by the pier was the most super Maserati and a driver and after a few words James Forrest handed me in and we shot off along the shores of the lake, past the little lighted shops and the strolling crowds of holidaymakers and followed a curving road high above the lake to the most beautiful wrought-iron gates and then through an exquisite formal garden with statues springing into life as the lights of the car caught them and then disappearing again. Then the car stopped at graceful stairs that curved in a half-circle and we went up and into a wide high hall with dim old pictures on the walls and delicate painted furniture.
A middle-aged maid with a calm kind face greeted us. At least she greeted James and looked considerably taken aback at the sight of me, but then she went off quite happily, led us into a smaller, cosier book-lined room where she quickly laid an additional place at the little round table and served us a delicious supper of soup, roast veal, cheese, fruit and wine.
"She's the housekeeper, her name's Maria," said James, who had been managing to converse with her pretty well, much to my admiration because from the moment I had set foot in Italy all my hard-won knowledge (numbers up to ten, nine rocky) had vanished away.
"Housekeepers! Chauffeurs!" I said. "Talk about la dolce vita."
"M, yes," said James. "I think the
Marchese's vita is pretty dolce. She's gone to fix up a room for you."
"Good," I said. I was just about ready for a long, hot bath and bed. "Let's have a look round - "
From what happened afterwards, I suppose really we should have sat down decorously in the little study and waited for Maria to show us round, but I was dying to see the villa and presumably James was too so we wandered back into the lofty hall, opened a door or two which led into vast dining-rooms and such like apartments in which we didn't linger until we went through a handsome pair of double doors under the curving staircase and then we stood transfixed.
For we were in the most exquisite small gallery with what looked to me like priceless Old Masters all round the walls. For I have a sister who is quite gone on art in all shapes and forms but mostly paintings and she had been trying to educate me for years, taking me to picture galleries etc and now that she's in New York, sending me fabulous reproductions and catalogues of such places as the National Gallery in Washington and the Frick in New York so that I can vaguely recognise now the manner and styles of the famous painters.
"Wow," I said gaping, then - "That's a Botticelli!" I gasped, pointing.
James went up a bit closer to the picture I was pointing at. "Well, I admit it looks like it," he said dubiously, his nose nearly touching the picture and his hair flopping about as usual, "but I don't think it can be, do you? It'd be worth about a million pounds if it was a Botticelli."
At that moment we heard quick footsteps echoing in another part of the villa, and a door at the far end of the gallery opened and a man, tall, dark-haired and long-nosed strode in and stopped abruptly at the sight of us. He was the most tall, handsome, saturnine and thrilling creature that I had ever seen in my life, but obviously, alas, I wasn't having the same startling effect on him, because he was staring at me with such a look of malevolence and cold fury that I took a nervous step backwards - of course on to James' toe but I had more on my mind than worrying about him.
The Renaissance prince - for that's what he looked like in spite of the superb Italian men's suiting - spat something at me in Italian. My jaw dropped even lower. I tried to take another step backwards only I couldn't because James was in the way.
"What... are... you... doing... here?" said the Renaissance prince, and I said "I don't really know," as least that's what I wanted to say but all I managed was "I - I - I - I'"
"And you?" he spat at James, who was still huddled behind me, giving little groans, I was only surprised he wasn't hopping about on one foot holding the one I'd stood on like they do in silly movies. "Come out from behind and show yourself."
This - naturally enough - annoyed James. He put me gently - more or less - on one side, drew himself up to his full six feet one and a half and said in his haughtiest public school voice, "Sir, my name is James Forrest and I have been engaged by the Marchese de Montesole as his secretary."
"I am the Marchese de Montesole," said the prince. "But this, this - girl," he went on. "Did you bring her?"
James, looking more like five feet ten now, glanced at me with hatred, ready to repudiate me for ever. But at the sight of my face, for I must have been looking even more frightened that I felt, if possible, he relented, got mad again with the prince, drew himself up and said coldly, "No, I didn't exactly bring her. We were both under the impression that she also was expected at the Villa Carlotta."
It had of course dawned even on my fuddled wits by this time that somehow or other I was in the wrong house. This, this devil, fallen angel, whatever you like to call him, certainly wasn't the charming, worried, anxious little man who had put me on the train that afternoon. This chap wouldn't even know what a train looked like and his wife certainly wouldn't develop an inconvenient attack of appendicitis, she wouldn't dare. (But, even hating him, and, to be truthful, terrified of him as I was, at the thought of him having a wife a stab of pure anguish went through me.)
And no doubt the creature could sense my feelings perfectly well, for he suddenly smiled at me (while my knees turned to water again) and shot one eyebrow up at me enquiringly.
"Well," I muttered, "I thought it was the Villa Carlotta I was coming to - Signore Donizetti, he has a wife and a daughter, I'm to teach her English - ."
"Down there," the Marchese interrupted - why should he care who - or what - the silly little governess was going to teach - "I believe there is a Casa Carlotta..." He flicked a brown contemptuous hand at the lights of the village below.
"Oh, well," I said, feeling forlorn, "I'll go - ."
James, still all English public school (it turned out afterwards, by the way, that he went to a day school in Scotland, which just shows you) said, "Sir, shall I take Miss Hamilton home?"
The Marchese, who had been looking at me, I'm happy to say, glanced at James. "Is that her name, Miss Hamilton?" he said, smiling a little. "Luigi will take her down in the motor. But you may accompany her if you wish..."
Back in the Maserati once more, Luigi twisted down and round a few corners and then up and round a few more, and deposited me at a less imposing, certainly, but more homely edifice, as far as I could see in the dark, lights streaming from all windows and the housekeeper Margherita by this time in a fine state of panic over my non-arrival.
"Oh, James," I said contritely, "what a beginning for you! He was furious! I am sorry."
"Not to worry," said James, backing out of the car and falling over my suitcase for, I hoped, the last time. "Simple little mistake. Nothing to get so steamed up about. And anyway," he added gloomily, "he seemed to like you better at the end."
"Oh, James," I said, my heart soaring at these simple words, "d'you really think so?"
I was sure that I was going to spend the whole night lying awake and wondering how I was going to get into the Villa Carlotta again after making such a fool of myself on my first visit, but of course, after such a day, I went out like a light the moment my head touched the pillow; and next morning the sun was blazing away so cheerfully and Margherita was so friendly, beaming when she gave me my coffee and rolls that eventually I became exceedingly cheerful too, firmly convinced that Id run into the Marchese the minute I set foot in the village, which I decided to do very quickly.
The Casa Carlotta - and perhaps I should explain that casa means a house, while villa means, well, a villa, a much grander affair altogether - anyway, the Casa Carlotta was built high above the lake on a little plateau round which the drive wound to reach the front door. Across the lawn to my right I could look over the huddled red roofs of Veraggio and the cypresses and an old castle or something of the sort, over the lake to Bellagio where the lake divided into its two arms, one going down to the town of Como and the other to Lecco and the way I had come by train. And to my left, framed between two splendid deodars, was a beautiful tranquil scene, the blue waters of the lake with the hills on the opposite shore dotted with tiny villages, beyond which rose the mountains of Switzerland. Not that I knew that at the time, actually, my geography being always of the vaguest.
Margherita showed me a short cut to the village, a path that went steeply down between old high houses, where flowers spilled over the walls, and which, apart from being extremely pretty was safe, unlike the road where those Italians drove like maniacs regardless of narrow steep winding roads, blind comers and terrifying hanging bends.
And the village! From that very first morning, I loved the narrow little streets, the pier festooned with baskets of geraniums with the old harbour beyond, round which stood large sort of frames covered with funny little fish stretched out to dry - I never discovered what they were. And the fish shop - this you wont believe unless youve been to Italy - set in an alcove painted bright pink and above it instead of what you would expect in England, Jas Bloggs, Fishmonger, or something of that kind, a fresco of the miraculous draught of fishes. I wandered about most happily, in and out of the tourist shops which were full of all sorts of pretty nonsense, until I finally came to rest on the terrace of a café opposite the harbour. I wrote a postcard to my parents telling them that Id arrived safely but leaving out all the bits about Signora Donizetti's appendicitis and the Renaissance prince in the Villa Carlotta. That would have had my mother over on the next plane for sure.
Of course I didnt run into the Renaissance prince, and equally of course I ran into James, or rather he ran into me. He fell out of a smallish Fiat parked against the harbour wall and came over to join me, kicking the leg of the table and spilling my coffee. However, he bought me another one, so that was all right. "Thats a bit of a comedown," I said, nodding towards the Fiat. "Where is the Maserati?"
"Im not allowed to drive the Maserati," said James.
"Hows the Marchese this morning?" I asked in a careless voice, tipping sugar from one of those little papers bags they give you in Italy, into my coffee.
"Oh fine, fine," said James. "No hard feelings. Said I could ask you up any time - ."
"Super," I said. "What about lunch today?"
James looked affronted and said stiffly, "Hes gone to Milan."
"Oh, heavens, James," I said, "is he always going to be away?" and then realizing that all this wasnt very polite or encouraging for poor James, said quickly, "Id love to come any time. Will he let us look at his pictures?"
"Im sure. He says it's not a valuable collection - ."
"He has some good pictures, he says, but nothing of the first rank."
"The first rank! Like Botticelli or Rembrandt or Michelangelo you mean? Well, who would, except for the Uffizi or famous galleries like that. They looked pretty good to me."
"Me too. Some of them are good copies, he says."
"Hes a good copy himself," I said. "Exactly like Lorenzo de Medici."
James laughed into his coffee, but it fortunately only went over him, not me. "How dyou know?"
"Well, I dont know, natch, but hes the spitting image of a bust of Lorenzo de Medici by a chap called Verrocchio."
"Have you seen it?"
"Well, hardly, its in Washington, but my sister sent me a postcard of it. Its super."
James looked gloomy. I suppose he pictured me drooling over Lorenzo de Medici and the Marchese for the rest of our acquaintance, but I wasnt - I hoped - going to be such a bore. James was my only in with the Marchese after all, I wasnt going to antagonise him. Besides, I quite liked James, I liked his dark red hair. And anyway, apart altogether from his looks which, although important, arent all that important, he was a dear chap and had stood up for me like anything against the Marchese at his most terrifying. So I skillfully turned the conversation.
"What dyou have to do as his secretary?" I said.
"General dogsbody, I gather," said James. "Frinstance, Luigis going off for a couple of weeks to get married and Ill have the shopping to do, down to Como for the groceries or to Lugano, good for my Italian and he wants me to go up to St Moritz to collect a picture - ."
"St Moritz!" I said. "But thats in Switzerland."
"Well, Switzerlands just over there," said James, waving a hand at the mountains at the top of the lake. "And Luganos only about half an hours drive, and Luganos in Switzerland too."
"Goodness," I said, "good for my geography as well as my Italian."
"Would you like to come to St Moritz when I go, if he says its OK?"
"Would I like to! I cant wait to send a postcard to my parents 'just came to Switzerland for the afternoon - '! Oh, I hope Lorenzo says you can take me."
James laughed again. "Watch what you call him," he said. "His name really is Lorenzo."
"Lorenzo the magnificent," I said, and determinedly stopped talking about him.
I declined with thanks James offer of a lift home - after all, he lived at one end of the village and I at the other, and if there were any connecting roads they must only have been fit for goats - and I walked up the cobbled path quite happily and got another splendid meal from Margherita and I was stretched out in a deck-chair in the garden afterwards, basking in the sunshine and imagining the most romantic encounters with Lorenzo where I keep saving his life or something and he kept falling madly in love with me, when I had a visitor.
This was Signora Pacitti from the little hotel next door, the Hotel Laveno. She introduced herself in faltering English. She had heard, she said, that there was a young English miss come to stay at the Casa Carlotta and she wanted to ask my help.
My help? Was this my mothers dreaded dish-washing at last? Had the chambermaids or the table maids failed to turn up? But Signora Pacitti was so pretty and sweet and diffident and obviously a bit embarrassed at approaching me that I said quickly, "of course Id help, anything - ."
This rash promise might well have involved me in dish-washing or worse, but fortunately it was nothing very dreadful after all that Signora Pacitti wanted of me - could I help her to translate some letters from England asking, she imagined, for rooms? She and her husband, she explained, had just taken over the hotel from her father-in-law that summer and they had not had so many English visitors and her English was not so good.
I laughed and went down the steep little path through the garden which was a short cut to the road with Signora Pacitti. "Your English is a lot better than my Italian," I said.
"I want to practise speaking English," said Signora, "because my husband and I would like to have English visitors."
"Ill write and tell all my friends,"
I said rashly. For all I knew the food might be ghastly.
It was rather an attractive little hotel with flowery balconies and a courtyard separating it from the steep road up which the traffic roared in its maniacal Italian way, although fortunately it wasnt a main road like the road to Lugano, only a steep and narrow country road that led to Laveno and other little villages far up the hillside. The hall was dim and cool after the glare of the August sun but naturally not quite so dim after Id taken off my dark glasses, which Id forgotten. Signora Pacitti led me behind the reception desk to a little room, half office half sitting room, and brought me the letters. Except for one they were all pretty straightforward and I consulted the Signoras lists of dates and bookings with her and worked out some very polite letters in reply and even offered to type them for the Signora. I thought it would be good practice for me and Im sure would have pleased my mother, always desperate for me to be improving myself. The one awkward letter was from a Miss Patterson of Glasgow, who wanted an east-facing room because she liked the morning sun, but also wanted a view of the lake, which wasnt possible as the Signora pointed out, taking me round the hotel, all the east facing rooms looked up to the Casa Carlotta, perched up on its little plateau, although there was one on the top floor from which you could get a small glimpse of the lake if you hung perilously over the flowery balcony and craned your neck.
"Ill tell her about this one," I said, "and offer her the choice of that or the dear little room beside the office with the splendid view. Id rather have the view and let the rising sun go hang." So I worked out a very clear and succinct letter for Miss Patterson of Glasgow and the Signora brought me some super coffee and we chatted about this and that in pidgin English and even more pidgin Italian and I admired the hotel.
"And I like your picture," I said, when I had more or less come to the end of my conversational resources, nodding across the room to a most beautiful gentle-faced Madonna in a blue gown, holding a book in her hand. "Bellini," I said, showing off, "the original's in the National Gallery at Washington."
Signora Pacitti smiled. "The original is here," she said. "It is a copy which is in Washington."
I gaped at her. Honestly! I thought.
The Signora was laughing at my expression now. "It is true," she said. "It has belonged to my husbands family for many years, since Bellini painted it."
"But Signora," I was beginning to get my breath back, "It must be worth millions of lire!"
"Oh, yes," said the Signora calmly. "If we want to sell it. But we love it and do not want to sell it. I hope we never want to sell it."
I felt rebuked. As if its value were as important, or more important, than its beauty!
The Signora got up and went over to the desk. "Wait," she said, "there is a newspaper, our Bellini was written about in one of your English newspapers - ". And she handed me a cutting, protected in cellophane, from the Times.
"But, but its marvellous," I cried. "And what a treat for me, to be able to stand and look at it, to be near enough to touch it, a Bellini! Not in a museum or locked away in some private collection but here, right here in front of me! Wait till I tell my sister about this," and I explained about my sister Elinor in New York.
Signora Pacitti, in her polite Italian way, seemed absolutely delighted that I was getting such pleasure out of her picture. But apart from the pleasure, I was also apprehensive. "But Signora," I said, "is it safe? No bars on the windows! No burglar alarms! - are there?"
The Signora shook her head.
"Is it safe?"
"Safe? Of course!" said the Signora. "Of what use would it be to steal it. So famous a picture, it could not be sold, it could not be displayed."
But I was remembering something, something I had read in a newspaper before coming away, noticing as I did every mention of Italy, particularly this part of Italy (I was more indifferent to Southern Italy) in the papers. "Signora, there have been thefts of famous works of art, from Florence and from the Uffizi, there was even one from a museum in Bellagio, right here on the other side of the lake!"
A faint shadow swept over the Signoras beautiful calm face. "Yes, there was a robbery," she said, "it was in the Corriera della Sera, but it was minor work, not a Bellini. Impossible to steal so famous a picture - ."
If the Signora wasnt worrying, why should I? Rather cheek, really, so I agreed with her fervently, gazed again at the beautiful picture and said I must go. But if I could come again, I added, Id be only to pleased - .
And the Signora thanked me.
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