The Woman Who Did by Grant Allen
All happy times must end, and the happier the sooner. At one short week's close they hurried on to Perugia.
And how full Alan had been of Perugia beforehand! He loved every stone of the town, every shadow of the hillsides, he told Herminia at Florence; and Herminia started on her way accordingly well prepared to fall quite as madly in love with the Umbrian capital as Alan himself had done.
The railway journey, indeed, seemed extremely pretty. What a march of sweet pictures! They mounted with creaking wheels the slow ascent up the picturesque glen where the Arno runs deep, to the white towers of Arezzo; then Cortona throned in state on its lonely hill-top, and girt by its gigantic Etruscan walls; next the low bank, the lucid green water, the olive-clad slopes of reedy Thrasymene; last of all, the sere hills and city-capped heights of their goal, Perugia.
For its name's sake alone, Herminia was prepared to admire the antique Umbrian capital. And Alan loved it so much, and was so determined she ought to love it too, that she was ready to be pleased with everything in it. Until she arrived there--and then, oh, poor heart, what a grievous disappointment! It was late April weather when they reached the station at the foot of that high hill where Augusta Perusia sits lording it on her throne over the wedded valleys of the Tiber and the Clitumnus. Tramontana was blowing. No rain had fallen for weeks; the slopes of the lower Apennines, ever dry and dusty, shone still drier and dustier than Alan had yet beheld them. Herminia glanced up at the long white road, thick in deep gray powder, that led by endless zigzags along the dreary slope to the long white town on the shadeless hill-top. At first sight alone, Perugia was a startling disillusion to Herminia. She didn't yet know how bitterly she was doomed hereafter to hate every dreary dirty street in it. But she knew at the first blush that the Perugia she had imagined and pictured to herself didn't really exist and had never existed.
She had figured in her own mind a beautiful breezy town, high set on a peaked hill, in fresh and mossy country. She had envisaged the mountains to her soul as clad with shady woods, and strewn with huge boulders under whose umbrageous shelter bloomed waving masses of the pretty pale blue Apennine anemones she saw sold in big bunches at the street corners in Florence. She had imagined, in short, that Umbria was a wilder Italian Wales, as fresh, as green, as sweet-scented, as fountain-fed. And she knew pretty well whence she had derived that strange and utterly false conception. She had fancied Perugia as one of those mountain villages described by Macaulay, the sort of hilltop stronghold
"That, hid by beech and pine, Like an eagle's nest hangs on the crest Of purple Apennine."
Instead of that, what manner of land did she see actually before her? Dry and shadeless hill-sides, tilled with obtrusive tilth to their topmost summit; ploughed fields and hoary olive-groves silvering to the wind, in interminable terraces; long suburbs, unlovely in their gaunt, bare squalor, stretching like huge arms of some colossal cuttlefish over the spurs and shoulders of that desecrated mountain. No woods, no moss, no coolness, no greenery; all nature toned down to one monotonous grayness. And this dreary desert was indeed the place where her baby must be born, the baby predestined to regenerate humanity!
Oh, why did they ever leave that enchanted Florence!
Meanwhile Alan had got together the luggage, and engaged a ramshackle Perugian cab; for the public vehicles of Perugia are perhaps, as a class, the most precarious and incoherent known to science. However, the luggage was bundled on to the top by Our Lady's grace, without dissolution of continuity; the lean-limbed horses were induced by explosive volleys of sound Tuscan oaths to make a feeble and spasmodic effort; and bit by bit the sad little cavalcade began slowly to ascend the interminable hill that rises by long loops to the platform of the Prefettura.
That drive was the gloomiest Herminia had ever yet taken. Was it the natural fastidiousness of her condition, she wondered, or was it really the dirt and foul smells of the place that made her sicken at first sight of the wind-swept purlieus? Perhaps a little of both; for in dusty weather Perugia is the most endless town to get out of in Italy; and its capacity for the production of unpleasant odors is unequalled no doubt from the Alps to Calabria. As they reached the bare white platform at the entry to the upper town, where Pope Paul's grim fortress once frowned to overawe the audacious souls of the liberty-loving Umbrians, she turned mute eyes to Alan for sympathy. And then for the first time the terrible truth broke over her that Alan wasn't in the least disappointed or disgusted; he knew it all before; he was accustomed to it and liked it! As for Alan, he misinterpreted her glance, indeed, and answered with that sort of proprietary pride we all of us assume towards a place we love, and are showing off to a newcomer: "Yes, I thought you'd like this view, dearest; isn't it wonderful, wonderful? That's Assisi over yonder, that strange white town that clings by its eyelashes to the sloping hill-side: and those are the snowclad heights of the Gran Sasso beyond; and that's Montefalco to the extreme right, where the sunset gleam just catches the hill-top."
His words struck dumb horror into Herminia's soul. Poor child, how she shrank at it! It was clear, then, instead of being shocked and disgusted, Alan positively admired this human Sahara. With an effort she gulped down her tears and her sighs, and pretended to look with interest in the directions he pointed. She could see nothing in it all but dry hill-sides, crowned with still drier towns; unimagined stretches of sultry suburb; devouring wastes of rubbish and foul immemorial kitchen-middens. And the very fact that for Alan's sake she couldn't bear to say so--seeing how pleased and proud he was of Perugia, as if it had been built from his own design--made the bitterness of her disappointment more difficult to endure. She would have given anything at that moment for an ounce of human sympathy.
She had to learn in time to do without it.
They spent that night at the comfortable hotel, perhaps the best in Italy. Next morning, they were to go hunting for apartments in the town, where Alan knew of a suite that would exactly suit them. After dinner, in the twilight, filled with his artistic joy at being back in Perugia, his beloved Perugia, he took Herminia out for a stroll, with a light wrap round her head, on the terrace of the Prefettura. The air blew fresh and cool now with a certain mountain sharpness; for, as Alan assured her with pride, they stood seventeen hundred feet above the level of the Mediterranean. The moon had risen; the sunset glow had not yet died off the slopes of the Assisi hill-sides. It streamed through the perforated belfry of San Domenico; it steeped in rose-color the slender and turreted shaft of San Pietro, "Perugia's Pennon," the Arrowhead of Umbria. It gilded the gaunt houses that jut out upon the spine of the Borgo hill into the valley of the Tiber. Beyond, rose shadowy Apennines, on whose aerial flanks towns and villages shone out clear in the mellow moonlight. Far away on their peaks faint specks of twinkling fire marked indistinguishable sites of high hill-top castles.
Alan turned to her proudly. "Well, what do you think of that?" he asked with truly personal interest.
Herminia could only gasp out in a half reluctant way, "It's a beautiful view, Alan. Beautiful; beautiful; beautiful!"
But she felt conscious to herself it owed its beauty in the main to the fact that the twilight obscured so much of it. To-morrow morning, the bare hills would stand out once more in all their pristine bareness; the white roads would shine forth as white and dusty as ever; the obtrusive rubbish heaps would press themselves at every turn upon eye and nostril. She hated the place, to say the truth; it was a terror to her to think she had to stop so long in it.
Most famous towns, in fact, need to be twice seen: the first time briefly to face the inevitable disappointment to our expectations; the second time, at leisure, to reconstruct and appraise the surviving reality. Imagination so easily beggars performance. Rome, Cairo, the Nile, are obvious examples; the grand exceptions are Venice and Florence,--in a lesser degree, Bruges, Munich, Pisa. As for Umbria, 'tis a poor thing; our own Devon snaps her fingers at it.
Moreover, to say the truth, Herminia was too fresh to Italy to appreciate the smaller or second-rate towns at their real value. Even northerners love Florence and Venice at first sight; those take their hearts by storm; but Perugia, Siena, Orvieto, are an acquired taste, like olives and caviare, and it takes time to acquire it. Alan had not made due allowance for this psychological truth of the northern natures. A Celt in essence, thoroughly Italianate himself, and with a deep love for the picturesque, which often makes men insensible to dirt and discomfort, he expected to Italianize Herminia too rapidly. Herminia, on the other hand, belonged more strictly to the intellectual and somewhat inartistic English type. The picturesque alone did not suffice for her. Cleanliness and fresh air were far dearer to her soul than the quaintest street corners, the oddest old archways; she pined in Perugia for a green English hillside.
The time, too, was unfortunate, after no rain for weeks; for rainlessness, besides doubling the native stock of dust, brings out to the full the ancestral Etruscan odors of Perugia. So, when next morning Herminia found herself installed in a dingy flat, in a morose palazzo, in the main street of the city, she was glad that Alan insisted on going out alone to make needful purchases of groceries and provisions, because it gave her a chance of flinging herself on her bed in a perfect agony of distress and disappointment, and having a good cry, all alone, at the aspect of the home where she was to pass so many eventful weeks of her existence.
Dusty, gusty Perugia! O baby, to be born for the freeing of woman, was it here, was it here you must draw your first breath, in an air polluted by the vices of centuries!