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Authors: W Somerset Maugham

(1941) Up at the Villa

BOOK: (1941) Up at the Villa
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UP AT THE VILLA

William Somerset Maugham

 

1

THE villa stood on the top of a hill. From the terrace in
front of it you had a magnificent view of Florence; behind was an old garden,
with few flowers, but with fine trees, hedges of cut box, grass walks and an
artificial grotto in which water cascaded with a cool, silvery sound from a
cornucopia. The house had been built in the sixteenth century by a noble
Florentine, whose impoverished descendants had sold it to some English people,
and it was they who had lent it for a period to Mary Panton. Though the rooms
were large and lofty, it was of no great size and she managed very well with
the three servants they had left her. It was somewhat scantily furnished with
fine old furniture and it had an air; and though there was no central heating,
so that when she had arrived at the end of March it had been still bitterly
cold, the Leonards, its owners, had put in bathrooms and it was comfortable
enough to live in. It was June now and Mary spent most of the day, when she was
at home, on the terrace from which she could see the domes and towers of Florence,
or in the garden behind.

For the first few weeks of her stay she had spent much
time seeing the sights: she passed pleasant mornings at the Uffizi and the
Bargello, she visited the churches and wandered at random in old streets; but
now she seldom went down to Florence except to lunch or dine with friends. She
was satisfied to lounge about the garden and read books, and if she wanted to
go out she preferred to get into the Fiat and explore the country round about.
Nothing could have been
more lovely
with its
sophisticated innocence than that Tuscan scene. When the fruit trees were in
blossom and when the poplars burst into leaf, their fresh colour crying aloud
amid the grey evergreen of the olives, she had felt a lightness of spirit she
had thought never to feel again. After the tragic death of her husband, a year
before, after the anxious months when she had to be always on hand in case the
lawyers who were gathering together what was left of his squandered fortune
wanted to see her, she had been glad to accept the Leonards' offer of this
grand old house so that she could rest her nerves and consider what she should
do with her life. After eight years of extravagant living, and an unhappy marriage,
she found herself at the age of thirty with some fine pearls and an income just
large enough, with rigid economy, for her support. Well, that was better than
it had looked at first when the lawyers, with glum faces, had told her that
after the debts were paid they were afraid that nothing would be left at all.
At this moment, with two and a half months in Florence behind her, she felt
that she could have faced even that prospect with serenity. When she left
England the lawyer, an old man and an old friend, had patted her hand.

`Now you've got nothing to worry about, my dear,' he
said, `except to get back your health and strength. I don't say anything about
your looks because nothing affects them. You're a young woman and a very pretty
one, and I have no doubt you'll marry again. But don't marry for love next
time; it's a mistake; marry for position and companionship.’

She laughed. She had had a bitter experience and had no
intention then of ever hazarding again the risks of wedlock; it was odd that
now she was contemplating doing exactly what the shrewd old lawyer had advised.
It looked indeed as though she would have to make up her mind that very
afternoon. Edgar Swift was even then on his way to the villa. He had called up
a quarter of an hour before to say that he had unexpectedly to go to Cannes to
meet Lord Seafair and was starting at once, but urgently wanted to see her
before he went. Lord Seafair was the Secretary of State for India and this
sudden summons could only mean that Edgar was after all going to be offered the
distinguished position upon which he had set his heart. Sir Edgar Swift,
K.C.S.I., was in the Indian Civil Service, as her father had been, and he had
had a distinguished career. He had been for five years Governor of the North-West
Provinces and during a period of great unrest had conducted himself with
conspicuous ability. He had finished his term with the reputation of being the
most capable man in India. He had proved himself a great administrator; though
resolute he was tactful, and if he was peremptory he was also generous and
moderate. The Hindus and the Muslims liked and trusted him. Mary had known him
all her life. When her father died, still a young man, and she and her mother
had returned to England, Edgar Swift, whenever he came home on leave, spent a
great part of his time with them. As a child he took her to the pantomime or
the circus; as a girl in her teens, to the pictures or to the theatre; he sent
her presents for her birthday and at Christmas. When she was nineteen her
mother had said to her:

`I wouldn't see too much of Edgar if I were you, darling.
I don't know if you've noticed it, but he's in love with you' Mary laughed.

`He's an old man.’

`He's forty-three,' her mother answered tartly.

But he had given her some beautiful Indian emeralds when
two years later she married Matthew Panton, and when he had discovered that her
marriage was unhappy he had been wonderfully kind. On the expiration of his
term as Governor he had gone to London and finding she was in Florence he had
come down to pay her a brief visit. He had stayed week after week and Mary
would have been a fool not to see that he was waiting for the favourable moment
to ask her to marry him. How long had he been in love with her? Looking back,
she thought it was ever since she was fifteen, when he had come home on leave
and found her no longer a child but a young girl. It was rather touching, that
long fidelity. And of course there was a difference between the girl of
nineteen, the man of forty-three; and the woman of thirty, the man of
fifty-four. The disparity seemed much less. And he was no longer an unknown
Indian civilian; he was a man of consequence. It was absurd to suppose that the
Government would be content to dispense with his services; he was certainly
destined to hold positions of increasing importance. Mary's mother was dead too
now, she had no other relations in the world; there was no one of whom she was
so
fond as of Edgar.

`I wish I could make up my mind,' she said.

He couldn't be long now. She wondered whether she should
receive him in the drawing-room of the villa, mentioned in the guide books for
its frescoes by the younger Ghirlandaio, with its stately Renaissance furniture
and its magnificent candelabra; but it was a formal, sumptuous room, and she
felt it would give the occasion an awkward solemnity: it would be better to
wait for him on the terrace where she was fond of sitting toward evening to
enjoy the view of which she never tired. It seemed a little more casual. If he
were really going to ask her to marry him, well, it would make it easier for
both of them, out in the open air, over a cup of tea, while she was nibbling a
scone. The setting was seemly and not unduly romantic. There were orange trees
in tubs and marble sarcophagi brimming over with gaily wanton flowers. The
terrace was protected by an old stone balustrade on which at intervals were
great stone vases and at each end a somewhat battered statue of a baroque
saint.

Mary lay down in a long cane chair and toll Nina, the
maid, to bring tea. Another chair waited for Edgar. There was not a cloud in
the sky, and the city below, in the distance, was bathed in the soft clear
brilliance of the June afternoon. She heard a car drive up. A moment later,
Ciro, the Leonards' manservant and Nina's husband, ushered Edgar on to the
terrace. Tall and spare in his well-cut blue serge and a black Homburg, he
looked both athletic and distinguished. Even had she not known, Mary would have
guessed that he was a good tennis player, a fine rider and an excellent
shot.
Taking off his hat he displayed a thick head of black
curling hair hardly touched with grey. His face was bronzed by the Indian sun,
a lean face with a strong chin and an aquiline nose; his brown eyes under the
heavy brows were deep-set and vigilant.
Fifty-four?
He
did not look a day more than forty-five.
A handsome man in
the prime of life.
He had dignity without arrogance. He inspired you
with confidence. Here was a fellow whom no predicament could perplex and no
accident discompose. He wasted no time on small talk.

`Seafair called me on the phone this morning and
definitely offered me the governorship of Bengal. They've made up their minds
that in view of the circumstances they don't want to bring out a man from
England who would have to learn the conditions before he could be of use, but
someone who is already familiar with them.’

`Of course you accepted.’

`Of course.
It's the job of all
others that I wanted.’

`I'm so glad.’

`But there are various things to discuss and I've
arranged to go to Milan this evening and get a plane from there to Cannes. I
shall be away two or three days, which is a bore.
but
Seafair was anxious that we should meet at once.

`That's only natural.’

A pleasing smile broke on his firm, somewhat thin-upped
mouth and his eyes shone softly.

`You know, my dear, this is a very important position I'm
going to take up. If I make a success of it, it'll be.
well
,
rather a feather in my cap.’

`I'm sure you'll make a success of it.’

`It means a lot of work and a lot of responsibility. But
that's what I like. Of course it has its compensations. The Governor of Bengal
lives in a good deal of state and I don't mind telling you that that somewhat
appeals to me. It's a fine house he lives in too, almost a palace. I shall have
to do a lot of entertaining.’

She saw what this was leading to, but looked at him with
a bright, sympathetic smile on her lips, as though she had no notion. She was
pleasantly excited.

`Of course a man ought to have a wife for a job like
that,' he went on.

`It's very difficult for a bachelor.’

Her eyes were wonderfully candid when she replied.

`I'm quite sure there are plenty of eligible females who
would be glad to share your grandeur.’

`I haven't lived in India for nearly thirty years without
having a pretty shrewd suspicion that there's something in what you say. The
unfortunate thing is that there's only one eligible female that I would ever
dream of asking to do that'

Now it was coming. Should she say yes or no? Oh dear, oh
dear, it was very difficult to make up one's mind. He gave her a glance that
was slightly arch.

`Am I telling you something you don't know when I tell
you that I've been head over heels in love with you since you were a kid with
bobbed hair?' What did one say to that? One laughed brightly.

`Oh, Edgar, what nonsense you talk.’

`You're the most beautiful creature I've ever seen in my
life and the most delightful. Of course I knew I hadn't a chance. I was
twenty-five years older than you.
A contemporary of your
father's.
I had a pretty shrewd suspicion that when you were a girl you
looked upon me as a funny old fogey.’

`Never,' cried Mary, not quite truthfully.

`Anyway, when you fell in love it was natural enough that
it should be with someone of your own generation. I ask you to believe me when
I tell you that when you wrote and told me you were going to be married I only
hoped you would be very happy. I was miserable when I discovered you weren't.’

`Perhaps Mattie and I were too young to marry.’

`A lot of water has flowed under the bridges since then.
I was wondering if now the discrepancy of our ages seemed as important to you
as it did then.’

That was such a difficult question to answer that Mary
thought it much better to say nothing but leave him to continue.

`I've always taken care to keep myself pretty fit, Mary.
I don't feel my age. But the worst of it is
,
the years
have had no effect on you except to make you more beautiful than ever.’

She smiled.

`Is it possible that you're a little nervous, Edgar?
That's something I never expected to see you.
You, the man of
iron.’

`You're a little monster. But you're quite right, I am
nervous; and so far as the man of iron is concerned, no one knows better than
you that in your hands I've never been anything but a lump of putty.’

`Am I right in thinking that you're proposing to me?’

`Quite right.
Are you shocked or
surprised?’

`Certainly not shocked.
You
know, Edgar, I'm very fond of you. I think you're the most wonderful man I've
ever known. I'm terribly flattered that you should want to marry me.

`Then will you?'

There was a curious sense of apprehension in her heart He
was certainly very handsome. It would be thrilling to be the wife of the
Governor of Bengal and very nice to be grand and to have A.D.Cs running about
to do one's bidding.

`You say you'll be away two or three days?’

`Three at the outside.
Seafair
has to go back to London.’

`Will you wait for
an answer till you
come
back?’

`Of course.
In the circumstances
I think it's very reasonable. I'm sure it's much better that you should know
your own mind, and I take it that if you definitely knew the answer would be
"No" - you wouldn't have to think it over.’

`That's true,' she smiled.

`Then we’ll leave it at that. I'm afraid I must go now if
I don't want to miss my train.’

She walked with him to his taxi.

`By the way, have you
toll
the
Princess you wouldn't be able to go tonight?' They had both been going to a
dinner party which the old Princess San Ferdinando was giving that evening.

BOOK: (1941) Up at the Villa
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