Authors: Susan Barrie
The Stars of San Cecilio
Working in Spain would be better than returning to London. At least that’s what Lisa thought when Julio Fernandez asked her to look after his small daughter. But being governess was one thing; being the second Mrs. Fernandez was another!
With their exotic settings and exciting people, the many books by SUSAN BARRIE have made her a favorite with romantic-fiction
Lisa looked at herself critically in the mirror. Then she smiled a little sadly, because she was looking her best— and it was her last night in San Cecilio!
Her frock, with the huge scarlet poppies surrounding the hem, was new and as yet unworn. The main part of it was plain ivory taffeta and against it her tanned arms and shoulders had the pale hue of apricots. Her hair formed bright wings of gold falling to her shoulders, and her eyes had a shy look about them, and were grey as wood smoke. She had used rather more lipstick than she normally did, and her lips looked soft, eager and — hopeful?
She sighed as she remembered that it was her last night in San Cecilio, and last nights—when a whole thirteen had gone before without anything to distinguish their passing—seldom provided anything memorable. And even if it did it would be in the nature of an anti-climax, for this time tomorrow night Spain would belong entirely to her past.
She went to the window and looked out at the stars that were hanging above the sleeping sea. They were such huge stars that she felt her breath catch with wonder as she looked up at them. Like lamps, she thought dreamily
— like lamps suspended by invisible threads; and where each one peered at itself in the indigo waste of waters there was a shimmer like phosphorescence. The same white light made the beach look curving and ghostly, and the strangely-shaped rocks that littered the beach were like monsters crouching out there in the gloom.
Inland the coast swung away into dim distance, scattered with lights like a string of pearls. They were the lights of hotels, the lights of villas crowning the slopes, the riding-lights of the odd yacht anchored here and there. And in that gentle darkness before the moon rose there was the breathless scent of flowers that blazed in every garden in San Cecilio in the daytime.
Lisa moved back to the dressing-table and added a final flick of powder to her nose. She dabbed perfume behind her ears, and fastened a small pendant on a neat platinum chain about her neck.
What did it matter, she thought, if such sweetness as she possessed was about to be wasted on the desert air of a hotel dining-room? This last night she would order a bottle of Vino de Champana, sample one or two dishes that she had been afraid to sample hitherto, and absorb as many last night impressions as she possibly could to take back with her to England at the close of the one and only holiday on foreign soil that she had ever enjoyed in her life.
And even now she couldn’t say whether she had enjoyed it or not.
As she was wafted downwards in the lift she knew what would await her in the dining-room. There would be the orchestra, composed chiefly of guitars, playing away softly, but with Spanish zest, against a background of palms and flower-wreathed pillars. Outside the wide-flung windows there would be the lazy slap and murmur of the sea; inside, the popping of champagne corks, the laughter of women. Most of the women would wear lovely dresses—far lovelier than her simple cream taffeta with the hand-painted poppies on the skirt—and fabulous jewellery, and the men would all have acquired that added distinction bestowed by evening dress. Some would wear white shell-jackets and cummerbunds, which she thought more attractive than the regulation evening kit. And as it was Spain, most of the men would have sleek black hair, like patent leather under the lights, and they would smoke cigars with their coffee and liqueurs.
There would be the man with the blackest hair she had ever seen in her life—or, at least, she hoped he would be there again this evening!— seated at a table placed discreetly in an alcove, his thin, dark, thoughtful face bent above a newspaper, or a book, which he would have brought with him to the meal. Never once had he looked across at Lisa while they were in the same room together, although her eyes had dwelt on him often. There was an air of imperviousness, of remoteness, about him that was like a protective cloak, shielding him from even the thought of intrusion, or the knowledge of his surroundings.
The waiters who watched over him with extra attentiveness never broke through his wall of abstraction. He had beautiful, long-fingered hands that looked dark and strong against the pages of his book, and his face in that perpetual repose was beautiful also—like the faces of medieval knights in early prints, or stained-glass windows.
Only on one occasion had Lisa seen him dining with anybody, and that was a ravishing woman of about thirty, with hair that seemed to flame, although she wore it in orderly plaits about a regally poised head. Her eyes were like mysterious black velvet, her throat had a magnolia whiteness, and diamonds sparkled like water at her ears, and about that same white throat. She had an air of composure that matched her companion’s aloofness, and throughout the meal neither of them laughed, or appeared in the slightest degree gay; although to any ordinary onlooker they were very content.
Afterwards, although it was a gala night, they had not joined in the dancing on the smooth ballroom floor, but had sat on the terrace with a bottle of wine on the little table between them, and dishes of salted almonds and olives.
The night had been heady with the scent of the pines that enclosed San Cecilio, and the perfume of the countless flowers hidden in the dusk. And the woman had worn a golden dress that gleamed like the scaly skin of a serpent, and her lips might have been lacquered scarlet, and in addition to the mystery in her eyes there had been a suggestion of repletion—of no more seeking!
On another occasion this man of thirty-five, or thereabouts, who was obviously a native of the country, had shared his table at lunch with a small, plain, jettyhaired girl, and a very English-looking nannie, whose voice had carried clearly to Lisa. She had been complaining in English because her charge had defied her about something, and instead of looking repentant the charge had giggled defiantly. Lisa had felt extraordinarily drawn towards her, and the impishness that dwelt in her enormous long-lashed eyes, her only redeeming feature.
But tonight, as she passed between the swing doors into the main restaurant, she had the feeling that the thinfaced man might not be there at his table. And she was right. There was no one else at his table, and it was plainly waiting for him, but while Lisa ploughed through several courses without any appetite whatsoever the table remained like an island of loneliness, decorated with wine-dark carnations, but otherwise deserted.
After dinner Lisa felt as if the one thing she had looked forward to all day had disappointed her, and now there was no longer any hope. Any hope of what? she asked herself, as she made her way out into the warm, soft, enfolding darkness of the night.
She couldn’t—or wouldn’t—answer; but her disappointment was acute. She even felt as if there was a lump in her throat that made it ache slightly as she leaned against the parapet of the terrace, and watched couples moving down there in the rich gloom of the garden. The haunting, incessant thrumming of guitars reached her, the couples were all obviously of one mind, and that was to find some spot where no one was likely to burst rudely upon them, or interfere with the magic of their evening, and only Lisa seemed to have no one at all to speak to, or with any ardent desire for her company.
She moved away down the terrace steps, feeling acutely self-conscious because of her aloneness. It wasn’t that she was unsociable or that she found it difficult to make friends easily. But she had so little money to spend during this holiday, and she had kept herself to herself. She had realized at the outset that if she had allowed herself to be drawn into parties she would inevitably spend more than she could afford, and somehow she was not the type to whom gay male escorts attached themselves. She was shy, and she looked on the defensive, wary even. Masculine eyes admired her and her bright wings of hair, her fragile, ‘little-girl’ figure, the aura of primness that made her seem rather quaint, but they left her alone. Perhaps they thought she was the type it was safest to leave alone, because her eyes were serious, and seriousness and a holiday spirit seldom go well together.
And, for her part, Lisa was not even aware of the admiring masculine looks. Since her arrival in San Cecilia she had been aware only of one dark masculine head, and eyes that never looked towards her, but which she knew were dark also. A dark head and eyes that were as far removed from her as the stars!
As she walked down the flower-banked drive she thought with an agonized feeling of resentment that Fate might have been kind, and let her see him for the last time! Wasn’t it enough that
she had to go back to England without even a job to return to, because Mrs. Hamilton-Tracey had picked that quarrel with her over the children’s bath-water? There had been nothing wrong with the children’s bath-water. The temperature had been absolutely right, as it always was, and the fact that Roddy turned the hot tap on just as his mother looked in after returning hot and frustrated from a trip to London had been most unfortunate. Roddy had screamed that he was being scalded, and Ann had scampered about the bathroom, delighting in the din, and shrieked that she had been scalded, too, when the water was ‘boiling’, as she described it! Mrs. Hamilton-Tracey had rushed furiously to the cold tap and turned it on, and then had snatched her son out of the water and declared that she had never heard of anything so disgraceful.
Roddy had hugged her closely with his wet arms, and the expensive grosgrain suit she was wearing had been ruined. So had the organdie frills of her white blouse, and the suede shoes into which Roddy had dripped bath water. Lisa had labored over the suit afterwards, but not even her skilful pressing had restored its earlier beauty, and it had had to be sent away to the cleaners.
And then one thing had led to another, and Lisa had discovered that she was expected to act as lady’s maid as well as children’s governess (or nannie, as she actually was,) and Mrs. Hamilton-Tracey had brought to light piles of her underwear that she declared had been neglected. Lisa had never understood that it was her job to mend nylon stockings, lift and lower hemlines, obliterate cigarette burns in evening dresses, as well as attend to all the children’s clothes. She had been with the Hamilton-Traceys for over a year, but these late duties had only just been outlined to her.
She realized that Mrs. Hamilton-Tracey wanted to be rid of her. Mr. Hamilton-Tracey had been kind — a weakness that was foreign to Mrs. Hamilton-Tracey’s nature — and his wife had resented it. She had very little use for him, but consideration for an employee had aroused her ire—it was just possible her jealousy.
So, on the very eave of leaving for her holiday, having saved up carefully for it, Lisa found herself bereft of a job.
Of course, no doubt she would soon find another when she got back. There were so many children in the world, and in spite of the derogatory reference she might receive from Mrs. Hamilton-Tracey She was born to look after children. She loved them, and they loved her—even the impish Roddy, who had wept himself sick when he made the discovery that once she went away she was never likely to return.
She passed between the ornamental wrought-iron gates of the hotel, and stood on San Cecilio’s cobbled main highway. Cars whizzed past her in the lights that streamed from the hotel; they were long and streamlined and mostly pastel-colored, like Devonshire clotted cream and light sky blue. They glittered with chromium, and she saw how festive and relaxed the occupants of them appeared, lying back against contrasting upholstery.
In front of her the sea whispered, and from the Plaza on one side of her came the gay note of accordions, and laughing voices. She knew that if she joined those laughing voices she would look out of place, an English girl with strikingly English hair amongst dark-eyed Spaniards, and girls who still wore mantillas, and were ready to snatch roses from behind their ears and toss them when the moment seemed ripe.
No, for her the sea definitely beckoned, and she went down to it and the little jetty at the foot of which the gentle wavelets lapped. She still felt like someone with a grievance—someone who wanted to cry because Fate had been unkind, and this was her last night—and indeed she felt like the beggar-maid who had dared to lift her eyes to King Cophetua. Only for a fortnight the king hadn’t noticed that she was there crouching at his feet, just waiting for one little crumb of notice to be flung at her.
She stood leaning against the rail of the jetty and felt ashamed of herself because even to herself she couldn’t pretend. She was twenty-four, and she had never been in love with any man, but in future she was never going to get away from the remembrance of one man who wasn’t even of her own nationality, and certainly didn’t belong to her world. He belonged to the world of expensive hotels and deferential waiters, diamond-decked women and little girls who were looked after by well-trained English nannies who wore trim uniforms.