Comedies and Errors
Comedies and Errors
E very one who knew Rome fifteen or twenty years ago must remember Miss Belmont. She lived in the Palazzo Sebastiani, a merry little old Englishwoman, the business, the passion, of whose existence it was to receive. All the rooms of her vast apartment on the piano nobile were arranged as reception-rooms, even the last of the suite, in the corner of which a low divan, covered by a Persian carpet, with a prie-dieu beside it, and a crucifix attached to the wall above, was understood to serve at night as Miss Belmont's bed. Her day, as indicated by her visiting-card, was Thursday; but to those who stood in her good books her day was every day, and-save for a brief hour in the afternoon, when, with the rest of Rome, she drove in the Villa Borghese-all day long. Then almost every evening she gave a little dinner. I have mentioned that she was old. She was proud of her age, and especially proud of not looking it. "I am seventy-three," she used to boast, confronting you with the erect figure, the bright eyes, the firm cheeks, of a well-preserved woman of sixty. Her rooms were filled with beautiful and precious things, paintings, porcelains and bronzes, carvings, brocades, picked up in every province of the Continent, "the spoils of a lifetime spent in rummaging," she said. All English folk who arrived in Rome decently accredited were asked to her at-homes, and all good Black Italians attended them. As a loyal Black herself, Miss Belmont, of course, knew no one in any way affiliated with the Quirinal.
One of Miss Belmont's Thursday afternoons has always persisted in my memory with a quite peculiar vividness. It was fifteen years ago, if you will; and yet I remember it, even the details of it, as clearly as I can remember the happenings of last week-as clearly indeed, but oh, how much more pleasantly! Was the world really a sweeter, fresher place fifteen years ago? Has it really grown stale in fifteen little years? It seemed, at any rate, very sweet and fresh, to my undisciplined perceptions, on that particular Thursday afternoon.
We were in December, and there was never so light a touch of frost on the air, making it keen and exhilarating. I remember walking down a long narrow street, at the end of which the sky hung like a tapestry, splendid with the colours of the sunset: a street all clamour and business and bustle, as Roman streets are apt to be when there is a touch of the tramontano on the air. Cobblers worked noisily, tap-tap-tapping, in their out-of-door stalls; hawkers cried their wares, and old women stopped to haggle with them; wandering musicians thrummed their guitars and mandolines, singing "Funiculi, FuniculÃ ," more or less in tune; and cabs rattled perilously over the cobble-stones, whilst their drivers shrieked warnings at the foot-passengers, citizens soldiers, beggars, priests, like the populace in a comic opera.
But within the Palazzo Sebastiani the scene was as different as might be. Thick curtains were drawn over the windows; innumerable wax candles burned and flickered in sconces along the walls; there were flowers everywhere, lilies and roses, and the air was heady with their fragrance; there were people everywhere too, men in frock-coats, women in furs and velvets, monsignori from the Vatican lending a purple note. And there was a continuous, confused, rising, falling, murmur of conversation.
When I had made my obeisance to Miss Belmont, she said, "Come. I want to introduce you to the Contessa Bracca."
Now, this will seem improbable, of course; but you know how one sometimes has premonitions; and, upon my word, it is the literal fact: I had never heard of the Contessa Bracca, her name could convey