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Goneril
by [?]

CHAPTER I. THE TWO OLD LADIES

On one of the pleasant hills round Florence, a little beyond Camerata, there stands a house so small that an Englishman would probably take it for a lodge of the great villa behind, whose garden trees at sunset cast their shadow over the cottage and its terrace on to the steep white road. But any of the country people could tell him that this, too, is a casa signorile, despite its smallness. It stands somewhat high above the road, a square white house with a projecting roof, and with four green-shuttered windows overlooking the gay but narrow terrace. The beds under the windows would have fulfilled the fancy of that French poet who desired that in his garden one might, in gathering a nosegay, cull a salad, for they boasted little else than sweet basil, small and white, and some tall gray rosemary bushes. Nearer to the door an unusually large oleander faced a strong and sturdy magnolia-tree, and these, with their profusion of red and white sweetness, made amends for the dearth of garden flowers. At either end of the terrace flourished a thicket of gum-cistus, syringa, stephanotis, and geranium bushes; and the wall itself, dropping sheer down to the road, was bordered with the customary Florentine hedge of China roses and irises, now out of bloom. Great terra-cotta flower-pots, covered with devices, were placed at intervals along the wall; as it was summer, the oranges and lemons, full of wonderfully sweet white blossoms and young green fruit, were set there in the sun to ripen.

It was the 17th of June. Although it was after four o’clock, the olives on the steep hill that went down to Florence looked blindingly white, shadeless, and sharp. The air trembled round the bright green cypresses behind the house. The roof steamed. All the windows were shut, all the jalousies shut, yet it was so hot that no one could stir within. The maid slept in the kitchen; the two elderly mistresses of the house dozed upon their beds. Not a movement; not a sound.

Gradually along the steep road from Camerata there came a roll of distant carriage-wheels. The sound came nearer and nearer, till one could see the carriage, and see the driver leading the tired, thin, cab-horse, his bones starting under the shaggy hide. Inside the carriage reclined a handsome, middle-aged lady, with a stern profile turned toward the road; a young girl in pale pink cotton and a broad hat trudged up the hill at the side.

“Goneril,” said Miss Hamelyn, “let me beg you again to come inside the carriage.”

“Oh no, Aunt Margaret; I’m not a bit tired.”

“But I have asked you; that is reason enough.”

“It’s so hot!” cried Goneril.

“That is why I object to your walking.”

“But if it’s so hot for me, just think how hot is must be for the horse.”

Goneril cast a commiserating glance at the poor, halting, wheezing nag.

“The horse, probably,” rejoined Miss Hamelyn, “does not suffer from malaria, neither has he kept his aunt in Florence nursing him till the middle heat of the summer.”

“True!” said Goneril. Then, after a few minutes, “I’ll get in, Aunt Margaret, on one condition.”

“In my time young people did not make conditions.”

“Very well, auntie; I’ll get in, and you shall answer all my questions when you feel inclined.”

The carriage stopped. The poor horse panted at his ease, while the girl seated herself beside Miss Hamelyn. Then for a few minutes they drove on in silence past the orchards; past the olive-yards, yellow underneath the ripening corn; past the sudden wide views of the mountains, faintly crimson in the mist of heat, and, on the other side, of Florence, the towers and domes steaming beside the hazy river.

“How hot it looks down there!” cried Goneril.

“How hot it feels!” echoed Miss Hamelyn, rather grimly.

“Yes, I am so glad you can get away at last, dear, poor old auntie.” Then, a little later, “Won’t you tell me something about the old ladies with whom you are going to leave me?”