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Picnics at Vallombrosa 12/04/2011

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c. 1890

The German governess on the grass reads delicious morsels surreptitiously from a yellow volume hidden amid the wools and canvas of her work-bag, just loaned to her by the young Roman gentleman lounging in a hammock on the edge of the adjacent wood. The fraulein has abundant golden hair, a freckled countenance, and features rounded to insignificance. She is modestly attired in black, and shod with those stout boots, winter and summer, which evince a well-regulated organization. In the service of an affable and genial Sicilian princess, she is supposed to occupy an enviable situation. In reality, she is bound, Ixion-wise, to a wheel of duty that revolves ceaselessly; and she is never alone. Her pupils are handsome, affectionate, and intelligent; yet when she believes that she holds them firmly, by means of the influence of her own superior cleverness, they elude her grasp and mock at her dismay.

She is rendered responsible for them, alive or dead, night and day. Her accomplishments are as varied as the claims upon them. She is expected to read the German, French, and English poets aloud to her patroness, when not lavishing the skill of her own superb musical accomplishments on pouting and refractory young girls. Skilled in artistic and conventual embroideries, her leisure is usually employed in designing or finishing altar-cloths destined for favorite sanctuaries by the princess, who is devote and allows her household no meat from Friday to Monday of each week.

The governess must be sprightly, attentive, polite, and her discretion so absolute that she does not arouse the jealousy and suspicion of the feminine element in her intercourse with the men of the family, young or old, while she must soothe the resentment of maids and nurses that her position is superior to their own, by many zealous little services of letter-writing and gifts. ‘My signora allows the foreign governess to come to the table, while I eat in the kitchen, and all because she has a little instruction,’ says the balia, dandling the last baby in the corridor; and the red ribbons and gold pins of her head-gear bristle with self-importance. ‘Of course! You like it, eh?’’, assents the Piedmontese lady’s-maid, mockingly, a sallow girl with pearl powder visible on her nose, the small head of a snake, a tress of heavy black hair secured by a silver dagger, and eyes suggestive of those domestic tragedies dear to a certain class of French novelists.

Poor fraulein! The young Roman gentleman, whiling away the drowsy afternoon with cigars and novelettes in the hammock, type of the modern golden youth of all lands, —has loaned the governess Tinseau’s Sur le Seuil, partly actuated by kindness, and partly by a wish to tease his mother and sisters.

If the fraulein were another queen of Romania, Carmen Sylva, she would gather the children about her in this unrivalled open-air drawing-room, the meadow of Vallombrosa, and weave graceful legends into stories for their delight, instead of on the shores of the North Sea.

To the right rises the group of buildings, the monastery, church, and campanile, crowned by the whitish Paradisino; and below the belt of oak, beech, and chestnut, all Tuscany extends, veined by the glistening thread of Arno, wending a course from its cradle in the rocky fastnesses of the Falterona to the sea. Instead, the governess sails on the Nile in imagination for a delightful half-hour, and is herself a heroine of romance, young, beautiful, rich, and respectfully adored by a noble gentleman. Poor Fraulein Müller!

The children, resembling human flowers, in their gay costumes, broad hats, and fluttering sashes, play on the lawn. Here some lingering reminiscence of the circus leads a group of chubby boys to attempt to break their necks by feats of ground and lofty tumbling over canes, hoops, and scarfs held by admiring little sisters, bright-eyed, olive-tinted, and vivacious. There the daughters of the Egyptian consul of a neighboring Mediterranean port play a game of the fair with painted cards, a sort of Doctor Busby, under the supervision of their Swiss bonne, heavy tresses braided down their backs, great dark eyes veiled languidly, dresses yellow, dull red, and vivid scarlet, and boots of Russia leather, making a spot of Oriental color amid the sober greens of the height.

The slender and pale little Prussian lad, who executes military manoeuvres all day on the brink of the ravine, using the walking-stick of his invalid father for a repeating rifle, challenges his comrades to the active sport of making war. He wishes continually to far la guerra. The haughty little Duke of Vicenza arranges tin soldiers on a mimic battlefield for mortal combat. ‘These are Austrians, and these Italians’, he proclaims with patriotic fervor. ‘One Italian soldier is more than a match for five Austrians. You will see!’

Two Florentines fence with rattans, in admiring emulation of the feats performed on the platform of the Forest School. A pretty blond Tyrolese maiden reads an English romance. ‘It is so interesting! All about love and marriage’, she confides to her brother, the school-boy of fifteen stretched on the ground at her feet. ‘Mine is much better,’ is the scornful rejoinder, as he turns the leaf of a flaming-covered pamphlet. ‘One man has just killed another, and now everybody must help to find it out.’

Is there nothing new under the sun?

The fat signora, in a costume covered with gigantic bunches of poppies, and the tall thin signora, in a striped black tunic which renders her taller and leaner, take a walk for the health along the ridge, as enjoined by their respective physicians. They pause to rest at a chapel with the wan spectre of San Giovanni Gualberto exorcising the demon that tormented the monk Fiorenzo still discernible in patches of crumbling fresco on the walls. Here a spring of water purling into a fountain forms a deep reservoir in which penitents froze their feet in the icy waters. The two ladies are acquaintances of the table d’hôte. Once returned to the vales below, they will scarcely meet again, for the thin signora is an aristocrat, while the fat signora is a plebeian.

Since both are very religious, do they commune over San Giovanni Gualberto on this spot, or on the edifying example of the brethren who dipped their bare feet in the freezing waters of the basin in winter weather, as an atonement for their sins? No. The lean signora describes the trousseau of her daughter, who married a naval officer at Spezia during the previous season. The fat signora discourses on the relative efficacy of certain mineral springs beyond Pisa, once frequented by the gouty Medici. Both agree, with solemnity of conviction, on the abomination of using butter in cookery instead of good oil, and the necessity of sustaining the health with sound wine, Chianti, Pomino, or Brolio.

White butterflies flutter about the sunny slope. A lizard basks on the chapel steps. Drowsy sounds, faint, soft, inarticulate, float up from the Casentino.

Is there nothing new under the sun?

Up at the Paradisino a brisk little American matron, having dined in a former chapel, with a little rusty bell still suspended in the open belfry above the roof, seats herself on a sofa in a chill salon, to chat with the German artist about Scheveningen, Norway, and the midnight sun. In the wall behind the sofa is the mural tablet of a monk of Vallombrosa, recording shining virtues of the cloister of past centuries. This ripple of modern feminine occupation, the laughter of children, and the bustle of every type of pert maid, does not disturb the Vallombrosans in their tombs.

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