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An Embarrassment Of Châteaux

( Originally Published 1911 )


You will be surprised, dear Margaret, to have a letter from me here instead of from Touraine. We fully intended to go directly from the Dolomites and Venice to Milan and on to Tours, stopping a day or two in Paris en route, but Miss Cassandra begged for a few days on Lake Como, as in all her travels by sea and shore she has never seen the Italian lakes. We changed our itinerary simply to be obliging, but Walter and I have had no reason to regret the change for one minute.

Beautiful as you and I found this region in June, I must admit that its August charms are more entrancing and pervasive. Instead of the clear blues, greens and purples of June, the light haze that veils the mountain tops brings out the same indescribable opalescent shades of heliotrope, azure and rose that we thought belonged exclusively to the Dolomites. However, these mountains are first cousins, once or twice removed, to the Eastern Italian and Austrian Alps and have a good right to a family likeness. There is something almost intoxicating in the ethereal beauty of this lake, something that goes to one's head like wine. I don't wonder that poets and artists rave about its charms, of which not the least is its infinite variety. The scene changes so quickly. The glow of color fades, a cloud obscures the sun, the blue and purple turn to gray in an instant, and we descend from a hillside garden, where gay flowers gain added brilliancy from the sun, to a cypress-bordered path where the grateful shade is so dense that we walk in twilight and listen to the liquid note of the nightingale, or the blackcap, whose song is sometimes mistaken for that of his more distinguished neighbor.

This morning when we were resting in a hill-side pavilion, near the Villa Giulia, gazing upon the sapphire lake and the line of purple Alps beyond, we concluded that nothing was needed to complete the beauty of the scene but a snow mountain in the distance, when lo ! as if in obedience to our call, a cloud that shrouded some far-off peaks slowly lifted, revealing to us the shining crest of Monte Rosa. It really seemed as if Monte Rosa had amiably thrown up that dazzling white shoulder for our especial delectation. This evening at sunset it will be touched with delicate pink.

I am writing this afternoon on one of the long tables so conveniently placed on the upper deck of the little steamers upon which we made so many excursions when you and I were here in June. The colors of sky, mountain and lake are particularly lovely at this time of the day. Miss Cassandra and Lydia have taken out their water colors, and are trying to put upon paper the exquisite translucent shades of the mountains that surround the lake. Lydia says that the wash of water colors reproduces these atmospheric effects much more faithfully than the solid oils, and she and our Quaker lady are washing away at their improvised easels, having sent the children off for fresh glasses of water. While I write to you, Walter lights his cigar and gives himself up to day dreams, and I shall soon say au revoir and devote myself to the same delightful, if unprofitable, occupation, as this fairy lake is the place of all others in which to dream and lead the dolce far niente ife of Italy. And so we float about in boats, as at Venice, and think not of the morrow. By we, I mean Walter, Lydia and myself, as the children and Miss Cassandra are fatiguingly energetic. She has just reminded me that there is something to do here beside gazing at these picturesque shores from a boat, as there are numerous villas to be visited, to most of which are attached gardens of marvellous beauty. We are passing one just now which has a water gate, over which climbing geraniums have thrown a veil of bloom. The villa itself is of a delicate salmon color, and the garden close to the lake is gay with many flowers, petunias and pink and white oleanders being most in evidence. The roses are nearly over, but other flowers have taken their places, and the gardens all along the shore make brilliant patches of color.

It is not strange that Bulwer chose this lake as the site of Melnotte's château en Espagne, for surely there could not be found a more fitting spot for a romance than this deep vale,

" Shut out by Alpine hills from the rude world,
Near a clear lake, margined by fruits of gold,
And whispering myrtles, glassing softest skies."

We were wondering what "golden fruits" were to be found on these shores at this time, oranges and nespoli being out of season, when some boatmen in a small fishing smack began to sing the "Santa Lucia" beloved by the Neapolitans. A handsome, middle-aged woman seated near us, touched to tears by the penetrating sweetness of the song, as it reached us across the waters, and with the camaraderie induced by the common hap of travel, has just whispered in my ear that her husband proposed to her at Bellagio. I fancied the happy pair floating about in a boat with a beautiful brown and yellow sail, but the lady has destroyed my picture by telling me that she was over in New York at the time. It appears that a timid and somewhat uncertain admirer, the kind that we read about in old-fashioned novels, as he strolled by the shores of the lake at twilight, heard a boatman singing her favorite song and the melody of "Santa Lucia" floating forth upon the still air, coupled with the beauty of the scene, so wrought upon his feelings that he forthwith wrote her a love letter by the flickering light of a bougie. This little incident dates back to the more romantic if less comfortable days before electricity came to light our way, even in remote places.

August 11th.

There are so many châteaux to be visited, and so many excursions on the lake to be made that we could stay here a month and have a charming plan for each day. This morning, we climbed a winding mountain path to the Villa Serbelloni and wandered through the hillside garden, with its grottoes and tunnels, to natural balcony overhanging a precipice of sheer rock that rises above the lake. From this height there is a view of the whole northern part of Lake Como, with the Alps beyond, and here one realizes the beauty of Bellagio which along the water front is but a long line of shops. Situated on the extreme end of the point of land that separates Lake Como from its southern arm, the Lago di Lecco, the little town rises upon its terraces, and with its steep, narrow streets and winding paths, is as picturesque as only an Italian hillside villagio can be.

On this Punta di Bellagio is situated one of the numerous villas of the younger Pliny; another villa we saw, near the curious intermittent spring, which he described in his letters.

This Larian Lake, as the ancients called it, is full of classic associations, and of those of a later time connected with Italy's heroic struggle for independence, for the Villa Pliniana was once the home of the heroic and beautiful Princess Christina Belgiojoso, the friend of Cavour and Garibaldi, who equipped a troop of Lombardy volunteers which she herself commanded, until she was banished from Italy by order of the Austrian general.

Gazing upon the blue lake, on whose shining bosom the rocky shores were so charmingly mirrored, to-day, it was difficult to believe that great storms ever sweep over its still waters, yet habitués of this region tell us that this Punta di Bellagio is the centre of furious storms, the most violent coming from behind Monte Crocione, back of Cadenabbia, and sweeping with great fury across the lake. Such a storm as this was the memorable one of 1493, upon whose violence chroniclers of the time delighted to descant. This particular tempest, which was probably no more severe than many others, found a place in history and romance because its unmannerly waters tossed about the richly decorated barge of Bianca Sforza, whose marriage to Maximilian, King of the Romans, had been solemnized with great magnificence, at the cathedral in Milan, three days before. The bridal party set forth from Como in brilliant sunshine, the shores crowded with men and women in holiday attire, and the air filled with joyous music. Bianca's barge was rowed by forty sailors, says Nicolo da Correggio, while her suite followed in thirty boats, painted and decked out with laurel boughs and tapestries. This gay cortège reached Bellagio in safety, and after a night spent at a castle on the promontory the bride and her attendants set sail toward the upper end of the lake. Hardly had they left the shore when the weather changed, and a violent storm scattered the fleet in all directions. Bianca's richly decorated barge, with her fine hundred-thousand-ducat trousseau aboard, was tossed about as mercilessly as if it had been a fisherman's smack. The poor young Queen and her ladies wept and cried aloud to God for mercy. Giasone del Maino, says the chronicler, alone preserved his composure, and calmly smiled at the terror of the courtiers, while he besought the frightened boatmen to keep their heads. Happily, the tempest subsided toward nightfall, and the Queen's barge, with part of her fleet, succeeded in putting back into the harbor of Bellagio. The following day a more prosperous start was made, and poor Bianca was saved from the terrors of the deep to make another perilous journey, this time across the Alps on muleback, by that fearful and cruel mountain of Nombray, as a Venetian chronicler described the Stelvio Pass. She finally reached Innsbruck, where she was joined, some months later, by her tardy and cold-hearted bridegroom.

We had seen Bianea's handsome bronze effigy in the Franciscan church at Innsbruck, and so felt a personal interest in the fair young bride who had been launched forth upon this matrimonial venture with so much pomp and ceremony, her head crowned with diamonds and pearls, and her long train and huge sleeves sup-ported by great nobles of Milan. Foolish and light-headed the young Queen doubtless was, and with some childish habits which must have been annoying to her grave consort, many years her senior,—Erasmo Brasca, the Milanese envoy, says that he was obliged to remonstrate with her for the silly trick of eating her meals on the floor instead of at table,—and yet she was a warm-hearted, affectionate girl, and like many another princess of that time, she de-served a happier fate than the loveless marriage that had been arranged for her. Our memories are quite fresh about Bianca and her sorrows, because an accommodating tourist, who had Mrs. Ady's "Beatrice d'Este" with her, has loaned it to us for reading in the evenings—at least for as much time as we can afford to spend indoors when the out-door world is so beguiling.

August 12th.

The man of the party and the children set forth early this morning for a day's fishing on the lake, Walter having learned from a loquacious boatman that trout of large size, frequently weighing fifteen pounds, are to be caught here. We women, lacking the credulity of the true brother of the angle, declined Walter's invitation, preferring a morning at the Villa Carlotta to "the calm, quiet, innocent recreation of angling," although we did encourage the fisher-folk by telling them that we should return from sightseeing with keen appetites for their trout.

The villa, or château, which we visited to-day, situated on a hillside directly opposite Bellagio, is not that in which Maximilian and Carlotta passed some happy years before the misfortunes of their life overtook them. That villa, as you may remember, is on the southern shore of Lake Como, at Cernobbio. The fact of there being two Villas Carlotta on the same lake is somewhat confusing, as will appear later. This one, whose beautiful hillside gardens reach from Cadenabbia to Tremezzo, our informing little local guidebook tells us, was long known as the Villa Clerici, later as the Villa Sommariva, and finally, failing of heirs in the Sommariva line, it was bought by the Princess Albert of Prussia, who named the villa after her own daughter Charlotte.

We crossed from Bellagio to Cadenabbia in one of the little boats with brown awnings and gay cushions, that add so much to the picturesqueness of this fairy lake, and made our way to the Villa Carlotta, passing through the richly wrought iron gates and up many steps to the terraced garden where a fountain throws its feathery spray into the air. We were all three in such high spirits as befit a party of pleasure seekers, journeying through a land of enchant-ment on a brilliantly beautiful day, for it must be admitted that in a downpour of rain Lake Como and its shores are like any other places in the rain. Miss Cassandra, who is gay even under dull skies and overhanging clouds, is gayer than usual to-day, having donned a hat in which she takes great pride, a hat of her own confection, which she is pleased to call a "Merry Widow," and an indecorously merry widow it is, so riotous is it in its garnishings of chiffon, tulle and feathers! Thus far Lydia has prevented her aunt from appearing, in public, in her cherished hat; but here, in the lake region, where the sun is scorching at midday, she rebels against Lydia's authority, says she has no idea of having her brains broiled out for the sake of keeping up a dignified and conventional appearance, and that this hat is just the thing for water-parties, and is not at all extreme compared with the peach-basket, the immense picture hat with its gigantic willow plumes, the grenadier, and other fashionable monstrosities in the way of headgear. Our jaunt to Cadenabbia appeared to be the psychological moment for the inauguration of the merry widow, and so I may say, truly and literally, that our Quaker lady is in fine feather today, her head crowned with nodding plumes, and not a qualm of conscience anent the far-away meeting and its overseers to cloud her pleasure.

Whether in consequence of the charms of the merry widow, or because of a. certain distinctive individuality that belongs to her, Miss Cassandra attracted even more attention than usual this morning. While we were admiring the noble Thorwaldsen reliefs, that form the frieze of the entrance hall, and the exquisite marble of Cupid and Psyche by Canova, that is one of the glories of the Villa Carlotta, she, as is her sociable wont, fell into conversation with two English-speaking women of distinguished appearance. Before we left the château Miss Cassandra and one of her new friends, a stately, beautiful woman, were exchanging confidences and experiences with the freedom and intimacy of two schoolgirls. These ladies, whom Miss Cassandra is pleased to call the American countesses, it having transpired in the course of conversation that they were of American birth, Pennsylvanians in fact, who had married titled Italians, were courteous to us all, but they simply fell in love with our Quaker lady, whose "thee's" and "thou's". seemed to possess a magic charm for them.

Later on we were in some way separated from our new acquaintances amid the intricacies of these winding hillside paths, where one may walk miles, especially if the guide is clever and entertaining, and has an eye to future lira bestowed in some proportion to the time spent in exploring the beauties of the garden, and to the fatigue attending the tour. Italian dames of high degree, even if so fortunate as to have been born in America, are not usually as good walkers as our untitled countrywomen. These ladies, being no exception to the rule, had probably yielded to the seductions of one of the rustic seats, placed so alluringly under the shade of fine trees, while we wandered on from path to path, stopping to admire an avenue of palms, a bamboo plantation, a blue Norway spruce, a huge India-rubber tree, a bed of home-like American ferns, or a clump of gorgeous rhododendrons, for the trees and flowers of all climes thrive in this favored spot. A party of four or five men and women had joined us, who talked to each other in German, occasionally bowing to us and smiling, after the polite fashion of foreigners, when the guide drew our attention to some rare flower or plant, or to a charming vista of lake and mountain, seen through a frame of interlacing branches and vines. An immense bed of cactus, on a sunny slope, attracted the regard and admiration of our companions. Miss Cassandra, who had seen the cactus in its glory on its native heath, recognized the strangers' admiration even in an unknown language, and by way of protest expatiated in her enthusiastic fashion upon the splendor of the cactus of Mexico, the plumes of her hat waving in unison with her eloquent words and gestures, while Lydia and I exchanged amused glances; but our merriment was destined to be but short lived. The strangers, who were standing near us, could not, of course, get the drift of what Miss Cassandra was saying, but one of the party, a man of strongly marked personality, evidently caught the word "Mexico," and pricked up his ears when she repeated it. In an instant, a heavy hand was laid upon her shoulder, while an angry voice hissed close to her ear:

"Mexican, Mexican ! Pourquoi avez-vous tué l'Empereur Maximilian '"

Not comprehending this sudden arraignment, although she felt the heavy hand upon her shoulder, heard the angry voice at her side, and saw the unfriendly faces that surrounded her, our dear Miss Cassandra, by way of making matters worse, repeated the only word that she had caught:

"Mexican ! Yes, the Mexican cactus is much finer than this!"

This innocent remark seemed to irritate the Austrian beyond all bounds. He repeated his question in French, still keeping his hand on the poor lady's shoulder and gazing into her frightened face.

"Why did you kill the Emperor Maximilian?" gesticulating with his free hand and drawing it across his throat. "Pourquoi lui avez-vous coupé la gorge?"

Lydia and I were too shocked and dismayed to speak, and in that instant of terror every sad and gruesome disaster, that had befallen unprotected travellers in a strange land, passed in rapid review before our minds. We turned to the guide for help, but he who had been so voluble and instructive in botanical lore, in several languages, now held his tongue in them all, appearing quite dull and uninterested, as if having no understanding or part in the affair ! Suddenly my voice came to me, and I cried out in the best French that I could command : "The Emperor Maximilian did not have his throat cut! He died like a soldier! He was shot!"

"Well, then," exclaimed the Austrian, still gesticulating violently with one hand and shaking Miss Cassandra's shoulder with the other, "Why did you shoot him?"

Not having improved the situation by my remark, I turned again to the guide, when, to our immense relief, the American countesses, most opportunely, emerged from a shaded path. Miss Cassandra's pale, frightened face, the despair written upon Lydia's and mine, the stranger's excited tone and gestures, told half the story, while I eagerly explained :

"These people are Austrians. They think that Miss Cassandra is a Mexican, and they hate her on account of the assassination of the Emperor Maximilian. She is frightened to death, but she does not understand a word of what it is all about. Do explain!"

The stately lady, Countess Z by name, drew near, threw her arm protectingly around Miss Cassandra, and turning to the Austrian, with an air of command, ordered him to take his hand off her shoulder, explaining in German (German had never sounded so sweet to my ears) that this lady was an American citizen who had simply travelled in Mexico. The man listened and withdrew his hand, looking decidedly crestfallen when she added: "The American nation had nothing to do with the most unfortunate sacrifice of your young prince; in fact, the government at Washington made an effort to avert the disaster. His death was deplored in America, and you must remember that the whole affair was in a large measure instigated by the ambitious designs of Napoleon III, who broke faith with Maximilian, failed to send him the troops he had promised him, and cruelly abandoned him to his fate."

The Austrian bowed low and humbly apologized, adding something in an undertone about "Here in the grounds of the château where Maximilian and Carlotta had once lived, seemed no place to talk about Mexico."

"You are quite mistaken!" exclaimed the Countess. "This is not the Villa Carlotta that once belonged to Maximilian. That is quite at the other end of the lake. This château, long the property of the Sommariva family, passed in 1843 into the hands of the Princess Charlotte of Prussia, who named it after her daughter, another Carlotta, and I hope a happier one than the poor Empress Carlotta."

Again the Austrian bowed and apologized, this time to Miss Cassandra, who, from his softened voice and deferential manner, realized that whatever deadly peril had menaced her was happily averted, and throwing her arms around the Countess Z—'s neck, she ex-claimed, "My dear countrywoman ! Thee has the face of an angel and, like an angel, thee has brought peace to our troubled minds. But for the life of me I cannot tell what I have done to make that German so angry!"

When Miss Cassandra had learned what was the head and front of her offending, she begged the Countess to explain that she was a woman of peace, that war was abhorrent to her and all of her persuasion, and finally she quite won the Austrian's heart by telling him that she had no admiration for that upstart Bonaparte family (Miss Cassandra is nothing if not aristocratic) ; that for her part she liked old-established dynasties, like the Hapsburgs, and had always considered the marriage of the daughter of a long line of kings with the self-made Emperor a great come down for Maria Louisa. Please remember that these are Miss Cassandra's sentiments, not mine, and how the dear Italian-American lady managed to translate them into good German and keep her face straight at the same time, I know not; but the Austrian evidently understood, as he became more profusely apologetic every moment, and well he might be for, as Miss Cassandra says, "No amount of bowing and scraping and apologizing could make up for the fright he had given us." But she is the most forgiving of mortals, as you know, and an entente cordiale having been established, through the mediation of our two American-Italian diplomatistes, the two recent foes were soon exchanging courtesies and scaling mountain paths together, hand in hand, smiling, gesticulating, quite en rapport, without a syllable of language between them, Miss Cassandra's nodding plumes seeming to accentuate her expressions of peace and good will. While our Quaker lady was stepping off gaily, her late tormentor now her willing captive, Lydia, usually so quiet and self-contained, suddenly collapsed upon the nearest seat and went off in a violent attack of hysterics. One of the Austrian women rushed off for a glass of water, while the countesses ministered to her, in true story-book fashion, having with them a bottle of sal volatile which seems to be an important part of the equipment of every well-appointed foreign lady. And what do you think that heartless Lydia said between her laughter and her sobs? "If only one of us had had a kodak with us, to take a snapshot of Aunt Lassie with the angry Austrian berating her ! Nobody will ever believe the story when we get back to America, and then it would lose half its point without the merry widow!"

Of course we had tales of adventure to relate when reunited with our family this evening. Walter warmly, and I believe with sincerity, expressed his regret that he had not been with us, which regret was probably all the more heartfelt because he had failed to catch the fifteen pound trout or, indeed, I may add in all truthfulness, trout of any size and weight.

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