‘The question is’ said Miss Helena Palmer, as they changed gear for the last long spiral of country road, ‘how would I have managed without you?’ The young man at the wheel thought the question quite otherwise, slowing down as he asked the air, ‘Is this it, then? Is this it?’
His young wife beside him pointed out a signpost beyond. ‘Of course it is. Look, it says.’ They drew up to the notice; there was the name of the proprietor of all that land, and who knew what else besides, surmounting a prohibition against hunting. ‘The house must be up there, over the curve. You can see where the avenue begins.’
‘Good for you,’ her husband said, accelerating again, ‘spotting that.’ Though in fact the notice could not have been missed, its white paint now luminous in the setting sun that was throwing up from the landscape all manner of objects a dovecote, a scarecrow, a tractor that would have been dormant in a softer light.
‘Sorry,’ the girl, Marian, said as they drove on, remembering they had interrupted Miss Helena Palmer. Turning round from the front seat where she sat in her newly married fastness, deliciously paired, two to Miss Palmer’s one, she put her bent brown arm over the back and gazed on Miss Palmer with superior happiness quite looking out from the golden bar of heaven, as Miss Palmer put it to herself, though not ill naturedly, wishing them both well.
‘My thanks for giving me a lift. That was it. I’d have hated to pass through Florence without seeing the Fenwicks. But how to get out here, if it hadn’t been for you ?’
‘It’s not so far as it looks. All these curves make it seem a long way. Anyhow, delighted.’ And she really does seem nice, thought the young man at the wheel a good old girl. A Raeburn, with her colouring, prim yet all aglow. What would the old thing be, fifty? He was an art historian spending his honeymoon at Florence that summer, helping here and there with the restoration of flood damage.
The girl continued to lean her bare arm over the back of the seat, chatting with Miss Palmer, flicking back long gold hair with a smile that said, Aren’t we young? Aren’t we nice? Miss Palmer could not but agree.
‘You look like the Blessed Damozel,’ she said, then regretted it, wondering if the girl might say afterwards to her husband, ‘Think she’s a bit dikey?’ A single person was vulnerable, open to any accusation, never getting the benefit of any doubt. She studied the girl’s face as it turned like a sunflower towards her. Would she be a loving wife, a laughing wife, or a dull, opinionated one? It was like looking at a new-born baby, trying to discover the resemblance that would later manifest itself.
‘How lucky to be able to rent this.’ Marian was waving her other hand at the window. ‘A place like this.’
Helena Palmer nodded. ‘And not just a matter of having the money either, or the year to spare ; but the taste and enterprise to do it. Most people get fixed in their ways.’ She meant herself, fixed as an assistant curator at a museum in Boston.
‘They come from Philadelphia,’ Marian said, as if that might have simplified the decision. Marian came from South Kensington and had never crossed the Atlantic.
‘Besides, you know Jimmy’s working here.’ She enjoyed referring to a Personage as Jimmy.
‘On a thesis, is it?’ Miss Palmer asked, and the two in front smiled indulgently: ‘an American pastime.’
‘To be fair,’ the young man said, being fair, ‘It’s actually part of the new book. Another sociological study. I liked the last one. Got something to say all right, has Jimmy.’ Here the gravel made a sharp turn that took them over the breast of the hill. Rounding the curve, the man at the wheel brought the car to a sudden stop.
His wife cried out.
Miss Palmer said, ‘Good God.’
In surmounting the ridge they had come to the edge of a wide valley floored with fields and olive groves; but rising, on its opposite side, into a long, closely-wooded hillside. This far hillside stood against the lilac sky; seeming vaster than it probably was, as Florentine hills do. Through all its length it was a single sheet of flame.
At the turn the road widened, providing a shelf that was at present used as a lookout—two or three small Fiats were parked there, and half a dozen Vespas. Their owners stood in silence, or sat on the low edge of the retaining wall, staring out across the valley.
‘Oh Robin, I can smell it,’ the girl said. Some shift of the wind, or of their own awareness, had carried the smell of burning into the car.
‘Hear it, too.’ The sound a hissing, a crackling, a roar was coming clearly across the valley.
‘I saw the glow,’ said Miss Palmer. ‘And thought it was the sun.’
Another Fiat now drove up behind them. ‘Let’s get on to the villa,’ Robin said, and they drove again, parallel to the inferno. The two women stared at it without words.
The villa stood at the very peak of the hill. A walled courtyard in front was entered through an archway, on which there was a coat of arms, all in the same pale stone. As they came through, their host walked out of the house to meet them, waving, calling.
‘Wonderful you could all to come. Can you pull up by the oleander—that’s just fine. Helena, great to see you.’ He was a wide man with a great jaw and hound-like eyes. His smile made an arc in his big face, the smile of the man in the moon.
They got out of the car and stood in a row, messengers at a play exuding their bad news.
Robin said, ‘You don’t know what’s going on outside your gateway?’
‘A fire,’ Marian said. ‘The most terrible fire.’
They walked back over the courtyard, out through the archway. ‘Jesus,’ the wide man said. ‘Oh Jesus, Jesus.’
Below at the turn of the road the group watched on in silence, dispassionate as orientals.
‘We’ve been on the other side of the house all afternoon. No one told me. I’ve been working. Janet’s been asleep. I saw a small fire there at noon. No one told me about this.’
‘Here’s Janet.’ The wide man’s slender wife was in the courtyard. Robin thought again how in Italy one was continually tempted to attribute faces to the painters—this one Manneristic, with deeply moulded features, the eyes heavy-lidded yet cavernous, the hair swept back as if by a rush of air. With some, one could detect the hand of a master; with most it was merely ‘School of’, or ‘After. . .’. There was a lot of overpainting; and, once in a while, a fake.
‘Isn’t this horrible.’ Janet embraced them. ‘What a welcome for you. They just came to tell me about it.’ They stood with their backs to the house. The fire burnt more and more intensely as the dark came down, and now it was spilling out in melted lights towards the valley, like a volcanic eruption.
‘It’s not like a forest fire. It’s like the sack of a city, the burning of Troy.’ It was true. The black towers of cypresses, the arcs of umbrella pines against the sky made up a fantastic architecture which, moment by moment, the flames consumed. One hissing column of fire, driven upwards in a series of small explosions, could he heard over all the rest, a single instrument from the frightful orchestra. Like the opening of a new movement, there was thunder far off in the east.
‘Alessandro says there was rain at San Donato this afternoon.’
‘Too much to hope.’
The thunder was over them now. The heads of the group of watchers below had turned in their direction: one of them sat in silhouette, with palm extended.
Miss Palmer said, ‘I felt…’
‘So did I. Oh God if only it would.’
They implored the sky. Large drops fell sparsely on the gravel. And that was all.
Where the sky had been dark, the stars came out.
‘Let’s go in. There’s no use standing here.’ Janet took Helena Palmer by the arm.
They turned their backs on the fire. ‘How nice you look.’
Jimmy thought, walking behind them to the house, how nice they all looked—the women in smooth pale colours with summer-coloured skin and shining hair. Robin tall and serious. Jimmy liked good looks, good taste, good will. He liked the way he had arranged life, including as much of these as possible.
‘I like your villa,’ Robin said. ‘A beauty.’
‘We live on the other side, mostly,’ Janet said. ‘It gives on to the garden. But of course this is the front.’ A servant held a door, they passed through.
‘The façade is after a sketch by Sangallo. Then it got the usual going-over later on.’
They sat in a red-tiled, white-vaulted room, around a low table of drinks.
‘So awful,’ said Miss Helena Palmer.
Jimmy poured gin and tonic for her. ‘It touches on what I’m writing just now. The Italian sense of responsibility. Or absence of it. In our countries, a fire like that you’d have the fire brigade out in a minute, the whole countryside would pitch in. Here, everything is personal—if it’s their family or their lover they might help out, but no civic responsibility whatever. Even if the pompieri were called, they wouldn’t show for hours. Look what happened in the flood—official negligence all over, the Premier didn’t even visit the city after the disaster. And if you ask a Florentine what he thinks of it all, he’ll shrug and say, “What do you expect?” The point is, you must expect—you must demand—that the state and the communities take their responsibilities seriously. But no—here everything is personal.’
‘Well at least that’s something,’ his wife said. ‘We tend to load on to the community the things that should be personal. Isn’t one always hearing at home, “That’s not my problem”?’
‘Oh come on. Every country has its version of that expression. Come on now. Come off it. Don’t they say in France “Ce n’est pas ma responsabilite“?’
‘In England we say “That’s not my affair”,’ Robin said. ‘In fact, after “Trespassers will be Prosecuted”, it’s our favourite expression.’
‘All right then, what is it here?’
Jimmy twisted the stick round in his drink, his elbows on his widely-spaced knees. He grinned, the man in the moon.
‘I’ll tell you what it is, the Italian version. It’s “Ci penso io”—”Leave it to me”. Those words, they’re the kiss of death. That’s the way the brush-off goes round here: “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it. Leave it to me.”‘
They all laughed. He went on, ‘This is the weekend, you see. There are lots of fires at weekends in this dry weather—not all this bad, naturally, but bad enough. Every Sunday you hear of an incendio somewhere in the vicinity. Picnickers leave campfires, drop cigarettes. And then there’s the hunting season which opened last
week, end of August.
‘I hate the hunting,’ Janet said. She had lain in bed that morning listening to church bells through the sound of shots.
‘Oh those cars,’ cried Marian. ‘Coming out here this evening, so many cars on the road, just festooned with dead animals and birds.’
‘Please.’ Jimmy touched her arm. ‘Lay off that. We’re having pheasant for dinner.’
‘We are comfortable here, yes.’ Janet turned her head to ask the servant for bread, illustrating her point. ‘The house is lovely, and the modern things all work besides. And plenty of water, which is almost never the case in these places.’
‘I was going to ask,’ Miss Palmer said, ‘supposing the fire brigade did come, how would they get water to put the fire out?’
‘You beat it out,’ Jimmy explained. Why won’t she let it drop? ‘You need as many men as you can get to act as beaters and to dig fire-breaks. You’d be amazed how quickly they can beat it out. I’ve seen them.’
‘There’s a house,’ Janet said. ‘On that hillside. Right at the top.’
Robin helped himself to the wine. ‘Perhaps it’s a chapel.’
‘Would that make a difference?’ Marian asked. ‘I mean, might it be uninhabited?’
No one answered. Somebody said, ‘This bread needs salt.’
‘They never put salt in the bread in Tuscany.’
‘And this is your own wine, is it?’
‘The wine and the oil, both. And the vegetables. In fact, just about everything’s from our own land this evening.’
‘All the lower part of that hillside is olive groves. Where the fire is.’
‘I tell you Janet, it could be put out almost instantly. All you need is enough people.’
There are five of us, Robin was thinking; six with the man who is waiting on us. Oh but the clothes, the hair, the painted fingernails . . . the talk. People who talk like this don’t fight fires, everyone knows that . . . And then, is it true—can one even get near such a fire as that?
I mustn’t be the one to say it, Miss Palmer began, or concluded, to herself. It was this spinster business again—a single woman was so vulnerable, likely to be dismissed as hysterical, deranged. It might even be true. In any case, in the end they probably wouldn’t let me go—the men would have to go alone. It would be like agitating for a war in which one was going to have a protected occupation.
‘Do you think anyone’s there?’ This was Marian again. ‘Couldn’t it just keep spreading? I’m not thinking about us. I only mean—might it?’
‘I’ve asked Alessandro to telephone our fattore–the man who manages the land for the owner. He may have heard something.’
This made it possible to get to the cheese. Which was also from the estate.
‘They’ve seen too much, and that’s what it comes back to. Been through too much. Too bloody fatalistic altogether. I’ve written about this. And will write more.’
‘They have seen the righteous forsaken,’ said Miss Helena Palmer.
‘That doesn’t authorize them to forsake everyone in sight. They won’t even lift a finger to help themselves.’
‘Look here though Jimmy, isn’t that exactly what we enjoy? After all we can’t have the lot—’ Robin moved his elbow to say, The wine, the oil, the oleanders, and the sketch by Sangallo—’ and then denounce the temperament that produces it.’
‘A package deal, eh?’ Janet smiled.
‘Oh, don’t misunderstand me,’ Jimmy said—thinking this an unfortunate phrase always, but repeating it just the same. ‘Don’t misunderstand me. Listen, I’m mad about the Italian temperament. I adore the Italian temperament. All I’m saying is, the Italian temperament—mentality, if you like—is like a big rich cake, with a slice missing. And that slice is the sense of responsibility. Well what about it, Alessandro?’
The servant came to the table speaking quietly, and began to remove the plates.
‘So there you are, the fattore knows nothing. He thinks maybe the hunters started the fire to clear the underbrush, and then it got out of control.’
No one believed this. It would have been too perfect. Janet put her napkin on the table. ‘Let’s have coffee in the other room.’
‘In Sicily, when it’s very dry, the fires start by themselves,’ Marian said. ‘I saw them last summer, when I was there with Mother.’
‘You see, it’s this very chapter I’m working on right now. There’s the matter of the Catholic upbringing too, the Catholic conscience. Ultimately God is responsible for everything. Big deal.’
‘Like the fall of Constantinople. Everyone was in the churches praying when they should have been manning the ramparts.’
Miss Palmer stirred her coffee and heard examples. She listened to dates and names—Massimo d’Azeglio, Mussolini, Matteotti. She thought, if he recites enough of these facts we will in some way feel better about sitting here drinking coffee while that fire rages outside. Why? However, she was calm now, seeing that no one was going to do anything. It was the suspense that had been unnerving, the sense of choice; and the same calm was settling on the others.
Only Jimmy struggled to make sense of himself. In that case, Miss Palmer wondered, is he the one who minds most,
in spite of everything?
Jimmy said, interrupting himself in mid-recital, ‘Let’s take a look at the fire.’
They were in no hurry to do so, conscientiously putting out cigarettes, setting down brandy glasses. There was of course something obscene about the fire regarded simply as a spectacle; yet it was there, sooner or later they would be drawn back to it.
‘Marian, you had a sweater.’
‘It’s in the car.’
I shouldn’t have said that, thought Helena Palmer, about the righteous. It sounded straight out of the Bible Belt. It made sense, but it didn’t sound right. Oh, one has to be so careful.
Now here is what I meant about Italy, Robin wanted to say, stepping outdoors among the jasmine and the lemon trees in tubs, and tasting the thin scorched scent that embittered all the others. There is always some question or other.
‘I hope the tortoise isn’t about,’ said Janet. ‘I don’t want to tread on the tortoise.’
‘A tortoise, how sweet.’
‘Only a little one. But forty years old. He was wounded in the war by a piece of shrapnel.’
‘Ours or theirs?’
‘Oh, how can you ask?’
The light from the house scarcely reached to the gateway, which they walked under to darkness, their footsteps hesitating from stone into gravel. Below, one car remained at the turn of the road. It was occupied by a pair of
The tail-light of this car was turned on, a tiny stroke of red. Where the fire had been there was nothing but the dark. If they stayed there long enough looking out into this darkness they would eventually be able to distinguish the outline of a hill, like a great wave against the sky. But their eyes were unused to the night, after the lighted house ; and as it was they could do no more than sense the hillside’s charred presence, there where they had seen it in flames, as they stood in a group outside the gate—the two couples clasping hands; and Miss Palmer with her arms folded over
her breast, not in judgment but because the night had turned cool.
Shirley Hazzard (1931 – 2016) was an Australian-American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.