فصل 03

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فصل 03

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CHAPTER THREE

The Villa Sangalletti

I had a terrible journey. The roads were noisy and dirty. The weather got hotter every day. By the time I reached Florence, it was the 15th of August.

I found a room in a hotel and washed and changed my clothes. When I went out again, the streets were full of people. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon and still very hot. I stopped a carriage.

‘Villa Sangalletti,’ I said to the driver. He nodded and pointed up the hill.

The horse pulled the carriage slowly up a long, twisting road. At last, the driver stopped in front of a gate in a high wall. I made signs to him to wait.

There was a bell beside the gate and I pulled it hard. I waited a few moments, but no one came. I rang the bell again. I heard the sounds of a dog barking and a child crying. It was very hot. Then I heard footsteps and the gate slowly opened. A servant woman stood in the gateway. There was a long, wide path behind her. It led to the villa.

‘Villa Sangalletti? Signor Ashley?’ I asked.

The woman tried to shut the gate, but I pushed past her. A man appeared and the woman shouted to him in Italian. I heard the words: ‘Ashley… Inglese…’

The man stared at me. ‘I speak a little English, signore,’ he said. ‘Can I help you?’

‘I have come here to see Mr Ashley,’ I said. ‘Are Mr and Mrs Ashley at the villa?’

The man looked worried.

‘Are you Signor Ashley’s son, signore?’ he asked.

‘No,’ I said, ‘I am his cousin. Tell me quickly. Is he at home?’

‘You are from England, signore?’ the man asked slowly. ‘You have not heard the news? Signor Ashley, he died three weeks ago. Very sudden. After the funeral, the contessa, his wife, shut up the villa and went away. We do not know if she will come back again.’

I did not say anything. There was nothing I could say.

‘Signor,’ the man said kindly, ‘I will open the villa for you. You can see where Signor Ashley died.’

I was not interested in where I went or what I did. The man began to walk up the path, taking some keys from his pocket. I followed.

The villa was very beautiful. All the windows were closed and shuttered. The man opened the big door. He and the woman began to open the shutters. The rooms were large and the air was dry and dusty.

‘The Villa Sangalletti is beautiful, signore, very old,’ said the man. ‘The Signor Ashley, this is where he sat. This was his chair.’

I looked at the chair. I could not think of Ambrose in this house, in this room.

I went to the window. Outside, there was a little courtyard. It was open to the sky, but shaded from the sun. In the middle of the courtyard, there was a fountain and a little pool. A laburnum tree stood beside the pool. Its golden flowers had died. And its small, green seeds lay on the ground.

‘Signor Ashley, he sat here every day,’ the man said. ‘He liked to listen to the water falling. He sat there, under the tree. In summer, they always sat here, Signor Ashley and the contessa. They drank their tisana here, after dinner. Day after day, always the same.’

It was very cool there in the courtyard and very, very quiet. I thought of how Ambrose had lived at home - walking, riding, always cheerful and busy.

‘I will show you the room where Signor Ashley died,’ the man said quietly. I followed him upstairs into the plain, bare room.

I looked at the small, hard bed where Ambrose had died.

‘He died suddenly,’ the man told me. ‘He was very weak from the fever. But sometimes he shouts, like a madman. Then one morning, the contessa called for me.

‘He was lying very still. It was the sleep of death. He had a peaceful face. The pain and the madness had all gone.’

‘Madness? What do you mean?’ I said.

‘The madness of the fever,’ the man replied. ‘He suffered much pain. Sometimes, I had to hold him down in his bed. Then came the fever and the madness. I tell you, signore, it was terrible to see.’

I turned away.

‘Why was nothing done?’ I said. ‘Why did Mrs Ashley let him die? What was this illness? How long did it last?’

‘At the end, it was very sudden, like I told you,’ said the man. ‘But he had been very ill all winter. And he was sad. All winter he was sad.’

We walked through another room and out onto a long terrace. In front of us were the most beautiful gardens I had ever seen.

‘I think,’ the man said slowly, ‘that the contessa will not come back again. Too sad for her. Signor Rainaldi told us that perhaps the villa will be sold.’

‘Who is Signor Rainaldi?’ I asked quickly.

‘He arranges things for the contessa,’ the man replied. ‘Money, business, everything. I give you his address. He speaks English very well.’

He closed the shutters. We walked downstairs again and stood by the big door.

‘What happened to his clothes?’ I asked. ‘Where are his books, his papers?’

‘The contessa took everything with her.’

‘And you don’t know where she went?’ I asked.

The man shook his head.

‘She has left Florence. That is all I know. Signor Ashley was buried here in Florence, signore, then the contessa left.’

The woman suddenly spoke to her husband and opened a chest near the wall. She came back carrying a big straw hat - Ambrose’s hat. The hat that he had sometimes worn at home, in the sun. The woman gave it to me and I stood there with it in my hands.

‘Take it with you, signore,’ the man said softly. ‘It is yours now.’

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