Authors: Barbara Cartland
The horses turned in at the wrought iron gates which Wynstan’s grandfather had copied from the gates of one of the famous Palaces in Naples.
They were magnificent, emblazoned with gold and flanked on either side with stone griffons which had once stood in the garden of an ancient Temple before it was forgotten and allowed to fall into decay.
It was a short drive rising on either side of a stone fountain surrounded by yellow azaleas.
At the front door there was a balustraded terrace covered with climbing geraniums and roses.
‘It is lovelier than I remembered!’ Wynstan thought to himself and stepped out to be greeted by a number of Italian servants.
The entrance-hall was cool, the pattern on the floor was a replica of one of the mosaics discovered in Herculaneum.
The marble pillars, the painted ceilings, the view from the windows, all brought the whole enchantment of the Villa back to Wynstan’s mind.
He could remember running through the house as a child and hearing his own laughter echoing and re-echoing down the marble passages. The golden sunshine outside in the garden had warmed and invigorated him so that he felt free and untrammelled as he had never been again in the whole of his life.
“You had a good journey,
?” the elderly Italian who appeared to be in charge was asking him.
“Yes, thank you, a very good journey,” Wynstan replied.
“You require wine or refreshment,
“Not for the moment,” Wynstan answered. “Where is Miss Milton?”
“You will find her in the garden,
arrived three days ago. She has spent all her time in the garden and she finds it very beautiful—
We are glad she is pleased!”
“I will find her,” Wynstan said.
Bare-headed he walked out into a blaze of colour. The terraces which climbed the hill to the right of the Villa looked like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
The scent of tuberoses, lilacs and lilies filled the air, and under the olive trees sloping down to the plain, the grass was carpeted with hyacinths. Everywhere there was a profusion of tulips, peonies and daffodils.
The almond trees which were the first to bloom had already shed their petals, Wynstan noticed, and there was a carpet of pink and white blossoms beneath them.
The branches of the Judas tree were purple against the sky, the laburnums cascaded like golden rain, and beyond them the mimosa was a yellow cloud.
He looked around and realised that as the sun was sinking, the flame-coloured azaleas were echoed by what appeared to be flames of fire rising in the sky.
He moved forward, knowing almost instinctively where Larina Milton would be at this time of the evening.
Always at sunset anyone who stayed in the Villa climbed up the twisting stone steps of the hanging gardens to where high above the Villa on a promontory overlooking the sea there was an ancient Temple.
It had been built, Wynstan’s grandfather had discovered, by Greeks, and he had restored it without knowing to which god it was dedicated.
Then in the last year of his life, when they were digging to extend the garden further, they had found a statue.
Time and weather had refined the whiteness of the marble, rain and sun had brought colour to it so that it almost resembled flesh.
It was not greatly damaged, except that it had lost its arms and the features of the face were obliterated, but it had a beauty and a grace that was breathtaking.
The legs were veiled with a loose garment which began below the hips, the exquisite curves of the breasts and the lines of the lower body were undamaged. The whole statue made anyone who looked at it draw in their breath as if they had never believed such beauty existed.
“It is Aphrodite!” Wynstan’s grandfather had declared. “The goddess of beauty, love and reproduction!”
“How can you be sure of that?” Wynstan had asked.
He had been fifteen at the time and pleased because his grandfather talked to him as if he were a grown man.
“Can you not see just by looking at her, that she could be nothing else?” the old man had enquired. “She was born in the sea-foam and she stood here in her Temple overlooking the sea, bringing happiness and prosperity to those who toiled on it.”
Wynstan had looked for a long time at the goddess whom his grandfather had set on a marble pedestal.
He had grown lilies on either side of her because lilies, he said, were the right flowers for Aphrodite.
“Why particularly?” Wynstan enquired.
“Because they are always the symbol of purity,” his grandfather had answered. “To the Greeks the goddess of love was not a many-breasted matron, but a young virgin rising out of the waves.”
He had paused to stare at the statue of Aphrodite. Her head was turned to the right of her body, and although she had no remaining features it was somehow easy to imagine them.
The little straight nose, the wide, innocent eyes, the softly curved lips!
“In a sense the Greeks invented virginity for their goddesses,” old Mr. Vanderfeld went on. “To them it was fresh, clean and full of promise like the coming of each day.”
He saw that Wynstan was listening intently and continued:
“Aphrodite was a grey-eyed goddess, untouched and part of every man’s dreams. She brought all that was beautiful and perfect to those who worshipped her so that never again could they be content with the second-rate.”
He smiled at the school-boy.
“When she went to the Assembly of the Immortals the gods were silent with admiration, and Homer wrote that each wished in his heart to take her as a wife and lead her to his abode.”
Everything his grandfather had told him came back to Wynstan now, and he thought as he climbed up the stone steps that when he grew old this was where he would live out his life and where he would die.
In the meantime, although he dedicated so much of his life to the pursuit of love, he had not yet found any woman that his grandfather would have described as Aphrodite.
Those he had loved and who had loved him had never been able to touch something secret in his heart that had been engendered all those years ago when his grandfather had spoken to him of love.
He had been continually infatuated, excited and delighted by women, but always there had come a moment when he knew that he no longer needed them and they no longer meant anything to him.
They were like the butterflies still hovering over the flowers but which by the morning would no longer exist, and their place would be taken by others as colourful and as dispensable as they were themselves.
The sky was growing more brilliant every moment, the sunset so vivid, so dazzling, that it was hard to look at it.
Then as he reached the last steps which led to the Temple itself, Wynstan realised that he had been right in thinking that this was where he would find Larina Milton.
There was a woman standing against the marble balustrade looking out over the sea. It was difficult to see her distinctly because the sunset was so blinding that she was little more than a silhouette against it.
She was wearing white, and her hair was very pale gold, and yet the light from the sky made it shimmer as if with tiny tongues of flame.
She must have heard his footsteps for even as he stepped onto the mosaic floor of the Temple she turned and for one incredible moment he thought that she was Aphrodite!
Larina had been disappointed when she arrived at the Villa Arcadia to find that Elvin was not already there waiting for her, but she had been entranced by the drive from Naples and the incredible beauty of the Villa.
The Courier who had accompanied her on the journey was an elderly man who told her he had once been a schoolmaster. He had explained very clearly the history of every place they passed.
He was however more interested in Venice than in other parts of Italy and it was hard for Larina to keep him on the subjects she wished to learn about when he was longing to describe to her the glories of San Marco and the tragedy of the Venetian decline.
Nevertheless he told her many myths and legends of Southern Italy and when he said good-bye she felt sorry to lose him.
“Are you going back straight away?” she asked in surprise.
“They expect me in London, Miss Milton.”
“Then thank you very much for looking after me.”
“It has been a great pleasure,” he answered, “and I say that in all sincerity! It is not often I take on a journey anyone who has your enquiring mind and your love of antiquities!”
“I can see already that the Villa is breathtakingly beautiful!” Larina said.
He had told her how it had been restored in what was believed to be its original design.
Farren went to endless trouble to have the experts’ opinion on every room, every floor and every ceiling.”
There was a perceptible pause before the Courier pronounced Mr. Farren’s name which Larina had noticed on other occasions, and she wondered why everyone seemed to find it difficult to say the word ‘Farren’.
“Perhaps it is because it begins with an ‘F’,” she told herself. “Some people might have as much difficulty with their ‘Fs’ as with their ‘Ths’.”
But it seemed strange that both Mr. Donaldson and the Courier should have the same impediment.
However her curiosity in that respect was quickly swept away by her excitement over the Villa and its garden.
The garden particularly had been unlike anything else she had ever seen or imagined.
It was easy here to imagine Apollo as she had never been able to imagine him before, and she longed impatiently to talk about him to Elvin.
She was certain he would know more than she did about the ‘far-shining one’, ‘the friend of Zeus’, ‘the giver of music and song’.
Nothing the Greeks ever created, Larina told herself, could have been more magnificent than this god who tore the darkness from the human soul and lit it with divine light.
Her first evening at the Villa she had on the servants’ suggestion gone up to the Temple to see the sunset.
Watching the glory of it she had almost believed that she saw Apollo in the dazzling light which turned the sea to gold and touched every mountain and beach with a light that was indescribable.
Then, as gradually the sun vanished and the darkness was encroaching, she felt there was a strange glitter high in the air, a mysterious quivering, the beating of silver wings and the whirring of silver wheels.
That, she told herself, was how the Greeks had known Apollo was near and she was certain at that moment he was close to her.
It was not the same ecstasy that she had felt at the Serpentine when she had been aware of life; it was something outside herself, and it was so perfect, so exquisite, that she wanted to catch it and make it hers.
Then with the coming of darkness Apollo had gone, but she could think of nothing else.
She had not felt lonely the next day. She had been waited on by the warm-hearted smiling Italians who had looked at her with dark, liquid eyes and tried in their own way to make her happy.
She thought as she walked about the garden that a strange music accompanied her, not only from the buzz of the bees and the song of the birds, but also as if she heard some celestial song on the air itself.
All that evening she had dreamt of Apollo.
She found books in the Villa which were written about the myths and legends of the Greeks
nd Romans in which there were references to him.
But they were only words, and she had but to go into the garden to feel that his very presence overshadowed everything.
She began to be aware of an expectant quietness like the presence of an unexplained mystery which would shortly be revealed.
In one of the books she had read some verses translated from Sophocles and she found herself repeating some words of it as she walked alone:
“He who has won some new splendour
Rides on the air,
Borne upwards on the winds of his human vigour
‘Only Apollo,’ she thought, ‘would ride on the air.’
She felt as if she could speak to him as the evening breeze from the sea moved her hair and touched the softness of her cheeks.
Because she did not wish to miss a moment of the sunset or the first shimmering stars that followed it, she had changed for dinner early, putting on her white gown because she had worn her pink one the night before.
Throwing the long chiffon scarf over one shoulder in an unconscious imitation of the Greeks, she walked up to the Temple to stand waiting; almost as one would wait for the curtain to rise in a theatre.
Tonight the sunset was even lovelier than it had been before: the gold was more gold, the crimson more crimson, the blue more blue; and the shining glory of it seemed to blaze as the legends said the whole island of Delos had done when the goddess Leto gave birth to her son Apollo.
Larina felt herself caught up in the ecstasy of it and the music she had heard all day was beating in her ears.
She heard a step behind her and turned her head.
Her eyes were still dazzled from the setting sun, and yet under the shadows of the Temple she could see someone standing. The light from the sky touched his face and as it did so she thought with a sudden leap of her heart that it was Apollo who stood there!
For a long, long moment there was silence, a silence that was not oppressive, merely as if nature stood still and the earth stopped moving.
Then in a voice that sounded strange to himself Wynstan said:
“You are Miss Milton?”
He knew as his voice died away that Larina had difficulty in answering him. Then she said, stammering a little over the words:
He moved closer to her and now he could see why for the moment he had thought she was Aphrodite.
She was very slim, in fact the same height as the goddess that stood beside them on a pedestal. The folds of the scarf she wore over her shoulder were Grecian, so was her gown flowing to her feet.
It was unfashionable, and yet at the same time so utterly and completely right that it was impossible to think of her wearing anything else.
He reached her side and saw that the eyes she raised to his were grey, and her hair swept back from an oval forehead was pale gold but without the tongues of fire that had been there when he first saw her.
She was not like any woman he had ever seen before. Yet there was a rightness about her he could not explain even to himself, except that she seemed part of the Temple, part of the garden, and part of the sun which was sinking into the sea.
“I am Elvin’s brother—Wynstan.”
“Is Elvin here?”
There was a lilt, an eagerness in her voice.
“I am afraid not. I am his advance guard, so to speak!”
There was a pause, as if neither of them could think what to say, before Wynstan asked:
“I hope you have not been very lonely? I understand you arrived three days ago.”
“I have not been lonely; it is so beautiful, so unbelievably, incredibly lovely!”
“That is what I have always thought,” he said. “When I was a child I spent my holidays here with my grandfather.”
“I cannot understand why Elvin did not tell me about it.”
“I am not sure if he ever came here.”
“But why not?”
“Elvin was ill even as a child, and my mother did not wish him to travel in case it proved too much for him.”
“What a pity!” Larina said. “He would have loved it! And I thought there would be so much he would be able to tell me that I want to know.”
“Perhaps I can answer your questions in his place?” Wynstan suggested.
“They are not exactly questions,” Larina replied.
Then as if she felt she had said too much she said quickly: “Have you come from America?”
“And Elvin is well enough to travel? I could hardly believe it when Mr. Donaldson told me he wanted me to meet him here.”
“You were not certain he would come?” Wynstan asked. She looked away from him out to sea, and he had the feeling she was puzzling how to answer his question.
Here was something he did not understand. She had said quite clearly in her cable: ‘Come to me as you promised.’ Having s
id that why should she be surprised that Elvin was ready to oblige her?
“You knew Elvin when he was in Switzerland?” he asked after a moment.
“Yes, we were at the Sanatorium together.”
“You were a patient?”
“No, I was there with my mother.”
“I hope she is better.”
“I am sorry to hear that,” Wynstan said. “Was that after Elvin had left?”
“Yes, two weeks later.”
“It must have been a shock for you, but perhaps you really expected it?”
“No, I hoped she could be cured. Dr. Heinrich has a great reputation for effecting cures.”
“So I have heard,” Wynstan agreed.
“And if Elvin is better,” Larina said, “as he told me he was in a letter he wrote to me after he arrived in New York, then it is entirely due to Dr. Heinrich.”
“Yes, of course.”
The sun had now finally disappeared below the horizon, and it was just that moment of dusk, pale blue and purple, when the first stars are faint but twinkling, their light growing stronger as the darkness deepens.
Larina looked out to sea and Wynstan could see her small straight nose silhouetted against the sky.
Once again he wondered if she was real. There was something insubstantial and ethereal about her, something which made him think of his dreams of Aphrodite when he was a boy.
Then she looked at him and said:
“I expect you want to go back to the Villa. It will soon be time for dinner and you must be hungry after your journey.”
He felt as if she was saying one thing, while at the same time her thoughts were elsewhere. They moved across the marble-floor and found the steps which led down into the garden below.
“Be careful!” Wynstan warned. “It is easy to slip, and this path is very steep.”
There was still sufficient light for them to see their way.
The azaleas were already scented shadows and the cypress trees were sharp points rising above their heads.
Larina’s gown gleamed white. She seemed to move instinctively without hesitation, and her footfalls were so light that Wynstan walking behind felt almost as if she floated down.
The lights from the Villa were warm, golden and welcoming as they stepped into the marble hall.
“If you will excuse me,” Wynstan said formally, “I will go and change. I will not be long.”
“I will wait in the Drawing-Room,” Larina answered.
She moved away from him down the marble passage to the big Drawing-Room with square windows overlooking the bay on one side and the garden on the other.
It was full of exquisite pieces of furniture that had delighted her ever since she had arrived. She felt they had all been chosen not primarily because they were valuable but because each one was just right for the Villa.
They were not antiques of ancient Rome, of course, but they were classical in their taste; their beauty was something which had been handed down through the centuries and had nothing to do with what was momentarily fashionable.
In the room great pots of arum lilies scented the air and there were fragments of Greek and Roman statuary which must have been found locally.
There was the head of what Larina suspected was a Gladiator, a vase which was broken and yet was so exquisitely beautiful in its proportions that it must be unique.
There were urns and plates, and the marble hand of a child which had existed for centuries long after its owner had grown up and died of old age.
It was all fascinating to look at, but now for the first time since she came to the Villa Larina did not notice her surroundings but sat thinking of the man who must be a part
owner of it.
Mr. Donaldson had said that the Villa belonged to the family, and the family meant Elvin, his three brothers, his sister and his mother.
How strange that they so seldom came here, she thought, and that Elvin had never seen this exquisite family property which she was sure would have filled him with delight.
How could he not have felt part of the life that was pulsating in the beautiful garden? Or part of the sea and the sky that was bluer and more translucent than any sky she had ever imagined?
Then, as if all the time her thoughts had been drawing her in that direction, she thought of Elvin’s brother and how for one incredible moment she had thought as she saw him that he must be Apollo.
With the light of the setting sun on his face he had looked exactly as she had always imagined Apollo would look.
There had been a strength besides beauty about him. His clear-cut features, his deep-set eyes and his fair hair brushed back from a square forehead might have served as a model for any of the statues of Apollo that Larina had seen illustrated.
When they had reached the hall she looked at him and realised he had a resemblance to Elvin, or rather, because he was the elder, Elvin resembled him.
But Elvin had been thin, emaciated by his disease, while his brother seemed to glow with health and vigour.
“I had not thought that any man could be so handsome!” Larina told herself.
As he advanced towards her in the Temple, she had had an almost irresistible impulse to kneel at his feet, to worship as the Greeks had worshipped the giver of light.
She told herself that it was going to be difficult to talk to him naturally, to discuss commonplace things, to speak of his voyage from America and her own from London.
Then she told herself he would think it very strange if instead she spoke to him of his life on Olympus, of how he ruled the world by the power of his beauty.
‘He would think me mad!’ Larina reflected with a smile and knew she must be very careful, very careful indeed, in what she said to him.