Authors: Isobel Chace
TO MARRY A TIGER
It all happened when Ruth Arnold intercepted a letter from Mario Verdecchio to her sister Pearl, inviting Pearl—presumably with ulterior motives—to visit him in Sicily, and Ruth decided to teach him a lesson and go herself instead!
But it was Ruth, alas, who got rather more than she had bargained for!
... to marry a Sicilian must be something like marrying a tiger.’
A newspaper critic when Grasso and his company gave a performance of
See Naples and die!
Ruth Arnold eased her feet out of her shoes and staggered over to the window of her hotel room. The view was every bit as wonderful as the brochures had promised. What they had not promised was the swarm of young men who had followed Ruth and her sister up and down every street ever since they had arrived. Pearl, who invariably felt at home in any kind of masculine society, had told Ruth that these were the famous ‘little parrots’ who made a habit of following female tourists, and who boasted much, but who actually achieved very little.
Very little as far as Ruth was concerned, she thought wryly. All she had collected had been a great number of bruising pinches. With Pearl it was different. Pearl had managed to find a different escort every night since their arrival, laughingly dismissing Ruth’s warnings and reproaches as being just the sort of thing that Ruth would say. There had been Giulio, Giovanni, Marco, Pio, Rudolfo, and goodness knows how many more. And then there had been Mario.
Mario had edged his way into Ruth’s life with a circumspection she did not generally associate with Italians. She had met him first in the muted lights
the hotel foyer, with Pearl, naturally, hanging
his arm and drinking in his every word. Ruth hadn’t caught his name, but had gathered that this was the Mario that Pearl had been talking about all day.
“You have a very pretty sister,” he had smiled at Ruth.
Ruth had glared at him. For one thing he was far
too handsome and, for another, she hadn’t liked the way he had looked at Pearl. Pearl was younger than she and, although she had always attracted boys like a honey-pot, she had no experience of anyone who might have wished to harm her.
“My mother used to say I was particularly well named!” Pearl had preened beside him. “Ruth had a different mother from mine,” she had added inconsequentially.
Mario, who was tall in a way that Ruth found vaguely disturbing, had smiled faintly.
“That also is
” he had remarked.
No woman particularly likes being told she is plain, and Ruth was no exception. “My mother,” she had retorted coldly, “was beautiful!”
Mario had said nothing. Ruth had seen the disbelief in his dark eyes and had hated the arrogant set to his features, made worse by his rather large nose which had been broken at one time, adding to his haughty, eagle-like expression.
“Ruth doesn’t really remember her,” Pearl had announced chattily. “She died, you see, and then Daddy married again, and that was
mother.” She had sighed, looking somehow sad and sympathetic
although Ruth, who knew her very well, had known perfectly well that she had really been thinking about something quite different. “Mario darling, do let’s go! Ruth doesn’t
hanging around down here.” She had giggled. “The young men annoy her! And anyway, she’s tired!”
“Of course,” Mario had purred.
Ruth had watched them go out, laughing together, and had felt as lonely as she had ever done. It was ridiculous, of course, for she wouldn’t have wanted to go anywhere with this Mario. Not she! She could tell at a glance what he was like—amusing himself where he could with that mild, smug contempt that he obviously had for all her sex.
Now she stared out of the hotel bedroom window across the famous bay, and prickled with anxiety for Pearl. Mario was no boy to be teased and slapped down at her youthful whim. Mario was a man, and a dangerous man at that!
Ruth sighed. It was already getting dark, she noticed. They were going to have another of those vivid, dramatic sunsets that she had come to look for each evening. The full moon, a heavy, burnished gold disc in the sky, was already struggling across the darkened horizon, taking over the lighting of the Bay from the waning sun. It was a warm, romantic night that asked for trouble. Ruth shivered faintly. If only Pearl were less of a tease. If only she knew what she was doing when she teased and tempted someone as ruthless and volatile as this man Mario. If only—! But she wasn’t. Pearl was a darling, but there was no doubt that she was the original innocent abroad and was heading straight for trouble! And she, Ruth, would be responsible! For it was she who had decided that Pearl should go with her as she used her summer holidays in a leisurely discovery of ancient Rome.
She pursed her lips thoughtfully, wondering a little at her own motives. It hadn’t only been because she rather enjoyed the bubbling personality of her young sister,
had also been shocked that Pearl had no interest in anything outside her own immediate circle of masculine acquaintances. Why, it was doubtful that she had even heard of Julius Caesar, let alone any of the other great figures of the past who had set their mark on history right down to the present day!
But Pearl’s response to Italy had not been to broaden her mind, but merely to broaden her circle of male admirers. Ruth had tried not to mind the times she had been left on her own, evening after evening, but she did mind Pearl’s hectic admiration for this Mario. She had disliked him before she had met him and she had seen nothing in him to make her change her mind. There was no doubt about it, Pearl was in danger! The problem was how to extricate her from Mario’s talons, without actually taking her home to her mother in disgrace. For that was one thing that Pearl would not readily forgive. It was bad enough, she had remarked on many an occasion, for Ruth to be a schoolmistress, without her playing the part at home. It was one of the few things that Pearl never laughed about. In her opinion, Ruth was little short of a traitor for joining the ranks of an army of autocrats against whom Pearl had waged relentless war for the whole of her schooldays.
Ruth sighed again. What was she to do? She changed her clothes with a worried frown creasing her forehead. Perhaps she should talk to Pearl? Or perhaps she could suggest that they went on to Amalfi? No, that wouldn’t do, Amalfi was far too near Naples and Mano! Bother the man! Surely he could find someone else to amuse him for a few days!
She went downstairs to her lonely hotel dinner, clutching her room key to her in case she lost it, annoyed with herself because she hated going into the large, impersonal room by herself, knowing that the waiters pitied her because they guessed that she ate so sparingly, not because she wasn’t hungry, but because every moment was an agony to her. Accordingly, she meekly accepted the dish of spaghetti that the waiter produced for her, although she was reasonably sure that she had ordered nothing of the sort. It was, she decided, quite exceptionally good, and she cast the waiter a grateful smile that she instantly regretted when it was returned by a warm, knowing wink. The
olour slid up into her cheeks and she was instantly quite wildly angry with Pearl. This was no city for any female to tackle alone if she were in her early twenties and even only bearably good-looking.
She had almost finished her meal and was trying to decide whether it was worth delaying her departure from the dining room to have some coffee when Pearl came flying into the room and sat down opposite her, her whole face alight with excitement.
“What do you think, Ruth? Mario says we must go to Sicily—”
“Why?” Ruth countered suspiciously.
from Sicily! He
there! And he wants me to see his home. Don’t you think it’s kind of him?”
“No, I don’t,” Ruth retorted frankly.
Pearl blinked. Ruth found herself wishing that her sister would not wear false eyelashes, they looked so black and unnatural against her very fair skin. Perhaps if she were to trim them to a proper shape they would look a little better?
“But he’ll pay!” Pearl explained with fervour. “He wants to see me against the background of the house, you see.”
“I see exactly,” Ru
h said with some asperity. “Really, Pearl! You can’t be so silly that you don’t see what he really wants!”
Pearl had the grace to blush. “I think you’re mean,” she said with a sob. “Mario isn’t like that at all!”
“Then tell me what he is like!” Ruth snapped.
Pearl’s face took on a dreamy quality and her bright blue eyes filled with tears. “He’s wonderful!” she breathed.
Ruth bit her lip. “Pearl, I don’t want to lecture you—” she began.
“Then don’t!” Pearl advised her promptly.
“I have to!” Ruth insisted. “Don’t you see
he wants to take us to Sicily?”
“It isn’t really us,” Pearl pouted. “He asked me on my own!”
“Well, there you are, then!” Ruth rallied. “Surely that made you
Pearl shook her head. “No, it didn’t. I
why he asked me! If I fit in with his home—and everything—he’ll ask me to marry him!”
Ruth was unfeeling enough to chuckle. “Don’t be silly, dear,” she advised phlegmatically.
Pearl sobbed quietly to herself. “You don’t understand Italians at all!” she complained. “They’re not dull and uninteresting enough for your taste and so you don’t like them!”
Ruth’s amusement died. “I’m trying to tell you that Mario’s code of behaviour is not the same as ours,” she said helplessly.
It’s better!” Pearl informed her quickly. “The Sicilian code of honour is world-famous!”
Ruth corrected her.
!” Pearl giggled.
“Well, so it is!” Ruth went on, nettled by her sister’s unashamed laughter. “If a man wants to marry a girl, all he has to do is compromise her. She can be engaged to a hundred other men for all he cares, society, the law,
forces her into a marriage she doesn’t want and which can’t possibly make her happy!
she added darkly, “they have the audacity to say it’s because of the girl’s honour!”
Pearl’s blue eyes grew round and interested. “Well?” she demanded.
“There was a case in the paper just the other day,” Ruth went on. “The poor girl refused to marry this young man and he gave her the choice; she could
either marry him or he would kill her! She had to have police protection. Even her family said she had been dishonoured and should marry him.”
“And did she?” Pearl asked.
Ruth was obliged to admit that she didn’t know. “But you couldn’t imagine such a thing happening in England, could you?” she said.
“No!” Pearl breathed. She cast Ruth such a blithely innocent look that her sister began to wonder what plot she could possibly be hatching now. She had met the same look frequently before and, in her experience, it invariably meant trouble. “I wonder if Mario would worry about my honour,” Pearl went on happily.
“I doubt it!” Ruth said quickly.
“So do I!” Pearl confessed with a pretty giggle. “But he would care about his own honour. The Verdecchios are a very old Sicilian family—he’s always going on about what his ancestors did centuries and centuries ago!”
Ruth felt a brief stirring of interest, but she repressed it quickly. Mario was of no possible interest to her!
“I daresay,” she said in answer to her sister. “But I don’t suppose for a minute he’d think that there was anything dishonourable in—in—” She sought vainly for the right word that would warn Pearl without frightening her.
“Despoiling an innocent English girl?” Pearl supplied, her eyes dancing. “Oh, Ruth! You’re positively Victorian!”
Ruth, who knew a great deal more about the seamier side of Victorian life than Pearl, smiled wearily. “So, I suspect, is he!” she said dryly.