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A Season at the Villa Novesta

by Ron Van Sweringen

The sky was that impossible robin’s-egg blue that only a Mediterranean sky can be. Not the pleasant cobalt blue over England that she was used to. No, this was a shimmering cerulean blue, rich beyond description, except to say “luscious.”

Matilda Rose decided she wanted to die under it when her time came. In about fifty years. She smiled. After I’m worn out looking at it.

The garden was typical of a 1936 Italian villa in the countryside. Flowers bloomed in myriad profusion, almost as if nature had scattered the seeds from some far-flung mountain top without rhyme or reason. The result was enchanting under September’s warm sunlight.

Matilda could almost taste the light in the air. Like clear amber with golden specks floating aloft on the breeze, exploding as if they were microscopic meteorites from another world.

The pathway from the garden down the hillside was familiar by now. She had traveled it for the past two weeks, each morning after a light breakfast of tea and pastries on the veranda. It led to a small sandy beach that she had seen often from her bedroom window in the Villa Novesta. Occasionally it was alive with brightly colored umbrellas and bathers melting into the green water. At other times it was deserted except for the occasional shore birds.

Matilda was pleasantly surprised to find the beach deserted today. She immediately gave in to the temptation to remove her shoes and stockings. The sand was soft and warm on her feet. She leaned back and stared up at the absurdly beautiful sky, now hosting islands of chalk white clouds.

”You look like you belong here. Are you going for a swim?” The voice was rich and masculine, catching her off guard. She had assumed she was alone.

“The water’s cold but invigorating.” This time the intruder stepped into Matilda’s view. He was tall, well-muscled and somewhat older than her nineteen years. His most remarkable feature were the deep aquamarine eyes under a thick cascade of blond hair.

Her first impression was of his physical beauty. She had seen few men in her life that possessed it in such abundance.

“No swimming for me today,” she answered, embarrassed by the time she had spent staring at him.

“Then you will excuse me,” he smiled, entering the water. Strong clean strokes soon took him to a floating dock some distance from shore. When Matilda rose to leave, he waved at her and without thinking, she returned the gesture as a courtesy.

Matilda looked back once, on her climb up the hill a few minutes later. She was surprised to see that the floating dock was deserted and there was no sign of the beautiful stranger. For a fleeting instant, she had the sensation it had been a dream. Perhaps the warm sun of this enchanted place had lulled her into a half-sleep, a world of illusion.

She continued her climb and at length caught sight of Roberto, the Villa’s gardener, smiling at her from the veranda. He was a pleasant young man, rather shy, Matilda thought. His Mediterranean heritage was obvious in his thick black hair, dark eyes and olive skin.

She had a suspicion that the freshly cut rose in front of her door every morning was his doing. At first, she assumed it to be a common courtesy extended to all female guests at the Villa Novesta. This assumption quickly vanished when she mentioned the roses to another female guest and was met with a blank stare.

* * *

The next morning Matilda woke to a world of bright sunshine appearing to her like crystal shards dancing over the lake. She noted the beach was empty. She had put out her bathing suit and swimming slippers the night before.

At breakfast the English tea and sweet cakes were delightful as usual. There were only two other umbrella-shaded tables occupied on the veranda. In late September, the season was nearly over and few guests remained at the Villa Novesta.

Matilda’s stay had been a delightful surprise orchestrated by her father. He understood her passion for Italian art and after much careful research, the Villa Novesta was chosen. With an unusual history and its location only a few kilometers outside of Florence, it seemed a perfect choice.

The Villa Novesta was owned by the Countess Maria Von Schiller. Her husband, Count Hermine Von Schiller, had passed away a number of years earlier. As was the case with many titled Europeans, the fortunes that once provided lives of luxury were now dissipated. Dukes, Counts, and even a prince occasionally were forced to reinvent their lifestyles to accomodate the 20th century.

The Countess Von Shiller opened the Villa Novesta in season, allowing for guests. The exquisite rooms and furnishings attracted wealthy patrons. In this manner, she was able to keep and maintain the Villa.

Matilda stood up and extended her hand when the Countess saw her across the veranda. “Good morning Countess,” she smiled, with a slight curtsey.

The Countess returned Matilda’s smile. She was an elderly woman of regal bearing, though quite frail. Her silver hair was swept up, complementing her fine features along with her expensive pearl necklace and earrings.

The Countess joined Matilda at her table, the sweet scent of gardenias trailing after her. “I have noticed you, dear, and your lovely manners,” she said. “Miss Matilda Rose, is it not?”

“Yes Ma’am,” Matilda responded, seeming to blush under the old woman’s gaze. A pot of tea was brought for the Countess and the two women soon relaxed into conversation.

”Have you been down to the lake?” the Countess inquired?”

“Oh yes,” Matilda smiled, “and that reminds me. I met a young man on the beach and I assumed that he was staying here, but I have not seen him again.”

“That is not possible,” the Countess replied with a puzzled expression. “There has been no young man staying here this season, and the beach is private. You must be mistaken my dear.”

“No Ma’am,” Matilda spoke up. “I am quite sure I am not mistaken. He was very handsome with pale blue eyes and thick blond hair. He said his name was Sebastian.”

The Countess grew silent, the color draining from her face. She stared blankly at Matilda as if she was seeing through her to someone else. At length the old woman spoke, her voice weak as though in a trance. “What else did he say?”

Matilda hesitated to answer; it was obvious she had upset the Countess. “He said very little,” she replied at last, trying to calm the situation. “Only that I looked as though I belonged here and that the water was cold but invigorating. Then he was gone.”

“What do you mean... gone?” the Countess asked, suddenly awakened from the trance.

“He swam out to the floating dock and then he waved goodbye. When I turned to look for him a few minutes later, he was gone.”

Matilda was alarmed to see tears in the old woman’s eyes and the way her hands shook as she dabbed at them with her handkerchief. “My son’s name was Sebastian,” she said softly. “He drowned in the lake twenty years ago.”

“Oh, but I’m sure the young man I saw couldn’t have been....” Matilda’s voice trailed off.

“No,” the Countess interrupted, “it was Sebastian.You described him perfectly. The doctor told me the water was very cold and probably caused a cramp.”

At that moment the Countess’s tea cup fell forward and brown liquid seeped across the white tablecloth as though it were blood. Matilda took the old woman’s hand. “I am so sorry to have caused you this pain,” she whispered, “Can you forgive me?”

* * *

The last week in October, Matilda sat at the desk in her room at the Villa Novesta. The same luscious sky looked down on her, only now the leaves on the fig trees in the garden were orange and a coolness arrived on the air each afternoon.

Matilda moved her pen across the paper, forming each letter perfectly as was her habit. The words came slowly and precisely.

Dear Father, you were so correct in choosing the Villa Novesta, it is exquisite in every way. The Countess Von Schiller has asked me to stay on indefinitely as her companion. I am happy to tell you that she looks upon me as her daughter in all things.

Your research was perfect, even down to the smallest detail, including the exact color of Sebastian’s eyes. The Countess grows weaker as I make her tea stronger each day, letting nature take its course.

Rest assured, Father dear, I shall see to it that you have the finest accommodations our new home has to offer in the very near future.

Your loving daughter,

Matilda Rose

Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen

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