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The Portrait of a Lady

Chapter 22
On one of the first days of May, some six months after old Mr. Touchett's death,
a small group that might have been described by a painter as composing well
was gathered in one of the many rooms of an ancient villa crowning an olive-
muffled hill outside of the Roman gate of Florence. The villa was a long, rather
blank-looking structure, with the far-projecting roof which Tuscany loves and
which, on the hills that encircle Florence, when considered from a distance,
makes so harmonious a rectangle with the straight, dark, definite cypresses that
usually rise in groups of three or four beside it. The house had a front upon a little
grassy, empty, rural piazza which occupied a part of the hill-top; and this front,
pierced with a few windows in irregular relations and furnished with a stone
bench lengthily adjusted to the base of the structure and useful as a lounging-
place to one or two persons wearing more or less of that air of undervalued merit
which in Italy, for some reason or other, always gracefully invests any one who
confidently assumes a perfectly passive attitude--this antique, solid, weather-
worn, yet imposing front had a somewhat incommunicative character. It was the
mask, not the face of the house. It had heavy lids, but no eyes; the house in
reality looked another way--looked off behind, into splendid openness and the
range of the afternoon light. In that quarter the villa overhung the slope of its hill
and the long valley of the Arno, hazy with Italian colour. It had a narrow garden,
in the manner of a terrace, productive chiefly of tangles of wild roses and other
old stone benches, mossy and sun-warmed. The parapet of the terrace was just
the height to lean upon, and beneath it the ground declined into the vagueness of
olive-crops and vineyards. It is not, however, with the outside of the place that we
are concerned; on this bright morning of ripened spring its tenants had reason to
prefer the shady side of the wall. The windows of the ground-floor, as you saw
them from the piazza, were, in their noble proportions, extremely architectural;
but their function seemed less to offer communication with the world than to defy
the world to look in. They were massively cross-barred, and placed at such a
height that curiosity, even on tiptoe, expired before it reached them. In an
apartment lighted by a row of three of these jealous apertures--one of the several
distinct apartments into which the villa was divided and which were mainly
occupied by foreigners of random race long resident in Florence--a gentleman
was seated in company with a young girl and two good sisters from a religious
house. The room was, however, less sombre than our indications may have
represented, for it had a wide, high door, which now stood open into the tangled
garden behind; and the tall iron lattices admitted on occasion more than enough
of the Italian sunshine. It was moreover a seat of ease, indeed of luxury, telling of
arrangements subtly studied and refinements frankly proclaimed, and containing
a variety of those faded hangings of damask and tapestry, those chests and
cabinets of carved and time-polished oak, those angular specimens of pictorial
art in frames as pedantically primitive, those perverse-looking relics of medieval
brass and pottery, of which Italy has long been the not quite exhausted
storehouse. These things kept terms with articles of modern furniture in which
 
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