After a moment she sat on the side of my bed and asked questions about my home—if it was not large and very old, with big stone staircases, and great open fireplaces, and broad terraces, and beautiful walks going down to the sea.
I was so filled with the joy of finding myself looking grand in Alma’s eyes that I answered “yes” and “yes” without thinking too closely about her questions, and my tears were all brushed away when she said:
“I knew somebody who lived in your house once, and I’ll tell her all about you.”
She stayed a few moments longer, and when going off she whispered:
“Hope you don’t feel badly about my laughing in the garden to-day. I didn’t mean a thing. But if any of the girls laugh again just say you’re Alma Lier’s friend and she’s going to take care of you.”
I could hardly believe my ears. Some great new splendour had suddenly dawned upon me and I was very happy.
I did not know then that the house which Alma had been talking of was not my father’s house, but Castle Raa. I did not know then that the person who had lived there was her mother, and that in her comely and reckless youth she had been something to the bad Lord Raa who had lashed my father and sworn at my grandmother.
I did not know anything that was dead and buried in the past, or shrouded and veiled in the future. I only knew that Alma had called herself my friend and promised to take care of me. So with a glad heart I went to sleep.
Alma kept her word, though perhaps her method of protection was such as would have commended itself only to the heart of a child.
It consisted in calling me Margaret Mary after our patron saint of the Sacred Heart, in taking me round the garden during recreation as if I had been a pet poodle, and, above all, in making my bed the scene of the conversaziones which some of the girls held at night when they were supposed to be asleep.
The secrecy of these gatherings flattered me, and when the unclouded moon, in the depths of the deep blue Italian sky, looked in on my group of girls in their nightdresses, bunched together on my bed, with my own little body between, I had a feeling of dignity as well as solemnity and awe.
Of course Alma was the chief spokeswoman at these whispered conferences. Sometimes she told us of her drives into the Borghese Gardens, where she saw the King and Queen, or to the Hunt on the Campagna, where she met the flower of the aristocracy, or to the Pincio, where the Municipal band played in the pavilion, while ladies sat in their carriages in the sunshine, and officers in blue cloaks saluted them and smiled.
Sometimes she indicated her intentions for the future, which was certainly not to be devoted to retreats and novenas, or to witness another black dress as long as she lived, and if she married (which was uncertain) it was not to be to an American, but to a Frenchman, because Frenchmen had “family” and “blood,” or perhaps to an Englishman, if he was a member of the House of Lords, in which case she would attend all the race-meetings and Coronations, and take tea at the Carlton, where she would eat meringues glaces every day and have as many eclairs as she liked.