THE FOURTH DAY
THE Colonel was certainly the most severely critical member of the company. Up to the present juncture he had been sparing of censure, and sparing of praise likewise, but on this day, after lunch, he broke forth into loud praise of the dish of beef which appeared in the menu. After specially commending this dish he went on--
"It seems to me that the dinner of yesterday and to-day's lunch bear the cachet of a fresh and admirable school of cookery. In saying this I don't wish to disparage the traditions which have governed the preparation of the delicious dishes put before us up to that date, which I have referred to as the parting of the ways, the date when the palate of the expert might detect a new hand upon the keys, a phrase once employed, I believe, with regard to some man who wrote poetry. To meet an old friend, or a thoroughly tested dish, is always pleasant, but old friends die or fall out, and old favourite dishes may come to pall at last; and for this reason I hold that the day which brings us a new friend or a new dish ought to be marked with white chalk."
"And I think some wise man once remarked," said Sir John, "that the discovery of a dish is vastly more important than the discovery of a star, for we have already as many stars as we can possibly require, but we can never have too many dishes."
"I was wondering whether any one would detect the variations I made yesterday, but I need not have wondered, with such an expert at table as Colonel Trestrail," said the Marchesa with a laugh. "Well, the Colonel has found me out; but from the tone of his remarks I think I may hope for his approval. At any rate, I'm sure he won't move a vote of censure."
"If he does, we'll pack him off to town, and sentence him to dine at his club every day for a month," said Lady Considine.
"What crime has this particular club committed?" said Mrs. Sinclair in a whisper.
"Vote of censure! Certainly not," said the Colonel, with an angry ring in his voice. Mrs. Sinclair did not love him, and had calculated accurately the carrying power of her whisper. "That would be the basest ingratitude. I must, however, plead guilty to an attack of curiosity, and therefore I beg you, Marchesa, to let us into the secret of your latest inspiration."
"Its origin was commonplace enough," said the Marchesa, "but in a way interesting. Once upon a time--more years ago than I care to remember--I was strolling about the Piazza Navona in Rome, and amusing myself by going from one barrow to another, and turning over the heaps of rubbish with which they were stocked. All the while I was innocently plagiarising that fateful walk of Browning's round the Riccardi Palace in Florence, the day when he bought for a lira the Romana homocidiorum. The world knows what was the outcome of Browning's purchase, but it will probably never fathom the full effect of mine. How do his lines run?"
"These I picked the book from. Five compeers in flank Stood left and right of it as tempting more-- A dog's-eared Spicilegium, the fond tale O' the frail one of the Flower, by young Dumas, Vulgarised Horace for the use of schools, The Life, Death, Miracles of Saint Somebody, Saint Somebody Else, his Miracles, Death and Life."
"Well, the choice which lay before me on one particular barrow was fully as wide, or perhaps wider than that which met the poet's eye, but after I had espied a little yellow paper-covered book with the title La Cucina Partenopea, overo il Paradiso dei gastronomi, I looked no farther. What infinite possibilities of pleasure might lie hidden under such a name. I secured it, together with the Story of Barlaam and Josaphat, for thirty-five centesimi, and handed over the coins to the hungry-eyed old man in charge, who regretted, I am sure, when he saw the eager look upon my face, that he had not marked the books a lira at least. I should now be a rich woman if I had spent all the money I have spent as profitably as those seven sold.