The Castle of the Shadows CHAPTER I WHERE DREAMLAND BEGAN
According to the calendar it was winter; but between Mentone and the frontier town of Ventimiglia, on the white road inlaid like a strip of ivory on dark rocks above the sapphire of the Mediterranean, it was fierce summer in the sunshine. A girl riding between two men, reined in her chestnut mare at a cross-road which led into the jade-green twilight of an olive grove. The men pulled up their horses also, and all three came to a sudden halt at a bridge flung across a swift but shallow river, whose stony bed cleft the valley.
The afternoon sunshine poured down upon them, burnishing the coils of the girl's hair to gold, and giving a dazzling brilliancy to a complexion which for twenty years to come need not fear the light of day. She was gazing up the valley shut in on either side with thickly wooded hills, their rugged heads still gilded, their shoulders already half in shadow; but the eyes of the men rested only upon her. One was English, the other Italian; and it was the Italian whose look devoured her beauty, moving hungrily from the shining tendrils of gold that curled at the back of her white neck, up to the small pink ear almost hidden with a thick, rippling wave of hair; so to the piquant profile which to those who loved Virginia Beverly, was dearer than cold perfection.
"Oh, the olive woods!" she exclaimed. "How sweet they are! See the way the sunshine touches the old, gnarled trunks, and what a lovely light filters through the leaves. One never sees it anywhere except in an olive grove. I should like to live in one."
"Well, why not?" laughed the Englishman. "What prevents you from buying two or three? But you would soon tire of them, my child, as you do of everything as soon as it belongs to you."
"That's not fair," replied the girl. "Besides, if it were, who has helped to spoil me? I will buy an olive grove, and you shall see if I tire of it. Come, let's ride up the valley, and find out if there are any for sale. It looks heavenly cool after this heat."
"You'll soon discover that it's too cool," said the Italian, in perfect English. "The sun is only in these valleys for a few hours, and it's gone for the day now. Besides, there's nothing interesting here. One sees the best from where we stand."
Virginia Beverly turned her eyes upon him, and let them dwell on his face questioningly. "Of course, you must know every inch of this country," she said, "as you used to live just across the Italian border."
For once he did not answer her look. "I haven't spent much time here for several years. Paris has absorbed me," he said evasively. "One forgets a good deal; but if you want to see a really charming valley, we had better go farther on. Then I think I can show you one."
Virginia's pretty brows, which were many shades darker than her hair, drew together. "But I don't want to go farther," she said. "And I like this valley."
"Spoilt child!" ejaculated the Englishman, who claimed rights of cousinship, though by birth Virginia was American....