The lives of the two Clavering children, Hugh and Caddie, have been abruptly upended by the bitter divorce of their parents, British Army colonel Darrell and the formerly solid, dependable Fanny. Their English country home has been abandoned in favor of a London flat, and the fate of their adored pony, Topaz, is in serious question. And it all began the day the internationally renowned movie director, Rob Quillet, came to their small village and stole Fanny’s heart.
Now Fanny is gone, whisked off to the north of Italy by her famous filmmaker lover, leaving behind the jagged pieces of her broken family. While Hugh, at fourteen, understands the ways of the adult world better than his twelve-year-old sister, he is fiercely protective of stubborn, rebellious Caddie, who refuses to accept the situation or the hollow sympathy of grown-ups. So together they decide to take drastic action.
Traveling alone across Europe, the siblings arrive at Quillet’s pastoral Italian villa overlooking Lake Garda, determined to do battle with the man responsible for the destruction of their family. There can be no peace until they are victorious—and victory will only be achieved when they bring their mother home.
A novel that masterfully blends heart, wit, poignancy, and honesty with a breathtaking evocation of the lush Northern Italian countryside, Rumer Godden’s The Battle of Villa Fiorita is another unforgettable reading experience from the New York Times–bestselling author of The River and In This House of Brede.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of the author including rare images from the Rumer Godden Literary Estate.
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The Battle of the Villa Fiorita
By Rumer Godden
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1979 Rumer Godden
All rights reserved.
The hedges of scented whitethorn on either side of the villa gates had the longest fiercest thorns they had ever seen. The gates were iron-barred and high, the bars set close. Obviously people were not meant to get in. The villa was firmly shut away from the little village that straggled up the mountain, more of a hamlet than a village, having only one hotel, the Hotel Lydia down by the road, a few houses and farms, a camping ground in an olive grove and a trattoria beside the lake. Notices on the gates said ATTENTI AL CANE which conveyed nothing to Hugh and Caddie. 'Who would ever have thought it meant "Beware of the dog"?' said Caddie afterwards. PROPRIETA PRIVATA was clear: 'Private Property'. But I CONTRAVVENTORI SARANNO PUNITI AI TERMINI DI LEGGE? 'Can that mean "Trespassers will be prosecuted"?' asked Caddie.
The villa was on Lake Garda in northern Italy. 'But it doesn't matter where it was,' said Hugh afterwards. It might have been anywhere; it was simply a place where two opposing forces were to meet, as two armies meet on foreign soil to fight a battle. 'The battle of the Villa Fiorita,' Caddie called it afterwards and always with an ache of guilt.
Now, looking through the bars, they could see an olive grove, cypresses, a walk of grey stone flags winding away beside a cypress hedge that shut off a farther view; there were glimpses of tumbling flowers, of honeysuckle and wistaria – they had seen that in clusters all along the road – of small yellow roses climbing up a cypress tree. They could hear bird songs coming from that cool green and, faint and far beyond, water lapping. It was another world from the hot white road along which they had trudged, with cars driving past so fast that wind and dust had stung their faces and Caddie's legs.
Hugh had put down the grips that had wrenched his arms all the way from the bus stop at Malcesine but Caddie still carried their raincoats, the belts dangling, and the netted bag, limp now, that had held the sandwiches, oranges, and a bottle of lemonade they had bought at Victoria. On the gate were gilt letters, 'Villa Fiorita'. They had arrived, but could they push open these heavy bars, walk past those notices into that private green and shade? 'We have come so far, we must,' said Caddie, and she opened one gate a few inches and slipped through; she had a feeling that she was stepping where she should not but Hugh had followed her. Once inside he was drawn by a curiosity that, these days, was becoming his familiar. What did he expect to see? He did not know but he felt on tiptoe with expectancy.
Set back from the gates was a garage, with terracotta walls. On one a painted Saint Christopher took up the whole wall. Outside it was a car, a dark green Mercedes open coupe, left there as if someone had just driven in. They looked at it, almost sniffed it, as cautiously as two dogs. The hood was down and on the seat was a scarf, white silk patterned with brown flowers. Mother's scarf? thought Caddie. She had not seen it before. Beside it was a pair of driving gloves. His? They both noticed that the car was glitteringly clean.
A path led away through the olive grove, a wide belt of rough grass and old, old trees with twisted trunks, some lichened, some split halfway up their length, showing wood dried to paleness; their roots made humps and coils in the grass but each of them had a crown of leaves, blowing now green, now silver, in the light wind. They were circled round with stocks, purple and white, growing wild. By common consent, Hugh and Caddie had kept off the path and walked quietly on the grass; to get into the garden beyond they had to step on to the path with its rough worn flags, but here they were in the shadow of a hedge. The evening sun drew a warm spiced smell from the clipped cypress and with it a drift of scent from the stocks, a scent that grew stronger as they came out into a hedged garden. Sunk behind the villa it was out of the wind, still and hot in the sun, and filled with a tangle of flowers: lilacs, japonicas in bushes of red and salmon pink; narcissi, pansies; a jasmine falling from a terrace above to which a flight of worn pink steps led up with, on every step, pots of geraniums. 'We have to go up there,' whispered Caddie, but she wanted to stay, still, where she was. She and Hugh were both gilded in sun; the things they held, the grips, coats, and net, had edges of light as had Hugh's bare head, Caddie's panama. Light bathed their tired dusty faces, their clothes which were crumpled and dishevelled as only clothes that have been slept in all night can be; it lay on their hands and legs, their dusty shoes, a light more warm and gold than anything they had known, but, 'It's Italian,' said Caddie as if suspicious of it. All the same she would have liked to have shut her eyes and let it rest on her eyelids that felt brittle as paper; on her neck and shoulders and hands, on her aching legs, but, looking up, they could see above the terrace a tiled roof, dark yellow walls, with painted eaves, cream arches like the cloister arches in the print of the Fra Angelico Annunciation that hung in Caddie's bedroom at home in Stebbings, and 'That's the villa,' she whispered.
Timidly, she followed Hugh up the steps. Now they could see that the terrace had a roof of vines; on the right a long walk trellised with wistaria led down and out of sight. From somewhere came a shrilling of birds. The terrace made a forecourt under the vines whose tendrils were just budding – 'Funny,' said Caddie. 'I never thought that vines had flowers' – and led to an open porch with a floor of black and white tiles; an iron table and chairs were set there and the front door was open. It was from here that the shrilling came; they saw that the house wall was covered in cages, each a few inches square and holding a bird that hopped from floor to perch, perch to floor, sometimes opening its wings, and, 'Oh! Oh! Oh!' cried Caddie.
'But ... They're wild birds, shut in. There's a chaffinch.'
'Those tiny cages ...'
'Ssh!' Hugh's fingers pinched Caddie into silence. 'You clot! Do you want someone to hear us?' Why this imperative need for silence, he did not know. Their crêpe-soled shoes had made no sound, even on the gravel, and the birds' voices had drowned Caddie's.
It seemed a place of birds; swallows nesting under the roof flashed dark blue and cream coloured as they flew in and out. 'The poor caged birds have to watch them,' whispered Caddie in misery. There seemed no human about. Then, from behind an arched door on the left, they heard singing, loud, almost raucous, but abstracted, the abstracted singing of someone who worked as they sang. 'Italian,' whispered Hugh and he looked at the arched door again. Outside it was a basket with a hoe and a string of onions. 'That must be the kitchen. Should we knock there?' asked Caddie. Hugh shook his head. He did not want to knock.
The singing went on and Hugh, with Caddie tiptoeing after, went to the front door. 'Can we go in? Shouldn't we ask?' but Hugh only said, 'Ssh!' That compulsion of secrecy was still on him.
He listened again. 'It's all right. Come on.' In the hall he stopped. A coat they recognized was hanging there. Fanny's, their mother's coat. A man's short sheepskin-lined duffel hung beside it. Below on a rack were shoes; their mother's walking shoes and a man's shoes, brogued and laced. 'His feet are not as big as Father's,' whispered Caddie. There was a Japanese sunshade of oiled paper, lavender colour. 'She didn't have that before.' Again they seemed to sniff its unfamiliarity, then, quietly, they slipped into the room beyond.
It was a dining-room. They noticed immediately that the table-cloth on the round table was all of lace with a branched silver candelabrum in the centre. More candlesticks were on the sideboard, a stand of pink hydrangeas in the window. There were Persian rugs in soft colours. 'Well, we had Persian rugs at home,' said Caddie.
'Not like these,' said Hugh.
A trolley of drinks had been wheeled by the door. 'Dozens of bottles,' said Caddie. The room smelled of flowers, wine, and food, and Caddie's hungry stomach gave a loud rumble. Glass doors divided this room from the next, a drawing-room, bare and cool, with more Persian rugs on a polished wood floor. Caddie left a dusty footmark when she stepped on it and hastily withdrew her shoe; they did not go in, but stayed just inside the doors, looking. Cream paint and double windows, their shutters half down, gave the room a look of the rooms they had seen in Switzerland, but the furniture was – 'Italian?' asked Caddie in a whisper – certainly antique; polished wood chairs, upholstered in cream brocade; a low table covered with crystal, silver, and enamel boxes and ornaments. There was a great carved chest, an inlaid writing-table with gilt legs, its top holding rows of miniatures, a tapestried stool and, 'What is that thing?' asked Caddie.
'I think it's a prie-dieu,' said Hugh. 'You kneel at it to pray.'
'In a drawing-room?' asked Caddie, astonished.
There were tapestries on the walls and paintings in gilded frames. At one end a fireplace was made of the same pink stone as the steps they had climbed from the garden; it was laid with olive branches and perhaps the faintly pungent smell in the room was of olive smoke. It mingled with the scent from the azaleas and begonias grouped on the window-sills. Each side of the fireplace were bookshelves, reaching to the ceiling, and, above the fireplace itself, two carved angels, almost as tall as Caddie, held sconces; their gilded wings shone in that dim end of the room. French doors opened on to another terrace on the lake side of the house. They could catch a glimpse of the wistaria trellis beyond but did not dare to cross that shining floor and look.
The dining-room floor was in tiles, patterned with flowers, and from it a staircase curved out of sight. 'Is it marble?' asked Caddie, awed. It was of white marble and, 'Can we go upstairs?' asked Caddie, shrinking. Hugh listened again; there was still only that singing, and, 'Come on,' he said, sounding bolder than he felt, but, when gingerly they trod on the smooth whiteness and came up the first few steps, they saw the staircase was closed off from the upper flight by a door of rose brocade. A brocade door! That seemed to lift the house into undreamed-of luxury.
When it was opened, they stood again to listen; then, stepping silently on the bare marble of the treads, they went up the short flight to a landing. It was here that the arched Fra Angelico cloisters guarded a balcony that looked down over the sunken garden they had walked through and over the olive grove. On the balcony a towel-horse was spread with a towel on which vests, stockings, and socks were laid out to dry. A hanger held a shirt, open-necked, dark blue; a woman's slip, white and threaded with ribbon, and some white briefs hung over a line. 'We shouldn't look,' said Hugh suddenly.
'Why not?' said Caddie. 'It's only washing.'
The landing had four doors. Greatly daring, Hugh opened the first, but it was an empty room. They saw a bedroom where the shutters were down so that its light was dim. They could make out boxes on the bed, a chair covered by a sheet, a gleam of mirrors. The next door was of a dressing-room. Its green shutters were only half closed and, standing in the doorway, they looked at a dressing-gown thrown down on the day bed, a row of shoes, ties hung over a chair on which a pair of binoculars were slung. Ivory brushes were on the chest of drawers, with a litter of ashtrays, packets of cigarettes, a handkerchief, bottles, jars, some with their lids on crookedly, while a Penguin lay face downwards on the floor. 'He's not very tidy, is he?' whispered Caddie.
At the end of the landing a small door led into a room that was ... 'queer,' said Caddie. She meant it was a mixture. Cupboards filled all one wall so that it, too, looked like a dressing-room, but the other three walls were hung with tapestry. There was a large painting of the Madonna in deep blues and pinks, a vividly rosy Madonna. Inlaid chairs were pushed back against the wall and in the middle was a wooden kitchen table, heavy, rough, with a wooden kitchen chair. The window-sills were heaped with books, there were more books on the floor with a big waste-paper basket, while the table itself was covered in papers, more books, blotting-paper, clips, a typewriter. A red crystal goblet held pencils and pens, and on top of it all was a notice printed on a piece of cardboard in English and Italian, 'NON TOCCARE. Don't touch!' For the first time Hugh smiled. 'I bet Mother tries to make him clear up his table.'
Next door was the bathroom, big and white-tiled. 'Look!' whispered Caddie. 'Big towels and little towels and a bathmat all to match.' Someone had just had a bath; the air was heavy with steam, 'and scent,' said Caddie, wrinkling up her nose, 'but Mother doesn't use scent.'
'She does now,' said Hugh.
Fanny, if it were she who had had the bath, seemed to have caught the untidiness; underclothes were thrown down on a stool; the bathmat, still damp from wet feet, was wrinkled on the floor, powder was spilled; it might have been their seventeen-year-old sister Philippa, not a responsible woman, a mother. Caddie picked up the box of powder with its large puff. 'Jicky Guerlain,' she read.
'Put it down,' said Hugh. 'Come out.' He looked even paler than he had on the road and his forehead was clammy. It seemed too intimate, there in the empty villa. The swallows flew round it, making a rush of wings in the height; a shutter, loose on its catch, clacked gently; the singing sounded from below. These were the only sounds, but the house was filled with two people, Fanny and – 'Mr Quillet,' whispered Caddie and, caught unawares, spied on like this, they seemed not enemies but vulnerable. It was like putting one's hand into a nest and finding it still warm.
If the last door had not been open they would not have looked in. As it was, Hugh stopped short on the threshold and Caddie had to reach up and look over his shoulder. 'Mother's bedroom,' breathed Caddie. She felt Hugh's arm quiver against her. She quivered herself. This was even worse than seeing the furniture from Stebbings in the new London flat. Mother's room. At Stebbings it had not only been where she slept – and their father when he was home – it had been where anything serious, or private, in the family had happened or was discussed. Talks took place there and what Fanny called reasoning; punishments were given, temperatures taken. Doctor Railton did his examinations in it and ill children were allowed to spend the day there in bed. Hugh and Caddie had both been born in that room. It had been the core of Stebbings, though they had not known it. Now, this pink and cream enamelled furniture, the wide bed that had a bedhead of brocade in a gilded frame, the tiled floor, and shutters, were Italian, foreign, but still there on the dressing-table were their photographs, as they had always been: Philippa, Hugh, Caddie; under the glass of Hugh's was a brown curl of baby hair. There, too, was the apple pin-cushion Philippa had made and painted at school, the wooden pin-box Hugh had made in carpentry with Fanny's initials burned in its top: F.C. They won't do now, thought Hugh. There were a great many more bottles and jars than there used to be and the brushes were new; perhaps the old silver ones with cherubs' heads on them were too battered to bring to this villa. These matched the blue and gold of the clock on the bedside table. 'Is he fearfully rich?' asked Caddie.
As if holding to a thread of Fanny, Caddie was glad to see by the clock a shopping list, written in Fanny's sprawling writing, and beside it was the little green leather book, the Imitation of Christ, that had been by Fanny's bed since they could remember. Its corner had been chewed by Danny as a puppy and it had a ring on the binding where Philippa had once put down a cup on it.
This room too was untidy; someone had dressed and thrown things down. Caddie gave a 'tchk' and picked up a petticoat; it was fine, gauzy with net and embroidery. 'Is it Mother's? It doesn't look like hers.'
'Shut up. Put it down,' said Hugh even more fiercely.
They looked through to the dressing-room they had seen before; the door was open as if he and she came in and out and talked while they were dressing. The bedside table on the other side of the bed was heaped with books, there were cigarettes on it, an ashtray and, 'She lets him smoke in bed,' whispered Caddie. 'She wouldn't let Father.'
Excerpted from The Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Godden. Copyright © 1979 Rumer Godden. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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