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Part II Edith Wharton

Chapter XX

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THE Mortimer Hickses were in Rome; not, as they would in former times have been, in one of the antiquated hostelries of the Piazza di Spagna or the Porta del Popolo, where of old they had so gaily defied fever and nourished themselves on local colour; but spread out, with all the ostentation of philistine millionaires, under the piano nobile ceilings of one of the high-perched "Palaces," where, as Mrs. Hicks shamelessly declared, they could "rely on the plumbing," and "have the privilege of over-looking the Queen Mother's Gardens."

It was that speech, uttered with beaming aplomb at a dinner-table surrounded by the cosmopolitan nobility of the Eternal City, that had suddenly revealed to Lansing the profound change in the Hicks point of view.

As he looked back over the four months since he had so unexpectedly joined the Ibis at Genoa, he saw that the change, at first insidious and unperceived, dated from the ill-fated day when the Hickses had run across a Reigning Prince on his travels.

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Hitherto they had been proof against such perils: both Mr. and Mrs. Hicks had often declared that the aristocracy of the intellect was the only one which attracted them. But in this case the Prince possessed an intellect, in addition to his few square miles of territory, and to one of the most beautiful Field Marshal's uniforms that had ever encased a royal warrior. The Prince was not a warrior, however; he was stooping, pacific and spectacled, and his possession of the uniform had been revealed to Mrs. Hicks only by the gift of a full-length photograph in a Bond Street frame, with Anastasius written slantingly across its legs. The Prince--and herein lay the Hickses' undoing--the Prince was an archaeologist: an earnest anxious enquiring and scrupulous archaeologist. Delicate health (so his suite hinted) banished him for a part of each year from his cold and foggy principality; and in the company of his mother, the active and enthusiastic Dowager Princess, he wandered from one Mediterranean shore to another, now assisting at the exhumation of Ptolemaic mummies, now at the excavation of Delphic temples or of North African basilicas. The beginning of winter usually brought the Prince and his mother to Rome or Nice, unless indeed they were summoned by family duties to Berlin, Vienna or Madrid; for an extended connection with the principal royal houses of Europe compelled them, as the Princess Mother said, to be always burying or marrying a cousin. At other moments they were seldom seen in the glacial atmosphere of courts, preferring to royal palaces those of the other, and more modern type, in one of which the Hickses were now lodged.

Yes: the Prince and his mother (they gaily avowed it) revelled in Palace Hotels; and, being unable to afford the luxury of inhabiting them, they liked, as often as possible, to be invited to dine there by their friends--"or even to tea, my dear," the Princess laughingly avowed, "for I'm so awfully fond of buttered scones; and Anastasius gives me so little to eat in the desert."

The encounter with these ambulant Highnesses had been fatal-- Lansing now perceived it--to Mrs. Hicks's principles. She had known a great many archaeologists, but never one as agreeable as the Prince, and above all never one who had left a throne to camp in the desert and delve in Libyan tombs. And it seemed to her infinitely pathetic that these two gifted beings, who grumbled when they had to go to "marry a cousin" at the Palace of St. James or of Madrid, and hastened back breathlessly to the far-off point where, metaphorically speaking, pick-axe and spade had dropped from their royal hands--that these heirs of the ages should be unable to offer themselves the comforts of up-to-date hotel life, and should enjoy themselves "like babies" when they were invited to the other kind of "Palace," to feast on buttered scones and watch the tango.

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The Glimpses of the Moon
Edith Wharton

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