After our happy time in Canada came the happy days in Padula. It was a lovely home in one of the most beautiful spots on earth. Le Bon Dieu a créé la terre, il a sculpté l' Italie (God created the world: he sculptured Italy); the old saying was never more truly justified than in the case of this exquisite part of Piedmont with the snow-white heights of Carrara on the one side and the blue Gulf of Spezzia on the other, the little bay of Lerici down below, the old castle on the rock, the lateen-sailed little fishing boats like golden butterflies with wings outspread skimming the placid waters; no wonder the poetic soul of Shelley sought this heaven-moulded place wherein to dream and to rest.
We loved our Padula . . . we loved it all along, even when we began to realize that life in Italy was not what we had hoped it would be; not what so many of our Italophile pro-fascist English friends had so confidently predicted for us. Yes! we did love our Padula. The villa was homely and comfortable, the garden and the views dreams of beauty. My small household--all Italian except for my English maid--were seemingly happy and devoted; and very soon I had the pleasant surprise to find that in Italy my work was almost as popular as in England. On one occasion, going to lunch with a friend in Florence, I was amazed when the Italian butler made me a profound bow and said: "I salute the author of La Primula Rossa (the title under which The Scarlet Pimpernel is known in Italy), and a prominent officer of the fascist militia told me that my Pimpernel books had roused the enthusiasm of the young 'black-shirts', who looked upon Sir Percy Blakeney as their ideal hero.
For the next six years after the completion of the villa we mapped out our time by spending the autumn and spring in La Padula in perfect quietude, the summer with dear friends in England, and only two or three hectic months in Monte Carlo. Dear little Villa Bijou! Thank God we were never seriously tempted to sell it, although the offers we had for it at different times were sometimes verging on the fantastic. There was a regular 'ramp' during these years for house and landed estate in the Principality of Monaco, with its easy laws and light taxation, and Villa Bijou was considered a unique property with its pretty garden and its situation in the very centre of Monte Carlo; strangely enough whenever an offer for its sale appeared more than usually tempting, there always seemed to be something, some unseen force that held us back and warned us not to sell. And Villa Bijou remained our beloved home for the time being. As a matter of fact it was not in the peaceful and poetic atmosphere of La Padula that I did my best work at this time, but rather amidst the hectic surroundings of social life in Monte Carlo. Wasn't it George Gissing who said, in his New Grub Street, that an author is never at his best in the tranquil air of the countryside, but rather in the turmoil of a back street in suburban London, with the blare of a barrel-organ coming to him through his open window and the tramp of his fellow-lodger on the top floor over his head?
I have never tried the latter environment, but I see what poor dear Gissing meant. The effort of concentrating is the breath of life to imagination and good work. Many a pleasant talk did I have on the subject with my dear, unforgettable friend, W. J. Lock, some of whose finest and most poetic work was done in Cannes, where the exigencies of social life were even more strenuous than in Monte Carlo.
All the same, the years which we thus spent partly in Monte Carlo and partly in Padula were very happy ones. We were both of us very hard at work during those years and I believe that some of my best work was done at that time. It is universally said that an author is never a good judge of his own work, but The Scarlet Pimpernel aside, I venture to think that A Spy of Napoleon, The Uncrowned King, and especially No Greater Love, were three romances as interesting as any I had written before. A Spy of Napoleon was considered to be one of the great successes achieved by an entirely English film company. It was produced by the Twickenham Film Studios at St. Margaret's Middlesex.
It was also about this time that I made a short, but as it happened, a very successful plunge into historical biography. This was with The Turbulent Duchess, the life story of H.R.H. Marie Caroline Duchesse de Berri, the daughter-in-law of Charles X, the last King of France. My first thought had been to weave a romance round those troublous and convulsive times, so near really to our own, which witnessed the final and irrevocable downfall of the Bourbon dynasty. But soon I came to the conclusion that this woman's life was so romantic and so picturesque, her character and her actions so far beyond anything that imagination could conceive, that I just thrust imagination into the background and stuck to facts and nothing but facts. I simply revelled in the writing of The Turbulent Duchess and, in putting together for my purpose those various incidents of her life which were so exciting and so colourful, I tried to keep the biography as light and as entertaining as I could, but this was not very difficult considering the wonderful material at my command. After a most successful period of publication the book was taken over by the Foyle Book Club, and it has been translated into almost every European tongue.
I have so often been asked to write another historical biography on the same lines as The Turbulent Duchess, but somehow I have never been able to find another subject that fascinated me as did the Duchesse de Berri and her madcap adventures and vagaries.
Needless to say my beloved Scarlet Pimpernel was not allowed to rest idly during this time in the arms of his beautiful Marguerite. He had to be up and doing; my dear loyal readers demanded to know something more of his adventures and I naturally felt that I must in gratitude satisfy them; and so, during one peaceful autumn in Padula, I wrote Sir Percy Hits Back. This was the sixth long romance dealing with my hero's adventures, not counting two volumes of short stories originally published in magazines. Those dear, kind readers! How I loved and blessed them; they never seemed to tire of him or of me: nor did the theatre-going public. Over a quarter of a century had passed away since first he made his bow in the New Theatre, London, and hardly a year goes by even now without a revival of the play in London, or a tour in the large provincial towns.
I rather enjoyed the writing of A Child of the Revolution which was published in 1932. It was a question of looking from the inside at the gigantic cataclysm that devastated France and swept away some of her oldest and most cherished institutions, seeing it, I mean, from the point of view of the many intellectuals who felt that nothing short of a complete overthrow of every one of her time-worn traditions would make France, great once more, able to take her place among the cultured and progressive nations of the world. Writing that book, after serious and concentrated study of the works of one or two of the great revolutionaries of the period, was one of the most interesting pieces of work I ever set myself to do. (The Way of the Scarlet Pimpernel, from the opposite point of view, followed in the next year as a matter of course, and Sir Percy Leads the Band three years later.)
It was also in the middle of one of the most brilliant seasons in Monte Carlo that I decided to verify certain facts to be embodied in a book I was engaged on at the time: Pimpernel and Rosemary. This involved a visit to Transylvania. Transylvania was then occupied by Roumania at the command of Adolf Hitler, and my book dealt with that distressful period in Hungarian history. While passing through Budapest I became acquainted--through the intervention of my mother's solicitor, Dr. Tolday--with an elderly Russian, a refugee from the recently consolidated U.S.S.R., who had been the staroshka of his own village (a staroshka is something rather more important than a mayor in a Russian community) a well-educated man of obvious integrity. He had often been in Hungary, spoke Hungarian quite fluently, and was well-acquainted with my literary work which he declared had given him great delight, especially everything connected with the Scarlet Pimpernel. He had fallen on evil days, it seems, had been dispossessed of his functions, and his property had been confiscated. It was not difficult to guess on which political side his sympathies tended. I was interested in the man directly I saw him. I felt that there was something mystical about him. He had the blue-grey eyes peculiar to Northerners, who gaze out over and beyond ice-covered immensities and there see things on the far distant horizon which are not revealed to those who have darker eyes, and whose range of vision is circumscribed by Nature's boundaries. Whenever I talked with him I felt that there was something on his mind which he wanted to impart to me. Those blue-grey eyes of his would be fixed on something that was very far away, beyond the peaks of the Carpathians. He was looking through the forests of pine and through the rocky heights at something that lay beyond.
I met him again at the lawyer's office, where we were both waiting for our interview, when quite without arrière pensée I happened to say something about the late Tsar and the terrible fate which had befallen him and his family, and Dr. Tolday put in with a sigh: "Ah! if there had been a Scarlet Pimpernel then! . . ." Nothing more was said at the time, but the next morning I had a telephone call from Dr. Tolday asking me if I would graciously receive his friend the staroshka, who greatly desired an interview with me. I acquiesced without hesitation. Little did I guess what I was destined to hear from the lips of my mystical friend.
He came accompanied by a boy, obviously of the moujik class, a boy with those same Northern grey-blue eyes and the same air of mysticism as himself, and from the lips of those two there was poured into my ears a story so extraordinary that it seemed at first as incredible as it was stupendous.
At first . . . but I listened mute and enthralled. All I can say is that to the best of my belief every event retold to me that day by the old staroshka is absolutely true. The whole story was confirmed by the young moujik who had played a not unimportant part in some of those events. I only wish some of my readers could have heard the story as it was told to me. Every word the young peasant spoke bore the impress of truth, and one felt that he could not possibly have invented the whole thing, and given the multiplicity of detail which could only have been gathered together from positive knowledge.
I will leave it at that.
Into the Russian background of this amazing story I interwove a romance after my own heart, but No Greater Love was not ready for publication until 1938, and by that time so many things had happened--so many were happening every day that I could not help feeling that perhaps this would be the last book I would ever offer to my beloved public. I chose the title because of its obvious application:
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.