Just then the doctor heard light footsteps coming down the path behind him. He called out, warning that he was in the way.
"O-e, gently, you know!" he cried. "An apoplexy on the wind!" he added vehemently, as his head and hands became entangled more and more in the folds of his cloak.
"And another on you!" answered a woman's voice, speaking low through clenched teeth.
In the darkness a hand rose and fell with something in it, three times in quick succession. A man's low cry of pain was stifled in folds of broadcloth. The same light footsteps were heard for a moment again in the narrow, winding way, and Sor Tommaso was lying motionless on his face across his box, with his cloak over his head. The gusty south wind blew up and down between the dark walls, bearing now and then a few withered vine leaves and wisps of straw with it; and the night grew darker still, and no one passed that way for a long time.
WHEN Angus Dalrymple had finished his supper, he produced a book and sat reading by the light of the wicks of the three brass lamps. Annetta had taken away the things and had not come back again. Gigetto strolled in and took his guitar from the peg on the wall, and idled about the room, tuning it and humming to himself. He was a tall young fellow with a woman's face and beautiful velvet-like eyes, as handsome and idle a youth as you might meet in Subiaco on a summer's feast-day. He exchanged a word of greeting with Dalrymple, and, seeing that the place was otherwise deserted, he at last slung his guitar over his shoulder, pulled his broad black felt hat over his eyes, and strolled out through the half-open door, presumably in search of amusement. Gigetto's chief virtue was his perfectly childlike and unaffected taste for amusing himself, on the whole very innocently, whenever he got a chance. It was natural that he and the Scotchman should not care for one another's society. Dalrymple looked after him for a moment and then went back to his book. A big glass measure of wine stood beside him not half empty, and his glass was full.
He was making a strong effort to concentrate his attention upon the learned treatise, which formed a part of the little library he had brought with him. But Annetta's idle talk about the nuns, and especially about Maria Addolorata and her singing, kept running through his head in spite of his determination to be serious. He had been living the life of a hermit for months, and had almost forgotten the sound of an educated woman's voice. To him Annetta was nothing more than a rather pretty wild animal. It did not enter his head that she might be in love with him. Sora Nanna was simply an older and uglier animal of the same species. To a man of Dalrymple's temperament, and really devoted to the pursuit of a serious object, a woman quite incapable of even understanding what that object is can hardly seem to be a woman at all.
But the young Scotchman was not wanting in that passionate and fantastic imagination which so often underlies and even directs the hardy northern nature, and the young girl's carelessly spoken words had roused it to sudden activity. In spite of himself, he was already forming plans for listening under the convent wall, if perchance he might catch the sound of the nun's wonderful voice, and from that to the wildest schemes for catching a momentary glimpse of the singer was only a step. At the same time, he was quite aware that such schemes were dangerous if not impracticable, and his reasonable self laughed down his unreasoning romance, only to be confronted by it again as soon as he tried to turn his attention to his book.
He looked up and saw that he had not finished his wine, though at that hour the measure was usually empty, and he wondered why he was less thirsty than usual. By force of habit he emptied the full glass and poured more into it,—by force of that old northern habit of drinking a certain allowance as a sort of duty, more common in those days than it is now. Then he began to read again, never dreaming that his strong head and solid nerves could be in any way affected by his potations. But his imagination this evening worked faster and faster, and his sober reason was recalcitrant and abhorred work.
The nun had fair hair and dark eyes and a beautiful face. Those were much more interesting facts than he could find in his work. She had a wonderful voice. He tried to recall all the extraordinary voices he had heard in his life, but none of them had ever affected him very much, though he had a good ear and some taste for music. He wondered what sort of voice this could be, and he longed to hear it. He shut up his book impatiently, drank more wine, rose and went to the open door. The gusty south wind fanned his face pleasantly, and he wished he were to sleep out of doors.
The Sora Nanna, who had been spending the evening with a friend in the neighbourhood, came in, her thin black overskirt drawn over her head to keep the embroidered head-cloth in its place. By and by, as Dalrymple still stood by the door, Stefanone appeared, having been to play a game of cards at a friendly wine-shop. He sat down by Sora Nanna at the table. She was mixing some salad in a big earthenware bowl adorned with green and brown stripes. They talked together in low tones. Dalrymple had nodded to each in turn, but the gusty air pleased him, and he remained standing by the door, letting it blow into his face.
It was growing late. Italian peasants are not great sleepers, and it is their custom to have supper at a late hour, just before going to bed. By this time it was nearly ten o'clock as we reckon the hours, or about 'four of the night' in October, according to old Italian custom, which reckons from a theoretical moment of darkness, supposed to begin at Ave Maria, half an hour after sunset.
Suddenly Dalrymple heard Annetta's voice in the room behind him, speaking to her mother. He had no particular reason for supposing that she had been out of the house since she had cleared the table and left him, but unconsciously he had the impression that she had been away, and was surprised to hear her in the room, after expecting that she should pass him, coming in from the street, as the others had done. He turned and walked slowly towards his place at the table.
"I thought you had gone out," he said carelessly, to Annetta.
The girl turned her head quickly.
"I?" she cried. "And alone? Without even Gigetto? When do I ever go out alone at night? Will you have some supper, Signore?"
"I have just eaten, thank you," answered Dalrymple, seating himself.
"Three hours ago. It was not yet an hour of the night when you ate. Well—at your pleasure. Do not complain afterwards that we make you die of hunger."
"Bread, Annetta!" said Stefanone, gruffly but good-naturedly. "And cheese, and salt—wine, too! A thousand things! Quickly, my daughter."
"Quicker than this?" inquired the girl, who had already placed most of the things he asked for upon the table.
"I say it to say it," answered her father. "'Hunger makes long jumps,' and I am hungry."
"Did you win anything?" asked Sora Nanna, with both her elbows on the table.
"It was worth while to pay ten baiocchi for another man's bad wine, for the sake of winning so much!" replied Sora Nanna, who was a careful soul. "Of course you paid for the wine?"
"Eh—of course. They pay for wine when they come here. One takes a little and one gives a little. This is life."
Annetta busied herself with the simple preparations for supper, while they talked. Dalrymple watched her idly, and he thought she was pale, and that her eyes were very bright. She had set a plate for herself, but had forgotten her glass.
"And you? Do you not drink?" asked Stefanone. "You have no glass."
"What does it matter?" She sat down between her father and mother.
"Drink out of mine, my little daughter," said Stefanone, holding his glass to her lips with a laugh, as though she had been a little child.
She looked quietly into his eyes for a moment, before she touched the wine with her lips.
"Yes," she answered, with a little emphasis. "I will drink out of your glass now."
"Better so," laughed Stefanone, who was glad to be reconciled, for he loved the girl, in spite of his occasional violence of temper.
"What does it mean?" asked Sora Nanna, her cunning peasant's eyes looking from one to the other, and seeming to belie her stupid face.
"Nothing," answered Stefanone. "We were playing together. Signor Englishman," he said, turning to Dalrymple, "you must sometimes wish that you were married, and had a wife like Nanna, and a daughter like Annetta."
"Of course I do," said Dalrymple, with a smile.
Before very long, he took his book and went upstairs to bed, being tired and sleepy after a long day spent on the hillside in a fruitless search for certain plants which, according to his books, were to be found in that part of Italy, but which he had not yet seen. He fell asleep, thinking of Maria Addolorata's lovely face and fair hair, on which he had never laid eyes. In his dreams he heard a rare voice ringing true, that touched him strangely. The gusty wind made the panes of his bedroom window rattle, and in the dream he was tapping on Maria Addolorata's casement and calling softly to her, to open it and speak to him, or calling her by name, with his extraordinary foreign accent. And he thought he was tapping louder and louder, upon the glass and upon the wooden frame, louder and louder still. Then he heard his name called out, and his heart jumped as though it would have turned upside down in its place, and then seemed to sink again like a heavy stone falling into deep water; for he was awake, and the voice that was calling him was certainly not that of the beautiful nun, but gruff and manly; also the tapping was not tapping any more upon a casement, but was a vigorous pounding against his own bolted door.
Dalrymple sat up suddenly and listened, wide awake at once. The square of his window was faintly visible in the darkness, as though the dawn were breaking. He called out, asking who was outside.
"Get up, Signore! Get up! You are wanted quickly!" It was Stefanone.
Dalrymple struck a light, for he had a supply of matches with him, a convenience of modern life not at that time known in Subiaco, except as an expensive toy, though already in use in Rome. As he was, he opened the door. Stefanone came in, dressed in his shirt and breeches, pale with excitement.
"You must dress yourself, Signore," he said briefly, as he glanced at the Scotchman, and then set down the small tin and glass lantern he carried.
"What is the matter?" inquired Dalrymple, yawning, and stretching his great white arms over his head, till his knuckles struck the low ceiling; for he was a tall man.
"The matter is that they have killed Sor Tommaso," answered the peasant.
Dalrymple uttered an exclamation of surprise and incredulity.
"It is as I say," continued Stefanone. "They found him lying across the way, in the street, with knife-wounds in him, as many as you please."
"That is horrible!" exclaimed Dalrymple, turning, and calmly trimming his lamp, which burned badly at first.
"Then dress yourself, Signore!" said Stefanone, impatiently. "You must come!"
"Why? If he is dead, what can I do?" asked the northern man, coolly. "I am sorry. What more can I say?"
"But he is not dead yet!" Stefanone was growing excited. "They have taken him—"
"Oh! he is alive, is he?" interrupted the Scotchman, dashing at his clothes, as though he were suddenly galvanized into life himself. "Then why did you tell me they had killed him?" he asked, with a curious, dry calmness of voice, as he instantly began to dress himself. "Get some clean linen, Signor Stefano. Tear it up into strips as broad as your hand, for bandages, and set the women to make a little lint of old linen—cotton is not good. Where have they taken Sor Tommaso?"
"To his own house," answered the peasant.
"So much the better. Go and make the bandages."
Dalrymple pushed Stefanone towards the door with one hand, while he continued to fasten his clothes with the other.
Stefanone was not without some experience of similar cases, so he picked up his lantern and went off. In less than a quarter of an hour, he and Dalrymple were on their way to Sor Tommaso's house, which was in the piazza of Subiaco, not far from the principal church. Half a dozen peasants, who had met the muleteers bringing the wounded doctor home from the spot where he had been found, followed the two men, talking excitedly in low voices and broken sentences. The dawn was grey above the houses, and the autumn mists had floated up to the parapet on the side where the little piazza looked down to the valley, and hung motionless in the still air, like a stage sea in a theatre. In the distance was heard the clattering of mules' shoes, and occasionally the deep clanking of the goats' bells. Just as the little party reached the small, dark green door of the doctor's house the distant convent bells tolled one, then two quick strokes, then three again, and then five, and then rang out the peal for the morning Angelus. The door of the dirty little coffee shop in the piazza was already open, and a faint light burned within. The air was damp, quiet and strangely resonant, as it often is in mountain towns at early dawn. The gusty October wind had gone down, after blowing almost all night.
The case was far from being as serious as Dalrymple had expected, and he soon convinced himself that Sor Tommaso was not in any great danger. He had fainted from fright and some loss of blood, but neither of the two thrusts which had wounded him had penetrated to his lungs, and the third was little more than a scratch. Doubtless he owed his safety in part to the fact that the wind had blown his cloak in folds over his shoulders and head. But it was also clear that his assailant had possessed no experience in the use of the knife as a weapon. When the group of men at the door were told that Sor Tommaso was not mortally wounded, they went away somewhat disappointed at the insignificant ending of the affair, though the doctor was not an unpopular man in the town.
"It is some woman," said one of them, contemptuously. "What can a woman do with a knife? Worse than a cat—she scratches, and runs away."
"Some little jealousy," observed another. "Eh! Sor Tommaso—who knows where he makes love? But meanwhile he is growing old, to be so gay."
"The old are the worst," replied the first speaker. "Since it is nothing, let us have a baiocco's worth of acquavita, and let us go away."
So they turned into the dirty little coffee shop to get their pennyworth of spirits. Meanwhile Dalrymple was washing and binding up his friend's wounds. Sor Tommaso groaned and winced under every touch, and the Scotchman, with dry gentleness, did his best to reassure him. Stefanone looked on in silence for some time, helping Dalrymple when he was needed. The doctor's servant-woman, a somewhat grimy peasant, was sitting on the stairs, sobbing loudly.
"It is useless," moaned Sor Tommaso. "I am dead."
"I may be mistaken," answered Dalrymple, "but I think not."
And he continued his operations with a sure hand, greatly to the admiration of Stefanone, who had often seen knife-wounds dressed. Gradually Sor Tommaso became more calm. His face, from having been normally of a bright red, was now very pale, and his watery blue eyes blinked at the light helplessly like a kitten's, as he lay still on his pillow. Stefanone went away to his occupations at last, and Dalrymple, having cleared away the litter of unused bandages and lint, and set things in order, sat down by the bedside to keep his patient company for a while. He was really somewhat anxious lest the wounds should have taken cold.
"If I get well, it will be a miracle," said Sor Tommaso, feebly. "I must think of my soul."
"By all means," answered the Scotchman. "It can do your soul no harm, and contemplation rests the body."
"You Protestants have not human sentiment," observed the Italian, moving his head slowly on the pillow. "But I also think of the abbess. I was to have gone there early this morning. She will also die. We shall both die."
Dalrymple crossed one leg over the other, and looked quietly at the doctor.
"Sor Tommaso," he said, "there is no other physician in Subiaco. I am a doctor, properly licensed to practise. It is evidently my duty to take care of your patients while you are ill."
"Mercy!" cried Sor Tommaso, with sudden energy, and opening his eyes very wide.
"Are you afraid that I shall kill them," asked Dalrymple, with a smile.
"Who knows? A foreigner! And the people say that you have converse with the devil. But the common people are ignorant."
"And as for the convent—a Protestant—for the abbess! They would rather die. Figure to yourself what sort of a scandal there would be! A Protestant in a convent, and then, in that convent, too! The abbess would much rather die in peace."
"At all events, I will go and offer my services. If the abbess prefers to die in peace, she can answer to that effect. I will ask her what she thinks about it."
"Ask her!" repeated Sor Tommaso. "Do you imagine that you could see her? But what can you know? I tell you that last night she was muffled up in her chair, and her face covered. It needed the grace of Heaven, that I might feel her pulse! As for her tongue, God knows what it is like! I have not seen it. Not so much as the tip of it! Not even her eyes did I see. And to-day I was not to be admitted at all, because the abbess would be in bed. Imagine to yourself, with blisters and sinapisms, and a hundred things. I was only to speak with Sister Maria Addolorata, who is her niece, you know, in the anteroom of the abbess's apartment. They would not let you in. They would give you a bath of holy water through the loophole of the convent door and say, 'Go away, sinner; this is a religious house!' You know them very little."
"You are talking too much," observed Dalrymple, who had listened attentively. "It is not good for you. Besides, since you are able to speak, it would be better if you told me who stabbed you last night, that I may go to the police, and have the person arrested, if possible."
"You do not know what you are saying," answered Sor Tommaso, with sudden gravity. "The woman has relations—who could handle a knife better than she."
And he turned his face away.
THE sun was high when Dalrymple left Sor Tommaso in charge of the old woman-servant and went back to Stefanone's house to dress himself with more care than he had bestowed upon his hasty toilet at dawn. And now that he had plenty of time, he was even more careful of his appearance than usual; for he had fully determined to attempt to take Sor Tommaso's place in attendance upon the abbess. He therefore put on a coat of a sober colour and brushed his straight red hair smoothly back from his forehead, giving himself easily that extremely grave and trust-inspiring air which distinguishes many Scotchmen, and supports their solid qualities, while it seems to deny the possibility of any adventurous and romantic tendency.
At that hour nobody was about the house, and Dalrymple, stick in hand, sallied forth upon his expedition, looking for all the world as though he were going to church in Edinburgh instead of meditating an entrance into an Italian convent. He had said nothing more to the doctor on the subject. The people in the streets had most of them seen him often and knew him by name, and it did not occur to any one to wonder why a foreigner should wear one sort of coat rather than another, when he took his walks abroad. He walked leisurely; for the sky had cleared, and the sun was hot. Moreover, he followed the longer road in order to keep his shoes clean, instead of climbing up the narrow and muddy lane in which Sor Tommaso had been attacked. He reached the convent door at last, brushed a few specks of dust from his coat, settled his high collar and the broad black cravat which was then taking the place of the stock, and rang the bell with one steady pull. There was, perhaps, no occasion for nervousness. At all events, Dalrymple was as deliberate in his movements and as calm in all respects as he had ever been in his life. Only, just after he had pulled the weather-beaten bell-chain, a half-humorous smile bent his even lips and was gone again in a moment.
There was the usual slapping and shuffling of slippers in the vaulted archway within, but as it was now day, the loophole was opened immediately, and the portress came alone. Dalrymple explained in strangely accented but good Italian that Sor Tommaso had met with an accident in the night; that he, Angus Dalrymple, was a friend of the doctor's and a doctor himself, and had undertaken all of Sor Tommaso's duties, and, finally, that he begged the portress to find Sister Maria Addolorata, to repeat his story, and to offer his humble services in the cause of the abbess's recovery. All of which the veiled nun within heard patiently to the end.
"I will speak to Sister Maria Addolorata," she said. "Have the goodness to wait."
"Outside?" inquired Dalrymple, as the little shutter of the loophole was almost closed.
"Of course," answered the nun, opening it again, and shutting it as soon as she had spoken.
Dalrymple waited a long time in the blazing sun. The main entrance of the convent faced to the southeast, and it was not yet midday. He grew hot, after his walk, and softly wiped his forehead, and carefully folded his handkerchief again before returning it to his pocket. At last he heard the sound of steps again, and in a few seconds the loophole was once more opened.
"Sister Maria Addolorata will speak with you," said the portress's voice, as he approached his face to the little grating.
He felt an odd little thrill of pleasant surprise. But so far as seeing anything was concerned, he was disappointed. Instead of one veiled nun, there were now two veiled nuns.
"Madam," he began, "my friend Doctor Tommaso Taddei has met with an accident which prevents him from leaving his bed." And he went on to repeat all that he had told the portress, with such further explanations as he deemed necessary and persuasive.
While he spoke, Maria Addolorata drew back a little into the deeper shadow away from the loophole. Her veil hung over her eyes, and the folds were drawn across her mouth, but she gradually raised her head, throwing it back until she could see Dalrymple's face from beneath the edge of the black material. In so doing she unconsciously uncovered her mouth. The Scotchman saw a good part of her features, and gazed intently at what he saw, rightly judging that as the sun was behind him, she could hardly be sure whether he were looking at her or not.
As for her, she was doubtless inspired by a natural curiosity, but at the same time she understood the gravity of the case and wished to form an opinion as to the advisability of admitting the stranger. A glance told her that Dalrymple was a gentleman, and she was reassured by the gravity of his voice and by the fact that he was evidently acquainted with the abbess's condition, and must, therefore, be a friend of Sor Tommaso. When he had finished speaking, she immediately looked down again, and seemed to be hesitating.
"Open the door, Sister Filomena," she said at last.
The portress shook her head almost imperceptibly as she obeyed, but she said nothing. The whole affair was in her eyes exceedingly irregular. Maria Addolorata should have retired to the little room adjoining the convent parlour, and separated from it by a double grating, and Dalrymple should have been admitted to the parlour itself, and they should have said what they had to say to one another through the bars, in the presence of the portress. But Maria Addolorata was the abbess's niece. The abbess was too ill to give orders—too ill even to speak, it was rumoured. In a few days Maria Addolorata might be 'Her most Reverend Excellency.' Meanwhile she was mistress of the situation, and it was safer to obey her. Moreover, the portress was only a lay sister, an old and ignorant creature, accustomed to do what she was told to do by the ladies of the convent.
Dalrymple took off his hat and stooped low to enter through the small side-door. As soon as he had passed the threshold, he stood up to his height and then made a low bow to Maria Addolorata, whose veil now quite covered her eyes and prevented her from seeing him,—a fact which he realized immediately.
"Give warning to the sisters, Sister Filomena," said Maria Addolorata to the portress, who nodded respectfully and walked away into the gloom under the arches, leaving the nun and Dalrymple together by the door.
"It is necessary to give warning," she explained, "lest you should meet any of the sisters unveiled in the corridors, and they should be scandalized."
Dalrymple again bowed gravely and stood still, his eyes fixed upon Maria Addolorata's veiled head, but wandering now and then to her heavy but beautifully shaped white hands, which she held carelessly clasped before her and holding the end of the great rosary of brown beads which hung from her side. He thought he had never seen such hands before. They were high-bred, and yet at the same time there was a strongly material attraction about them.
He did not know what to say, and as nothing seemed to be expected of him, he kept silence for some time. At last Maria Addolorata, as though impatient at the long absence of the portress, tapped the pavement softly with her sandal slipper, and turned her head in the direction of the arches as though to listen for approaching footsteps.
"I hope that the abbess is no worse than when Doctor Taddei saw her last night," observed Dalrymple.
"Her most reverend excellency," answered Maria Addolorata, with a little emphasis, as though to teach him the proper mode of addressing the abbess, "is suffering. She has had a bad night."
"I shall hope to be allowed to give some advice to her most reverend excellency," said Dalrymple, to show that he had understood the hint.
"She will not allow you to see her. But you shall come with me to the antechamber, and I will speak with her and tell you what she says."
"I shall be greatly obliged, and will do my best to give good advice without seeing the patient."
Another pause followed, during which neither moved. Then Maria Addolorata spoke again, further reassured, perhaps, by Dalrymple's quiet and professional tone. She had too lately left the world to have lost the habit of making conversation to break an awkward silence. Years of seclusion, too, instead of making her shy and silent, had given her something of the ease and coolness of a married woman. This was natural enough, considering that she was born of worldly people and had acquired the manners of the world in her own home, in childhood.
"You are an Englishman, I presume, Signor Doctor?" she observed, in a tone of interrogation.
"A Scotchman, Madam," answered Dalrymple, correcting her and drawing himself up a little. "My name is Angus Dalrymple."
"It is the same—an Englishman or a Scotchman," said the nun.
"Pardon me, Madam, we consider that there is a great difference. The Scotch are chiefly Celts. Englishmen are Anglo-Saxons."
"But you are all Protestants. It is therefore the same for us."
Dalrymple feared a discussion of the question of religion. He did not answer the nun's last remark, but bowed politely. She, of course, could not see the inclination he made.
"You say nothing," she said presently. "Are you a Protestant?"
"It is a pity!" said Maria Addolorata. "May God send you light."
"Thank you, Madam."
Maria Addolorata smiled under her veil at the polite simplicity of the reply. She had met Englishmen in Rome.
"It is no longer customary to address us as 'Madam,'" she answered, a moment later. "It is more usual to speak to us as 'Sister' or 'Reverend Sister'—or 'Sister Maria.' I am Sister Maria Addolorata. But you know it, for you sent your message to me."
"Doctor Taddei told me."
At this point the portress appeared in the distance, and Maria Addolorata, hearing footsteps, turned her head from Dalrymple, raising her veil a little, so that she could recognize the lay sister without showing her face to the young man.
"Let us go," she said, dropping her veil again, and beginning to walk on. "The sisters are warned."
Dalrymple followed her in silence and at a respectful distance, congratulating himself upon his extraordinary good fortune in having got so far on the first attempt, and inwardly praying that Sor Tommaso's wounds might take a considerable time in healing. It had all come about so naturally that he had lost the sensation of doing something adventurous which had at first taken possession of him, and he now regarded everything as possible, even to being invited to a friendly cup of tea in Sister Maria Addolorata's sitting-room; for he imagined her as having a sitting-room and as drinking tea there in a semi-luxurious privacy. The idea would have amused an Italian of those days, when tea was looked upon as medicine.
They reached the end of the last corridor. Dalrymple, like Sor Tommaso, was admitted to the antechamber, while the portress waited outside to conduct him back again. But Maria did not take him into the abbess's parlour, into which she went at once, closing the door behind her. Dalrymple sat down upon a carved wooden box-bench, and waited. The nun was gone a long time.
"I have kept you waiting," she said, as she entered the little room again.
"My time is altogether at your service, Sister Maria Addolorata," he answered, rising quickly. "How is her most reverend excellency?"
"Very ill. I do not know what to say. She will not hear of seeing you. I fear she will not live long, for she can hardly breathe."
"Does she cough?"
"Not much. Not so much as last night. She complains that she cannot draw her breath and that her lungs feel full of something."
The case was evidently serious, and Dalrymple, who was a physician by nature, proceeded to extract as much information as he could from the nun, who did her best to answer all his questions clearly. The long conversation, with its little restraints and its many attempts at a mutual understanding, did more to accustom Maria Addolorata to Dalrymple's presence and personality than any number of polite speeches on his part could have done. There is an unavoidable tendency to intimacy between any two people who are together engaged in taking care of a sick person.
"I can give you directions and good advice," said Dalrymple, at last. "But it can never be the same as though I could see the patient myself. Is there no possible means of obtaining her consent? She may die for the want of just such advice as I can only give after seeing her. Would not her brother, his Eminence the Cardinal, perhaps recommend her to let me visit her once?"
"That is an idea," answered the nun, quickly. "My uncle is a man of broad views. I have heard it said in Rome. I could write to him that Doctor Taddei is unable to come, and that a celebrated foreign physician is here—"
"Not celebrated," interrupted Dalrymple, with his literal Scotch veracity.
"What difference can it make?" uttered Maria Addolorata, moving her shoulders a little impatiently. "He will be the more ready to use his influence, for he is much attached to my aunt. Then, if he can persuade her, I can send down the gardener to the town for you this afternoon. It may not be too late."
"I see that you have some confidence in me," said Dalrymple. "I am of a newer school than Doctor Taddei. If you will follow my directions, I will almost promise that her most reverend excellency shall not die before to-morrow."
He smiled now, as he gave the abbess her full title, for he began to feel as though he had known Maria Addolorata for a long time, though he had only had one glimpse of her eyes, just when she had raised her head to get a look at him through the loophole of the gate. But he had not forgotten them, and he felt that he knew them.
"I will do all you tell me," she answered quietly.
Dalrymple had some English medicines with him on his travels, and not knowing what might be required of him at the convent, he had brought with him a couple of tiny bottles.
"This when she coughs—ten drops," he said, handing the bottles to the nun. "And five drops of this once an hour, until her chest feels freer."
He gave her minute directions, as far as he could, about the general treatment of the patient, which Maria repeated and got by heart.
"I will let you know before twenty-three o'clock what the cardinal says to the plan," she said. "In this way you will be able to come up by daylight."
As Dalrymple took his leave, he held out his hand, forgetting that he was in Italy.
"It is not our custom," said Maria Addolorata, thrusting each of her own hands into the opposite sleeve.
But there was nothing cold in her tone. On the contrary, Dalrymple fancied that she was almost on the point of laughing at that moment, and he blushed at his awkwardness. But she could not see his face.
"Your most humble servant," he said, bowing to her.
"Good day, Signor Doctor," she answered, through the open door, as the portress jingled her keys and prepared to follow Dalrymple.
So he took his departure, not without much satisfaction at the result of his first attempt.
SOR TOMMASO recovered but slowly, though his injuries were of themselves not dangerous. His complexion was apoplectic and gouty, he was no longer young, and before forty-eight hours had gone by his wounds were decidedly inflamed and he had a little fever. At the same time he was by no means a courageous man, and he was ready to cry out that he was dead, whenever he felt himself worse. Besides this, he lost his temper several times daily with Dalrymple, who resolutely refused to bleed him, and he insisted upon eating and drinking more than was good for him, at a time when if he had been his own patient he would have enforced starvation as necessary to recovery.
Meanwhile the cardinal had exerted his influence with his sister, the abbess, and had so far succeeded that Dalrymple, who went every day to the convent, was now made to stand with his back to the abbess's open door, in order that he might at least ask her questions and hear her own answers. Many an old Italian doctor can tell of even stranger and more absurd precautions observed by the nuns of those days. As soon as the oral examination was over, Maria Addolorata shut the door and came out into the parlour, where Dalrymple finished his visit, prolonging it in conversation with her by every means he could devise.
Though encumbered with a little of the northern shyness, Dalrymple was not diffident. There is a great difference between shyness and diffidence. Diffidence distrusts itself; shyness distrusts the mere outward impression made on others. At this time Dalrymple had no object beyond enjoying the pleasure of talking with Maria Addolorata, and no hope beyond that of some day seeing her face without the veil. As for her voice, his present position as doctor to the convent made it foolish for him to run the risk of being caught listening for her songs behind the garden wall. But he had not forgotten what Annetta had told him, and Maria Addolorata's soft intonations and liquid depths of tone in speaking led him to believe that the peasant girl had not exaggerated the nun's gift of singing.
One day, after he had seen her and talked with her more than half a dozen times, he approached the subject, merely for the sake of conversation, saying that he had been told of her beautiful voice by people who had heard her across the garden.
"It is true," she answered simply. "I have a good voice. But it is forbidden here to sing except in church," she added with a sigh. "And now that my aunt is ill, I would not displease her for anything."
"That is natural," said Dalrymple. "But I would give anything in the world to hear you."
"In church you can hear me. The church is open on Sundays at the Benediction service. We are behind the altar in the choir, of course. But perhaps you would know my voice from the rest because it is deeper."
"I should know it in a hundred thousand," asseverated the Scotchman, with warmth.
"That would be a great many—a whole choir of angels!" And the nun laughed softly, as she sometimes did, now that she knew him so much better.
There was something warm and caressing in her laughter, short and low as it was, that made Dalrymple look at those full white hands of hers and wonder whether they might not be warm and caressing too.
"Will you sing a little louder than the rest next Sunday afternoon, Sister Maria?" he asked. "I will be in the church."
"That would be a great sin," she answered, but not very gravely.
"Because I should have to be thinking about you instead of about the holy service. Do you not know that? But nothing is sinful according to you Protestants, I suppose. At all events, come to the church."
"Do you think we are all devils, Sister Maria?" asked Dalrymple, with a smile.
"More or less." She laughed again. "They say in the town that you have a compact with the devil."
"Do you hear what is said in the town?"
"Sometimes. The gardener brings the gossip and tells it to the cook. Or Sora Nanna tells it to me when she brings the linen. There are a thousand ways. The people think we know nothing because they never see us. But we hear all that goes on."
Dalrymple said nothing in answer for some time. Then he spoke suddenly and rather hoarsely.
"Shall I never see you, Sister Maria?" he asked.
"Me? But you see me every day—"
"Yes,—but your face, without the veil."
Maria Addolorata shook her head.
"It is against all rules," she answered.
"Is it not against all rules that we should sit here and make conversation every day for half an hour?"
"Yes—I suppose it is. But you are here as a doctor to take care of my aunt," she added quickly. "That makes it right. You are not a man. You are a doctor."
"Oh,—I understand." Dalrymple laughed a little. "Then I am never to see your beautiful face?"
"How do you know it is beautiful, since you have never seen it?"
"From your beautiful hands," answered the young man, promptly.
"Oh!" Maria Addolorata glanced at her hands and then, with a movement which might have been quicker, concealed them in her sleeves.
"It is a sin to hide what God has made beautiful," said Dalrymple.
"If I have anything about me that is beautiful, it is for God's glory that I hide it," answered Maria, with real gravity this time.
Dalrymple understood that he had gone a little too far, though he did not exactly regret it, for the next words she spoke showed him that she was not really offended. Nevertheless, in order to exhibit a proper amount of contrition he took his leave with a little more formality than usual on this particular occasion. Possibly she was willing to show that she forgave him, for she hesitated a moment just before opening the door, and then, to his great surprise, held out her hand to him.
"It is your custom," she said, just touching his eagerly outstretched fingers. "But you must not look at it," she added, drawing it back quickly and hiding it in her sleeve with another low laugh. And she began to shut the door almost before he had quite gone through.
Dalrymple walked more slowly on that day, as he descended through the steep and narrow streets, and though he was surefooted by nature and habit, he almost stumbled once or twice on his way down, because, somehow, though his eyes looked towards his feet, he did not see exactly where he was going.
There is no necessity for analyzing his sensations. It is enough to say at once that he was beginning to be really in love with Maria Addolorata, and that he denied the fact to himself stoutly, though it forced itself upon him with every step which took him further from the convent. He felt on that day a strong premonitory symptom in the shape of a logical objection, as it were, to his returning again to see the nun. The objection was the evident and total futility of the almost intimate intercourse into which the two were gliding. The day must soon come when the abbess would no longer need his assistance. In all probability she would recover, for the more alarming symptoms had disappeared, and she showed signs of regaining her strength by slow degrees. It was quite clear to Dalrymple that, after her ultimate recovery, his chance of seeing and talking with Maria Addolorata would be gone forever. Sor Tommaso, indeed, recovered but slowly. Of the two his case was the worse, for fever had set in on the third day and had not left him yet, so that he assured Dalrymple almost hourly that his last moment was at hand. But he also was sure to get well, in the Scotchman's opinion, and the latter knew well enough that his own temporary privileges as physician to the convent would be withdrawn from him as soon as the Subiaco doctor should be able to climb the hill.
It was all, therefore, but a brief incident in his life, which could not possibly have any continuation hereafter. He tried in vain to form plans and create reasons for seeing Maria Addolorata even once a month for some time to come, but his ingenuity failed him altogether, and he grew angry with himself for desiring what was manifestly impossible.
With true masculine inconsequence, so soon as he was displeased with himself he visited his displeasure upon the object that attracted him, and on the earliest possible occasion, on their very next meeting. He assumed an air of coldness and reserve such as he had certainly not thought necessary to put on at his first visit. Almost without any preliminary words of courtesy, and without any attempt to prolong the short conversation which always took place before he was made to stand with his back to the abbess's open door, he coldly inquired about the good lady's condition during the past night, and made one or two observations thereon with a brevity almost amounting to curtness.
Maria Addolorata was surprised; but as her face was covered, and her hands were quietly folded before her, Dalrymple could not see that his behaviour had any effect upon her. She did not answer his last remark at all, but quietly bowed her head.
Then followed the usual serio-comic scene, during which Dalrymple stood turned away from the open door, asking questions of the sick woman, and listening attentively for her low-spoken answers. To tell the truth, he judged of her condition more from the sound of her voice than from anything else. He had also taught Maria Addolorata how to feel the pulse; and she counted the beats while he looked at his watch. His chief anxiety was now for the action of the heart, which had been weakened by a lifetime of unhealthy living, by food inadequate in quality, even when sufficient in quantity, by confinement within doors, and lack of life-giving sunshine, and by all those many causes which tend to reduce the vitality of a cloistered nun.
When the comedy was over, Maria Addolorata shut the door as usual; and she and Dalrymple were alone together in the abbess's parlour, as they were every day. The abbess herself could hear that they were talking, but she naturally supposed that they were discussing the details of her condition; and as she felt that she was really recovering, so far as she could judge, and as almost every day, after Dalrymple had gone, Maria Addolorata had some new direction of his to carry out, the elder lady's suspicions were not aroused. On the contrary, her confidence in the Scotch doctor grew from day to day; and in the long hours during which she lay thinking over her state and its circumstances, she made plans for his conversion, in which her brother, the cardinal, bore a principal part. She was grateful to Dalrymple, and it seemed to her that the most proper way of showing her gratitude would be to save his soul, a point of view unusual in the ordinary relations of life.
On this particular day, Maria Addolorata shut the door, and came forward into the parlour as usual. As usual, too, she sat down in the abbess's own big easy-chair, expecting that Dalrymple would seat himself opposite to her. But he remained standing, with the evident intention of going away in a few moments. He said a few words about the patient, gave one or two directions, and then stood still in silence for a moment.
Maria Addolorata lifted her head a little, but not enough to show him more than an inch of her face.
"Have I displeased you, Signor Doctor?" she asked, in her deep, warm voice. "Have I not carried out your orders?"
"On the contrary," answered Dalrymple, with a stiffness which he resented in himself. "It is impossible to be more conscientious than you always are."
Seeing that he still remained standing, the nun rose to her feet, and waited for him to go. She believed that she was far too proud to detain him, if he wished to shorten the meeting. But something hurt her, which she could not understand.
Dalrymple hesitated a moment, and his lips parted as though he were about to speak. The silence was prolonged only for a moment or two.
"Good morning, Sister Maria Addolorata," he said suddenly, and bowed.
"Good morning, Signor Doctor," answered the nun.
She bent her head very slightly, but a keener observer than Dalrymple was, just then, would have noticed that as she did so, her shoulders moved forward a little, as though her breast were contracted by some sudden little pain. Dalrymple did not see it. He bowed again, let himself out, and closed the door softly behind him.
When he was gone, Maria Addolorata sat down in the big easy-chair again, and uncovered her face, doubling her veil back upon her head, and withdrawing the thick folds from her chin and mouth. Her features were very pale, as she sat staring at the sky through the window, and her eyes fixed themselves in that look which was peculiar to her. Her full white hands strained upon each other a little, bringing the colour to the tips of her fingers. During some minutes she did not move. Then she heard her aunt's voice calling to her hoarsely. She rose at once, and went into the bedroom. The abbess's pale face was very thin and yellow now, as it lay upon the white pillow; the coverlet was drawn up to her chin, and a grimly carved black crucifix hung directly above her head.
"The doctor did not stay long to-day," she said, in a hollow tone.
"No, mother," answered the young nun. "He thinks you are doing very well. He wishes you to eat a wing of roast chicken."
"If I could have a little salad," said the abbess. "Maria," she added suddenly, "you are careful to keep your face covered when you are in the next room, are you not?"
"You generally do not raise your veil until you come into this room, after the doctor is gone," said the elder lady.
"He went so soon, to-day," answered Maria Addolorata, with perfectly innocent truth. "I stayed a moment in the parlour, thinking over his directions, and I lifted my veil when I was alone. It is close to-day."
"Go into the garden, and walk a little," said the abbess. "It will do you good. You are pale."
If she had felt even a faint uneasiness about her niece's conduct, it was removed by the latter's manner.
ONCE more Dalrymple was sitting over his supper at the table in the vaulted room on the ground floor which Stefanone used as a wine shop. To tell the truth, it was very superior to the ordinary wine shops of Subiaco and had an exceptional reputation. The common people never came there, because Stefanone did not sell his cheap wine at retail, but sent it all to Rome, or took it thither himself for the sake of getting a higher price for it. He always said that he did not keep an inn, and perhaps as much on account of his relations with Gigetto's family, he assumed as far as possible the position of a wine-dealer rather than that of a wine-seller. The distinction, in Italian mountain towns, is very marked.
"They can have a measure of the best, if they care to pay for it," he said. "If they wish a mouthful of food, there is what there is. But I am not the village host, and Nanna is not a wine-shop cook, to fry tripe and peel onions for Titius and Caius."
The old Roman expression, denoting generally the average public, survives still in polite society, and Stefanone had caught it from Sor Tommaso.
Dalrymple was sitting as usual over his supper, by the light of the triple-beaked brass lamp, his measure of wine beside him, and a beefsteak, which on this occasion was really of beef, before him. Stefanone was absent in Rome, with a load of wine. Sora Nanna sat on Dalrymple's right, industriously knitting in Italian fashion, one of the needles stuck into and supported by a wooden sheath thrust into her waist-band, while she worked off the stitches with the others. Annetta sat opposite the Scotchman, but a little on one side of the lamp, so that she could see his face.
"Mother," she said suddenly, without lifting her chin from the hand in which it rested, "you do not know anything! This Signor Englishman is making love with a nun in the convent! Eh—what do you think of it? Only this was wanting. A little more and the lightning will fall upon the convent! These Protestants! Oh, these blessed Protestants! They respect nothing, not even the saints!"
"My daughter! what are you saying?"
Sora Nanna's fingers did not pause in their work, nor did her eyes look up, but the deep furrow showed itself in her thick peasant's forehead, and her coarse, hard lips twitched clumsily with the beginning of a smile.
"What am I saying? The truth. Ask rather of the Signore whether it is not true."
"It is silly," said Dalrymple, growing unnaturally red, and looking up sharply at Annetta, before he took his next mouthful.
"Look at him, mother!" laughed the girl. "He is red, red—he seems to me a boiled shrimp. Eh, this time I have guessed it! And as for Sister Maria Addolorata, she no longer sees with her eyes! To-day, when you were carrying in the baskets, you and the other women who went with us, I asked her whether the abbess was satisfied with the new doctor, and she answered that he was a very wise man, much wiser than Sor Tommaso. So I told her that it was a pity, because Sor Tommaso was getting well and would not allow the English doctor to come instead of him much longer. Then she looked at me. By Bacchus, I was afraid. Certain eyes! Not even a cat when you take away her kittens! A little more and she would have eaten me. And then her face made itself of marble—like that face of a woman that is built into the fountain in the piazza. Arch-priest! What a face!"
The girl stared hard at Dalrymple, and her mouth laughed wickedly at his evident embarrassment, while there was something very different from laughter in her eyes. During the long speech, Sora Nanna had stopped knitting, and she looked from her daughter to the Scotchman with a sort of half-stupid, half-cunning curiosity.
"But these are sins!" she exclaimed at last.
"And what does it matter?" asked the girl. "Does he go to confession? So what does it matter? He keeps the account himself, of his sins. I should not like to have them on my shoulders. But as for Sister Maria Addolorata—oh, she! I told you that she sinned in her throat. Well, the sin is ready, now. What is she waiting for? For the abbess to die? Or for Sor Tommaso to get well? Then she will not see the Signor Englishman any more. It would be better for her. When she does not see him any more, she will knead her pillow with tears, and make her bread of it, to bite and eat. Good appetite, Sister Maria!"
"You talk, you talk, and you conclude nothing," observed Sora Nanna. "You have certain thoughts in your head! And you do not let the Signore say even a word."
"What can he say? He will say that it is not true. But then, who will believe him? I should like to see them a little together. I am sure that she shows him her face, and that it is 'Signor Doctor' here, and 'Dear Signor Doctor' there, and a thousand gentlenesses. Tell the truth, Signore. She shows you her face."
"No," said Dalrymple, who had regained his self-possession. "She never shows me her face."
"What a shame for a Carmelite nun to show her face to a man!" cried the girl.
"But I tell you she is always veiled to her chin," insisted Dalrymple, with perfect truth.
"Eh! It is you who say so!" retorted Annetta. "But then, what can it matter to me? Make love with a nun, if it goes, Signore. Youth is a flower—when it is withered, it is hay, and the beasts eat it."
"This is true," said Sora Nanna, returning to her knitting. "But do not pay attention to her, Signore. She is stupid. She does not know what she says. Eat, drink, and manage your own affairs. It is better. What can a child understand? It is like a little dog that sees and barks, without understanding. But you are a much instructed man and have been round the whole world. Therefore you know many things. It seems natural."
Though Dalrymple was not diffident, as has been said, he was far from vain, on the whole, and in particular he had none of that contemptible vanity which makes a man readily believe that every woman he meets is in love with him. He had not the slightest idea at that time that Annetta, the peasant girl, looked upon him with anything more than the curiosity and vague interest usually bestowed on a foreigner in Italy.
He was annoyed, however, by what she said this evening, though he was also secretly surprised and delighted. The contradiction is a common one. The miser is half mad with joy on discovering that he has much more than he supposed, and bitterly resents, at the same time, any notice which may be taken of the fact by others.
Annetta did not enjoy his discomfiture and evident embarrassment, for she was far more deeply hurt herself than she realized, and every word she had spoken about Maria Addolorata had hurt her, though she had taken a sort of vague delight in teasing Dalrymple. She relapsed into silence now, alternately wishing that he loved her, and then, that she might kill him. If she could not have his heart, she would be satisfied with his blood. There was a passionate animal longing in the instinct to have him for herself, even dead, rather than that any other woman should get his love.
Dalrymple was aware only that the girl's words had annoyed him, while inwardly conscious that if what she said were true, the truth would make a difference in his life. He showed no inclination to talk any more, and finished his supper in a rather morose silence, turning to his book as soon as he had done. Then Gigetto came in with his guitar and sang and talked with the two women.
But he was restless that night, and did not fall asleep until the moon had set and his window grew dark. And even in his dreams he was restless still, so that when he awoke in the morning he said to himself that he had been foolish in his behaviour towards Maria Addolorata on the previous day. He felt tired, too, and his colour was less brilliant than usual. It was Sunday, and he remembered that if he chose he could go in the afternoon to the Benediction in the convent church and hear Maria's voice perhaps. But at the usual hour, just before noon, he went to make his visit to the abbess.
It was his intention to forget his stiff manner, and to behave as he had always behaved until yesterday. Strange to say, however, he felt a constraint coming upon him as soon as he was in the nun's presence. She received him as usual, there was the usual comic scene at the abbess's door, and, as every day, the two were alone together after her door was shut.
"Are you ill?" asked Maria Addolorata, after a moment's silence which, short as it was, both felt to be awkward.
Dalrymple was taken by surprise. The tone in which she had spoken was cold and distant rather than expressive of any concern for his welfare, but he did not think of that. He only realized that his manner must seem to her very unusual, since she asked such a question. An Italian would have observed that his own face was pale, and would have told her that he was dying of love.
"No, I am not ill," answered the Scotchman, simply, and in his most natural tone of voice.
"Then what is the matter with you since yesterday?" asked Maria Addolorata, less coldly, and as though she were secretly amused.
"There is nothing the matter—at least, nothing that I could explain to you."
She sat down in the big easy-chair and, as formerly, he took his seat opposite to her.
"There is something," she insisted, speaking thoughtfully. "You cannot deceive a woman, Signor Doctor."
Dalrymple smiled and looked at her veiled head.
"You said the other day that I was not a man, but a doctor," he answered. "I suppose I might answer that you are not a woman, but a nun."
"And is not a nun a woman?" asked Maria Addolorata, and he knew that she was smiling, too.
"You would not forgive me if I answered you," he said.
"Who knows? I might be obliged to, since I am obliged to meet you every day. It may be a sin, but I am curious."
"Shall I tell you?"
As though instinctively, Maria was silent for a moment, and turned her veiled face towards the abbess's door. But Dalrymple needed no such warning to lower his voice.
"Tell me," she said, and under her veil she could feel that her eyes were growing deep and the pupils wide and dark, and she knew that she had done wrong.
"How should I know whether you are a saint or only a woman, since I have never seen your face?" he asked. "I shall never know—for in a few days Doctor Taddei will be well again, and you will not need my services."
He saw the quick tightening of one hand upon the other, and the slight start of the head, and in a flash he knew that all Annetta had told him was true. The silence that followed seemed longer than the awkward pause which had preceded the conversation.
"It cannot be so soon," she said in a very low tone.
"It may be to-morrow," he answered, and to his own astonishment his voice almost broke in his throat, and he felt that his own hands were twisting each other, as though he were in pain. "I shall die without seeing you," he added almost roughly.
Again there was a short silence in the still room.
Suddenly, with quick movements of both hands at once, Maria Addolorata threw back the veil from her face, and drew away the folds that covered her mouth.
"There, see me!" she exclaimed. "Look at me well this once!"
Her face was as white as marble, and her dark eyes had a wild and startled look in them, as though she saw the world for the first time. A ringlet of red-gold hair had escaped from the bands of white that crossed her forehead in an even line and were drawn down straight on either side, for in the quick movement she had made she had loosened the pin that held them together under her chin, and had freed the dazzling throat down to the high collar.
Dalrymple's pale, bright blue eyes caught fire, and he looked at her with all his being, at her face, her throat, her eyes, the ringlet of her hair. He breathed audibly, with parted lips, between his clenched teeth.
Gradually, as he looked, he saw the red blush rise from the throat to the cheeks, from the cheeks to the forehead, and the marble grew more beautiful with womanly life. Then, all at once, he saw the hot tears welling up in her eyes, and in an instant the vision was gone. With a passionate movement she had covered her face with the veil, and throwing herself sideways against the high back of the chair, she pressed the dark stuff still closer to her eyes and mouth and cheeks. Her whole body shook convulsively, and a moment later she was sobbing, not audibly, but visibly, as though her heart were breaking.
Dalrymple was again taken by surprise. He had been so completely lost in the utterly selfish contemplation of her beauty that he had been very far from realizing what she herself must have felt as soon as she appreciated what she had done. He at once accused himself of having looked too rudely at her, but at the same time he was himself too much disturbed to argue the matter. Quite instinctively he rose to his feet and tried to take one of her hands from her veil, touching it comfortingly. But she made a wild gesture, as though to drive him away.
"Go!" she cried in a low and broken voice, between her sobs. "Go! Go quickly!"
She could not say more for her sobbing, but he did not obey her. He only drew back a little and watched her, all his blood on fire from the touch of her soft white hand.
She stifled her sobs in her veil, and gradually grew more calm. She even arranged the veil itself a little better, her face still turned away towards the back of the chair.
"Maria! Maria!" The abbess's voice was calling her, hoarsely and almost desperately, from the next room.
She started and sat up straight, listening. Then the cry was heard again, more desperate, less loud. With a quick skill which seemed marvellous in Dalrymple's eyes, Maria adjusted her veil almost before she had sprung to her feet.
"Wait!" she said. "Something is the matter!"
She was at the bedroom door in an instant, and in an instant more she was at her aunt's bedside.
"Maria—I am dying," said the abbess's voice faintly, as she felt the nun's arm under her head.
Dalrymple heard the words, and did not hesitate as he hastily felt for something in his pocket.
"Come!" cried Maria Addolorata.
But he was already there, on the other side of the bed, pouring something between the sick lady's lips.
It was fortunate that he was there at that moment. He had indeed anticipated the possibility of a sudden failure in the action of the heart, and he never came to the convent without a small supply of a powerful stimulant of his own invention. The liquid, however, was of such a nature that he did not like to leave the use of it to Maria Addolorata's discretion, for he was aware that she might easily be mistaken in the symptoms of the collapse which would really require its use.
The abbess swallowed a sufficient quantity of it, and Dalrymple allowed her head to lie again upon the pillow. She looked almost as though she were dead. Her eyes were turned up, and her jaw had dropped. Maria Addolorata believed that all was over.
"She is dead," she said. "Let us leave her in peace."
It is a very ancient custom among Italians to withdraw as soon as a dying person is unconscious, if not even before the supreme moment.
"She will probably live through this," answered Dalrymple, shaking his head.
Neither he nor the nun spoke again for a long time. Little by little, the abbess revived under the influence of the stimulant, the heart beat less faintly, and the mouth slowly closed, while the eyelids shut themselves tightly over the upturned eyes. The normal regular breathing began again, and the crisis was over.
"It is passed," said Dalrymple. "It will not come again to-day. We can leave her now, for she will sleep."
"Yes," said the abbess herself. "Let me sleep." Her voice was faint, but the words were distinctly articulated.
Then she opened her eyes and looked about her quite naturally. Her glance rested on Dalrymple's face. Suddenly realizing that she was not veiled, she drew the coverlet up over her face. It is a peculiarity of such cases, that the patient returns almost immediately to ordinary consciousness when the moment of danger is past.
"Go!" she said, with more energy than might have been expected. "This is a religious house. You must not be here."
Dalrymple retired into the parlour again, shutting the door behind him, and waited for Maria Addolorata, for it was now indispensable that he should give her directions for the night. During the few minutes which passed while he was alone, he stood looking out of the window. The excitement of the last half-hour had cut off from his present state of mind the emotion he had felt before the abbess's cry for help, but had not decreased the impression it had left. While he was helping the sick lady there had not been one instant in which he had not felt that there was more than the life of a half-saintly old woman in the balance, and that her death meant the end of his meetings with Maria Addolorata. Annetta's words came back to him, 'she will knead her pillow with tears and make her bread of it.'
Several minutes passed, and the door opened softly and closed again. Maria Addolorata came up to him, where he stood by the window. She did not speak for a moment, but he saw that her hand was pressed to her side.
"I have spent a bad half-hour," she said at last, with something like a gasp.
"It is the worst half-hour I ever spent in my life," answered Dalrymple. "I thought it was all over," he added.
"Yes," she said, "I thought it was all over."
He could hear his heart beating in his ears. He could almost hear hers. His hand went out toward her, cold and unsteady, but it fell to his side again almost instantly. But for the heart-beats, it seemed to him that there was an appalling stillness in the air of the quiet room. His manly face grew very pale. He slowly bit his lip and looked out of the window. An enormous temptation was upon him. He knew that if she moved to leave his side he should take her and hold her. There was a tiny drop of blood on his lip now. Something in him made him hope against himself that she would speak, that she would say some insignificant dry words. But every inch of his strong fibre and every ounce of his hot blood hoped that she would move, instead of speaking.
She sighed, and the sigh was broken by a quick-drawn breath. Slowly Dalrymple turned his white face and gleaming eyes to her veiled head. Still she neither spoke nor moved. He, in memory, saw her face, her mouth, and her eyes through the thick stuff that hid them. The silence became awful to him. His hands opened and shut convulsively.
She heard his breath and she saw the uncertain shadow of his hand, moving on the black and white squares of the pavement. She made a slight, short movement towards him and then stepped suddenly back, overcoming the temptation to go to him.
He uttered the single word with a low, fierce cry. In an instant his arms were around her, pressing her, lifting her, straining her, almost bruising her. In an instant his lips were kissing a face whiter than his own, eyes that flamed like summer lightning between his kisses, lips crushed and hurt by his, but still not kissed enough, hands that were raised to resist, but lingered to be kissed in turn, lest anything should be lost.
A little splintering crash, the sound of a glass falling upon a stone floor in the next room, broke the stillness. Dalrymple's arms relaxed, and the two stood for one moment facing one another, pale, with fire in their eyes and hearts beating more loudly than before. Dalrymple raised his hand to his forehead, as though he were dazed, and made an uncertain step in the direction of the door. Maria raised her white hands towards him, and her eyelids drooped, even while she looked into his face.
He kissed her once more with a kiss in which all other kisses seemed to meet and live and die a lingering, sweet death. She sank into the deep old easy-chair, and when she looked up, he was gone.
IT rained during the afternoon, and Dalrymple sat in his small laboratory, among his books and the simple apparatus he used for his experiments. His little window was closed, and the southwest wind drove the shower against the clouded panes of glass, so that the rain came through the ill-fitted strips of lead which joined them, and ran down in small streams to the channel in the stone sill, whence the water found its way out through a hole running through the wall. He sat in his rush-bottomed chair, sideways by the deal table, one long leg crossed over the other. His hand lay on an open book, and his fingers occasionally tapped the page impatiently, while his eyes were fixed on the window, watching the driving rain.
He was not thinking, for he could not think. Over and over again the scene of the morning came back to him and sent the hot blood rushing to his throat. He tried to reflect, indeed, and to see whether what he had done was to have any consequences for him, or was to be left behind in his life, like a lovely view seen from a carriage window on a swift journey, gone before it is half seen, and never to be seen again, except in dreams. But he was utterly unable to look forward and reason about the future. Everything dragged him back, up the steep ascent to the convent, through the arched ways and vaulted corridors, to the room in which he had passed the supreme moments of his life. The only distinct impression of the future was the strong desire to feel again what he had felt that day; to feel it again and again, and always, as long as feeling could last; to stretch out his hands and take, to close them and hold, to make his, indubitably, what had been but questionably his for an instant, to get the one thing worth having, for himself, and only for himself. For the passion of a strong man is loving and taking, and the passion of a good woman is loving and giving. Dalrymple reasoned well enough, later,—too well, perhaps,—but during those hours he spent alone on that day, there was no power of reasoning in him. The world was the woman he loved, and the world's orbit was but the circle of his clasping arms. Beyond them was chaos, without form and void, clouded as the rain-streaked panes of his little window.
He looked at his watch more than once. At last he rose, threw a cloak over his shoulders and went out, locking the door of the little laboratory behind him as he always did, and thrusting the unwieldy key into his pocket.
He climbed the hill to the convent, taking the short cut through the narrow lanes. The rain had almost ceased, and the wet mist that blew round the corners of the dark houses was pleasant in his face. But he scarcely knew what he saw and felt on his way. He reached the convent church and went in, and stood by one of the pillars near the door.
It was a small church, built with a great choir for the nuns behind the high altar; from each side of the latter a high wooden screen extended to the walls, completely cutting off the space. It was dark, too, especially in such weather, and almost deserted, save for a number of old women who knelt on the damp marble pavement, some leaning against the backs of chairs, some resting one arm upon the plastered bases of the yellow marble columns. There were many lights on the high altar. Two acolytes, rough-headed boys of Subiaco, knelt within the altar rail, dressed in black cassocks and clean linen cottas. Two priests and a young deacon sat side by side on the right of the altar, with small black books in their hands. The nuns were chanting, unseen in the choir. No one noticed Dalrymple, wrapped in his cloak, as he leaned against the pillar near the door. His head was a little inclined, involuntarily respectful to ceremonies he neither believed in nor understood, but which had in them the imposing element of devout earnestness. Yet his eyes were raised and looked up from under his brows, steadily and watchfully, for he knew that Maria Addolorata was behind the screen, and from the first moment of entering the church it seemed to him that he could distinguish her voice from the rest.
He knew that it was hers, though he had never heard her sing. There was in all those sweet, colourless tones one tone that made ringing harmonies in his strong heart. Amongst all those mingling accents, there was one accent that touched his soul. Amidst the echoes that died softly away under the dim arches, there was one echo that died not, but rang on and on in his ears. There was a voice not like other voices there, nor like any he had ever heard. Many were strong and sweet; this one was not sweet and strong only, but alive with a divine life, winged with divine wings, essential of immortality, touching beyond tears, passionate as the living, breathing, sighing, dying world, grand as a flood of light, sad as the twilight of gods, full as a great water swinging to the tide of the summer's moon, fine-drawn as star-rays—a voice of gold.
As Dalrymple stood there in the shadow, he heard it singing to him and telling him all that he had not been told in words, all that he felt, and more also. For there was in it the passion of the woman, and the passionate remorse of the nun, the towering love of Maria Braccio, woman and princess, and the deep despair of Maria Addolorata, nun and sinner, unfaithful spouse of the Lord Christ, accused and self-accusing, self-wronged, self-judged, but condemned of God and foretasting the ultimate tragedy that is eternal—the tragedy of supreme hell.
The man who stood there knew that it was his doing, and the burden of his deeds bowed him bodily as he stood. But still he listened, and, as she sung, he watched her lips in the dark, inner mirror of sin's memory, and they drew him on.
Little by little, he heard only her voice, and the others chanted but faintly as from an infinite distance. And then, not in his thought, but in deed, she was singing alone, and the words of 'O Salutaris Hostia,' sounded in the dim church as they had never sounded before, nor could ever sound again, the appeal of a lost soul's agony to God, the glory of golden voice, the accent of transcendent genius, the passion, the strength, the despair, of an ancient race.
In the dark church the coarse, sad peasant women bowed themselves upon the pavement. One of them sobbed aloud and beat her breast. Angus Dalrymple kneeled upon one knee and pressed his brow against the foot of the pillar, kneeling neither to God, nor to the Sacred Host, nor to man's belief in Heaven or Hell, neither praying nor blaspheming, neither hoping nor dreading, but spell-bound upon a wrack of torture that was heart-breaking delight, his senses torn and strained to the utmost of his strong endurance, to the very scream of passion, his soul crucified upon the exquisite loveliness of his sin.
Then all was still for an instant. Again there was a sound of voices, as the nuns sang in chorus the 'Tantum Ergo.' But the voice of voices was silent among them. The solemn Benediction blessed the just and the unjust alike. The short verses and responses of the priests broke the air that still seemed alive and trembling.
Dalrymple rose slowly, and wrapped his cloak about him. Above the footsteps of the women going out of the church, he could hear the soft sound of all the nuns moving together as they left the choir. He knew that she was with them, and he stood motionless in his place till silence descended as a curtain between him and what had been. Then, with bent head, he went out into the rain that poured through the dim twilight.
THEY were together on the following day. The abbess was better, and as yet there had been no return of the syncope which Dalrymple dreaded.
Contrary to her habit, Maria Addolorata sat on a high chair by the table, her head veiled and turned away, her chin supported in her hand. Dalrymple was seated not far from her, leaning forward, and trying to see her face, silent, and in a dangerous mood. She had refused to let him come near her, and even to raise her veil. When she spoke, her voice was full of a profound sadness that irritated him instead of touching him, for his nerves were strung to passion and out of tune with regret.
"The sin of it; the deadly sin!" she said.
"There is no sin in it," he answered; but she shook her veiled head.
And there was silence again, as on the day before, but the stillness was of another kind. It was not the awful lull which goes before the bursting of the storm, when the very air seems to start at the fall of a leaf for fear lest it be already the thunder-clap. It was more like the noiseless rising of the hungry flood that creeps up round the doomed house, wherein is desperate, starving life, higher and higher, inch by inch—the flood of rising fate.
"You say that there is no sin in it," she said, after a time. "You say it, but you do not think it. You are a man—you have honour to lose—you understand that, at least—"
"You are a woman, and you have humanity's right to be free. It is an honourable right. You gave it up when you took that veil, not knowing what it was that you gave up. You have done no wrong. You have done nothing that any loving maiden need be ashamed of. I kissed you, for you could not help yourself. That is the monstrous crime which you say is to be punished with eternal damnation. It is monstrous that you should think so. It is blasphemy to say that God made woman to lead a life of suffering and daily misery, chained to a cross which it is agony to look at, and shame to break from."
"Go—leave me. You are tempting me again." She spoke away from him, not changing her position.
"If truth is temptation, I am tempting you, for I am showing you the truth. The truth is this. When you were almost a child they began to bend you and break you in the way they meant you to grow. You bent, but you were not broken. Your nature is too strong. There is a life of your own in you. It was against your will, and when you were just grown up, they buried you, your beauty, your youth, your fresh young heart, your voice and your genius—for it is nothing less. It was all done with deliberate intention for the glory of your family, blasphemously asserted to be the glory of God. It was pressed upon you, before you knew what you were doing, and made pleasant to you before you knew what it all meant. Your cross was cushioned for you and your crown of thorns was gilded. They made the seat under the canopy seem a seat in heaven. They even made you believe that the management of two or three score suffering women was government and power. It seemed a great thing to be abbess, did it not?"
Maria Addolorata bent her veiled head slowly twice or three times, in a heavy-hearted way.
"They made you believe all that," continued Dalrymple, with cold earnestness, "and much more besides—a great deal of which I know little, I suppose—the life to come, and saintship, and the glories of heaven. You have found out what it is all worth. We have found it out together. And they frightened you with hell. Do you know what hell is? A life without love, when one knows what love can mean. I am not eloquent; I wish I were. But I am plain, and I can tell you the truth."
"It is not the truth," answered the nun, slowly. "You tell me it is, to tempt me. I cannot drive you away by force. Will you not go? I cannot cry out for help—it would ruin me and you. Will you not leave me? But for God's grace, I am at your mercy, and there is little grace for me, a sinner."
"No, I will not go away," said Dalrymple, and it seemed to Maria that his voice was the voice of her fate.
"Then God have mercy!" she cried, in a low tone, and as her head sank forward, it was her forehead that rested in her right hand, instead of her chin.
"Love is more merciful than God," he answered.
There was a sudden softness in his voice which she had never heard, not even yesterday. Rising, he stole near to her, and standing, bent down and leaned upon the table by her side and spoke close to her ear. But he did not touch her. She could feel his breath through her veil when he spoke again. It was vital and fierce, and softly hot, like the breathing of a powerful wild beast.
"You are my God," he said. "I worship you, and adore you. But I must have you for mine always. I would rather kill you, and have no God, than lose you alive. Come with me. You are free. You can get through the garden at night—with good horses we can reach the sea to-morrow. There is an English ship of war at anchor in Civita Vecchia. The officers are my friends. Before to-morrow night we can be safe—married—happy. No one will know—no one will follow us. Maria—come—come—come!"
His voice sank to a vibrating whisper as he repeated the word again and again, closer and closer to her ear. Her hands had dropped from her forehead and lay upon the table. With bent head she listened.
"Come, my darling," he continued, fast and low. "I have a beautiful home, my father's home, my mother's—your laws and vows are nothing to them. You shall be honoured, loved—ah, dear! adored, worshipped—you do not know what we will do for you, to fill your life with sweet things. All your life, Maria, from to-morrow. Instead of pain and penance and everlasting suffering and weariness, you shall have all that the world holds of love and peace and flowers. And you shall sing your whole heart out when you will, and have music to play with from year's beginning to year's end and year's end again. Sweet, let me tell you how I love you—how you are alive in every drop of my blood, beating through me like living fire, through heart and soul and head and hand—"
With a quick movement she pressed her palms against her veil upon her ears to shut out the sound of his words. She rocked herself a little, as though the pain were almost greater than she could bear. But his hands moved too, stealthily, strongly, as a tiger's velvet feet, with a vibration all through them, to the very ends of his fingers. For he was in earnest. And the arm went softly round her, and closed gently upon her as her figure swayed in her chair; and the other sought hers, and found it cold as ice and trembling, and not strong to stop her hearing. And again she listened.
Wild and incoherent words fell from his lips, hot and low, with no reason in them but the overwhelming reason of love itself. For he was not an eloquent man, and now he took no thought of what he said. He was far too natural to be eloquent, and far too deeply stirred to care for the shape his love took in speech. There was in his words the strong rush of out-bursting truth which even the worst passion has when it is real to the roots. Words terrible and gentle, blasphemous and devout, wove themselves into a new language such as Maria Addolorata had never heard, nor dared to think of hearing. But he dared everything, to tell her, to hold her, against God and devil, heaven and earth, and all mankind. And he promised all he had, and all that was not his to promise nor to give, rending her beliefs to shreds, trampling on the broken fragments of all she had worshipped, tearing her chains link from link and scattering them like straw down the storm of passionate contempt. And then, again, pouring out love, and more love, and love again, as a stream of liquid fire let loose to flood all it meets with dazzling destruction and hot death.
It is not every woman that knows what it is to be so loved and to listen to such words, so spoken. Those who have heard and felt can understand, but not the rest. Gradually as he spoke, her veiled face was drawn toward his; gradually her hand raised the thick veil and drew it back; and again a little, and the hand that had struggled long and silently against his, lay still at last, and the face that had appealed in vain to Heaven, hid itself against the heart of the strong man.
"The Lord have mercy upon my sinful soul!" she softly prayed.
"I love you!" whispered Dalrymple, folding her to him with both his arms, and pressing his lips to her head. "That is all the world holds. That is all the Heaven there is, and we have it for our own."
But presently she drew back from him, clinging to him with her hands as though to hold him, and yet separating from him and looking up into his face.
"And to-morrow?" she said, with a despairing question in her tone.
"We will go away to-night," he answered, "and to-morrow will be ours, too, and all the to-morrows after that."
But she shook her head, and her hands loosened their hold upon his arms, still lingering on his sleeves.
"And leave her to die?" she asked, with a quick glance at the abbess's door.
Then she looked at him, with something of sudden fear as she met his eyes again. And almost instantly she turned from him, and threw herself forward upon the table as she sat.
"The sin, the deadly sin!" she moaned. "Oh, the horror of it all—the sin, the shame, the disgrace! That is the worst to bear—the shame! The undying shame of it!"
Dalrymple's brows bent themselves in a heavy frown, for he was in no temper to be thwarted, desperate as the risk might be. For himself, he knew that he was setting his life on the chances, if she consented, and that life would not be worth having if she refused. He knew well enough that they must almost certainly be pursued, and that there would be little hesitation about shooting him or cutting his throat if they were caught and if he resisted, as he knew that he should. He had been in love with her for days. The last twenty-four hours had made him desperate. And a desperate man is not to be played with, more especially if he chance to have any Highland blood in his veins.
"What do you believe in most?" he asked suddenly and almost brutally.
She turned, startled, and looked him in the face.
"Because, if you believe in God, as I suppose you do, I take God to witness that I shall be a dead man this night, unless you promise to go with me."
She stared, and turned white to the lips, as he had never seen her turn pale before. She leaned forward, gazing into his eyes and breathing hard.
"You do not mean that," she said, as though trying hard to convince herself.
"I mean it," he answered slowly, pale himself, and knowing what he said.
She leaned nearer to him and took his arms with her hands, for she could not speak. The terrible question was in his eyes.
"You would kill yourself, if I refused—if I would not go with you?" Still she could not believe him.
"Yes," he answered.
Once more the room was very still, as the two looked into one another's eyes. But Maria Addolorata said nothing. The frown deepened on Dalrymple's face, and his strong mouth was drawn, as a man draws in his lips at the moment of meeting death.
"Good-bye," he said, gently loosening himself from her hold.
Her hands dropped and she turned half round, following him as he went towards the door. His hand was almost on the latch. He did not turn. But as he heard her swift feet behind him, he bent his head a little. Her arms went round his throat, reaching up to his great height.
"No! No!" she cried, drawing his head down to her.
But he took her by the wrists and held her away from him at his arms' length.
"Are you in earnest?" he asked fiercely. "If you play with me any more, you shall die, too."
"But not to-day!" she answered imploringly. "Not to-night! Give me time—a day—a little while—"
"To lose you? No. I have been near losing you. I know what it means. Make up your mind. Yes, or no."
"To-night? But how? There is not time—these clothes I wear—"
She turned her head distractedly to one side and the other as she spoke, while he held her wrists. Dalrymple saw that there was reason in the objections she made. So dangerous a flight could not be undertaken without some preparation. He loosed her hands and began to pace the room, concentrating his mind upon the details. She watched him in silence, leaning against the back of the easy-chair. Then he stopped just before her.
"My cloak would come down to your feet," he said, measuring her height with his eyes. "I have a plaid which would cover your head. Once on horseback, no one would notice anything. Can you ride?"
"No. I never learned."
"That is unlucky. But we can manage it. The main thing would be to get a long start if possible—that you should not be missed—to get away just at the beginning of the longest time during which the nuns would not expect to see you. Where is your own room? Is it near this?"
Maria Addolorata told him, and explained the position of the balcony with the steps leading down into the garden. He asked her who kept the key of the postern. It was in the possession of the gardener, who took it away with him at night, but the lock was on the inside, and uncovered, as old Italian locks are. By raising the curved spring one could push back the bolt. There was a handle on the latter, for that purpose. There would be no difficulty about getting out, nor about letting Dalrymple in, provided that the night were dark.
"The moon is almost full," said Dalrymple, thoughtfully, and he began to walk up and down again. "Never mind. It must be to-morrow night. In your dark dress, when the sisters are asleep, if you keep in the shadow along the wall, there is not the slightest risk. I will be waiting for you on the other side of the gate with my cloak and plaid. I will have the horses ready, a little higher up. There is a good mule path which goes down into the valley on that side. You have only to reach the gate and let yourself out. It is very easy. Tell me at what time to be waiting."
Maria leaned heavily upon the chair, with bent head.
"I cannot do it—oh, I cannot!" she said despairingly. "The shame of it! To be the talk of Rome—the scandal of the day—a disgrace to my father and mother!"
Dalrymple frowned, and biting his lip, he struck his clenched fist softly with the palm of his hand, making a few quick steps backward and forward. He stopped suddenly and looked at her with dangerous eyes.
"I have told you," he said. "I will not repeat it. You must choose."
"Oh, you cannot be in earnest—"
"You shall see. It is plain enough," he added, with an accent of scorn. "You are more afraid of a little talk and gossip in Rome, than of being told to-morrow morning that I died in the night. That is Italian courage, I suppose."
She hung her head for a moment. Then, as she heard his footsteps, she threw her veil back and saw that he was going towards the door without a word.
"You are cruel," she said, half catching her breath. "You know that you make me suffer—that I cannot live without you."
"I shall certainly not live without you," he answered. "I mean to have you at any price, or I will die in the attempt to get you."
The words have a melodramatic look on paper. But he spoke them not only with his lips, but with his whole self. They were not out of keeping with his nature. There is no more desperate blood in the world's veins than that of the Celt when he is driven to bay or exasperated by passion. In him the reckless fatalism of the Asiatic is blended with the cool daring of the northerner.
Maria Addolorata had little experience of the world or of men, but she had the hereditary instincts of her sex, and as she looked at Dalrymple she recognized in him the man who would do what he said, or forfeit his life in trying to do it. There is no mistaking the truth about such men, at such moments.
"I believe you would," she said, and she felt pride in saying it.
Her own life was in the balance. She bent her head again. Her temples were throbbing, and it was hard to think at all connectedly.
"I want your answer," he said, still standing near the door. "Yes or no—for to-morrow night?"
"I cannot live without you," she answered slowly, and still looking down. "I must go."
But she did not meet his eyes, for she knew that she was wavering still, and almost as uncertain as before. All at once Dalrymple's manner changed. He came quietly to her side and took one of her hands, which hung idly over the back of the chair, in both of his.
"You must be in earnest, as I am, my dear," he said, very calmly and gently. "You must not play with a man's life and heart, as though they were worth nothing but play. You called me cruel, dear, a moment ago. But you are more cruel than I, for I do not hesitate."
"I must go," she repeated, still avoiding his look. "Yes, I must go. I should die without you."
"But to-morrow when I come, you will hesitate again," he said, still speaking very quietly. "I must be sure. You must give me some promise, something more than you have given me yet."
She looked up with startled eyes.
"You do not believe me?" she asked. "What shall I do? I—I promise! You yourself have never said that you promised."
"Does it need that?" He pressed the hand he held, with softly increasing strength, between his palms.
"No," she answered, looking at him. "I can see it. You will do what you say. I have promised, too."
He gazed incredulously into her face.
"Do you doubt me?" she asked.
"Have I not reason to doubt? You change your mind easily. I do not blame you. But how am I to believe?"
She grew impatient of his unbelief. Yet as he pressed her hand, the power he had over her increased with every second.
"But I will, I will!" she cried, in a low voice. "And still you doubt—I see it in your eyes. Have I not promised? What more can I do?"
"I do not know," he answered. "But you must make me believe you." The strength of his eyes seemed to be forcing something from her.
"I say it—I promise it—I swear it! Do I not love you? Am I not giving my soul for you? Have I not given it already? What more can I do or say?"
"I do not know," he answered a second time, holding her with his eyes. "I must believe you before I go."
He spoke honestly and earnestly, not meaning to exasperate her, searching in her look for what was unmistakably in his own. His hands shook, not weakly, as they held hers. His piercing eyes seemed to see through and through her. She trembled all over, and the colour rose to her face, more in despair of convincing him than in a blush of shame.
"Believe me!" she said, imperiously, and her eyelids contracted with the effort of her will.
But he said nothing. She felt that he was immeasurably stronger than she. But just then, he was not more desperate. There was a short, intense silence. Her face grew pale and was set with the fatal look she sometimes had.
"I pledge you with my blood!" she said suddenly.
Her eyes did not waver from his, but she wrenched her right hand from him, and before he could take it again, her even teeth had met in the flesh. The bright scarlet drops rose high and broke, and trickled in vivid stripes across her hand as she held it before his face. Her own was very white, but without a trace of pain. Something in the fierce action appealed strongly to the fiery Celtic nature of the man. His features relaxed instantly.
"I believe you," he said, and she knew it as his arms went round her; and the pain of the wound made his kisses sweeter.
WHEN Dalrymple left Maria on that day, he returned as usual to Stefanone's house. Sora Nanna was alone, for Stefanone was still absent in Rome, and Annetta had gone on the previous day with a number of women to the fair at Civitella San Sisto, which took place on Sunday. She was expected to return on Monday afternoon. It is usual enough for a party of women, with two or three men, to go to the fairs in neighbouring towns and to spend the night with the friends of some one of the company. It was more common still, in those days.
Sora Nanna gave Dalrymple his dinner and kept him company for a while. But he was gloomy and preoccupied, and before long she retired to the regions of the laundry, which was installed in a long low building that ran out into the vegetable garden at the back of the house. Monday was generally the day for ironing the heavy linen of the convent, which was taken up on Tuesdays in the huge baskets carried by four women, slung to a pole which rested on their shoulders in the old primitive fashion, just as litters are still carried in many parts of Asia. It had occurred more than once to Dalrymple, during the last two days, that he could hide almost anything he chose in one of these baskets, which were always delivered directly to Maria Addolorata and which she was at liberty to unpack in the privacy of the linen room if she chose.
He thought of this again as he sat over his dinner, and heard the endless song of the women, far off, at their work. He knew the habits of the house thoroughly and all the customs regarding the carrying up of the baskets, and he remembered that several of them would surely be taken to the convent on the morrow. He thought that if he could procure some more suitable clothes for Maria to wear, this would be a safe means of conveying them to her. She could put them on in her cell, just before the hour at which she was to expect him, so that there would be no time lost and the danger of detection during their flight would be greatly diminished. But there were all sorts of difficulties in the way, and he realized them one by one, until he almost abandoned the scheme in favour of the cloak and plaid which he had first proposed.
He pushed back his chair and went upstairs to his own room. The impression made upon him by Maria Addolorata, when she had bitten her hand, had been a strong one, but the man's nature, though not exactly distrustful, was melancholic and pessimistic. Two hours and more had passed since they had been together, and things had a different look. He realized more clearly the strength of the ties which bound Maria to her convent life, and the effort it must be to her to break them. He remembered the arguments he had used, and he saw that they had been those of passion rather than of reason. Their effect could not be lasting, when he himself was not there to lend them his words and the persuasion of his strength. Maria would repent of her promise, and there was nothing to bind her to it. Hitherto there had been no risk, no common danger. By a chain of natural circumstances he had made his way into a most extraordinary position, but it was in her power, in a moment of repentance, to force him from it. While the abbess was ill, Maria was virtually mistress of the convent. At a word from her the doors might be shut in his face. She might promise again, and bite her hand again, but when it came to his waiting outside the garden gate, she might be seized by a fit of repentance, and he might wait till morning.
As he sat in his room he realized all this, and more, for he knew that on calm reflexion he meant to do what he had that morning threatened in his haste. He had never been attached to life for its own sake. Melancholic men often are not. He had many times thought over the subject of suicide with a sort of grim interest in it, which indicated the direction his temper would take if he were ever absolutely defeated in a matter which he had at heart.