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Casa Braccio, Volumes 1 and 2 (of 2)
by F. Marion Crawford
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Nothing he had ever felt in his life had taken hold of him as his love for Maria Addolorata, for he had never really been in love before and he had completely abandoned himself to it, as such a man was sure to do in such surroundings. She was beautiful, but that was not all. Since he had heard her sing, he knew that her voice and her rare talent together were genius and nothing less. But that was far from being all. She was of his own class, and he had been seeing her daily, when the peasant women amongst whom he lived were little more than good-natured animals; but even that was not all. He was at that time of life when a man's character is apt to take a violent and sudden turn in its ultimate direction, when the forces that have been growing show themselves all at once, when passion, having appealed as yet but to the man, has climbed and is within reach of his soul, to take hold of it and twist it, or to be finally conquered, perhaps, in a holy life. But Dalrymple was very far from being the kind of man who could have taken refuge against himself in higher things. At a time when materialism was beginning to seem a great thing, he was a strong materialist in scientific questions. He grasped what he could see and held it, but what he could not see had no existence for him. Nothing transcendental attracted him beyond the sphere of mathematics. Yet he had not the materialist's temperament, for the Highland blood in his veins brought strong fancies and sudden passions to his head and heart, such as his chemistry could not explain; and when the brain burned and the heart beat fast, it meant doing or dying with him, as with many a Scotchman before and since. Life had never seemed to be worth much in his eyes, compared with a thing he wanted.

He sat still and thought the matter over, and considered the question of death, for a few short minutes. There was not a trace of philosophical speculation in his reflexions, or they would have lasted longer. He merely desired to be sure, with that curious Scotch caution, of his own intentions, in order not to be obliged to think the matter over again at the last minute.

He had drunk a measure of strong wine with his dinner, as usual. To-day it increased the gloom of his temper, and the pessimistic view he took. In less than a quarter of an hour he had made up his mind that if Maria Addolorata repented at a late hour and refused to leave the convent, he would make an attempt to carry her away by force. If he failed, and found himself shut off from all possibility of intercourse with her, life would not be worth living, and he would throw it away. When strong men are in that frame of mind, they generally accomplish what they have in view. Moreover, it is a great mistake to think that the people who think and talk of suicide will not take their own lives. On the contrary, statistics show that it is more often those who speak of it the most frequently, who ultimately make away with themselves. The mere fact of contemplating and discussing death familiarizes man with it till he does not even attribute to it its true value, which is little enough, as most of us know. Dalrymple was in earnest, and he knew it.

He rose from his chair and unlocked his little laboratory. Among many other things upon the long table there was a plain English oak box, filled with small stoppered bottles, each having a label upon it with the name of the contents written in his own hand. Some were merely medicines, which he carried with him in case his services should ever be required, as had happened at the present time. Others were chemicals which he used in his experiments, such as he could not easily have procured in Italy, outside of the great cities. One even contained the common spirits of camphor, of which he had once given Annetta a teaspoonful when she had complained of a chill and sickness. One, however, was more than half full of a solution of hydrocyanide of potassium, a liquid little less suddenly and surely fatal than the prussic acid which enters into its composition.

He took out this bottle and held it up to the light. The liquid was clear and transparent as water. He watched it curiously as he made it run up to the neck and back again. It might have been taken for pure alcohol, being absolutely colourless.

"It would not take much of that," he said to himself, with a grim smile.

His meditations were interrupted by the voice of Sora Nanna, who had opened his bedroom door without ceremony and stood calling to him. He came forward hastily from the laboratory and went up to her.

"You do not know!" she cried, laughing and holding up a letter. "Stefanone has written to me from Rome! To me! Who the devil knows what he says? I do not understand anything of it. Who should teach me to read? He takes me for a priest, that I should know how to read!"

Dalrymple laughed a little as he took the letter. He picked up his hat from a chair, for he meant to go out and spend the afternoon alone upon the hillside.

"We will read it downstairs," he said. "I am going for a walk."

He read it to her in the common room on the ground floor. It was a letter dictated by Stefanone to a public scribe, instructing his wife to tell Gigetto that she must send another load of wine to Rome as soon as possible, as the price was good in the market. Stefanone would remain in the city till it came, and sell it before returning.

"These husbands!" exclaimed Sora Nanna, with a grin. "What they will not do! They go, riding, riding, and they come back when it seems good to them. Who tells me what he does in Rome? Rome is great."

Dalrymple laughed, put on his hat and went off, leaving Sora Nanna to find Gigetto and give the necessary directions.



CHAPTER XII.

GIGETTO had refused to accompany Annetta and her party to the fair at Civitella San Sisto. He had been to Rome several times, and was far too fine a young gentleman to divert himself in such a very primitive place. He preferred to spend his leisure hours, which were very many, in elegant idleness, according to his lights, between the tobacconist's, the chemist's shop, which was the resort of all the superior men of the place after four o'clock in the afternoon, and the abundant, though not very refined table which was spread twice daily in his father's house. Civitella wine, Civitella fireworks, and especially Civitella girls, were quite beneath his notice. As for Annetta, he looked upon her with something like contempt, though he had a high respect for the fortune which must one day be hers. She was to be a necessary encumbrance of his future life, and for the present he meant to see as little of her as was conveniently possible without relinquishing his claims to her hand. She had admired him, in a way, until the arrival of Dalrymple, and he felt a little irritation at the Scotchman's presence in the house, so that he occasionally frightened Sora Nanna by talking of waiting for him with a gun at the corner of the forest. It produced a good impression, he thought, to show from time to time that he was not without jealousy. But as for going with her on such an expedition as a visit to a country fair, it was not to be expected of him.

Nevertheless, Annetta had enjoyed herself thoroughly with her companions, and was very glad that Gigetto had not been at her elbow with his city notions of propriety, which he applied to her, but made as elastic as he pleased for himself. She had been to high mass in the village church, crowded to suffocation, she had walked up and down the main street half the afternoon, arm in arm with the other girls, giggling and showing off her handsome costume to the poorer natives of the little place, and smiling wickedly at the handsome youths who stood idly in groups at the corners of the streets. She had dined sumptuously, and had made her eyes sparkle like rather vulgar little stars by drinking a glass of strong old white wine to the health and speedy marriage of all the other girls. She had gone out with them at dusk, and had watched the pretty fireworks in the small piazza, and had wandered on with them afterwards in the moonlight to the ruin of the Cyclopean fortress which overlooks the two valleys. Then back to the house of her friends, who kept the principal inn, and more tough chicken and tender salad and red wine for supper. And on the next day they had all gone down to the meagre vineyards, half way to San Vito and just below the thick chestnut woods which belong to the Marchese and feudal lord of that ancient town. And there amongst the showers of reddening vine leaves, she had helped to gather the last grapes of the year, with song and jest and laughter. At noon they climbed the hill again in the October sun, and dined upon the remains of the previous day's feast; then, singing still, they had started on their homeward downward way, happy and not half tired yet when they reached Subiaco in the evening glow.

They came trooping through the town to the little piazza in which the doctor's house was situated. They separated here, some to go up to the higher part, while others were to go down in the same direction as Annetta. The girl looked up at the doctor's windows, and her small eyes flashed viciously. It would be a pleasant ending to the two days' holiday to have a look at her work. Now that he was getting well, as Dalrymple told her, she was glad that she had not killed him. It was an even greater satisfaction to have almost frightened the old coward to death. She had been uneasy about the question of confession.

"By Bacchus," she laughed, "I will go and see Sor Tommaso. They say he is better."

So she took leave of her companions and entered the narrow door, and climbed the short flight of dark steps and knocked. The doctor's sleeping-room opened directly upon the staircase. He used the room on the ground floor as an office and dining-room, his old peasant woman-servant slept in the attic, and the other two rooms were let by the year. It was a very small house.

The old woman, whose name was Serafina, opened the bedroom door and thrust out her head, covered with a dark and threadbare shawl. There was a sibylline gloom about her withered face, as though she had lived a lifetime in the face of a horror to come.

"What do you want?" she croaked roughly, and not opening the door any wider.

"Eh! What do I want? I am the Annetta of Stefanone, and I have come to pay a visit to this dear doctor, because they say that he is better, God bless him."

"Oh! I did not recognize you," said the old woman. "I will ask."

Still holding the door almost closed, she drew in her head and spoke with Sor Tommaso. Annetta could hear his answer.

"Of course!" he said, in a voice still weak, but singularly oily with the politeness of his intention. "Let her favour us!"

The door was opened, and Annetta went in. Sor Tommaso was sitting up near the window, in a deep easy-chair covered with ragged green damask. The girl was surprised by his pallor, as compared with his formerly rubicund complexion. Peasant-like, she glanced about the room to judge of its contents before she spoke.

"How are you, dear Sor Tommaso?" she asked after the short pause. "Eh, what we have suffered for you, all of us! Who was this barbarian who wished to send you to Paradise?"

"Who knows?" returned Sor Tommaso, with amazing blandness. "I trust that he may be forgiven as I forgive him."

"What it is to be a wise man!" exclaimed Annetta, with affected admiration. "To have such sentiments! It is a beautiful thing. And how do you feel now, dear Sor Tommaso? Are you getting your strength again? They took your blood, those cowardly murderers! You must make it again."

Their eyes met, and each knew that the other knew and understood. Sor Tommaso smiled gently. The savage girl's mouth twitched as though she should have liked to laugh.

"Little by little; who goes slowly goes safely," answered the doctor. "I am an old man, you must know."

"Old!" Annetta was glad of the opportunity to laugh at last. "Old? Eh, on Sunday, when you have on those new black trousers of yours that are tight, tight—you seem to me a boy as young as Gigetto. For my part, I should prefer you. You are more serious. Gigetto! What must I say? He is handsome, he may be good, but he has not a head. There is nothing in that pumpkin."

"Blood of youth," answered Sor Tommaso. "It must boil. It must fling its chains about. Afterwards it begins to know the chains. Little by little it accustoms itself to them. Then it is quiet, quiet, as we old ones are. Sit down, my daughter. Serafina! A chair—the one that is not lame. These chairs remember the blessed soul of mamma," added Sor Tommaso, in explanation of their weakness.

"Requiesca'!" exclaimed Annetta, sitting down.

"Amen," responded Sor Tommaso. "You are so beautiful to-day," he continued, looking at her flowered bodice and new apron; "where have you been?"

"Where should I go? To Civitella. There was the fair. We ate certain chickens—tough! But the air of the mountain consumes. There were also fireworks."

"What? Have you walked?" asked Sor Tommaso.

"Even with two legs one can walk," laughed the girl. "But of course a beast is better with four. The beasts had all gone to Tivoli with wine for Rome. They had not come back yesterday morning. Therefore with these two feet I walked. I and many others, girls like me. It is true that I am half dead."

"You are fresher than lettuce," observed Sor Tommaso. "And then you have climbed up my stairs. This is a true Christian act. God return it to you. I am alone all day."

"But the Englishman comes to see you," said Annetta, indifferently.

"The Englishman, yes. He comes. More or less, he has almost cured me. But then, for his conversation, I say nothing!"

"Meanwhile he is also curing the abbess. He has a fortunate hand. There death, here death—he makes them all alive. Where is death, now? Here, perhaps? Hidden in some corner, or under the bed? He has certain medicines, that Englishman! Medicines that you do not even dream of. Strong! It is I that tell you. Sometimes, the whole house smells of them. Death could not resist them a moment. They drive even the flies out of the windows. The Englishman gave me some once. I had been in the sun and had drunk a gallon of cold water, foolish as I was. I was thirsty, as I am now. Well, he gave me a spoonful of something like water, mixed in water. I do not tell you anything. At first it burned me. Arch-priest, it burned! Then, not even a minute, and I had Paradise in my body. And so it passed."

"Who knows? A cordial, perhaps," observed Sor Tommaso, thoughtfully. "I have such cordials, too."

"I do not doubt it," answered the girl, suspiciously. "But I would rather not taste them. I feel quite well."

It crossed her mind that in return for three knife-thrusts, Sor Tommaso would probably not miss so good a chance of paying her with a glass of poison. She would certainly have done as much herself, had she been in his place.

"Who thought of offering you cordials!" replied the doctor, with a polite laugh. "I said it to say it. But if you are thirsty, command me. There is water and good wine. They are the best cordials."

"Eh, a little water. I do not refuse. As for the wine, no. I thank you the same. I am fasting and have walked. After supper, at home, I will drink."

"Serafina!" cried Sor Tommaso, and the old sibyl immediately appeared from the stairs, whither she had discreetly retired to wait during Annetta's visit. "Bring water, and that bottle of my wine from downstairs. You know, the bottle of old wine of Stefanone's that was opened."

"No, no. I want no wine," said Annetta, quickly.

"Bring it all the same. Perhaps she will do us the honour to drink it."

Serafina nodded, and her bare feet were heard on the stone steps as she descended.

"It is bad to drink pure water when one is very thirsty," said Sor Tommaso. "It cramps the stomach. A little wine gives the stomach strength. But it is best to eat. If you will eat, there are fresh jumbles. I also eat them."

"I thank you the same," answered Annetta. "I wish only water. It is a long way from Civitella, and there is no good spring. There is the brook that runs out of the pond at the foot of the last hill. But it is heavy water, full of stuff."

Serafina came back, bringing two heavy tumblers of pressed glass on a little black japanned tray, with a decanter of cold water. In her other hand she carried two bottles, one half full of wine, the other containing the white and sugary syrup of peach kernels of which Italians are so fond.

"I brought this also," she said, holding up the bottle as she set down the tray. "Perhaps it is better."

"Yes," said Sor Tommaso, nodding in approbation. "It is better."

"You will drink a little orgeat?" asked the old woman, in a tone of persuasion, and mixing it in the glass.

"Water, simply water," said Annetta, who was still suspicious. "Give me water in the other glass."

"But I have mixed already in both," answered Serafina. "Eh, you will drink it. You will not make an old woman like me go all the way down the stairs again. But then, it is good. It is I that tell you. I made it myself, yesterday morning, for the doctor, to refresh his blood a little."

Annetta had risen to her feet and was watching the glasses, as the old woman stirred the white syrup in the water with an old-fashioned, long-handled spoon. She did not wish to seem absurdly suspicious, and yet she distrusted her enemy. She took one of the glasses, went to his side, and held it to his lips as one gives an invalid drink.

"After you," he said, with a polite smile, but raising his hand to take the glass.

"Sick people first, well people afterwards," answered Annetta, smiling too, but watching him intently.

He had satisfied himself that she really suspected foul play, for he knew the peasants well, and was only a degree removed from them himself. He at once dismissed her suspicions by drinking half the tumbler at a draught. She immediately took the other and emptied it eagerly, as she was really very thirsty.

"A little more?" suggested Serafina, in her croaking voice.

"No," interposed Sor Tommaso. "It might hurt her—so much at once."

But Annetta filled the tumbler with pure water, and emptied it again.

"At last!" she exclaimed with a sigh of satisfaction. "What thirst! I seemed to have eaten ashes! And now I thank you, Sor Tommaso, and I am going home; for it is Ave Maria, and I do not wish to make a bad meeting in the dark as happened to you. Ugly assassins! I will never forgive them, never! What am I to say at home? That you will come to supper one of these days?"

"Eh, if God wills," answered the doctor. "I will be accompanied by Serafina."

"I!" exclaimed the old woman. "I am afraid even of a cat! What could I do for you?"

"Company is always company," said Sor Tommaso, wisely. "Where one would not go, two go bravely. Good evening, my beautiful daughter," he added, looking up at Annetta. "The Madonna go with you."

"Thank you, and good evening," answered the girl, dropping half a courtsey, with a vicious twinkle in her little eyes.

She turned, and was out of the room in a moment. On the way home through the narrow streets in the evening glow, she sang snatches of song to herself, and thought of all she had said to Sor Tommaso, and of all he had said to her, and of how much afraid he was of her father's knife. For otherwise, as she knew, he would have had her arrested.

Suddenly, at the last turning she stopped and turned very pale, clasping both hands upon her bodice.

"Assassin!" she groaned, grinding her short white teeth. "He has poisoned me, after all! An evil death to him and all his house! Assassin!"

She forgot that she had experienced precisely the same sensations once before, when she had been overheated and had swallowed too much cold water.



CHAPTER XIII.

WITH slow steps, and pressing her clasped hands to her bodice, the girl reached the door of her father's house at dusk. She knew that he was away, and that as she had not come home earlier her mother would be in the lower regions preparing Dalrymple's supper for him. The door which gave access to the staircase from the street was still open, and she was almost sure of being able to reach her own room unobserved, unless she chanced to come upon Dalrymple himself on the stairs. Just then she would rather have met him than her mother. She was in great pain, and it would have been hard to explain to Sora Nanna that she believed herself to have been deliberately poisoned.

She crept noiselessly up the stairs, which were almost dark, and she came to Dalrymple's door which faced the first landing. She paused and hesitated, leaning against the wall. He was a wise man in her opinion, and would of course understand her symptoms at once. But then, as she was poisoned, he could do nothing for her. If that were true, her next thought told her that Sor Tommaso must have poisoned himself. He would not do that. She had never heard of antidotes; for though poisoning was traditionally familiar to her and the people of her class, it was very uncommon. Yet her sharpened wit told her that if Sor Tommaso had swallowed the stuff, as he had done, with a smile, he had means at his disposal for counteracting it—some medicine which he had doubtless taken as soon as she had left him. But if he had medicine to save from poison, Dalrymple, who was a far wiser man, must have such medicines, too, and even better ones. This reflexion decided her. She was close to his door. It was probable that he would be in his room at that hour. She was in fear of her life, and she knocked.

But Dalrymple had not come back. He had gone for a long walk alone in the hills, had climbed higher as the sun sank lower, and was belated in steep paths along which even his mountain-trained feet trod with some caution. He was too familiar with the country to lose his way, but he by no means found the shortest way there was, nor was he especially anxious to do so. The hours would pass sooner in walking than in sitting over his books under the flaring little flames of the three brass beaks.

Annetta saw that there was no light in the room, for the hole through which the latch-string hung was worn wide with use. She felt dizzy, too, and the knife-like pain ran through her so that she bent herself. She knew that Dalrymple kept his medicines locked up in the laboratory, and that she could not get at them, though she would have had little hesitation in swallowing anything she found, in the simple certainty that all his medicines must be good in themselves, and therefore life-saving and good for her. But he was out, and she was sure that there could be nothing in the bedroom. She had herself too often looked into every corner when she watered and swept the brick floor each morning, and put things in order according to her primitive ideas.

She then and there lost her hold upon life. She was poisoned, and must die. She was as sure of it as the Chinaman who has seen an eagle, and who, recognizing that his hour is come, calmly lies down and breathes his last by the mere suspension of volition. In old countries the lower orders, as a rule, have but a low vitality. It may be truer to say that the vital volition is weak. Let the learned settle the definition. The fact is easily accounted for. During generations upon generations the majority of European agricultural populations live upon vegetable food, like the majority of Eastern Asiatics, and with the same result. Hard labour produces hard muscles, but vegetable food yields a low vital tension, so to say. Soldiers know it well enough. The pale-faced city clerk who eats meat twice a day will out-fight and out-last and out-starve the burly labourer whose big thews and sinews are mostly compounded of potatoes, corn, and water.

The girl crept up the stairs stealthily to her lonely little room, and lay down to die upon her bed, as though that were the only thing to be done under the circumstances. It never occurred to her to go to her mother and tell her what had happened and what she suspected, any more than it had suggested itself to Sor Tommaso to lay information against her for having stabbed him. If her father had been at home, she might perhaps have gone to him and told him with her dying breath that the doctor had killed her, and that Stefanone must avenge her. But he was away. She was stronger than her mother and had always dominated her. She knew also that if she complained, Sora Nanna would raise such a scream as would bring half Subiaco running to the house. The girl's animal instinct was to die alone, and quietly. So she made no sound, and lay upon her bed writhing in pain and holding her sides with all her might, but with close-set teeth and silent lips.

Looked at from the point of view of fact, it was all ridiculous enough. The girl had been all day in the hot autumn sun, had eaten a quantity of over-ripe figs and grapes, which might have upset the digestion of an ostrich, had tired even her strong limbs with the final walk home, and had then, at Sor Tommaso's house, swallowed nearly a quart of ice-cold water. It was not surprising that she should be very ill. It was not even strange that the theory of poison should suggest itself. To her it was tragedy, and meant nothing less than death, when she lay down upon her bed.

Between the spasms all sorts of things passed through her mind, when her head lay still upon the pillow. Chiefly and particularly her thoughts were filled with hatred of Sor Tommaso, and a sort of doglike longing to see Dalrymple's face before she died. She was still fascinated by the vision of his red hair and bright blue eyes which came back to her vividly, with the careless smile his hard face had for her half-childish, half-malicious sayings. And with the thought of him came also jealousy of Maria Addolorata, and another hatred which was deeper and stronger and more vengeful than any she owed Sor Tommaso. She felt, rather than understood, that Dalrymple loved the nun with all his heart. She had spoken of her to him and had watched his face, and had seen the quick, savage glare of his eyes, though his voice had only expressed his annoyance. As the vision of him rose before her, she saw him as he had been when the angry blush had overspread his face to the roots of his hair.

The image fixed itself. In the dim shadow behind it, she saw the face of Maria Addolorata like a death-mask, and those strange, deep eyes of the nun's looking scornfully at her over the man's shoulder, though she forgot him in the woman's deadly fascination. She stared, unable to close her lids, as it seemed to her, though she longed to shut out the sight. Then a dull noise seemed to be in her ears, a noise that was not a sound, but the stunning effect on her brain of a sound not heard but imagined. There were great circles of light around the nun's head, which cut through Dalrymple's face and then hid it. They were like glories, like the halos about the heads of saints. Annetta was angry with them, for she was sure that Maria Addolorata was bad, and sinned in her throat.

"An evil death on you and all your house!" cried the angry peasant girl, in a low voice.

"Death!" She could not tell whence the echo came back to her, in a tone strange to her ears—for it was her own, perhaps.

She was startled. The vision vanished, and she sat up on her bed with a quick movement, suddenly wide awake. The pain must have passed. No—it came again, but with far less keenness. She felt her face with her hands, and laughed softly, for she knew that she was alive. It was night, and she must have lain some time there all alone, for there was a silvery, misty something through the darkness, the white dawn of moonrise, which is not like the dawn of day, nor like the departing twilight. As she sat up she saw the outline of the hills, jagged against the crosses of the lead-joined panes in the window. There was the moon-dawn sending up its soft radiance to the sky. A little longer she watched, and a single bright point sent one level ray straight into her face. A moment more and the room was flooded with light so that she could see the smallest objects distinctly.

"But I am alive!" she exclaimed in a soft, glad tone. "The brigand only did me a spite. He was afraid to kill me."

The pain seized her again, less sharp than before, but keen enough to stir her anger. She still sat up, but bent forward, clasping her bodice. In the moonlight she could see her heavy shoes on her feet sticking up before her. Realizing that it was a disgraceful thing to lie down with them on, she sprang off the bed, and began to dust the coverlet with her hand. The pain passed.

After all, she reflected, she had swallowed a quantity of cold water at Sor Tommaso's, whether the first glass had contained any poison or not. She had not forgotten, either, that the same thing had once happened to her before, and that Dalrymple had made it pass with a spoonful of something that had stung her mouth and throat, but which had afterwards warmed her and cured her. She felt chilly now, and she wished that she had some of that same stinging, warming stuff.

Something moved, somewhere in the house. The girl listened intently for a moment. Probably Dalrymple had come back and was moving about in his room, washing his hands, as he always did before supper, and taking off his heavy boots. His room was immediately under hers, facing in the same direction. She went towards the door, intending to go down at once and ask him for some of his medicine. By this time she was persuaded that she was not in any danger, and her common-sense told her that she had merely made herself momentarily ill with too many grapes, too much cold water, and too long exposure to the sun. She did not care to let her mother know anything about it, for Sora Nanna would scold her. It would be a simple matter to catch the Scotchman at his door, to get what she wanted from him with an easily given promise of secrecy, and then to come downstairs as though nothing had happened.

Annetta only hesitated a moment, and then went out into the dark staircase, and crept down, as she had crept up, feeling her way at the turnings, by the wall. She reached the door, and was surprised to see that there was no light within—none of that yellow light which a lamp makes, but only the grey glimmer of the moonlight through the shadow, creeping out by the hole of the latch-string. Her ears had deceived her, and Dalrymple was not there. Nevertheless she believed that he was. The moonlight would be in his room as it was in hers, just overhead, and he might not have taken the trouble to light his lamp. It was very probable. She tapped softly, but there was no answer. She was afraid that her mother might come up the stairs and hear her speaking through the door, as though by stealth. She put her lips close to the hole of the latch and whistled softly. Her whistle was broken by her own smile as she fancied that Dalrymple might start at the unexpected sound.

But there was no response. Growing bolder, she called him gently.

"Signor! Are you there?"

There was no answer. Just then, as she stooped, the pain ran through her once more. She was so sure that she had heard him that she was convinced he must be within, very probably in his little laboratory beyond the bedroom. The pain hurt her, and he had the medicine. Very naturally she pulled the string and pushed the door open.

He was not there. The moonlight flooded everything, and the whitewashed walls reflected it, so that the place was as bright as day. The first object that met her eyes was a small bottle standing near the edge of the table in the middle of the room, where Dalrymple had carelessly set it down in the afternoon when Sora Nanna had called him to read her letter. It was directly in the line of the moon's rays, and the stopper gleamed like a little star.

Annetta started with joy as she saw it. It was the very bottle from which he had given her the camphor, less than a month ago—the same in size, in its transparent contents, in its label. It might have deceived a keener eye than hers.

The door of the laboratory stood open, as he had left it, being at the time preoccupied and careless. She only stopped a moment to assure herself that the bottle was the right one, reflecting that he had perhaps felt ill and had taken some of it himself. She went on and looked into the little room.

"Signore!" she called softly. But there was no answer.

It was clear that Dalrymple was either still out, or was downstairs at his supper, with her mother. He might be out, however. It was quite possible, on such a fine evening, for he was irregular in his hours. He would not like it if he came in suddenly and found her meddling with his belongings. She crossed the room again and softly shut the door. At least, if he came, she would not be found with the bottle in her hand. She could give an excuse.

It was all so natural. It was the same bottle. She knew the right quantity, for she had the peasant's memory for such detail. There was a glass and a decanter of water on a white plate on the table. She had no spoon, but that did not matter. She took out the stopper with her strong fingers, though it stuck a little. The pain ran through her again as she poured some of the contents into the tumbler, and it made her hand shake so that she poured out a little more than necessary. But it did not matter. She filled it up with water, held the glass up to the moonlight, and drank it at a draught, and set the empty tumbler upon the table again.

Instantly her features changed. She felt as though she were struck through head and heart and body with red-hot steel. Maria Addolorata's death-mask rose before her in the moonlight.

"An evil death on you and all your house!" she tried to say.

But the words were not out of her mouth before she shivered, caught herself by the table, sank down, and lay stone dead upon the brick floor.

There was no noise. Dying, she thought she screamed, but only the faintest moan had passed her lips.

The door was shut, and the quiet moonlight floated in and silvered her dark, dead face.



CHAPTER XIV.

AT moonrise on that evening, Maria Addolorata was standing at the open door of her cell, watching the dark clouds in the west, as they caught the light one by one, edge by edge. The black shadow of the convent covered all the garden still, and one passing could hardly have seen her as she stood there. Her veil was raised, and the cold mountain breeze chilled her cheeks. But she did not feel it, for she had been long by the abbess's bedside, and then long, again, in the close choir of the church, and her head was hot and aching.

To her, as she looked towards the western mountains and watched the piling clouds, and felt the cool, damp wind, it seemed as though there were something strangely tragic in the air that night. The wind whistled now and then through the cracks of the convent windows and over the crenellations of the old walls, as Death's scythe might whistle if he were mowing down men with a right good will, heaps upon heaps of slain. The old bell struck the hour, sullenly, with a dead thud in the air after each stroke, as a bell tolls for a burial. The very clouds were black and silver in the sky, like a funeral pall.

Maria Addolorata leaned against the door-post and looked out, her hand white in the shadow against the dark wood, her face whiter still. But on her hand there were two marks, visible even in the dimness. They would have been red in the day, and the place hurt her from time to time, for she had bitten it savagely. It was her pledge, and the pain of it reminded her of what she had promised to do.

She needed the reminder; for now that he was not near her, the enormous crime stood out, black and lofty as death itself. It was different when Dalrymple was at her side. His violent vitality dragged hers into action, dragged, drove it, and goaded it, as unwilling soldiers have been driven into battle in barbarous armies. Then the fatality seemed irresistible, then the dangers seemed small, and the burning red shame was pale and weak. Those bony young hands of his had strength in them for two, his gleaming eyes burnt out the resistance in hers, and lighted them with their own glow. The hearty recklessness of his unbelief drove through and through her composite faith, and riddled it with loopholes for her soul's escape. Then the reality of her passion made her nobler love mad to be free, and to break through the solid walls in which it had been born and had grown too strong. When his love was there, hers matched itself with his, to smite fortune in the face, to dare and out-dare heaven and hell for love's sake, with him, the bursting blood made iron of her hand, tingling to buffet coward fate's pale mouth. Then she was strong above women; then she was brave as brave men; then, having promised, to keep was but the natural hold of will, to die was but to dare one little adversary more.

But she was alone now, and thinking, as she looked out into the tragic night, and watched the blackness of the monumental clouds. She did not return to her former self, as some women do when the goad leaves the heart in peace for a moment. She did not say to herself that she would order the convent gate to be shut on Angus Dalrymple forever, and herself go back to the close choir, to sit in her seat amongst the rest, and sing holy songs with the others, restfully unhappy as many of them were. She knew far too well how strongly her heart could beat, and how icy cold her hands could grow when love was near her. Yet she shuddered with horror at what she had promised to do. She would struggle to the last, but she must yield when she heard his voice, and felt his hand, at the very last moment, when they should be at the garden gate, he drawing her on, she looking back.

It was perjury and sacrilege, and earthly shame, and eternal damnation. Nothing less. And the words had full and deadly meaning for her. It mattered little that he should think differently, being of another faith, or rather, of no faith at all. It was all true to her. It was not risk; it was certainty. What forgiveness had earth or heaven for a faithless nun? He talked of marriage, and he would marry her according to a rite that had a meaning in his eyes. Heaven would not divorce the sworn and plighted spouse of Christ to be the earthly wife of Angus Dalrymple.

Visions of eternal torment rose in her mind, a tangible searing hell alive with flame and devils, a sea of liquid fire, an ocean of boiling pitch, Satan commanding in the midst, and a myriad of fiends working his tormenting will.

Her pale lips curled scornfully in the dark. Those were not the terrors that frightened her, nor the horrors from which she shrank. There was a question which was not to be answered by her own soul in damnation or salvation, but by the lips of men hereafter—the question of the honour of her name. The traditions of the good old barons were not dead in that day, nor are they all dead yet. Many a Braccio had done evil deeds in his or her day, and one, at least, had evil deeds to do after Maria Addolorata had been laid in her grave. But sin was one thing, and dishonour was quite another, even in the eyes of the nun of Subiaco. For her sins she could and must answer with the weal or woe of her own soul. But her dishonour would be upon her father and her mother and upon all her race. Nor was there any dishonour deeper, more deadly, or more lasting than that brought upon a stainless name by a faithless nun. Maria Braccio hesitated at disgrace, while Maria Addolorata smiled at perdition. It was not the first time that honour had taken God's part against the devil in the history of her family.

That was the great obstacle of all, and she knew it now. She was able to face all consequences but that, terrible as they might be. The barrier was there, the traditional old belief in honour as first, and above every consideration. They had played upon that very belief, when, at the last, she had hesitated to take the veil. She had gone so far, they had told her, that it would be cowardly and dishonourable to turn back at the last minute. The same argument existed now. Then, she would at least have had human right and ecclesiastical law on her side, if she had refused to become a nun. Now, all was against her. Then, she would have had to face but the condemning opinion of a few who spoke of implied obligation. Now, she must stand up and be ashamed before the whole world. There would be a horrible publicity about it. She was too high born not to feel that all the world in which she should ever move was as one great family. Dalrymple might promise her honour and respect, and the affection of his own father and mother for the love of her parents, a home, respected wifehood, and all the rest. With his strength, he might impose her upon his family, and they might treat her as he should dictate, for he was a strong and dominant man. But in their hearts, Protestants, English people, foreigners as they were to her race, even they could not tell themselves honestly that it was not a shameful thing to break such vows as hers, shameful and nothing less. And if, for a moment, he were not there to hold them in his check, she should see it in their faces, and she must hang her head, for she could have nothing to answer. For him, she must not only sacrifice her soul, wrench out her faith, break her promise to God, and her vows to the Church. She must give herself to public, earthly shame, for his sake.

It was too much. She could bear anything but that. Rather than endure that, it was better to die.

The black clouds rose higher in the west, and the gloomy air blew upon her face. Her head was no longer hot, for a chilly horror had come upon her, like the shadow of something unspeakably awful, close at hand. Suddenly, she was afraid to be alone. A bat, lured by the second twilight of the moon's rising, whirled down from above, with softly flapping wings, and almost brushed her face. She drew back quickly into the doorway. It was a very tragic night, she thought. She shut the door, and groped her way out beyond her cell to the corridor, dimly illuminated by a single light hanging from the vault by a running cord. She entered the abbess's apartment. One of the sisters had taken her place, but Maria Addolorata sent her away by a gesture, and sat down by the bedside.

The old lady was either asleep, or did not notice her niece's coming. Her face was grey as ashes, and upturned in the shadow. Upon the stone floor stood the primitive Italian night-light, a wick supported in a triangular bit of tin by three little corks in oil floating on water in a tumbler. The light was very clear and steady, though there was little of it, and to Maria, who had been long in comparative darkness, the room seemed bright enough. There was little furniture besides the plain bed, a little table, a couple of chairs, and a tall, dark wardrobe. A grim crucifix hung above the abbess's head, on the white wall, the work of an age in which horror was familiar to the eye, and needed exaggeration to teach hardened humanity.

Maria was too much occupied with her own thoughts to notice the sick woman's condition at once. Besides, during the last two days there had been no return of the syncope, and the abbess had seemed to be improving steadily. She breathed rather heavily and seemed to be asleep.

Gradually, however, as the nun sat motionless beside her and as the storm of thought subsided, she became aware that all was not right. Her aunt's face was unnaturally grey, the breathing was unusually slow and heavy. When the breath was drawn in, the thin nostrils flattened themselves strangely on each side, and the features had a peaked look. Maria rose and felt the pulse. It was fluttering, and not always perceptible.

At first Maria's attention to these facts was only mechanical. Then, with a sudden sinking at her own heart, she realized what they might mean—another crisis like the one in which the abbess had so narrowly escaped death. It was true that on that occasion she had called for help more than once, showing that she had felt herself to be sinking. At present she seemed to be unconscious, which, if anything, was a worse feature.

Maria drew a long breath and held it, biting her lips, as people do in moments of suspense, doubt, and anxiety. It was as though fate had thrust the great decision onward at the last moment. The life that hung in the balance before her eyes meant the possibility of waiting, with the feeble consolation of being yet undecided.

She stood as still as a statue, her face like a mask, her hand on the unconscious woman's wrist. The stimulant which Dalrymple had shown her how to use was at hand—the glass with which to administer it. It would prolong life. It might save it.

Should she give it? The seconds ran to minutes, and the dreadful question was unanswered. If the abbess died, as die she almost certainly must within half an hour, if the medicine were not given to her—if she died, Maria would call the sisters, the portress would be instructed, and when Dalrymple came on the morrow, he would be told that all was over, and that he was no longer needed. Nothing could be more sure. He might do his utmost. He could not enter the convent again.

In a quick vision, as she stood stone-still, Maria saw herself alone in the chapel by night, prostrate, repentant, washing the altar steps with tears, forgiven of God, since God could still forgive her, honoured on earth as before, since none but the silent confessor could ever know what she had done, still less what she had meant to do. Her sorrow would be real, overwhelming, able to move Heaven to mercy, her penance true-hearted and severe as she deserved. Her name would be unspotted and unblemished.

It would be so easy, if she had not to see him again. How could she resist him, if he could so much as touch her hand? But if she were defended from him, she could bury his love and pray for him in the memory of the thing dead. All that, if she but let that heavy breathing go on a little longer, if she did not raise her hand and set a glass to those grey, parted lips.

They were parted now. The laboured breath was drawn through the teeth. The eyelids were a little raised, and showed but the white of the upturned eyes.

Maria stared fixedly into the pinched face, and a new horror came upon her.

It was murder she was doing. Nothing less. The power to save was there, and she would not use it. No—it could not be murder—it was not possible that she could do murder.

Still with wide eyes she stared. Surely the heavy breath had come more quickly a moment ago. It seemed an age between each rise and fall of the coverlet. There was a ghastly whistling sound of it between the teeth.

It was slower still. The eyelids were gradually opening—the blind white was horrible to see. Each breath was a convulsion that shook the frail body.

It was murder. Her hand shot out like lightning and seized the small bottle. Let anything come,—love, shame, heaven, damnation; it should not be murder.

She forced the unstoppered bottle into the dying woman's mouth with a desperate hand. The next breath was drawn with a choking effort. The whole body stirred. The thin hand appeared, grasped the coverlet with distorting energy, and then lay almost still, twitching convulsively second by second. Still Maria tried wildly to pour more of the stimulant between the set teeth. When they parted, no breath came, and the fingers only moved once more, for the very last time.

It was not murder, but it was death. The wasted old woman had outlived by two or three hours the strong, young peasant girl, and fate had laid her hand heavily upon the life of Maria Addolorata.



CHAPTER XV.

WHEN Dalrymple came home that evening, he found his supper already on the table and half cold. Sora Nanna was busier than her daughter, and less patient of the Scotchman's irregularities. If he could not come home at a reasonable hour, he must not expect her to keep everything waiting for him.

He sat down to the table without even going upstairs as usual to wash his hands, simply because the cooked meat would be cold and greasy if he let it stand five minutes longer. Being once seated in his place, he did not move for a long time. Sora Nanna came in more than once. She was very much preoccupied about the load of wine which her husband had ordered to be sent, and which, if possible, she meant to send off before morning, for she did not wish him to be absent in Rome with money in his pocket a day longer than necessary.

Gloomy and preoccupied, without even a book before him, Dalrymple sat with his back to the wall, drinking his wine in silence, and staring at the lamp. Sora Nanna asked him whether he had seen Annetta. He shook his head without speaking. The woman observed that the girls were quite capable of spending a second night at Civitella to prolong the festivities. Dalrymple nodded, not caring at all.

Annetta being absent, Gigetto had not thought it necessary to put in an appearance. But Sora Nanna wished to see him again about the wine. With a grin, she asked Dalrymple whether he would keep house if she went out for half an hour. Again he nodded in silence. He heard her lock from the inside the door which opened from the staircase upon the street, for it was already late. Then she came through the common room again, with her overskirt over her head, went out, and left the door ajar. Dalrymple was alone in the house, unaware that Annetta was lying dead on the floor of his room upstairs.

Sora Nanna had not been gone a quarter of an hour when a boy came in from the street. Dalrymple knew him, for he was the son of the convent gardener.

The lad said that Dalrymple was wanted immediately, as the abbess was very ill. That was all he knew. He was rather a dull boy, and he repeated mechanically what he had been told. The Scotchman started and was about to speak, when he checked himself. He asked the boy two or three questions, in the hope of getting more accurate information, but could only elicit a repetition of the message. He was wanted immediately, as the abbess was very ill.

He covered his eyes with his hand for a few seconds. In a flash he saw that if he were ever to carry off Maria Addolorata, it must be to-night. The chances were a hundred to one that if there were another crisis, the abbess would be dead before he could reach the convent. Once dead, there was no knowing what might happen in the confusion that would ensue, and during the elaborate funeral ceremonies. The man had that daring temper that rises at obstacles as an eagle at a crag, without the slightest hesitation. When he dropped his hand upon the table he had made up his mind.

It was generally easy to get a good mule at any hour of the night in Subiaco. The mules were in their stables then. In the daytime it would have been very doubtful, when most of them were away in the vineyards, or carrying loads to the neighbouring towns. The convent gardener, who was well-to-do in the world, had a very good mule, as Dalrymple knew, and its stable was half-way up the ascent. The boy could saddle it with the pack-saddle without any difficulty, and meet him anywhere he chose. Dalrymple's reputation was excellent as a liberal foreigner who paid well, and the gardener would not blame the boy for saddling the mule without leave.

In a few words Dalrymple explained what he wanted, and to help the lad's understanding he gave him some coppers which filled the little fellow with energy and delight. The boy was to be at the top of the mule path leading down from above the convent to the valley in half an hour. Dalrymple told him that he wished to go to Tivoli, and that the boy could come with him if he chose, after the visit to the abbess was over. The boy ran away to saddle the mule.

Dalrymple rose quickly, and shut the street door in order to take the lamp with him to his room, and not to leave the house open with no light in it. The case was urgent. He went upstairs, carrying the lamp, and opened the door of his quarters. Instantly he recognized the faint, sickly odour of hydrocyanide of potassium, and remembered that he had left the bottle with the solution on his table that afternoon in his hurry. Then he looked down and saw a white face upon the floor, and the flowered bodice and smart skirt of the peasant girl.

He had solid nerves, and possessed that perfect indifference to death as a phenomenon which most medical men acquire in the dissecting-room. But he was shocked when, bending down, and setting the lamp upon the floor, he saw in a few seconds that Annetta had been dead some time. He even shook his head a little, very slowly, which meant a great deal for his hard nature. Glancing at the unstoppered bottle and at the empty glass, side by side on the table, he understood at once that the girl, intentionally or by mistake, had swallowed enough of the poison to kill half-a-dozen strong men. He remembered instantly how he had once given her spirits of camphor when she had felt ill, and he understood all the circumstances in a moment, almost as though he had seen them.

Scarcely thinking of what he was doing, though with an effort which any one who has attempted to lift a dead body from the ground will understand, he took up the lifeless girl, stiff and stark as she was, and laid her upon his own bed. It was a mere instinct of humanity. Then he went back and took the lamp and held it near her face, and shook his head again, thoughtfully. A word of pity escaped his lips, spoken very low.

He set the lamp down on the floor by the bedside, for there was no small table near. There never is, in peasants' houses. He began to walk up and down the room, thinking over the situation, which was grave enough.

Suddenly he smelt the acrid odour of burning cotton. He turned quickly, and saw that he had placed the three-beaked lamp so near to the bed that the overhanging coverlet was directly above one of the flames, and was already smouldering. He smothered it with the stuff itself between his hands, brought the lamp into the laboratory, and set it upon the table.

Then, realizing that his own case was urgent, he began to make his preparations. He took a clean bottle and poured thirty-five drops of laudanum into it, put in the stopper, and thrust it into his pocket. Unlocking another box, he took out some papers and a canvas bag of gold, such as bankers used to give travellers in those times when it was necessary to take a large supply of cash for a journey. He threw on his cloak, took his plaid over one arm and went back into his bedroom, carrying the lamp in the other hand. Then he hesitated, sniffing the air and the smell of the burnt cotton. Suddenly an idea seemed to cross his mind, for he put down the lamp and dropped his plaid upon a chair. He stood still a moment longer, looking at the dead girl as she lay on the bed, biting his lip thoughtfully, and nodding his head once or twice. He made a step towards the bed, then hesitated once more, and then made up his mind.

He went back to the bedside, and stooping a little lifted the body on his arms as though judging of its weight and of his power to carry it. His first instinct had been to lock the door of the room behind him, and to go up to the convent, leaving the dead girl where she was, whether he were destined to come back that night, or never. A moment's reflection had told him that if he did so he must certainly be accused of having poisoned her. He meant, if it were possible, to take Maria Addolorata on board of the English man-of-war at Civita Vecchia within twenty-four hours. So far as the carrying off of a nun was concerned, he would be safe on the ship; but if he were accused of murder, no matter how falsely, the captain would have a right to refuse his protection, even though he was Dalrymple's friend. A little chain of circumstances had led him to form a plan, in a flash, which, if successfully carried out, would account both for the disappearance of Annetta herself, and of Maria Addolorata as well.

His eyelids contracted slightly, and his great jaw set itself with the determination to overcome all obstacles. In a few seconds he had divested the dead girl of her heavy bodice and skirt and carpet apron and heavy shoes. He rolled the things into a bundle, tossed them into the laboratory, locked the door of the latter, and stuck the key into his pocket. He carefully stopped the bottle containing the remainder of the prussiate of potassium, and took that also. Then he rolled the body up carefully in his great plaid, mummy-like, and tied the ends of the shawl with shoe-laces which he had among his things. He drew his soft hat firmly down upon his forehead, and threw his cloak over his left shoulder. He lifted the body off the bed. It was so stark that it stood upright beside him. With his right arm round its waist, he raised it so high that he could walk freely, and he drew his wide cloak over it as well as he could, and freed his left hand. He grasped the lamp as he passed the table, listened at the door, though he knew that the house was locked below, and he cautiously and with difficulty descended the stairs.

Just inside the street door of the staircase there was a niche, as there is in almost all old Italian houses. He set the body in it, and went into the common room with the lamp. Taking the bottle with the laudanum in it from his pocket, he filled it more than half full of aniseed cordial, of which a decanter stood with other liquors upon a sideboard, as usual in such places. He returned it to his pocket, and listened again. Then he assured himself that he had all he needed—the bottle, money, his cloak, and a short, broad knife which he always took with him on his walks, more for the sake of cutting a loaf of bread if he stopped for refreshment than for any other purpose. His passport he had taken with his few other valuable papers from the box.

He left the lamp on the table, and unlocked the street door, though he did not pull it open. Brave as he was, his heart beat fast, for it was the first decisive moment. If Sora Nanna should come home within the next sixty seconds, there would be trouble. But there was no sound.

In the dark he went back to the door of the staircase, unlocked it, and opened it wide, looking out. The heavy clouds had so darkened the moonlight that he could hardly see. But the street was quiet, for it was late, and there were no watchmen in Subiaco at that time. A moment later, the door was closed behind him, and he was disappearing round the dark corner with Annetta's body in his arms, all wrapped with himself in his great cloak.

It was a long and terrible climb. A weaker man would have fainted or given it up long before Dalrymple set his foot firmly upon the narrow beaten path which ran along between the garden wall at the back of the convent, and the precipitous descent on his left. The sweat ran down over his hard, pale face in the dark, as he shook off his cloak and laid down his ghastly burden under the deep shadow of the low postern. He shook his big shoulders and wiped his brow, and stretched out his long arms, doubling them and stretching them again, for they were benumbed and asleep with the protracted effort. But so far it was done, and no one had met him. There had been little chance of that, but he was glad, all the same. And if, down at the house, any one went to his room, nothing would be found. He had the key of the little laboratory in his pocket. It would be long before they broke down the door and found Annetta's skirt and bodice and shoes wrapped together in a corner.

He went on up the ascent five minutes further, walking as though on air now that he carried no weight in his arms. At the top of the mule path the lad was already waiting for him with the mule. He told the little fellow that he might have to wait half an hour longer, as he must go into the convent to see the abbess before starting for Tivoli. He bid him tie the mule by the halter to the low branch of an overhanging fig-tree, and sit down to wait.

"It is a cool night," said Dalrymple, though he was hot enough himself. "Drink this, my boy."

He gave him the little bottle of aniseed, opening it as he did so. The boy smelt it and knew that it was good, for it is a common drink in the mountains. He drank half of it, pouring it into his mouth with a gurgling sound.

"Drink it all," said Dalrymple. "I brought it for you."

The boy did not hesitate, but drained it to the last drop, and handed the bottle back without a word. Dalrymple made him sit down near the mule's head, well aside from the path, in case any one should pass. He knew that between the unaccustomed dose of spirits and the thirty-five drops of opium, the lad would be sound asleep before long. For the rest, there was nothing to be done but to trust to luck. He had done the impossible already, so far as physical effort was concerned, but Fortune must not thwart him at the end. If she did, he had in his other pocket enough left of what had killed Annetta to settle his own affairs forever, and he might need it. At that moment he was absolutely desperate. It would be ill for any one who crossed his path that night.



CHAPTER XVI.

DALRYMPLE wrapped his cloak about him once more, as he turned away, and retraced his steps by the garden wall. He glanced at the long dark thing that lay in the shadow of the postern, as he went by. It was not probable that it would be noticed, even if any one should pass that way, which was unlikely, between ten o'clock at night and three in the morning. He went on without stopping, and in three or four minutes he had gone round the convent to the main entrance, next to the church. He rang the bell. The portress was expecting him, and he was admitted without a word.

He found Maria Addolorata in the antechamber of the abbess's apartment, veiled, and standing with folded hands in the middle of the little hall. She must have heard the distant clang of the bell, for she was evidently waiting for him.

"Am I in time?" he asked in a tone of anxiety.

She shook her head slowly.

"Is she dead?"

"She was dead before I sent for you," answered Maria Addolorata, in a low and almost solemn tone. "No one knows it yet."

"I feared so," said Dalrymple.

He made a step towards the door of the parlour, naturally expecting that Maria would speak with him there, as usual. But she stepped back and placed herself in his way.

"No," she said briefly.

"Why not?" he asked in quick surprise.

She raised her finger to her veiled lips, and then pointed to the other door, to warn him that the portress was there and was almost within hearing. With quick suspicion he understood that she was keeping him in the antechamber to defend herself, that she had not been able to resist the desire to see him once more, and that she intended this to be their last meeting.

"Maria," he began, but he only pronounced her name, and stopped short, for a great fear took him by the throat.

"Yes," she answered, in her calm, low voice. "I have made up my mind. I will not go. God will perhaps forgive me what I have done. I will pray for forgiveness. But I will not do more evil. I will not bring shame upon my father's house, even for love of you."

Her voice trembled a little at the last words. Even veiled as she was, the vital magnetism of the man was creeping upon her already. She had resolved that she would see him once more, that she would tell him the plain truth that was right, that she would bid him farewell, and promise to pray for him, as she must pray for herself. But she had sworn to herself that she would not speak of love. Yet with the first words she spoke, the word and the vibration of love had come too. Her hands disappeared in her sleeves, and her nails pressed the flesh in the determination to be strong. She little guessed the tremendous argument he had in store.

"It is hard to speak here," he said. "Let us go into the parlour."

She shook her head, and again moved backwards a step, so that her shoulders were almost against the door.

"You must say what you have to say here," she answered after a moment's pause, and she felt strong again. "For my part, I have spoken. May God forget me in my utmost need if I go with you."

Dalrymple seemed little moved by the solemn invocation. It meant little enough to him.

"I must tell you a short story," he replied quietly. "Unless I tell you, you cannot understand. I have set my life upon your love, and I have gone so far that I cannot save my life except by you—my life and my honour. Will you listen to me?"

She nodded, and he heard her draw a quick breath. Then he began his story, putting it together clearly, from the facts he knew, in very few words. He told her how Annetta must have mistaken the bottle on his table for camphor, and how he had found her dead. Nothing would save him from the accusation of having murdered the girl but the absolute disappearance of her body. Maria shuddered and turned her head quickly when he told her that the body was lying under the postern arch behind the garden wall. He told her, too, that the boy was by this time asleep beside the mule on the path beyond. Then he told her of his plan, which was short, desperate, and masterly.

"You must tell no one that the abbess is dead," he said. "Go out through your cell into the garden, as soon as I am gone, and when I tap at the postern open the door. Leave a lamp in your cell. I will do the rest."

"What will you do?" asked Maria, in a low and wondering tone.

"You must lock the door of your cell on the inside and leave the lamp there," said Dalrymple. "You will wait for me in the garden by the gate. I will carry the poor girl's body in and lay it in your bed. Then I will set fire to the bed itself. Of course there is an under-mattress of maize leaves—there always is. I will leave the lamp standing on the floor by the bedside. I will shut the door and come out to you, and I can manage to slip the bolt of the garden gate from the outside by propping up the spring from within. You shall see."

"It is horrible!" gasped Maria. "And I do not see—"

"It is simple, and nothing else can save my life. Your cell is of course a mere stone vault, and the fire cannot spread. The sisters are asleep, except the portress, who will be far away. Long before they break down your door, the body will be charred by the fire beyond all recognition. They will see the lamp standing close by, and will suppose that you lay down to rest, leaving the lamp close to you—too close; that the abbess died while you were asleep, and that you had caught fire before you waked; that you were burned to death, in fact. The body will be buried as yours, and you will be legally dead. Consequently there will not be the slightest suspicion upon your good name. As for me, it will be supposed that I have procured other clothes for Annetta, thrown hers into the laboratory and carried her off. In due time I will send her father a large sum of money without comment. If you refuse, I must either be arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of a girl who killed herself without my knowledge, or, as is probable, I shall go out now, sit down in a quiet place, and be found dead in the morning. It is certain death to me in either case. It would be absolutely impossible for me to get rid of the dead body without arousing suspicion. If it is wrong to save oneself by burning a dead body, it is not a great wrong, and I take it upon myself. It is the only wrong in the matter, unless it is wrong to love you and to be willing to die for you. Do you understand me?"

Leaning back against the door of the parlour, Maria Addolorata had almost unconsciously lifted her veil and was gazing into his eyes. The plan was horrible, but she could not help admiring the man's strength and daring. In his voice, even when he told her that he loved her, there was that quiet courage which imposes itself upon men and women alike. The whole situation was as clear as day to her in a moment, for all his calculations were absolutely correct,—the fire-proof vault of the cell, the certainty that the body would be taken for hers, above all, the assurance of her own supposed death, with the utter freedom from suspicion which it would mean for her ever afterwards. Was she not to be buried with Christian burial, mourned as dead, and freed in one hour from all the consequences of her life? It was masterly, though there was a horror in it.

She loved him more than her own soul. It was the fear of bringing shame upon her father and mother that had held her, far more than any spiritual dread. It was not strange that she should waver again when he had unfolded his scheme.

She turned, opened the door, and led him into the parlour, where the silver lamp was burning brightly.

"You must tell it all again," she said, still standing. "I must be quite sure that I understand."

He knew well enough that she had finally yielded, since she went so far. In his mind he quickly ran over the details of the plan once more, and mentally settled what still remained to be decided. But since she wished it, he went over all he had said already. Being able to speak in his natural voice without fear of being overheard by the portress, and feeling sure of the result, he spoke far more easily and more eloquently. Before he had finished he was holding her hand in his, and she was gazing intently into his eyes.

"It is life or death for me," he said, when he had told her everything. "Which shall it be?"

She was silent for a moment. Then her strong mouth smiled strangely.

"It shall be life for you, if I lose my soul for it," she said.

She felt the quick thrill and pressure of his hand, and all the man's tremendous energy was alive again.

"Then let us do it quickly," he answered. "I will go out with the portress. Go to your cell before we reach the end of the corridor, and shut the door with some noise. She will remember it afterwards. Wait at the garden gate till I tap softly, and leave the rest to me. There is no danger. Do not be afraid."

"Afraid!" she exclaimed proudly. "How little you know me! It never was fear that held me. Besides—with you!"

The two last words told him more than all she had ever said before, and for the first time he wholly trusted her. Besides, it was to be only for a few minutes, while he went out by the front gate and walked round to the back of the convent. The plan was so well conceived that it could not fail when put into execution.

They shook hands, as two people who have agreed to do a desperate deed, each for the other's sake. Then as their grasp loosened, Dalrymple turned towards the door, but turned again almost instantly and took her in his arms, and kissed her as men kiss women they love when their lives are in the balance. Then he went out, passed through the antechamber, and found the portress waiting for him as usual. She took up her little lamp and led the way in silence. A moment later he heard Maria come out and enter her cell, closing the door loudly behind her.

"Her most reverend excellency is in no danger now," he said to the portress, with Scotch veracity.

"Sister Maria Addolorata may then rest a little," answered the lay sister, who rarely spoke.

"Precisely so," said Dalrymple, drily.

Five minutes later he was at the garden gate, tapping softly. Immediately the door yielded to his gentle pressure, for Maria had already unfastened the lock within.

"Stand aside a little," said Dalrymple, in a whisper. "You need not see—it is not a pretty sight. Keep the door shut till I come back. Where is your cell?"

She pointed to a door that was open above the level of the garden. A little light came out. With womanly caution she had set the lamp in the corner behind the door when she had opened it, so as to show as little as possible from without.

She turned her head away as he passed her with his heavy burden, treading softly upon the hard, dry ground. But he was not half across the garden before she looked after him. She could not help it. The dark thing he carried in his arms attracted her, and a shudder ran through her. She closed the gate, and stood with her hand on the lock.

It seemed to her that he was gone an interminable time. Though the moon was now high, the clouds were so black that the garden was almost quite dark. Suddenly she heard his step, and he was nearer than she thought.

"It is burning well," he said with grim brevity.

He stooped and looked closely in the dimness at the old-fashioned lock. It was made as he supposed and could be easily slipped from without. He found a pebble under his foot, raised the spring, and placed the small stone under it, after examining the position of the cracks in the wood, which were many.

"There is plenty of time, now," he said, and he gently pushed her out upon the narrow walk, drawing the door after him.

With his big knife, working through the widest crack he teazed the bolt into the socket. Then with his shoulder he softly shook the whole door. He heard the spring fall into its place, as the pebble dropped upon the dry ground.

"No human being can suspect that the door has been opened," he said.

He wrapped her in his long cloak, standing beside her under the wall. Very gently he pushed the veil and bands away from her golden hair. She helped him, and he kissed the soft locks. Then about her head he laid his plaid in folds and drew it forward over her shoulders. She let him do it, not realizing what service the shawl had but lately done.

They walked forward. The boy was fast asleep and did not move. The mule stamped a little as they came up. Dalrymple lifted Maria upon the pack-saddle, sideways, and stretched the packing-cords behind her back.

"Hold on," he said. "I will lead the mule."



So it was all over, and the deed was done, for good or evil. But it was for evil, for it was a bad deed.

To the last, fortune favoured Dalrymple and Maria, and everything took place after their flight just as the strong man had anticipated. Not a trace of the truth was left behind. Early in the morning the abbess was found dead, and in the little cell near by, upon the still smouldering remains of the mattress, lay the charred and burned form of a woman. In Stefanone's house, the little bundle of clothes in the locked laboratory was all that was left of Annetta. All Subiaco said that the Englishman had carried off the peasant girl to his own country.

Up at the convent the nuns buried the abbess in great state, with catafalque and canopy, with hundreds of wax candles and endless funeral singing. They buried also another body with less magnificence, but with more pomp than would have been bestowed upon any of the other sisters, and not long afterwards a marble tablet in the wall of the church set forth in short good Latin sentences, how the Sister Maria Addolorata, of many virtues, had been burned to death in her bed on the eve of the feast of Saint Luke the Evangelist, and all good Christians were enjoined to pray for her soul—which indeed was in need of their prayers.

Stefanone returned from Rome, but it was a sad home-coming when he found that his daughter was gone, and unconsciously he repeated the very words she had last spoken when she was dying in Dalrymple's room all alone.

"An evil death on you and all your house!" he said, shaking his fist at the door of the room.

And Stefanone swore within himself solemnly that the Englishman should pay the price. And he and his paid it in full, and more also, after years had passed, even to generations then unborn.

This is the first act, as it were, of all the story, and between this one and the beginning of the next a few years must pass quickly, if not altogether in silence.



PART II.

GLORIA DALRYMPLE.



CHAPTER XVII.

IN the year 1861 Donna Francesca Campodonico was already a widow. Her husband, Don Girolamo Campodonico, had died within two years of their marriage, which had been one of interest and convenience so far as he had been concerned, for Donna Francesca was rich, whereas he had been but a younger son and poor. His elder brother was the Duca di Norba, the father of another Girolamo, who succeeded him many years later, of Gianforte Campodonico, and of the beautiful Bianca, in whose short, sad life Pietro Ghisleri afterwards held so large a part. But of these latter persons, some were then not yet born, and others were in their infancy, so that they play no part in this portion of the present history.

Donna Francesca was of the great Braccio family, the last of a collateral branch. She had inherited a very considerable estate, which, if she had no descendants, was to revert to the Princes of Gerano. She had married Don Girolamo in obedience to her guardians' advice, but not at all against her will, and she had become deeply attached to him during the short two years of their married life. He had never been strong, since his childhood, his constitution having been permanently injured by a violent attack of malarious fever when he had been a mere boy. A second fever, even more severe than the first, caught on a shooting expedition near Fiumicino, had killed him, and Donna Francesca was left a childless widow, in full possession of her own fortune and of a little more in the shape of a small jointure. It was thought that she would marry again before very long, but it was too soon to expect this as yet.

Among her possessions as the last of her branch of the Braccio family, of which the main line, however, was sufficiently well represented, was the small but beautiful palace in which she now lived alone. It was situated between the Capitoline Hill and the Tiber, surrounded on three sides by dark and narrow streets, but facing a small square in which there was an ancient church. When it is said that the palace was a small one, its dimensions are compared with the great Roman palaces, more than one of which could easily lodge a thousand persons. It was built on the same general plan as most of them, with a ground floor having heavily barred windows; a state apartment in the first story, with three stone balconies on the front; a very low second story above that, but not coextensive with it, because two of the great state rooms were higher than the rest and had clere-story windows; and last of all, a third story consisting of much higher rooms than the second, and having a spacious attic under the sloping roof, which was, of course, covered with red tiles in the old fashion. The palace, at that time known as the Palazzo, or 'Palazzetto,' Borgia, was externally a very good specimen of Renascence architecture of the period when the florid, 'barocco' style had not yet got the upper hand in Rome. The great arched entrance for carriages was well proportioned, the stone carvings were severe rather than graceful, the cornices had great nobility both of proportion and design. The lower story was built of rough-faced blocks of travertine stone, above which the masonry was smooth. The whole palace was of that warm, time-toned colour, which travertine takes with age, and which is, therefore, peculiar to old Roman buildings.

Within, though it could not be said that any part had exactly fallen to decay, there were many rooms which had been long disused, in which the old frescoes and architectural designs in grey and white, and bits of bold perspective painted in the vaults and embrasures, were almost obliterated by time, and in which such furniture as there was could not survive much longer. About one-half of the state apartment, comprising, perhaps, fifteen or twenty rooms, large and small, had been occupied by Donna Francesca and her husband, and she now lived in them alone. In that part of the palace there was a sort of quiet and stately luxury, the result of her own taste, which was strongly opposed to the gaudy fashions then introduced from Paris at the height of the Second Empire's importance. Girolamo Campodonico had been aware that his young wife's judgment was far better than his own in artistic matters, and had left all such questions entirely to her.

She had taken much pleasure in unearthing from attics and disused rooms all such objects as possessed any intrinsic artistic value, such as old carved furniture, tapestries, and the like. Whatever she found worth keeping she had caused to be restored just so far as to be useful, and she had known how to supply the deficiencies with modern material in such a way as not to destroy the harmony of the whole.

It should be sufficiently clear from these facts that Donna Francesca Campodonico was a woman of taste and culture, in the modern sense. Indeed, the satisfaction of her tastes occupied a much more important place in her existence than her social obligations, and had a far greater influence upon her subsequent life. Her favourite scheme was to make her palace at all points as complete within as its architect had made it outside, and she had it in her power to succeed in doing so. She was not, as some might think, a great exception in those days. Within the narrow limits of a certain class, in which the hereditary possession of masterpieces has established artistic intelligence as a stamp of caste, no people, until recently, have had a better taste than the Italians; as no people, beyond these limits, have ever had a worse. There was nothing very unusual in Donna Francesca's views, except her constant and industrious energy in carrying them out. Even this might be attributed to the fact that she had inherited a beautiful but dilapidated palace, which she was desirous of improving until, on a small scale, it should be like the houses of the great old families, such as the Saracinesca, the Savelli, the Frangipani, and her own near relatives, the Princes of Gerano.

She had an invaluable ally in her artistic enterprises in the person of an artist, who, in a sort of way, was considered as belonging to Casa Braccio, though his extraordinary talent had raised him far above the position of a dependent of the family, in which he had been born as the son of the steward of the ancient castle and estate of Gerano. As constantly happened in those days, the clever boy had been noticed by the Prince,—or, perhaps, thrust into notice by his father, who was reasonably proud of him. The lad had been taken out of his surroundings and thoroughly educated for the priesthood in Rome, but by the time he had attained to the age necessary for ordination, his artistic gifts had developed to such an extent that in spite of his father's disappointment, even the old Prince—the brother of Sister Maria Addolorata—advised Angelo Reanda to give up the Church, and to devote himself altogether to painting.

Young Reanda had been glad enough of the change in his prospects. Many eminent Italians have begun life in a similar way. Cardinal Antonelli was not the only one, for there have been Italian prime ministers as well as dignitaries of the Church, whose origin was as humble and who owed their subsequent distinction to the kindly interest bestowed on them by nobles on whose estates their parents were mere peasants, very far inferior in station to Angelo Reanda's father, a man of a certain education, occupying a position of trust and importance.

Nor was Reanda's priestly education anything but an advantage to him, so far as his career was concerned, however much it had raised him above the class in which he had been born. So far as latinity and rhetoric were to be counted he was better educated than his father's master; for with the same advantages he had greater talents, greater originality, and greater industry. As an artist, his mental culture made him the intellectual superior of most of his contemporaries. As a man, ten years of close association with the sons of gentlemen had easily enough made a gentleman of one whose instincts were naturally as refined as his character was sensitive and upright.

Donna Francesca, as the last of her branch of the family and an orphan at an early age, had of course been brought up in the house of her relatives of Gerano, and from her childhood had known Reanda's father, and Angelo himself, who was fully ten years older than she. Some of his first paintings had been done in the great Braccio palace, and many a time, as a mere girl, she had watched him at his work, perched upon a scaffolding, as he decorated the vault of the main hall. She could not remember the time when she had not heard him spoken of as a young genius, and she could distinctly recall the discussion which had taken place when his fate had been decided for him, and when he had been at last told that he might become an artist if he chose. At that time she had looked upon him with a sort of wondering admiration in which there was much real friendly feeling, and as she grew up and saw what he could do, and learned to appreciate it, she silently determined that he should one day help her to restore the dilapidated Palazzetto Borgia, where her father and mother had died in her infancy, and which she loved with that sort of tender attachment which children brought up by distant relations often feel for whatever has belonged to their own dimly remembered parents.

There was a natural intimacy between the young girl and the artist. Long ago she had played at ball with him in the great courtyard of the Gerano castle, when he had been at home for his holidays, wearing a black cassock and a three-cornered hat, like a young priest. Then, all at once, instead of a priest he had been a painter, dressed like other men and working in the house in which she lived. She had played with his colours, had scrawled with his charcoals upon the white plastered walls, had asked him questions, and had talked with him about the famous pictures in the Braccio gallery. And all this had happened not once, but many times in the course of years. Then she had unfolded to him her schemes about her own little palace, and he had promised to help her, by and bye, half jesting, half in earnest. She would give him rooms in the upper story to live in, she said, disposing of everything beforehand. He should be close to his work, and have it under his hand always until it was finished. And when there was no more to do, he might still live there and have his studio at the top of the old house, with an entrance of his own, leading by a narrow staircase to one of the dark streets at the back. She had noticed all sorts of peculiarities of the building in her occasional visits to it with the governess,—as, for instance, that there was a convenient interior staircase leading from the great hall to the upper story, by a door once painted like the wall, and hard to find, but now hanging on its hinges and hideously apparent. The great hall must all be painted again, and Angelo could live overhead and come down to his work by those steps. With childish pleasure she praised her own ingenuity in so arranging matters beforehand. Angelo was to help her in all she did, until the Palazzetto Borgia should be as beautiful as the Palazzo Braccio itself, though of course it was much smaller. Then she scrawled on the walls again, trying to explain to him, in childishly futile sketches, her ideas of decoration, and he would come down from his scaffold and do his best with a few broad lines to show her what she had really imagined, till she clapped her small, dusty hands with delight and was ultimately carried off by her governess to be made presentable for her daily drive in the Villa Borghese with the Princess of Gerano.

As a girl Francesca had the rare gift of seeing clearly in her mind what she wanted, and at last she had found herself possessed of the power to carry out her intentions. As a matter of course she had taken Reanda into her confidence as her chief helper, and the intimacy which dated from her childhood had continued on very much the same footing. His talent had grown and been consolidated by ten years of good work, and she, as a young married woman, had understood what she had meant when she had been a child. Reanda was now admittedly, in his department, the first painter in Rome, and that was fame in those days. His high education and general knowledge of all artistic matters made him an interesting companion in such work as Francesca had undertaken, and he had, moreover, a personal charm of manner and voice which had always attracted her.

No one, perhaps, would have called him a handsome man, and at this time he was no longer in his first youth. He was tall, thin, and very dark, though his black beard had touches of a deep gold-brown colour in it, which contrasted a little with his dusky complexion. He had a sad face, with deep, lustreless, thoughtful eyes, which seemed to peer inward rather than outward. In the olive skin there were heavy brown shadows, and the bony prominence of the brow left hollows at the temples, from which the fine black hair grew with a backward turn which gave something unusual to his expression. The aquiline nose which characterizes so many Roman faces, was thin and delicate, with sensitive nostrils that often moved when he was speaking. The eyebrows were irregular and thick, extending in a dark down beyond the lower angles of the forehead, and almost meeting between the eyes; but the somewhat gloomy expression which this gave him was modified by a certain sensitive grace of the mouth, little hidden by the thin black moustache or by the beard, which did not grow up to the lower lip, though it was thick and silky from the chin downwards.

It was a thoughtful face, but there was creative power in the high forehead, as there was direct energy in the long arms and lean, nervous hands. Donna Francesca liked to watch him at his work, as she had watched him when she was a little girl. Now and then, but very rarely, the lustreless eyes lighted up, just before he put in some steady, determining stroke which brought out the meaning of the design. There was a quick fire in them then, at the instant when the main idea was outwardly expressed, and if she spoke to him inadvertently at such a moment, he never answered her at once, and sometimes forgot to answer her at all. For his art was always first with him. She knew it, and she liked him the better for it.

The intimacy between the great lady and the artist was, indeed, founded upon this devotion of his to his painting, but it was sustained by a sort of community of interests extending far back into darker ages, when his forefathers had been bondsmen to her ancestors in the days of serfdom. He had grown up with the clearly defined sensation of belonging with, if not to, the house of Braccio. His father had been a trusty and trusted dependent of the family, and he had imbibed as a mere child its hereditary likes and dislikes, its traditions wise and foolish, together with an indomitable pride in its high fortunes and position in the world. And Francesca herself was a true Braccio, though she was descended from a collateral branch, and, next to the Prince of Gerano, had been to Reanda by far the most important person bearing the name. She had admired him when she had been a child, had encouraged him as she grew up, and now she provided his genius with employment, and gave him her friendship as a solace and delight both in work and idleness. It is said that only Italians can be admitted to such a position with the certainty that they will not under any circumstances presume upon it. To Angelo Reanda it meant much more than to most men who could have been placed as he was. His genius raised him far above the class in which he had been born, and his education, with his natural and acquired refinement, placed him on a higher level than the majority of other Roman artists, who, in the Rome of that day, inhabited a Bohemia of their own which has completely disappeared. Their ideas and conversation, when they were serious, interested him, but their manners were not his, and their gaiety was frankly distasteful to him. He associated with them as an artist, but not as a companion, and he particularly disliked their wives and daughters, who, in their turn, found him too 'serious' for their society, to use the time-honoured Italian expression. Nevertheless, his natural gentleness of disposition made him treat them all alike with quiet courtesy, and when, as often happened, he was obliged to be in their company, he honestly endeavoured to be one of them as far as he could.

On the other hand, he had no footing in the society to which Francesca belonged, but for which she cared so little. There were, indeed, one or two houses where he was received, as he was at Casa Braccio, in a manner which, for the very reason that it was familiar, proved his social inferiority—where he addressed the head of the house as 'Excellency' and was called 'Reanda' by everybody, elders and juniors alike, where he was appreciated as an artist, respected as a man, and welcomed occasionally as a guest when no other outsider was present, but where he was not looked upon as a personage to be invited even with the great throng on state occasions. He was as far from receiving such cold acknowledgments of social existence as those who received them and nothing else were distantly removed from intimacy on an equal footing.

He did not complain of such treatment, nor even inwardly resent it. The friendliness shown him was as real as the kindness he had received throughout his early youth from the Prince of Gerano, and he was not the man to undervalue it because he had not a drop of gentle blood in his veins. But his refined nature craved refined intercourse, and preferred solitude to what he could get in any lower sphere. The desire for the atmosphere of the uppermost class, rather than the mere wish to appear as one of its members, often belongs to the artistic temperament, and many artists are unjustly disliked by their fellows and pointed at as snobs because they prefer, as an atmosphere, inane elegance to inelegant intellectuality. It is often forgotten by those who calumniate them that hereditary elegance, no matter how empty-headed, is the result of an hereditary cultivation of what is thought beautiful, and that the vainest, silliest woman who dresses well by instinct is an artist in her way.

In Francesca Campodonico there was much more than such superficial taste, and in her Reanda found the only true companion he had ever known. He might have been for twenty years the intimate friend of all Roman society without meeting such another, and he knew it, and appreciated his good fortune. For he was not naturally a dissatisfied man, nor at all given to complain of his lot. Few men are, who have active, creative genius, and whose profession gives them all the scope they need. Of late years, too, Francesca had treated him with a sort of deference which he got from no one else in the world. He realized that she did, without attempting to account for the fact, which, indeed, depended on something past his comprehension.

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