"Not without finishing this portrait," returned Anastase, quite unmoved. "It is an exceedingly good likeness; and in case you should ever disappear—you know people sometimes do in revolutions—or if by any unlucky accident your beautiful neck should chance beneath that guillotine you just mentioned,—why, then, this canvas would be the most delightful souvenir of many pleasant mornings, would it not?"
"You are incorrigible," said Donna Tullia, with a slight laugh. "You cannot be serious for a moment."
"It is very hard to paint you when your expression changes so often," replied Anastase, calmly.
"I am not in a good humour for sitting to you this morning. I wish you would amuse me, Del Ferice. You generally can."
"I thought politics amused you—"
"They interest me. But Gouache's ideas are detestable."
"Will you not give us some of your own, Madame?" inquired the painter, stepping back from his canvas to get a better view of his work.
"Oh, mine are very simple," answered Donna Tullia. "Victor Emmanuel, Garibaldi, and a free press."
"A combination of monarchy, republicanism, and popular education—not very interesting," remarked Gouache, still eyeing his picture.
"No; there would be nothing for you to paint, except portraits of the liberators—"
"There is a great deal of that done. I have seen them in every cafe in the north of Italy," interrupted the artist. "I would like to paint Garibaldi. He has a fine head."
"I will ask him to sit to you when he comes here."
"When he comes I shall be here no longer," answered Gouache. "They will whitewash the Corso, they will make a restaurant of the Colosseum, and they will hoist the Italian flag on the cross of St. Peter's. Then I will go to Constantinople; there will still be some years before Turkey is modernised."
"Artists are hopeless people," said Del Ferice. "They are utterly illogical, and it is impossible to deal with them. If you like old cities, why do you not like old women? Why would you not rather paint Donna Tullia's old Countess than Donna Tullia herself?"
"That is precisely the opposite case," replied Anastase, quietly. "The works of man are never so beautiful as when they are falling to decay; the works of God are most beautiful when they are young. You might as well say that because wine improves with age, therefore horses do likewise. The faculty of comparison is lacking in your mind, my dear Del Ferice, as it is generally lacking in the minds of true patriots. Great reforms and great revolutions are generally brought about by people of fierce and desperate convictions, like yours, who go to extreme lengths, and never know when to stop. The quintessence of an artist's talent is precisely that faculty of comparison, that gift of knowing when the thing he is doing corresponds as nearly as he can make it with the thing he has imagined."
There was no tinge of sarcasm in Gouache's voice as he imputed to Del Ferice the savage enthusiasm of a revolutionist. But when Gouache, who was by no means calm by nature, said anything in a particularly gentle tone, there was generally a sting in it, and Del Ferice reflected upon the mean traffic in stolen information by which he got his livelihood, and was ashamed. Somehow, too, Donna Tullia felt that the part she fancied herself playing was contemptible enough when compared with the hard work, the earnest purpose, and the remarkable talent of the young artist. But though she felt her inferiority, she would have died rather than own it, even to Del Ferice. She knew that for months she had talked with Del Ferice, with Valdarno, with Casalverde, even with the melancholy and ironical Spicca, concerning conspiracies and deeds of darkness of all kinds, and she knew that she and they might go on talking for ever in the same strain without producing the smallest effect on events; but she never to the very end relinquished the illusion she cherished so dearly, that she was really and truly a conspirator, and that if any one of her light-headed acquaintance betrayed the rest, they might all be ordered out of Rome in four-and-twenty hours, or might even disappear into that long range of dark buildings to the left of the colonnade of St. Peter's, martyrs to the cause of their own self-importance and semi-theatrical vanity. There were many knots of such self-fancied conspirators in those days, whose wildest deed of daring was to whisper across a glass of champagne in a ball-room, or over a tumbler of Velletri wine in a Trasteverine cellar, the magic and awe-inspiring words, "Viva Garibaldi! Viva Vittorio!" They accomplished nothing. The same men and women are now grumbling and regretting the flesh-pots of the old Government, or whispering in impotent discontent "Viva la Repubblica!" and they and their descendants will go on whispering something to each other to the end of time, while mightier hands than theirs are tearing down empires and building up irresistible coalitions, and drawing red pencil-marks through the geography of Europe.
The conspirators of those days accomplished nothing after Pius IX. returned from Gaeta; the only men who were of any use at all were those who, like Del Ferice, had sources of secret information, and basely sold their scraps of news. But even they were of small importance. The moment had not come, and all the talking and whispering and tale-bearing in the world could not hasten events, nor change their course. But Donna Tullia was puffed up with a sense of her importance, and Del Ferice managed to attract just as much attention to his harmless chatter about progress as would permit him undisturbed to carry on his lucrative traffic in secret information.
Donna Tullia, who was not in the least artistic, and who by no means appreciated the merits of the portrait Gouache was painting, was very far from comprehending his definition of artistic comparison; but Del Ferice understood it very well. Donna Tullia had much foreign blood in her veins, like most of her class; but Del Ferice's obscure descent was in all probability purely Italian, and he had inherited the common instinct in matters of art which is a part of the Italian birthright. He had recognised Gouache's wonderful talent, and had first brought Donna Tullia to his studio—a matter of little difficulty when she had learned that the young artist had already a reputation. It pleased her to fancy that by telling him to paint her portrait she might pose as his patroness, and hereafter reap the reputation of having influenced his career. For fashion, and the desire to be the representative of fashion, led Donna Tullia hither and thither as a lapdog is led by a string; and there is nothing more in the fashion than to patronise a fashionable portrait-painter.
But after Anastase Gouache had thus delivered himself of his views upon Del Ferice and the faculty of artistic comparison, the conversation languished, and Donna Tullia grew restless. "She had sat enough," she said; and as her expression was not favourable to the portrait, Anastase did not contradict her, but presently suffered her to depart in peace with her devoted adorer at her heels. And when they were gone, Anastase lighted a cigarette, and took a piece of charcoal and sketched a caricature of Donna Tullia in a liberty cap, in a fine theatrical attitude, invoking the aid of Del Ferice, who appeared as the Angel of Death, with the guillotine in the background. Having put the finishing touches to this work of art, Anastase locked his studio and went to breakfast, humming an air from the "Belle Helene."
When Corona reached home she went to her own small boudoir, with the intention of remaining there for an hour if she could do so without being disturbed. There was a prospect of this; for on inquiry she ascertained that her husband was not yet dressed, and his dressing took a very long time. He had a cosmopolitan valet, who alone of living men understood the art of fitting the artificial and the natural Astrardente together. Corona believed this man to be an accomplished scoundrel; but she never had any proof that he was anything worse than a very clever servant, thoroughly unscrupulous where his master's interests or his own were concerned. The old Duca believed in him sincerely and trusted him alone, feeling that since he could never be a hero in his valet's eyes, he might as well take advantage of that misfortune in order to gain a confident.
Corona found three or four letters upon her table, and sat down to read them, letting her fur mantle drop to the floor, and putting her small feet out towards the fire, for the pavement of the church had been cold.
She was destined to pass an eventful day, it seemed. One of the letters was from Giovanni Saracinesca. It was the first time he had ever written to her, and she was greatly surprised on finding his name at the foot of the page. He wrote a strong clear handwriting, entirely without adornment of penmanship, close and regular and straight: there was an air of determination about it which was sympathetic, and a conciseness of expression which startled Corona, as though she had heard the man himself speaking to her.
"I write, dear Duchessa, because I covet your good opinion, and my motive is therefore before all things an interested one. I would not have you think that I had idly asked your advice about a thing so important to me as my marriage, in order to discard your counsel at the first opportunity. There was too much reason in the view you took of the matter to admit of my not giving your opinion all the weight I could, even if I had not already determined upon the very course you advised. Circumstances have occurred, however, which have almost induced me to change my mind. I have had an interview with my father, who has put the matter very plainly before me. I hardly know how to tell you this, but I feel that I owe it to you to explain myself, however much you may despise me for what I am going to say. It is very simple, nevertheless. My father has informed me that by my conduct I have caused my name to be coupled in the mouth of the gossips with that of a person very dear to me, but whom I am unfortunately prevented from marrying. He has convinced me that I owe to this lady, who, I confess, takes no interest whatever in me, the only reparation possible to be made—that of taking a wife, and thus publicly demonstrating that there was never any truth in what has been said. As a marriage will probably be forced upon me some day, it is as well to let things take their course at once, in order that a step so disagreeable to myself may at least distantly profit one whom I love in removing me from the appearance of being a factor in her life. The gossip about me has never reached your ears, but if it should, you will be the better able to understand my position.
"Do not think, therefore, that if I do not follow your advice I am altogether inconsistent, or that I wantonly presumed to consult you without any intention of being guided by you. Forgive me also this letter, which I am impelled to write from somewhat mean motives of vanity, in the hope of not altogether forfeiting your opinion; and especially I beg you to believe that I am at all times the most obedient of your servants,
Of what use was it that she had that morning determined to forget Giovanni, since he had the power of thus bringing himself before her by means of a scrap of paper? Corona's hand closed upon the letter convulsively, and for a moment the room seemed to swim around her.
So there was some one whom he loved, some one for whose fair name he was willing to sacrifice himself even to the extent of marrying against his will. Some one, too, who not only did not love him, but took no interest whatever in him. Those were his own words, and they must be true, for he never lied. That accounted for his accompanying Donna Tullia to the picnic. He was going to marry her after all. To save the woman he loved so hopelessly from the mere suspicion of being loved by him, he was going to tie himself for life to the first who would marry him. That would never prevent the gossips from saying that he loved this other woman as much as ever. It could do her no great harm, since she took no interest whatever in him. Who could she be, this cold creature, whom even Giovanni could not move to interest? It was absurd—the letter was absurd—the whole thing was absurd! None but a madman would think of pursuing such a course; and why should he think it necessary to confide his plans—his very foolish plans—to her, Corona d'Astrardente,—why? Ah, Giovanni, how different things might have been!
Corona rose angrily from her seat and leaned against the broad chimney-piece, and looked at the clock—it was nearly mid-day. He might marry whom he pleased, and be welcome—what was it to her? He might marry and sacrifice himself if he pleased—what was it to her?
She thought of her own life. She, too, had sacrificed herself; she, too, had tied herself for life to a man she despised in her heart, and she had done it for an object she had thought good. She looked steadily at the clock, for she would not give way, nor bend her head and cry bitter tears again; but the tears were in her eyes, nevertheless.
"Giovanni, you must not do it—you must not do it!" Her lips formed the words without speaking them, and repeated the thought again and again. Her heart beat fast and her cheeks flushed darkly. She spread out the crumpled letter and read it once more. As she read, the most intense curiosity seized her to know who this woman might be whom Giovanni so loved; and with her curiosity there was a new feeling—an utterly hateful and hating passion—something so strong, that it suddenly dried her tears and sent the blood from her cheeks back to her heart. Her white hand was clenched, and her eyes were on fire. Ah, if she could only find that woman he loved! if she could only see her dead—dead with Giovanni Saracinesca there upon the floor before her! As she thought of it, she stamped her foot upon the thick carpet, and her face grew paler. She did not know what it was that she felt, but it completely overmastered her. Padre Filippo would be pleased, she thought, for she knew how in that moment she hated Giovanni Saracinesca.
With a sudden impulse she again sat down and opened the letter next to her hand. It was a gossiping epistle from a friend in Paris, full of stories of the day, exclamations upon fashion and all kinds of emptiness; she was about to throw it down impatiently and take up the next when her eyes caught Giovanni's name.
"Of course it is not true that Saracinesca is to marry Madame Mayer..." were the words she read. But that was all. There chanced to have been just room for the sentence at the foot of the page, and by the time her friend had turned over the leaf, she had already forgotten what she had written, and was running on with a different idea. It seemed as though Corona were haunted by Giovanni at every turn; but she had not reached the end yet, for one letter still remained. She tore open the envelope, and found that the contents consisted of a few lines penned in a small and irregular hand, without signature. There was an air of disguise about the whole, which was unpleasant; it was written upon a common sort of paper, and had come through the city post. It ran as follows:—
"The Duchessa d'Astrardente reminds us of the fable of the dog in the horse's manger, for she can neither eat herself nor let others eat. She will not accept Don Giovanni Saracinesca's devotion, but she effectually prevents him from fulfilling his engagements to others."
If Corona had been in her ordinary mood, she would very likely have laughed at the anonymous communication. She had formerly received more than one passionate declaration, not signed indeed, but accompanied always by some clue to the identity of the writer, and she had carelessly thrown them into the fire. But there was no such indication here whereby she might discover who it was who had undertaken to criticise her, to cast upon her so unjust an accusation. Moreover, she was very angry and altogether thrown out of her usually calm humour. Her first impulse was to go to her husband, and in the strength of her innocence to show him the letter. Then she laughed bitterly as she thought how the selfish old dandy would scoff at her sensitiveness, and how utterly incapable he would be of discovering the offender or of punishing the offence. Then again her face was grave, and she asked herself whether it was true that she was innocent; whether she were not really to be blamed, if perhaps she had really prevented Giovanni from marrying Donna Tullia.
But if that were true, she must herself be the woman he spoke of in his letter. Any other woman would have suspected as much. Corona went to the window, and for an instant there was a strange light of pleasure in her face. Then she grew very thoughtful, and her whole mood changed. She could not conceive it possible that Giovanni so loved her as to marry for her sake. Besides, no one could ever have breathed a word of him in connection with herself—until this abominable anonymous letter was written.
The thought that she might, after all, be the "person very dear to him," the one who "took no interest whatever in him," had nevertheless crossed her mind, and had given her for one moment a sense of wild and indescribable pleasure. Then she remembered what she had felt before; how angry, how utterly beside herself, she had been at the thought of another woman being loved by him, and she suddenly understood that she was jealous of her. The very thought revived in her the belief that it was not she herself who was thus influencing the life of Giovanni Saracinesca, but another, and she sat silent and pale.
Of course it was another! What had she done, what word had she spoken, whereby the world might pretend to believe that she controlled this man's actions? "Fulfilling his engagements," the letter said, too. It must have been written by an ignorant person—by some one who had no idea of what was passing, and who wrote at random, hoping to touch a sensitive chord, to do some harm, to inflict some pain, in petty vengeance for a fancied slight. But in her heart, though she crushed down the instinct, she would have believed the anonymous jest well founded, for the sake of believing, too, that Giovanni Saracinesca was ready to lay his life at her feet—although in that belief she would have felt that she was committing a mortal sin.
She went back to her interview that morning with Padre Filippo, and thought over all she had said and all he had answered; how she had been willing to admit the possibility of Giovanni's love, and how sternly the confessor had ruled down the clause, and told her there should never arise such a doubt in her mind; how she had scorned herself for being capable of seeking love where there was none, and how she had sworn that there should be no perhaps in the matter. It seemed very hard to do right, but she would try to see where the right lay. In the first place, she should burn the anonymous letter, and never condescend to think of it; and she should also burn Giovanni's, because it would be an injustice to him to keep it. She looked once more at the unsigned, ill-written page, and, with a little scornful laugh, threw it from where she sat into the fire with its envelope; then she took Giovanni's note, and would have done the same, but her hand trembled, and the crumpled bit of paper fell upon the hearth. She rose from her chair quickly, and took it up again, kneeling before the fire, like some beautiful dark priestess of old feeding the flames of a sacred altar. She smoothed the paper out once more, and once more read the even characters, and looked long at the signature, and back again to the writing.
"This lady, who, I confess, takes no interest whatever in me...."
"How could he say it!" she exclaimed aloud. "Oh, if I knew who she was!" With an impatient movement she thrust the letter among the coals, and watched the fire curl it and burn it, from white to brown and from brown to black, till it was all gone. Then she rose to her feet and left the room.
Her husband certainly did not guess that the Duchessa d'Astrardente had spent so eventful a morning; and if any one had told him that his wife had been through a dozen stages of emotion, he would have laughed, and would have told his informant that Corona was not of the sort who experience violent passions. That evening they went to the opera together, and the old man was in an unusually cheerful humour. A new coat had just arrived from Paris, and the padding had attained a higher degree of scientific perfection than heretofore. Corona also looked more beautiful than even her husband ever remembered to have seen her; she wore a perfectly simple gown of black satin without the smallest relief of colour, and upon her neck the famous Astrardente necklace of pearls, three strings of even thickness, each jewel exquisitely white and just lighted in its shadow by a delicate pink tinge—such a necklace as an empress might have worn. In the raven masses of her hair there was not the least ornament, nor did any flower enhance the rich blackness of its silken coils. It would be impossible to imagine greater simplicity than Corona showed in her dress, but it would be hard to conceive of any woman who possessed by virtue of severe beauty a more indubitable right to dispense with ornament.
The theatre was crowded. There was a performance of "Norma" for which several celebrated artists had been engaged—an occurrence so rare in Rome, that the theatre was absolutely full. The Astrardente box was upon the second tier, just where the amphitheatre began to curve. There was room in it for four or five persons to see the stage.
The Duchessa and her husband arrived in the middle of the first act, and remained alone until it was over. Corona was extremely fond of "Norma," and after she was seated never took her eyes from the stage. Astrardente, on the other hand, maintained his character as a man of no illusions, and swept the house with his small opera-glass. The instrument itself was like him, and would have been appropriate for a fine lady of the First Empire; it was of mother-of-pearl, made very small and light, the metal-work upon it heavily gilt and ornamented with turquoises. The old man glanced from time to time at the stage, and then again settled himself to the study of the audience, which interested him far more than the opera.
"Every human being you ever heard of is here," he remarked at the end of the first act. "Really I should think you would find it worth while to look at your magnificent fellow-creatures, my dear."
Corona looked slowly round the house. She had excellent eyes, and never used a glass. She saw the same faces she had seen for five years, the same occasional flash of beauty, the same average number of over-dressed women, the same paint, the same feathers, the same jewels. She saw opposite to her Madame Mayer, with the elderly countess whom she patronised for the sake of deafness, and found convenient as a sort of flying chaperon. The countess could not hear much of the music, but she was fond of the world and liked to be seen, and she could not hear at all what Del Ferice said in an undertone to Madame Mayer. Sufficient to her were the good things of the day; the rest was in no way her business. There was Valdarno in the club-box, with a knot of other men of his own stamp. There were the Rocca, mother and daughter and son—a boy of eighteen—and a couple of men in the back of the box. Everybody was there, as her husband had said; and as she dropped her glance toward the stalls, she was aware of Giovanni Saracinesca's black eyes looking anxiously up to her. A faint smile crossed her serene face, and almost involuntarily she nodded to him and then looked away. Many men were watching her, and bowed as she glanced at them, and she bent her head to each; but there was no smile for any save Giovanni, and when she looked again to where he had been standing with his back to the stage, he was gone from his place.
"They are the same old things," said Astrardente, "but they are still very amusing. Madame Mayer always seems to get the wrong man into her box. She would give all those diamonds to have Giovanni Saracinesca instead of that newsmonger fellow. If he comes here I will send him across."
"Perhaps she likes Del Ferice," suggested Corona.
"He is a good lapdog—a very good dog," answered her husband. "He cannot bite at all, and his bark is so soft that you would take it for the mewing of a kitten. He fetches and carries admirably."
"Those are good points, but not interesting ones. He is very tiresome with his eternal puns and insipid compliments, and his gossip."
"But he is so very harmless," answered Astrardente, with compassionate scorn. "He is incapable of doing an injury. Donna Tullia is wise in adopting him as her slave. She would not be so safe with Saracinesca, for instance. If you feel the need of an admirer, my dear, take Del Ferice. I have no objection to him."
"Why should I need admirers?" asked Corona, quietly.
"I was merely jesting, my love. Is not your own husband the greatest of your admirers, and your devoted slave into the bargain?" Old Astrardente's face twisted itself into the semblance of a smile, as he leaned towards his young wife, lowering his cracked voice to a thin whisper. He was genuinely in love with her, and lost no opportunity of telling her so. She smiled a little wearily.
"You are very good to me," she said. She had often wondered how it was that this aged creature, who had never been faithful to any attachment in his life for five months, did really seem to love her just as he had done for five years. It was perhaps the greatest triumph she could have attained, though she never thought of it in that light; but though she could not respect her husband very much, she could not think unkindly of him—for, as she said, he was very good to her. She often reproached herself because he wearied her; she believed that she should have taken more pleasure in his admiration.
"I cannot help being good to you, my angel," he said. "How could I be otherwise? Do I not love you most passionately?"
"Indeed, I think so," Corona answered. As she spoke there was a knock at the door. Her heart leaped wildly, and she turned a little pale.
"The devil seize these visitors!" muttered old Astrardente, annoyed beyond measure at being interrupted when making love to his wife. "I suppose we must let them in?"
"I suppose so," assented the Duchessa, with forced calm. Her husband opened the door, and Giovanni Saracinesca entered, hat in hand.
"Sit down," said Astrardente, rather harshly.
"I trust I am not disturbing you," replied Giovanni, still standing. He was somewhat surprised at the old man's inhospitable tone.
"Oh no; not in the least," said the latter, quickly regaining his composure. "Pray sit down; the act will begin in a moment."
Giovanni established himself upon the chair immediately behind the Duchessa. He had come to talk, and he anticipated that during the second act he would have an excellent opportunity.
"I hear you enjoyed yourselves yesterday," said Corona, turning her head so as to speak more easily.
"Indeed!" Giovanni answered, and a shade of annoyance crossed his face. "And who was your informant, Duchessa?"
"Donna Tullia. I met her this morning. She said you amused them all—kept them laughing the whole day."
"What an extraordinary statement!" exclaimed Giovanni. "It shows how one may unconsciously furnish matter for mirth. I do not recollect having talked much to any one. It was a noisy party enough, however."
"Perhaps Donna Tullia spoke ironically," suggested Corona. "Do you like 'Norma'?"
"Oh yes; one opera is as good as another. There goes the curtain."
The act began, and for some minutes no one in the box spoke. Presently there was a burst of orchestral music. Giovanni leaned forward so that his face was close behind Corona. He could speak without being heard by Astrardente.
"Did you receive my letter?" he asked. Corona made an almost imperceptible inclination of her head, but did not speak.
"Do you understand my position?" he asked again. He could not see her face, and for some seconds she made no sign; at last she moved her head again, but this time to express a negative.
"It is simple enough, it seems to me," said Giovanni, bending his brows.
Corona found that by turning a little she could still look at the stage, and at the same time speak to the man behind her.
"How can I judge?" she said. "You have not told me all. Why do you ask me to judge whether you are right?"
"I could not do it if you thought me wrong," he answered shortly.
The Duchessa suddenly thought of that other woman for whom the man who asked her advice was willing to sacrifice his life.
"You attach an astonishing degree of importance to my opinion," she said very coldly, and turned her head from him.
"There is no one so well able to give an opinion," said Giovanni, insisting.
Corona was offended. She interpreted the speech to mean that since she had sacrificed her life to the old man on the opposite side of the box, she was able to judge whether Giovanni would do wisely in making a marriage of convenience, for the sake of an end which even to her mind seemed visionary. She turned quickly upon him, and there was an angry gleam in her eyes.
"Pray do not introduce the subject of my life," she said haughtily.
Giovanni was too much astonished to answer her at once. He had indeed not intended the least reference to her marriage.
"You have entirely misunderstood me," he said presently.
"Then you must express yourself more clearly," she replied. She would have felt very guilty to be thus talking to Giovanni, as she would not have talked before her husband, had she not felt that it was upon Giovanni's business, and that the matter discussed in no way concerned herself. As for Saracinesca, he was in a dangerous position, and was rapidly losing his self-control. He was too near to her, his heart was bearing too fast, the blood was throbbing in his temples, and he was stung by being misunderstood.
"It is not possible for me to express myself more clearly," he answered. "I am suffering for having told you too little when I dare not tell you all. I make no reference to your marriage when I speak to you of my own. Forgive me; I will not refer to the matter again."
Corona felt again that strange thrill, half of pain, half of pleasure, and the lights of the theatre seemed moving before her uncertainly, as things look when one falls from a height. Almost unconsciously she spoke, hardly knowing that she turned her head, and that her dark eyes rested upon Giovanni's pale face.
"And yet there must be some reason why you tell me that little, and why you do not tell me more." When she had spoken, she would have given all the world to have taken back her words. It was too late. Giovanni answered in a low thick voice that sounded as though he were choking, his face grew white, and his teeth seemed almost to chatter as though he were cold, but his eyes shone like black stars in the shadow of the box.
"There is every reason. You are the woman I love."
Corona did not move for several seconds, as though not comprehending what he had said. Then she suddenly shivered, and her eyelids drooped as she leaned back in her chair. Her fingers relaxed their tight hold upon her fan, and the thing fell rattling upon the floor of the box.
Old Astrardente, who had taken no notice of the pair, being annoyed at Giovanni's visit, and much interested in the proceedings of Madame Mayer in the box opposite, heard the noise, and stooped with considerable alacrity to pick up the fan which lay at his feet.
"You are not well, my love," he said quickly, as he observed his wife's unusual pallor.
"It is nothing; it will pass," she murmured, with a terrible effort. Then, as though she had not said enough, she added, "There must be a draught here; I have a chill."
Giovanni had sat like a statue, utterly overcome by the sense of his own folly and rashness, as well as by the shock of having so miserably failed to keep the secret he dreaded to reveal. On hearing Corona's voice, he rose suddenly, as from a dream.
"Forgive me," he said hurriedly, "I have just remembered a most important engagement—"
"Do not mention it," said Astrardente, sourly. Giovanni bowed to the Duchessa and left the box. She did not look at him as he went away.
"We had better go home, my angel," said the old man. "You have got a bad chill."
"Oh no, I would rather stay. It is nothing, and the best part of the opera is to come." Corona spoke quietly enough. Her strong nerves had already recovered from the shock she had experienced, and she could command her voice. She did not want to go home; on the contrary, the brilliant lights and the music served for a time to soothe her. If there had been a ball that night she would have gone to it; she would have done anything that would take her thoughts from herself. Her husband looked at her curiously. The suspicion crossed his mind that Don Giovanni had said something which had either frightened or offended her, but on second thoughts the theory seemed absurd. He regarded Saracinesca as little more than a mere acquaintance of his wife's.
"As you please, my love," he answered, drawing his chair a little nearer to hers. "I am glad that fellow is gone. We can talk at our ease now."
"Yes; I am glad he is gone. We can talk now," repeated Corona, mechanically.
"I thought his excuse slightly conventional, to say the least of it," remarked Astrardente. "An important engagement!—just a little banal. However, any excuse was good enough which took him away."
"Did he say that?" asked Corona. "I did not hear. Of course, any excuse would do, as you say."
Giovanni left the theatre at once, alone, and on foot. He was very much agitated. He had done suddenly and unawares the thing of all others he had determined never to do; his resolutions had been broken down and carried away as an ineffectual barrier is swept to the sea by the floods of spring. His heart had spoken in spite of him, and in speaking had silenced every prompting of reason. He blamed himself bitterly, as he strode out across the deserted bridge of Sant' Angelo and into the broad gloom beyond, where the street widens from the fortress to the entrance of the three Borghi: he walked on and on, finding at every step fresh reason for self-reproach, and trying to understand what he had done. He paused at the end of the open piazza and looked down towards the black rushing river which he could hear, but hardly see; he turned into the silent Borgo Santo Spirito, and passed along the endless wall of the great hospital up to the colonnades, and still wandering on, he came to the broad steps of St. Peter's and sat down, alone in the darkness, at the foot of the stupendous pile.
He was perhaps not so much to blame as he was willing to allow in his just anger against himself. Corona had tempted him sorely in that last question she had put to him. She had not known, she had not even faintly guessed what she was doing, for her own brain was intoxicated with a new and indescribable sensation which had left no room for reflection nor for weighing the force of words. But Giovanni, who had been willing to give up everything, even to his personal liberty, for the sake of concealing his love, would not allow himself any argument in extenuation of what he had done. He had had but very few affairs of the heart in his life, and they had been for the most part very insignificant, and his experience was limited. Even now it never entered his mind to imagine that Corona would condone his offence; he felt sure that she was deeply wounded, and that his next meeting with her would be a terrible ordeal—so terrible, indeed, that he doubted whether he had the courage to meet her at all. His love was so great, and its object so sacred to him, that he hesitated to conceive himself loved in return; perhaps if he had been able to understand that Corona loved him he would have left Rome for ever, rather than trouble her peace by his presence.
It would have been absolutely different if he had been paying court to Donna Tullia, for instance. The feeling that he should be justified would have lent him courage, and the coldness in his own heart would have left his judgment free play. He could have watched her calmly, and would have tried to take advantage of every mood in the prosecution of his suit. He was a very honourable man, but he did not consider marriages of propriety and convenience as being at all contrary to the ordinary standard of social honour, and would have thought himself justified in using every means of persuasion in order to win a woman whom, upon mature reflection, he had judged suitable to become his wife, even though he felt no real love for her. That is an idea inherent in most old countries, an idea for which Giovanni Saracinesca was certainly in no way responsible, seeing that it had been instilled into him from his boyhood. Personally he would have preferred to live and die unmarried, rather than to take a wife as a matter of obligation towards his family; but seeing that he had never seriously loved any woman, he had acquired the habit of contemplating such a marriage as a probability, perhaps as an ultimate necessity, to be put off as long as possible, but to which he would at last yield with a good grace.
But the current of his life had been turned. He was certainly not a romantic character, not a man who desired to experience the external sensations to be obtained by voluntarily creating dramatic events. He loved action, and he had a taste for danger, but he had sought both in a legitimate way; he never desired to implicate himself in adventures where the feelings were concerned, and hitherto such experiences had not fallen in his path. As is usual with such men, when love came at last, it came with a strength such as boys of twenty do not dream of. The mature man of thirty years, with his strong and dominant temper, his carelessness of danger, his high and untried ideals of what a true affection should be, resisting the first impressions of the master-passion with the indifference of one accustomed to believe that love could not come near his life, and was in general a thing to be avoided—a man, moreover, who by his individual gifts and by his brilliant position was able to command much that smaller men would not dream of aspiring to,—such a man, in short, as Giovanni Saracinesca,—was not likely to experience love-sickness in a mild degree. Proud, despotic, and fiercely unyielding by his inheritance of temper, he was outwardly gentle and courteous by acquired habit, a man of those whom women easily love and men very generally fear.
He did not realise his own nature, he did not suspect the extremes of feeling of which he was eminently capable. He had at first felt Corona's influence, and her face and voice seemed to awaken in him a memory, which was as yet but an anticipation, and not a real remembrance. It was as the faint perfume of the spring wafted up to a prisoner in some stern fortress, as the first gentle sweetness that rose from the enchanted lakes of the cisalpine country to the nostrils of the war-hardened Goths as they descended the last snow-slopes in their southern wandering—an anticipation that seemed already a memory, a looking forward again to something that had been already loved in a former state. Giovanni had laughed at himself for it at first, then he had dreaded its growing charm, and at the last he had fallen hopelessly under the spell, retaining only enough of his former self to make him determined that the harm which had come upon himself should not come near this woman whom he so adored.
And behold, at the first provocation, the very first time that by a careless word she had fired his blood and set his brain throbbing, he had not only been unable to hide what he felt, but had spoken such words as he would not have believed he could speak—so bluntly, so roughly, that she had almost fainted before his very eyes.
She must have been very angry, he thought. Perhaps, too, she was frightened. It was so rude, so utterly contrary to all that was chivalrous to say thus at the first opportunity, "I love you"—just that and nothing more. Giovanni had never thought much about it, but he supposed that men in love, very seriously in love, must take a long time to express themselves, as is the manner in books; whereas he was horrified at his own bluntness in having blurted out rashly such words as could never be taken back, as could never even be explained now, he feared, because he had put himself beyond the pale of all explanation, perhaps beyond the reach of forgiveness.
Nobody ever yet explained away the distinct statement "I love you," upon any pretence of a mistake. Giovanni almost laughed at the idea, and yet he conceived that some kind of apology would be necessary, though he could not imagine how he was to frame one. He reflected that few women would consider a declaration, even as sudden as his had been, in the light of an insult; but he knew how little cause Corona had given him for speaking to her of love, and he judged from her manner that she had been either offended or frightened, or both, and that he was to blame for it. He was greatly disturbed, and the sweat stood in great drops upon his forehead as he sat there upon the steps of St. Peter's in the cold night wind. He remained nearly an hour without changing his position, and then at last he rose and slowly retraced his steps, and went home by narrow streets, avoiding the theatre and the crowd of carriages that stood before it.
He had almost determined to go away for a time, and to let his absence speak for his contrition. But he had reckoned upon his former self, and he doubted now whether he had the strength to leave Rome. The most that seemed possible was that he should keep out of Corona's way for a few days, until she should have recovered from the shock of the scene in the theatre. After that he would go to her and tell her quite simply that he was very sorry, but that he had been unable to control himself. It would soon be over. She would not refuse to speak to him, he argued, for fear of attracting the attention of the gossips and making an open scandal. She would perhaps tell him to avoid her, and her words would be few and haughty, but she would speak to him, nevertheless.
Giovanni went to bed. The next day he gave out that he had a touch of fever, and remained in his own apartments. His father, who was passionately attached to him, in spite of his rough temper and hasty speeches, came and spent most of the day with him, and in the intervals of his kindly talk, marched up and down the room, swearing that Giovanni was no more ill than he was himself, and that he had acquired his accursed habit of staying in bed upon his travels. As Giovanni had never before been known to spend twenty-four hours in bed for any reason whatsoever, the accusation was unjust; but he only smiled and pretended to argue the case for the sake of pleasing the old prince. He really felt exceedingly uncomfortable, and would have been glad to be left alone at any price; but there was nothing for it but to pretend to be ill in body, when he was really sick at heart, and he remained obstinately in bed the whole day. On the following morning he declared his intention of going out of town, and by an early train he left the city. No one saw Giovanni again until the evening of the Frangipani ball.
Meanwhile it would have surprised him greatly to know that Corona looked for him in vain wherever she went, and that, not seeing him, she grew silent and pale, and gave short answers to the pleasant speeches men made her. Every one missed Giovanni. He wrote to Valdarno to say that he had been suddenly obliged to visit Saracinesca in order to see to some details connected with the timber question; but everybody wondered why he should have taken himself away in the height of the season for so trivial a matter. He had last been seen in the Astrardente box at the opera, where he had only stayed a few minutes, as Del Ferice was able to testify, having sat immediately opposite in the box of Madame Mayer. Del Ferice swore secretly that he would find out what was the matter; and Donna Tullia abused Giovanni in unmeasured terms to a circle of intimate friends and admirers, because he had been engaged to dance with her at the Valdarno cotillon, and had not even sent word that he could not come. Thereupon all the men present immediately offered themselves for the vacant dance, and Donna Tullia made them draw lots by tossing a copper sou in the corner of the ball-room. The man who won the toss recklessly threw over the partner he had already engaged, and almost had to fight a duel in consequence; all of which was intensely amusing to Donna Tullia. Nevertheless, in her heart, she was very angry at Giovanni's departure.
But Corona sought him everywhere, and at last heard that he had left town, two days after everybody else in Rome had known it. She would probably have been very much disturbed, if she had actually met him within a day or two of that fatal evening, but the desire to see him was so great, that she entirely overlooked the consequences. For the time being, her whole life seemed to have undergone a revolution—she trembled at the echo of the words she had heard—she spent long hours in solitude, praying with all her strength that she might be forgiven for having heard him speak; but the moment she left her room, and went out into the world, the dominant desire to see him again returned. The secret longing of her soul was to hear him speak again as he had spoken once. She would have gone again to Padre Filippo and told him all; but when she was alone in the solitude of her passionate prayers and self-accusation, she felt that she must fight this fight alone, without help of any one; and when she was in the world, she lacked courage to put altogether from her what was so very sweet, and her eyes searched unceasingly for the dark face she loved. But the stirring strength of the mighty passion played upon her soul and body in spite of her, as upon an instrument of strings; and sometimes the music was gentle and full of sweet harmony, but often there were crashes of discord, so that she trembled and felt her heart wrung as by torture; then she set her strong lips, and her white fingers wound themselves together, and she could have cried aloud, but that her pride forbade her.
The days came and went, but Giovanni did not return, and Corona's face grew every morning more pale and her eyes every night more wistful. Her husband did not understand, but he saw that something was the matter, as others saw it, and in his quick suspicious humour he connected the trouble in his wife's face with the absence of Giovanni and with the strange chill she had felt in the theatre. But Corona d'Astrardente was a very brave and strong woman, and she bore what seemed to her like the agony of death renewed each day, so calmly that those who knew her thought it was but a passing indisposition or annoyance, unusual with her, who was never ill nor troubled, but yet insignificant. She gave particular attention to the gown which her husband had desired she should wear at the great ball, and the need she felt for distracting her mind from her chief care made society necessary to her.
The evening of the Frangipani ball came, and all Rome was in a state of excitement and expectation. The great old family had been in mourning for years, owing to three successive deaths, and during all that time the ancient stronghold which was called their palace had been closed to the world. For some time, indeed, no one of the name had been in Rome—the prince and princess preferring to pass the time of mourning in the country and in travelling; while the eldest son, now just of age, was finishing his academic career at an English University. But this year the family had returned: there had been both dinners and receptions at the palace, and the ball, which was to be a sort of festival in honour of the coming of age of the heir, was expected as the principal event of the year. It was rumoured that there would be nearly thirty rooms opened besides the great hall, which was set aside for dancing, and that the arrangements were on a scale worthy of a household which had endured in its high position for upwards of a thousand years. It was understood that no distinction had been made, in issuing the invitations, between parties in politics or in society, and that there would be more people seen there than had been collected under one roof for many years.
The Frangipani did things magnificently, and no one was disappointed. The gardens and courts of the palace were brilliantly illuminated; vast suites of apartments were thrown open, and lavishly decorated with rare flowers; the grand staircase was lined with footmen in the liveries of the house, standing motionless as the guests passed up; the supper was a banquet such as is read of in the chronicles of medieval splendour; the enormous conservatory in the distant south wing was softly lit by shaded candles concealed among the tropical plants; and the ceilings and walls of the great hall itself had been newly decorated by famous painters; while the polished wooden floor presented an innovation upon the old-fashioned canvas-covered brick pavement, not hitherto seen in any Roman palace. A thousand candles, disposed in every variety of chandelier and candelabra, shed a soft rich light from far above, and high in the gallery at one end an orchestra of Viennese musicians played unceasingly.
As generally happens at very large balls, the dancing began late, but numbers of persons had come early in order to survey the wonders of the palace at their leisure. Among those who arrived soon after ten o'clock was Giovanni Saracinesca, who was greeted loudly by all who knew him. He looked pale and tired, if his tough nature could ever be said to seem weary; but he was in an unusually affable mood, and exchanged words with every one he met. Indeed he had been sad for so many days that he hardly understood why he felt gay, unless it was in the anticipation of once more seeing the woman he loved. He wandered through the rooms carelessly enough, but he was in reality devoured by impatience, and his quick eyes sought Corona's tall figure in every direction. But she was not yet there, and Giovanni at last came and took his station in one of the outer halls, waiting patiently for her arrival.
While he waited, leaning against one of the marble pillars of the door, the throng increased rapidly; but he hardly noticed the swelling crowd, until suddenly there was a lull in the unceasing talk, and the men and women parted to allow a cardinal to pass out from the inner rooms. With many gracious nods and winning looks, the great man moved on, his keen eyes embracing every one and everything within the range of his vision, his courteous smile seeming intended for each separate individual, and yet overlooking none, nor resting long on any, his high brow serene and unbent, his flowing robes falling back from his courtly figure, as with his red hat in his hand he bowed his way through the bowing crowd. His departure, which was quickly followed by that of several other cardinals and prelates, was the signal that the dancing would soon begin; and when he had passed out, the throng of men and women pressed more quickly in through the door on their way to the ball-room.
But as the great cardinal's eye rested on Giovanni Saracinesca, accompanied by that invariable smile that so many can remember well to this day, his delicate hand made a gesture as though beckoning to the young man to follow him. Giovanni obeyed the summons, and became for the moment the most notable man in the room. The two passed out together, and a moment later were standing in the outer hall. Already the torch-bearers were standing without upon the grand staircase, and the lackeys were mustering in long files to salute the Prime Minister. Just then the master of the house came running breathless from within. He had not seen that Cardinal Antonelli was taking his leave, and hastened to overtake him, lest any breach of etiquette on his part should attract the displeasure of the statesman.
"Your Eminence's pardon!" he exclaimed, hurriedly "I had not seen that your Eminence was leaving us—so early too—the Princess feared—"
"Do not speak of it," answered the Cardinal, in suave tones. "I am not so strong as I used to be. We old fellows must to bed betimes, and leave you young ones to enjoy yourselves. No excuses—good night—a beautiful ball—I congratulate you on the reopening of your house—good night again. I will have a word with Giovanni here before I go down-stairs."
He extended his hand to Frangipani, who lifted it respectfully to his lips and withdrew, seeing that he was not wanted. He and many others speculated long upon the business which engaged his Eminence in close conversation with Giovanni Saracinesca, keeping him for more than a quarter of an hour in the cold ante-chamber, where the night wind blew in unhindered from the vast staircase of the palace. As a matter of fact, Giovanni was as much surprised as any one.
"Where have you been, my friend?" inquired the Cardinal, when they were alone.
"To Saracinesca, your Eminence."
"And what have you been doing in Saracinesca at this time of year? I hope you are attending to the woods there—you have not been cutting timber?"
"No one can be more anxious than we to see the woods grow thick upon our hills," replied Giovanni. "Your Eminence need have no fear."
"Not for your estates," said the great Cardinal, his small keen black eyes resting searchingly on Giovanni's face. "But I confess I have some fears for yourself."
"For me, Eminence?" repeated Giovanni, in some astonishment.
"For you. I have heard with considerable anxiety that there is a question of marrying you to Madame Mayer. Such a match would not meet with the Holy Father's approval, nor—if I may be permitted to mention my humble self in the same breath with our august sovereign—would it be wise in my own estimation."
"Permit me to remark to your Eminence," answered Giovanni, proudly, "that in my house we have never been in the habit of asking advice upon such subjects. Donna Tullia is a good Catholic. There can therefore be no valid objection to my asking her hand, if my father and I agree that it is best."
"You are terrible fellows, you Saracinesca," returned the Cardinal, blandly. "I have read your family history with immense interest, and what you say is quite true. I cannot find an instance on record of your taking the advice of any one—certainly not of the Holy Church. It is with the utmost circumspection that I venture to approach the subject with you, and I am sure that you will believe me when I say that my words are not dictated by any officious or meddling spirit; I am addressing you by the direct desire of the Holy Father himself."
A soft answer turneth away wrath, and if the all-powerful statesman's answer to Giovanni seems to have been more soft than might have been expected, it must be remembered that he was speaking to the heir of one of the most powerful houses in the Roman State, at a time when the personal friendship of such men as the Saracinesca was of vastly greater importance than it is now. At that time some twenty noblemen owned a great part of the Pontifical States, and the influence they could exert upon their tenantry was very great, for the feudal system was not extinct, nor the feudal spirit. Moreover, though Cardinal Antonelli was far from popular with any party, Pius IX. was respected and beloved by a vast majority of the gentlemen as well as of the people. Giovanni's first impulse was to resist any interference whatsoever in his affairs; but on receiving the Cardinal's mild answer to his own somewhat arrogant assertion of independence, he bowed politely and professed himself willing to listen to reason.
"But," he said, "since his Holiness has mentioned the matter, I beg that your Eminence will inform him that, though the question of my marriage seems to be in everybody's mouth, it is as yet merely a project in which no active steps have been taken."
"I am glad of it, Giovanni," replied the Cardinal, familiarly taking his arm, and beginning to pace the hall; "I am glad of it. There are reasons why the match appears to be unworthy of you. If you will permit me, without any offence to Madame Mayer, I will tell you what those reasons are."
"I am at your service," said Giovanni, gravely, "provided only there is no offence to Donna Tullia."
"None whatever. The reasons are purely political. Madame Mayer—or Donna Tullia, since you prefer to call her so—is the centre of a sort of club of so-called Liberals, of whom the most active and the most foolish member is a certain Ugo del Ferice, a fellow who calls himself a count, but whose grandfather was a coachman in the Vatican under Leo XII. He will get himself into trouble some day. He is always in attendance upon Donna Tullia, and probably led her into this band of foolish young people for objects of his own. It is a very silly society; I daresay you have heard some of their talk?"
"Very little," replied Giovanni; "I do not trouble myself about politics. I did not even know that there was such a club as your Eminence speaks of."
Cardinal Antonelli glanced sharply at his companion as he proceeded.
"They affect solidarity and secrecy, these young people," he said, with a sneer, "and their solidarity betrays their secrecy, because it is unfortunately true in our dear Rome that wherever two or three are gathered together they are engaged in some mischief. But they may gather in peace at the studio of Monsieur Gouache, or anywhere else they please, for all I care. Gouache is a clever fellow; he is to paint my portrait. Do you know him? But, to return to my sheep in wolves' clothing—my amusing little conspirators. They can do no harm, for they know not even what they say, and their words are not followed by any kind of action whatsoever. But the principle of the thing is bad, Giovanni. Your brave old ancestors used to fight us Churchmen outright, and unless the Lord is especially merciful, their souls are in an evil case, for the devil knoweth his own, and is a particularly bad paymaster. But they fought outright, like gentlemen; whereas these people—foderunt foveam ut caperent me—they have digged a ditch, but they will certainly not catch me, nor any one else. Their conciliabules, as Rousseau would have called them, meet daily and talk great nonsense and do nothing; which does not prove their principles to be good, while it demonstrates their intellect to be contemptible. No offence to the Signor Conte del Ferice, but I think ignorance has marked his little party for its own, and inanity waits on all his councils. If they believe in half the absurdities they utter, why do they not pack up their goods and chattels and cross the frontier? If they meant anything, they would do something."
"Evidently," replied Giovanni, half amused at his Eminence's tirade.
"Evidently. Therefore they mean nothing. Therefore our good friend Donna Tullia is dabbling in the emptiness of political dilettanteism for the satisfaction of a hollow vanity; no offence to her—it is the manner of her kind."
Giovanni was silent.
"Believe me, prince," said the Cardinal, suddenly changing his tone and speaking very seriously, "there is something better for strong men like you and me to do, in these times, than to dabble in conspiracy and to toss off glasses of champagne to Italian unity and Victor Emmanuel. The condition of our lives is battle, and battle against terrible odds. Neither you nor I should be content to waste our strength in fighting shadows, in waging war on petty troubles of our own raising, knowing all the while that the powers of evil are marshalled in a deadly array against the powers of good. Sed non praevalebunt!"
The Cardinal's thin face assumed a strange look of determination, and his delicate fingers grasped Giovanni's arm with a force that startled him.
"You speak bravely," answered the young man. "You are more sanguine than we men of the world. You believe that disaster impossible which to me seems growing daily more imminent."
Cardinal Antonelli turned his gleaming black eyes full on his companion.
"O generatio incredula! If you have not faith, you have not courage, and if you have not courage you will waste your life in the pursuit of emptiness! It is for men like you, for men of ancient race, of broad acres, of iron body and healthy mind, to put your hand to the good work and help us who have struggled for many years and whose strength is already failing. Every action of your life, every thought of your waking hours, should be for the good end, lest we all perish together and expiate our lukewarm indifference. Timidi nunquam statuerunt trapaeum—if we would divide the spoil we must gird on the sword and use it boldly; we must not allow the possibility of failure; we must be vigilant; we must be united as one man. You tell me that you men of the world already regard a disaster as imminent—to expect defeat is nine-tenths of a defeat itself. Ah, if we could count upon such men as you to the very death, our case would be far from desperate."
"For the matter of that, your Eminence can count upon us well enough," replied Giovanni, quietly.
"Upon you, Giovanni—yes, for you are a brave gentleman. But upon your friends, even upon your class—no. Can I count upon the Valdarno, even? You know as well as I that they are in sympathy with the Liberals—that they have neither the courage to support us nor the audacity to renounce us; and, what is worse, they represent a large class, of whom, I regret to say, Donna Tullia Mayer is one of the most prominent members. With her wealth, her youth, her effervescent spirits, and her early widowhood, she leads men after her; they talk, they chatter, they set up an opinion and gloat over it, while they lack the spirit to support it. They are all alike—non tantum ovum ovo simile—one egg is not more like another than they are. Non tali auxilio—we want no such help. We ask for bread, not for stones; we want men, not empty-headed dandies. We have both at present; but if the Emperor fails us, we shall have too many dandies and too few men—too few men like you, Don Giovanni. Instead of armed battalions we shall have polite societies for mutual assurance against political risks,—instead of the support of the greatest military power in Europe, we shall have to rely on a parcel of young gentlemen whose opinions are guided by Donna Tullia Mayer."
Giovanni laughed and glanced at his Eminence, who chose to refer all the imminent disasters of the State to the lady whom he did not wish to see married to his companion.
"Is her influence really so great?" asked Saracinesca, incredulously.
"She is agreeable, she is pretty, she is rich—her influence is a type of the whole influence which is abroad in Rome—a reflection of the life of Paris. There, at least, the women play a real part—very often a great one: here, when they have got command of a drawing-room full of fops, they do not know where to lead them; they change their minds twenty times a-day; they have an access of religious enthusiasm in Advent, followed by an attack of Liberal fever in Carnival, and their season is brought to a fitting termination by the prostration which overtakes them in Lent. By that time all their principles are upset, and they go to Paris for the month of May—pour se retremper dans les idees idealistes, as they express it. Do you think one could construct a party out of such elements, especially when you reflect that this mass of uncertainty is certain always to yield to the ultimate consideration of self-interest? Half of them keep an Italian flag with the Papal one, ready to thrust either of them out of the window as occasion may require. Good night, Giovanni. I have talked enough, and all Rome will set upon you to find out what secrets of State I have been confiding. You had better prepare an answer, for you can hardly inform Donna Tullia and her set that I have been calling them a parcel of—weak and ill-advised people. They might take offence—they might even call me by bad names,—fancy how very terribly that would afflict me! Good night, Giovanni—my greetings to your father."
The Cardinal nodded, but did not offer his hand. He knew that Giovanni hated to kiss his ring, and he had too much tact to press the ceremonial etiquette upon any one whom he desired to influence. But he nodded graciously, and receiving his cloak from the gentleman who accompanied him and who had waited at a respectful distance, the statesman passed out of the great doorway, where the double line of torch-bearers stood ready to accompany him down the grand staircase to his carriage, in accordance with the custom of those days.
When he was alone, Giovanni retraced his steps, and again took up his position near the entrance to the reception-rooms. He had matter for reflection in the interview which had just ended; and, having nothing better to do while he waited for Corona, he thought about what had happened. He was not altogether pleased at the interest his marriage excited in high quarters; he hated interference, and he regarded Cardinal Antonelli's advice in such a matter as an interference of the most unwarrantable kind. Neither he himself nor his father were men who sought counsel from without, for independence in action was with them a family tradition, as independence of thought was in their race a hereditary quality. To think that if he, Giovanni Saracinesca, chose to marry any woman whatsoever, any one, no matter how exalted in station, should dare to express approval or disapproval was a shock to every inborn and cultivated prejudice in his nature. He had nearly quarrelled with his own father for seeking to influence his matrimonial projects; it was not likely that he would suffer Cardinal Antonelli to interfere with them. If Giovanni had really made up his mind—had firmly determined to ask the hand of Donna Tullia—it is more than probable that the statesman's advice would not only have failed signally in preventing the match, but by the very opposition it would have aroused in Giovanni's heart it would have had the effect of throwing him into the arms of a party which already desired his adhesion, and which, under his guidance, might have become as formidable as it was previously insignificant. But the great Cardinal was probably well informed, and his words had not fallen upon a barren soil. Giovanni had vacillated sadly in trying to come to a decision. His first Quixotic impulse to marry Madame Mayer, in order to show the world that he cared nothing for Corona d'Astrardente, had proved itself absurd, even to his impetuous intelligence. The growing antipathy he felt for Donna Tullia had made his marriage with her appear in the light of a disagreeable duty, and his rashness in confessing his love for Corona had so disturbed his previous conceptions that marriage no longer seemed a duty at all. What had been but a few days before almost a fixed resolution, had dwindled till it seemed an impracticable and even a useless scheme. When he had arrived at the Palazzo Frangipani that evening, he had very nearly forgotten Donna Tullia, and had quite determined that whatever his father might say he would not give the promised answer before Easter. By the time the Cardinal had left him, he had decided that no power on earth should induce him to marry Madame Mayer. He did not take the trouble of saying to himself that he would marry no one else.
The Cardinal's words had struck deep, in a deep nature. Giovanni had given Del Ferice a very fair exposition of the views he believed himself to hold, on the day when they had walked together after Donna Tullia's picnic. He believed himself a practical man, loyal to the temporal power by principle rather than by any sort of enthusiastic devotion; not desirous of any great change, because any change that might reasonably be expected would be bad for his own vested interests; not prejudiced for any policy save that of peace—preferring, indeed, with Cicero, the most unjust peace to the most just war; tenacious of old customs, and not particularly inquisitive concerning ideas of progress,—on the whole, Giovanni thought himself what his father had been in his youth, and more or less what he hoped his sons, if he ever had any, would be after him.
But there was more in him than all this, and at the first distant sound of battle he felt the spirit stir within him, for his real nature was brave and loyal, unselfish and devoted, instinctively sympathizing with the weak and hating the lukewarm. He had told Del Ferice that he believed he would fight as a matter of principle: as he leaned against the marble pillar of the door in the Palazzo Frangipani, he wished the fight had already begun.
Waiting there, and staring into the moving crowd, he was aware of a young man with pale and delicate features and black hair, who stood quietly by his side, and seemed like himself an idle though not uninterested spectator of the scene. Giovanni glanced once at the young fellow, and thought he recognised him, and glancing again, he met his earnest look, and saw that it was Anastase Gouache, the painter. Giovanni knew him slightly, for Gouache was regarded as a rising celebrity, and, thanks to Donna Tullia, was invited to most of the great receptions and balls of that season, though he was not yet anywhere on a footing of intimacy. Gouache was proud, and would perhaps have stood aloof altogether rather than be treated as one of the herd who are asked "with everybody," as the phrase goes; but he was of an observing turn of mind, and it amused him immensely to stand unnoticed, following the movements of society's planets, comets, and satellites, and studying the many types of the cosmopolitan Roman world.
"Good evening, Monsieur Gouache," said Giovanni.
"Good evening, prince," replied the artist, with a somewhat formal bow—after which both men relapsed into silence, and continued to watch the crowd.
"And what do you think of our Roman world?" asked Giovanni, presently.
"I cannot compare it to any other world," answered Gouache, simply. "I never went into society till I came to Rome. I think it is at once brilliant and sedate—it has a magnificent air of historical antiquity, and it is a little paradoxical."
"Where is the paradox?" inquired Giovanni.
"'Es-tu libre? Les lois sont-elles respectees? Crains-tu de voir ton champ pille par le voisin? Le maitre a-t-il son toit, et l'ouvrier son pain?'"
A smile flickered over the young artist's face as he quoted Musset's lines in answer to Giovanni's question. Giovanni himself laughed, and looked at Anastase with somewhat increased interest.
"Do you mean that we are revelling under the sword of Damocles—dancing on the eve of our execution?"
"Not precisely. A delicate flavour of uncertainty about to-morrow gives zest to the appetite of to-day. It is impossible that such a large society should be wholly unconscious of its own imminent danger—and yet these men and women go about to-night as if they were Romans of old, rulers of the world, only less sure of themselves than of the stability of their empire."
"Why not?" asked Giovanni, glancing curiously at the pale young man beside him. "In answer to your quotation, I can say that I am as free as I care to be; that the laws are sufficiently respected; that no one has hitherto thought it worth while to plunder my acres; that I have a modest roof of my own; and that, as far as I am aware, there are no workmen starving in the streets at present. You are answered, it seems to me, Monsieur Gouache."
"Is that really your belief?" asked the artist, quietly.
"Yes. As for my freedom, I am as free as air; no one thinks of hindering my movements. As for the laws, they are made for good citizens, and good citizens will respect them; if bad citizens do not, that is their loss. My acres are safe, possibly because they are not worth taking, though they yield me a modest competence sufficient for my needs and for the needs of those who cultivate them for me."
"And yet there is a great deal of talk in Rome about misery and injustice and oppression—"
"There will be a great deal more talk about those evils, with much better cause, if people who think like you succeed in bringing about a revolution, Monsieur Gouache," answered Giovanni, coldly.
"If many people think like you, prince, a revolution is not to be thought of. As for me I am a foreigner and I see what I can, and listen to what I hear."
"A revolution is not to be thought of. It was tried here and failed. If we are overcome by a great power from without, we shall have no choice but to yield, if any of us survive—for we would fight. But we have nothing to fear from within."
"Perhaps not," returned Gouache, thoughtfully. "I hear such opposite opinions that I hardly know what to think."
"I hear that you are to paint Cardinal Antonelli's portrait," said Giovanni. "Perhaps his Eminence will help you to decide."
"Yes; they say he is the cleverest man in Europe."
"In that opinion they—whoever they may be—are mistaken," replied Giovanni. "But he is a man of immense intellect, nevertheless."
"I am not sure whether I will paint his portrait after all," said Gouache.
"You do not wish to be persuaded?"
"No. My own ideas please me very well for the present. I would not exchange them for those of any one else."
"May I ask what those ideas are?" inquired Giovanni, with a show of interest.
"I am a republican," answered Gouache, quietly. "I am also a good Catholic."
"Then you are yourself much more paradoxical than the whole of our Roman society put together," answered Giovanni, with a dry laugh.
"Perhaps. There comes the most beautiful woman in the world."
It was nearly twelve o'clock when Corona arrived, old Astrardente sauntering jauntily by her side, his face arranged with more than usual care, and his glossy wig curled cunningly to represent nature. He was said to possess a number of wigs of different lengths, which he wore in rotation, thus sustaining the impression that his hair was cut from time to time. In his eye a single eyeglass was adjusted, and as he walked he swung his hat delicately in his tightly gloved fingers. He wore the plainest of collars and the simplest of gold studs; no chain dangled showily from his waistcoat-pocket, and his small feet were encased in little patent-leather shoes. But for his painted face, he might have passed for the very incarnation of fashionable simplicity. But his face betrayed him.
As for Corona, she was dazzlingly beautiful. Not that any colour or material she wore could greatly enhance her beauty, for all who saw her on that memorable night remembered the wonderful light in her face, and the strange look in her splendid eyes; but the thick soft fall of the white velvet made as it were a pedestal for her loveliness, and the Astrardente jewels that clasped her waist and throat and crowned her black hair, collected the radiance of the many candles, and made the light cling to her and follow her as she walked. Giovanni saw her enter, and his whole adoration came upon him as a madness upon a sick man in a fever, so that he would have sprung forward to meet her, and fallen at her feet and worshipped her, had he not suddenly felt that he was watched by more than one of the many who paused to see her go by. He moved from his place and waited near the door where she would have to pass, and for a moment his heart stood still.
He hardly knew how it was. He found himself speaking to her. He asked her for a dance, he asked boldly for the cotillon—he never knew how he had dared; she assented, let her eyes rest upon him for one moment with an indescribable expression, then grew very calm and cold, and passed on.
It was all over in an instant. Giovanni moved back to his place as she went by, and stood still like a man stunned. It was well that there were yet nearly two hours before the preliminary dancing would be over; he needed some time to collect himself. The air seemed full of strange voices, and he watched the moving faces as in a dream, unable to concentrate his attention upon anything he saw.
"He looks as though he had a stroke of paralysis," said a woman's voice near him. It did not strike him, in his strange bewilderment, that it was Donna Tullia who had spoken, still less that she was speaking of him almost to him.
"Something very like it, I should say," answered Del Ferice's oily voice. "He has probably been ill since you saw him. Saracinesca is an unhealthy place."
Giovanni turned sharply round.
"Yes; we were speaking of you, Don Giovanni," said Donna Tullia, with some scorn. "Does it strike you that you were exceedingly rude in not letting me know that you were going out of town when you had promised to dance with me at the Valdarno ball?" She curled her small lip and showed her sharp white teeth. Giovanni was a man of the world, however, and was equal to the occasion.
"I apologise most humbly," he said. "It was indeed very rude; but in the urgency of the case, I forgot all other engagements. I really beg your pardon. Will you honour me with a dance this evening?"
"I have every dance engaged," answered Madame Mayer, coldly staring at him.
"I am very sorry," said Giovanni, inwardly thanking heaven for his good fortune, and wishing she would go away.
"Wait a moment," said Donna Tullia, judging that she had produced the desired effect upon him. "Let me look. I believe I have one waltz left. Let me see. Yes, the one before the last—you can have it if you like."
"Thank you," murmured Giovanni, greatly annoyed. "I will remember."
Madame Mayer laid her hand upon Del Ferice's arm, and moved away. She was a vain woman, and being in love with Saracinesca after her own fashion, could not understand that he should be wholly indifferent to her. She thought that in telling him she had no dances she had given him a little wholesome punishment, and that in giving one after all she had conferred a favour upon him. She also believed that she had annoyed Del Ferice, which, always amused her. But Del Ferice was more than a match for her, with his quiet ways and smooth tongue.
They went into the ball-room together and danced a few minutes. When the music ceased, Ugo excused himself on the plea that he was engaged for the quadrille that followed. He at once set out in search of the Duchessa d'Astrardente, and did not lose sight of her again. She did not dance before the cotillon, she said; and she sat down in a high chair in the picture-gallery, while three or four men, among whom was Valdarno, sat and stood near her, doing their best to amuse her. Others came, and some went away, but Corona did not move, and sat amongst her little court, glad to have the time pass in any way until the cotillon. When Del Ferice had ascertained her position, he went about his business, which was manifold—dancing frequently, and making a point of speaking to every one in the room. At the end of an hour, he joined the group of men around the Duchessa and took part in the conversation.
It was an easy matter to make the talk turn upon Giovanni Saracinesca. Every one was more or less curious about the journey he had made, and especially about the cause of his absence. Each of the men had something to say, and each, knowing the popular report that Giovanni was in love with Corona, said his say with as much wit as he could command. Corona herself was interested, for she alone understood his sudden absence, and was anxious to hear the common opinion concerning it.
The theories advanced were various. Some said he had been quarrelling with the local authorities of Saracinesca, who interfered with his developments and improvements upon the estate, and they gave laughable portraits of the village sages with whom he had been engaged. Others said he had only stopped there a day, and had been in Naples. One said he had been boar-hunting; another, that the Saracinesca woods had been infested by a band of robbers, who were terrorising the country.
"And what do you say, Del Ferice?" asked Corona, seeing a cunning smile upon the man's pale fat face.
"It is very simple," said Ugo; "it is a very simple matter indeed. If the Duchessa will permit me, I will call him, and we will ask him directly what he has been doing. There he stands with old Cantalorgano at the other end of the room. Public curiosity demands to be satisfied. May I call him, Duchessa?"
"By no means," said Corona, quickly. But before she had spoken, Valdarno, who was always sanguine and impulsive, had rapidly crossed the gallery and was already speaking to Giovanni. The latter bowed his head as though obeying an order, and came quietly back with the young man who had called him. The crowd of men parted before him as he advanced to the Duchessa's chair, and stood waiting in some surprise.
"What are your commands, Duchessa?" he asked, in somewhat formal tones.
"Valdarno is too quick," answered Corona, who was greatly annoyed. "Some one suggested calling you to settle a dispute, and he went before I could stop him. I fear it is very impertinent of us."
"I am entirely at your service," said Giovanni, who was delighted at having been called, and had found time to recover from his first excitement on seeing her. "What is the question?"
"We were all talking about you," said Valdarno.
"We were wondering where you had been," said another.
"They said you had gone boar-hunting."
"Or to Naples."
"Or even to Paris." Three or four spoke in one breath.
"I am exceedingly flattered at the interest you all show in me," said Giovanni, quietly. "There is very little to tell. I have been in Saracinesca upon a matter of business, spending my days in the woods with my steward, and my nights in keeping away the cold and the ghosts. I would have invited you all to join the festivity, had I known how much you were interested. The beef up there is monstrously tough, and the rats are abominably noisy, but the mountain air is said to be very healthy."
Most of the men present felt that they had not only behaved foolishly, but had spoiled the little circle around the Duchessa by introducing a man who had the power to interest her, whereas they could only afford her a little amusement. Valdarno was still standing, and his chair beside Corona was vacant. Giovanni calmly installed himself upon it, and began to talk as though nothing had happened.