"You are not dancing, Duchessa," he remarked. "I suppose you have been in the ball-room?"
"Yes—but I am rather tired this evening. I will wait."
"You were here at the last great ball, before the old prince died, were you not?" asked Giovanni, remembering that he had first seen her on that occasion.
"Yes," she answered; "and I remember that we danced together; and the accident to the window, and the story of the ghost."
So they fell into conversation, and though one or two of the men ventured an ineffectual remark, the little circle dropped away, and Giovanni was left alone by the side of the Duchessa. The distant opening strains of a waltz came floating down the gallery, but neither of the two heard, nor cared.
"It is strange," Giovanni said. "They say it has always happened, since the memory of man. No one has ever seen anything, but whenever there is a great ball, there is a crash of broken glass some time in the course of the evening. Nobody could ever explain why that window fell in, five years ago—five years ago this month,—this very day, I believe," he continued suddenly, in the act of recollection. "Yes—the nineteenth of January, I remember very well—it was my mother's birthday."
"It is not so extraordinary," said Corona, "for it chances to be the name-day of the present prince. That was probably the reason why it was chosen this year." She spoke a little nervously, as though still ill at ease.
"But it is very strange," said Giovanni, in a low voice. "It is strange that we should have met here the first time, and that we should not have met here since, until—to-day."
He looked towards her as he spoke, and their eyes met and lingered in each other's gaze. Suddenly the blood mounted to Corona's cheeks, her eyelids drooped, she leaned back in her seat and was silent.
Far off, at the entrance to the ball-room, Del Ferice found Donna Tullia alone. She was very angry. The dance for which she was engaged to Giovanni Saracinesca had begun, and was already half over, and still he did not come. Her pink face was unusually flushed, and there was a disagreeable look in her blue eyes.
"Ah!—I see Don Giovanni has again forgotten his engagement," said Ugo, in smooth tones. He well knew that he himself had brought about the omission, but none could have guessed it from his manner. "May I have the honour of a turn before your cavalier arrives?" he asked.
"No," said Donna Tullia, angrily. "Give me your arm. We will go and find him." She almost hissed the words through her closed teeth.
She hardly knew that Del Ferice was leading her as they moved towards the picture-gallery, passing through the crowded rooms that lay between. She never spoke; but her movement was impetuous, and she resented being delayed by the hosts of men and women who filled the way. As they entered the long apartment, where the portraits of the Frangipani lined the walls from end to end, Del Ferice uttered a well-feigned exclamation.
"Oh, there he is!" he cried. "Do you see him?—his back is turned—he is alone with the Astrardente."
"Come," said Donna Tullia, shortly. Del Ferice would have preferred to have let her go alone, and to have witnessed from a distance the scene he had brought about. But he could not refuse to accompany Madame Mayer.
Neither Corona, who was facing the pair, but was talking with Giovanni, nor Giovanni himself, who was turned away from them, noticed their approach until they came and stood still beside them. Saracinesca looked up and started. The Duchessa d'Astrardente raised her black eyebrows in surprise.
"Our dance!" exclaimed Giovanni, in considerable agitation. "It is the one after this—"
"On the contrary," said Donna Tullia, in tones trembling with rage, "it is already over. It is the most unparalleled insolence!"
Giovanni was profoundly disgusted at himself and Donna Tullia. He cared not so much for the humiliation itself, which was bad enough, as for the annoyance the scene caused Corona, who looked from one to the other in angry astonishment, but of course could have nothing to say.
"I can only assure you that I thought—"
"You need not assure me!" cried Donna Tullia, losing all self-control. "There is no excuse, nor pardon—it is the second time. Do not insult me further, by inventing untruths for your apology."
"Nevertheless—" began Giovanni, who was sincerely sorry for his great rudeness, and would gladly have attempted to explain his conduct, seeing that Donna Tullia was so justly angry.
"There is no nevertheless!" she interrupted. "You may stay where you are," she added, with a scornful glance at the Duchessa d'Astrardente. Then she laid her hand upon Del Ferice's arm, and swept angrily past, so that the train of her red silk gown brushed sharply against Corona's soft white velvet.
Giovanni remained standing a moment, with a puzzled expression upon his face.
"How could you do anything so rude?" asked Corona, very gravely. "She will never forgive you, and she will be quite right."
"I do not know how I forgot," he answered, seating himself again. "It is dreadful—unpardonable—but perhaps the consequences will be good."
Corona was ill at ease. In the first few moments of being alone with Giovanni the pleasure she felt outweighed all other thoughts. But as the minutes lengthened to a quarter of an hour, then to half an hour, she grew nervous, and her answers came more and more shortly. She said to herself that she should never have given him the cotillon, and she wondered how the remainder of the time would pass. The realisation of what had occurred came upon her, and the hot blood rose to her face and ebbed away again, and rose once more. Yet she could not speak out what her pride prompted her to say, because she pitied Giovanni a little, and was willing to think for a moment that it was only compassion she felt, lest she should feel that she must send him away.
But Giovanni sat beside her, and knew that the spell was working upon him, and that there was no salvation. He had taken her unawares, though he hardly knew it, when she first entered, and he asked her suddenly for a dance. He had wondered vaguely why she had so freely consented; but, in the wild delight of being by her side, he completely lost all hold upon himself, and yielded to the exquisite charm of her presence, as a man who has struggled for a moment against a powerful opiate sinks under its influence, and involuntarily acknowledges his weakness. Strong as he was, his strength was all gone, and he knew not where he should find it.
"You will have to make her some further apology," said Corona, as Madame Mayer's red train disappeared through the doorway at the other end of the room.
"Of course—I must do something about it," said Giovanni, absently. "After all, I do not wonder—it is amazing that I should have recognised her at all. I should forget anything to-night, except that I am to dance with you."
The Duchessa looked away, and fanned herself slowly; but she sighed, and checked the deep-drawn breath as by a great effort. The waltz was over, and the dancers streamed through the intervening rooms towards the gallery in quest of fresher air and freer space. Two and two they came, quickly following each other and passing on, some filling the high seats along the walls, others hastening towards the supper-rooms beyond. A few minutes earlier Saracinesca and Corona had been almost alone in the great apartment; now they were surrounded on all sides by a chattering crowd of men and women, with flushed faces or unnaturally pale, according as the effort of dancing affected each, and the indistinguishable din of hundreds of voices so filled the air that Giovanni and the Duchessa could hardly hear each other speak.
"This is intolerable," said Giovanni, suddenly. "You are not engaged for the last quadrille? Shall we not go away until the cotillon begins?"
Corona hesitated a moment, and was silent. She glanced once at Giovanni, and again surveyed the moving crowd.
"Yes," she said at last; "let us go away."
"You are very good," answered Giovanni in a low voice, as he offered her his arm. She looked at him inquiringly, and her face grew grave, as they slowly made their way out of the room.
At last they came to the conservatory, and went in among the great plants and the soft lights. There was no one there, and they slowly paced the broad walk that was left clear all round the glass-covered chamber, and up and down the middle. The plants were disposed so thickly as to form almost impenetrable walls of green on either side; and at one end there was an open space where a little marble fountain played, around which were disposed seats of carved wood. But Giovanni and Corona continued to walk slowly along the tiled path.
"Why did you say I was good just now?" asked Corona at last. Her voice sounded cold.
"I should not have said it, perhaps," answered Giovanni. "I say many things which I cannot help saying. I am very sorry."
"I am very sorry too," answered the Duchessa, quietly.
"Ah! if you knew, you would forgive me. If you could guess half the truth, you would forgive me."
"I would rather not guess it."
"Of course; but you have already—you know it all. Have I not told you?" Giovanni spoke in despairing tones. He was utterly weak and spellbound; he could hardly find any words at all.
"Don Giovanni," said Corona, speaking very proudly and calmly, but not unkindly, "I have known you so long, I believe you to be so honourable a man, that I am willing to suppose that you said—what you said—in a moment of madness."
"Madness! It was madness; but it is more sweet to remember than all the other doings of my life," said Saracinesca, his tongue unloosed at last. "If it is madness to love you, I am mad past all cure. There is no healing for me now; I shall never find my senses again, for they are lost in you, and lost for ever. Drive me away, crush me, trample on me if you will; you cannot kill me nor kill my madness, for I live in you and for you, and I cannot die. That is all. I am not eloquent as other men are, to use smooth words and twist phrases. I love you—"
"You have said too much already—too much, far too much," murmured Corona, in broken tones. She had withdrawn her hand from his during his passionate speech, and stood back from him against the dark wall of green plants, her head drooping upon her breast, her fingers clasped fast together. His short rude words were terribly sweet to hear, it was fearful to think that she was alone with him, that one step would bring her to his side, that with one passionate impulse she might throw her white arms about his neck, that one faltering sigh of overwhelming love might bring her queenly head down upon his shoulder. Ah, God! how gladly she would let her tears flow and speak for her! how unutterably sweet it would be rest for one instant in his arms, to love and be loved as she longed to be!
"You are so cold," he cried, passionately. "You cannot understand. All spoken words are not too much, are not enough to move you, to make you see that I do really worship and adore you; you, the whole of you—your glorious face, your sweet small hands, your queenly ways, the light of your eyes, and the words of your lips—all of you, body and soul, I love. I would I might die now, for you know it, even if you will not understand—"
He moved a step nearer to her, stretching out his hands as he spoke. Corona trembled convulsively, and her lips turned white in the torture of temptation; she leaned far back against the green leaves, staring wildly at Giovanni, held as in a vice by the mighty passions of love and fear. Having yielded her ears to his words, they fascinated her horribly. He, poor man, had long lost all control of himself. His resolutions, long pondered in the solitude of Saracinesca, had vanished like unsubstantial vapours before a strong fire, and his heart and soul were ablaze.
"Do not look at me so," he said almost tenderly. "Do not look at me as though you feared me, as though you hated me. Can you not see that it is I who fear you as well as love you, who tremble at your coldness, who watch for your slightest kind look? Ah, Corona, you have made me so happy!—there is no angel in all heaven but would give up his Paradise to change for mine!"
He had taken her hand and pressed it wildly to his lips. Her eyelids drooped, and her head fell back for one moment. They stood so very near that his arm had almost stolen about her slender waist, he almost thought he was supporting her.
Suddenly, without the least warning, she drew herself up to her full height, and thrust Giovanni back to her arm's length strongly, almost roughly.
"Never!" she said. "I am a weak woman, but not so weak as that. I am miserable, but not so miserable as to listen to you. Giovanni Saracinesca, you say you love me—God grant it is not true! but you say it. Then, have you no honour, no courage, no strength? Is there nothing of the man left in you? Is there no truth in your love, no generosity in your heart? If you so love me as you say you do, do you care so little what becomes of me as to tempt me to love you?"
She spoke very earnestly, not scornfully nor angrily, but in the certainty of strength and right, and in the strong persuasion that the headstrong man would hear and be convinced. She was weak no longer, for one desperate moment her fate had trembled in the balance, but she had not hesitated even then; she had struggled bravely, and her brave soul had won the great battle. She had been weak the other day at the theatre, in letting herself ask the question to which she knew the answer; she had been miserably weak that very night in so abandoning herself to the influence she loved and dreaded; but at the great moment, when heaven and earth swam before her as in a wild and unreal mirage, with the voice of the man she loved ringing in her ears, speaking such words as it was an ecstasy to hear, she had been no longer weak—the reality of danger had brought forth the sincerity of her goodness, and her heart had found courage to do a great deed. She had overcome, and she knew it.
Giovanni stood back from her, and hung his head. In a moment the force of his passion was checked, and from the supreme verge of unspeakable and rapturous delight, he was cast suddenly into the depths of his own remorse. He stood silent before her, trembling and awestruck.
"You cannot understand me," she said, "I do not understand myself. But this I know, that you are not what you have seemed to-night—that there is enough manliness and nobility in you to respect a woman, and that you will hereafter prove that I am right. I pray that I may not see you any more; but if I must see you, I will trust you thus much—say that I may trust you," she added, her strong smooth voice sinking in a trembling cadence, half beseeching, and yet wholly commanding.
Saracinesca bent his heavy brows, and was silent for a moment. Then he looked up, and his eyes met hers, and seemed to gather strength from her.
"If you will let me see you sometimes, you may trust me. I would I were as noble and good as you—I am not. I will try to be. Ah, Corona!" he cried suddenly, "forgive me, forgive me! I hardly knew what I said."
"Hush!" said the Duchessa, gently; "you must not speak like that, nor call me Corona. Perhaps I am wrong to forgive you wholly, but I believe in you. I believe you will understand, and that you will be worthy of the trust I place in you."
"Indeed, Duchessa, none shall say that they have trusted me in vain," answered Giovanni very proudly—"neither man nor woman—and, least of all women, you."
"That is well," said she, with a faint shadow of a smile. "I would rather see you proud than reckless. See that you remain so—that neither by word nor deed you ever remind me that I have had anything to forgive. It is the only way in which any intercourse between us can be possible after this—this dreadful night."
Giovanni bowed his head. He was still pale, but he had regained control of himself.
"I solemnly promise that I will not recall it to your memory, and I implore your forgiveness, even though you cannot forget."
"I cannot forget," said Corona, almost under her breath. Giovanni's eyes flashed for a moment. "Shall we go back to the ball-room? I will go home soon."
As they turned to go, a loud crash, as of broken glass, with the fall of some heavy body, startled them, and made them stand still in the middle of the walk. The noisy concussion was followed by a complete silence. Corona, whose nerves had been severely tried, trembled slightly.
"It is strange," she said; "they say it always happens."
There was nothing to be seen. The thick web of plants hid the cause of the noise from view, whatever it might be. Giovanni hesitated a moment, looking about to see how he could get behind the banks of flower-pots. Then he left Corona without a word, and striding to the end of the walk, disappeared into the depths of the conservatory. He had noticed that there was a narrow entrance at the end nearest the fountain, intended probably to admit the gardener for the purpose of watering the plants. Corona could hear his quick steps; she thought she heard a low groan and a voice whispering,—but she might have been mistaken, for the place was large, and her heart was beating fast.
Giovanni had not gone far in the narrow way, which was sufficiently lighted by the soft light of the many candles concealed in various parts of the conservatory, when he came upon the figure of a man sitting, as he had apparently fallen, across the small passage. The fragments of a heavy earthenware vase lay beyond him, with a heap of earth and roots; and the tall india-rubber plant which grew in it had fallen against the sloping glass roof and shattered several panes. As Giovanni came suddenly upon him, the man struggled to rise, and in the dim light Saracinesca recognised Del Ferice. The truth flashed upon him at once. The fellow had been listening, and had probably heard all. Giovanni instantly resolved to conceal the fact from the Duchessa, to whom the knowledge that the painful scene had been overheard would be a bitter mortification. Giovanni could undertake to silence the eavesdropper.
Quick as thought his strong brown hands gripped the throat of Ugo del Ferice, stifling his breath like a collar of iron.
"Dog!" he whispered fiercely in the wretch's ear, "if you breathe, I will kill you now! You will find me in my own house in an hour. Be silent now!" Giovanni whispered, with such a terrible grip on the fellow's throat that his eyeballs seemed starting from his head. Then he turned and went out by the way he had entered, leaving Del Ferice writhing with pain and gasping for breath. As he joined Corona, his face betrayed no emotion—he had been so pale before that he could not turn whiter in his anger—but his eyes gleamed fiercely at the thought of fight. The Duchessa stood where he had left her, still much agitated.
"It is nothing," said Giovanni, with a forced laugh, as he offered her his arm and led her quickly away. "Imagine. A great vase with one of Frangipani's favourite plants in it had been badly propped, and had fallen right through the glass, outward."
"It is strange," said Corona. "I was almost sure I heard a groan."
"It was the wind. The glass was broken, and it is a stormy night."
"That was just the way that window fell in five years ago," said Corona. "Something always happens here. I think I will go home—let us find my husband."
No one would have guessed, from Corona's face, that anything extraordinary had occurred in the half-hour she had spent in the conservatory. She walked calmly by Giovanni's side, not a trace of excitement on her pale proud face, not a sign of uneasiness in the quiet glance of her splendid eyes. She had conquered, and she knew it, never to be tempted again; she had conquered herself and she had overcome the man beside her. Giovanni glanced at her in wondering admiration.
"You are the bravest woman in the world, as I am the most contemptible of men," he said suddenly, as they entered the picture-gallery.
"I am not brave," she answered calmly, "neither are you contemptible, my friend. We have both been very near to our destruction, but it has pleased God to save us."
"By you," said Saracinesca, very solemnly. He knew that within six hours he might be lying dead upon some plot of wet grass without the city, and he grew very grave, after the manner of brave men when death is abroad.
"You have saved my soul to-night," he said earnestly. "Will you give me your blessing and whole forgiveness? Do not laugh at me, nor think me foolish. The blessing of such women as you should make men braver and better."
The gallery was again deserted. The cotillon had begun, and those who were not dancing were at supper. Corona stood still for one moment by the very chair where they had sat so long.
"I forgive you wholly. I pray that all blessings may be upon you always, in life and in death, for ever."
Giovanni bowed his head reverently. It seemed as though the woman he so loved was speaking a benediction upon his death, a last in pace which should follow him for all eternity.
"In life and in death, I will honour you truly and serve you faithfully for ever," he answered. As he raised his head, Corona saw that there were tears in his eyes, and she felt that there were tears in her own.
"Come," she said, and they passed on in silence.
She found her husband at last in the supper-room. He was leisurely discussing the wing of a chicken and a small glass of claret-and-water, with a gouty ambassador whose wife had insisted upon dancing the cotillon, and who was revenging himself upon a Strasbourg pate and a bottle of dry champagne.
"Ah, my dear," said Astrardente, looking up from his modest fare, "you have been dancing? You have come to supper? You are very wise. I have danced a great deal myself, but I have not seen you—the room was so crowded. Here—this small table will hold us all, just a quartet."
"Thanks—I am not hungry. Will you take me home when you have finished supper? Or are you going to stay? Do not wait, Don Giovanni; I know you are busy in the cotillon. My husband will take care of me. Good night."
Giovanni bowed, and went away, glad to be alone at last. He had to be at home in half an hour according to his engagement, and he had to look about him for a friend. All Rome was at the ball; but the men upon whom he could call for such service as he required, were all dancing. Moreover, he reflected that in such a matter it was necessary to have some one especially trustworthy. It would not do to have the real cause of the duel known, and the choice of a second was a very important matter. He never doubted that Del Ferice would send some one with a challenge at the appointed time. Del Ferice was a scoundrel, doubtless; but he was quick with the foils, and had often appeared as second in affairs of honour.
Giovanni stood by the door of the ball-room, looking at the many familiar faces, and wondering how he could induce any one to leave his partner at that hour, and go home with him. Suddenly he was aware that his father was standing beside him and eyeing him curiously.
"What is the matter, Giovanni?" inquired the old Prince. "Why are you not dancing?"
"The fact is—" began Giovanni, and then stopped suddenly. An idea struck him. He went close to his father, and spoke in a low voice.
"The fact is, that I have just taken a man by the throat and otherwise insulted him, by calling him a dog. The fellow seemed annoyed, and so I told him he might send to our house in an hour for an explanation. I cannot find a friend, because everybody is dancing this abominable cotillon. Perhaps you can help me," he added, looking at his father rather doubtfully. To his surprise and considerable relief the old Prince burst into a hearty laugh.
"Of course," he cried. "What do you take me for? Do you think I would desert my boy in a fight? Go and call my carriage, and wait for me while I pick up somebody for a witness; we can talk on the way home."
The old Prince had been a duellist in his day, and he would no more have thought of advising his son not to fight than of refusing a challenge himself. He was, moreover, exceedingly bored at the ball, and not in the least sleepy. The prospect of an exciting night was novel and delightful. He knew Giovanni's extraordinary skill, and feared nothing for him. He knew everybody in the ballroom was engaged, and he went straight to the supper-table, expecting to find some one there. Astrardente, the Duchessa, and the gouty ambassador were still together, as Giovanni had left them a moment before. The Prince did not like Astrardente, but he knew the ambassador very well. He called him aside, with an apology to the Duchessa.
"I want a young man immediately," said old Saracinesca, stroking his white beard with his broad brown hand. "Can you tell of any one who is not dancing?"
"There is Astrardente," answered his Excellency, with an ironical smile. "A duel?" he asked.
"I am too old," said the diplomatist, thoughtfully; "but it would be infinitely amusing. I cannot give you one of my secretaries either. It always makes such a scandal. Oh, there goes the very man! Catch him before it is too late!"
Old Saracinesca glanced in the direction the ambassador indicated, and darted away. He was as active as a boy, in spite of his sixty years.
"Eh!" he cried. "Hi! you! Come here! Spicca! Stop! Excuse me—I am in a great hurry!"
Count Spicca, whom he thus addressed, paused and looked round through his single eyeglass in some surprise. He was an immensely tall and cadaverous-looking man, with a black beard and searching grey eyes.
"I really beg your pardon," said the Prince hurriedly, in a low voice, as he came up, "but I am in a great hurry—an affair of honour—will you be witness? My carriage is at the door."
"With pleasure," said Count Spicca, quietly; and without further comment he accompanied the Prince to the outer hall. Giovanni was waiting, and the Prince's footman stood at the head of the stairs. In three minutes the father and son and the melancholy Spicca were seated in the carriage, on their way to the Palazzo Saracinesca.
"Now then, Giovannino," said the Prince, as he lit a cigarette in the darkness, "tell us all about it."
"There is not much to tell," said Giovanni. "If the challenge arrives, there is nothing to be done but to fight. I took him by the throat and nearly strangled him."
"Whom?" asked Spicca, mournfully.
"Oh! it is Del Ferice," answered Giovanni, who had forgotten that he had not mentioned the name of his probable antagonist. The Prince laughed.
"Del Ferice! Who would have thought it? He is a dead man. What was it all about?"
"That is unnecessary to say here," said Giovanni, quietly. "He insulted me grossly. I half-strangled him, and told him he was a dog. I suppose he will fight."
"Ah yes; he will probably fight," repeated Spicca, thoughtfully. "What are your weapons, Don Giovanni?"
"Anything he likes."
"But the choice is yours if he challenges," returned the Count.
"As you please. Arrange all that—foils, swords, or pistols."
"You do not seem to take much interest in this affair," remarked Spicca, sadly.
"He is best with foils," said the old Prince.
"Foils or pistols, of course," said the Count. "Swords are child's play."
Satisfied that his seconds meant business, Giovanni sank back in his corner of the carriage, and was silent.
"We had better have the meeting in my villa," said his father. "If it rains, they can fight indoors. I will send for the surgeon at once."
In a few moments they reached the Palazzo Saracinesca. The Prince left word at the porter's lodge that any gentlemen who arrived were to be admitted, and all three went up-stairs. It was half-past two o'clock.
As they entered the apartments, they heard a carriage drive under the great archway below.
"Go to your rooms, Giovanni," said the old Prince. "These fellows are punctual. I will call you when they are gone. I suppose you mean business seriously?"
"I care nothing about him. I will give him any satisfaction he pleases," answered Giovanni. "It is very kind of you to undertake the matter—I am very grateful."
"I would not leave it to anybody else," muttered the old Prince, as he hurried away to meet Del Fence's seconds.
Giovanni entered his own rooms, and went straight to his writing-table. He took a pen and a sheet of paper and began writing. His face was very grave, but his hand was steady. For more than an hour he wrote without pausing. Then his father entered the room.
"Well?" said Giovanni, looking up.
"It is all settled," said the old gentleman, seriously. "I was afraid they might make some objection to me as a second. You know there is an old clause about near relations acting in such cases. But they declared that they considered my co-operation an honour—so that is all right. You must do your best, my boy. This rascal means to hurt you if he can. Seven o'clock is the time. We must leave here at half-past six. You can sleep two hours and a half. I will sit up and call you. Spicca has gone home to change his clothes, and is coming back immediately. Now lie down. I will see to your foils—"
"Is it foils, then?" asked Giovanni, quietly.
"Yes. They made no objection. You had better lie down."
"I will. Father, if anything should happen to me—it may, you know—you will find my keys in this drawer, and this letter, which I beg you will read. It is to yourself."
"Nonsense, my dear boy! Nothing will happen to you—you will just run him through the arm and come home to breakfast."
The old Prince spoke in his rough cheerful way; but his voice trembled, and he turned aside to hide two great tears that had fallen upon his dark cheeks and were losing themselves in his white beard.
Giovanni slept soundly for two hours. He was very tired with the many emotions of the night, and the arrangements for the meeting being completed, it seemed as though work were over and the pressure removed. It is said that men will sleep for hours when the trial is over and the sentence of death has been passed; and though it was more likely that Del Ferice would be killed than that Giovanni would be hurt, the latter felt not unlike a man who has been tried for his life. He had suffered in a couple of hours almost every emotion of which he was capable—his love for Corona, long controlled and choked down, had broken bounds at last, and found expression for itself; he had in a moment suffered the severest humiliation and the most sincere sorrow at her reproaches; he had known the fear of seeing her no more, and the sweetness of pardon from her own lips; he had found himself on a sudden in a frenzy of righteous wrath against Del Ferice, and a moment later he had been forced to hide his anger under a calm face; and at last, when the night was far spent, he had received the assurance that in less than four hours he would have ample opportunity for taking vengeance upon the cowardly eavesdropper who had so foully got possession of the one secret he held dear. Worn out with all he had suffered, and calm in the expectation of the morning's struggle, Giovanni lay down upon his bed and slept.
Del Ferice, on the contrary, was very wakeful. He had an unpleasant sensation about his throat as though he had been hanged, and cut down before he was dead; and he suffered the unutterable mortification of knowing that, after a long and successful social career, he had been detected by his worst enemy in a piece of disgraceful villany. In the first place, Giovanni might kill him. Del Ferice was a very good fencer, but Saracinesca was stronger and more active; there was certainly considerable danger in the duel. On the other hand, if he survived, Giovanni had him in his power for the rest of his life, and there was no escape possible. He had been caught listening—caught in a flagrantly dishonest trick—and he well knew that if the matter had been brought before a jury of honour, he would have been declared incompetent to claim any satisfaction.
It was not the first time Del Ferice had done such things, but it was the first time he had been caught. He cursed his awkwardness in oversetting the vase just at the moment when his game was successfully played to the end—just when he thought that he began to see land, in having discovered beyond all doubt that Giovanni was devoted body and soul to Corona d'Astrardente. The information had been necessary to him, for he was beginning seriously to press his suit with Donna Tullia, and he needed to be sure that Giovanni was not a rival to be feared. He had long suspected Saracinesca's devotion to the dark Duchessa, and by constantly putting himself in his way, he had done his best to excite his jealousy and to stimulate his passion. Giovanni never could have considered Del Ferice as a rival; the idea would have been ridiculous. But the constant annoyance of finding the man by Corona's side, when he desired to be alone with her, had in some measure heightened the effect Del Ferice desired, though it had not actually produced it. Being a good judge of character, he had sensibly reckoned his chances against Giovanni, and he had formed so just an opinion of the man's bold and devoted character as to be absolutely sure that if Saracinesca loved Corona he would not seriously think of marrying Donna Tullia. He had done all he could to strengthen the passion when he guessed it was already growing, and at the very moment when he had received circumstantial evidence of it which placed it beyond all doubt, he had allowed himself to be discovered, through his own unpardonable carelessness.
Evidently the only satisfactory way out of the difficulty was to kill Giovanni outright, if he could do it. In that way he would rid himself of an enemy, and at the same time of the evidence against himself. The question was, how this could be accomplished; for Giovanni was a man of courage, strength, and experience, and he himself—Ugo del Ferice—possessed none of those qualities in any great degree. The result was, that he slept not at all, but passed the night in a state of nervous anxiety by no means conducive to steadiness of hand or calmness of the nerves. He was less pleased than ever when he heard that Giovanni's seconds were his own father and the melancholy Spicca, who was the most celebrated duellist in Italy, in spite of his cadaverous long body, his sad voice, and his expression of mournful resignation to the course of events.
In the event of his neither killing Don Giovanni nor being himself killed, what he most dreaded was the certainty that for the rest of his life he must be in his enemy's power. He knew that, for Corona's sake, Giovanni would not mention the cause of the duel, and no one could have induced him to speak of it himself; but it would be a terrible hindrance in his life to feel at every turn that the man he hated had the power to expose him to the world as a scoundrel of the first water. What he had heard gave him but small influence over Saracinesca, though it was of great value in determining his own action. To say aloud to the world that Giovanni loved the Duchessa d'Astrardente would be of little use. Del Ferice could not, for very shame, tell how he had found it out; and there was no other proof but his evidence, for he guessed that from that time forward the open relation between the two would be even more formal than before—and the most credulous people do not believe in a great fire unless they can see a little smoke. He had not even the advantage of turning the duel to account in his interest with Donna Tullia, since Giovanni could force him to deny that she was implicated in the question, on pain of exposing his treachery. There was palpably no satisfactory way out of the matter unless he could kill his adversary. He would have to leave the country for a while; but Giovanni once dead, it would be easy to make Donna Tullia believe they had fought on her account, and to derive all the advantage there was to be gained from posing before the world as her defender.
But though Del Ferice's rest was disturbed by the contemplation of his difficulties, he did not neglect any precaution which might save his strength for the morrow. He lay down upon his bed, stretching himself at full length, and carefully keeping his right arm free, lest, by letting his weight fall upon it as he lay, he should benumb the muscles or stiffen the joints; from time to time he rubbed a little strengthening ointment upon his wrist, and he was careful that the light should not shine in his eyes and weary them. At six o'clock his seconds appeared with the surgeon they had engaged, and the four men were soon driving rapidly down the Corso towards the gate.
So punctual were the two parties that they arrived simultaneously at the gate of the villa which had been selected for the encounter. The old Prince took a key from his pocket and himself opened the great iron gate. The carriages drove in, and the gates were closed by the astonished porter, who came running out as they creaked upon their hinges. The light was already sufficient for the purpose of fencing, as the eight men descended simultaneously before the house. The morning was cloudy, but the ground was dry. The principals and seconds saluted each other formally. Giovanni withdrew to a little distance on one side with his surgeon, and Del Ferice stood aside with his.
The melancholy Spicca, who looked like the shadow of death in the dim morning light, was the first to speak.
"Of course you know the best spot in the villa?" he said to the old Prince.
"As there is no sun, I suggest that they fight upon the ground behind the house. It is hard and dry."
The whole party followed old Saracinesca. Spicca had the foils in a green bag. The place suggested by the Prince seemed in every way adapted, and Del Ferice's seconds made no objection. There was absolutely no choice of position upon the ground, which was an open space about twenty yards square, hard and well rolled, preferable in every way to a grass lawn.
Without further comment, Giovanni took off his coat and waistcoat, and Del Ferice, who looked paler and more unhealthy than usual, followed his example. The seconds crossed sides to examine the principals' shirts, and to assure themselves that they wore no flannel underneath the unstarched linen. This formality being accomplished, the foils were carefully compared, and Giovanni was offered the first choice. He took the one nearest his hand, and the other was carried to Del Ferice. They were simple fencing foils, the buttons being removed and the points sharpened—there was nothing to choose between them. The seconds then each took a sword, and stationed the combatants some seven or eight paces apart, while they themselves stood a little aside, each upon the right hand of his principal, and the witnesses placed themselves at opposite corners of the ground, the surgeons remaining at the ends behind the antagonists. There was a moment's pause. When all was ready, old Saracinesca came close to Giovanni, while Del Ferice's second approached his principal in like manner.
"Giovanni," said the old Prince, gravely, "as your second I am bound to recommend you to make any advance in your power towards a friendly understanding. Can you do so?"
"No, father, I cannot," answered Giovanni, with a slight smile. His face was perfectly calm, and of a natural colour. Old Saracinesca crossed the ground, and met Casalverde, the opposite second, half-way. Each formally expressed to the other his great regret that no arrangement would be possible, and then retired again to the right hand of his principal.
"Gentlemen," said the Prince, in a loud voice, "are you ready?" As both men bowed their assent, he added immediately, in a sharp tone of command, "In guard!"
Giovanni and Del Ferice each made a step forward, saluted each other with their foils, repeated the salute to the seconds and witnesses, and then came face to face and fell into position. Each made one thrust in tierce at the other, in the usual fashion of compliment, each parrying in the same way.
"Halt!" cried Saracinesca and Casalverde, in the same breath.
"In guard!" shouted the Prince again, and the duel commenced.
In a moment the difference between the two men was apparent. Del Ferice fenced in the Neapolitan style—his arm straight before him, never bending from the elbow, making all his play with his wrist, his back straight, and his knees so much bent that he seemed not more than half his height. He made his movements short and quick, and relatively few, in evident fear of tiring himself at the start. To a casual observer his fence was less graceful than his antagonist's, his lunges less daring, his parries less brilliant. But as the old Prince watched him he saw that the point of his foil advanced and retreated in a perfectly straight line, and in parrying described the smallest circle possible, while his cold watery blue eye was fixed steadily upon his antagonist; old Saracinesca ground his teeth, for he saw that the man was a most accomplished swordsman.
Giovanni fought with the air of one who defended himself, without much thought of attack. He did not bend so low as Del Ferice, his arm doubled a little before his lunge, and his foil occasionally made a wide circle in the air. He seemed careless, but in strength and elasticity he was far superior to his enemy, and could perhaps afford to trust to these advantages, when a man like Del Ferice was obliged to employ his whole skill and science.
They had been fencing for more than two minutes, without any apparent result, when Giovanni seemed suddenly to change his tactics. He lowered the point of his weapon a little, and, keeping it straight before him, began to press more closely upon his antagonist. Del Ferice kept his arm at full length, and broke ground for a yard or two, making clever feints in carte at Giovanni's body, with the object of stopping his advance. But Giovanni pressed him, and suddenly made a peculiar movement with his foil, bringing it in contact with his enemy's along its length.
"Halt!" cried Casalverde. Both men lowered their weapons instantly, and the seconds sprang forward and touched their swords between them. Giovanni bit his lip angrily.
"Why 'halt'?" asked the Prince, sharply. "Neither is touched."
"My principal's shoe-string is untied," answered Casalverde, calmly. It was true. "He might easily trip and fall," explained Del Ferice's friend, bending down and proceeding to tie the silk ribbon. The Prince shrugged his shoulders, and retired with Giovanni a few steps back.
"Giovanni," he said, in a voice trembling with emotion, "if you are not more careful, he will do you a mischief. For heaven's sake run him through the arm and let us be done with it."
"I should have disarmed him that time if his second had not stopped us," said Giovanni, calmly. "He is ready again," he added, "come on."
Again the two men advanced, and again the foils crossed and recrossed and rang loudly in the cold morning air. Once more Giovanni pressed upon Del Ferice, and Del Ferice broke ground. In answer to a quick feint, Giovanni made a round parry and a sharp short lunge in tierce.
"Halt!" yelled Casalverde. Old Saracinesca sprang in, and Giovanni lowered his weapon. But Casalverde did not interpose his sword. A full two seconds after the cry to halt, Del Ferice lunged right forward. Giovanni thrust out his arm to save his body from the foul attempt—he had not time to raise his weapon. Del Ferice's sharp rapier entered his wrist and tore a long wound nearly to the elbow.
Giovanni said nothing, but his sword dropped from his hand and he turned upon his father, white with rage. The blood streamed down his sleeve, and his surgeon came running towards him.
The old man had understood at a glance the foul play that had been practised, and going forward laid his hand upon the arm of Del Ferice's second.
"Why did you stop them, sir? And where was your sword?" he said in great anger. Del Ferice was leaning upon his friend; a greenish pallor had overspread his face, but there was a smile under his colourless moustache.
"My principal was touched," said Casalverde, pointing to a tiny scratch upon Del Ferice's neck, from which a single drop of blood was slowly oozing.
"Then why did you not prevent your principal from thrusting after you cried the halt?" asked Saracinesca, severely. "You have singularly misunderstood your duties, sir, and when these gentlemen are satisfied, you will be answerable to me."
Casalverde was silent.
"I protest myself wholly satisfied," said Ugo, with a disagreeable smile, as he glanced to where the surgeon was binding up Giovanni's arm.
"Sir," said old Saracinesca, fiercely addressing the second, "I am not here to bandy words with your principal. He may express himself satisfied through you, if he pleases. My principal, through me, expresses his entire dissatisfaction."
"Your principal, Prince," answered Casalverde, coldly, "is unable to proceed, seeing that his right arm is injured."
"My son, sir, fences as readily with his left hand as with his right," returned old Saracinesca.
Del Ferice's face fell, and his smile vanished instantly.
"In that case we are ready," returned Casalverde, unable, however, to conceal his annoyance. He was a friend of Del Ferice's and would gladly have seen Giovanni run through the body by the foul thrust.
There was a moment's consultation on the other side.
"I will give myself the pleasure of killing that gentleman to-morrow morning," remarked Spicca, as he mournfully watched the surgeon's operations.
"Unless I kill him myself to-day," returned the Prince savagely, in his white beard. "Are you ready, Giovanni?" It never occurred to him to ask his son if he was too badly hurt to proceed.
Giovanni never spoke, but the hot blood had mounted to his temples, and he was dangerously angry. He took the foil they gave him, and felt the point quietly. It was sharp as a needle. He nodded to his father's question, and they resumed their places, the old Prince this time standing on the left, as his son had changed hands. Del Ferice came forward rather timidly. His courage had sustained him so far, but the consciousness of having done a foul deed, and the sight of the angry man before him, were beginning to make him nervous. He felt uncomfortable, too, at the idea of fencing against a left-handed antagonist.
Giovanni made one or two lunges, and then, with a strange movement unlike anything any one present was acquainted with, seemed to wind his blade round Del Ferice's, and, with a violent jerk of the wrist, sent the weapon flying across the open space. It struck a window of the house, and crashed through the panes.
"More broken glass!" said Giovanni scornfully, as he lowered his point and stepped back two paces. "Take another sword, sir," he said; "I will not kill you defenceless."
"Good heavens, Giovanni!" exclaimed his father in the greatest excitement; "where on earth did you learn that trick?"
"On my travels, father," returned Giovanni, with a smile; "where you tell me I learned so much that was bad. He looks frightened," he added in a low voice, as he glanced at Del Ferice's livid face.
"He has cause," returned the Prince, "if he ever had in his life!"
Casalverde and his witness advanced from the other side with a fresh pair of foils; for the one that had gone through the window could not be recovered at once, and was probably badly bent by the twist it had received. The gentlemen offered Giovanni his choice.
"If there is no objection I will keep the one I have," said he to his father. The foils were measured, and were found to be alike. The two gentlemen retired, and Del Ferice chose a weapon.
"That is right," said Spicca, as he slowly went back to his place. "You should never part with an old friend."
"We are ready!" was called from the opposite side.
"In guard, then!" cried the Prince. The angry flush had not subsided from Giovanni's forehead, as he again went forward. Del Ferice came up like a man who has suddenly made up his mind to meet death, with a look of extraordinary determination on his pale face.
Before they had made half-a-dozen passes Ugo slipped, or pretended to slip, and fell upon his right knee; but as he came to the ground, he made a sharp thrust upwards under Giovanni's extended left arm.
The old Prince uttered a fearful oath, that rang and echoed along the walls of the ancient villa. Del Ferice had executed the celebrated feint known long ago as the "Colpo del Tancredi," "Tancred's lunge," from the supposed name of its inventor. It is now no longer permitted in duelling. But the deadly thrust loses half its danger against a left-handed man. The foil grazed the flesh on Giovanni's left side, and the blood again stained his white shirt. In the moment when Del Ferice slipped, Giovanni had made a straight and deadly lunge at his body, and the sword, instead of passing through Ugo's lungs, ran swift and sure through his throat, with such force that the iron guard struck the falling man's jaw with tremendous impetus, before the oath the old Prince had uttered was fairly out of his mouth.
Seconds and witnesses and surgeons sprang forward hastily. Del Ferice lay upon his side; he had fallen so heavily and suddenly as to wrench the sword from Giovanni's grip. The old Prince gave one look, and dragged his son away.
"He is as dead as a stone," he muttered, with a savage gleam in his eyes.
Giovanni hastily began to dress, without paying any attention to the fresh wound he had received in the last encounter. In the general excitement, his surgeon had joined the group about the fallen man. Before Giovanni had got his overcoat on he came back with Spicca, who looked crestfallen and disappointed.
"He is not dead at all," said the surgeon. "You did the thing with a master's hand—you ran his throat through without touching the jugular artery or the spine."
"Does he want to go on?" asked Giovanni, so savagely that the three men stared at him.
"Do not be so bloodthirsty, Giovanni," said the old Prince, reproachfully.
"I should be justified in going back and killing him as he lies there," said the younger Saracinesca, fiercely. "He nearly murdered me twice this morning."
"That is true," said the Prince, "the dastardly brute!"
"By the bye," said Spicca, lighting a cigarette, "I am afraid I have deprived you of the pleasure of dealing with the man who called himself Del Ferice's second. I just took the opportunity of having a moment's private conversation with him—we disagreed, a little."
"Oh, very well," growled the Prince; "as you please. I daresay I shall have enough to do in taking care of Giovanni to-morrow. That is a villanous bad scratch on his arm."
"Bah! it is nothing to mention, save for the foul way it was given," said Giovanni between his teeth.
Once more old Saracinesca and Spicca crossed the ground. There was a word of formality exchanged, to the effect that both combatants were satisfied, and then Giovanni and his party moved off, Spicca carrying his green bag of foils under his arm, and puffing clouds of smoke into the damp morning air. They had been nearly an hour on the ground, and were chilled with cold, and exhausted for want of sleep. They entered their carriage and drove rapidly homewards.
"Come in and breakfast with us," said the old Prince to Spicca, as they reached the Palazzo Saracinesca.
"Thank you, no," answered the melancholy man. "I have much to do, as I shall go to Paris to-morrow morning by the ten o'clock train. Can I do anything for you there? I shall be absent some months."
"I thought you were going to fight to-morrow," objected the Prince.
"Exactly. It will be convenient for me to leave the country immediately afterwards."
The old man shuddered. With all his fierce blood and headstrong passion, he could not comprehend the fearful calm of this strange man, whose skill was such that he regarded his adversary's death as a matter of course whenever he so pleased. As for Giovanni, he was still so angry that he cared little for the issue of the second duel.
"I am sincerely grateful for your kind offices," he said, as Spicca took leave of him.
"You shall be amply revenged of the two attempts to murder you," said Spicca, quietly; and so, having shaken hands with all, he again entered the carriage. It was the last they saw of him for a long time. He faithfully fulfilled his programme. He met Casalverde on the following morning at seven o'clock, and at precisely a quarter past, he left him dead on the field. He breakfasted with his seconds at half-past eight, and left Rome with them for Paris at ten o'clock. He had selected two French officers who were about to return to their home, in order not to inconvenience any of his friends by obliging them to leave the country; which showed that, even in moments of great excitement, Count Spicca was thoughtful of others.
When the surgeon had dressed Giovanni's wounds, he left the father and son together. Giovanni lay upon a couch in his own sitting-room, eating his breakfast as best he could with one hand. The old Prince paced the floor, commenting from time to time upon the events of the morning.
"It is just as well that you did not kill him, Giovanni," he remarked; "it would have been a nuisance to have been obliged to go away just now."
Giovanni did not answer.
"Of course, duelling is a great sin, and is strictly forbidden by our religion," said the Prince suddenly. "But then—"
"Precisely," returned Giovanni. "We nevertheless cannot always help ourselves."
"I was going to say," continued his father, "that it is, of course, very wicked, and if one is killed in a duel, one probably goes straight into hell. But then—it was worth something to see how you sent that fellow's foil flying through the window!"
"It is a very simple trick. If you will take a foil, I will teach it to you."
"Presently, presently; when you have finished your breakfast. Tell me, why did you say, 'more broken glass'?"
Giovanni bit his lip, remembering his imprudence.
"I hardly know. I believe it suggested something to my mind. One says all sorts of foolish things in moments of excitement."
"It struck me as a very odd remark," answered the Prince, still walking about. "By the bye," he added, pausing before the writing-table, "here is that letter you wrote for me. Do you want me to read it?"
"No," said Giovanni, with a laugh. "It is of no use now. It would seem absurd, since I am alive and well. It was only a word of farewell."
The Prince laughed too, and threw the sealed letter into the fire.
"The last of the Saracinesca is not dead yet," he said. "Giovanni, what are we to say to the gossips? All Rome will be ringing with this affair before night. Of course, you must stay at home for a few days, or you will catch cold, in your arm. I will go out and carry the news of our victory."
"Better to say nothing about it—better to refer people to Del Ferice, and tell them he challenged me. Come in!" cried Giovanni, in answer to a knock at the door. Pasquale, the old butler, entered the room.
"The Duca d'Astrardente has sent to inquire after the health of his Excellency Don Giovanni," said the old man, respectfully.
The elder Saracinesca paused in his walk, and broke out into a loud laugh.
"Already! You see, Giovannino," he said. "Tell him, Pasquale, that Don Giovanni caught a severe cold at the ball last night—or no—wait! What shall we say, Giovannino?"
"Tell the servant," said Giovanni, sternly, "that I am much obliged for the kind inquiry, that I am perfectly well, and that you have just seen me eating my breakfast."
Pasquale bowed and left the room.
"I suppose you do not want her to know—" said the Prince, who had suddenly recovered his gravity.
Giovanni bowed his head silently.
"Quite right, my boy," said the old man, gravely. "I do not want to know anything about it either. How the devil could they have found out?"
The question was addressed more to himself than to his son, and the latter volunteered no answer. He was grateful to his father for his considerate silence.
When Astrardente saw the elder Saracinesca's face during his short interview with the diplomatist, his curiosity was immediately aroused. He perceived that there was something the matter, and he proceeded to try and ascertain the circumstances from his acquaintance. The ambassador returned to his pate and his champagne with an air of amused interest, but vouchsafed no information whatever.
"What a singularly amusing fellow old Saracinesca is!" remarked Astrardente.
"When he likes to be," returned his Excellency, with his mouth full.
"On the contrary—when he least meditates it. I never knew a man better suited for a successful caricature. Indeed he is not a bad caricature of his own son, or his own son of him—I am not sure which."
The ambassador laughed a little and took a large mouthful.
"Ha! ha! very good," he mumbled as he ate. "He would appreciate that. He loves his own race. He would rather feel that he is a comic misrepresentation of the most hideous Saracinesca who ever lived, than possess all the beauty of the Astrardente and be called by another name."
The diplomatist paused for a second after this speech, and then bowed a little to the Duchessa; but the hit had touched her husband in a sensitive spot. The old dandy had been handsome once, in a certain way, and he did his best, by artificial means, to preserve some trace of his good looks. The Duchessa smiled faintly.
"I would wager," said Astrardente, sourly, "that his excited manner just now was due to one of two things—either his vanity or his money is in danger. As for the way he yelled after Spicca, it looked as though there were a duel in the air—fancy the old fellow fighting a duel! Too ridiculous!"
"A duel!" repeated Corona in a low voice.
"I do not see anything so very ridiculous in it," said the diplomatist, slowly twisting his glass of champagne in his fingers, and then sipping it. "Besides," he added deliberately, glancing at the Duchessa from the corner of his eyes, "he has a son."
Corona started very slightly.
"Why should there be a duel?" she asked.
"It was your husband who suggested the idea," returned the diplomatist.
"But you said there was nothing ridiculous in it," objected the Duchessa.
"But I did not say there was any truth in it, either," answered his Excellency with a reassuring smile. "What made you think of duelling?" he asked, turning to Astrardente.
"Spicca," said the latter. "Wherever Spicca is concerned there is a duel. He is a terrible fellow, with his death's-head and dangling bones—one of those extraordinary phenomena—bah! it makes one shiver to think of him!" The old fellow made the sign of the horns with his forefinger and little finger, hiding his thumb in the palm of his hand, as though to protect himself against the evil eye—the sinister influence invoked by the mention of Spicca. Old Astrardente was very superstitious. The ambassador laughed, and even Corona smiled a little.
"Yes," said the diplomatist, "Spicca is a living memento mori; he occasionally reminds men of death by killing them."
"How horrible!" exclaimed Corona.
"Ah, my dear lady, the world is full of horrible things."
"That is not a reason for making jests of them."
"It is better to make light of the inevitable," said Astrardente. "Are you ready to go home, my dear?"
"Quite—I was only waiting for you," answered Corona, who longed to be at home and alone.
"Let me know the result of old Saracinesca's warlike undertakings," said Astrardente, with a cunning smile on his painted face. "Of course, as he consulted you, he will send you word in the morning."
"You seem so anxious that there should be a duel, that I should almost be tempted to invent an account of one, lest you should be too grievously disappointed," returned the diplomatist.
"You know very well that no invention will be necessary," said the Duca, pressing him, for his curiosity was roused.
"Well—as you please to consider it. Good night," replied the ambassador. It had amused him to annoy Astrardente a little, and he left him with the pleasant consciousness of having excited the inquisitive faculty of his friend to its highest pitch, without giving it anything to feed upon.
Men who have to do with men, rather than with things, frequently take a profound and seemingly cruel delight in playing upon the feelings and petty vanities of their fellow-creatures. The habit is as strong with them as the constant practice of conjuring becomes with a juggler; even when he is not performing, he will for hours pass coins, perform little tricks of sleight-of-hand with cards, or toss balls in the air in marvellously rapid succession, unable to lay aside his profession even for a day, because it has grown to be the only natural expression of his faculties. With men whose business it is to understand other men, it is the same. They cannot be in a man's company for a quarter of an hour without attempting to discover the peculiar weaknesses of his character—his vanities, his tastes, his vices, his curiosity, his love of money or of reputation; so that the operation of such men's minds may be compared to the process of auscultation—for their ears are always upon their neighbours' hearts—and their conversation to the percutations of a physician to ascertain the seat of disease in a pair of consumptive lungs.
But, with all his failings, Astrardente was a man of considerable acuteness of moral vision. He had made a shrewd guess at Saracinesca's business, and had further gathered from a remark dropped by his diplomatic friend, that if there was to be a duel at all, it would be fought by Giovanni. As a matter of fact, the ambassador himself knew nothing certainly concerning the matter, or it is possible that, for the sake of observing the effect of the news upon the Duchessa, he would have told the whole truth; for he had of course heard the current gossip concerning Giovanni's passion for her, and the experiment would have been too attractive and interesting to be missed. As it was, she had started at the mention of Saracinesca's son. The diplomatist only did what everyone else who came near Corona attempted to do at that time, in endeavouring to ascertain whether she herself entertained any feeling for the man whom the gossips had set down as her most devoted admirer.
Poor Duchessa! It was no wonder that she had started at the idea that Giovanni was in trouble. He had played a great part in her life that day, and she could not forget him. She had hardly as yet had time to think of what she felt, for it was only by a supreme effort that she had been able to bear the great strain upon her strength. If she had not loved him, it would have been different; and in the strange medley of emotions through which she was passing, she wished that she might never have loved—that, loving, she might be allowed wholly to forget her love, and to return by some sudden miracle to that cold dreamy state of indifference to all other men, and of unfailing thoughtfulness for her husband, from which she had been so cruelly awakened. She would have given anything to have not loved, now that the great struggle was over; but until the supreme moment had come, she had not been willing to put the dangerous thought from her, saving in those hours of prayer and solitary suffering, when the whole truth rose up clearly before her in its undisguised nakedness. So soon as she had gone into the world, she had recklessly longed for Giovanni Saracinesca's presence.
But now it was all changed. She had not deceived herself when she had told him that she would rather not see him any more. It was true; not only did she wish not to see him, but she earnestly desired that the love of him might pass from her heart. With a sudden longing, her thoughts went back to the old convent-life of her girlhood, with its regular occupations, its constant religious exercises, its narrowness of view, and its unchanging simplicity. What mattered narrowness, when all beyond that close limitation was filled with evil? Was it not better that the lips should be busy with singing litanies than that the heart should be tormented by temptation? Were not those simple tasks, that had seemed so all-important then, more sweet in the performance than the manifold duties of this complicated social existence, this vast web and woof of life's loom, this great machinery that worked and groaned and rolled endlessly upon its wheels without producing any more result than the ceaseless turning of a prison treadmill? But there was no way out of life now; there was no escape, as there was also no prospect of relief, from care and anxiety. There was no reason why Giovanni should go away—no reason either why Corona should ever love him less. She belonged to a class of women, if there are enough of them to be called a class, who, where love is concerned, can feel but one impression, which becomes in their hearts the distinctive seal and mark of their lives, for good or for evil. Corona was indeed so loyal and good a woman, that the strong pressure of her love could not abase her nobility, nor put untruth where all was so true; but the sign of her love for Giovanni was upon her for ever. The vacant place in her heart had been filled, and filled wholly; the bulwark she had reared against the love of man was broken down and swept away, and the waters flowed softly over its place and remembered it not. She would never be the same woman again, and it was bitter to her to feel it: for ever the face of Giovanni would haunt her waking hours and visit her dreams unbidden,—a perpetual reproach to her, a perpetual memory of the most desperate struggle of her life, and more than a memory—the undying present of an unchanging love.
She was quite sure of herself in future, as she also trusted sincerely in Giovanni's promise. There should be no moment of weakness, no word should ever fall from her lips to tempt him to a fresh outbreak of passionate words and acts; her life should be measured in the future by the account of the dangers past, and there should be no instant of unguarded conduct, no hour wherein even to herself she would say it was sweet to love and to be loved. It was indeed not sweet, but bitter as death itself, to feel that weight at her heart, that constant toiling effort in her mind to keep down the passion in her breast. But Corona had sacrificed much; she would sacrifice this also; she would get strength by her prayers and courage from her high pride, and she would smile to all the world as she had never smiled before. She could trust herself, for she was doing the right and trampling upon the wrong. But the suffering would be none the less for all her pride; there was no concealing it—it would be horrible. To meet him daily in the world, to speak to him and to hear his voice, perhaps to touch his hand, and all the while to smile coldly, and to be still and for ever above suspicion, while her own burning consciousness accused her of the past, and seemed to make the dangers of mere living yawn beside her path at every step,—all this would be terrible to bear, but by God's help she would bear it to the end.
But now a new horror seized her, and terrified her beyond measure. This rumour of a duel—a mere word dropped carelessly in conversation by a thoughtless acquaintance—called up to her sudden visions of evil to come. Surely, howsoever she might struggle against love and beat it roughly to silence in her breast, it was not wrong to fear danger for Giovanni,—it could not be a sin to dread the issue of peril when it was all so very near to her. It might perhaps not be true, for people in the world are willing to amuse their empty minds with empty tales, acknowledging the emptiness. It could not be true; she had seen Giovanni but a moment before—he would have given some hint, some sign.
Why—after all? Was it not the boast of such men that they could face the world and wear an indifferent look, at times of the greatest anxiety and danger? But, again, if Giovanni had been involved in a quarrel so serious as to require the arbitrament of blood, some rumour of it would have reached her. She had talked with many men that night, and with some women—gossips all, whose tongues wagged merrily over the troubles of friend, or foe, and who would have battened upon anything so novel as a society duel, as a herd of jackals upon the dead body of one of their fellows, to make their feast off it with a light heart. Some one of all these would have told her; the quarrel would have been common property in half an hour, for somebody must have witnessed it.
It was a consolation to Corona to reflect upon the extreme improbability of the story; for when the diplomatist was gone, her husband dwelt upon it—whether because he could not conceal his unsatisfied curiosity, or from other motives, it was hard to tell.
Astrardente led his wife from the supper-table through the great rooms, now almost deserted, and past the wide doors of the hall where the cotillon was at its height. They paused a moment and looked in, as Giovanni had done a quarter of an hour earlier. It was a magnificent scene; the lights flashed back from the jewels of fair women, and surged in the dance as starlight upon rippling waves. The air was heavy with the odour of the countless flowers that filled the deep recesses of the windows, and were distributed in hundreds of nosegays for the figures of the cotillon; enchanting strains of waltz music seemed to float down from above and inspire the crowd of men and women with harmonious motion, so that sound was made visible by translation into graceful movement. As Corona looked there was a pause, and the crowd parted, while a huge tiger, the heraldic beast of the Frangipani family, was drawn into the hall by the young prince and Bianca Valdarno. The magnificent skin had been so artfully stuffed as to convey a startling impression of life, and in the creature's huge jaws hung a great basket filled with tiny tigers, which were to be distributed as badges for the dance by the leaders. A wild burst of applause greeted this novel figure, and every one ran forward to obtain a nearer view.
"Ah!" exclaimed old Astrardente, "I envy them that invention, my dear; it is perfectly magnificent. You must have a tiger to take home. How fortunate we were to be in time!" He forced his way into the crowd, leaving his wife alone for a moment by the door; and he managed to catch Valdarno, who was distributing the little emblems to right and left. Madame Mayer's quick eyes had caught sight of Corona and her husband, and from some instinct of curiosity she made towards the Duchessa. She was still angry, as she had never been in her short life, at Giovanni's rudeness in forgetting her dance, and she longed to inflict some wound upon the beautiful woman who had led him into such forgetfulness. When Astrardente left his wife's side, Donna Tullia pressed forward with her partner in the general confusion that followed upon the entrance of the tiger, and she managed to pass close to Corona. She looked up suddenly with an air of surprise.
"What! not dancing, Duchessa?" she asked. "Has your partner gone home?"
With the look that accompanied the question, it was an insulting speech enough. Had Donna Tullia seen old Astrardente close behind her, she would not have made it. The old dandy was returning in triumph in possession of the little tiger-badge for Corona. He heard the words, and observed with inward pleasure his wife's calm look of indifference.
"Madam," he said, placing himself suddenly in Madame Mayer's way, "my wife's partners do not go home while she remains."
"Oh, I see," returned Donna Tullia, flushing quickly; "the Duchessa is dancing the cotillon with you. I beg your pardon—I had forgotten that you still danced."
"Indeed it is long since I did myself the honour of asking you for a quadrille, madam," answered Astrardente with a polite smile; and so saying, he turned and presented the little tiger to his wife with a courtly bow. There was good blood in the old roue.
Corona was touched by his thoughtfulness in wishing to get her the little keepsake of the dance, and she was still more affected by his ready defence of her. He was indeed sometimes a little ridiculous, with his paint and his artificial smile—he was often petulant and unreasonable in little things; but he was never unkind to her, nor discourteous. In spite of her cold and indifferent stare at Donna Tullia, she had keenly felt the insult, and she was grateful to the old man for taking her part. Knowing what she knew of herself that night, she was deeply sensible to his kindness. She took the little gift, and laid her hand upon his arm.
"Forgive me," she said, as they moved away, "if I am ever ungrateful to you. You are so very good to me. I know no one so courteous and kind as you are."
Her husband looked at her in delight. He loved her sincerely with all that remained of him. There was something sad in the thought of a man like him finding the only real passion of his life when worn out with age and dissipation. Her little speech raised him to the seventh heaven of joy.
"I am the happiest man in all Rome," he said, assuming his most jaunty walk, and swinging his hat gaily between his thumb and finger. But a current of deep thought was stirring in him as he went down the broad, staircase by his wife's side. He was thinking what life might have been to him had he found Corona del Carmine—how could he? she was not born then—had he found her, or her counterpart, thirty years ago. He was wondering what conceivable sacrifice there could be which he would not make to regain his youth—even to have his life lived out and behind him, if he could only have looked back to thirty years of marriage with Corona. How differently he would have lived, how very differently he would have thought! how his whole memory would be full of the sweet past, and would be common with her own past life, which, to her too, would be sweet to ponder on! He would have been such a good man—so true to her in all those years! But they were gone, and he had not found her until his foot was on the edge of the grave—until he could hardly count on one year more of a pitiful artificial life, painted, bewigged, stuffed to the semblance of a man by a clever tailor—and she in the bloom of her glory beside him! What he would have given to have old Saracinesca's strength and fresh vitality—old Saracinesca whom he hated! Yes, with all that hair—it was white, but a little dye would change it. What was a little dye compared with the profound artificiality of his own outer man? How the old fellow's deep voice rang, loud and clear, from his broad chest! How strong he was, with his firm step, and his broad brown hands, and his fiery black eyes! He hated him for the greenness of his age—he hated him for his stalwart son, another of those long-lived fierce Saracinesca, who seemed destined to outlive time. He himself had no children, no relations, no one to bear his name—he had only a beautiful young wife and much wealth, with just enough strength left to affect a gay walk when he was with her, and to totter unsteadily to his couch when he was alone, worn out with the effort of trying to seem young.
As they sat in their carriage he thought bitterly of all these things, and never spoke. Corona herself was weary, and glad to be silent. They went up-stairs, and as she took his arm, she gently tried to help him rather than be helped. He noticed it, and made an effort, but he was very tired. He paused upon the landing, and looked at her, and a gentle and sad smile stole over his face, such as Corona had never seen there.
"Shall we go into your boudoir for ten minutes, my love?" he said; "or will you come into my smoking-room? I would like to smoke a little before going to bed."
"You may smoke in my boudoir, of course," she answered kindly, though she was surprised at the request. It was half-past three o'clock. They went into the softly lighted little room, where the embers of the fire were still glowing upon the hearth. Corona dropped her furs upon a chair, and sat down upon one side of the chimney piece. Astrardente sank wearily into a deep easy-chair opposite her, and having found a cigarette, lighted it, and began to smoke. He seemed in a mood which Corona had never seen. After a short silence he spoke.
"Corona," he said, "I love you." His wife looked up with a gentle smile, and in her determination to be loyal to him she almost forgot that other man who had said those words but two hours before, so differently.
"Yes," he said, with a sigh, "you have heard it before—it is not new to you. I think you believe it. You are good, but you do not love me—no, do not interrupt me, my dear; I know what you would say. How should you love me? I am an old man—very old, older than my years." Again he sighed, more bitterly, as he confessed what he had never owned before. The Duchessa was too much astonished to answer him.
"Corona," he said again, "I shall not live much longer."
"Ah, do not speak like that," she cried suddenly. "I trust and pray that you have yet many years to live." Her husband looked keenly at her.
"You are so good," he answered, "that you are really capable of uttering such a prayer, absurd as it would seem."
"Why absurd? It is unkind of you to say it—"
"No, my dear; I know the world very well. That is all. I suppose it is impossible for me to make you understand how I love you. It must seem incredible to you, in the magnificence of your strength and beautiful youth, that a man like me—an artificial man"—he laughed scornfully—"a creature of paint and dye—let me be honest—a creature with a wig, should be capable of a mad passion. And yet, Corona," he added, his thin cracked voice trembling with a real emotion, "I do love you—very dearly. There are two things that make my life bitter: the regret that I did not meet you, that you were not born, when I was young; and worse than that, the knowledge that I must leave you very soon—I, the exhausted dandy, the shadow of what I was, tottering to my grave in a last vain effort to be young for your sake—for your sake, Corona dear. Ah, it is contemptible!" he almost moaned.
Corona hid her eyes in her hand. She was taken off her guard by his strange speech.
"Oh, do not speak like that—do not!" she cried. "You make me very unhappy. Do I reproach you? Do I ever make you feel that you are—older than I? I will lead a new life; you shall never think of it again. You are too kind—too good for me."
"No one ever said I was too good before," replied the old man with a shade of sadness. "I am glad the one person who finds me good, should be the only one for whose sake I ever cultivated goodness. I could have been different, Corona, if I had had you for my wife for thirty years, instead of five. But it is too late now. Before long I shall be dead, and you will be free."
"What makes you say such things to me?" asked Corona. "Can you think I am so vile, so ungrateful, so unloving, as to wish your death?"
"Not unloving; no, my dear child. But not loving, either. I do not ask impossibilities. You will mourn for me a while—my poor soul will rest in peace if you feel one moment of real regret for me, for your old husband, before you take another. Do not cry, Corona, dearest; it is the way of the world. We waste our youth in scoffing at reality, and in the unrealness of our old age the present no longer avails us much. You know me, perhaps you despise me. You would not have scorned me when I was young—oh, how young I was! how strong and vain of my youth, thirty years ago!"
"Indeed, indeed, no such thought ever crossed my mind. I give you all I have," cried Corona, in great distress; "I will give you more—I will devote my whole life to you—"
"You do, my dear. I am sensible of it," said Astrardente, quietly. "You cannot do more, if you will; you cannot make me young again, nor take away the bitterness of death—of a death that leaves you behind."
Corona leaned forward, staring into the dying embers of the fire, one hand supporting her chin. The tears stood in her eyes and on her cheeks. The old dandy in his genuine misery had excited her compassion.
"I would mourn you long," she said. "You may have wasted your life; you say so. I would love you more if I could, God knows. You have always been to me a courteous gentleman and a faithful husband."
The old man rose with difficulty from his deep chair, and came and stood by her, and took the hand that lay idle on her knees. She looked up at him.
"If I thought my blessing were worth anything, I would bless you for what you say. But I would not have you waste your youth. Youth is that which, being wasted, is like water poured out upon the ground. You must marry again, and marry soon—do not start. You will inherit all my fortune; you will have my title. It must descend to your children. It has come to an unworthy end in me; it must be revived in you."
"How can you think of it? Are you ill?" asked Corona kindly, pressing gently his thin hand in hers. "Why do you dwell on the idea of death to-night?"
"I am ill; yes, past all cure, my dear," said the old man, gently raising her hand to his lips, and kissing it.
"What do you mean?" asked Corona, suddenly rising to her feet and laying her hand affectionately upon his shoulder. "Why have you never told me?"
"Why should I tell you—except that it is near, and you must be prepared? Why should I burden you with anxiety? But you were so gentle and kind to-night, upon the stairs," he said, with some hesitation, "that I thought perhaps it would be a relief to you to know—to know that it is not for long."
There was something so gentle in his tone, so infinitely pathetic in his thought that possibly he might lighten the burden his wife bore so bravely, there was something at last so human in the loving regret with which he spoke, that Corona forgot all his foolish ways, his wig and his false teeth and his petty vanities, and letting her head fall upon his shoulder, burst into passionate tears.
"Oh no, no!" she sobbed. "It must be a long time yet; you must not die!"
"It may be a year, not more," he said gently. "God bless you for those tears, Corona—the tears you have shed for me. Good night, my dearest."
He let her sink upon her chair, and his hand rested for one moment upon her raven hair. Then with a last remnant of energy he quickly left the room.
Such affairs as the encounter between Giovanni and Del Ferice were very rare in Rome. There were many duels fought; but, as a general rule, they were not very serious, and the first slight wound decided the matter in hand to the satisfaction of both parties. But here there had been a fight for life and death. One of the combatants had received two such wounds as would have been sufficient to terminate an ordinary meeting, and the other was lying at death's door stabbed through the throat. Society was frantic with excitement. Giovanni was visited by scores of acquaintances, whom he allowed to be admitted, and he talked with them cheerfully, in order to have it thoroughly known that he was not badly hurt. Del Ferice's lodging was besieged by the same young gentlemen of leisure, who went directly from one to the other, anxious to get all the news in their power. But Del Ferice's door was guarded jealously from intruders by his faithful Neapolitan servant—a fellow who knew more about his master than all the rest of Rome together, but who had such a dazzlingly brilliant talent for lying as to make him a safe repository for any secret committed to his keeping. On the present occasion, however, he had small use for duplicity. He sat all day long by the open door, for he had removed the bell-handle, lest the ringing should disturb his master. He had a basket into which he dropped the cards of the visitors who called, answering each inquiry with the same unchanging words:
"He is very ill, the signorino. Do not make any noise."
"Where is he hurt?" the visitor would ask. Whereupon Temistocle pointed to his throat.
"Will he live?" was the next question; to which the man answered by raising his shoulders to his ears, elevating his eyebrows, and at the same time shutting his eyes, while he spread out the palms of his hands over his basket of cards—whereby he meant to signify that he did not know, but doubted greatly. It being impossible to extract any further information from him, the visitor had nothing left but to leave his card and turn away. Within, the wounded man was watched by a Sister of Mercy. The surgeon had pronounced his recovery probable if he had proper care: the wound was a dangerous one, but not likely to prove mortal unless the patient died of the fever or of exhaustion.
The young gentlemen of leisure who thus obtained the news of the two duellists, lost no time in carrying it from house to house. Giovanni himself sent twice in the course of the day to inquire after his antagonist, and received by his servant the answer which was given to everybody. By the time the early winter night was descending upon Rome, there were two perfectly well-authenticated stories circulated in regard to the cause of the quarrel—neither of which, of course, contained a grain of truth. In the first place, it was confidently asserted by one party, represented by Valdarno and his set, that Giovanni had taken offence at Del Ferice for having proposed to call him to be examined before the Duchessa d'Astrardente in regard to his absence from town: that this was a palpable excuse for picking a quarrel, because it was well known that Saracinesca loved the Astrardente, and that Del Ferice was always in his way.
"Giovanni is a rough fellow," remarked Valdarno, "and will not stand any opposition, so he took the first opportunity of getting the man out of the way. Do you see? The old story—jealous of the wrong man. Can one be jealous of Del Ferice? Bah!"
"And who would have been the right man to attack?" was asked.
"Her husband, of course," returned Valdarno with a sneer. "That angel of beauty has the ineffably eccentric idea that she loves that old transparency, that old magic-lantern slide of a man!"
On the other hand, there was a party of people who affirmed, as beyond all doubt, that the duel had been brought about by Giovanni's forgetting his dance with Donna Tullia. Del Ferice was naturally willing to put himself forward in her defence, reckoning on the favour he would gain in her eyes. He had spoken sharply to Giovanni about it, and told him he had behaved in an ungentlemanly manner—whereupon Giovanni had answered that it was none of his business; an altercation had ensued in a remote room in the Frangipani palace, and Giovanni had lost his temper and taken Del Ferice by the throat, and otherwise greatly insulted him. The result had been the duel in which Del Ferice had been nearly killed. There was a show of truth about this story, and it was told in such a manner as to make Del Ferice appear as the injured party. Indeed, whichever tale were true, there was no doubt that the two men had disliked each other for a long time, and that they were both looking out for the opportunity of an open disagreement.
Old Saracinesca appeared in the afternoon, and was surrounded by eager questioners of all sorts. The fact of his having served his own son in the capacity of second excited general astonishment. Such a thing had not been heard of in the annals of Roman society, and many ancient wisdom-mongers severely censured the course he had pursued. Could anything be more abominably unnatural? Was it possible to conceive of the hard-heartedness of a man who could stand quietly and see his son risk his life? Disgraceful!
The old Prince either would not tell what he knew, or had no information to give. The latter theory was improbable. Some one made a remark to that effect.
"But, Prince," the man said, "would you second your own son in an affair without knowing the cause of the quarrel?"
"Sir," returned the old man, proudly, "my son asked my assistance; I did not sell it to him for his confidence." People knew the old man's obstinacy, and had to be satisfied with his short answers, for he was himself as quarrelsome as a Berserker or as one of his own irascible ancestors.
He met Donna Tullia in the street. She stopped her carriage, and beckoned him to come to her. She looked paler than Saracinesca had ever seen her, and was much excited.
"How could you let them fight?" were her first words.
"It could not be helped. The quarrel was too serious. No one would more gladly have prevented it than I; but as my son had so desperately insulted Del Ferice, he was bound to give him satisfaction."
"Satisfaction!" cried Donna Tullia. "Do you call it satisfaction to cut a man's throat? What was the real cause of the quarrel?"
"I do not know."
"Do not tell me that—I do not believe you," answered Donna Tullia, angrily.
"I give you my word of honour that I do not know," returned the Prince.
"That is different. Will you get in and drive with me for a few minutes?"
"At your commands." Saracinesca opened the carriage-door and got in.
"We shall astonish the world; but I do not care," said Donna Tullia. "Tell me, is Don Giovanni seriously hurt?"
"No—a couple of scratches that will heal in a week. Del Ferice is very seriously wounded."
"I know," answered Donna Tullia, sadly. "It is dreadful—I am afraid it was my fault."
"How so?" asked Saracinesca, quickly. He had not heard the story of the forgotten waltz, and was really ignorant of the original cause of disagreement. He guessed, however, that Donna Tullia was not so much concerned in it as the Duchessa d'Astrardente.
"Your son was very rude to me," said Madame Mayer. "Perhaps I ought not to tell you, but it is best you should know. He was engaged to dance with me the last waltz but one before the cotillon. He forgot me, and I found him with that—with a lady—talking quietly."
"With whom did you say?" asked Saracinesca, very gravely.
"With the Astrardente—if you will know," returned Donna Tullia, her anger at the memory of the insult bringing the blood suddenly to her face.
"My dear lady," said the old Prince, "in the name of my son I offer you the humble apologies which he will make in person when he is well enough to ask your forgiveness."
"I do not want apologies," answered Madame Mayer, turning her face away.
"Nevertheless they shall be offered. But, pardon my curiosity, how did Del Ferice come to be concerned in that incident?"
"He was with me when I found Don Giovanni with the Duchessa. It is very simple. I was very angry—I am very angry still; but I would not have had Don Giovanni risk his life on my account for anything, nor poor Del Ferice either. I am horribly upset about it all."
Old Saracinesca wondered whether Donna Tullia's vanity would suffer if he told her that the duel had not been fought for anything which concerned her. But he reflected that her supposition was very plausible, and that he himself had no evidence. Furthermore, and in spite of his good-natured treatment of Giovanni, he was very angry at the thought that his son had quarrelled about the Duchessa. When Giovanni should be recovered from his wounds he intended to speak his mind to him. But he was sorry for Donna Tullia, for he liked her in spite of her eccentricities, and would have been satisfied to see her married to his son. He was a practical man, and he took a prosaic view of the world. Donna Tullia was rich, and good-looking enough to be called handsome. She had the talent to make herself a sort of centre in her world. She was a little noisy; but noise was fashionable, and there was no harm in her—no one had ever said anything against her. Besides, she was one of the few relations still left to the Saracinesca. The daughter of a cousin of the Prince, she would make a good wife for Giovanni, and would bring sunshine into the house. There was a tinge of vulgarity in her manner; but, like many elderly men of his type, Saracinesca pardoned her this fault in consideration of her noisy good spirits and general good-nature. He was very much annoyed at hearing that his son had offended her so grossly by his forgetfulness; especially it was unfortunate that since she believed herself the cause of the duel, she should have the impression that it had been provoked by Del Ferice to obtain satisfaction for the insult Giovanni had offered her. There would be small chance of making the match contemplated after such an affair.
"I am sincerely sorry," said the Prince, stroking his white beard and trying to get a sight of his companion's face, which she obstinately turned away from him. "Perhaps it is better not to think too much of the matter until the exact circumstances are known. Some one is sure to tell the story one of these days."